Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Retrospective: The Book of Ebon Bindings

Fan though I am, I will be the first to admit that Professor M.A.R. Barker's Tékumel has a reputation for being abstruse and even unwelcoming to newcomers. Barker himself disagreed, saying that "once one gets past the original alienness, it is easy for others to become immersed in the elaborate societies, politics, and adventures of Tékumel." I agree with his belief (but then I would), yet I can certainly understand why some roleplayers have felt, since the release of Empire of the Petal Throne in 1975, that Tékumel is too complex, too weird, and even too non-European to get into easily. 

Tékumel's reputation probably hasn't been helped by the fact that, in the last 45 years, most of the products released to support the setting have been, if anything, even more difficult for neophytes than the original boxed set. A good case in point is 1978's The Book of Ebon Bindings, released by the Imperium Publishing Company. Unless one counts the fanzine, The Tékumel Journal, whose first issue appeared in 1977, The Book of Ebon Bindings (hereafter TBoEB) was the very first supplement to Empire of the Petal Throne, which had languished under TSR's stewardship (an interesting story in itself). One might think, given this situation, that Professor Barker and Imperium Publishing would have wanted to publish something to fill an obvious gap, such as providing more player-oriented detail of the setting or even an introductory adventure. Instead, what Tékumel got was a cramped, 86-page dissertation on demonology that's devoid of any game mechanics and is presented as a real in-setting text on the subject.

It's a shame really, because TBoEB is a wonderful piece of work. Barker does an excellent job of evoking real world grimoires, with their baroque verbiage and obscure meanings. TBoEB positively drips with flavor. Reading its descriptions of the major and lesser demons of Tékumel is exquisitely kaleidoscopic, a torrent of strange names, details, and concepts, most of which are not explained but instead left to the reader to piece together from the crumbs Barker provides. You get hints about the esoteric magical rituals and disciplines of the ancient peoples of Tékumel, as well as "sorcerously explicit" – to borrow a phrase from the warning on the back of the book – discussions of the manner by which one might invoke these otherworldly beings. Barker does such a magnificent job of manufacturing his own demonology text that one might be forgiven for thinking one was reading the Clavicula Salomonis Regis or Liber Juratus Honorii.

This is also TBoEB's greatest flaw. As interesting as this fake demonology information is, it's largely useless in actual play – not completely useless, as players in my House of Worms campaign know, but certainly not something that most players or referees will need. That's not simply a function of the fact that it's presented as if it were a critical edition of an in-setting text lacking in any game mechanics. It's also that the book is the kind of thing that only a handful of high-level sorcerers possess within the world of Tékumel. This is not an everyday book of spells, like those used by temple priests or magic-users. This is closer to the Necronomicon or some other blasphemous tome from the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Most campaigns will have no need of it.

And yet, I can't help but like TBoEB. Its lengthy introduction is a remarkable disquisition on the nature of the gods of Tékumel and provides more insight into the setting's cosmology than anything Professor Barker ever wrote. For that alone, it's valuable. Likewise, the book's descriptions of Tékumel's demons offer plenty of fodder for referees looking to add bizarre locals and frightful devices into his game. I've swiped numerous things for my House of Worms campaign and will likely continue to do so as events continue to unfold. 

There's no question that The Book of Ebon Bindings is an unusual RPG book and one that certainly did little to make Tékumel more accessible to newcomers. As inspiration for existing campaigns, though, it's unmatched and it's for that reason that I'm glad to have it in my collection.

8 comments:

  1. I suspect The Book of Ebon Bindings was a big influence on Carcosa's sorcerous rituals system, although I don't believe Geoffrey McKinney ever explicitly confirmed that. In any case, it's a fascinating book; I had an eerie feeling when reading it, like I was seeing something that fell in from another world. A literary accomplishment, if not quite an great example of a useful gaming supplement.

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    1. I think Geoffrey made the connection clear on a forum like Dragonsfoot or ODD74. As I recall, Carcosa owes its origins to a combination of the Cthulhu Mythos as presented in the first printing of the DDG, Gamma World, and The Book of Evon Bindings.

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    2. Yes, James is right both in his list of influences on Carcosa (plus some additional inspirations that he did not name) and in the fact that I have often mentioned The Book of Ebon Bindings as an influence. And James, I am very glad to be able to read your blog again. :)

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  2. You're back! I have had such an awful day but I saw someone on Facebook commenting about a recent Grognardia and I breathlessly clicked the provided link. I just finished catching up. I'm so glad you've returned!

    Sorry to be off topic.

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  3. Sounds like something that today's more "artistic minded" amateurs might generate. There quite a lot of flavorful stuff being produced these days that is only tangential to actual play.

    I am enjoying your return to blogging---a happier story in my book than where it had been left.

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  4. The Hall of Blue Illumination could use another episode in general and on TBoEB in specific.

    ...just sayin'. ;)

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    1. I hope we can get back to it soon. Our audio guy has been hammered by real life for a while now, so it's kept us from recording. When I know more, I'll let everyone know.

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  5. Without question this is the darkest and best written RPG tome in my collection. One cannot help but turn the pages as they drip with setting and sorcerous lore. 4 Stars. :D

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