Let's Read: Empire of the Petal Throne

Empire of the Petal Throne


Empire of the Petal Throne (EPT) is a 1975 role-playing game written by Professor M.A.R. Barker and released by TSR as a boxed set. For most people this is the introduction of the world of Tékumel, an extremely imaginative science-fantasy campaign setting. Exhaustively detailed by the professor decades before its publication, Tékumel is often a canonical examplesof an in-depth non-Tolkeinian world. We’ll save the specifics for later discussion as they come up in the book.

A single-volume edition was released in 1987 by Different Worlds Publications, and again by Tita’s House of Games in 2003. Eventually the Tékumel Foundation put a pdf of a single-volume version on drivethrurpg with options for print-on-demand.

While I do own the 1975 boxed set I will mostly be referring to the print-on-demand version. This is just easier to lug around plus it has the benefit of not further creasing old gaming materials. I will discuss the maps from the boxed sets, as the digital reproductions are simply not to snuff, in my opinion.

So if you’re looking to read along I will be referencing the Tékumel Foundation version.



I am not sure where RPG Let’s Reads come from, I think I first encountered them decades ago on RPGnet. The basic idea is pretty much what it sounds like - the OP picks a book and reads it, providing impressions and overview of what was read, with discussions along the way.

It’s not as formal as a book club - there is no signup, no specified meet dates, no coordinated discussions. When I’m done reading a chapter I will post the summary and thoughts, and people are free to jump in at any time to discuss the game.

(We’ll also see how long I can tolerate putting the accent marks over in-universe terms :stuck_out_tongue:)


Let’s dig into this classic work of role-playing art. We’ll start with a little in-fiction “fluff”, rules clarifications, and two forwards by some familiar folks.


Oooh yes please, I’d love to read your thoughts on the book and get a sort of gleaned version!


This is a great idea! I’ve got my copy in hand and will be following along.

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I have my '87 edition! Ready to go.


The Destruction of Ke’ér

Beyond the front cover, bearing a full-color illustration by M.A.R. Barker himself, we are met with a poem written in Tsolyáni, one of the many langues constructed for the fictional setting.

Be prepared to drink heavily from the firehose of lore, something that is a requisite for consuming information on Tékumel.

We are provided a summary of this text: a Tsolyáni general named Bazhán assaults a fortress after the attendant refused to surrender. The woman who refused surrender, Yilrána was impaled - which we are told is a Tolsyáni custom. This destruction is later witnessed by her partner, the Baron of Yán Kór when he arrives later with reinforcements.

The Tolsyáni script has both pronunciation and its translation to English below it. The book requests no reproduction of the text be made, so I will honor that request and not post the poem, but here is an image from Dragon Magazine Vol. 1 #4 depicting some of the script:


The poem is signed Fíru Bá Yéker on the 23rd of Fésru 2.333 A.S. - whatever that means :stuck_out_tongue:

So we get some details. There’s Barons and fortresses, mistresses and generals. We are also introduced to the notion that this world has traditions, albeit a brutal and violent one, but we already see that there is culture to this world.

It may be worth a detour to understand a little more about our author, and why the first thing we are met with is a constructed language.

The Professor


M.A.R. Barker was a very interesting figure - born as Phil Barker in November 2nd, 1929 in Tacoma Washington he was reported to have been enamored by languages and history at an early age. Egyptian and Mayan are a cited interest, in addition to science fiction, he started constructing a “play world” very early, one in which he carved toys for bearing resemblance to these influences.

He attended the University of Washington at Seattle, graduating Magnum cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology in 1951. After which he was awarded a Fullbright scholarship to study abroad in India, continuing his pursuit of anthropology he performed field work studying the wide variety of tribal dialects. During this time he converted to Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Abd-al-Rahman Barker.

Continuing to study on his return to the United States, Barker worked on a Nahuatl dictionary, and would go on to attend University of California Berkley to study linguistics, performing research on the Klamath language. Around this time (mid to late 1950s) he would facilitate fictional games in his imagined world of Tékumel, long before the publication of Dungeons & Dragons. This seems to indicate that his constructed languages were already presentable, as they appeared on in-fiction documents presented to the players.

In 1957 he was hired by McGill Institute to teach Islamic Studies and Arabic, and there he wrapped up his dissertation on Klamath. Two years later he was teaching Linguistics as well as Baluchi, Brahui, Panjabi, Pashto, and Urdu at the Oriental College of Lahore, West Pakistan. He even published a book of poetry written in Urdu.

He would continue teaching, studying, and traveling the world with his wife Ambereen for years. In 1972 he became the head of South & Southwest Asian Studies at the University of Minnesota, and through the wargaming club there he would eventually be introduced to Dungeons & Dragons by Mike Mornard (the person who coined the term “FKR”, coincidentally) and would start work on the game we are reading.

Obviously this is not an exhaustive biography, but I wanted to point out the Professor’s love of languages and call to attention many likely influences, as well as to provide context as to why we start with some fantasy linguistics.



The Tsolyáni constructed language is the most detailed fictional language in Tékumel, although there are several more. It may have also been the first conlang to appear in gaming material, although I wouldn’t be surprised if one of Tolkein’s languages slipped into a wargame earlier. One could feasibly study this language, were one so inclined: The Tsolyáni Language.

Tékumel’s communities seem torn about how into these languages one should get. I personally think if its a draw to you, dive right in, but I don’t blame anyone for raising an eyebrow at all the in-fiction terminology and proper nouns.

That said, I love this kind of stuff. I know it hasn’t been in vogue since like the 90s to do in world fiction, but I think when done well, and with such a beautiful script it immediately puts me in the mind of “ok, imagination time.”

In reference the topic on Running Unique Settings this is certainly one avenue a referee can take. Obviously this won’t fly with every player, but those that are into this - this sort of stuff can go a long way.

Wrapping Up the Inside Cover :stuck_out_tongue:

Ok this was a little longer than I expected. Let me know your thoughts on this page (if you’ve read it), conlangs in fantasy and science fiction generally, Áll Thé Áccént Márks. As well as any additional information about Prof. Barker you wanna discuss, especially any corrections. @VanWinkle keep me honest please!

Next time let’s see what two guys named Gary and Dave have to say about all this.


Quick addition - I remember really enjoying this podcast on the language, which also demonstrates how to pronounce all this stuff. It’s not as difficult as it may initially seem, but there are a few gotchas.

edit: re-listening to this Victor Raymond initially comes off more dismissive than I think might be helpful, note I don’t share his assessment that people who don’t get or like it just “aren’t trying.” This does tone down a few minutes in, though.

Interestingly (?), this poem does not seem to appear in the Different Worlds edition (though the cover image is the same).

First, I like the poem, and I like its use to start us off. It sets the tone and it does genuinely feel like reading a fragment of an inscription from an ancient civilization.

Second, I’m not sure I have an opinion on conlangs in general. If I had to develop one, I think that they’re probably hard to do well, but when done well can be very evocative.

Third, my take on in-game fiction: it has different uses, some of which are more productive (from the sense of what do they contribute to our play) than others. Here it seems to be there to evoke the scope of the background: “this is the world you will be exploring.” That can be pretty effective. I think a lot of the 90s in game fiction was meant more like “here’s the kind of story that you will create in the game”, and I’m more ambivalent about that in part because it often seemed to set you up for disappointment.


That is interesting. I double-checked the 1975 edition and it is indeed on the inside cover. I wonder about the 2003 reproduction…

This is awesome, Justin! You just inspired me to gush about appreciation for Barker’s brilliance.

There’s so much good to say about Tsol‎yáni and Barker’s design of it as a conlang. It’s a work of art. Barker was a serious linguist. We all know it was his profession, but he puts it all to use in this setting. Although his language is a work of fantasy, it blows Tolkien’s planned languages out of the water for verisimilitude. Barker had lots of field experience with many languages (as opposed to purely theoretical approaches, like many linguists), and far more breadth than Tolkien (who was no slouch!). It shows. His inspirations seem pretty clear. He wanted a complex phonology, with resonance with Balochi (and Arabic materials mediated by it), Sanskrit, and especially Nahuatl. The morphology is all agglutinative, reminiscent of Turkic, but with mostly prefixes instead of suffixes, or maybe a more inflected Malay, or even Georgian (but not as torturous). The complex linguistic marking of relative status of speaker-to-hearer is like that in classical Tibetan. I have zero doubt that Barker was familiar with all these systems, and his Tsol‎yáni grammar is like a celebration of the potentials known in real human speech. Notably, Barker clearly wanted to avoid inflectional-synthetic grammar in favor of something more transparent but ornate. I might say ornamented, like the image he has for the whole world he made. He wanted Tsol‎yáni grammar itself to tell us about an alien but human world. And it does. We have a picture of a complex, sophisticated society with entrenched customs, deliberately made extremely foreign to our world while staying human, and structured by social classes ranging from worthless scum to nearly divine honors.

The format of the grammar he wrote is exactly that of descriptive grammars he wrote for real languages, like this one. That is to say, it looks like grammars that professionals use, part of its charm and, if you are one of these professionals, it’s actually a giggle fest.

This is getting ahead of your “Let’s Read” order, @JustinH, but it’s worth quoting a later part of the EPT book now because it is connected with @Cigeusthread on peculiar settings, and the talk over there about genre, and these quotations pertain to Barker’s intentions for our first contact with his world.

Barker wrote:

At first glance it may appear very difficult to master all of the background material relating to Tékumel. The people, the flora, the fauna, the societies—all are new, and all are complex. Many have muttered about the relative unpronounceability of Tékumel’s many languages too, and not without reason. In defense, the author can only say that he ENJOYS societies which hare not simply reruns of the usual Graeco-Roman or Mediaeval fantasy mythos, but which present something really different: something akin to stepping off an airplane in Bhutan or Medina, rather than in familiar old London and Paris.

He is actively seeking to create the experience of visiting an alien but human society for his players. And then he adds this bit about genre.

This is consistent with the author’s contention that fantasy should sometimes go beyond our familiar Graeco-Roman-Mediaeval worlds and explore other quite different kinds of lands as well. After all, if there is any universally applicable conclusion to be drawn from a study of history it is this: the future is going to be quite different from the present. Man will organise himself into different types of societies, hold different values, worship different gods, utilise different technologies, and speak different tongues than he does today. (1987 edition, p. 98)

To me, this is an amazing statement for a game designer. Tékumel was specifically designed to break established fantasy genre conventions (already in '75!) to further an anthropological science-fiction argument mediated by played experience and wonder.

He didn’t try to make something easy. He could have. There’s a reason that Tékumel is an acquired taste. I can’t say I ever wanted to play in it, but I think it’s amazing all the same.


Ah, in game fiction. That’s a tough one for me, I love the idea of it, but it’s tricky to use right. There are definitely reasons that it sees less use these days.

I did give my players a short religious text before my latest campaign, essentially the abridged history of the world from the point of view of one of the religions. I even tried to match a general “Biblical” style and had some annotations about possible lost passages and translation issues which could change the meaning. It went over well with the players, and I had a lot of fun writing it, but in the end I don’t think much of the information it contained stuck with them.

I suppose this is a bit of an aside from the main point of the thread.



The print on demand edition contains 8 pretty length clarifications on spells, non-human level adjustment, and how the Shén’s mace-like tail works in combat.

We are told that detect good/evil only works on an object’s magical disposition, curative magic is used for wounds instead of radiation, elaborate explanations of ESP, and that transmutation cannot change one substance to another but instead modifies form.

A little bit of food for thought, but each will probably be more interesting when returning to this section from the later sections.

1975 Forward

Gary Gygax penned the initial forward for the 1975, singing its praises – putting it on a pedestal alongside Tolkien. Of historical note, Gygax mentions that Barker had yet to publish any fiction surrounding Tékumel, but that a novel was indeed in the works. I wonder if this is the eventual Man of Gold novel, or just other bits of fiction.

Gary mentions that he has only known the professor for a short time, citing how expensive it is to have long phone conversations with the man. I still marvel at just how different role-playing game communication is from even when I was a child to where it is now.

Anyway, outside of a few historical tidbits and praises sung this is a fine enough forward.

1987 Forward

The Different Worlds edition included a much lengthier forward from Dave Arneson, who recounts having played in Barker’s games from time to time, despite being allergic to the Professor’s cats. Arneson takes credit for personally having sold a set of Dungeons & Dragons to the professor, and continues reciting the imaginative nature of the world, the wide fan base, the fanzines and the then-released two novels – Man of Gold and Flamesong.

Dave draws contrasts with other settings’ cultures and religions, calling them “colorless” in comparison. He also brings to attention the common criticism of Tékumel – that its too esoteric and hard to get into, but he mentions that the Empire of the Petal Throne is not as complicated as many existing settings.

We get anecdotes on games Arneson participated in as a participant in the well-known “Thursday Night Group” – he played a variety of characters from all walks of life in the setting, and even after retiring from the campaign he would sometimes drop in to reprise a role or embody on of the NPCs.

It may come off as a mix of congratulations as well as “let me tell you about my character”, but I think Dave Arneson’s enthusiasm comes through and shows that Tékumel is a very gameable setting. You also get some tips - always assuming that you are being watched even in empty rooms, and to fear the smell of cinnamon, something not elaborated on here but sure to come up again later.


Arneson’s comments here are an interesting instance of the explicit awareness that a “generic” world is easier to enter via the imagination than a highly specified world.

This relates to the discussion in the thread about “unique worlds” (I prefer “peculiar” to unique) and to many other discussions about what is “generic” or “vanilla,” etc.

Basically, Arneson is saying it’s hard to get into highly specified worlds. I’d say that is because genre is constituted by shared expectations. The pleasure of Tékumel is the surprise to one’s generic expectations (rather than surprises of discovery of treasure or new monsters or new dungeon levels). The surprise at cultural unfamiliarity is not a flavor that everybody enjoys.


Gygax’s forward is interesting in terms of some of his later more ambivalent comments about Tolkien. Here he calls him the “acknowledged master of the fantasy world in toto.” (Bold is in the original). Which seems to suggest perhaps a different category for fantasy worlds developed piecemeal?

I also like the suggestion that had Tolkien lived longer he would have been interested in creating a fantasy game to help his readers better explore and understand Middle Earth.

Gygax is acknowledging here there is a definite hierarchy where fantasy novels sit above fantasy games, at least in terms of being able to reach a popular audience and bring fame to their authors. However, he suggests that a game allows for a more intimate interaction with that fantasy world.

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I think both of these observations are correct (that Arneson makes Tékumel sound forbidding to new players but also that it appears to be very gameable), even though in some way they seem like opposites. I’m sure there will be more to talk about this theme as we move further into the work, but I wanted to highlight this tension between “peculiar” and “gameable” so we can keep in in mind.


Writing up a summary of all the history is turning out to be quite the project, so I am going to break up the posts around each “age” or logical segment to think about (to me). That way I don’t take weeks and then blast the forum with one thousand proper nouns all at once :stuck_out_tongue:

100. Introduction

We get a short introduction describing the purpose of the book, noting mechanical inspiration from Dungeons & Dragons, with everything else being born out of the Professor’s own imagination, having been with him since he was 10 years old. He cites his obvious anthropology and linguistics backgrounds, but also fantasy fiction such as Howard, Vance, Burroughs, etc.

We then are met again with the idea of running unusual settings for others. Barker tells us that by playing in Tékumel one can pick up on the world’s cues just as easily as we picked up on fantastical and cultural touchstones from western mythology and folklore.

A bit unconventional when you think about most of today’s Intros and “What is Role-playing” sections, but to be fair Barker only had one other published peer, one that is often noted for its obtuseness. I do think Empire of the Petal Throne explains how to actually play the game much better than D&D’s little brown books, but we don’t get that until later in the book.

200. The World of Tékumel

Strap in and get ready to chug some lore cause the next nine-ish pages are dense. Long paragraph, two-column spreads full of history, names, places, and the like. A lot of this is actionable in game, but whew buddy can it make the eyes glaze over. Let’s try to summarize what we can.

Tékumel’s an earth-like planet that is a tad bigger and hotter. It was initially inhabited but was eventually colonized by space-faring humans and other peoples, who were quick to rip out the planet’s natural properties and make it largely welcoming to humans and their other interstellar pals. Of course, they did have to use their superior technology to defeat the (presumably) indigenous inhabitants – the Ssú and the Hlýss, but that’s space colonization for you.

They had a bunch of other aliens come to trade, colonize and set up shop – the Pé Chói, the Tinalíya, the Páchi Léi, and others. I know these are all sci-fi jargon to a new reader, I’ll put some pictures in so you can at least have some image in your head.





Pé Chói




Páchi Léi


Anyway, these peoples lived on this subjugated planet for quite some time with only small patches of the original flora and fauna surviving in pockets, until the “Time of Darkness” occurred. Tékumel was sucked out of humanspace and thrown into a dark pocket dimension, with only its sun, moons, and uninhabited sister planets to keep it company.

Since the planet had been either exhausted of important resources or had leaned on an interstellar trade market this led to a collapse of technology. Societies reverted, and patches of the original “Old Life” such as the Ssú and the Hlýss started to make their comeback.

This period dates to around some 25,000 years before the current game time, but who knows if this is exaggerated, dilated, or something even stranger. We also get our first bit of references to an in-universe text for citation and reference. May be worth a character digging around in if such a subject interests them. We get more details on conflicts following this – the Three States of the Triangle doing battle with the Chyrstállu and with the Mihállu who we are told were originally trader aliens.

(I cannot find images of the above two aliens, who I believe are extinct in modern time, if I recall correctly)

We move onto the Dragon Warriors from the northern region of N’lýss. There are some cool science fantasy hints that these people had some type of flying machines that were believed to be dragons, always a quality trope. This is also where the “no riding animals on Tékumel (that humans know of :wink:)” gets cited. I know your Tékumel can vary, but this is honestly the thing that I dislike most about the setting.

These Dragon Warriors would not last, and like many an empire falls around 2,000 years after their domination. During their reign is possibly where the origin of Tlokiriqáluyal worship starts – the “Five Evil Ones,” particularly the fire-god Vimúhla. Yet another classic trope is alluded to – there’s no way to tell if these beings are actual deities or not, but they are powerful enough to function as them. The cult of Vimúhla spread across the land as the “Red Robes,” and this worship persists today.



Obviously this material gets pretty deep. One one hand it can be a lot to get through, on the other - it sets the tone of a very ancient world, one shrouded in speculation and quite a few hypotheticals, and we’ve already seen reference to the name of a tome and location that PCs could actually travel to and acquire (theoretically). As we get closer to the modern day, these proper nouns and places will increase in character-actionability.

Next post will be about the Second Age, the Fishermen Kings, and more.


Hoo, 25000 years is a looooong time, how much connection to the original spacefaring cultures is presented, or is it more ‘thats how this world originated but that’s so far in the past that attempting to draw a line back outside of basic species stuff is too difficult to mention’?

I love the setup of not just humans, but other alien traders getting trapped and forming cultures (also the pé Chói have a great illustration).


I don’t want to jump the gun necessarily as I know there is more to come, but for any of us reading along I’d suggest trying to keep in mind that even though this material looks like the beginning of many subsequent RPGs (“let me tell you about my unique fantasy world”), this is the first time this kind of thing appeared in a RPG text. That there weren’t even many other RPG texts prior to this is also notable: one of the very first things we see someone do when exposed to Dungeons & Dragons (1974) is to see it as and use it as a vehicle for transmitting their vision of a unique, personal fantasy world. It’s kind of amazing that we don’t really have intermediate texts — ie ones that give just a little lore or ones that give us a fully detailed but derivative fantasy world. (We don’t get here, as we will later, an in depth look at “Middle Earth with the serial numbers filed off”.)

(Incidentally, to follow up on an earlier comment, I happen to be reading Tom Shippey’s Road to Middle Earth right now, and it makes me think that Gygax was into something by saying had Tolkien lived he might have been interested in presenting his work through a role-playing game. Tolkien expressed at least some interest in making learning about Middle Earth an interactive and participatory experience. The question for us with this text is does it accomplish that with a world as peculiar and powerfully imagined as Middle Earth’s).


That’s a good point about this being the first time anything like this appeared in an RPG volume. It makes me think of the early Greyhawk boxed set, which was full of long (and tedious) prehistory over thousands of years. It’s only obvious in hindsight how much Gygax was influenced by Barker in that.

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Especially given how basic the original “Great Kingdom” was.

Also - thanks so much for doing this! I agree with the idea to split things up here for sake of the discussion.

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