As I mentioned last week, I’m now taking part in an Empire of the Petal Throne campaign being run by James Maliszewski. This has involved finally reading that venerable RPG book from the very early days of gaming (published in 1975, four years before I discovered D&D).
One nice thing with this edition is the ease of making a copy of the book in question. OneBookShelf sells an excellent official scan of the original book in PDF format. Unless your printer has exceptionally small margins if you print it WITHOUT using the “shrink to fit” option the print job will not include the watermarks at the bottoms of the pages.
(Although note that page 97 has been duplicated and appears as both the 101st and 102nd pages of the PDF. If you want your pagination to stay true when double-sided printing, skip one of those or remove it from the file for best results.)
I printed mine off on lovely 32lb bright white paper with a pseudo-parchment cardstock cover and then brought the printout to Staples to get it spiral bound before taking that photo up there.
Reading Empire of the Petal Throne from cover to cover for the first time I was struck repeatedly by how much I keep picturing it being run by Alejandro Jodorowsky and illustrated by Jean Gireaud.
I totally see an Incal-style setting here. From the Petal Throne, the isolation of the Emperor, the various factions in the Tsolyani empire, the aliens around the edges… I totally want to run a game that focuses on the weird decadence of the Empire.
I’m also struck by the whole “too weird and detailed to be playable” thing. The material in the EPT book is definitely no weirder than anything Jodo has written (and there’s an RPG of that), and definitely less detailed than anything published for the Forgotten Realms. It feels incredibly accessible to me, and the very familiar yet slightly weird mechanics just make it more appealing.
I think the fear of its weirdness is an artifact of the era of its release. When it was released the common frame of reference was Conan and Middle Earth and everyone was fairly comfortable with the tech level and cultural framework of those settings and all you had to do was infer various things and the rest was handled by the mass knowledge base. This setting was different. And different is scary.
Today, we have tons of “different” settings and games out there. If we can embrace transhumanist themes in our sci-fi and play games that cross over into lucid dreaming and fairy tales on a regular basis, we can definitely cope with a bit of alien detail like Tékumel.
The presentation in the 1975 EPT is far from dense. It lays out a foundation sketch of the setting that is way less dense than say the descriptions of the various nations and regions in the Forgotten Realms 3e hardcover.
If anything, it’s this sketchiness that I like. It (like the best settings I’ve read) gives you enough information to run on and to make up your own games from without burying you in data.
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Unlike D&D, EPT uses percentiles for ability scores, like a lot of other TSR games of the era. Unlike Top Secret and similar games, however, you roll the dice and take the results. While our game is using the rules as written, it can lead to odd characters like my warrior with 99 Strength and 02 Constitution (I figure he’s still got part of the spear jammed through his chest that mustered him out of the military with a collapsed lung, kidney and liver damage, and a bit of brain damage to boot). James Maliszewski touches on this in the first issue of his “The Excellent Travelling Volume“, bringing over the stat rolling rules from the aforementioned Top Secret (where if you roll really low, you get a bonus, and if you roll really high you don’t – changing the stat range from 1-100 with an average of 50.5 to 26-100 with an average of 63.5 – but significantly changing the lower end of the spectrum. While I remain a 3d6-in-order kind of guy, this system appeals to me because it starts to curve the results of the d100 roll – I like 3d6 because it keeps extreme numbers in check, whereas the single d100 roll has an equal chance of any number along the spectrum.
There are a lot of other mechanics in the game that I find really interesting and look forward to seeing them in play. Spells exist only in three levels (well, four if you include the number of magical “professional skills” that priests and magic-users get). Skills are learned at chargen and you gain an additional one when you level up from your professional skill list. The whole book is joyfully “young” in the RPG era and looks at things quite differently than D&D does, considering its direct roots linking the two games.
In fact, in addition to the stat mechanics listed above, I’ve found that “The Excellent Travelling Volume” is a wonderful zine for someone first breaking into Empire of the Petal Throne. It is friendly, well layed out and well written (with excellent artwork). James understands the benefits of simple descriptions that open up possibilities instead of going into extensive texts that seem to rub away the sense of the imaginary and the triggers to launch your own imagination along new routes as you read. The zine is only available in print, and is available directly from James here.