|Intro||Linguist, scholar, author and game designer|
|Was||Linguist Writer Novelist Game designer Science fiction writer Board game designer|
|From||United States of America|
|Type||Creativity Gaming Literature Social science|
|Birth||3 November 1929, Spokane, USA|
|Death||16 March 2012, Minneapolis, USA (aged 82 years)|
Muhammad Abd-al-Rahman Barker (born Phillip Barker, November 3, 1929 – March 16, 2012) was a professor of Urdu and South Asian Studies who created one of the first roleplaying games, Empire of the Petal Throne, and wrote several fantasy/science fantasy novels based in his associated world setting of Tékumel.
Born in Spokane, Washington, descended from ancestors who had originally settled in America in 1626, Barker's childhood was spent around Washington and Idaho. As a youth he had an interest in "fairy stories, history and literature" which would be further influenced by such films as The Thief of Bagdad; all of which helped to turn his casual "wargames" with toy soldiers more towards fantasy. From this his fictional lands of Tsolyanu and others, in what was later to become Tékumel, emerged and were embellished further in middle and high school years during which time he commenced construction of armies of hand-carved figures to represent his creations. Also at an early age, Barker's interest in languages was piqued by neighboring children of Basque origin who were able to exclude others from their secret conversations in their native tongue.
Academic life and creative networking
In, and just before 1950, while Barker was studying at the University of Washington under Melville Jacobs, he became involved with small press publications, writing articles, short stories and contributing reviews to Fanscient and the local clubzine Sinisterra, the latter of which contained his review of, and content from, Jack Vance relating to his recently published book, The Dying Earth. Also at this time, Barker corresponded with other authors who contributed to those same publications, including Lin Carter in whose writings and linguistic experiments he took an interest and with whom he finally put to paper the story line of his own created world.
He received a Fulbright Scholarship in 1951 to study Indian languages and on his first trip to India that year converted to Islam "for purely theological reasons. It seemed like a more logical religion", according to Fine, although Barker himself admitted at the time to an "[unimaginable] feeling of awe and religious ecstasy" upon hearing the recitations of the 99 Names of Allah at the Taj Mahal.
Later academic studies and career
Barker attended the University of California, Berkeley for graduate studies, writing a dissertation on Klamath language, collecting traditional myths, legends, tales, and oral histories and later publishing a grammar and dictionary on the language.
He taught at the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University from around 1958/59 until 1972 and became active in the development of Urdu and Baluchi instruction materials for English-speaking students following a period of two years from 1960 when he was attached to Panjab University. Some of these are still recommended university course study materials as of 2010. From 1972 he moved to teach at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, where he chaired the Department of South Asian studies until his retirement in the early 1990s, a few years after that department was disbanded due to reduced funding.
"The forgotten Tolkien"
While at Berkeley, Barker had not set aside his world creation project. Indeed, despite stepping back somewhat from an active role in the published science fiction/fantasy fandom, he had commenced "proto-gaming" with a group of like-minded science fiction fans including fellow linguist Bill Shipley and Victor Golla, producing elaborate documents to support the exploration of that shared world.
Having watched the Dungeons & Dragons games started by Mike Mornard, one of the original testers for D&D, when he moved to Minneapolis from Lake Geneva, Barker resolved to create his own ruleset based on his own created world and the game mechanics from D&D. After six weeks, this was self-published in August 1974 as Empire of the Petal Throne and play commenced forthwith, including such occasional members as Dave Arneson – who singled out Barker and Tekumel as being his favorite GM and roleplaying game, respectively – from early days.
Once Gary Gygax's attention had been drawn to Barker's work, it was decided that TSR would publish a revised version of the game mechanics along with a condensed version of his campaign setting. TSR's Empire of the Petal Throne was published in 1975 for Gen Con VIII, making it TSR's third role-playing game to be published. In a Dragon Magazine editorial from December 1976, editor Tim Kask drew comparisons between the world of Tékumel and J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-earth not in terms of literature created, nor that his work was derivative of Tolkien's, but rather regarding the in-depth detail in the setting, mythos and linguistic backgrounds and concluded that "In terms of development of detail, I think EPT [Empire of the Petal Throne] has it over Middle Earth in the matters that most concern gamers" since it had been developed by a "wargamer", whereas Tolkien had no such background and having died prior to the release of D&D was thus unable to address this new pastime personally.
Barker disliked the limited support given to the setting, and after 1977 he took his world of Tékumel from TSR and ultimately moved it on to a succession of additional publishers: Imperium Publishing (1978), Adventure Games (1981), Gamescience (1983–1984), Tékumel Games (1983–1986), Different Worlds Publications (1987–1988), TOME (1991–1994), Tita's House of Games (1997–2002), Zottola Publishing (2002–2003), and Guardians of Order (2005). Due to Dave Arneson's personal friendship with Barker, Adventures Games released several Tékumel-related books, including army lists, maps and other general reference material. Barker's RPG novel The Man of Gold (July 1984), set in Tékumel, was published by DAW.
Despite having had a head start on other in-depth campaign settings and seeing his game released no less than four times with various supplements and magazine articles, many which he contributed to, and having authored five books using the same setting, Barker's Tékumel in both roleplaying and literary domains is still well known to only a relatively small audience, leading German magazine Der Spiegel in 2009 to publish an article on Barker's life entitled "Der vergessene Tolkien" ("The forgotten Tolkien"). The article quotes friends and acquaintances who posit that this may be, at least in part, due to the unfamiliarity of the setting compared with Western society, echoing Fine's observations from 1983, and possibly even that Tékumel was released to the gaming world too early on, when players had only just started to experiment with their own invented worlds rather than fitting their play into pre-configured, non-literary domains with novel backgrounds.
In 2008, Barker founded the Tékumel Foundation along with many of his long-time players, to preserve and manage rights relating to his creations in future.
Barker died in home hospice on March 16, 2012. He is survived by his wife, Ambereen.
Barker studied various languages academically and helped author and co-author various publications relating to some of those, including the following:
Published by the University of California Press:
- Klamath Texts (1963)
- Klamath Dictionary (1963)
- Klamath Grammar (1964)
Published by the McGill University Institute of Islamic Studies:
- A Course in Urdu (1967)
- An Urdu Newspaper Reader (1968)
- A Reader of Modern Urdu Poetry (1968)
- A Course in Baluchi (1969)
Tékumel has spawned five professionally published roleplaying games over the course of the years. It was also reportedly a major influence on other creations such as Hârn and the Skyrealms of Jorune.
- Empire of the Petal Throne (1975) as a boxed set by TSR, Inc. following earlier self-publication in 1974, and reprinted later as a single book by Different Worlds Publications in 1987.
- Swords & Glory (1983/4) in two volumes by Gamescience.
- Gardásiyal: Adventures on Tékumel (1994) by Theatre of the Mind Enterprises; with Neil R. Cauley.
- Tekumel: Empire of the Petal Throne (2005) by Guardians of Order; by various, with M.A.R. Barker.
- Bethorm: The Plane of Tékumel (2014) by UNIGames; by Jeff Dee and M.A.R. Barker.
Barker has written five novels set in the world of Tékumel - in chronological reading order these are:
- The Man of Gold (1984)
- Flamesong (1985)
- Lords of Tsámra (2003)
- Prince of Skulls (2002)
- A Death of Kings (2003)