Sunday, November 1, 2009

EPT on My Mind

For reasons I don't entirely understand, I find myself regularly pulling Empire of the Petal Throne off my shelf and re-reading sections of the rulebook. What's interesting to me is that I don't (generally) re-read the sections on the setting, even though I dearly love Tékumel. Rather, I re-read the rules sections.

For those not possessed of their own copy, EPT is quite clearly an OD&D variant and a pre-Supplement I variant at that. There are only three character classes (warriors, priests, and magic-users), hit dice and damage are all D6-based, and armor class goes from 9 down to 1. The OD&D pedigree is quite apparent, even with only a cursory review of the game rules.

However, EPT is nevertheless its own game, as there are dozens of little changes, tweaks, and alterations to the basic OD&D template. It's these I find fascinating and I keep coming back to. Just a few examples:
  • Spell level is not as rigidly tied to the level of the caster. That is, a 2nd-level priest can choose whether to try and learn a spell of "appropriate" level or take a chance and learn a higher-level spell instead.
  • After level 3 (or Level III, as EPT puts it), all XP gains are halved. At level 10 and up, a character earns only 5% of the normal XP accrued.
  • Attackers with higher hit dice than their opponents roll more dice to determine damage, with damage that exceeds the hit points of an opponent being applied to nearby targets.
All these little changes make the game feel very different than vanilla OD&D, but what I think I like most about them is that they reflect the imagination and idiosyncrasies of their creator. They're not generic. They are in fact quite specific to Professor Barker's early style of play, a style born out of the pulp fantasies he read as a younger person and his long association with miniatures wargaming. The result is a game unlike either Gary's Greyhawk campaign or Dave's Blackmoor campaign (the latter of which Professor Barker had more immediate knowledge of).

To me, that's how all RPG campaigns should be. It's certainly something I strive for in my Dwimmermount campaign and it's what I find most intriguing about tales of the old days. Even in 1980, shortly after I was initiated into the hobby, it was still a given that, when playing in someone else's campaign, there was no guarantee the referee used the same rules or interpreted them the same way that you did. Each campaign was its own little world and it was folly to assume each operated under the same "physical laws." Re-reading Empire of the Petal Throne is a good reminder of this fact.

20 comments:

  1. Interesting post! Phil had some 'playtest time' in hand with both Gary's and Dave's schools of GM-ing when he did EPT, and I'm sure that this experience was included in his take on the rules. Both of them also said that they liked Phil's tweaks, but I don't know if EPT's rules had any influence on later editions; I'd have to leave that to everyone else, as I'm sure that you are all much more familiar with the D & D editions that I could be.

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  2. Pretty cool...I get more and more fascinated with EPT with everything I read. One of these days I'll get my hands on a copy!

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  3. I don't think there's a better RPG that gives you such insight on what it takes to make a well thought out game world. A must have for any serious GM.

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  4. I have been seriously thinking about running an EPT underworld campaign for after my Mutant Future campaign wraps up.

    As far as the rules, have you heard of the "Swords of the Steel Throne" project that is underway over at the OD&D discussion boards? Basically, it would be an attempt to make an OD&D style retro-clone free of the limitations of the open-gaming license by using the EPT ruleset (which I understand is owned by Barker, not TSR). Kind of a reverse-engineered OD&D! From this post of yours it sounds like something you would be interested in.

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  5. I'm curious about it but I'm not sold on it yet.

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  6. I used to own two of the three original books that comprise EPT. I bought them a few years ago at the Complete Strategist on E. 33rd. I loved those books, because they felt like I was reading about another world (which I was). The game captured the alien-ness of Tekumel in a fraction of the words we'd use today.

    I've seen other editions of EPT from time to time, and they just give me the same pleasurable chill up my spine. They seem to have lost something in later editions.

    I lost my copy a few years ago, and would dearly like to find a set. EPT was a great example of the rules fitting the setting.

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  7. > but what I think I like most about them is that they reflect the imagination and idiosyncrasies of their creator. They're not generic. They are in fact quite specific to Professor Barker's early style of play

    Given that's the second iteration of the ruleset, there shouldn't be too much surprise in that (nonetheless, incisive) statement. :)

    Good timing, thanks; you're not the only one with EPT/Tekumel on their minds just now; between game mechanics and world setting I'm fairly sure we've got both camps covered!
    Had only just re-read back to your previous EPT posts a few days ago, too.

    > , a style born out of the pulp fantasies he read as a younger person and his long association with miniatures wargaming.

    Well; more on a personal level with that? I can't quite visualise Barker alongside Scruby and Featherstone, albeit Wells had long-before indicated there was more than one way to skin the (war)gaming cat... ;)

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  8. > I don't think there's a better RPG that gives you such insight on what it takes to make a well thought out game world.

    25+ years of preparation, multiple university degrees and fluency in over a dozen languages? ;)

    Mhmm... agreed; the TSR-published flavor /is/ a good start-point for consideration in campaign world creation, unsullied by not following in others' footsteps and relatively concise. It is, however, a great pity that the additional material did not follow through (not just in the pages of The Dragon) and the whole of Tekumel suffers considerably from being spread over a wide range of (relatively) obscure publishers and a 20++ year timeframe.

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  9. I love the rule in EPT that spell-casters automatically regain all of their spells at 6 o'clock in the morning. This obviates the need for spell books and memorization time.

    To anyone who wishes to buy EPT/Tekumel stuff, go here:
    http://www.tekumel.com/tita/

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  10. Beyond everything that you have said, James, it makes me wonder what Ken St. Andre would have written had polyhedral dice been available to him at the time.

    Good fun reading an EPT mechanics article. :)

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  11. [aside]
    > To anyone who wishes to buy EPT/Tekumel stuff, go here:
    http://www.tekumel.com/tita/

    Yep; good link, Geoffrey.
    Somewhat less nail-biting and time-consuming than eBay. :)

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  12. I'm curious about the XP cuts. Is there a mechanical reason to cut XP in half instead of just doubling(ish) the XP requirements for a level for levels 4 and up, and similarly for levels 10 and up? From your description, I'm guessing the division was a later quick modification that was easier than updating the level tables that got codified. But your description is by it's very nature a simplification, so I don't know.

    You have convinced me that I'd like to read EotPT. Thanks, Geoffrey, for the link!

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  13. "Spell level is not as rigidly tied to the level of the caster. That is, a 2nd-level priest can choose whether to try and learn a spell of "appropriate" level or take a chance and learn a higher-level spell instead."

    That's really interesting. I did something years later in my WFRP campaign, making spells castable by any level of wizard. The risk the wizard took was a) casting a spell of a rank higher than his level risked backfire and b) the level system and the classification of spells was an Imperial construct meant to control wizards. Violation of it was taken as prima facie evidence of Chaos-taint and heresy, and risked getting the Witch Hunters on your trail.

    I liked not only the flexibility it gave the game, but it also made for some dramatic choices and roleplaying.

    Security word: "chestrap," a synonym for a Mimic.

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  14. I was reading these comments, and though I am not that familiar with EPT, I do vaguely recall that David Sutherland had something to do with it. I am not certain what it was, but I do remember him getting a very small royality check from it once. If someone can recall him and what it was, please post it. Thank you.

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  15. I totally agree with what you said about adjusting the rules to suit the setting and/or playing style. Most of the time I sample rules from other systems or make-up something when needed. Even with wargaming, I find total adherence to published rules confining and boring. In the early days of TSR, a lot of people altered the rules for D&D so suit their needs, and the folks at TSR encouraged this - even WotC fostered such individuality early-on in 3rd ed. That is one thing I dont like about the 4th ed rules - you can make sweeping changes to the core rules to suit your own unique setting at the gametable, but you cant publish it, because the GSL puts a lot of stipulations "redefining" the rules. All-and-all, any game I play never stays "by the book" for too long, and I respect game developers that encourages this!

    As for EPT, I really appreciate the highly unique and stylized setting, but all the canons, culture, and hard to pronounce names gives me a real headache! I might try it out, someday...

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  16. Interesting post. Hey James, It would be great if you could take some photographs of your shelfs, showing your RPG collection. Thanks for such a great blog, anyway.

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  17. David Sutherland was one of the three illustrators of EPT. I think that was Sutherland's first professional job in the RPG field. (EPT was released at Gen Con in 1975.)

    The only D&D items published before EPT were the 1974 boxed set, GREYHAWK, and the first 4 issues of The Strategic Review. None of these has art by Sutherland.

    (Note that later printings of the 1974 D&D set have a bit of Sutherland art, but the pre-EPT printings do not.)

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  18. Thank you Geoffrey for answering my question. I should have remembered that Dave was an artist, but I didn't.
    Sincerely,
    Jean

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  19. Apropos of nothing, and here because your Blackmoor Maps post was so long ago...
    Check out this speculative before/after The Flood world map:
    http://strangemaps.wordpress.com/2009/11/02/421-faith-science-and-the-flood/
    from 1690, in perfect proto-Tolkienian style ;)

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  20. Ross A. Isaacs: The original Empire of the Petal Throne was only one book, a white spiral bound one. Picked mine up after it was released at GenCon when it was held at the old Horticulture Hall in Lake Geneva.

    I fell in love with the setting, and have acquired most of what is available for Tekumel, as well as the later Swords & Glory rules (unfortunately incomplete, book three was never published) and the Gardasiyal rules which I still run

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