Welcome to The Hall of Blue Illumination, the podcast dedicated to the world of M.A.R. Barker’s Tékumel. In this episode, our hosts discuss several subjects, including the origin of the podcast’s name, Victor’s new Tékumel campaign, and how to handle any incongruities that arise between your own material and that of the canonical setting.
[00:00:30] What exactly is the Hall of Blue Illumination? It’s the location in the Chancery of Avanthár where The Book of Mighty Imperial Deeds of the Great and Glorious Petal Throne is kept. (That’s Korúnkoi hiGardásisayal Kólumelan hiTirikéludàlidàlisa for you Tsolyáni fans; see “Reports Submitted to the Petal Throne” in Dragon #4 (Dec. 1976))
[00:01:40] Who has access to the Hall of Blue Illumination? Not you, that’s who.
[00:01:54] Sentient books in Tékumel? One of the AIs left over from the Latter Times, perhaps? Those Lords of the Latter Times were…eccentric.
[00:02:59] Seriously though, anyone who gets permission from the Chancery (try the Provost, Lord Cháymira hiSsánmirin) can go and read the book. Or at least most of it. There’s also a Secret Book, which contains classified entries and the covert activities of Tsolyáni agents.
[00:04:03] Various pages of both the secret and public books are inscribed with Mind Bar spells to prevent readers from sharing some pieces of information.
[00:04:45] Victor has started a new Tékumel campaign. Currently, it’s an in-person, “fresh off the boat” campaign with two players. Victor plans to add more, and may follow Prof. Barker’s model: he’s considering refereeing separate groups of players who all operate within the same campaign, so that the actions of one group can affect the experiences of the other, and vice versa.
[00:07:20] Scott plans using a similar device with two Call of Cthulhu groups.
[00:08:10] Both of these players were new to Tékumel and EPT, so Victor spent some time with them on character creation. He wanted the players to have a fair understanding of the relevant mechanics starting out, even though EPT can be deadly for new characters.
[00:08:40] One of the players indicated that he had a difficult time identifying with the Gods of Change, because their doctrines seemed rather selfish. Victor explained to him that while there are certainly fanatical devotees of the Gods of Change on Tékumel, there are also “time servers,” i.e., the Tékumel equivalent of Easter-Christmas Christians. Sometimes, because of the weight of tradition, a character may end up worshiping a god whose doctrines are not consistent with how the character behaves.
[00:10:11] Where are these two players’ characters from? One is from the southern continent, and one from Háida Pakála. Victor treats the original EPT skills roll (EPT § 420, p. 18) as a heritage roll indicating the character’s standing in society. For her original skills roll, the character from Háida Pakála rolled double 00s, so Victor decided she would be a princess of one of the city-states of Háida Pakála.
[00:11:06] How did the characters meet? On the voyage to Jakálla, so they had time to get to know one another.
[00:11:37] Rather than staying at the Tower of the Red Dome (#34 on EPT’s Key to the Map of Jakálla), the PCs decided that because of the princess’s status, they would stay at the Hostel of Birrukú the Allaqiyáni (#33 on the Jakálla Map Key). This difference seems minor, but it caused Victor to develop more material.
[00:12:48] How much description does Victor use when setting up a scene? Initially, he tries to focus on whatever sense impressions the foreigners would find noteworthy. Then uses the players’ own expressions of curiosity to determine the focus of subsequent descriptions.
[00:14:00] Scott notes two of his previous “fresh off the boat” campaigns. He ran one of these last year for free RPG day as a one shot, and keyed the Tower of the Red Dome and the area surrounding it. He even placed a small underworld under the Tower.
[00:14:30] There’s very little canonical information about the Hostel of Birrukú the Allaqiyáni, and Victor didn’t visit it as one of the Professor’s players. James notes that for much of Tékumel, even in the city of Jakálla, all you’ll find in the canonical material is a name or a brief description. There’s room for referees to develop these places.
[00:16:29] One reason a referee might want to keep his descriptions brief is so that he has less to remember. You should only offer as much detail as you’re willing to keep track of.
[00:17:21] Scott feels that it’s easier to write his own material than to try to remember the details of another person’s scenario.
[00:19:14] James tends to take cues from players’ interest in details when choosing what to develop.
[00:20:37] You might expend a lot of effort developing an aspect of Tékumel that you will never get to use if it’s too deeply keyed to a certain location and cannot be moved. A possible solution is to use modular scenes and encounters that can be slotted in whenever appropriate.
[00:22:01] Having a set of reminders for how certain structures are laid out can be useful. For instance, the entrance to the inner sanctum of every temple of Hry’y is going to fork to form a Y. Victor discusses the theological symbolism of this design.
[00:23:44] In every city with a palace of the realm, there will be scribes doing the business of the empire. The Tsolyáni love bureaucracy, and its present even in rural villages. Consider the opening chapter of Man of Gold, where multiple levels of scribes are recording and copying all manner of records. (In the DAW paperback, the relevant paragraphs are on pp.8-9).
[00:25:00] On the topic of this scene, Scott relates a comment from one of his players. This player holds multiple doctorate degrees, and he said that the scene reminded him of the hierarchy present in academia.
[00:25:41] Victor opines, Professor Barker hated academia. His early fun was curtailed by his experience of going from a department chair to someone without a place within the institutional structure. Victor indicates that this scene might instead find its inspiration in the Professor’s experiences in India shortly after the end of the British Raj.
[00:27:03] Of course, you can only extrapolate so much about the author from his narrative. All of his experiences were grist for the mill.
[00:27:50] Tékumel is its own thing. We have a tendency to think that creative people will apply their experiences to their creation’s setting. But this mindset is actually not that helpful. The Professor had a strong sense of Tékumel from an early age, and it was hard to predict what he would accept into Tékumel, and what he would reject.
[00:30:29] Giovanna Fregni is putting together a guidebook for artists creating Tékumel-related works.
[00:31:02] What should a writer or artist use to create a setting or scenario? Scott feels that this might seem difficult to novices who aren’t steeped in the material, because the setting of Tékumel is so very different from everything else. While he used his own town as the basis for the setting of his Call of Cthulhu game, appropriate reference points for a Tékumel campaign aren’t readily at hand.
[00:33:33] Advice for those who want to create material in congruity with canonical Tékumel? Victor has two responses. 1. You don’t have to read all of the setting material, there’s more than enough in EPT to start a game. 2. You don’t need to give a lot of detail, you only need enough to give players a taste for the culture.
[00:35:06] Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. The real world is a complex place, and mistakes are an opportunity to be more creative.
[00:36:31] James’s Friday game has moved into the unknown lands of the southern continent. His hands aren’t tied by previous material. James indicates that this is liberating in a way, but the new material he’s creating is still informed by his knowledge of Tékumel.
[00:37:59] James points out that canonical examples of “going off the map” are often strange. Tékumel often feels more like Tékumel when characters from the Five Empires encounter foreigners who act differently, because the culture of those characters is thrown into relief.
[00:40:15] In the novels, the Tsolyáni protagonists often go into other cultures, and as expected, the contrasts are noted.
[00:40:40] Tékumel’s reputation does not inspire confidence in new referees. But it’s not alone in this. Scott singles out Glorantha and Traveller as two settings that he would be uncomfortable running without substantial preparation.
[00:41:57] Glorantha is a unique case, since the creator occasionally changes his mind and rewrites things (this is called “getting gregged” among the Glorantharati). Did significant revisions ever happen to the setting of in Tékumel? Examples are few and far between, but Victor supplies two.
[00:42:58] The first takes place between EPT and Swords & Glory. In EPT, the chief god of Livyánu, Qaame’él is said to “[correspond] closely to Tsolyáni Thúmis.” (EPT § 200, p. 12). But in S&G, the pantheon of Livyánu is described as “[t]he most divergent pantheon of all of the Five Empires” and Qaame’él (now spelled “Qame’él”) is markedly different from Thúmis. (S&G vol. 1 § 1.610, pp. 53-54).
[00:44:03] The second occurred when Professor Barker initially described either the Legion of the Givers of Sorrow or the Legion of Deep Purple Dark as living in the vicinity of Fasíltum and worshiping Vimúhla. Later, this became Hry’y, and it led to a debate. The Professor recognized the peril in making declarative statements about Tékumel.
[00:46:09] What about an absolute, sweeping retcon, where an important fact about Tékumel was suddenly no longer true? Our hosts can’t think of anything that would qualify.
[00:46:30] Victor wants to emphasize that if your material is at variance with the published material, you’re not necessarily doing it wrong, you’re just doing it differently.
[00:47:20] Professor Barker’s canonical Tékumel material is a great resource in much the same way that an encyclopedia is a significant reference work, however, your own experience can differ from the one described.
[00:47:50] Scott gets philosophical. What is a setting anyway?
[00:49:32] Sometimes the Professor would introduce something that seemed incongruous with Tékumel as the group expected it to be. Victor relates two experiences, both involving non-inimical Ssú.
[00:53:11] Sage advice for player characters. Always follow the instructions of your hosts. Don’t go outside, and don’t read the interesting looking books.
[00:53:35] Gaming in Tékumel compared to cooking. If you wanted to learn to cook a new variety of cuisine, would you read everything about it and then hope you got it right on the first try?
[00:54:55] You can have a good time (or make a good meal) even if you don’t have exhaustive knowledge of all the possibilities available. You only get better at cooking if you keep trying at it.
[00:56:47] Once again, a discussion of gaming philosophy prompts our hosts to make observations on life in general.
[00:58:48] The feeling that you need to know everything is rooted in fear of failure.
[00:59:51] In some ways Béthorm provides a newcomer more of a sense of place than EPT does. This is because Béthorm has the benefit of four decades of attempts at presenting Tékumel.
Hosts: Scott Kellogg, James Maliszewski, and Victor J. Raymond
Tékumel Products Referenced:
Empire of the Petal Throne is the original Tékumel sourcebook and rules set. It was first published by TSR in 1975. It can be purchased as a PDF from RPGNow.
Dragon #4 is cover-dated December 1976. The magazine was originally published by TSR, and titled The Dragon until 1980 with issue #39. Issue #4 was subtitled “Special Empire of the Petal Throne Issue.” It can be viewed or downloaded free-of-charge here.
Swords & Glory Vol. 1 was first published by Gamescience in 1983. It is a detailed sourcebook for the world of Tékumel. You can purchase it as a PDF or in print at RPGNow.
Béthorm is your one-stop shop for Jeff Dee’s rules set for gaming on Tékumel. It’s available both in PDF and in print, and boasts a growing number of authorized supplements and adventures.
Sandy Petersen (he of Chaosium fame) adapted the RuneQuest rules set to gaming on Tékumel. Tékumel with RuneQuest Rules is available free-of charge here.
“Fresh of the boat” campaigns were discussed at length in Episode 1 of this podcast.
Non-Tékumel Products and Other Things:
Call of Cthulhu is a horror-fiction roleplaying game based on the works of H. P. Lovecraft and other horror pulp authors. First published by Chaosium in 1981, Call of Cthulhu is built on the same Basic Role-Playing system that underlies RuneQuest. It is currently in its Seventh Edition.
Dr. Giovanna Fregni is an archeologist whose illustrations have graced several Tékumel-related publications, including Mitlanyál.
Glorantha is a fantasy setting created by Greg Stafford. It began to appear in Chaosium products in 1975, and is the default setting for most editions of RuneQuest.
The venerable science fiction RPG Traveller entered print in 1977 and has seen repeated revisions and overhauls. Virtually all of the previous editions are available in PDF. The current rule sets are Traveller5 and Mongoose Publishing’s Traveller 2nd Edition.
RuneQuest is another Chaosium product with a distinguished history. It first saw print in 1978, and is based on the same Basic Role-Playing framework as Call of Cthulhu.