Roll Perception Plus Awareness: M.A.R. Barker and The World of Tekumel
Welcome back to Roll Perception Plus Awareness, a column about roleplaying games and their place in a genre reader’s and writer’s world. This time, I am not going to tackle a game, but rather a legend in the roleplaying genre who recently passed away: M.A.R. Barker.
M.A.R Barker — whose full name was Mohammed Al Rahman Barker — died last week at the age of 83. He was a professor of languages and culture at the University of Minnesota in the Department of South Asian Studies until the early 90’s, when budget cuts did away with the small department. The reason why I bring him to your attention today, though, is not because of his academic interests but rather his gaming interests and magnum opus:Tekumel.
Prior to the publication of Dungeons and Dragons in the 1970’s, Professor Barker had been engaging in deep worldbuilding. Imagine an alien planet. A planet that spacefaring humans had landed and settled on, terraforming it to a playground for interstellar travelers in the process. A planet full of aliens not at all happy by the dominance of humans, but unable to do anything about it, at first.
Next, a cataclysm sends the planet out of our universe entirely, and into a lonely, isolated one. One where the veils between the natural world and other planes and dimensions are thinner, and so magic is possible. The high tech human civilization falls.
Thirty thousand years later, a rich mix of peoples and aliens struggle to survive on a hauntingly beautiful, lush world filled with deadly creatures, lost technology and much more. A metal poor world, where steel is a rare and precious substance, and where there are no horses or draft animals. A world of cyclopean architecture, teeming cities, intricate family relationships, and tropical heat.
Oh, and did I mention that the original humans that settled the planet did not fly the flags of America, Japan, or England, but rather are the descendants of the children of the Amazon, the Nile and the Indus? Professor Barker painstakingly created cultures, history, geography, languages and more for his fictional world. A labor of love and worldbuilding that, as a singular creation, is one of the all time greatest creations. The wealth of detail is phenomenal. It is as if Tekumel was a real place, and Professor Barker was anthropologist, linguist, and historian for it. Have you ever read Guardians of the Flame, by the late Joel Rosenberg? Where a bunch of college kids get transported to the game world that their GM had been describing in their roleplaying game, but it turns out he was just describing a fantasy world that really exists and he knew a lot about? Yeah, Tekumel is to Barker as that world was to the character of the game Arthur Deighton. It feels that complete and real.
Empire of the Petal Throne was the first of many iterations of Tekumel as a roleplaying game, and after its initial publication by Barker , TSR (the publishers of D&D) actually republished it, bringing it to a wider, if not wide audience. I remember early issues of Dragon Magazine, the in-house TSR magazine, introducing readers to the baroque and strange world that Professor Barker had created. Not content with just publishing a Tekumel game, Professor Barker started a roleplaying gaming group, and ran games set in his created world for decades.
In the early days, while Tekumel was quite different than the standard Dungeons and Dragons, it was an inspiration all the same. It spawned a strain of science fantasy into Dungeons and Dragons that crops up again and again, throughout the game’s history. Plenty of roleplaying games in that alien planet science fantasy mode, like Skyrealms of Journe, definitely were inspired by Professor Barker’s work. It goes beyond just roleplaying games. There are touches of the science fantasy of Tekumel in the work of plenty of fantasy authors today. The city of New Crobuzon from China Miéville’s work, for instance, has a sensibility that feels inspired by Professor Barker’s work. The Kelewan Empire of Raymond Feist’s novels is absolutely in the same vein as Tekumel. And Professor Barker himself wrote a number of novels set in Tekumel, too.
And for all of that, sadly, I would not be surprised that 99 out of 100 readers of this column had never heard of Professor Barker before this week. I note that Jo Walton has a remembrance on Tor.com you might have seen, and others have chimed in elsewhere on the internet. For all of its inventiveness, Tekumel never reached the mass appeal that Dungeons and Dragons and other roleplaying games did. Perhaps it is too baroque, too complex, too alien?
As professor Barker said in the introduction to one of the iterations of Tekumel:
“What kind of a world, then is Tékumel? Socially and culturally, Tékumel is as complex—and as alien to modern thinking—as Byzantium, ancient Egypt, Tenochtitlan, or the India of the Mughals.”
Such a world is hard to get your head around for a roleplayer. I have never played Tekumel directly as a game, but you bet your bottom dollar that I have borrowed ideas from Professor Barker’s work, and how. And for any aspiring genre writer, he is an inspiration that you don’t have to use the same old tropes, settings and ideas in your writing.
As you can guess from his story above, Professor Barker has been called a forgotten Tolkien in some circles, but I think an equally valid and also illuminating parallel is to Jack Vance. Both created amazing, intricate and evocative cultures that seemed to spring from nowhere and have no parallels in the rest of the genre, but have seeped their ideas into genre in a way that people are completely unaware of the origin. I understand that Professor Barker and Jack Vance were correspondents.
I never had the privilege of meeting Professor Barker, much less gaming with him, and now I can kick myself eternally for not taking advantage of that opportunity.
Allah arhamu, Rest in Peace, Mr. Barker. You will be missed.
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