Empire of the Petal Throne is my favorite game I've never played. Oh, I've played in Tékumel before, but I never used the original 1975 TSR-published rules. I think that's a great shame, because, as OD&D rules variants go -- and that's more or less what EPT is -- it's hard to beat this game. For old schoolers looking for some intriguing alternatives to the way OD&D handles things, it's well worth reading.
Of course, very few gamers love Tékumel for its rules. It's the fabulous pulp fantasy world that makes this game stand head and shoulders above its contemporaries, not to mention the lavishness of the game's components. In addition to including a 114-page spiral-bound book, the box also contains three large and terrifically sturdy maps of the starting campaign area and a large port city. This made the game very expensive -- $25 in 1975 -- which may have inadvertently contributed to its inaccessibility to many hobbyists. By the time I started gaming in 1979, EPT was legendary for being "the most expensive RPG ever made." I don't know if that was literally true at that time, but it's how the game was remembered among the older crowd who initiated me into the hobby.
I say "remembered" for a very good reason: no one played EPT. I never ever saw a copy of the original rules until the late 90s. I knew of the setting, naturally, at least in broad outline -- a colony world in the far future gets mysteriously shunted into its own pocket dimension where magic works. That the setting's creator, M.A.R. Barker, was a professor of linguistics with firsthand experience of India and Pakistan, as well as a lifelong love for the pulp greats, Egyptology, and ancient American civilizations pretty much ensure that it'd be like nothing anyone had ever seen -- and it is.
In his effusive introduction to the game, Gary Gygax compares Barker to Tolkien, with the caveat that, while Barker's creation possesses the same depth and breadth as Middle-earth, it was revealed to the world as a game. I think this is an important point. I'm on record as stating that I don't think Middle-earth is very gameable, because it's too tightly wound up, both thematically and dramatically, in things that don't easily lend themselves to good roleplaying. Tékumel, on the other hand, is eminently gameable and it's frankly a pity that more people haven't had the chance to sample its unique pleasures.
To be fair, some of Tékumel's troubles are self-inflicted. Because Barker was an academic, his writings carry an air of "realism" to them that intimidated some potential players, even though the author specifically counsels against this fear in his own prefatory remarks to the game. Worse still, to my mind, is the tendency of Tékumel fans, then and now, to obsess over minute details and seek out ever ever more exhaustive descriptions of this alien world and its inhabitants. Sadly, the history of the game is less about people playing games set in Tékumel and more about people talking about Tékumel, a history aided and abetted by a dearth of adventures for the game and a surfeit of products describing the setting in anthropological detail.
This saddens me, because Tékumel is amazingly cool: a brilliant cross between a sword-and-planet and dying earth setting that evokes writers like Burroughs, Howard, Smith, and Vance without being a pastiche of any one of them. Far moreso than OD&D, Empire of the Petal Throne is a game that wears its pulp fantasy roots on its sleeve, provided you're willing to look beneath its baroque surface. Like many things about Tékumel, its literary origins are hidden, sometimes in plain sight. It's also the only game I've ever encountered that includes culturally sophisticated rationales for dungeon crawling that enables expeditions into the Underworld to serve as the axis around which a larger campaign could be structured. But then this is an old school RPG of the first rank, so this should come as no surprise.
I'm too busy with Dwimmermount these days to even consider starting up an EPT campaign, but I'd dearly love to do so. It's a game that I don't think ever really got its due and I'd love to play a small role in rectifying that.