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

Monday, 2 May 2016

For Cultured Friends V

The fifth issue of The Excellent Travelling Volume  continues James Maliszewski’s support for TSR Inc.’s Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel, only the third RPG to be published and the first to come with its own background. It also marks his continued involvement in the ‘Old School Renaissance’, though one more ‘cultured’ and not as prominent or as public as its once leading light via his blog, Grognardia. As with previous issues—one, two, three, and four—the fanzine showcases his own campaign, ‘House of Worms’, although with this issue, he introduces a second campaign. 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 #5 comes as a thirty-two page, digest-sized booklet, illustrated with greyscale pictures. Inside are just six sections, most of which will be familiar to readers of previous issues. It opens with ‘Mu’ugalavyáni and N’lüss Characters’, a guide to creating characters from Tsolyánu’s greatest rival, the Empire of Mu’ugalavyá and N’lüssa, the lands of the giant N’lüss, the barbarians to the north of Mu’ugalavyá. The article covers the basic information needed to play characters from either region, alignment, gender, skills, Level Titles, gods, and both names and clan names, and so on. The Mu’ugalavyáni get more of a detailed treatment than the N’lüss, but then the N’lüss are an ‘uncultured’ lot in comparison to the Mu’ugalavyáni, who make up one the Five Empires. As with previous articles in the series, this provides excellent support for both NPCs and player characters.

The article though, marks a radical shift upon the part of the author since it describes peoples to the west of The Empire of the Petal Throne, whereas previous issues have focussed upon the east with discussions of Sokátis, the City of Roofs, and articles about the Salarvyáni and the Pecháni and the Yán Koryáni and the Sa’á Allaqiyáni. The shift is explained by the author’s fascination with the Mu’ugalavyáni and his recently having set up a new campaign set in the city of Gashchné.

It is followed by another entry in one of the continuing highlights of The Excellent Travelling Volume—‘Patrons’. Except that where in the past the author has presented potential employers suitable for civilised and cultured clan members as well as uncultured, uncivilised, nakome scum*, here he takes us to ‘At the Clanhouse’ to present five patrons that Tsolyánu player characters might encounter. As before, each is accorded full stats, background and a story hook, plus options as to what is really going on. The various NPCs include a legion veteran, a matchmaker, a respected elder, and so on. Encountering may lead one or more player characters enlisting, getting married, covering up indiscretions, and more. The five patrons here are aimed at the campaign that involves Tsolyánu clan members and in particular work well with a single-clan campaign, though there would be little adjustment needed to use them in a campaign set in Mu’ugalavyá or the other Five Empires. However the GM uses them, these are good adventure hooks, especially for getting the players involved in clan life and politics.

Continued in The Excellent Travelling Volume #5 is ‘A Portion of the Underworld of Sokátis’, a description of part of the ‘Tsuru’úm’ or underworld that lies beneath the city’s Foreigners’ Quarter first described in issue #2. This completes both halves of the portion detailed so far. Now complete it still feels much like a sandbox for the player characters to explore and adventure in, the issue being that the player characters lack reasons to delve into its musty halls and tombs. Of course, a competent GM would be able to create reasons and hooks for his own campaign, but perhaps the regular Patrons section could be devoted to potential employers to lead on to adventures in the ‘Tsuru’úm’ described in the ‘A Portion of the Underworld of Sokátis’ series.

The ‘Bestiary’ describes two types of the undead that might be found in the ‘Tsuru’úm’ below Sokátis. One is the Mnéktan, ‘the sword-handed’, whose arms have been sharpened into swords, whilst the Turuvándu, ‘the scuttler’, bends over backwards and is capable of walking up walls and across the ceiling. Each is a type of reanimated corpse that is used as tomb guards, the Mnéktan being the creation of the Temple of Ksáru, the Turuvándu the creation of the Temple of Sárku. Further creatures are described, but not given stats, in ‘The Underpeople’. These are the various nearly- and non-human species that live below the planet and who have been forgotten by, or are looked down upon by mankind. The author begins with those mentioned in Man of Gold, M.A.R. Barker’s first novel set in Tékumel, that is the Hehegánu and the Hehecháru, before going on to describe those that he developed for his own campaign and presenting a means for the GM to create his own. They are a means to further highlight the long history mankind’s future history on Tékumel and the activities of the Ancients, the xenophobic attitudes of the Five Empires and the weirdness of the setting. Rounding the coverage of monsters and creatures in The Excellent Travelling Volume #5 is a trio of ‘demons’ in ‘Demons of Belkhánu & Qón’.

Lastly, ‘The Tomb of Vrikheshámma’ describes the step-pyramid tomb of an ancient and once revered sorcerer. Located in some distant desert or badlands, this is a nicely described destination that consists of just a few rooms which should keep a group of  adventurers occupied for a session or two. As written, it just needs a good reason for them to go looking for it and it is all ready for the GM to drop it into a convenient hex in his campaign or sandbox.

Physically, The Excellent Travelling Volume #5 is solidly presented. Both its artwork and its cartography continue to be excellent. That said, another edit would not have gone amiss, but there is a solidly assured feel to this issue.

The Excellent Travelling Volume #5 continues James Maliszewski’s exploration and development of his own campaign for Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne. Although perhaps some more adventures and more involved adventures might be a nice idea, especially for Sokátis and its ‘Tsuru’úm, for future issues, the mix of articles in this issue feels like a good balance and is never uninteresting. The Excellent Travelling Volume #5 is as close to a professional magazine as a fanzine can get. If you are a ‘Petalhead’, a fan of Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne, then The Excellent Travelling Volume #5 is a must.