|Not M.A.R. Barker|
What's funny is that, even while I was having this dream, my subconscious mind must have been dimly aware that it wasn't reality. In my dream, Professor Barker looked like Christopher Lee, a fact I actually commented upon to the dream-Barker. I said to him, "You're a lot taller in person." He explained, "I don't photograph well." "So, just like Tékumel?" I answered, to which he replied simply, "Just so."
In my dream, this exchange struck me as insightful, a feeling I still had in the initial stages of wakefulness, when many otherwise silly dreams remain imbued with profundity. Yet, in thinking about it further, I did actually gain some insight into both Tékumel and the presentation of imaginary settings generally. Tékumel has this reputation, mostly among gamers who, I'd wager, have never looked seriously into the setting, let alone played in it, as being uniquely inaccessible and obscure.
It's a long-standing myth, one that probably goes all the way back to the release of Empire of the Petal Throne in 1975, so I suppose I should forgive those who believe it uncritically. Goodness knows I believed it myself for a long time, as I'd heard it repeated often enough among the older gamers I met back in the late 70s and early 80s. The truth of the matter, though, is that, as I learned in my dream, Tékumel "doesn't photograph well." That is, it's not easy to explain through the use of a single image. Unlike D&D, there's no single iconic image that sums it up in a way that makes most gamers jump up and say, "I want to play in this setting!" Consequently, it's come to be viewed as "inaccessible" (and other more pejorative adjectives).
Back in the late 90s, when I was doing the freelance writing thing, there was a widely-circulated notion that "if you can't explain a RPG in a dozen words or less, it's not focused enough." There's a sense in which that's true, but, even so, I'm not sure that being "focused" should be taken as the defining characteristic of a good roleplaying game -- or indeed any creative endeavor. In my opinion, reductionism of this sort is often poisonous to human creativity and, frankly, that's the last thing roleplaying games need to embrace.
Tékumel's inability to be summed up in a soundbite is precisely why it continues to hold my attention. Yet, despite that, it's not truly as alien a setting as its reputation would suggest. It's different from bog standard fantasy, yes, but "inaccessible?" Hardly. Professor Barker himself addresses this very question in his original introduction:
One may 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 Tekumel? I believe that it is indeed possible, and once one gets past the original alienness, it is easy for others to become immersed in the elaborate societies, politics, and adventures of Tekumel. Players of my World of the Petal Throne quickly learn to shiver just as much at the mention of the sound of chiming and the odour of musty cinnamon (you may find out why below) as they do at the creaking of Dracula's coffin and the distant bellowing of the minotaur. The rules given below thus present a familiar game structure centred upon an alien mythos, but any obstacle to pleasurable gaming will disappear after a few readings, and a special section for referees will be appended further on. Continue reading and let me wish you the same pleasures I have enjoyed with the strange world of Tekumel!What Professor Barker says above about Tékumel is just as true of many other imaginary worlds. That's why I no longer worry about whether I can explain a game or setting in a single sentence composed entirely of monosyllabic words. There's no reason to limit one's creativity in such a fashion and I, for one, am glad that Professor Barker has never really tried to do so. The truth is we need more gaming products that "don't photograph well," not less.