Call of Chicago: The Phasmatological Society

They were a chance assembly of people who all happened to have some curious story current in their own family or neighbourhood which had puzzled them, and deserved (as they conceived) further investigation. Each had supposed that his own particular problem was a unique one, and was surprised when he found someone else with a similar or parallel story. It was the discovery that there were so many such tales abroad, far more than anyone had expected, which induced the original founders of the society to form themselves into a club for the investigation and testing of alleged manifestations of the supernatural.

— Sir Charles Oman, “The Old Oxford Phasmatological Society,” JSoc.Psych.Res. 33:622-23 (March-April, 1946)

In his ghost story “The Mezzotint,” M.R. James mentions “the Phasmatological Society” in passing. Often dismissed by Jamesian scholars as another of the master’s fertile inventions, this real ghost-investigating group was founded at Oxford University around 1874 (Oman recalls the date as October 29, 1879, but other sources differ). It continued operating at least until 1886, at some point establishing a chapter in London. The Society appeared in the London Truth as late as 1894; its members included the military historian Sir Charles Oman, Lord Haldane, the Bishop of Gloucester, and other eventually eminent personages.

The phasmatologist at work

They were less eminent as Oxford undergraduates, of course, though still quite well connected. The player characters might be such dilettante investigators, following up on the kind of tales James’ narrators recount as having safely occurred in earlier days or on queer stories that happen to their own peers or dons. The real Phasmatological Society took testimony from ghost witnesses and other paranormal experiencers, and then investigated the reports. Player character Society members might even investigate earlier James stories themselves, letting the GM invent sequels to the various horrors, or follow up on clues left by their great forefather the clergyman, philosopher, and ghost-breaker Joseph Glanvil (1636-1680). Like James’ protagonists, they encounter treasure hunts, cryptograms, mazes, and other puzzles with the clues hidden in church architecture or manor house bookshelves.

Jamesian adventures can take place entirely in the Victorian milieu of the original Phasmatological Society, of course, or in James’ own Edwardian era. A revived (or covertly continued) Society might investigate ghosts in the Trail of Cthulhu 1930s; its antiquarian membership makes ideal foils, marks, or clients for the Bookhounds of London. A swinging ’60s mod-occultist scene follows the guru and impresario “Chorazin” in London and San Francisco (FoDG, p. 304), and a modernized Society could emerge in Soho, Chelsea, or Berkeley to investigate the phasmatic wreckage in his wake. (Use the Activist or Scholar backgrounds; FoDG, p. 044.) The modern-day Phasmatological Society makes an ideal framing device for Fear Itself adventures or a cover group for an Ordo Veritatis “station-watch” squad hunting Esoterrorists.

A Pleasingly Random Ghost

Jamesian ghosts, while nicely tailored to their individual stories, don’t have any determinable order or logic to their abilities. In GUMSHOE mechanical terms, they have one to three Abilities: Aberrance (for all ghosts), Health, and and Scuffling (the last two for material, materialized, and possessing ghosts). All ghosts can spend Aberrance for minor effects such as cold spots, poltergeist activity, weird noises, and so forth; such effects cause damage or other mechanical effects, if any, equal to the spend.

Their ratings depend on their power, which is measured in dice. Most Jamesian entities have two dice in each Ability; minor ghosts have only one die in each Ability; major specters such as Count Magnus have three or even four dice in each. Each time the ghost appears, roll its dice in each Ability; the total is the pool it has available for that night. All Abilities fully refresh each sunset unless the ghost is exorcised or otherwise destroyed (usually by burning its remains).

Roll the ghost’s highest dice pool, take the highest two dice rolled, and divide the total result among its Alertness, Stealth, and Stability Loss bonuses. (Jamesian ghosts deal heavy Stability Loss penalties, as a rule.) For one-die ghosts, roll one die, add +1, and divide the result as above.

Roll one die on one Power table for each die in the ghost’s abilities. The number after the Power name is its Aberrance cost to use. A one-die entirely immaterial (Aberrance-only) ghost probably only rolls on the Oppressive Powers table, but the GM might pick a suitable power from one of the other tables if desired. Ghosts with any dice in Health or Scuffling can automatically materialize once in a scene for 2 points of Aberrance, even without the Materialize power. Those ghosts also roll one die and split the result between attack damage bonus (default is +0) and defense bonuses while material (expressed as minuses to damage). Materialized ghosts almost always have the Corpse quality (damage halved, shotguns do 2 pts, firearms do 1 pt).

Combat Powers

1  Disgusting Touch (2): foe must make a 6-point Stability (Difficulty 5) test to touch or when touched by the being during the scene

2  Disquieting Touch (1): attack using Scuffling, damage (+0) comes off Stability

3  Foetor (0): Forces a 5-point Health test (Difficulty 5) in close combat

4  Freezing Terror (1): attack using Aberrance, damage (d+0) comes off Stability

5  Grapple (2): forces test of its Aberrance or Scuffling vs. foe’s Athletics or Scuffling; if foe fails, foe cannot escape for a number of rounds equal to margin of success and their Hit Threshold drops to 2

6  Materialize (2): may materialize to make physical attacks (damage comes off Health) with Scuffling, spend 2 again to dematerialize into foul vapor immune to material attacks

Movement Powers

1  Abduction (2): may carry (or Apport, if it also has that power) an unconscious or Grappled victim to one pre-ordained place (usually its grave)

2  Apportation (1): may teleport to its own death site, gravesite, image, and/or name

3  Familiar (1): may appear as, or operate through, a rough beast such as a cat, owl, rat, spider, or similar creature

4  Follow Victim (1): automatically follows target; spend only required when victim changes conveyance or significant direction

5  Inhabit Matter (2): may possess and animate organic matter such as linen sheets, wood carvings, trees and vines, corpses, etc. with a Health pool either equal to the ghost’s Health or to 1d per point of Aberrance spent

6  Spider Climb (1): can climb up walls (if ghost is immaterial, applies to inhabited matter, familiars, or ghost in materialized form)

Oppressive Powers

1  Confusion (2): on a failed Stability test, target is dazed or struck forgetful

2  Create Darkness (1-3): increases Difficulty of visual tests (including Hit Thresholds) in the area by amount spent; spend of 3 further increases Difficulty of all Stability tests by +1

3  Desolate Cry (1): triggers 3-point Stability test in hearers

4  Oppression (1): lowers victim’s Stability pool by 1, cannot be refreshed by normal rest, usable once per week

5  Send Nightmare (1): triggers 4-point Stability test in one victim

6  Terrifying (2): +2 to Difficulty of Stability tests

 

2 Responses to “Call of Chicago: The Phasmatological Society”

  1. Christian "CJ" Romer says:

    Hey something has gone wrong with the Oman citation. I had a copy of that issue of the JSPR on my shelf so I glanced at it, and it should read not Sir Charles Oman, “The Old Oxford Phasmatological Society,” JSoc.Psych.Res. 33:622-23 (March-April, 1946) but Sir Charles Oman, “The Old Oxford Phasmatological Society,” JSPR 33 (March-April, 1946) pp. 208-16. The 33 refers to the volume, in this case 1943 to 46; the page range I give is for the issue. In this period the JSPR was circulated to members only; some subsequently one presumes bound the issues together in to numbered volumes. If anyone ever wants to look up an article from the SPR publications I have bookshelves full of them and are happy to help. :) Also in the Jamesian tradition (and in grew up in the property adjacent to his childhood home, a century later) one can not but wonder if this reference and unusual way of citing the JSPR as JSoc.Psych.Res might actually be a very subtle clue?

    Perhaps J.Soc means we should look to the Jesuits? 622.23 is not a page range, so it must be a manuscript; so maybe we should check MRJ’s catalogue of the English College, Douai under that accession number? I fear Karswell may have beaten it to us however, in his earnest haste to collect all the fragments of ‘ob bottle lore that survived the benign censure of Mother Church.

    CJ x

  2. Christian "CJ" Romer says:

    Actually while I am commenting and given Halloween still casts its spell over us all: I like your Jamesian ghosts, but I question one mechanic. Should they need to manifest? I think the single attribute I associate with them is the fact they are completely material, more like undead than conventional spooks?

    Now as Becky will doubtless point out actual apparitions are seemingly solid when witnessed, and act as if they have mass: yet they manifest and vanish exactly as your mechanics suggest. (In her research she states they usually enter the percipient’s view in a normal manner; their mysterious exit is often the thing that alerts one to their ghostly nature).

    However I think James’ ghosts don’t play by the Census of Hallucinations rules: and they do have a few defining features, being usually perilously thin, withered or skeletal, adorned with lumps of rotting hair and moving in an unnatural spider like scuttle? They are animated corpses more than spooks; from Rats to A School Story it seems to hold true.

    Now MRJ translated the Bylands Fragment which gives us a number of medieval ghost stories, and they physically beat, throw about (even over hedges) the witnesses. MRJ speculates this is because Bylands Abbey in Yorkshire was influenced by Scandinavian ideas of ghosts like the draugr, (something like a Tolkein barrow wight). The Tractate Middoth gives us something more like a conventional ghost in the library; but it is dusted with cobwebs, again suggesting a corporeal spook.

    And Count Magnus seems to prove my point; which reminds me that I had a ghostly experience myself thirty years ago at the crossroads at Belchamp St Paul where that story climaxes — I shall go write a scenario.

    Anyway great to see MRJ in your column.
    CJ x

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