Thursday, May 7, 2020

Tékumel versus Buffalo Castle

Which do you prefer? Dungeon adventures with minimal setting context, but packed with weird and unpredictable challenges that make little reasonable sense? Or rich game world settings with compelling background histories, but that require time, and even determined study, to enter?

Gamers debate the pros and cons of each of these two poles on a spectrum of role-playing game settings: a game world copiously detailed in advance versus the null setting of the funhouse dungeon in a generic fantasy world. Pundits and authors of the recent, reactionary school of gaming wrongly named “Old School” seem to come down in favor of the funhouse dungeon with the claim that it is Original.

It is easy to see that anybody who claims this is wrong. The divergence between these two play styles happened even before D&D was published. It was enshrined in print in 1975, just a year after the first trilogy of D&D books appeared, in the creative renditions and rewritings of the game that D&D explicitly invited at the outset. These two very early role-playing games exemplify the two extremes of the polarity just mentioned.

A close look at the earliest published representatives of these two distinct styles of play tells us about why they must coexist.

Wild and crazy T&T
In Arizona, Ken St. Andre—librarian, gamer, and sci-fi/fantasy fan—designed a new role-playing game after one evening in December of 1974 that he spent skimming the original D&D rules instead of playing Risk. He soon published his own game as Tunnels & Trolls (1975), a system that is still, in my opinion, superior to that of D&D in any edition for functionality, flexibility, simplicity, and fun. But the style of play fostered by supplements supporting Tunnels & Trolls, especially the encounters players meet in the many fun published solo Tunnels & Trolls adventures, was distinctly wild and crazy. I collected and played these solo adventures over and over, but even as a kid I wondered what they were thinking when it came to rationale.

Take Buffalo Castle, the first T&T solo adventure published (1976). It is a funhouse dungeon if ever there was one, stocked with whimsical encounters: a tree sprouting emeralds in one room, a hostile giant octopus (no mention of a pool), a wizard who cuts your Charisma in half out of spite if you’re not brave, a magic vitamin pill, an aggressive buffalo herd, and a bank vault. Wandering monsters include killer bees, giant jellyfish, and sick dogs whose bite causes certain death from rabies. All this is what they call today “gonzo,” the preferred taste of some, although it was just normal gaming for many in those days. Many of the other solo T&T adventures, especially the earlier ones, are similar in this style. Take a look and try them.

Tékumel, a field linguist’s fantasy world
In Minneapolis, meanwhile, there was Muhammad Abd-al-Rahman “Phil” Barker (1929-2012), sci-fi fan and experienced anthropologist and field linguist, author of courses in the First Peoples language Klamath (now extinct) and the Asian languages Urdu and Baluchi.
Professor Barker knew Dave Arneson, one of the two co-creators of D&D, and he bought one of Arneson’s first two copies of Dungeons & Dragons. He played in Arneson’s Blackmoor campaigns and Arneson played for years in Barker’s “Thursday Night Group.”
Like St. Andre, Barker encountered D&D and soon created his own role-playing game, also published in 1975, as he says “inspired by the popular ‘Dungeons and Dragons.’” This was The Empire of the Petal Throne: Rules for Fantasy Adventures and Campaigns on an Alien Planet. He had been developing the setting of this science-fantasy game for years. This world, Tékumel, had its own complete conlangs, alien mythology, and array of creatures in the vein of Burroughs’ Mars series only weirder, cooler, and more developed.

Gygax wrote the foreword to the first edition of EPT, treating it, and its author, with effusive praise. Gygax seems to have been in awe of Professor Barker. Gygax was a high school drop-out who wrote strained prose sprinkled with howlers like his description of the monk class as “monastic aesthetics” (Players Handbook p. 30). (Some of his fans like how he wrote. One regards it as “deliciously baroque.”)

Barker, by contrast, held a Linguistics PhD from UC-Berkeley, the top public university in the USA, taught at Minnesota’s flagship research university, and had written many high-quality scholarly volumes after mastering languages scarcely known to non-native speakers.
Hobbyists who revere Gygax’s words as scripture should note his take on Barker’s game. “I simply state,” Gygax wrote about EPT, “that it is the most beautifully done fantasy game ever created. It is difficult for me to envision the possibility of any rival being created in the future.” He then compared it with Tolkien’s Middle Earth.
It was beyond Gygax’s ability to explain what made it beautiful. Those factors include its internal consistency, its convincing science fiction, in which human societies evolve in an alien environment as a trained anthropologist envisioned it, the verisimilitude of Barker’s fantasy languages, and the aesthetics and clarity of the game’s presentation.

As far as I can tell, Barker also should get credit for creating the first rules for player character background skills--as “realism requires,” he said!--and the first percentile stat rating system.

Most importantly, in hindsight, Barker’s world is not a eurofantasy. Obviously inspired by his time among Klamath speakers in the Pacific Northwest and among various peoples of South Asia, Barker’s vision of a fantasy setting is not standard fare. While Tolkien and his buddy C.S. Lewis were decisive agents in the fashioning of a pseudo-medieval eurofantasy shared by millions (see chapter 6 of Norman Cantor’s book Inventing the Middle Ages [1991]), Barker’s world concept was about human social evolution in the far future on an alien planet after it, along with its sun, was sucked into another dimension of empty space without stars. Instead of Elves, Dwarves, and Goblins, Barker had Pé Chói, Tinalíya, and Hlutrgú, all truly alien creatures.

Arneson’s Blackmoor and Gygax’s Greyhawk settings, which set the standard for fantasy game worlds as hodge-podges of fantasy/sci-fi fiction with a frosting of mythology from introductory textbooks, could never touch the rich verisimilitude and extraterrestrial beauty of Barker’s Tékumel. As it turns out, though, neither could most players’ participatory imaginations. As Arneson wrote in his preface to the 1987 edition of EPT, “In the first days of role-playing games, Petal Throne was regarded as being too esoteric and complicated. … I mean, who would want such stuff?”

The rhetorical question still applies. Barker so carefully determined his setting and made it so original and unlike the common fare of fantasy, that it became daunting to enter and understand. Its uniqueness and foreignness may be what it is most famous for today. It takes a special kind of fan to fall in love with Tékumel so deeply that he or she wants to play in it and learn its grammar, rather than just to skim it in awe or puzzlement. 

Rich setting context: off-putting or necessary?
The exertion required to enter Tékumel reveals the practicality of funhouse dungeons like Buffalo Castle. When there is no rhyme or reason, no work is required to understand. There is nothing to understand. You don’t worry about context. You jump into the game, hack at the wandering giant jellyfish that is chasing you down the 10’-wide corridor and, when it’s dead, take the electrum pieces it was carrying in its tendrils.

But is that fun for more than an hour’s imaginary frolic? In a species of game based on continuity of characters from session to session, the setting matters more and more when characters survive. OSR DMs who happily kill off characters thereby squelch the need for setting, so the funhouse dungeon and player character lethality go hand in hand.

Continuity between sessions, by itself, creates a story. And stories generate contextual sense to make the story meaningful. It is the nature of the campaign, therefore, to generate a fantasy world if there was not one there before. That is one of the most appealing and distinct aspects of the role-playing game.

So, which do you put first? The scenarios or the setting? The tension between these two poles will always remain with the hobby. Scenarios without setting have no story sense and often remain juvenile, lacking rationale. A setting without scenarios is laborious background reading without meaningful player participation. Both components together generate meaningful fun during play. How to create both simultaneously in complementary ways is not something that can be answered dogmatically. It takes a group of cooperating gamers to pull it off.

The record is clear about one thing, though: both extremes are found at the beginning of the hobby. Once again, when it comes to the so-called Old School, don’t believe the hype.

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