Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Saturday, 17 January 2015

For Cultured Friends

When you get home and are asked, “Who do you know in Toronto?”, in this household there can only be two answers—Robin D. Laws and James Maliszewski—and it is unlikely that I would be receiving mail from the former. So the question is, what would James Maliszewski—a doyen of Old School Renaissance through his blog, Grognardia and author of Dwimmermount,* an Old School Renaissance mega-dungeon published by Autarch LLC—be sending me in the post? The answer is issue one of The Excellent Travelling Volume, subtitled A fanzine for M.A.R. Barker’s World of Tékumel and James’ first dip into the gaming hobby after a sabbatical for personal reasons.

*In the interests of disclosure I was an editor on Dwimmermount.

With The Excellent Travelling Volume #1 James’ not only dips his toe back into the gaming hobby, he does it in as Old School a fashion as is possible. For this is a fanzine—a format that is in this day and age decidedly old fashioned—and it is devoted to Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel, TSR Inc.’s second RPG published, the first RPG to be published with a setting, and the first ‘culture’ RPG that presented a setting based on unfamiliar societies, histories, cultures, and of course, languages. The creation of linguist, M.A.R. Barker, learning some of the languages—or at least some of the phrases—can go some way to immersing yourself in what is a fascinating setting. Compared to the background detail in Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel, its rules do feel stripped back and perhaps a little bare—certainly in comparison to the versions of the game that would come later—but are definitely more straightforward and accessible than those presented in the previous year’s Original Dungeons & Dragons and they are certainly a step or three away from the wargaming origins of Original Dungeons & Dragons. So, James Maliszewski is writing supporting material for a forty year old game in a thirty year old* format. The question is, is James Maliszewski wasting his time? Followed by, is The Excellent Travelling Volume #1 any good?

*Yes, fanzines are older than that, but the heyday of roleplaying fanzines was thirty years ago.

The Excellent Travelling Volume #1 comes as a twenty-eight page, digest-sized booklet, illustrated with greyscale pictures. Inside are eight sections, most of which map onto particular sections in Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel. To modern eyes this will look somewhat arcane, but it has to be remembered that rules in the first few years of the hobby were organised in the only way which designers knew—like those of a wargame such as Panzer Blitz or Squad Leader. The first three sections in the fanzine quickly address the subjects of Alignment, Professions, and Basic Talents in the author’s campaign before leaping into something meatier in the fourth section with a variant of the magic-user. This is the Shaman, the barbarian equivalent to the magic-user, the latter being a civilised, studious profession, typically found in the ecclesiastical hierarchies of the temples of the Five Empires—the region on Tékumel where most campaigns are set. The Shaman learns not from attending classes or studying books, but directly at the feet of another Shaman. This makes this Profession suitable as an NPC whenever the typically Tsolyani parties—civilised peoples—wander off into the wilderness or as a player character who casts magic and wanders off the boat in the company of his  fellow barbarian tribesmen, or in Tsolyanu parlance, uncultured, uncivilised, nakome scum! ‘Barbarians off the boat’ being one of the default campaign set ups in Tékumel roleplaying. The Profession includes some new professional skills as well as a list of skills. This is a nice addition and it will be interesting to see what other Professions might appear in future issues.

The fifth section is definitely the highlight of The Excellent Travelling Volume #1. In the hierarchical clan-based society of Tsolyanu—the setting’s default campaign location—often the best way to get ahead is to find a patron. Patronage will get both nakome and those of lower clans a certain protection and into places where they might not otherwise get. The five Patrons presented here are done so in the format of Patrons a la Traveller, that is, an NPC and four to five options as what might be really going on. The five NPCs are very different, what they want is very different, and each of these Patrons is essentially the outline of a mini-scenario that the GM needs to develop. They are easily adapted to the Tékumel RPG of the GM’s choice and patrons as good as these definitely need to be a regular feature of the fanzine.

The Bestiary, a collection of a dozen new monsters and creatures, is perhaps less useful. Given the limited space devoted to them, their descriptions are surprisingly flavoursome, but they do feel crammed in and they do suffer for a lack of illustrations. These creatures are followed by descriptions of six ‘magical’ items, which again suffer for a lack of illustrations, but not for a lack of interesting descriptions.

Rounding out this first issue of The Excellent Travelling Volume #1 is ‘The Hidden Shrine’, a short of adventure. Easy to drop into most campaigns, it describes what amounts to a small, eight room dungeon suitable for low level characters. It is no simple dungeon though, there is something more interesting going on here, actually quite mundane, but which can have interesting ramifications for the player characters if the GM decides to develop the plot given in its few short pages. This is a good ‘Old School’ style adventure, but adventures on Tékumel do involve more than just ‘dungeons’, so it will be interesting to see what further adventures will be presented in future issues of the fanzine.

As to the matter of whether or not James Maliszewski is wasting his time with The Excellent Travelling Volume #1, well the answer has to be ‘yes’ and ‘no’. ‘Yes’ because not only is he publishing material for a setting that is arcane, obscure, and impenetrable, he is doing it for a version of the RPG that has been out of print for decades (though it can be downloaded via RPGnow, rather than for the latest, just published version, Béthorm: Tabletop Role-Playing on the Plane of Tékumel, published by UNIgames. Arguably, Tékumalis—those of us in the gaming hobby daft enough to play RPGs set on Tékumel—are ‘niche’ gamers, because it certainly takes some dedication, and those Tékumalis who play Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel are a niche within a niche. So the exact audience for The Excellent Travelling Volume #1 is, well, narrow. Yet ‘no’ because there is material in the pages of The Excellent Travelling Volume #1 that is useful and easily adapted to any Tékumel-set RPG, whether that is Different Worlds Publications’ Swords & Glory from 1983, Theater of the Mind Enterprises’ Gardasiyal: Adventures in Tekumel from 1994, Guardians of Order’s Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne from 2005, last year’s Béthorm: Tabletop Role-Playing on the Plane of Tékumel, or another ruleset. These are of course ‘Patrons’, ‘Magical Devices’, and ‘The Hidden Shrine’, all relatively easy to adapt. And also ‘no’ because The Excellent Travelling Volume #1 is clearly a labour of love for James Maliszewski.

Physically, The Excellent Travelling Volume #1 is nicely, though imperfectly presented. The artwork is eye catching and captures the weird nature of Tékumel, though it is a pity that none of the new creatures are illustrated. The typeface is a little faint and it could do with an edit, so a second pair of eyes could have been useful.

There have been fanzines devoted to Tékumel before, most notably The Eye of All-Seeing Wonder. This new fanzine, The Excellent Travelling Volume, is not The Eye of All-Seeing Wonder—it lacks both the breadth and depth and the detail—but it is not trying to be. It is a more superficial affair, concerned with the issues that concerned us in the ‘Golden Age of Roleplaying’, that is, character types, monsters, magic, and in a sense, dungeons. Yet just like Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel, this fanzine goes beyond such base concerns to give them some of the detail, the flavour, and the feel of M.A.R. Barker’s beautifully alien creation. The ‘Old School’ aspects of The Excellent Travelling Volume #1 may be off-putting for modern gamers and some of the Tékumali may find its Old School approach a little simplistic, but there is a great deal to like in The Excellent Travelling Volume #1 and it showcases how even the earliest of RPGs, Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel, pushed the hobby beyond the superficialities of dungeon delving.

If you are a Tékumali, you are going to want to take a look at The Excellent Travelling Volume #1. This is a good first issue that lays the foundations of hopefully many issues to come. Mr. Maliszewski welcome back to the hobby. Now when is issue #2 being released?