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Monday, 8 February 2016

For Cultured Friends IV

The release of the fourth issue of The Excellent Travelling Volume marks a small, though no less pleasing achievement—four issues of the fanzine dedicated to TSR Inc.’s Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel published in a year! Self-published by James Maliszewski, the release also marks the first anniversary of the author’s return to the gaming hobby after time away, having previously made a name for himself as a leading figure in the ‘Old School Renaissance’ via his his blog, Grognardia. Previous issues of the fanzine—one, two, and three—have sold out and the likelihood is that this issue will also sell out. Although the fanzine is firmly aimed at ‘Petalheads’, devotees of Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne, the linguistic and RPG setting devised by the late Professor M.A.R. Barker, it is not aimed at the deep cultural aspects that the setting and thus the RPG is rightly renowned for. Rather, it sets out to provide material that has been played and can be played. 

As with previous issues, The Excellent Travelling Volume #4 comes as a twenty-eight page, digest-sized booklet, illustrated with greyscale pictures. Inside are just five sections. Unlike the previous issues, only one of these five articles is specifically focussed on a single location—Sokátis, the City of Roofs, the Tsolyáni city close to Salarvyá and Pecháno in the far east of Tsolyánu that is the setting for James Maliszewski’s home campaign. Two of the articles though do focus on the north and the east of Tsolyánu, the Empire of the Petal Throne and thus would influence campaigns set in and around Sokátis. The others are more general in terms of their nature and geography.

The issue opens with more background options for both player characters and NPCs. ‘Yán Koryáni and Sa’á Allaqiyáni Characters’ provides background information for creating both player characters and NPCs from the northern nations of Yán Kór and Sa’á Allaqí. It gives level titles for all three classes, male and female names, the differences in religion from Tsolyánu, and the major clans for both nations. This is useful information for any campaign. It is pertinent to Maliszewski’s own campaign since that is set in the northeast of Tsolyánu in the 2350s and also before the Tsolyáni invasions of Yán Kór and the events of the civil war that would beset Tsolyánu during the 2360s, essentially the canonical period for very many Tékumel-based campaigns. Now of course not all of this is exactly canon, but there is much that there is, and what is not actually feels right in the setting.

This is followed by another entry in the Patrons series of articles. These have often been the highlight of previous issues of The Excellent Travelling Volume and the collection of patrons here is no exception. Again done in the style of Patron Encounters for the author’s beloved Traveller RPG, three of these five have the player characters running around after a Macguffin for one temple or another, whilst the others have them performing an extraction from another temple and going animal hunting. Again these are good mix, and in the case of the latter, could be run again using one of the given options. The third section, ‘A Portion of the Underworld of Sokátis’ continues the description of the other half of the ‘Tsuru’úm’ or underworld that lies beneath the city’s Foreigners’ Quarter first described in issue #2. Detailed enough, the description of the map given is not complete—that will have to wait for another issue—and hopefully the next issue will not only complete the description, it will also provide some hooks and details to get the player characters involved. Unfortunately, this has been an issue with previous entries in the description of ‘A Portion of the Underworld of Sokátis’.

The fourth and shortest section in The Excellent Traveling Volume #4 is ‘The Shape-shifters – the Mihálli’. It describes the near mythical and ancient shape-shifting alien sorcerers said to exist on more than one plane at once, but mostly seen to the north of Tsolyánu on Tékumel. Although a decent enough description, an adventure hook or two would have been a nice addition given how alien these creatures and their motives are.

In The Prismatic Fortress, the inhabitants of Ruthálu have become aware of a glinting structure high up in the surrounding mountains, but when a group is sent to investigate, its members do not return. So the elders of Ruthálu ask outsiders—that is, the player characters—to go up the mountain and investigate. What is going is that the insectoid Hlüss have restored an old fortress and established as it as a forward base for future operations. This is a reasonable little dungeon, but not much more, lacking the potential depth of ‘The Hidden Shrine’ from The Excellent Travelling Volume #1. The GM may also want to play up the ‘Alien’-like potential in this scenario, although as written it is lacking in flavour and detail.

Rounding out The Excellent Travelling Volume #4 is ‘Tomes of Power’, which builds upon the library given in Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel. The article notably includes the infamous compendium of demonology, ‘Kranuóntio Mishatlnéa Üroshjanál’ or ‘The Book of Ebon Bindings’, itself also a supplement for the game. This is a pleasing collection items that will peak the interest of any player-character magic-user or priest, let alone other NPCs. That of course, means that these books can be used by the GM as the basis of adventures of his own.

Physically, The Excellent Travelling Volume #4 is solidly presented. Both its artwork and its cartography continue to be excellent. That said, the issue could have done with another proofing pass if not another pair of eyes.

The Excellent Travelling Volume #4 contains another set of decently done articles for Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel. One or two of them could have benefited from some sample application, but this does not mean that they do not add to the setting. Although perhaps a little rushed in places, The Excellent Travelling Volume #4 continues James Maliszewski’s love affair with Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel.