RIP Prof MAR Barker, Creator of Tekumel
I never got to meet Professor MAR “Phil” Barker. Indeed, I even came to his remarkable science-fantasy world, Tekumel, only some 15 years after my life as a roleplayer began. But nevertheless Tekumel has been so important to me, that I thought I’d write a short post here to mark the Professor’s passing, yesterday, at the age of 83.
There are three or four fantasy worlds famous in roleplaying which pre-date the hobby’s existence. There’s Middle-earth, of course; Moorcock’s Young Kingdoms; Greg Stafford’s Glorantha. And then there’s Tekumel, the world of the Petal Throne. Each of these was born before the era of roleplaying games, each in response to very specific creative urges expressed by their authors. But Tekumel stands apart.
Most fantasy worlds are reflections of their own authors’ worlds – the history, myth, folklore, society, and even (Tolkien, I’m looking at you) atmospheres of their native cultures. Almost uniquely, though, Tekumel is none of those things. It’s very, very alien, and throughout its existence this has been its blessing as a work of fiction, and in some ways its curse as a setting for roleplaying games.
Like Tolkien, Professor Barker was a creator of languages. But unlike Tolkien, whose linguistic passions were for Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse, the languages of Dark Age northern Europe, the Professor’s passion was for the languages of India, Meso-America, and their periphery – languages laden with structures and concepts far removed from the comfort zone of traditional roleplayers. Tekumel is literally another world – a planet, colonised by Earth in the far, far future and terraformed as a pleasure world before a cosmic cataclysm casts it into its own pocket universe and technological and social chaos. But even there the traditional tropes of science fiction are subverted; the future Earth which colonises Tekumel isn’t the future of our own, Western, Caucasian society, like so much of our sci-fi: no, our society, races, and cultures have long since been wiped out by nuclear devastation in forgotten prehistory, and the future Earth which colonises Tekumel is a society derived from India, China, Central and Southern America. It has very different roots.
And a very different type of fantasy emerges. There are no taverns and inns on Tekumel. Personal heroism and the ‘Western’ glorification of individualism has no place in its societies. Even human life has a different value. When you create your characters and set foot on Tekumel, you really are roleplaying – trying to put yourself in the mindset of a very alien culture.
That, of course, is fascinating. But it’s also hard. Much of roleplaying games relies on shared assumptions – we can all roughly guess how we should behave in the fantasy and scifi worlds we’re playing in, because they share much in common with our own. Not so Tekumel. In a world where human sacrifice is common, pretty much everyone walks around naked, and there’s a rigid caste system and very little personal freedom, you can feel like you need a doctorate to work out how your character should behave.
For that reason much of Tekumel roleplaying revolved around ‘foreigners off the boat’ arriving at Jakalla, the City Half as Old as the World. That way your characters were already strangers in a strange land – they were your actual proxies in the alien society of “Tsolyanu”, the core society for most Tekumel roleplaying. It was an approach which worked well.
I always wondered therefore why Tekumel wasn’t much more popular than it was. It’s an awesomely fascinating setting, deep, complex, and yet filled with scope for pulpy, action-packed adventure. There are lost artifacts, truly ancient ruins, mysterious gods and mind-wrenching sorceries, nefarious and evil aliens, wildly imaginative monsters, and a richly-textured setting that you can delve into at will – or just beat the hell out of with a sword, if that’s your bag.
My own theory is that Tekumel never got the ‘campaign pack treatment’ which, IMHO, it so richly deserved. Something like Borderlands or Pavis for Glorantha, Waterdeep for Forgotten Realms, the G-D-Q series for AD&D, The Enemy Within for Warhammer. There are a few adventures for Tekumel, and currently there’s a very cool ruleset using a Tri-Stat variant a la BESM. But no compelling, cool-as-all-hell campaign pack, which would make people pick it up and exclaim, “I’ve got to play me some of THIS!”
A couple of years ago, I toyed with the idea of writing a Tekumel campaign pack for FATE, based on the Legends of Anglerre rules. I may try that again some day – Tekumel really deserves so much more exposure, and a kick-ass campaign pack to really exploit its richness.
But that’s a maybe future. In the 16 or so years since I belatedly discovered Tekumel, its depth, artistry, and sheer craftsmanship has profoundly influenced me. In some ways one of the (many) roots of my own Chronicles of Future Earth setting lies in an attempt to engage Tekumel in a dialogue: where Tekumel is alien by virtue of being based on an alien world and on alien cultures, Urth is alien by virtue of being a truly far, far future version of our own planet, unbelievably changed, yet somehow based on the distant echoes of our own, Western cultures. Likewise, Mindjammer is perhaps set somewhere in the notional backstory of Future Earth: for me, Urth came first, and therefore in some ways the New Commonality of Humankind was kicked off by my thinking of the sort of society that could undergo a collapse into the world of Future Earth. And maybe I wouldn’t have got there, if not for many moons spent wondering what had happened to the rest of humanity when Tekumel got propelled into its pocket universe tens of thousands of years ago – or in our far future.
If you know and love Tekumel, you’ll probably grok my thoughts above, and the debt of gratitude we all owe the Prof for his wonderful creation. If you don’t know the world of the Petal Throne, do yourself a favour: find out. There are games, some very readable novels, websites (check out the gorgeous www.tekumel.com!), even whole languages and histories out there, waiting to be plunged into and enjoyed. Maybe you’ll never game there, but you won’t regret the ride.
Long live Tekumel. And rest in peace, Prof Barker, and thanks.
(The two images here are linked from http://www.tekumel.com and thetekumelclub.blogspot.fr. Please visit those excellent sites and support Tekumel!)