Monday, March 21, 2011

Tekumel versus Dr. Seuss!

The Vipper of Vipp -
obscure Tekumel satrap?
(from Seuss & Geisel, 1975).
A while back Dave Morris recommended grabbing a PDF copy of the original Empire of the Petal Throne RPG setting. I’ve always been intrigued by Professor M.A.R. Barker’s world of Tekumel, where Empire of the Petal Throne is set, since reading about it in What is Dungeons & Dragons?, where it was introduced as:
set in the far future, but in a fantasy setting as civilization has degenerated, after a cataclysm, into near barbarism. Metal is extremely scarce, tough animal hides being used for weapons and armour. Even so, there remain some vestiges of the old technology, in the form of various ‘eyes’ or artifacts with powers which the people of the new Tekumel regard as magical. At the beginning of the rulebook there is a very extensive exposition of Tekumel’s history and society. Although the dominant race is humanity, there are a number of excellently conceived monsters, some the descendents of starfaring alien races, some originally native to the planet.
(Butterfield, Parker & Honigmann, 1982, p. 158)

So, I finally snapped up a copy of the PDF and it’s an interesting read, both as concerning the world of Tekumel and as a snapshot of RPG gaming from the mid-seventies (when I was, let’s face it, two or three years old)! One bonus as far as I’m concerned is a short primer on the Tsolyani script (see Figure 1 below).

Figure 1. An example of the Tsolyani script (from Barker, 1975).

Looking at this, I was immediately put in mind of Dr Seuss, and his children’s book classic, On Beyond Zebra (1955), which features a fictitious alphabet used to describe a series of bizarre and imaginary creatures:

        In the places I go there are things that I see
        That I never could spell if I stopped with the Z.
        I’m telling you this ‘cause you’re one of my friends.
        My alphabet starts where your alphabet ends!
        (Seuss, 1955, p. 7, see Figure 2 (emphasis is mine))

Figure 2. "My alphabet starts where your alphabet ends!" (from Seuss, 1955).

Seuss takes this a step further in a later book, Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are? (1973). Here we have a linguist’s worst-case nightmare scenario:
        And how fortunate you’re not Professor de Breeze
        who has spent the past thirty-two years, if you please,
        trying to teach Irish ducks how to read Jivvanese.
        (Seuss & Geisel, 1973, p. 30)

Figure 3. Irish ducks and Jivvanese (from Seuss & Geisel, 1973).
 While instructing waterfowl in the art of reading obscure languages may seem foolish, it is made even more tricky by the fact that Jivvanese is a highly complicated series of obtuse and idiosyncratic pictograms with no apparent key or method of deciphering their meaning (see Figure 3). Nothing like the relatively structured and phonetic approach of Tsolyani then, despite superficial similarities in the intricacies of their swirling and nebulous letters. The take-home message from this post therefore, is that if you want a cool script for your RPG gaming, grab some Dr Seuss!


Barker, M.A.R. (1975). Empire of the Petal Throne. Lake Geneva, Wisconsin: Tactical Studies Rules.

Butterfield, J., Parker, P. & Honigmann, D. (1982). What is Dungeons and Dragons? London: Puffin Books.

Seuss, Dr. (1955). On Beyond Zebra. New York: Random House.

Seuss, Dr. & Geisel, A. S. (1973). Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are? New York: Random House.

Seuss, Dr. & Geisel, A. S. (1975). Oh, The Thinks You Can Think! New York: Random House.


  1. Awesome.

    I've been dreaming of a Dr Seuss campaign setting for some time... "Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are?" especially has a big mix of landscapes and creatures which all need to be statted up.

  2. Yes, the recent talk of Tekumel has sparked my interest, and I've grabbed a copy of the PDF and got hold of a second hand copy of the novel 'Man of Gold'. I haven't had time to have a proper look at them yet, but it looks like a fascinating world.

  3. @Zhu: A Dr Seuss campaign would be rather strange! What system would you use? I'm thinking something ultra-simple and lone d6-based. As for campaign material, Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are? is right up there with I had Trouble Getting to Solla Sollew and The Sleep Book as a splatbook full of weird beasts and characters. Certainly, plenty more Seuss posts to follow...

    @Pal: Nice one! Also, try and grab Dave Morris' free unofficial rules system Tirikelu, available here:

    It's a nice read and perhaps a little easier on the eye than the old TSR PDF from 1975!



  4. I like how the general shape of the Tsolyani letters makes the language's inspiration very clear; the letters look like a mixture of Sanskrit and Arabic.

  5. No surprise - the Linguistics Professor who invented them studied Urdu and Pashtun.