Monday, 8 March 2010

High Level Fighters and "It's my Tekumel now Dave."

Priest of Sárku under a negative image filter, yesterday

It may just be that I'm impressionable and prone to becoming hypnotised by the latest thing on which my, ooh shiny...

Retry. My name is Chris, and I am a neophile. I love finding, getting and playing about with new and interesting stuff. In fact I'm such a neophile that I can even get my neophilia fix from stuff that I've forgotten about and am refamiliarising myself with (see also Easter 2009 post on the Red Box), and even on really, really old stuff that I'm just now looking into. Case in point: Empire of the Petal Throne.

Alright, I know. This is a bit like getting off the plane in Orlando and having a whole Keatsian "Chapman's Homer" moment over something that's been there - and well publicised - all along. My gaff, my rules. I'll squee over a new discovery if I want to.

The thing is, I've long been a fan of Tekumel, mainly for the baroque exoticism of the setting (a richness of invention which makes the vast majority of wannabe exotique settings - Barsaive, Talislanta, Athas - soil themselves in inadequacy). But until the other day I'd never actually read the original Empire of the Petal Throne RPG. Sure, the novels. Sure, the content on And, sure, the Guardians of Order 2005 RPG. But the original source I knew only be repute.

Having now skimmed the original text (and kudos to Victor Raymond for his excellent work in keeping the pdfs in distro) I'm been struck anew by a sense of the potentialities inherent in our hobby, what Mullah Jim refers to as walking the road not taken. I think Empire of the Petal Throne has been for me what the OD&D box is for a lot of the OSR; that one thing that brings you to the realisation that "Of course, that's what I was trying to say all along. How clever of this guy to capture what I was thinking, decades before I actually thought of it."

Despite the reverence in which M.A.R.Barker's particular vision of Tekumel is held by its hardcore fandom (a devotion to canon which sometimes exceeds the creators' own), I get the same iconoclastic vibe - or at least something that resonates at the same frequency - from Empire of the Petal Throne that I do from soaking up Encounter Critical, or Mazes and Minotaurs, or from the wilder-eyed thoughts of such exemplars of gonzo as Sifu Jeff or Aaron Nuttall. For all the deference surrounding it this particular 'artefact from a parallel gaming world' seems to positively invite dissent and sedition. The design decisions, the setting content, even the units of measure used by the game (tsan, kaitars, etc.), imply that all the orthodoxies of the hobby are - and always have been - up for grabs.

This is a book from a time before the pastures in which the sacred cows of our hobby feed were cleared. Yet lo! it is still entirely in keeping with what we know and love.

Mindphuk! (as they say on the electrowebs)

Case in point (and a vague whiffle in the direction of the actual point of this post): I've wrestled for ages with the whole high-level fighter multiple attacks thing. I've always wanted mid/high level D&D combat that feels something that feels like the Chris Achilleos cover to KEW's Nightwinds looks (pic related).

Yeah, that.

Sure, our favourite game gave nods to the bloody wreck of arms, but there was always a little something begrudging about it.

Back when I played AD&D the sops thrown to the high-level fighters seemed a bit *meh*. The 1 HD limit on attacks = level seemed arbitrary to me (what can I say, I knew not Chainmail and it's subtle, entirely genre-appropriate distinction between heroic and non-heroic combat), and the "3/2, 5/2 rounds" attack routines just seemed nitpicky, especially when Unearthed Arcana came along and the Barbarian and Cavalier stole the pure Fighter's thunder.

Similarly, the BECMI multiple attacks at 15th, 20th and 25th level seemed tight-fisted. You're a weapon master, a warlord, teabagger of monsters and wielder of mighty magics, but you can't attack twice in a round without the aid of a haste spell. Sucks to be you. I appreciate that the grudging attack progression was an artifact of the 4 successive boxes release format; but even Aaron Ralston's Rules Compendium reprint/tune-up didn't fix the short-changing of the fighter.

3E's multiple attacks per round mechanic, and the Cleave feat chain, were (IMO) steps in the right direction; albeit a couple of drunken, wobbly steps on an extended journey to another destination entirely. "So I can go into a hackfrenzy now right?" "Kinda..." The problem was that you had to attend Monte Cook's system mastery clown school, then jump through a bunch of character creation hoops, and then balance content from a bunch of extra books(!) on your head to gain access to the various Ginsu Master of Death prestige classes that allowed you to make a mechanically decent multiple attacks fighter. Using Keith and Frank's fanwork Tome Series modifications assuaged my unease for a while, but ultimately 3E did nothing for me. There was this whole extra 'develop the right build pre-game' minigame. Was this really how D&D was meant to be? In my mind you "build" a house or a business, you play an RPG character.

For all that it was a homecoming, going back to Labyrinth Lord didn't much cheer the part of my soul that yearns for Tasmanian Devil fighters. Dan Proctor - for good and logical reason - retained the "multiple attacks at level 15" rule from the BECMI ruleset. Incorporating Dave Arneson's classic "drop an enemy, attack again" rule scratched the itch slightly, but I still wasn't getting my fill of full-on butchery.

And then, while reading a pdf reproduction of an odd, eccentric OD&D-derived game originally published in 1975, I beheld this (reproduced without permission):

The EPT "Lunatic Overkill" High Level Damage Rule

Attacker HD Defender's HD

Those numbers represent d6s for damage, versus OD&D-style d6 HD (in effect, one hit, one kill) done with a single to-hit roll. And you can divide them up between your opponents as you choose (or as randomised by die roll). There's no arbitrary "only usable for beating up mooks" tomfoolery, and it scales in a way you can actually remember easily enough to use in play. No more "3 attacks every 2 rounds, the last attack coming at the end of the second round" nitpickery, and no more "you do get extra attacks, but not at a bonus that matters" fake utility. Clever, ain't it?

Lord Slashstab can reap through the no-name peons (or administer solo overkill so hard that the poor schmuck's next of kin feel it), but gradually slows down as the opposition gets tougher, up until he's fighting on an even footing (Flynn style nicks and cuts) with his mirror universe counterpart Lord Batshsals. If he goes up against an enemy more skilled than he in combat, it gets to play him into walking into sword blows.

Q: Where was this 15 years ago when I needed it?
A: Out of print and out of fashion, AFAIK. :(

How to adapt this cleverness of days past to my current preferred LL hack? Well, at the moment I'm using a "+1 attack/round at levels 4, 8, 12" progression for fighters (and at levels 6, 12 for Dwarves) semi-nicked from OD&D. Mayhap the Tekumel rules will tie in with that nicely.

Here's a draft for the next edit of my Nagoh House Rules booklet:

Superhero HAET Kobold, and all Kobold's buddies too!
Fighter: +1 damage die for every 3, 5, 7 levels by which the fighter exceeds the HD of his strongest engaged melee opponent.
Dwarf: +1 damage die for every 5, 10 levels by which the dwarf exceeds the HD of his strongest engaged melee opponent.
These extra dice are divided as preferred among engaged enemies.
Eg: vs 1HD foes a F7 rolls 3 damage dice, this drops to 2d vs 2-3HD, and to 1d vs 3+1HD or better.
{Keeps rolling to-hit to a minimum, but allows the fighter player to feel big in the pants even if they're not doing double damage with a lance right now. It also nods back to the Chainmail distinction between Heroic and Non-Heroic combat.}

How to tie this in with my existing dual-wielding and two-handed weapon rules? More to follow.


  1. I'm so behind everything in this post, it is full of win.

  2. The power of Tekumel compels you! Cool.

  3. There's another rules hidden in EPT, if you do, for example, 10 points of damage to a group of monsters, you spread that damage out killing as many monsters as possible. So, against monsters with 3 hit points, that 10 points of damage would kill 3 and wound another one. Rule 727 pg 31.

    This is how Dave's original Blackmoor game worked and explains how the PCs there would kill over 100 orcs in just a few rounds of combat.


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