Saturday, August 6, 2011

A Jakallan Underworld of My Own

Stick around one of the internet watering holes for things Tekumel and you will hear a curious and persistent drumbeat of certain lines. Among the most cyclical are the ones declaiming why such and such person doesn’t run a game in that world--despite their appreciation for it from afar.

Until a Google plus Empire of the Petal Throne game two nights ago I was one of them.

Those claims persist because there are big honking grains of truth in them. Tekumel is a highly personal affair. It is M.A.R. Barker’s world, one that has existed for many decades for him. But is also been OUR Tekumel too ever since a hot and sticky Minnesota summer night in the mid-70s when it became a playable game.

Gamer common sense would have it that the people closest to the Barker tap, the old players of his home campaign, enjoy sitting behind walls of canonical exclusion. If anything my experience has been exactly opposite.  

I spent a few hours jawing with Victor Raymond, one of those old salts, the night before I ran the Google game I mentioned the session. I told him I was trying to run it “straight out of the box” (a theme he is taking up in an incredibly useful, practical way here on the OD&D Board) in about as bog standard fashion as you can get: the players are barbarian refugees fresh off the boat from that conveniently vague Southern Continent, living on their last kaitar in the stereotypical squalid flophouse of the walled-off Foreign Quarter.

Of course, there was also a sweaty, officious patron there, one leading them by carrot and stick—or impalement pole in this case—to the vast layers of buried city upon buried city that lie beneath the City Half as Old as the World.

Victor to my great delight on hearing this had pulled out one of those famous index cards that Barker kept track of the many, many NPCs gracing his world and voila I had the gaunt, tall, tattooed Livyani con-man owner of their flophouse, t he Tower of the Red Dome, as a living, breathing character.

A tingle of “isn’t that cool” went over me, but there was that old apprehension about it being Barker’s world standing right behind it. But then Victor said something that just liberated me: he told me to make the Jakallan underworld my own. 

Yeah sure, I’m with many of you in wanting some day to see that magnificent “mega-dungeon” make the light of published day—just getting a peak at that famed massive, laminated sheet of tiny-squared aging graph paper at NTRPG Con had sent me off in an embarrassing and rare bit of fandom swooning—but truth be told I have a hard time running any adventure let alone all encompassing and well-detailed world setting.

It’s not that I am a snob about being DIY—or rather it’s not that I am just a snob—but that my brain as a GM isn’t wired for working that way.  The winding alleys, jagged hills, claustrophobic depths of the Hill Cantons or in the Domain Game’s Nowhere run smoother for me because there is a internal vividness inside my head.  As such, I rarely find myself looking at my notes in a session, no matter how many of them I pour out in my campaign brainstorm notebooks in between.

Long and short of it is that I decided that I would try and meet Tekumel half way. I dusted off Mark Pettigrew’s  nifty EPT underworld random generator article (which you find in the Best of the Journals booklet here) --which is one of the best such generators I’ve ever used because  it breaks down dungeon levels into themed room complexes—rolled up half of a section of the first level.

Then to really make it my own, I pulled out one of the maps of my own HC tried-and-true campaign dungeons bolted them together, filed off the serial numbers, daubed on Tsolyani setting dress and there you go: a Jakallan underworld of my own.

I’d be lying if I didn’t make some mistakes in the Google session. The exposition and set dressing featured way too many minutes of me yakking without pause, the train tracks leading to the underworld a little too obvious. Something I hate in the main because without fail as a player will make my eyes gaze over in less than five minutes time.  (At some point Zak S, one of the players mentioned that he had cast “Sense Plot”.)

But once we got down into the murky depths though it just really started clicking. It became increasingly not just mine but the players as the hours went by, something I anticipate growing with repeated play.

Speaking of that play, I am astounded on how much potential Google Plus is opening up for us an inter-connected group of gamers with the free video-conferencing. Once you plow through a few hurdles of the medium (check and play with your mike and camera before you leap into it), it’s a qualitatively better way to game online than Skype or chat.

Beyond the joy of laughing and playing with people I only have known from the distant authorial voice of their blogs, it really opens up doors beyond the confines of geography. Always wanted to play Esoteric Game X and couldn’t muster enough players in your usual digs? Well here you can. Brave new worlds and all that.

Now off I go to enjoy some of this fabled California sun.


  1. I have yet to, although I will eventually get around to it, never read Tekumel but in the way that it's described it reminds me of Shakespeare in its reverence.

    The thing with Shakespeare though is the amazing ways that people have reinterpreted it while staying true to its nature. July Taymor, tiny ninja theater, Strange Brew, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead all took that essence and scrambled it into their own visions.

    IMO, making it your own is one of the better tributes to any creative endeavor. Trying to do a straight cover version usually ends up aping the original, which takes the fun right out of it.

  2. I'll keep an eye out to see when your running another game when I get back from vegas, as I've been dying to try some EPT.

  3. Eager to get back into that dungeon. And I think mandy wants in to (we'll be on the same window so it shouldn't screw up G+)

  4. @Cap
    We are going to try to figure out a way to coordinate more EPT GMs (more than 20 interested at this point, praise Hru'u). Look for something here a little later this week.

    @Zak S.
    Absolutely she should join in, nice to have some gender balance.

  5. I would love the chance to play, if there's an opening!