Trail of Cthulhu

Trail Cover

Mythos Investigation and Horror in the 1930s

You have to keep the doors to the Outside from swinging open – no matter what the cost in life or sanity. You have to piece together clues from books bound in human skin, from eviscerated corpses covered in ichor, and from inscriptions carved on walls built before humanity evolved. You have to go wherever the answers are, and do what needs to be done to protect humanity. But do you dare to follow … the trail of Cthulhu?

Trail of Cthulhu is an award-winning roleplaying game of investigative horror, powered by the GUMSHOE system and produced under license from Chaosium. Acclaimed expert on the eldritch Kenneth Hite weds his encylopaedic knowledge of vivid historical detail to his mastery of H. P. Lovecraft’s classic horror tales to bring their cosmic malignity forward into the 1930s—a time when the creeping madness of the Great Old Ones intermingles with the sweeping cruelty of global totalitarianism.

Trail of Cthulhu is designed for investigative play: the challenge is in interpreting clues, not finding them. The game also offers:

  • Two modes of play: Pulp (for the “desperate action” feel of Robert E. Howard or Indiana Jones) and Purist (full of philosophical horror and cosmic dread)
  • A new take on Lovecraft’s creatures and cults that makes even the most familiar Mythos elements surprising and scary at the gaming table
  • Innovative rules for sanity and stability
  • A Drives mechanic that addresses the perennial horror RPG question, “Why don’t we just forget we saw anything, and go home where it’s safe?”
  • GM advice on how to run a horror adventure
  • Detailed notes on designing an enthralling, cohesive investigative adventure using the GUMSHOE system’s clue structure.

Buy the standard print edition
 
Buy the Starter Kit print bundle

Trail of Cthulhu won two ENnie awards for Best Rules and Best Writing, as well as receiving an honourable mention for Product of the Year. It’s now in its third print run, and currently available in five languages.

Support for Trail of Cthulhu includes award-winning adventures, supplements, and campaigns from designers such as Kenneth Hite, Robin D. Laws, Jason Morningstar, Will Hindmarch, Jeff Tidball, Adam Gauntlett, Graham Walmsley, Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, and Bill White.

You are among the few who suspect the truth about the mad gods at the center of the universe, about the Great Old Ones who dream of clearing off the Earth, about the extra-terrestrials who use mankind in their experiments, about the ancient legends of undying evil that are all coming true. You have to make sure nobody else ever finds out — or the world will wake up screaming…

Review Highlights

See the complete reviews to date here.

.…I was concerned that my traditional style of low prep freeform gaming would have trouble with the GUMSHOE clue system included here… I quickly discovered that this was not an obstacle at all, … it was very easy to constantly push new clues through different Investigative Abilities. In fact, I found that the game worked spectacularly well with this style as the nature of these Abilities encouraged me to constantly engage each of the players thereby resulting in a mystery that was continuously moving forward to its PC driven conclusion. My play experiences have been far more satisfying than I would have expected, though my group has largely avoided physical conflict whenever possible.

CW Richeson on rpg.net

Overall, this is a masterful melding of the Gumshoe system with classic Cthulhu Mythos gaming, an inspired match. There’s so much goodness in this that I’ll be back again and again, not just to play but to mine for ideas whatever I am doing.

Megan Robertson on rpgnow.com

By now it should be evident that I really love Trail of Cthulhu. I think it manages to capture the feel and style of HPL’s stories, particularly when played in Purist mode, with rules built to complement the stories. GUMSHOE is a perfect fit for investigative type adventures, and well-suited for a plotted out set of scenes. It also is simple enough to be run in a more “off-the-cuff” improvisational style and doesn’t require a great deal of prep on the part of the Keeper.

Michael Harnish on RPG Geek

…the section on the Cthulhu Elder Gods/Outer Gods is superb and packed with so many incredibly insane ideas for running plots it is hard to talk about it without waving hands around incoherently. One small sentence about Elder Gods as meme loads was so compelling it was a hot topic in my house for three days. If you’re into CoC at all, this is worth getting to juice up campaigns and take them to 11.

Emily Dresner

The Gumshoe system is an investigation-oriented one, and this orientation is well suited to many Mythos scenarios. We enjoyed playing our characters and didn’t have too much trouble picking up the system. I’d recommend it.

Duncan Hunter on rpg.net

This book is gorgeous; my copy is a lovely 248 page hardcover. Jérome Huguenin does a masterful job with art and layout. That art is consistent throughout– something not to be underestimated as a key to make a game feel complete … Worth buying for any gamer interesting in horror or Lovecraft.

Lowell Francis on rpggeek.com

With enough for everyone and a system flexible to have from a purely investigative adventure to a action fuelled Indiana Jones style game, if you like Lovecraft, you simply can’t go wrong with it

Paco G Jaen of G*M*S Magazine

Related Links

Stock #:PELGT01D Author: Kenneth Hite and Robin Laws
Artist: Jerome Huguenin Format: 248-page, two-color, smythe-sewn hardback

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Over on the Google+ Pelgrane Press RPGs community, Johan Lundström voiced concerns about the order in which his players would tackle the locations of Eternal Lies, our world-spanning Trail of Cthulhu campaign, and the impact that might have on plot and pacing of the campaign. Eternal Lies writer Will Hindmarch responds as follows (***CAUTION*** Contains spoilers for Eternal Lies below the image—for Eternal Lies Keepers only!)

 

 

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Great questions. These concerns are totally valid! Fortunately, the game and the campaign have features built in to help you pace and adapt the campaign to suit your needs.

First, be careful to lay out the options for Act Two such that the players and their characters are choosing from multiple options with a bit of intel to go on. Their patron in the campaign can buy them all the boat trips and plane rides they need to take on the chapters in the order of their choosing. If Malta or Bangkok catch their interest, the logistics of travel don’t have to play a part in their decision. If Ms. Winston-Rogers summons the Investigators back east for a meeting to discuss what they’ve uncovered so far, you can emphasize how easy it is to travel in this campaign in Ms. Winston-Rogers’ own words.

The episodic format of Act Two is intentionally designed to give the long-running campaign a bit of a familiar, recurring structure in the middle. That serialized feeling can be a feature, rather than a bug! Given how long it might take to play out a given locale, the ability to recenter and quickly understand the format of the investigation between locales can be helpful. Use scenes set at home, between chapters, to adjust and modulate the pacing, especially if the PCs are moving quicker than they seem to like. This isn’t meant to slow them down, but to add variation to the kind of challenges put before them.

How you pace and portray the big choices is important, too. It is fair game to play up the danger and mystery of the Yucatán expedition to help the players and their characters question if they really are ready to go there yet. If they attempt the Yucatán expedition early in the campaign, that’s their choice. Let them enjoy the benefits of that—and experience the consequences. It is an undeniably big encounter, at the end of that locale, but whether it’s climactic or not is a matter of structure and storytelling, right? Consider how the campaign goes forward differently as a result of their choice, including how to introduce new Investigators, if necessary.

They have made great progress in battling their foe, and earned an edge against it, but can they trust the words of a spiteful alien god-monster? Is it even accurate? Knowing how to cast the spell isn’t enough! Other locales have clues that tell them where and when to cast the spell. And if they somehow press on without gathering sufficient clues, the Investigators live or die by that choice, too.

To carry the campaign forward after any locale that feels highly climactic, maybe treat that as something akin to a season finale, and treat the next session as the premiere of the next season. This also signals you, as the Keeper, to portray choices and consequences in later locales so that they are climactic, too; maybe by being more personally consequential than epically climactic.

The structure of Eternal Lies is designed to help Keepers and other players modulate the experience, and to keep the story going even if the Investigators cannot keep going. The premise picks up the threads of an investigation that met with disaster. If new Investigators meet with trouble, more Investigators can pick up the threads too, carried forward by the players already. Each locale is a jumping-on point and a seam for the Keeper to use to reorient the players and new characters. The feeling of setting out for locale #3 (whichever one that is) can echo or allude to the Investigators’ previous trip. That can be comforting or foreboding, depending on how the last trip went.

The flip side of it? If the Investigators are doing very well, making smart choices and getting great results, they get to enjoy the benefits of that for a little while.

But remember: they don’t know what the next locale holds. They don’t know how far, how vast, how perilous their future might be. The fear of what happens next is greater for those who haven’t read the book. Use that. They might find a later locale easier than an earlier one… but they can’t rely on that feeling. You have the power to keep them wary, but enticed to press forward despite their fears. The menace and the mystery of the experience is in your voice, Keeper.

by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan

Love is eternal… if you’re an alien monstrosity from beyond all sane conceptions of space and time, an undying horror that seethes and defies our pitiful understandings of entropy and existence. For the rest of us, love’s a brief candle, a momentary delusion to distract us from the horror of existence, our cells blindly pushing towards pointless self-replication, perpetuating the cosmic torture upon a million future generations until humanity is mercifully extinguished and there’s nothing left upon the Earth but dust and coleopterans.

Happy Valentine’s Day. Here are three love-themed mythos seeds.

 

Roses are red/Violets are blue

(or so they are seeming)

In his house in Rlyeh/Great Cthulhu

(lies dreaming)

A dilettante investigator from a wealthy or influential meets an alluring young woman. She’s charming, eerily beautiful, erudite, and apparently of considerable independent means. Also, she proves to be remarkably well-informed about the Mythos, and is ready to aid the investigators in their struggle against cosmic horrors. All she asks is that the investigator come home with her to Innsmouth to meet her family…

The investigator is in no danger; he’s welcome in Innsmouth. After all, the elders want him to be part of the family. He doesn’t have to stay – in fact, they encourage him to take his bride-to-be home with him. The elders of Dagon intend to establish a second enclave of Cthulhu-worshipping Deep One hybrids, and have chosen the investigator to be the human progenitor of a new line.

How can he refuse? Can the other investigators interrupt the wedding in time?

 

Roses are red/Violets are blue

Yithians in your time-stream want to date you.

One of the investigators suffers a mysterious period of amnesia, during which she acted in a bizarre fashion, travelling to various occult sites and trafficking with ghastly entities. Afterwards, the investigator discovers bizarre messages left for her across the aeons – an archaeological dig in Cyprus finds a statue that’s the image of her, her name crops up in the secret oaths of cults, there are prophecies about her recorded in cryptic passages of the Necronomicon. Eventually, she find a Yithian library buried under the sands of Australia, and there she discovers the truth. She was abducted by the Great Race, and while imprisoned in prehistory, she fell in love with a mighty sorcerer of Hyperborea. Her starcrossed lover swore that he would find his way back to her once they both returned to their home time periods – even though he lived thousands of years before the present day.

All the hints and clues in the various occult tradition suggest that the sorcerer still exists in some form. Maybe he’s travelling forward in time through arcane rituals, or prolonging his life through vampirism, or he’s reduced himself to his essential salts so he can be resurrected by the cult he founded in ancient days. In any case, he’s unlikely to be the cone she fell in love with fifty million years ago – what eldritch horror, sustained by mad obsession, now shambles towards the investigator out of the aeons?

 

Roses are red/Violets are blue

Yellow, though, is the unhealthiest of hues.

In a gallery in Paris, the investigators glimpse a painting of a young woman. In the image, she strolls by a strange, misty lake, glancing over her shoulder as if daring the viewer to follow her.

Over the course of the next few weeks, all the investigators are beset by memories or dreams of the woman. In each case, they remember having a torrid, passionate romance with her at some point in their pasts. Some details are common to all their recollections – in every case, her name was Camilla; in every case, she abruptly ended the affair and fled, saying only that she had to find “truth, not its phantom”. Other details vary – in some cases, she was a student the investigator met at university, or a shepherdess in the village where the investigator grew up, or an artist’s model, or a friend of a friend. She appears ageless – some investigators remember her from their distant youth, for others, they recall her so vividly that they can still smell her perfume in their rooms, but she is always the same, always young and beautiful.

The memories become more intense, more alluring – and more detailed as the investigators dwell on them. Spend time thinking about Camilla, and you’ll recall how you picnicked on the banks of the Seine, or how she led you up the steps of a crumbling Roman ruin in the woods, or how she taught you the secret speech of ghouls. Memories of Camilla are suffused with a warm yellowish glow, and it is far more pleasant to dwell in melancholic remembrances of lost love than it is to exist in the harsh light of the present day. Spend enough time with her in the past, and she reveals more hidden truths, even hinting that the investigator can find her again in the present if he or she ensures that their love is the only true one – by killing the other player characters…

Is Camilla a curse conjured by the mysterious artist who painted the portrait, hired by some rival to destroy the investigators? Is she some Carcosan phantom, a memetic horror that’s colonising their histories? Is she a creature of possibility, trying to fix her own ever-shifting history by attaching herself to the timeline of one of the investigators? Or is she an innocent who became trapped in Carcosa, and is now trying to escape as best she can?

It was the Yuletide, that men call Christmas though they know in their hearts it is older than Bethlehem and Babylon, older than Memphis and mankind. It was the Yuletide, and I had come at last to the ancient sea town where my people had dwelt and kept festival in the elder time when festival was forbidden; where also they had commanded their sons to keep festival once every century, that the memory of primal secrets might not be forgotten.

– The Festival

Of course, they celebrate Christmas in Great Arkham. It’s a normal city, a god-fearing city, and they have more reason to chase away the midwinter gloom than most. Every year, the city council raises a great tree in Independence Square, and decorate the streets with electric lights. Bands play down in the Wooded Island, and there are fabulous balls and parties in Kingsport and the Hotel Miskatonic. For a little while, maybe, it seems as if the oppressive darkness of the city retreats.

Look closer.

Sentinel Hill: The Church of the Conciliator, Great Arkham’s dominant religious sect, celebrates Christmas. It’s the birth of our Lord, a time of joy and hope! On this day, long long ago, God filtered down from the stars and took on human (well, material) form, to bring the good news of the Old Ones to the world.

  • Theology: The nativity readings in the Arkham City Cathedral are oddly sympathetic to Herod, of all people. There’s the unsettling implication that the birth of the saviour somehow required the sacrifice of many, many other children.
  • Streetwise: Attendance at mass over Christmas is obligatory, even if one doesn’t regularity visit church. The priests take note of those who refuse to celebrate this holiest of days. Why, ungrateful people who can’t even go to mass at Christmas don’t deserve to see the New Year…

Old Arkham: The wealthy families of Old Arkham host elabourate banquets and feasts, bringing the whole family back together for one night at least. Christmas is a time for renewing old vows and bonds of loyalty, and for bringing wayward scions back home.

  • Bargain: There’s a little shop on Go-by Street that sells the most marvellous Christmas decorations, handmade twists of glass and silver in the shape of stars and branches. Hang them from your tree, and your home will be protected for the season at least. They’re expensive, though, and there’s a waiting list as certain wealthy families buy a new one of these… charms every year. Maybe if you’re lucky, you can still get one – or borrow one with Filch…
  • Medicine: No-one dies in St. Mary’s Hospital at Christmas. It’s not some seasonal miracle, though – it’s something older and darker. Those who succumb to illness or injury on the 25th of December linger on in defiance of all medical science, and mutter in strange tongues as if some other force speaks through them.

University District: The university closes for the holidays, of course, so the storied halls and lecture theatres of Miskatonic are deserted. Most staff and students go home, leaving only a few lonely souls or bachelor professors to haunt the campus.

  • Library Use: There’s a book related to Ithaqua the Wind-Walker in the Orne Collection. Well, there’s sometimes a book on Ithaqua there. The tome only manifests on the coldest of nights around Midwinter. Read it if you dare, but each page you turn drops your internal body temperature by a degree or so.
  • Oral History: All the students go skating on the frozen Crane Pond during the water. There’s a campus tradition that if you’re on track to fail your exams, the ice will crack and break beneath you when you step on it, as if the Pond weeds out unworthy students.

Westheath: It’s hard for Christmas cheer to penetrate the grey skies and tomblike tenements of this district, but it’s here that the most honest celebrations of the season may be found. The people here light candles and place them in the windows of their apartments as a sign of defiance against the Mythos. Each morning, the elders of the community rise before dawn and walk the dark streets, checking every window. If a candle’s missing, does that mean that a family has succumbed to despair? Have they been taken by the Transport Police or some other dark force?

  • Biology: Christmas is obviously a busy time for Gardner Industrial Farms, where they churn out truckloads of obscenely large turkeys. They don’t have time to fatten the birds through conventional means, so they give the birds triple doses of the vitalising light from the patent Whipple lamps. Workers then enter the building and weed out the mutant birds, the ones whose cells… reacted to the Whipple lamps in an unwholesome fashion.
  • Streetwise: Christmas is hard for many families in this poor district; loan sharks working for the Malatesta family are always eager to help out. Nothing’s more useful to the criminal gang than an honest man without a prior record who’s unknown to the authorities. Want to give your kids a Christmas they’ll remember? The Malatestas can help…

Dunwich: Snow blankets the backroads and thickets of Dunwich, making travel difficult. Most people bunker down for the season, staying close to home. They have stories here – brought from the old world, they say – about Father Christmas and his elves. Things creeping through the woods, lithe and pale and leaving no tracks. A huge figure, white-bearded, his coat splashed with red, astride (or one with) his horned mount, following after his hunting beasts. No, it’s best to stay close to home at Yule in Dunwich, and leave offerings on your doorstep so nothing slithers down your chimney.

  • Oral History: Snowed in at the White Stone roadhouse, the investigators spend Christmas stuck with a bunch of strangers. Tongues loosened with port and mulled wine, each stranger relates a tale of horror and mystery… (aka, a one-shot flashback using pregenerated player characters).
  • Electrical Repair: The mighty turbines of the Olmstead Dam provide electricity for all the lights and amusements in the city. From the top of the dam, one can see the city blazing with seasonal illuminations… and when the turbines skip, the whole city flickers for an instant. It’s as though the dam’s transmitting messages to the streets, subliminal signals articulated in patterns of darkness and light.

Northside: Northside’s thronged with shoppers and revellers at this time of year. Plunge into those anonymous crowds, cast off your individuality, and join the dance of consumption!

  • Forensics: These bones recovered from Christchurch graveyard have toothmarks, suggesting that someone ate the corpse. What’s really disturbing, beyond the mere fact of the cannibalism, is that there are several different sets of toothmarks, implying that a whole family feasted on the deceased…
  • Physics: A misfiring Yithian machine buried deep under Northside triggers around midwinter, projecting its victims into the past, present and future for brief jaunts before returning them to their point of origin. The investigators are hired by an old and miserly businessman who’s experienced two such time-jumps already, and wants them to find a way to stop the machine before he’s forced to confront the ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

Salamander Fields: Here in the oldest, darkest heart of Arkham, they do not speak of Christmas. It is the Yuletide, and it is celebrated by descending into wet, dark tunnels that glisten with green flame. There are lights in the deserted houses, and strange spiked growths that might resemble Christmas trees at a distance, but do not mistake them for anything safe or festive…

  • Occult: A curious custom practised by an ancient Lodge in Old Arkham – each year, the wealthy members of the Lodge find some poor beggar or hobo and crown him King. They bring him back to their hall, dress him in fine clothes, feed him a meal fit for a king, and then… well, the king returns to the gutter, but is never quite the same afterwards.
  • Bureaucracy: The city’s determined to finish the infamous and long-delayed Dig as soon as possible, and work on the massive engineering project is due to continue through the festive season. Enterprising investigators could infiltrate the Dig site by taking temporary employment over the holidays.

Innsmouth Docks: Swim down, and you’ll soon find there are no seasons in the deep. Winter and summer are things of the surface; the deeps are timeless. So, the Yuletide is of less importance in Innsmouth than in other parts of the city. There are no brightly lit streets down here, and what hangs from windows is limp and damp and weedy instead of glittering tinsel.

  • Credit Rating: The Gilman House committee does host an expensive Christmas charity dinner every year. Since the raid on the House itself, the dinner’s moved to the more upscale function rooms at the Devil’s Reef restaurant. Those cultivating political connections in this part of town are advised to give generously. Especially promising donors may be introduced to certain… elderly individuals who are of great influence in Innsmouth.
  • Craft: Some unlucky children find strange pale dolls under the Christmas tree. The parents mutter to one another in wonder, trying to work out where the gift came from, and how it was placed under the tree in secret. They would be better off keeping a closer eye on their children; the dolls are lures dispatched by the Moon-Beasts of the Black Ships, and if the children are not watched, the dolls lead them off down to the docks to board the waiting ships…

Kingsport: Kingsport is Arkham’s pleasure-garden. It’s more associated with lazy summers and yachting than the dim midwinter, but there are still amusements to be found here. Walk along the promenade, fortified by hot cocoa and roasted chestnuts, and look out at the snowy harbour before visiting a gallery or a Christmas movie. It’s festival time, and strange pleasures might be found down some unexpected alleyway or winding stairs that only appears in moonlight.

  • Oral History: Everyone agrees that the best department store Santa Claus in the city is in Hartman’s Department Store in Kingsport. The jolly old fellow is positively magical in how he enchants the children, and always has the right gift to hand. Who knows what he whispers in their ears, though – and strange to say, in some lights, his face looks as artificial as his fake beard…
  • Art History: A script for a Christmas movie has floated around the various movie studies in Kingsport’s film district for the last few months. It’s called The Snowglobe, and it’s a seasonal tale of weird horror about a man who discovers that his quaint little village is actually a model trapped inside a globe, and he must fight to escape from this picturesque prison. The identity of the screenwriter is a mystery, and it’s rumoured he was visited by the transport police shortly after submitting a draft to AKLO pictures.

Chinatown: This district is a merciful refuge from the Yuletide spirit. Be of good cheer – there’s a place to escape Christmas, even in Cthulhu City…

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A Bookhounds of London rare tome by Mike Drew

Keepers of Bookhounds of London may find themselves growing tired of the same old mythos tomes. How many copies of the Necronomicon can be discovered in mouldy crypts before they become rote? Here then is a real world tome along with possible ways for it to torment your players. An extravagant Edwardian binding, haunted by a terrible curse and linked to the world’s most famous sinking. Unlike Stead and Murray’s Priestess this cursed artefact was actually onboard Titanic when she sailed. This is a tale of high ambition, elaborate bindings and the international book trade. This is the tale of the ‘Great Omar’.

Possibly the most ambitious binding of the modern world (or ever) the Great Omar was a ludicrously fine binding executed by Sangorski and Sutcliffe for John Stonehouse. Stonehouse was then manager of the Piccadilly branch of storied antiquarian bookseller’s Sotheran’s (my own trade alma mater and notably missing from the trade list in Bookhounds). Sangorski was consumed with binding the Elihu Vedder illustrated Rubáiyát. In 1909 he finally convinced Stonehouse who said “charge what you like for it”. ( I am indebted here to Vic Gray’s excellent Sotheran’s history, Bookmen: London, produced for our 250th anniversary. It is highly recommended to the student of the book trade and everyone else as well.)

It took two years for Sangorski and assistants – forwarder Sylvester Byrnes, gold-finisher George Lovett and an (as-usual) unheralded sewing lady – to finish. Perhaps a little gauche for modern (or any) tastes there is no denying the craftmanship, passion, and quality of materials. 5000 pieces of coloured leather were pressed into underlying green morocco along with 1,050 jewels (topazes, turquoises, rubies, amethysts, garnets and olivines). The front cover featured three peacocks with spread tail feathers, the back a lute of mahogany. The front doublure (an ornamental lining on the reverse of the cover) had a writhing snake in an apple tree and the back one a skull (with ivory teeth) with a poppy growing from an eye socket. The work was unveiled for the Coronation of George V; even incomplete it was a wondrous sight. Just as well – there was no buyer. It was marked up at a staggering £1,000 (more than three times the cost of any single volume in the shop) and Stonehouse hadn’t consulted Mr Sotheran before proceeding. The book had to sell.

The book didn’t sell.

In early 1912 trade legend Gabriel Wells offered £900 but was rebuffed. Stonehouse travelled to New York to try other options. The volume was packed and dispatched ready to collect. Unfortunately American customs demanded 40% duty. Books over 20 years old (as the Vedder was) were duty free, but the text was undated. This was seized upon to argue the new binding overrode the text within, making it a new book. It took the Board of the United States General Appraisers to overturn the decision. Meanwhile Mr Sotheran, perhaps upset Stonehouse had failed to consult him before commissioning the piece, refused the duty and the book returned.

Mr Sotheran was tiring of the whole affair. Gabriel Wells would now only offer £650 in light of the customs issues. There was an argument with Sangorski over payment for two years’ work. In a fit of pique Omar was dispatched to the rooms. The prevailing attitude may be judged by the biting order that Sotheby’s offer it without reserve. It was finally knocked down for a tragic £405. To Gabriel Wells. Stonehouse maintained the sale was blighted by a coal strike. Wells had the book prepared for shipping on the next liner to New York. It should have shipped on the 6th April but the coal strike disrupted shipping. It left instead on the 10th on the next ship, the RMS Titanic. The ‘Great Omar’ still resides 400 miles off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland.

Legend holds the book was cursed – perhaps because of the peacock feathers, unlucky in some cultures. Certainly it seemed for Sotheran’s at the time, and for curse proponents the death of Sangorski by drowning 7 weeks after the sinking is apposite. Twenty years later Stanley Bray (Sutcliffe’s nephew) recreated the binding in his spare time from original drawings. The war interrupted him and the uncompleted work was stored in a metal-lined case in a bank vault on Fore Street…where it was bombed. The first bomb of the Blitz fell on Fore Street. The building above burnt to the ground. The recovered metal case was intact but the book was cooked to a congealed mass. Inevitably Sangorski’s bindery was untouched for the duration of the war. Bray retrieved the jewels from the ruined binding and finally completed a third effort in 1989, which was presented to the British Library. To date the BL has resolutely refused to hit an iceberg. John Stonehouse died young at 72 surrounded by family. George Sutcliffe died in 1943, 30-odd years after the iceberg. Cecil Sotheran was run down crossing Constitution Hill…16 years later.

But away with mere fact!

This is not merely a cursed tome written by an Arabian mathematician. It is a fabulously-bound cursed tome produced by one of the greatest binderies in London at the behest of one of the greatest antiquarian booksellers. It is writ large in book trade lore and would still be a legend for any 30s Bookhound.

So if cursed, who cursed it? The peacock recalls Tawûsê Melek , Peacock Angel of the similarly-Persian Yazidis. Better though to avoid Lovecraft’s racist characterisation of them as “Persian devil-worshippers”. Perhaps start from the premise of sea-born disaster and assume the Cthulhu cult is behind this. The binding acts as focus for a Summon Watery Doom spell. Who was the target? Gabriel Wells? Harry Widener (probably carrying it for Wells with his own books)? Stead? How many cursed items can one man be associated with before we call enemy action? The Titanic was a target-rich environment for those seeking historical conspiracy. More on possible targets could be mined from the Suppressed Transmission “A Night to Embroider” by some fellow named Ken Hite.

The Bookhounds then are lucky enough to get a great deal: fine peacock bindings in a seeming job lot – all-too-conveniently they have buyers for some already. All of the names on their list are high-powered (at least in the occult world) and they start turning up dead. The Constabulary may not always be the most imaginative, but they are notoriously thorough. So many deaths in one field (and linked to one shop) will turn the head of even the most staid copper. Can the shop get out from under their watchful gaze? How did the cult get their client list? How long can they keep the books before the shop is hit by disaster? What will they do to make a profit on the remaining works? The curse might be lifted by damaging the bindings – but what will that do to the price?

Of course the book should never have been onboard in the first place. Is it more terrible that so many perished to kill one person or that it was all a great screw-up? Was this just the equivalent of a terrorist bomb, producing souls for harvesting? Perhaps it is a hungry entity we seek, dwelling in the shrine created for it. This might explain the way peacocks became a “fetish” in Sangorski’s binding work. Stonehouse recalled this in the 1929 Piccadilly Notes (Sotheran’s part-catalogue, part-magazine). He thought Sangorski’s “dreams must have been of oriental lands and colours which he had never seen” – maybe they could only be called colours at all by analogy? Evidently Sangorski became similarly obsessed with Kismet, then playing at the Garrick. He went several times and it had an “almost intoxicating effect”. He made copious notes in the margins of his programme for future bindings – finding these might reveal information about other book shrines.

Could a certain (un-dying) blasphemous Arab writer lurks behind the mask of Omar? Khayyam was an astronomer and mathematician after all, solving cubic equations with geometry. Lovecraft uses Fitzgerald’s metre and rhyme-pattern for his ‘That is not dead…’ couplet. Perhaps a specific translation was needed to unlock the poem’s secrets? Dr John Potter, according to The Times a translator of the Rubáiyát, vanished from Castletown on the Isle of Man in 1923. His body washed ashore at Auchencairn on the Solway Firth one month later. Taken by Deep Ones to produce a new translation? It may be the translation reveals truths in the illustrations. Vedder was interested in occult imagery but claimed he was not learned in “occult matters” instead “I take short flights or wade out into the sea of mystery which surrounds us” (The Digressions of V). That sounds horribly close to those “black seas of infinity” – was the thing inspiring Sangorski at Vedder’s shoulder years earlier? If the two elements are combined in a peacock binding the reader can open dimensions through cubic geometry. The Titanic was not sunk to kill a person, it was sunk to destroy this book.

If this is the case the likely suspects are the true face behind The Church of the Cult of Omar. Founded in The Pas, Manitoba in 1921, during the province’s 7-year flirtation with prohibition, it was inevitably suppressed by a humourless government only a few months later. A new convert testified that the church was only founded to claim liquor permits to obtain wine for “sacramental purposes”. There are perhaps echoes of the suppression of the Starry Wisdom in America only a few years later, although in a somewhat more low-key Canadian manner. No doubt a new chapel could be found in the home of some Bright Young Thing with protruding eyes.

Who sank the ship though? There is one organisation capable of such a dramatic act. According to Amin Maalouf’s novel Samarkand the only manuscript copy of the Rubáiyát also went down with the ship. American scholar Benjamin Lesage retrieved it from Tehran in 1896. It had made its way there after being saved from the inferno of texts after the fall of Alamut. Because of course the Assassins are involved. For this the Bookhounds might accidentally come by a copy of Potter’s manuscript in an auction lot, or an obsessed binder might offer them the chance to back his recreation using the secret text of that lost book. At that point the binder, shop and any client interested become clear targets for the Assassins. This might offer some delightful cognitive dissonance for players who would expect the Order to be the bad guys.

If you want to use the book itself the fact that it lies full fathom five shouldn’t stop you. A seller is hawking the real thing round London. Sure, it’s spent the better part of two decades underwater, fair copy at best, but a legendary piece nonetheless – find another one. Sub rosa sale, linked to a shop specialising in oceanography, the history of oceans (especially lore and mysteries), and a less well-known sideline supplying lost art treasures. Rather than the usual tome as mythos artefact this is a shop using the mythos. The owners have a deal with, maybe are, Deep Ones. They use the access to shipwrecks to supply lost treasures to well-heeled, snobbish and ghoulish collectors. The shop could be rivals, a worrying presence, or (for more pulpy games) a target. If the owners simply use their connections to sell to a specialised market what do the players do about it?

The Bookhounds are approached by a strange client to get him the Omar. He doesn’t care how but he does care price. Do they get into the auction or try more underhanded methods (lifting it from the shop or from the ultimate buyer)? Troublesome auction clients might include agents of the Hsieh-Tzu Fan or the Cthulhu cult, both of whom have an interest in oceanography. If the book was the home of a devouring entity then being trapped at the bottom of the Atlantic has made it very hungry. What will they do when they learn of the curse? Their is still their rival’s batrachian methodology to consider. What do Deep One book runners demand as payment?

 


Mike Drew was lucky enough to learn the book trade at perhaps the oldest still-trading antiquarian booksellers in the world, Henry Sotheran’s. He has since catalogued books (and occasionally antique fishing reels) for a now-defunct auction house, and escapes from the kids by volunteering at the local museum library. The happiest moment in his almost 30-years of roleplaying came when Pelgrane made his job a roleplaying game.

It might take more than one swallow to make a summer, he said from a city where it would take about eighty Fahrenheit degrees along with any number of migratory birds to make it summer right now. But it only takes one monster to make a mystery. That, at least, is the thesis, or among the theses at any rate, of Hideous Creatures (providentially forthcoming, and long before the swallows do). Given enough attention to the monster, you can put together a fully satisfying evening or two of Trail of Cthulhu play even if the adventure might look a little bald just laid out there on the page.

Temptation of St. Anthony, from the Isenheim Altarpiece by Grünewald

Thesis, meet example. I’m going to use a subset of the clues as printed (or mostly) from Hideous Creatures: Byakhee, and reproduced below if you’d like to follow along at home and didn’t pick up that fine release. I’ll work sort of backward from them to create a short but stark adventure. Each story element I establish grows out of the flavor detail in a clue.

Our villain is summoning a byakhee for foul doings, and the clues give us the witch-cult (History) and a last name (Müller, from the Oral History clue) so let’s go with a witch named Karin Müller. Are the Investigators in Alsace-Lorraine or is she on their turf? Either one works, but seeing as Germans just got bounced out of Alsace-Lorraine in 1918 let’s have our Teutonic witch scion move to America — with a load of valuable art to sell (Art History, Chemistry) to pay for her passage.

So she’s an art dealer and a witch. What’s her goal? Maybe it’s tied in with both: she wants to inspire the genius of madness in an area artist, Paul Kerenyi (Art History, Assess Honesty) and also consecrate a temple to Hastur (Archaeology, Languages, Library Use) so she can re-start the cult here in Chicago.

Now, by reversing the process we can feed the mystery right back out.

Müller sent a byakhee to inspire one artist — Sarah Jones — but it got out of hand and Jones died; this brings in the Investigators (Forensics). They see the thing’s prints (Evidence Collection) and the weird effect on the vegetation where it landed, somewhere near Müller’s house or temple site (Biology).

Müller also stole the variant Euclid she needed for the consecration (Library Use) from the University of Chicago library. This might also bring in the Investigators, if they’re Book-houndly types.

They find out about Jones’ connection to Müller via Interpersonal talk with Jones’ friends or family; researching Müller points us to Alsace-Lorraine. This might not be time to drop the History clue, but it can be a leveraged clue for when they suspect witchcraft or when more than one clue points Müller’s direction. Such as when they meet her and she’s wearing an amulet of the Pleaides (Cryptography, Occult). Or when they see the genuine Schongauer print for sale in her gallery (Chemistry) and know (Art History) that he too was from Alsace-Lorraine.

Observation with Flattery (or gossip with a different Interpersonal ability) tells them she’s cozying up to Paul Kerenyi now. If they follow her or Kerenyi they hear her whistle, smell juniper (Sense Trouble), and then see her byakhee snatch him up (Art History). They can see the frozen ground here, too (Biology). If they stay home, they’ll see the byakhee and think of the art another time and make the connection: you can always throw in a rival Müller wants to kill or another unfortunate artist for another byakhee encounter if need be.

Kerenyi comes staggering back crazy talking to the Investigators about winged monsters and begging for their help. He’s got a heck of a sunburn, too (Medicine). The next day, though, he’s feverishly creating art based on his experience and now claims it was all a dream (Assess Honesty). This might be when to drop the clue about the “earth diver” and its role in artistic inspiration (Theology). He’s got another date with Müller two nights from now or whenever suits the game’s pacing. If you think there’s more than one whistle, or a player really grooves on Geology, Müller gave Kerenyi a whistle and mead to try out on his own; the Investigators can get ahold of it that way.

If they take advantage of her date to toss Müller’s house they find her mead (Pharmacy), her temple-consecrating cornerstone (Languages), maybe Shrewsbury’s book (Theology), and a map to wherever her sacred Hastur stone is unless it’s just in her backyard.

But the site or her yard is full of not just byakhee spoor (Evidence Collection, Biology) but also stones and mirrors (Library Use)! Which one is the sacred stone? The one aligned with the Pleiades of course (Astronomy)! If they start messing with stuff, sniff for juniper (Sense Trouble)! Müller comes riding back on a byakhee and the Big Fight ensues. Blowing up the sacred stone might dismiss the byakhee, or at least weaken its connection to Hastur.

Not a particularly challenging scenario, I admit. But it makes a nice, straightforward monster-of-the-week, and still has enough weird juju to keep the players happy and creeped out, especially if you run it with any or many of the variations on the monster from the rest of that Hideous Creatures installment. As a bonus, see if you can get some extra inspiration from the Manly Wade Wellman story “O Ugly Bird!” which is not at all about a byakhee, unless it is.

Clues

Archaeology: The Parthenon was oriented to the rising of the Pleiades – perhaps this temple shared the same alignment. In which case, the high altar should be over here. (Architecture, Astronomy)

Art History: The black-winged demon tormenting St. Anthony in Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece (1515) is supposed to be the result of an ergot hallucination – so why does it perfectly match the eyewitness’ description of the “devil bird” that took Kerenyi right out from under our noses?

Assess Honesty: He claims that the winged monsters and the flying through space was all a dream brought on by drinking “too much mead” – but he doesn’t believe his own denials! Is he crazy, or is he driving himself crazy thinking he’s crazy?

Biology: The grass here was frozen and then broken from the top down, as though something unutterably cold landed here. The spores growing here are new – I’ve never seen anything like them before, although they slightly resemble nitrogen-fixing fungi.

Chemistry: The parchment and ink are absolutely authentic for a print struck in Colmar during Martin Schongauer’s life (1440-1491). But why would he run off a print study of just one of the demons in his Torment of St. Anthony? (Art History, Document Analysis)

Cryptography: The symbol cut into the crystal is Agrippa’s emblem for the Pleiades. (Occult, q.v.)

Evidence Collection: The prints generally resemble those of carrion birds, but are not deep enough to indicate anything heavy enough to batter a human ever stood in them. (Outdoorsman)

Forensics: The body is slashed and torn almost to rags, and blood spatter evidence indicates it was carried around the area during the struggle. Although the throat is ripped out, there is surprisingly little blood either on or in the corpse.

Geology: This whistle isn’t made of any kind of stone I’m familiar with. It seems like iridium-bearing ore, rather than the natural alloy one expects to find. It could be igneous rock or clay, subjected to intense heat – possibly meteoric in origin, as I’ve never seen anything like it on earth.

History: This whole Alsace-Lorraine region was a hotbed of witchcraft outbreaks from 1410 to 1690; testimonies (not all extorted by torture) record witches and wizards flying to the Bavarian Alps (or the court of the Devil) at unearthly speed on their demonic steeds after drinking a golden potion.

Languages: The tablet we found in her sink is inscribed in ancient Babylonian, beginning with MUL.MUL, the “Star of Stars” or the Pleiades. The basalt stone is incredibly weathered, but the cuneiform looks like it was carved yesterday. (Geology for stone)

Library Use: This is the 1511 Strasbourg edition of Euclid. It incorporates a number of “improvements” by the translator Bartolomeo Zamberti taken from Theon of Alexandria’s Catoptrica – the study of mirrors – and “Alhazen’s” De crepusculis – a treatise on shadows at twilight. Why go to the trouble to get this specific edition? Does it have anything to do with the mirrors set up to reflect the western horizon right on the Pleiadean alignment? (Astronomy)

Medicine: He’s suffering from shock and severe hypothermia – and those red spots all over his skin are purpura from exploded capillaries. The dark tan indicates high ultraviolet exposure, too.

Occult: According to Agrippa’s De Occulta Philosophia (1510-1530), a properly prepared talisman “with the Moon conjunct the Pleiades rising or at midheaven, preserves the eyesight, summons demons and the spirits of the dead, calls the winds, and reveals secrets and things that are lost.”

Oral History: Talking to peasants and townsfolk all through the area, you notice that some families are – not shunned, precisely, but less connected to the rest of the region. More insular, apt to marry among themselves. The Weylands and the Müllers seem to be the leading families in that group.

Pharmacy: I can’t tell what this so-called mead is supposed to be, but it’s not just fermented honey. Or if it is, the bees took pollen from a literally impossible collection of plants, fungi, and epiphytes, and then added some ethylene glycol and neurotoxic heavy metals to finish the job. This will either put you into a mild coma or give you the worst hyperaesthesia you’ve ever had. (Chemistry)

Sense Trouble: A waft of icy air seems to rush past you, and an astringent smell like rotting juniper stings your nostrils.

Theology: Shrewsbury’s work references the “earth-diver” myth of creation common amongst Siberian and Amerind peoples, in which a sky deity sends a (sometimes infernal or demonic) bird to the bottom of the ocean to raise up the land at the beginning of time. He thus postulates a primordial antagonism between Water-Chaos and Sky-Art, and implies these “demonic birds” also “dive” into our subconscious to raise up artistic and religious impulse.

The 1920 murder of Joseph Bowne Elwell asks the question: who would want to kill a womanizing bridge expert and gambler with interests in the worlds of horse racing and Wall Street speculation?

When hacked from the history books as a Trail of Cthulhu scenario premise, we can answer the question with a Lovecraftian spin.

Missing from the apartment of our fictionalized Elwell—let’s call him Halliwell—is an item his loyal housekeeper scarcely thinks about: his lucky card deck.

The investigators get involved to clear the name of a friend accused of shooting Halliwell over the bridge master’s supposed attentions to his wife. As early 20th century murder cases among the well-heeled are wont to do, the initial scenes turn up too many people with a motive to shoot Halliwell.

But then one of them, a gambling associate of Halliwell’s, is found dead in circumstances even more humiliating than a bullet wound to the head. He died while bathing, when the ceiling of his apartment collapsed, sending the tub above thundering down on him. In his apartment the team finds notes about Halliwell’s magic card deck. It makes you the winner you’ve always wanted to be. Until, that is, the arbitrary day when cosmic joke gets played on you. The 53rd card materializes, bearing the vengeful image of Tsathoggua, Nyarlathotep or another Mythos entity sufficiently interested in humanity’s vices to enjoy toying with them.

Not that the second victim’s notes go this far: he just knew that the deck was magical. He didn’t know the incantation he needed to speak to give himself years of good fortune, instead of a few lousy days.

The deck has already been purloined again. This leaves two avenues of investigation:

  • tracking down its latest owner and finding a way to dispose of it without incurring the curse

  • looking into Halliwell’s past to uncover the 1904 ritual that created the deck, and dispersing the cult responsible for it—along with their continued production of similar cursed items

Either way, the cultists who made the deck want it back, and are conducting a parallel investigation, no doubt aided by blasphemous prayers to their obscene god.

Whatever the team’s plans for the deck that brings luck and then death, this is one case that won’t go according to Hoyle.


Trail of Cthulhu is an award-winning 1930s horror roleplaying game by Kenneth Hite, produced under license from Chaosium. Whether you’re playing in two-fisted Pulp mode or sanity-shredding Purist mode, its GUMSHOE system enables taut, thrilling investigative adventures where the challenge is in interpreting clues, not finding them. Purchase Trail of Cthulhu and its many supplements and adventures in the Pelgrane Shop.

I must confess that I love handouts in roleplaying games. I love them a little too much. In the upcoming expanded Hideous Creatures, we’re doing player-facing documents for each monster, hinting at some aspect of the creature in an oblique way. Some tips on their creation and use…

Handouts are Artefacts

Handouts must feel real. You can spend many enjoyable* hours aging paper and carefully selecting the right font, but you also have to take care when writing the handout to make it a plausible document. It needs to be short enough to be read at the table, contain enough information to make it useful, but also drip with verisimilitude. Short reports obliquely hinting at strange events, newspaper articles, diary entries and the like are ideal.

You can also have handouts that are extracts from larger documents – a single page of a longer book or one section of a report – by including trailing text and references to other parts of the fictional document. (Group a bunch of short newspaper clippings in a scrapbook to create a handout that hints at but never states an awful truth – leave it up to the players to connect a death notice, a report about dead dogs, a mysterious classified advertisement, and a clipping from the catalogue of a rare book store that’s selling a copy of Cultes des Ghoules.)

The diary entry found by Dr. Armitage in The Dunwich Horror is an ideal example of this sort of extract – it’s short, atmospheric, suggests it’s part of a larger document with its throwaway references to other Dunwich natives and ongoing studies, and – most important of all – has an actionable clue for the players: “That upstairs looks like it will have the right cast. I can see it a little when I make the Voorish sign or blow the powder of Ibn-Ghazi at it”.

Atmospheric

Everyone knows that boxed text is awful. It’s painful to sit there listening to a Keeper read prose aloud. It’s stilted, often hard to follow, and at odds with the inherently conversational nature of roleplaying games. Handouts, though, are much closer to traditional prose. You can tell a little story, or go to town on descriptive elements that a Keeper would struggle to convey in a bloc of text.

A handout that just conveys information isn’t necessarily a waste of them – all handouts have their uses – but if you just want to, say, give the players the name of the victim, writing up a police report is probably overkill. Use the space afforded by the handout to hint at horrors to come. Diaries, in particular, let you extend a scenario’s scope back in time by letting you do the Lovecraftian trope of listing a whole series of past incidents and weirdnesses that culminate in the present horror.

Esoteric

In any group of players, there are usually degrees of engagement. Some players are really, really interested in the mystery, or the Cthulhu Mythos, or fighting monsters; others become more or less engaged depending on the action in the game, and others are just there to hang out with their friends. In general, it’s a bad idea to pay too much attention on the overly enthusiastic players – they’re going to have fun and be involved no matter what, so the Keeper’s efforts are best spent drawing the more reticent players into the action. Handouts, however, are a place where you can reward engagement, giving those players a little more to chew on. Use handouts to hint at connections to the wider Mythos, to imply deeper and wider conspiracies, or to flesh out the backstory. Handouts are one place in the game where you can be as obscure and wilfully misleading as you like, as the players can take time – even between sessions – to chew over the clues.

The Clue Isn’t Necessary In The Text

While you can include clues in a handout that you expect the players to spot, you can also have clues that can be discovered with investigative abilities. A player might be able to use History to recognise a name in a diary as the site of a famous murder, or Cryptography to decode the weird runes in the margin as an enciphered message, or even Cthulhu Mythos (“after reading the diary, you start dreaming of that same strange house on the clifftop, and feel this weird urge to go east, towards the ocean. Something’s drawing you to a spot on the coastline overlooking the grey Atlantic. You suspect that if you follow that unnatural tugging, you’ll find that house.”)

You can also use investigative abilities to push the players towards the correct interpretation – “from your expertise in Cop Talk, you’re pretty sure this report was written under protest – whoever wrote it was told to provide a ‘reasonable’ explanation for the weird events. Maybe if you find the original author, they’ll tell you what really happened.”

Handouts Are An Anchor

Handouts feel significant. Even a tiny handout, like a business card, implies the players are on the right track in the adventure, (“If this musician wasn’t important, the Keeper wouldn’t have printed up a business card”) and you can use that feeling to reward the players. Successfully traversing a difficult challenge or solving a section of the mystery yields a handout.

Handouts are also useful for organising information. If you’ve a long list of similar leads – say, all the guests at a party, or all the victims of a serial murderer, or a set of addresses – it’s good practise to give the players the list in the form of a handout. It avoids transcription errors and miscommunications, and keeps the game running more smoothly. Similarly, handouts are a good way of conveying complex timelines or spatial relationships to the players – a map or a diary can become the frame of the investigation that the players then fill in with clues.

*: Hours may not be enjoyable if they turn into weeks, nay months…

“Then Hallowe’en drew near, and the settlers planned another frolic—this time, had they but known it, of a lineage older than even agriculture; the dread Witch-Sabbath of the primal pre-Aryans, kept alive through ages in the midnight blackness of secret woods, and still hinting at vague terrors under its latter-day mask of comedy and lightness.”

— H.P. Lovecraft, “The Curse of Yig”

H.P. Lovecraft had a huge sweet tooth and a morbid streak a mile wide, so of course he must have loved Halloween. His wizardly characters do, too; they make endless Halloween plans that range from kidnapping to time-shaping to world-ending. I count seven cases of Halloween ceremonies (or crimes, or both) in Lovecraft, which seemingly depend on this liminal time for their effect. In “The Dunwich Horror,” the Whateleys commune with Yog-Sothoth “on Hallowe’en” with bonfires on Sentinel Hill. In “The Man of Stone,” the sorcerer “Mad Dan” Morris attempts to sacrifice the Black Goat “at Hallow Eve” and to perform “the Great Rite that would open the gate.” Although in “Dreams in the Witch House” Walter Gilman meets Nyarlathotep at the infant-sacrificing Black Mass on Walpurgisnacht, both Brown Jenkin and “childish cries” manifest “near Hallowmass” as well.

The titular “Very Old Folk” plot their ceremonies for “the first night before the kalends of November” (October 31). The Cthulhu cult in the bayou south of New Orleans kidnapped their victims the night before November 1, 1907, i.e., on October 31. In both of those stories and “Dreams in the Witch House,” the holiday requires human sacrifice: spirit or energy sent through the gate even as the dead mass to travel the other way on All Souls’ Night (November 2). Even the gods themselves are constrained by the calendar: In “The Curse of Yig,” the Lord of Serpents sends “his monstrous children on “All-Hallows’ Night” (technically November 1). And finally, Joseph Curwen’s spell to manipulate fate (and Yog-Sothoth?) must be intoned on May 3 and October 31, or as the ancient wizard put it himself: “This Verse repeate eache Roodemas and Hallow’s Eve; and ye Thing will breede in ye Outside Spheres.”

“Not a breath of the strange grey gods of change
   That tore from the past its own
Can quicken this hour, when a spectral power
   Spreads sleep o’er the cosmic throne,
   And looses the vast unknown.”

— H.P. Lovecraft, “Hallowe’en in a Suburb” (1926)

But why would cosmic forces such as Yog-Sothoth, Cthulhu, and Nyarlathotep care about Halloween? The arbitrary quartering of the northern hemisphere’s calendar is just that, and questions of goat-breeding time, winter wheat harvest, or even the returning dead should seem irrelevant to the Great Old Ones. Halloween isn’t a holiday to these forces, it’s a marker, a regular shift in the curves and angles of Euclidean space-time. Lovecraft’s narrator L. Caelius Rufus gives us the clue in “The Very Old Folk”: “The whole cohort now remained at a standstill, and as the torches faded I watched what I thought were fantastic shadows outlined in the sky by the spectral luminosity of the Via Lactea as it flowed through Perseus, Cassiopeia, Cepheus, and Cygnus.”

Cetus, by Johannes Hevelius (1690)

It’s not the earthly dead that matter on Halloween. It’s the stars, which perhaps almost come right that night. The Pleiades, for instance, rise in the east in October and November, and are directly overhead at midnight on November 21. But twelve hundred years or so ago (call it the 9th century), they were overhead at midnight on October 31 — more than enough reason, say people who like precession no more than I do, and accurate chronology much less, for the Druids (or whoever) to mark that date as Samhain. The Pleiades thus represent the dead, a cluster of dim stars (some still invisible to all but the best Sight) brightening briefly as they return.

What else can we see in the skies just before “the Kalends of November,” then? In Lovecraftian sky lore, we can take note of Algol, the “Demon-Star” from “Beyond the Wall of Sleep.” An angry red variable, Ptolemy identified it (based on much older tradition) as the eye in the head of Medusa wielded by Perseus. But Algol is only one of four variable stars all in the Halloween sky, all in constellations associated with the myth of Perseus: Delta Cephei, Gamma Cassiopiae, and Omicron Ceti, also called Mira, which falls just on the sky’s meridian at midnight. Being variable stars, they make admirable keys to the lock of dimensions, and perhaps their shifting wavelengths just happen to combine or resonate on Halloween: the stars aren’t right that night, but they’re less wrong than on any other date.

Cepheus and Cassiopeia are Andromeda’s parents, Algol is Perseus’ weapon, and Cetus … Cetus is a giant sea monster turned to stone by Medusa’s head. The name “Cetus” comes from the Greek ketos, meaning “sea monster” or, intriguingly, “abyss.” Its further etymology is unknown, but we do have that C-t combo to inspire us to speculation. (In Hawaii the constellation is called Kuhi, another evocative name; in China it was Xuánwu, the “Black Tortoise” depicted with serpentine extrusions.) Early Christian astronomers just followed Ovid and called it Belua Ponti, “the Beast of the Sea,” while the late Chaldean astronomer Berossus may have called it Thalatté, a variation on Tiamat, the Chaos Serpent (cognate with the Hebrew tahom, “the Abyss”).

C-t and Th-l, now. Manilius describes Cetus in the (1st century CE) Astronomicon: “Ocean clamors in every quarter, and the very mountains and crags quake at the creature’s onset.” A mountain walked … or stumbled. Return with me to the myth again: Perseus wields the head of Medusa (Algol) to petrify Cetus, the Abyssal Monster. A variable star — a change in the stars — turns C-t/Th-l to stone, or perhaps merely seals him up in stone. Manilius or Berossus or Ptolemy guessed (or perhaps knew) that these four variable stars were the four keys to awakening the Great Old Ones. They linked each of them with the tale of Andromeda knowing that every year the tale retells itself in heaven: Cetus is unleashed and frozen again in a night. A very special night that we call Halloween.

It is 1927, and August Darcy, a young journalist, is seized with a strange obsession to recover the very essence of England – her traditions, customs, and legends. Sketches of English life, in his unique style, are interspersed with private letters and diary extracts to offer an extraordinary insight into the victim of England’s most notorious occult crime.

In the early 1930s, England experiences the first portents of a magical war. Darcy’s mythic sites are the hidden battle fields; and that forbidden knowledge, the esoteric ordnance of the forthcoming conflict.

The Book of the New Jerusalem, by the author of The Book of the Smoke, is the Occult Investigator’s Guide to England, replete with mythic sites, occult rumours, and clues which will guide you on your quest for forbidden knowledge. Here is one such rumour:

County Cheshire: Bickerton

In 1798 two men were traversing Bickerton Hill just as the moon was rising in the night sky. Silhouetted against the moon’s disc was an enormous beast unlike any creature they had ever seen.  The creature threw back its head and emitted a howl which chilled the blood  and echoed for miles around.  Terrified, the chaps took themselves off to the nearest inn (which I personally find a useful strategy when faced with similar circumstances) and pounded on the door to be let in.  They sensibly remained there until dawn.

The following morning a group of farmhands brought news to the inn that one of their number, out early in the woods about five miles hence, had discovered the ragged corpses of two itinerant labourers. Both had been eviscerated by something with knives for claws. The remains of one were found on the banks of a stream, indicating he had been trying to flee across the water.  His head was missing and was not discovered subsequently. The other had kept the back of his head, but his face was gone and so were his ears.  His skull was cracked like a walnut at Christmas.

An anonymous missive to the local Methodist minister said that a werewolf had been active in the area for the past century and was in some way connected with the execution by burning at the stake of a warlock in Bickerton many years earlier.  The letter begs the question of why no sightings had been reported before. Additionally, witches and warlocks were not burned in England as the penalty for witchcraft was hanging, although the resultant corpses were sometimes disposed of by incineration  The creature’s transformation was, the correspondent claimed, triggered by lunar eclipses but it is obvious from the travellers’ account that the moon was full on the night they saw it. The letter further suggested painting crosses on houses to keep the wolf from the door, as it were.

Attacks by the giant wolf, or whatever the beast was, declined as time went on and there have been no reports in recent years.

by Steve Dempsey

Fearful Symmetries contains tools and support for the Keeper who wants to run a folklore-inspired magical campaign in 1930s England.

The first part of the book is about setting up the game and running a Campaign. This is the long view of the drama as it develops across several Series and the Episodes they comprise. Some campaigns might only last for one series, or you might play one series and then return to it at a later date.

A campaign has:

– a Mythos Threat, the main antagonist;

Themes, elements of the narrative which link it together, inspired by Blake and Lovecraft;

– a History, the secret story of why things are how they are at the start of the game;

– a Hook, a reason for the player characters to get and stay involved; and,

– an End Game, the horrible thing which awaits if the player characters do not succeed.

The Keeper is shown how to create each of these elements and then bring them together in a satisfying whole.

One of the tools is the Folklore Engine which helps create a story for the Keeper to explore with the players. Generally, at a location, some people witness an event involving apparitions which leads to traces such as customs or myths about that place, recorded in folklore as stories, songs or celebrations. The event may also leave physical traces on the people, wildlife, plants or landscape.

The overall schema is that in a location some people experience supernatural actors doing something strange leading to a singular outcome which has lasting consequences:

Location -> People -> Actors -> Event -> Outcome -> Recurrence (Trace/Customs)

There are look up tables for each item in the schema. From these I chose: a little island, a laborer and a squire, faerie, dark magics, the land is scared, legends and calendar customs.

Putting these all together I came up with the following folk tale:

The Sylli Tewal

A long time ago, a laborer was sent to work on a little island in the Tresillian River in Cornwall. The local lord wanted to build a bridge across the river and so the laborer went with a squire to see if the island would support the weight of the bridge. The chap took his pick and dug a hole on top of the island to see whether there was rock beneath. Sure enough, a few feet down he hit something hard, but he gave it another whack to make sure. The was a terrible cracking sound and the bottom of the hole collapsed. He barely scrambled out in time. Looking down he could light and fields and trees. He had dug clean through into another land. His companion seeing what was happening took fright, jumped in his coracle and rowed back to the bank. The laborer leaned over and … that was the last anyone heard of him. The next day, after a few drinks in the local inn and an uncomfortable night’s rest, the squire got his courage back and returned to the island. Of the laborer, and the hole, there was no sign. However, standing proud at the top of the island was a stone column, which the squire swore had not been there the day before. The bridge never was built but the local ferrymen and fishers each year leave gifts of bread, salt and eels at the stone at Imbolc (1st February), to curry favor with whatever lies below.

This could be an entrance into Faerie, which will open if the right rhyme is said. It could be a place of weakness between the worlds where an Aethyr might be reached.  Or perhaps it is a place sacred to Yog-Sothoth where gates might be opened to anywhere or when.

There is still a local cult here amongst the eel fishers. Each year the eels return in April. When the mist is on the river between Imbolc (February 1st) and April 1st, anyone wandering the banks or crossing the river at night is likely to be caught and sacrificed. The locals know not to chance this. The ferrymen talk of the Sylli Tewal, the Dark Eel in Cornish, that takes its due. There is a local festival to celebrate the eels return each year. A giant papier maché eel is paraded through Tresillian and floated off into the river, to show the elvers the way.

There are further sections which show how to use each of four different magical specialisms: Alchemy, Magick, Spiritualism and Witchcraft. There are rules and descriptions of each and many examples of spells. For example, here’s a spell for scrying.

Scyphomancy

This is scrying with ink in a bowl to see another place or person. The ink floating on the surface of the water creatures the image from a single point of view near the place or person. The spell creates a link with that place. This also allows the target if they are magically aware and spot the point of view, to send magic back towards the viewer. It is also possible to protect some places against scrying. Some magicians scry from within a protective shell to make them less prone to backlash.

Other methods of scrying include crystal balls or candle flames.

Stability Test Difficulty:

4, 3 if something form the person or location is available. If the area is protected, the difficulty can be much higher. The spell can also be cast as a ritual with the inertia equal to the protection of the area.

For example, McMath has no wish to be spied upon when performing his alchemical experiments. He has created a barrier of solid air that blocks scrying. It has a pool of 8 and so the inertia to overcome when scrying into the area is 8. Even if successful, McMath is likely to notice that his defenses are under attack.

Cost:

No extra cost, unless the duration is extended.

Time:

A few minutes to set up, a minute to divine. Each extra minute costs another point of Stability.

Finally, the bulk of the book is taken up with an example campaign with many NPCs, locations, hooks and threats from Mythos and Folklore. Here’s on such location:

St Margaret’s Well

A well just outside Oxford at Binsey. It is inhabited by a grindylow, Jenny Greenteeth. She particularly likes children and does almost any service for one, but she can be tricked with a swaddled pig. She tries to mother children but they invariably drown, and then she eats them for being naughty. The bones of many of them can be found at the bottom of the well.

The well water was blessed by St Margaret who once escaped from a dragon. As such it can be considered an important ingredient in preventing damage from flame.

If you’re interested in learning more about William Blake, the latest episode of Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff serendipitously features an item on Blake. And watch out for an excerpt from the companion book to Fearful Symmetries, The Book of the New Jerusalem, coming on Monday!

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