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Tékumel

S. Ben Melhuish • Saturday, November 28, 2009 • filed under settings, shelves

At least by some accounts, the second RPG ever published was Empire of the Petal Throne, heavily based on the original D&D rules1 but set in the exotic world of Tékumel. Created by Prof. M.A.R. Barker, Tékumel is a pulp fantasy setting inspired in part by Mesoamerican and Indian cultures. In the far future, that world had been terraformed to Earth standards, its original inhabitants pent up in reservations, and turned into a resort destination. And then at some point, the world got shunted to a pocket dimension, cutting it off from the rest of the galaxy; its inhabitants fell into barbarism, though discovering how to draw and harness power through the thin barriers between their new dimension and other nearby ones (what we would call magic).

The default focus of the setting is the Tsolyáni Empire, built on the ruins of two or three fallen empires; it’s a conservative culture, where magic use is strictly controlled, metal is rare and precious, and the status of your clan determines your path in life (except for exceptional individuals, such as the player characters!).2

Mixed feelings

Tékumel has a great premise—you’ve got your long-lost fallen empires, technology that is considered to be (and may as well be, or may even also be) magic, an excuse for any horrific monster you may want; what more do you need for a game?

But the baroqueness of the setting, an obvious part of its appeal, also sets up a huge barrier to entry. It may well be (as some say) that the setting becomes second nature after a few sessions, but it looks like the learning curve will be steep.

  • Language. Names are strange, as is the case for nearly any fantasy setting, but in this case they don’t even pretend to resemble Indo-European. (Prof. Barker created Tékumel in part to provide context for some invented languages.) This may be manageable if nobody gets too anal-retentive about pronunciation, but what are the odds of that?
  • History and geopolitics. Names of the empires aside, there isn’t much here that isn’t easily understood. Though there are nominally millennia of history, there’s nothing important that can’t be gradually introduced through play.
  • Religion. To the degree that the players care, there are ten or twenty gods to pay attention to; their portfolios are broad, but not particularly incoherent. Some require blood sacrifices; some encourage their followers to become undead; all have some amount of mainstream worship.
  • Ecology. Almost every animal, as far as I can tell, is different from standard Earth wildlife. Chlén-beasts are six-legged elephant-sized beasts of burden, whose hides can be treated to create armor and weapons (necessary given the world’s lack of metal).3 Most wildlife is hungry, venomous, or both. Sentient aboriginal species (the Ssú and Hlüss) are incomprehensible except in their hatred of those who terraformed their world away from them.
  • Society. This is the trickiest one; Tsolyáni society as described is very strange to our modern American eyes. A person’s clan determines their caste, likely employment, and even where they live and sleep (the clan’s communal house). A person has worth only as a member of a clan; the collective is valued far more than the individual.

What to do

With all the differences from your “standard” fantasy setting, perhaps the most important problem I see is player buy-in. It looks like you’d need a group which is 100% gung-ho to play a game in Tékumel; otherwise, those who are (presumably including the GM) will pull the weight for those who aren’t so into it. So unless I somehow discovered that my regular gaming group has been dying to do this, I can’t see ever using Tékumel as-is.

Which isn’t to say I’d never use it. As long as nobody in a group is violently opposed to science in their fantasy (and that deserves a small post of its own!), it could be very fun to drop bits and pieces of the setting into whatever game was being played—tubeway stations deep beneath ancient cities, whose cars could take the characters anywhere; ancient magic items powered by even more-ancient technology; domed cities in the far north, filled with chlorine gas and hostile alien races.

An alternative might be a completely unserious approach: Max out the pulp dial, dismiss anything that doesn’t lead to more action, and go! Pulp’s picaresque storytelling minimizes any need for player commitment, and the GM can blithely ignore the accumulated cruft of decades of Tékumel play without worry.4

(Both alternatives remind me of another post subject, collective setting creation. So we have HeroQuest, science fantasy, and setting creation added to the backlog.)

Tékumel: a fun place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there. I’d love to set a game there sometime, but only if it’s handled just right.

(If you’re intrigued by my hasty sketch of the setting, you could do worse than visit tekumel.com and browse through the Eye of Illuminating Glory section.)


  1. A brief digression on rules: As noted, the first published rules for Tékumel, Empire of the Petal Throne, were a modified version of D&D, published by TSR. These were followed, at roughly ten-year intervals, by Swords and Glory, Gardásiyal, and Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne, the last of which I own. I have no particular affection for the rules themselves, and would almost certainly use something like HeroQuest (which deserves a post of its own). [return]
  2. This may sound familiar to readers of the first generation of post-D&D fantasy novels. [return]
  3. If you must search for chlén on the internet, please use a proper query, or else don’t search at work. [return]
  4. Naturally the GM should never worry about a setting’s “canon”, but this often doesn’t happen in practice. [return]