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Thursday, 1 October 2020

Just dive in


"I'd like to try Tekumel," a gamer friend of mine said, "but I'm put off because it looks like a lot to get into. The culture is so detailed and exotic."

And so it is. But you think Medieval Europe isn't? Or Victorian London? Or New York in the 1930s, come to that.

How do we normally deal with the complexity of another society? The usual answer is to cosplay rather than roleplay. We drop 21st century characters into the setting and most of the time the clothing, technology, etc, are just window dressing. When players butt against the mores of the culture, it's just to make a joke of the difference between the locals' quaintly elaborate ways and the etiquette of our own society -- which as any fule kno is simple and completely straightforward and has no oddities of its own. Ain't that so?

Hollywood used to deal with historical epics using the cosplay method. Movie audiences didn't care how the ancient Israelites, Egyptians and Greeks really behaved, they were content to watch modern actors stroll through the theme park version of those eras and cultures.

There's another way. Think about how you'd introduce readers of a historical novel to the intricacies of Regency high society. Most likely you'd start with a viewpoint character who wasn't familiar with that world. A simple bumpkin arriving in the big city to earn his fortune, perhaps, or a gypsy girl with a tray of flowers to sell. They'd learn about the rules and manners of Regency life along with the reader. 

If you look at a modern edition of a novel like Dead Souls, you'll usually find it festooned with notes that the editor has added to explain Gogol's Russia. So you'll be reading a bit about Chichikov visiting a friend and there'll be a superscript number, and at the back of the book that number will point you to an explanation of the grades in the Russian civil service, or the modern value of the kopeks paid for a deed of serfs, or whatever. And it's great to have all that information (or was, before we could just look it up on the internet) but if you stop and turn to each note as you come to it then you'll ruin the story. The only answer is to dive in, enjoy the ride, and if there are details that you don't understand it doesn't matter. You can look them up afterwards. Not only that, but you'll get more value from the notes then, because you'll have the context of a good story to fit them into.

That was how Empire of the Petal Throne introduced new players to Tekumel back in 1975. Their characters arrived as simple foreigners fresh off the boat in the harbour of mighty Jakalla, "the city half as old as Time". As they found employment and mixed with Tsolyani NPCs, they gradually absorbed the background details. The players who cared about that stuff acquired the manners necessary to speak for the group. And it leaves the option, if you're not interested in that kind of thing, to remain a gruff and proudly ignorant barbarian. 

I've tried that introduction many times over the years, with variants. Oliver Johnson started as a marooned space traveller. Others have entered Tsolyanu as refugees or traders from outlying islands where history consists of family anecdotes and social structure is much less hierarchical and mannered than it is on the mainland. Yet after a year or two of that, players know the ways of Tekumel more thoroughly than they ever learn how to be Victorians or Ancient Romans.



Footnote: (See what I did there?) Some US friends have got in touch saying that the word gypsy is a derogatory term over there in America. But here, you see, is yet another case where the very different racial histories and divergent tongue of our two nations has taken us down forking paths. In the UK we have the British Gypsy Council and the National Federation of Gypsy Groups, and gypsy is one of several categories of nomad recognized on this side of the Atlantic.

22 comments:

  1. "Choice of the Petal Throne" is now available at no charge on the Choice of Games website, and is IMO the second-best intro to Tékumel. (The best is sitting down at a table with an experienced GM, but that's not nearly as accessible to most players.)

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    1. The best solo introduction to Tekumel has to be the Adventures on Tekumel gamebooks by Prof Barker himself. Amazingly, on DriveThruRPG you can get books on the script of Thu'usa (whatever that is) and the game of kevuk, but you can't get those gamebooks or much of anything designed for newbies. Lum ya wadhēl dopāl māsun.

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    2. Heading out now to check out choice. I've never played Empire of the Petal but from here I keep hearing about it, so I'll check it out.

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    3. The Adventures on Tekumel books are available here, John, and I recommend them, though the prices are a little steep.
      https://www.nobleknight.com/P/12627/Adventures-on-Tekumel-Vol-1-Part-1---Growing-Up-On-Tekumel

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  2. This is why footnotes are so much better that backpage notes, and I can't understand why we got rid of them. I blame laziness hem hem

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    1. I've been formatting the Gutenberg version of Mary Shelley's The Last Man for fun, and I made a point of switching its end notes to footnotes. But one reason why it has end notes is because it's a digital document. Footnotes require an actual page to be at the foot of, and reflowable text can make tat slightly trickier.

      But also, academic texts tend to have such copious notes that pages would be really, really annoying if they were done as footnotes.

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    2. On top of that, in the days when books were laid out by hand I imagine it was a tricky job to format footnotes. Sticking them all at the back of the book was cheaper.

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    3. I always felt the laid-out books were the ones more likely to have footnotes! And yes, accademic books could have hefty ones; a page could have one line of normal text and the rest be 8 pt footnote.
      Still, for the Oxford classic style book, which is intended to inform the casual reader, I do wish they'd use footnotes to make reading easier.

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    4. Maybe as they bring in new editions, which will be laid out in software rather than by old geezers with lead type, we'll see more on-the-page notes. I also hate the way those notes in Penguin books carelessly throw around spoilers -- but that's a whole other gripe!

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  3. An interesting thing about Tekumel is that despite the wealth of detail, it is relatively easy to get stuck in. When I started, I knew bugger all about the background. I just knew that I was a renegade from Livyanu, which was a more secretive society than Tsolyanu, that my body was covered with tattoos which proclaimed my status, and that eating in front of other people was objectionable in my culture.

    That was all I needed to get started. If I said or did something that caused other player (characters) to question whether that was appropriate for a Livyani, I could just narrow my eyes and say 'And what does the honourable gentleman know about Livyanu?'

    Obviously as you play more, you can read the background. Reading it in a wodge before you've played in a game is a bit off-putting, I think. But once you're in the society, and you have a vested interest in learning more about your situation, it's a pleasure.

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    1. I came across a quote last night (attributed by the intermind to Orson Welles, though personally I very much doubt it) that encapsulates this, albeit in Goodreads English: "I can think of nothing that an audience won't understand. The only problem is to interest them; once they are interested, they understand anything in the world."

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    2. Talking of Livyani, my current character is Talūvaz Druob Shienāz, of the high-status Bird of Paradise clan in Hemektu. I was invited to meet the other PCs, members of a Vrayani mercantile clan, at an eating house in Butrus as they were interested in engaging me as a magical consultant. I arrived to find them seated at a table pointing proudly at some dishes which, they told me, were genuine Livyani cuisine. "Sit! Eat!"

      "I prefer to stand."

      Afterwards the players kept saying, "Did you fail your etiquette roll? Why didn't you sit with us? It was rude, wasn't it? And not eating those Livyani dishes." Which only goes to prove that it's possible to happily play in Tekumel campaigns for decades, as they had, without picking up the slightest knowledge of Tsolyani etiquette, never mind Livyani!

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    3. Oh, and apparently I am wrong about the Welles quote. It's from Frank Brady's book Citizen Welles: A Biography of Orson Welles (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1990), p. 356. I've become so annoyed by the Goodreads/Twitter habit of quoting without source or date that I just assume they're always wrong. The full quote is:

      "We must not forget the audience. The audience votes by buying tickets. An audience is more intelligent than the individuals who create their entertainment. I can think of nothing that an audience won’t understand. The only problem is to interest them. Once they are interested, they understand anything in the world. That must be in the feeling of the moviemaker."

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    4. I had only read halfway through Talūvaz's name when I decided I didn't trust him...

      I have to say, though, that the Livyani eating habits can be pretty annoying when Mike Cule has actually laid on food for you in real life.

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    5. In this case it wasn't so much the dining issue, but as a member of a higher clan I couldn't sit at their table, I could only have invited them to my table -- if I'd had one. But what surprised me was not how boorish these Vrayani yokels were, but the players didn't actually realize they were being boorish!

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  4. Are there any Tekumel groups active online, on Discord perhaps? I mean, if I want to learn the game the best thing to do would be to join a group of players with a experienced referee. Since the Pandemic hit Europe & the US and online gaming exploded, I've learned the rules & settings of Blades in the Dark, Troika! and Scum and Villainy. Neither of those games require any prior knowledge of the their worlds (not implying that they are as advanced as the setting of Tekumel).

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    1. I'd invite you to join our game, Joakim, but the referee has announced that he's splitting us into two groups because he already has too many players. (Ten people on Zoom and Roll20 does get a bit much.)

      Does anybody else out there have an online Tekumel game with space for new players? Or maybe now is the time to start one?

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    2. Many thanks for the invitation! I do understand your referee - been there myself and it's not something I recommend.
      I'll also look around, maybe ask the question in the Tekumel group on FB.

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    3. There is one space available in a Bethorm game that has been mentioned over on the PetalHeads Discord.

      Runs on Tuesday evening, UTC+1 currently.

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  5. An excellent post – and very true to my experience. I've been running an Empire of the Petal Throne campaign for five and half years now with a stable group of players (there are eight of them now), most of whom know little to nothing about Tékumel beforehand. Now, they behave like natives. All it really takes is time.

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    1. Hey James, thanks for dropping by, and since you didn't sound your own tunkul I guess I'd better do it :-) Folks, James is one of the leading lights of Tekumel fandom, a regular co-host on the Hall of Blue Illumination podcast (https://tekumelpodcast.com/ ) and the editor of the Excellent Travelling Volume (https://tetvzine.com/ ). It's a pleasure and a privilege, good sir.

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    2. That's very kind of you to say. Allow me to return the compliment by saying how much I appreciate Tirikélu, portions of whose magic system I have imported into my campaign as representing foreign magical traditions.

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