Old school Story games Tabletop RPGs

M.A.R. Barker sometimes ran Tekumel games with just a d100 roll

Thanks to a G+ share, I found myself checking out a 2010 post on Hill Cantons about one of the ways that M.A.R. Barker ran his Tekumel campaign: M.A.R. Barker on Rules Lite.

The post is primarily a quote, so I won’t repost the whole thing here. Instead, here’s the business end, an excerpt of the excerpt[1]:

As my old friend, Dave Arneson, and I agreed, one simple die roll is all that one needs: failure or success. […] A low score on a D100 roll denotes success; a high score signifies failure. A middling score results in no effect, or an event that is inconclusive.

This quote comes from a Runequest-Con program book, long out of print. (Chris teased a follow-up, which appeared the next day; it’s also quite interesting: Empire of the Petal Throne, the “Gamist” Early Years.)

All you need is love (and percentile dice)

But I just want to zoom in on M.A.R. Barker’s system from the quote above — a system apparently also enjoyed, at least in a broadly similar form, by Dave Arneson. A system lighter than just about anything short of pure let’s-pretend — for crying out loud, it’s lighter than Risus (which I love), and Risus fits on a single sheet of paper.

What’s there is one die roll, and rough metric for success and failure. There’s no implied character differentiation, although another sentence or two could easily bake that in. There are no rules for doing specific things, and no real assumptions baked into the mechanics — other than that success or failure actually matter.

Because there is a die roll, and M.A.R. Barker also notes that “The players don’t really care, as long as the roll is honest.” A simple roll with a meaningful outcome is a super-distilled, narrative approach, and a fascinating one.

For years I’ve held that story games and old-school games have more in common than not. “Make one die roll, and then figure out what happens narratively” could just as easily describe the core mechanic of an indie RPG — and hey, in the mid-1970s, they were all indie RPGs.

I’ve played a small number of games with nearly this little in the way of mechanics, but I can’t recall ever playing one that combined such a simple system with old-school fantasy gaming. It sounds like a fun combination.

[1] Do you want inceptions? Because excerpting an excerpt is how you get inceptions.

Old school Tabletop RPGs Zines

Zine roundup: The Excellent Travelling Volume, issues 1-4

The Excellent Travelling Volume is a print-only Tékumel fanzine by James Maliszewski, offering up a host of content for Empire of the Petal Throne (paid link).

James’ work tends to be polished and thoughtfully considered, and that’s a big part of what I like about it. I wanted to see how that translated into a zine, and I’m always curious about Empire of the Petal Throne, so I took the plunge.[1] What’s between each issue’s covers is polished, thoughtfully considered support material for Empire of the Petal Throne.


TETV is a licensed Tékumel product, and James is clearly a fan of M.A.R. Barker and his work — plus, he’s running an EPT campaign as he produces this zine. All of that comes together to make a nifty resource.

Here’s my favorite thing from each issue:

  • Issue 1: This issue lays the foundation for what’s to come, much like the first issue of Wormskin, so it’s full of stuff a new EPT GM might need — often accompanied by observations about EPT and Tékumel. My favorite is Magical Devices, a regular column full of new magic items. The accompanying note points out that magic items in EPT are meant to be unique (with rare exceptions), and once discovered shouldn’t be available for future random treasure rolls. Cue the ongoing need for more magic items, like the six on offer here. The Aeonian Donjon of Nrashkéme imprisons anyone who touches it just so in another dimension, while the Mace of Vanquishing the Less-Than-Men has a chance to disintegrate nonhumans when it strikes them. I love flavorful magic items, and these are great.
  • Issue 2: By default, EPT assumes new PCs are strangers in a strange land (abrogating the need for players to learn the setting material, and preserving the joy of exploration), and they need someplace to start out, The city of Sokátis (beautifully mapped below) is just the ticket. This piece covers its factions, just enough backstory to be interesting, a chunk of its underworld, and a list of notable locations. It’s plenty to get things rolling, and later issues include more.
  • Issue 3: I love monsters and devil’s choices, so when the two combine my ears perk up. One of the demons in Demons of Ksárul and Grugáru, the Llyanmákchi (shown below), does just that: Make her an offering of childrens’ hands and feet, and she can be summoned to perform tasks — like teaching a PC skills or spells, or forming up a mob of lesser demons for sinister purposes. Sweet.
  • Issue 4: Another regular column, Patrons, provides more — and more fully fleshed-out — patrons for starting Tékumel PCs. These NPCs want things, they have means of rewarding PCs who help them, and they have connections to the setting. On top of that, each one includes four ways to use them, making them easy to fold into a game. I like pregenerated NPCs like this (obviously!), and like everything in TETV they also meet a specific EPT need.

If you’re reading this and wondering how much TETV material might be useful in your non-EPT game, I’d say 60%-75% of each issue is broadly compatible with all flavors of old-school D&D. But where 100% of it will shine is in an EPT campaign.

Fantastic artwork

James’ writing is accompanied by some truly stellar artwork. TETV is lighter on artwork than most of the other zines I’ve looked at recently, but it uses its art budget well.

(Jason Sholtis)

(Victor Raymond)

(I can’t figure out who did this one)

The Excellent Travelling Volume is a neat zine, different in tone than any of the others I’ve been reading. It further piques my interest in running an EPT game, something I’ve been meaning to do for years, and I like knowing that practical, immediately useful support material from James’ ongoing campaign is readily available.

If you’re in the market for a different sort of OSR zine, or of course if you’re running an EPT campaign, take a peek at The Excellent Travelling Volume.

[1] As I write this, issue 5 has just come out. I could have waited for it before writing this post, but that way lies madness!