Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Tekumel - Session 1

So the first session of the Tekumel campaign finally began. To begin with, I gave the players a brief overview of the world, and helped explain any details about the pre-generated characters that needed clearing up. Then the game began.

The Clan Elders decided to wait until the end of the rainy season before sending the PCs off on the journey. During the final days of rain, the group was selected (the PCs were introduced IC to each other and to the NPCs of the entourage). The escort was to consist of the PCs, a litter carried by eight slaves for the two highest-status PCs, eight baggage-carrying slaves, a slave-handler contracted from a lower-status Clan and six less-than-spectacular guards.

Once the rain stopped they waited two days to give the roads a chance to dry out, which Tsodlan used to drill his six guards and assess how good they were (not very- most just had Familiarity with their weapons) and make sure they were properly outfitted from the Clan-house armoury (properly meaning the armour wasn't likely to chafe even if it was tattered-looking and/or mis-matched).

The six guards consisted of:-

Dresu hiPayal, Tsodlan's son by his first wife (he took his Mother's lineage name as hers was higher), and Quren hiMarada, Tsodlan's son by his second wife. Whilst inexperienced, both are solid and reliable- except when it concerns each other. Their mothers dislike each other, and have managed to pass their feud onto the next generation- both sons will constantly look for reasons to put the other down, and feel aggrieved if their Father doesn't take their side over the other.

Trasuni hiMriyu- a cousin of Kemuel, who managed to persuade the Elders to send him on the trip which he sees as a great adventure. Far too confident in his own abilities, he'll rush headlong into danger- and if anything happens to him, some PCs may lose status in the eyes of the Clan.

Jaluda hiMaruda- a teenage girl who's declared Aridani status in a fit of rebellion after she took exception to the husband the Elders proposed to her. She's read stories of heroic Aridani warriors and believes she's going to follow in their footsteps. Completely unsuited for such a life, the hardships of the journey will make her realise that she's made a mistake and should renounce Aridani status, settling down to become a good Clan-girl. Unfortunately, this realisation will only come after it's too late for her to turn back and go home, leaving the PCs stuck with her.

Ssiyor and Jugar hiBeshene- members of the Turning Wheel Clan, experienced caravan workers who've seen a few scraps. Whilst not full-trained warriors, they're likely the most useful members of the Guard. Sirukel convinced their Clan to assign them, and his status takes a hit if they're lost.

After some sparring to show the basics of the combat system, the group departed the Clanhouse, on a three-day journey to reach the Sakbe road (the litter lacks reserve slaves, so has to travel slower). The first two nights were spent at the Clan-houses of some tenant farmer clients. The third day had several untoward events happening...

En route to a hostel that stood near the Sakbe road entrance, a slave collapsed. He awoke screaming and shouting. When order was restored, the party resumed the journey- only for the same thing to happen with another slave. Neither would give a clear answer about what happened to them, but both looked panicked and muttered about Sorcery. It was realised by the PCs that the reason Kemuel had been so quiet was that he'd suddenly decided he'd try and learn to use his powerful magical potential all by himself to pass the time whilst riding in the litter. The player actually got a critical success on an unskilled energy management roll. The connection made, Kemuel was blamed for the event and told never to repeat it. ("It's never good when the slaves know there's sorcery about" the Slave Handler told them. "They fear it more than the whip, and that's never good for discipline.") 

No PC (apart from the one playing Sirukel) made the connection that in both cases the slave who collapsed was carrying Sirukel's baggage- where he secretly stored unknown artefacts stolen from the Sarku Temple in his character background, one of which had activated as Kemuel's uncontrolled magical power saturated the area. Sirukel himself has no idea what any of these artifacts are, except that one is an Eye of unknown function (the player has shown a suitable reluctance to just start firing this randomly off and see what it does).

This event delayed them sufficiently that they were forced to spend the night in a crude shelter built for Hma-herders forced to camp away from the Clan-house. They made the shelter just before the rains began, and promptly evicted the herders and Hma alike to take cover from the renewed rains there.

Occasionally, quirks of the wind and weather will bring a false end to the rainy season. The torrential monsoon ends, but after a few days a brief storm comes on it's heels. Such a storm stranded the PCs for the night. When morning came, the rain was still falling. Waiting most of the day, they finally decided the rain wasn't going to end, so rather than camp there a second night, they braved the weather to push for their destination before sundown.

As evening came, the rain still fell as the light began to fade- but there, ahead of them, was the clan-house of the Golden Sheaf Clan which served as a hostel for the nearby Sakbe-road. But as they moved toward the welcome shelter, they stumbled across a dead man laying sprawled in the road...
If anyone thinks this sounds familiar, it's because I decided to run "A Dark and Stormy Night" from the Book of the Visitations of Glory Issue 1 as the first adventure. With so much work putting the start of the campaign together, I decided to run a pre-gen as the first adventure, and this seemed a great scenario that was easy to adapt just by replacing the travellers with the PCs.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Campaign Concept

For my first attempt at running a Tekumel campaign, I decided to use a simple travelogue style adventure. Start the PCs at A, give them a reason to go to B which is a long way away, and give a series of encounters in between. This approach is an easier, more episodic format than adventures in a set location, when recurring cast and politics will inevitably start to take a larger role in a Tekumel campaign. It also allows me to showcase a much wider range of the things that make Tekumel distinct from other settings.

The general concept I came up with was that one of the PCs- Kemuel- had the potential to be a truly powerful Sorcerer, and so had to be sent to a place where he could learn magic. We settled on the White Stone clan and the temple of Dlamelish as his Clan/Temple, so then I was left to think on where to send them, and where to send them from.

Looking at the background for Tsodlan the Legion veteran, I settled on the Legion of Lord Kurukaa as the best fit for what I envisioned him as. Since this was based at Urmish, this decided the rough starting point for the PCs- a rural Clanhouse in that province. Looking at the map, the logical destination was Jakalla- it was the nearest major city, and was famous as a centre for magic and the Temple of Dlamelish. Except- Jakalla seemed too close for the sort of adventure I'd planned. I needed somewhere more distant. Sokatis seemed perfect, both in terms of distance and the fact that the White Stone Clan is noted as being particularly strong there.

Now I just needed a reason for the Clan Elders to send the budding archmage to Sokatis instead of Jakalla.

After much brainstorming, I finally had a stroke of inspiration. The Swords & Glory sourcebook states that in Salarvya religion is dominated by worship of the goddess Shiringgayi, a combination of Dlamelish and Avanthe. When I first looked at the religious affiliations of the White Stone Clan- Avanthe and Dlamelish- and the fact that Sokatis near the Salarvyani border is the centre of their Clan's power, a suspicion was formed. Were the White Stone Clan originally worshippers of Shiringgayi, and changed to Avanthe and Dlamelish as a concession to living in Tsolyanu?

Perhaps the White Stone Clan was from Salarvya, or was from the same cultural stock as the Salarvyani but ended up in Tsolyanu when the borders were stabilised centuries ago. Maybe the Clan actually exists in both empires, as the Vimuhla-worshipping Red Clans do with Mu'ugalavya. It would seem to fit what information I've been able to find.

I thus decided to take this idea a step further. The Temples in Tekumel are all full of secret societies and sects, all with different agendas and views on the worship of their deity. Some are simply like fraternal orders for the Priesthood, others are outright heretical or subversive, and most fall somewhere between. I reasoned that it was very possible for there to be a secret society in Sokatis that worshipped Shiringgayi, one which existed in the temples of both Avanthe and Dlamelish, teaching that both were simply aspects of a single goddess. This society is in conflict with the mainstream Temple of Dlamelish, but this conflict is, to date, so subtle that outsiders don't even know it's happening- Tsolyani institutions not being eager to show weakness or division to outsiders.

One of the key advantages the Temple of Dlamelish has in the conflict is that they have greater Sorcerous resources, being centred in Jakalla. The Sokatis sect is eager to address this deficiency- and part of this is to have Kemuel sent to Sokatis, where in addition to sorcerous training he'll be indoctrinated into the cult of Shiringgayi. The Temple of Dlamelish will be keen to prevent this happening- and so a conflict starts around the unsuspecting PCs even before they set foot outside the Clan-house.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Player Characters

One of the few flaws of the Tekumel: Empire of the Petal Throne system is that character creation can be somewhat complicated for those not familiar with the system. This is especially the case if whoever is attempting to create a character is also unfamiliar with the setting as well.

This being the case with my players, I decided it would be simpler to get a rough idea of what kind of character they felt like playing (fighter, social type, etc) and then create the characters for them. Here, I give the backgrounds for the four PCs that I created for the campaign.

Although Tsodlan hiMarada was born into the prestigious White Stone Clan, that has always seemed to be the limit of his fortune in life. His birth was into a very minor and impoverished branch of the Clan, with no real wealth or influence to draw on. His appearance- broad-shouldered and with features best described as homely- was often mocked in childhood, where others would comment his mother must have lay down with some field-hand.

When he reached adulthood, it was agreed by both the Clan-elders and Tsodlan himself that the best course for him was to enter the Legions and bring glory to the Clan through faithful service. Alas, with his low lineage the inducements the Legion officers were offered on his behalf were less than impressive, and he found the best he could achieve was enlistment in the Legion of Lord Kurukaa in nearby Urmish. Whilst listed amongst the prestigious Heavy Infantry Legions which form the backbone of the Tsolyani Imperial armies, the Legion of Lord Kurukaa had long since gained a reputation as little better than a town garrison- poorly trained, corrupt and incompetent.

During his service with the Legion of Lord Kurukaa this began to change- but even that was no source of good fortune for Tsodlan hiMarada. The new Kerdu in command of the Legion, Giriga hiBeshmylu, was a member of the Red Mountain Clan and a devout worshipper of the war god Vimuhla the Flame, and determined to spread Vimuhla's worship in the Legion. Worshipping the wrong deity, lacking connections to the Red Clans of the West who were once again taking an interest in the Legion, and with no money for inducements, Tsodlan found himself still a lowly Tirrikamu after more than two decades of service.

Well into his forties with his vigor starting to fade and no prospect of promotion, Tsodlan finally decided that war was a young man's game and he was no longer young. He resigned from the Legion, returning to the rural Clan-house that was still his official home despite having spent most of his life in Urmish. Waiting for him there were the two wives his Clan had arranged marriages to, and those children he'd fathered on them in his infrequent stays there.

Both of them he'd married in his teens. The first was from a higher-status lineage inside the White Stone Clan, and had been promised to his lineage as part of a long-standing dynastic agreement- she's never been happy about marrying (as she sees it) beneath herself, and Tsodlan is the main focus of this ire. The second wife was promised him to cement a deal with the lower-status Green Kirtle Clan, she had ambitions to improve her lot and was bitterly disappointed to discover that despite his White Stone lineage, marriage to Tsodlan had done nothing of the sort for her. Both wives despise each other, and their long-running feud is one of the mainstays of life in the Clanhouse.

After six months back with his wives, Tsodlan hiMarada has begun to think that perhaps he's not that old after all, and is starting to look for any excuse to travel away from the Clanhouse for a very extended period of time. 

Kemuel hiMriyu was born into the White Stone Clan, in a rural Clan-house in the north-west of the Urudai province. Far from the main centres of White Stone power, the Clan-house had been established to oversee several concessions and holdings that the Clan had acquired in the area as a result of supporting the Red Clans of the west in the Bey Su political arena. The holdings in question were considerable enough that the White Stone Clan decided to build a Clan-house to manage them, instead of sub-contracting the work to some local Clan.

Opportunities have always been lacking for those born to the Clan-house- the Clan holdings are distant, so locally positions of influence are given to other Clans, whilst back toward the East the rest of the Clan gives preference to their own neighbours, not these distant cousins. The area is seen as a backwater in Clan affairs, and those resident in the Clan-house tend to live quiet lives of no consequence- something which Kemuel has never truly accepted.

All his short life, Kemuel has been a handful- some might say a bane- for the Clanhouse. Always impatient, outspoken, impulsive, this ill-disciplined brat has always refused to simply settle down and work at becoming a dutiful and productive Clan member. The Clan wished for him to learn to be a scribe, so that he could enter the Bureaucracy and establish a career there, but he refused to pay proper attention to these studies. Once puberty struck, he was far more attentive to certain aspects of the Theology of Dlamelish and Bednalljan accounts of the life of Queen Nayiri of the Silken Thighs, though never for the correct reasons.

Then, at the age of 13, he was taken to the Temple of Dlamelish at Urmish to experience manhood with the priestesses- and upon examining him, the High Priestess of the Temple declared that he had a truly potent Pedhetl. One that, unchannelled and uncontrolled, was causing the impulsiveness, restlessness and lechery that seemed to define him.

One that, if he was taught to harness it correctly, could make him one of the most potent Magicians of his generation.

Now his path in life seemed clear. Such a potentially mighty resource was of great value to the Clan, and certainly would elevate the status of the Clan-house that he came from. Letters were sent out, and more than a year of negotiations took place as correspondance travelled back and forth. Finally, it was decided (after much political bargaining) that he would be sent all the way to Sokatis, where the Clan controlled the Temple of Dlamelish, to join the Temple and learn the secrets of Sorcery.

Naturally, the discovery of his special status did nothing to change Kemuel's ways. Indeed, they simply added pride and arrogance to his list of faults. Sighing to themselves, the Elders of the Clan-house decided to leave the breaking of his precociousness to the Temple in Sokatis, and deemed themselves well-rid of him in exchange for more advantageous postings or marriages for other, more deserving, sons and daughters of the Clan-house.

The now 15-year-old Kemuel is now looking forward to the great adventure of crossing a great length of the Empire, during which he'll doubtless win great glory facing whatever threats will beset them and prove himself the true leader of the band. No matter what the babysitters the decrepit Elders have seen fit to saddle him with might think...

Gachaya hiKiriyayu hails from Bey Su- glorious Bey Su, the Soul of the World, the beating heart of the Empire. Born to one of the the most prestigious lineages of White Stone Clan, he lived a life of privilege and comfort. He grew up amidst the intrigue and pageantry of the greatest of cities, and learned well the ways of the court. His life seemed certain to be a noble and glorious one- but the seeds of his own downfall he laid himself.

Never content with less than the best, Gachaya found he needed more funds than the Clan would allot to him. He had sharp eyes and ears, and a true talent for intrigue- and soon, he learned the arts of blackmail. He would ferret out the secrets of others at his social level, build enough proof, and then quietly advise his target of what he had learned, and the price for his silence. Soon he had all he could wish for, but the game he played was always a dangerous one, and in the hotbed of intrigue that is Bey Su, there were many just as talented as he and far more experienced.

Growing overconfident in his early successes, Gachaya attempted to blackmail a member of the Vriddi Clan. Rather than submit to Gachaya's demands, the Vriddi called his bluff, publicly denying the accusations before Gachaya could even make them and calling his evidence forgeries. Of less exalted status than the Vriddi, the White Stone was forced to pay a not inconsiderable Shamtla to the Vriddi.

Following this, Gachaya hiKiriyayu found himself posted indefinitely to the most isolated rural holding the Clan could find. Thinking over and over on his mistakes, lacking anything better to do in his exile to the barbaric hinterlands, he now knows what it was that he did wrong. He knows what he should have done instead- and how he'll succeed when he finally gets the chance to start again. When he finally gets free of this bucolic hovel and back to civilisation.

After three years, he was beginning to think he was to live here forever. But then the most annoying brat in the Clan-house was declared to be a Great Mage, destined to wield the greatest of sorcerous power. Honestly, he feels that the local High Priestess of Dlamelish just doesn't know enough about real magic to see what a mistake she's made, but he doesn't care. Having spent the last year first convincing the Clan-house Elders he can help and then advising them on how to negotiate for the brat's placement, Gachaya is now finally going to escape this Hma-stinking prison.

Because no matter what he might have done before, he's politically knowledgeable and- more importantly- of a high enough lineage to tell the brat to shut up and behave to his face. Both things that the Elders deemed important in someone sent to accompany him to Sokatis.

Sirukel hiMriyu was always gregarious and quick-witted. Born in a rural White Stone Clanhouse, he grew up keen but restless, and by the time he reached adulthood he knew the life of a Bureaucrat or Priest wasn't for him. Never particularly strong and with an aversion to physical danger that led to him being taunted as a child, the Legions were never considered by Sirukel or his Clan-Elders. But the life of a travelling merchant, accompanying the Clan's caravans as they went West into Mu'ugalavya and beyond? That was the life he chose, and he thrived in it.

Whilst not comfortable with physical confrontation, he proved to have no problems with the other hardships of travel. He learned languages quickly, and people soon began to say that he could carry sand to Milumanaya and convince someone to buy it at a profit. He always had an eye for the main chance, keen to prove himself as something other than the failure his Clan-cousins in more Warlike or Scholarly careers had said he'd be. And for one so young, he's certainly gained a great deal of respect within his Clanhouse for the wealth he's always brought back.

On one trip, he brought back more than just wealth- somehow (Sirukel isn't too clear on how the strange barbarian code works here himself), when he bluffed a force of Mu'ugalavyani soldiers into not attacking the caravan, he saved the life of a young N'luss boy who had apparently been who they were looking for. The son of a chieftain who'd been taken as a hostage, the boy had been sneaking back home accompanied by a single loyal warrior. When the warrior reached his tribe, he declared himself in Sirukel's debt- and the N'luss has been following him ever since.

M'vekku might be as big as a Tsi'il, as hairy as a Hmellu and smell worse than both put together, but he's a truly dangerous warrior. More importantly, he speaks little Tsolyani and Sirukel is fairly fluent in N'lussa, so taken with his lack of knowledge of Tsolyani ways he doesn't seem to grasp how dangerous or illegal some of the things he's asked to do are.

The most dangerous thing Sirukel has had him do to date was only a month ago. Whilst on the way back from his last trading expedition, Sirukel stumbled on a broken-wheeled Chlen-cart hidden just off the Sakbe road- and the Sarku Temple guards who'd hidden it there. Clearly, they didn't want anyone to find the cart before the next one came, leading him to suspect something less than legal might be inside it. When M'vekku came looking for him, Sirukel panicked and told the N'luss to kill the guards, who he was fearful were considering silencing him.

Searching the cart, Sirukel found strange implements, scrolls and components clearly of sorcerous purpose. Taking what seemed most valuable and portable, he told M'vekku to sneak back and set fire to the cart and bodies when they left the area. Now he has a small fortune in Kaitars he can't explain to the Clan, and several items he doesn't know the function of that he could sell for more. Arriving home, he hears of a Clan-cousin being sent to Sokatis, of all places. The other side of the Empire sounds good right now- he can sell the items there, and then claim the money he comes back with is from some venture in Sokatis- it's not like they talk to the Clan-house there on a regular basis, after all.

And in the event that the Temple of Sarku is somehow looking for him, the trail will go cold before he's home. But really, there's no chance the Temple could have any idea where the items are, is there?

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Tekumel and Me

Recently, I finally took the plunge and convinced several of my regular RPG friends to play a Tekumel: Empire of the Petal Throne campaign I would run. I sought a great deal of advice from a long-running Tekumel mailing list, and posted several accounts of my progress in building the campaign, ending with a brief summary of the first session of play. Several people expressed an interest in my continuing to report on this, and suggested a blog was a better way to do so.

Well, here it is- and this is the first time I've ever attempted to use a blog, so apologies in advance if I don't seem to be getting some things right.

I could start putting campaign stuff here, but when I sat down to write, I thought the first post should be about Tekumel in general, and how I came across it.

The fictional world of Tekumel is the creation of the late Professor MAR Barker. This man essentially did the same thing that the better-known JRR Tolkein did- spent his spare time building an imaginary world in such detail that it even has the languages described. Barker published several novels set on Tekumel, but the most famous (not that this is saying much) depiction of his world was as the setting for an RPG first published in 1974- the second game after Dungeons & Dragons, and the first to include a detailed setting.

Tekumel is based, not on the mythology and history of Europe as the works of Tolkein and Gygax are, but on a hybrid of India and Mesoamerica with several Sword & Sorcery pulp adventure tropes thrown in. The whole appeal is the setting- which was why I took so long to become a Tekumel fan.

I wanted to be a fan long before that- everything I'd heard about Tekumel sounded great to me. I was in my late teens when I first made an effort to seek it out, and bought the latest edition of a Tekumel RPG with my birthday money. Unfortunately, that product happened to be the Gardisiyal- and I can imagine Tekumel veterans cringing at the thought of this being a young gamer's first introduction to Tekumel. The game system was clunky and dated, and also incomplete- you were supplied a booklet of pre-generated characters, and needed to purchase another supplement to get the rules for creating your own. Worst of all, the setting of Tekumel, the whole point to playing there, was absent- just a four-page booklet with a brief overview, and then little hints throughout the rules with nothing concrete. Bitterly disappointed at this waste of my money, I stuck the box on a shelf to gather dust and gave up on Tekumel for most of a decade.

(In hindsight, I find myself thinking that the current obscurity of Tekumel can largely be blamed on Gardisiyal. The period in which it was released was a boom period for new RPGs, and a good Tekumel product would have introduced it to a whole new generation of potential fans. Instead, it was nothing but a waste of money.)

Then, in 2005, Guardians of Order published a new RPG- "Tekumel: Empire of the Petal Throne". A revised version of the company's Tri-Stat rules, T:EPT was a sleek modern system that captured the essence of the setting with simple die rolls. More importantly, it had details on the setting itself in the corebook- so two for two over Gardisiyal!

Alas, most gamers can tell you what happened to Guardians of Order. The company folded right after T:EPT was released, their financial difficulties finally getting the better of them. Worse, the book itself showed this. Whilst the physical production quality can't be faulted, the rules are clearly in need of a final round of editing, evidence it was rushed into production too quickly. A confusing ruleset and no further support- another seeming failure to release a Tekumel RPG.

I bought T:EPT when it came out. Over the next few years, I re-read it several times. Once I worked out where the rules actually were, and came up with house rules for the few things that were missing, it turned out to be a surprisingly good system. One that I'd even rate as better than Pendragon for low-tech combat. Also, by this time the older material from the 70s and 80s which accounted for the bulk of Tekumel's background was easy to find on the internet, instead of being restricted to the personal collections of Tekumel veterans from back in the day.

Finally, the time seemed right for me to be able to run a Tekumel campaign of my own. The hardest part proved to be selling it to my players- but now they've finally come around.

Details on my campaign to follow.