Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Christopher Lee Explains Tékumel to Me

Not M.A.R. Barker
I woke up this morning very excited, because I was looking forward to penning this great post about how I'd just met Professor M.A.R. Barker and talked to him at length about the creation of Tékumel. He even allowed my wife to take a photo of the two of us standing side by side that I planned to use with the entry. Then, I realized it was all a dream.

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.


  1. I like the "Tekumel doesn't photograph well" analogy.

    I've been exploring my own on-off again relationship with EPT and Tekumel a good deal on my own blog as of late and can't help but think the game and setting have gotten bad raps--especially by folks who should be embracing it for all it's features that seem to be hot in OSR circles (it's magnificent mega-dungeon like Underworld, it's heavy "sword and planet" influence, etc.)

  2. I don't know that it had a bad rap - in my gaming circles, it was AD&D or nothing. It had no rap at all - completely under the radar.

    I still don't know very much about it, nothing but occasional posts by someone who has read it and remarks on how brilliant it is, although I don't think I've ever read a post from someone who's actually ran a game in it.

  3. In my neck of the woods back in the day, Tekumel is viewed as unapproachable because of it lack of IMPLIED ASSUMPTIONS. Too many of it's dangers felt like gotchas. The opening introduction illustrates the issue.

    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 ... as they do the creaking of Dracula's coffin and the distant bellowing of the Minotaur.

    The thing is to those of us who grew up in the 70s and 80s knew about Draculas, Argonauts, and Minotaurs and thus when we found similar artifacts/dressing in the dungeon and went uh-oh.

    This is something I had to learn the hard way with the Majestic Wilderlands. Despite the levels of details I added I wanted (and needed) to keep it approachable to the novice. This partly because of player turnover and partly because I didn't use current edition of D&D.

    To keep the infodump issues down I largely kept to using standard D&D tropes regardless of the Fantasy RPG I was using.

    Now none of this should be taken as a criticism of Petal Throne. What means is that something like Petal Thrones that breaks so many of the standard fantasy assumption will have a limited audience. Mostly because most players want to get on with the game rather than learn a bunch of new material.

    Also none of this means that the problem can't be overcome. However doing so requires a lot of practice. Including figuring out the best way to bring in a novice group of players for the setting. Usually this entail finding some aspect which is easier to learn usually a contained situation.

    M.A.R. Barker wisely included an extensive section on underworld adventures. A first time group can start off treating Tekumel as a "wierd" dungeon.

    What people should take away from Tekumel is that you can do a lot with the D&D system. But the more you diverge the more limited your audience will be unless you successfully figure out a connection between the two. That this should be done as part of your design not as an afterthought.

  4. I'm not sure I agree with the analogy, although I think Mr. Conley above has a point.

    Back in the day, my group and I looked into Tekumel. I would describe it as seeming kind of inaccessible, sure... but largely because it lacks what a teacher would call "Prior Knowledge."

    Every D&D player enters the game with a preset idea of what the game is going to be like. Everyone knows about dragons. Everyone knows about knights in armor. Everyone knows about chests of gold, magic wands, wizards, and so on. Consequently, everyone brings (or THINKS they bring)a prior knowledge "set" to the game. The release of the LOTR movies has added to that -- nowadays everyone has a good idea of what an elf, dwarf, or ranger is like, simply because you can tag the idea with a one word moniker like "Legolas," "Gimli," or "Aragorn."

    You could in the old days, too, but the tags weren't as well established. You had to READ THE BOOKS, you see, to get the picture. And even then, we all had different mental pictures. That didn't matter. As long as any given player THOUGHT he had a grip on the idea, and liked what he was doing, we were ready to rock and roll. All the movies did was standardize the pictures, really.

    Tekumel, on the other hand, utterly lacks that prior knowledge set. You have to READ THE BOOKS, you see, and let 'em transport you. There IS no prior mindset, which means explaining Tekumel to someone who has no idea what it is can be cumbersome, and lacks a lot of the "hook" that short, sharp adjective/nouns like "dragon," "wizard," "Knight," and "Elf" do.

    The best I could come up with was "sort of like Aztecs on another planet who fell into barbarism after they got there and now they have to deal with other intelligent races and various monsters, using D&D technology levels and stuff."

    It's no less focused. It's no less great than any setting ever devised for roleplaying, and a durn sight better than many I've read. But you have to READ THE BOOK, and form your own picture. You can't hook the uninformed with a short sharp sound bite, adjective, or slogan.

    Same was true of SKYREALMS OF JORUNE, another fine RPG setting that was detailed, thoughtful, deep, and had very good art. Not a durn thing wrong with it, but it had no sound bite value; you had to read the book and form your own picture...

  5. Oh, and for what it's worth, I often have dreams where the supporting cast came from Central Casting. I had a dream once where I was at the grocery store, and realized with a start (while STILL IN THE DREAM) that all the other shoppers were being played by a mix of movie actors... and various teachers I'd had in elementary school...

  6. It's definitely a myth.

    Tékumel is not unique in being inaccessible and obscure.

  7. Never heard of Barker or Tekumel before. Looks like it might be a good read though; hopefully better than D&D teen fiction. Can anyone recommend the novels?

  8. The wild thing about this post is that I spent a good chunk of the day yesterday researching Christopher Lee. I wouldn't be surprised if he COULD explain Tekumel...he was, after all, fantastic best friends with wargamer Peter Cushing...
    : )

  9. Grand Moff Tarkin a wargamer ? The guy who kept vader ona short leash ? I am soooooo not surprised.

  10. Lee also knew both Tolkien and Mervyn Peake, and he happens to be Ian Fleming's cousin (who he'd play golf with).

    I could totally see him as an H.G. Wells style wargamer.

  11. Reverend Keith said...

    It's definitely a myth.

    Tékumel is not unique in being inaccessible and obscure.
    Which other rpg's are you talking about, Reverend Keith?

  12. The Professor really *is* taller in person; he's a good six foot in height, and a commanding presence. And, no, he doesn't photograph well; most of his published pictures make him look like a stuffed frog.

    Great post, too, and very accurate from my own experience!

    yours, Chirine

  13. LOL What a great dream!

    And Tekumel is not inaccessible and obscure, I played in a Tekumel campaign for awhile. The conventions are different, but it's really no different than D&D, and how many people knew what they'd find when they traversed those dark dungeons for the first time? Tekumel gives you that same feeling.

    Jorune, on the other hand...

  14. I totally disagree that Tekumel is actually impenetrable or anything of the sort. Yes, it has that reputation, and I do feel like there are quite a number of Tekumel fans who feed that perception on purpose, so as to enhance their own l33tness.

    I have *never* had a problem with players not getting Tekumel just as easily as they slotted into any other RPG setting. Admittedly I've almost always done Tekumel with people who had a pretty decent knowledge of, say, Mesoamerican archaeology, or Chinese history, or Persian literature, or whatever. But IMO it boils down to not going into it with chips on your shoulder -- about either it being TOO HARD!!! for your poor simple-minded lazy players, or freaking that you're going to color outside the holy lines of MAR Barker's own canonical campaign(s). What a load of hooey.


  15. Well, Tékumel is clearly not inaccessible. It wouldn’t have sold (and continue to sell) so much product if that was the case.

    But it is also equally clear that Tékumel has accessibility issues. You wouldn’t find the word “inaccessible” associated with it otherwise. The fact that we haven’t actually played it is immaterial. Rather, that is proof. We haven’t found it accessible enough to even start playing.

    Rob pretty much nailed it above. Indeed, I tend to take that even farther these days. My gaming worlds tend to be very modern (in non-technical ways) because I’m not that interested in trying to depict and play an alien culture, even if it is separated from me only by time. The farther the fantasy world is from the real, modern world, the less accessible it is.

    In some cases—which may be the case with Tékumel—I think this is maybe more of a DM issue than a player issue. For players to even have a chance to really experience the world, the DM has to feel comfortable enough with it to run it.

    On the other hand, I don’t disagree with the conclusion. Worlds like Tékumel are an important part of the hobby. But they do have their disadvantages, and a lack of accessibility is one of them.

  16. I described to a fellow player GURPS Requiem (unfortunately never published), and her response to the four races, elf, dwarf, valkryie and djinn, was that at least there were elves and dwarves, because the other options were weird.

    Skyrealms of Journe is a book I've owned for many years but I've never really started to read because I've never got a coherent big picture to draw me in.