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Friday, 26 April 2019

For Cultured Friends IX: The Excellent Travelling Voume Issue No. 9

Following in the footsteps of took the author and publisher’s House of Worms campaign, The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 8, ‘A fanzine of M.A.R. Barker’s World of Tékumel’, went in a very different direction to previous issues, far across the southern ocean to ‘Linyaró, Outpost of the Petal Throne’, a small city located on the Achgé Peninsula. Written for use with TSR Inc.’s Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel, it detailed the city itself, its inhabitants and clans, as well as the native peoples, the local flora and fauna, and more. It explored—unofficially—a region not visited within Tékumel canon, as well as showcasing the possibilities of opening up regions well away from the familiarity of the Five Empires on the northern continent. The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 9 returns home to the northern continent, but geographically at least, not to the Five Empires.

The issue opens with an editorial as usual. Here James Maliszewski recounts his experiences attending conventions and essentially how the smaller the convention, the more enjoyable they are. There is certainly a truth to this, as the smaller events tend to be less commercial, less frenetic, and friendlier. What is also true is that such event are about as much socialising as they are about play and smaller events tend to be focused on play. They are also a chance for players to try games they might not at home and as James highlights, the chance to meet others you might only know online or through the pages of a fanzine. Anyway, it is nice to that he is enjoying this aspect of the hobby.

The first of the two ‘Additions and Changes’ in The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 9 is ‘Pygmy Folk and Swamp Folk Characters’, which provides rules for playing either race in Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel. Notably drawn from Swords & Glory, Vol. 1: Tékumel Source Book, this details the Alignment, Choice of Sex—the Pygmy Folk have three as opposed to the two of Swamp Folk, Profession—the Swamp Folk can only Warriors as they cannot cast spells of any kind, Hit Dice, their unique racial abilities, and what gods and their cohorts they worship. There are also notes on possible names, their homelands, and what legions they might serve in. Together this draws a great deal of playable information about both races that can be used to help create player characters or NPCs. Of course, the Five Empires being humanocentric in their outlook to one degree or another does mean that Pygmy Folk and Swamp Folk player characters will some social stigma.

The second is ‘Expanded Original Skills’. This revises the three lists of skills—Elementary, Intermediate, and Advanced—to fill in some of the omissions in terms of skills for as society as baroque and as complex as the Tsolyánu Empire and those of the Five Empires. Primarily, it adds Ancient Language and Modern Language, Entertainer, Etiquette and Courtly Manners, Lawyer, and Moneylender.  Of the two new additions, Ancient Language and Modern Language and Entertainer require further definition when selected. So acrobat, juggler, puppeteer, and so on for Entertainer, but languages like Engsvanyáli and Llyáni, Mu’ugalavyáni and Yan Koryáni for Ancient Language and Modern Language. To that end, the article includes a long list of languages. Now none of this has been playtested, but overall this looks like a reasonable revision.

The issue’s main focus is the Ni’ikmá Valley. As detailed in ‘The Ni’ikmá Valley’, this is a small area within the Plain of Towers, lying to the west of Mu’ugalavyá. By the standards of the Five Empires, it is a sparsely settled region, its peoples primitive, and notably, sits on the edge of a ‘barren zone’ as far as the use of magic and technological devices are concerned. It introduces the local inhabitants, the Nixkámi, details their faith and culture, and describes some of the places of note within the valley. One of these is ‘The Sunken Sanctum’, a subterranean ruin in the Qelqái Range of mountains on the southern edge of the valley. Rumoured to be haunted, this complex is actually a very minor facility from the Latter Times. Consisting of just seventeen locations, it is nicely detailed and has a slightly weird feel which echoes that of playing Gamma World or Metamorphosis Alpha. The Game Master though, will need to develop a reason or hook for her player characters to visit the site—and to be fair, the Ni’ikmá Valley.

Two other articles further develop the Ni’ikmá Valley. One is a full hex map of the valley, whilst the other is a ‘Bestiary’, the first of two Additions in The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 9. The size of Tékumel and the isolated nature of places like the Ni’ikmá Valley mean that all manner of strange and different creatures can be found. So it is with the Ni’ikmá Valley, the article adding just four creatures native to the area, like the Jálu or ‘Prowler’, a large, four-limbed predator which stalks its prey through the Qelqái Range and is capable of bursts of unexpected speed. The other Addition to the issue is ‘New Eyes’. The article adds a further thirteen to the many listed in Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel, including ‘The Eye of Ineluctable Verity’, which prevents the subject from telling falsehoods and inflicts agonising pain if they do, and ‘The Eye of Immediate Encapsulation’, which imprisons the target in stasis, in a pocket dimension. Unfortunately, there are only six such pocket dimensions, so when one target is popped into one, another one pops out… That lends itself to some interesting adventure possibilities and showcases the invention displayed in the creation of these Eyes.

Perhaps the oddest article in the issue is ‘The Undying Wizards’. In Professor M.A.R. Barker’s fiction we see characters like Prince Dhích’une visiting other planes to converse and consort with his allies, but in this article we have characters coming from these planes—and elsewhere—to the ‘current’ time period. Primarily based in the far future of Tékumel, these characters make up a cabal of wizards of great knowledge and power who essentially police its timeline. Their methods, ideologies, and personal histories may vary, but they do care. None of the quintet described are given any stats, but they are of such power that in all likelihood they do not need any, although there is nothing to stop the Game Master from providing them.

Most campaigns set on Tékumel take place in its here and now, roughly conversant with the civil war following the usurpation of the Petal Throne by Prince Dhích’une and its aftermath, but with ‘The Undying Wizards’, we step outside of that to look at the planet’s long history and long future, whatever that may be… The article provides a set of NPCs to use as potential patrons, threats, a conspiracy from outside of time, and more. Ultimately, it hints at a bigger picture to the setting and adds yet another layer of mystery to it, whilst also providing a solid set of NPCs for the Game Master to roleplay.

Lastly, ‘The Temple of Lord Aridzó’ adds a location, a ruined structure in the Dry Bay of Ssu’úm previously detailed in The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 6. It is a short location one-page piece which really just adds a little more detail to the content in the previous issue.

It almost goes without saying that The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 9 is physically up to production standards set by previous issues. The writing is engaging, the illustrations all excellent, the cartography clear and easy to read, and it feels professional despite being put together by fans. Much of the issue’s content is taking the reader and thus the Game Master away from the Five Empires, so it may not be of use for everyone’s campaign, but the content in The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 9 is an interesting read and some of it even has the potential to change a campaign.

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