Monday, February 02, 2009

the many talents of Professor Barker

I became a game player when I was 4 or 5 years old. I played with miniature soldiers. In those days, they were a nickel a piece at Woolworth's and over the years, it was easy to acquire a small army of WWI soldiers. With my friends I played the usual toy soldier games. However, very early on I became interested in Ancient and Medieval battles. At the same time, the germs of my own fantasy world were developing through the reading of Science Fiction. So I started working on my own stuff, modifying figures, but eventually, I gave up trying to work with purchased figures entirely. Since I had a little workshop in the basement, I carved my own wood figures. I have over 1000 1.5" tall figures, carve din wood and painted with model airplane paint. They're certainly not marketable quality or anything, but they served their purpose.

Way back in the 30's and 40's, I was playing a kind of fantasy role-playing game. It was not just a series of battles, there was roleplaying with adventures, scenarios, and the whole thing but without the benefit of any particular rules. As we went along, we would work out the scenario and my friends and I would play. If we came to a place where we thought something had a possibility of happening or not happening, we simply argued about it until it got settled or rolled dice solving the issue, usually without too much bloodshed.

The same went for combat. We didn't plan anything very sophisticated, it was mostly dice rolling. We gave points for a person's strength and allowed him so many dice rolls for so many points of strength. The points were actually painted on the figure on the underside of his base. So in a way, I think I anticipated fantasy role-playing games by 20 or 30 years. But, as I said, we had no rules so I can't claim to be the inventor of the present systems that exist. That credit certainly goes to Arneson and Gygax. My own game designing started early in the sense of designing scenarios, BUT, I didn't do more formal things until I got into college or university when I revised Monopoly, so that it represented Mogul India.

That's a brief excerpt from "An interview with M.A.R. Barker", creator of Tekumel, appearing in the October/November 1980 issue of The Dungeoneer Journal. Has anybody ever seen photos of Barker's wooden figures? That'd be cool to see, even if they suck by modern mini sculpting standards.

Also, note the brief section that I have bolded. That's pretty much the way roleplaying works to this day, isn't it? Talk it out or throw the bones.

There's a spot later in the interview where the good Professor reveals that he had possibly the worst royalty arrangements in the history of game publication. Barker claims that in order to get Empire of the Petal Throne into print, he had to agree to a 20% royalty. That is to say for all his future Tekumel products, no matter the publisher, he would owe TSR 20% out of the his take! I am not making this up! The justification for this arrangement, according to TSR, was the exposure Tekumel got by their agreeing to put out EPT. I think the record will show that EPT came out a wee bit before Lorraine Williams got her claws into TSR, so we can't lay this one at her feet.


  1. Anonymous9:19 AM

    Awesome post, Jeff. I'm going to have to get a copy of that issue.

  2. I have seen Prof. Barker's figures, and actually held one or two. Yes, by today's standards, they are not very "action-oriented" but for figures carved from wood and then painstakingly assembled by hand with glue and then painted - they are amazing.

  3. I'd love to see one of those figures. I don't particularly like action oriented figures. My favourite was a 25mm wood elf by (I think!) Minifigs that just had him walking forward with buckler and sword. Then there were a great range of orcs that looked a bit like pigs. Very few of them were striking or shooting. I think there's something atmospheric in figures that share some of the archetypal feeling of chess pieces - for certain games at least.
    As a writer myself 20 per cent in perpetuity seems a bit of an odd deal, more like you get in the music industry than in publishing. That said, many publishing deals for major authors give them nine or ten per cent flat. The publisher keeps 90 per cent. They get an advance up front but allowing the author 80 per cent would, in those terms, seem very generous.
    After my advance is earned out I get about £1 for every book sold, which seems OK to me. This is pretty much a standard deal.

  4. Does anyone know:
    Did Barker's agreement with TSR last only as long as TSR kept his work in print?
    It would seem counterproductive for an artist to owe royalties to a company that does not help him/her promote the work that royalties are being paid on, but I suppose those sorts of 'bad deals' occur.