Friday, April 9, 2021


Eye Illustration by Luigi Castellani

Original Dungeons & Dragons famously provides no means of identifying magic items beyond trial and error. Consequently, the same is true Empire of the Petal Throne, the earliest RPG set on M.A.R. Barker's world of Tékumel and whose rules are largely derived from OD&D. 

One of the signature "magical" devices of Tékumel is the "eye," ancient technological tools shaped like small, dull gems with an eye-like aperture on one side and a protruding stud on the other. Eyes come in a variety of types, each of which produces a different effect. Over the millennia, certain eyes have acquired traditional names, like the eye of raging power, which projects a powerful beam of energy at its target, or the eye of rising above all, which enables its user to levitate.

All eyes generally look the same, making it difficult to distinguish between them simply by sight. Rarely, one might find an eye whose previous owner has scratched its name onto its exterior and, provided one can read the language in which it's written, that's a great boon. More commonly, though, one must simply test out the eye and hope that its effects are obvious. (High-ranking priests of the Temple of Ksárul possess a spell, called comprehension of devices, that enables them to learn an ancient item's function, but they do not share such knowledge with outsiders)

In my House of Worms EPT campaign, the player characters have acquired many eyes over the years. With the exception of a handful of them, their actual functions remain mysteries, until employed in moments of desperation. Within the first year of the campaign, for example, an identified eye was employed against enemies in the hope it would deal damage or otherwise harm said enemies. Unfortunately – for the players, not for me, since I loved the result – the eye was an eye of departing in safety, which teleports the user and those closest to him to another location designated by the previous user of the eye. This was one of early campaigns great moments, since it led to the characters' finding themselves far from home and having to trek back, overland, to their home city.

The finding of a new eye in the campaign is thus occasionally one of some apprehension and amusement. In our most recent session, several unidentified eyes were discovered among the possessions of slain Ssú sorcerers, their purpose unknown. The player of Grujúng joked among the types of eyes they might have discovered, offering up the following names:

  • The Eye of Inscrutable Utility
  • The Eye of Unrevealed Operation
  • The Eye of Untold Application
  • The Eye of Obscure Effect
  • The Eye of Mysterious Outcomes
  • The Eye of Cryptic Function
Needless to say, we have a lot of fun in our campaign. I'm very much looking forward to our next session, as the characters learn more about the alternate version of Tékumel on which they've found themselves.


  1. While the concept didn't exist when EPT first came out (or indeed, for many years thereafter) I like to think the many Eyes' similarity in appearance is due to ancient interstellar society having gotten a little too fond of what 21st century humans would call augmented reality. Rather than building their many tools and toys in obviously different shapes and labelling their functions, the ancients were inoculated with nanotech either at or before birth that let them continuously perceive virtual information overlays and call up data windows and AI assistant programs. These would provide explanations of and operating instructions for eyes and other devices, as well as access to advanced versions of the information network I'm currently clumsily typing on. Probably had many other benefits as well, and the tech involved would have been such a part of everyday life no one really thought about it much. Deliberately cutting yourself off from the shared AR network would have been seen as at best an eccentricity, and at worst a dangerous mental illness.

    Of course, some drawbacks might become apparent when some unknown power throws your entire star system into a pocket dimension and your AR net suddenly collapses. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and without access to AR guides, almost every modern tool became magic in a heartbeat.

  2. Oh, and my favorite Eye (a homebrew, I think) came from a campaign in the mid-80s. We found the fool thing on a dead man's body and spent several years of game time trying to figure out exactly what it did, which led to us calling it the Eye of Indiscernable Action after testing it out on both friends, foes, and innocent bystanders with no apparent result other than a quiet clicking noise. When the campaign finally folded several of us begged the GM to tell us what the blasted thing was. Turned out it was essentially a holographic Polaroid and we'd been taking snapshots of everything and everyone we'd pointed it at. Double-clicking would have switched it to (or from) "display" mode and started showing us the first image taken, with each further click "advancing the film" one image. Apparently had nearly infinite storage capacity and there were images buried deep in its memory from before the collapse of stellar civilization, as well as a bunch of clues and plot hooks for more recent events - none of which we ever saw because we were too gun-shy about clicking more than once to switch modes. I mean, we didn't want to waste charges with reckless experimenting, and some of us were convinced multiple clicks would set it to self-destruct or something.

    Prime example of a GM with a clever idea utterly foiled by player caution. :)

    1. That’s a great Eye.

      The natures of most Eyes seem at odds with the idea of them being used for everyday tasks. Notification of secret doors and traps, changing peoples’ alignments, driving them mad, ... what about an Eye of the Spotless Abode to dust the furniture and sweep the floors? Imagine the effect that would have in an underworld.

  3. Doesn't the "read magic" spell help you understand how magical items work? I've always interpreted it like this.

    1. That's certainly one interpretation for what the spell does in OD&D, though not the most common one in my experience.