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Saturday, 17 March 2012

Professor M A R Barker

The highlight of my college role-playing sessions was Sunday afternoon at Jesus, eight or nine of us crammed into a tiny seminar room. Whenever I popped next door into the big room where a couple of dozen Dungeons & Dragons players used to gather, I’d find them advancing down a corridor menaced by vile jellies and arguing about how many lanterns were packed on their mule. “Petal Throne?” sneered the gnome-faced dungeon master. “That’s that game with the unpronounceable names.”

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.

11 comments:

  1. That's a great anecdote. EPT is an endlessly inspiring game. I believe it has suffered from an unjustly esoteric reputation; on reading it, I have found it exotic, colourful, but not necessarily hard to get into as long as you are willing to assimilate the world detail through a learning process instead of trying to cram it all in in one sitting.

    It is also a clearly written, smart OD&D variant (just look at thos mass combat rules, or the justification of game concepts like unarmoured M-Us, megadungeons, magic items and adventurers) with excellent presentation. The brown booklets sometimes read like drafts or semi-finished notes, while EPT is presented logically and with a lot of flavour. That might have come from Phil the university professor. :)

    I owe a lot to EPT, although I have come to it decades after its publication, around early 2003 or so. Little bits of it have cropped up in my games ever since, and I am now running a campaign with relatively strong Tékumel influences, although I am focusing on the lurid pulp fantasy instead of the in-depth cultural simulation.

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  2. If there are any Tekumel players out there, how about sending in your favourite in-game anecdote?

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  3. Good story!

    I really must get around to buying a copy of EotPT. I didn't find out about it until I was too short of cash to justify the high price it commands, but I'm beginning to think it might be worth investing in anyway.

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  4. I thought the same when I first came across it back in 1975. Three of us clubbed together to buy our first copy. Since then, EPT has given me at least 10,000 hours of brilliant entertainment and a fair few life-changing experiences, so it's proved far and away the best bargain ever. As the entire canon of Tekumel material is now available in PDF form, there's really no reason to delay any longer. The only caveat is that you have to be searching for something really original. If you're content with yet more orcs, don't bother 'cause EPT is not going to be for you.

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  5. Thanks for this fascinating reminiscence! I've just started on my journey into EoPt and I am enthralled by the depth of setting and the obvious enthusiasm Barker has for his world. Any fan of well-detailed, logically structured, imaginative realms that defy bog standard fantasy conventions should investigate Barker's works.

    @bateleur:

    The various editions of Empire(and other Tékumel products) are officially available in print from Tita's House Of Games.

    The Different Worlds reprint of TSR's Box Set is essentially the same as the 1975 version, and well worth the $24.95 + $5.95 s/h(with discounts on larger orders), imo.

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    1. He also published a couple of Tekumel novels, I found one of them (Man of Gold ( http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Gold-Muhammad-Abd-Al-Rahman-Barker/dp/0886770823 ) many years ago in a second-hand bookseller and it was worth the read. The second ( http://www.amazon.co.uk/Flamesong-Muhammad-Abd-Al-Rahman-Barker ) I never got hold of. Also on Amazon they list this tome which I had never heard of ( http://www.amazon.co.uk/War-wizards-M-A-R-Muhammad-Abd-al-Rahman/dp/B00072YZ4S ).

      Mr. Morris, perhaps you could shed some light on this last - and also your opinion as to why MAR never published more novels?

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  6. War of Wizards was a boardgame from the mid-1970s. Players took the part of duelling wizards (natch) in the hirilakte arena. However, Professor Barker did publish at least five Tekumel novels - only the first two from DAW Books. And he also wrote three choose-your-own style Tekumel books ("Adventures on Tekumel") which for my money are the best gamebooks you'll find. Among many innovative features: in many combats, losing doesn't mean getting hacked down and starting again, it means being disarmed or overpowered and the story proceeds from there.

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  7. I enjoyed reading this as I found this blog after finding a letter from Dave going through my old papers the other day. It explained patiently to a 12-year-old fan how to become the Chosen One of Nergal. So it seems Phil Barker’s patience rubbed off! (Incidentally, is this the seminar room above the lodge at Jesus? I have fond memories of learning about 6th France from the legendary Thomas Charles Edwards in there!)

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  8. I wonder now if the young Barker had a letter from Edgar Rice Burroughs or somebody that taught him to value contact with fans? As for the meeting room, it was a tiny space in a modern block tucked away at the back of the college. Possibly demolished now, as it was of no more historic or architectural value than (say) the Waynflete Building at Magdalen.

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  9. Dave, I was wondering if you are still in contact with Paul Mason? I always found his writing, in his fighting fantasy gamebooks, to be a cut about the rest in flair and imagination. Did he ever publish any novels of his own? Or even have any rogue manuscripts lying around?

    I work with a prominent fantasy publisher at the moment and would be very interested in getting in touch - if Paul himself would be interested, that is.

    Best,
    James

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