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Monday, 1 May 2017

For Cultured Friends VII

The seventh 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. That return is notable this year for his redevelopment and presentation anew of The Cursed Chateau, his funhouse adventure for the Old School Renaissance for Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay and that in addition to the release of the inaugural issue of Imperio, the fanzine dedicated to the author’s RPG of Imperial Science Fiction, Thousand Suns. Previous issues—one, two, three, four, and five—of The Excellent Travelling Volume have all showcased his campaign, House of Worms, about the doings of members of a clan based in the roofed city of Sokátis, but issue six also drew from the author’s second campaign, this one set in and around the Mu’ugalavyáni city of Gashchné.

Although it draws a little from the author’s Mu’ugalavyáni campaign, The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 7 is a departure in many ways from the six issues that have been published before it. The first difference is that the issue sports a full colour cover, depicting a poor clansman at the mercy of the Shunned Ones. It is by no means a bad cover, but in some ways, the pen and ink covers of the previous issues have been more striking. Inside, the other difference is that the issue includes contributions from writers other than James Maliszewski and this brings to the issue fresh voices without losing any of the tone of the previous issues.

Previous issues have added numerous character types and this issue is no exception, with ‘Pé Chói and Páchi Léi Characters’. Derived primarily from Swords & Glory, Volume 1: Tékumel Sourcebook, this provides changes and additions to the character creation rules in Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel, so that Pé Chói and Páchi Léi characters and NPCs can be created. It also presents the differences in terms of religion, society, clan structure, and so on in comparison to Tsolyáni characters as well as personal names for both species. Although alien in comparison to humans, the majority of both races are on friendly terms with the Tsolyáni, so they do make suitable options as player characters.

The first contribution from a writer other than James Maliszewski in The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 7 is ‘The Martial Artist’ by Ian Young. This presents a very particular character type, one singular to Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne—the priests trained in the use of martial arts. Brawling and being able to brawl on Tékumel may well be common enough, but there are really only two ways in which someone can learn the unarmed combat disciplines of Dedarátl and Hu’ón. One is to become a priest of Thúmis or his cohort, Keténgku, and train in the fist-based martial art of Dedarátl. The other is to become a priest of Ksárul or his cohort, Grugánu, and rain in the kicking-based martial art of Hu’ón. Practitioners of these martial arts serve as bodyguards, spies, even assassins, and so on. Martial Artists automatically begin with the Assassin-Spy-Tracker skill and they can also learn Astrologer, Detect Traps, modern and ancient languages, Open-handed Strike, Stealth, and so on. Notably, a Martial Artist can learn a number of spell-like abilities, including Control of Self, Disbelieve and Dispel, Calm, and Invulnerability. This is in addition to Armour Class bonuses, Attack Bonus, and Extra Attacks gained as they acquire Experience Levels. Given its age, it should be no surprise that Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel is not a particularly flexible set of rules, but ‘The Martial Artist’ does an effective job of modelling quite a difficult Class to model. If there is an issue with the article, it is with the illustration, which depicts a Martial Artist training, but whilst well done, is unclear whether it is a practitioner of Dedarátl or Hu’ón.

The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 7 details not one, but two tombs, both from authors other than James Maliszewski. Now the pages of the fanzine have not exactly been free of tomb write-ups, but then the region of the Five Empires has long been settled by mankind and so is rife with tombs, both on the surface and in the underworld. Both of these new tombs provide something much more than a complex to explore and plunder in the form of NPCs that may come to play major roles in a Referee’s campaign beyond the walls of their respective tombs. It all depends whether the player characters are adherents of the Tlokiriqáluyal, the Lords of Stability or the Tlomitlányal, the Lords of Change. 

The first tomb is ‘The Revenant’s Tomb’. Written by Jeff Grubb, best known as the designer of the MARVEL SUPER HEROES game and the Spelljammer: AD&D Adventures in Space Boxed Set, both published by TSR, Inc., it describes a recently unearthed tomb that the player characters come across by accident. It includes a nicely mundane means of getting them involved and goes on to present the small complex in some pleasing detail. The figure buried within its crypt has the potential to be more than just undead and may become an in important NPC in the Referee’s campaign. The other tomb in the issue is by Mikael Tuominen. ‘The Pyramid of Chanmarbáyik’ delves into the lore concerning Dlamélish and potentially one of her many aspects. There is more flavour as well as the detail, and just like ‘The Revenant’s Tomb’, the Referee will have an interesting NPC to portray, perhaps long after the adventurers have left the tomb.

Dungeons & Dragons has long had its magic weapons, but despite their mention in Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel, they rarely make an appearance on Tékumel. ‘Demon Weapons’ remedies that by presenting five weapons drawn from or inspired by Gardásiyal: Deeds of Glory. These include Hmákh, an empathic short sword aligned to Chiténg which enjoys slaughter and plunder and can cast the Fear and Withering spells, and Rü’ütlákh, a massive mace with a strong personality aligned with Lord Qon which likes to fight underworld creatures and which can cast the spells Invisibility, Petrefaction, and Shield of Defence. In each case, these are weapons worthy of being wielded by great figures—as detailed in the histories given for each weapon—and so may be out of reach of some player characters or are unlikely to remain in their possession for very long. What these weapons represent though are great storytelling opportunities, whether that is the chance for a character to wield one of them in great scene or get dominated by one of them, or one of them becomes a MacGuffin for the many factions of the Five Empires and beyond.

‘The Shunned Ones – The Vléshgayal’ details one of the races inimical to mankind. Renowned sorcerers, these truly ancient aliens are rarely encountered, usually content to dwell in their great domed cities where the atmosphere is poisonous to mankind, except for excursions deep into the Underworld. There they seek devices and technology of the Ancients, particularly Eyes, the objects capable of various effects, such death rays and healing rays. Indeed, the Shunned Ones are said to have greater understanding of how Eyes work and can even recharge them! The article also includes a number of Eyes particular to the Shunned Ones. Overall, this presents a nasty foe for the player characters to encounter, especially in numbers and if one of their sorcerers knowns the spells given in The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 6.

Rounding out the issue is a article that draws a little from the author’s Mu’ugalavyáni campaign. ‘Hrsh: Master of Time, Space, and Being’ describes the god whose worship predates that of Lord Vimúhla and his cohort, Chiténg in Mu’ugalavyá, and transcends that of the worship of the Tlokiriqáluyal, the Lords of Stability and the Tlomitlányal, the Lords of Change. This nicely fleshes out religious life in Mu’ugalavyá and highlights the differences between it and that of Tsolyánu. It includes a fantastic illustration of the icon of Lord Hrsh in his main temple in the Mu’ugalavyáni capital, Ssa’átis which you almost wish that all of the player characters in a campaign were Mu’ugalavyáni and could worship before it just to see it.

Lastly, the back cover of The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 7 promises an even bigger departure for Issue No. 8. It will includes a complete ‘campaign starter’ which of course will be set in Sokátis, the location for the author’s House of Worms campaign. It will include everything necessary, including maps, locations, NPCs, adventures, pre-generated player characters, and more. When the ‘Just Off the Boat’ is the roleplaying game’s default starting point, there is nevertheless the need for a starting point involving the player characters who are already Tsolyáni citizens and clan members rather than clanless, nakome scum. This reviewer is looking forward to this very much.

Physically, The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 7 is neatly and cleanly presented. It well written and it is nicely illustrated.

Currently, The Excellent Travelling Volume represents the only continuing support for Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel and Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne gaming in general. There is of course other support for the setting, but it is neither regular nor overly supported, so the continuing support in The Excellent Travelling Volume is more than welcome. The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 7 this continues with this excellent support, providing more options and background. If you are at all a Petalhead—as devotees of Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne are known—then The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 7, as well as the previous issues, should be on your shelf of the Petal Throne.