Thursday, April 21, 2011

My History with Tekumel - Part One

I've been playing role playing games since the very beginning. At the tender age of 15, I bought the white box edition of D&D in the fall of 1975 from a local game store called The Little Tin Soldier Shoppe, which, as the name suggested, catered to the lead miniatures market. I had walked in, because I was looking for Avalon Hill boardgames. I had been hooked on Blitzkreig and Afrika Korps by my older brother, and The Little Tin was the closest store that was listed under 'Games' in the Yellow Pages.

I dove right in, but I had trouble getting traction on playing it. I got a copy of Chainmail to try to assist, but that was even harder and I abandoned it. When Blackmoor came out, I was finally able to play a little bit. Then The Palace of the Vampire Queen came out. Now, I had something that I could play with my friends. I enlisted my buddies Bruce and Scott. I can't even remember if we finished the game, because down at the Little Tin Soldier, of which I was now a regular customer, a campaign of another game started -- Empire of the Petal Throne.

That first campaign was refereed by Tim Cox (who played the priest Dutlor in the Professor's campaign, who fired that fateful Eye of Change at Princess Ma'in) and Craig Smith (who drew much of the artwork in later Tekumel publications (The Tekumel Journals and Swords and Glory, specifically). Here was a fully realized world with history and culture and cool ancient technology and spells! Craig and Tim were players in the Professor's campaign, and the store game was an official offshoot of Barker's game.

We started in the typical "Fresh Off the Boat" scenario in Penom, the delightful unkempt armpit of the Empire. In the first session, one of the characters got dragged off to the impalement stake for asking a nobleman directions. As I have said many times, I never looked back¹.

We did everything. We had city adventures, we delved into the underworld, we had military adventures in Milumanaya, we adventured in the wilderness, we took a tube car, we fought our way out of a Hlüss hive-ship, we had an orgy with followers of Lady Hrihayal, we got spat on by Ahoggya, we got kidnapped by robots (sentient Ru'un), we called for divine intervention (a lot). In other words, we had a blast.

In the culmination of nearly two years of adventuring, our ship sailed into Tsamra harbor. We were 'hosted' by the Vru'uneb secret police. They let us 'donate' our best magic items to the State. Then as a gesture of their thankfulness, they 'escorted' us to the tenth level of the underworld beneath Tsamra. While there, we 'made friends' with the many, many denizens of those environs. Of our original party of ten PCs and numerous NPCs and slaves, the last five survivors were 'housed' in a room that was quickly filling with a substance the consistency of Karo syrup. My character, Tolekh hiDraskalu, a priest of Vimuhla, asked my Lord to save us. I got him at a bad time, as I visualized Vimuhla dressed in a bath towel (the mind places its own understandable framework around things it can't cope with). "Please take my party to the surface of Tsamra!" I pled. I blinding flash of light filled my field of vision.

I know that there were more party members than just the three of us, but myself and two others were the only followers of Vimuhla or Chiteng that remained. We found ourselves in the market plaza of a Tsolyani city. We appeared in a huge flash of light and the crack of thunder. The shopkeepers and customers panicked and ran away from us, screaming "Demons! Demons!". The city guard came, armed for Ahoggya. When they saw us, two priests obviously of Vimuhla and a warrior of Chiteng, they put their swords away and talked to us. We were in Tumissa. Apparently, Vimuhla misunderstood me when I said 'Tsamra' and thought I said 'somewhere'. Must have been my foreign accent. We were debriefed by the OAL, escorted back to our temples and clan houses. Then the campaign came to a close.

Our exploits were later immortalized in The Imperial Military Journal in an Imperial Dispatch that I wrote.

That campaign strongly influenced every other campaign I ran and several I played in. It shaped me as a player and a GM. It also was the start of several friendships that have lasted until today (Hi John! Hi Victor! Hi Tom!). Some of the players in that game became the core of my gaming group through high school and college. And we kept coming back to Tekumel for years to come. I feel very lucky.

¹ - I did play AD&D 1st Ed. for about 2 months in the fall of 1980 in order to reserve my place in a friend's The Fantasy Trip campaign that he was going to start once they finished the Narnia-inspired AD&D campaign he was co-DMing. It was rather unintentionally silly, and confusing, even though I had played white box D&D before. My character was a druid who had a trained rhinoceros with a +2 magic horn that he rode into battle. That character was the inspiration for another player's TFT character, an Elvish animal trainer.


  1. "In the first session, one of the characters got dragged off to the impalement stake for asking a nobleman directions."

    Now that's hardcore!

    I love these kinds of war stories, especially those of the Tekumel variety, it's the same part of me that digs oral histories. Look forward to the next installment.

  2. It is nice to be able to read your introduction to Tekumel. :D

    I remember seeing a Gamescience S&G set in the Davie, Fl., The Compleat Stratagist store. The guys there warned me off from it, saying it was not only needlessly complicated, but wouldn't sit well with my folks. I had longed to immerse myself in it, but was staved off by circumstance until the early '90's when I picked up Books 1 & 2 of the Guides.

    The closest I'd ever gotten to playing in a setting 'like' Tekumel was Skyrealms of Jorune, which whetted my appetite for Professor Barker's world.

    However, until I recently played in Chirine's game(s), I'd never been a Player in Tekumel, and the only game of 'it' I ever ran was actually a Boot Hill adventure with the Seal Imperium having set up a Hidden Empire underground.

    In my opinion, Tekumel is a cultural treasure, like Poe, the Pulps, and precious few other works.

  3. @ckutalik - The impalement set the tone for us. We were all shocked into taking it seriously. The character had been warned by NPCs and directly by the ref more than once. We listened to the ref carefully after that.

    @Timeshadows - My store had the opposite reaction. There was a cadre of enthusiasts to encourage people to buy it. We also had the advantage of having Barker's own players in town (Minneapolis).

    I've heard of Jorune in the same sentence with EPT often, I own it, but I've never read it. I agree on Tekumel being a treasure.

  4. You are a lucky man, Brett. I came to Tekumel relatively late, in the early 90's. I can only imagine being in there from so close to the beginning.