Empire of the Petal Throne is a manuscript which anyone interested in old-school gaming, or simply has a desire to revisit older RPGs must have. The fact that this has been able to be replicated (after an original print run of only fifty confidential copies) is fantastic.
Tekumel (the world of EotPT), is clearly a product inspired by the sources of its’ time. On the surface, this seems like a foolish statement; until you use it as a mental guide when reading the manuscript. Tekumel is the result of a utter collapse of an advanced star-faring society, who used science-fiction level technology to terraform the planet, subdue the native races and trade with interstellar partners. The ‘Time of Darkness’ destroyed this testament to progress and over the next few thousand years, humanity regressed technologically until this knowledge was revered myth . Meanwhile, the oppressed and endangered non-human races rose in number and prominence. Slowly, a new regime was established, with the current dynasty ruling from the Petal Throne for over two thousand years.
The writing style is very straightforward, but the history is not onerous to read. Imagined references presented in-text make the work seem like a monastic document rescued from a faraway time and lends some further tools which the reader can use to aid in immersion.
The rules as presented are inspired by the original version of Dungeons and Dragons, and there is a certain unflinching brutality in the manner of their presentation, which anyone familiar with Gygax’s style of writing will find recognisable. Interestingly, Barker makes comments about the superficiality of the alignment system (a discussion continued today), and includes basic stats, rules for hirelings, encounters per hex on the world map, psychic powers (which are the explanation of wizard and cleric spells) and only three classes (Warrior, Wizard and Priest). The in-built Monster Manual shows how much Barker adhered to an idea of internal consistency, with all of the creatures given either a short history, as well as some ecological information. For most creatures, relationships with other monsters are suggested. These suggestions could then be used by the DM to build multi-layered encounters.
Part Two of the manuscript introduces the idea of the Underworld (i.e. Dungeons) and provides rationale for their existence by urban renewal and the idea of rediscovering buildings and civilisations lost to the ‘Time of Darkness’. Creatures native to the Underworld are also presented here and they do range from the annoying to the truly and imaginatively lethal (there are more of the latter than the former). I’d love to export a lot of these creatures into my D&D game to shake up the players who think they ‘have seen it all’. Most are evocatively named, like the ‘Eater of Swords’, the ‘Demon of Bronze’ and the ‘Serpent-Headed One’. To me, a lot of the flavour text felt like a romp through the classic Howard-esque era of fantasy novels.
The spells are easily recognisable to anyone who has played D&D before, but Barker draws in technological devices known as ‘The Eyes’. These are gems left by a previous age which have innate powers (such as the ‘Excellent Ruby Eye’ which freezes people, or the ‘Eye of Advancing Through Portals’ which opens doors or blasts walls to create doors). In a previous note, the authors warns that any creature slain by an Eye generate no experience points for the party – so they can use these super-items to slay their way across the countryside, but won’t get a mechanical benefit for doing so. The merits of this system could be debated for hours. In total there are thirty-three potential Eyes a PC could lay hands on – another excellent part of the book which could be transported into almost any other system with ease. Other magical items certainly exists and are detailed over the next six pages.
The rest of this book is given to advice on running games, as well as linguistic advice and an in-depth examination of the political structures within which PCs should be expected to operate.
The actual layout is very well done, with the text presented in two concurrent pages. On the left of the document, you’ll see the original yellowed and fading scanned manuscript, on the right, a clean typed version (which has used the same font as the original). I simply resized my screen so that I could only see the clean version. Reading the other was enjoyable (and added to the immersion of this experience), but in some parts the text has become too faded to clearly read, or is smudged. I would imagine that this would be the rationale behind providing a clean copy as well.
In comparison to ‘modern’ games, EotPT may not have a streamlined play style, but this is indicative of the game which inspired it. In my opinion, this is part of its’ charm, and I am heartily glad that this game is now coming to light to be appreciated by a wider audience. The amount of setting information and dense detail which has been included in this manuscript is impressive, and one can tell that Professor Barker had a true passion in the design of this world. The only addition to this game which I would like are some detailed maps, but the book clearly points the reader to the Tekumel website (which I will be dedicating some serious leisure time to investigating soon). The fact that the website exists is great, as we may be seeing more material for this wonderful setting.
This was an excellent nostalgic trip through the type of product which littered my youth and my initial foray into RPGs, and for that alone I am grateful. Beyond that, the manuscript does present a world which is engaging and interesting, and whilst inspired by the original D&D already shows points of divergence. I would relish the opportunity to actually play this game, and firmly believe that anyone with an interest in the ‘old school’ should support Professor Barker and pick up a copy of ‘Empire of the Petal Throne’.