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

Sunday, 10 December 2017

An Original RPG II

Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel is the latest roleplaying game to explore the world of Tékumel, the linguistic and cultural setting developed by Professor M.A.R. Barker, which was originally published as Empire of the Petal Throne by TSR, Inc. in 1975, itself recently republished by The Tékumel Foundation. Published by Uni Games following a successful Kickstarter campaign, Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel is designed and illustrated by Jeff Dee, best known for his classic Advanced Dungeons & Dragons artwork and as the co-designer of the roleplaying game, Villains and Vigilantes, originally published by Fantasy Games Unlimited in 1979. Presented as ‘Rules for Science-Fantasy Role-Play on an Exotic Planet’, Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel includes new of rules for play on Tékumel, a different campaign framework, and a new setting, but, it nevertheless takes its cue and its template from the 1975 Empire of the Petal Throne—and that has implications for how accessible it is as a roleplaying game and how accessible it makes Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne.

Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel starts with a good introduction to the world of Tékumel, explaining what it is and giving it a solid timeline which runs from our near future into the very far future, explaining how Tékumel was originally discovered in 60,000 AD and subsequently terraformed into a tourist world before it was dragged into a pocket universe. Isolated for millennia, both the human and alien inhabitants regressed technologically and lost much knowledge, but adapted to the hot and resource poor world that is Tékumel, such as learning to harvest, cut, and harden cut the hide of the mighty chlén beast to shape into armour, weapons, ploughs, and more. In time, the peoples of Tékumel made contact with intelligences from the Planes beyond the plane—or ‘béthorm’—of Tékumel, some of whom were adopted by the Priest-Kings of Éngsvan Hlá Gánga as the Tlomitlányal, the Gods of Stability, and the Tlokiriqáluyal, the Gods of Change. Éngsvan Hlá Gánga is only one of many great empires that have arisen and fallen since Tékumel was isolated. Today the area once ruled by Éngsvan Hlá Gánga is occupied by five great empires—Tsolyánu, the Empire of the Throne; the Empire of Mu’ugalavyá; the Land of Sorcery, Livyánu; and Sa’á Allaqí and Salarvyyá. It is the first of these empires, Tsolyánu, that is the primary focus of Tékumel and any roleplaying game devoted to the setting concentrates upon this nation above any other. This is not to say campaigns set on Tékumel cannot be set elsewhere, but that takes a bit more effort and a bit more knowledge than is presented in any roleplaying game devoted to Tékumel, and indeed, is presented in Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel.

In terms of timeframe, the default setup for Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel is 2369 AS, after the civil war that has rent Tsolyánu the last five years. Prince Dhich’uné, who usurped the throne from his late father, Emperor Hirkáne, ‘The Stone Upon Which Rests the Universe’, has been dethroned by his brothers and fled, whereabouts unknown. Prince Mirusyía now rules as ‘The Flame Everlasting’ and despite rumblings from Prince Dhich’uné’s allies in the Temple of Sárku, there is relative peace in the empire as the war with Yan Kór has ended on good terms.

Now in Empire of the Petal Throne, the default setup was that of ‘Fresh Off the Boat’, foreigners or ‘country bumpkins’, distant cousins who sail ashore at the great Tsolyáni port city of Jakálla and set out to find a place in civilised society. Initially confined to the Foreigners Quarter, they seek employers, then patrons, and finally sponsors who will support their becoming members of a clan and so become citizens of Tsolyánu, the Empire of the Throne. Not so in Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel. Instead it offers up several campaign ideas, from being members of the same clan, worshippers of the same deity, and members of the same military legion to working as troubleshooters for the Omnipotent Azure Legion—the equivalent of the secret police in Tsolyánu and becoming the Heroes of the Age. It strongly advises against mixing characters of opposing faiths and widely diverging social levels, the latter because every good Tsolyáni clan members knows his or her place. Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel also suggests various adventure concepts, from the Underworld and its archaeology, wilderness exploration, and court intrigue to clan conflicts, administrative assignments, and the mysteries and puzzles of Tékumel. 

The default setup in Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel though, is not that of ‘Fresh Off the Boat’, but instead has the player characters as members of a Tsolyáni clan. Which means that Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel is much more a culture game than the default setup in Empire of the Petal Throne. Any player characters in Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel will likely be human and Tsolyáni—the good citizens of Tsolyánu are conservative by nature and distrust foreigners and nonhumans—though the rules presented in Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel do provide the means to create player characters who are not of the Five Empires or nonhuman should a campaign allow for such a possibility. That said, the Tsolyáni are tolerant of gender and sexual preferences, in particular a woman gains the same rights and responsibilities as a man if she officially declares herself to be of Aridáni status. More specifically though, the player characters are members of a clan which is either based in, or has a clan house in the Western city of Katalál. To that end, the character creation process includes a list of the primary clans found in the city, along with a list of personal and lineage names. 

A character in Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel is designed using Uni Games’ Pocket Universe system first seen in the Pocket Universe Basic Rules Set and Teenage Demon Slayer, both published in 2003. A character is defined by five attributes—Physique, Deftness, Intellect, Willpower, and Psychic Ability, though the latter is really only important for spellcasters; personal traits—advantages and disadvantages; and skills. It is a point buy system, a player being given three pools of points to spend on each. Elements such as date of birth, gender identity, gender expression, biological sex, and sexual attraction can all be rolled for or chosen as is a player’s wont. As can name and lineage. The character creation process is straightforward, though it does get slightly more complex when creating a spellcaster. It is also flexible, so that it is possible to create a wide array of character types, though the emphasis is on occupation within a clan, a temple, or military legion—which in Tsolyánu is how it should be.

Our sample character is Fssu’úma hiTurushán of the Clan of Black Monolith, native of the city of Katalál. She has declared herself Aridáni and been sponsored by her clan—to its great cost—to train in the secret city of Hmakuyal. Outwardly, she is learning to become an ecclesiastical lawyer in the temple of Ksárul, but secretly is training to become a ‘Maisur Hu’on Gual’, a practitioner of Hu’on, the unarmed martial arts known only to the Ancient Lord of Secrets. She is thus trained as an unarmed bodyguard to serve the priesthood of Lord Ksárul.

Fssu’úma hiTurushán
Clan: Black Monolith
Occupation: Administrative Priest (Maisur Hu'on Gual)
God: Ksárul
Age: 18 Gender: Female

Personal Wealth: 225 kaitars
Contact Points: 10
Clan Influence: 4
Personal Influence: 1
Prestige: 3

Physique 11 (+1)
Deftness 11 (+1)
Intellect 10 (+0)
Willpower 10 (+0)
Psychic Ability 02

Hit Points: 14
Unarmed Damage: 2/4/6
Initiative: 2/4/6
Melee Defence: 2
Missile Defence: 2
Magic Defence: –
Move: 7

Personal Traits
Advantages: Danger Sense (1), Quick Thinking (1), Strong (1), Training (2)
Disadvantages: Enemy (1), Skill Limitation (Performance) (1), Debt (2), Lower Lineage (1)

Skills
Administration 10 (1), Danger Sense 10 (1), Dodge 12 (3), Etiquette 10 (1), Insight 09 (1), Kick 12 (3), Language: Classical Tsolyáni 10 (1), Literacy (1), Oratory 09 (1), Punch 11 (1), Ritual 10 (1)

In terms of character design and creation, the Pocket Universe system as used in Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel feels like a streamlined version of Steve Jackson Games’ GURPS, or rather more like its forebear, The Fantasy Trip, published by Metagaming Concepts in the late 1970s. For example, skills are based directly off a character’s attribute, each initially being purchased at a base value equal to the skill and then improved above the base value in a fashion similar to that of GURPS. The given range of advantages, disadvantages, and skills provides a wide array of options in terms of character design, but any design will be quite tight and probably require a bit of juggling of points if a player is to get what he wants. Overall, once familiar with the rules, a character can be created in about twenty minutes or so.

The action resolution system is simple enough. A player rolls two ten-sided dice and tries to roll equal to, or under the skill or attribute. A result of two is always a success, a result of twenty a failure. Doubles count as a critical result, if under the target number as a critical success, if over the target number, as a critical failure. Difficulty modifiers apply, but the base unmodified target number represents a difficult task, whereas a routine task grants a +2 modifier. Modifiers can come from the situation, from equipment, extra time, and from roleplaying.

Combat adds some complexity, but not a great deal. Both Initiative and damage are handled in a similar fashion. Each is represented by a range of three numbers, every character having a range for their Unarmed Damage and Initiative and then for one each weapon he might wield, for example, 3/5/7, for a sword. They can be modified by Advantages and Disadvantages such as Quick, Slow, Strong, and Weak. A ten-sided die is rolled, a result of one or two indicating that the first number be used, a result of between three and eight indicating that the middle number be used, and a result of nine and ten indicating that the last number in the range be used. A character’s Melee or Missile Defence reduces the likelihood of being struck by an opponent and armour reduces damage inflicted. The combat rules cover most situations, including combat manoeuvres, multiple attacks, called shots, defensive fighting, and desperation.
For example, Fssu’úma hiTurushán is returning from an errand to the Armoury of the Bright Helm in the foreigners’ quarter of Katalál for her clan when she comes upon a fight outside the Residence of Akkéme the Yán Koryáni, Resthouse for Poor and Indigent Foreigners of No Status. A drunken brawl has broken out between two N’lüss warriors inside the building and spilled out onto the street. One of the brawling N’lüss is on the floor, battered and bleeding, having been subdued by the other N’lüss and a detachment of the city guard sent to keep the peace. Unfortunately, so are a number of the city guard, leaving just two to deal with a drunk N’lüss warrior. Worse, the still standing N’lüss warrior is a citizen, a member of the Clan of the Standing Reed.
First initiative must be rolled for both the N’lüss warrior and Fssu’úma hiTurushán. The Game Master decides that the N’lüss warrior is the equivalent of a medium warrior and assigns him an Initiative of 1/2/3. The Game Master rolls a die and with a roll of 5 sets the warrior’s Initiative at 2. Fssu’úma’s player rolls an 8 and gives her an Initiative of 4—she is definitely going first.
Fssu’úma calls out, “Hoi! What good citizen would be disturbing the peace?” The N’lüss looks over his shoulder and dismissively curls his lip at what he sees is just a good Clan girl. She answers this by saying, “Only nakome scum would smash up their home.” She figures that the N’lüss warrior will take this as a deadly insult and she is right, for he turns and lumbers towards her as the standing city guards look on in surprise. She enters a defensive stance, increasing her Melee Defence to 4, her player explaining that she wants to dodge the N’lüss’ attack and so put her in a better position to attack next round. The N’lüss attempts to grapple Fssu’úma. As a medium warrior, the N’lüss warrior has a Deftness of 10, but not the Grapple skill, which unskilled is equal to Deftness -1. So, the Target Number is 9, modified by Fssu’úma’s raised Melee Defence, lowering it to 5. The Game Master rolls 15, meaning that the N’lüss warrior has failed to grab her.
Now it is Fssu’úma’s turn to act. Her player decides that she will make a Hu’on kick attack against the N’lüss’ knee, the aim being to knock the giant warrior to the floor. The Game Master awards her player a +1 bonus for the roleplaying description and another +1 bonus for the N’lüss’ bad roll. Fssu’úma’s Target Number is 12, plus the bonuses awarded by the Game Master, but -2 for the N’lüss’ Melee Defence and -2 for the called shot on the leg. Fssu’úma’s Target Number is 10. Her player not only rolls a 10, but a double 5, meaning that Fssu’úma’s attack not only struck home, it is also a critical strike. Fssu’úma’s player rolls for her Unarmed Damage and with a result of 10, inflicts maximum damage or 6 points.
The N’lüss must make a Physique check to withstand the effects of this kick, equal to his Physique +2, but minus the damage. Armour would protect him,  but who drinks in their armour? The N’lüss has a Physique of 14, so with six damage, the Game Master’s Target Number is 10. A roll of 16 means he fails and he is forced down to one knee as the other leg gives out under him. His Hit Points, already reduced from 14 to 11 in the earlier brawl, are now 5. Then there is the matter of the critical strike. Fssu’úma’s player rolls a ten-sided die and consults the Combat Critical Tables. He rolls 2, which allows Fssu’úma a second attack. Her player says that as the N’lüss goes down, Fssu’úma will punch him in the face, as they are on the same level. The Game Master likes this, and says that whilst the N’lüss does have his helmet on, his Melee Defence will not count because he is on his knees. It is also a called shot with a -3 penalty. Fssu’úma’s Target Number is 8. Her player rolls 8, a hit, and then 9 for damage, for another 6 damage. The N’lüss’ helmet reduces this damage by one and the Game Master would need to roll to see if the remaining damage would be enough to knock him out, but since the N’lüss only has 5 Hit Points left, the point is moot.
At this point, Fssu’úma steps back, straightens the silver mask she wears as a priest of Ksárul, and calms herself a moment before saying to the body of the giant man before her, “I am so sorry for calling you nakome scum. That was rude of me. And sorry about your knee.” Then she pulls out a handful of coins and drops them by the prone figure. “I am sure this will cover the shamtla I owe.” With that, she walks past the two city guards who stand looking on agog.
The bulk of Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel is divided between three subjects—spells and spellcasting, monsters and NPCs, and treasure. In fact, almost a third of the book is devoted to spells and sorcery. Like the societies of Five Empires in general, spells and spellcasting are highly organised, highly codified, and highly restricted, students being taught at the temples, so that there is a religious aspect to the practice of sorcery. Inside the Five Empires, it is very rare for anyone to be taught spells who has not been a student at one of the temples and having potential as a sorcerer or sorcerer-priest is one way for someone from a low status to receive a high education and so bring prestige and glory to his clan. Both the rules and the setting divide its many spells into three phyla. Universal spells are known to all temples; Generic spells are advanced spells known to some temples, but not others; and Temple spells are unique to each priesthood—they may be known about by other priesthoods, but not enough to be taught, even if the subject matter and effect of the spells are acceptable to those other priesthoods. Which in the case of the spells known to the priesthoods of Sárku, Lord of Worms or Lady Dlamélish, the Green-Eyed Lady of Fleshly Joys, is unlikely. 

Spells are further divided into Psychic and Ritual spell types, the former cast purely through pure mental visualisation only, the latter requiring a mixture of precise movements and incantations to cast. So Minding Reading and Blessing are examples of Psychic and Ritual Universal spells; Beauty is a Generic Ritual spell known to the priesthoods of Avánthe and Dlamélish; and Frostbite is a Ritual Temple spell Unique to the priesthood of Hrü’ü, the Supreme Principle of Change, whilst Combat Mastery I is a Psychic Temple spell unique to the priesthood of Karakán, the Lord of War. 

To create a sorcerer character in Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel, a player will need to invest points into his character’s Psychic Ability as well as his other attributes. A good Intellect score is probably a good idea too and points will need to be put into the Sorcery skill. Points put into the latter also grant ‘Spell Purchase Points’, used to buy knowledge of certain spells and determine a sorcerer’s ‘Sorcery Level’. The latter also determines what rank of spells a sorcerer is granted access to. To cast a spell, a player must roll his character’s Sorcery skill and have him expend Psychic Energy or ‘NRG’ points. Although the rules for sorcery are slightly more complex than the rules found elsewhere in the book, they only take up a few pages of Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel, the rest of the section devoted to the subject consisting of spell after spell after spell. Each spell is quite detailed, allowing for a fair degree of flavour, in terms of both mechanics and setting.

Our sample Ritual-Sorcerer is Abáshu hiCháika, a member of the Clan of Eye of Flame, a clan of barbers, soldiers, and bodyguards. Crippled since childhood, he never expected to do more than follow in his father’s footsteps and work in the clan barbershop. His life changed when a priest of Vimúhla noticed the boy’s perspicacity and psychic potential. With his father’s blessing, he took him to the temple to be tested as a result of which he was inducted into the temple of the Lord of Fire. Being of a low status meant that Abáshu began his education late, but he has made up for it, having learned the great classical language, Engsvanyáli, and mastered the basics of ritual sorcery. Although he does not match the status of his fellow students, he is an assiduous and a willing study partner. His fellow students have learned that he is a canny kévuk player—he often supplements his limited funds by winning those of his fellow students. He requires a crutch to walk, but is keen to see the world beyond the walls of Katalál.

Abáshu hiCháika
Clan: Eye of Flame
Occupation: Administrative Priest
God: Vimúhla
Age: 21 Gender: Male

Personal Wealth: 150 kaitars
Contact Points: 13
Clan Influence: 3
Personal Influence: 1
Prestige: 3

Physique 08 (-2)
Deftness 08 (-2)
Intellect 12 (+2)
Willpower 10 (+0)
Psychic Ability 11 (+1)

Hit Points: 5
Unarmed Damage: 0/2/2
Initiative: 0/2/2
Melee Defence: –
Missile Defence: –
Magic Defence: 1
Move: 2

Personal Traits
Advantages: Connected (1), Reference Library (1), Talented (Sorcery) (1), Training (2)
Disadvantages: Hesitant (1), Lower Clan (2), Phobia (Snakes) (1), Slow (1)

Skills
Dodge 8 (1), Etiquette 12 (1), Gambling 13 (3), Language & Literacy (Engsvanyáli) 13 (3), Language & Literacy (Tsolyáni) (1), Melee 8 (1), Research 12 (1), Resist Sorcery 11 (3), Rituals 13 (3), Sorcery 14 (3)

Sorcery Level: 12
Spell Purchase Points: 2 (30)
Psychic Points: 55
Spells: Treat Minor Wounds, The Web of Kriyág, Lover of Spiders, The Cutlass of Dejection

The encounters and monsters section covers possible encounters outdoors, in the city, wilderness, on the great Sákbe roads, and in the Underworld. These encounters are supported by a lengthy bestiary of men, creatures, and alien races, each entry accompanied by a decent description as well as the stats. In many cases, several variations are given. So for example, the entry for the Ssú, the ‘Enemies of Man’, includes stats for civilian, light skirmisher, medium soldier, elite/heavy soldier, and Universal, Generic, and Temple spellcaster—for both the Grey and the Black Ssú. The entries are each illustrated nicely by the author. The bestiary is followed by a lengthy section on the treasure to be found on Tékumel. Of course, this focuses on the Eyes, the mechanical devices of ages long past which store the same effects as many of the spells of current day, but lists numerous items that help impart flavour and detail to Tékumel.

Rounding out Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel are maps of Tsolyánu, of the area around the city of Katalál, and of Katalál itself. The latter is particularly good and is accompanied by a list of the places of note in the city, but no more. Physically, Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel is a black and white hardback, cleanly laid out, and nicely illustrated. The maps are good and the artwork is very nice. Unfortunately, Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel, by modern standards, physically disappointing. The artwork is good, but there is not enough of it and what there is, is often too small. The organisation is hampered by its adherence to wargames or technical manual layout, with everything numbered in sequence, rather than in chapters. It is not only outdated, it is a hindrance to the easy use of the book, and this is only exacerbated by a lack of index. All right, so the contents listing is decent, but by modern standards, the lack of an index is frustrating and inexcusable, if not downright silly. 

The contents could also have been better organised. In several places, background information is not placed in a background section for easy reference, but as part of character creation. In particular, the listing and explanations of the gods, the Tlomitlányal and the Tlokiriqáluyal, the clans to be found in the city of Katalál, and so on. Certainly, making choices from these is part of the default character generation process in Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel, but it makes them difficult to reference. It also highlights the fundamental problem with Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel—a lack of support for the Game Master. The map of Katalál is useful, the list of clans to be found in Katalál is useful, but there is no virtually background to the city, no adventure seeds, let alone an adventure. What background there is, is very much buried in the text. So what this means is that the Game Master is given all of the tools to run the Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel in mechanical terms, but not enough in terms of the setting.

The fundamental problem with Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel is design wise, is that it uses the original Empire of the Petal Throne from 1975 as a template and does not deviate from it. It has some background, it has rules and mechanics, it has a default setup, just like Empire of the Petal Throne, and just like Empire of the Petal Throne it does not go beyond that. The background is good, the rules are good, and the default setup is rife with potential, but Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel does not take that one good vital step that would aid anyone new to Tékumel into running a game.  

That said, if the Game Master is not new to Tékumel, then there will be a good deal of information in Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel that will be familiar and when coupled with the solid Pocket Universe system, said Game Master will have no issue running a game. For a Game Master new to Tékumel, Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel will be much more of challenge to run. Although the background material is decent and the rules light and accessible, the lack of support is likely to be daunting.  As a set of rules for anyone familiar with Tékumel, Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel is an excellent choice, but as an introduction to Tékumel and certainly gaming on Tékumel, Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel is a misstep.