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Monday 31 August 2020

For Cultured Friends XI: The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 11

For devotees of TSR Inc.’s Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel, 2020 is notable for the release of not one, two issues of The Excellent Travelling Volume, James Maliszewski’s fanzine dedicated to Professor M.A.R. Barker’s baroque creation. The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 11 was published in April, 2020—available direct from the author or the Melsonian Arts Council—and continues his exploration of one of oldest of roleplaying settings heavily influenced by the campaigns he has been running, the primary being his House of Worms campaign, originally based in, around, and under Sokátis, the City of Roofs before travelling across the southern ocean to ‘Linyaró, Outpost of the Petal Throne’, a small city located on the Achgé Peninsula, as detailed in The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 8.

As per usual, The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 11 opens an editorial from James Maliszewski. This highlights the gap between this issue and The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 10 and the reasons for it, before going onto focus on the importance of fiction when it comes to Tékumel. He notes, that like many a Petalhead, his initial exposure to the setting was to Man of Gold, M.A.R. Barker’s first novel, which really is an effective introduction to Tékumel. This is because the issue includes the first part of a short story by David A. Lemire, the first piece of fiction in the fanzine and a rare inclusion by someone other than James Maliszewski. The latter also explains why he puts out a call for submissions.

The opening gaming content in the issue is another entry in the ‘Additions and Changes’ series which examines the various non-human races on Tékumel and makes them playable. ‘Ahoggyá & Shén’ adds the four-sided and four-legged, barrel-shaped with a pair of eyes on each side Ahoggyá and the more humanoid, if slightly reptilian Shén with their mace-like tail. The former are the subject of some derision for their eight underminable sexes and stubborn refusal to acknowledge the Gods of Stability and Change—or even the concept of religion, let alone Stability and Change, but are renowned as fearless warriors. The latter only have three genders and do understand Stability and Change as ‘the one of Eggs’ and ‘the one who Rends’, and when in human society make actually adopt one of the gods of Stability and Change. In terms of Profession, both make poor magic-users and priests, but excellent warriors, such that outside of their homelands, all of the militaries of the Five Empires recruit Ahoggyá and Shén into legions of their own, but not together and their renowned antipathy means that they never serve alongside each other. This is another fine addition to the series, which with the inclusion of names, makes them both reasonably playable.

The influence of the author’s Achgé Peninsula-set campaign makes its presence known with the inclusion of ‘The Hokún: The Glass Monsters’, a centaur-like sentient species with a translucent exoskeleton and a hive mind thought to be found on the other side of the planet from the Five Empires. Their attitude to mankind varies—some may hunt and eat them, some may enslave them, and some may treat them as equals. This further highlights the weirdness of Tékumel and that there are wide swathes of the planet which remain unknown. The influence continues with a number of creatures in the ‘Bestiary (Addition)’. These include the Léksa or ‘The Glass Beast’—the riding beasts for the Hokún and actually a specially-bred mutation of the Hokún; the Nékka or ‘The Graceful Runner’, a herd beast left to run wild by the Hokún; the Qu’úni or ‘The Crustacean’, a semi-intelligent species found along the Achgé Peninsula, which is highly protective of its coastal lairs and regarded as a pest by sailors for their habit of swarming ships; and the Vriyágga or ‘The Wheeled Horror’, a terrifying combination of a central braincase suspended between two muscular wheels, the face on the braincase surrounded by four tentacles and with a maw of venomous feelers. Thankfully such creatures are rare, but they are horrifyingly weird. There is a nice inclusion of some commentary on the Vriyágga, just as there is on the Hokún, which adds a little context. With any luck, future issues will expand upon the lands of the Hokún, making them somewhere that group other than the author’s can visit them.

There are more monsters in ‘Demons of Sárku & Durritámish (Addition)’ which takes the reader to the Wastelands of the Dead, the plane ruled over by Lord Sárku to describe a trio of nasty demons. Thus sorcerers might entreaty the Blind Ones of Hreshkaggétl, minor six-limbed squid-like demons who reek of rotting flesh and revere Durritámish, cohort of Lord Sárku, for the mysteries and secrets they know of Durritámish, whilst none but the mightiest of warriors, sorcerers, or priests would want to face Srükáum, the Lord of the Legions of the Despairing Dead, the Castellan of the Citadel of Sighs, and the Warder of the Gates of Skulls, a skull-faced warrior in armour of copper and gold, who serves both Sárku and Durritámish as an ardent foe of Stability—especially if it involves combat! Lastly, Ssüssǘ, the Eater of the Dead, is a snake-like demon who oversees Lord Sárku’s hells and who is known to be able to grant great courage in others and great antipathy between two individuals.

Up until this point, The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 11 feels like it is all about the demons, monsters, and creatures, so ‘Amulets (Addition)’ is a welcome change of focus. Amulets are devices of the ancients and provide all manner of ‘magical’ effects. Thus the tiny hand-shaped Amulet of Uttermost Alarm shocks the wearer when it is within thirty feet of a temple, demon, high priest, or artefact of one of the Pariah Deities, whilst the Amulet of the Blessing of the Emerald Lady, a fine necklace of malachite beads, makes the wearer feel and look ten years younger, though wear it for too long and the effects become permanent. The fourteen or so devices are pleasingly inventive, a good mix of powers and abilities that provide flashy, as well as subtle effects.

The location—or dungeon—to be explored in The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 11 is The Tower of Jayúritlal, the ruined structure said to have been built by an Engsvanyáli (or possibly Bednálljan) sorcerer renowned as a traveller of the Planes Beyond. Consequently, Jayúritlal’s tower not only exists partly on Tékumel, but its location varies. Thus, it is easy to place as necessary in a Referee’s campaign, who is also free to develop the legend of Jayúritlal to suit her campaign. The tower itself is a tall narrow structure, amassing some thirty or so locations, and for the most is linear in its play. There is a pleasing feel of both age and the weird to it—whole missing walls for example with just a rope between levels, and it is very nicely mapped out by Dyson Logos. However, it does feel as if one too many rooms are blocked off by doors which require magical means to open, which may impede and even frustrate the players and their characters’ progress. Perhaps also, a discussion of possible suggestions and motivations for the Player Characters to visit the tower might have been a useful addition.

Rounding out the issue is ‘The Roads of Avanthár’, the first part of a short story by David A. Lemire. This describes the discovery of a great book and the efforts by members of the military faction to get it to the emperor in Avanthár, and their own rivalries. There is quite a lot going on in this first half and it will be interesting to find out how the events play on the second part in The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 12.

Physically, The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 11 adheres to the same standards as the previous issues. It sees the return of the card cover which The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 10 seemed to lack, and if the cover is not in full colour, that is not as much as a loss as it might seem. Otherwise, as expected, the writing is engaging, the illustrations excellent, the cartography is good, and it feels professional.

The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 11 feels like a very monster focused issue, with Ahoggyá & Shén as Player Character options, the write-ups of ‘The Hokún: The Glass Monsters’, and both Bestiary and Demons articles—much of it influenced by the author’s Achgé Peninsula-set campaign. The issue thus continues the author’s exploration away from the Five Empires, expanding what we know of Tékumel, but still adding elements a Referee can include in her more traditionally located campaign.

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