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Fantasy Hero and Empire of the Petal Throne

PnPG Update: Fantasy Hero and Tékumel Bundles

Bundle of Holding–one of the best sources for print-and-play RPG resources–has a couple of bundles available at the moment that I’m really excited about. There are just a few days left on two Fantasy Hero bundles, featuring the fourth and fifth editions of my favorite fantasy RPG of all time. And the Bundle has recently launched a set of resources focused on Tékumel, the world of MAR Barker’s legendary Empire of the Petal Throne campaign. These are opportunities not to be missed!

Update, June 19, 2019

The Fantasy Hero bundles at Bundle of Holding have ended, but everything I said about Fantasy Hero and the Hero System in general is still valid. If you’re interested in exploring Fantasy Hero, I recommend starting with one of two options from DriveThruRPG:

Two Fantasy Hero bundles ending June 17

Fantasy Hero Fifth Edition Core BookMy own path through the golden age of fantasy RPGs started in 1978 with Steve Jackson’s Melee and Wizard, wound through White Box D&D, the blue-covered Holmes Basic D&D set, and first printings of AD&D, on to Champions and ultimately to Fantasy Hero. Once the boys at Hero Games applied our favorite rules system to our favorite genre, our group was set for most of a decade. Then in the 90s, I drifted away from the hobby while the hobby drifted away from crunchy, tactical games like D&D and Hero System toward White Wolf-style, narrative-oriented games. Hero Games plugged along through several editions of both Champions and Fantasy Hero, but both titles seem to have become cult games that older gamers remember, but only fanatics play anymore.

And that’s sad, because Fantasy Hero was the most powerful and flexible set of roleplaying rules ever applied to the fantasy genre. It allowed you to build any character, spell, or magical effect you could imagine using the existing rules of the system. Fantasy Hero could handle anything from next-to-no-magic campaigns, like the History channel’s Vikings; low-magic, political/tactical campaigns, like Game of Thrones; swords-and-sorcery campaigns, like Conan or Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser; right through high-magic campaigns, like Worlds of Warcraft or the Eberron campaign setting. The common knock on it was that it was a complicated system, but most of that complexity was front-loaded into character creation. If you wanted to play a non-casting swordsman, rogue, merchant, scout, or whatever, character creation was relatively simple and straightforward, while retaining the system’s class-free flexibility. Only casting characters required heavy rules work in character creation, but that’s because you could design unique, customized spells from the ground up, that were still balanced within the system against other casters as well as mundane PCs.

True, a system so flexible could put a heavy burden on the gamemaster in creating creatures, foes, artifacts, allies and antagonists to challenge the heroes. But Hero Games supported Fantasy Hero quite well with supplements containing monsters, spells, magic items, villains and settings to lighten that load. The bundles available for a few more days at Bundle of Holding provide the core rules for both fourth and fifth edition Fantasy Hero, along with literally thousands of pages of supporting material. If you’ve played and liked Champions, or just heard good things about it, but are more interested in fantasy than superheroes, I strongly encourage you to invest a few dollars in one or both of these bundles.

Fantasy Hero 4e and 5e Essentials Bundle

Fourth edition Fantasy HeroThis bundle contains the fantasy genre rules for the fourth- and fifth-edition versions of Fantasy Hero, along with necessary supporting core Hero System rules in the form of the streamlined Hero System Sidekick for 5e. It’s worth noting that there were no second or third editions of Fantasy Hero. There was the original 1995 edition, which was a stand-alone game that was cross-compatible with the third edition of Champions–this was the version my group played for many years. What is commonly called Fantasy Hero 4e now is a genre sourcebook released in 1990, which relied upon the general rules in the fourth edition of Champions, popularly called “the Big Blue Book.” Fantasy Hero 5e came out in 2003, to be compatible with the fifth edition of the Hero System rules, which were by that point explicitly published as a generic roleplaying system. Since then, a sixth edition of Champions and the Hero System has been published, along with a sixth-edition version of Fantasy Hero. Interestingly, 2015’s Fantasy Hero Complete combines the necessary Hero System 6e rules and the fantasy genre source material back into a single, stand-alone volume.

There has been considerable debate in the gaming community about which version of the Hero System is “best,” and about whether it’s any good at all. I played Hero System games from the early 80s through the early 90s, and my concise assessment is that while I am most comfortable with the spirit of the early editions, I recognize that the system’s fourth edition did a respectable job of unifying the system across all genres. Based on my scan of the the fifth edition, which is new to me in this bundle, I’d say that the rules differences between 4e and 5e are relatively minor, and won’t affect the usefulness of the supplements included in these bundles to GMs using either edition of the rules. I’m confident that a competent GM can use sourcebooks from any edition in a campaign run under any version of the rules. While the Hero System rules have gotten more specific and more consistent across genres over time, the core concepts and fundamental systems haven’t changed much since 1980.

Fantasy Hero GrimoireApart from the 4e and 5e rulebooks, the supplements in this bundle also include hundreds of monsters, villains, magic items and spells. This makes it possible for players to build characters and GMs to design adventures by browsing through lists of prepared spells, enemies and artifacts, rather than having to build each one from scratch using Hero’s point-buy system. With these resources on hand, it’s really no more burdensome to run a Fantasy Hero campaign than a D&D campaign. But the existence of that point-buy system does allow GMs and players who want to customize their characters and adventures to do so in a way unmatched by any other fantasy RPG.

For just $8, the Core Collection in this bundle amounts to a Player’s Handbook, Monster Manual, and Dungeon Master’s Guide for Fantasy Hero. If you’re new to the Hero System, and don’t plan to gamemaster a Fantasy Hero campaign any time soon, this is probably all you need. If you think you might gamemaster a campaign, and especially if you are already comfortable with the Champions 4e big blue book, invest in the Bonus Collection, which is currently priced at about $19.

Fantasy Hero Settings Bundle

Urban Fantasy, a supplement for Fantasy Hero 5eThe second bundle is aimed squarely at Fantasy Hero gamemasters. Unless you’re planning to run a campaign, you probably shouldn’t be reading these books–unless you like spoilers!

The Core Collection in the Settings bundle includes the Urban Fantasy genre book; Nobles, Knights, and Necromancers, a collection of evil individuals and organizations to challenge your heroes; and The Book of Dragons and Enchanted Items, whose contents are self-evident. The Urban Fantasy book supports campaign styles ranging from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Hellboy, through Cast a Deadly Spell, Underworlds, and Bright, to Spiderwick and Harry Potter. It would also work for White Wolf’s Vampire: The Masquerade, if you were interested in exploring that setting through a crunchier, more tactical rules system. The other three books in this collection are large collections of prepared content to be plugged into any Fantasy Hero campaign as needed, again relieving the gamemaster of the points-balancing duties so she can concentrate on world-building and adventure design.

The Bonus Collection in this bundle includes four campaign settings for Fantasy Hero. The Turakian Age is a classic fantasy roleplaying world, sort of Fantasy Hero‘s answer to The Forgotten Realms, with dwarves and elves, orcs and trolls, gods and monsters. The Valdoran Age is a world of swords and sorcery adventure, where sorcery is evil and Conan would feel at home. The Atlantean Age presents a world of long-lost antiquity, in which the heroes may be demigods, adventuring in a land evocative of mythic Greece. And finally, Tuala Morn presents a setting drawing heavily on Celtic myth and the culture of pre-Christian Ireland and Britain, when faeries were real…and very, very dangerous. Each of these books covers the lands and cultures of the setting, their history and religions, and offers a variety of enemies, adventures and adventure hooks. They also include setting-specific rules for character creation and magic, with each book offering hundreds of new and unique spells pre-built with the Hero points system. Even if you don’t intend to run campaigns in one of these particular worlds, the Bonus Collection adds over 1,000 pages of Fantasy Hero resources gamemasters can pilfer for their homebrew campaigns.

Who Should Care About Fantasy Hero Bundles?

Monsters, Minions and Marauders, for Fantasy HeroIf you’re a fantasy roleplayer interested in learning about an admittedly crunchy rule set that is capable of capturing literally any fantasy character or campaign world you can imagine, you should definitely invest $8 in the Core Collection from the Fantasy Hero Essentials bundle. If you think you might ever want to gamemaster a fantasy campaign using the Hero System rules, I recommend getting Bonus Collection from the Essentials Bundle, as well as at least the $8 Starter Collection in the Settings bundle. That will get you plenty of ready-made NPCs, monsters, magic items and spells, and will only need to use Hero’s point-build system when you really want to add special content that’s very original and specific to your campaign. For a total of less than $30, you’ll have two versions of the Fantasy Hero rules, plus more character and campaign material than you’ll ever be able to use.

On the other hand, if you’re interested in running your campaign in a published setting, the Bonus Collection in the Fantasy Hero Settings bundle includes four very distinct, finely-detailed worlds. You’ll also have almost 2,000 additional pages of material to draw on, from the other settings and the non-setting-specific books, to help you put your own stamp on Hero’s “official” campaign worlds. And if you buy both Bonus collections, for less than $40, you’ll be set the best-prepared FH gamemaster ever! And at the same time, you’ll be benefiting two great charities–Hero Games has designated the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Down Home Ranch to share 10% of the proceeds from these bundle offers.

Take Me Back to Tékumel!

Empire of the Petal ThroneGygax’s Greyhawk and Arneson’s Blackmoor may have been the first campaign settings created for roleplaying games, but they aren’t the oldest fantasy worlds to be presented in roleplaying format. Professor M.A.R. Barker had already invested decades into the creation of his fantastic world of Tékumel when he first encountered Dungeons & Dragons in Minneapolis in 1975.  Recognizing the potential of tabletop roleplaying as a way to explore a fictional world, Barker created his own setting-specific RPG, Empire of the Petal Throne, set on Tékumel. Dave Arneson was occasional player in Barker’s campaign, and in 1975, Empire became the second RPG published by TSR, and the first complete RPG campaign setting published by any company. The only other similar publication from that period, in which an original RPG was created to feature an existing, well-developed fantasy world, was Chaosium’s Runequest, published in 1978 to showcase Greg Stafford’s bronze-age fantasy world of Glorantha. Although Empire of the Petal Throne went out of print decades ago, Barker ran his own campaigns in that world, including his flagship Thursday Night Group, well into the 21st century. A second RPG set in Tékumel, Swords and Glory, was released in the early 1980s by Gamescience, and Empire of the Petal Throne was re-released by Different Worlds in 1987. Over the past four decades, a small but devoted fan-base has arisen around Tekumel, continuing to explore Barker’s vast, deep, and utterly strange world. Gaming connections aside, Wikipedia compares Barker to another professor of linguistics who spent his life creating another world, calling Barker “the forgotten Tolkien.”

At the time of its release, Tékumel was a fantasy setting like no other. Humans share this science-fantasy world not with elves and orcs, but with a dozen or more genuinely alien species, including the reptilian Shén, the bat-like Hláka, the insectoid Hlýss, and even the three-legged, three armed enemies of man, the Ssú. Most of these races, including humans, are the descendants of star-faring cultures, stranded on this low-tech, magical planet millenia ago, their advanced technology largely lost and forgotten. Tékumel lacks the usual tropes of western European fantasy, like plate-armored knights, lute-strumming bards, and Tudor-style architecture. Instead, Barker drew his inspiration from cultures less familiar to most gamers, including those of the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Aztecs, Mayans, and Mughal Indians, as well as from science fiction of the forties, fifties and sixties. Barker wrote thousands of pages on the history, politics, religion and culture of Tékumel, detailing 30,000 years of history and inventing several working alien languages. For roleplayers looking for a campaign setting that will constantly surprise and amaze them, Tékumel will never disappoint.

Swords and Glory, a Tekumel RPGAlthough you can–and many have–spent decades delving into Barker’s vast work on Tékumel, the current Tékumel offer at Bundle of Holding offers a rich introduction to the world. The Starter Collection is just $7, and includes Different Worlds’ 1987 complete reproduction of the original 1975 release of Empire of the Petal Throne, faithful right down to the accent marks that Barker applied to the text by hand before publication. Also included in the Starter Collection are three system-neutral books on the history of Tékumel, to expand your understanding of the world. The Bonus Collection includes Swords and Glory, the Tekumel RPG published by Gamescience in the early 1980s; not one but two books on Tsolyani, the language of the dominant empire of Tékumel; and two issues of The Tékumel Journal, a late-70s fanzine exploring and expanding on Barker’s world, published with the permission of Empire of the Petal Throne publisher Gary Gygax and TSR. The

Tékumel, and especially Empire of the Petal Throne, are interesting because they illustrate the amazing diversity that emerged in the very early days of roleplaying, before Tolkeinesque, faux-Medieval European tropes became default assumptions. Tekumel, along with Glorantha, present the limitless potential of fantasy worlds possible before D&D became a literary genre to itself. To understand where roleplaying came from, and where it could have gone, you really need to read about Tékumel, even if you never actually play Empire of the Petal Throne. (That being said, maybe some day I’ll put together a Tékumel campaign using fourth-edition Fantasy Hero rules…now that would be cool! And if you start that campaign before I get around to it, I wanna play in it. I’ll bring the snacks!) The Tékumel bundle is available through July 1, 2019 at Bundle of Holding.

What About Your Kill Team Project, Jeff?

I’m still working on the Kill Team set-up I’ve been covering in my last few posts, but the past couple of weeks have been devoted to painting figures. Since this is officially a print-and-play blog, painting plastic miniatures with acrylic paints struck me as off-brand and off-topic. Besides, there are plenty of painters far better than me blogging and providing video tutorials on YouTube. I’m a big fan of Vince Venturella, Miniac, and Sam Lens’ appearances on Tabletop Minions. In fact, watch all of Tabletop Minions’ videos while you’re at it.

I’ll be back in a few days with an update on the Kill Team project. I’m just about table ready, so the next thing you see might be photos of actual play. Fingers crossed! Until then, though, keep on printing, and keep on playing!

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