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!

exquisite-corpseby Steve Dempsey

Dreamhounds of Paris is a very rich game. The player characters, the surrealists, each have a detailed history. Paris, both in its mundane and magical incarnations, has locations, stories and conspiracies. And that’s even before you add in the Dreamlands and the rest of the Lovecraftian canon. As someone who runs improvised games, that’s a lot to take into account. The question for me the is how can I get player buy-in and build a decent story without doing days of preparation?

Well, I did do some preparation, I’m familiar with the geography and history of Paris as I wrote the parts of the book that deal with it. I’ve also been a fan of surrealism for ever, even before I heard a small girl in the Hayward Gallery proclaim, “Of course it’s not a pipe, silly. It’s a lawnmower.” I wouldn’t suggest however that anyone run this game without at least some introduction to the background material. So read some of the book, note down some of the things that catch your fancy. Surrealism is about flights of fancy, and have a look at some surrealist art, in the pages and margins of the rulebook and on-line.

You should also give the players their character sheets beforehand to familiarise them with the material (see here to download of the sheets).

But what can else the improv Keeper do to get the ball rolling quickly?

There are a couple of things. The first is to steal from the surrealists. This is a method I’ve employed at the start of the campaign and a one shot. It’s the Exquisite Corpse, a little game the surrealists invented and played to stimulate their imagination. It’s best played in character too.

Each player, and perhaps the Keeper too, has a pen and a blank sheet of paper. Each piece of paper is folded to create a number of sections equal to the number of participants, then flattened. In the first section each player draws part of a drawing, with connecting lines to the section below. They then fold the paper over to hide all of their contribution except for the connecting lines. Everyone passes their paper to the player to their left. This is repeated until everyone has written on each piece of paper. You then unfurl the drawings and talk about what you’ve done.

As a Keeper, look at the images and use these to start the game. In my campaign game, a fish motif was prevalent so I started with a chance encounter, not of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissection table, but inside a giant fish in the Dreamlands of all the characters. In the one shot, I used a cloud suffused with eyes which was the thing Erich Zann’s music was keeping beyond the threshold. The characters were assembled in the Le Cyrano, a bar on the place Blanche at the foot of Montmartre. Magritte’s dog Fifi had run disappeared up the hill in pursuit of a haunting melody.

Another way to start is to take a leaf from Drama System and have the players define what their characters want and have other players say why they can’t have it. These can be on an emotional or procedural level.

Dali – Q: When will everyone own up to loving my art? – A: When you redeem yourself with a selfless act.

Magritte – Q: What does the man in the mirror want?- A: To take your place in the Waking World.

Buñuel – Q: How can I master the bleeding eye? – A: Bataille*.

Alternatively as the Keeper you might come up with questions for the players to answer for their characters. Try to aim for a psychoanalytical (Freudian or Jungian) or surreal angle.

You could start Dreamhounds with these questions:

  • de Chirico – What does the fleeing child in the red dress represent?
  • Lee Miller – What is the hungry thing in the Dreamlands that is your father?
  • Kiki – How can you gain the strength to confront your shadow?
  • Man Ray – You see everything except yourself, what is so terrible about you?

As suggested in the book, let the characters explore the Dreamlands, let them change things and have these changes have repercussions in the Waking World. And when characters make art, have this art change the Dreamlands, in subtle ways for a campaign, in violent and unexpected ways for a one-shot.

Once the exploration is under way, start to draw correspondences between the two worlds. Allow abstract ideas in one world correspond to concrete things in the other, and don’t be afraid to bring in the Mythos.

  • André Breton is not present in the Dreamlands, but does he cast a shadow there – perhaps the sliced eye that haunts Buñuel? Or is he in fact the Waking World’s Crawling Chaos, improperly manifested as the angry leader of an anarchist movement that derides leadership.
  • The ants are on the march, the workers of the world, but which world and who is their (red) queen? Does a Surrealist rapprochement with the Communist Party require submission to her?
  • Eyes are a common motif. Who are they spying on and for whom? Perhaps it is the perpetual male gaze of many of the artists that can only be overcome through true sexual liberation and not just trite, and bourgeois fantasies.
  • Bataille’s ritual group that meets in the forest of Marly just outside Paris is represented by the Acéphale, an image of Y’golonac drawn by André Masson. Come on! This writes itself.

Above all, let your games be convulsive and beautiful.

[1]     Puns, visual or otherwise are a staple of surrealism. Bataille can refer to Georges Bataille, but it also means Battle in French.

Fearful_Symmetries_Blake_350For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.

– William Blake, The Four Zoas (from Ephesians 6:12)

The Secret War is coming to England. And you are the warriors.

Albion, the primeval and perfect England of William Blake, is broken – by war in heaven, and turmoil amongst mankind. Heroes arise to build Jerusalem anew in the Green & Pleasant Land guided by Blake’s visionary poetry.

In this supplement to Trail of Cthulhu, you play a group of magicians exploring the magickal revival; wielding the terrible, double-edged power that grants both dominion and degeneration.

With its companion volume, The Book of the New Jerusalem, Fearful Symmetries gives the Keeper guidelines for building an improvised campaign with dangers drawn from English folklore and Mythos abomination. Four systems of magic are described, along with locations, threats, tomes, and characters. Use Fearful Symmetries to flesh out the struggle between the lurking horror, and the shrivelled good intentions of those who think such power can be contained, and controlled, by mere mortals.

The magical battle for England is coming. Is your humanity the price of  victory?