I was saddened last week to hear of the death of M.A.R. Barker. Barker’s name isn’t particularly well-known outside of hard-core gaming circles, but in those circles he’s something of a legend. His Fantasy setting, Tékumel, sometimes known as “the Empire of the Petal Throne,” was the first one published by TSR after it published Dungeons & Dragons (it had its own set of rules; it wasn’t for D&D per se, though I have no doubt many gamers at the time used it for D&D games). Barker is often compared to J.R.R. Tolkien, for two reasons: both created extremely detailed Fantasy worlds; and both are language professors, and thus there’s a certain emphasis in their work on constructed languages. But if anything, Tékumel is more detailed than Middle-earth. Barker delves into subjects like magic, religion, and social systems that Tolkien more or less ignored. Furthermore, Tékumel was the subject of active development by Barker (and some others) for far longer.
Despite this, Tékumel and Barker have never been anywhere close to as well-known to the general public as Middle-earth and Tolkien. Part of this is due to the fact that they were developed through gaming and RPG books rather than novels (though Barker did write five Tékumel novels, at least one of which, The Man Of Gold, is generally well-regarded). But even among gamers, many have never heard of, or know virtually nothing about, Tékumel despite the fact that it’s been published in numerous editions by numerous companies since it debuted nearly forty years ago. (The latest of these, as far as I know, is Tékumel: Empire Of The Petal Throne, published by Guardians Of Order in 2005.)
Leaving aside practical considerations of publication quality, distribution issues, timing, and other factors, I think there are a number of factors inherent to Tékumel that prevent it from becoming a commercial success. (It’s still an artistic success regardless, and in the end I imagine that was more important and more satisfying to Prof. Barker, whom sadly I never had the opportunity to meet.) In fact, I believe that many of the things that make Tékumel so appealing to a certain type of gamer — such as me ;) — are what doom it to lack of use among gamers in general. These include:
It’s Too Detailed
Tékumel is detailed on a level that makes me blanch at times. Becoming even passingly familiar with it (particularly in light of its non-Western nature; see below) is a serious task. Barker seems to have delved into virtually every aspect of Tékumel and life therein. For example, there’s an entire RPG supplement devoted to nothing but describing specific demons, how they’re summoned, and what they can do for you (or to you). I’m fascinated by a world with that much detail, but that doesn’t mean it’s not daunting in its way.
Here’s another example. A few years ago when I was fortunate enough to be a guest at U-Con, I had the chance to play in a Tékumel game with several people who were, or had been, part of Prof. Barker’s longstanding gaming group and were intimately familiar with his world. During one of the roleplaning moments of the session I was laughingly informed that my character spoke Tsolyani (Barker’s primary constructed language) with an “academic” or “hoity-toity” accent! I was pronouncing it the way I’d learned to from books, so that “Tékumel” comes out roughly like “tay-koo-mail.” They, given their greater familiarity with the language, used a more “common” pronunciation (roughly “teh-kuh-mell,” IIRC). How cool is that? I love that level of setting detail...
...but unfortunately I don’t think the average gamer does. Most RPG settings don’t come anywhere close to that amount of detail. It’s so much to learn, particularly for a GM who wants to present the setting “properly,” that you might as well go ahead and create your own world, if you’re so inclined. The enormous amount of information available about Tékumel in effect becomes self-defeating.
Now, all that information might be more tolerable, or at least easier to learn, if Tékumel were a more “conventional” quasi-Western European Fantasy setting like Middle-earth, Greyhawk, or the Forgotten Realms. But it’s not. Professor Tolkien, a native of England and professor of Anglo-Saxon who was deeply familiar with many northern European languages, naturally drew on that influence when creating his Fantasy setting. Professor Barker, a convert to Islam who’s a professor of Urdu and South Asian Studies and an amateur student of Mesoamerican civilizations as well, just as naturally drew on those influences when creating Tékumel. As a result it often seems strange, bizarre, even alien to the typical Western reader. The convenient cultural touchstones the reader expects are either missing, or so altered that they barely serve their purpose anymore.
This extends to Barker’s constructed languages as well. Professor Tolkien’s languages and writing systems seem more or less familiar to a Western reader. The words are easy to read and pronounce. The tengwar and runes, while not necessarily easy to read at first blush, are recognizably an alphabet the way that the writing systems of French, Swedish, Greek, and Russian are... and, say, Arabic is not. To most Westerners, written Arabic looks like nothing but a bunch of squiggles, not a method of writing. Professor Barker’s Tsolyani and other languages are the opposite: they’re more akin to languages the average reader has no familiarity with. Heck, I can speak a bit of Tsolyani, but the writing is utterly incomprehensible to me — it’s but one small step up from Arabic in terms of its squiggly-ness. Long passages of Tsolyani writing don’t look like writing to me at all; they look like fancy wallpaper designs. And I’m an unabashed fan of the setting.
It Lacks Familiar Details
What’s worse is that in and among its amazing strangeness Tékumel lacks a lot of “familiar” details — more of those touchstones I mentioned above. Due to its unusual origin (see below), Tékumel doesn’t have a lot of things players (and readers) expect in a Fantasy world. Two pretty significant ones occur to me off the top of my head:
Tékumel has no horses. If characters want to get around, typically they have to walk, or ride in carts pulled by chlén — huge, armored beasts vaguely like triceratopses. Offhand I don’t recall anything remotely like horses in the setting. That’s going to throw a lot of players for a loop right there...
...and then they learn that Tékumel has almost no metal! That’s right, metal exists in only small amounts. Weapons and armor are often made from wood, bone, stone, or specially-treated leather. Given the way we tend to visualize so many Fantasy characters — wearing chainmail or plate armor, wielding shining swords and battle axes, and so on — Tékumel requires a definite change in perception.
It Has Rigid Social Systems
Life on Tékumel involves rigid distinctions of social class and almost no chance to “move up in the world” or do something with your life different from what your parents did. This isn’t surprising in a setting derived more from Indian, Chinese, and Mesoamerican cultural elements than European ones, and it’s certainly “realistic.” But it’s not much fun for gaming purposes. Heroes tend to be people who defy convention and make for themselves the lives they want to live... but on Tékumel, the tallest nail is definitely going to get the hammer, as they say. Gamemasters have to deal with potential social issues that don’t occur in most RPG settings (or at least not so starkly and frequently), while players have to adjust their attitudes about how to behave. And for many players, who find themselves trapped in unpleasant (or at least frustrating) social situations in real life, that’s not something they enjoy during their leisure activity.
It Mixes In Science Fiction Elements
(Spoilers ahead. Don’t say you weren’t warned. ;) )
Tékumel isn’t a Fantasy setting created by the gods, or magic, or any of the other usual methods. It actually started as a former Science Fiction setting: a terraformed planet at a galactic crossroads, full of bustling activity and dozens of sentient species. Then a cosmic disaster strikes, civilization falls, and anyone on Tékumel is trapped there forever. Thousands and thousands of years pass, and these species, sentient and non-sentient alike, evolve into the beings, monsters, and civilizations of known Tékumel. And many of them are bizarre, with three or six legs, a lack of bilateral symmetry, and other forms of weirdness that the average gamer doesn’t quite grok (or at least doesn’t want to).
Evidence of a former Science Fiction past litter the landscape. Some of what most residents of the setting regard as “magic items” are actually remnants of ancient devices. An underground high-speed rail system still works between some locations (though its existence is mostly secret). The titular item of Barker’s first novel, The Man Of Gold, is an ancient technological super-weapon, not an enchanted golem or evil wizard.
For me, this is a real strike against the setting as a whole. When I first learned this backstory, I found it depressing and off-putting. Now, don’t get me wrong — I don’t mind a little mingling of Fantasy and Science Fiction, here and there. But I prefer to restrict it to a true Post-Apocalyptic settings (Thundarr The Barbarian, for example), to push it so far into the background that you can barely tell what it is (as with some of Vance’s “Dying Earth” stories), or to limit it to very small, controllable doses (such as the Expedition To The Barrier Peaks scenario for Dungeons & Dragons). Take it too far and it spoils the Fantasy feel of the setting. And I don’t think I’m the only gamer who feels that way. If I’d spent a long time in a Tékumel campaign only to finally get the “big reveal” that it’s not really a Fantasy setting at all but a devolved Science Fiction setting, I’d be upset, possibly enough to not want to play anymore.
It’s Never Been As Well-Presented As It Deserves To Be
But all those problems aside, I think perhaps the biggest strike against Tékumel is that it’s never been as well-presented as it deserves to be. A setting of such scope, magnitude, and detail needs one easy-to-reference source of information, but sadly Tékumel’s never gotten that. Its publications either aren’t very appealing (text too dense, not enough art, poor covers, whatever), or are simply too short to really do it justice.
Ideally what I’d like to see would be a set of three to six hardcover books covering virtually everything about the setting, all written and presented consistently. They’d have lavish full color art throughout that had been approved by the Tékumel Foundation (the organization established by Prof. Barker to oversee his fictional/literary legacy). But unfortunately the few hundred (at most) people who might buy such books wouldn’t be willing (or able) to afford the hundreds of dollars they’d have to cost to pay for the expense of creating them.
I hate that Tékumel has never become a big success. I love lush, elaborate, unusual Fantasy worlds like that and would like nothing more than to immerse myself in a long-running game campaign set in one, or to read a really good series of novels taking place in it. Unfortunately the lack of commercial success for RPG worlds like Tékumel, Jorune, and the like seems to indicate that gamers don’t really want that sort of thing — and in a way I can’t blame them. One only has so much time to devote to one’s hobbies, and time spent learning the ins and outs of Tékumel can for many gamers be more profitably spent going on adventures in “typical” Fantasy worlds where they don’t have to worry about their touchstone presumptions and can just proceed straight to the fun.
Fortunately, this isn’t an either-or dilemma. While there aren’t shelves and shelves of Tékumel supplements to draw on, there are a good many you can track down, as well as active online fan communities devoted to keeping the world alive. And I hope that in years to come the Tékumel Foundation will find a way to publish more material about Professor Barker’s fascinating creation, or perhaps even launch a new RPG for it. If anyone out there’s thinking about doing that, my rates for freelance work are very reasonable.... ;)