Explore the world of the Petal Throne!
A review of Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel, the latest RPG to take you to the unique fantasy world of Tékumel.
A while back I introduced you to the world of Tékumel, a wonderful original fantasy world that has been the subject of numerous role-playing games and supplements over the last 40 years. Now it’s time to have a closer look at the latest game in this long tradition, Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel, a 260-page hardback book that gives you the rules you need to roleplay on the world of Tékumel. It’s approved for use by the Tékumel Foundation, but its ‘old-school’ credentials are also beyond doubt, authored as it is by Jeff Dee, one of the illustrators of the original Empire of the Petal Throne (EPT) game and a fan of the universe since its earliest days. This new game is powered by a skill-based system called Pocket Universe, used by other games published by Jeff’s company UNIgames.
Béthorm (the Tsolyáni word for ‘pocket dimension’) claims to be a complete set of rules for Tékumel adventures, and its author intends to support it with supplementary adventures and source material in the future. So let’s have a close look at this book, section by section, and see if it really is the Tékumel RPG that can introduce the wonders of Tékumel to a new generation of players.
1. What is Béthorm?
A comprehensive index is followed by an unnecessary What is Roleplaying section (I don’t think too many people unfamiliar with the concept will be picking up this book!), and then we’re straight into a brief description and history of Tékumel, followed by a personal note from the designer and a quick overview of his Pocket Universe system. The 3 pages of history go into a lot of detail before much groundwork has been laid, which probably risks overwhelming newbies to Tékumel with strange names, dates, and references.
2. Game Mastering Béthorm?
An excellent, all too short, section on game mastering campaigns on Tékumel. The daunting detail of the timeline is offset with this list of adventure ideas that immediately fire the imagination and show the possibilities of roleplaying on Tékumel. I certainly would have liked to see a lot more of this kind of general inspirational and descriptive material.
3. Character Creation
The basic character creation process assumes that the player characters are human natives of Tsolyánu (the eponymous Empire of the Petal Throne), brought up in a large town called Katalál. Adjustments and notes are given after each sub-section for creating foreign characters, or characters from one of the ten playable non-human races.
Unusual cultural attitudes and the concept of noble and ignoble action (as opposed to good and evil – depending on the character’s cultural principles, an evil act could be considered good and vice versa) are explored, as is the social unit of the clan, a crucial part of Tsolyánu society. The concept of clan is a vital one that wasn’t mentioned in the original EPT, but is covered here in admirable detail, with a long list of sample clans from every level of society, from the Imperial Tlakotáni clan to the lowest of the low, like the Wicker Image clan of latrine-cleaners and house-sweepers. Obviously one’s wealth, contacts, and prestige all stem from one’s clan level. Notes follow on your character’s clan status and how to roleplay interactions between people of different social levels.
A lot of this is left to the choice of the gamemaster (GM) and his or her players, but as we move on to personal information, the classic old school random tables start popping up. After rolling for starting age—and a brief interruption to explore the Tsolyáni calendar—you can randomly determine gender, gender expression, biological sex and sexual attraction. Tékumel is, and always has been, refreshingly enlightened when it comes to sexual roles, and none of these choices affect a character’s game statistics. A random table gives you a wealth of choices for names, an often daunting choice for newcomers to the world, and this is followed by notes on pronounciation.
Next is religion, and since deities of Tékumel are ‘real’–though ‘vastly powerful, inscrutable and interdimensional’—in this case, atheism is not an option! There are 5 gods and 5 cohorts for the Lords of Stability, who favour slow and steady progress towards stasis, and the same number for the Lords of Change, who urge constant mutability towards raw chaos. These 20 deities are each covered in a long paragraph.
Finally we come to the basic character attributes: physique (PHYS), deftness (DEFT), intellect (INTL), willpower (WILL), and Psychic Ability (PSYC). The system is a point-attribution one; you start with 10 construction points and can built up your attributes from a starting value. Depending on these attribute scores, a table then gives you a standard modifier, a value (for things like hit points), and three values (x/x/x) for roll. The latter are used for things like unarmed melee damage or initiative. The rules get a little complicated and somewhat mathy here, in true old school roleplaying fashion, and I was reminded of my first attempts to unravel the AD&D Dungeons Master’s Guide when I was in school. A modern, streamlined, rules-light RPG this is not.
Thankfully, we then jump into a nice section on developing your character’s personality and assigning traits divided into advantages and disadvantages. Some roleplayers find this kind of thing restrictive, but I think giving your character a few random attributes can be a useful kickstart towards interesting roleplaying. In any case, you can assign up to 5 points worth of advantages (and an equal number of balancing disadvantages), so the amount you use this system is up to you.
A couple of pages of character trait modifiers according to nonhuman race follow, and then it’s on to the skills section. A character’s Intellect score gives you a number of starting experience points (EPs) which must all be spent on starting skills. Buying a skill gives you a score in that skill equal to the score in the attribute the skill is based on. Skills have a status level too, so a character’s social status can influence the choice here. The detailed descriptions of 84 skills follow, in alphabetical order from Acrobatics to Zoology.
The languages of Tékumel have always been a big part of its world-building detail—Professor Barker was a linguist after all—and the next section covers language skills and the lists of modern and ancient languages that can be learned by characters.
The next subsection jumps unexpectedly into a character’s melee and missile defense values, which are based on skills of those types. After that brief diversion into combat, a character’s ‘contacts’ are covered: non-player characters (NPCs) with whom your character has strong relationships at the start of a campaign. Like everything in the system, these can be purchased with a number of points based on an attribute, in this case Willpower, with a modifier depending on one’s clan. This process is very much left up to the GM and players however, as the general notes on the types of contacts in this section will have to be filled in with more extensive detail.
Something I very much missed throughout the character creation section was a continuing example of creating a sample character. Boxed sections scattered through the text detailing the development of such a character would have been a useful guide to the somewhat convoluted process. Not having this is in keeping with the resolutely ‘old school’ approach of the entire book, but it would have been very useful for new players.
Next, we’re in a classic section that crops up in almost every role-playing game rulebook, the one that players always love to pour over: the equipment lists. This section is 11 pages of tables of weapons (with hit and damage values), armour, adventuring gear, clothing, jewelry, food and drink, poisons of several types, narcotics, accommodation, transport, livestock, entertainment, even—sadly common in the five empires—slaves, with prices typically in gold Tsolyáni Káitars.
5. Non-Player Characters
This very short section covers NPCs, with reference to section 16, the Bestiary, where statistics for various generic characters are given. A few tables—personality traits, interests and dislikes, and phobias—serve to round out the brief coverage here.
6. Turn Sequence & Game Scale
Next it’s time to get into the gaming stuff, and we certainly get pretty gamey right away! The surprising instruction that real world measurements are given in metric and game measurements are in imperial is the first hint that you’re in for a bit of system complexity. It’s a strange decision, and I’m not sure if I’d get used to the idea that one tabletop inch equals two meters.
This is followed by an initiative system that reveals the use for the roll stat derived from a character’s Willpower attribute (not his or her Deftness, surprisingly). Players roll a d10 for initiative; a result of 1-2 means use the first initiative number, 3-8 use the second, and 9-10 use the last number. A bit unnecessarily complicated perhaps, though I’m sure players would get used to it quickly. The section then touches on a player’s turn during combat ‘and other critical scenes’, a turn divided into a movement phase and an action phase, which can be taken in either order.
First to be covered is movement, with instructions on moving miniatures across a hexagonal or square grid, running, climbing, swimming, and leaping. Each character has a Zone of Control and may try to block opponents passing through it by passing a skill check. There’s also a brief look at ship movement here.
8. Skill & Attribute Checks
Skill checks are the lynchpin of the Béthorm system, and succeed on a 2d10 roll equal to or less than the relevant skill score—with modifiers for difficulty of course. Opposed rolls introduce a difficulty modifier equal to the opponent’s skill or attribute score minus 10. Equipment has ‘to hit’ modifers, of course. Complimentary skills and taking a bit of extra time to perform your action can also add bonus modifers, as can good role-playing if the GM sees fit. If you roll doubles you can achieve a critical success or must endure a critical failure.
The system is somewhat binary and degrees of success or failure aren’t really covered beyond a suggestion to the GM to use the results to ‘shade’ the effects, especially during personal interactions.
Other subsections cover a few other skill check eventualities, including asking for your clan’s support, general perception checks with modifiers due to darkness and encounter distance, lock-picking, luck and—an old school classic this one—divine intervention!
The meat of any old school RPG is its combat system, as characters invariably end up spending plenty of time waving swords about—though on Tékumel the swords are usually made of the cured hide of a beast called a Chlén, not metal. The system is pretty straightforward in Béthorm, and only takes up less than 5 pages. Rolling to hit is a skill check versus the target’s melee, missile or magic Defense, with modifiers due to the target’s size, if it is surprised or immobile, cover, invisibility etc. There’s a basic table of critical successes and fumbles, ten results for each that are very general (eg ‘the target hurts itself…’).
When an attack hits, the attacker makes a damage roll in the same way as an initiative roll: by referring to the three damage numbers given for each weapon. For example, a sword does 3/5/7. The target’s Armor value—different when providing protection from physical or energy damage—is subtracted from the damage.
Various special combat contingencies are covered—aiming, attacking equipment, attempting to avoid armor, called shots (heat, arm, leg), defensive fighting, desperation, disarming, grappling etc—you can even attempt a death blow if you’re willing to suffer a -8 to hit. Mounted combat, shield bashing, throwing, tripping, multiple weapons and attacks and area effect weapons all have short subsections. It’s relatively comprehensive despite the brevity, if a little reliant on specific modifiers and skill checks. In contrast, the subject of morale is covered by just a few lines; make a Willpower check and use any modifiers you see fit!
Finally, unconsciousness—after sustaining half of your remaining hit points in damage from a single attack—and death are covered. Characters whose hit points fall below zero lose 1 point per minute from blood loss, and die when they fall to a negative amount equal to their original hit points; so hopefully there will be enough time to get them to a healer!
Following on from damage and death, this section covers, in loving detail, a number of ways by which characters might experience those states. Falling, asphyxiation, poisons (a full page about these), and fire are all explained, as is the strength of material objects and how much damage they can take.
In amusing contrast, the Healing section is 6 lines long. Characters heal 1 hit point per day, and medical checks can increase this rate, with further detail offered in the skills section.
Much like in the old Advanced Dungeons & Dragons books, a lot of space is devoted to magic and its effects—78 pages in fact! Of course there’s a lot of ground to cover. Spells are divided into 3 phyla: Universal spells available to all temples, advanced Generic spells available to some temples but not others, and specific Temple spells (8 from each of the 10 major deities and 3 from each cohort). They are also divided into ‘psychic’ and ‘ritual’ groups. There’s a daunting level of detail here and I doubt that Tékumel has ever had such a comprehensive magic system.
13. Outdoor Travel
Between the sorcery section and the bestiary comes a few sections on travelling and encounters. This section gives us various rates for travel by sea and land and notes on navigation.
14. Outdoor Encounters
This section provides notes and tables for encounters outdoors, whether in cities, upon the raised Sákbe-roads, or in various wilderness terrains. The information consists of tables and general guidelines.
15. Underworld Exploration
One of the distinctive features of role-playing in Tékumel are the ‘underwords’ beneath the ancient cities, either dating back to before the Time of Darkness, or more recent but still millenia-old labyrinths, tombs and treasure-houses. Brief notes are given here on the types of encounters that may be expected in such places: humans, and … other things.
Talking about ‘other things’, almost every role-playing game has a section covering the kind of creatures your characters are likely to met, usually at the end of a sword. Tékumel has a huge variety of distinctive and unusual denizens, from the major nonhuman races to myriad bizarre creatures of the wilderness. About 52 pages of detail on these creatures are in this section. The author has illustrated many of them with black-and-white line drawings, but sadly the reproductions are very small.
Where there are creatures, there is bound to be treasure, and this next large section covers a vast collection of it, from gems, jewellery, armor and weapons, to the wonderful techno-magic items known as ‘Eyes’, to a plethora of miscellaneous magical items, scrolls and books. The descriptions are evocative, if difficult to put into context for any but experienced players.
18. Character Advancement
Of course characters must grow and develop to be interesting—and better at besting creatures and gathering treasure. In this section a simple system of experience points and advantage points (the latter special one-off rewards used to buy advantages or eliminate disadvantages) is detailed. Professional ranks or circles are listed, and notes on the possibility of promotion or demotion.
19. Income & Expenditures
As money comes in, so money must go out, and the income expected by servants and skilled employees is detailed here, as are wages for officials, priests and soldiers. A simple investment table and living expenses tables round out this short section.
The last section is mostly a key to the map of Katalál given at the back of the book, and further reading (just a link to the game’s website, and no mention here of Professor Barker’s books or—if you’ll excuse me pointing it out—my own official website at www.tekumel.com). This is followed by the aforementioned map, a map of the region around Katalál and one of the area around Tsolyánu, a combat record sheet, a spellbook sheet, an entourage record sheet, and finally a character record sheet. Sadly, there’s no index at the back of the book, which is disappointing in this age of automatic indexing page layout programs.
I’ve talked about the OSR (Old School Renaissance) before, and in general, it’s been a wonderful look back at the kind of roleplaying my generation grew up with that has led to some excellent publications. However nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake can be a two-edged Chlén-sword. Béthorm is resolutely ‘old school’ in its formatting and presentation, and while some may find this charming, it does get in the way of clear communication and enjoyable reading. Avante Garde Gothic is a dated, ugly typeface that was used in the old AD&D modules but really should be consigned to history, yet it’s used throughout this book; which is ironic, as the original EPT used a better font. The clunky 80s-era coding system that can result in a section being designated ‘18.104.22.168’ is unnecessary and a throwback to old wargame rulebooks: it annoyed me back when I was twelve and time has not softened the feeling! The layout is really just one step above a styled Word document and the relentless two-column slabs of text make reading the book a bit of a chore, with hardly any visual distinction between major sections save slightly larger headings. It’s a great shame that the book’s budget probably didn’t allow for the tender ministrations of a professional graphic designer. And most strangely, there’s a surprising dearth of artwork for a book written by an illustrator, and when it does appear, it is reproduced at far too small a size (and with large, distracting signature blocks). This extends to the cover, which would have been better served by featuring Denis Loubet’s painting at full size, and not surrounded with an ugly white faux leather texture.
Of course I’m being harsh on the graphic design because I am a graphic designer and I believe these issues to be particularly important, but unfortunately, copying the style of old publications has resulted in a book that also reproduces the amateurish design of that era.
It’s difficult to review Béthorm objectively because I have such a personal interest in the subject matter, and have followed the history of Tékumel publications with frustration over the years. Despite its rich detail and quality, Tékumel seems to stay on the fringes of the gaming consciousness, sometimes as little more than an historical footnote. And yet role-playing games keep being released for playing on Tékumel, and it’s clear that UNIgames intend to support this product and would like it to be the vanguard of a resurgence of interest in Tékumel. Towards fulfilling this specific goal, I think this book falls short. There’s so little material in these 250-odd pages that explores the world of Tékumel and brings it to life, and it is so clearly targeted at old school players that already know that background well, that it has very little chance of introducing new players to the fold. For example, it’s all very well describing encounters on a Sákbe road to those players who already know they are huge Great-Wall-of-China-like road systems, but nowhere in the book does it describe them to newcomers.
It’s possible that UNIgames intend a series of sourcebooks full of background material to follow—indeed a PDF basic introductory adventure is already available for $2.95 on RPGNow—but the core book certainly needed some of this material to attract new players.
(In the meantime, the best source for background material about Tékumel is still the incredibly comprehensive The Tekumel Sourcebook: Swords & Glory Vol. 1, published way back in 1983 and now finally available in PDF on DriveThru RPG.)
If, however, Jeff Dee wanted to create a role-playing game that is an old school tribute to the 80s and a complete system for existing Tékumel roleplayers to use, then the book is a success. It is chock-full of gaming detail, especially in areas such as sorcery, that have never received such complete attention in the past. Jeff has obviously put a huge amount of work into the book and his dedication should be applauded. The system, while unremarkable and obviously not designed from the ground up to be redolent of Tékumel, fulfils its function. There’s everything you need here for experienced gamers who have been disappointed with the incompleteness of past systems to restart an old Tékumel campaign or begin a new one.
Béthorm will be well received by people who already understand and appreciate this universe and need a complete system for conducting role-playing games within it. However, I’m still waiting for the role-playing game that can introduce modern roleplayers to the wonders of Tékumel. Tékumel needs new players and new fans, people who know nothing about it, but can pick up one book that excites and inspires them enough to explore its incredible detail. A book rich with exciting colour artwork, quality design, and atmospheric writing, that grips the reader and plunges his or her into the sights, smells, sounds and tastes of this fascinating alien world and its cultures.
A book like that is what Tékumel needs to survive and flourish.