See P. XX

a column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

A well-designed modular element for an RPG, whether we’re talking about a GMC, location, conspiracy, or occult tome, does more than extrapolate from an evocative premise. The text you write, explicitly or otherwise, indicates to the GM how it will be used in play.

Let’s look at roleplaying’s archetypal modular element, the one that has launched a thousand bestiaries, the creature. Or, if your core game prefers, monster, or foe, or alien life form.

In some cases the utility of a creature, or other modular element for that matter, goes without saying. That happens when the core activity of a game is so hard-wired to its modular elements that their function at the gaming table needs no further elaboration.

Take the venerable first mover and perennial market leader, Dungeons & Dragons. Its core activity is: fight monsters in fantastic environments.

(This greatly accounts for the enduring popularity of D&D and its stickiness as a concept. Not only does it have an exceptionally clear, easily enacted and highly repeatable core activity, it tells you this right in the brand name. Fantastic environment = Dungeon. Monsters = Dragon. It’s all right there.)

A well-wrought D&D creature design requires you to address its activity by showing the GM how it behaves in a fight, and how it interacts with its environment. In 5E, the stat block focuses on the former, and the descriptive text on the latter.

Different iterations of D&D have favored one over the other. The classic “Ecology of the X” magazine article format traditionally goes into way more extrapolative detail on a creature’s relationship to its environment than any DM can possibly put into play at the table. 4E, and its spiritual descendant 13th Age, focus much more on what the creature will do in a fight than in the broader world. A stat block might represent not a category of being, but a particular sort of orc or demon or pirate who attacks in a specific way, with its distinctive spell effect or weapon.

D&D casts such a shadow over trad RPG design that the very term “trad design” might mean “has a little D&D influence in it somewhere.”

It’s easy, then, to lose track of what you’re doing by applying D&D assumptions to the creation of creatures for other games. Making an adversary useful and easily playable in another rules set requires you to step back and consider the core activity you’re writing toward.

GUMSHOE games all have slightly different core activities, all of which can be expressed including the verb investigate.

  • Intrepid volunteers investigate the cosmic secrets of the Cthulhu Mythos.
  • At the behest of a benevolent conspiracy, trained professionals investigate an occult conspiracy to tear apart the world.
  • Ordinary people investigate their way out of horrific situations.
  • Burned spies on the run investigate the vampire conspiracy intent on destroying them.
  • A freelance starship crew investigates interstellar mysteries.

To design a GUMSHOE creature requires not just a focus on the tropes and themes of the setting—an eldritch abomination, a psychically invasive modern horror, an alien life form—but the creature’s role in the investigative action.

GUMSHOE’s emphasis on structure helps you do this. If you look at the scenario format, you can see that a creature might be:

  1. central to the scenario’s key mystery
  2. a secondary obstacle adding challenge and suspense along the way

In case 1, the creature is either the source of the mystery, or adjacent to the source. The PCs have to interact with it in some way to bring the case to a close. That’s your:

  • salt vampire feeding on the crew of the mining outpost
  • resurrected sorcerer bumping off anyone who uncovers his secret
  • ghost taking vengeance on its killer’s descendants

Many instances of case 2 fall into the broader category GUMSHOE calls Antagonist Reactions. When the heroes start poking around, the primary villain sends some lesser creatures to harry them. Secondary creatures might also be keyed to specific investigative scenes, as guardians or obstacles the characters must overcome before gathering clues. Examples include:

  • the gargoyles the corrupt priest sends to trash your studio
  • the mutated dogs in the abandoned lab
  • the faceless homunculus hitman known only as Mrs. Blank

Your description of a GUMSHOE creature might suggest ways it can appear in either role. When writing up Mrs. Blank, you could indicate how she acts when the PCs are tracking her through her trail of victims, and then what she does when she shows up at the behest of the vamp conspiracy to treat the agents to some silencer music.

Accompanying any core activity is a game’s default identity, the description of a typical PC group: ordinary people, trained professionals, burned spies, starship crew, or whatever. Take that into account also as you design your creature. Show the GM how to get the characters into contact with your entity. In other words, your description needs at least one plot hook demonstrating its introduction into play.

Super easy, again, in D&D: unless you say otherwise, the creature occupies the fantastic environment, ready to defend itself when adventurers show up to fight it.

The more specialized the default identity, the more guidance GMs need getting your creature into their games.

Let’s say you’ve designed a ghost that materializes out of printer’s ink. What motivates the typical group for this game to confront it? The answer differs if the PCs are ordinary people (Fear Itself), burned spies (Night’s Black Agents) or security pros who respond to assignments from their handlers (The Esoterrorists, Fall of Delta Green.) The question in the first two examples is “Why do the PCs care?” In the last case, it’s “Why do their handlers care?”

Keep these essential questions in mind as you first envision your creature, and again as you revise your text. You’ll probably spot passages that explore a rabbit hole of iterative detail but don’t figure into a GM’s key concerns:

  1. What does it do in my scenario?
  2. What does that scenario look like?
  3. Why and how do the PCs encounter it?

This quick Trail of Cthulhu adventure first appeared in the Dragonmeet 2018 program book, and is based on genuine historical events that took place within a few minute’s walk of the convention centre. 

The Window on Standish Road

  1. What was reputed to be the appearance of the mischievous person?
  2. In white sometimes, and sometimes in the skin of a beast; a calf skin, or something of that sort.

In 1804, Francis Smith was convicted of the murder of a bricklayer named Thomas Millwood, having shot him on Black Lion Lane in Hammersmith, only a few minute’s walk from this very convention centre.

Smith offered a novel defence, arguing that he had not intended to kill Millwood, but that his real target was the ‘Hammersmith Ghost’, a phantom that haunted the churchyard. He mistook Millwood for the supposed ghost and shot him in the face.

Several accounts describe the ghost, which was said to be the spectre of a butcher who committed suicide several years earlier. For example, Thomas Grove testified that: “I was going through the church yard between eight and nine o’clock, with my jacket under my arm, and my hands in my pocket, when some person came from behind a tomb-stone, which there are four square in the yard, behind me, and caught me fast by the throat with both hands, and held me fast.” Some described the ghost as a figure in white; others claimed it had eyes of glass and an animal’s head.

Two days after the shooting, a local shoemaker, John Graham, came forward and admitted that he was the ghost; he’d dressed up as the phantom to scare his apprentice. Smith was initially declared guilty of murder and sentenced to hang, but in light of the intense public interest in the affair, the case was referred to King George III, who mercifully spared Smith’s life and sentenced him instead to a year’s hard labour.

The Hammersmith Ghost was consigned to the history books and to the legal texts, where it remained as a precedent regarding the consequences of mistaken action for 180 years. Case closed… or is it? For Gamemasters who want to bring the horror out of the past and into their game, we present this quick scenario for Trail of Cthulhu.

The Horrible Truth

Sorcerer and necromancer Jerominus Cornel still haunts London, more than a hundred years after his death in 1802. He hid himself away into a mirror dimension using a magical lens, emerging infrequently to steal occult knowledge from other scholars, using books and intimidation to drag them into the mirror world.

The Hook

Scene Type: Intro

Leads-Out: The Graveyard, Background Research

1937. In an obscure second-hand bookstore, the investigators find an incredible prize – a battered copy of Balfour’s Cultes de Goules, a 1703 work describing the ghoul cult throughout Europe. Such a rare occult book is worth a considerable sum to the right collector.

Tucked in the back of the book are a handful of loose pages, covered with almost illegible handwriting. Close examination with Languages reveals that it’s the confession of one John Graham of Hammersmith, written in 1810.

  • Graham talks about his neighbour, an eccentric chemist called Jerominus Cornel, who lived on Standish Street. He often saw Cornel visiting a nearby butcher’s shop, buying jars of blood from freshly slaughtered cattle.
    • Library Use/History/Occult: It might be worth looking into any records of this ‘Cornel’. See Background Research.
  • Cornel complained bitterly that there was too much to learn, that one lifetime was not enough to encompass the knowledge of the universe.
  • The butcher committed suicide in 1802; Cornel vanished the same year.
  • The tales of ghosts and spectral figures began after that. People saw pale figures at night, out of the corner of their eyes. One coachman nearly killed himself and his passengers when the ghost attacked him as he drove past the Black Lion inn.
  • In 1804, after the murder of Thomas Grove, Graham himself encountered the ghost of Cornel. The spectre appeared in his window and told Graham that if he did not allay suspicion, Cornel would devour Graham’s children. Terrified, Graham went to the magistrates and confessed; soon afterwards, the King interceded and put the whole matter to rest. Everyone thinks that Graham was the ghost; but it was Cornel. Cornel haunted Standish Street.
  • Graham dares not tell anyone, except this confession, but he’s buried proof of his claims in St. Paul’s churchyard. He gives the location – twelve paces south, forty east of the main gate. See The Churchyard.

There’s one other clue – Flattery or Bargain (for a small bribe) gets the bookseller to recall who sold him the copy of Cultes de Goules. He recalls the seller was a young man, very pale and sickly, who seemed nervous – he kept looking over his shoulder, as if someone was watching him through the glass window of the bookshop.

 

Background Research

Scene Type:Alternate

Leads-In: The Book

Leads-Out: The Churchyard

History or Oral History gets accounts of the Hammersmith Ghost.

Library Use digs up a few scant records on Cornel:

  • He was originally Dutch, but lived in Paris for some time before fleeing to England in 1784.
  • He was a chemist and glassblower; he made tools and equipment for chemists and doctors.
  • Oddly, one diary by the physician Francis Willis describes how Cornel offered to treat King George III’s madness in 1788; as a price, Cornel demanded access to “certain books in the possession of the King’s Library that were previously owned by Doctor John Dee”.
  • A later entry in the same diary talks about how Willis was called to the King’s Library to treat one of the clerks, who fell out of a window in Buckingham Palace.
  • The next page of the diary is missing, as if erased.

 

The Churchyard

Scene Type: Core

Leads-In: The Book, Background Research

Leads-Out: The Survivor, the Face in the Glass, Image of the Sorcerer

The old churchyard isn’t the same graveyard where the Hammersmith ghost was seen all those years ago – that graveyard is long since gone. The gardens of St. Paul’s, though, are still much as they were in King George’s day. Searching, the investigators quickly discover the right spot.

  • Archaeology:This is odd – there’s something buried here, all right, but it was recently This ground was dug up in the last few months.

As the investigators dig, they hear a disturbance on the road nearby. Shouting, and the breaking of glass – and then a gunshot rings out across. There’s a man, his features hidden by a white sheet, shouting wildly at the investigators. He’s got a gun in his hand – and he’s aiming it at them! “Don’t look at it!” he shrieks, “don’t let him see you!”

If they pursue, the man runs, firing wildly in the air. He never shoots directly at the investigators, just in their direction. A bigger danger, though, is the risk of being run-over by a car that swerves to avoid the gunshots (just like the coachman spooked by the Hammersmith ghost). If the investigators chase down the attacker, see The Survivor.

The Buried Cache

Buried in the churchyard is a bundle of pale, rotten leather attached to a mask made from the skull of a calf. Embedded in one of the calf’s eye-sockets is a curious glass sphere.

  • Chemistry:It’s not glass at all, but something much harder. It’s indestructible according to any test or tool available.
  • Astronomy:There are tiny symbols carved into the sphere – although how they were made is a mystery, given the sphere’s apparently harder than diamond. They include Arabic symbols for various stars, most prominently the Hyades.
  • Evidence Collection: The sphere seems to have some sort of image embedded in it, too small and faint to be discerned with the naked eye. Some sort of strange optical phenomenon, no doubt.
    • Craft orPhotography (Core Clue): Maybe a sufficiently bright light and the right arrangement of lens could project the image. If the investigators try this, see The Image of the Sorcerer.
  • Underneath the bundle are several more occult tomes, of roughly the same age and condition as Cultes de Goules, and likely from the same collection. They mostly deal with optics and alchemy.

After exposure to the sphere, the investigators are in danger from The Face in the Glass.

The Survivor

Scene Type: Alternate

Leads-In: The Churchyard

Leads-Out: The Face in the Glass, The Image of the Sorcerer

The attacker flees through a maze of alleyways. En route, he drops the white sheet he was using as a disguise. Finally, the investigators corner him in the yard behind a furniture shop. He raises the gun and attempts to shoot himself in the face. The nearest investigator can make a Scuffling test (Difficulty 5) to grab the gun before the man kills himself.

If successful, the investigators can Interrogate their prisoner.

  • The attacker is Edgar Smith, formerly a student at Imperial College.
  • He had a friend, Philip Black, who dabbled in the occult. Philip found an old book with a weird diary tucked in the back, and convinced Edgar to help him break into this very churchyard by night.
  • They found that awful mask – and when exposed to starlight, the eyes glowed and Philip vanished.
  • Terrified and confused, Edgar fled. He feared he’d be blamed for Philip’s disappearance, so he hid, renting a room nearby.
  • Since then, he’s seen a strange man watching him from the windows. Sometimes, he saw Philip in the windows, too.
  • A few weeks ago, he saw Philip on Kensington High Street, posting a parcel. His former friend looked bloodless and old, as though years had passed for him. When Edgar tried to speak to Philip, his friend vanished again in broad daylight, like an image from a movie projector that was suddenly switched off.
  • He has no idea what’s happening, but it all started with that damned mask with eyes of glass. Philip must have reburied the mask afterwards.

 

The Face in the Glass

Scene Type: Antagonist Reaction

Leads-In: The Churchyard

After exposure to the glass-eyed mask, the investigators start seeing the face of an old man reflected in windows, mirrors and other glassy surfaces. He might be watching them from an upstairs window or leering at them from a bathroom mirror.

If any of the investigators are ever alonenear a glass, then Cornel acts.

  • If the investigator has a high rating in any Academic ability, then Cornel might attempt to abduct the investigator, emerging from his mirror-lair to abduct the investigator by dragging him back through the mirror. (Scuffling or Fleeing contest against Cornel’s Scuffling). Captured investigators can be seen in The Image of the Sorcerer.
  • If the investigator is no use to Cornel’s studies, then Cornel threatens the investigator, saying that he must bring “men of learning” and show them the sphere so Cornel can devour them (or, if Cornel’s predations have attracted too much attention, that the investigator must bury the mask in St. Paul’s Churchyard again, to await the next generation of scholars).

Cornel

Abilities: Athletics 6, Health 12, Scuffling 10

Hit Threshold: 3

Alertness Modifier: +2

Stealth Modifier: +2

Weapon: Ghoulish claws +1

Armour: -2 vs. any (skin)

Stability Loss: +0

 

The Image of the Sorcerer

Scene Type: Core

Leads-In: The Churchyard

With Craft, Physics and Photography, the investigators can assemble a contraption that magnifies and projects the image in the sphere. Impossibly, it’s moving –it’s like watching a film recording of an old, old man in a small room. There’s no door, just a single flickering window that seems to look out over all of London, the viewpoint jumping from place to place as if the room were flickering across the city. The room’s crammed with books, occult paraphernalia and pages of crabbed notes; there’s also a large stack of human bones, licked clean and cracked open for marrow, in one corner. Hanging upside down from hooks is the corpse of Philip Black; the old man’s drained Black of blood and is slowly, slowly eating the man’s flesh.

  • If any of the investigators were captured by Cornel in The Face in the Glass, they’re visible in the image, hanging from hooks next to Black, but still alive.

As the investigators watch, the window behind him changes, becoming a window or glass surface in whatever room the investigators are in. The man looks up at them and smiles.

Cornel knows they’re watching.

And he’s coming for them.

  • Physics: There’s a clock on the wall behind the old man, but it’s moving incredibly slowly. If this is a window or image of some pocket dimension, time moves differently there. Maybe that’s why Cornel used Philip Black to run errands in our world – if he stays outside his room for too long, maybe Cornel will age to death.
  • Anthropology:Some of the notes on the table look like interview transcripts – the old man’s abducting scholars, questioning them, and then eating them.
  • Cryptography:The sorcerer’s notes can be read through the projection, although they’re reversed mirror-writing. They include a list of names of prominent scientists and occultists – did Cornel make Black send other lures to them? Does Cornel intend to abduct, interrogate and devour them too?

Defeating Cornel

The finale is a cat-and-mouse contest between the investigators and Cornel. The sorcerer is immortal, inhumanly patient, and can emerge from any mirror or glass. The investigators can spy on him, and know what he wants – knowledge. Can they set a trap for him? Might illuminating the mask with starlight from the Hyades create a physical portal? Or should the investigators bury the sphere somewhere it can never be found, stay away from all windows and mirrors, and pray that the Hammersmith Ghost never finds them again?

 

 

“’Wait a minute!’ the man hissed. ‘Are you after more books like that? I know where we can get some.’”

— Ramsey Campbell, “Cold Print” (1969)

The 1960s were a great decade for occult books, featuring waves of bestsellers launched by Jacques Bergier and Louis Pauwels’ million-selling Morning of the Magicians in 1963. Some of those books show up not just on bookstore spinner racks but on DELTA GREEN task sheets — or in the dorm rooms, cult compounds, and forest cabins those task sheets point the Agents to.

The Black Diamond Séance

“A.K. Porlock” (1939; English)

In 1936, thriller writer Dennis Wheatley began writing a series of “murder dossiers” intended as party games. Containing all the clues and handouts needed to solve a murder mystery, the first one sold over 100,000 copies. Rival publishers Sandestin Press rushed out their own “Sensation File” series. This one, the third and last in the “Sensation File” line, contained instructions for holding a séance complete with an “occult ritual” intended to awaken the Black Diamond (a milled shard of obsidian included in a paper packet). Fortunately the War intervened and very few copies sold. The American reprint edition (from Harmonica Publishing) comes out in 1967, riding the booming interest in witchcraft and the occult.

Hypergeometry Potential: Contains one hypergeometric ritual, which awakens a Black Winged One and ties it to a nearby shard of obsidian. Fortunately, the American edition does not include actual obsidian, replacing it with colored glass.

Dedicated Pool Points: 1 for Occult, usable to hold or otherwise interact with a séance.

The Case For the UFO (Varo Press Edition)

Morris K. Jessup and unknown annotators (1957; English)

The pre-Varo edition

Jessup, an auto-parts salesman who studied astronomy in college (M.S., University of Michigan, 1926), wrote The Case For the UFO in 1955. Parties unknown mailed a triply-annotated copy of Jessup’s book to Admiral Frederick R. Furth of the Office of Naval Research (ONR) in early 1956. Jessup recognized one of the annotators’ handwriting as that of “Carlos Allende,” a correspondent of his who had described witnessing the Philadelphia Experiment (Project RAINBOW). Captain Sidney Sherby of the ONR had government contractor Varo Press print thirty spiral-bound copies of the annotated volume (displaying each annotator in their own color of ink), including two Allende letters, and gave Jessup four of them. The annotations hint at many things that MAJESTIC does not want mentioned, even in such limited circulation; the fate of the twenty-six ONR copies remains unclear. Jessup died in 1959 in Florida, an apparent suicide by motor exhaust inhalation. Not all of his copies have been recovered.

Unnatural: 1 if the reader has experienced the ultra-violet, time travel, or communion with Yog-Sothoth.

Dedicated Pool Points: 1 for Fringe Science, especially MAJESTIC research into UFOs or Project RAINBOW

Dhol Chants

Unknown authors (c. 200 B.C.; originally Pyu?)

This set of chants supposedly “spoke themselves” as the “yin reaction” to the introduction of Buddhism to Burma in the third century B.C. The structure of the chants themselves indicates a Sino-Tibetan original, probably the extinct Pyu language of central Burma. Commentaries in Burmese date from some time around the Mongol invasion (c. 1300), and ascribe the chants to “men of Linggu.” The eccentric Sinologist Jerome Harkniss translated and edited a complete corpus of Dhol Chants and commentaries in three volumes in 1891-1899.

Unnatural: 2

Hypergeometry Potential: 3 (1 for readers illiterate in Burmese)

Dedicated Pool Points: 2 for investigations involving the plateaus of Leng or Sung.

Marvels of Science

James Morryster (1960; English)

Hasty edition in modern English of Morryster’s 1708 original Marvells of Science, bulked out with more “strange but true” facts from a variety of sources. Many of Morryster’s anecdotes involve devils, reptiles, birth defects, murderers, angels, sea monsters, and magnets. Morryster briefly quotes the Pnakotika when discussing the theory that time and Creation repeat themselves. The credited editor, Lois Gould, provides a lengthy preface siting Morryster in the intellectual disputes of the Royal Society, which mentions the Mathers and Ward Phillips. Originally a doctoral dissertation by Gould, the publisher (Stellar Press) cut the manuscript down and tarted it up with UFO and Bigfoot sightings.

Unnatural: 1 at most

Dedicated Pool Points: 1 for Fringe Science.

Randolph Carter: A Look Behind the Attic Window

Lin Carter (1969; English)

Unimaginative but completist survey of the fiction and poetry of Randolph Carter (1890-1928?), in a paperback original from Ballantine Books with a lurid cover showing ghosts and monsters cavorting across a dreamer’s face. It attempts to explicate and unify Carter’s various imaginary, dream, and theosophist settings and concepts, and includes two chapters of biography including a chapter on his mysterious disappearance in 1928. Contains a “Glossary of Randolph Carter’s Cosmos” listing and defining every place, entity, dimension, and so forth mentioned in his fiction, including several names of Unnatural import.

Unnatural: 1 if the reader has already entered the Dreamlands or otherwise had an Unnatural experience while asleep.

Dedicated Pool Points: 2 for any investigation involving the Dreamlands.

The Tablets of Nhing

Rebecca Aspinwall (1964; English)

This channeled magical text supposedly originates from the planet Yaddith. Rebecca Aspinwall drops out of Tulane Law School on the basis of her contactee experience and self-publishes her book the next year. In 1966 she sells it to Chaplet Books, who retitle it Love Visions of Nhing and, based on her “continuing revelations,” insert much sexier rituals such as “The Joining of Three Souls” and “The Orgy of the Spheres.” Aspinwall lives in Houma, Louisiana, although she often travels to college campuses to incarnate a new group of Joiners of Yaddith and draw reliable condemnation from church groups and anti-obscenity crusaders.

Unnatural: 1

Hypergeometry Potential: 1 (3 for self-published 1964 edition)

Dedicated Pool Points: 2 points for any investigation involving Yaddith, bholes, or Yog-Sothoth; also grants 1 point of HUMINT for New Agers and free-love cultists.

Überreste Verlorener Imperien

Otto Dostmann (1809; German)

Romantic prehistory of the Mediterranean world after the sinking of Atlantis, sporadically treating sites from Scotland to Romania to India wherever Dostmann believes the evidence supports his theories. His arguments range from linguistic and epigraphic oddities to antiquarian finds to folktales and songs. Needless to say, the Ahnenerbe reprinted it in 1940 as a triumph of German scholarship. The only other edition of Dostmann is the Spanish-language Residuos de Imperios Perdidos (Buenos Aires, 1954).

Unnatural: 1

Hypergeometry Potential: 2 (after undergoing a vision at one of the sites mentioned)

Dedicated Pool Points: 2 for Anthropology, Archaeology, History, or Occult involving the relevant region of the world (northern Africa, Europe, western Asia).

“Like all decadents he was exquisitely sensitive to the color and atmosphere and names of things …”

— H.P. Lovecraft, “Medusa’s Coil”

Much of the ironic entertainment of playing in Lovecraft’s universe comes from playing, well, in Lovecraft’s universe, or at least his Earth. Specifically, from playing with his names. And not just the Big Names like Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth, but the human-scale names in his world. Meeting a supporting character named Waite, spotting a gunshot-riddled sign for the turnoff to Dunwich, discovering a slim volume in violet buckram by Randolph Carter — these very specific joys come from the very specific associations we formed with those names as readers of Lovecraft’s fiction over years or decades. Crack open your copy of The Lovecraft Lexicon by Anthony Pearsall and salt your campaign with those joys to taste.

The downside is that in order to enjoy them, the players must recognize those names as fictions within your fiction, the equivalent of seeing the “clue glow” in a video game. This endangers immersion, and mitigates against suspension of disbelief. If, as Lovecraft wrote to Clark Ashton Smith, “no weird story can truly produce terror unless it is devised with all the care and verisimilitude of an actual hoax,” then you damage terror and verisimilitude by introducing people and place names taken straight from fiction, and from increasingly familiar fiction at that.

In a classic Call or Trail game set in the 1920s or 1930s, players tend to adopt an ironic detachment from the running boards and candlestick telephones of the setting even without guest appearances by glittery-eyed weirdos named Tillinghast or Curwen. The past is another country, one that might very well have a seaside town named Kingsport in it.

But in a 1960s Fall of DELTA GREEN game, and even moreso a Cthulhu adventure set in the present day, players’ sense of the game world begins to bleed into the “real” and away from the stage set of the past. Thus, the unreal breaks harder when it breaks: if you know in your heart that Googling “Henry Armitage” gets you a “Fictional Librarians” tag on Wikipedia, it’s harder to play along when your Investigator Googles “Henry Armitage” and gets “Head Librarian, Miskatonic University 1924-1936.” To say nothing of the knowledge that Miskatonic University itself is just a cooler Hogwarts with a slightly better Defense Against the Dark Arts program.

Compare to the national name brand!

“The story you are about to hear is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.”

Dragnet, opening narration

Alan Moore, as is his wont, has limned another approach, one that pays increasing dividends the closer your campaign gets to the present. Moore pointed the way out of this box in his comics series Providence (and before that, in The Courtyard and Neonomicon). Moore presents a Cthulhoid world with H.P. Lovecraft in it, a jetée we’ve danced before. Lovecraft’s stories, it transpires, actually happened in that world (which also has Chambers-style suicide temples in them as well) but Lovecraft, one assumes, changes the names, dates, and details when he fictionalizes them for his weird tales.

Elspeth Wade becomes Asenath Waite; the Boggs family of Salem becomes the Marsh family of Innsmouth; Ronald Underwood Pitman becomes Richard Upton Pickman. Moore interweaves real places and people as well: Manchester, New Hampshire becomes Arkham; the (historical) alchemist and Caliph’s son Khalid ibn Yazid becomes Abdul Alhazred (and also, as he did in actual early modern Latin manuscripts, “Hali”); the (historical) werewolf Jacques Roulet takes on a more important role than he did in Lovecraft’s “The Shunned House.” Moore’s “true names” (and lots of spoilers for the Moorecraftian tales) appear here, for the curious.

Presenting various names and places (especially real-world versions) as lightly coded (or de-coded, depending on which direction your epistemology polarizes) versions of Lovecraft’s names and places doesn’t break immersion because the players’ action of de-coding the game names mirrors their Investigators’ action of, well, investigating them. The player deduction that “Weldon Wycherley” is “actually” Wilbur Whateley reinforces and recuperates their character’s realization that the Weldon Wycherley in this picture seems awfully big for an eight-year-old boy. Players become alert for twins and mysterious hills and standing stones, mirroring their Investigator’s discovery of a hidden twin and a strange ruin on Sepulcher Hill. Thus, following Moore and making the various changes transparent ones helps the story and the drama along.

Or start with Earth, but even moreso! Real names and careers of Salem witches, for example, can provide an interesting warp for the Lovecraftian weft: did John Alden, Jr. traffick in other things than guns with the Abenaki? Did his ships bring in mummies and corpses? Or did the remarkably long-lived Jonathan Curwin escape accusation (unlike his mother-in-law) thanks not to his high position but to his necromantically-obtained blackmail material? With a little effort, I bet you can find real-life electrical experimenters and disgraced surgeons who died mysteriously somewhere in New England at some time between 1914 and 1922 — and if they didn’t die mysteriously, that’s where the coverup (or the weird effect of the Mythos on memory and testimony) comes in. Pick your favorite missing U-boat and say it’s the one from “The Temple.” Lovecraft already used real floods and storms for “The Whisperer in Darkness” and “The Haunter of the Dark,” and a real earthquake for the rising of R’lyeh; shift places and dates until something gameable clicks into being.

Use the same approach for real locations of Lovecraftian towns and hills: if your “Kingsport” is actually Marblehead, maybe the Old Pirate House is the house of the Terrible Old Man.  Feel free to scatter them around, too. Perhaps Lovecraft re-used Arkham to further snarl the trail: the meteorite fell near Oakham, Massachusetts; the witch Ann Foster hyperspatially disappeared from Salem rather than dying (as the records were altered to indicate); and the university with the arcane ambit is actually St. Anselm College in Manchester, or Brown University in Providence, or Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. If you can’t find a real legend or ghost or crime that fits Lovecraft’s story, make one up — and finding out who kept it out of the history books (and off Google) can be another layer of the onion for your Investigators to peel back.

 

 

Hideous Creatures: A Bestiary of the Cthulhu Mythos expands on Mythos-monster issues from Ken Writes About Stuff, summoning a fetid host of new horrors and adding new facets to existing creatures. One section that’s especially close to my heart are the in-character documents, which present an oblique look at a particular monster in the form of a handout – diaries, official reports, letters and newspaper cuttings. Here are two cuttings that got, well, cut…

 

From The Empty Half: Travels in Western Australia

spent the morning with an old prospector, who told me of his encounter with a pair of Aboriginal hunters he encountered some years previously on the fringes of the Great Sandy Desert. According to his account, he traded with them and shared his campfire. The two spoke a little English, having learned it from the trading post at Marble Bar. When the prospector mentioned his intention to explore the region to the south-east, the two expressed alarm and told him that there was a monster living underground in that part of the desert, and that it was forbidden to go there.

During the night, the miner woke to hear the two hunters arguing in their native tongue. One of the pair grew so angry he walked off into the night, and the other in broken English offered to show the miner a place where he could find a great deal of gold. The miner agreed, and the next morning the second hunter brought the miner to a place in the desert where they found a huge formation of black rock ‘like a chimney’. The desert wind whistled across the mouth of the chimney in a manner the miner found disturbing, but he refused to show fear in front of the Aborigine, so he bravely stepped forward and led the climb down the shaft.

At the bottom of the chimney he found a large chamber, and the floor of it was littered with strange lumps of gold. They were, he said, twisted filaments of pure gold, wires as thick as a man’s thumb. They resembled driftwood, or the castings of worms, and their purity was evident to the naked eye. The miner eagerly began scooping these into a sack, while the Aborigine began to climb down the rope.

Suddenly, a huge wind rushed down the chimney, pulling the unfortunate hunter off his perch on the chimney wall and dashing him against the rocky floor. His legs broke with the force of his impact, and his scream chilled the miner’s blood. Then the wind changed direction, and lifted the hunter, whisking him away into the dark recess of the cave.

Another wind struck the miner, knocking him off his feet, and he feared he would meet the same nameless fate as his poor guide. At the last moment, he heard a voice singing from the top of the shaft. It was the first hunter, the one who had left them in anger during the night.

Impossibly, the wind changed direction in response to the Aborigine’s song, and reversed to hurl the miner up and out of the chimney like a scrap of waste paper caught on an updraft. The fall knocked him unconscious, and he woke again next to the ashes of his campfire, with no marvelous gold or Aboriginal savior in sight. Of course, he could never find the black chimney again.

When I asked for proof of his tall tale, he scowled, then turned his tin mug upside-town on the table. He proceeded to sing in an curious high-pitched fashion while staring intently at the cup. After a moment, he stopped and knocked the cup over in frustration. ‘I can make it move sometimes,’ he insisted, ‘when the wind is right, and I remember how he sang me out.’

 

A Letter from Newport

Orleans County Sheriff’s Office

Newport, Vermont,

November 3rd.

Dear Mr. Conwell,

I write in connection with your late uncle’s home on Dupuis Road, which according to Mr. Tatler of the Irasburg General Store was rented by you to a Mr. Noyes from June of this year. I wish to inform you that your tenant has disappeared in what can only be termed unusual circumstances, and that you are obliged to take charge of the property forthwith or appoint an agent to do same.

The situation, as far as can be determined presently, is as follows: Mr. Noyes took up residence of the property in June. His origin, profession and business in Irasburg was the subject of much speculation among the townsfolk, including some suggestions that he was a treasure hunter, inventor or even a foreign spy, and none of those I spoke to was able to provide any evidence for their suspicions. His only known associate was a Mr. Brown, who can no longer be questioned, having drowned last month in a sudden flood.

Other than purchasing general groceries and receiving a number of parcels at the Irasburg Post Office, Mr. Noyes appeared largely self-contained. It was evident that he had ready access to money (if you would be so kind as to make available to us details of any rental or other payments he made to you, it would be very beneficial.) Some witnesses report seeing unknown strangers visiting the farm, or Noyes driving off in the middle of the night, but these only elicited mild curiosity and did not warrant alarm or investigation.

On the 21st of September, gunshots were heard from the direction of the farm on Dupuis Road. The next morning, neighbors investigated and found no trace of Mr. Noyes; after several days of continued absence, Mr. Tatler contacted the sheriff and we entered the farmhouse. (Mr. Noyes is still missing, as is his automobile.)

Inside, we discovered the house to be in disarray. Furniture and other belongings were strewn around, and the hearth was overflowing with ash and partially burnt debris, suggesting that Mr. Noyes attempted to incinerate a large amount of material. We found several broken electronic devices and other items we cannot readily identify. The deputies who handled these items are now seriously ill, and have developed alarming skin lesions. The doctor here in Newport is baffled, and finding out precisely what chemicals or other substances Noyes possessed may be key to their recovery.

A possibly related matter is the heavy metal case that I discovered in the paddock out back of the house. It was partially buried in the earth, as if it fell from a height. I do not know if this case belongs to you, or Mr. Noyes, or some other individual, and am wary of opening it until I can ascertain its provenance. I enclose a photograph of the case, which now rests in the storeroom of the Orleans County Sheriff’s Office.

If there is any information you can share regarding Mr. Noyes and his acitivites on your uncle’s property, we would welcome this assistance with our investigations. As I wrote earlier, you are obliged to come and take charge of the property immediately, or dispatch an agent to do same.

If you have any questions or information, please telephone me at the Newport Office.

Yours,

Deputy Sheriff Adams

 

SaveSave

By Hao Zhang

There’s an idea, a saying that when a thing travels, evolution, alteration, and other unexpected outcomes go with it. This idea sometimes can lead one to pleasant views. And this is how we at Labyrinth see it.

Before we formally begin the mumbling, we’d like to notify you dear readers that we wrote this article majorly based on our personal impressions and memories, therefore it would not be a bad idea to treat what we are about to recount as a mere story:

[the beginning]

By the end of 20th century, there were rumors and legends being told on the Chinese-speaking part of the Internet of stories about a sort of game, a unique kind of playing, which allows its players to freely act out the characters and to experience their adventures in a way that no other form of gaming can provide. It’s called Tabletop Roleplaying Games.

For many of us players in China—a place that’s literally a half planet away from where TRPG was born, this was how we first heard of it.

By the end of 1999, an article was published on the nation-wide magazine Popsoft, it was likely the very first systematic introduction of TRPGs written in the Chinese language. Due to the magazine’s popularity, we can also safely say that it was likely the first time TRPG was introduced to the mass-public of Chinese players.

Shortly after that, the Dragonlance novels and RA Salvator’s Forgotten Realms novels were published.

Following this, the D&D 3.0 edition core rule books.

For the first time, TRPG doesn’t just exist in the “introduction threads,” for the first time those who formerly could only say “I’m curious about this TRPG thing” could actually become a player.

And this was the beginning of an actual TRPG player population in China.

Since the stories about TRPG were mostly spreading within the video gaming communities (Popsoft itself can be arguably deemed as a video game magazine, too), most of these early players are also video game players. It’s interesting to mention that before many of these first TRPG players ventured into the world of TRPG, they first played CRPGs like Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment.

That said, due to the fact that the fantasy novels were basically introduced to Chinese youth at the same epoch, among the first TRPG players we also have a lot of fantasy novel readers. But in most cases a Chinese TRPG player is both a fantasy novel reader and a video game fan.

To put this on a larger scale, we can say that most of the first TRPG players were the Chinese young people who are fascinated by western pop culture in general.

And since then, TRPG began to flourish in China… as many of us once so hoped.

Actually, since then, until the D&D 3.5 and 4.0 rule books both got published in 2009 by two different entities, it was mostly just silence.

The number of TRPG players in China remained relatively low for many years, the lucky ones who managed to talk their friends into TRPGs mostly play in local board game cafes, and the less-lucky-but-determined ones could only play online.

Due to the lack of actual games, many TRPG players here formed an online reading habit and became rather knowledgeable about various pop culture subjects. At first it was heavily focused on D&D and genres like high fantasy, but soon other games/systems (like World of Darkness, Sword World RPG, and GURPS) and other genres were explored.

Thanks to these knowledgeable pioneers and their activeness in all sorts of video game forums, while TRPG itself seemed very insignificant and marginal in China, the influence it had on the entire Chinese pop culture is tremendous: together with fantasy novels and animations, it inspired a whole generation of web novel writers and game designers, it’s like the Illuminati society for Chinese pop culture aficionados, you just cannot call yourself an insider without stating your admiration and interest in TRPG…

Speaking of Chinese pop culture, it’s also hard to avoid mentioning animations and other Japanese pop culture works. If the the influence of earlier works like Slayers was still largely limited to the anime fan community, the impact of classics like Record of Lodoss War was just huge.

As more animes and light novels were made since the late 2000s, this impact from Japan got more significant and began to turn Japanese pop culture fans into TRPG players.

From the Japanese pop culture fanbase emerged a wave of new players whom are introduced to the TRPG via light novels, manga, J-CRPG, anime, and Japanese-style visualized AARs (in some of these AARs the characters have “Yukkuri” version portraits of Touhou characters and they often talk in the voice of Google), a considerable part of these AARs are CoC AARs.

And thanks to Nyaruko: Crawling with Love, today a lot of people among us here in China are used to refer Nyarlathotep as Nyaruko even in non-anime discussions.

Despite that many earlier “western school” players are also anime watchers, due to the cultural differences that existed in the two different worlds, the “Japanese school” players have a small cultural gap with the “western school” players. That said, fusions can be also widely observed.

And while TRPG in China slowly evolved here, “another secret cult”—the Cthulhu culture also crept into the Middle Kingdom and gained its own place.

It’s hard to tell which one arrived first: the CoC game, or the literature works associated with Cthulhu mythos, or maybe they appeared at the same time in one online thread? We can only tell with certainty that some of the literature was published along with some other fantasy novels here in PRC during the first decade of 21st century.

If TRPG is a marginal cult, then in general the Cthulhu culture was even more marginal, when TRPG was still recognized by the pop culture geeks and hailed as an important source of inspiration, Cthulhu mythos was like a whisper, only murmured in the least visited corners of Chinese-speaking Internet.

The very reason for the Cthulhu pop culture itself looking so alike to the in-work secret cults and mysteries, was probably that the Cthulhu-associated works were never (or at least just rarely) systematically introduced, if somebody in the 2000s would have searched “克苏鲁” (the Chinese transcription of Cthulhu), he would most likely only get scattered information: a couple of books, some short introductions to HP Lovecraft, some longer articles full of specific terms, and some “Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn!” replies here and there.

Of course this mystery doesn’t last forever, as the Chinese pop culture community grows and the earlier fans expand their explorations into more and more different worlds (resulting in more translated works and even original works), and as the Japanese creators started to use more Cthulhu-related references in their works, now it becomes much easier for anyone interested to get information. On top of that, we at Labyrinth even have Trail of Cthulhu translated and published.

We’ve been saying that a majority of the Chinese TRPG fanbase are into western pop culture (and they play western characters more often than not during games), but as most of them are still born and raised in China, a cultural difference still exists. Here’s a quick example, for many Chinese players, the Prohibition Era is something they are unfamiliar with, and thus moonshine and bootlegging can be interpreted in unexpected ways…

This doesn’t mean they can’t enjoy the games though, many players smartly avoid such issues with characters from backgrounds they are unfamiliar with. And the Chinese players are sometimes very into playing out their characters’ personalities and charms , some creative folks here even play with largely minimalized rules to have greater freedom (meanwhile some others deem this unorthodox).

So this is how the things feels like at a glance and how they became so. So far TRPG culture and Cthulhu culture have grown slightly bigger than they originally were when they first arrived, but these cultures are still young here and will have a long way to go to until they can be considered as fully fledged.

But as long as the legends of TRPG are still being told and the Lovecraftian mysteries are still being whispered, this story will just live on.


Hao Zhang is the founder and CEO of Labyrinth Culture
Ever after his engagement in the localization of D&D 3rd Edition Core Rule Books in 2000, Hao has always been an over-serious aficionado and a zealous promoter of TRPG. He founded Visionary e-magazine, the first magazine in China that focus solely on TRPG in 2005 and co-founded Khan Kon in 2011. The games he brought to Chinese players include Fiasco, Trail of Cthulhu, and Pathfinder.

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Steven Hammond

It’s been two or three months since we published an update on the new Gumshoe character tool. I lost a little time to an Olympics related project, but we’ve been cranking away all of March, and I think we have some great stuff to share.

Addressing Your Input

First, I want to talk about what we did with the character sheets and surveys you sent in. The number one thing we heard was that you don’t want to see the huge list of possible abilities during play. Instead, you want to focus on your character’s abilities. Several you also asked for a straight list of abilities rather than the category lists found on the print sheets.

To implement this, we gave Black Book character sheets 2 modes — edit for creating or updating characters, and play for use during a game session. Edit mode, looks like a normal Gumshoe character sheet. All the abilities are visible and grouped into their categories. In play, you choose to view all abilities, or just the ones where your character has ranks. You can also have the visible abilities grouped or in a single, alphabetized list.

The other common thread was that Health, Stability and Stamina were hard to read in the grid boxes. We’ve addressed this by making those abilities large and prominent, while keeping the grid to make updating these often changing values easy.

The video below shows these features in action.

 

Alpha Test Starts This Week

What, does Alpha Test mean. The app is not feature complete, nor are all the features there polished. There is enough there to play with it and giving us feedback on how things work, find bugs, measure real-world performance, etc.

You should know things won’t be stable, servers will crash, and we don’t promise you will be able to keep characters from one release to the next. We are still moving too fast to spend time migrating data as our format evolves. If this sounds a little wild for you, then you might be happier waiting for Beta to start. At that point we will be feature complete, stable and polished. Once Beta starts, we will commit to preserving characters between releases.

A number of people volunteered to test the Black Book. We will email the first 10 people on that list with an invite code they can use to join. You cannot register without one of these invite codes. Every week or so, we will invite 10 additional people to participate. This will help ensure that we can keep up with the feedback and that there are always fresh perspectives giving feedback. There isn’t a scheduled start date for Beta yet that will happen when we are stable and feature complete. If you want to get in on the testing, go to https://theblackbook.io and submit your email address.

This is a project, I’ve been planning about for a long time and I am super excited for you all to finally try it out. Let me know what you thought of the video below and watch your email for those invite codes.

by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan

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

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

 

Roses are red/Violets are blue

(or so they are seeming)

In his house in Rlyeh/Great Cthulhu

(lies dreaming)

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

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

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

 

Roses are red/Violets are blue

Yithians in your time-stream want to date you.

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

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

 

Roses are red/Violets are blue

Yellow, though, is the unhealthiest of hues.

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

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

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

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

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.

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