Gamebook store

Friday 29 September 2023

The real deal

M A R Barker used to draw a distinction between “real” Tekumel, the world as it would function if it actually existed, and “game” Tekumel, the version that allows for player-characters changing the course of history in sometimes rather slapstick ways.

It has widely been asserted that real Tekumel (I’m dropping those quotes) is unplayable. Some of Barker’s own gaming group take that view. I’m not so sure. Consider these remarks by the director Satyajit Ray:

“Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s Pather Panchali was serialised in a popular Bengali magazine in the early 1930s. The author had been brought up in a village and the book contained much that was autobiographical. The manuscript had been turned down by the publishers on the ground that it lacked a story. […] I chose Pather Panchali for the qualities that made it a great book: humanism, lyricism, and its ring of truth. I knew I would have to do a lot of pruning and reshaping – I certainly could not go beyond the first half, which ended with the family’s departure for Banaras – but at the same time I felt that to cast the thing into a mould of cut-and-dried narrative would be wrong. The script had to retain some of the rambling quality of the novel because that in itself contained a clue to the feel of authenticity: life in a poor Bengali village does ramble.”

Would it be possible to run a game like that? Ray went on to describe how the filming of Pather Panchali affected him:

“These explorations into the village opened up a new and fascinating world. To one born and bred in the city it had a new flavour, a new texture; and its values were different. It made you want to observe and probe, to catch the revealing details, the telling gestures, the particular turns of speech.”

If modern Bollywood movies typically present us with game India, what Ray was looking for was the real India. And I think that stretch away from genre tropes towards authenticity can be achieved in roleplaying. When I ran Sagas of the Icelanders (Gregor Vuga's RPG, praised so often on this blog that I don’t need to do so again) there was no magic in the game. It became mostly a tale of farmers having boundary disputes, romantic affairs, family arguments. Some raiding and killing, but not a lot, just like in the Icelandic sagas themselves. Grettir’s Saga does have spells and undead, sure, but that’s an outlier.

I like The Northman but it’s set in game Scandinavia, if it’s even truly Norse at all. Grímur Hákonarson's Rams feels more like one of the genuine sagas. I like the pettiness – which isn’t at all petty once your focus adjusts; then it could be the wrath of Achilles. The loose ends and the ambiguity too.

A lot of Depression-era games resemble The Shadow – another movie I love, incidentally – but you could just as well forgo game-1930s for the real-1930s of, say, Patrick Hamilton’s 20,000 Streets Under The Sky, which has way more meat to it than one of Walter Gibson’s Shadow novellas.

Responses to escapism, realism and non-genre gaming suggest that the quest for a real Tekumel, or Legend, or Iceland, or wherever is not something most roleplayers are on board for. But how do you know till you try it? And anyway...


  1. Roger Bell-West (of Improvised Radio Theatre fame; new episode coming tomorrow) just told me about a gamer whose comment on a realistic style of play was: "PCs would probably be limited to unemployed factory workers in Chicago trying to find a bottle of bathtub gin." So to clarify, realism doesn't equate to an absence of incident or excitement. If I were running a realist crime RPG campaign, for example, it wouldn’t be about parking tickets and stolen traffic cones. It can still be serious crime but, drawing analogies from TV drama, I’d be aiming for something nearer to the style of The Staircase or The Sixth Commandment rather than Inspector Morse or The Bridge.