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Friday, 19 November 2010

Tekumel

“THE MOST BEAUTIFULLY DONE FANTASY GAME EVER CREATED…”

It sounds like he's describing a succulent steak, but this was in fact how Gary Gygax introduced Professor M A R Barker's Empire of the Petal Throne game when it was first published in 1975. “It is difficult for me,” Gygax continued, “to envision the possibility of any rival being created in the future.” TSR Inc (in those days still Tactical Studies Rules) were the publishers, so possibly one would want to take a pinch of salt with this particular steak. But they gave EPT the most lavish production of its day: $27.50, equivalent to the cost of the entire set of 2nd edition Dragon Warriors books – or a meal at a Michelin-starred restaurant, if you prefer. It seems like there was a genuine feeling at TSR that in EPT they had something special.

Petal Throne was, in fact, a commercial failure. Mainly this would have been because EPT was a fully realized campaign world which gave it a natural slant towards role-creation and improvisation. In that sense it was probably on the market five years too early. What also didn't help was that no backup material was released, and given that it was nearly three times as expensive as the three D&D starter books at the time, there was little chance that it would pick up any new converts. The game passed into that hideous unlife known as cult status, then TSR (by now more than happy with Greyhawk as a campaign world) sold it to Gamescience, who commissioned Professor Barker to do a new version.

The new game Swords & Glory, consisted of three volumes: the Sourcebook, detailing the world of Tekumel without reference to any rule system; the Players' Book, which has probably the most exhaustive set of role-playing rules imaginable (I do mean that as a backhanded compliment); and the Referee's Book, which was destined never to appear. The Sourcebook was absolutely perfect for a committed referee with a group of gamers already sold on Tekumel. But it lacked the easy-in that EPT’s much more primitive game mechanics (EPT was a D&D variant) had allowed. Nor was it easy to point a new player at any one passage that would give him a potted history of what he knew about the world.

Before long, Tekumel passed to a publisher called Theater of the Mind, who came out with series of gamebooks called Adventures on Tekumel that were supposed to let players learn about Tekumel by growing up and going on a bunch of solo adventures before moving on to a full RPG called Gardasiyal: Deeds of Glory that unfortunately assumed that the guy running the game would have access to other source material, because it was sorely lacking in the flimsy pamphlets in TOTM’s boxed set.

Even back in 1994, releasing an RPG in a box seemed bonkers – and so it proved, as Tekumel sank again, only to be helped out of the waters of Lethe by the Guardians of Order, who published a nice hardback RPG called Tekumel. As the name suggests, they had decided to stop preaching to the choir and actually deliver a straightforward game that didn’t assume you were already a fan.

Such is the history. You ought to have recognized the zealous tones of the true believer by now. EPT was my own introduction to roleplaying games, and I lose no opportunity to recommend it as the single most worthwhile RPG purchase one could make - even to the extent of slipping in plugs for it in my own role-playing books. The assertion I'm making here is nothing less than this: that if your games collection omits EPT and/or Tekumel then you are wasting money on any purchase of straight rules-horses like Pendragon, RuneQuest or Dungeons & Dragons. Now I'll try to explain why.

The "group improvised narrative" concept is basic to EPT. There are indeed underworlds below many of the ancient cities of Tekumel, but they are not intrinsically an important feature of the game. (I first met the lads at old Games Workshop in 1980 to discuss designing an RPG for them, and I mentioned that our role-playing sessions didn't include very much in the way of ‘dungeons’. Expressions of incredulity: “But . . . in that case, what do you do?” Well, er, we roleplay of course.) Barker's primary interest is in the politics and social etiquette of his world, and this is the prevailing theme throughout his rules. The original EPT game began with the players – simple fishermen from the south – arriving in Jakalla harbor in their small boats. Immediately, one is thrown into a bizarre and breathtaking culture: the bewilderment of the player parallels that of the character. Curt officers of the Omnipotent Azure Legion explain that you should remain within the Foreigners' Quarter unless under the patronage of a Tsolyani citizen; if you venture out into Jakalla proper you might easily commit some breach of etiquette, and without the protection of one of the Tsolyani clans you will be given short shrift by the authorities. If you learn fast you might just be able to stay alive. Once you have sufficient wealth and social prestige, you may be able to buy your way into one of the lower clans and petition the Imperial Court for citizenship. That could lie years in the future.

For the moment all you have of value is your boat, and if you sell that it might just pay for a few days in a grubby hotel and an employment notice in the Palace of the Realm. The impoverished and wretched scruffs who stagger along Jakalla wharf, hopefully towards fame and fortune, area far cry even from the roving (well-fed, well-equipped) young bloods of a Glorantha campaign - let alone the armored veterans of a beginning D&D or Dragon Warriors game.

Eventually a patron will contact you (hopefully before your money runs out) and a series of tables then indicate who he/she is and what will be the nature of your employment. The flavor of the game is that you might set out anywhere, with the emphasis on improvisation and free action rather than on set scenarios. An example: one game that I ran to introduce players to EPT went on for an entire day, with a series of ever more complex escapades around Jakalla, without a single reference to rulebook or dice. That kind of thing is of course not unique, and is the way a lot of campaigns are going these days. But this was in the mid-‘70s, when there were very few games that allowed that kind of richness of improvisation.

That is how the game runs, but that is just something that is to be looked for in any good campaign. It is the underlying texture and structure of Barker's world which makes this flow so easily. The rule systems of the original EPT book were derived from D&D, but Barker had actually been playing in a group without rules or referee since Tekumel's inception in the '50s. As a result, Tekumel is fully constructed at a core level rather than being defined by the rules. Glancing at the spells, for instance, it soon becomes clear that there is a correspondence between certain spells and the various Temples (I'm referring to EPT, Barker makes this correspondence explicitly in S&G). This goes rather deeper into the real needs of a functioning society than the rather naive notion of artillery-spells-for-war-gods. A Tsolyani general naturally expects his sorcerer-priests to be adept at battlefield healing as well as mass destruction and intelligence-gathering. Tsolyanu has the appearance of a society that has evolved along real human lines, rather than an artificially-constructed confection like, say, Krynn or Thieves' World.

Barker is an anthropologist, historian and linguist, which perhaps explains the thoroughness and internal logic of his world. That is one side of the coin. The other is that all through his writing it is obvious that an extraordinarily potent imagination is at work. This is not merely a run-of-the-mill fantasy environment but something else. Something which has the capacity to engage the imagination and keep it stimulated. A lesson which any campaign designer could learn from Barker is in his use of archetypes and primary images. As regular readers of this blog will know by now, one of my pet hates is the automatic use of elves, dwarfs, etc, outside their appropriate and effective context. Almost everybody who sits down to hack out a fantasy milieu for a novel or game seems to think they've got to have these critters populating the place or it won't be fantasy. Even Greg Stafford (no dimwit he) did this in the early days of Glorantha, then seemed to regret it and went revisionist on us and turned elves into spaced-out walking vegetables, trolls into Pro-Am fans.

Barker started from another point of departure entirely: Mayan, Aztec, Indian – and others; the sources aren't easy to spot. He has taken a clever approach. Instead of creating fear, aggression, wistfulness in player-characters by means of images that provoke these reactions in the players themselves, Barker provides little nudges that redefine the responses – recreate archetypes in new terms for the PCs. As he says in the first paragraph of EPT: “Players quickly learn to shiver just as much at the sound of chiming and the odor of musty cinnamon as they do at the creaking of Dracula's coffin or the distant bellowing of the Minotaur.” The cues he refers to are the language and scent of the Ssu, an exceptionally horrible alien species with four long lower limbs, bulbous black eyes atop a conical head, and a gray integument that grows in rolls around the creature's skeleton and tends to slough away (producing the musty odor). I'm not doing a Monster Manual bit. The point is that if you look at film of a wolf spider you will see the same beady, baleful gaze and the same eerie stalking motion of the limbs - but Barker, working on a widespread uneasiness to create a frisson in his fantasy world, would never do anything so obvious as simply using giant spiders. The cinnamon smell and the chiming just make sure you're primed for the visceral shock when it comes. This is not mere ‘games mastering', this is direction.

There is a dizzying array of Tekumel products. They're comprehensive, certainly, but the sheer range of choice leaves any outsider wondering where to begin. I’ll just run quickly through the main items and then give my own recommended reading list. Empire of the Petal Throne is the original game. It gives a complete overview of Tekumel (enough to get a campaign up and running) and is consequently quite a good taster. But it’s essentially a D&D variant with emphasis skewed towards dungeon-bashy adventure. For the real thing, you need Swords & Glory: The Tekumel Sourcebook. This is the one with just about everything about the world (including maps), but it has no rules material at all so you miss out on the distinctive Tekumelani magic items such as the Little House of Tranquil Dwelling, the Eye of Joyful Sitting Amongst Friends, the Eye of Triumphant Passage Through Infernos, the Excellent Travelling Volume, etc. etc ...

Swords & Glory: Players' Handbook contains Prof Barker's own rules: quite a complicated system (Barker himself says it's a mix 'n' match selection - he doesn't expect anyone to use everything) but even if you’re going to use another system you must get this book eventually if you want Barker's rules for status, skills, clans and temple promotion (and the tree-branch magic system).

Deeds of the Ever-Glorious gives histories for the eighty-five legions of Tsolyanu, and in doing so builds a picture of the last twenty centuries of Tsolyani civilization. The Book of Ebon Bindings describes some of the demons, or minor deities, of Tekumel. You could work a magic system directly from this, and hundreds of anecdotes make it a great read.

There are two scenario packs – The Tomb Complex of Nereshanbo and A Jakallan Intrigue. Neither of these are by Barker himself, and are not really worth the effort of seeking out. The first is routine and the second, while not without its ingenious touches, is the sort of thing I would expect to handle without any prepared material. The Tsolyani Language comes in two volumes – yes we're into fanatic territory here; only one person I know can read and speak Tsolyani.

Where to start, then? Simplest and most straightforward is the GOO book Tekumel. This has a simple, elegant game system and a comprehensive description of the world, thanks in large part to Patrick Brady, with all the history, mythology and culture you need to run a campaign. As a game Tekumel didn’t get much support, but to be honest the sort of person who is going to enjoy running a Tekumel campaign is probably capable of cooking up their own scenarios and won’t rely on published supplements. Indeed, it’s hard to see how published adventures would be of much use to a good Tekumel campaign, as events should flow so seamlessly from the lives of the specific characters that you never do just plonk down an adventure and expect them to get on with it. Instead, it is the players who tell the referee what they want to do. As it really should be in all roleplaying.

“What kind of a world, then is Tekumel? Socially and culturally, Tekumel is as complex—and as alien to modern thinking—as Byzantium, ancient Egypt, Tenochtitlan, or the India of the Mughals.” – Professor M A R Barker

This is a slightly modified version of a feature I wrote for Imazine #17 (summer 1987). The illustrations are by John Goodier from Deeds of the Ever Glorious.

12 comments:

  1. Note: Swords & Glory: GM book, was never released as all copies were destroyed by a hurricane affecting the Gamescience warehouse. I've always thought the "complexity" of the game was a little disingenuous since Barker's approach to it, is to ask his player's to roll the dice, and then he'd tell them how they did. Yeah, the culture is complex and alien, but it could really be approached with any game system.

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  2. I heard that story about the S&G referee's book, but seeing as it never surfaced in any form, I have to wonder if that wasn't an awfully convenient hurricane.

    Personally I'd never play in a game where the referee had that much power (even if he was Prof Barker himself) which is why I would rather err on the side of complexity. But what I would really like to see is a clean, streamlined system for Tekumel that allows players to get right down to business and that leaves nothing to the arbitrary whim of the referee. Not too much to ask, I think!

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  3. Hi Dave, what edition of the game would you recommend for a newcomer?

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  4. Hi Hamza, the original Empire of the Petal Throne is the best overview of the whole world of Tekumel. The system is really old school, being a variant of original D&D, but it's still the ideal place to start as it was written by Professor Barker himself.

    Failing that (and I am sure it's hard to find these days) I'd recommend Patrick Brady's Tekumel RPG: http://www.amazon.com/Tekumel-Empire-Throne-Patrick-Brady/dp/1894525310.

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  5. Dave,

    Thanks for clarifying Tekumel. I've peeked at it for years now but always found it overwhelming; "where the f-k do I start?!". Now I know, and considering your warm words I'll buy it to myself as an early Christmas gift.

    The original game can be found and bought at DriveThruRPG for €8,05 (PDF version).

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  6. ...and here is the link:

    http://rpg.drivethrustuff.com/product_info.php?products_id=2060&it=1

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  7. Thanks, Joakim - I did wonder if it was still possible to get it anywhere (other than on eBay for like $150) and at €8,05 it's an incredible bargain.

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  8. Btw I see DriveThru also have Deeds of the Ever-Glorious, which is a history of Tsolyanu told through the story of its legions. Brilliant source material and a great read: http://rpg.drivethrustuff.com/product_info.php?products_id=1764&it=1

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  9. Excellent review and recommendation
    Like Joakim, I probably buy it to myself as an early Christmas gift.

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  10. You guys are in for a treat. And with the series of Tekumel posts we have scheduled between now and Christmas, you'll have some campaign material to get started.

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  11. I was driving home to canada from an enjoyable game with prof barker when that hurricane hit -prof said it was an "act of hnalla"
    Sources- tekumel.com
    Also ;
    Tita's house of games
    The tekumel foundation

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  12. The S&G GMs Guide was reportedly destroyed in the hurricain, but Lou Zocchi of Game Science told me back in the 80s that someone from the company ran off with the only copy they had. In some of the GS publications back then they printed the guys name with the comment has anyone seen or know where he is. The lead comments of the blogger were extremely interesting as I've been in Tekumel since 1975 and learned RPGs through the old EPT.

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