Tuesday, August 9, 2011

How Rokugan helped me to understand Tekumel

There has been much talk recently (mostly on OSR Blogs) about Tekumel and on how anyone can run a game based on Professor Baker’s famous world. I admit that must first contact with Tekumel (fueled by mentions of it on forums) scare me little – the setting was just too alien. However, I’m a fan of exotic worlds so, with the late discussion, I decided to bought the Empire of the Petal Throne PDF and give it a second chance… and I’m loving it.

I guess that Tekumel’s “legendary” complexity as a campaign setting is highly overrated. In part because the so called “barriers” about running a game based on it is 90% of the time invoked either by people that don’t like alien-like settings or by those that pay too much attention to canon. I believe the same argument holds true for settings like Glorantha and Middle-Earth. Together with Tekumel, these fantasy worlds are amazingly complex and detailed – truly works of art.

The problem, in my way of seeing things, is that many Gamemasters and referees wrongly assume that, because these scenarios are so rich, their game session must – unavoidably – be encyclopedic lessons on mythology, culture and history. If this was even remotely true, then playing any RPG on a historical setting would be impossible (and many actually invoke this reason for avoiding running historical games). Is Tekumel a complex and lovingly detailed world? Certainly! But that thosen't mean that to run it you must have a degree on Professor Baker’s material. I like to see this plethora of information and details as bonus – I can pick what I like and research becomes terrible easy if I’m out of ideas.

In fact (to justify this post’s title), I came to think this way after running for the first time Legend of the Five Rings. The great RPG uses the world of Rokugan as setting – a mashup/fantasy version of Japan, China and other stuff that most games believe have an Oriental flavor. Although Rokugan never claimed to be historically accurate, it’s nonetheless a very rich and strange setting, where social norms and customs are more important than combat skills half of the time – a truly alien concept to most RPG players, if there’s any. Rokugan forced me to sit with my players for four game sessions just to details its basic history and social customs – and I’m proud to say that my game group greatly enjoyed being immersed on a alien culture. Running Rokugan help to deal with radically different game settings gradually, showing its traits little by little***.

Reading Empire of the Petal Throne (which is also a nice variant of OD&D system) showed that it’s actually very easy to run a game on Tekumel. Unlike Rokugan, Tekumel doesn’t require that the players know a lot about the setting from the beginning – the book suggest starting a campaign with foreigners. That’s perfect! After this, the first challenge of a referee (in my opinion) is with description. Most alien creatures and races are described without hassle, so the problem here is detailing clothes, armors and constructions. Fortunately, Baker let it clear its main inspirations – Mesoamerican, Indian and Pacific islands cultures. Using Google, it’s easy to find references for these places and extrapolate from here.

The strange names are just a question of organization: write down important military and social ranks. Make a list of generic NPC names.

Tekumel is – for me at least – a great example of a science fantasy RPG and there are a lot of good ideas on it that can be easily transported to other settings. Like Middle-Earth, I believe that most Gamemaster/referee should stop worrying about canon. We’re not novelists or writes: we’re RPG hobbyists. Fun always trumps editorial fidelity! (And, if you really think that cannon is important, you probably missed tons of Middle-Earth books for MERP – this game distorted/changed canon material most of the time, but the result were beautiful supplements with great ideas for gaming).

Ending this short post, I must point out this great discussion at the OD&D Forums, responsible for making me buy Empire of the Petal Throne. It’s definitely worth a look. There’re a lot of other excellent post and threads around forums and blogs about Tekumel. Check it out!

***Pertaining to the subject of social demanding RPGs (not novels or other works), I still believe that both Rokugan and Tekumel lose to Sengoku (a wonderful game from Gold Rush Games, worthy of attention).