Sunday, November 14, 2010

Exploring the Jakallan Underworld, Playing with Arneson, and More: Jeff Berry Interview Part II

We continue the second part of our interview with Jeff Berry. If this section doesn't make you want to grab a copy of EPT, a big-honkin' piece of graph paper, and get to work on an underworld of your own; I don't know what would.

Hill Cantons: You mentioned that Barker's first maps were of three levels of the Jakalla's underworld. I remember reading somewhere that they were fairly extensive. His write-up on underworlds in the TSR rules are quite simply one of the most evocative descriptions I have ever read about so-called mega-dungeons--especially the section on "Saturday Night Specials". Do you remember anything about these specials as you played through?

Jeff Berry: Do I remember anything? Crikey! One of the 'special sections' would get seared into your brain when you went through them! Most of the levels were all what people would call 'Saturday Night Specials'; there wasn't a whole lot of 'normal' stuff in the underworld...

Let me backtrack for a second, and set the scene. This was back in the days where we all used 8 1/2" by 11" graph paper sheets for maps, with five squares to the inch; everybody, including Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax, worked to that 'standard', so one had a certain feel for just how big a dungeon was going to be. The 'mega dungeons' were collections of these standard pages, all linked together with passages and you knew instantly when you were going from page to page. That's all anyone had, as we all had to get our graph paper from office or artist's supply stores.

The main map of the Jakalla Underworld is completely different; it's an 18" by 24" sheet of ten square to the inch graph paper that Phil got from a drafting supply house. He had access to this kind of thing vis his academic career, like the blank globe he used to draw his Tekumel maps onto.

Nobody in gaming at that time had seen anything like it, and when he rolled it out onto the table your mouth just dropped open. It's over four times the size and four times the scale of the usual maps of that time, and the main map has what amounts to a dozen separate areas that all are owned by one or another of the Temples. Each of these areas, in turn, would have provided enough material for a complete adventure module with maps and room descriptions.

He had 'flattened' out the areas that made up the upper levels by vertically compressing the separate areas in order to get them all on one sheet, and then did two more larger scale maps of the lower levels. One is of the Garden of the Weeping Snows, and the other is more temple areas. It's an enormous area to have to try and explore, and I don't think we ever did. You could spend literally years down there, and never get through it all.

Mapping it, from our standpoint, was next to impossible. We came to know certain paths between some of the sections, like between the Temple of Vimuhla and the Temple of Chiteng, but that was about it. It was just too big, and too complex, to map in the usual way unless the party was willing to spend a lot of time doing it.

And it was full of life. Phil had a forty-page listing of just the major rooms alone, with the contents and decor. There were always people working down there in the shrines, and the supposedly “deserted” areas that formed the buffer zones between the Temple areas had a lot of traffic in them.

There were also a lot of creatures of various kinds, and you got to know about where you were by what you were running into. Each of the Change temples tended to specialize in their own versions of undead and underworld creatures, while the Stability temples tended to concentrate on really clever traps and mercenaries to guard their shrines.

The “special” sections were really hard to get to, usually approachable by very convoluted routes, and were loaded with the worst traps and guardians. You learned to be very, very careful once you figured out where you were, and you never, ever fooled around with anything unless you knew what it was or you had seen something like it before.

There were all sorts of nexus points (which we had no idea had existed, in those days) and bits of ancient technology in these sections which would transport you to other parts of the underworld or to other times and places. Usually with nasty results, unless you thought really fast and really quickly.

It was pretty obvious that the “specials” were all tied in with Phil's story arcs and plot lines, too. The guide is full of dangling plot hooks for people to explore, and the bulk of them never got picked up on by the players.

Other stuff that really threw us was the huge rotating section that would randomly rotate and completely change the passageway connections; the rolling tomb-car in one of the tombs that would roll around a circular passage and crush the party if they couldn't get the tomb gateway open; the crystal coffin of one of Nayari's lovers that was a time portal back to Bednjallan times; or even something as simple as the artillery emplacement that overlooks the River of Death. It has an ancient energy weapon in it, and more then a few players have gotten fried by pushing buttons that they shouldn't have.

EPT has a pretty good list of the areas, there's well over two dozen of what I'd call "Saturday Night Specials.” I could fill up pages on the subject...

HC: It's been detailed elsewhere (the Comeback Inn) but I love those stories about Dave Arneson as a player. What was it like to play next to the infamous Captain Harchar?

JB:It was a scream. He was really good, and really fast on his feet. We never knew what sort of nefarious scheme he was cooking up at any given moment, and Chirine normally had to keep a pretty close watch on him and his rascally crew to make sure that we got to where we were supposed to be going. It often didn't work, and we'd wind up someplace way off the map.

Dave was really one of the most creative people I'd ever met, and genuinely the most fun to play with. He was very nice, very genial, and would do his very best to rip your liver out and feed it to you with Tabasco sauce on it.

He, as well as a lot of the original Blackmoor players, were very competitive, but they weren't what came to be described as “power gamers.” They worked very hard at being very good at what they played, and they liked to win based on their own skills and ability.

They would be very kind and very helpful to a newbie until the guy got to about their level of skill. Then they'd treat him just like one of the other players, and you had to be just as good and just as fast to survive. There was nothing else like it. The excitement of playing against or with Dave was one of the most wonderful things I ever got to do in gaming.

Having Dave as a player out at Phil's was truly fun to be a part of. Phil was in awe of Dave, and Dave in awe of Phil. Watching the two of them try they're hardest to put one over on the other was awesome to watch. All you could do was hang onto your chair for dear life as they took off and ran with stuff. There was also a really distinct difference between Dave and Harchar. Dave was a good actor, you could always tell who you were talking to.

Dave played Harchar like a combination of Blackbeard and Don Vito Corleone, and he did it with style and energy. It was some of the very best gaming we'd ever done, having him there, and we all enjoyed it hugely.

HC: How close in the early years was play to the OEPT rules as published? I know y'all seemed to travel rules-lite, but how close/distant was it?

JB: We played EPT right out of the book for the first three years or so, in our original Thursday Night Group, until Phil thought he could trust us. He'd had some bad moments when the guys in the other group did things that messed up his 'future history'.

I was actually the transition character from EPT to what would become Swords and Glory. Chirine was unique, because he was a military sorcerer; as far as I have been able to find out, there haven't been any others as PCs.

I played Chirine for over a decade at Phil's, as we normally kept the same player-character from the start. It tended to make us all a little conservative as players, but we stayed alive that way. Phil would occasionally let us roll up what were basically NPCs to use in little side adventures, but normally we'd stick with the one character.

After that first three years, we knew Tekumel pretty well and didn't diddle with it. Phil did more story-telling then GMing, and went to the "you roll, I roll" system of adjudication. It worked very well with us, and seems to work well with my two groups.

I have players who have rolled up characters in EPT, S&G/Gardasiyal, and T:EPT. I do all the number-crunching “behind the scenes”, and I refuse to let the game mechanics get in the way of the story-telling.

This concludes Part II. Tomorrow we finish up our interview with a great discussion of EPT miniatures; the book of recollections Jeff is working on; and other matters various and sundry. Stay tuned...


  1. Love this stuff - very inspirational. Thank you so much for publishing this.

  2. I'd love for Prof. Barker's dungeons to be published.

    Also, Sutherland was born to draw EPT pictures.

  3. Thanks Flea and yes Geoffrey I agree whole-heartedly. We should begin a lobbying effort before it goes the way of Castle Greyhawk.

  4. We do have a complete set of the Jakalla underworld in the Aethervox archives, so it has been preserved. The Tekumel Foundation would be the ones to talk to about publishing it, of course.

    yours, Chirine

  5. Very interesting interview. Thank you! :)

    And of course, I would very much love to see the Jakkala Underworld published one day.

  6. This is great stuff! Thanks to both of you.

  7. Another voice for publication! I'd love to see a fat volume of underworld maps, tube stations, and so on. I know I would be happy to pay 50 or 60 bucks for such a work, and many more experienced Tekumel fans would as well, I'm sure! And in these days of print-on-demand, well, what's the hold up? Get laying out, people!

  8. This is a fascinating read, albeit one that induces envy! Thank you for sharing this.