Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Willing to Wait for sha-Arthan

Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Those who’ve followed James Maliszewski’s for a while know he’s quite knowledgeable about M.A.R. Barker’s Tékumel setting, having run a continuous campaign for nearly a decade and published a host of wonderful fanzines about the esoteric roleplaying game setting. But Barker’s creation — and its host of different game editions — carries the stain of his anti-Semitic novel Serpent’s Walk, published under a pseudonym in 1991 (as discovered through research by the Tékumel Foundation established to perpetuate his creative legacy). Fans have had to wrestle with this unearthed reality, some walking away from Tékumel, others continuing to embrace it, and many in between trying to find some acceptable balance between the creator and his creation. Maliszewski has discussed his betrayal at learning about Barker’s shocking past before, making many points no doubt shared with Tékumel fans grappling with this issue. Maliszewski has since channeled his creative energies into developing Secrets of sha-Arthan, a game evocative of Tékumel with his own interpretations and embellishments into a wholly original, more accessible setting. Who knows when it will be ready for release? All good things take time...and I am willing to keep my embers of enthusiasm burning as I wait however long to see it published.

I’ve enjoyed dabbling in Tékumel for years. The exotic, non-Western fantasy setting layers multiple themes over an alien environment: an elaborate, hierarchical society; long-lost technology viewed as magic; numerous factions vying for power in overt and cover conflicts; meticulously crafted languages and history; and vestiges of an advanced science-fiction setting long mutated and evolved into something unlike most anything gamers have seen. My overview cannot even scratch the surface of the nuanced and detailed depth the setting offers. Part of the fun diving into Tékumel comes from my own exploration of the world through published materials; but I also enjoy examining how all these elements work to create remarkable characters and adventures unlike traditional Western-oriented medieval fantasy games. I own several iterations of the rules released over the years, not to mention a host of free PDF resources downloaded from the Tékumel website. I’ve even managed to acquire and read two of Barker’s novels set in Tékumel. Despite my lifelong gamer interest in the world, I’ve only blogged here occasionally about the setting (though I’ve mentioned it in passing when relevant). I’ve discussed my fascination with this setting in “Tékumel: Lands of Joyful Addiction” and even outlined embarking on a solitaire adventure in “Prepping A Solitaire Foray into Tékumel.”

I still like revisiting Tékumel, though it’s tainted now knowing about Barker’s anti-Semitism. It hurts when people whose work we’ve admired turn out to harbor and (even pseudonymously) act on their hateful ideologies. As Maliszewski reflected when the news broke, “I wish it were easier to disentangle my love for Tékumel from my revulsion at Barker's repugnant other interests... each of us will have to grapple with it in our own way and on our own schedule.”

Maliszewski has produced some excellent roleplaying game material over the years, and not just tied to Tékumel. He first appeared on my gaming radar when he developed his megadungeon Dwimmermount; though such fare doesn’t interest me much, it seemed to get a generally positive reception from those who gave the massive tome a chance. I started reading his blog Grognardia during the emergence of the Old School Renaissance (OSR) craze, then picked up when he returned after a hiatus. The blog reminds me of classic print gaming magazines: he offers his impressions of various aspects of the roleplaying game hobby as the muse strikes, touching on different subjects related by his personal interests and past experiences. Beyond Dwimmermount and his prolific posting at Grognardia he also published Thousand Suns, a roleplaying game of “imperial” science fiction in the classic Traveller-style...with a much more refined system and presentation. Maliszewski also published a Tékumel fanzine, The Excellent Travelling Volume, which offered setting resources and short adventures, often featuring maps by the prolific Dyson Logos and incredible new artistic interpretations of the world from Zhu Bajiee. As far as I know he’s not released any issues after the revelations about Barker’s anti-Semitism. His work for Thousand Suns and The Excellent Travelling Volume remains available from DriveThruRPG.

Fanzine cover featuring
Zhu Bajiee artwork.
Since the revelations about Barkers past Maliszewski has instead focused on his own efforts to craft a roleplaying game with an original yet similarly exotic setting — Secrets of sha-Arthan — something with the thematic trappings of Tékumel without the baggage. He’s already shared numerous insights into sha-Arthan on his Grognardia blog, including new creatures, design debates and decisions, character information, and aspects of the setting, often accompanied by Zhu Bajiee’s crisp, elaborately detailed line art. With his interest in “Appendix N” literary inspirations for classic roleplaying games, he recently offered his own notes on both the fiction and roleplaying games that influence his work on Secrets of sha-Arthan. His work is informed by his previous experience with Tékumel, including a near decade-long campaign in that world, combined with his past roleplaying game work and his sensitive approach to Barker’s creative legacy.

Reading Maliszewski’s revelations about Secrets of sha-Arthan on Grognardia one might get the impression work proceeds at the author’s own leisurely pace, unharried by production schedules, distributor timelines, marketing launches, or other capitalist bureaucracy that frequently shoves game books to an often hasty and premature publication. I don’t mind waiting. I firmly believe in creators releasing their work when they feel it’s right. Until sha-Arthan is ready, I can enjoy the enticing tidbits Maliszewski features at Grognardia. No doubt at some point it may pass from my gaming radar only to pleasantly surprise me with another blog update...or when it ultimately releases. I can bide my time, my enthusiasm gently simmering in anticipation. Certainly it’s worth waiting for a worthy successor to the imaginative, exotic fantasy we explored in Tékumel

Endure and persist; this pain will turn to good by and by.”


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