Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Retrospective: The Nightmare Maze of Jigrésh

One of the most common knocks against Tékumel is that no one except Professor Barker can successfully run a campaign set on that alien planet. Tékumel, it is said, is just "too weird" for any referee to get a handle on who isn't himself the author of its mysteries, as Barker is. While I disagree with this assertion, I don't think it should be dismissed out of hand. There's no question that Tékumel is a bit more intimidating as a setting than, say, Greyhawk, but that's only because -- and I say this with the deepest respect for both Greyhawk and its creator -- it's not particularly original. That is, Greyhawk is based heavily on medieval Europe and so most gamers already know and understand its society and culture intuitively. That's never going to be true of Tékumel for the vast majority of gamers.

That said, the complexity and alienness of Tékumel tends to get overstated for rhetorical effect in a lot of discussions of the setting. This is often done both by those who haven't played in the setting, who wish to explain why they've never attempted it, and by those who have, in order to preserve the "elite" air that sometimes wafts around the setting. Now, I know for a fact that playing in Tékumel is both possible for the uninitiated and that no less an authority than Professor Barker himself feels Tékumel is only slightly more unusual than other fantasy settings, as he says in the Introduction to the original Empire of the Petal Throne:
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.
Of course, saying and doing are two different things. In my experience, a significant barrier to attempting to run a Tékumel-based campaign is the lack of easily available models. If one is playing D&D or Traveller -- or indeed most other RPGs -- there are a large number of pre-made adventure modules to which one can turn for guidance. That's just not the case for Empire of the Petal Throne. That's not to say there aren't any modules for EPT, but they are few and far between.

One such module is 1981's The Nightmare Maze of Jigrésh by Michael E. Mayeau and published by Judges Guild under license. This 16-page module details what even its author calls a "dungeon" for use with EPT, namely the eponymous labyrinth of an Engsvanyáli priest of Sárku named Jigrésh. According to the opening "designer's notes" section, Mayeau consulted with Professor Barker by phone when writing this module, receiving a great deal of help in placing the Maze and its backstory within the world of Tékumel. Though the notes don't say so, I can't help but wonder if Barker did the same thing with Mayeau that he did with me several years ago, imagining details that mesh one's own ideas with those he himself had already established about Tékumel.

The Nightmare Maze of Jigrésh is by no means a great module. In it, the characters set off to steal the fabled Claw of Srükárum from the Maze, which, as its name suggests, is a maze of twisting corridors and passageways, with little in the way of rooms or chambers. Good luck mapping it -- or, for that matter, describing it to the players! Within the maze, there are numerous Tekumeláni monsters, some with treasures. The module introduces a few new monsters (such as the undead Jájgi, which may have appeared in print for the first time in this adventure), along with excerpts from The Book of Ebon Bindings, along with wandering monster and treasure tables. In short, it's a pretty undistinguished dungeon, noteworthy primarily for its unusual flavor, at least some of which owes to Professor Barker himself.

For me, the banality of The Nightmare Maze of Jigrésh is its real value. Too many people have the false impression that Tékumel is too exalted to be sullied by hands other than those respectfully steeped in its minutiae for decades beforehand. Michael E. Mayeau clearly thought otherwise, as did Professor Barker. This module is nothing more than a dungeon crawl in a slightly exotic setting -- and that's fine. People often forget that Empire of the Petal Throne, moreso than many fantasy RPGs, provides a ready-made and culturally plausible explanation -- a couple, actually -- for the existence of monster and trap-filled "dungeons." The underworld beneath the great city of Jakálla played an important part in the earliest Tékumel campaigns, too, so Barker clearly did not look askance at delving for treasure as a focus for characters.

There's no reason anyone else should do so either. Like D&D, Empire of the Petal Throne (and, by extension, other Tékumel RPG) campaigns can easily start off as dungeon crawling expeditions into the underworld and then, over time, expand beyond that. Or not, as the case may be. After all, the underworlds of Tékumel are vast and deep and could occupy months or even years of satisfying play, if one is so inclined. There's no reason that Tékumel need be viewed as a "highfalutin" setting accessible only to a select few players. Both personal experience and modules like The Nightmare Maze of Jigrésh suggest otherwise.

17 comments:

  1. I will probably be blasted as a heretic but I "got" Tékumel after reading Feist's Riftwar and Empire. I realize there are difference but afterwards EPT made a lot more sense.

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  2. Speaking of Feist, you should dig into Midkemia at some point. Along with Blackmoor, Glorantha, Tékumel, Greyhawk, and Wilderlands it is one of the oldest documented setting.

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  3. Interesting retrospective, ta. Looks like Tita's House of Games may be getting more of my kaitars soon...

    Too many people have the false impression that Tékumel is too exalted to be sullied by hands other than those respectfully steeped in its minutiae for decades beforehand.

    Doesn't the Tekumel fandom has a concept they call 'wrong Tekumel'? As I understand it 'wrong Tekumel' means something like "not in accordance with what we know happens in Prof. Barker's Tekumel campaigns, but still cool to play."

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  4. I can't say I've ever seen the phrase "wrong Tékumel" before, which isn't to say it doesn't exist or hasn't been used before. My experience is that most hardcore Tékumel fans use the "Tree of Time" metaphysics to justify differences between Barker's campaign and divergent ones.

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  5. Dave Morris (old White Dwarf and Dragon Warriors) has a number of good posst on Tekumel's alienness as well some adventures.

    I've never played in a Tekumel game but I found it interesting reading.

    http://fabledlands.blogspot.com/search/label/Tekumel

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  6. I picked up a copy of this adventure about a year ago from a friend who was cleaning out old material. Like you, I was disappointed by how mundane it is. (That's aside from the fact that running a winding maze as a dungeon is either aggravatingly frustrating if characters just wander, or ridiculously simple if characters put their left hand on the wall and follow the maze to its heart, as you can with this one.) I've found, however, that running EPT is largely a matter of injecting some exotic atmosphere into the buildup to the adventure. Once actual delving begins, the alien monsters carry most of the load for you.

    Atmosphere-wise, I've found the best inspiration in Clark Ashton Smith's tales of Xiccarph, Zothique, and Poseidonis. Their otherworldliness translates well to EPT.

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  7. Tékumel... tóó mánÿ dámn díácrítícs.

    While Tékumel is an interesting read; for me, it is far too personal of a creation for me to ever want to game in, as is. Good inspiration for my own campaigns... but I don't usually feel compelled to run anyone's pet campaign, or study their linguistics charts.

    I feel the same way about Glorantha. Which is another setting I won't play in for the very same reason.

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  8. James - you're right to point to the "Tree of Time" as the means for understanding differences between Tekumel campaigns. However, there are "Tekumel purists" out there who do get worked up if your campaign doesn't match that of the Saintly Old Professor (I suspect Phil would dispatch some Ssu to visit people with this attitude). One of the observations I've made in the past is that such "Tekumel purists" aren't actually doing much gaming in Tekumel, but instead study it much as some Tolkien fans study Middle-earth. My advice on this subject is to do exactly what Prof. Barker says for you to do: make it your own game, once you have it.

    Rob Conley - I've never read Ray Feist's books that obviously were derived from Tekumel. I know that Feist and Prof. Barker have unresolved differences about that, and out of deference to an old friend, I've refrained from reading Feist's work. If it worked for you, however, that's good to hear.

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  9. The solo adventure books written in the early 90's , I think, gives the best presentation to people unfamiliar to the world as they were written for the player in mind. Same goes for the GM as their loaded with plot hook and new campaign material.

    I would also add parts of the Game of Thrones series to the list as the eastern realms depicted in the books could easily fit into the flora and fauna of Tekumel,

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  10. a ready-made and culturally plausible explanation -- a couple, actually -- for the existence of monster and trap-filled "dungeons."

    Could you elaborate on this if you have a moment?

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  11. Could you elaborate on this if you have a moment?

    There are several factors at work here. First, Tékumel is really old. Human beings have lived on it for tens of thousands of years, the earliest ages being ones filled with high tech wonders. In the eons since, the only wonders left unclaimed are those found deep within the bowels of the planet, where huge gravitic engines and atmosphere processors still operate and the tubeway systems can be found. So there's plenty of incentive to go down there.

    Second, many Tekumeláni cultures have a religious custom, called Ditlána that commands that, every 500 years or so, a city must be razed and rebuilt anew on top of the old site. The result is that, after so many millennia, most major cities are now built upon the many layered ruins of their "past selves."

    Third, the forces of Stability and Change have agreed to a Concordat against sectarian violence. However, that Concordat doesn't apply beneath the surface of the planet. Consequently, many sects and cults seek out the underworld for their headquarters/lairs and engage in all sorts of activities down there.

    And, finally, even Tsolyáni need money and the underworlds are a great place to get rich -- or die trying.

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  12. @Victor
    A very good point about the "purism" coming less from the gaming side of Tekumel fans.

    In my own experience, it's the gamers--especially those who have played in the setting for 30+ years and in Barker's home campaign no less--who have been the most open and encouraging about helping me make it my own.

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  13. About the Maze proper. It totally reminded me when I got a copy of all the mazes we'd doodle around 4th grade. The elaborate ones with lots of switchbacks, deadends and sloping loops.

    What a nightmare to play through--more in a pain in the ass way than a challenge way.

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  14. Oh dear. I'm in serious trouble. I've completely forgotten what the musty smell of cinnamon was supposed to signify.

    Is it something to do with Sáku's minions? [And I'm impressed I remember the name of the God of Undead and Worms after so many years.]

    Time to find where I buried my Tékumel books...

    [Tékumel never seemed to take off down here in Oz, probably because it was so difficult to get the source material. I know it took about four years for the distributor to actually get in a copy of Empire of the Petal Throne for me.]

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  15. As a complete aside, I think that the "Nightmare Maze" aspect of this adventure was borrowed in part - or at least inspired by - the popular maze books by Vladimir Koziakin, which started coming out in the early 1970's...

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  16. Just played my first Tekumel adventure last night.

    Committed breaches of etiquette, went into a dungeon, killed a monster. Extremely pleased. Can't wait to do it again.

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