Empire of the Petal Throne
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An elaborate, impressively detailed fictional world created by a distinguished English linguist as a setting for his fictional language he made up as a kid. Features fully-realised history, languages, geography, and cultures with a richness that can only be envied and aped by lesser creators.
Wait, what was I talking about? Empire of the Petal Throne? Oh, it's okay I guess, if you like eating bugs.
The world is called Tekumel and the author was Professor M.A.R. "Phil" Barker. There are some novels set there, the first being the Man of Gold.
In the 1970s, people used to learn the languages of this world, apparently.
If you can't tell, this is not a setting you can just jump into like a generic Dungeons & Dragons setting. It should be called "Culture Shock: The Role-Playing Game", as it needs a damn primer just to better understand what your characters can and can't do! Just the act of sarcasm or cracking jokes, even with a friend, needs to be handled carefully (if at all) or else you offend someone's honor and you'll have to fight it out, to the death, at the local arena. On top of that, the setting is filled with hard-to-pronounce names with some letters lacking English equivalents (this is basically language porn). Despite being the very first RPG setting ever published (if you ignore Greyhawk and Blackmoor, as they where nothing more than rule-supplements) the game never reached mainstream popularity in the role-playing community, maintaining only a cult following with mostly old-time gamers.
The main appeal is where settings like Greyhawk and Blackmoor are the kiddie pool of fantasy settings — fun for what they are, but lacking in depth — Tekumel is the deep-end. This is for players who are sick of vanilla fantasy and want something different, exotic, and challenging.
It could be argued that the actual appeal would be all the topless women in the art, if not for the fact that this game requires a degree of maturity to get into -- if all one wants is the boobage, there are other games for that. That said, it has a lot of nice, tasteful nudity.
The Plane of TékumelEdit
In the distant year of 2013 (later editions would change this to 20XX), humanity nuked itself into near non-existence. The only areas not effected were the Middle-East and Central America, and so as humanity built itself back up, these regions led the charge. Then some friendly aliens called the Pé Chói came by and granted the survivors the secrets of faster-than-light travel. And so, humanity joined a great community of space faring species, and began to form its own empire, known simply as Humanspace.
The Discovery of TékumelEdit
Skipping ahead to the 61st millennium, one day some of these humans were exploring the star Nu Ophiuchi, and found Tékumel, a nice little planet full of primitive alien life, particularly a pair of sentient species, the Ssú and the Hlüss. Presented with this, the humans did what humans do best. They genocided the shit out of them, forced the survivors to move to move to reservations, and began the process of colonizing and terraforming the planet, replacing most native plant and animal life with genetically engineered species based on those from Earth and going so far as to alter the planet’s very rotation to simulate a 365-day year. Tékumel quickly became one of humanity’s greatest possessions, a paradise world attracting settlers from all across Humanspace, and even the various other intelligent alien species, both friendly or otherwise. If there was one thing that you could say against Tékumel, it was that the planet was unusually poor in metals, especially iron, but since any needed materials could be imported from off world, who cares? This state of utopia continued for 50,000 years.
The Age of DarknessEdit
Then, for like, no reason, Tékumel and its entire star system was whisked out of reality and placed into Béthorm, an inescapable pocket dimension. As one would expect, this did not go over well on Tékumel. Tidal waves, earthquakes, and volcanoes destroyed much of civilization, and the Hlüss and Ssú, still a bit miffed from that whole genocide thing, waged war on humanity and the other sentient races in a quest to regain their homeworld. Eventually, things settled down into the time known as the “Latter Times”, during which humanity retained most of its scientific knowledge, though soon even this would be lost. The scientists of this time made a great discovery that would change the course of Tékumel’s history. The ‘walls’ of the pocket universe were thin, and it was found that with great mental strength, one could tap into the energy that flows through the space between universes. And so, magic was invented.
Modern Day TékumelEdit
It is now 50,000 years later, give or take. Humanity and friends have sunken down into a feudalistic pre-industrial society, having forgotten most of the knowledge of their ancestors, to the point that they now believe that the planet is flat (hence their referring to Tékumel as the ‘plane’ of Tékumel), and that their ancestors were gods who brought magical gifts. The lack of metal has not helped this fact, and now the most commonly used material is the tough and malleable hide of an alien rhino species called chlén. The only thing that humanity has gained from getting stuck in this pocket dimension is magic, but even then their knowledge of the mystic arts is less than that of the humans who lived in the Latter Times. Long story short, the world is filled with alien monsters and about 50,000 years of ruins for you to loot. Tékumel the planet is bigger than Earth, and the setting focuses on a small region called the “Five Empires”, especially the Tsolyánu Empire, which is the titular Empire of the Petal Throne.
Customs and CultureEdit
As noted, Tékumel is seeped in customs and culture. So much so, players have to acclimate to the setting's alien morality and sensibilities! Besides all the diacritic-heavy foreign words in play, this is what makes Tékumel so difficult to run. The setting is old-fashion with many things, like the rigid caste system, arranged marriages, slavery, women lacking rights (unless they become “aridani”), and so on. But at the same time, it is strangely progressive for something invented in the early 1940s.
High morality is based on being Lawful-Neutral. So much so that the old Conan trope of "rescuing" a damsel-in-distress from becoming human sacrifice to a nasty blood-god is wholly rejected in Tsolyani society, as people do not question the gods — good or bad — and it is considered a high honor to be so "chosen." Likewise, it would be highly offensive for someone to think less of someone who faithfully follows any of the gods — good or bad — or the temple they serve. In the polytheistic world of Tékumel, the only thing not tolerated is intolerance.
Due to the way the gods and the dead make their presence known, no one question their existence. You would be a fool to think otherwise! People live and die with their noses to the grindstone, enduring life's hardships, knowing that eternal paradise awaits them (if they survive the hellish trek to paradise). Due to this, you will not find philosophers on Tékumel.
Social stratification is seen as the way of life. Clans are separated by class: Slaves & the Clanless, Plebeians, Trade Clans and Nobility. Climbing up the social ladder is frowned upon, and going down it is disgraceful. A lesser casually socializing with a superior is impertinent. A superior casually socializing with a lesser is suspicious.
As noted above, people take all statements, even in jest, vary seriously. That is not to say that they are joyless and uptight. Loosing and maintaining stoicism and reputation is seen as matter of life-or-death.
Civilization is highly bureaucratic and super conservative to the point where waking up form a century of hibernation only to find that things have changed so little at your old clan house that the only real surprise is learning that all the kin you knew are long dead.
When it comes to religion, bureaucracy, legal matters, asking for directions and so on, there is the expectation of bribery, or "incidentals." Crime and punishment is usually handled by heavy fines levied against the offender's clan. A clan can punish its own members by expulsion or even enslavement if only to recover some of the cost of legal fines.
While the imperial government has supreme authority over everyone, as everything and everyone belongs to the Emperor, the government seldom affects the day-to-day affairs of people's lives. In truth, the Clans work as micro-nations and mega-corporations with regards to their own members and the other clans they have dealings with. On the other hand, family ties are put aside for the sake of the Empire or the demands of a temple.
Their are no "Nuclear Families" on Tékumel, instead, people follow Iroquois kinship where many of your aunts and uncles are treated as your "Mothers" and "Fathers", with their kids being "brothers" and "sisters", made even more complicated by the fact that polygamy and same-sex marriage are common. This may sound confusing, but the defused relationship over mothers and fathers brings a child into very loving enviroment as everyone is raising the child. People live in large communal clan houses, with kin houses found all across the five kingdoms. Each clan maintains a specific trade or specialty and jealousy guard their trade secrets. No one uses inns, as travelers usually stay the clan house of kin or at the clan house of someone a traveler considers a "close friend." To be without a clan is to be seen as the worst scum on earth.
First marriages are arranged by clan leaders as a means of barter between clans. “Good Clan Girls” are expected to become wives, and a clan girl declaring herself as “aridani” (an independent woman) can throw the system out of wack. A wife has no rights, property or inheritance, but at the same time, she is immune to all legal prosecution and responsibilities. Men and aridani are also free to marry whom ever they want.
There are a number of houses that specializes in one form of entertainment or another, and most clans have members with a talent towards it. Thespians, singers, poets, musicians, dancers, and the like are common throughout the world.
People are not embarrassed by sex and nudity, seeing them as normal things. In fact, clothing are more costumes one wears outside to show what clan someone is, along with one's faith, occupation, social and occupational status and political affiliation — like looking at someone's back bumper — than a means of modesty. Adultery is not a big issue as sexual jealousy is frowned upon, and premarital sex is seen as normal. Clan girls typically grow plants that work as a contraceptive when chewed. The clans foster such a strong family support group that having children out of wedlock is not a big deal, and is fairly common.
This is just scratching the surface of the setting! Not all of this applies to all the kingdoms and outlying people. Baker was born to be an anthropologist and it shows!
Due to Baker's desire to keep western values and "white savior" fiction out of his setting (as these were common themes that played out in pulp-era of sci-fi and fantasy), he established that anyone with physical features that are anything but dark are seen as a bad omen, to be put down at birth by decree of the gods!
The Races of TékumelEdit
Tékumel is mostly populated by humans, but also has various other alien species who got trapped here along with us.
The Tsolyani humans of Tékumel are in most ways similar to the humans of old Earth, but with some notable cultural differences. For starters, there are, like in many cultures, strict gender roles, many enforced by law, but with the caveat that any woman can declare themselves “aridani”, after which the law will consider them as men, allowing them to do normally male activities like fighting in the military and adventuring. All Tsolyani are born into a clan, with those few clanless Tsolyani being considered inherently untrustworthy, and there is a strong honor system based on what is considered noble or ignoble. Slavery is widespread, and the concept of abolitionism is unheard of. The Tsolyani are polytheistic, and very serious about religion, on account of how most gods can be objectively proven to exist, being strange alien beings from the space between universes.
The other notable race of humans in the Five Empires region is the N’Luss. They are huge. So huge that they tower over other human races and in most editions of the game have special rules just for playing them. Unlike most races on Tékumel, who are mostly inspired by middle-eastern and meso-american cultures, the N’Luss are basically Vikings, complete with tribes, bard, raiding, and generations long blood-feuds. They usually come to the Five Empires to fight as mercenaries, and most often return home after their time is done, as they do not integrate well into the culture of the Five Empires.
A nomadic seafarer culture not found the Five Empires, the Nom can be encountered in the seas to East. In contrast to the pale-ass N’Luss, the Nom have skin as black as human skin can possibly be. The most notably thing about the Nom is that they have somehow developed a form of sorcery unique from that found in the Five Empires. Nom spells are catalogued in the form of “spell-pictures”, and every Nom sorcerer only memorizes a single spell. Just the one. They become masters of this one spell, and often change their name to match their own personal spell.
The Friendly RacesEdit
Those species who maintain a friendly relationship with humanity.
The Pe Choi are weird seahorse people and everyone’s friends. They were the ones who gave humanity faster-than-light travel and remain the friendliest species in regards to humanity. They are not uncommon in human cities, where they start dressing and acting like humans. They are generally peaceful, but have the natural ability to tell when one of their kin is murdered up to several miles away, and if they don’t consider the killing just they will go out of their way to absolutely murder the shit out son-of-a-bitch who did it. They are originally from the star Procyon. Their greatest enemy is bees. No seriously, there is a species of bee on Tékumel who, when annoyed, will vibrate at such a high pitch that it will cause the Pe Choi to have seizures.
Referring to themselves as the Nininyal, the Pygmy Folk live up to their name by not even being a meter tall. They look like an odd amalgamation of reptilian and rodent features, and have a reputation as being violent and greedy, but are also oddly friendly towards humans. They are originally from the star Mirach.
Happily living in their humid mud-holes, Swamp Folk are four-legged and two-armed, with a large rubbery crest coming out of their heads and heading down their backs. They are common in human navies and are quick to adopt human customs.
These four-legged two-armed people are even shorter than the pygmy people and look like they’re made of rocks. They are amicable and curious but are also so literal minded as to be incapable of understanding metaphors or jokes. They live underground, are better then anyone at repairing ancient technology, and are essentially Tékumel’s answer to dwarfs. They originate from Algol.
The Neutral RacesEdit
Those species whose relationship to humans is complicated.
A species barrel-shaped people with four arms, four legs, and four faces. They have eight sexes, and absolutely no one has figured out how the hell they reproduce. They can be argumentative and difficult to work with. They are originally from the star Achernar.
A race of bipedal seafarers with elephantine noses. The Chima have only recently come into contact with the Five Empires, and are a decidedly aesthetic culture, fascinated by the fashions of other species.
Furry brown creatures with large bat-like wings. The Hlaka are, in the opinions of most other species, massive pussies. This is exemplified by their tendency to flee combat whenever possible, and the absolute terror that open bodies of water inflict on them. They don’t make good slaves or soldiers, so humans generally leave them alone, which suits the Hlaka just fine.
From a distance the Hokun look like strange but beautiful sculptures of glass. Up close, these sculptures will probably stab you. The insectoid Hokun have a transparent carapace, allowing you to see their organs, and have an ant-like society, with every Hokun being part of a “group-mind”, and there’s even a separate caste of larger, dumber Hokun that the others use as mounts. This species has a very complicated relationship with humanity, eating them in some regions, enslaving them in others, and being enslaved by them in yet more.
The titty-lions. The Mihalli are a species of shapeshifters whose default form is a lion headed biped with four breasts. They came to Tékumel disguised as humans, but after the planet got stuck in the pocket dimension they discovered that they were like, really, really good at magic, the best in all of Tékumel. And so they decided to use this newfound power as an excuse to openly rule over humanity. This resulted in a long war between Mihalli and humans that ended in the humans dropping an atomic weapon on the Mihalli capital city. From the perspective of the other sentient species, the Mihalli are all completely insane with incomprehensible goals.
Found exclusively in a single lake in northeast Tsolyanu, the Nyagga are an aquatic race who cannot survive on land for more than an hour. Despite their fishy appearance, the Nyagga are warm-blooded and more like Earth’s mammals than its fish. They react violently to anyone trying to penetrate their watery empire. Despite this, they do have a strange trading relationship with the local humans. The Nyagga will leave sculptures and valuable corals on the beach, and humans will take these and leave things they think the Nyagga will like. Some say that the Nyagga can interbreed with humans to create a race Fish-People with gills and pallid flesh, but these are probably just rumors.
Four-armed, four-legged reptile men, the Pachi Lei have a strange six-sense that lets them better detect traps, hidden doors, and the like. They are psychologically closer to humans than most species, and as such are better at integrating into human society compared to other species, save perhaps the Pe Choi.
The Shen are beaked bipedal lizardmen with a tail they can use as a mace. They are commonly found in human armies due to their skill as warriors and excellent discipline. Despite this, the Shen have shown no desire to expand their nations, an when at home focus mainly on defense. For some reason they really hate the Ahoggya, and will often attack them unprovoked when in the wilderness, though they are polite enough not to do so in human cities. They are originally from the star Antares.
Vaguely Orcish bipeds who primarily live in polar regions. Due to their isolation, they have only just recently established contact with the Five Empires.
The Enemy RacesEdit
Those species who believe the only good human is a dead one.
One of the original inhabitants of Tékumel, the Hluss look like strange segmented scorpions, complete with stinger. This stinger can paralyze an opponent, at which point a female Hluss will inevitably lay her eggs in her frozen captive. The Hluss are predominantly found at sea in boats made from their ‘Secretions’. They are allied to the Ssu, and enemies of just about almost everyone else.
Strange little goblin-y frog men, the Hlutrgu are humanity’s greatest foe. Every year, a swarm of these tiny maniacs emerges from the swamps and goes on raids into human territory, where they proceed to slaughter anyone they can get a hold of for seemingly no reason beyond the sheer fun of it.
Strange skeletal-looking humanoids, the Shunned Ones are an enigmatic race who cover themselves in voluminous robes, further adding to their mystique, and smell like an open sewer in summertime. They rarely leave their underground cities, which are hermetically sealed and filled with a gas that is toxic to humans, but when they do go outside it is usually to collect magical items, which they hoard obsessively for unknown, likely nefarious purposes.
One of the original inhabitants of Tékumel, the Ssu never really got over the whole ‘being genocided into near oblivion and being made into captives on their own planet thing.’ They are friendly to the Hluss, but are sworn enemies of just about everyone else, and have made it their sole goal to exterminate the outsiders (except the Hlaka, who they are okay with for some reason), especially the humans. They are often found in ancient ruins searching for weapons to give them an edge over their opponents. The Ssu have two-arms and four-legs, as you have probably guessed if you’ve made it this far, and come in two distinct subspecies, the Grey Ssu, and the Black Ssu. They look about the same, but the Black Ssu are bigger, smarter, and deadlier.
The Many Editions of TékumelEdit
With a history almost as long as the basic concept of RPGs in general, it is no surprise that Tékumel had a long and erratic publishing history with multiple, sometimes wildly different, editions.
Empire of the Petal Throne: Manuscript EditionEdit
The very first edition of Tékumel, the Manuscript Edition, as it has come to be known, only had fifty copies made. It started off when a friend at Barker’s university’s wargaming club, of which he was an advisor, showed him this weird new thing called ”Dungeons & Dragons”. Barker liked it, and so he decided to adapt it to better fit his own world of Tékumel, which he had already been developing for decades at this point.
Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of TékumelEdit
Not long after, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson got their hands on the manuscript edition, and they liked it so much that they had TSR Games publish it as a standalone game using modified Dungeons & Dragons rules.
Swords & GloryEdit
Published in 1983 by Gamescience, who you may remember as the people behind the “beloved” d100 golfball. Swords & Glory came in two volumes: The ‘Source Book’, a massive and unmitigated 140-page lore dump and pronunciation guide; and the ‘Player’s Handbook’ that contains the actual rules. Used a d20 exclusively. It should be noted that some poor sod had to mark each and every diacritics by pen prior to publication. It is normal for Tékumel books to have diacritics all over the place, but even the Koran was saying: "Dial it back a bit."
Gardásiyal: Deeds of GloryEdit
A percentile-based game from Theatre of the Mind, published in 1994. It used both d10s and d20s, and had four separate books dedicated to character creation, letting you play a Fighting Fantasy type game to develop your PC. For some reason this line of books spelled role-playing as “Rôle-Playing”, because Tékumel need more diacritics in it.
Tékumel: Empire of the Petal ThroneEdit
Not to be confused with the other game, Empire of the Petal Throne 2: Electric Boogaloo, Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne was published in 2005 by Guardians of Order, and used the ‘Tri-Stat dX’ system first introduced in the company’s Big Eyes, Small Mouth system. This is one of the more popular editions, owing to the ease of play and indexing of setting information, and high quality of art.
Béthorm: The Plane of TékumelEdit
The latest Tékumel game, Béthorm was written by former D&D artist Jeff Dee and published in 2015 by Uni Games. This is the first Tékumel product to be made without M.A.R. Barker’s direct involvement, as he had died three years prior. Despite this, Barker is still listed as co-writer. The game uses the “Pocket Universe” system, which only uses d10s and is primarily based around percentile dice. Like the prior edition, Béthorm is generally user-friendly.
The key feature with this edition is the way jumping between Béthorm (Pocket Universe) is used to deal with the inevitability of discontinuities that form as new players learn more and more about the setting. That is, if a minor detail like Plebeian Aridani being normal in past adventures (the possess of becoming Aridani is too expensive for the poorer clans), but when the GM corrects this, references to this can be be dismissed as "Oh, that was from another reality." Slipping into near-normal parallel realities happen enough in the history of Tékumel, people do not question when things suddenly become abnormal and just go with the flow.