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 Tekumel.com some time too.
* lead image is "Witch," by MarkoTheSketchGuy on DeviantArt