An Endzeitgeist.com review of sorts
This book clocks in at 140 pages, 1 page front cover, 2 pages editorial, 2 pages ToC, 3 pages of advertisements, 4 pages left intentionally blank, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 127 pages of content.
I own both the hardcover, and the pdf-version. The hardcover sports the name on the spine, and the pdf can be properly searched, but only sports a very rudimentary 3 bookmarks, making navigation pretty much a chore – I strongly recommend getting print if you plan on spending time with this book. Layout is a two-column b/w-standard, with a couple of b/w-artworks, and LOTS of densely-packed text and tables. In modern days, this’d probably be twice its size.
So, to make this abundantly clear – this is NOT the usual review I write for products. It is more of an examination of why I like Empire of the Petal Throne, and why you may or may not feel the same.
Why no regular review?
Because I, as a person, as opposed to me in my capacity as a reviewer, love Tékumel.
This love, however, is highly subjective and, to a degree, based on my own non-gaming related interests, and less on a neutral assessment of objective quality. At the same time, I think that the reasons why I love this may well be the reason why others will absolutely despise it. So this format it is.
Why now? Well, it turns out that the book is now available as a PoD, and I, too young to ever get my hands on the boxed set (which released in 1975, one year after a self-published iteration), couldn’t resist.
Let’s start with perhaps the reason why you may not enjoy Tékumel: Originally released 1975, the book is, formally, brutally archaic to modern sensibilities. This extends to information design, an incredible density of information in massive textblocks, and a rules-presentation that, while functional, is clearly a product of its time. The most charming instance for this, in some ways, would be the suggestion to make custom dice via painting over numbers on a d20 – which makes sense, there simply were no weirdo dice like the ones we use in DCC etc. On the plus-side, navigating this tome is actually easier than I expected, more structured and certainly easier to reference than many comparable books. If you’re particularly prude, I should also mention that there are exposed boobs in some artworks – while these never struck me as sexualized, I’m also a European, so if you have an issue with that, consider yourself warned.
All of this notwithstanding, there is plenty of material in the rules that can be adapted rather easily to “modern” OSR-games. (Now that sounds oxymoronic, I know, but you get my drift.) We have HD etc., a custom spellcasting engine with limitations, level-titles, and more. If you are familiar with contemporary OSR-games, a lot will be familiar to you here. There are essentially three core classes, and the book uses percentile-based character creation, which can result in hugely swingy characters. This is still relatively easy to adjust for if you are e.g. assuming the power-level of Swords & Wizardry, though. Character creation, even if you are not familiar with the game, is pretty swift and can be done in less than 10 minutes.
In case you’re one of the people who were not even aware of Tékumel, I can give you a brief run-down, which MIGHT be construed to be SPOILERS for players.
Players should best skip ahead to the end of the SPOILERS. Seriously, Tékumel, as a player, is best experienced without prior knowledge.
Okay, only referees around? All right! Picture a super high-tech civilization spanning the stars, a true interstellar empire. They found this world, and it’s poisonous and strange – red jungles, poisonous plants, hostile local civilizations. Undaunted, they start terraforming the place and wage war; humanity not only radically annihilates essentially the planet’s previous flora and fauna and introduces their own, they also best the local civilizations and force them to retreat, beaten and battered. It is essentially an extreme form of colonialism that subjects the very nature of the planet to the whims of the colonizers.
Then, something happened, and Tékumel was cast into the void – the stars vanished, and only sun, moons, etc. remain – otherwise, the sky is DARK. This, predictably, collapsed the stellar colonialist empire – particularly since the planet has next to no iron, making it vastly more valuable than gold. So far, so common, right? Well, fast forward around 25,000 years.
In many ways, magic items are ill-understood old super-tech, buried beneath the earth; creatures and their strange niches are explained as beings either suited to a different eco-system, or just brought in by the colonists….but nobody in the world truly knows this. Since then, ancient empires have risen and fallen, and a series of unique civilizations have risen from the ashes.
Magic items, primarily in the guises of “eyes” are thus found under the earth, and are essentially super-science considered to be magic by everybody. Still, it should be noted that this is NOT science-fantasy. This entire angle is obscure, very obscure indeed, and players will probably never notice unless you want them to, but the referee should know about it.
And I mean “unique” when I call the civilizations discussed herein thus. They are NOT just mash-ups of civilizations we have on earth; they are weird, interesting and novel, and present a truly holistic vision of a fantasy unlike any we’ve read. While Arneson and Gygax providing the introduction certainly establishes credits here, it bears mentioning that the comparison to Tolkien is suitable, it also is inaccurate, as Tolkien heavily drew on concepts established in Germanic myths and elaborated, while Tékumel is obviously a setting that presents a vision starkly distinct from even most modern (indie) games.
This originality is, ultimately, based on a rigorous intellectual conceptualization of the campaign setting: Tékumel has basically no four-legged animals; 6 are common, but we have no horses, no cows, no cats, etc. – instead, we have a distinct and strange, often wondrous fauna that is well-represented in the bestiary-section. But that’s not the draw for me: What made me smile here, is that the author genuinely thought about the implications of the lack of e.g. horses. No cavalry, and as a result, highways are crafted differently (raised and fortified, with three tracks depending on status) – and other things change as well. There is a thorough consistency here that truly renders the setting plausible.
The book also is, in some ways, ahead of its time: While it does pay lip-service to the notions of good and evil, particularly with the gods and their cohorts (there are 5 good and 5 evil gods, plus their cohorts), the book also remarks that they’re inscrutable and not THAT different from each other; the “evil” gods do engage in some “evil” behavior, of course, but considering the monolithic simplifications the alignment system still imposes on many games, I found it rewarding to find an acknowledgement of relativity, no matter how subdued. When it e.g. comes to detect spells, they discern hostile intent, which is imho much more interesting than the more common implementations. Did I mention the rules for beseeching them for divine intervention? These are level-based, and rather neat – almost like a very early proto-DCC Invoke Patron.
But I digress. Don’t get me wrong: The majority of this book is devoted to rules that are, to modern sensibilities, archaic; not bad or badly-presented, mind you, but not something I’d go out of my way to play.
And yet, I positively adore this book, and the reason for that lies in the lore. To be more specific, the consistency and detail provided for Tékumel has truly captured my imagination – while numerology (!!) etc. are their own supplements, the overview of the campaign setting provided here has set my mind ablaze: From politics between factions to bloodsports to the wiles of deities, there is an internal logic to everything; this is a fantasy unlike any I’ve read before or since, and its emphasis on clans, obligations, etc. over regular currency and the like puts a very different emphasis on what’s happening.
One of the reasons for that would be Tsolyáni. What’s that? Well, it’s the language assumed as a default, and it comes with its own glyphs and unique way of writing it – and yes, you can learn the script with this book! As an aside: Other languages are covered in their own files, but this first exposure to Tsolyáni? It really excites me in a profound way. Scripts with English translations, pronunciation guides, and its sheer alien aesthetics…I love it. I really do. And oddly, this fascination has exceeded the one I have for similar invented languages.
…I know, I’m a weirdo, but one can really see that M.A.R. Barker’s professions were linguistics and anthropology in his writing. For context: I’m one of the guys who read Frazer’s “The Golden Bough” (not the abridged version) and actually had fun with it. Tsolyáni is genuinely fun to me. Learning to write the glyphs? Yeah, I’m actually getting into that. I’m not even kidding you.
This language, however, also might well be a reason for plenty of people to look at this, and turn their backs on the setting. Memorizing the names of people and places is already not too simple, for the setting’s overview is provided in one of the most densely-packed pieces of wall-of-text I’ve ever encountered in a roleplaying supplement, and once you add to that Tsolyáni names, you arrive at a setting overview that is nigh-impossible to just quickly gloss over. This requires prolonged concentration and immersion, perhaps something that some people might consider to be strenuous in this digital age.
It’s imho worth it. The setting overview of its empires and politics, of the wealth of adventuring potential, of the customs, etc., is simply inspiring in the truest sense of the word. However, it is not handed to you in a convenient manner and requires perhaps more dedication to get into than many will deign to grant it. Even if you disregard the rules herein, Tékumel is not a setting you briefly skim over and then play. It requires that you pour yourself your beverage of choice and calmly settle into this new world. Wills, testaments, marriages – all provided, and before you ask, women can declare themselves as equals to men and thus enjoy full rights, but also the corresponding responsibilities. In many ways, this setting is surprisingly progressive without feeling like it’s pandering or censoring itself. (Like e.g. those sucky horror settings that try super-hard to avoid offending anyone…)
Speaking of which: This sheer unfamiliarity and novelty (and yes, I am aware of the irony of ascribing this moniker to a world that’s 45 years old…what does that say about contemporary fantasy?) exuded by Tékumel is also represented in the equipment. Barring copious amounts of iron, the hide of certain animals is alchemically-treated and used for armor, and the strangeness, the novelty of the setting, also extends to cultural norms regarding citizenship, slavery, etc. – some of these components become evident between the lines, in the equipment and encumbrance lists, in the lore regarding the fauna…and the book knows this, as the default start for adventuring is to have the PCs simply arrive in Jakalla (fully mapped), a port city, as newcomers to the Tsolyáni empire, essentially strangers in a strange land.
So, why am not (yet) talking about the two Swords & Glory books that go into much more detail than this one? That don’t spend as much time with rules you (probably) aren’t going to use in their entirety, and which I’ve been pretty vocal about not being impressed by?
Simple: Because this book here, while densely packed with information (in fact, I considered the lore on my first read-through to be more exerting to process than the rules), is a great way to check out Tékumel, to see whether it’s for you, whether you and your players can handle/enjoy the setting – it imposes an above-average cognitive load upon you, but it never does so self-indulgently; it acknowledges this fact freely, encourages the reader, etc. – it is written from the position of an assumption of competence, which is indeed refreshing to observe.
To make that abundantly clear: The book consists primarily of rules used for play in Tékumel, and I ignore most of them and only use them as a guideline to translate them into a more common OSR-game. This is possible due to them being here; the rules are entwined with the setting, and they are archaic enough to warrant even a conversion to more mainstream old school systems. It’s not bad, mind you – it’s just clunky, but considering its age, it has retained its viability remarkably well. Still, it’d be rather easy to poke holes into this and criticize it, but that would also not exactly be fair; in fact, it’d be a disservice to the vision. That being said, if I were to rate this book solely on the basis of its mechanical virtues in comparison to other contemporary old-school roleplaying supplements, it’d, at best, score 3 stars.
However, it is somewhat weird, but the lore and world itself, including the mechanical representation of it, are a great indicator of whether you and yours want to embark on a journey to Tékumel.
So yeah, if you never heard of Tékumel, this is the book I’d recommend checking out. It has all the stuff you need to play; its rules are easy to adjust to old-school systems, and it will change how you play the game; the rules imply realities that are very different from that of e.g. Greyhawk or Mystara, and are interwoven with the lore to generate a tapestry both wondrous and profound, of a culture that never was, of a fantasy that is radically different from any other setting I’ve read.
If the strength and consistency of the vision strikes a chord with you, you’ll love it and forevermore be under the spell of Tékumel. If it didn’t, then you’ll probably come away from this hating it – but at least have a book that is a window towards the start of the hobby we all love and enjoy.
Tékumel requires time and patience to get a feel for, and is pretty much the antithesis of “yet another setting inspired by xyz-culture/mashup of X cultures”; if most fantasy worlds are intellectual fast food, easy to contextualize and grasp, then this is obscure slow food that is very much an acquired taste, that takes time and effort to consume and properly digest.
This book, like the setting, is one that feels like it fell out of place and time, orbiting now its very own sphere, under a starless sky. It is timeless and odd, and I certainly don’t begrudge anyone hating it – in many ways, this may be one of the most polarizing things I’ve ever covered.
If that sounds interesting to you, then this most assuredly is a great way to take a look at this often-forgotten gem of a world. For me, as a person, this is a 5-star file, and I think you’ll either love it, or hate it – not due to some metrics or guidelines, but because its strikes a chord with you…or not.