Friday, April 5, 2024

"Are We the Baddies?"

The House of Worms Empire of the Petal Throne campaign continues on each week, as it has for the last nine years. One of the things I most enjoy about it are the many opportunities it affords us to explore a fantasy setting that is quite unlike both the real world and commonplace vanilla fantasy settings. This is especially fun for me when the player characters act in ways that are perfectly consonant with the principles of Tékumel but nevertheless surprise their players. This happened in our most recent session and I thought what happened might be worth sharing.

To begin, a brief bit of context: the characters, having returned to Tsolyánu after several game years of having served in the administration of the far-off colony of Linyaró, are now in the employ of Prince Rereshqála, one of the potential heirs to the Petal Throne. They've recently begun to first leg of a very long journey that will take them into unknown lands and ultimately end with the exploration of ancient ruins associated with the non-human Mihálli species. Along the way, their ship put in at an island whose governor belongs to the same clan as Nebússa, one of the player characters. The intended purpose of the stopover was resupply and "showing the flag" on behalf of Rereshqála.

However, Nebússa soon became aware of the possibility that something nefarious might be afoot on the island, with the governor at the center of it. An early avenue of investigation suggested that the governor might be skimming an inordinate amount of money from his collection of taxes, perhaps funneling them toward sinister purposes. Notice that I wrote "inordinate amount of money." That adjective is important, especially in Tékumel. That's because, strictly speaking, there's nothing wrong with a little bit of peculation by a provincial governor. Indeed, it's expected and one of the perks of the job. The expectation that a civil servant wouldn't engage in the misappropriation of government funds is an attitude alien to Tékumel. It rises to the level of genuine concern when said civil servant embezzles too much.

Now, the players – and their characters – already know this. After nearly a decade of playing in the setting, they have a very good sense of how things operate in Tsolyánu and elsewhere. They've (largely) put aside their 21st Western morality and approach Tékumel from the point of view of a native. They might still comment upon it as an out-of-character aside – and frequently do, because it can be a source of humor – but none of them really need to be reminded anymore that the social context of Tsolyánu is not that of our world. Things are done differently here and that's that.

As their investigations continued, it soon became clear that the governor they initially suspected of duplicity was, in fact, being set up by someone else and that the strange things occurring on the island had nothing to do with his theft of tax money. They knew this to be the case when, upon examining the governor's books, it was clear he wasn't stealing enough. Sure, he was embezzling, but he wasn't embezzling as much as they would be in his position. Indeed, they soon came to the conclusion that he was basically honest but incompetent and that someone else was probably behind certain events on the island.

They were right. A political rival on a nearby island was responsible for much of what was happening. When they confronted her, she admitted as much without any artifice. The characters were surprised that she was so open and honest, but she explained that this was simply politics and no concern of theirs. Initially, they objected, claiming her actions undermined the Empire and that, therefore, they had no choice to become involved. She reiterated that her goal was strengthening Tsolyánu through the elimination of a weak rival and, once again, that this was none of their concern. She then offered to buy them off. What would it take for them to stop interfering, leave, and never return?

At first, the players weren't sure how to respond. As they struggled with everything the rival had said to them, they realized they'd been approaching this not as Tsolyáni, which is to say, as subjects of a fantasy empire with a very different worldview, but as 21st century men offended by political corruption. Soon, though, their perspective began to change; the offer held more and more appeal. A few rounds of negotiation and they had managed to obtain a fair bit of magical and monetary assistance in exchange for their silence. A deal had been struck and they were on their way, prompting one of the players to ask, "Are we the baddies?"

The session was a terrific one. Everyone involved had a lot of fun and laughed at what had ultimately transpired. I personally found it enjoyable, because I got to present Tékumel as a "real" place that operates according to its own rules, ones that are frequently at odds with those of our world. To me, that's one of the best and most vital parts of roleplaying: being able, if only for a while, to be transported to another place and to see that place through alien eyes. I wouldn't want to live on Tékumel, but it is an interesting place to visit.


  1. I've had a similar experience playing King of Dragon Pass and 6th Age. These are games (iPad) that require you to, as a Gloranthan chieftain, to make a series of decisions that will either strengthen or weaken your tribe. Very often the "correct" choices will seem odd, or sometimes even reprehensible, to 21st century norms, but make perfect sense from a primitive culture perspective.

  2. The best kind of roleplaying, truly inhabiting their characters and the world they live in.