Tekumel!

Tsolyani

At last! I have decided to revive this blog, at least temporarily, to get myself writing again. Much has occurred since my most recent post, nearly a year ago. I have finished a grad program, and I nearly have my license to teach elementary school in Massachusetts. My wife and I are also expecting our first child in a few weeks. Indeed, many great changes are occurring!

But in the midst of all this, I finally have more time to devote to other things I love. Namely, writing, and immersing myself in other worlds. While I was in grad school, I didn’t have much time for escapism (although I did wrap up a long-running D&D campaign). In recent months I’ve gotten back into Jack Vance, and now, the works of M.A.R. Barker, which will be the primary focus of this post.

Professor Muhammad Abd-al-Rahman Barker (born Phillip Barker, and known as “Phil” by friends and family) is the creator of the world of Tekumel. It is an exotic science-fantasy setting that the Professor has been developing for most of his life. He was a friend of the original designers of Dungeons and Dragons, including Dave Arneson, who was an occasional player in his games. The D&D crowd at TSR decided to publish Barker’s setting, along with an original RPG rule set, in the “Empire of the Petal Throne” box set in 1975. This original edition of the game was one of the earliest tabletop RPG’s ever published, and featured the first complete setting paired with rules.

TekumelBoxSet

(The original 1975 boxed set)

Barker was a fascinating guy. He passed away in 2012 unfortunately, but he left behind quite a legacy as a writer, linguist, gamer, and builder of worlds. Much like the revered J.R.R. Tolkien, he was a linguist, and created numerous constructed languages to go along with his setting. The most developed of these is Tsolyani, the language spoken within the default starting region for Tekumel games. Unlike Tolkien, Barker studied South Asian and Native American languages rather than European ones, and his setting is an interesting amalgamation of the cultures and histories of those places. Tsolyanu, the Empire of the Petal Throne itself, feels like equal parts Indian, Aztec/Mayan, and Persian/Arabic. Rather than settle for a pseudo-European fantasy world, or a sword-and-sorcery pastiche, Tekumel features rich, ancient cultures steeped in history and hoary tradition.

Barker as a worldbuilder is also strongly influenced by the trends in fiction that came before him. He was an avid fan of science fiction and fantasy, drawing inspiration from Jack Vance and corresponding with writers like Lin Carter. I tend to think of Tolkien as fitting into a category of “mythic fantasy,” given that his world and invented cultures are based on a tradition of mythological storytelling, with gods creating the world and so forth. Tekumel is based on the science fictional premise of a futuristic world populated by humans, and many other alien species, which is then cut off from the rest of the universe by a mysterious cataclysm. Related to that disaster are actual god-like beings, and actual magic which flows from another dimension. Tens of millennia after this event, humans and other species now live at a level of roughly bronze-age technology, with ancient sprawling empires, magic, gods, and a general sense of unchanging tradition and ritual.

I have been aware of Tekumel since my college days, although I don’t remember how I stumbled across it exactly. I used to actually trawl through lists of published RPG’s on Wikipedia, to get a more complete picture of the hobby, so that could be it. I remember thinking the world was interesting, but also somewhat inaccessible. The odd-sounding names and constructed languages seemed off-putting I guess. Also, there wasn’t a lot of easily available material out there, except for the recently published version of the game in 2005 by Guardians of Order, which I wasn’t willing to buy. More recently however, there has been a small Tekumel revival, coinciding with the “Old-School Renaissance” for D&D inspired games. First off, the Tekumel Foundation which manages Barker’s intellectual property has started publishing the old books on DrivethruRPG. A new RPG called Bethorm was also recently published, with an old-school feel meant to evoke the original game.

Choice of Games, which I have written of in earlier posts on this blog, also released a game set in Tekumel a few years ago. It was this that got me interested in Tekumel again more recently. The game didn’t get amazing reviews, but I thought it would be a good way to re-introduce myself into the setting. “Choice of the Petal Throne” does indeed have issues, namely some flat characters and a rushed ending, but got me excited about the world again as I had hoped.

From there, I purchased “Swords and Glory, Vol. 1” from Drivethru, which is considered to this day to be the Professor’s most comprehensive sourcebook on his fictional world. The book is fascinating and immersive, but also challenging in some ways. Written in the early days of the hobby, the text is dense, with very few illustrations, and an odd sense of organization. It covers dozens of cultures across a continent the size of Asia, and details everything from histories and religion, down to the minutiae of silverware etiquette. There are no maps, and until the new PDF’s were released, there was no index. It took me weeks to read through it in small bites, but I feel like it was worth it. Anyone looking to really dive into Tekumel should check out this book.

Swords and Glory

Another good way to get a feel for the setting is to read some of Professor Barker’s own fiction. He published five novels over the course of his life, which were set in Tekumel. I recently finished the first two, “The Man of Gold” in 1984, and “Flamesong” in 1985. I enjoyed them both thoroughly, and was pleasantly surprised at Barker’s ability to tell an intriguing, complex story, and create some sympathetic characters as well. Fair warning though, Barker’s style can be just as dense as his gaming material, and the frequent exposition drops can get a little ridiculous. He wrote the other three novels later in life, and they are apparently not as good as the first two. They are also out of print and difficult to find, but hopefully will be released in PDF by the Tekumel Foundation sometime soon. I plan to read them if I can find them, mainly for the descriptions of other parts of Tekumel.

Man of Gold

You would be hard-pressed to find a setting more deep and fully-realized than Tekumel. I’m looking forward to trying it out as a role-playing game (I got my copy of Bethorm a few weeks ago). Perhaps that will be the subject of a future post, if I can actually get a group together!

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Conan, What is Best in Life?

Positive image from a scan of a Powerhouse Museum, Philipps Collection, glass plate negative
2008/165/1-192

Good news everyone! My days of toil and suffering have paid off handsomely, and my first written work as a freelancer has been published! WOOHOO! It is available currently on DrivethruRPG. Now that it’s released, I can talk a little bit about what I was actually working on. Months ago, I responded to an open call for writers that I found while trolling the forums of RPGNet. Soon after I signed a contract to adapt a short story by Menagerie Press’s artistic director, and thus, the Masks of Tzanti was created.

It’s supposed to be a full-on sword-and-sorcery adventure, complete with cultists, murderous barbarians, and skeezy rogues. I haven’t actually read much Robert E. Howard, but I like lots of other writers that are considered imitators, or part of the same family (Jack Vance, Gene Wolfe, Michael Moorcock). It took me about two months of solid writing to complete, although I took occasional breaks from writing due to my intense work schedule. Here is the cover art, by the very talented Steven Catizone (who does all of Menagerie’s illustrations) –

Masks of Tzanti Cover

(This cover would make Frank Frazetta run off for a cold shower)

It’s a happy day indeed, and I hope friends, family, and the very few followers I have will spread the word (among RPG players at least). I will likely be working with Menagerie Press again in the future, as they are a young company looking to expand their list of products. I am also writing a conversion to 5th edition D&D for this adventure, so you can look for that in the next few months or so.

(Here are a few notes on RPG’s and D&D for the uninitiated. I wrote the story for the Pathfinder RPG. This is continuation of the 3rd edition of Dungeons & Dragons, published in 2000. When the 4th edition of the rules was released in 2007, it split the gaming community, and a lot of people rallied behind the company Paizo Publishing, who continued to release products for the game that used a modified version of the old rules (this was called the Pathfinder RPG). The company that owns D&D, Wizards of the Coast, recently published the 5th edition of the rules, in the hopes that they would unite the community again. I prefer Pathfinder to 4th edition, but I prefer 5th ed to Pathfinder. The rules are fun, and a lot more streamlined and easy. Wizards recently opened an online marketplace for PDF products called Dungeon Master’s Guild, and it’s really taking off. People can now write and sell their own 5th ed material under an open-gaming license. It was my idea to write “Masks” in 5th edition rules, since I think it’s just the right time. I may continue to do so if I write more stuff for Menagerie Press.)

So, what’s next for me you might ask? Well, if you’ve read any of my other posts on the blog, you know that I’m a big fan of interactive fiction games. One of the companies that remains consistently popular with that genre is Choice of Games, and I’m thinking that I should try my hand at penning some IF. I’ve dabbled in it before, and I got a good ways into a storynexus game about the Byzantine Empire. But this would be a bigger project, roughly the length of a short novel. To prepare, I’ve been devouring Choicescript games by the bundle, including Choice of Robots and Hollywood Visionary, both excellent stories in their own right. I don’t want to share too many of my ideas just yet, as I have a tendency to spew out thoughts and then not use them, or get bored with them. Once I get a bit more done, I’ll drop some details.

In the snippets of free time I’ve had (and March has provided more than usual) I’ve been enjoying some media that I wanted to gush about briefly. First is an excellent fantasy novel that needs to get more attention –

Baru Cormorant

This is the first novel by Seth Dickinson, and it brought me low with it’s sheer awesomeness. It’s about a girl from an isolated island community, living in a fairly traditional way. Then they get colonized by a powerful empire that controls the world through cunning, ruthless diplomacy and economic superiority (aptly named the Masquerade). She grows up in their schools, learns their twisted philosophy, and becomes a bureaucratic prodigy. She is then sent to the rebellious province of Aurdwynn to bring it under heel as the Imperial Accountant. Most of the story takes place there, and concerns the unraveling of conspiracies among the nobility of a strange and foreign people. The main character Baru Cormorant of course has many divided loyalties, and she has to lie to nearly everyone she encounters (especially herself). You wouldn’t think that a story about an accountant could be so totally riveting, but I couldn’t put this book down. I blasted through it, and I’m normally a pretty slow reader. It had excellent pacing, interesting mysteries and intrigue, and incredibly well-drawn characters. I really felt for Baru, and when she got hurt (and she gets hurt a lot), I cringed as I compulsively turned each page. Read this book if you find any of the following interesting –

  • It’s a “hard fantasy,” without magic or fantastical beings. The focus is on politics,¬† intrigue, and economics (!?) yet it still features a fascinating world with well-designed fictional cultures and people.
  • It deals with important issues that are usually shied away from in fantasy: colonialism, racism, feminism, queerness, crappy economic practices.
  • It doesn’t pull any punches. It’s an entertaining story, but it’s also brutal. The main character is a closeted lesbian working as a double (or triple?) agent for an evil empire that would imprison or torture her under any number of circumstances. She has a lot to lose, and you’ll worry for her.
  • Wonderfully realized, flawed characters. The story has a pretty big cast, and I feel like I’ll always remember each person clearly for who they are. There’s no glossary, and you won’t really need one.
  • If you like¬† – Ursula Le Guin (especially Left Hand of Darkness), Patrick Rothfuss, George R.R. Martin, or Frank Herbert, you will go for this in a big way.

Seth Dickinson has a blog, and he wrote some really cool stuff about his design process for the book. It’s clear that he’s an intelligent guy who puts a lot of thought into his work. This post in particular is great, although it may spoil some things about the story. I also feel the need to mention that even though I compared Dickinson to G.R.R. Martin, there is one important difference. Seth doesn’t go for blood, guts, and sexual violence. I found this a relief honestly, as I’m no great fan of gruesome depictions of the latter myself. He explains it a bit more in that post, and my feelings on the subject are basically the same. It’s important, it needs to be acknowledged, but in fiction (especially fantasy) there’s no need to be gratuitous about it.

Anyway, check it out! And check out the thing I wrote! Until the next time when I have time and enough coffee!

Featured image courtesy of the Powerhouse Museum, no known copyright restrictions

On Loftier Notions

Moonlady

Golly! It’s been a long time since I posted. This has been a busy winter, much as expected. I’ve been scrambling to finish certain projects before deadlines, and February has also been full of memorable events. Recently, the kids at work went through February Vacation, something which I guess is particular to Massachusetts (although we’re probably not the only state that does it). My after-school program ran a day camp, so I’ve been in full overdrive mode. We put on a fun skit for the rest of our group at the end of the week, basically it was a staged slasher movie. Elementary schoolers can be very morbid these days, but who am I to deny their creative sensibilities? We designed the story collaboratively, and then I filled in the gaps as a narrator, like usual. We were able to work in sound effects, creepy lighting, and I borrowed a microphone from the computer lab, allowing me to use my best Vincent Price voice to full effect.

Some other crap that I did recently –

  • Went on a long-weekend journey to New York City, and experienced biting cold and wind, terrifying cab drivers, lewd puppets, and pretty good beer.
  • Applied to grad school for elementary teaching after several years of crippling indecision.
  • Wasted a lot of time on a brutally addictive game.
  • Started a Fifth Edition D&D campaign with fiancee and friends. It’s going really well, and I’ll have to post about it soon.

The subject of my post today is a bit random, in that it has little to do with anything else I’m currently working on, or even thinking about very much. But I’m always thinking about this to some extent: going into space. We should totally go into space. This is actually a pretty big part of my philosophy in life, and I love discussing it with both friends and strangers alike. I also want to talk about/review some of the science fiction that got me excited about the subject.

So, of course, I’m a fan of people like Carl Sagan, Neil Degrasse Tyson, and Stephen Hawking, all of whom have said at various points that not only should we go into space because it’s cool, it would also be a really great way to survive and thrive as a species. Keep in mind that when I discuss things like philosophy and science, I’m no academic, and in my opinion I’m not even that well-read on these subjects. But what I have read has only confirmed and strengthened these beliefs. Still, I’m always eager to hear other people’s take on this stuff. since I also believe that personal philosophy should be a changing, growing thing that is continually challenged. ANYWAY, here are some key points to what I think –

(Edit: I won’t expound on these points too much. I feel like they speak for themselves, and after an earlier draft I felt that I was being too preachy and apocalyptic. While I’ve been told that I look like a crazy street preacher, it’s not how I like to think of myself)

  • It’s reasonable to have some degree of pessimism about the human race’s overall chances of success if we stay on Earth, living like we do “Success” here means our continued growth and rise to complexity, without a bunch of people dying needlessly or living terrible lives.
  • Space colonization solves a bunch of our problems: It potentially relieves population pressure, it allows us to create new homes for our species without screwing over other people or living things (which is what I usually think of when someone says “colonization”), it reduces the chances of succumbing to an extinction event (comets anyone?), it makes it easier to create new societies that are intentionally designed (we currently have a better understanding of how to make sustainable communities, so I think that’s a good thing).
  • Spreading complex life throughout the universe is also probably a good thing Freeman Dyson calls it “beauty,” to me beauty is complexity. Allowing life to flourish in different places creates more complexity, more diversity, and more ways to understand being and existing.
  • It allows us to give entropy the finger The human race is its own living archive of how people can exist. Some humans live on the bleeding edge of the hi-tech lifestyle, and some people herd reindeer, and those are both fine. What’s great is that we become better when we can exist with our past and our future at the same time. Being spread across the stars allows for enough free space and resources for people to continue existing in traditional ways, while others can pursue their own thing.

Stuff I Haven’t Figured Out Yet

There are some legit problems with these ideas that I continue to struggle with, and I thought I should list them, and maybe answer them.

  • Going into space is expensive Yep, it’s true. When I talk about this with people, I often get asked, “shouldn’t we be focusing our resources on other things, like medicine, improving the economy, international aid, etc.?” Yes, we should. But Neil pointed out that right now, in the USA, we’re only paying something like half a penny to fund NASA. And that gets us the ISS, the Mars Rovers, crews of astronauts, and so on. Even if, in a perfect world, our country wasn’t sinking ridiculous amounts of money into defense, we could still probably help a lot of people and advance the dream of space travel at the same time.
  • Living in space is implausible Right now, it kind of is. Especially living without gravity. It seems like the ISS crew is always discovering new, unpleasant things about being in space. And living on other planets, the more feasible option, has it’s own share of obstacles. Bad atmosphere, radiation, having to live in sealed environments, and so on. To me, none of this stuff is a deal breaker, although traveling in space would probably trigger a panic attack for me (I’m not a good flyer 0:43). I have faith that technology and experience will provide better answers to this, especially transhuman tech. I’m not a transhumanist (not yet anyway), but I’m on board with changing our bodies if it means we can adapt better to new environments.
  • Do we have to leave people behind? Here’s a humanist dilemma that’s ties in with lots of things I’ve already touched on. Does colonizing space, and by extension, seeking new places to live in general, mean that we have to leave behind people struggling with poverty and other issues that keep them stuck on the ground. I feel like it depends a lot on what form the means of transportation will take in the years to come. Space travel is still just a dream for the vast majority of human beings, and I wonder how people in power will bring that dream to the people, or if, in the years to come, we just won’t have dealt with our class issues yet. Elon Musk’s SpaceX currently builds the world’s cheapest space shuttles, and they give me hope for what space travel could look like in a few decades. Then again, that guy kinda sketches me out.

So, in summary, I want to go into space. Or at the very least, I want more people to go into space, eventually. If there’s a direction I think our species should be moving in, it’s up.

I’ve sort of always felt that way, but since college I’ve expanded my science-fiction reading list, and gotten generally better acquainted with the ideas behind the philosophy. Here are some good reads that I recommend first because they’re beautiful, well-written books, and second because they’re thought-provoking.

Schismatrix Plus

Strange, wonderful, and sad, this is a transhuman masterpiece by Bruce Sterling. He’s considered to be one of the big “Cyberpunk” founding fathers of the 80’s, along with William Gibson. Schismatrix (which is the novel, the “Plus” refers to the short stories set in the same universe) is about humanity living out in the wider solar system, and the life of one particular man, Abelard Lindsay. The novel follows Abelard from passionate, idealistic youth to old age as he travels between different space habitats, and gets involved in system politics. Humanity has split into different transhuman factions, divided along their chosen form of enhancement technology. Foremost among them are the “Shapers,” who prefer genetic modification, and the “Mechanists,” who favor cybernetic mods. I love this book, mainly because it’s just so weird. The future society he envisions is filled with eccentrics, fanatics, and murderous space hermits. He also manages to cram a million great ideas into one book, and still write a hell of a story with a real human core.

Red Mars

Oh, this book. It was quite a bestseller back in the day, and I remember being curious about it as a young lad in the 90’s (I didn’t actually get around to reading it until recently). It’s an epic future history of the human colonization of Mars, focusing on the “First Hundred,” the original mission crew who became the leaders of the planet’s settlement. I love the characters, I love the science (if you like geology, you’ll be all over this), and I love the politics (which I admit are not for everyone, but I would totally be a Martian pinko commie). It feels a little dense at times, but I blasted my way through it. Diaspora

This book blew my mind when I read it. Greg Egan has a reputation for being challenging, and it is well-deserved, but this story is like nothing else I’ve read before. It’s about a community of posthumans who live almost entirely as sentient computer programs. The first part of the book focuses on their interactions with other human groups inhabiting the physical world, and a mysterious natural disaster. From there it follows the characters on a journey across space, and eventually across other universes. The scope of their journey is incredible, and despite all the ruminations on computer science and physics, there is still a beautiful and very human story underneath it all. Egan really does go off on some ridiculous tangents, but it’s easy to tell where they start and end. They usually have little to do with the story, and you could probably just skip them to enjoy the rest of the story.

WHOA, long post, sorry, but I think I needed that! I feel ready to tackle some other projects now, so until next time!

Cover image courtesy of Internet Archive Book Image’s Photostream, no known copyright restrictions