One might ask whether it is possible for players of "Dungeons and Dragons" (and other games of the genre) to enter into such an intensely personal creation. More to the point, can anyone besides myself referee adventures in Tékumel?The above is a quote from the introduction to M.A.R. Barker's 1975 roleplaying game, Empire of the Petal Throne. I quote it because it's an oft-asked question with regards to Tékumel, one that's frequently given as an explanation for why gamers would rather read about this remarkable campaign world rather than play in it.
On one level, I think it's a fair question, but that's because I often think that every campaign setting should be an intensely personal creation, unique to the people who play in it regularly and almost unintelligible to outsiders. Now don't get me wrong: I love to read about other people's campaign worlds, but I don't think reading is a substitute for creating. To my mind, the biggest problem with most "pre-fab" campaign settings is that they tend to encourage the former far more than the latter, a situation aided and abetted by the production of ever more source material written on the (correct) assumption that many gamers will buy setting books they never intend to use. I think it ironic that many of the gamers who'd call Empire of the Petal Throne unplayable because of its six pages of history wouldn't bat an eye at buying, say, a Forgotten Realms book with ten times that information. Again, make no mistake: I love well-detailed campaign settings too and take a lot of pleasure in reading them. However, nothing I read, no matter how well conceived and presented, can compare to what I create and detail through play with my friends. It's in this activity that I think the heart and soul of our hobby lies.
I don't think pre-fab campaign settings need to be impediments to creation through play. Indeed, in some cases, they can be great spurs to creativity. I do think, though, that there's a danger inherent in such settings and that's the false perception that there's a "right" way to play in Tékumel or Greyhawk or Glorantha. Once this pernicious idea takes hold, you close yourself off to many terrific possibilities and contribute to the reduction of roleplaying games to an activity of passive consumption rather than active engagement no different than watching movies or television. This is the reason why analogies with those media tend to raise my hackles. It's not that I think there's anything wrong with wanting one's campaign to be as exciting and "alive" as the best movies or TV shows; it's that I don't think that worthy goal can be achieved by looking to those media as models rather than inspirations for good gaming.
This isn't a new problem for the hobby. As the quote above shows, it's been with us since the beginning. And, if the past is any guide, it'll be with us for a long time to come.