Monday, October 12, 2020

Foreign Legion

The first issue of The Excellent Travelling Volume was released in December 2014, just a few months before I started my House of Worms Empire of the Petal Throne campaign. I began the 'zine for multiple reasons, but a major one was to prepare for refereeing an extended campaign on Tékumel. I'd run Tékumel games before, stretching back to the early '90s, but I'd never managed to do so for more than a few months. This time, I wanted to give it a serious go, meeting weekly with a steady group of players for as long as I could. Five and a half years later, we're still playing.

Now, Tékumel has a reputation for being impenetrable to newcomers. Professor Barker anticipated this claim all he way back in his introduction to EPT:

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 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. 
I agree with Barker's sentiments here, but I will confess that I was initially unsure how my players would adapt to Tékumel. Of the original six players of the campaign – four of whom still play, along with four others who've joined them over the years – only one had extensive knowledge of the setting beforehand. The others varied in their experience, from complete neophytes to passing familiarity to limited exposure to Tékumel. Was this a good foundation on which to build a long-running campaign? I know now that the answer is unequivocally "yes;" at the beginning, though, that was much less clear and it weighed on me as I prepared each session.

The frame for the campaign is that all the characters are members of the same clan, House of Worms, a small clan localized to the city of Sokátis in the eastern part of the empire of Tsolyánu. This is different from the default set-up advanced in the EPT rulebook, the so-called "fresh off the boat" campaign, in which the characters are all barbarians from the Southern Continent who've arrived in the city of Jakálla in search of fortune and Tsolyáni citizenship. The genius of the "fresh off the boat" structure is that it doesn't assume that the characters, which is to say, the players know anything about Tékumel to start. It's a good approach with much to recommend it, but I chose not to make use of it.

Instead, I started small, introducing the players to the intricacies of Tékumel over the course of our sessions. I adopted a "show, don't tell" method in the hopes that the players would pick up on the details I was presenting. For a long time, I wasn't sure it was working. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, returning each week for our sessions. But were they getting Tékumel? 

I got my answer to that question a couple of months into the campaign. As the result of a magical mishap, the characters found themselves teleported thousands of miles north to the land of Yán Kór. Yán Kór has its own language, culture, and traditions that are only loosely connected to those of Tsolyánu. After the characters started exploring their new surroundings, they eventually came into contact with some locals – and were appalled. To the Tsolyáni, many aspects of Yán Koryáni culture are barbarous and even ignoble. I hadn't expected the players, through their characters, to react to them in this way, but they did. Despite all my worries, they'd clearly come to understand Tsolyánu and its ways and looekd askance at the ways of another nation (as is typical on Tékumel).

It was a strangely satisfying moment, the first of many that have come in the years since. My initial worries were completely misplaced: the players came to inhabit Tékumel, as if they were natives. For me, that's been one of the great joys of this multi-year campaign. Together, we've been exploring this fictional setting together and doing so through the lens of one culture of that setting. Moreover, there have been times when, as the result of a meeting with another culture, they've come to question the supposed sureties of Tsolyáni ways. It's been delightful and I can't speak highly enough of the experience. At the risk of being self-congratulatory, I consider this to be one of the highest achievements of roleplaying – coming to "live" in another place through play. I consider myself quite lucky to have players that have helped me do this.

2 comments:

  1. My experience is playing a few games of it as a teen. It was a bit over my head Though I had the rule book. Don’t recall too much, as d&d was still newish and intriguing to me. Plus the Glorantha setting of Runequest was filling any need for “different” I may have had. But now I would love to be a player in a dedicated campaign.

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  2. My reservation with a setting like this isn't the players, but me, the GM. It seems like a lot of work to really get the culture, so I can communicate it to the players. Sure, it's okay if I get things wrong, but once I start getting things wrong and making my own way, I find it's easier to just embrace that path fully and just make my own path from the start. Oddly, that's from lack of time - it's faster to make up my own stuff than it is to read someone else's stuff and internalize it. So that holds me back on giving a campaign set in Tekumel - and some other settings, as well - a go.

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