Thursday, November 17, 2022

Retrospective: Swords & Glory

As early roleplaying game go, Empire of the Petal Throne is fairly well known, if only for the fact that it was the second RPG published by TSR, just about a year and a half after the release of OD&D. EPT is legendary, too, for its price tag – $25 – which was a considerable sum in 1975 (D&D, by contrast, retailed for $10). Of course, what makes the game truly stand out is its setting, the alien planet of Tékumel, one of the greatest works of the imagination in the history of the hobby.

Tékumel stands out in part because it differs in many ways, both small and large, from the assumptions of D&D's idiosyncratic brand of fantasy. Instead, it draws more "from Egypt, the Aztecs and Mayans, the Hellenic Age, Mughal India, and mediaeval Europe," giving it a strong and unique flavor of its own. For all of its virtues, Empire of the Petal Throne didn't wholly do justice to it and so it was perhaps inevitable that there would one day be a "second edition" of sorts, one that might more fully exemplify Tékumel and its rich history and cultural details.

That putative second edition arrived with two boxed sets from Gamescience released under the title of Swords & Glory. The first of these, Tékumel Source Book: The World of the Petal Throne, appeared in 1983 and consisted of a 136-page softcover book and a large, double-sided map in full color. The second, Tékumel Player's Handbook: Adventures in Tékumel, came with a 240-page softcover book, some character sheets, and two polyhedral dice. Together, they constitute an attempt to present a more fully realized vision of Tékumel as a setting for fantasy roleplaying. They only partially succeed in the attempt, for numerous reasons, as I shall explain.

The Tékumel Source Book is a truly wondrous volume. In its cramped columns, whose tiny text is decorated with innumerable hand-drawn accent marks, the reader is treated to an exhaustive examination of nearly every aspect of the setting. The Source Book begins with a treatment of the physical aspects of Tékumel – its solar system, geography, weather – and then moves on to its lengthy history, inhabitants (both human and nonhuman), and the cultures, both large and small, that can be found on one of its continents. Each of those cultures is further described in detail. Everything from family and social structure, religion, entertainments, militaries, housing, and more is laid out in a dry, quasi-academic style that would be severely off-putting if it weren't so compelling. Compared to nearly anything else available on the market at the time, the Tékumel Source Book is masterwork of RPG setting design.

The Tékumel Player's Handbook is far less impressive. Much of it is given over to needlessly complex and detailed treatments of various mid-1980s roleplaying obsessions, particularly in the area of combat. Rather than better grounding the rules in the setting of Tékumel – something that would have been welcome – the reader is instead subjected to discourses on encumbrance, skill development, and height-build factors, among other things. I don't mean to be overly critical of this; plenty of RPGs at the time were similarly punctilious about this kind of thing. However, little of this does much to support the setting of Tékumel, which is the main selling point of Swords & Glory. At least the spells presented in the Player's Handbook do this very well or else there'd be little else to recommend the book.

There should have been a third boxed set that would have presented material intended for the referee, such as monsters, magic items, and other information necessary to use the first two sets as part of an extended campaign on Tékumel. However, that set never appeared and, as a result, Swords & Glory was never really playable in the way that Empire of the Petal Throne was, despite its inadequacies as a vehicle for presenting Tékumel to roleplayers. That's certainly unfortunate, but I reckon that Swords & Glory was already something of a misstep even before it became clear that it would never be a complete game system.

That's the real tragedy of a game like Swords & Glory. What was originally intended as a better presentation of a rich and complex setting like Tékumel became bogged down in minutiae and unnecessary accretions to the point where it likely turned many people off ever giving the setting a fair hearing. While I adore the Tékumel Source Book and its lengthy digressions on the governmental structures of remote tribal peoples and the entertainments enjoyed by the flying Hláka species, they're likely discouragements to newcomers who simply want a straightforward presentation of Tékumel, why it's a terrific fantasy RPG setting, and, above all, what to do with it all. Nowhere does Swords & Glory even approach working toward providing any of this, leading to a game that was probably less read or played than the original Empire of the Petal Throne.

As a diehard fan of Tékumel, I can't help but shake my head at the missed opportunity that Swords & Glory represents. Tékumel is too good a setting to languish in the shadowy corners of roleplaying history. Yet, it's never really had a solid, approachable game version that would be appealing to complete neophytes. Instead, it's been saddled with a succession of ill-conceived and poorly presented games that have only reinforced the false notion that Tékumel is inaccessible to all but a chosen few. What a shame ...


  1. I had only a little experience with Tekumel during EPT's reign. I bought the first gamescience print, but I never ran it. I bought S&G PHB when it arrived at the local shop- I'm unsure if I had seen an ad, or maybe a "coming soon" in The Dragon, or SA, or DW. I was excited to see it under it's own rule system. I recall it being boxed- a softcover book, some sheets, in a very flimsy half crushed box.

    The system was an instant turn off. Definitely a prime example of the "excess" going on during the RPG boom of the early 1980s. I found it easier to get through Powers & Perils later on, and that was a complete nightmare. At least it was easier on the eyes.

    I'd probably have to say S&G did enough damage to have me steer clear of Tekumel for decades, other than for collecting purposes.

    1. The Source Book is great and essential if you’re already into Tékumel but I imagine a terrible, overwhelming introduction due to its density. At least the art by Steven Smith is some of the best to grace Tékumel. I never picked up the Player’s Handbook; is there more of Steven Smith’s work in there that I’m missing?

  2. I would be interested to read your take on the successive official systems for Tékumel gaming (Gardásiyal, T:EPT, Béthorm). There are things to commend and criticize about each. Béthorm might be the closest to EPT, but with the corrections to the setting that S&G introduced.

    I also rather like two of the unofficial systems, Tirikélu and the Heroic Age of Tékumel. If I ever run a Tékumel campaign it will probably be with a blend of the latter and EPT, as the Heroic Age is so close to EPT that you can pretty much port things (like the bestiary) from the latter without alteration, while still benefiting from the setting corrections.

  3. You don’t mention one crucial change introduced by S&G that was maintained by the later official systems: PCs were no longer fresh-off-the-boat immigrants of indeterminate origin stuck in the foreigners quarter but, rather, expected to be citizens. This puts more of a burden on the players and GM starting out and changes the relationship of the PCs with the ambient society. The original EPT presented Tsolyánu as quite grim dark - clannish, xenophobic, and socially conservative (albeit sexually laissez-faire and having an out for women to declare themselves independent), practicing slavery and human sacrifice, with gladiatorial arenas, a predilection for impaling criminals, and an autocratic government served by a secret police. It’s perhaps easier for players to not sympathize with or practice this culture but be outsiders trying to survive and adapt to it, and keeping this as the default setup might have made the setting more approachable.