Sunday, April 3, 2016

Feeling Tekumel

[FYI: this may turn into a weird, haphazard series of posts]

Just got back into, Paraguay Town (i.e. Asuncion) yesterday morning after a delightful 5- or 6-day (who can count?) mini-vacation in Mexico. Hope everyone had a happy Easter, by the way.

I've got a lot on my mind (as usual) but with regard to gaming, most of my thoughts these last few days have centered around M.A.R. Barker's world of Tekumel, a campaign setting familiar to folks who are familiar with the game Empire of the Petal Throne. Most of those readers fond of frequenting "old school" blogs have probably encountered articles on EPT, though it's not one I've written much about. However, being in Mexico got me thinking of Tekumel, and I've dug out my PDFs of EPT (purchased back in 2014) and took the time to reread them. I find there's quite a bit I'd like to say on them.

But  the question might be asked "what brings JB to the subject of Tekumel in the first place?" Well, Mexico, of course. Some of my readers may be unfamiliar with Oaxaca region...that's where I was over the Holy Week/Easter holiday. Oaxaca is a mountainous southern state in Mexico, bordering the Pacific Ocean. It has some great beaches like Puerto Escondido and Hualtuco...some nice resorts if you're into that kind of thing (I prefer the rinky-dink beachfront hotels with the hammocks), and good surfing. But we weren't at the beach, this trip...we were in the capital (the city of Oaxaca) up in the mountainous center of the state.

Oaxaca is a region of many cultures...eight major ones, by their count. The Aztecs really never conquered it because of the difficulty assaulting cities in a mountainous region (up until the last couple years, even the "good" highway to Oaxaca was incredibly long and curvy, if not downright treacherous in some parts). There is a lot of cultural pride in Oaxaca...they celebrate their indigenous traditions and dances on an annual basis (think "Hawaiian Luau" style at the hotels plus weeklong festivals in the summer), and the place is a center for traditional handcrafts ranging from elaborate brocaded shirts and dresses, to ceramics made from black Oaxacan clay, to elaborately painted wooded figurines, to painting and sculpture and music.

Their cuisine is considered the best in Mexico, which is saying something considering the overall quality of Mexican cuisine, and a lot of American chefs study in Oaxaca. They pride themselves on traditional foods including grasshoppers and grubs, worms and ant eggs...but they also have mariscos (seafood) from the coast, and their own tesado-style of cooking meats. They are probably best known for their mole salsas (you can get four or five different kinds in most restaurants: black, red, green, yellow, etc.) and their mezcal (that's the drink like tequila that has a worm in the bottle...I prefer it to tequila as it's generally smoother, more, tequila is the devil). Their food tends to be more sweet and less spicy (they're big on chocolate)...but that's a trend one finds the farther south you go through Mexico and central America.

Religion is a pretty big deal to Oaxacans and they have a couple incredible cathedrals and old monasteries, the stonework and facades of which rival some of the better churches in Europe. The temple of Santo Domingo de Guzman is spectacular, its huge interior completely effaced in gold to a degree that would make a dragon blush...I kid you not (the screenshots I can find on the internet really don't do it justice). Holy Week in Oaxaca was packed to the gills with tourists from around the country as well as other parts of the world.

But the real highlight for me is Monte Alban...the 2000+ year old ruins of a pre-hispanic city-state that sprawls in an elaborate design on the top of a high hill. My son was very excited at the prospect of seeing pyramids and "looking for treasure" and while he didn't actually discover any gold (he did get a few keepsake souvenirs) he was duly impressed. Again, it's hard to find images on google that really do justice to the's so extensive, so well preserved (being situated where it is and abandoned prior to the coming of the Spanish, it was protected for years before archaeologists started excavating in earnest), you really have to see it to take in its magnitude. And these are just the skeletal remains of a nation that thrived and conquered at the same time the Jews were chaffing under the yoke of Roman dominion. The culture that built it was every bit as sophisticated as anything found in Europe or Asia or the Middle East at the time...even without the large domesticated animals and iron/steel production.

Amazing stuff...especially when you factor in all the artifacts and actual treasure that was looted from the ruins and now resides in Oaxacan museums. I took a lot of photos of placards and historical texts that I need to translate into English (I might post some here, eventually). But it was looking through these things, and the museums, and the preserved culture, that got me thinking about Tekumel...because Barker based so much of his world on Mesoamerican culture. And the main thought that went drumming through my head was this:

It is so hard to hold onto one's culture.

Barker's campaign setting is an amazing one. Truth be told it's an infuriating one (to me), because it is so damn good...but I digress (I'll talk more about EPT's setting in a different post).

However, despite its excellence, his date/age ranges feel like their off by at least a decimal point. The premise of the setting extends over a timeline of more than 100 millennia...Tekumel is a lost Earth colony that was terraformed some 60,000 years from now before falling into a pocket dimension and "evolving/devolving" culturally over the course of another 50,000 years into the setting in which PCs find themselves.

That's just an incredibly long time, even in terms of science fiction. The idea that ANY remnants of human culture would remain after such a length of time is terribly far-fetched. Some of my readers are old enough to remember a time before wireless telephones and personal computers and television sets with more than half a dozen channels...and that's a piddling amount of time ago. Consider how different the human race is, culturally, from just 1000 years ago. Hell, consider that the Golden Age of classical Greek culture was only (approx.) 2500 years ago...and the rate at which we've advanced...politically, philosophically, and technologically...only continues to  speed up, the more we grow. 2500 years from now our advances...and culture should be more fantastic than anything present day folks can imagine.Will we even think like (what we call) humans 10,000 years from now? How about 20,000?

110,000 years? It's hard to even imagine what the next 20 years will bring to the world.

Look at how hard it is to hold onto one's culture. Many of the ideas about Monte Alban are based on pure speculation...we don't even know what it's founders called themselves (for that matter, etymologists are unclear of the origins of the name "Monte Alban")...and that's a culture that lasted for over 800 years, only dying out (well, being conquered by the Zapotecs really) around 750CE. That all the hard information on a culture that lasted for nearly a millennia, and that only disappeared around the time of the European middle ages, can be LOST...just gone! incredible. All that remains is a love of eating bugs.

[I should mention that the crickets are pretty tasty...I mean, they're toasted and salted, and if you throw 'em into a batch of scrambled eggs, you'd just think they were bacon. Chile and lime, or rolled into a taco is the common way to eat them, and I have. I just prefer smaller ones, as you're less likely to be picking insect legs out of your teeth]

Even the Zapotecs lost a huge amount of their trees and oral histories and their natural writing system and religion. A lot of that was, of course, by Spanish design and, while I think we can all admit that violent conquest, repression, exploitation, and cultural destruction are BAD, it's difficult to argue that human sacrifice, an extremely large part of Mesoamerican culture and religion would have been a GOOD thing to retain. In Oaxaca there were laws preventing the depiction of Christ on the cross for a couple-three centuries (despite the forced conversion to Catholicism), because they didn't want anything that had any appearance of human sacrifice as "spiritual." Stamping out the indigenous blood rites was at least as high a priority as digging the gold and silver ore out of Oaxacan mountains.

It is so, so easy to lose culture and cultural identity. Do you know what your ancestors were doing 100 years ago? How about 150?

I know I give Paraguay a hard time...often...but at least they retain their indigenous language (Guarani) and something like 80+% of the people speak it. There's no other country in South America that comes remotely close to that...and we're talking about a country where the poor people are as likely to be white and the rich people as likely to be brown as the inverse (THAT's not something you can say about most Latin American cultures...certainly Mexico's economic caste system can be distinguished in large part by the amount of melanin in a person's genetics). And they only managed that due to iron-fisted, isolationist dictatorships, and a subsequent backwater history (perhaps due in part to the former).

[even so, how much have they lost? Aside from their language...and perhaps chipa and a few handicrafts...Paraguay has no cultural identity of its own. They celebrate nothing of their pre-hispanic history, have no real cultural traditions. Their main "big" tradition, besides tea drinking/sharing, is the asado (grilled beef get-togethers) that occurs weekly, where family and friends gather and partake of their beloved cow meat. Oh, how they love their beef! But cows were only introduced to South Americans by the Spanish...what, then, was their "asado tradition" prior to the conquistador's arrival? Knowing a bit of their prehispanic history, I have my suspicions, but it's really not the kind of thing you can bring up with Paraguayans. As far as they're concerned, it's always been beef on the grill, forever and ever, Amen]

Tekumel is a fantasy world based on a premise that strange cultural evolutions occur when you submit people to a crucible of hardship (like being cut-off from your spacefaring empire, marooned on a resource-poor planet, surrounded by hostile lifeforms). Strange things occur, and strange cultures arise. Whose to say that, given the speculative theoretics of Tekumel's situation, it's impossible that a culture like the Tsolyani could arise after 50,000 years? Well, me, I suppose...but only because I've seen up close how easy it is for a sophisticated culture to disappear. AND I've yet to see a case where the culture that replaces is can in any way match the level of sophistication of the culture that was lost.

Does that make sense? It takes hundreds and/or thousands of years to reach a level of cultural sophistication (architecture, art, government, religion, philosophy, etc.). When that is DESTROYED...whether by natural forces or a savage doesn't just get replaced with a new sophisticated culture. Cultural sophistication takes TIME; Oaxaca, despite clinging hard to its past, is only a shadow of what it once was. Like its people, its culture is a mix, a mestizo. Beautiful  in its own way, wonderful in its own way, but hamstrung in part because of its synthesis. Because it hasn't had enough time to cook yet.

Which I suppose would make Barker's world appear even more's had the thousands of years to "bake" and (culturally) establish itself. I guess I just find it difficult to believe that the people struggling to survive in the wake of a post-apocalyptic galactic catastrophe could get it together enough that they'd survive the overt hostilities of the Hluss and Ssu. With everything else going against them, how did humans manage to fight off those homicidal maniacs AND build multiple thousand year empires?

I guess that's why it's a fantasy game.

I plan to write more about Tekumel and EPT in the coming few days (and probably more stuff about Mexico), but I also want to do this A-Z Challenge thang (it's a good "blogging" exercise). If I get to everything I want, it's probably going to mean a LOT of text. I better wait till Sunday to post this.


  1. How cultures change and endure can be curious. In Australia there's a spot that has had almost constant human use/habitation for near to 40,000 years. A culture can almost disappear, adapt and endure for millenia and in an amazingly short time be absorbed or destroyed.
    History is written by the winners and they are prone to lie.

    As slight aside 100 years ago y Greatgrandfather was a young imigrant lighting the gas street lamps of New York, my father's mother was still living in a house without electricity and I write and draw on a computer.

    The past is a foreign land.

    1. @ JD:

      The past IS a foreign is the future. I suppose that's why they prefer to call it "speculative" fiction.

      I can trace my family back about a hundred years in both directions (a little more on one side, a little less on the other). Still doesn't mean I know anything about what it was like to live in their shoes...were they introspective like myself? What were their main worries or thoughts after putting food on the table and clothes on their children?

      I know humans can adapt and survive. "Thrive" is something else altogether. I should probably point out (in case it was unclear) I'm not dismissing or deriding Barker's work. If anything, I think he extends out the timeline more than I would (when I say he's off by a decimal, I mean he should truncate the history to 11,000 years rather than 110,000 years). But as a fellow Washingtonian...albeit from the western side of the Cascades...I'm inclined to give him a lot of "props," even if I give him some shit at the same time.

    2. My family has been in the Americas for almost 400 years, and we can trace one family line back about 1000 years. The wife's family actually has a lineage going back to someone recorded as Odin of Asgard (I'm guessing that might be soething someone embeleshed her family history with a few centuries back), we've got the key to a family castle in our possession currently (hope they got a new one).

      What is cool about Tekumel is it has it's own legendary and epic past, it is overflowing with places like Atlantis or Troy and a host of darkages. It's history is long and written large and alien, influenced by beings of god-like power and technologies best described as magic.

    3. @ JD:

      Yeah, Tekumel is fantastic...which is what makes it so infuriating. But I'll discuss that in a follow-up post.