Thursday, 19 August 2021

[Review] Punth: A Primer

Imagine Jack Vance and Gene Wolfe got together and wrote a fantasy setting inspired by ancient Sumer or Assyria, but somehow managed to do so in the 1920s. And imagine that they had done this with the foreknowledge of that Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Shaka, When the Walls Fell". Then imagine that Jorge Luis Borges edited what they had done and added some of his own thoughts. Then imagine they gave it to Edgar Rice Burroughs to write a series of novels set there.

Now imagine that scholars in the 1930s came across these novels and decided that the place had actually been real, and wrote an introductory textbook to it. This is Punth: A Primer, among the best and most interesting fantasy settings produced by the OSR and the spiderlings spewed out from the thorax of its bloated corpse. 

Punth approaches Tekumel, not in substance (although there is something of Tekumel's alien coldness in it), but in ambition. This is not a typical fantasy setting. It is an exploration of themes: the control of thought through language, the formation of state power, and the philosophy of law. If that sounds like a bit much, it is a cool ancient Near Eastern sandbox setting ruled by dictatorial multi-limbed aliens written by somebody who has really though things through. And it's a marvel of succinct, concentrated. distilled communication to boot. Check out the introduction, which (if you are anything like me) ought to be like catnip to you:

PUNTH! The sun sets. Birds perch on the upper levels of the local ziggurat. Labourers at the communal dinner, fresh from the field, hear the rhythmic formulation of the Codes sung to the tune of the dulcimer and the tom-tom. 
PUNTH! At noon, gaze across the irrigation ditches, out into the wilderness, where a great Prince impales a lion on a twelve cubit spear! 
PUNTH! Square cities by the bending river. Gene-mod oxen pull the ploughs. Sentinels with khaki fatigues and long spears. Goatherds gather their flocks into elevated shelters for fear of carnivorous leaping lizards. 
PUNTH! Sun-baked vaults of a fallen tower! Cracked lands of fallen tyrants and descending conquerers! Howling eidolons in trackless deserts! 
PUNTH! Aristocratic republic of former sky-sailors! Long paved roads dividing a howling desert. Psycho-drill schools engaged in mass call-and-repeat lessons in the baking sun. Gendarme patrols, regular as clockwork. Polychrome pillars and glazed bricks. Long-necked herbivores pulling carts; six-legged steeds for the Sky Princes. 
PUNTH! Where all speech is couched in the words of the Codes. Where the scribes records details of the latest five-year plan on clay tablets beneath the eyes of watchful green four-armed aristo-commisars! PUNTH! The land set out before you.

Could I run a game set in Punth? I'm not sure, but reading it fills me with inspiration in a way very few OSR products do. Nobody has written anything like this. It's great. 

And it's PWYW, and only 46 pages long. I'd buy it if I were you.


  1. Around about the time I had the Primer's first full draft finished, I remember thinking 'I wonder if anyone will use it as written.' And then: 'If half a dozen people used this as written for more than three sessions, have I started a cult?'

    In any case, this is a wonderful review. It may well be the first time my writing has been called succinct!

    1. As we know, cults are easily established!

  2. It sounds interesting but you link to an unreadable preview page, ambitious-foolish with text overlaid on a B&W image and so unreadable.

    The perennial failure of the published osr is timidity. The lack of confidence in the word alone. TEXT. WRITING. The word alone is good enough for poetry, for novels but words are not good enough for rpgs!

  3. Top five top sellers for tabletop games on!

  4. Thanks for the review - this looks worthwhile. There is something about the texts surviving from the Ancient Mesopotamian era that's endlessly fascinating: the historical and cultural distance, and their peculiar way of putting things paints a fascinating and brutal world. The Sumero-Babylonian creation myths are also fairly easy to (mis-)read as primitive accounts about the destruction and downfall of high-tech ur-civilisations - no wonder people from Varkonyi to Däniken have become fascinated by them. All very Tékumel, indeed.