Issue One | Spring 2001
Perceptions of the Energies No.1 | March, 2001
A zine for the Visitations of Glory APA By Robert A. Dushay
Wherein our author appears, and considers combat systems for Tékumel RPGs.
I INTRODUCE MYSELF: Bob Dushay here. I’m an assistant professor of psychology at SUNY Morrisville College of Agriculture and Technology, in rural central New York State. I just started this job in January, after a checkered career of working for several non-profit research institutions, and a brief stint as an assistant professor at another college. I was born and raised in the suburbs of Syracuse, not far from here, but I haven’t lived here in a long time. It’s very strange to move back to your childhood’s setting, especially when I had no intention to do it. For the record, I’m married, with one child and one cat. I haven’t been here long enough to make gaming connections. I’m hoping to find a gaming group, and I’m really hoping to find a nice bunch who are interested in Tékumel.
MY EXPERIENCE WITH TEKUMEL: I’ve been RPG’ing since late 1975 or so, starting with the white box D&D set. I bought the original TSR EPT set around 1978. I had a mixed relationship with the game at first: I loved the detailed historical background and political machinations going on, but the odd language, the weird names for monsters, the blobby artwork all turned me off. There were things that made a huge impression on me from the beginning. I was an instant fan of the Shen (I loved the concept of demons in D&D, and playing a strong creature called “the demon warrior” really appealed to me). I liked Dave Sutherland’s illustrations of the convoluted Tékumel blades. I was captivated by the background description of the world, because it referenced books that could be found in Tékumel’s libraries. There were dungeons and cool settings described in the books that I wanted to visit, such as the ruins of Ssuganar. I even liked the example of play, where Ru’utlanesh fell on a hapless party.
I tried the game once or twice with my D&D group, but it was a total failure. In fairness, I was a middling DM, and EPT’s dungeons were little different from D&D’s dungeons. The monster names were funny to my players, and the background information (impalement was the only punishment for crime) put them off. The game collected dust in my collection, inspiring me to try to work in greater detail in my D&D world.
In college, I stumbled on the Zocchi sourcebook in an advertisement and I bought it. That’s the point where I was hooked. The sourcebook detailed a fascinating society and gameworld, and I was determined to run a game there, and let other people explore this world if I couldn’t do it myself.
My next attempts were awful. I was still a middlin’ DM and I couldn’t get a grip on how to run a Tékumel game. I collected everything I could get my hands on, tried writing a few adventures, but basically let it sit again. In graduate school, I managed to get a few of my sometime gaming buddies interested in it, and we tried a couple of games using the incomplete S&G rules. There were abuses, and the games didn’t work well, but I was learning. Then I met an Englishman, Mark Daniels, who was living in New York City for a while. I hooked up with him through the Alt.games.frp.tekumel discussion group. Mark showed me what a Tékumel game could be like, with the focus of the game entirely separated from dungeons and combat with monsters.
I went to the first RuneQuest convention, which featured a Tékumel mini-con, and I ran my first-ever convention game, “The Temple of Tlarnash.” It was a great game, helped by some awesome players. There was actually a shouting match between two players, in character, on theological points in Vimuhla-worship. The fanatical warrior priest immolated himself to save the party. This was behavior I’d never seen in an RPG before! I had to have more. When Mark had to return to England, I took over his group, and began an epic campaign across Salarvya that was never completed.
Tékumel has been my primary gameworld ever since. I dabble in Jorune and Everway, and I’m currently delving into Unknown Armies, but Tékumel is still my main game background.
Why do I love Tékumel? Because it’s different. Because it’s got depth and detail. Because it seems a real place, where events go on whether I keep up with it or not, and players are small cogs in big plots. Because I enjoy learning about new things (like the messages about massive heat pumps, or the silver butterfly that keeps She Who Must Not Be Named out of Tékumel prime’s plane). Because I’m still fascinated by the interplay among the races (what are the Shén up to now? How about the Pé Chói?). Because it’s baroque, with elaborate titles, histories, rituals, and practices. I know it’s trite, but Tékumel has as much depth and reality as Middle Earth did, and the fact that it’s a game, and I make my own, small contributions to the world really excites me.
THOUGHTS ABOUT COMBAT SYSTEMS: I’ve played Tékumel with all kinds of rules (EPT, GURPS, Tirikelu, S&G, Gardasiyal, OTE, and a couple of home-brew systems), and I’ve seen my general RPG style evolve over time from a strict “by the book” AD&D approach to a loose and casual Everway/OTE approach. I am less interested in detailed combat in RPGs than I used to be. My attitude as a referee is, “Let’s get this combat out of the way so we can get on to the plot and role playing.” Yet Tékumel is probably one of the better worlds to consider a super-detailed combat system. We have the highly individualized weapons of each of the legions, the combat styles of five major empires, not to mention a dozen minor states, sophisticated dueling schools with centuries of tradition, unarmed combat techniques, alien races with their own fighting styles, and magical adjustments to combat ability. This is completely ignoring the steel/chlen-hide situation, too. Patrick Brady has written some very thought provoking articles on details of Tékumel’s weapons and combat styles: Seal of the Imperium #1 details the differences in sword design, and in an issue of The Eye of All- Seeing Wonder, he wrote an article detailing combat maneuvers for the different dueling schools using GURPS rules. Part of my refereeing heart cries out for the level of detail in combat that permits me to say to a player, “You know, his stance and the pattern of three barbs on the top edge of his sword says he’s a student of Srichaya’s school in Usenanu; that means trouble for you, as a student of G’chulak. He has an advantage in disarming attacks and the backswing; try to avoid getting too close.”
What should our rules support? How do we want to play? I confess, at first I thought Gardasiyal’s dual combat systems were cheesy. What kind of game would use different rules for a Quick Play and a complex Hit Point system? Wasn’t that an admission that the combat system didn’t work? And yet, I liked it. I could use the Quick Play system for fast, unimportant combats, and use the detail of the Hit Point system when dealing with important opponents where combat was supposed to be dramatic and relevant. I’m no expert on combat, and I only used Gardasiyal for relatively inexperienced characters (HBS around 150 for the best of them), so I couldn’t say how well the system(s) worked. The low percent chance to hit for the lower HBS combatants made combat a bit too slow, but at the same time, the crippling injuries caused by some hits (a solid hit to a limb or head could end the combat with a single blow) made it plenty fast. I definitely liked the idea that a lucky blow from a beginner could kill an experienced warriorit made combat always a risk, and there would be no nonsense about a tenth level warrior fighting off an entire cohort.
In my Finger of Vimuhla game, I always expected to see the heroic Horu character do some serious single combat against a glorious opponent with full detail. I thought GURPS would be ideal for this situation. In the two times I’ve run the adventure, it never happened. Not only that, but even GURPS Lite seemed to slow the game down more than it needed to. The level of detail I needed to keep up with the rules was just overwhelming.
I have Joe’s playtest rules, but time forbids reading them. I’m in the middle of character generation and haven’t got to combat yet. My hunch is that combat will be fairly simple. Is there is a need for a super-detailed combat system? I can’t imagine we could possibly cover all the variants: Patrick Brady’s work is an excellent beginning, but I hardly think he could describe all the bonuses and options for every weapon illustrated in the books. Plus, the super-detailed system would seem to go against the GM’s need to improvise details on the spot.
If I still wanted a super-detailed system, I could adapt Joe’s rules to any of the detailed combat systems: Basic Role Playing, GURPS, the Fantasy Trip, or even Gardasiyal or S&G. Or, perhaps some Tékumel gear-head could devise a detailed combat system that would plug and play directly into Joe’s rules. An alternative would be to arbitrarily drop in bonuses and penalties as needed: if the referee suddenly decides the opponent is from Srichaya’s school, and this gives him an advantage over the PC, the referee can modify bonuses as desired and be prepared to be a lot more descriptive.
Thoughts and comments?
YET ANOTHER RULES ADAPTATION: I would bet Tékumel has more rules sets out there than any other setting: EPT, S&G, Gardasiyal, Tirikelu, Runequest/BRP, AD&D2 (adaptation by yours truly), plus notes on Torg and TFT. There are other systems that I’ve forgotten the names of.
I’m a busy man now, and I try to play in a diverse set of gameworlds. I want to have a generic set of rules that will allow me to focus on the background and the game for these different worlds and not have to worry about mechanics for each new game. I tried GURPS, since there were adaptations for both Jorune and Tékumel, but it didn’t take. GURPS has some excellent points, but it’s too complex for me. I don’t feel I can take the time to master it, and I think it’s just too nit-picky sometimes.
My most recent solution was Over the Edge (Jonathan Tweet and Robin Laws, published by Atlas Games). I bought OTE because so many people in Alarums & Excursions (A&E) endorsed it. (I hadn’t known that was because so many of them were involved with it.) OTE was a revelation: an extraordinarily simple set of rules, highly adaptable. Combat and magic could move swiftly, and could be easily adapted to different worlds. Jonathan Tweet refers to OTE as the WaRP (Wanton Role Playing) system, and said in A&E that he wanted it to be generic, used for worlds like Tékumel.
I’ve been working on my Tékumel OTE (or TOTE) system for about a year now. Joe Saul’s new rules are due out in six months, and appear to make TOTE obsolete. But OTE (and TOTE) have one advantage over other game systems: their character generation system is one of the fastest, easiest, most descriptive I’ve ever seen, and has made NPC creation (and by extension, scenario design) much easier.
Character design: Start with a central trait, a broad description of the character’s primary occupation/worldview. Add two side traits (somewhat narrower skills), and one flaw. Add somebody who’s the most important person to that character, and a deep secret that she’s desperate to keep hidden. (The latter two traits make sense when you remember OTE is a game about surreal conspiracies.) So, for example, I’ll create a warrior-priest of Qon, member of a secret society that goes into the underworlds to beat up on Sarku Worshippers.
The other thing you have to consider is dice. OTE is a dice-pool sort of game. One of your traits is “superior,” and you give it four dice. The other two are “good,” with three dice. If you don’t have a trait, the human norm is two dice.
Central trait: Warrior priest of Qon (sign: Big muscles, Qon tattoo). (Superior, 4 dice)
Side trait: Member of Brotherhood of the Amber Glow secret society (sign: Secret signal). (Good, 3 dice)
Side trait: Unfailing sense of direction (sign: Alert, notices landmarks). (Good, 3 dice)
Flaw: Absolutely humorless. (Sign: Never laughs at jokes). Most important person: Sister, Anelhi hiDurodu, ritual priestess of Belkhanu.
Secret: Afraid of spiders. A big, noble warrior isn’t supposed to be afraid of little bugs, even poisonous ones.
You can try to apply your traits to any situation. If Sakal is trying to impress a superior, he may hint at his Amber Glow membership to impress the Mriyan (Bishop). The referee determines a difficulty number (Say, 14), and Sakal’s player rolls his Secret Society dice. If he fails to beat the 14, the attempt fails. Perhaps the Mriyan is not an Amber Glow initiate.
COMBAT: Basically, combat in OTE is easy: roll your offensive trait against your opponent’s defensive trait. If you beat him, take the difference in scores, and apply a damage multiplier based on what weapon you were using (most melee weapons are x2 or x3). Armor subtracts from the damage after the multiplier. Notice that Sakal’s only combat trait is being a warrior priest. As a referee, I’d rule that “warrior priest” applies to social situations, etc., and isn’t exactly a combat skill, although it’s related. Because it’s not a dedicated combat skill, Sakal can use it offensively or defensively in each round, but not both. Without any other combat-related skills, if Sakal uses “Warrior priest” to attack, he must defend with only two dice; or, he can defend with “Warrior priest” and attack with two dice.
From my limited experience, OTE is close to exactly what I’m looking for in an RPG at the moment. There’s great characterization, fast character creation, considerable incentive for players and referees to improvise, and a simple, fast-moving combat system that provides a decent feel without getting bogged down in details. Best of all, the rules are simple enough that I can play once a year without feeling like I have to study it each time.
Because OTE is a modern setting game, and is combat mechanics-light, there are few details on weapons or armor. Basic melee weapons are the same regardless of which world you’re one; most weapons will do the sword or battle-axe x3 damage. Armor on Tékumel, for all the variety, can probably be boiled down to S&G’s three levels of protection: light, medium, and heavy.
Where I’m running into trouble is my Jorune adaptation. As I said above, one of the requirements for using OTE for different game worlds is that the rules should work across the settings I’m interested in. Jorune has a wider range of armor types than are commonly encountered on Tékumel (if less variety), and I was in the midst of trying to work out the underlying system to both worlds when I changed jobs and my free time disappeared. I will continue to poke at this problem.
I do have a workable magic system for TOTE, but I think I will reserve discussion of that for a future submission.