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House of Worms, I've missed you

Let me tell you about a science fantasy setting! From the literature, inspired by Barsoom and spinning Moorcock-like ideas into a deeper form; from the real world, inspired by South Asian culture and ethnicity, written by an observant Muslim; from design perspective, emerging from long-term enthusiastic play. Swords, seamlessly merged tech-occult, huge ceremonial costumes + casual nudity, a sprawling empire, pure religious excess. Exotic and full of aliens and demons, but all-too-human in the best sense.

There’s a missing word in my first sentence: “new.” Because this game is from 1975 and is arguably the world’s first setting-forward role-playing publication. I played Empire of the Petal Throne weekly via Hangout, a good long time, as a founding member of the game organized and run by James Maliszewski. We used the old rules, “white box” if you will, from 1975. I had to stop first due to technology and then to the crushing hassles of 2015-2017, but I’ve kept in touch and monitored the ups and downs via our G+ community. And now I get to return!

James shifted the default or at least often-assumed perspective of the player-characters from the gods of Order (renamed Stability at some point in the game’s history) to those of Chaos (or rather, Change). He focused on a clan, the House of Worms, as the social framework for the characters, affording us a reasonably broad choice of gods, albeit heavy on darkness, undead, decay, decadence, and curses.

I’d been a backer for Jeff Dee’s Béthorm, his UNIsystem version of the Barker material, and used its relatively organized character creation framework to arrive at the concept for my character Ssúri hoNokor. The idea was a temple dancer for the god Durritlámish, Cohort of Sárku, the Black Angel of the Putrescent Hand, who is devout, but an official worshipper rather than an ordained priestess. Most of the time, and especially during our travels, she dressed (or rather partly-dressed, Tekumel-style) neutrally, with only her temple staff denoting her status; when she went full-on “let’s pray and dance (and maybe sacrifice someone),” she looked more like the picture.

I say modestly that Ssúri was a loved member of the group, as I played her from an unreflective perspective, “discovering” her through events to be almost a little goddess of chaos all by herself. As fellow-player Stephen said at one point, “When Ssúri opens her mouth, it’s like rolling a hundred-sided die.” A few really nice rolls in physical crisis established her at-the-table value in those terms too. But I also say that I loved all the other characters too, including Stephen’s stalwart Aithfo, who he claims was only and ever about the “cash and prizes,” but who seems somehow to have become quite the rising star and young-hero of the plot as it emerged.

Dyson Logos, another player, has blogged about the game as we went along, including On exploring the Empire of the Petal Throne, Character sheet portrait edition, and Adventurers of the Petal Throne. You can also find the wonderful maps he doodles during play.

What you’ll see here in the video is the prelude to me rejoining the game now that my online play interface is finally reliable again. It’s part of a conversation between me and James, a rambly reminiscence, which wasn’t planned to be a public post, and I’m presenting it (with permission) because it brings up some general interest points. We talk about that particular game, about processes and possibly table-born mechanics in it, about what this or that character got up to, about the game’s feaures and publishing history, about this or that game which comes to mind for purposes of comparison. All of those are raw meat for topics that have arisen here over the past couple of months, and delving into James' mode of preparation is going to help people, if they make the effort.

Everyone, can I make a little call here for more posting about your experiences in play in Actual Play? That’s what it’s for. This post is supposed to show more of its intended range. Even a little bit about a little bit of play is fine; it’s not supposed to be limited to showing play or describing it in brutal detail. Nor is it performance art; it’s people talking to people, in play or out, recorded in some way or text. That’s supposed to be an upside, making it easier to contribute here.

The downside is … well, that this video really shows that it’s not performance art. It is clearly two guys of about the same age, who’ve role-played together and know each other’s work for a long time. We’re used to talking with each other and aren’t thinking about an audience, so it looks like free-associating. But stay with us – I hope you’ll see why I’m excited about getting Ssúri back in action.

Take a look at some time too.

* lead image is "Witch," by MarkoTheSketchGuy on DeviantArt

Actual Play


Santiago Verón's picture

I found this video to be phenomenal. I'm sorry to say I'm not sure how effective it will be to bring down a perceived bar of quality needed for posting - at least to me, it seems like a very clear, well structured, if spontaneous chat between two people who know a lot about stuff I know little about, with the characteristic lack of social anxiety of many people your age (it seems that after you lose hair, have children and attend friends' funerals, you care a lot less about what people think). After watching the video, your presenting text might even come across as false modesty, I fear. Then again, I doubt I'm a sample of the target audience of the message "stop being afraid to post", so maybe it will work for other people.

On to the content: I was really excited to hear about choose-path fiction. After the comments of the other day, where we talked about me leading a Seminar (I've found myself sadly cowered a bit, I got half an email reply to you in my Drafts folder, will get back to you on that) I decided to check back to Choice of Games and how they were doing, and downloaded a ton of them to my phone. I saw a Tekumel one but ignored it due to it being one of the few that charged for downloading (others are all free or first few chapters free). CoG is an interesting example of linearity in that the story doesn't really branch out, but your character really gets transformed in who he /she is and its social role, from your choices. Not like Choose Your Own Adventure at all.

This game of yours seems like a very interesting, rich example of setting heavy, long term play. I look forward to seeing more about it and will check Dyson's links. (You didn't make any actual play threads back in the day?)

Ron Edwards's picture

Thanks for the kind words, and no, you're not the target audience for my ending plea.

I'm interested in the Choice of Games stuff now too.

Santiago Verón's picture

I'd love to see a, let's say, "Let's Play" YouTube video (you know the genre?) of you playing Choice of the Dragon. Or, you know, what the hell, of you playing Choice of the Petal Throne. (Though I can speak for the quality of the former, and don't know anything about the other.)

In my fantasy, I do the same with your Cathedral, upload it, and we can compare two veeeeery different solo games. And I've already got the perfect companion piece, a recording of me playing Murderous Ghosts with my college friends which is sitting in my smartphone's SD card waiting for me to edit it at a proper computer.

Santiago Verón's picture

(Please interpret my "I'd love to" and "my fantasy would be" as a direct proposition. What do you say?)

Ron Edwards's picture

What I say is, send me an email preferably through the Contact form. Or even better, do the Cathedral part and let it be its own thing, and I and others will pick up solo play for comparison as we go along.

Let's have comments here get back to the video and the Petal Throne experience as such.

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