The setting of Tekumel

In a universe far removed from our own, a blazing sun beats down upon the city of Bey Su, "The Soul of the World." Soldiers wearing the livery of the Omnipotent Azure Legion march down the broad avenues, good clan-folk scrambling to clear a path. At the gates of the city, the mighty sakbe roads, walls with highways atop them, stretch out in all directions across the Tsolyani imperium. These soldiers are marching north on the broad way to the fortress of Avanthar, home of the God-Emperor, who rules these lands from a massive stone throne, carved, it is said, to resemble a gigantic flower. Few have seen the Petal Throne itself, for the God-Emperor lives in seclusion, never leaving his golden tower, and only the deaf-mute Servitors of Silence see his chambers or his person.

The year is 2374 A.S., after the founding of the Seal Imperium. (The Seal is a magical device that leaves a marking of otherworldly force on any substance.) The God-Emperor Mirusiya, The Resplendent Flame, sits securely on the Petal Throne. The late civil war to unseat his younger brother Dhich'une has ended satisfactorily, and the three surrounding empires that conspired to snatch mouthfuls of Tsolyani terrority have themselves fallen into difficulties. The central regions of the Empire may once again know calm.

The Five Empires: Tsolyanu, Mu'ugalavya, Salarvya, Yan Kor, and Livyanu, are heirs to a single, much greater imperium from millennia ago: the Engsvanyali Empire. The Engsvanyali ruled over most of the continent for thousands of years, bringing civilization, religion, and stability over a wide region. The five modern successor empires have much in common regarding language, social customs, and military practices. The Engsvanyali themselves were heirs to much older states, such as the Bednalljans, the Dragon Warriors, and many others stretching back to the Latter Times.

Before that is mythology. The epic Lament to the Wheel of Black tells of the great battle of the gods, where the five gods of Stability battled the five gods of Change. When it became apparent that Ksarul, the god of secrets and magic, planned to become the sole ruler of the universe, his allies in Change deserted him one by one, until Ksarul stood alone, fighting the other nine. Ksarul was defeated and imprisoned, asleep in the Blue Room, where even now he dreams of resuming his quest for absolute supremacy.

Among the educated, there are additional tales: of the great cataclysm of the Time of Darkness, when mountains walked, and the seas rose, and fire descended upon the land, and the stars went out forever. The civilization of the Great Ancients fell, and only a few, the wizards of the Latter Times, understood anything of how to use the ancient devices. These wizards also learned magic and built their own devices of wonder, a handful of which can still be found deep beneath the cities, and nobles pay great sums to collect them for their curio cabinets. Some of them still function, although few understand their secrets.

This is a condensed history of Tekumel. Before the Time of Darkness, Tekumel was literally in another universe. The star-spanning empire of the Great Ancients found Tekumel at a convenient junction for trade and expansion. Although the planet was inhospitable to human life and already occupied by intelligent races on the verge of expanding into the stars themselves, humanity and their allies were determined to hold this world, no matter the cost. Native plant-life was exterminated, and the sapient races of Ssu and Hluss were slaughtered by the millions. The survivors were pent up on reservations. The planet's orbit was altered, gravity engines were placed in the planet's core, and weather control satellites made the planet comfortable for humanity and its allies. Tekumel became a resort world where the wealthy had great estates. Other intelligences came, too, some allies, some hostile, setting up hidden observation camps.

All of this abruptly ended when every planet of human space was dropped into its own separate pocket universe. Each one was isolated from the stars and interstellar trade. Tekumel, lacking many heavy metals, was unable to sustain its technology, and civilization fell. After the collapse, only a few still remembered how the ancient technology worked—and they discovered something else.

Tekumel's pocket dimension had easier access to other planes, some of them pure energy. Machines could be made to draw energy from these alternate planes, making it possible to design them to run forever. With training and practice, some humans were even able to access these alternate planes by mental effort alone, leading to the discovery of magic. Over the aeons, knowledge of technology declined, while the knowledge of magic grew.

The alternate planes not only served as sources of energy: other intelligences lived there, some of vast power. Gradually, these powerful beings made themselves known to humanity. These creatures were so far beyond human comprehension they were, for all intents and purposes, gods, and humans worshipped them. The gods, for their own inscrutable purposes, roughly fall into two equal camps. One seeks to keep things essentially the way they are, with change carefully managed and growth slow and steady. The other group seeks the dynamism of change and violence. Beneath the gods are beings of slightly lesser power, the "cohorts," each god having one assistant who generally oversees the practical application of the god's portfolio of interest. For example, the god Ksarul, Doomed Prince of the Blue Room, is largely concerned with the acquisition of knowledge and the selfish use of that knowledge to better his status and position. His cohort, Gruganu, the Knower of Spells, is interested specifically in magic. Below the cohorts, other inhabitants of the planes vary considerably in power and loyalty. These are labeled "demons," regardless of whether they serve Stability, Change, or nobody.

Tekumel is a world of adventure. The Five Empires offer political intrigue and social climbing. It makes more sense for characters to develop their social connections and skills than to develop combat abilities. For those who prefer traditional fantasy play, there are wild places to explore, dangerous creatures to confront, and great treasures to plunder, some in elaborate complexes under the ground, some hidden in wildernesses, others protected by legions of soldiers. The traditional trappings are there: swords, armor, and magic.

But Tekumel is not a traditional swords and sorcery world. There are no riding animals, so people walk and transportation is slow. Iron and steel are rare and extremely valuable; instead, technology is based around the chemically treated hide of the chlen-beast, a genetically engineered creature something like a dinosaur. The treated hide is the weight and toughness of aircraft plastic, easily molded and colored. Weapons on Tekumel are fantastically shaped, with barbs, hooks, and curves in odd places. There are no elves or dwarves: nonhumans include the Pe Choi, insectoid creatures; the Shen, reptilian warriors; the Tinaliya, clever little beings with the flaw of being totally literal-minded. There are many other races and beings to encounter.

The socio-economic structure of Tsolyanu is also different from traditional European-type settings. In the Five Empires, your clan is far more important than your individual status. Player characters who are members of clans can have most of their needs taken care of by the clan. You give a percentage of your earnings to the clan, and you get free housing, food, legal standing, and protection. Those who are not members of clans are all but helpless in the Tsolyani legal system. While we are on the topic of the legal system, we also draw attention to the primary enforcement mechanism for the social order: Shamtla, or blood-money. Given the intense focus on social standing, one must take care to not insult others. Should someone take offense at your talk, they will demand monetary payment, the exact amount to be fixed by his clan and yours. No tough-talking barbarian warriors in civilized society, please!

Tekumel is also a living world. Professor Barker still plays his game in Minneapolis once a week, and his players experience the history of the world as it unfolds.


Why the appeal?

Fans say they like the complexity, the feeling that Tekumel is a living world, and the game offers them an opportunity to explore it. We point out that when Tekumel was first published (as Empire of the Petal Throne; see our review), it was the first game to offer any background at all. Tekumel was seen as a deluxe quality product, and that reputation has followed it throughout its history. With the publication of the Tekumel sourcebook in 1983, the amazing quantity of background information cemented its reputation. Tekumel also offers a truly alien world to game on, a chance to experience something unusual.

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The very features that make Tekumel so appealing also make it difficult to play. For beginners, the sheer amount of information is a barrier. Traditional role playing cliches do not work: you cannot meet your companions at a bar, as there are no public establishments for eating and drinking. Social restrictions may prevent different characters from interacting: an upper-class clansman will not want to be seen spending time with a lowly tomb-robber! The traditional dungeon exploration adventures have unique problems: there are patrols of Tomb Police there to arrest grave looters, and dungeon complexes are often well-protected by temple guards as well as the usual traps and monsters. There are never any thief characters, as the police forces tend to be too ruthless to permit organized street crime. The game's language can be a barrier: aside from struggling through all the words in the rule book, players cannot simply name their character "Bob the magic-user," lest players lose the point of trying to adventure in an alien culture.

In spite of the difficulties, we at the Museum keep coming back to Tekumel, and so do the other fans. May we recommend the reader consider playing in a truly unique setting? Step through the gateway...

June 1, 2006

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