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Friday 28 July 2017

Tirikelu: role-playing adventures in the empire of the Petal Throne

Corresponding with Professor M.A.R. Barker in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, I was treated to tantalizing glimpses of “the new Empire of the Petal Throne” he was writing. The original EPT had served its purpose for a while, but my group were moving beyond those D&D-inspired mechanics. This was the era of RuneQuest and The Fantasy Trip. We were hungry for a more authentic experience of Tékumel, so we would pass around the Professor’s letters (he was always incredibly generous with his time) and pick endlessly over comments like this:
“We now have one roll to hit, one to get past the shield, one for damage (minus armour) and if one rolls 0 on a 10-sided die on this last roll, then a critical hit for more damage.”
Years passed. It was taking too long. I began constructing my own set of Tékumel rules from the fragmentary description in the Professor’s letters, like reconstructing an unknown animal from just a few bones.

Finally “the new EPT” appeared. That was Swords & Glory. My group switched for a while, but it was the S&G Sourcebook that was getting dog-eared from use. The other book, the rules, appealed less. “HBS Factors” and “Healing G9s” gave the game a tabletop miniatures flavour rather too far from the freewheeling shared stories we were looking for.

And so I returned to my own rules and began to refine them into the game I had hoped Swords & Glory would be. Those rules were to become Tirikélu.

This was the early 1990s, so it seems a little early to talk of an Old School Revival (not a term I like anyway) but the aim was there. Simplify the system so that the rules didn’t keep tripping up the play. Recapture the evocative magic of those early adventures by cross-pollinating EPT spells with ideas from The Book of Ebon Bindings. Make combat quick to use but more than just the endless dice-rolling of, say, RuneQuest.

I had two eureka moments. First, in a treatise by a duellist from the 17th century (quite possibly Sir William Hope) I came across the concept of “safe fighting”. His contention was that a moderately skilled fighter could, by concentrating on defence, hold off a more skilled opponent who was dividing his attention between attack and defence. In Tirikélu that became the principle of full- and half-actions. It seemed almost too simple on paper, but in practice we found it allowed for rich tactical choices.

Also I wanted to avoid hit location and lots of book-keeping, but not simply to revert to the amorphous pudding of hit points of D&D. So taking damage above a certain percentage of your hits can reduce your skill, and may require a check to stay conscious, but you don’t need to keep a tally of how much damage each wound caused. It’s all handled at the point the wound is taken.

Nowadays there are quite a few role-playing games where you make a detailed decision about what you’re trying to do, then wade through pages of rules to find your chance of doing it. (GURPS, I’m looking at you.) Tirikélu works best if you keep it abstract till after you roll the dice. “He’s going for a full attack.” “I’m going for a full parry.” Once you resolve that, you’re free to put any narrative interpretation you like on the result. It flows faster that way and, with imaginative players, fights feel agreeably cinematic.

Well, here it is – as complete a version of Tirikélu as you’re ever likely to see. I know, I know; it seems like there’s a new Tékumel RPG every couple of years. Who needs yet another? But many people tell me that Tirikélu is their preferred choice, and you know what? It’s mine too. And it is dedicated, as so much of my work is, to the genius, generosity and humanity of Professor M.A.R. Barker. And on top of that, it’s absolutely free and comes with a whole bunch of scenarios, campaigns and source material.

Get Tirikélu as a free PDF HERE. (Or download the super hi-res 45 Meg version here, which I have also set up so that you can print yourself a copy at cost - no profit to me, and strictly for personal use; no resales, please.) It turns out the rules of the Tekumel Foundation don't allow me to do that set-up work for you even as a non-profit thing. So if you want a print copy you'll have to do it yourself. Sorry about the faff, but it'll only take you about fifteen minutes, and I've written this checklist to guide you through Lulu step by step.

You can find Tirikelu creature stats here. And for even more scenarios, try Michael Cule's introductory adventure "Welcome to Jakalla", Dermot Bolton's espionage tale "Crystal Clear", Bob Dushay's military mission for pre-gen characters "Behind Enemy Lines", and David Bailey's high-stakes scenario "The Society of the Resurgent Octagon".

Thursday 20 July 2017

Fabled Lands rules, old and new

Recently Jamie and I had a chat about the forthcoming FL book 7 with Paul Gresty (who wrote it) and Richard S Hetley (who is editing it) and an often-asked question arose...

Paul Gresty: “The precise calculation for Defence in Fabled Lands came up on the FL Facebook page about a month ago, and it’s come up again during playtesting of The Serpent King’s Domain as a point of ambiguity. To quote the books: ‘Your Defence score is equal to: your COMBAT score plus your Rank plus the bonus for the armour you’re wearing (if any)’.”

Jamie Thomson: “The question a lot of people ask is whether that COMBAT score includes weapon bonuses – that is, does your Defence score factor in bonuses from weapons and armour, or just from armour?”

Paul: “Right. And with the release of book 7 we’ve got the opportunity to nail this point down. Given the new mechanic for spirit combat, in which Defence is calculated a little differently, it’s important to be specific as regards weapon bonuses.”

Jamie: “If weapon bonuses counted then players could too easily become unbeatable. We should have made it clearer in the rules that you’re supposed to use your innate COMBAT score when calculating Defence.”

Dave Morris: “Also, if the rule worked that way, then logically magic weapons should cost twice as much as magic armour, because they would count for Defence, just like the armour does, and for attack too.”

Jamie: “Right. So to be clear: weapon bonuses do not count towards Defence, ie when calculating your Defence you use your native COMBAT skill without weapon bonuses. Which also makes calculating Defence straightforward, as it doesn’t change every time you switch weapon.”

Paul: “If you use the wrong calculation for Defence, it’s possible for your character to become untouchable in combat. Notably there’s an opponent in FL6, a giant called Big Boy, who is really dangerous in combat, and who inflicts permanent damage to the player’s Stamina with each hit. I’ve found that it’s possible to beat him without taking a scratch - although it seems that the player is supposed to find the clever, non-combat way to beat him.”

Dave: “Jamie and I just assumed players would take it as read that they were to use base COMBAT when calculating Defence. In other words, we didn’t notice there was any ambiguity. It’s no excuse, of course. If there is any point to rules at all, they need to be unambiguous. If an ambiguity makes no difference, the rule itself is superfluous.”

Jamie: “Well, we’re kind of fixing it now. Though in retrospect the system breaks down at these very high levels anyway.”

Richard S Hetley: “I’ve been playtesting all the physical fights in Serpent King’s Domain using the rule that weapon bonuses don’t add to Defence.”

Paul: “I think it’s safe to assume that 95% of players coming to SKD will already own and be very familiar with books 1-6. The new mechanic of spirit combat is intended to provide a few fights in which the player’s combat ability is determined in a much more closed and manageable way. Rank has no bearing on these fights, and only certain items are permissible. The only real advantage that very high-Rank characters get is that they’ll go into these fights with a much higher Stamina. There aren’t so many of these spirit combats in the book, but they should provide a challenge to even very powerful characters.”

Dave: “I’m reminded of spirit combat in Runequest. That was always hair-raising, seeing as if you lost the fight you were annihilated.”

Paul: “Just on the basis of the Dunpala demo, I’ve already had an email about with a rules question asking, ‘Can I use my +8 White Sword in spiritual combat? I think I should be able to, because it was created by a god.’“

Jamie: “Hah! Worth a shot, I guess. What did you tell him?”

Paul: “I gave him a variation of that opening to the Blood Sword books, something like, ‘I’d personally say no – but it’s your book, play it however you want.’” 

Richard: “In spiritual combats in this book, Sanctity or Magic of at least 9 is required to defeat the weakest enemy you’ll face. A starting character in The Serpent King’s Domain can reach that without effort, or can make up the difference by finding high-powered spiritual weapons and armour. But to overcome the strongest enemy you need to have the highest possible Sanctity or Magic and the strongest possible arsenal from this book, as well as a healthy amount of bonus Stamina.”

Jamie: “Which is how it should be. Players want to face a real challenge. The ultimate boss in a book mustn’t be a pushover.”

Richard: “Just as we expect the player to become unbeatable in physical fights by gaming the system, in spiritual fights the player is eventually going to max out stats just the same. On top of which there’s the modifying factor of Lone and Level Sands. Even if this enemy is the strongest in Serpent King’s Domain, what happens if book 8 comes into existence and then the player gets an arsenal even stronger than that here? Now the boss fight in this book becomes easier.”

Jamie: “Maybe some bosses are so tough that you need a multi-book quest before you can face them. We might need to do that to make later books a challenge.”

Dave: “As long as you get the chance to turn away from those fights if you’re not tough enough yet. If you only find out you weren’t ready for the fight by getting killed, that’s a swizz. I know we have resurrection deals but even so you should get plenty of hints beforehand so you can judge the power level needed.”

Jamie: “Or the chance to run away and come back when you’re tough enough.”

Richard: “All this does mean that a player who expects to be invincible but has Sanctity or Magic topped at 5 or 6 is going to be mighty disappointed. I propose telling the fans this before the book is printed and seeing what they say.”

Friday 14 July 2017

Return of the living dead

Having dusted off the Questworld folders recently - and by the way I do mean folders and I do mean dust, these having languished in the attic for over thirty years - I thought I may as well take a look through and see what still catches my interest.

One of the things that baffled me and my co-writer, Oliver Johnson, was the degree to which Questworld retained Glorantha's bronze age technology, culture, races and even specific deities. After all, if you liked Glorantha then you'd play official RQ supplements, wouldn't you? I had nothing against Glorantha myself, but the setting wasn't what most appealed to me. What I liked about Runequest was the rules, which over the years I've used for games in ancient Sparta, Tekumel, Arthurian adventures, and my own campaign world of Medra.

Anyway, we set about tweaking Questworld to be as different from Glorantha as we could make it. We were lumbered with the Issaries River (though it did get renamed the Ophis a few years later, when we started repurposing the material for our creator-owned Invaders & Ancients project) but we insisted on including something more like traditional fantasy undead. Gloranthan mythology defined undead in terms of their inability to regenerate Power, so we invented a class of "living dead" as well. Vampires were already taken, so ours had to be "vampyrs". Oh well, we could always pass it off as a nod to Polidori.


ARMOUR: As worn
SKILLS: A vampyr has plenty of time in which to develop its skills. Perception and Stealth are particularly favoured: assume an average of 75%-80% for these.

A vampyr depends for its existence on draining blood from the living. The symbolic nature of the act provides potent magic; as the victim's life ebbs, the vampyr draws the vital essence into itself. The blood must drain directly from the victim to the vampyr. Blood stored in flasks would be useless, its magic destroyed.

If the vampyr goes without blood its CON begins to decrease. This represents the sapping of the creature’s energy. After seven full days without blood the vampyr loses 1 point of CON. Five days later another CON point is lost, then further points at four day intervals. For each CON point after the first, the vampyr also loses 1 point of STR. Moreover, after the first couple of weeks without blood the vampyr begins to show signs of ageing. When CON reaches 1 the vampyr's STR sinks to 3. It remains in this state for one month, then becomes truly dead – though even then the soul is not released unless the corpse's head is severed. The vampyr can stay in its coffin in order to slow the rate of CON loss, as each night that it rises is equivalent to two nights of remaining dormant.

The maximum amount of blood that a vampyr can drain in a single night is one pint. Usually it revisits a victim on successive nights, and the victim loses CON and STR as shown on the Blood Loss Table. Each point of CON that the victim loses adds one point to the vampyr's CON. When the vampyr’s CON reaches species maximum, further points go towards healing any damage the vampyr has taken, at the rate of each CON point lost to the victim giving the vampyr the equivalent of a healing 6 spell. This is the only way a vampyr can heal itself.

Vampyrs are unaffected by non-Runic weapons unless impaled by the weapon – and even then only half the normal impalement damage is taken. Bladesharp or other magic cast on a weapon will damage the vampyr, of course, as will Runic metal weapons.

A vampyr does not collapse when it has taken damage equal to its hit points - it must be hacked apart until it cannot fight, and in this respect is treated as a zombie. If for any reason the head of a fallen vampyr is not removed then the creature can be healed (by a charmed servant, for instance) by causing blood to gush from a living victim onto the vampyr's body.

Vampyrs have the power to charm. This requires the vampyr to talk to the intended victim for at least thirty seconds, and they must be within ten metres of one another. Charm cannot be used while the vampyr and victim are in combat, it must be normal conversation. A charmed victim allows the vampyr to do whatever it chooses with him/her.

It is widely believed that vampyrs can accomplish transformation into bat, wolf and mist form, but this is not definitely known. A vampyr certainly cannot make such a transformation in full view of its victims. When not observed, a vampyr can find its way up vertical walls and through locked doors exactly as though it does possess shapechanging abilities, but as it can never be seen to do so the exact truth of the matter is irrelevant.

A vampyr can be destroyed by driving a stake (in fact any sharp instrument) through its heart and then cutting off its head. The stake interrupts the flow of magical energy that sustains the vampyr, causing it to become in all respects like a normal corpse. If the stake is later removed the vampyr comes back to "life", because the soul has remained latent within the corpse. The action of severing the head frees the soul to go to the spirit plane, irreversibly ending the vampyr's living death.

Being caught in sunlight immediately removes the vampyr's power to charm and its invulnerability to bronze weapons. Also, the vampyr loses 2 points of CON every round it remains in sunlight until CON reaches zero and it ceases to function. Removing the head at this point will destroy the vampyr. If a vampyr which is already dormant in its coffin is exposed to sunlight then it suffers no CON loss but is held trapped, unable to rise, the until the sun sets.

Vampyrs cannot cross pure running water except by bridge, boat, or on the back of someone else. Swamp and marshland have no effect on them.

Vampyrs can be driven back with the Life Rune. If someone tied to this Rune presents it strongly before them, the vampyr is forced to retreat so as to keep at least four metres between itself and the Rune. This only applies as long as the Life Rune cultist concentrates fully on the power of the Rune. If  backed into a corner so that it cannot circle round the Life Rune, the vampyr will go berserk (as a fanaticism spell) and attempt to escape. The Death Rune has no effect on vampyrs. Many of them worship it in some form, as a matter of fact.

Anyone who dies from a vampyr's bite will become a vampyr or a demi-vampyr. A true vampyr is created when the vampyr allows the victim to drink its own blood at the same moment that it drains the victim's This costs the vampyr 1d4 points of characteristic POW (regainable through POW increase rolls) and ensures that the victim will arise three nights after his/her death as a new vampyr. The new vampyr loves its creator and is therefore (usually) totally loyal. SIZ, INT and POW remain the same as the vampyr previously possessed in life, DEX and CHA both increase by 1d6, CON increases to species maximum, and STR increases to 1½ times species maximum.

If the vampyr does not sacrifice POW its victim will arise as a mere demi-vampyr. Such a creature has characteristics as follows:

So the demi-vampyr gets the increased physical power of a normal vampyr, but its DEX and POW are reduced and it is left with. animal-like intelligence. It drains blood just like a vampyr, but cannot charm and takes normal damage from bronze weapons, and so must resort to random attacks and waylaying travellers on desolate country roads. Enough of its intellect remains for it to utter phrases and pleas for help in order to lure victims, but the demi-vampyr has no real understanding of anything it says. If meleed, the demi-vampyr will battle ferociously (usually with its bare hands or a simple club, and with a maximum fighting skill of DEXx5%) until it sees a chance to escape. A demi-vampyr will obey simple instructions from the vampyr that created it, but has no loyalty and will flee if endangered. Demi-vampyrs have all the vulnerabilities of a true vampyr.


Nightshades are living dead creatures that are sometimes encountered in woods. They are met only when there is a fog, as they have the magical ability to create shadowy images from fog. This ability is used to confuse and intimidate an enemy by making it seem as though there are many more Nightshades lurking among the trees.

Nightshades are translucent figures drifting forward through the mists. They often seem to be screaming at their victims, but no sound can be heard. Nightshades are protected at all times by a shimmer 3 spell (not included in the Defence above). Bronze weapons pass harmlessly through their insubstantial bodies.

Weapons of Runic metal, or which are under the effect of a spell such as bladesharp, will affect a Nightshade, but only to the extent of doing the basic weapon damage. For example: a fighter with a bronze greatsword slices at a Nightshade. Seeing that he has done it no damage, the fighter now applies a bladesharp 1 to his weapon. This is enough to give the sword power to affect a Nightshade, and the fighter's next strike does the weapon's normal damage (2d8 in this case), without bonuses for the bladesharp spell or the fighter's STR and SIZ.

When a Nightshade touches its opponent there is a tremendous discharge of magical energy. The opponent must match his SIZ+DEX vs twice the damage rolled for the creature's touch (see Knockbacks, Runequest Appendix C). If the touch did 14 points, for instance, and the opponent had SIZ+DEX equal to 24, this would give a 70% chance of a knockback.

If the body of someone slain by a Nightshade is left in the woods where he died then he will become a Nightshade himself once the body has rotted (in 3-18 months).



*The wight's touch is not a strike; it does no direct damage, but its effect reaches through armour for a POW vs POW attack. If the wight wins, the character suffers 1d3 damage (like a disruption spell) in that body area and loses 1d4 points of STR. When the character's STR reaches 0 he will fall to the ground paralyzed. Even before this, it is likely that he will have become too weak to heft his weapon. Wights usually transform their defeated victims into zombies, but if they are thwarted from doing so then their victim's lost STR recovers at the rate of 1 point an hour.

ARMOUR: None usually; can wear any
SPELLS: Battle magic to INT limit; 1d12 points of Rune magic
SKILLS: Detect Life 80%; Detect Magic 80% (as the spells, but at no POW cost)

Wights are the spirits of the priest-sorcerers of an ancient empire. They inhabit their original bodies (transformed and sustained by their sorcery) and lurk in burial mounds. They are sallowish and dessicated, and their sunken eyes gleam with a preternatural light, but apart from this they look much like a normal man. Wights dress in the rotting, dusty tabards of a bygone age and rarely trouble to wear armour because they are unaffected by bronze weapons. A bronze weapon striking a wight will, moreover, take 5d6 damage due to instantaneous corrosion.

Wights are capable of various exotic Rune magics, including the ability to summon up dense, freezing fog from the moors to lead travelers astray. Wights will travel abroad in such fog, or at night, but abhor the direct light of the sun. Their Rune spells, once used, recover at the rate of 1 point a day, at moonrise. Wights are living dead (not undead) and therefore recover POW normally.

The wight picture at the top is by Ryan Barger and you can buy print copies of it here.

Friday 7 July 2017

Guns in space

I watched Star Trek Beyond last Christmas. It would have been two hours of my life that I’d never get back, but luckily I gave up after twenty-five minutes when it became clear the entire movie was one long videogame cut-scene. All I can say in its defence is that it made Into Darkness seem, in retrospect, not quite so bloody awful.

There was one interesting moment. The Enterprise was attacked by a swarm of little ships. There are spoilers ahoy, by the way, though nothing as dire as actually having to watch the movie itself.

Still here? Okay, those little ships take the Enterprise apart – quickly and completely cut it to ribbons. The shields do nothing to stop them and the phasers seem unable to fire rapid bursts, so that’s that. It would have been more effective if the film makers had done something to set it up. As it was, the scene comes across as the plot development that must happen so that the already-stated theme of the movie (“the major asset of the ship is its crew”) can be slotted into place Ikea-style.

Still, it’s something I’ve wondered about before. Tasked with building a fleet for space combat, would you really build huge battleships? Wouldn’t lots of smaller fighters be more effective?

I’m thinking of Lanchester’s Laws, which establish that when using ranged weapons, the attack strength of a force is proportional to the square of the number of units. Consider two starships against one. Each starship can take two photon torpedo strikes. After one exchange of fire, the solitary vessel is destroyed and the two opponents have lost a quarter of their combined strength.

But it might not be that simple. Maybe the effectiveness of shields goes up non-linearly with the energy put into them. Maybe you can’t build a warp drive or an antimatter containment field smaller than a certain size. We know that the Enterprise’s phasers can cut through a planet’s crust – at least, I think I remember seeing that in one episode. It’s hard to imagine a few hundred TIE fighters pulling that off.

Apparently at the end of the movie the Enterprise gets rebuilt. But why? Having seen that one big vessel is no match for a swarm of smaller ships, does it make sense to revert to the old pattern? That’s reinforcing failure. On the other hand, the scriptwriters will have a hand-wavy plan for getting around it so that sequels can timidly go where Star Wars has gone so many times before.