An often-heard complaint about the Empire of the Petal Throne setting is that the thing is just too damn exotic: too many strange names; too many details on obscure religions and culture; too many odd beasts; too many damned diacritical marks, etc. These objections are just as often met (at least in the written and online material I have seen) by the hardcore fans of the setting with a dismissal of small-minded role players not able to cope with a more imaginatively robust non-faux medieval European (or Tolkien-esque) setting.
Both sides get it a little wrong--and a little right--in this.
The problem with the wider accessibility of Tekumel, beyond ill-fitting game systems or canonical behavior, is not that it is too weird, but perhaps that it's weirdness doesn't get sufficient enough contrast with the everyday (our everyday that is, not that of the Tsolyani clan house obsessed about it in later game editions).
The thrill of D&D at it's very best was the sense of sheer mystery and thrill of exploration at it's visceral core. You felt the fear and excitement in your gut as your character ventured out from that achingly familiar and comfortable Platonic-ideal inn (you know the wood-timbered Tudor one complete with roaring fire, tankards of mead, rolly-polly innkeeper, etc) and then into the dark corridors of the unknown. Sadly the sheer success of the game and the trail-along popular cultural acceptance of vanilla fantasy have buried, or at best obscured, this tension--enough where exploration of the weirder edges of pulp fantasy become liberating again.
But it's the edge that helps make the contrast meaningful, a concept with a long pedigree in pulp fantasy. Think here of John Carter, a Virginian ferchrissakes, thrust into the bizarre societies of Barsoom or the veneer in Howard that just barely covers the historical nations of Hyboria.
In the very first issue of Dragon magazine (#40 in case you actually give a crap) I picked up was an article by Douglas Bachman that stamped itself on my young impressionable kid DM mind. Leaving aside the article's misguided and overly-complicated Chivalry and Sorcery-fueled desire to inject High Fantasy (capitalized of course) into rpgs, there was an intriguing notion that wormed its way into my consciousness about the desirability of having a stark—physical even—separation between the mundane and fantastical parts of your setting. Human civilized life right here, the life of adventure over here.
As Bachman puts it:
“...There is an essential element which will determine the success or failure of a game as High Fantasy: the division of the world into Home Areas and Wyrd Areas (“wyrd” is an Old English word meaning destiny in the sense of an inward potentiality in process of becoming, with an approaching inevitable end; it eventually was changed through use into “weird”). A Home Area is one in which everyday life as we know it exists; it is the Primary World.A Wyrd Area is the realm of the Dark, the actual world of Faerie. It is in Wyrd Areas that one encounters monsters and has adventures. All AD&D dungeons are Wyrd Areas...The boundary between Home Areas and Wyrd Areas should be set out clearly. The use of mile stones, walls, magic barriers, hedges, toll gates, rivers, and ditches all serve to clearly separate the Primary World from Faerie.Home Areas are populated by humans. It may be appropriate for a few elves, dwarves or halflings to be visiting a Home Area, but they should not live there...It is imperative for players and DMs to understand the need for this division, and to handle the separation creatively. For instance, all adventures are appropriately undertaken and all experience points gained in Wyrd Areas. Bawdy houses, government, trade, agriculture, law & order, and military orders/units—the entire ambiance of En Garde! or of a feudal society (or any other historical culture/society)— are appropriate to Home Areas.”
It's also a contrast that unsurprisingly some of our more creative gaming brethern have been articulating more as of late. James Raggi, for instance, finds it important enough to tackle it in his own ever-opinionated game treatment of weird fantasy. In the more interesting parts of the LotFP referee book you'll find paragraphs like this gem of a flame-war starter:
“The ability to create...mystery is why a verisimiltudinous campaign world is recommended. If everything is fantastic (as it is in Sword and Planet stories and genres), then nothing really is. It's exotic, to be sure, and this isn't to disparage the enjoyment of such things but it becomes very difficult to differentiate “normal” from “abnormal” in a game world that is fundamentally alien from the start.”
And again this tension is repeated by the creator of one of the more alien, exotic, and beautifully-imagined settings, Geoffrey of Carcosa fame (or infamy depending on your point of view). He devotes a recent blog post—which seriously deserved more play in the blogosphere—to a move away from all-strange, all the time feel of Carcosa toward a new Clark Ashton Smith-flavored setting, now fittingly-titled Isle of the Unknown, that explicitly embraces this contrast.
So a very long-winded way to justify some of my own campaign choices (which are, of course, at the end of day a matter of personal taste). The Hill Cantons are a borderlands area in which characters pass from the a human-dominated civilized world so dull and stolid and rooted in our historical, late 15th century stand-in institutions that magic, demi-humans, and all that is weird are almost forgotten. While town adventures might happen they only do so in the border towns that the swirling chaos is starting to encroach on—the core lands themselves have little to show for them adventure-wise.
That is until something comes along perhaps to upend the apple cart...