It so impressed TSR, the publishers of D&D, that with Barker they released a second edition of the game shortly thereafter.
For a public still trying to wrap its brain around the whole new "roleplaying thing," Empire of the Petal Throne was probably a step too far. The plot of those early D&D campaigns was painfully simple; here is a dungeon, go inside, kill monsters, get treasure. EPT by contrast asked players to navigate the social complexities of an alien culture, to role-play etiquette and hierarchy. It was a world in which diplomacy and subtlety often eclipsed brute force. More difficult, perhaps, was that players had no immediate access points. If you had read Robert E. Howard or J.R.R. Tolkien you had a general idea of what to do in D&D. In EPT you were going into it blind.
There were other factors as well, but Barker and publisher TSR parted ways leaving Tékumel once more a world without a rules set. Undeterred, M.A.R. Barker pressed on, and ten years after EPT had first been published, Barker had the first novel set in Tékumel (Man of Gold) and a second, two-volume roleplaying game (Swords & Glory).
The novels kept coming. 1985 saw the publication of Flamesong, followed later by Lords of Tsámra, Prince of Skulls, and A Death of Kings. 2004 brought what might best be described as Barker's Silmarillion, the two-volume compendium of religion and culture known as Mitlanyál. By that time, Tékumel had been growing and deepening for over sixty years, explored mainly by Barker, but also by hundreds--possibly even thousands--of hardcore Tékumel fans.
Unfortunately, none of the roleplaying games ever really seemed to last. Empire of the Petal Throne had been too ahead of its time, while Swords & Glory suffered from the obsession with complexity that hounded gaming in the early 80s. Certainly the most comprehensive game ever published on Tékumel, none but the most diehard had the patience to climb this dense Everest of text. In 1994, the third Tékumel RPG, Gardásiyal, made the opposite mistake, publishing a rules set with very little background at all. Indeed, you needed to by several additional books just to make a complete character. This was a pity, because by the 1990s, the gaming industry had finally come around to the idea of deep, fully realized settings. EPT was ahead of its time, Gardásiyal was behind it.
For me, 2005 was a sort of high-water mark for Tékumel. Mitlanyál and just been published, and Guardians of Order, a game company that had published the award winning anime RPG Big Eyes, Small Mouth, took an interest in Barker's world. Using a modified version of their "Tri-Stat" rules system, they brought us Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne. This lavish, hardcover rulebook brought a popular system and a streamlined, very accessible approach to Tékumel's histories and cultures. For someone who had never heard of Barker's world before, this was the perfect entry point.
But the gaming industry is a cruel one, and just a year after Tékumel's publication, the over-extended and deeply in debt Guardians of Order closed its doors. Ironically, the same year they published Tékumel they had published another RPG set in a relatively obscure fantasy world...it was called A Game of Thrones.
M.A.R. Barker left this planet on March 16th, 2012. Part of me likes to think he returned home, enjoying a cup of chumetl on the terrace of a clanhouse in Pálla Jalálla. Tékumel lives on; in 2014 the fifth official RPG Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel was published, and his army of fans are keeping the world alive. But as great as Tékumel is, I don't think this is the legacy we should remember him for. Not exactly.
Barker was to my mind a pioneer of the imagination. We all live and operate in the wake people like he and Tolkien left. The most popular program on television right now is set in an intricately detailed created world, putting to bed the lie that the general public lacks the attention span for such things. Indeed, it is impossible to imagine a modern computer or console RPG succeeding without a compelling and consistent setting characterized by unique cultures and great depth. When you play something like Dragon Age, the Elves and Dwarves are obviously Tolkien, but the Qunari--and the Qun--are definitely Barker. And with other pen and paper RPGs, exotic stopped being a bug and became a feature. There would be no Talislanta or Legend of the Five Rings or Numenera if Barker hadn't gone there first.
In the end, no one will ever dispute the power of Tolkien's legendarium, but when it comes to imagined worlds Barker might have even been a little ahead. After all, Tolkien was not creating so much a re-creating--taking scraps of ancient European folklore and literature to weave together as a masterful patchwork. Barker did everything from scratch.
And that is fantastic.