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Entry updated 7 August 2023. Tagged: Game.

Role Playing Game setting. Designed by M A R Barker.

Tékumel is a richly realized future milieu, depicted in a Science Fantasy mode analogous to that employed by Marion Zimmer Bradley for her world of Darkover. The setting is arguably comparable with J R R Tolkien's Secondary World of Middle-Earth and Austin Tappan Wright's Islandia in its depth and complexity; its languages, scripts, technologies, taxonomies and cultural mores have all been explored in considerable detail. As with Middle-earth, Tékumel was created by an academic linguist; Barker wrote texts explicating the Urdu and Klamath languages and was chair of the Department of South Asian Studies at the University of Minnesota in the United States of America. A wide variety of material has been published describing his invented world, much of it unrelated to any specific game. Examples include the linguistic study The Tsolyáni Language (1978 2vols), Deeds of the Ever-Glorious (1981), a volume of military histories, and The Book of Ebon Bindings (1978), all by Barker, as well as Mitlányal ["The Gods"] (2004 2vols as The Gods of Stability and The Gods of Change), a theological treatise written by Barker and Robert Alberti. Of these, perhaps the most generally interesting is The Book of Ebon Bindings, supposedly a translation of a text on demonology discovered in the libraries of Tékumel. Considered as a commercial proposition, however, games set in the milieu have never been particularly successful. Instead, the originality and level of detail of the setting have made it something of a cult creation. Role-playing in Barker's world demands a considerable investment of effort before its otherness can be fully understood, but that effort will be richly rewarded.

The planet of Tékumel was originally an extrasolar colony of humanity and various allied species which was forcibly Terraformed to make it suitable for its new owners, an act which brought its native intelligent races to the edge of extinction. Many thousands of years later, without warning, the stars went out. For reasons which remain obscure, Tékumel's entire solar system had been propelled into a Pocket Universe; associated planetary upheavals and the loss of contact with the interstellar community eventually caused civilization to collapse. In the setting's present, humanity's past has been largely forgotten, and the loss of knowledge and a lack of heavy metals have caused technology to regress to the level of the spear and the astrolabe. Meanwhile, contact has been made with entities from fantastic Parallel Worlds which serve as Gods and Demons. Humans have learned to use their limited Psi Powers to tap into these other Dimensions, creating a new science which is truly indistinguishable from magic (see Clarke's Laws), and which the natives think of simply as sorcery. The major societies of the setting are essentially static; tradition is inescapable, the scientific method is unknown and humans are the playthings of vastly superior extraplanar beings.

If Tolkien's achievement was to forge a mythology for England, Barker's accomplishment was perhaps the creation of a genuinely alien human culture. While elements appear to have been derived from dynastic China, Ancient Egypt, Moghul India and the culture of the Aztecs, the final effect is unique. The ethos of this society emphasizes extreme actions which are in accord with an individual's essential nature as expressed by their religious beliefs, whether those allegiances demand acts of cruelty or of kindness, a life devoted to erotic pleasures or to scholarly study. The culture is highly structured and much given to ritual, prone to moments of casual brutality, dominated by clan loyalties and intricate rules of prestige. Many Alien races exist, from the chitin-covered, forest-dwelling Pé Chói to the deadly native Ssú, still hoping to exterminate the humans who destroyed their world. The history of humanity's long occupation of Tékumel, which may have lasted more than thirty millennia, is ever present, from the remote plain dotted with the hulks of indestructible, unusable Starships to the underworlds which exist beneath many cities. Here the many layers of the past are literally present, in the form of the shattered remains of ancient civilizations which fell into ruin before their successors built on their remains.

The first professionally published material dealing with Tékumel was the Role Playing Game Empire of the Petal Throne (1975 Tactical Studies Rules [TSR]) designed by M A R Barker. This was the third RPG to be released by TSR, preceded only by the original Dungeons and Dragons (1974 TSR) designed by Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson and the Wild West game Boot Hill (1975 TSR; rev 1979; rev 1990) designed by Gary Gygax, Brian Blume, and it is essentially an adaptation of Dungeons and Dragons for Barker's private world. Empire of the Petal Throne, however, differs both in being far more clearly presented than its original and in its use of a novel and tightly integrated setting. Still, it is noticeable that the Tékumel depicted in this game is a somewhat simplified variant of that seen in later works; it appears that Barker felt some degree of remodelling was necessary to fit his world to the template suggested by the original version of Dungeons and Dragons. The strongly defined setting of Empire of the Petal Throne helped inspire later designers to attempt the publication of their own original role playing worlds rather than following the route laid down by most of its contemporaries, that of a generic rule set for which the Gamemaster was expected to supply a milieu. This was perhaps Barker's most significant contribution to the development of the Role Playing Game form.

A second Role Playing Game, Swords and Glory (1983 Gamescience) designed by M A R Barker, must be considered a failure. Only the first two of a projected three volumes – containing the world background and the players' rules – were ever published. The third, for Gamemasters, was never completed. The notable complexity of its mechanics undoubtedly contributed to the game's low sales, though the first volume – the Tékumel Source Book – remains the best single reference to Barker's creation. In its thoroughness and diction this work suggests an academic text on the anthropology of an unknown world. Gardásiyal: Deeds of Glory ["Deeds of Glory"] (1995 Theatre of the Mind Enterprises) designed by M A R Barker, Neil Cauley could be described as a much simplified and far more playable revision of Swords and Glory. Its most interesting feature is perhaps its approach to the creation of new player characters, which involves playing through a series of solitaire adventures (see Gamebooks). The most recent Role Playing Game for the setting, Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne (2005 Guardians of Order) designed by Patrick Brady, Joe Saul, Edwin Voskamp, lacks something of the ambience of earlier attempts, but benefits from excellent mechanics, as well as being the most accessible Tékumel based game released to date.

Related works: Legions of the Petal Throne (1977 TSR) designed by David Sutherland, Missúm! ["Die!"] (1978 Imperium Publishing) designed by Gary Rudolph and Qadardálikoi ["The Great War"] (1983 Tekumel Games) designed by Jeff Berry, M A R Barker are sets of Wargame rules for Tékumel using miniature figures. Legions is commonly regarded as emphasizing ease of play, while Missúm! concentrates on the accuracy of its simulation and Qadardálikoi attempts, generally successfully, to combine both approaches. War of Wizards (1975 TSR) designed by M A R Barker is an associational Board Game representing a duel between two opponents employing extraplanar sorcery.

Barker also wrote five novels in the planetary setting; see M A R Barker. These have been less influential than the Role Playing Games, but are still intriguing for their evocation of a truly alien world. [NT]


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