The Forgotten Tolkien

Mayans instead of of Middle-Earth: The American linguist M.A.R. Barker is the creator of the largest and most original fantasy world. Throughout his entire life, he invented the language of Tékumel, drew maps, wrote novels, mixed science-fiction, Urdu and Mayan culture. It’s been Barker’s turn in the game for 35 years.

Spiegel Online, 6.10.2009

A linguist spends decades inventing languages and the countries in which they are spoken and writing the history, geography, social structure and cultures of these dreamed worlds in novels, lexicons and history books. Such began the story of J.R.R. Tolkien, who took on the role of World Creator and designed the lost world named Middle-Earth, long before he had written “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings”, which gave generations of fantasy fans a world they would want to experience in games.

Tolkien’s history crowns the worldwide success of “The Lord of the Rings”. American philologist Muhammad Abd-al-Rahman Barker has not had such a happy end. The 78-year old expert on Urdu, previously head of the faculty for South Asian Sciences at the University of Minnesota, spent decades designing the fantasy world of Tékumel. Barker is one of the greatest world designers in the history of fantasy – and Tékumel is one of the most original creations. While Tolkien’s Middle-Earth and many other devised fantasy worlds are reminiscent of medieval Europe and play off of German and Nordic mythology, Barker’s Tékumel is a unique mixture of science-fiction, Indian, Near-Eastern and Mayan culture.

Today, Barker’s work is not nearly as well known as Tolkien’s creation, even among fantasy fans. Yet Tékumel is the earliest and certainly one of the most resplendent realizations in a line of traditional roleplaying games: Barker designed a roleplaying game not in order to play, but rather as a medium to interactively experience his conceived world. In 1975, shortly after the appearance of the roleplaying game “Dungeons & Dragons”, the roleplaying game publisher TSR released Barker’s game “Empire of the Petal Throne”.

Tékumel inspired the inventor of D&D
In the foreword, TSR founder and D&D co-developer Gary Gygax compared Tékumel then with Tolkien’s Middle-Earth: the historical and social background of the world was “at least as meticulously and lovingly crafted as the acknowledged Master of the Fantasy World”.

Gygax was right, but this conceals what made Tékumel unique at that time. As the IT security expert Bob Alberti, who played weekly roleplaying sessions with Barker since the 80’s and wrote several books about religion in Tékumel, explains, what fascinated him then about this world: “The world was fully different than the then omnipresent Tolkien mythology with Elves and Dwarves. Tékumel was unique, astonishingly creative and detailed, with palpable historical depth.”

The history of Tékumel in short form: In a distant future, beings settle the universe and form the planet Tékumel into a vacation world for humans and humanoid creatures. The original inhabitants were crowded into reservations and the atmosphere, flora and fauna were reconfigured with the aid of enormous constructions. A not clearly described catastrophe cuts Tékumel off from the rest of the universe and in the following millennia of conflicts many inhabitants organize themselves into extremely hierarchically constructed clan societies.

Many religions, no dogma
In this world there is near magical ancient technology and an extremely powerful and sophisticated bureaucracy. Unlike Tolkien’s clear good and evil divided world, Barker’s Tékumel is morally far more complex. There are many religions and even many concepts of ethics which Barker describes, without drawing everything as black or white like Tolkien.

Like Tolkien, the creation of Barker’s world is closely connected with an interest in languages. Tolkien’s biographer Humphrey Carpenter described, how the young Tolkien, while traveling by train in Great Britain, became fascinated with the Welsh spoken by other passengers. Tékumel’s creator, Barker, explained to the sociologist Gary Alan Fine, for his study of the roleplaying subculture “Shared Fantasy”, how he grew up the child of a school headmaster in pastoral Idaho: “We lived near a Basque family, their children could speak with one another in one language, that no one else could understand. I suppose that made me envious, that they could whisper all their secrets, that no one could understand.”

Why Barker converted to Islam in 1951
The young Barker often played alone. Fine explained, that by age 10 he was reenacting the events of a fantasy world with toy soldiers, which later would become Tékumel. In highschool, he designed complex rules systems with friends to reenact battles with toy soldiers. Later, Barker studied ancient Egyptian and other languages and traveled with a Fulbright scholarship to India in 1951 (Barker was 21 at the time). There, he crossed over into Islam, and Philip became Muhammad Abd-al-Rahman, or M.A.R., Barker. That had, as Barker once explained, “only theological rationale”. For him Islam appeared “as the most logical religion”.

Barker had seen more of the world and read far more science-fiction than Tolkien – as one can tell from his entirely non-medieval european setting. He elaborated on the world from 1972 on, after he moved to Minneapolis, in order to teach under the faculty for South Asian Sciences, which he later headed.

In the 70’s, Barker gathered war gamers and role-players in the university town around himself. He was repeatedly the guest of the gaming club of the University of Minnesota, where he later would become acquainted with the D&D co-founder Dave Arneson. Above all, tabletop war games like “Napoleonics” and “American Civil War” were played there. Soon, game sessions were meeting regularly in Barker’s house, in order to play Tékumel adventures.

Tékumel evolved in a roleplaying group
One of these gaming groups, the “Thursday Night Group”, is perhaps the oldest roleplaying circle of all. Some of the gamers, who joined up in the 70’s and 80’s, still meet up today at Barker’s place to play with “the Professor”, as they say: Bob Alberti, Victor Raymond, Carl Brodt, Brett Slocum, Alan Musielewicz – they each have developed a gaming history for more than 30 consecutive years, and written articles and books about Tékumel with Barker. The enormous amount of published and unpublished material is doubtlessly above all thanks to the regular game sessions, in which Barker’s conceived world is further developed with him as game master.

Jeff Berry, 53, facility manager at the University of Minnesota, wrote a rules system for Tékumel tabletop in the 80’s and accumulated an enormous Tékumel archive over the years: he alone has collected twelve shelves of text and 4,600 miniatures. Much of this originated in common game sessions, that began every Thursday at 7 o’clock in Barker’s house.

Everyone had arrived, the players went with Barker into the basement, into the gameroom behind the laundry room, sat themselves around a large, built-in table tennis table with a green cover. Upon this lay a rolled up, laminated map of the northern continent (two meters long once unfurled). Six to ten people sat by the table, Barker at the head with many bins of fully colored index cards with details to every figure in the game. He led and explained the game, determined the results of certain actions with dice, noted details. There were cookies and lemonade, on the wall hung wooden racks, on which hundreds of miniatures of the different beings of Tékumel stood – Shen, Ahoggya, Pe Choi.

Barker reinvented D&D in six weeks
There were many attempts to make Tékumel into a commercial pen & paper roleplaying game. It began one thursday in July 1974, as Barker followed a “Dungeons & Dragons” party in the gaming club at the University and incredulously witnessed, how a group of young heroes overthrew an angel. As he asked the game master, how that could be, the latter replied, Barker could simply “write his own rules”, if it didn’t please him, “as D&D worked”.

Jeff Berry, who was there, remembered: “He did exactly that. Phil spent perhaps six weeks of the summer vacation writing rules.” On the 24th of August, 1974, Barker pitched the first Tékumel game session to some players – he had worked out the rules in six weeks, designed 1,000 figures for random encounters and drawn up even more maps of the game world.

D&D-inventor Arneson played in Barker’s Tékumel games for years
Dave Arneson heard of the game, explained it to his partner Gary Gygax, and thus one year later the first Tékumel game was published by TSR. It would not become a best seller, perhaps due to its expensive price tag, or perhaps due to the uniqueness of the concept. Four publishers have released Tékumel roleplaying games in the last 35 years, and not one has become a success, not even the latest publication, the thus far most beautiful edition from the Canadian publisher Guardians of Order. Player Bob Alberti has come to this theory after many years of Tékumel: “Tékumel was for western gamers always especially challenging, because it is based on a culture, that is trusted very little – the Mayan empire, East India, South and Southeast Asia.”

In 1974, a few years after the Tolkien explosion had seized the world, it was simply too early for a game world like Tékumel: The fantasy fans had only just begun to experiment with the idea of experiencing conceived worlds in interactive games, instead of merely reading about them. There they wanted less of something different than the more or less trusted medieval-european atmosphere admitted.

The world belongs to the Tékumel Foundation
In the 1980’s and in 2003 and 2004, M.A.R. Barker published four Tékumel novels, that were absorbing, but not ground-breaking. Perhaps a work with the impetus of “The Lord of the Rings” or the “Dune” series would have inspired more players for Tékumel. But things worked out differently. After 35 years, the immeasurably large world of Professor Barker has only a small, devoted player community, from which the most faithful have come to know Tékumel with M.A.R. Barker as their game master.

Dave Arneson, founder of D&D, also belongs among these: Until his death in April this year, he played regularly by the Thursday Tékumel group in Barker’s house. His character, the Captain Hachar, who built his fortune with dealings at the very limits of the law.

In 2008, Barker founded the Tékumel Foundation, in order to manage the rights of his creation. He and his wife, Ambereen, belong to the board of directors, as do many of the Thursday players – Victor Raymond, Bob Alberti, Stephen Hearn, Alan Museleiwicz and Giovanna Fregni. However, that Tékumel has as many players in Minnesota as in the rest of the world demonstrates how peculiar Barker’s world is: even if there are not many players on the move in Tékumel, there remains those that have at one time discovered this world, and have remained loyal to the game for 20 or even 30 years.

For the last couple years, University engineer Jeff Berry has been leading his own Tékumel gaming group with eight to ten players, and 16 more on a waiting list. They meet every weekend, in Berry’s house, in another basement, with world maps on the walls, miniatures on the shelves, at a large table, on which lie many dice.