Friday, February 05, 2010

Jeff's Big Dumb Tekumel Adventure

So on Sunday I finally got a chance to run Empire of the Petal Throne, the first published RPG system for M.A.R. Barker's legendarily byzantine Tekumel setting. Put out by TSR the year after D&D, it was the Game Lizards second rpg and possibly the second rpg published by anyone. As such I tend to lump EPT in with Holmes Basic, Arneson's First Fantasy Campaign, the Perrin Conventions and Arduin as early examples of individual referees bending OD&D to their own ends. There's been some jibbajabba on the OD&D boards about publishing a setting-generic version of EPT's mechanics, and after running one session of the game I can certainly see the appeal. There's a nifty little swords & sorcery system hidden under the elaborate backstory and hard to pronounce names. When I first got EPT as a college kid I couldn't see past all that stuff, but nowadays I'm hep to the fact that part of being a good GM involves knowing what sections of the rulebook to ignore. So for this con game I only used as much of the game as I needed and not one iota more.

I own a few EPT items besides the rulebook, but early in the process I decided that I wanted to focus on the core game and not overly junk things up with stuff imported from other products. So when making this adventure I used only one other book, the Gamescience Book of Tables. I've long wanted to use the random dungeon generator in the front of that book for a while now, so that's what I did. The dungeon under the ruined temple of Hyashra ended up as a three level affair with not quite 90 total rooms. Thanks to the random dungeon charts I had some unguarded treasure, traps, secret doors and magic fountains sprinkled across my maps. But I also added/edited/amended the generator results to suit my nefarious purposes.

On the convention schedule I put down that I would take a dozen stalwart adventurers and the sign-up list filled up, but only ten people showed up. This was not a surprise. I was running a Sunday morning game and some people just can't make it no matter what they think when they sign up. The ten people that showed up had a high degree of overlap with previous Winter War outings when I ran Under Xylarthen's Tower for OD&D, Rat on a Stick converted to Moldvay Basic D&D and "The Pyramid of Ra-Dok" for Labyrinth Lord. So Michael, Chris, Joe, Kathleen, Josh, Doug, Brad, Jeremy, Shumate and Marc all knew what kind of shenanigans they were in for.

I started by randomly distributing out my random pregens. Some of the best and worst of the available PCs came out right away, but most of the time I couldn't tell who had an awesome character and who was running one of the suck monkeys. In this way gaming is a lot like poker: a strong hand certainly helps but a good player can do more with a pair of deuces than a greenhorn can with a full house. Especially in a system with fewer mechanical points of contact.

After taking a few minutes to figure out what there characters could do, I read a slightly tightened up version of this introduction. The basic deal is that the PCs are all foreigners in a society so xenophobic that even changing residence from one crummy Foreign Quarter flophouse to another slightly less crummy Foreign Quarter flophouse requires a permit. A bureaucrat with a nympho-cultist girlfriend is holding up the paperwork until they bring him a sacred statue from a ruined temple full of monsters. So into the dungeon they go.

The bureaucrat sends three slaveboys along to carry the torches for the party and lead them to the dungeon site. I was surprised no one asked why the slaveboys had been assigned. In Tekumel torchbearing is a low class task that no self-respecting adventurer would stoop to perform Fortunately for the party, two of the PCs in play had 'slaver' as a secondary skill, so they never acted up. Except when one of the PCs made lewd advances toward them. Somewhere along the way the player of Changuu the Bearded decided his character was a bit of a lech.

One of the many mechanical gimmicks in EPT that I enjoyed in play was the marching order rules. In a standard 10 corridor the following rules apply:
  • Three warriors may march and fight side-by-side
  • Unless one or more are using two-handed weapons, in which case on two may fill a rank
  • Unless the weapon is a two-handed sword, in which case only the tw-handed wielder will fit
  • Meanwhile, priests and magicians fit four a rank, presumably because they are skinnier/wimpier
There happened to be four spellcasters in the party, so they formed the middle rank. After inquiring whether spears could attack from the second rank (I ruled they could) setting marching order became pretty straightforward but not entirely trivial. Of course several times the marching order broke down. One great encounter with multiple rooms of rat-people involved one sub-group in the Temple of the Ratlings, a second group outside the room and a third group forty feet down the hallway trying to fend off rattish reinforcements. It was glorious.

One of my little disappointments with the run was the second room on level one. It was designed to mercilessly kill the foolhardy. In that room some Tekumelish ghouls had burrowed up from some obscene pit deep below the surface of the planet, and they still lurked not far down the tunnel. Every turn spent searching the room resulted in a 2 in 6 chance of 3d6 baddies pouring out of that tunnel at d6 appearing per round. And if someone ventured into the tunnel at thirty feet in they would be killed and eaten. No save, just screams and the wet, sloppy sounds of the rending of flesh. Too bad they didn't stay long and no one was crazy enough to go into the tunnel.

Instead, the party eventually encountered some not-completely-hostile Pe Choi (a vaguely centauroid insect/reptile sort of race) who passed along that the statue they sought was on level two. And they weren't even lying! Of course the first way down the party locates is a ladder to level three, but Chris pointed out that just because the group had descended didn't mean they were on the right level. Eventually they found stairs up to level two, but they had to kill some disgusting giant carrion beetles first.

My favorite encounter had to be the Secret Treasury of the Temple. A room behind a secret door and only accessible via a very narrow passage. So narrow only the skinny ass mages might fit into the room. Inside is a trio of treasure chests. Absolutely everyone at the table immediately assumes that two of the chests contain fabulous treasure while the third is home to a deadly trap. Never being one to flinch from a good cliche, this is exactly what I have set up. Two wizards end up in the room alone and start opening the chests. One gets 10,000 friggin' gold pieces. The other wins a shield +2 which he will later sell to another party member for a hefty sum of gold. The third chest is full of purples poison gas, which fills the room and starts to roll down the corridor towards the rest of the party.

This is where it gets awesome. Pretty much every M-U in Empire of the Petal Throne starts out with the spell Control of Body. This allows all sorts of stupid yogi tricks like unbreakable grip on an item, entering suspended animation, or holding one's breath indefinitely. But all spellcasters in EPT also must roll spell failure with every casting. For first level PCs there's a whopping 60% chance to fail, possibly modified by a high Psychic stat. Both wizards make there roll, allowing them to continue to operate in the poison fog. Meanwhile, the rest of the party closes the secret door, sealing in the two wizards and writing them off as dead! Furious pounding on the secret door leads the party to re-open the door and a third wizard uses breath control to join the first two. The three of them cram as much gold as possible into their packs and bring out the 1,000gp left. Look! We brought you treasure!

You can read some other incidents in the game over on Ch'gowiz's blog and see pictures of these rowdies as well. Maybe over the weekend I'll blog a little bit about some of the groovy mechanical aspects of EPT.