Thursday, February 25, 2021

The Emperor is Dead!

(Before your eyes glaze over: this post includes a fair bit of Tékumel talk, but it is not, strictly speaking, about Tékumel. Rather, Tékumel is being used as an example for my musings about a larger topic of interest, I hope, to players and referees of any RPG.)

Victor Raymond recently reminded me of an article that appeared in issue #6 of The Space Gamer (June/July 1976), approximately a year after the release of TSR's Empire of the Petal Throne – which is important, as you'll see. The issue contains an article written by Robert L. Large, Jr., in which he presents a report of a major event from his home EPT campaign, namely the death, at the age of 73, of the Seal Emperor of Tsolyánu, Hirkáne Tlakotáni. The report dwells not on the death of the God-Emperor but rather on the Kólumejàlim, "the Choosing of the Emperor," a ritual by which all the deceased emperor's children, both acknowledged and unacknowledged, contend with one another before the eyes of the Omnipotent Azure Legion to determine which of them will ascend the Petal Throne (while those who lose are ritually sacrificed to prevent the possibility of attempted usurpation and/or civil war). 

It should be noted that, at the time this article appeared, no such event had occurred on "Tékumel Prime," the version of Tékumel that Professor Barker presented to his players. (Hirkáne did eventually die in Barker's campaign but much later and under very different circumstances.) It's also worth noting that there were only three Tékumel sources available when Large's article appeared: Empire of the Petal Throne, War of Wizards, and a single article in the pages of The Strategic Review. Despite this, it's clear that Large had not only made Tékumel his own by extrapolating based on what he had read about the setting in those limited sources but also by introducing elements that made sense to him. He didn't hesitate or worry that he might do something differently than Professor Barker did. In short, he behaved as any good referee ought.

Large's account of the Kólumejàlim suggests that he actually played it out, allowing his players to take the roles of the various claimants to the Petal Throne. For example, the first part of the trials involved an arena duel, which Large notes was handled by means of FGU's Gladiators. Likewise, magical duels were handled by means of War of Wizards. Reading the article, two things struck me. The first is that Large involved his players in determining the outcome of this important campaign event, not as their player characters but as Imperial princes. The second is that the outcome itself was an unexpected one, owing no doubt to a combination of player action and dice rolls

Upon completing the article, I knew that, when the time comes for similar events to occur in my House of Worms campaign, I will involve the players too. A big reason why is the possibility of an unexpected result, one I'd never choose on my own. In Large's campaign, the ultimate winner of the contest between heirs was Princess Ma'ín, who has been described as spoiled and whimsical – hardly likely to emerge victorious in a real power struggle. And yet, in Large's campaign, she did and he describes how it came to pass. It's terrific stuff, all the more so because it seems as if the outcome was not predetermined or based on his own wishes. That's how it should be, in my opinion.

As a referee, I have certain predilections and tics that, absent other ideas, tend to impel me toward certain things. I love over-complicated intrigue, with factions fighting in the shadows. I also love magic, mystery, and secrets, which is why so many of my campaigns feature these elements, sometimes to their detriment. Left purely to my own devices, I will almost always develop my campaign in ways that highlight these things. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, especially if the players enjoy it. But, as I get older, I have become more and more convinced that, if one's goal is a long lasting campaign, it's vital that there be surprises and turns that no one, not even the referee, can predict. 

This is part of my renewed interest in wargames and conflict simulations. I remember, back in high school, being obsessed with learning more about "the Game" that GDW used to create the future history that connected Twilight: 2000 and Traveller: 2300. The notion that a game company had conducted a giant, free-form wargame/simulation to help them establish three hundred years of history was so incredibly compelling to me, not least because that future wasn't an obviously predictable one. Whatever flaws Traveller: 2300 had, I appreciated the way that its setting didn't fully embrace expectations, with its diminished USA and Russia and ascendant French Empire, for example. That's precisely the kind of unexpected turns I want in my campaigns too.

I have heard that the war between Tsolyánu and Yán Kór on Tékumel was intended, at least in part, as a way for miniatures gamers to get involved with the setting. Professor Barker was himself an avid player of miniatures wargaming and he fought many battles of this war against his players. Unfortunately, he didn't seem to have allowed the results of those battles to have become canonical in his campaign, opting instead merely to take those elements of them he most liked. I can certainly understand why he might have done this, but, for me, the whole point of gaming out a crucial battle in the context of a campaign is to take its outcome somewhat out of my hands. I know I harp in this a lot but that's only because it's true: the referee is also a player and, as a player, he's as entitled to surprises as his players.

This is why I continue to seek new ways to "automate" campaign events or at least lessen the amount of impact my own preferences have on their outcome. I want my campaign worlds to live and grow somewhat of their own accord and much of the joy I get as a referee is in watching the players interact with the situations and NPCs I've created in unexpected ways. Few people enjoy knowing the ending of a story before they read it. Why should RPG campaigns be any different?


  1. One of the things that attracted me to Stars Without Number was its faction system and the promise it has to do some semi-automated resolution of events outside the PCs sphere of influence. I have thought of porting it to some other systems for my own devious (aka GM) purposes. Might be something to check out if you have not already.

  2. Ah yes, the power of emergent stories and storytelling. I've always preferred to run my games with as little foreknowledge as possible so that I would be as surprised as my players. After all, if the GM is not surprised, it's a lot harder for the players to be.

  3. Again, convergent evolution, I started letting my AD&D players take control of NPCs for major events whose repercussion would affect their party. It was a way to show them I wasn't cooking the results, and yes I was indeed surprised by what happened!

    Later, I read in the 1e DMG that players controlling NPCs for short missions was something that naturally happens at the higher levels, and that served as an affirmation that I was headed in the right direction with our group.

    Thank you for showing us all some more evidence that this was indeed how the game progressed with the older play-styles.

  4. The idea of game companies determining the direction the properties go in based on the outcone of games is fascinating to be sure, but one must be careful; as neat as it can be when done correctly, there are plenty of pitfalls.

    During AEG's heyday, they used a similar conceit to determine the direction of their game worlds -- aggregate tournament results would determine which characters and factions gained and lost power, and who achieved major goals. Neat in theory, but I must confess: as a big enthusuast of the 7th Sea CCG and RPG back in the day, I was greatly nonplussed when my faction was entirely removed from the game following a poor tournament showing!

    On the other side of the world, there's Warhammer's infamous "Storm of Magic" campaign, wherein the forces of Chaos united under Archaeon the Everchosen to conquer the world. Games Workshop made quite a production about how tournament results would determine the course of the war, but when it didn't go the way they wanted it to, they ignored the results and pushed the "storyline" they wanted anyway. Nobody was happy with that, which just goes to show that if you're going to do it at all, commit to it and follow through!

    1. GW's done that repeatedly over the years, Storm of Magic was only the most(?) recent example. Archie the Neverchosen was actually beaten (and should've been killed) by the orc warlord Grimgor Ironhide in a storyline event years before, along with Valten, the incarnation of Sigmar himself being beaten. GW didn't like it when the greenskin players trounced everyone and mostly ignored the results, even having Archie kill Grimgor during Storm.

      Their 40K Battle For Armageddon event was even more of a crock, with players cheating like mad by "stuffing the ballot box" with faked battle reports. They've never left the ongoing results so open to player view and manipulation since that debacle.

  5. Interestingly, Greg Stafford did something like this with his Runequest campaign. Apparently the PCs slaughtered a Lunar detachment, whereupon Stafford had the players roleplay a meeting of the Sartar Tribal Council to determine how to deal with the mess the PCs had made. He gave everyone a dossier of common knowledge along with things that only the council member they were playing would know. It seems to have gone well, and they apparently kept up a two-track system where players played their regular characters as well as council members. Stafford said it was good because the players got to do a different kind of role-playing and they got educated on the politics of the setting. Most relevant to James's points in the post, though, Stafford also liked it because "I have been relieved of some of the referee burden of determining all of the historical developments of the campaign." His account of all this is in Wyrm's Footnotes 7.

    1. That's very interesting! Thanks for sharing it. I may need to look into it.

  6. Very cool post. I love this whole playstyle and enjoy hearing about how it went in other GM's campaigns.

    Tangentially related question: I recall reading somewhere that the Professor's EPT miniature games involved hundreds of his lovingly hand-made wooden miniatures of Tekumel armies and creatures. Has anyone ever posted photos of these anywhere?

    1. To my surprise, a little research says yes: