RPG Review: Tekumel - Empire of the Petal Throne

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Tekumel: Empire of the Petal Throne by Guardians of Order (GOO) 2005, 240pp.

TLDR: 5 stars – it's got that wow factor, and no appreciable faults.

This book has been sitting on my shelf for ages. I've always loved the ideas behind this setting – it's alien feel, vaguely science-fantasy, and the cultural inspirations from India, Egypt, and Central America really appeal to me.

Core Mechanic

I didn't know much about GOO's Tri-Stat system before reading this, and I suspect I'm still missing something since Tekumel has six stats, not three. But it seems a simple enough D10 roll under system with your stats as target numbers that can be modified up or down. The difference between your roll and the target is recorded as your margin of success.

Contents

1. Introduction to Tekumel (3 pages)
This chapter introduces us to the setting and its publication history. This also has one of the best What is a Roleplaying Game sections I've seen anywhere. This chapter has a nice section outlining what makes Tekumel unique as a setting, and these things are:

  • a. Metal is scarce; most weapons and armour are made from Chlen hide.
  • b. There are no riding animals.
  • c. The wilderness is very hostile, so don't leave the trail.
  • d. The world is hot and humid, sometimes beyond endurance limits.
  • e. The culture of the place obviously differs from the usual.
  • f. Clans are very important in society and are your first loyalty.
  • g. Architecture in cites as being unique, though with the exception of the 3-tiered sakbe roads, this doesn't really come across anywhere else in this book, and the architecture is not particularly well described or illustrated – a missed opportunity.
  • h. Dress is different. Dress isn't often a feature that gets played up in games, but I suppose this is an invitation to do so, which by itself would give Tekumel a different feel.
  • i. Status is important, and something you wear and give outward clues about. How you relate to NPCs depends on relative status. The game recommends that all characters start with the same status.
  • j. Blood money: wrongful injuries and deaths will cost you.
  • k. Noble Action: In our way of thinking, noble and ignoble acts follow from morality, but in Tekumel, nobility is not tied to morality. You may not approve of someone's acts, but if they have acted nobly (ie. according to their professed core beliefs) then you still respect them. This is a small distinction, but an interesting one.

2. Character Creation (44 pages)
The second chapter has you jumping right into character creation with the following subsections: Concept, Clan, Religion, Stats, Attributes, Defects, Career, Skills, Resources, Rank, and Derived Values.

3. Non-Human Races (14 pages)
Chapter 3 describes the six playable non-human races (really, these are species, not races) on the planet, and how to make characters from them.

  • a. Ahoggya are four-legged and armed brutes with a shell on top, looking kind of like a cross between a turtle and a mushroom.
  • b. Hlaka are imp-like flying creatures.
  • c. Pachi Lei are four-legged and armed humanoids with heads that look like somebody crossed a bird with an artichoke. They bear both male and female sexual organs and wear their eggs on the outside.
  • d. Pe Choi – if you think 'mantis-man' you're nearly there.
  • e. Shen – think 'lizard man'.
  • f. Tinaliya are short, squat, beings with beaks and bee-hive heads with four legs and 3 genders. The live underground and are very literal.

So yep, these are not your typical fantasy races. They're no stranger than many D&D creatures, but where the playable races in d&D are fairly vanilla, the races here are quite different and most would really let you excercise your role-playing muscles.

4. Equipment and Economics (24 pages)
Money, stuff, and how you convert one into the other. The most interesting thing here is that your clan may cover some of your expenses and even loan you weapons and armour for your ventures. It all depends on your status.
Also interesting are the descriptions of talismans, charms, and magic (ancient technology) items. There aren't a lot, but they are meant to be rare and are very flavourful. You get little things like this:

Fake Eyes: Few people want to find out the hard way whether an Eye pointed at them is real or not, so a Fake Eye can be as effective for Intimidation as a real one. This category represents top quality fakes and near-perfect replicas of the real thing. They look real until the button is pushed. A Fake Eye will provide +4 to intimidation checks.

5. Game Mechanics (19 pages)
This covers the core mechanics of the game and gives a number of optional advanced combat rules for more tactical play, which look like fun. At the end of the section are four subsections that I really liked, and that could be adapted to any game or world:

  • a. Teamwork and Planning are two different ways to increase your chances of success.
  • b. Respect is a measure of your respect in the community, and I really like how this enables PC interaction with the setting.
  • c. Favours is similar to Respect, another neat little mechanic for interacting with the setting.
  • d. Duels, and the settling thereof.

6. Magic (30 pages)
Magic rules, sources of spells, and most of all spell descriptions.

7. The World of Tekumel (16 pages)
This section describes the setting in overview, including history, current events, a rough guide to the Tsolyanu empire and it's larger neighbours, and a bit more on the workings of magic.

8. The Bestiary (23 pages)
What you would expect, and the creatures are refreshingly different. This is not an exhaustive bestiary, but it'll get you through a campaign or two. At the end of this sections are the two Inimical Races, races native to the planet so alien that interaction with them is not really reasonable on most levels.

9. Life in Tsolyanu (36 pages)
We're back to the setting in this section, now focused on the Empire of the Petal Throne itself and it's society and culture. This is really the meat of the game. Here we have:

  • a. Religion, with gods divided between the houses of order and chaos, and largely mirroring each other with 5 main gods of each house in the realms of Rule, War, Learning, Sex, and Death. Each of the main gods has a single cohort with a narrower focus in the realm of the main god.
  • b. Cultural values, including Noble Action, Honour, Gender, Family and Kinship, clothing, social status, and law.
  • c. Lifestyle by Clan Social Status describes what a typical life is like in a low, medium, or high status clan. Assassin clans are covered separately.
  • d. Priesthood describes how a character might become a member of and advance in the priesthood.
  • e. Military describes the same for the military, and this seems like a common path that character might take to enter the game world. What follows is a list of the many Legions of the empire that one might be a member of. Some are clan or race-specific, other more broad. And they have wonderful names:
    Legion of the Sweet Singers of Nakome
    Legion of Potent Destiny
    Legion of the Scales of Brown
    Legion of the Deep Purple Dark
    Legion of the Maces Raised High
    Phalanx of Lord Durritlamish of the Rotted Face
    Battalions of the Seal of the Worm
    Cohorts of Chegarra, the Hero King
    Regiment of the Knower of Spells
    Battalions of Vrishtata the Mole
    Horde of Hrk-ss, the Eater of Eggs

  • f. Describes Paths a character may take to wealth and power in the imperial government.

10. Game Mastering (7 pages)
More or less the usual GM advice, and good advice on how to run a non-vanilla setting for those who are intimidated by such.

Appendix
A page on languages, some reading resources, NPC stats for common NPCs, and the index.

Impressions

I really enjoyed this book. I'm a gamer who likes to to use gaming to explore exotic locales, meet interesting characters and cultures, and solve interesting problems, and this book really delivers. The rules are medium crunch and not overly complicated. The whole book is geared to giving the GM tools to provide experiences (not stories) to gamers, and that's really what I want in a game book.

Many people say that the don't know what to do with Tekumel, or find it too hard to get into. It's not an attitude I can really relate to. The cultures are and species in the book are all interesting, but not completely alien. To play the game well, you'd have to be able to somewhat think like a local character, make decisions like a local character, play the role of a local character. That requires a little more investment, but it's not all that hard to do.

If you like Trad games, and trad games with an anthropological bent (Jorune, RuneQuest, Harnmaster, Talislanta, Mechanical Dream) then you'll love this one, too. The setting is well thought out, convincing in execution, and refreshingly original. The rules are medium crunch and get out of your way, letting you concentrate on the good stuff, like how you'll escort the Pachi Lei priests through the humid uplands without letting a single sacred egg-sack get pierced by a flying worm.

I'm giving this one 5 our of 5 – serious wow factor for me.

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