[Tekumel] per request, getting past setting intimidation

edited March 2012 in Story Games
Since Adam asked me to, here are some thoughts about Tekumel, specifically regarding dealing with setting intimidation.

For those who may not know what this is about, Tekumel is a fantasy/science fiction setting developed by M. A. R. Barker, a now retired Professor of Linguistics. He started writing and playing childhood games in it sometime in the 30s, as a little kid, and continued work on it for pretty much his whole life. At some point in the 70s, he got involved with the emerging RPG scene in Minneapolis, with Gygax and Arneson, et al, and it became a game setting.

The setting itself is quite unique, but has influence ranging from classic pulp SF, to Aztec and Mayan cultures, to Moghul India, and a lot more besides.

Given it's age and near constant development (Barker wrote at least 5 novels, and ran a weekly game for decades), there is a huge amount of setting material available. This has led (along with some unfortunate developments in the fan community) to the impression that it is unrunable by anyone other than it's creator, or at the very least, that it requires huge amounts of research and learning to run "right".

This is not in fact the case, although I can see how one might get that impression.

The amount of material should be seen primarily as a resource. It kind of makes me laugh when I hear folks who in other contexts complain about the dearth of material for other settings turn around and complain that there is too much for this one. I get that it can be intimidating. But really, it's just like any other game setting; if it inspires you, take what you like, ignore the rest, and have fun.

That being said, I've been trying to come up with a pocket description of what I consider to be the most important bits, to help newer players and GMs have a framework to guide them. Here are some notes on this.

First off, this is an alien world, terraformed tens of thousands of years ago by very powerful spacefaring humans. The native plants, animals, and sentients (all very hostile and toxic to humans) were greatly harmed by this, but managed to adapt and survive here and there. The humans had many alien races working with them, and some against them, that also ended up on this world. This piece is perhaps best understood through the lens of classic pulp SF; think Ming the Merciless and you'll get the general feel.

At some point, a great cataclysm happened, and the whole kit and kaboodle was thrown into a pocket dimension, causing a great dark age. The stars went out. Technology failed. Great paroxysm shook the world, and for a very long time, human (and other) life hung by a thread. Slowly, civilization emerged again, but what technology remained was now more or less magical to the survivors, and the overall technical level was medieval at best. So, this is also a setting that could be considered post-apocalyptic.

During this time, two things happened that really changed things. First, people figured out that they could access other-planar power, i.e. magic. And second, contact was made with vastly powerful other-planar entities, i.e. Gods. These beings are hugely more powerful than anything else, but seem to take an interest in this world too. This, I think, constituted an existential crisis for the humans here - in a world where the Gods are real, and take action the world, but also don't care in the least about individual humans, you have a sort of nihilistic situation. More on that below.

The current setting takes place 60000 years after the cataclysm. Empires have risen and fallen during that time, many times over. The current cultures of this place are still, to a great extent, trapped in the nexus of the events described above.

To sum things so far...dangerous planet. Insanely high tech level now considered magical. Apocalypse. Real magic, and real gods. Huge amounts of time having passed and things still not looking very good for the humans.

Culturally speaking, the current batch of empires (there are 5) can be seen as reactions to all the above. Survival of the species in a world where humans don't really matter on any existential scale is still a paramount concern; but we see this primarily in the social structures of the societies, rather than in any explicit way.

Because, you see, the vast majority of humans now have no idea any of this stuff happened. All they know is that things are the way they are, and have always been that way.

And how are things? Well, first off, the main unit of cultural organization is the clan, not the individual. This is a society where individuals don't matter as much as the group. People define themselves by the groups they belong to. Your group is how you survive.

Status and relative rank are super important. These people know their place, and know that staying in the bounds set for that is how you survive.

The lack of any "good god" or moral absolutes means that they have a rather different understanding of right and wrong; noble action is doing what you say you're going to do, within the bounds of class, status, religion, and group affiliation, and ignoble action is not staying in those bounds, like you're supposed to. This means that if your god demands human sacrifice, that's noble for you to do. To refuse would be ignoble, as would performing human sacrifice if your god doesn't demand it.

The good news, such as it is, is that these societies are really very diverse, and quite accepting, so long as there is a slot defined for whatever behavior is in question. The important thing is that it's classified, controlled, and understood.

Likewise, for nearly everything, there are rules, and also exceptions. For example, violence between the temples is not allowed. Except for underground, in the wilderness, and really, when no one is watching. Then it's understood that it's ok. Similarly, women are generally meant to stay at the clan house, raise kids, and not participate equally in society, except that they can, at any time, declare themselves "aridani" which make them legally equivalent to a man, and then they really are.

All of these things can be seen as a way for society to provide some sort of stability and predictability in an otherwise unrelentingly hostile world.

There are if course lots of details. There are no riding animals. Slavery is common (as much as 20% of the population). Literacy is very low (10-15%). Metal is rare, so they use the hide of a big triceratops like creature to make things like swords and armor. People here aren't Caucasian, and are generally tan-skinned, with straight black hair and dark eyes.

All that stuff can be understood reasonably easily, and a good introduction to the basics of what's different on that level can be gotten from any of the basic rule sets that have been published over the years, or via online resources.

What I hope to have accomplished here, though, is to provide a framework for understanding what you might read about this setting, and convince you that while it's quite different, it's not impossible to use.

In fact, it's a hugely rich setting for games. Most recently, I've been exploring the history of a young aridani woman, from a rural town, as she grows up, travels to the big city, becomes embroiled in her clan's politics, falls in love with an older man, and struggles to find a place for herself.

It is great for plain old adventuring, explorations of the underworlds of the great cities, fighting horrible alien beasts, dealing with ancient magics.

It is wonderful for intrigue - conflicts between temples and organizations, jockeying for position.

It's fantastic for military adventure, as the empires have rich military traditions, and skirmish with each other often.

I've even run it as a CoC style game of horror.

And, of course, I'm happy to chat about it. Mainly though, the above should be taken as an invitation to explore this setting...and to take what you want from it, make it your own, and go have fun.

Comments

  • How do you address the issue of language, which is pretty intimidating on first glance?
  • edited March 2012
    Again, use it if you think it's fun, otherwise ignore it.

    Most of the funny words can be eliminated, or hand waved if it's a problem. So instead of Vimuhla, just refer to the Lord of Red Ruin, or just say fire god. About the only thing that might be an issue are things like personal names, and there are lists for that, or just make up what seems best to you.

    The fact of the matter is that the majority of Tekumel fans don't actually know, or care, how to pronounce most of that stuff. They use collectively agreed upon versions, and go for it. A few folks will insist on the fact that it's Tay-koo-may-l, not Teh-kuh-mel, but really, ignore them. I have played whole campaigns where we just use placeholders for names of things, saying "big triceratops creatures" instead of chlen, or "Teku-sheep" instead of hma.

    Essentially, either learn the pronunciation rules (the are not that hard), come up with something that works for you, ignore it, or change it. I expect that the majority of people who played, say, Bushido, weren't pronouncing the Japanese words correctly, but it still worked out fine for them.

    It can be fun, though, if you're into it. It provides a nice feel, and can make play richer, if not overdone.

    Actually, let me turn that around...what do you find intimidating about the languages? I've been doing this a long time, so I might not have the same perspective and I'm really curious as to how it seems to you.
  • So, in re-reading and thinking some more about it, perhaps another approach to getting into Tekumel might be to ignore everything I wrote up to the line "Because, you see, the vast majority of humans...".

    Ultimately, the whole history doesn't matter a great deal. In fact, with a setting this size, it's not so much a matter of trying to get and understand the whole thing, but rather finding some subset of that which has enough to make it fun, but isn't so vast that it proves unworkable.

    I am inspired. I shall try to write up something that encapsulates that.
  • Are you using the original rules? The Guardians of Order rules? Something else?
  • Also, Ron wrote a great essay on (among other things) how to use a big-ass setting for Story Now play.
  • edited March 2012
    Posted By: Hans c-oAre you using the original rules? The Guardians of Order rules? Something else?
    Ahhh, rules. :)

    I prefer to treat Tekumel as a setting, and ignore issues of system. This is mostly due to the fact that I'm what I've seen described here as a loosy-goosey. I don't use a system myself, and it's been a very long time since I have. So I am probably not qualified to assess the ones available.

    On that note, there are many systems that can be used, and have been used, for Tekumel.

    EPT, the original ruleset, is currently being used and improved on by the OSR folks. Check out this thread to find out about that.

    Swords and Glory, the next ruleset published, is important not so much because it's playable (which it is not, by general opinion) but because the first volume of the rules is the most comprehensive book of setting material available. Still, if you happen to be a fan of chart heavy 80s style RPGs, you might dig it.

    Gardasiyal, the next version, is essentially a chopped down version of Swords and Glory, and suffers from the same issues, but also generated the Adventures on Tekumel books, which are excellent, and can be played almost as choose your own adventure style books. Also the Beastiary, which is an excellent resource, and which provides enough data to be easily converted to whatever system you like.

    The most recent version of official rules is Tekumel: Empire of the Petal Throne, published by Guardians of Order, which is playable, and has an excellent amount of highly focused setting materials. If you're looking for one book, this is what I would recommend.

    People on the internets have also done conversions and original systems. See this link on tekumel.com for a list. Some of these are excellent, depending on what you're looking for.
  • Posted By: Hans c-oAre you using the original rules? The Guardians of Order rules? Something else?
    I was just about to ask a similar question. Which edition should I take a look at if I'm interested in Tekumel? What are the differences? Are any of the official rule systems a better fit for the setting than others?
  • Posted By: malcolmpdxActually, let me turn that around...what do you find intimidating about the languages?
    Nothing, personally, I love evocative and unique language as part of a setting. But I know it can turn off others and I wondered if this was something you thought about.
  • One problem I remember encountering with the setting in college (around '78 or so) is that in a lot of ways, the Tsolyáni Empire (which the original rules used as default setting) is really not a very nice place. We were exploring underground, and we came to a point where the GM expected us to use slaves as living minesweepers by forcing them at sword point into a dangerous area. This was, not, as we understood, beyond the pale for the culture. But none of the players could stomach it.
  • Posted By: Teataine
    I was just about to ask a similar question. Which edition should I take a look at if I'm interested in Tekumel? What are the differences? Are any of the official rule systems a better fit for the setting than others?
    I would recommend the Guardians of Order Tekumel: Empire of the Petal Throne, mostly because it is a good fit for the setting, having been designed with that in mind. Also because it has a good amount of focused setting material.
  • Posted By: Peter AronsonBut none of theplayerscould stomach it.
    "Roleplay harder"
  • Posted By: Jason MorningstarPosted By: Peter AronsonBut none of theplayerscould stomach it.
    "Roleplay harder"Except, you know, we were doing this for fun. And that wasn't fun.
  • Posted By: Hans c-oAlso, Ron wrote a great essay on (among other things)how to use a big-ass setting for Story Now play.
    That looks very good and right to me. Thanks! I'm going to have to dig into that.
  • edited March 2012
    Posted By: Jason MorningstarPosted By: malcolmpdxActually, let me turn that around...what do you find intimidating about the languages?
    Nothing, personally, I love evocative and unique language as part of a setting. But I know it can turn off others and I wondered if this was something you thought about.

    This is, perhaps, a serious issue for people liking the setting, even if you ignore the conlang elements. Some folks are going to be turned off by the complex and florid language used. That might in fact be a deal breaker, since that is, in some ways, core to the feel of the setting.

    I don't know if there's much that can be done about that. If referring to your military unit as The Legion of the Givers of Sorrow turns you off...then maybe this isn't the setting for you.
  • edited March 2012
    Posted By: Peter AronsonOne problem I remember encountering with the setting in college (around '78 or so) is that in a lot of ways, the Tsolyáni Empire (which the original rules used as default setting) is really not a very nice place. We were exploring underground, and we came to a point where the GM expected us to use slaves as living minesweepers by forcing them at sword point into a dangerous area. This was, not, as we understood, beyond the pale for the culture. But none of theplayerscould stomach it.
    I get that. The setting can present such quandaries. It doesn't require it, but that comes down to social contract stuff, I think. Just like the racism, say, of our own world, and indeed in the writings of Lovecraft, can be an issue in CoC, but doesn't have to be.
  • Ah, Tekumel expert in the house. Tell me, Malcolm, what should I read to get on-board here? I don't need rules, necessarily, I get how arbitrary that stuff is for a big and intricate setting project. Which are the most impressive and useful literary works on the setting?

    I did not grow up with any of the great fantasy settings of the rpg culture, unless you count Middle-Earth. But I totally got into Glorantha in a clean one-two shot when King of Dragon Pass and the Orlanthi soucebooks for Hero Wars were published in the early '00s: those were well-written, passionate works that did a good job of both providing a foundation and convincing me about the literary merits of the setting. I've found it effortless later on to read other works on it, and it is truly a wonder to behold as a literary masterpiece.

    Meanwhile, Tekumel is a total black hole for me. I don't think I've ever seen an actual book about it here in Finland. I pretty much skip the Tekumel articles in Fight On!, they're so setting-rooted that there's no immediate utility for somebody oblivious like me. I'd be curious to read something decisive on the matter, though, as many people have named Tekumel as one of the greatest settings developed in roleplaying. What you wrote above seems pretty compelling, but where would one go from here to learn more?
  • edited March 2012
    Thanks for answering my question, malcolm.
    Posted By: malcolmpdxThis is mostly due to the fact that I'm what I've seen described here as a loosy-goosey. I don't use a system myself, and it's been a very long time since I have.
    What do you mean? Like you and your players have a home-cobbled freeform game?
  • Posted By: Hans c-o

    What do you mean? Like you and your players have a home-cobbled freeform game?
    Kind of, yes. It's so free form that it's hardly more of a system than telling a story together, with a fair amount of OOC checking in with each other to make sure that everyone is on the same page and having fun. Generally speaking, as gm I do everyone other than the PCs, and provide most descriptions, but the players often throw things in the mix too. No dice, no rules, per se, other than a lot of trust and good communication. This probably only works with certain people. It happens to work with the people I play with. Mainly, trust. I trust my players to dive in and make the story what they want, and respect their agency, and they trust me to challenge them and bring the conflict and drama, in a way that is respectful of the story they are telling me.

    I'm not sure if that even makes sense...but that's how it works.
  • Posted By: malcolmpdxPosted By: Hans c-o

    What do you mean? Like you and your players have a home-cobbled freeform game?
    Kind of, yes. It's so free form that it's hardly more of a system than telling a story together, with a fair amount of OOC checking in with each other to make sure that everyone is on the same page and having fun. Generally speaking, as gm I do everyone other than the PCs, and provide most descriptions, but the players often throw things in the mix too. No dice, no rules, per se, other than a lot of trust and good communication. This probably only works with certain people. It happens to work with the people I play with. Mainly, trust. I trust my players to dive in and make the story what they want, and respect their agency, and they trust me to challenge them and bring the conflict and drama, in a way that is respectful of the story they are telling me.

    I'm not sure if that even makes sense...but that's how it works.

    Makes perfect sense! That's kinda what I thought you meant, but I just wanted to make sure. Thanks for the clarification.
  • Posted By: Eero TuovinenAh, Tekumel expert in the house. Tell me, Malcolm, what should I read to get on-board here? I don't need rules, necessarily, I get how arbitrary that stuff is for a big and intricate setting project. Which are the most impressive and useful literary works on the setting?
    This is a rather difficult question, and there are several ways to approach it. I'll describe these, and then you can pick which one, if any, suits your fancy. I'm sticking to things that aren't "rule sets" here, since you asked for "literary works".

    First off, there are written works by Barker himself. There are quite a few of these - 5 published novels, and at the very least this short story. The novels are not exactly what I would call great literature - but they are fun. Four of them revolve around Harsan, a scholar-priest of Thumis (the god of Wisdom) - "Man of Gold", "Lords of Tsamra", "Prince of Skulls", and "A Death of Kings".

    The fifth, 2nd by date of publication, "Flamesong", is about Trinesh hiKetkolel, a commander in the Tsolyani legions.

    All these can be found used, and can be ordered from here, or found via used book sellers.

    I would suggest reading Man of Gold and/or Flamesong first. Actually, read the linked to short story first. It's quite good, and has the feel, although it isn't set in "modern" Tekumel, but rather in it's ancient past.

    I cannot in all honesty say that the novels are the sine qua non of Tekumel. I think that Barker's true talents are apparent in the creation of the world itself, not so much his fiction writing, although it's not bad at all.

    A second approach, which would work well for someone who is enthused by a lot of highly detailed and comprehensive setting materials, without any explicitly literary content, might be to order Volume #1 of Swords and Glory (again from here), which is the most exhaustive material on the world and setting itself. It's huge, decently written, and system free, and if you dig reading what amounts to a very in depth anthropological survey of a drastically foreign culture, you will love it. I did.

    A third approach would be to get Mitlanyal, a two volume work by Bob Alberti, about the Tsolyani gods. It's got both setting material, and also a series of brief vignettes that illustrate the topics at hand, which are pretty much entirely excellent. This would be good if you wanted a mix of dry setting stuff and some literary content - or are fascinated by the Religion and Gods of Tekumel, which are pretty darn interesting. This can also be ordered from here.

    Now, I should caution that these all may be sold out, out of print, or hard to get. Most are at least periodically available used, from various online resellers and auction sites, too.


    Hopefully, you'll find this helpful.
  • Speaking as a player, Tekumel was one of the first OHMYGODLET'STRYTHIS things on the agenda once the Constantcon G+ games got started.

    Basically, during any given session the DM had read up on the books, but not necessarily any of the players (me included). We just had a vague idea like:

    sophistication, brutality, Se Asia, MesoAmerica, Here's a picture of a monster, cities buried periodically creating dungeons, Oh Most Puissant Godlord Bless This Expedition, no metal, monsterhide instead, You saw Apocalypto? I saw Apocalypto

    ...and that was that.

    We started with dungeon (buried-city) crawls. It worked _much_ smoother than you might expect. Since:

    -the default assumption of the original game is your PC is a barbarian outsider who knows fuck-all about the setting, and...
    -the default assumption of dungeon crawl and exploration-type games is you are exploring some culture you know nothing about

    After a few of those, people began to pool setting knowledge and we got to get a sort of barbarians-eye--view of the city and could move into a more social game.
  • Posted By: Zak Ssophistication, brutality, Se Asia, MesoAmerica, Here's a picture of a monster, cities buried periodically creating dungeons, Oh Most Puissant Godlord Bless This Expedition, no metal, monsterhide instead, You saw Apocalypto? I saw Apocalypto
    Yes! Wonderful.

    Posted By: Zak S-the default assumption of the original game is your PC is a barbarian outsider who knows fuck-all about the setting, and...
    -the default assumption of dungeon crawl and exploration-type games is you are exploring some culture you know nothing about

    After a few of those, people began to pool setting knowledge and we got to get a sort of barbarians-eye--view of the city and could move into a more social game.
    I'm glad to hear that worked out so well for you. I am mostly interested in what it's like to be an insider in the culture, so I tend to want to start things out in small rural villages, and then bring the characters more and more into the main stream, for much the same reasons, leveraging that urban sophisticate v. rural bumpkin split.
  • Thanks Malcolm, that's exactly what I wanted to know. I see from the Wikipedia that Swords & Glory is from the early '80s, so a pretty venerable work.

    Regarding Tékumel: reading the Wikipedia article on the bibliographical history, I get the sense that Tékumel has been a fringe interest historically. Does anybody have a sense of when and where it's been popular, generally speaking? Clearly, looking at the Internet and e.g. fanzine output, there are plenty of passionate people out there. Which of these game texts have been popular, and where? As I described earlier, all of this stuff has been not only marginal, but outside the margins here in Finland.
  • edited March 2012
    If I remember correctly, it made a big splash (relative to a small hobby, anyway) when TSR published the Empire of the Petal Throne boxed set in 1975. It was a pretty expensive product for the time, but it was something that got discussed and played through the 70's. It seemed in those days, every experienced RPG player I encountered it had played it at least once, or at least had a strong opinion about it. On the other hand, it, it was nowhere as popular or as influential as D&D. But then, what was? The later product releases seemed pretty invisible by contrast though.
  • Posted By: Eero TuovinenThanks Malcolm, that's exactly what I wanted to know. I see from the Wikipedia that Swords & Glory is from the early '80s, so a pretty venerable work.

    Regarding Tékumel: reading theWikipedia article on the bibliographical history, I get the sense that Tékumel has been a fringe interest historically. Does anybody have a sense of when and where it's been popular, generally speaking? Clearly, looking at the Internet and e.g. fanzine output, there are plenty of passionate people out there. Which of these game texts have been popular, and where? As I described earlier, all of this stuff has been not only marginal, but outside the margins here in Finland.
    My pleasure.

    As far as where and when, that's hard to say. There are pockets of Tekumel players (some with very long running campaigns) in the US Midwest, especially Michigan and Minnesota, in California and Oregon, in the UK, and I think some folks in Germany and Italy - I've met some of them at cons.

    But it's never been a very large number of people, ever.

    Small but passionate seems to be the rule.

    That being said, there has been a flurry of interest each time a game system has been published, over the years. Unfortunately, the publishing history has never really sustained a large audience - mostly due to the fact that each time an new game system is published, events conspire to have it stop pretty quickly.

    TSR didn't do much with EPT back in the day (no modules, really, although there was a lot of fan generated material, like The Tekumel Journal).

    Gamescience went out of business before the third volume of S&G could be printed (and there was a thing with a hurricane too, if I recall correctly), but that was the start of the blueroom mailing list.

    TOME also went out of business (although they did the largest number of official publications, with Gardasiyal, and Adventures on Tekumel), but that generated the various Yahoo groups and the UCON Tekumel track (still going, by the way).

    Of course, Guardians of Order shut down shortly after T:EPT was published, due to exchange rate imbalances, which also took out the Game of Thrones RPG that some of my friends worked on.

    What has usually happened is that each time Tekumel shows up on the radar, there is quite a lot of interest, and of those folks, some end up becoming fans for life. There's a steady trickle of new folks getting interested in it all the time. But all told, I somehow doubt the number of people actively involved in Tekumel is more than a couple of thousand. I might be wrong. But it's small, anyway.

    Does that answer your question?
  • Posted By: malcolmpdxDoes that answer your question?
    Eminently. It's an interesting comparison with other unique fantasy settings. Tékumel seems to be the oldest alongside Glorantha, among these big settings published specifically for roleplaying. Considering them all, from the earliest ones to the likes of say Earthdawn and Shadow of Yesterday, the profile seems to be that a well-written fantasy setting catches a hard core of hobbyists for a long term. I don't think any fantasy setting truly has a large number of fans. Probably something to do with the fact that you can't actually do much with a setting without being pretty hardcore creatively yourself; something like Middle-Earth is easier to appreciate without also playing roleplaying games there, thanks to the literary corpus.
  • edited March 2012
    Posted By: Eero TuovinenPosted By: malcolmpdxDoes that answer your question?
    Eminently. It's an interesting comparison with other unique fantasy settings. Tékumel seems to be the oldest alongside Glorantha, among these big settings published specifically for roleplaying. Considering them all, from the earliest ones to the likes of say Earthdawn and Shadow of Yesterday, the profile seems to be that a well-written fantasy setting catches a hard core of hobbyists for a long term. I don't think any fantasy setting truly has a large number of fans. Probably something to do with the fact that you can't actually do much with a setting without being pretty hardcore creatively yourself; something like Middle-Earth is easier to appreciate without also playing roleplaying games there, thanks to the literary corpus.

    Those are very good points, and perhaps tie back into why folks might find Tekumel intimidating, so I want to dig into this a bit.

    Middle-Earth RP is not something I have very (any?) experience with, but I've gamed in some other literary settings. Most of them have been far less detailed than Tekumel, and at the risk of irritating some fans of Middle-Earth, it itself is not as detailed, at least in the same way, as Tekumel is. I think that's mostly because it doesn't have to be, playing as it does on familiar ground of European myth, medieval tropes, and the like. A lot can be glossed over; people sleep on beds, smoke pipes, swords are metal, horses are ridden, etc. Other fantasy settings, or even SF ones, are similarly based on recognizable things. I'm thinking of Amber, or Star Trek, or even Firefly.

    And that's entirely fine, although it does leave me wondering what, say, an indigenous Australian might have thought about the Hobbit when it was originally published.

    So, Tekumel is pretty foreign, and thus requires more exposition, more detail. That is certainly down to the choices of it's creator, but that's where it's at. So there's a higher bar to entry in some ways. Add to that the fact that most of us don't grow up reading Barker's books, and you have another level of alienation going on; Middle-Earth is profoundly strange on some levels, but for many of us, the heavy exposure to it via books and media innure us to it.

    Of course, one may not think that Barker's books are appropriate for kids in the way that Tolkien's are, and you would probably be right.

    It takes a conscious effort, I think, to get into a setting where you have to work at understanding what the deal is. Some folks really, really dig it. From my experience of Tekumel fans, it's somewhat self selecting; many of them are interested in ancient non-European cultures, or are into languages, or are into sociology and anthropology. More generally, they are gamers who like complex settings. Many gamers don't, actually, which is totally cool; I enjoy playing in settings I can understand intuitively myself, since it makes playing in them that much more free and natural feeling.

    So, the issue then is, I think, that it's harder to be creative in an environment you don't intuitively understand than it is to be creative in one you do. It easily leads to feeling like you're doing it wrong, somehow. And it takes some effort to press on anyway, and make it your own, especially when there's all this setting material you haven't seen yet, just waiting to contradict you.

    Anyone have any thoughts about that as a source of intimidation? I think that this might be key.
  • Posted By: malcolmpdx
    And that's entirely fine, although it does leave me wondering what, say, an indigenous Australian might have thought about the Hobbit when it was originally published.
    I suspect that the experience would be similar to our experiences with the myths of peoples foreign to us. That is, the story would seem simplistic and symbology powerless or non-existent, simply because it would not tie into familiar intertext. I've read my share of myth, and I can sort of see how the words of Kalevala or Edda are not any more complex in themselves than those of say African storytelling; the difference is in me, the concepts beyond those words are more complex for me than the pale and unspecific translations that barely capture the plot arc of a story. There's so much implied intertext in all writing that you need to specifically be interested in why somebody would even care about say Eight Taoist Immortals or whatever to even have a chance of understanding it as an outsider.

    As for Tékumel being intimidating, I suspect that the case is the same for many other people as it is for me: mere complexity or difficulty doesn't intimidate me, but it's very easy to simply ignore something that isn't available under strong branding. I mean, I'm not going to "get" Tékumel from some random fanzine article (what I've seen has been intriguing, but doesn't really paint a complete picture), and actual major sources are pretty few and far between. If there were a clear literary work to point at as a core of the corpus, that'd make it easier for potentially interested people to get decently exposed to the thing. Like, well, Middle-Earth is pretty obvious in this regard. Or Glorantha, with masterpieces like King of Dragon Pass or King of Sartar, or the Heroquest game over the last decade. Those are works that hook people, and it's not that difficult to encounter them if you're interested. Tékumel is like shadow-boxing in comparison.

    As I said earlier, fantasy settings by themselves seem to gather motivated fans, but not in any great numbers. It is probably not a surprising suggestion if I posit that the small differences (these are small differences, I believe - not even an order of magnitude) we see between the popularity of say Glorantha vs. Harn are largely dependent on the gateway literature, it's quality and quantity. It's all about exposure at that level, you need to be able to encounter something to grow interested in it.
  • Posted By: malcolmpdxSo, the issue then is, I think, that it's harder to be creative in an environment you don't intuitively understand than it is to be creative in one you do. It easily leads to feeling like you're doing it wrong, somehow. And it takes some effort to press on anyway, and make it your own, especially when there's all this setting material you haven't seen yet, just waiting to contradict you.
    Ah, I have a pretty good handle on this with Glorantha experiences. (As I think I mentioned upthread, I got on with Glorantha pretty late, both in my personal cultural chronology and in the bigger picture.) I think that the key to actually utilizing, and ultimately, mastering, a setting for rpg use is to somehow grasp its heart. You need to be able to feel and appreciate the thematic center of it. After that your own guesses as to how things would go in the setting are actually going to match the canon pretty well, and when you happen to disagree it's no big deal because your personal inspiration is better than the canon.

    You can sort of see this in the revisionist rumblings there have been around Star Wars lately. I'm thinking of the people who e.g. play roleplaying games in the Star Wars "setting" and just decide to constructively pretend that there never was more than one (or two, or three) movie made about this compelling world painted by the means of cinema. What makes this approach even sensible is that these people have grasped on the heart of the setting, the thematic center that makes it consistent as alinear storytelling. (A "setting" is a story in a way, in that we find imaginary worlds more or less pleasurable for reasons that are very close to our motivations in appreciating literature.)

    When you've been inspired by the work done on a setting, you can use that inspiration to fill in the empty spaces, and it doesn't truly matter whether you have a good handle on the entire canon. I noticed this myself regarding Glorantha at some point, I just stopped worrying about getting it "right" once I knew that I understood what makes fiction Glorantha fiction. Before I had this understanding I would worry about the little details, because those were my only guidance; after I caught the core, I did not need the details anymore.
  • This is fantastic stuff, Malcolm. Thank you for starting this thread.

    I've always been fascinated with Tekumel, but haven't managed to really delve into it too deeply. I was 12 when I first bought a copy of S&G, so it was pretty opaque to me then. Ever since I've been slowly acquiring various products, waiting for a time when I can sit down and just spend a year or so reading up on it all, honestly.

    How do you feel about the products being released by the Tekumel Foundation? I bought a copy of the original EPT manuscript earlier today, actually.
  • This is great stuff. In combination with some of the techniques in Ron's essay, I can see how to approach this now.

    I read another guide to playing EPT last year (You too CAN run Empire of the Petal Throne) which has some relevant stuff in it. I have a suspicion, Malcolm, that you might be the author of it?
  • The ODD thread was started by Victor Raymond I believe.

    I'm an old Tekumel freak myself, and I've written a lot of those articles in Fight On! that people may or may not have read, and have even (inevitably) cooked up a new rules set, after a fashion. (https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B0YmlnWDqBSNUmpPZWlhcV9Ua2lnbUVuSE5BMlVQQQ/edit)

    One thing that Greg Stafford said about Glorantha, at least back in the Chaosium days was 'Your Glorantha May Vary', even became an acronym thrown on the various Glorantha discussion groups whenever people got into an argument over some point of background. (Later this became replaced by the term 'Gregged' whenever the man himself had taken some well known and liked aspect of the gameworld and twisted it in some recent publication, I don't want to speculate on the reasons why.)

    Prof Barker has always been more hands off. He produced novels, the Swords and Glory sourcebooks and a whole screed of other stuff himself, but has been more 'hands off' with the fans, but the same principle will apply - Your Tekumel Will Vary, you will use whatever bits of the background appeal to you, and leave out or gloss over what dosen't, it's inevitable given the kind of game you play.

    I see one poster above had a problem with the way slavery is depicted - For me part of the challenge of any setting is to get your head into an alien culture, I often create characters diametrically opposed to my every day persona, but maybe the slave thing was too much to swallow. And perhaps the GM could have run with that, created a suitably do-gooding liberal sect of Thumis worshippers say who have taken against slavery for some (to Tsolyani) peculiar theological reason and let the characters do their damnedest to over throw an institution with roots millennia deep. For what its worth in my Tekumel a situation like that would not have arisen; slaves are valuable property, you'd have be filthy rich to use so many when a bit of cheaper sorcery could have found that trap.

    Some people noting the 'difficulty' of Tekumel cite problems working out what characters are actually supposed to do. The popularity of the original Empire of the Petal Throne amongst the OSR revivalists was at least in part because they knew exactly what to do with it - dungeon bash - and personally I think it has dropped off a bit after the initial enthusiasm as there's better dungeon bashing rules out there and by staying in the Tsuru'um (the underworlds peculiar to Tekumel's cities) you miss a lot of the really weird fun Tekumel has to throw at you.

    Adventures are typically the usual fantasy/horror stuff that happen in any RPG, but the GM has the challenge of making them work in context, and the opportunity to invent adventures that could only happen in Tekumel.

    I'm going to be running a Tekumel game over G+ through Constantcon next Friday night - If you are interested come and bother me at bazblatt@gmail.com.

    The Dying Earth RPG had a very useful checklist of 'Vancian' elements the GM should seek to include here is my Tekumel-ised version of it, which might be useful.

    Odd Customs
    In the Swords and Glory sourcebooks Professor Barker lovingly describes a whole gamut of peculiar customs and folkways. Using these will help reinforce the feeling that Tékumel’s nations are old, stratified and highly ritualised and challenge the players to break out of their easy going western liberal mindset and adopt the role of someone truly different. The GM could, for example, simply make a point of the various greeting gestures and phrases used by different religions, ethnicities and social strata, describe the peculiar facial scarifications so important in the Kraa Hills, get players terminally embarrassed over Yan Koryáni sexual mores and so on.

    Political Shenanigans
    The Tsolyáni have a deity dedicated to lying and subterfuge, have institutionalised assassination and a tacit acceptance of peculation and bribery. In any situation at least one person is going to be following a secret agenda and/or hiding their true factional allegiance, perpetrating a scam, doing the dirty on a rival, looking for an opportunity for blackmail and so on and so forth. The Tsolyáni are a deeply honourable people, and don’t you ever forget it if you wish to avoid getting involved in a duel, but in the quest to climb the social ladder they are willing to commit any number of dubious deeds.

    Punctilious Etiquette
    The Tsolyáni are honourable people, they are touchy and liable to indulge in lawsuits and/or violence if they feel that this honour has been impugned and so they are always very polite and correct in their language. This correctness includes talking to lower caste people as if they were shit, and grovelling outrageously to anyone upper caste and doing your damndest never to contradict or disagree with them outright even when they are talking utter rubbish, out of fear of impalement. I suggest in each scenario there should be at least one awkward situation where players have to talk their way out of a sticky social situation with the possibility of death and mutilation for ‘rudeness’ an ever present threat.

    Casual Cruelty
    Tékumel is a fun place to visit, but living there would be hell. People are impaled for being rude to arrogant stuck-up pea-brained nobles, there is sexual exploitation of slaves, humans are sacrificed daily, people are born into rubbish jobs like latrine digger and expected to remain such the whole of their miserable lives, there is open racism and subtle sectarianism. At all levels of society you can encounter heartless oppression and cruelty. Make your players uncomfortable by shoving this fact in their face every so often, and if possible require them to participate.

    Weird Magic and Obtuse Technology
    Tékumel is magical place. People point at stuff and it explodes, they take over each others minds like puppeteers and the dead get up and walk. There are a lot of fraudsters making magical claims they cannot back up too, but once in a while you meet some magical phenomenon that will make your skin crawl and your mind reel. If the players ever start taking magic for granted remind them that it emanates from the mysterious gaps between the universes and mere mortals must be very careful with it lest they lose their very souls.

    Tékumel is a scientific place. The whole planet is an artificial environment, its very gravity has been modified by technology, the staple food, dná grain, is a GM crop and there are androids and robots on the loose below most cities, zapping people with laser beams. Once in a while let the players come across a piece of familiar technology in this unfamiliar setting, a trick used by Professor Barker in his novels and in the Adventures on Tékumel series. What would medievally minded folk make of a mobile phone? A beeping flashing idol that lets you talk to god? What use would they make of an Eye of Retaining All Things Forever (a holographic camera)?

    Alien Vistas and Ancient Ruins
    Tékumel contains animals and plants from at least 14 different planets, has 17 intelligent alien species, not counting the ones that have gone extinct, visit occasionally from other planes or pretend to be semi-intelligent at best to avoid hassle. Your chances of finding a familiar terrestrial type animal or plant on Tékumel is very slim. Remind the players of this regularly with outbreaks of strange alien wildlife and flora; paddy fields of yafa-rice guarded against pests by semi-domesticated polyps, flute-trees which use sound to attract insect pollinators rather than bright flowers, pollinators which are not insects at all but gas-filled aerial molluscs.

    Tékumel is very old. The gap between the fall of Éngsvan hla Gánga and the rise of the Empire of the Petal Throne is 10,000 years, a span of time equivalent to the whole of earthly history from the first permanently settled villages in the hills of the Fertile Crescent to the modern day. The Empire of the Petal Throne is 2300 years old; this is as if the Roman Empire never fell in earthly terms. Players should come across stupendously old buildings on a regular basis with five hundred year old clanhouses made of ever repaired and recycled mud brick a commonplace, a towns `new' temple being a mere millennium old and an architectural curio decorated with bas reliefs of writhing feshénga and dancing girls in an unknown style and commemorating a king and kingdom long forgotten standing half-buried and used as káika-coop by the local peasants. Shelley's Ozymandias would feel right at home on Tékumel.

    Exotic Food and Overstated Costume
    The Dying Earth novels are full of descriptions of the fantastic meals and outfits that are the hallmark of its self-indulgent society, and the Professor likewise made great use of outlandish costume and cuisine in creating a similar atmosphere in his Tékumel novels. We should do the same in our scenarios, making the irruption of a temple procession into the world of off-white kilts and loincloths in the back streets of Jakálla a feast for the eyes with plumed masks and embroidered banners, the shaven scalps of the priests painted with icons and hordes of acolytes throwing flowers across the path. No official is properly dressed without his official headdress, covered in symbols depicting his role in the bureaucracy (even if he is supervisor of sewers and latrine pits), and everyone must wear something communicating their clan origin and religious allegiance. Make players describe their characters everyday apparel and ornamentation.

    And the food needs some attention as well – feasts are regular occurrence, so what do people eat? On a world where terrestrial-style vertebrates are a bit of a rarity and there are thousands of vegetables and spices from all round the galaxy all kinds of possibilities arise. A favourite starter in lands bordering the Gilraya Forest is wasp-nests; a certain species of wasp makes little nests 5-10cm across which have enough resin in their paper to stand being dunked into boiling water for 30 seconds or so. This poaches their grubs nicely and the nest can be served cut in two and the diner can remove the larvae with a wooden toothpick. Or aprai-melons stuffed with yakï beans? Aprai melons are toxic, yes, but the beans neutralise the toxins, you just have make sure you use enough of them. Cooking and Toxicology are closely related disciplines on Tékumel.

    Not every scenario is going to use all of these elements, but adding a few of them will make a simple little job like throwing a gang of squatters out of a run-down building into a true Tékumeli extravaganza.

    Right that's enough old blather from me for the mo.
  • Posted By: Eero Tuovinen

    When you've been inspired by the work done on a setting, you can use that inspiration to fill in the empty spaces, and it doesn't truly matter whether you have a good handle on the entire canon. I noticed this myself regarding Glorantha at some point, I just stopped worrying about getting it "right" once I knew that I understood what makes fiction Glorantha fiction. Before I had this understanding I would worry about the little details, because those were my only guidance; after I caught the core, I did not need the details anymore.
    Exactly so. The thing I'm trying to figure out is if there's a shortcut to this point that can be made, to allow newer folks to get to the point of playing, with less work.
  • edited March 2012
    Posted By: buzzThis is fantastic stuff, Malcolm. Thank you for starting this thread.
    ...

    How do you feel about the products being released by the Tekumel Foundation? I bought a copy of the original EPT manuscript earlier today, actually.
    First off, thanks for your kind words. I'm a bit overwhelmed at the responses, actually.

    I think the work that the Foundation is doing is important, and will be really interesting as it goes forward. I know several people on the board, and they're good folks, and very committed. I would keep an eye on them.
  • Posted By: Steve HickeyThis is great stuff. In combination with some of the techniques in Ron's essay, I can see how to approach this now.

    I read another guide to playing EPT last year (You too CAN run Empire of the Petal Throne) which has some relevant stuff in it. I have a suspicion, Malcolm, that you might be the author of it?
    Nope. But my good friend, and the fellow who first introduced me to Tekumel, is. Victor Raymond.

    Ron's essay is really fab, and I've re-read it several times, and it's gotten me thinking about how system interacts with setting in a new way.
  • Posted By: Bert

    Some people noting the 'difficulty' of Tekumel cite problems working out what characters are actually supposed to do. The popularity of the original Empire of the Petal Throne amongst the OSR revivalists was at least in part because they knew exactly what to do with it - dungeon bash - and personally I think it has dropped off a bit after the initial enthusiasm as there's better dungeon bashing rules out there and by staying in the Tsuru'um (the underworlds peculiar to Tekumel's cities) you miss a lot of the really weird fun Tekumel has to throw at you.

    ...

    The Dying Earth RPG had a very useful checklist of 'Vancian' elements the GM should seek to include here is my Tekumel-ised version of it, which might be useful.
    That was awesome. Thanks, and permission requested to take, cite, adapt and reuse, if you please.
  • edited March 2012
    Please use the checklist how you like, I nicked the idea off DERPG so I'd be a fool if I was to get all possessive. What's this essay by 'Ron' people keep referring to? Who he?
  • Posted By: BertPlease use the checklist how you like, I nicked the idea off DERPG so I'd be a fool if I was to get all possessive. What's this essay by 'Ron' people keep referring to? Who he?
    Way up thread, this link to an essay was mentioned.
  • A good list, Bert. I will also nick it for use in pitching future Tekumel games.

    However, I think there's one important thing you didn't state explicitly that's worth calling out:

    Rigid Society
    Everyone has their place, and their assigned role. Those roles are often assigned by birth and you don't really get to choose what you want to be. If you're born into a clan of Vimuhla worshippers, you will become a warrior, and children of sages will become sages, no matter how unsuitable. Many people chafe under these expectations, but to fill one's station is Noble Action. A few people find their positions so intolerable that they rebel, and try to find their own place in the world. Such people are universally reviled and shunned.

    Unless, of course, they succeed.

    If you can carve out your own niche, and have the clout to secure it, then everyone will praise you for finding your true place in the world. They won't be jealous of your success, and no-one will mutter behind your back about this upstart gatecrashing their centuries-old club. Oh no.
  • Posted By: Neil
    Rigid Society
    Everyone has their place, and their assigned role. Those roles are often assigned by birth and you don't really get to choose what you want to be. If you're born into a clan of Vimuhla worshippers, youwillbecome a warrior, and children of sageswillbecome sages, no matter how unsuitable. Many people chafe under these expectations, but to fill one's station is Noble Action. A few people find their positions so intolerable that they rebel, and try to find their own place in the world. Such people are universally reviled and shunned.
    This sounds like some awesome grist for play. Definitely part of character creation should be in the GM's hands. "So you're *rolls* the son of a warrior. How do you like that?"
  • edited March 2012
    Posted By: malcolmpdxPosted By: BertPlease use the checklist how you like, I nicked the idea off DERPG so I'd be a fool if I was to get all possessive. What's this essay by 'Ron' people keep referring to? Who he?
    Way up thread, thislink to an essay was mentioned.

    [Edit -- I had written a long response to this essay in this discussion, but it seemed like thread-jacking after I posted it. Accordingly, I've started a
    new thread over here if people want to discuss about the contents of Edwards' essay independent of this Tékumel thread.]
  • edited March 2012
    Posted By: Hans c-oPosted By: Neil
    Rigid Society
    Everyone has their place, and their assigned role. Those roles are often assigned by birth and you don't really get to choose what you want to be. If you're born into a clan of Vimuhla worshippers, youwillbecome a warrior, and children of sageswillbecome sages, no matter how unsuitable. Many people chafe under these expectations, but to fill one's station is Noble Action. A few people find their positions so intolerable that they rebel, and try to find their own place in the world. Such people are universally reviled and shunned.
    This sounds like some awesome grist for play. Definitely part of character creation should be in the GM's hands. "So you're *rolls* the son of a warrior. How do you like that?"

    I think some of the points in Ron's essay come to bear here. Game group decides they're starting in Tumissa, in one of the Red clans, who all worship Vimuhla (fire and war god) exclusively. Immediate plot hooks ensue:

    1) Character, expected by his clan to be a warrior, from a long line of warriors, is in fact a weakling. Not unwilling, just small and not very physically adept.
    2) Character, totally well equipped physically to be a warrior, can't stand killing things. Each time he does so, it drives him a bit further to the edge.
    3) Character, not from a warrior lineage, really wants to be a warrior, but has trouble breaking into that, because his clan cousins (the warriors) don't really want to let him in.
    4) Character, great warrior, all set up for success, gets religion hard, and becomes fanatical in his faith to the flame lord, which means he isn't willing to follow the directions of his clan elders, and can't get along very well with other, less devout warriors.

    Heck, even:

    5) Older warrior, has seen a lot of combat, and is pretty messed up by it - but has to train younger ones, despite the fact that he knows what sorts of horrors he's sending them to.
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