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…

by Tony Williams

(Download a crib sheet for this variant rule).

Greetings. I am a fan of GUMSHOE and, more specifically, Trail of Cthulhu. I’ve been playing RPGs since the early eighties and skew mostly towards Call of Cthulhu and Trail of Cthulhu. I enjoy Trail so much I have created several items to try and make playing the game easier for myself and others. They can all be downloaded at the Trail of Cthulhu Resource page on this website (on the list at the right there click “Trail of Cthulhu“, then “Resources” and look for my name next to stuff).

As I have said I enjoy the ruleset of Trail of Cthulhu; its simplicity, elegance and most importantly how GUMSHOE helps get clues into Investigators’ hands. However I have always felt that the concepts of “Sources of Stability” and “Pillars of Sanity” were somewhat nebulous and maybe could be improved in some way by hardwiring them into the ruleset more directly.

Sources of Stability in particular don’t serve much purpose other than giving the Investigator a peer group which has little to no impact on the game during the actual session. Pillars of Sanity confer no in-game advantage to the player other than defining the mindset of their Investigator and I always felt that if an Investigator has multiple “Pillars” plus a “Drive” their motivations could become difficult to remember (certainly if you are the Keeper and have to be aware of multiple Investigators’ motivations simultaneously). Also, from a player’s point of view, Pillars only offer an attack vector onto their Investigator with no actual benefit other than describing their character’s personality. I wanted to improve Pillars so a player might embrace them more and also let a Pillar give an actual advantage to their Investigator.

A couple of other issues I had with the rules of Trail, as they are, were that Sanity pool points didn’t seem to be eroded often enough for my liking and the use of the Cthulhu Mythos ability was proving too “dangerous” for my players to decide to use it. Excluding the times where Sanity is hit in a BIG way (via a shattered Pillar or meeting a Great Old One) Sanity only tends to be hit in small amounts when an Investigator fails a Mythos-related Stability test that sends them into negative Stability territory. I wanted to increase the opportunities where an Investigator might lose some Sanity pool points.

So… I threw all the ingredients of Sources of Stability, Pillars of Sanity, the Cthulhu Mythos ability and the Sanity mechanic itself into a pot (my brain), stirred them up with a spoon that was covered in some rules from Nights Black Agents, and came up with the following rule amendments:

Pillars of Sanity (Revised)

Types of Pillar of Sanity

There are now four types of Pillar of Sanity:

  • a Moral Stance
  • a Treasured Symbol
  • a Person of Solace
  • a Place of Safety

A Moral Stance is a core belief of the Investigator. It is an abstract concept and is identical to the type of Pillar of Sanity as defined in the Trail of Cthulhu Rulebook. An example would be “The purity of my bloodline.”

A Treasured Symbol is a physical object that inspires or gives hope to the Investigator. Examples could be the flag of the country of origin of the Investigator, a photograph of their family or an object gifted by a close friend.

A Person of Solace is a living non-player character that is dear to the Investigator (this is identical to a Source of Stability as defined in the Trail of Cthulhu Rulebook and therefore the game construct of “Sources of Stability” is deprecated under this rule revision). Examples could be a best friend, a close work colleague or a family member.

A Place of Safety is a specific location where the Investigator feels comfortable and secure when they visit it. Examples could be their place of work, their parents’ house or the site where they first realised they had fallen in love.

Choosing Pillars of Sanity

When a player is creating their Investigator they should define one Pillar of Sanity for each partial set of 3 rating points of Sanity their Investigator has.

Thus for 1-3 rating points of Sanity they should define 1 Pillar, for 4-6 rating points they should define 2 and for 7 upwards they should define 3. Three Pillars of Sanity is the maximum number allowed for an Investigator.

An Investigator can only have one Place of Safety and one Moral Stance as Pillars of Sanity at any one time. An Investigator does not have to have any particular type of Pillar if they so wish. Thus a player could choose three Treasured Symbols if they so desired.

If an Investigator’s Sanity rating falls such that it no longer supports the number of Pillars the Investigator currently has, then the player must choose to “crumble” a Pillar (their choice) and explain why it no longer has any value to their Investigator. There is no further Sanity or Stability penalty for crumbling a Pillar.

Investigators with no remaining Pillars of Sanity suffer a +1 difficulty penalty to Stability tests as per the usual Trail of Cthulhu Rulebook rule.

Regaining Lost Stability Pool Points via Pillars of Sanity

Pillars of Sanity can now be used to regain lost Stability pool points. Each of the Investigator’s Pillars can be used once per game session to do this, but only one Pillar of each type can be used in the same session.

To use their Moral Stance or a Treasured Symbol the Investigator must be in a place of relative calm and safety and must spend a few minutes contemplating their core values or handling or viewing their Symbol. They will regain 1 lost Stability pool point.

If an Investigator can spend at least 6 hours visiting with, talking to or otherwise engaging in normal human interaction with their Person of Solace, without being under threat or placing their Person of Solace in danger, they may regain 2 lost pool points of Stability.

If an Investigator can spend at least 24 hours at their Place of Safety without being under threat or drawing the Mythos to it they may regain 3 lost pool points of Stability.

An Investigator can not regain Stability through their Pillars of Sanity if they are in a mind blasted state (Stability pool points of -6 or less).

Pillars of Sanity and Psychological Triage

Regaining Stability through the Psychoanalysis ability is now affected by Pillars of Sanity.

The difficulty level for the Psychological Triage test is now [ 6 minus the number of Pillars of Sanity the patient possesses ] instead of the standard test difficulty of 4.

Loss of Pillars of Sanity and Mental Damage

Pillars of Sanity can be lost in two ways: via Mythos corruption or in a mundane (non-Mythos related) manner.

Mundane Loss

  • A Moral Stance, because it is an abstract belief, is highly unlikely to be lost in this manner.
  • A Treasured Symbol could be misplaced or physically destroyed.
  • A Person of Solace could die of natural causes or turn against the Investigator for some reason.
  • An Investigator could be evicted from their Place of Safety or it could be demolished or become inaccessible somehow.

Losing a Pillar of Sanity without the Mythos being involved causes the Investigator to suffer Stability rating and pool point loss depending on the type of Pillar lost:

  • a Treasured Symbol – lose 1 Stability rating and 1 Stability pool point
  • a Person of Solace – lose 2 Stability rating and 2 Stability pool points
  • a Place of Safety – lose 3 Stability rating and 3 Stability pool points

Loss involving the Mythos

If the Investigator knows that the Mythos is involved in the loss of a Pillar (e.g. new Mythos knowledge proves a Moral Stance meaningless; a Mythos creature destroys a Treasured Symbol; the Mythos drives a Person of Solace insane or cultists desecrate a Place of Safety) then the Investigator suffers Sanity and Stability pool point loss appropriate to the lost Pillar type.

  • a Moral Stance – lose 3 Sanity pool points and 5 Stability pool points
  • a Treasured Symbol – lose 2 Sanity pool points and 3 Stability pool points
  • a Person of Solace – lose 2 Sanity pool points and 6 Stability pool points
  • a Place of Safety – lose 2 Sanity pool points and 4 Stability pool points

Pillars of Sanity and the Cthulhu Mythos Ability

Successful use of the Cthulhu Mythos ability is now not certain to cause loss of Stability and Sanity pool points.

The more Pillars of Sanity an Investigator has, the greater a chance of protection against losing Stability and Sanity they can have when using the Cthulhu Mythos ability.

Upon successful use of the Cthulhu Mythos ability a test is made against difficulty 5 (the standard Mythos test difficulty). If the test is failed, the Investigator loses pool points of Sanity and Stability depending on the difference between the test die result and the target difficulty according to the table below:

Difference:

1 – lose 1 Sanity pool point

2 – lose 1 Sanity pool point and 1 Stability pool point

3 – lose 2 Sanity pool points and 1 Stability pool point

4 – lose 2 Sanity pool points and 2 Stability pool points

A player can risk any or all of their Investigator’s Pillars of Sanity as a bonus to the test die roll. For each Pillar they offer, they receive a +1 bonus to the die roll. Players must state which Pillars they are offering (if any) before rolling the test die.

If a test that has Pillars of Sanity backing it fails, then one of the backing Pillars (player’s choice) has been corrupted or shattered by the Mythos revelation the Investigator has just received using the Cthulhu Mythos ability. The Pillar is lost and the Investigator suffers Sanity and Stability pool point loss appropriate to the lost Pillar type as per the amounts for loss of a Pillar via the Mythos described earlier.

The player should try to offer an explanation for how the revelation has corrupted or shattered their Pillar.

How these rule variants might affect the game

Hopefully with these rule suggestions I have simplified the amount of “motivators” describing an Investigator’s mindset since an Investigator can now have only 1 Moral Stance. This means players and Keepers only have to remember an Investigator’s 1 Moral Stance and their Drive when considering their actions. An Investigator could even be “amoral” with no Moral Stance and just have a Drive to motivate them.

Keepers now have other ways to attack Pillars other than relying on Mythos revelations antithetical to the Investigator’s abstract moral concepts. Keepers can launch physical attacks on pillars because three of the new Pillar types are actual physical objects. The Keeper can also choose a mundane form of attack or a Mythos corruption of a pillar to generate different types of mental damage (one way skewing Stability loss versus the other’s Sanity loss).

Pillars now offer an actual tactical advantage to a player because they can replenish lost Stability pool points. I pondered quite a while on the numbers for Sanity and Stability loss/gain trying to strike a balance between reflecting Nights Black Agents’ rules (of Symbol/Solace/Safety) and Trail’s rules for shattered Pillars versus how easy it is for a player to use each type of Pillar in-session and how easy it would be to lose a Pillar (either through a mundane reason or via the Mythos). When choosing which types of Pillar to have for their Investigator players might want to consider the following advantages and disadvantages:

Moral Stance

ADVANTAGE – It is always available for use and can’t be “lost” (in a mundane sense) causing Stability rating loss like the other types of Pillar can.

DISADVANTAGE – It replenishes only 1 Stability pool point. There is a large Stability/Sanity cost if corrupted by the Mythos.

Treasured Symbol

ADVANTAGE – It is easily portable. It has the smallest Stability/Sanity cost of the Pillar types if corrupted by the Mythos.

DISADVANTAGE – It only replenishes 1 Stability pool point. It could be misplaced/taken/destroyed, possibly easily.

Person of Solace

ADVANTAGE – Least likely to be lost via mundane reasons of all the Pillar types. Replenishes more Stability than a Symbol or Stance.

DISADVANTAGE – Large cost if corrupted by the Mythos. Not as readily accessible as other Pillars.

Place of Safety

ADVANTAGE – Replenishes most Stability of the Pillar types.

DISADVANTAGE – Requires most game time to replenish Stability. Large Stability rating loss if it becomes unavailable through mundane reasons.

When choosing Pillars there is also the issue of whether a player wants Pillars they can risk to back the new test for successful use of the Cthulhu Mythos ability which will cause the least grief if they shatter, or do they want Pillars they can use in-session to replenish lost Stability.

A connection has also now been introduced between Sanity rating and Stability replenishment. The lower a character’s Sanity rating the fewer Pillars they will have and thus the harder it becomes to replenish Stability in-session (either by use of the Pillars directly or through in-session Psychological Triage).

Finally, it is now not a certainty that use of the Cthulhu Mythos ability will be damaging to the Investigator due to introduction of some “gamification” through use of Pillars, hopefully encouraging its use more by players. However it still has the potential to shatter a Pillar of Sanity causing a hefty mental hit. If the players are more willing to use their Cthulhu Mythos ability then they face the stark choice of risking a Pillar of Sanity or letting the dice fall where they may (and the odds are such that if they don’t risk a Pillar then they will lose a little bit of Sanity which is something I wanted to work more of into the game).

I hope you feel inclined to adopt these new rule suggestions and do offer feedback in the comments below.

Happy (Slimy) Trails,

Tony Williams.

“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!

A land that is thirstier than ruin
A sea that is hungrier than death
Heaped hills that a tree never grew in
Wide sands where the wave draws breath.

— Algernon Swinburne, “By the North Sea” (1880)

At some point around 1230 (perhaps during the “St. Luke’s Storm” of 1228 when the people of London saw “dragons and wykked Spyrites” in the storm wind) the action of the North Sea against the shallows on the southeast coast of Yorkshire threw up “stones and sand” to make an island probably to the east of a long sandbank at the mouth of the Humber Estuary. That sandbank is now “the Spurn” but the Vikings called it Ravenser (“raven’s tongue”) and a port of the same name appears on and off in history at the northern end of “the Neck” which connects the Spurn to the mainland such as it is of Yorkshire. Fishermen dried their nets there, then they stashed their boats there, then they traded without a lot of pesky taxation there, and by 1240 the Count of Aumale built a fortification on the island, which by that time was a “borough” named Ravenser Odd (an “odd” being Norse or Danish for a spit or point of land), or Ravenserodd, or Ravensrodd, or just Lod.

Map of the Humber mouth, 1595

In 1251, the Count obtained a charter for an official (taxed) market and fair, adding a (taxable) quay in 1297 and another in 1310. At its height, 100 ships called there per year (officially), and the town had 300 buildings, among them windmills, a tannery, a court, a prison (and gallows), and a chapel of Our Lady. Ravensrodd gained a royal charter in 1299, which came in very handy during its neighbors’ incessant lawsuits against it for piracy. In fact, another version of the town’s history says it began with a shipwreck, and was founded by the captain of that ship, one Peter-at-Sea (or Peter de la Mare), who began “convincing” other ships to land at Ravensrodd (“by fear and force”) instead of continuing on to Grimsby or Hull.

However it began, it ended just about as rapidly. The great storm of 1334 drowned “two parts” of the town and eroded the island badly; by 1351 the chapel and cemetery had drowned and looters carried off the chapel’s gold and silver ornaments. In 1360 the island was abandoned, the property owners feebly attempting to get writs against fishermen salvaging wooden beams from drowned buildings. The “St. Marcellus’ Flood” of 1362 (also called the Grote Mandrenke: “The Great Drowner of Men”) completed the job. In 1400 the walls of Ravensrodd could still be seen at low tide, but not long after that even the location of Ravensrodd was forgotten.

Trail of Cthulhu: The Shadow Over Ravensrodd

“… that town of Ravenserodd … was an exceedingly famous borough devoted to merchandise, as well as many fisheries, most abundantly furnished with ships …. But yet, with all inferior places, and chiefly by wrong-doing on the sea, by its wicked works and piracies, it provoked the wrath of God against its self beyond measure.”

— Thomas de Burton, Chronicle of Meaux Abbey (1396)

A mysterious island rises from the waves, becomes immensely profitable in gold and fish, then “by its wicked works” it drowns again. One hardly has to stretch to cast Ravensrodd as a medieval Innsmouth, destroyed by God rather than by J. Edgar Hoover. The Ravensrodd versions of the Marshes and Gilmans include family names such as: Barell, Selby, Brune, Cotes or Cokes or Coas, Rottenherring (meaning “red herring”), Keeling, Ferby, and perhaps most excitingly de la Pole, who married into not only the royal House of York but the poetic Chaucer family.

These families mostly removed to Hull in Yorkshire after Ravensrodd went down, or in some cases well before, buying up choice properties and investing in towns as far north as Whitby. So a Keeper looking for weird connections in Hull might begin with the mysterious (dream-driven?) suicide on December 6, 1924 of housebreaker Edward “Fanlight Jimmy” McMahon. McMahon apparently hanged himself in gaol despite having no motive to do so, after breaking into a house on Chariot Street. What did he see there that he couldn’t forget, or that Something wanted him to keep silent about?

Fall of DELTA GREEN Handlers might also want to look into the murders in Hull of prostitutes Margaret Lowson (1966) and Evelyn Edwards (1967). One Samuel Stephenson (a stereotypical serial killer, down to the letters to Scotland Yard) confessed to Lowson’s murder and was convicted of it, but Edwards’ remains officially unsolved. The other Deep One spoor that decade is the Hull triple trawler tragedy: three trawlers out of Hull sank in January 1968, one of them only a day out of port.

NIght’s Black Agents: The Ravensrodd Inheritance

“… the inundations of the sea and of the Humber had destroyed to the foundations the chapel of Ravensrodd, built in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary, so that the corpses and bones of the dead there horribly appeared …”

— Thomas de Burton, Chronicle of Meaux Abbey (1396)

As I mentioned, the port of Old Ravenser goes back to Viking times or before, beginning as a monastic hermitage in 600 or so, a Danish invasion port in the centuries that follow, and reduced to only one manor house by 1400. At some point perhaps the monks drove something out into the sea, something that raised its own island and spread its own foul influence, trying to supplant the Counts of Aumale (all six of the Countess of Aumale’s children predeceased her; the line became extinct in 1274) and lurking in the manor house until the chapel drowned.

That something is the Danish vampiric spirit called the nikke (mentioned as the neck or nykr in the Director’s Handbook, p. 233). It might appear as a horse or as a bearded man or as a beautiful woman or youth. (In human form it has a slit ear, or a dripping wet garment.) Its “true appearance” may be that of a worm with blood-sucking tendrils. It surfaces every so often to work its wiles or slake its thirst in Hull: William Bolton kills Jane Allen in her flat in Andrew Marvell Terrace on October 17, 1902, stabbing her three times and himself once in the neck “in his sleep.” Six years later Thomas Siddle deprives himself of food, cuts his wife’s throat with a razor on June 9, 1908, stands stunned at the crime scene, remains insensible in prison, claims “something came over me; I only realised what I had done when blood was on my hand” …

Nikke

General Abilities: Aberrance 16, Hand-to-Hand 8, Health 10

Hit Threshold: 4 (above water), 6 (under water)

Alertness Modifier: +1 (at edge of water), +2 (on the water), +3 (under water)

Stealth Modifier: +2 (when not singing)

Damage Modifier: +0 (grasp; damage first to Athletics then to Health)

Armor: -1 (subcutaneous scales) or Corpse

Free Powers: Drain (drains air and blood from lungs, as Heat Drain), Regeneration (2 Health per round in water; all damage by next high tide), Strangling Grasp (as Lamia; NBA, p. 151)

Other Powers: Musical Enthrallment and Musical Madness (both as Mental Attacks; NBA, p. 131), Turn to Creature (Horse, Snake); Apportation (to its lair or to anywhere touched by its waters), Clairvoyance (everywhere touched by its waters), Dominate, Howl (when in the presence of a future drowning victim), Magic (Call Storms, Multiply Fish), Mesmerism, Necromancy

Banes: saying its name

Compulsions: sell magic to those who pay for it with “three drops of blood,” accept a coin dropped in water in lieu of a life

Blocks: iron knife or a steel fire-striker

Requirements: drown or drain humans, remain in or near its waters by day

Carnivals have always exuded a faint fetor of menace. Itinerant strangers come to town, some of them dressed as clowns, and try to trick you or exploit the basest depths of your curiosity. They exist to break down boundaries, give you permission to indulge, and then move on, leaving you, the seemingly innocent townsfolk, to reckon with what you got up to under the garish light of the midway.

When you set a scene in a Fear Itself, Trail of Cthulhu, or Esoterrorists scenario at a sideshow or circus, the players know to expect creepiness.

You know what the real story is. But what are the rumors the investigators encounter before parting the wrong curtain and finally beholding that terrible truth?

Here are 7 rumors for townsfolk and carnies to spout at the PCs before the real horror surfaces.

  1. “They did a test on the corn dogs and found that 1% of the contents were human flesh.”
  2. “Last year when the carnival came by Mamie Jones just up and vanished. The sheriffs caught up with them down in Dixville but they said they’d never laid eyes on her.”
  3. “Before the authorities clamped down on the freak show, they had an alligator man who was a little too real, if you know what I mean.”
  4. “Some of the most prominent people in our town worship the devil. And their high priest and priestess are the owners of this carnival, who travel from place to place renewing the vows of apparently ordinary folk to Satan himself.”
  5. “They stopped using their old Ferris wheel. Ten years one of the cars came loose and a girl fell to her death. That old ride was haunted. People who rode by themselves would sometimes look over and see her, weeping gluey tears from her faceless head. I don’t suppose a ghost could transfer from an old Ferris wheel to a new one, could it?”
  6. “Last year one of the roustabouts lost an eye in a bar fight. Guys from the local mill started it. I wouldn’t be surprised if some bloody revenge broke out later tonight.”
  7. “A friend of my cousin’s went into that hall of mirrors back in the 90s. He stepped outside and he coulda sworn he was in the 1890s! He turned around and ran back in and says he can’t even look at a mirror nowadays.”

And as always, if the players care more about a tall tale than they do about the main plot line, why maybe it’s not so untrue after all…

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