Thursday, 6 December 2012

Tomefoolery, part one: acquisition

Commentarii linguae graecae, 1548

AncientHistory over at YSDC has just started a thread about evil books, and I feel vaguely inspired.

Evil books are a pretty cool idea. The lure of lost mysteries or forbidden lore, the power they might contain... they can seem entirely harmless, their danger overstated or simply rumour. People can assume they're simply a collection of mad ramblings, or stories, or folklore. Like the classic cursed ruby, surely all those violent deaths are just a consequence of their value to thieves and would-be inheritors. Some people will seek them out in the full knowledge of their power, sure they can master the tome, and wrong. Others have a vague idea of what they hold, and hope to learn something vital, but don't realise the danger they're in. A few are willing to pay the price for knowledge they think they want, but haven't understood the insidious nature and malevolence of the books, or the true horror of the secrets they contain.


The first step with evil toming is to get your filthy hands on one. Like buses, once you've got a tome to hand, further works of despicable malice will flock to you. But how do you track down that first precious grimoire?

This sort of thing will vary a great deal by genre.

  • Inherit it. Your benefactor might be the elusive, enigmatic figure you never really knew. They might be the cheerful, wholesome person you though you knew. Or they might be a total mystery to you, a long-lost uncle or long-dead grandmother amongst whose possessions the tome comes to light.
  • Have it pressed upon you by someone. Typically, this is a wise mentor anticipating their murder, or a stranger (or better yet, a close friend) fleeing some unexplained and unimaginable horror that's hot on their heels. Sometimes they are already dying, and have no time for anything but to whisper to you the secret of the book's location, or thrust the rough-bound parcel desperately into your hands with an expression of hopeless pleading.
  • Discover it in a place of power: an ancient crypt, a madman's study, or the long-buried subterranean temple of a secret and vanished cult. Children often find artefacts in their explorations, archaeologists notoriously "stumble upon" them. Perhaps you're doing some building work on a house, and uncover an antediluvian shrine beneath the kitchen. Perhaps you're off potholing, chased into the sewers by a gang, or lost in the woods, when the floor gives way beneath you. Most likely you'll discover its power by accident by carelessly reading something out loud (as we all do, so often) and bringing about some terrible calamity (also known as a 'plot hook').
  • Unearth it in a peculiar bookshop, full of odd staircases and windows that don't seem to align inside and out. The proprietor may have no inkling of the tome's true nature; they may giggle cryptically as they accept a token price for it; they may even suggest it to you, sensing your lust for strange mysteries. Some booksellers are agents of sinister powers, others dangerously dismissive, and a few entirely ignorant of what they do.
  • Steal it. Perhaps you're a servant curious about the mistress' library, trapped behind the curtains when she strides in, and you see her open the secret panel and chant words of power from an ancient book. Perhaps you're a thief who finds a gem-studded book on a lectern, and hurries away with it. Perhaps you're a police officer who interrupts a sinister cult ritual, and confiscates the dark book they're reading. Perhaps you're even an innocent traveller who takes the wrong briefcase on the train.
  • Be led to it. Something - heredity, a brush with the occult, finding a scrap between the pages of an ordinary diary - creates a connection between you and the tome, and it begins to call to you. You hear it in your dreams, perhaps, and walk in your sleep. Maybe a series of peculiar coincidences leads you to it - the cancelled train, the mistaken taxi-driver, the sudden shower of rain outside the narrow bookshop. Maybe you're simply doing some occult reading, and are seized with the desire to track down a reference, then another, each step taking you closer to the dreadful source.
  • Seek it out. Dabblers in the occult may be slowly drawn into ever-deeper secrets, and drawn to search for legendary tomes. Some are honest scholars and collectors, with a purely academic interest in these cultural curiosities or the historical knowledge they contain. Some are sceptics curious to see what nonsense lies within. Some are seekers after understanding, hoping that one day they will find some answers to the questions of existence. Some are convinced of the book's authenticity, and hope it will aid them in some endeavour, not comprehending its true nature. And a few are well aware of just what it is they seek, fools or madmen either willing to pay the price for the power the tome will bring them, or rashly believing they are strong enough to control it.

For some reason, I can't think of or easily find examples of all these, though I'm pretty sure I've seen them all before. Maybe they didn't all relate to books then? Anyway, I'll let it rest for now.

Acquisition in games

In a game, a relatively realistic system like Call of Cthulhu might simply start off with you obtaining what turns out to be a sinister tome, typically by one of the passive methods. After all, you can't guarantee the players taking whatever action you intended, and trying to make the book interesting enough to definitely take may undermine any ideas you had about subtlety.

More fantastical or magic-heavy games might expect PCs to seek out artefacts of their own accord, whether or not they know what they're dealing with. In D&D, the book might just seem like an ordinary magic book to begin with, a perfectly useful item to have around, and they only slowly discover its true nature. Ravenloft seems like a natural fit here; the PCs will perhaps be more suspicious of everything being potentially evil, but the idea of damned bargains and moral trade-offs is right there.

Any game with amoral, mercenary or evil PCs is also a reasonable starting point, as they may be inclined to seek out or use books with a sinister reputation. On the other hand, though, the book might seem harmless or even benevolent to begin with (hey, it worked in Harry Potter) and PCs may not appreciate its malevolent plans.

Pulpier games might have a more direct method of acquisition. Tough detectives could unearth the book amongst the possessions of a gang boss. Vigilantes might retrieve it from a cult headquarters after breaking up a ritual. A merry band of heroes could find it locked away in the castle where the pirate sorcerers were lurking, and accept it as general loot.

The 'led to it mysteriously' technique is a bit fiddlier, as you need to have the players more or less onboard for what you're doing. It's going to emphasise the book's significance more than just about any other option, though it doesn't necessarily explain what that significance is. This might work well for a plotline that's about dealing with a known threat from a sinister book, as well as for one where it initially seems useful.

To some extent it's also going to depend on what you're planning. If the book is part of a specific plot, then you may want to establish its place by delivering the book through Plot. Especially for a one-shot. If it's a wild-card element of a campaign that might be turned into a major plotline, then letting it drift in gently may keep more options open, depending on what the players do later. There's some risk that if you Plot-drop the book on them with something like the Dead Mentor Gambit, as a tool for solving a mystery or overcoming an obstacle early on, then later revealing it as a malevolent force insinuating itself into their lives may not play well. Obviously, that's going to depend on the setting, the type of game you run and the characters, as well as the players. A game with a lot of twists and schemes might support this better than a straightforward one where stuff is either bad or good, and players don't want to bother about moral judgements or treachery.

There are usually ways to make things acceptable, though. For example, a noble, wise mentor probably wouldn't deliberately give them a tome of evil - but the PCs might misunderstand their last words and assume they're supposed to use it, rather than destroy it.


So far I've only talked about things from the PC angle, but in fact grimoires in fiction are often in the hands of NPC-equivalents. That puts the acquisition a step away from the PCs, and means you don't need to worry about railroading them into obtaining it so the plotline will work out. Instead, you let them become aware of either the book or the NPC's activities, and see what unfolds. It might lead to the PCs acquiring the book; to a confrontation with NPCs that sees the book destroyed or buried; or even to a direct conflict with a powerful sentient tome. In this situation, the acquisition is background information that might enlighten the PCs or help them deal with the problem, but doesn't need to be handled onstage.

1 comment:

  1. This article really inspires a wide range of plots in my mind - a really good source of ideas for, say, Bookhounds of London.