Mourning the Death of “the American Tolkien,” Professor MAR Barker

Professor Muhammad Abd-al-Rahman Barker died at the age of 83 last week, leaving behind a fantasy and role-playing legacy as deep and rich (albeit much more obscure) than that of J.R.R. Tolkien. Barker’s Empire of the Petal Throne was published by TSR shortly after Dungeons & Dragons debuted, yet it was a very different type of RPG, decades ahead of its time.

Barker’s sensibilities differed from traditional Euro-centric fantasy tropes. A Washington native, he studied language in Pakistan and India in the 1950s and converted to Islam. In the early 70s he became Professor of South and Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Minnesota. Coincidentally, right around that same time two Minnesotans (Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson) were developing Dungeons & Dragons and forming TSR. They published an RPG based on Barker’s world of Tékumel, Empire of the Petal Throne, in 1975.

Like Tolkien, Barker created several languages for his fantasy world. His studies lead him to infuse Tékumel with an Asian flavor, combined with his interest in the ancient cultures of South and Central America. By all accounts, the Petal Thrones RPG was heavily based on character interaction and storytelling, with the ability to explore more mature themes than most games were tackling at the time. The game world was filled by complex cultural and political interactions. In the intro to the core rulebook, Barker wrote:

“Players of my World of the Petal Throne quickly learn to shiver just as much at the mention of the sound of chiming and the odour of musty cinnamon … as they do at the creaking of Dracula’s coffin and the distant bellowing of the minotaur.”

Tékumel’s lack of mainstream popularity may be in part due to its complexity and esoteric theme, but it also suffered terrible luck. A series of reprints were underway in the early 80s when Hurricane Hugo literally destroyed the game. Galley proofs for the third volume, and all remaining copies of the second volume were washed out to sea. There have been several adaptations of the world to new gaming systems over the years, and some Petal Throne material is now available in digital form. Meanwhile, the Tékumel Foundation has plans to reprint several of Barker’s novels set in Tékumel.

You can learn more about the world Barker created at the Tékumel website, and more about Barker’s legacy at the Tékumel Foundation site.