Saturday, October 16, 2010

Tekumel and the Use of the Weird in Campaign Settings

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...


  1. I favor "weird" settings, although I've reined it in with the Wilderlands, which is fantastical but probably the most "naturalistic" setting I've done in some time.

    I understand where James and Geoffrey are coming from (although many of CAS's stories were weird from the bottom up). Obviously, they're not saying it's the only way to do things, especially seeing as Geoffrey wrote Carcosa.

    I think the big thing for gaming purposes is to make one's setting internally consistent, no matter the commonality of weirdness. Players require some level of predictability to make intelligent decisions.

    Glorantha, for instance, is as weird at every level of existence, from the cosmology to the way people live their everyday lives. But at least within a single culture, things make sense. An Orlanthi knows that certain actions produce certain results under normal circumstances and can make rational decisions accordingly. (Once Chaos and differing worldviews enter the picture, matters get more complicated, but even then there's a reason behind disruptions of the usual order.)

  2. It's one of the things that caught my fancy about your project, taking the somewhat comfortable and familiar setting of the Wilderlands and injecting infusions of the weird.

    In general I enjoy reading about people taking published settings and turning them on their sides. One of the more interesting things I read in the Dragonsfoot forums recently was one feller's Greyhawk blank-slate revamp project. He basically took those beautiful Darlene maps photocopied them and then erased all the cities and countries keeping some of the geographic features and names. Then he penciled in his own countries, cities and other sites and re-colored the thing. Nice.

    Good points on the rest of your post. Yes CAS had entire volumes of work like Zothique that are plenty-ass weird. Averoigne with its medieval French gothic feel is likely closer to the mark of what I'm thinking. I would hazard a guess that this is why it was chosen as the mini-sandbox departure in Castle Amber, rather than some of the more exotic (although they would have been hella fun).

    I hadn't thought about player familiarity as being one of the key points in a meaningful contrast. Even in a quite mundane setting if players aren't given enough signposts about the boundaries (cultural, geographic, or what not) then you also lose the ability to contrast the normal and abnormal.

  3. >An often-heard complaint about the Empire
    >of the Petal Throne setting is that the
    >thing is just too damn exotic

    I've never heard that. Ever. And I've been gaming since the mid-1970's. Just sayin'.

  4. You've lived a sheltered life, Cameron, what can I say.

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  6. Indeed! I may have, at that. (I deleted my previous comment, it sounded unintentionally condescending. Sorry.)

  7. If I understand you correctly. Exactly!

    Gotta be mundane for the fantastic to be noticed. A concept repeated throughout many genres and mediums of storytelling. for example Horror isn't scary all the time cause then it never would be.

    This is one idea I picked up from Philotomy (sp) Mythic Dungeon and extended to the Mythic Wilderness. A distinct separation between civilization (boring, no adventure) and the wilderness (wild, unknown, dangerous, were the fun is). If I were running a city campaign rather than exploration one I'd surround the city with boring, peaceful cropland. Even within the city there'd be safe humdrum areas (residential) and tense dangerous ones (the prince's court, sewers)

  8. @Norman
    I missed your Mythic Wilderness post, thanks for posting the link as I am a big fan of the Mythic Dungeon idea from our Houstonian comrade. When did Texas become such a hotbed of the OSR?

  9. Even in my Empire of the Petal Throne campaign, I try to build some sense of civilization and weirdness. Most of city life is mundane with people just making a living and getting through life without adventures. There are certainly areas in the city where one will find adventure, in the temple of Sarku at certain times of the night, for instance. I try to demarcate between normal and weird areas by traditional devices: finding a cave with a stairway down, walking down a tunnel created in an earthquake (Tekumel-quake?), seeing shimmering lights in the woods just outside the rural clan house, etc.

    But now I will be more aware of giving players a conscious separation.