Tekumel needs Conan and Princess Leia

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.

Midi-chlorians: why are they so awful?

I haven’t seen any of the later trilogy of Star Wars films right through, but even I know that Jar Jar Binks and the Midi-chlorians are the two elements that people most hate about them.

In case anyone doesn’t know, Midi-chlorians (the dash is apparently part of the ‘official’ spelling) are microorganisms that live in the blood and, it turns out, are what give characters in the Star Wars universe the ability to use The Force.

Jar Jar Binks is unpopular for obvious reasons. He’s not as cute or funny as the film seems to think he is, and there’s the whiff of racism about him. But the dislike for Midi-chlorians isn’t as obvious.

Plot elements that the characters initially think are supernatural, but which turn out to have a scientific explanation, are a standard plot device in science fiction and fantasy (perhaps especially false gods). So is the related device of an institution that appears to be fantasy-like but turns out to have a scientific basis. Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series is an example: the dragons are ‘really’ genetically-engineered, the mystic bond between them and their riders is ‘really’ telepathy, and the whole feudal society is ‘really’ descended from a group of colonists from the author’s wider science-fictional universe.

Some people might say that it’s the suddenness and clumsiness with which the story changed direction. But Luke, Leia and Darth Vader turning out to be related is surely more clumsy and sudden, and that isn’t the subject of nearly as much dislike.

One explanation might be that the revelation of Darth Vader’s identity has a dramatic payoff, whereas midi-chlorians seem to be in there for the sake of it. Or it might be that Star Wars isn’t ‘really’ science fiction, but fantasy, and so having an element more suited to ‘harder’ science fiction doesn’t fit. Or perhaps they aren’t the root cause. Perhaps they’re a symbol of a general feeling that George Lucas’ tendency to go back and ‘fix’ his work, insisting all along that this was what he originally intended, actually makes it worse.

A question for Star Wars fans

[The film that became Star Wars] is a space opera in the tradition of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. It’s James Bond and 2001 combined – super fantasy, capes and swords and laser guns and spaceships shooting each other, and all that sort of stuff. But it’s not camp. It’s meant to be an exciting action adventure film.

George Lucas in 1974.

Is Star Wars fandom aware of its retro-ness? Do the novels and other spin-offs take the same tone, or do they try to make the setting more like ‘serious’ science fiction?

Tough talk on an important question of the age.

This site is an (apparently heartfelt) attempt to decide whether the Galactic Empire from Star Wars would win a war against the Federation from Star Trek.

My reaction is to start by laughing at the idea of taking this question seriously – then to get annoyed at his take on the question. Then, as I prepare my counter-argument, I realise I’m caught in a rhetorical tractor beam.

Star Wars is based on stories like Flash Gordon, where there’s a small cast of characters. Both the Empire and the Rebellion are basically a single fleet. In Star Wars everyone assumes that, if the Rebellion loses the battle at the end of the film, that’s the end of the Rebellion. Similarly the Empire losing the battle at the end of Return of the Jedi means that the Rebellion has won the whole war. Both Rebellion and Empire are the major good/bad guys, and at most a single army.

Whereas Star Trek is based more on written science fiction than on movie serials. There seems to be a bit more attention paid to the fact that, somewhere off-camera, there are lots of other ships like the Enterprise (although I’m not sure whether they’re meant to be the only ones exploring the galaxy). Despite the name, ‘Starfleet’ seems to be analagous to a Navy rather than to a single fleet.

The Federation is more like a major country in the modern world. The Empire is more like the petty kingdom of a warlord who leads their army into battle personally.

So, in conclusion, the Federation wins by weight of numbers.

A Princess Leia of Mars

I’ve been reading through the Marvel Comics series Star Wars recently, after hearing about them on Grognardia (although I actually got a few of them when they first came out in the 70s and 80s).

They’re strangely enjoyable, even though the artwork can be a bit amateurish (and the dialogue is often very stilted).

This post is about issue 53. The story begins with Princess Leia crash-landing on a new planet. Characters do this a few times in the series. It’s a good way to have new stories that don’t have to interact with the main setting. I seem to remember the original Battlestar Galactica did the same thing.

Then she discovers these guys:

The plot (which goes over two issues) doesn’t have very much to do with John Carter, but for some reason I enjoyed this pastiche, whereas I really didn’t like the Magnificent Seven story earlier in the series. Perhaps the Don Quixote character and the talking green rabbit were a bit too much. I do think it’s appropriate that Princess Leia ends up in the planetary romance and Han Solo ends up in the Western.