Saturday, November 13, 2010

Tales from Tékumel's First Campaign: An Interview with Jeff Berry

Sadly, in the past few years we've seen the sudden passing of a number of our great hobby's pioneer members. I find it doubly sad that more efforts weren't made to collect more complete oral or written histories of the early days of RPG play. (I am especially feeling that recently with Dr. Holmes, whose creative brain was even less picked over directly in the Internet hotspots, leaving us with great big question marks about his body of work.)

Recently, I had the great fortune though to interview Jeff Berry, an early participant in D&D's eldest first cousin, Empire of the Petal Throne. Jeff's own blog (named after his first character in M.A.R. Barker's campaign), can be found here. Further interesting (and highly amusing to yours truly) accounts by Jeff of EPT and Dave Arneson can be read in his Q&A sticky over at the Comeback Inn.

Hill Cantons: What's a good way to introduce you? I know that you were among the first to play in Barker's Empire of the Petal Throne campaigns and a co-author of EPT's most re-published miniature rules set. What else would be interesting to tell people?

Jeff Berry: No idea! Seriously, while I've been involved with Tekumel since 1975, I've never been part of what might be called "mainstream" gaming. I've always been a model builder and painter, and the games I've done over the years have been more or less an excuse to put cool stuff on the table.

I started playing out at Phil's (Prof. Barker, of course) sometime in early 1976. I was introduced to him by Gary Rudolph, who had seen my painted Tekumel figures at the local game shop, and I was brought out to Phil's to be more or less the guy who painted figures for Phil.

Phil had been gaming Tekumel for about two years, and EPT had been out for one; I rolled up a character, and my very first night of gaming out there was set in the Hall of the Petal Throne. Quite a way to get started, and a really good night.

There was just the one large group of eight to ten people at the time, and we soon split into the "old guard" of"'power gamers" who went on to become Prince Mirusiya's "New Men"; our original Thursday Night Group spent our time exploring Tekumel with Phil, and traveled all over the maps of the continent.

I wrote Qadardalikoi after I'd bought the line of Tekumel figures form Ral Partha; they'd taken the line out of production due to low sales, and didn't want to run a batch of the figures specially for me. They sold me the line, instead, right at the time that both Missum and Legions of the Petal Throne were both going out of print.

Phil wasn't entirely happy with either set of rules, feeling that they didn't really reflect how he thought Tekumelyani warfare was waged; he sort of challenged me to write a new set, which I did with his help and cooperation. He even did some little drawings for me, which was quite generous of him.

I'm currently at work on a new edition of the rules, called Qadardalikoi: Advance Standards!, which will bring the rules into this century; they were written almost thirty years ago, after all!

HC: Mega-dungeons have been a big topic in the more old school-oriented blogs. By giving good, interesting, culturally-grounded reasons for the existence of massive underworlds in Tekumel, EPT seemed to present one of the best examples of a deeper approach to presenting the mega-dungeon. Anything you care to share about what the underworld expeditions were like in the Barker campaign. Any memorable incidents? Funny? Dramatic?

JB: All of the above. Phil is a tremendous story-teller, and when he was on a roll he could scare the kilts off of us.

He could also reduce us to tears laughing, like the time one of the more arrogant players found a device of the Ancients deep in the Jakalla Underworld. It was a domed cylinder with a flexible metal hose coming out of one side that had a flat nozzle at the end, and two jewels on the top of the dome; one was green and the other red.

The guy pressed the green gem, it lit up, and the device started to whirr; after a couple of seconds, vapor started to come out of the nozzle, so the guy hit the red gem and the machine stopped. The guy then announced to all of us that the thing MUST be a weapon of the ancients, and lugged it all over the underworld for the rest of the night.

Sure enough, we got jumped by Grey Ssu, and the guy fires up his mighty 'death vapor' weapon to kill them. Well, of course, it didn't kill any of the Ssu; the warm moist vapor just took all the wrinkles out of their parchment-like skin, and they looked all nice and presentable. We ran for it, with the freshly-pressed and wrinkle-free Ssu in hot pursuit...

A lot of the players had real trouble figuring out that Tekumel wasn't your stock-and-standard D&D version of Tolkien "Middle Earth": it was unique, and much more in tune with Edgar R. Burroughs "Barsoom", Robert E. Howard's "Conan", and the eldritch works of Lovecraft and A. Merritt. If one had read those, which were pretty obscure at that time, one was usually able to "get" Tekumel. Phil had grown up reading those books by those authors as they were being published, and he was of that generation or world-builders.

Keep in mind that in a six-week period in the summer of 1974 he'd written EPT, rolled up 1,000 NPCs on 3 x 5 cards, and drawn up at least three levels of the Jakalla Underworld.

He could do it, as well as all the books he created in the space of two years, because he'd been writing about Tekumel since high school. I've seen the original map of Tsolyanu from the middle 1940s, and I have copies of his Tsolyani language materials and histories from the 1950s. The earliest art that we have in the collection is from 1949, and illustrates a plot-line/story arc that we played in ourselves and which is still going on.

Part II of our interview will be posted tomorrow. 


  1. Fascinating stuff. Can't wait for part two. Thanks for publishing this.

  2. Neat interview CK. I'll admit I don't know much about Tekumel but it sounds pretty cool based off this

  3. Thank you for this interview. I love reading EPT stuff.

  4. This is great stuff! Thanks for the effort to archive these experiences!