Welcome to The Hall of Blue Illumination, the podcast dedicated to the world of M.A.R. Barker’s Tékumel. Our hosts begin this episode with a discussion of ways a referee can make Tékumel their own, with examples from James and Victor’s campaigns. This is followed by a discussion of the myriad creatures found in Tékumel’s underworlds, including pronunciation of their names.
James and Victor close out the episode with a comment from listener Malcolm Heath, who elaborates on Episode 41’s discussion of Tsolyáni elements in the names of the sentient species of Tékumel.
[00:00:41] Making Tékumel Your Own: how to approach it in your own campaign.
[00:01:01] James’s “House of Worms” campaign has been going on for six years as of this month. James (following Victor’s advice) started small. There’s a lot of material for Tékumel, and it’s impossible to make use of all of it. James dealt with this by focusing on one city (Sokátis) and one clan (the House of Worms).
[00:02:17] Since the players were a mix of people with prior Tékumel knowledge and some who were new to the setting, James knew he couldn’t drown them with information.
[00:02:50] By limiting it to the House of Worms clan, James knew that they worshiped Sárku and Durritlámish.
[00:03:02] James introduced elements bit-by-bit, and then widened the focus as the campaign went on.
[00:03:19] Despite all of the information on Tékumel, there are many gaps where a referee can introduce new details. James had to invent what Sokátis looked like, and how its culture differed from other cities in Tsolyánu.
[00:03:59] As an example, Sokátis is in eastern Tsolyánu, relatively near Salarvyá. Thus, James postulated that the Salarvyáni were much more common in the foreigners’ quarter.
[00:04:22] James also remembered a tale about one of the rival priest-kings who had his capital in Sokátis during one of the Engsvanyáli civil wars. It’s a fun little story that explains the reverence given to cats in Sokátis.
[00:05:25] James also became interested in colonization of the southern continent, taking a cue from his players. The southern continent is a “big, blank spot” on the map of Tékumel. James’s players went there about two years into the campaign, after the characters were already well-established, and James knew about what interested his players. He tailored this southern continent setting to them. It was an organic process.
[00:07:32] There’s a lot of scope to Tékumel, even in Tsolyánu. James recognized that he wouldn’t be able to “break” the setting.
[00:07:52] His players also started coming up with their own things. For instance, one of his players is a sorcerer that likes to cast horoscopes and take omens. He invented procedures for this, some involving the interpretation of thrown cat bones.
[00:08:31] Over time, players have become involved in the life of the southern continent. Some of the players have even expressed hesitation at being asked to return to Tsolyánu.
[00:09:52] Victor says that a similar situation would occur in Prof. Barker’s campaigns. The players would realize their characters wouldn’t want to upend their lives to go on an adventure. The end result was that the player would have to come up with a new character.
[00:10:26] This has happened in James’s campaign as well. Most of his players have at least one other character they’ve played in other circumstances, and they’re open to creating more. What’s important now is the campaign, and not the characters.
[00:11:11] Another part of making Tékumel your own is by creating characters with different attitudes and perspectives from the one you started with. Subsequent characters have more texture and nuance.
[00:12:08] This gets to an important bit of advice, the best way to inhabit Tékumel is to play it. At this point in James’ campaign, his players intuitively know most of the NPCs, such as important clan persons. They’ve spent entire sessions arraigning marriages to be advantageous to the clan. The players still talk about these sessions, even though this might seem strange to an outsider.
[00:13:17] Tékumel benefits from a longer term approach. If you can build a long-lasting campaign, it lets you explore the setting much more. There’s always more to do, once you’re familiar with the basics.
[00:15:20] Victor discovered in running his own campaign that he didn’t want to remember every detail. So he focused on where his players’ characters came from, and what would seems strange to them.
[00:15:45] Victor’s campaign is a fresh-off-the-boat campaign (see HOBI e.1), that’s been going on about four-and-a-half years. So the characters have gone through the process of being foreigners, to becoming established in Tsolyánu, getting married and joining clans. Suddenly, the characters have become a part of the community (“somebodies” rather than “nobodies”), and can interact with it in bigger ways.
[00:17:24] James feels that the hardest thing for his players to get used to was all the odd foreign words. So initially he tried to use plain English, and then once they became familiar with the concepts, began introducing the Tsolyáni words.
[00:18:00] Victor thinks that it’s important to let players know that many of the things they assume about the setting of a fantasy game aren’t true in Tékumel. Victor told his players this upfront, but since their characters were also unfamiliar, he could use their interactions as a tutorial on these aspects of Tékumel.
[00:19:29] As an example, in a recent session, his players were discussing their options for dealing with a problem in the Tsolyáni context of noble and ignoble acts.
[00:20:00] The moment James realized that his players were fully immersed in the Tsolyáni mindset was when their characters entered Yán Kór and reacted with shock to the different local customs.
[00:20:50] Halfway into Victor’s game, his players created other characters who existed in another part of Tékumel. They changed the relative party dynamics, but their second set of characters almost immediately gelled.
[00:21:49] Victor has also started two other groups, one of them beginning as a fresh-off-the-boat campaign in Yán Kór. We don’t understand how Tsolyáni-centric our view of Tékumel is until we see it in the context of one of the other empires.
[00:23:05] James also enjoyed playing the Yán Koryáni NPCs, as they reacted to the foreign manners of the Tsolyáni players.
[00:23:55] Both James and Victor started their campaign in 2354 AS. Why? James wanted to have a clean slate, because he was aware of how Prof. Barker’s campaign evolved. The original EPT started in 2354, so that’s when he chose to begin, understanding that events might happen differently on his Tékumel.
[00:25:23] Victor chose 2354 AS because he realized that most of the subsequent “official” chronology was the record of Prof. Barker’s campaign. Victor didn’t want his players to be following in the footsteps of Prof. Barker’s players. He decided that he would run his campaign without those assumptions.
[00:26:45] For instance, Princess Ma’ín remains a follower of Avánthe, because the event that changed her alignment hasn’t occurred. (See HOBI e.28 at 00:17:30)
[00:27:43] In both Victor and James’ campaigns, the war with Yán Kór is coming, but hasn’t happened yet. James isn’t really sure how he’s going to do it, because he wants it to be different. He’s always felt that the official version is underwhelming.
[00:29:14] Just because material (like the record of events after 2354 AS) exists, doesn’t mean you have to assimilate all of it.
[00:30:46] The description of the Tree of Time is helpful here. Groups shouldn’t worry about whether they’re on the “main trunk” of Tékumel.
[00:31:07] From time to time, Prof. Barker would let the players go and do the kind of adventure they wanted to, even if that didn’t at first seem to fit.
[00:31:56] Underworld Creatures. (See EPT §1221, pp. 63-68). Discussion and pronunciations follow.
[00:32:21] Aqáà, “the Worm of the Catacombs.” (EPT p. 63). This is very similar to the purple worm of original Dungeons & Dragons. We learn in some of the later source material that there’s more going on with these creatures than would at first be apparent.
[00:33:30] Biridlú, “the Mantle.” (EPT, p. 64). This creature’s D&D analogue is the Lurker Above, but Victor isn’t sure which came first.
[00:34:07] Chnélh, “the Ape-Mutant.” (EPT §1128 (2), p. 52).
[00:34:19] Dlaqó, “the Carrion Beetle”. (EPT, p. 64). One of James’s favorites, it also shows up in the Man of Gold.
[00:34:43] Hli’ír, “the Beast with the Unendurable Face.” (EPT, p. 64). Jeff Dee once asked Victor, “what does it look like?” His response, “I don’t know, I haven’t looked at it.” James notes that there’s only a 70% chance that someone looking at it will go insane, so presumably, 3-out-of-10 people who see it can describe it.
[00:35:30] Hrá, “the Bloodsucker.” (EPT, p. 64). Interesting that there’s two kinds. As James points out in his campaigns, these undead are “Ksárul undead,” not “Sárku undead.”
[00:36:36] Hurú’u “the Howler.” (EPT, p. 64). The various forms of undead are evocative, in that they all have something that makes them special.
[00:36:58] Káyi, “the Eye.” (EPT §1126 (5), p. 46). This should be feared if encountered unexpectedly. It also has a D&D analogue in the gas spore.
[00:37:28] Kúrga, “Eaters of Carrion.” (EPT, p. 64). Victor’s players call these “ROUSes” (“rodents of unusual size”). Even though they don’t much look like rodents. Victor has a suggestion for those of you who plan to spend some time in the underworld.
[00:38:17] Marashyálu, “the Whimperer.” (EPT, p. 64). It’s similar to Tsú’uru.
[00:38:39] Mrúr, “the Undead” (EPT, p. 65). Your garden-variety zombie. Are they named for the sound they make?
[00:39:02] Mu’ágh, (EPT §1129 (6), p. 58). A slime creature.
[00:39:23] Ngáyu, “the Eater of Swords.” (EPT, p. 65).” The /ng/ sound (“the problem phoneme) is identical to the –ng in “along.” Early on, Prof. Barker preferred to reference the –ng- in “finger” when describing this sound.
[00:40:58] Ngóro, “the Whelk.” (EPT, p. 65). Continuing to discuss /ng/, James notes as of the publication of the Sourcebook, Prof. Barker begins referencing “sing” in place of “finger” for this sound.
[00:41:33] Nshé, “the Flowing One.” (EPT, p. 65). Also makes a cameo appearance in Man of Gold.
[00:41:52] Qól, “the Serpent-Headed Ones.” (EPT, p. 65). Some of these creatures have hands, while others have tentacles.
[00:42:31] Qumqúm, “the Thunderer.” (EPT, p. 66). These creatures are invisible to humans, but the Pé Chói can see them. Victor suspects that the name is derived from the “terrible roaring noise” they make as they move.
[00:43:04] Ru’ún, “the Demon of Bronze.” (EPT, p. 67). This term covers almost anything mechanical or robotic.
[00:43:32] Sagún, “the Fungus.” (EPT, p. 67). The alcohol in wine can help to disperse the spores. If you thought D&D’s yellow mold was bad…
[00:44:04] Shédra, “the Eater of the Dead.” (EPT, p. 67). One wonders what these undead do with the flesh once it’s eaten. “It’s best not to dwell on these matters.”
[00:44:17] Sró, “the Dragon.” (EPT §1129 (10), p. 58).
[00:44:26] Thúnru’u, “the Eater of Eyes.” (EPT, p. 67). They can be repelled by tsúral buds. Victor only recalls tsúral buds use as an aphrodisiac being mentioned here. James notes that they are not listed in Swords & Glory vol. 2’s lists of drugs. (S&G vol. 2, §2.350, p. 67-69).
[00:45:30] Tsú’uru, “the Illusion-Master.” (EPT, p. 67). This is an interesting entry for a number of reasons. First, it’s interesting how similar these are to the Marashyálu. Second, does this creature’s name have the same root as the word for the underworld itself, tsu’urúm? Victor discusses this.
[00:47:20] Yéleth, “the Angel of Doom.” (EPT, p. 67).
[00:47:58] The underworlds are large places and home to all manner of things. This raises the issue of what language these monsters are named in. Victor suspects these are all Tsolyáni names.
[00:49:02] Listener Comment: Malcolm Heath commented on episode 41. He wanted to shed more light on the names of the Pygmy Folk and the Shunned Ones. He discusses the formation of these names, and their singular versions in great detail.
[00:52:30] Malcolm also posits that several of the species names (including “Ahoggyá” and “Pé Chói”) are transliterations of what those beings call themselves.
[00:54:02] How would you form plurals of the names of the underworld creatures? Victor takes his best guess. “Ssúyal” just means, “a bunch of Ssú.”
Hosts: James Maliszewski and Victor J. Raymond.
Producer: Thomas Tiggleman
Tékumel Products Referenced:
Swords & Glory Vol. 1 (a.k.a. the “Source Book”) was first published by Gamescience in 1983. It is a detailed sourcebook for the world of Tékumel. You can purchase it as a print-on-demand book, or as a PDF from DriveThruRPG.
The Ever-Glorious Empire: Éngsvan hlá Gánga was written by M.A.R. Barker and released as a netbook in 1996. It is available for purchase as a PDF at DriveThruRPG. It details the history of the Empire of the Priest-Kings of Gánga.
“The Almighty Gods of Yán Kór” is an article written by Prof. Barker. It discusses the beliefs of the Yán Kòryáni. It can be purchased as a PDF from DriveThruRPG.
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 print-on-demand book, or as a PDF from DriveThruRPG.
Swords & Glory Vol. 2 (a.k.a. the “Player’s Handbook”) was first published by Gamescience in 1984. It provides an intricately-detailed ruleset for creating characters and gaming on Tékumel. You can purchase it as a print-on-demand book, or as a PDF from DriveThruRPG.
The Tsolyáni Language was originally published in two volumes beginning in 1978. It is intended to be a complete guide to the language, and includes a pronunciation guide, an extensive grammar, a script, and English-Tsolyáni and Tsolyáni-English vocabularies. It is available for purchase on DriveThruRPG as a PDF.
Hari Seldon is a character in Issac Asimov’s Foundation Series.
Author P.C. Wren wrote the adventure novel Beau Geste about brothers who enlist in the French Foreign Legion. It is set immediately prior to World War I and was first published in 1924. The novel inspired several film adaptations, including 1977’s parody The Last Remake of Beau Geste.
For many decades, society was unwilling to acknowledge the existence of ROUSes. This changed in 1987, when a large, brave murine boy personally demonstrated his existence to noted ROUS-skeptic Cary Elwes at the cost of his own life.