Since April 2020, I’ve been visiting one or two gaming companies every month, diving into their history, the politics, and their game philosophies. I talk to the principals (or their survivors) whenever I can, sometimes just exchanging a few emails, but as often having real conversations with them on Zoom or over the phone. And ultimately, I write a history of each company for inclusion in the next volume of Designers & Dragons, which will include two books of The Lost Histories and The ’10s.
It’s a deeply immersive process. It was even when I wrote the original Designers & Dragons. but at that time I wasn’t able to delve as deep or stay as long. This time around, a company often gets 40 hours or more of my time over the course of a month. I come to love the companies, the designers, and their products (which can sometimes be costly). I feel regret when I have to leave, like I’m deserting old friends.
It can thus come as a shock if I discover that one of those friends turned out to be other than he portrayed himself, and other than he was portrayed by others. It can feel like a real gut punch, an actual betrayal.
Which brings us to M.A.R. Barker.
M.A.R. Barker has long had an intriguing story, as a young boy who invented a world and later several languages for that world; as a wargamer who was using his fantasy world as the basis of his games at UC Berkeley in the ’50s; and as the creator of Empire of the Petal Throne (1975), one of the contenders for the title of “second published roleplaying game”. He’s been called “The Lost Tolkien” or “The Forgotten Tolkien”, which reflects the fact that his gameworld has bounced among many, many publishers, from TSR onward, and has never achieved the solid foundation it’d need to become one of the greats of the industry, despite its early entry and its phenomenal worldbuilding. That fact has long been seen as a tragedy by old-school collectors and historians.
Last week, the following facts came out about Barker. They’ve all been corroborated either by The Tékumel Foundation or (in a few cases) by another close member of Barker’s circle.
- Barker’s father was a member of the pro-Nazi German-American Bund in the ’30s, which was most likely the then-young Barker’s first exposure to the racist, fascist, and murderous philosophies of the Nazis.
- Half a century later, M.A.R. Barker wrote a neo-Nazi novel called Serpent’s Walk (1991) under a pseudonym.
- The novel glorifies the rise of a new Reich in the science-fiction future, while simultaneously raising criticism of Nazism and then knocking it down as a straw man.
- The novel was published by National Vanguard books, also the publisher of the infamous Turner Diaries (1978); like it, Serpent’s Walk has been used as an indoctrination tool by neo-Nazis.
- The Tékumel Foundation, who has controlled the Tékmuel IP rights since Barker’s death in 2012, has known about the novel since July 2012, after an archivist turned up “the manuscript, the original cover art, the publishing contract, the photocopy of the payment check, and the proof copies of the book” amidst Barker’s papers, according to the archivist; the archivist further says that two of the Foundation members knew about it previously.
- The first public hints of the novel appeared in 2018 when independent researcher Amina Inloes wrote an academic paper for The Islamic College of London, later published in The Muslim World (1911-Present) titled “Muhammad Abd al-Rahman (Phillip) Barker: Bridging Cultural Divides through Fantasy/Science-Fiction Role-Playing Games and Fictional Religion”. In that article, the author referenced a “pseudonymous novel” written by Barker, refused to name it, and instead offered the following footnote: “Discussing this novel posed an ethical dilemma. The work is clearly Barker’s — not only does his share his writing style and interests, but it is published in the name of one of his ancestors. … However, the novel explores potentially inflammatory political viewpoints, and it was impressed upon me that it was best to preserve the facade of anonymity. I thus will leave it to the interested reader to dig it up …”. Discussion of this article seems to be what eventually revealed it to the wider public this year.
- Barker also acted as an advisor to or sat on the editorial board for The Journal of Historical Review from 1989-2002. As noted by The Southern Poverty Law Center, the Institute that runs the Journal is an anti-semitic organization “whose real purpose is to promote Holocaust denial and defend Nazism”.
Whether a problematic author can be separated from their creative work has been a frequent topic of discussion in the 21st century, with the homophobic attitudes of Orson Scott Card and the transphobic attitudes of J.K. Rowling being some of the biggest flashpoints of discussion. It’s also touched directly upon our hobby in the previously well-received works of creators such as Alexander Macris and Zak S., which have become problematic to many because of actions of those creators. But there’s never been an author as notable as Barker who has been revealed to have such feet of clay.
Fundamentally, anyone interested in the world of Tékumel will now have to go through the setting with a careful eye. Though it’s been noted that Barker’s authoring of his pro-Nazi novel was much later than his main creative period for Tékumel, we have no way of knowing how the attitudes suggested in the book may have influenced Barker’s fantasy world. Some have noted that fascist ethnostates of Tékumel could have drawn upon Nazi desires, others that its history may reflect the Nazi’s “Kampf um Lebensraum” concept. It’s almost impossible to say whether these were purposeful (or even subconscious) connections, especially given the common (yet potentially problematic) usage of fascist ethnostates in fantasy literature and gaming. But a knowledgeable gamer is unlikely to ever be able to look at Tékumel again without worrying about these issues.
The Tékumel Foundation’s decision to, at the least, passively cover up Barker’s authorship of a Nazi novel for possibly as much as a decade makes the whole situation even more problematic. If that timeframe is correct, they denied a decade’s worth of players the agency to make a decision about whether it was ethical to play in the world of Tékumel, and worse they denied them the personal ability to assess whether there were Nazi tropes in the design or the world or not. In doing so, they also denied themselves the ability to control the narrative, such as by bringing in experts on Nazi indoctrination who could themselves have combed through Tékumel to spot any problematic elements.
Tékumel has never been nearly as well-supported as would have been suggested by its historic position in the industry or by its existence as one of the very few deeply developed worlds, alongside Glorantha, Hârn, and just a few others. That’s in large part been because of its publisher-jumping, which has never left it in the same hands for more than several years — a fact that now takes on a darker tone due to suggestions coming out now that Barker might have felt disdain or disregard for the people publishing his world. It’s also because so much of Tékumel publication has been regurgitations of the same several books originally authored in the ’70s.
This situation hasn’t been helped by The Tékumel Foundation, who for reasons that are opaque to the rest of us, cancelled the licensing rights for Tita’s House of Games, the last major publisher of Tékumel, in the early ’10s, and then opted not to work with Kevin Crawford of Sine Nomine on the creation of “Swords of the Petal Throne”, which would have been a new Tékumel RPG.
You put all of that together, and it seems that the time of Tékumel, one of our industry’s most classic and well-developed RPG setting, may have finally passed.
This article was originally published as Advanced Designers & Dragons #61 on RPGnet. It followed the publication of the four-volume Designers & Dragons (2014) from Evil Hat, and was meant to complement those books.
Inloes, Amina. 2018. “Muhammad Abd al-Rahman (Phillip) Barker: Bridging Cultural Divides through Fantasy/Science-Fiction Role-Playing Games and Fictional Religion”. The Muslim World. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/muwo.12225.
Tékumel Foundation. 2022. “The Tekumel Foundation Board of Directors statement on Serpent’s Walk”. Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/tekumelfoundation/posts/1828123384049822.
Various. 2022. “M.A.R. Barker, author of Tekumel, also author of Neo-Nazi book?” En World. https://www.enworld.org/threads/m-a-r-barker-author-of-tekumel-also-author-of-neo-nazi-book.686750/.
Various. 2022. “M.A.R. Barker, creator of Tékumel and Empire of the Petal Throne, wrote a neo-nazi novel in 1991.” Reddit. https://www.reddit.com/r/osr/comments/tg316v/mar_barker_creator_of_t%C3%A9kumel_and_empire_of_the/.
Various. 2022. “From Reddit: ‘M.A.R. Barker, creator of Tékumel and Empire of the Petal Throne, wrote a neo-Nazi novel in 1991′”. RPGnet. https://forum.rpg.net/index.php?threads/from-reddit-m-a-r-barker-creator-of-t%C3%A9kumel-and-empire-of-the-petal-throne-wrote-a-neo-nazi-novel-in-1991.895130/.