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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 Tekumel.com some time too.

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

Department: 
Actual Play

Comments

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.

For me, both Glorantha and Tékumel feel like actually interesting and compelling fantasy worlds, probably as they are sufficiently far from the usual D&D soup. Glorantha is just a lot more popular, so I have had more casual exposure to it.

It would be interesting to start a serious, long-term game in some such world, or alternatively some historical setting, and see how it works to figure out a rich world without having someone already done all that work - that understanding the setting is the same kind of collaborative project as understanding a rules system is.

 

Incidentally, there is also more on House of worms on Grognardia, nowadays; presumably the same game:

https://grognardia.blogspot.com/search/label/house%20of%20worms

Sean_RDP's picture

A blank or mostly blank slate can be fun and its nice to see a setting emerge in an organic way.  Like anything it requires a group that is willing to buy into that idea and offer up some flesh to put on the skeleton provided by the GM.  

Ron Edwards's picture

Regarding your "interesting," this is something I do a lot, both for complex settings and for historical settings. My own games are pretty rife with alternate techniques for both, but in terms of picking up someone else's game, I like to start with very limited starting points, e.g., the core book and maybe one or two supplements if they really jump "up" for me. If someone shoves thirty books at me and uses phrases like "you gotta," it's a turn-off. I'd rather start small in terms of texts, even if it means I'm making all the fans unhappy and I end up doing things "wrong" here and there.

Have you read my essay (late 2011), Setting and emergent story? Also, when you get to it, my presentation here about Glorantha will fit right into this question.

Regarding Grognardia, yes, it's the same game. I'm still peripherally involved although not actively playing.

Sean_RDP's picture

Ron - you mentioned ( I think) another RQ game you were running back then. That is not the Spielen Hus game is it? Are there any actual plays from that game? 

Ron Edwards's picture

Hi Sean, I think you're talking about the Hero Wars game that I played quite intensely from about 2000-2002. It was very Glorantha, pretty much "our" Glorantha in a defining way. A lot of my writings about the setting come from that period, as well as from much older interest going back to high school.

I played a great early-RQ game using an original setting, or more accurately, an original aesthetic that resulted in a setting, in early 2018, right at the start of Adept Play, and then a couple of sessions at Gothcon 1919. Then the Spelens Hus game came later. But as it happens, I've never played RuneQuest set in Glorantha, or at least, only in dribs and drabs.

Ron, it is an interesting essay, thanks. I had read it before but things are worth re-visiting every now and then.

I am considering starting a new longer campaign in a setting that is less D&D soup, so the matters discussed in the essay are particularly relevant at the moment.

alanb's picture

I think one of the reasons why it is hard to build a setting like Tekumel or Glorantha, (apart from the investment in time, skill and enthusiasm) is that it is difficult for people to get their minds out of a modern, capitalist mindset, and into one more akin to pre-capitalist forms. Playing in it is worse in some ways, since you need to absorb a data dump, and hopefully grasp its implications.

That also makes it hard to play even in a more familiar setting (say, a pseudo-medieval one) without it turning into pink slime.

In an ideal world, it would be possible to create a setting from scratch, as long as everyone playing has some understanding of anthropology, and how (or at least that) kinship structures, economies and political systesm have varied over time. And everyone would still need to be on vaguely the same page when it came to the direction they wanted the setting to go.

Random thought: create a Tolkien-style world, but have a Beowulf reading circle first...

Sean_RDP's picture

I agree that people need to be on the same page, but I do not think the players need to be that familiar with basic economics and anthropology. Even someone who is vaguely interested in world building can be enticed to offer up some good ideas if motivated. 

Data Dump: One reason I like the RQ Adventure - Apple Lane is that Apple Lane does two things very well. The first is that is straddles the line between a D&D style adventure and something more open. So it eases folks in who may be more familiar with bug hunts and dunegone delves. Second, it offers up a piece of the world that has just enough new stuff to be intriguing. And it avoids the data dump issue, allowing the GM to move the story away from Apple Lane at their own pace.

alanb's picture

A funny thing: I actually think that the Champions Now Two Statements might be an interesting way to start a fantasy setting. Try a version on Diderot's comment: "Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest."

Or: "Kill your Heroes! Kill your Prophets!"

The second statement is easy: Swords and Sorcery in an Ancient World. Or something like that.

Sean_RDP's picture

I think so. I am trying it with the Stormbringer game I am going to run. Just writing the questions down (technically I have three), simplified the work I feel I need to do on the back end. 

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