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 plumb the depths of Tékumel’s underworlds. How do underworlds differ from traditional dungeons? How can a referee entice players into these perilous places? And what will brave adventurers find once they’re down there? Answers to all these questions, and more.
[00:00:50] Most listeners will be familiar with the dungeons of other RPGs, but underworlds in Tékumel have several unique aspects.
[00:01:38] Even though you don’t have to focus on these differences, it’s important to remember that an underworld is an active, living place. There’s a lot more going on in an underworld than in a typical dungeon. Underworlds are intended to have their own societies and interactions that provide roleplaying opportunities beyond traditional looting and killing.
[00:04:47] Underworlds are often an extension of surface society. They’re connected to surface life and aren’t just abandoned, ruined places.
[00:05:40] There’s a structure to underworlds in Tékumel. Victor notes the concept of ditlána, that roughly every 500 years Tsolyáni cities are torn down and the streets filled in, then a new city is built overtop, or nearby. This process adds layers, and as players go deeper into an underworld, they will encounter areas that originate in progressively older eras of Tékumel’s history.
[00:07:29] As a result, it’s impossible to map a whole underworld. Instead, referees should map only those areas players are expected to encounter. Part of the preparation is determining the underworld’s society and its connection to the larger world.
[00:08:07] In Episode 13, we discussed the differences between “real” Tékumel and “game” Tékumel. How is this applicable to underworlds? In “game” Tékumel, underworlds are (relatively) small, contained environments intended for players to adventure in, while in “real” Tékumel, there’s a lot of empty space that would seem boring to players.
[00:10:00] How did Prof. Barker present an underworld? He would show off the “good bits” and would simply add distance between points of interest; he would let the players know when they got to their destination. Regardless, from a player perspective, everything looks dark, dank, mysterious and deadly, regardless of whether it’s “real” or “game” Tékumel.
[00:10:56] A referee can abstract or summarize the boring, distance parts and move straight to the interesting bits. James used this approach in a recent campaign. He thinks of underworld encounters as “nodes” of interesting, interrelated bits, between which there is summarized travel.
[00:14:01] Story-time! Victor reads a section from Man of Gold, covering Hársan’s introduction to the underworld below Béy Sü. (See Man of Gold, Ch. 20).
[00:16:24] The underworlds of Tékumel are peculiar because the surface world has regular traffic with portions of them, and thus there are nonplayer characters who will know their way around the well-trafficked passages. It’s all about finding the right source.
[00:18:27] Six ways players can find an initial guide to an underworld.
[00:18:53] #1: Hire someone who has regular business in the underworld. This could include a clan with an establishment there, a professional mourner, a tomb robber, or simply an inquisitive individual who has explored the area previously.
[00:19:27] #2: The tomb police, e.g., “Well, here are a set of places you don’t go, or we’ll arrest you.”
[00:19:40] #3: A member of a clan who is responsible for remnants of clan holdings in the underworld.
[00:20:02] #4 : Temple officials. The temples maintain hidden shrines in the underworld.
[00:20:22] #5: A scholar who needs protection while pursuing his investigations there.
[00:20:33] #6: A government bureaucrat who needs players to find something, because (oh, for whatever reason) he doesn’t want to send his people.
[00:21:21] James likes to emphasize that various governmental agencies of the Imperium have records that go back millennia. If you can find them.
[00:21:47] Ditto, the temples. One of the more interesting places to encounter in the underworld is a temple or shrine that continues to operate there. Some of the more important shines of Hrü’ü and Sárku are located underground.
[00:22:40] The whole planet is honeycombed with underworlds. For many referees, there’s a huge temptation to plumb the depths and get down to the deepest levels, where things like the original machines that terriformed the planet are still located.
[00:23:56] Tubeway cars and a few known underworlds that date back to Ancient Times. The Planetary Governor’s Palace is located somewhere in the northern hemisphere, far to the east of Tsolyánu; it is reachable by tubeway or aircar. Tubeway car stations can be found throughout Tékumel, even in the middle of nowhere. There’s also a “Rest and Recreation Facility” near the southern pole.
[00:25:32] Tubeway car lines are the lattice-work that connects many of these places. Sometimes the tubeway cars operate, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes you’re unlucky enough to get pulped.
[00:26:25] The inimical races have access to the tubeway cars as well. This includes The Shunned Ones and the Ssú, in particular the black Ssú.
[00:27:19] Surgeon General’s Warning: An underworld can be harmful to your health.
[00:28:25] Even in the early days of EPT, Prof. Barker put together something that was at times part dungeon, part underworld. An example is the Temple of Vimúhla, which is surrounded by a moat of deadly flame. Also the Garden of Weeping Snows where the gods have imprisoned the wizard Nyélmu.
[00:29:27] Underworlds don’t just have connections to other parts of Tékumel, they also have extraplanar ones. In this respect, an underworld can go almost anywhere.
[00:29:50] Victor relates that after a while with Prof. Barker, players given a choice between an underworld and a nexus point whose destination was unknown, would consistently choose the nexus point, because it was generally less dangerous. Things in an underworld will deliberately try to kill you, while the environment on the other side of a nexus point will only be doing it incidentally.
[00:30:40] “Game” Tékumel can be relatively lethal, considering the encounter tables. If you compare the encounter tables in EPT with those of original D&D and even 1st Edition AD&D, there’s a much steeper power gradient for EPT. If you use these tables as written, the player characters are going to encounter very difficult adversaries rather quickly.
[00:32:14] Prof. Barker’s “Saturday Night Specials”. These were special places in the underworld were players would encounter stiff opposition and good treasure. Our hosts debate the origins of this term, and it’s application to gaming.
[00:36:13] Don’t try to plot everything out at once. Instead, develop areas as the players get close to them. This helps to preserve narrative freedom.
[00:38:23] More from Man of Gold, Ch. 20: An encounter in the underworld.
[00:42:36] Referees should consider underworld encounters, but not be too quick to answer every question. It’s safe to assume that there’s more than one way to get somewhere on Tékumel.
[00:43:07] In “game” Tékumel, passageways are often not unlike those in D&D – spacious compared to those in similar, real world structures.
[00:43:51] “Real” Tékumel is bigger and more active than anything you’d want to map. Scott suggests “going off the grid” and trading the grid lines of graph paper for unlined plain paper. Victor gives us an anecdote about the level of detail in Prof. Barker’s original map of the Jakállan underworld.
[00:45:08] Prof. Barker’s original key was patterned on his experiences playing with Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax. It doesn’t provide much in the way of description, because the Professor used the notations as a cue, which he would elaborate on in the moment.
[00:47:01] Consider which aspect of the world you want to emphasize ahead of time. Underworlds can be labyrinthine, with little in the way of monsters; they can have connections to other times, other planes, or other parts of the world.
[00:48:19] You can randomly generate the underworld as well, and in some ways, this is easier. It’s an interesting idea, and one developed by Mark Pettigrew in an article that first appeared in The Journal of Tékumel Affairs.
[00:50:50] An underworld is its own place. Sometimes the things that exist down there have a society all their own, and if players become involved with it for a protracted interval, they can become disconnected from surface society.
[00:52:25] Victor asks: Wouldn’t it be interesting if players came out of the underworld after a lengthy stay to find out that some great political upheaval has occurred while they were out of contact.
[00:53:54] You can have an underworld campaign that’s like Indiana Jones. Quests like these are even suggested by the Ten Keys of the Blue Room. In this case, the players are striving after something that very few other people in the world know or care about.
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.
Man of Gold, the first of M.A.R. Barker’s novels set on Tékumel, is back in print. You can purchase it through Amazon or CreateSpace. It’s also available as an ebook for Kindle, Nook, or Kobo.
The Mark Pettigrew article referenced by our hosts is titled “The Underworlds.” It originally appeared in The Journal of Tékumel Affairs, Vol. III, No. 6 (April 1983). It has since been republished at least twice: in The Best of the Journals Vol. III and in The Best of the Journals: The Pettigrew Selections.
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