People who follow role-playing blogs, particularly those concerned with old versions of D&D, are likely to have heard of Tekumel. M.A.R. Barker’s fantasy world is as lovingly detailed as that of Tolkien or any of his successors, but has a very different inspiration, being a combination of ‘pulp’ fantasy and science fiction and various non-European civilisations.
There have been four official role-playing games set in the world, and none of them have proved successful. Several people have wondered why the setting isn’t more popular. Here’s my take on it.
Empire of the Petal Throne, the first Tekumel game (and either the second or third RPG ever, depending on when you count Tunnels & Trolls as being first published), assumes that the player characters are ‘barbarians’, just arrived in the great city of Jakalla.
When I first read this I assumed that the characters were supposed to be from a ‘normal’ D&D-like setting, and that the characters would discover Jakalla along with the players.
In fact it turns out that the player characters are supposed to come from places with roughly the same culture as Jakalla (although the details are different enough that the game gives percentage chances of accidentally committing a crime simply by wandering around).
Not only that, but the fandom of the game, if not the rules themselves, seem to assume that you will ‘really role-play’. That is, your character ‘has to’ approve of slavery, human sacrifice and impaling people for minor crimes.
No one seems to put it this way, but in D&D terms the big cosmic conflict in Tekumel is between Lawful Evil and Chaotic Evil – and even then the conflict is something of a trick, since the gods are specifically stated to be aliens masquerading as gods.
There doesn’t seem to be any place for someone who either truly comes from outside the society, or who was born into it but rejects its values. And this, to me, seems quite different to the source fiction.
So, in conclusion, Tekumel would be better if it had good guys.