advice · campaigns · EPT · Refereeing · Tekumel

Tékumel Thursday 8: The Haunted Sákbe-Road

A marketplace with tents, people, and wares being sold with a Sakbe-road and Sakbe-road tower in the background.  A town wall is to the right and behind the tents.

This is the first Dispatch to the Petal Throne, and is highly appropriate, since it involves an adventure undertaken by one of Bill Hoyt’s characters, a priest of Keténgku…

“ . . .Know ye, O Perfumer of the Nostrils of the Gods, that an intelligence has come from your city of Urmish of most curious nature: to wit, one Priest of Keténgku has discovered an anomaly upon the maps of the Empire. To the east of Urmish [hex 3213: Translator] certain maps display a Sákberoad leading south; our maps and those of the Omnipotent Azure Legion show no such thoroughfare. Thus, this priest did travel thence. He reports that after journeying several Tsán, a feeling of malaise came upon him and his party; the countryside seemed to darken, although the sun shone; and the fields near unto the Road appeared sere and barren of life. This Priest became affrighted and turned back; hence he has made report and seeks permission to form an expedition to go thither with soldiers and priests of greater powers. Whatsoever the Glorious Will decrees . . .”  [Following this passage is the glyph for “taken under advisement”: Translator.]

This is an interesting account, since it involves a discussion of maps.  As Everyone Knows, “maps” per se don’t exist in the Five Empires.  Rather, three dimensional shapes are constructed, which are representative of places and spaces; delicate embellishments are added to provide detail, and a sophisticated and intricate training program is necessary to read these pieces of “High Cartography.”  But here, in this account, we have maps.  Whether or not this was a lacuna in Prof. Barker’s thinking, or if there were pieces of High Cartography used, is lost to time.  For the purposes of the adventure which followed, it is not immediately important.  But I would definitely think about this if I were to have this play out in my own campaign.

It’s also worth looking at this account through the lens of Section 1110. Initial Encounters in Jakálla in Empire of the Petal Throne.  But wait!  This is from the original campaign, so we should look at Section 810. Initial Encounters in Jakálla from the “mimeo EPT” – what does that reveal?  Referring to the chart in question, we would have to see who was involved, and what did they want?  As for who was involved, that would likely have been the following: either “51-60: Good Priest” or “91-100: Scholar (alone)”  What did they want? Pretty clearly “11-20: Go on a quest”

Description of Section 810: Initial Encounters in Jakalla, with a table for possible visitors and a table for possible missions.

What is also worth noting is that this is outside of Jakálla, and in fact, elsewhere in the Empire.  By the strictures outlined in the original rules, only “[u]pon reaching the third level of experience, a player character may travel freely within the Empire.”  This is one of those slightly anachronistic elements of Empire of the Petal Throne, conflating character level progression with actual social status – something that most games avoid today, with game mechanics and in-setting status not necessarily aligned with each other at all.  But this was back in the very first 12-18 months after the release of Original D&D, so this minor hiccough ought to be excused.  But it may very well have been the case that Bill Hoyt’s priest of Keténgku had already gone on adventures, before being allowed to do something as important and respectable as investigating a mysterious geographic anomaly.

So what is involved in this adventure?  The set-up, as detailed above, is fairly clear: there is an anomaly shown on the maps of the Empire, and someone should go and investigate it.  This allows a Tekumel game master to introduce the concept of High Cartography – as well as how the Tsolyáni lack “maps” in the traditional sense of the term.  This explains some of the reason for the investigation, but let’s look a little more carefully at what’s going on.  “Certain maps” – these aren’t disclosed, but may well be hidden or secret maps that aren’t supposed to be viewed by just anybody.  Looking at the maps from Empire of the Petal Throne, we can see there is a Sákbe-road heading south out of the town of Haumá, winding through several hexes before ending in Hex 3213.  Our intrepid adventurers might travel by boat up to Hauma, and then head south, or simply go by boat or Sákbe-road to Hex 3115 or 3114, and then head north from there.  Either way, since the journey will take several days before actually encountering the Sákbe-road, they will encounter villages and plantations beforehand.  This might provide them with some clues, before they discover something far more sinister, if and when they actually get to the Sákbe-road.

What this encounter provides is an introduction to another aspect of Tékumel: the close proximity of Otherplanar energies and places.  In this case, there is clearly Something Going On – “a feeling of malaise came upon him and his party; the countryside seemed to darken, although the sun shone; and the fields near unto the Road appeared sere and barren of life.” You have to wonder if a party of adventurers might have encountered villagers a bit further away – what would they have to say about all this?

Referee’s Information: (roll 1D6)

  • 1-2: The village elders have little, if anything, to say about legends of an unknown Sákbe-road. “We farm here, as our ancestors did before us, and we have always been loyal to the Emperor.” Attempts to obtain further information are unsuccessful; the villagers are silent and taciturn, and if pressed, will bid the party leave and not return.
  • 3-4: In this plantation, some overheard conversation provides a potential clue. “Aye, it be a relic of the Priestkings in the afore Times. The Fall of Gánga led it to be abandoned in the Time of No Kings,” says one elderly gossip. “Nay, it be from long before that!” exclaims another.  Upon recognizing that they have been overheard, the two fall silent.  No amount of inducements or prodding yields any further information.
  • 5: The villagers here are friendly, but if the subject of an unknown Sákbe-road is raised, they will change the subject but otherwise remain friendly.  After nightfall, however, one of the villagers will attempt to meet privately with the party.  The villager has a number of items said to have been taken from near the Sákbe-road for sale: small stone idols, mouths agape and eyes closed; strange, worn coins, one of which is bronze and has bundles of sticks or bones on one side, and unreadable script on the other; a claw which does not resemble that of any beast known in the area.  The villager will attempt to sell these artifacts to the party, but does not have any actual information about the Sákbe-road itself. (The actual provenance of the items – as well as the precise identity of the villager – is left to the referee to determine.)
  • 6: As with #5, but the villager will – for a price – act as a guide to the Sákbe-road itself.  They are clearly frightened, but the prospect of significant amounts of money will overcome that fear, apparently.  They will demand some form of payment before guiding the player-characters, however. And under no circumstances will the villager actually approach the road in any way. (The trustworthiness of the villager is left to the referee to determine.)

All of this is provided as a prompt for an adventure, should a referee want to re-enact this in their own Tekumel campaign.  What is outlined here is merely the prelude to encountering the mysterious Sákbe-road itself.  I’ll come back to this in another Dispatch, in which we find out more about what happened with the next expedition.