The Alexandrian

Posts tagged ‘tékumel’

Tagline: The world of Tékumel is an exciting, interesting, detailed setting — and Flamesong is the perfect showcase of its dynamic potential and rich development.

This review is the third in a series of reviews designed to analyze the Tékumel product line in depth. The first review was a general overview of the Tékumel setting, publishing history, and other miscellaneous information; while the second review discussed Man of Gold, the first of two novels set on Tékumel. This review will discuss Flamesong, the second novel written by Professor M.A.R. Barker.

Flamesong - M.A.R. BarkerMan of Gold, Professor Barker’s first novel set on the world of Tékumel, was an effort composed of many flaws. Contrary to the typical mediocre fantasy novel – in which good writing is undermined by poor world-building skills — Man of Gold had poor writing set within one of the best worlds of fantasy to ever grace speculative fiction. Certainly there is a raw potential there, but it is sadly muted.

Flamesong, on the other hand, is where that potential has been realized. The prose here is stronger, demonstrating a nice flow, balance, and development. The plot is better conceived and structured in a more interesting and involving manner. The characters are interesting and drawn from a broad, believable palette – at times alien, at times familiar; yet always compelling.

[ Spoiler Warning: This review will contain certain spoilers. I’m not going to render the entire plot, but I will discuss events and character development from later parts of the book in some general detail. Proceed at your own risk. ]

Indeed, there are essentially only two noticeable flaws in Flamesong’s quality. They end up, coincidentally, book-ending the text:

First, early in the book there are still certain salacious impulses drawn from the worse side of pulp cliches which put in an appearance. For example, I could go my entire life without having a character “eyeing her angular nudity”. Fortunately, these are severely muted in comparison to their overwhelming presence in Man of Gold — and quickly disappear entirely, to be replaced with a far more interesting exploration of the relationship between love and lust.

Second, the end of the book derails briefly around page 380 into “treatise mode” as we receive a solid block of exposition concerning the mystic “Eyes” of Tékumel. Not only does this disrupt the pacing of the book’s end, but it is also completely unnecessary – the Eyes have already been well established previously in the book. The passage struck me as an artifact from some early draft of the work, which should have been removed as work progressed.

But it is impossible to hold these isolated flaws against Flamesong, which – in every other aspect – deserves respect as a fantasy novel of preeminent quality.

To the average reader, Flamesong is a rompful adventure, set in a fantastic, alien – yet fully developed – world. To the gamer, however, Flamesong is even more valuable.

First, like Man of Gold, its role as a ground-level view of Tékumel makes it invaluable – particularly because the cast of characters is drawn from so wide a variety (ranging from Tsolyanu to Yan Koryani to several non-humans) and the territory covered so diverse.

Second, Flamesong serves as an excellent showcase not only of some of the more exotic elements of Tékumel, but also of the adventure structures which the world invites: The plot includes use of the ancient subway systems, the dungeon-like ruins of the ancient civilization, planar travel, undead armies, royal inheritance, lost kingdoms, the Tsolyanu-Yan Koryani war, and the use of battle magic in that war.

In short: Flamesong is not only a novel of high quality which is real worth reading in its own right, it is also an invaluable resource for the Tékumel gamer – serving as the perfect showcase of a world with dynamic potential and rich development.

Check this one out at your earliest opportunity.

For those of you reading this after it has been placed in the archive and interested in reading the series in sequence, the next review will be of the novel Swords and Glory, Vol. 1: Tékumel Source Book – The World of the Petal Throne.

Style: 5
Substance: 5

Author: Professor M.A.R. Barker
Company/Publisher: DAW Books, Inc.
Cost: $3.50
Page count: 412
ISBN: 0-88677-076-9

Originally Posted: 2001/02/01

As I mentioned in my first Tékumel review, the next review never happened. The series ground to a halt here.

I’ve found that there is a “sweet spot” for reviewing a book — a narrow window of time after you finish reading the book or watching the movie in which the review can be properly executed. If I miss that window, you lose the familiarity with the work necessary to properly execute a review. Actually, I’m not sure “familiarity” is the right word. It feels more like there’s a connection that’s formed as you experience a creative work. As time passes, that connection fades away and is replaced with merely the memory of the work. (If that makes any sense.)

This “missed opportunity” is also something that happened with the Lensmen reviews I wanted to write and the Dune reviews that I ended up writing in miniature.

For an explanation of where these reviews came from and why you can no longer find them at RPGNet, click here.

Tagline: The world of Tékumel is an exciting, interesting, detailed setting. Unfortunately, Man of Gold is possessed of many flaws.

This review is the second in a series of reviews designed to analyze the Tékumel product line in depth. The first review – a general overview of the Tékumel setting, publishing history, and other miscellaneous information – can be found under the title “Tékumel ” in the archives here at RPGNet here.

Man of Gold - M.A.R. BarkerMan of Gold has exactly one saving quality to it: It’s set on the world of Tékumel which (as we all know from my last review) is a really great setting. Far too many well-written novels suffer because the world-building skills of the author are substandard; this one has a world beyond compare, but it is poorly plotted, its characters are poorly conceived, and at the end of the book you are left completely unsatisfied.

[ Spoiler Warning: This review will contain certain spoilers. I’m not going to render the entire plot, but I will discuss events and character development from later parts of the book in some general detail. Proceed at your own risk. ]

To begin with, for a setting with such originality – and one which is very differentiated from any other fantasy world – it is sad to see M.A.R. Barker fall into so many cliched stereotypes when it comes to characters and situations. For example, from the very beginning you have the young orphaned boy raised in an alien culture (the insectal Pe Choi) who doesn’t know his own parents; the beautiful lady who is far above the hero’s own stature; a vastly important mystery which (due to a fantastic twist of fate) only our inexperienced and naïve hero can solve; and so on. The fact that about 90% of these cliches, in the end, don’t go anywhere (you never do find out who his parents are, despite all the fuss made about it at the beginning of the book) doesn’t make them any better. If anything, it probably makes them worse.

Second, large portions of the plot (like the cliches) don’t need to be there. The whole thing could have been seriously tightened up.

Third, the plot is riddled with large, unjustified gaps of time in which the characters have apparently been put on pause not so much because they have a reason to be put on pause, but because Barker needs time to have other events get to the point where he needs them to be.

Fourth, this book is oversexed. I can accept (and even enjoy) the lack of the same nudity taboos which we possess; but when the scene from The Wrath of Khan where Khan drops parasitical slugs into Chekhov’s and Paul Winfield’s ears is reenacted except, this time, with a beautiful young woman and her, shall we say, sexual orifice, Barker has crossed the line between “oookkaaayyyy” and “unnecessary and detracting”.

Fifth, the ending is weak due to a lack of proper execution. All the elements are there to make for a really satisfying conclusion to this story, but they are put together and constructed in a manner which simply leaves you going “ho hum”. Several other critical stages in the plot suffer from this same general problem – which appears to be a combination of passive prose, poor character motivation, and bad event timing. However, the ending suffers particularly because Barker mixes in the ever-frustrating “hero who doesn’t see the obvious”. If this is bad enough by its own, it is even worse when the obvious is the entire point of the story.

Despite these flaws, the book is still worth reading – largely due to the world-building skills Barker displays. Watching the workings of the intricate Tsolyáni political maneuverings first hand, getting to explore the underground remnants of ancient civilizations, watching as the naïve play with scientific trinkets far beyond even our own comprehension, having the workings of the gods demonstrated and explained. All of this and more makes this worth the day or two it should take you to skim through it.

In addition, if you intend to roleplay in Tékumel then reading this novel (and the next one, Flamesong) will be extremely useful to you in getting a feel for the extremely alien culture presented. This, more than anything else, is why I decided to review Man of Gold first, despite my negative feelings regarding it – it provides a good place to take your first step into this new world.

For those of you reading this after it has been placed in the archive and interested in reading the series in sequence, the next review will be of the novel Flamesong.

Style: 2
Substance: 4

Author: Professor M.A.R. Barker
Company/Publisher: DAW Books, Inc.
Cost: $3.50
Page count: 367
ISBN: 0-87997-940-2

Originally Posted: 1999/07/19

For an explanation of where these reviews came from and why you can no longer find them at RPGNet, click here.

Tékumel - Empire of the Petal Throne

Tagline: The world of Tékumel is an exciting, interesting, richly detailed setting almost without equal in the realms of fiction (roleplaying or otherwise). It has been plagued with a bad publication history, but nonetheless has become legendary in the RPG community for its positive aspects.

This is the first review in a series of reviews designed to cover the Tékumel setting in a great deal of depth. Although there’s no strict schedule on which these reviews will be turned out, by the time I’m done I hope to have been able to cover all of the major Tékumel products which have been published over the past two and half decades since it first appeared in print, along with a good sampling of the minor ones. This review, therefore, is a little bit different than most – it will be a protracted look at the history of the Tékumel setting (an overview of the Tékumel setting, publishing history, and other miscellaneous information), serving as a general introduction to the product-specific reviews which will follow.

THE SETTING

The world of Tékumel was first settled by humans exploring the galaxy about 60,000 years in the future, along with several other alien species. They did massive terraforming of the inhospitable environment, disrupting the local ecology and banishing most of the local fauna (including some intelligent species) to reservations on the corners of their new world. This was a golden age of technology and prosperity, even on one of Mother Earth’s colony worlds.

Then the world got dropped into a dimensional pocket. Don’t you hate it when life rains on your parade?

Tekumel: Empire of the Petal Throne - Guardians of OrderIn any case, Tékumel was severed from the interplanetary trade routes and went through a massive gravitic upheaval which threw civilization into chaos. The native species broke loose from their reservations and civil war seized the planet. Several other significant changes took place due to the crisis – mankind discovered it could now tap into magical forces, the stars were gone from the sky, dimensional nexi were uncovered and pacts with “demons” (dimensional travelers) were made, a complex pantheon of gods was discovered, and science began to stagnate and the belief that the universe was understandable slowly faded. A Time of Darkness descended over the planet.

Which brings us to a much later time period and the world of Tékumel as it has been revealed to us through the writings of Professor M.A.R. Barker – specifically the area of the Five Empires on Tékumel’s northern continent.

The Professor (as he is affectionately referred to by people who don’t like typing out “M.A.R. Barker”) developed Tékumel in much the same way that J.R.R. Tolkien developed the much more popularly known Middle Earth (setting for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings). His interest in myth and languages lead him to develop his own fantasy languages based upon fantasy cultures in a fantasy world influenced heavily by his studies in myth. The difference is that where Tolkien drew largely on the northern European myth structures, the Professor’s interests lay largely in the languages and myth structures of India and Southern Asia.

What distinguishes Tékumel even more from Tolkien is the media in which it was presented to others. Tolkien, after years of dabbling in his fictional world, eventually wrote two major novels and a series of other works set there. M.A.R. Barker, on the other hand, was a professor at the University of Minnesota at the same time that Dave Arneson, Gary Gygax, and a handful of others were developing the first “roleplaying games”. This was the tradition which the Professor would tap into to explore and develop his own games. His “Thursday Night Groups” were some of the first roleplaying sessions anywhere, and quite possibly the first non-D&D ones ever. This unique, week-by-week, thirty year development of the world on a very personal level is unknown to any other detailed fantasy world of this calibre.

First, you have the hyper-detailed languages. Tsolyáni, one of those languages, has had grammatical guides, dictionaries, and even a language course developed for it (Tolkien’s languages and Star Trek’s Klingon are the only serious parallels to this type of development). In order for these languages to have that type of deep accuracy, the Professor developed wholistic cultures, histories, dress fashions, architectural styles, weapons, armor, tactical styles, legal codes, demographics, and much else.

Second, you have the religions of Tékumel. There are a (relatively) small number of true gods and goddesses in Tékumel; but they are far beyond our comprehension. Instead each religion worship specific aspects of these gods and goddesses in different forms – with different degrees of specificity (Lesser and Greater Aspects) and spheres of influence. It is heavily inspired by the mythologies of India and Southern Asia (as is the rest of the world’s background), and utterly unlike anything else I’ve seen published in the fantasy genre in terms of depth, understanding, consistency, and originality.

Third, the cultures which have been created (which, as noted above, grew out of the myth and language Barker was developing) are rich, alien things. They are extremely baroque, being based along the classical lines of the Indian, Chinese, and Japanese cultures. They envisioned on a grand, epic scale and are possessed of breathtaking qualities.

Finally, the day-to-day development of the world has resulted in all of these intricately details being put into a constant motion which have resulted in unique developments and depth. This is a world of intricacy and complexity almost unmatched.

Tékumel is one of the most intricately detailed and believable fantasy worlds ever created – one of the “Big Three” in my mind (a list made up of Middle Earth and Tékumel, with Harn coming in at a slightly distant third place).

THE PUBLISHING HISTORY

There are some who theorize that the extremely alien qualities of Tékumel as a setting are what have resulted in its disappointing history – one of limited commercial success, despite a fervent and committed following. Personally I think we are putting the cart before the wheel somewhat here; the publishing history of Tékumel has been one marked with troubles. I think these troubles are the cause of Tékumel’s limited commercial success, not its result.

Empire of the Petal Throne - M.A.R. BarkerTékumel first burst upon the scene in 1975, when TSR (still known as Tactical Studies Rules) published it as a standalone game under the title of The Empire of the Petal Throne (“Empire of the Petal Throne” being a euphemism for the Tsolyánu Empire). Despite some of the moral and ethical warping of the world brought about Gygax pasting on an AD&D-style alignment system, Empire of the Petal Throne met with a great deal of critical and financial success. It brought a level of detail and quality to the world in which a game was set which had previously been unknown in the RPG industry (this was still several years before the first major concordance of Greyhawk would appear). It was a turning point away from the tactical roots of RPGs and towards the unique possibilities this new medium was capable of providing.

The game was loosely supported in Dragon magazine for awhile, but eventually it died from lack of major support by TSR (which was already beginning to focus exclusively on the D&D franchise, with the new AD&D game being just around the corner). The setting was supported for several years by its adherents (including the participants in the Professor’s own games) in various forms, including several sets of miniature rules.

The next major landmark in the history of Tékumel publishing is when the company Gamescience published a Sourcebook and a Player’s Handbook in 1983 – essentially a two volume set of background and rules (the latter being completely different from the earlier rules in Empire of the Petal Throne). This system remained entirely unsupported (Gamescience went out of business among other things), although the setting continued to be — most notably with the Armies of Tékumel series (which, self-obviously, detailed the various armies of the various empires) and The Tsolyáni Language (which, self-obviously, detailed the Tsolyáni language in detail for the first time).

The Armies of Tekumel - M.A.R. BarkerIn 1987 a company known as Different Worlds proceeded to reprint the Gamescience manuals – but in the process managed to confuse everyone thoroughly by breaking up the Sourcebook into multiple volumes (Books 1-3, each published in a separate volume) and then going out of business before publishing Book 3 of the Sourcebook or any of the Player’s Handbook.

Then, in 1992, a company known as Theatre of the Mind (TOME) started publishing a series known as The Adventures of Tékumel — which was, yet again, completely different from any previous ruleset. If you thought Different Worlds made things confusing with their books, TOME was even worse. First, Adventures of Tékumel: Part One was published as a single book. Then Adventures of Tékumel: Part Two was published in three different volumes. Finally, TOME published Gardásiyal: Deeds of Glory as a stand-alone set of rules. This was confusing because, first, “Deeds of Glory” was the name for an old set of Tékumel miniature rules, and, second, because Gardásiyal wasn’t really a complete game – you needed the character creation rules from Adventures of Tékumel: Part One (but nothing from any of the Adventures of Tékumel: Part Two volumes). On top of it all, Gardásiyal isn’t particularly good at describing the world of Tékumel – so the old Gamescience sourcebook is still heavily recommended.

Nonetheless, TOME represents the most continuous and in-depth publishing history for Tékumel yet (with the exception of auxiliary publications by Tékumel Games, which is directly connected to the Professor) – they have produced a Tékumel Bestiary and will, hopefully, be publishing Mitlanyál (a guide to Tékumel’s gods and religious structures) in the near future.

The Tekumel BestiaryOne of the interesting things to note (in a sort of macabre fashion) is that as the roleplaying industry moves towards simpler and more intuitive systems, the systems published for use with Tékumel have become more and more complicated, archaic, and non-intuitive. This is ironic, because the Professor himself uses an almost diceless homebrew.

There’s some other miscellaneous stuff that should be mentioned. The Blue Room FTP site (dealt with in more detail below) has offered some shareware manuals. Tirikelu is a set of shareware roleplaying rules produced by a fan. Conversions for Tékumel exist for GURPS, AD&D, RuneQuest, TORG, and quite probably others as well that I am forgetting of. And I have not even delved into the miniature rules, the vast majority of the supplements, the maps, or the miniatures… not to mention the novels (which is where the next review will be taking us).

As you can see its a bit of a tortured history. That is one of the reasons why I’m producing this series of reviews – so that you know what each product contains and can figure out for yourself what would be the best way to get into Tékumel.

OTHER INFORMATION

For those of you interested in discussing in Tékumel there are two major ‘net-based discussion groups: The Tékumel newsgroup (alt.games.frp.tekumel) and the Blue Room mailing list. To subscribe to the mailing list (which the Professor participates on) send e-mail to Chris Davis (the list’s moderator) at blueroom@prin.edu.

Mitlanyal - M.A.R. BarkerThose of you interested in tracking down Tékumel material may find it difficult. However, Tita’s House of Games (run by Carl Brodt) has become a one-stop source for the material (both in print, OOP, and reprint material). His catalog is routinely posted to the alt.games.frp.tekumel newsgroup. You can also get a catalog with the following contact information:

E-mail: CarlBrodt@aol.com
Snail Mail: 1608 Bancroft Way; Berkeley, CA 94703
Phone: (510) 848-3260

There are also a number of web-based resources for the setting:

Brett Slocum’s Tékumel Page
http://www.skypoint.com/~slocum/tekumel
Mr. Slocum’s page, while not the most visually smashing thing you will ever see, is professionally put together in a format where it is easy to find exactly what you’re looking for (something which I wish could be said of all web designers). The site is packed full of useful information – including the Tékumel FAQ, Publishing History, a setting overview, maps, timeline, a GURPS conversion, and links to many of the sites found on this list as well as links to other resources (including other conversions and freebie rule sets). If you can only go to one Tékumel website, this is the one it should be.

Tékumel: The World of the Petal Throne
http://www.tekumel.com
Designed by Peter Gifford this site is visually dazzling, while not falling prey to bad web design as a result. It is showing great potential with its own content, and has links to much of the on-line content it doesn’t possess. Highly recommended.

The Blue Room FTP Site
ftp://nexus.prin.edu
As noted above, Professor Barker participates on the Blue Room Mailing List. Chris Davis (the Room’s moderator) has also established this FTP site – which contains some Tékumel-related documents authored by Barker and others. I hope to eventually review several of these web-only products eventually, but in the meantime you should take a look for yourself.

The Jade Arch
http://www.interlog.com/~maliszew/jade.html
The Jade Arch gets mandatory mentioning here because its designer, James Maliszewski is one of the columnists here at RPGNet. Plus it has an interesting game-related focus (rather than the world-related focus of most other sites).

Empire of the Petal Throne Products
http://www.halcyon.com/www2/bwr/ept_list.html
This product listing is one of the best available, listing everything (to my knowledge) that has ever been published for Tékumel in any format.

There many other sites out there, but this is a good sampling of most of it. Since between the first three sites on the list you should be able to find links to everything else, this is a good jumping off point for you.

CONCLUSION

Tékumel is a world almost without equal. Its publication history has made it difficult to track down serious material for it, though. Knowing which books to buy, and in which order to buy them, is not particularly easy. Fortunately, Tita’s House of Games (described above) has made actually getting the material much easier.

Although I know some who have given up on this rich gaming environment because of these difficulties, I hope that this series of reviews will serve to guide you back into it. And for those of you who have not yet experienced this piece of gaming history, I hope to light a passion in it for you. It’s well worth the effort.

For those of you reading this after it has been placed in the archive and interested in reading the series in sequence, the next review will be of the novel Man of Gold.

Style: 4
Substance: 5

Author: Professor M.A.R. Barker
Company/Publisher: Various
Cost: n/a
Page count: n/a
ISBN: n/a

Originally Posted: 1999/07/19

I never actually completed the intended series of Tékumel reviews. The series ground to a halt after hitting the first two novels (Man of Gold and Flamesong). The publication history related in this review is now incomplete, of course, but Empire of the Petal Throne unfortunately remains a blighted intellectual property. Its next major publication was Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne, a Tri-Stat game published by Guardians of Order… just in time for Guardians of Order to go bankrupt and close its doors. A company called Zottola eventually managed to get Mitlanyál and a couple new novels into print, but they went out of business in 2011. Tita’s House of Games is supposedly still around, but the site hasn’t been updated since 2010.

M.A.R. Barker himself died just over a year ago. Before he died, he founded the Tékumel Foundation to preserve the legacy of his work… but they also haven’t updated their website in years.

The lengthy (and, to date, futile) struggle to have Tékumel published in a coherent, unified format for any significant period of time remains a source of great sadness for me, particularly as I reflect on both the travails of Legends & Labyrinths and my ongoing work to preserve and promote the literary legacy of my mother.

Maybe someday….

For an explanation of where these reviews came from and why you can no longer find them at RPGNet, click here.

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