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I've often fancied doing some gaming in Professor Barker's fascinating if rather complex world, but there seem to be a confusing array of products, essays and systems out there, all rather obscure and mostly rather old.

What's an effective and hopefully not too expensive way to give it a try?

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While not disagreeing with the other answers, it is worth pointing out that other than the archaic White Box D&D rules framework, the original rules are about the most playable version of the game, and costs about $25 in reprinted form.

The Swords and Glory books are almost twice the cost (each!) and unless they have been retypeset they are pretty hard on the old eyeballs. I think the originals (which I own) were mimeographed from typewritten originals, and neither of them has an index. They come from an age when codifying every single thing was thought to be a good way to go for RPGs - think AD&D meets GURPS on steroids. My opinion of them is that they make reading your local tax code look interesting. The information is in there, but finding it is a journey you may assess as time you'll never get back. S&G was envisioned as a three volume set. Only two of the three ever saw print.

The Guardians of Order book is very nice, but very incomplete when it comes to the Bestiary. It doesn't even cover all of the intelligent races introduced in the TSR first edition. It does have a nice world map in the back cover. I found the Tristat-derived game system to be unfriendly. It took me over an hour to generate my first character. The system offers a complexity in its combat system I do not find attractive. Your mileage may vary.

Were I going into the Tekumel game again (and don't think I haven't tried to interest people in playing therein) I would be tempted to use the original EPT (available at http://www.tekumel.com/tita/ept.html ) and do a quick port into Savage Worlds. Total load: about 40 bux and a little work.

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The Tekumel FAQ says:

I have $50 to spend. Which books should I buy?

Buy the Tekumel: Empire of the Petal Throne for $40 and save the other $10 for the Sourcebook.

I think the source book is volume one of Swords and Glory.

Nick Brooke has a nice free Tekumel page, with campaign histories.

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I wrote a blog post about this very topic. In summary:

  • Pick a rules system. There are several official ones as well as several homebrews and conversions. My recommendation is Empire of the Petal Throne. It's a complete game based on Original D&D (with d100 attributes) with all the non-humans, many of the creatures, all the nations described, magic items, eyes, and it's loaded with adventure seeds. You can buy a PDF from DriveThru for $11. There's also a new official set of rules, Bethorm by Jeff Dee, that was published last fall after a Kickstarter campaign.
  • Expand your Tekumel knowledge with the first two novels, Man of Gold and Flamesong. The first book has just come back into print as an ebook. If you want paperbacks, both books are easily found on used books sites, like ABEBooks, Alibris, and Amazon, for less than $10.
  • Start with a 'Fresh Off the Boat' scenario, where the PCs are tribal barbarians from far away, so they know none of the complex social structures of Tsolyanu. This means that players don't have to know everything, and the Referee can slowly introduce the strangeness of the setting. Here's one from an old fanzine archive.

Let me also add that this spring I released The Petal Hack for free, a Tekumel hack of The Black Hack, a super-streamlined game inspired by the original D&D boxed set. Everything is a stat check. NPCs and monsters only roll damage; players roll to avoid damage from monsters. Some people have said this is the best intro to Tekumel they've seen. I still think EPT is the best.

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To partly answer my own question, Dave Morris has written a fairly light system (by Tekumel standards: it's not exactly Wushu) called Tirikelu which is available for free, and looks quite playable. It doesn't come with any background about the world, however - it assumes you know the original game and just want a different system for playing in it.

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