Monday, April 18, 2011

What Tékumel Could Learn From Glorantha

Tékumel fans have been making a lot of noise recently around a perennial subject: how best to revive M.A.R. Barker's almost-famous setting. The rarefied, usually-quiet Tékumel list is a-thrum with exchanges over what product vehicle would best spark said revival.

Most seem to be advocating for a switch to a modern, bigger-tent game system (d20, Pathfinder, or Savage Worlds), others pushing for a system-neutral re-release of source material or a sprucing up of the primal game system Empire of the Petal Throne.

While my sympathies lean to the latter camp, I find myself wondering if any of these noteworthy projects are enough. Could any of them on their own weight deliver this lovingly baroque, sword-and-planet world to a broader audience?

I am certainly no expert myself on rpg product development—and it's really a very foolish person who looks to me for my unsolicited armchair advice—but I keep thinking that Tékumel needs something broader and more ambitious if it wants to widen its niche. To be exact, I keep hoping that Tékumel took some cues from the recent history of its distant cousin, Glorantha.

Tékumel and Glorantha share a good deal in common on the face of it.

Both settings sprung Pallas Athena-like from the heads of brilliantly creative--and detail obsessed—single creators (Barker and Greg Stafford) years before a game could give them expression. Both evolved in the 1970s variant game systems out of the OD&D mothership (EPT and Runequest)—and both posited (and delivered) themselves as much deeper explorations of fantasy worlds than vanilla D&D. Both of them also wandered in the wilderness for a while intellectual property tangles after their respective heydays-- EPT after being cut loose from TSR and Runequest after the Avalon Hill debacle.

But for all those similarities Glorantha fared better.

While its public profile is still pretty modest even by the diminished standards of the tabletop rpg hobby today, Glorantha does have some kick to it. It has, for starters, not just one living game, but two. Instead of detracting from each the two game lines seem to complement each other by satisfying two different fan niches: Mongoose's confusingly-titled Runequest II for the lovers of the game system proper and Heroquest for the hardcore, narrativist lovers of Third Age Glorantha. Tellingly both games are pumping out a stream of attractive new products.

Meanwhile on the side you have an almost-bewildering array of clone projects giving other living game platforms for people interested in gaming that world: the streamlined RQ-lite systems of Openquest and now Doomquest (thanks to the Stafford-dedicated recent issue of old school zine Fight On!) ; the high crunch of Steve Perrin's SPQR, or the abstracted new edition of BRP.

On top of all that you have the (perhaps soon) re-release of one the best introductions to Glorantha ever devised, the computer strategy game King of Dragon Pass. By virtue of being a computer game—and a smart-phone app to boot—its highly likely that it will help bring audiences back around the setting than any tabletop game, no matter its success in this period, could ever muster.

Thinking of all those things I find myself dreaming about a similar revival for EPT. Something like...something like...

[Now you have to imagine here a dreamy harp playing and the camera lens shaking around to signify a Gilligan's Island-like dream sequence.]

...Something like if you took all the stirrings of the current contemporary Tékumel corners and yoked them to revamped historical legacy projects for a full-court press aimed at the returning tabletoppers of the rpg “Baby Boom” of the 80s.

Let's parse out that mouthful.

What if you started with two new-old living games. Say on one level for the old system-lovers you took the old EPT rules cleaned them up, reformatted them, and added in some new art here and there. It's not an audience of the thousands that some seem to have stars in the eyes for, but an attractive OD&D variant game is highly likely to attract an audience in the hundreds (yes, let's be real). And hell the rules are already written.

Now if you really wanted to be ambitious with that audience you could start to release a few high-profile supplements I believe guaranteed to have as much appeal as the rule set above: the much-coveted Jakallan underworld, the lengthy and excellent Swords & Glory sourcebooks; perhaps even a porting of the deep, interesting Temple-based magic of S&G.

On the second level you could have another living game for the hardcore based on an even-simpler system: the super-lite, almost rule-less story-focused mechanics that Barker himself used for a time. (Ironically of which I first read in the program book of a Runequest convention.)

And now here's the other pillar that I think is as just as necessary as the products above—or more—an explosion of creative hobbyist energies canonical and not around the setting. 

Here we can already see the seeds: the creative, consistent play and preservation efforts of the Aethervox Gamers up in the tundra; the Tekumel Project's excellent, drop-dead gorgeous range of figures; Victor Raymond's runnings of Jakallan underworld games at recent conventions; The Drune's efforts to expand the space opera pre-history of EPT into a fully fledged game of its own with Humanspace Empires; and the list goes on (and my typing hand tires).

Idle, pointless dreams perhaps, but hope does spring eternal.  


  1. SPQR is by Steve Perrin, not Sandy Petersen.

    Tékumel had so many game versions too (Slocum or Mike Cule's GURPS, Tirikélu, and so on).

    There could be a War of the Wizards CCG?

  2. @Phersv
    Head slap. Yes, Perrin of course, brain fart on my part and duly corrected. Thanks for catching my slip up.

    I should made the point a little more clearly that one of the advantages for Glorantha, as I see it is, is that RQ stayed relatively close to its original core system in all its iterations--breeding a certain longer-lasting loyalty, while Tekumel went through so many radical, poorly supported changes (some of it just being bad luck).

    If you take out the collectible part of that phrase I could dig a card game.

  3. I think the simplest path to a Tekumel revival is, well, for someone to produce a really, really good RPG set in Tekumel. Let's be honest; this just hasn't happened yet.

    The remaining question might be, would this game ally with the OSR, given Tekumel's (and its fans') deep roots in the hobby's golden age, or would it go the indie route?

    Personally, I'd love to see Clinton R. Nixon take a crack at this, as he's both a founding father of Forge-indie, as well as a rabid fan (and avid player) of OSR games. If you look at his game, The Shadow of Yesterday, and its setting, Near, I think you'll see an RPG (and a sensibility) that would suit Tekumel exceptionally well. Meld that with some OSR fundamentals, and I think you'd have a Tekumel RPG that would satisfy a whole lotta people.

  4. I have EPT, the GOO Tekumel game, Swords and Glory and Adventures on Tekumel/Gardasiyal...I haven't been impressed by any of them as a game system. Which is actually kind of weird because I like BESM, I just don't think TriStat was a good choice for the GOO version. I honestly don't think yet another "indie" Tekumel-based game is the way to go. Runequest always had the advantage that the system itself was really good; Tekumel has always had a rather shaky system.

    Hell, why not just use BRP or even RQII as the basis for a new Tekumel game? They're similar enough that it could work.

  5. Even if the rather generic mechanics aren't a good fit, I'd like to see a "Plot Point" style campaign, like the ones in the published settings for Savage Worlds. The campaigns highlight the essential features of their settings, allow for a larger degree of player choice in campaign direction and have a well-defined beginning, middle and end, with a LOT of room for GM improvisation.

  6. I'm going to just put it right out there. You want to see this wonderful game setting & system actually used by folks besides us fans. Then you might have to go as far as Talislanta did & make the Pdfs available to everyone so that people can get an idea what its all about. I've heard it all about this game. There's too much history, the system is too lethal, the world far too detailed, etc. etc, excuses. You want to get this wonderful game into people's hands then start a game, post a blog about it, & get it out of the museum & into folks brains. It already systemless, its already an AD&D style system, there are enough resources at to do so. I'm just saying

  7. Maybe it's obvious to say but: Glorantha has Dwarves, Elves and Dragons; Tekumel has Ahoggya, Mihalli and Hluss. Glorantha (or more properly Dragon Pass) is solidly rooted in western Mythology & Folklore, Tekumel is... NOT. I am a 31 year fan of both worlds (Glorantha & Tekumel) and a long term user of the BRP engine, but I think that some of the "alieness" of Tekumel will always be too much for most RPGers.
    Personally I found he original Heroquest game, of the early part of the last decade, as opaque as most of the Tekumel systems have been dysfunctional.
    Personally I always thought that the original EPT system was the BEST implementation of the OD&D system (including D&D in any of it's iterations) so in my mind you're best bet for a "reboot" would be a reissue with a presentation that is appealing in it's return to the simplicity of the old system. I know people who have played that system, unadulterated since the 70s. So it works.

  8. Tekumel is to weird to be broadly attractive on its own (and by weird I mean beautifully unusual). The only way to change that is high profile exposure - in other words either Obama starts playing or there's a movie released. If ever a world was ripe for Hollywood, Tekumel is it.

    But I definetly like your idea of repackaging the rules.

  9. Although I agree with Needles that another rules set is unnecessary, it would be fun to put together an ultimate source book built on the Professor's 1d100 rules lite approach. It would be a great resource for all the campaigns being run off the various other systems.

    I would volunteer to assist with any such project. I would love to be a part of the Old Petal Throne Revolution and I hope my efforts with Humanspace Empires result in at least a few new Tekumel fans.

    I don't see a film in the near future but what about...Porn Stars?

  10. Let's see... Got a game, got a blog, setting up podcasts with naked people called "EPT With Boring People"; anything else you need us to do?

    yours, Chirine

    P.S.: "Creative" and "consistent"? Hoo, boy, you really do need to get up here to see what the chaos is really like... :)

  11. @Brad, what "indie" Tekumel RPG already exists?

    As for the weirdness of the setting, I dunno. I get it, but it also seems like plenty of weird stuff has caught the attention of RPG fans.

    I'd feel more confident if there was an accessible entry-point for Tekumel; GOO Tekumel probably came the closest.

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  13. > Both settings sprung Pallas Athena-like from the heads of brilliantly creative--and detail obsessed—single creators (Barker and Greg Stafford) years before a game could give them expression. Both evolved in the 1970s variant game systems out of the OD&D mothership (EPT and Runequest)—and both posited (and delivered) themselves as much deeper explorations of fantasy worlds than vanilla D&D.

    The ol' system vs. setting discussion. :)

    Much of Tékumel's detail "evolved" later since 1974/5's EPT was a (remarkably) quick cut-and-paste job reviving the existing background material - with the ~1950 version still visible - and OD&D-ish system content.

    > What if you started with two new-old living games. Say on one level for the old system-lovers you took the old EPT rules cleaned them up, reformatted them, and added in some new art here and there.

    Not so sure we need another system so much as a book on the development of the setting (paralleling Tolkien, say) leading into a more travelogue-type approach in the first instance, with the games "appendixed" but emphasizing their historical context? /That/ might/could/should lead to further interest on a broader basis rather than thrashing within too tight a niche "RPG"-side.
    Have tried prodding in that direction before, but where's the "big sell" to parallel LotR's epic quest?


    ...the Ts Solyani decorate their letters up like Christmas trees. Standing on a rain swept battlefield with soldiers suffering and dying on all sides, I have seen writers quietly ornamenting their letters to home with delicate tracery and pictures... , and all that jazz.

    Fantasy F*ckin' Tékumel, eh?

  14. > If ever a world was ripe for Hollywood, Tekumel is it.

    Or Jorune? *jk*

  15. Bollywood could pull it off. Just hope the good professor is cool with gratuitous song-and-dance routine.

  16. *lol* thanks for the mental image, Chris.
    Not sure 'bout Vimuhla worshippers from Mu'ugalavya (originally Muugalavya - bit of a give-away) being standard Bollywood fare, but that /would/ be an excellent way to get noticed by the critics... No such thing as bad publicity? ^^

  17. Perhaps novel or graphic novel is the best medium for this extremely well-defined and original fantasy universe?

  18. Novel wouldn't be, but graphic novel would.
    A good idea on several levels, that. :)

  19. I ran a Tekumel campaign for a couple of years using Sandy Petersen's GURPS mod (heavily modified by me). It was great fun, but the system never clicked. I dutifully bought all the versions I could find (S&G, Gardasiyal, Tirikelu, GOO), and none of them really clicked. I agree with some of the above that to reach more of the mainstream (of gamers, that is - still a pretty small creek), it needs a more accessible system. I also think that the amount of setting material can be overwhelming. Don't get me wrong, I always found that stuff the most inspirational, but I suspect that a lot of players don't want that much setting - at least initially. It seems to me that Tekumel needs its own Labyrinth Lord - stripped down, flavorful, and ready to go.

  20. Much like what happened with Heroquest and Glorantha, I now play anything Tekumel in my own rules set, inspired by Heroquest, I call the system GloryQuest... it's basically 2nd edition HQ with some hacking and the like, works just fine and the system goes to the background so the story and setting become very prominent.