Play Report: Empire of the Petal Throne
by Ramanan Sivaranjan on February 06, 2014
Empire of the Petal Throne will feel familiar to anyone who has played Original Dungeons and Dragons. Some of the changes strike me as odd: the standard six stats have been renamed and are rolled up using percentile dice: that’s a lot of variability in your core stats. There are some basic skills and professions that characters begin the game knowing, and can learn as they level up. Thanks to a good die roll my character had a ton of skills: he was a sailor, a ship captain, a tailor, a sail maker, etc, etc. The standard three classes, fighter, clerics and magic-user, are all accounted for, though the later two are further tweaked to make sense within the setting of the game. I suppose that is what really makes Empire of the Petal Throne stand out: its setting, the fantasy world of Tékumel.
Tékumel was created over a life time by professor M.A.R. Barker. He began when he was 10 and it sounds like he never stopped developing his fantasy world until his death at the age of 82. Many people compare it to Tolkien’s Middle Earth in its depth and scope.
James, Brendan, Evan and myself met to play a game of Empire of the Petal Throne over the weekend. James DM’d, and as such had the unenviable task of trying to introduce the world of Tékumel to us. Our adventure began using what I am led to understand is a common conceit for gaming in Tékumel: we played a group of barbarians who had recently arrived in the great port city of Jakálla. We quickly found work evicting some some other foreigners from a tenement: not the most heroic of tasks, but we were new to the city and needed money and friends. I had rolled a 1 for my starting gold (kaitars), so my character was particularly eager to change his financial situation. With no equipment to speak of I pictured him like a character from Final Fight.
Brendan played a magic-user, and we used his characters spells to good effect. Magic in EPT works differently than OD&D. There is a chance of failure when you try and cast a spell. The starting compliment of spells is also higher. That seemed to offset the chance of failure and then some. We scouted out the home we were going to invade using some clairaudience and clairvoyance. I enjoy games with some variability in spell casting. Less reliable magic usually introduces some additional excitement into the game, and makes magic feel magical.
It was a session full of hijinks. EPT seems like it could lend itself to some ‘serious’ play, but at the end of the day you still have poor dice rolls and foolish choices to inevitably lighten the mood. We decided to bust into the tenement via roof, but we were both spotted while climbing it and nearly fell off while trying to hide. We had to punch out a kid who was acting as a look out. We threw a dead body we found on the roof onto the street to cause a distraction. (We found a dead body? Yeah, the house was clearly inhabited by a death cult.) We ended the session fighting zombies and finding a secret passage that looked to lead into the undercity—and future adventure!
I suspect Empire of the Petal Throne might be challenging to run if you aren’t familiar with the game world. Like the Forgotten Realms there is so much canonical material at the point it could be quite overwhelming. In contrast to the Forgotten Realms, Tékumel is very much its own breed of fantasy. It seems to be completely unlike the sorts of vague Tolkien inspired worlds you often find in D&D supplements and fantasy books. It’s a real shame EPT isn’t more popular. If you weren’t previously aware of Empire of the Petal Throne, you should definitely check it out.
Oh, also the book has some great art!
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