M.A.R. Barker 1929-2012
March 19, 2012 5:35 AM   Subscribe

Role Playing Game pioneer Mohammed Al Rahman Barker died last week (PDF). Inspired through playing dungeons and Dragons, M. A. R. Barker created what is possibly the world's second RPG, Empire of the Petal Throne, set in the world of Tekumel, a world he would continue to keep building for the rest of his life.

For Tor.com SF/fantasy author and RPG writer Jo Walton has written M. A. R. Barker's obituary, in which she called him "one of very few people to have a profound influence on fantasy in which fiction is secondary. He wrote novels and stories, but he was primarily a worldbuilder."

That worldbuilding was infused by his knowledge of both Meso-American and South Asian cultures, his linguistic knowledge and more traditional sources of inspiration like Jack Vance's writing. The end result was a highly detailed world, that was still being improved at the time of his death.

Tekumel was an inspiration for quite a few fantasy writers, most infamously for Raymond E. Feist's Riftwar series, as discussed here.
posted by MartinWisse (28 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite

I'm not a gamer, but I love the shapes of the letters of the Tsolyani alphabet.
posted by oonh at 5:38 AM on March 19, 2012

posted by Pendragon at 5:51 AM on March 19, 2012


Tekumel is amazing. Never had a chance to game in that world, but always wanted to. Time to start plotting...
posted by jet_manifesto at 5:53 AM on March 19, 2012


I've never played in Tekumel, though I've read a few of the novels. I remember looking at Empire of the Petal Throne back in 1977 at a friend's house back when I was discovering RPGs. About 10 years later, I had a moment of delight at the old Forbidden Planet in NY, when I found a new-in-box copy of EPT that had apparently fallen under shelves, and been rediscovered during renovations, and placed out for sale.
posted by fings at 5:55 AM on March 19, 2012

Farewell, Firu ba Yeker. May cinnamon never emanate from your integuments.

Someone make a EPT Necropolis-exploring roguelike, please.
posted by fleacircus at 6:00 AM on March 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

The day before I heard that Barker had died, I wrote that—

'I have had more fun as a lowly slave living a wretched life in [Empire of the Petal Throne] than I’ve had as a Nth-level power-fantasy in any other game I can think of.'

Tékumel is a fantasy world that lives and breathes, and it is a pleasure to spend time there. Jumping back to 7segment's comment in the Turkish soccer thread comparing jazz and rock, most RPGs are about the journey. Tékumel is about being there.

Really? Yes. It was the first game-world I've played in where in one session the GM left the room for an hour to prepare a meal, and play continued almost without interruption. A Tékumel LARP I played at a convention many years ago took the form of a sumptuous banquet with scores of delicious but almost unidentifiable dishes. Even recently, I've seen people discover each other are Tékumel players and drop into character to converse and tell stories about what's been going on in their respective worlds.

Having said that, after the TSR edition of the mid-70s it took another thirty years for the game to have a re-release that did it justice--and then Guardians of Order went out of business almost immediately after publishing the rulebook, before it could release any supplements for the game. When we play it, we tend to use Dave Morris's homebrew Tirikelu system.

I don't know if it's just me and my background in the RPG industry or if Tékumel players really do exist in a close-knit microcosm. I know most of the people who worked on the GoO edition, across three continents. Dave Morris is a close friend. One of Barker's friends once persuaded him to write out my character's name in illuminated Tsolyani script—that's a treasured possession. And I once had a mailing-list argument with him over the Gardasiyal boxed set (I maintained that you couldn't say that a RPG product "contains everything you need to play" if it doesn't have character-generation rules, which it didn't, and Barker took it as an attack on the game as a whole) which pretty much sunk any chance Hogshead Publishing might have had of publishing any Tékumel material. I may have dodged a bullet there: it seems to have been a poisoned chalice for any company that has taken it on. But oh, I'd have loved to lose some money doing it.

A great mind. A great imagination. A great world that will live on.
posted by Hogshead at 6:09 AM on March 19, 2012 [13 favorites]

Fascinating. I admit I only first heard of it last year, when IntroComp for interactive fiction had an entry (written in the controversial 'Choice of....' Format) that was immensely detailed and, iirc, written with permission. Well, started with permission, I'll have to follow up when I'm not on my phone. It was absolutley fascinating as a built world, which is all I ever did with rpging anyway.
posted by cobaltnine at 6:25 AM on March 19, 2012

I played RPGs in the 90s, and Tekumel was always there in the background haze. I never played in the world myself, but had some idea that a fantasy world from the 70s could not be particularely original or developed, but boy was I wrong. I'll put it on my (sadly overlong) to-read list.

posted by Harald74 at 6:30 AM on March 19, 2012

posted by Katjusa Roquette at 6:37 AM on March 19, 2012

posted by khaibit at 7:16 AM on March 19, 2012

posted by paulg at 7:29 AM on March 19, 2012

Tekumel seems to be one of things where it was never "mainstream popular," whatever that means in RPGs, but had a base of passionate fans.

Seeing these reactions, I'm reminded of when I found out not long ago that there are actually Glorantha conventions, that sense of missing out on something.
posted by JHarris at 7:51 AM on March 19, 2012

posted by scaryblackdeath at 8:02 AM on March 19, 2012

Oh man! Requiescat in pace Dr. Barker.
posted by elendil71 at 8:46 AM on March 19, 2012

One of my major gaming regrets is that I never picked up that copy of Empire of the Petal Throne that sat for so long on the shelf of my local toy and hobby store way back in the late 70s.
posted by maurice at 9:04 AM on March 19, 2012

Holy crap. I had no idea he was still alive. I figured if he was a prof in the 60s, then he must have died long since. I've never gotten a chance to read his material, but have heard about how awesome it is on many occasions, and how many writers today he has influenced.

posted by Canageek at 9:07 AM on March 19, 2012

posted by Pseudoephedrine at 10:08 AM on March 19, 2012

Carcosa appears to be an attempt to capture some of the same spirit.
posted by Artw at 10:32 AM on March 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


JHarris: "Seeing these reactions, I'm reminded of when I found out not long ago that there are actually Glorantha conventions, that sense of missing out on something."

There are (effectively) Tekumel conventions, too.

I've never been that big a fan of Tekumel, personally, but it stands as a major landmark in RPG setting design and worldbuilding.
posted by jiawen at 10:50 AM on March 19, 2012

Tekumel was a brilliant example of worldbuilding and creativity on a medium that has a deficit of both. MA Barker's work stands as an example goiter those who want rpgs to be about more than elves and dwarves raiding dungeons.
posted by happyroach at 10:57 AM on March 19, 2012

Inspired through playing dungeons and Dragons, M. A. R. Barker created what is possibly the world's second RPG, Empire of the Petal Throne,

Correction: Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax were inspired, among other sources, by Barker through their mutual participation in the U of Mn Wargaming club. Dave Arneson remained a close friend of Barker's. Here's a really terrible photo of them together a few years ago
The article in Der Spiegel is quite good.

'Empire of the Petal Throne' wasn't "possibly" the second RPG, it was inarguably the second RPG. It was released by TSR only six weeks after the publication of 'Dungeons and Dragons.' This was of course due to the close relationship between Barker and TSR's principals.

By the way Barker's original mimeographed manuscript is available if you wish to review this. I won't link to the site since I don't want to look like I'm pushing a product, but a little digging will find it.
posted by A1batross at 11:01 AM on March 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

posted by batmonkey at 11:23 AM on March 19, 2012

Oh, push the damn site A1batross. Nobody's ever got rich from Tékumel, and proceeds from the sale of Tékumeli products are now going to the Tékumel Foundation. I'm not quite sure what the Tékumel Foundation is going to do, but the fact it exists makes me happy.
posted by Hogshead at 2:52 PM on March 19, 2012

Hogshead is right, go ahead and post the link.
posted by JHarris at 4:48 PM on March 19, 2012

A little investigation shows that A1bertross knows more about publishing Tékumel material than we do since he co-wrote books with Professor Barker. Nevertheless, A1bertross, links to commercial sites and self-linking is fine if done within comments.

I suspect he may be referring to this page at DrivethruRPG, which includes Barker's original MS and a number of other Tekumel-related goodies in digital form. None of the novels, sadly. I would dearly like digital versions of the novels.
posted by Hogshead at 5:17 PM on March 19, 2012

Wow. While I never played the RPGs, the books were an awesome read. FLAMESONG and MAN OF GOLD specifically.

posted by newdaddy at 7:02 PM on March 19, 2012

posted by Smart Dalek at 12:20 AM on March 20, 2012

posted by radwolf76 at 12:26 PM on March 20, 2012

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