Tékumel Gaming: Malcolm Heath and Simone Cooper

The Tékumel Foundation is always interested in actual Tékumel gaming.  As an example of this, we chatted recently with Malcolm Heath about his on-going Tékumel game with Simone Cooper:

How did you originally get involved with Tékumel?

In about 1987, I’d been playing RPGs for quite some time (since about 1979-80), playing the typical games of that era. D&D of course, along with Gamma World, Traveller, Villains and Vigilantes and some others. Then a good friend of mine (the Tékumel Foundation’s own Victor Raymond) introduced me to the Swords and Glory edition of Tékumel, and I was fascinated by it. I remember distinctly looking over the races and reading about the Black Ssu, and being overwhelmed with how cool it all was, and how original it was. We played together quite a lot over the next few years, and after I went to college out in Portland, Oregon, I ran a couple of campaigns for my friends there. Somewhere around that time, I found myself without much outlet for gaming, but also with the internet starting to become available, so I became involved with things like alt.games.frp.tekumel, and eventually the Blue Room digests. These resources, and later, the Yahoo Groups mailing lists, allowed me to keep my hand in while I was busy getting things going in other areas of my life. I admit that I had become more or less of an armchair Tékumel researcher – I read the Sourcebook several times, and became fascinated with the cultures, religions, and languages of Tékumel, but I wasn’t actually playing it. That lasted until 2002, when I attended my first UCON Tékumel Track event, which reinvigorated me as far as running games again, and also introduced me to some folks who live relatively near me. Since then, mostly at conventions, I’ve run various one-shots of Tékumel, occasional longer games, and over the last year or so, a long running IM game with a friend of mine, Simone. I’ve also run a couple of Tékumel games at Ambercon Northwest, an Amber DRPG convention in Portland, and introduced some other players to the setting.

What sets Tékumel apart from other games and other settings? What makes Tékumel special for you?

The originality of the setting is what sets Tékumel apart from other settings the most, and this has several interesting side-effect. I tend to find other settings, which are for the most part derivative of some sort of genre fiction or historical period, hard to get into. I don’t always find I’m well versed enough in the genre or period to really feel like I understand it.  I realize that this is exactly the same feeling that makes Tékumel have a relatively high barrier to entry for some folks, because they don’t feel like they can understand Tékumel well enough to really play in it. Not having the sorts of touchstones and tropes that come with a game that’s set in a more commonly known setting can be challenging.

However, I find that the very alienness of the setting frees me up, creatively. Rather than feeling like I have to stick with the common tropes of a given genre, Tékumel allows the sorts of stories told within that setting to be free, more open, and more natural. Of course, it’s not as if you can’t do a given genre in Tékumel, it’s just that you’re not restricted by the setting to exploring just one set of themes. I’ve run Tékumel as Adventure, as Horror, as Humor, as Military, as bildungsroman ["coming-of-age" story - Ed.] . It’s wide open, and I think that’s what draws me to it. You can tell whatever sorts of stories you want with it. It would be hard to run a horror game in the Star Wars universe.  It would feel odd because that universe is set up for more adventuresome stories. Running a game that’s “about” family and relationships in a super-hero universe can certainly be done, but it would take a lot of effort since one typically doesn’t play in a supers game to have long interactions with your mother. But Tékumel is big enough and flexible enough to do both those things, and much more, without having much dissonance to get past. The other thing that draws me to it is that it’s an extremely detailed and well fleshed out setting. It’s the little things that makes running games in it so much fun. The way things look, the little nuances of dress, architecture, design, climate. Those things add “that Tékumel feel” to games run in the setting, and it’s those things that support immersion and good story-telling, at least for me.

Some people say that Tékumel is just too strange to really comprehend, but you don’t seem to share that opinion. Why not?

It certainly is strange. But too strange? I disagree with that statement strongly. A certain amount of strangeness makes for good gaming, I find.  When you're dealing with an unfamiliar setting, both as a player and as a GM, there's a certain amount of mystery, which contributes to an immersive experience.  You don’t need to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the world, all you need is a little bit of the flavor, and that’s easy enough to get a handle on. Later, you can add more as you learn more about it. I have spent a long time studying Tékumel, not because it’s required to run it, but because I was interested in it. I found it fun and fascinating to learn about. The setting rewards this, and opens up it’s depth. In that sense, it’s like any other topic of study. You can certainly enjoy classical music, or heavy metal or rap, without knowing everything about it, but you can also increase your enjoyment and find new ways to enjoy it if you learn something about it. I think that there are a few things that one can draw out from the setting that might make it a bit easier to understand – things like it being a post-apocalyptic world, or the fact that humans are not at the top of the food chain. These things give insight into why things are the way they are and give you a base to understand the odder aspects of the cultures of the people there. I’ve found that to be the case, at least.

How has your IM game worked? What has made it successful?

The game I’m currently running is once a week for about an hour, most weeks, over lunch. We skip weeks or readjust the schedule quite frequently, because both Simone and I have busy schedules which occasionally intrude. Overall, I’d say it works well – the limited time seems to sometimes make sure we’re both pretty engaged and tends to keep things moving at a fast clip. We just IM back and forth in character which keeps things focused on the interaction between the characters. The textual format means that we’re often relying on language, rather than mechanics or body language or any of the other things you have in a face to face game. I’m really lucky to have a player who enjoys language as much as I do, and who communicates very well in this medium. It also helps a great deal that she and I are both comfortable with the sort of system-less, dice-less, free-form style that we’re doing. Simone comes out of an Amber DRPG background, so she’s got the way this works down pat, and I’ve learned a lot from her about how to keep things going and keep things interesting.

I think the main reason it works is that both Simone and I are curious about the life story of the main character. We're really very invested in seeing how she handles things, and what choices she makes. The character (Arísa hiTlákolel, now hiKetlásha, as she has recently gotten married) often surprises us both with the choices she makes. (At this point, I’d like to get Simone to chime in, and get her opinions about the game).

(Simone says)

Yes, completely, what makes the game work–other than great creative co-input is that we’re both fascinated by the mundane life in the Empire of this decidedly non-mundane woman. She wants to be normal within her her culture, and in many ways she is both privileged and talented, but she is not normal, and her choices are fraught with danger. So every mundane act that illuminates Tsolyáni culture and her place in it is also a potential for risk, something that might bring her into conflict with her own people.

We both celebrate the “Tsolyáni-ness” of the character, her family and her life ambitions, and challenge it. The contrast between our real lives and her Tsolyáni life is made more apparent and more interesting because we let her be a real person with loves and hurts and goals that are sometimes heartbreakingly recognizable to us. Everyone understands what it is to be powerless when losing a loved one, even if we can’t understand what it might be to be touched by a god-vision of that loved one’s death. Malcolm’s focus on allowing the character and the NPCs to be “real people” makes everything in the game that much more powerful.

(end Simone)

If you had one piece of advice to give to a gamer encountering Tékumel for the first time, what would that be?

Relax, and have fun. I think that Tékumel suffers a little from how dedicated some of it’s fans are. It’s always hard to come in "cold" to a community who has been thinking about and playing in a setting for decades. I suspect it’s a similar feeling to someone who has never really got into comic books, like myself. The folks who are already in that community are so vastly buried in the minutiae that I often feel like I’ll never be able to have a conversation where I'm confident with my level of knowledge. Tékumel also has a reputation as this brilliant, detailed, and long-lived RPG and fictional setting, which I think can be intimidating to some folks.

So I put the question to new players – putting aside all the above, what is it that you find intriguing about Tékumel? Open yourself up, read some of the books, play in a con game and then just pick one or two things that speak to you. Is it the languages? The interesting alien species? You’ll probably quickly find something that excites you – and if that’s the case, just focus on that. There’s really no need to know everything. Just pick a thing you’re really into, and start digging into that. The rest will come along in short order. For me, it ended up being the religions that I was the most interested in, so that's what I feel the most confident playing around with. There are others in the broad community who have become immersed in topics like clan life, or the military, or palace intrigues, or the alien races, or specific cities. I guess the best way to say it is that much like the real world, you can’t become an expert on everything, but it’s easy to become pretty expert in whatever area you find yourself in – it comes naturally through play and curiosity. And don’t worry about doing it “right” – tell the stories you want to tell in this setting, and it’s yours. It may not line up very well with what other people are doing, and that’s OK. If you’re having fun with it and finding something interesting to do, it’s all good.