Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Game 101: Empire of the Petal Throne

So Hobby Games: The 100 Best won an Origins Award, raising my lifetime Origins Awards to something like 1.68. And I’m really happy to have had the chance to share a favorite game, Tales of the Arabian Nights. But in coming up with the subjects, we went back and forth on which game to write about, and there were numerous favorites. Most of the ones that I suggested were picked up/already claimed by other writers, but there is one favorite game that didn’t make the final cut.

In early 1976 I was getting into D&D, like most of the nerdisphere of the era. The original three booklets were out and the first supplement – Greyhawk, which did not talk about the campaign but instead provided valuable additional rules like Paladins and Thieves. And as we were working through these new options, there was this massive box that showed up – a huge box costing an unbelievable (for that age) 35 bucks - Empire of the Petal Throne (EPT).

There are very few things I regret in life, but one of them is that I didn’t get a copy back then. I mean, D&D cost like 10 bucks – why would I pay so much for a game? Yet EPT, more than anything else, would set the standards for what was to come in gaming, and with it my career.

Empire of the Petal Throne (Publication date of 1975) was the creation of M.A.R. (“Phil”) Barker, a language professor in Minnesota, and like Ed Greenwood’s Forgotten Realms, predated D&D itself as a setting for stories and linquistic studies. It was the first published boxed campaign setting ever, and predates Greyhawk (1980 for its Gazeteer), the Known World (later called Mystara, which showed up in adventure X1). Its closest competition for first setting are Jim Ward’s Metamorphosis Alpha (also 1976), and the late Bob Bledsaw’s City-State of the Invincible Overlord (GenCon of 1976). I think EPT beats them both in timing and in presentation.

Empire of the Petal Throne was complete game and campaign setting, its ruleset an expansion and adaptation of the D&D system. It had sumptuous full-color maps (a rarity for the time) and a heavy plastic-ring-bound booklet. Even the art had moved up from the early D&D Universe, a combination an old manuscript style and the work of such early pioneers as Dave Sutherland.

Empire of the Petal Throne is set on the world of Tékumel. It is a fantasy world with with a science fiction origin – it was a terraformed world of the far future which fell into another dimension, taking its ancient technology, alien races, and strange native lifeforms with it. Some of the magic comes from old technology that has now been mostly abandoned by the inhabitants, plus spells granted by powerful extradimensional gods that cropped up in their new universe.

Tékumel is also light in minerals, so we don’t see as much iron and steel. Instead weapons and armor are formed by peeling the hides of the chlen beast (there are no horses here, either). And the planet and its dominant languages descended from Earth, but at sometime in the past the northern hemisphere of our planet blew itself up, so it was the southern hemisphere that reached the stars – and the base language descends and culture out of Indian, Mayan, and Mideastern cultures, and pale, blonde-haired Europeans would be considered demons. Non-standard fantasy, indeed.

Tékumel is also a very hot world, so casual nudity is common, particularly among the lower classes (and yeah, it has a strong class structure, something not done in a lot of later games). And this heavily casted social structure is based on slavery, making it a more mature game. As the industry aged and strained to be more mainstream and acceptable, such concepts would be avoided, and when used touted as being “edgy”, but EPT was there first, at the dawn of time.

So the game was a small revolution – boxed set, extensive maps, non-western and mature setting, strong alien language, fixed social classes. You are not yourself transported into a world with comfortable analogues, but rather a stranger is an even stranger land. Oh, and extensive writeups of the gods, a balanced godhead split between Stability and Change (Law and Chaos). Here we see a lot of the predecessors for later TSR worlds such as the Realms, in presentation, depth, and subject matter. Much that would follow comes out of this fertile soil.

The game itself did … OK. I played it (though I didn’t own it) and had a great time with the strange monsters and realistic dungeons (meaning there was a reason they were there). Eventually it was cut loose from the TSR pantheon, before even AD&D showed up. Part of it was the fact that, with all the color maps, it was expensive.

The game system, as noted, was a D&D variant, taken from close to the original roots – three classes (Fighter, Magic-User, and Priest), abilities that included Comeliness (with the high numbers being in danger of being kidnapped), and the very basic combat system that was just a notch above the Alternative Combat System of the original game. Before there was D20 and OGL, there were games like this, Gamma World, and Metamorphosis Alpha, taking off from a common root stalk.

Over the years new sets were published from other published, with Barker’s input and permission, but slightly different goals. The Swords & Glory boxed set of 1983 from Gamescience was a brick of wonderful impenetrability, its world section wonderfully detailed, its rules set a ponderous, impenetrable tome, its DM Guide unfinished. Gardasiyal: Adventures in Tékumel, from Theater of the Mind’s Eye (TOME, now gone), stressed the social end of the scale and your place as a part of the larger whole, trying for full-fledge immersion. Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne, was published in 2005 by Guardians of Order (also now gone), both for their house system (Big Eyes, Small Mouth) and its D20 versions, but none truly grasped the wonders of the original set, not set off such a ground tremor that can still be felt today.

Yeah, I’m a fan, and have all those sets, along with the first draft of Mitlanyál, book of the gods and the demonic Book of Ebon Bindings. And I picked up the Different Worlds reprint of the original EPT in 1987, but its not quite the same. But going through it, I see a lot of what was to come, and what could be, in roleplaying games.

More later,