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Friday, 3 November 2017

Tékumel – Powered By The Apocalypse

It’s certainly not want of rule systems that’s responsible for the obscurity of Professor MAR Barker's world of Tékumel - an obscurity that is unjust and tragic too, because not only did Prof Barker create a fascinating and intricately detailed world, he also designed it from the outset with gaming in mind. Which is why it works much better as an RPG setting than worlds that were designed to tell a story – Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, say, or Vance’s Dying Earth.

A new set of rules for Tékumel roleplaying comes along every few years (I've only contributed to the glut with my own Tirikelu RPG, though I happen to think it's rather good and has the added advantage of being free) but conscpicuous by its absence is Powered By The Apocalypse (aka the Apocalypse World Engine, or AWE).

So, in for a qirgal, in for a kaitar. This is not by any means a complete hack of the AWE system for Tékumel. That would take fifty pages or more. But it should be enough to get started with.

To a Tsolyani, each person has five selves. The body (bakte) is the physical being. The mind (hlakme) is the reasoning entity. The shadow (chusetl) is the dream self. The soul (baletl) is the immortal essence of the person. And finally the id (pedhetl, literally “enemy”) is the infantile self of instinct, desires and fears.

The point isn’t simply that we have multiple flavours of soul. As Patrick Brady’s article on Tsolyani metaphysics makes clear, we exist in five overlapping worlds and we have an identity in each of them: the physical world, the conceptual world, the social world, the dream world, and the world of primitive drives and animal needs.

With a little licence we can translate the five selves into AWE stats:
  • Body = physical attributes; health, strength, and reflexes
  • Mind = conceptual attributes; memory, intelligence
  • Shadow = imaginative attributes; inspiration, creativity, intuition
  • Soul = social attributes; how honourable, balanced, confident a person is
  • Enemy = basic emotions; aggression, selfishness, lust, etc; a person with strong pedhetl is forceful and likely to be noticed – whether as a trouble-maker or as a hero depends on other attributes.
One option is to assign values to the five stats (+2, +1, +1, 0 and -1) at the start of the game.

Alternatively, you could play through the characters’ childhood allowing them each in turn to “remember” early escapades. What the players do in those episodes will decide their adult stats.

Tsolyanu has a rich and complex social system which does not readily reduce to a few numerical values. For example, in a pinch any of these characters would be expected to put other family members first, whatever their personal friendship with another character from outside the lineage.

With that caveat in mind, each player assigns relationship values (History, or “Hx” in the AWE system, as in “this character has history with me”) to reflect their character’s attitude to each other PC: +2 for the character they have the closest link to, -1 for the one they know least, +1 for other members of their own lineage, and 0 to all others.

Note that having History +2 with another character doesn’t have to mean you like them. Maybe they once humiliated you in front of everyone and you’ve never forgotten it, even if they have.

In the PbtA system any character can attempt a basic move.

For example, aiming to wrestle somebody to the ground would involve rolling 2D6 and adding the appropriate stat (Body in this case). If you score 10+ you’ve done it just like you intended. On a 7-9 you’ve achieved a qualified success: the referee will offer a cost (maybe you sprain your shoulder, which could be reflected as Harm taken or an ongoing -1 modifier) and if you choose to press ahead you succeed but pay the cost. On a roll of 6 or less you fail, and ideally the referee will use that failure to set up something else (“you slip, end up flat on your back, and you’re the laughing stock of the island; get the nickname Yojo, which means Wobbly”).

I already said that this isn’t supposed to be a full Tekumel hack of Powered By The Apocalypse, but here are a few basic moves:
  • Intimidate (2d6 + Enemy)
  • Charm (2d6 + Shadow)
  • Convince (2d6 + Mind)
  • Inspire (2d6 + Soul)
  • Seduce (2d6 + Body)
Those can be applied to player-characters, but of course a player isn’t obliged to have their character behave in any way other than what they decide. So you can refuse to give in to a convincing argument even if the other person rolls 10+. However, if you do play along with it you gain experience.

Other basic moves for the Falesa islander characters featured in this scenario:
  • Swim
  • Fight
  • Read a person
  • Hide
  • Cook
and so on. In all cases the player should describe what they’re actually doing, not simply say, “I’m using such-&-such a move.” Be careful or it can get abstract and boardgamey.

A basic move that deserves some discussion is the art of the well-mannered insult. I can give an example from our own campaign. Karunaz (played by Paul Mason), a low-born foreigner, had bad history with Lord Káshu (played by me), a Tsolyani of high status. He greeted him as “Lord Kárshü” – which actually sounds a lot like “Lord Bald” in the Tsolyani language, and Káshu is in fact bald, yet it could conceivably be Karunaz’s atrocious accent rather than a deliberate slight. In this case, if Karunaz scores 10+ then he gets away with it – Káshu is left fuming, but realizes that to make a point of it would look petty and expose him to more ridicule in everyone else’s eyes. If Karunaz gets 7-9, the insult stands but Káshu demands shamtla (monetary compensation) or, if Karunaz weren't of such low status, might insist on a duel. If Karunaz gets 6 or less, the insult backfires – everybody regards him as an uncouth foreigner who can’t behave in civilized society.

Another example of that: when Lamont Cranston calls Shiwan Khan a barbarian. This clip cuts just before Cranston rolls the move (he gets a 10+ btw).

Special moves in AWE are specific to a character or class of characters, and provide a bonus when those actions are undertaken. For example, hunters get Stalking, which adds +1 to any roll made when tracking prey. Bear in mind that the characters given for this scenario are not necessarily archetypes of Tekumel at large (those would be: scholar, official, heavy infantryman, wizard, priest, bodyguard, thief, etc) and in some cases are not even types but rather specific roles.
  • When any character attempts something that is in keeping with their family’s traditional traits, they get +1 ongoing as long as it remains applicable.
  • When any character achieves a goal reflecting their family traits, they gain experience.
For example, Goreng hiLanaka stands up single-handed to three Mu’ugalavyani sailors who are trying to molest his sister Karisa. The Lanaka are famously brave, so he gets +1 on all rolls while trying to deal with the sailors. If he succeeds in protecting his sister from them, he’ll get XP.

For more on how to run a Powered by the Apocalypse game, take a look at the TV Tropes page. No, really.

Campaign themes
If you want to get self-conscious about themes, there's plenty here to explore. Roots v new beginnings (local god v the Tsolyani pantheon, old ways v civilized customs, etc). Also family ties v new loyalties. The perennial choices of immigrants in a new land, or indeed simply of the backwoods boy or girl who goes off to make a new life in the big city.

Personally I don't much care for imposing themes on a roleplaying campaign. If you look for them you'll find them, and that's more satisfying than trying to wrangle events into the shape of a TV season – but hey, it's the fashion, so do what thou wilt.

If it helps to have a list of refereeing principles, I suggest the following (taken from Joe McDonald’s Simple World rules).
  • WONDER: sprinkle evocative details everywhere.
  • ATMOSPHERE: make the world seem real.
  • SCOPE: build a bigger world through play.
  • CHARACTER-FOCUSSED: create interesting dilemmas, not interesting plots.
  • IMMERSION: address yourself to the characters, not the players.
  • PLAYER-LED: give the players freedom to explore; the story is what they choose to do.
OK, so now let's apply all that to an actual scenario...

Just Off The Boat:
a start-up campaign for players new to Tékumel

The player-characters come from Falesá, a coastal village on a small island of the same name that lies just north-east of Ssámris Island. Life has been getting harder for the islanders. Game and fish are less plentiful, and several raids by Mu’ugalavyani pirates have taken their toll.

Matters come to a head and a group of strong young people will shortly be sent off to seek their fortune on the mainland. The hope is that they will be able to bring wealth back to the island, though some of the more far-sighted elders realize their best hope is to establish a new home in the Tsolyani city of Jakalla.

Players start by determining their lineage, then choosing a role, then deciding their stats.

Players roll for status using a six-sided die. A roll of 1 indicates you belong to the Konumra lineage. A roll of 2-3 means the Lanaka lineage. 4-6 is the Shathirin lineage. In the Falesá community, the Konumra are the highest status, the Shathirin the lowest.

But as far as most Tsolyáni are concerned, the islanders are all of negligible social standing, barely above barbarians. That may not be clear to the PCs until they arrive in a mainland city.

This choice determines the character’s initial skills. There is one each of:
  • Acolyte
  • Athlete
  • Black Sheep
  • Outsider
Those are unique characters. The rest of the characters should be either
  • Fisherman or
  • Hunter
Players should make their selection based only on the role description, without seeing the skill-level allocations. Note that some roles have a prerequisite status.

The Acolyte has studied under the priest of the village. He/she must be a Konumra or Lanaka.

The Athlete is the village champion in the annual wrestling and acrobatics contests held against other islands. He/she must belong to the Konumra family and will have often got out of humdrum chores so as to train, possibly to the envy of the other characters.

The Black Sheep can be of any lineage. He or she has had a misspent youth, having run away to Ssámris Isle for several years. He/she begins in low esteem but has picked up some interesting skills.

The Fisherman, a standard island character, can be a Lanaka or Shathirin. Any number of players can select this role.

The Hunter is another standard character, but this time must be a Lanaka or Konumra. As with the Fisherman, more than one player can take this role.

The Outsider is of lowest status. He or she is not one of the Falesá villagers by birth, but a Nom merchant who arrived penniless and decided to stay.

Each character (except the Outsider) must be fitted onto the family trees provided. A player who objects to being assigned a first name may change it, bearing in mind that these are the characters’ formal names and they would have other informal names for use by family and close friends.

HANDOUT: PC background
(You can give each player a copy of these notes after he/she has generated a character. That’s if they want to plunge straight into the “real” campaign. Personally I think it’s more interesting to develop their life on the island first, especially as you can contrast the idyllic days of their childhood with the much harder times they’ve fallen on of late.)

In former times, life in Falesá was not so hard as now. Historically the island of Ssámris has passed between Tsolyáni and Mu’ugalavyáni hands several times. Your families sided with the Tsolyáni in the dispute of 2020 AS. Now Ssámris is back in Mu’ugalavyáni hands and you are paying the price. Settlers have come to your little island. The Mu’ugalavyáni government favours them in trade and legal matters, leaving you in straitened circumstances.

You have decided to leave and seek your fortune in Tsolyánu. Perhaps you can return with wealth to help your families; perhaps you can pave the way for them all to enjoy a new life on the mainland. Perhaps you will even rise to prominence as admirals in the Tsolyáni navy and come back to displace the Mu’ugalavyáni from your home.

The Konumra family (high) are considered wise and generous. The Lanaka family (medium) are noted for their bravery and honesty. The Shathirin family (low) are thought energetic and modest.

Falesá reveres Pavar’s gods, most notably specific aspects of Hnalla, Hrü’ü, Belkhanu and Karakan. Also important is an aboriginal deity called Bithra who has a fane in a stand of bamboo on your island. The Shathirin family are keepers of the fane, and only the older women of this family take offerings to Bithra. However, Bithra is the tutelary deity of all Falesá and it is the custom among all the islanders to call on him first when in trouble. He may only be a minor deity, but he is more likely to help you than those mighty Lords of Heaven.

You each have some money. Also you have a yacht. This is jointly owned by all of you but technically subject to the disposal of Konumra family members.

(Give a copy of these notes to the Outsider player.)

The Nom are a seafaring race (black-skinned than brown-skinned like the Tsolyani) inhabiting a number of city-states spread throughout an archipelago of many islands and coral atolls far to the east of Falesa. The economy is based principally on fishing, with some agriculture on the larger islands, and other commodities traded overseas with Salarvya and Haida Pakala. (Property is less important than custom: the right to fish in a certain bay, etc. Property can be lost, but such rights—which descend through the female line—can never be taken away.)

The Nom gods are:

Lord Done, who sends fair winds for ships.
Lord An Hu, who gave the gift of fire; he oversees metalworking and the exchange of hard currency; he is invoked when making pacts because he abhors an oathbreaker.
Lady Jiu, lady of the sea, who protects children and pregnant mothers.
Lord Kaa, who rewards bold men with the courage to fight and win in battle, but punishes cowards with slow death.
Lord Ne’en, terrible harbinger of violent storms.
Lady Pei, goddess of luck.
Lady Chi’nh, spirit of night and mother of the moons, who brings the tides that give fishermen their catches.
Lord To’u, who is Death.

The Nom have a shame-based culture (even more so than the Tsolyáni). Simply to refuse to accept a Nom’s word on a matter is to shame him. To avoid disgrace a man will choose exile or even death. Nom who have been shamed say "Pei has turned her face away" and become fatalistic until some happy stroke of luck restores their belief in the chance to redress their shame.

Nom society is matrilineal. This does not mean it is a matriarchy, however. Men still rule, but inheritance is through the female line. A man is therefore often closer to his sister’s children than to his own; they are the ones who will inherit his family’s responsibilities, rights and property.

Several lineages make up a clan. Each city-state has members of all twenty-four Nom clans. Nine of the clans comprise the Sea People and fifteen are the Land People. The names of these two factions indicate their different areas of authority: fishing & overseas trade in the former case and farming, crafts & markets in the latter. The paramount lords of the two factions rule the city on alternate days.

The clans themselves are exogamous. Men marry outside their lineage and clan, and then go to live with their wife’s family. Each clan is responsible for certain rituals. For a city-state to declare war, for instance, requires twenty-four rituals to be performed and therefore cannot happen without the consent of all the clans. But a lesser state of aggression can be declared by only nine Sea People rituals, giving those clans considerable sway in matters of minor foreign policy.
There are serfs, but the caste is hereditary and the Nom view the enslavement of free men as a barbarous practice. In general Nom society is very cultured. Oaths made in the name of An Hu are always honoured, but An Hu is only invoked if the pact is a matter of great weight—to mention him in the same breath as a simple promise would be disrespectful.

Special moves
You should decide on some special moves for each character type. For instance:

The Acolyte
  • Scholarship – for all rolls involving history, theology, geography and languages add +1.
  • Divination – read somebody’s skein of destiny; you need to construct their birth chart, then it’s a basic move using Shadow.
  • Petition the God – You know enough not to bother the great gods such as Hnalla with your troubles, but you can ask Bithra for a favour, a basic move using Soul. (-2 anywhere but the island itself, -1 if not at Bithra’s fane.)
The Black Sheep
Special moves depend on what the Black Sheep character has been up while away from the island, so those missing years could be played out one-on-one with the referee.

The Outsider
  • Well-travelled – when being street-savvy in the Foreigners’ Quarter of Jakálla, add +1.
  • Foreign languages – make a Mind roll to understand non-Tsolyani speakers.
The Athlete
  • Winner – add +1 in any competition
  • Peak Fitness – add +1 to any roll involving Body
  • He/she should roll 1D6 for performance in last year’s all-islands contest: 1-2 = no distinction; 3-5 = performed well; 6 = outright winner.
Any Fisherman character
  • All rolls involving sailing and swimming, add +1
  • Hold your breath – basic move using Body
Any Hunter
  • Stalking – whenever you’re tracking prey, add +1
  • Danger Sense – basic move using Enemy
Family relationships
In Falesá, as in mainland Tsolyánu, your true mother’s sisters (and your father’s brother’s wives) are all your “mothers”. Likewise, your true father’s brothers (and your mother’s sister’s husbands) are all your “fathers”. Children of these people are your brothers and sisters. Your true mother’s brothers (and true father’s sister’s husbands) are your “uncles”, and your father’s sisters (and your mother’s brother’s wives) are your “aunts”.

Thus many of the player-characters are related. Shiwan, for example, is the younger brother of Goreng’s and Etmesh’s mother, making him their uncle. Areli’s mother is the sister of Timung’s and Tamkade’s mother, so the three of them are siblings. And so on.

Some marriages are pending. Shiwan hiKonumra is betrothed to Karisa hiLanaka, Etmesh hiLanaka to Ji’una hiShathirin, and Timung hiShathirin to Darsha hiLanaka. It has not been possible to hold the marriage ceremonies for want of the wealth needed for the appropriate gifts and ceremony.

Money and belongings
Shathirin family members start with 20 silver hlash, Lanaka family members with 40 hlash, and Konumra family members with 60 hlash. The Outsider is equipped with a spear and light leather armour. Shathirins have two weapons. Lanakas have three weapons. Konumras have light leather, a small shield, and four weapons. Anyone taking a bow as one of his weapons also has twenty arrows.

History of the island
These are the major events which have provoked gossip, speculation and daydreams over the last quarter century. You could play these out as an introductory session as players develop their characters.

Twenty-five years ago: A Tsolyáni priest from Jakálla visits Falesá on his way to Khéiris. He ends up staying a month and blesses the fishing boats before going on his way. At the next catch, the nets fill with fish and there is feasting for a month.

Twenty years ago: Mesmei hiKonumra becomes pregnant but refuses to divulge the father’s name. The child is called Ngemu hiCheshna – “the son of the unknown”.

Eighteen years ago: A strange creature, said to be a hlüss, is washed up dead on the beach. It is buried under a pile of coral rocks at the mouth of the lagoon.

Sixteen years ago: A Livyáni ship puts in for supplies. Its crew (including a shen) terrorize the village until Chondrek hiLanaka wrestles with and beats the shen.

Fifteen years ago: Tsolyáni sailors press-gang Chondrek hiLanaka while he’s trading in Ssámris. He is destined to return later after many adventures.

Thirteen years ago: A rock falls from the sky onto the beach and emits a yellow vapour that kills Chondrek hiLanaka’s old dog.

Twelve years ago: Hukel hiLanaka signs on aboard a Salarvyani ship. He has not been seen since.

Ten years ago: Gimangresh hiKonumra is drowned when his boat is caught in a squall.

Nine years ago: A gang of boys pelt Ngemu hiCheshna with pebbles while he is walking on the hillside. Later, two of the boys are badly gored by an unidentified creature while playing in the forest.

Eight years ago: Chondrek hiLanaka (now missing a leg) returns from his voyages. He is a drunken hulk of his former self and sits on the beach all day telling wild stories.

Seven years ago: Ngemu hiCheshna disappears.

Six years ago: The great storm, in which the houses lose their roofs and half the island’s fishing boats are washed away. Ashinra hiShathirin tells everyone: “It is Bithra, out searching the bay for Ngemu hiCheshna.”

Five years ago: A traveller from Tsolyánu is washed ashore after a shipwreck and spends a month recuperating in the village before travelling to Ssámris. There is a plentiful catch after he leaves and the elders are reminded of the priest who stayed with them twenty years before. Later it is discovered that the Black Sheep character has left, presumably having stowed away on the boat that took the Tsolyáni back to Ssámris.

Four years ago: Ashinra hiShathirin sees a chashkeri ("mermaid" – actually a sea creature that close-up bears no resemblance to a human, female or otherwise) washing its hair in the lagoon. She never speaks again.

Three years ago: Domandoi hiKonumra wins the all-islands athletics trophy and there is joyous feasting lasting for days. As the feasting ends, the Black Sheep character returns from his wanderings.

Two years ago: The Nom outsider arrives on the island. Penniless, he is given hospitality in return for helping with odd jobs.

Last year: Mu’ugalavyáni sailors put in at the island and take Ssaria hiShathirin to the god Bìthra’s fane and rape her. They all die of fever a few days later.

It is now 2368 AS. Dhich’une has been deposed and the new Dra-worshipping Emperor Neshkiruma II, “the Conciliator”, has taken the throne. A Ditlana has been announced for Jakálla. The Empire looks forward to a period of renewal, but the prospect on Falesá is bleak.

If you’re playing through the characters’ childhood, early threats should be scary but not serious. It’s only recently that truly hard times have come to Falesa. Some options:

The beast in the jungle – part I.
A part of the island that they all know to avoid. Game is scarce because something that lives here is hunting for itself. A dnelu? A zrne? A feshenga? Nobody knows because they have the sense to steer well clear of it – until the day that one of the younger children wanders off while their mothers were on the beach fixing nets. The PC youths hastily assemble a rescue party, venturing closer to the beast’s lair with mounting dread. And then – defuse the tension with the joyous cry that the toddler has been found playing in a rock pool. The PCs are able to turn back.

Shipwrecked sailors
A few desperate fellows are hiding out on the far side of the island. They needn’t be real troublemakers. Maybe they’ve stolen some food. Maybe one of their number is injured or sick. A chance to make a friend who will help the PCs later in Jakalla?

The volcano
The peak can smoulder and rumble from time to time. It needn’t erupt – the characters don’t even know that it can, probably – but it might suggest to them that the gods are angry.

The beast in the jungle – part II
This time it’s not a child that’s gone missing but one of the hunters’ dogs, Pagi (= “pal”) and for somebody, hopefully a PC, that’s the last straw. They go off to deal with the beast once and for all. Having built enough of a sense of dread around it, you might go with an anti-climax. The beast is old and not nearly so dangerous as they expect. They take its head, and possibly even rescue Pagi (who might be wrapped up in a web, injured but as yet uneaten). But that’s not the real problem…

The real problem
As they return from killing the beast, a sharp-eyed hunter character looks down the hillside. “Smoke!” A thread of smoke is visible, and is quickly joined by more as they race back through the forest. They arrive to find the village huts on fire, several people dead, the livestock plundered. Broad-sailed ships are sailing away. A pirate raid! There’s not much the PCs can do, but here is an opportunity to impress with leadership as they help the wounded.

The elders’ moot
In the aftermath of the raid, it’s finally decided to send a group of young people away to find a better life. “If we stay here, our families are doomed,” says old of the elders. You could add an extra hook by having had one of the characters’ brothers or sisters carried off by the raiders. Their search for the lost character could then be a thread driving their early adventures in Jakalla. Possible leads: the insignia on the raiders’ sails; a comment made by one of the raiders; an item dropped by a raider or found on his body if he was killed during the attack (a possible heroic death for Chondrek hiLanaka?).

Clan and nationality
The following is strictly for the referee’s eyes only.

The player-characters are not recognized as Tsolyáni citizens, nor do they belong to a clan. However, if one or more of them eventually acquire citizenship then by implication it would be possible for the whole island to become known as the Falesá clan.

Another route to acquiring citizenship is by precedent. Back in 2020, there was a period of some fifty years when Falesá island served as a depot for the Red Flower clan. The Shathirin family are in fact direct descendents of the Zanirin lineage of that clan. (The spelling differs because literacy is low on the island.) The others are collateral branches of lineages no longer represented in Red Flower, but known in other clans. If the characters discover this fact (which is not widely known) then they might be able to petition for the clan to recognize them.

Divine intervention
Being only a minor demon, Bithra is very interested in his few worshippers and is relatively likely to render them aid. Failure when asking for his aid results in the character getting a rash, a cold, or some other petty ailment, such things being known as “Bithra’s chastisements” – though sometimes you get both the chastisement and what you asked for.

Setting forth
The yacht that will take them to Jakálla is a single-masted vessel large enough for ten people. The whole village gathers on the beach and, after a final pep talk from the elders, they are ready to set sail.

The voyage starts well, with a fair south-westerly breeze making for good headway. One course is to steer due north until they reach the mainland, then follow the coast around to Jakálla. More daringly, they could strike out directly east for Point Küne. Assuming the yacht covers 100-150 kilometres a day, landfall will optimally occur after three or four days on the former route, ten days on the latter.

Navigation is a possible source of dispute if more than one character fancies themself as the best sailor. Once within sight of the coast, navigation rolls need not be made except in fog or heavy rain.

Possible threats:
  • Damage to the yacht; reducing speed and resale value
  • Man overboard; rescue attempts may be modified in stormy weather
  • Accident; character is injured for 1-3 Harm.
The yacht has fresh water and food for two weeks. Once this has run out, they can keep on for another couple of days at best.

The aim is not to kill off the characters before their adventures even get started. If they get into real trouble there are plenty of alternative fates you can throw at them. They could be wrecked on an uncharted island, picked up by a passing ship, or beached in the mangrove swamps between Penom and Point Küne. If they reach Jakálla without the yacht, they lose face and have the task of making do without the money they would have got for selling it.

Seeking their fortune
On arrival in Jakálla, the characters first task is to find themselves accommodation. Staying at a hostel in the Foreigners’ Quarter costs them face (they don’t think of themselves as foreigners in Tsolyánu) but is at least cheap – say 20 Hlash a day for the whole group. Alternatively they can find a squat in the Jakállan slums. Either option is dirty, smelly and generally a far cry from life on their tropical island home.

The Konumra family members have the final say on whether or not to sell the yacht. They should be able to get 80 to 150 Kaitars for it, assuming they are sensible enough to trust the advice of the most street-smart characters. Otherwise they’ll probably be tricked with clipped coins or some other ploy and only get half the yacht’s true value. (Clipped coins also have to be handed in to the Imperial Mint on pain of execution, and it might then be months before they got back even a fraction of their money.)

Heads held high
A theme of this campaign is the struggle of the characters to achieve wealth and recognition without betraying their principles. They have been raised in a close-knit community that (in common with most of mainland Tsolyánu) sets great store by honourable behaviour. Thrown into the urban jungle of Jakálla’s slums, can they maintain their dignity or will they soon resort to crime?

As referee, your task is to present the players with scenarios that will challenge their moral values and present difficulties for them to either triumph over or give in to.

The first mission
The characters are visited by Mirizhan hiTathlua of the Blazoned Sail Clan, steward of Nokesh hiPayuli of the White Stone Clan. He offers them 5 Hlash a day each to protect Nokesh, with a bonus of 50 Kaitars if they deal with the person who has been threatening him.

Nokesh lives in a villa along the coast, about eight hours’ walk from Jakálla. The characters are told to present themselves there the following day. When they show up, Mirizhan passes them on his way out. He has packed and is leaving, he says, now he’s done his duty and arranged for his master to be guarded.

Nokesh is blind. He keeps to a locked room at the back of the house. He opens a panel in the door before unbolting it to admit anyone. He conducts his arrangements entirely with the character’s leader (the eldest Konumra family member).

Nokesh’s room is a musty book-lined study. Doors open onto the garden patio, but they are shuttered and bolted. As they cross the room to a table where there is a bottle of brandy waiting, Nokesh makes some comment about the player-character’s physical attributes – “Ah, you are a strong man,” or something like that. How did he know? He chuckles before explaining that the steps dividing the antechamber from the main room creak under a person’s weight. He can tell how tall a person is when they speak, so their weight lets him estimate how muscular they are. Nokesh is quite pleased with himself when he manages a little trick like this.

Nokesh is willing enough to tell his story over a goblet of brandy. He was a captain of marines in the Flotilla of Hagarr. Twelve years ago he and his lieutenant, Thojeng hiDresak of the Red Sky Clan, won a hard battle against the escort of a Mu’ugalavyáni ship. They discovered a treasure worth many thousands of Kaitars which they buried off Ngeshtu Head, knowing they could come back for it when their term of service was up.

Nokesh and Thojeng were subsequently captured by the Mu’ugalavyáni and imprisoned. During an escape attempt they got separated. Thojeng was recaptured; Nokesh escaped into the backstreets of Khéiris where he was press-ganged by Livyáni pirates along with his steward, Mirizhan. He later became blinded by a Doomkill explosion. Three years ago he and Mirizhan got their freedom and made their way back to Ngeshtu Head, but the treasure was already gone.

Nokesh learned that his family had perished in a Mu’ugalvyani raid on Penom. He retired to the family villa near Jakálla, where he lived in lonely isolation until a few weeks ago, when he received a message from Thojeng demanding a large sum of money.

“Isn’t it enough that he took my treasure?” laments Nokesh. “Why does he come to persecute me now?”

The truth
The treasure wasn’t taken by Thojeng but by Mirizhan, who was lying when he told his blind master it was gone. Mirizhan has moved his family off up north and has been slowly preparing for the move himself, intending to retire to a life of luxury, but Thojeng’s arrival on the scene scuppered that plan.

Thojeng thinks Nokesh has swindled him. After spending six years in the Mu’ugalavyáni prison he was sold into slavery in Ch’ochi, escaped, and ended up leading a band of brigands in the Tlashte Heights for three years. When he finally got to Ngeshtu Head and found the treasure missing, he came gunning for his erstwhile captain.

What happens
Mist begins to roll in off the sea, advancing up the garden like a solid white wall. Towards dusk, an old man with a wooden leg comes hobbling up to the house. His ragged clothes, staff and backpack make him look like a traveller. But he is no pedlar or wandering lay priest. He says his name is Ssunruel of Tumissa; “Thojeng sent me. I’m here to parley with the master of the house.”

He is admitted to the study and spends some time talking with Nokesh. Voices are raised, then Nokesh summons his manservant and has Ssunruel put in a guest room. “We’ll speak again in the morning,” says Ssunruel.

Nokesh snorts: “Why bother?”

The next day Nokesh will not let anybody into his room. By mid-afternoon Ssunruel decides to leave.

That night, assuming the characters get suspicious and force an entry, Nokesh is discovered dead. He has obviously been dead for hours. The room appears to have been searched.

Failing to protect Nokesh causes the characters great discredit. Make a hard referee roll for each character with Soul as a bonus. Success means they feel the shame -- though it's up to them what they do about it. The honourable thing would be to remain and if possible bring the culprit to justice. Or they could just scram with their money and leave Nokesh’s servants and distant clan-cousins to sort things out, but inevitably they will be questioned by the police and there is a strong chance they’ll be blamed for Nokesh’s murder.

How it happened
Inside Ssunruel’s backpack hid Chikattag, a tinaliya with a gift for ventriloquism and mimickry. Posing as the characters’ leader, he got into Nokesh’s room during the night and killed him, but could not find the money. To buy more time to search the room he mimicked Nokesh’s voice and told people to keep out.

Clues to look for
Nokesh was murdered beside the creaky steps. (That was when he realised it wasn’t a human that had entered the room, but something much lighter.) The wound was a stab upwards into his abdomen. (Hence a very low blow.) There are tiny scratch-marks on the polished floorboards (caused by Chikattag’s hard chitinous feet).

After hearing Ssunruel’s report, Thojeng assumes the characters are the ones with the missing loot. He comes in force with his men to issue an ultimatum. They must convince him they don’t have the treasure (or agree to a strip-search and then vamoose). Otherwise it’s clobbering time.

Various outcomes
The ideal situation would be if the characters guarded Nokesh well enough to prevent him being murdered in the first place. This will be quite hard, because Chikattag is stealthy and cunning.

The characters ought to be given time to get suspicious about “Nokesh” refusing to let anyone into his study the next day. If they listen at the door they could hear boxes being opened and cabinets moved around. They don’t have much chance of catching Chikattag even if they decide to break the door in – since the fire has burned out overnight he can escape up the chimney.

Even if the characters have figured out everything when Thojeng shows up and tell him that Mirizhan must have the loot, they still might feel obliged to do something about Nokesh’s murder. They can wipe out most of that dishonour by taking revenge on the tinaliya (who is not a Tsolyáni citizen) or by insisting that Thojeng makes a payment of shamtla and half the treasure to Nokesh’s clan. They’ll still be left to reflect their failure to do the job they were hired for.

You can download a PDF of this article here.The original version of the Falesa scenario (for Tirikelu rules) is here. Inspiration for the setting comes from Robert Louis Stevenson's short story "The Beach of Falesa". The illustration at the top is by Martin Helsdon and appears in The Eye of All-Seeing Wonder for spring 1995.

Caveat 1: the Apocalypse system is built around stereotypes (not even archetypes) drawn from modern genre movies/TV (Mad Max, Buffy, etc) and is designed to shape player-characters' behaviour to fit the tropes of those shows. It's certainly not about thinking your way into the mind-set of somebody from a very different culture, nor indeed about creating stories that deviate from the standard forms of 20th and 21st century pulp. That would be selling Tekumel short -- it's a setting that's lushly detailed, exotic, nuanced, and far deeper than "I am an X who does Y". If you used PbtA rules for my Tsolyani police campaign, for instance, you'd end up with something that had the vibe of a typical modern cop show; the Tekumelani aspects would only be cosmetic. Still, as means of introducing players to Tekumel you could do a lot worse than PbtA. I started out playing Empire of the Petal Throne, for Pete's sake, and that was barely one step above Basic D&D.

Caveat 2: I haven't come close to doing justice to the Apocalypse system here. That would take a lot more work and, since I couldn't get the Tekumel PbtA rights, it wouldn't be worth it. It's a shame because Professor Barker wrote the original EPT rules in six weeks having played in one D&D game, and that's about how long it would take to write a publishable Apocalypse variant. EPT is still the best possible introduction to the world of Tekumel but nobody under retirement age would dream of playing those creaky old mid-seventies mechanics; it exists now as merely an historical curiosity. So it would be marvellous to have a rebuilt version of EPT using the Apocalypse system, as that would provide new players with a set of conceptual templates for the kinds of characters and quests you might encounter when you're fresh off the boat in Jakalla. Take a look at Gregor Vuga's splendid Sagas of the Icelanders and then imagine that same panache and vigour rebooting Empire of the Petal Throne. I can dream...

Addendum (3 March 2019): I've just come across Stephen Gunnell's Tekumel World rules, which are a lot more detailed than my sketchy ideas above.


  1. This is a fantastic post. Thank you.

    This is what this fantasy world needs: a fresh approach, using one of the current popular systems ... with a ready-to-go adventure!

    Too bad the powers that be didn't let you get the Tekumel PbtA rights.
    We can dream ...

    - Alex

    1. Technically I could write a Tekumel PbtA variant, but the rules of the Tekumel Foundation are that I'd have to release it for free. No Tekumel product makes much money, but to devote six weeks of work simply for the love of it is too much. Oh well...

  2. I’m sure Prof Baker would approve of this, Dave : ) thanks for sharing it with us.

    How about Dragon Warriors : PBTA ? With ‘Myth Levels’ incorporated as well perhaps ?

    It could be Legendary !

    1. You know, John, you've just given me (another) possibly brilliant idea. This is turning into a habit. Watch this space.

  3. Great post Dave ! Kevin Crawford wrote (I discovered this a few weeks ago) a nice system for Tékumel (for free and legally here) : ; and Rpg Now , two other rule systems for Tékumel can be downloaded for free. ("Heroic Age of Tékumel" & "The Petal Hack")

    1. Actually there's a fourth free system for Tekumel, namely my Tirikelu RPG. (Click on the pic in the sidebar.)

    2. Yes, I know, you mention it in your post (+ I think that's where the idea of the introductory scenario comes from, though the first to get the idea of adventurers landing is Jakalla was Pr. Barker himself, in the first RpG he wrote for Tékumel)

    3. Yes indeed, that's a great way into Tsolyani society for new players. At least, it was when most players were familiar with Conan, Cugel, etc. Nowadays the Olde Europe strain of fantasy is so dominant that I think new players need more of a steer to get into Tekumel. Maybe PbtA can provide that.

    4. Indeed one month ago, I had a look at all the rule system I could find (except "Béthorm", the last one by Jeff Dee) and it seemed to me that "Empire of the Petal Throne" by Pr.Barker still remains the best one to have a grasp of Tékumel through arena fights, dungeon crawl or hexcrawl. Gardàsiyal is Worth too thanks to its three gamebooks : not unforgttable as gamebooks, but giving some examples of Tékumel stories to be developped. In fact, I regret that no game system has rules to properly manage clan relationships and events. Maybe Spears of the Dawn by Kevin Crawford could help (whose setting is based on Black Africa) or we should just take back the rules from the first D&D supplement "Oriental Campaigns".

    5. GURPS has the Social Engineering supplement, which could be repurposed to model Tsolyani society and politics, though it'd be a hammer to crack a walnut. I ran some articles in The Eye of All-Seeing Wonder that dealt with how social class affects the legions you can join and how fast you can get promoted, but most of the time we just wing it.

    6. Swords and Glory has tables to generate your family group, siblings and parents. The Petal Hack has some similar tables and you could use them to create a whole clan house.

    7. I think it's not so much what to call your clan and family that gives new players trouble, but how you model social obligations and so on. There is, of course, no substitute for soaking up the world and just roleplaying it -- but I'm thinking that AWE may be one way to help people get there. After all, if we could start out with an ancient system like EPT (D&D) and still find our way into Tsolyani society, how much better to do that with rules designed for relationships.

  4. "he also designed it from the outset with gaming in mind" Really? I've never heard that before. I had thought it was world-building as a young SF/F fan, and also a basis for writing fiction. I even heard there is unpublished fiction that he wrote way back before the early 70s and the advent of roleplay. The fiction resides in the archives. Since the Professor was active in golden age fandom and on personal terms with several published authors, I never questioned this. So, what makes you say that Tekumel was designed with gaming in mind? I'm very curious. Perhaps you mean as background for miniature army battles, a la HG Wells?

    1. It's the same point that Gary Gygax made in his introduction to the original EPT. While it's true that Barker already had the idea of Tekumel (or at least Tsolyanu) prior to encountering D&D, it was in very rudimentary form until he wrote EPT, and a lot changed as he developed it then. For example, the worship of Vimuhla was a sinister underground cult in his early notes, not one of the principal and respected temples.

      Mainly what makes this approach different is that novelists design their fantasy worlds to tell a specific story. In theory you could set a campaign in Gormenghast, for example, but the real point of that setting is to see it tested to destruction. Most fictional worlds don't hold up once you start trying to explore them in multiple ways. But Tekumel, being designed for gaming, doesn't come with any story assumptions. It's got room for any kind of campaign you want to run in it.

  5. Dragon Warriors for me captured my imagination the same way I guess Dave Morris' was with Tekumel. I have been a secret fan of PbtA for a couple of years now and I am inspired how it has been embraced here. When Dave mentioned that there could be a Dragon Warriors PbtA, coffee came out my nose and I found myself trawling this site looking for his posts on Jewelspider. Because it is NaGaDeMon (National Game Development Month) in the USA, I am trying to see if I can cobble something together for myself, that captures the feeling I got when I first read DW back in the 1980's.

    1. Let me know if you get time to do that, Andrew. I'd love to see it. I have Sagas of the Icelanders and want to find out more about PbtA but the only way to really do that is to play some games.

      I should give credit to Prfessor Barker for DW book 6 especially. In describing Legend I was trying to give that ergodic sense of a whole world to explore that my teenage self got from all the tantalizing snippets in Empire of the Petal Throne.

  6. Maybe people should be playing clans rather than individuals.

  7. Right from the get go, I mean.

    1. You could. Personally I'm interested in role-playing, by which I mean experiencing events and reacting as another person. But there are more abstract rules like Pendragon that put less focus on the inner experience. And Tekumel boardgames, of course, would probably have you play a lineage or clan rather than an individual.