Foundations of the Petal Throne

The Tekumel setting, designed by Professor Muhammad Abd-al-Rahman Barker, has the distinction of being the oldest published roleplaying game world. (Though Greyhawk lent its name to the first D&D supplement, that was mostly a collection of rules and didn’t really include any setting information as we understand it.) It did not originate as one – like Greg Stafford’s Glorantha, it had been developed by its creator for quite some time before being used for gaming purposes, Barker having dreamed it up in his middle school years in the 1940s and been developing it in subsequent decades, though he did have some exposure at the time to the wargaming hobby and had been producing home-made Tekumel miniatures armies.

However, once Barker crossed paths with Mike Mornard, one of the early playtesters of Dungeons & Dragons, he became acquainted with the nascent RPG format and recognised in it a way to game in Tekumel which appealed to him greatly and was nicely compatible with some of the other gaming activities he’d applied to it. It was not long afterwards that the original Empire of the Petal Throne RPG emerged through TSR, and every so often someone else tries to do a Tekumel RPG.

There’s a small but faithful fan community around the setting, but it’s never been a runaway commercial success. This may come down to two factors: the setting material has a fearsome reputation for being extremely dense, and the setting itself is pretty distant from what Western fantasy audiences have come to expect. For one thing, it takes extensive inspiration from Mesoamerican and South Asian cultures; for another, it’s not so much straight fantasy as a Vancian science fantasy setting.

The planet of Tekumel is, in fact, a terraformed world which was discovered 60.000 years after the present day and conquered by humanity, its old ecosystem cleared off, its former rulers isolated in reservations, and the planet repopulated by a mixture of human beings and various alien allies and client races of humanity (as well as alien foes of humanity infiltrating to do mischief). Disaster fell when for reasons unknown the Tekumel star system was snatched away into a pocket dimension in which it was the only matter in existence. Cut off from the interstellar empires that sustained it, high-tech civilisation on Tekumel crashed, and what you have today is the strange thing that arose after humans and their allies rebuilt in the face of that disaster and the re-emergence of their various enemies – including the justifiably upset original owners of the planet.

That’s a wild concept that has various implications in play (many of the “monsters” and intelligent nonhumans of the game are various sorts of alien, for instance), but it needn’t be unapproachable. For my money, you can get a pretty good handle on Tekumel just with two sources – the original Empire of the Petal Throne for the broad brushstrokes and the Tekumel Source Book from Swords & Glory for the fine detail.

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Definitions & Demonstrations: TSR-era Dungeons & Dragons and Related Games

So, as promised previously, I am going to look at definitions of roleplaying and examples of play in RPG core rulebooks.

To be clear about what I mean by examples of play: I don’t mean the sort of examples you have covering how the rules are applied (“Player 1 fails his saving throw, so he loses 20 hit points and has to roll on the critical injury table”); I am talking about the sort of dialogue-based examples which are intended to demonstrate the flow of actual play. Given that the game is driven by dialogue, an example which makes that dialogue crystal clear is, I would say, downright vital (or at least very, very useful) in communicating how a game session actually works. A potential new player can puzzle this out without it, or indeed sit in on a session or track down an actual play podcast, but a good example of play means they don’t need to – and that helps smooth out the learning curve and help them quickly assess whether this is something they even want to try.

I’m going to kick off by looking at TSR-era Dungeons & Dragons, and a couple of the games TSR produced which essentially used retooled versions of the Dungeons & Dragons system. TSR were both the first outfit who were lumbered with the task of providing explanations of tabletop RPGs in printed products (rather than demonstrating the idea in person), and also one of the most wildly successful companies at getting people into the hobby in the first place, with various Dungeons & Dragons basic sets being many gamers’ first point of contact with the hobby. Was this success because of their explanations of how RPGs worked, or despite them? Let’s see.

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