Certainly it didn’t seem like role-playing was a broad enough term to cover what was going on in both those rooms. We’d be enmeshed in court intrigues, escorting imperial princes, doing dirty work for our clan elders, or searching for the ten keys that would free Lord Ksarul, the Doomed Prince of the Blue Room. Mention “the hideous owl-bear” to us and we’d just think you were talking about a disagreeable French waiter.
Empire of the Petal Throne was a role-playing game based on early D&D rules and very lavishly published by TSR in the mid-‘70s. I was never the slightest bit interested in the orcs-n-all universe of D&D, but if Gary Gygax was known for nothing but his championing of EPT then he would deserve a flame to be kept burning in eternal honour of his memory.
EPT was written by Professor M A R (“Phil”) Barker. He spent his whole life creating the world of Tekumel, where the game is set. It helped that Barker was at least as accomplished a scholar as that other great professorial sub-creator, Tolkien. His deep knowledge of anthropology and linguistics means that Tekumel is a thoroughly convincing world. But it’s not just the academic foundation that makes Tekumel great. Barker was also a creative genius on a par with Jack Vance, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E Howard. He populated his world, not with the usual gamut of goblins and zombies, but with entirely original creatures. You think Avatar defined a sense of wonder? Until you’ve visited Tekumel you have no idea.
That college Empire of the Petal Throne group of mine included Mark Smith and Oliver Johnson, as well as Robert Dale, Dragon Warriors contributor, and Steve Foster, designer of Mortal Combat and the old Spectrum game Eureka. In the vacations, and after we came back down into the mundane world, Jamie Thomson joined in too, and John Whitbourn, author of A Dangerous Energy, and later Paul Mason, of Fighting Fantasy fame, and Tim Harford. Not much of Tekumel made its way into our work, though; we all respect Professor Barker’s creation too much to swipe from it piecemeal. The book of mine that most nearly conveys the flavour is probably Necklace of Skulls; and of Jamie’s, The Court of Hidden Faces. But those are pale reflections of the original.
As I write this, I have beside me a stack of letters that Professor Barker wrote me throughout the ‘80s. I used to pester him with questions about Tekumel and he would kindly reply in great detail. Once I sent him a problem that had arisen in our campaign – a complicated dispute between two clan-cousins over the sale of a (very rare) steel sword. He convened a court of his own players and returned a five-page ruling of the Appellate Court of the Palace of the Realm of the Glorious and Ever-living God King. I cherish the note attached:
“The depositions and your letter were handed around the table; people made notes, disputed, wrangled and made learned speeches. What surprised me was the that the players did so well at it, really role-playing their cultural perspectives to the hilt and trying to turn themselves into Tsolyani jurists, with all that that entails. Modern Americans playing at being judges in an utterly foreign culture – fascinating! I cannot recall when our group has had this much fun! We are all beholden to you people for including us in your game in this very enjoyable way.”Another of our group, David Bailey, CEO of Black Cactus Games, made a Hrugga-like effort to get a Tekumel MMO off the ground about eight years ago. It seems amazing that US studio executives would finance British epics like Lord of the Rings and Narnia, but not the greatest work of fantasy ever – and that by a home-grown American genius. As they say: go figure.
Professor Muhammad Abd-al-Rahman (MAR) Barker, known to his friends as “Phil”, died on March 16, 2012, aged 83.