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Friday, 28 July 2017

Tirikelu: role-playing adventures in the empire of the Petal Throne

Corresponding with Professor M.A.R. Barker in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, I was treated to tantalizing glimpses of “the new Empire of the Petal Throne” he was writing. The original EPT had served its purpose for a while, but my group were moving beyond those D&D-inspired mechanics. This was the era of RuneQuest and The Fantasy Trip. We were hungry for a more authentic experience of Tékumel, so we would pass around the Professor’s letters (he was always incredibly generous with his time) and pick endlessly over comments like this:
“We now have one roll to hit, one to get past the shield, one for damage (minus armour) and if one rolls 0 on a 10-sided die on this last roll, then a critical hit for more damage.”
Years passed. It was taking too long. I began constructing my own set of Tékumel rules from the fragmentary description in the Professor’s letters, like reconstructing an unknown animal from just a few bones.

Finally “the new EPT” appeared. That was Swords & Glory. My group switched for a while, but it was the S&G Sourcebook that was getting dog-eared from use. The other book, the rules, appealed less. “HBS Factors” and “Healing G9s” gave the game a tabletop miniatures flavour rather too far from the freewheeling shared stories we were looking for.

And so I returned to my own rules and began to refine them into the game I had hoped Swords & Glory would be. Those rules were to become Tirikélu.

This was the early 1990s, so it seems a little early to talk of an Old School Revival (not a term I like anyway) but the aim was there. Simplify the system so that the rules didn’t keep tripping up the play. Recapture the evocative magic of those early adventures by cross-pollinating EPT spells with ideas from The Book of Ebon Bindings. Make combat quick to use but more than just the endless dice-rolling of, say, RuneQuest.

I had two eureka moments. First, in a treatise by a duellist from the 17th century (quite possibly Sir William Hope) I came across the concept of “safe fighting”. His contention was that a moderately skilled fighter could, by concentrating on defence, hold off a more skilled opponent who was dividing his attention between attack and defence. In Tirikélu that became the principle of full- and half-actions. It seemed almost too simple on paper, but in practice we found it allowed for rich tactical choices.

Also I wanted to avoid hit location and lots of book-keeping, but not simply to revert to the amorphous pudding of hit points of D&D. So taking damage above a certain percentage of your hits can reduce your skill, and may require a check to stay conscious, but you don’t need to keep a tally of how much damage each wound caused. It’s all handled at the point the wound is taken.

Nowadays there are quite a few role-playing games where you make a detailed decision about what you’re trying to do, then wade through pages of rules to find your chance of doing it. (GURPS, I’m looking at you.) Tirikélu works best if you keep it abstract till after you roll the dice. “He’s going for a full attack.” “I’m going for a full parry.” Once you resolve that, you’re free to put any narrative interpretation you like on the result. It flows faster that way and, with imaginative players, fights feel agreeably cinematic.

Well, here it is – as complete a version of Tirikélu as you’re ever likely to see. I know, I know; it seems like there’s a new Tékumel RPG every couple of years. Who needs yet another? But many people tell me that Tirikélu is their preferred choice, and you know what? It’s mine too. And it is dedicated, as so much of my work is, to the genius, generosity and humanity of Professor M.A.R. Barker. And on top of that, it’s absolutely free and comes with a whole bunch of scenarios, campaigns and source material.

Get Tirikélu as a free PDF HERE. (Or download the super hi-res 45 Meg version here, which I have also set up so that you can print yourself a copy at cost - no profit to me, and strictly for personal use; no resales, please.) It turns out the rules of the Tekumel Foundation don't allow me to do that set-up work for you even as a non-profit thing. So if you want a print copy you'll have to do it yourself. Sorry about the faff, but it'll only take you about fifteen minutes, and I've written this checklist to guide you through Lulu step by step.

And for even more scenarios, try Michael Cule's introductory adventure "Welcome to Jakalla", Dermot Bolton's espionage tale "Crystal Clear", Bob Dushay's military mission for pre-gen characters "Behind Enemy Lines", and David Bailey's high-stakes scenario "The Society of the Resurgent Octagon".

40 comments:

  1. The more I read about the world of Tekumel, the more I want to know.

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    1. As a fantasy world you can actually inhabit and explore, as opposed to just visit in a story, I don't think anything else comes close. With a fully committed group of players you can have the kind of immersion that other roleplaying campaigns barely dream of.

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    2. That's a very common reaction to first encountering Tekumel. I know I had it that way. Unfortunately my initial foray into the setting was the Gardisayal boxed set, which did a good job of pretending to be a starter set for Tekumel newbies at first glance but was completely lacking in Tekumel background information and character creation rules...

      Fortunately you have better options available now.

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    3. I didn't even bother to keep my copy of Gardasiyal. Steve Foster's review was harsh but spot-on:

      http://www.tekumel.com/eoasw5_05.html

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  2. Thanks, that's very generous! With an offer like this, I guess it's time to give Tékumel the chance you think we should give it. Interesting detail that the character creation is an important part of the game. Usually you want to create your character as fast as possible to get the proper game going! The other exception is the Swedish RPG Western. It takes forever to create a character but you know a lot about it and it's surrounding world when you're finally done.

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    1. Is Western available in an English edition, Joakim? Oliver Johnson has been talking about running a Wild West campaign for a while now and maybe those rules are what he needs.

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    2. I like spending time creating characters, but beware as Tekumel is pretty deadly if you barge in DnD-style.
      - Alex

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    3. True dat! The usual D&D style of gaming is the opposite pole to Tekumel.

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    4. Is there a usual D&D style? In what way is that different to the usual Tékumel style? Less improvisation? More combat (using grids)?

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    5. And then I have to admit: I would love to play and/or referee in the world of Tékumel, but there is so much stuff and lore to learn!

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    6. No dungeons, really. Admittedly Empire of the Petal Throne had "underworlds" (because of its origins as an OD&D variant) but I don't know anybody who plays those regularly. I accept that a lot of D&D players don't bother with dungeons either, but I've never seen any other game where the canvas for the whole game really is the society itself rather than heroic events. The scenarios and campaigns in the Tirikelu book give a pretty good feel for what "typical Tekumelani gaming" is like -- though, as Barker often said, having got the rules everyone is free to use them however they like.

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    7. I'd say don't worry about getting it right, just jump in. This article has some tips:

      http://joyfulsitting.blogspot.co.uk/2011/12/stop-wringing-your-hands-and-start.html

      Alternatively you can use the "Just off the Boat" campaign start-up in Tirikelu and keep the PCs on their island home for a few sessions. That's way outside the details of Tsolyani life so they (and the refere!) can learn a little at a time from seafarers.

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    8. I flagged this up on FB and the hivemind suggested this as a starting point:

      http://odd74.proboards.com/thread/6117/run-empire-petal-throne

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    9. Professor Barker was always mystified by people who held back from running games. He explored his own world through gaming, and he encouraged others to do the same. It may seem counter-intuitive that you got better at the lore by running games, but others have found that to be true, including James Maliszewski.

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    10. Sometimes I think I can give people the impression I’m a total noob when it comes to stuff like RPG and esoterica. I think that’s because I’m more interested in knowing what people think about stuff than in sharing my own thoughts. I’m just a curious person and I like to experiment with ideas and other peoples view on things. FYI, I’ve been playing RPGs since the early 1980’s and been part of various esoteric traditions since the early 1990’s. So, I know my stuff.
      Same thing in this discussion. I learned a lot and for that I’m thankful. For example, I learned that most probably I don´t need much beside the first Tékumel book to play the game. Oh, and a bit of imagination of course! And players (probably the biggest problem). To learn the game, play it (just like all games, why should it be different with RPGs?)!
      One of the nice things with Tékumel is how the players are introduced to the world, i.e. they know absolutely nothing about it. They’re just primitive people from a small island exploring a new world with strange customs and creatures. Just like the dreamers visiting H.P. Lovecraft´s Dreamlands. Wonderful! I realized my idea to use the Dreamlands as a fantasy setting (the players natives of that world) is actually a worse idea than just putting people from Earth in that strange place. That way I don’t need to know a lot more than the players, instead we explore the world together. Why use that dusty old setting you might ask? Well, if you haven’t read Ki Johnsons The Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe, I highly recommend you to do it – what a breath of fresh air! I would like to recommend a graphic novel too, but sadly it’s in Swedish. But what the heck, google “Mara från Ulthar” and look at the pictures, they’re lovely!
      Another example: I’ve just read the new RPG game Tales from the Loop. Really interesting stuff! I want to play it with my kids. Only problem: They’re supposed to play kids during the 80´s and they don’t know anything about that decade! For them it’s like the Middle Ages. Then it struck me: Terrific! I know a lot about being a kid in the 80’s (I was born in 1974) but for them it’s a strange new world to explore and they’re able to do it as kids – as we all know, for kids everything is fascinating and exciting (except, after they’re 10 years old, their parents). And most important of all: They know nothing about anything (except tech and how to make grownups offer them free candy).
      I have to admit. I’ve been a DM for DnD 5th edition for a couple of years now, and I enjoy our sessions. But at the same time, my players, nor their characters, do not care for the world they play/live in. It’s a computer game, not a roleplaying game. The fault could be mine, I don’t know. But it’s the same with Monte Cook’s Numenera: A great setting (better than Forgotten Realms) but the characters are like super heroes in a weird world. It could work, except the players don’t care for the setting. It’s like a computer game. They have their powers, why should they care? Good bye weird world. In Tékumel (and Dreamlands and Tales from the Loop) the characters are ordinary people who know nothing. No super powers, no magic, no artefacts or wealth. Just their brains and skills.
      Hope you understand my ramblings and better yet, they gave you something.

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    11. Sorry for my long post! I just had to share some thoughts. It's your fault, Dave! Stop writing inspiring and interesting blog posts! ;)

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    12. Don't apologize, Joakim. I do these posts to get a fun discussion going!

      Quick points first: Mara från Ulthar -- oh, why are there all these great comics in languages I don't read? Google need to get Deepmind working on Babel glasses.

      I'm going to get Kij Johnson's novella. I've never read anything by her, but she proposed my wife's book Lifeform Three for the World Fantasy Award so I figure she has great taste and I kind of owe her.

      Who could have guessed that Stranger Things would stir up a whole new genre? I proposed a strategy game featuring 10-year-old kids back when I was working at Eidos, but it was shot down in flames -- and probably rightly, since you need the character depth to make that kind of story work. I guess you could also use Michael Sands's Monster of the Week PBTA variant. Sounds like fun, though I'd be tempted to take it back to Bradbury's Something Wicked -- surely the primum movens of the genre? Even my players aren't old enough to know what growing up in the '50s was like :-)

      OK, getting onto the main point you're making, I think it can be useful to start out in a small part of the world. Jeff Dee's recent Bethorm game uses the fairly restricted setting of the city of Katalal to introduce players to the world, but that might still be too big. All the usual strictures of Tsolyani life apply there. So I'd go out into the rural areas. How many stories start with a yokel from the country arriving in the big city for the first time? So with a new group of players they could spend the first few sessions in a village, maybe starting out around age 14 (Tsolyani coming of age is 15) and learning about the world around them as they grow up. There's shades of Beyond the Wall here potentially too.

      Another idea for spreading the burden is to give each player a specialized area of interest and access to the sourcebooks. So let's say they set off across the fields to look at the Sakbe road ten miles away. One of the players has boned up on Sakbe roads, so he or she then takes over to tell the group about them. Another player read the section on dangerous fauna and explains why they need to make a long detour around the Serudla footprints. And so on.

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    13. Glad you mention this idea of starting a series of adventures in a remote clan-house with young characters, because that's exactly what I wanted to do! I had even started drawing a map of the clan-house itself, with quarters reserved for each clan and lineage living under that one single roof (my unfinished clan-house blue-print is based on one of the large "apartment compounds" found near Teotihuacan https://wideurbanworld.blogspot.nl/2014/10/living-good-life-in-teotihuacan.html).

      I personally like the Fresh Off The Boat approach, but I'm not sure I would want to introduce my players to two, more or less different cultures right form the get-go: the player-characters' "birth culture", and the Toslyani's. So I thought of starting in Tsolyanu, but very far from any decently sized city, in a remote spot where things would be simpler to understand for my players and simpler to manage for me, the referee. That way I could introduce my players to such key concepts as clan honor, daily religious/superstitious practices, and inter/intra clan/temple relations in such a way as to make these seemingly remote ideas and concepts feel, look, and smell like something real.

      Here's how it was supposed to go (until, sadly, the whole thing collapsed for lack of available participants): my players' starting PCs would be adolescent Tsolyanis, aged 16 or so, a week or two into their "adult years", which, in Tsolyanu, start when teens get their official, adult names.
      These teens, all belonging to the same medium-status clan, would have grown up in an out of the way "apartment-compound", located on a swath of land owned by a rich, city-dwelling high-clan established in the largest, closest city, say Katalal.
      The medium-status teens, their clan and lineages' parents/siblings/elders would have shared the compound with members of one or two lower clans, and slaves, of course, all working together to maintain the grounds and the nearby fields and forests on behalf of the much richer, more powerful higher-clan, itself working for the glory of the Empire.

      The young PCs would have grown up there, spending their time exploring the surrounding jungle and fields, participating in the clan-house's regular religious rites and rituals (probably linked to the goddess Avanthe), and playing with lower clan kids (ones following other gods, like Vimuhla perhaps, who happens to be quite popular with certain wood-cutting clans), all of this under the tutelage of their lineage's elders and their clan-house elders.

      The teenage/"adult" PCs would only know vague details about the world beyond their childhood hills, forests, and muddy rivers. These details would have been gleaned by listening in on stories told by their elders, or visiting members of various high-clans and high-lineages at the beginning of each new hunting season. The young PCs would have heard tales about traveling on the Sakbes for instance, or accounts about other gods and religions, about the God-Emperor Himself perhaps, surely about recent skirmishes with Yan Kor, about weird creatures, etc.

      A week or two after their officially becoming "adults", a little before the beginning of the hunting season and the arrival of a large group of wealthy hunters and their guests, the PCs would have been summoned by their clan elders and asked to find out why an area, usually full of large animals, is suddenly empty of them. That would be the campaign's first adventure.
      And from there, other, increasingly complex adventures would follow: on their way back from that first mission, the PCs would have been stopped by a lower-clan childhood friend asking for help in finding a missing sibling of his/hers. As soon as the high-clan landlords showed up, one of their guests died by poison during the first night's celebratory feast: what to do!

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    14. The rural village appeals to me too, Alex, and since suggesting it to Joakim I've been jotting down some ideas. I suspect I'll run into the same problem you did: lack of willing participants. My old guard players are already sold on Tekumel and might not have the patience to reset to a childhood campaign, while newer players mostly don't seem to realize what they're missing. But still, maybe I'll write it up anyway in case it helps a group somewhere to get started.

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  3. The campaign "Just Off The Boat" begins with a session that plays the characters right from childhood to the point where they set out on their adventures. I notice that nowadays a show like Daredevil will take a whole season over the origin story, in effect, so why not? If players aren't interested in developing a shared background there are quick-start optional rules here too, but those miss out a lot of what makes Tekumel special.

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  4. Thanks for putting this glorious PDF together and, even more fantastic, for making it available on print-on-demand.
    I've been working (slowly) on a one-shot taking place in a secret Ksarul temple built around a long-buried Humanspace spacecrat, and when the time comes to run it, I shall use Tirikelu.
    - Alex

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    1. That sounds like a perfect Sunday special for my gaming group. Let me know when it's ready, Alex?

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  5. DM: Yes, it just had a successful kickstarter so it's on its way!

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    1. Alas, I don't think it will be ready in time for Oliver's campaign. He wants to start in the autumn, and the English edition of Western may not be out until 2018. So it looks like we're stuck with GURPS again!

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  6. Many thanks for sharing this with us, Dave. Love the story of how you constructed it 'epistolary' style, filling in the missing gaps between the correspondence with invention & detection - it must have been fun.

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    1. It puts me in mind of Jack Vance's story "The Ten Books", John. A colony ship loses all records of Earth apart from ten encyclopaedias with no pictures. Centuries later they are visited by people from the home worlds who marvel at the art and architecture they have reconstructed from descriptions in the books.

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    2. Thanks for that Dave, not least because I haven't read that JV story I think, and I pride myself on being something of a completist as far as that maestro is concerned ! Sounds like classic Vance; if only his was the presiding spirit over 21st century USA.

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  7. As far as gamebook-style stories taking place in Tekumel, Choice of Games has struck some sort of deal allowing them to use the setting. One of their apps, Choice of the Petal Throne, takes place there:

    https://www.choiceofgames.com/petal-throne/#utm_medium=web&utm_source=ourgames

    Haven't read it yet myself, but it's high on my reading list.

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    1. I haven't read it, so I can't comment on how authentically Tekumelani it is. Of course, there are many Tekumels anyway. But for me it can only really come alive as a roleplaying setting. I tried Professor Barker's "Adeventures on Tekumel" and they're fun, but a solo experience loses 90% of what's great. Mind you, I'm a roleplayer so of course I'd say that.

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    2. Choice of Games negotiated a license for the Choice of the Petal Throne game with the Tekumel Foundation. It's approved for Tekumel. Hope that clears that up!

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  8. OK- so this is definitely an Old School game, and has managed to bring all of the bad from the old style RPGs along with the good. Frankly I doubt I'll ever play these rules as written. The scenarios and background are good though.

    I do like the way spells are organised, though. I'd already had thoughts about converting the 2D20 system Conan game from Modiphius to Tekumel, and magic was one of the biggest stumbling blocks. The way your magic lists are set out here has given me the inspiration for how the Conan magic rules can be adapted here.

    An interesting read, even with the rules issues (calculating XP for every single roll? Seriously?).

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    1. "XPs"? There's a blast from the past. I don't bother with them much now, and probably didn't award them on individual skill successes even back in the 1990s, but it would be the height of arrogance to say that back then rules systems got it wrong and now we know a better way to roleplay. Story goals are just as artificial a contrivance -- possibly more so, as they get between the player and the character in a way those old mechanical advancement systems didn't.

      I remember debating the whole idea of levelling up with Jamie Thomson at a convention. That was the late '80s and XPs seemed old hat to me even then. Jamie argued that levelling up was an important goal for achievement-oriented players. (He was ten years ahead of Dr Bartle in identifying those gamer types, please note!) In the opposite corner, Paul Mason and I maintained that it's just a carry-over from D&D and has no place in a grown-up game.

      Nowadays I'm inclined to think Jamie had a point. Certainly if you run Tirikelu as written you'll find players switching up a few gears to a competitive pace that could make a refreshing change from the relatively sedate mindset I find emerges in my XP-free, narratively self-conscious games nowadays.

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  9. I came across a few copies of TEOASW a few months ago up in the attic. Unfortunately I only had a few issues so didn't have a complete copy of Tirikelu so this is fantastic, thanks. I didn't know the mag was online either. It's been years since I looked at anything Tekumel. I feel I'm on the brink of falling into an epic rabbit hole.

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    1. Hmm... now I'm wondering what lives in the Tekumel equivalent of a rabbit hole. Kuruku, maybe?

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  10. Thanks for the ego-boosting mention of my introductory scenario. Perhaps you could help me with a thing?

    I was listening to you on THE ROOM OF BLUE ILLUMINATION and heard that you are currently inclined to running Tekumel games with GURPS, despite having a dislike for the system.

    Now, I've not got as big a dislike and my players really like it (unreconstructed simulationist grognards that they are which is largely my fault for running so many games in that idiom over the years). But the thing that has prevented me from going back to using GURPS for Tekumel is the magic system or to be more specific the sheer slog of translating the detail from S&G/TEKUMEL and other places into GURPS. I need to convey the flavour (especially of the more recondite Temple spells) and yet maintain coherent game mechanics. I can easily enough translate the Psychic Magic to GURPS Psionic Powers but the Ritual Magic has always discouraged my very lazy soul.

    Have you done the work I need already? And if you have could you let me have any work you've done? (Pleads pitifully, including cute puppy dog eyes...)

    I've looked at various other systems over the years and I'd still like to take a stab at REIGN OF THE PETAL THRONE: it has a nice pulpy feel to it and the chance to run the 'Lords and Leaders' of a clan, temple or legion is a good incentive. But not only would converting the ritual magic be a huge amount of work but I have yet to figure out a good way of doing Psychic Magic.

    Help me! Help me! Save me from actually having to do some work!

    mikec@room3b.org.uk

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    1. Perhaps I shouldn't keep saying I dislike GURPS, Michael. I've been running it for 20 years so we must now accept that there's some kind of warped love-hate thing going on. Like Batman and the Joker.

      I'm in the same boat (just pulling up to Jakalla wharf) as regards the magic. My seasoned players say, "Just use Tirikelu," the magic system of which is inspired by EPT. But overhauling Tirikelu magic for use with GURPS is almost as big a job as rejigging the GURPS magic system. I haven't done that work yet, but I have two possible approaches.

      First is to greatly restrict the prevalence of ritual magic by insisting that it is learned from books, and you need access to those books -- which means I can do the job piecemeal. Maybe the books the PCs' temple or master will let them see only cover a few phyla. When I have time to work up the details of some more phyla - lo and behold, that classified text in the chained library is now available.

      This would tie in with the other major task of adapting to GURPS, which is the need to have a fully developed status system with class feeding into promotion, and rank sometimes feeding back to social status.

      That's incidentally an area that is really fertile ground for GURPS. On real Tekumel (if you'll pardon the expression) advancement is not only or even mainly a question of talent. Beautiful people get on better; albinos and cripples are discriminated against. Tall people tend to get promoted. The kaitars folded in with your resume count for a lot more than what's written on it. So, all that... I just wish I'd tackled this when I had the energy of a sprightly fortysomething!

      OK, but that's my first thought. Because my other idea is to go off in a totally different direction and reboot Tekumel BSG-style. Have you seen BR 2049? The death from above scene? What if that's magic? Satellites in orbit see the patterns made by a group of military magicians, and that tells them to drop a Doomkill on the enemy. The old snake-eyes - that's when a guy stepped left when he should have stepped right.

      There'd be a *lot* less magic in this Tekumel, and hardly any personal magic except for that achieved using ancient tech. That could include nanotech, of course. My Sending of Evil reduces my foe to cleanly-stripped bones overnight - a spell, as I understand it, but in fact carried out by nanobots responding to the coded gestures I learned by rote.

      If I go the second route, I'll be keeping a lot more of the technology and history hidden from the players. Traditionally players have to pretend they don't know what Ru'un or Eyes really are. I'd recast everything so that it all becomes fresh, with less of a feel of Western science-fantasy and more of that "real life" Tekumel. I'm not sure if that would be any easier to run, but I think it will give my younger players a way in.

      Hugely enjoying IRTWD btw - my top favourite podcast. I can't imagine how I failed to discover it before now, but it's been fun catching up.

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  11. Ah, well. I knew my luck couldn't be that good...

    Today I've spent digging out my copy of REIGN and thinking about that adaptation. Also a huge amount of work.

    If you're thinking about the social side of GURPS as a system then your go to books are the SOCIAL ENGINEERING titles which are about personal interactions (including the relative effects of different reaction modifiers) and how to describe and build social groups in SOCIAL ENGINEERING: CURIA AND BOARDROOM.

    I don't think there's any easy way to adopt the more peculiar bits of Tekumel's magic. Not that I've found yet. I would (given the Professor's known handwavey predilections) go for HEROQUEST but my players have had their patience for that sort of thing utterly exhausted... by me!

    Thanks for the kind words about the podcast. We enjoy doing it.

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    1. At some point I should look at Reign. For me there would be no point in using it for Tekumel -- my older players would prefer Tirikelu, and the reason to use GURPS is because that's pretty much the only system my younger players like. But I hear good things about Reign (from you, anyway, Michael) and I'm always in search of that sense of wonder that used to come from surveying the ergodic landscape of a new system. So one day...

      I have the original Social Engineering book. Many's the time I've opened it with Tekumel in mind and then thought, hang on, this would be as much work as adapting Thaumaturgy to include Doomkills. When I mentioned it to Jamie after this week's game (GURPS Old West, sort of) he said, "Why do we need rules for the social stuff? We used to just roleplay it." But that, I fear, would not sit well with the younger set.

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    2. PS: Full disclosure: "younger" in this context still means older than half the readers of this blog :-)

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    3. Btw Michael, in case you haven't heard it, Ep 8 of th Tekumel Podcast has some interesting inside info on Professor Barker's own thoughts on magic. Last 20 minutes or so:

      http://www.tekumelpodcast.com/podcast/episode-8-professor-barkers-basement/

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