Friday, 14 December 2012

Tomefoolery, part two: the price of knowledge

Commentarii linguae graecae, 1548

In which I continue to plagiarise be inspired by AncientHistory at YSDC to discuss Tomes of Unspeakable Evil.

The Price of Knowledge

So, you've got your evil tome. You may or may not be aware of its true diabolical nature, or even the occult secrets it contains. Maybe you just think it's a weird old book. Maybe you think it's a valuable anthropological artefact. Maybe you think it's a useful piece of evidence against the murderous cult you broke up.

Regardless, at some point, someone is going to read it. Inevitably in fiction, more or less inevitably in gaming. Assuming anyone has the slightest inkling that there's something remotely interesting about it, they'll probably want to read it. Admittedly, if they have a reasonably accurate inkling, they might prefer to burn it before anyone so much as glances at the contents, but that's a different issue.

Knowledge typically has a price, and in the case of TOUEs, the price may be a bit more drastic than usual. There are two issues here. One is the actual content of the book, which may be soul-rending in and of itself. The other is the sentient malevolence of the tome. Today I'll look at the first one.

Mankind Was Not Meant To Know

In a lot of cases, a TOUE's contents are unspeakably horrific. There's plenty of scope for variation in the details, though, and they don't necessarily have to be innately supernatural. They might simply be too advanced for a sane human mind of our era to comprehend, so gruesome that they drive the reader insane, or reveal secrets that drive the reader insane with megalomania. Some possibilities include:

  • The true origin of humanity as an accident / foodstuff / joke
  • History is wildly different from what we believed, and far more terrible
  • Knowledge of the dreadful omnipotent beings that control reality and consider humanity as nothing but fodder, slaves, a mild irritation or a source of entertainment
  • Dreadful supernatural or alien beings lurk amongst us, preying on humans or using them as tools and pawns in some secret scheme
  • What we call "reality" is nothing but a delusion disguising the unspeakable truth
  • Prophecy of the ultimate end of history
  • Prophecy of the reader's own fate, undoubtedly awful
  • The horrific diaries of a mass-murderer
  • Spells that grant immense power... at a terrible price
  • Spells that are innately evil, but offer tempting power
  • Rituals to appease, petition or release some hideous monstrosity
  • Scientific knowledge so advanced that the human mind cannot accept it
  • Mathematical or psychological insights that offer near-supernatural power

In any case, it's useful to have a mechanism for handling the effects of this reading. Call of Cthulhu is the archetype here, and its Sanity mechanics offer a straightforward method for handling tomes. Any book of Mythos secrets (true revelations, as opposed to the merely occult) will impose a SAN cost on the reader, which cannot usually spark any specific insanities, but does whittle down their mental stability. In some cases, a Keeper (GM) might want to create a special case for TOUEs if they're deemed to have specific effects on the reader.

What sort of effects might a TOUE have on the reader? Well, depending on their contents and the nature of the tome, they might trigger nightmares, compulsive reading, phobias, nervous tics, or obsessions. A tome that indicates vampires secretly control society could have someone constantly looking for possible vampires. They might conceive a hatred for mobile phones, if a tome claims they're part of an alien plot.

But things don't have to be nearly so dramatic. Again, it's a genre issue. The book might be disturbing or sickening, rather than mind-blasting. The reader might be horrified by the revelations of some supernatural or alien plot, but rise to the challenge rather than cracking under the strain. The more seductive sort of TOUE might inspire vague, enticing dreams over a long period, instead of nightmares. Sometimes it's entirely appropriate for readers not to believe what they're reading, in which case they're not going to flip out immediately; instead, they're gradually shaken as the truth of the book becomes apparent. Even a spellbook - perhaps especially a spellbook - might arouse reluctant curiosity rather than anything more extreme.

Leaving BRP behind, D20 gaming has plenty of options here. For a start, there's the Call of Cthulhu D20 system. There is also a Sanity system presented in Unearthed Arcana, the basics of which which can be found at the SRD - it may well be the same, I don't have D20CoC. The D&D supplement Heroes of Horror offers Depravity rules, while the Ravenloft campaign setting has Madness.

In World of Darkness games, there's existing mechanisms that could be roped in: Morality, Clarity and so on, though some may work better than others, and they're weighty enough that they should be used with caution. There's also actual Derangement mechanics. I'm largely ignorant about the system, though, so I'm going to stop right there before I say something clueless.

Basically, most systems where you might want to involve a TOUE will probably have some mechanic you can use for to indicate that characters' tiny minds have been wracked. There are subtler options too. For mild disturbance or distractedness, there might be a small penalty to appropriate skills. Characters might find it hard to sleep properly, and not always receive the full benefits.


Obviously, if you're reading all this stuff, you should learn something from it. Whether you wanted to is another matter. Again, Cthulhu has this down with its built-in reading mechanics; readers of tomes gain skill points in Cthulhu Mythos, and sometimes other things. There are also sometimes specific things to learn, most often in the shape of spells, though perfect learning isn't guaranteed.

Other systems don't necessarily have anything so specific to dark knowledge by default. D20 TOUE could offer bonuses to relevant skills, though the level-based nature of the game can make one-off permanent bonuses inconvenient to handle. They can generally handle spell-learning, though, and even a non-caster could learn a spell from such a book, if you choose. Whether they can use it themselves is another matter, but knowing a spell you can't physically cast offers some interesting possibilities. Storyteller systems could offer bonus dots. If long-term balance might be a problem, these bonuses could be tracked and later revoked if the book is destroyed - its evil knowledge seeping away from the reader's mind, thankfully lost.

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