Five years ago, all I knew about the Empire of the Petal Throne was its place as on of the original RPGs and a few articles I had read from old Dragon and Space Gamer magazines. I was offered the chance to join in a new campaign that James Maliszewski was putting together. I jumped for it, ran off the DriveThruRPG (well, RPGNow at the time), grabbed a copy of the rules and printed them off to make my first character.
That campaign has been running weekly for just under five years now. I’ve learned a lot about the setting through the many editions of games published for it and have a nice little chunk of shelf space put aside for it now. Our Friday sessions are something I look forward to every week as we explore parts of the world only touched upon in the briefest fashions in the long publication history of the setting.
And this is something I really like about the setting. The outright demand that you make Tekumel your own thing. No two campaigns will hold true to the timeline of the original Tekumel campaigns – the civil war, the plagues, the Man of Gold. While there is a plethora of material for the setting if you choose to deep dive into it, there is also a baked in quantum reality concept. That the tree of time has many branches and leaves and that each campaign is “right” because it exists on its own branch of that tree – some diverging earlier than others.
There is no need to reconcile the material from one campaign with the official timeline when it advanced – and in the game we are playing in we are actually dealing with these diverging timelines.
My main character (Grujung, on the character sheet up there) isn’t wearing the same body he had when the campaign began. It is still him, but a version of himself from a timeline where he wasn’t horribly injured in his time in the temple legions. We have even encountered a version of our most mysterious adventuring companion arrived from another branch via a portal to warn us of the invasion of the Southern Continent by the Hokun and the war between two avatars of local deities tearing apart the region at the same time. Warnings that presaged some (but not all) of the events in the campaign since.
While some people find the depth of material (especially material that is so different than the typical Western Medieval Fantasy setting) to be intimidating, the very structure of the setting encourages you to just grab the rules and make it your own. Sure, you will make “mistakes” that make your campaign significantly different in many ways from the “official” games, but these are the exact things that make each game individual and that set them apart on the tree of time.
Two years ago I wrote that we had possibly started a war that might end the world. I’m glad to say my fears at the time were exaggerated. Sadly, they might not be very exaggerated. The Southern Continent is being overrun by the Hokun. The prison of an avatar of one of the Pariah gods is weakening. Souls are going missing, feeding the weakening of the prison. And if the missives from the other branch of the tree of time are right, back home there is a civil war and an invasion from Yan Kor to deal with.
We have travelled immense distances via the underworld tubecar system. We’ve been into space where demons have taken over ancient satellites. We have repaired an orbital defense weapon system (but have not yet found the means to power it). But we have also dealt with marriages of love and marriages of politics. We have taken care of families and clan. We have forged bonds with strange creatures just as alien to this planet as we are.
A lot has happened in 175 sessions.
We are playing the original 1975 rules set for this campaign. At heart it is pretty close to OD&D with randomly determined stats rolled in order, three classes (Warrior, Priest, Magic-User – although we also us a variant of the Adventurer class), d20 rolls vs descending AC, d6 damage for most weapons, and so on. XP is primarily earned by “recovering treasure from the underworld” (which translates in play to treasure found in adventure, and not moneys earned by honest work, trade, or taxation). Character levels get harder and harder to gain as not only does the XP requirement go up significantly with each level, the amount of XP you earn goes down (at level 6, Grujung only earns 25% of what a level 1 character would earn from a treasure score).
The game is the first D&D variant to be published with critical hit rules – a natural 20 on an attack roll requires a second roll and a 19 or 20 on that second roll results in the instant death of the struck foe, otherwise the target takes double damage.
And playing in this campaign certainly puts to rest arguments that these old school games were purely about low level dungeon delving, fighting, and random acts of murder. We have gone as many as six sessions between die rolls for anything, and as many as a dozen sessions between combats. We are actively involved in the political and cultural life of the setting, and it has been a wonderful five years of exploration.