Empire of the Petal Throne

Empire of the Petal Throne is an RPG set in the science fantasy setting of Tékumel, inspired by an amalgam of nonwestern cultures, and based heavily on 1974 D&D. And by “based heavily on,” I mean almost identical to. Based on what I have read online, most people come to EPT for the setting, but this is actually not true for me. I am interested in the early mechanics. I first knew that I needed to read EPT when I came across the rule for re-rolling hit dice periodically (now taken to an extreme by the Carcosa dice conventions).

A PDF of a very high quality scan is available cheaply on RPGNow (around $10). Unfortunately, it has not been processed with OCR software, so it is essentially just images (i.e., one can’t copy text from it), but that being said it is very readable and much better than some of the Judge’s Guild PDFs I have bought from RPGNow. Reasonably priced hardcopy reproductions are also in print, though I have not seen them myself.

As I wrote above, the EPT rules are almost identical to OD&D, other than a strange fascination with the percentile dice. For example, the six abilities (strength, intelligence, constitution, psychic ability, dexterity, and comeliness) are rated from 1 to 100 and determined by d100 rolls (that’s right, no probability clustered around an average here). With the exception of a d100 table for inspiration, I have never been fond of using the percentile dice for mechanical resolution. So many possibilities are rarely needed. Other dice are frequently used throughout the text, so I don’t think this was a game design decision based on limiting the required dice (like the way the Storyteller system only uses the d10), so I can only conclude that Prof. Barker just really liked percentile dice.

For those that lament the pulling of the OD&D PDFs by Wizards of the Coast, just about all the original mechanics are in EPT (though, of course, none of the iconic monsters or treasures are present, and some of the terminology has been renamed). The text itself is also much better written and organized, though the writing is also extremely dense. The information about the setting is necessarily interspersed with the rules text, and as a complete newcomer to the setting, much of the information is difficult to understand. This is definitely a work that requires multiple readings.

The rulebook starts off with four and a half pages of uninterrupted two column small text that is a world overview. I made my save versus wall of text and actually made it through all of this, though most of the invented words were just processed as squiggles with the exception of common terms like Tsolyánu and Sákbe Road. I realize that some people dig on this kind of unique detail, but it does serve as a very high entry barrier for those interested in the setting or rules but not desirous of studying for an RPG setting. There are literally no common natural points of reference; the world is totally alien other than the products of civilization (e.g., there are swords, shields, spears, etc).

That being said, there are lots of interesting things to learn from this text for those interested in old school play style. Tékumel is, after all, in some sense the first published campaign setting for D&D, and one of the first sets of rules variants (I’m not sure if it came out before or after the Greyhawk and Blackmoor supplements). In fact, I would go as far as to say that EPT is one of the most interesting and valuable RPG products I have right now because it takes the spirit of OD&D and explores it prior to any precedents. And, this is a work written for adults. Not in terms of subject matter (though there are a few mature themes covered, such as slavery), but in terms of an assumed level of attention and engagement. Nothing is dumbed down. And the art is great though not plentiful. Using Tékumel as a reference for inspiration is probably more approachable than running it straight.

Though I seemed to be critical of the setting above, I’m really not. In fact, I love the ambiance. It’s just too much detail and specificity for a tabletop RPG that does not have complete buy-in and intellectual investment from all the players sitting around the table. Even if played with the expected campaign beginning (all PCs are newcomers), there would almost never be an encounter like “there are two giant wolves feasting on the carcasses of a ravaged caravan.” This is not a setting that can be played as intended casually. I do think a simplified Tékumel would be a great base for a setting, and many of the subsystems are really interesting. I’ll touch upon some more of these examples in future posts. I would also be negligent if I did not mention the excellent OD&D Discussion EPT subforum in an introductory post on EPT. So do go check that out if you are interested in Tékumel.

7 thoughts on “Empire of the Petal Throne

  1. Zenopus Archives

    Well said. A good introduction to the setting can be had by reading the first two novels that Barker wrote in the early 80’s – Man of Gold and Flamesong, each published in paperback by DAW. They are linked but each has a different protagonist who goes on a journey, which provides a travelogue for various parts of Tekumel.

    It’s interesting to compare the EPT choices for the rules, particularly for areas where the OD&D rules are silent. For instance, the OD&D rules do not explain initiative, but EPT uses a straight d6 initiative with no dexterity influence, while Holmes uses dexterity in the Basic Set.

    1. Brendan

      I’ll have to check these out. Thanks for the pointers.

      Yes, the initiative rules jumped out at me too, especially given their absence in OD&D.

  2. JDJarvis

    The % based ability scores in EPT were odd to me for years until one day I realized they made ability checks, really easy… unless it’s covered elsewhere in the rules and description alone shouldn’t decide ones fate: pick an ability score and roll that number or less on d100.

    The initial descriptive text drew me in and made me want to read more. Tekumel has a perfectly reasonable explanation for dungeons to be present and a constant source of adventure.

    1. Brendan

      How is roll under specific to percentile dice? I’ve also been doing ability checks that way for as long as I can remember.

      The initial text is not bad, but there are many terms that are used without being defined. For example, the nonhuman races are only named, and not really described at all. I was already interested in EPT, so I don’t know whether or not such an intro would have drawn me in or repulsed me had that not been the case.

    2. Brendan

      Yeah, actually that is true. Now that I think about it, I bet many people do convert probabilities to percents in their head to reason about them due to how decimal our society is. For example, +4/+20%. For a long time tabletop RPG player, the standard polyhedral probabilities do get engrained, but I suppose it is not like that for people not used to thinking in those terms.


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