Thursday, April 29, 2021

Early EPT Review

Gamers often forget that Empire of the Petal Throne is one of the earliest RPGs, appearing in 1975, about eighteen months after the release of original Dungeons & Dragons and only slightly after that of Tunnels & Trolls. By the time I entered the hobby in 1979, EPT was far from a household name. I never saw a copy on any store's shelves nor did I read about it in the pages of Dragon, my main source for roleplaying news in those days. Occasionally, I'd hear some of the older guys make reference to it, but it wasn't until I obtained a catalog from the Dungeon Hobby Shop that I saw good, hard evidence of the game's existence (and the Ral Partha miniatures created to support it).

Consequently, when Thaddeus Moore sent me a clipping from the June 3, 1979 edition of The Courier-Journal of Louisville, Kentucky, I was surprised to see that it was a lengthy review of Empire of the Petal Throne, written by John Filiatreau. Even more surprising was the fact that Filiatreau not only seemed to understand what roleplaying games were – remember, this was published prior to the James Dallas Egbert affair brought RPGs to wide public awareness – but that he also made a serious effort to understand EPT itself. Based on his review, his effort was successful, as he accurately describes the game and Tékumel itself. 

He begins his review by commenting on the game's price, hence the headline above.

I believe the list price for the boxed set of Empire of the Petal Throne was $25.00 in 1975; I suppose the price Filiatreau quotes represents an inflationary mark-up – it was the 1970s, after all. I've often wondered if the price of EPT contributed to its relative obscurity. I know that both OD&D and Traveller, whose boxed sets retailed at $10 and $12 respectively, were sometimes criticized in reviews for their "high" prices. Given that, the comment that EPT is "nearly three time as much as most similar games" makes sense. 

The review describes the setting at some length, starting with Tékumel's colonization by explorers from Humanspace, and working his way up to the present day, as war between the titular empire of Tsolyánu and the northern realm of Yán Kór looms. Along the way, Filiatreau provides lots of details, more than I'd have expected for a review of this kind. This appeared in a major American newspaper, not a gaming periodical, which makes the review's depth quite remarkable. 

Even more remarkable is that Filiatreau is broadly positive about the game. He calls Tékumel a "compelling fantasy" and notes that "those who play it swear it's the best game of its kind." To be fair, he adds that "it certainly ought to be," because of "even more compelling price." I can't blame him for that, since $27.50 in 1979 US dollars is approximately $100 today's money. I suspect that, even today, gamers would balk at a $100 price tag on a boxed RPG, even one as comparably lavish to the original Empire of the Petal Throne.

Reading reviews like this left me with two thoughts. First, I keep being told that tabletop roleplaying games are bigger today than they've ever been, with D&D experiencing a faddishness more impressive than that of my youth. If so, are roleplaying games reviewed in mainstream, non-gaming periodicals after the fashion of this one? Second, I can't help but feel that, between its release in 1975 and about 1979, there was a potential "Tékumel moment," when the game and setting could have made a bigger splash in the hobby than it did. Unfortunately, a concatenation of events, starting with penny pinching by Brian Blume at TSR, strangled EPT in its crib, resulting in its becoming the forgotten game it is today. Is this just wishful thinking on my part or is it a plausible alternate history? I don't know. What I do know, from reading articles like this, is that the invention of roleplaying games in the 1970s was a cultural watershed the consequences of which we're still feeling. 

7 comments:

  1. I can almost guarantee that people balked at the price. those inflationary calculators are always low, in my experience, with regards to how much money people had.

    and I know I balk at 100$ games, or 60$ in shipping from the US for a couple of books. and I bet I have more free cash than most gamers in 1979

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    1. I certainly remember EPT's price being a deal-breaker in the late 70s. In 1979 my 40-hour/week summer job at Great Adventure in NJ put a little bit less than $90/week in my pocket before gas, food, etc. As interesting as EPT looked (and it looked DAMN interesting), there was no way I was going to drop that much on one game. The same ~$25 could go toward multiple D&D items (thank you, Judges Guild).

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  2. "...are roleplaying games reviewed in mainstream, non-gaming periodicals after the fashion of this one?"

    They aren't, but I'd contend there's no such thing as a "mainstream periodical" these days. Newspapers are virtually meaningless to most people, generalist magazines are almost a thing of the past, and the internet has led to people (at least anyone with basic search skills) looking for reviews by deliberately searching for them on specialized sites rather than just skimming the entertainment section of a local or national paper. Online access hasn't just made older media outdated, it's changed the basics of how we look for and consume information.

    I do note that a quick google search for "Tekumel" gets me almost 40,000 results and a slew of related searches. Many of those will be garbage or duplicates, sure, but how many reviews of EPT showed up anywhere back in the 70s and early 80s? A few dozen? A hundred, maybe?

    You're right that EPT probably missed out on a chance to be much bigger than it is, but the combination of a devoted fan base, nostalgia (faux or not), and modern curiosity about the early days of roleplaying has still left it pretty healthy. Certainly wouldn't call it forgotten, just obscure compared to it's (slightly) elder cousin D&D.

    And you know what I'd call a really good sign? That google search doesn't turn up a single image that would get you fired for looking at porn at work. There's a few bared breasts in the artwork and a bit of unrelated cheesecake, but compared to the vast majority of image searches Tekumel is pure as the driven snow. No cat photos either. Almost unheard of to see so many people staying on topic.

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  3. For a product that was still unusual and little understood at the time? In an era of gas lines? It's pretty amazing EPT got any traction at all!

    RE "mainstream, non-gaming periodicals"

    What exactly are those nowadays? Are you talking about print newspapers? They're not exactly a booming business. And yet there are a crap-ton of internet "news" sources, and the subject of D&D pops up a large number of sites.

    D&D IS all over these days: I find the 5E books (and dice) in both book stores and toy stores (as well as comic shops and game stores) in a way I haven't seen since my youth. Parents are buying it for kids. There is merchandising. The thing IS seeing a resurgence in its popularity...but among what demographic?

    At my kid's elementary school, he is the only child (so far as we know) that has any knowledge of the game. The last couple months he started his own "D&D club" and has been gradually acquiring followers (about half his class at this point)...this despite his teacher being an avid (5E) player. If it wasn't for my boy, they would be clueless about all things D&D related.

    And he's running his own homebrew game based on B/X.

    Just saying. There's resurgence/popularity and then there's marketing (i.e. horn tooting) based on sales figures.

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    1. I was just thinking that EPT probably wouldn’t go over well for elementary-school: slavery and human sacrifice as an accepted aspect of society, explaining Nayári of the Silken Thighs and other sexual considerations (pretty much called out in the Comeliness attribute), and at least in some circles, the centrality of a pagan religion.

      At what age would people here introduce it to their kids?

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  4. The comparison to electronic games was interesting. Both they and RPGs were first seeing public awareness at the time this was written. I can’t help but think that RPGs have not evolved at anything like the same rate, and find it harder to compete now, though I do remember the fascination with video games even in that early era. In any case, I find it unlikely that tabletop RPGs have the participation levels seen in my youth, when everyone at my school played for a time and the school even had an organized tournament one year. Now they have so much more competition and there is less universally shared culture.

    Nice review of EPT. Like you, I never saw a copy of the game at the time, only references to it (and, similarly, Metamorphosis Alpha) in the first of The Best of the Dragon. That compilation burrowed a haunting interest in those two games, at least for me.

    The review writer looks like an interesting fellow, who passed away in 2019:

    https://www.courier-journal.com/story/news/2019/05/07/former-louisville-writer-and-editor-john-filiatreau-has-died/1130249001/

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  5. I read an in-depth review of the new Ravenloft domains book by WotC in Forbes just today. That was in addition to it being covered on video game, tv network newsfeeds, and comic book sites. And the resurgence of D&D 5th edition was covered in the NYT a couple times this last year. So I wouldn’t say coverage is lacking of D&D. It is just more ingrained into the culture now in multiple facets.

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