Part of a continuing series of uncertain length on Tomes of Unspeakable Evil and the PCs who love them. So far I've blathered about how people get their hands on such books in the first place, the effects of their dreadful contents on tiny human minds, and dread grimoires that feed on their perusers. But there's another obvious question: given these dreadful possibilities, why write an evil tome?
Why write a tome of fiendish evil?
Tomes of unspeakable evil are all very well and good, but why would anyone go writing one in the first place? Where do these gruesome grimoires spring from, to blight lives and lure reckless minds to their doom? Are they even written at all? Here's a few possibilities. Bear in mind, these ideas aren't restricted to Tomes Of Ultimate Evil alone: some would work perfectly well as tomes with fairly human personalities, as bizarre and bewildering influences that aren't strictly evil, or even as Tomes Of Great Benevolence.
- The tome is a trap, created to lure the curious to their destruction.
- The tome is a trap, created to snare and enslave the unwary into the service of dark powers.
- The tome is a trap, created to entice and destroy fools who thought they could steal your knowledge.
- The tome is a tool, dangerous only to those without the power to master it, but invaluable to those with such power.
- The tome is an accident, a collection of terrible magic that has become as malevolent as the knowledge it contains.
- The tome is an accident, a book of great power that gained sentience, and with it its own selfish desires and goals.
- The tome is a psychic imprint, tainted by the twisted mind of its writer.
- The tome is haunted, more or less - imbued with intellect, motivation, or the broken remnants of personality by the spirit of its creator.
- The tome is a prison, where entities or souls have been trapped, and these jointly or severally exert their influence on readers or their surroundings. You've played Myst, right?
- The tome is not really a tome, but a sentient being transformed into a book.
- The tome is not really a tome, but a sinister being in the guise of a book, or an extension of their self.
- The tome is a revelation of terrifying truths, beliefs, plans or possibilities written directly or inspired by a powerful entity.
If we take a functional view, there are trap-tomes, whose main purpose is to lure in and destroy victims; tool-tomes, whose malevolence is a side-effect of their usefulness; and fallout-tomes, which just happen to be malevolent.
You could also consider it from an origin point of view: some TOUEs are written as an act of malice; some are written to store and transmit knowledge; some may be written for personal catharsis or satisfaction; some are written under the influence of madness or malevolent forces that imbue the tome with power; and some are actually entities that simply appear to us as books.
The Lure of the Library
Let's take a closer look at trap-tomes, those that draw you in to certain doom. This includes guise-books that are actually a dream in the mind of dread Cthulhu and what-have-you.
One of the classic sorcerer tropes is the Faustian, Dark Side thing, where the pursuit of knowledge, then forbidden knowledge, lures would-be wizards into losing their humanity, or bargaining with terrible powers. From this, we can imagine a tome that was created by those selfsame dread powers - be they ancient vampire wizards, Sith lords, the Devil or Nyarlathotep - for the very purpose of ensnaring people. Some of them may use it to provide slaves and servants in the world. Some may use it to draw in new acolytes: anyone who studies the book deeply enough, without being repulsed or driven mad, is a suitable apprentice and will gain the knowledge to track them down. The Chaos Gods of the Warhammer universes also delight in this sort of corruption, especially when they can ensnare those who think themselves wise and alert enough to escape it.
These sorts of tomes are likely to be full of tempting knowledge and power. Often, they'll start by offering something simple and fairly harmless without much obvious cost, to get people invested: spells to defend themselves from bullies, knowledge to save their business, secrets to find sources of power. Once someone's trusted the tome that far, they slowly become more open to the more sinister knowledge it contains. From fending off bullies, to stopping them, to seeking revenge, to punishing anyone who displeases you, to tyrannical rule... From consulting spirits to guide your failing business, to invoking them to influence customers, to calling them to blight rivals, to summoning them to help run the show, to letting them feed on the more worthless of your employees... They'll also favour give-and-take, with each new bit of power coming at an incremental cost, binding you closer and closer to the dark power. This might be obvious: reveal secrets, destroy enemies, spill your own blood, or let a spirit ride in your mind. Other trades are more subtle: restore the shattered statue (so it can return to life), drink the empowering potion (which will slowly mutate you), tattoo yourself with the runes (that allow possession). Only gradually does the dark power's interest in these things become apparent, usually when it's too late.
Of course, not all dark powers have such high-mindedly constructive motives as luring souls into vile servitude. Sometimes it's just all about the lulz, the schadenfreude. Seeing innocents, or not-so-innocents, slowly descend the spiralling path to madness, atrocity, obsession and hideous death gives the dark powers a kick. Sometimes, it's even more abstract: they don't care enough about the reader to even enjoy their downfall, but they relish the chaos and horror that their actions unleash upon the mortal world. This is quite a Nyarlathotep sort of thing to do, according to the way he's commonly portrayed as an agent of chaos. Such tomes will be full of two-edged power and things that, once bound, cannot be unbound. Note that this is different from the trap books, whose sharp edge is the bargain forged between the reader and the Forces of Darkness. Here, the powers simply have unintended consequences, ideally consequences that force the reader to turn again to the TOUE for help to quell them. Think of The Sorcerer's Apprentice, only more evil. You enchant a broom to carry water from the well, and it floods the house; you chop it into pieces, and it regenerates; you call a fire-spirit to burn the brooms, and it does - but then it slinks away to start house-fires all over town.
They can also spiral in other ways. You use special mathematical secrets to cheat the markets and become rich, but soon all kinds of agencies are taking an interest in you, let alone criminals. You follow the instructions to grow strong using horsehair snuff and incantations, but find yourself feeling increasingly horsey. You learn to sense what others are thinking, but now the constant voices are driving you insane.
There are halfway houses in this setup, too. A good example would be the Revelations of Glaaki, a Lovecraftian tome. In itself, it's actually not particularly baleful, apart from the sanity-blasting Mythos content and an array of vile spells. However, it also draws the attention of Y'golonac, a horrific Great Old One who enjoys taking over human bodies. Anyone who's read the tome is liable to, at some point in the future, have their body suddenly remodelled into a headless ogre with mouths in odd places, and their soul blotted out so Y'golonac can go for a joyride.
The other kind of book in this category is the vengeance trap. A powerful necromancer, for example, may leave her spellbook riddled with deliberate errors to punish anyone foolish enough to steal it. You can raise the dead, all right, but they'll only want your life; you can conjure flame, but it will consume you. More subtly, the book may simply draw the owner to you, especially if they're now a bodiless spirit or dream-being.
Many books are created as tools. They contain knowledge invaluable to a scholar, secrets to educate those inducted into a discipline, or techniques used directly for spellcasting and similar powers. Some of these, either by intention or by accident, become more than simple books, gaining supernatural influence and sometimes intellect. We're concerned here only with those that do take that step, and moreover are malevolent in some way, or at least whose influence is damaging to mortal minds.
These books are directly useful to a reader, but the knowledge inside may be very dangerous. In some cases it's intrinsically horrific, while in others it's simply easy to misuse or misunderstand. A spell that summons powerful forces is dangerous if you don't know how to bind them. The secret location of an ancient relic is dangerous if you can't master its power. The ability to predict the future is dangerous if you don't know how to deal with that knowledge. A fae lady may be perfectly able to use her library of magic without harm or difficulty, but its alien aura and psychic emanations are so dangerous to humans that it might as well be actively evil, driving them to madness and monstrosity, and wanting to turn the mortal realm into a mirror of the dreamlands of Faerie.
Some of these books will slowly evolve a dreadful sentience from their horrific contents. Their worldview and personality is built around their contents. The necromantic tome becomes a necromancer in its own right, or else relentlessly tempts others to necromancy: it seeks to raise corpse-warriors and create blasphemous kingdoms of the living dead, to corrupt sorcerers into lichdom, to draw innocents into vampirism and uncovering the sealed graves of vile powers. The tome of Tzeentch knows only sorcery and change, and brings all manner of mystical chaos for its own sake, weaving century-spanning plots. The diary of a murderous maniac or death-cultist might seek endless blood. A tome of war-lore and battle-magic might not be malevolent as such, but unable to comprehend anything but endless strife, and see everything in shades of enmity. Tomes created by, or dedicated to, particular deities or powers are likely to mimic their nature. This kind of book's aims are likely to relate directly to its contents.
Other tomes develop more subtly. They aren't intelligent manifestations of their contents, but simply gained sentience by dint of the arcane (or divine, or diabolical) power that fills them. Over time, they develop their own personalities, plans and desires, which do not necessarily relate directly to their contents. A tome of general nature magic can perfectly well have diabolical plans to rule the world, and exploit readers and magic alike to that end. Conversely, some such tomes may not be malevolent at all, but selfish, erratic, insane, icily pragmatic, childish, stupid or even benevolent. A well-meaning tome that nevertheless spreads chaos or destruction through mistakes, idiocy or simple alienness from humanity, could be quite an interesting element in a game. Think of all those misguided supercomputers working "for our own good". For these tomes, goals are more unpredictable, and the mischief they will get up to depends on their own personality.
The last big category of books is those that are basically twofold: one part book, one part sentience, and the two not necessarily related. From the list I gave above, this could include books that are actually haunted, and books resonant with the pyschic influence of their creator.
A possessed book of the first two kinds is likely to be predictable in many ways. It's also likely to be quite limited in some respects.
A psychic imprint will probably have only a few ideas or emotions, and can't necessarily adapt; it's probably not intelligent in the strict sense of the word, but more like a residual aura or a discrete set of available ideas and thoughts, which it cycles through. Such a tome may be very dangerous directly, but it doesn't have the flexibility and intellect of true sentience - it's a little more like an AI, or a small child without the sophistication of experience. However, it's a very dangerous small child at that. The aura of the book may be strong enough to imprint itself directly onto readers, or to plant subtle influences that affect their behaviour. Such books are often the works of mad wizards, cultists and other deranged authors, but an arguably sane author with immense passion for their work could also leave an imprint behind. In cases like this, there's likely to be a strong connection between the book's contents and its nature: the author has left behind a part or shadow of their own psyche, most likely connected with the subject matter.
A haunted tome typically contains a trapped ghost, often that of the author. The haunted tome will be more sophisticated than a mere psychic imprint, with something approaching a real personality and sentience, but its isolation from the world (and being a book rather than a human body) means it's still likely to be erratic and perhaps mentally trapped in the past. There are as many kinds of haunted book as there are of ghost: anything from a few whispered ideas and visions, through the classic obsessive spectre trapped in the same limited loop of thoughts, to the full-blown ghost that's more or less a fully functioning human who happens to live in a book. Personalities and desires are infinitely variable, but if the tome itself is a thing of nightmare arcana, its author isn't likely to be a bastion of benevolent sanity.
In passing, Tom Riddle's diary from Harry Potter is a pretty good example of a possessed book, and the sort of manipulations it gets up to.
Prison books - including beings transformed into a book - are a slightly different matter. The entity trapped inside may have little or nothing to do with the book. In some cases, a powerful tome may contain a bound spirit, supernatural being or even a wizard, whose own power is used to empower the book and increase its usefulness to the original owner. While a few spirits might not object to this treatment, many will be eager to regain their freedom. Even a neutral or benevolent spirit may be driven to desperation or insanity over decades and centuries of imprisonment, and be prepared to do anything to escape. In other cases, the book is a trap, used to remove an unwanted enemy or inconvenient person from circulation - consider the books in Myst. Some such victims may be largely innocent, others utterly vile, and how hard it is to guess which!
Some prison books may contain multiple prisoners. A book might be ensorcelled so that anyone attempting a particular spell is drawn into it, never to escape. This might be a means of thwarting hubristic ambitions, or another form of the traps I discussed earlier, set by a malicious owner who delights in the schadenfreude of a thief catching herself.
The prisoners may reveal their identity, or keep it a secret; they may even strive to disguise the fact that there's anyone present at all. Some will plead with anyone who uncovers the tome, begging to be released. Others might adopt an assertive or contented air, thinking this will make the owner more likely to release them, particularly if the necessary steps can be disguised as something else. In some cases, perhaps a prisoner can only be released if someone takes their place; some prisoners will try to trick a reader into doing so, while others might try to persuade the reader to find a deserving victim for this punishment, either because they're not actually evil, or simply because they think that plan's more likely to succeed.
Imprisonment in a book could vary substantially. Some exist only as spirits within the book, and for them the time between consultations might seem like falling asleep - or being chloroformed - with long dreams in the dark times, and a period of confusion and weariness on first waking. Others might feel physical confinement, as though they're trapped between the pages, but able to perceive what's around them. Still others might exist in a pocket dimension, or even another world on the far side of the page. Some may exist in the form of text, only knowing what is written down on them, and communicating by changing their own words. Some may perceive the book as their own body, mobile or otherwise. Others may take the form of holograms or ghosts, able to manifest around the book but unable to leave it. Or they might be a poltergeist-like force with no perceptible form, but able to interact with the book's immediate environment.
A somewhat more horrific alternative is a tome modelled on the Devourer, which would devour unwary readers and imprison them as a source of monstrous fuel. As the tome draws on its power, the trapped souls are slowly obliterated. Such a tome might be a tool for an evil mage, who traps enemies or unfortunates as a source of power, and uses their spirit to fuel further misdeeds. It could be a magical tome that's gained sentience, and with it the will to feed on readers (or victims sacrificed to it) in a more literal sense. On the other hand, it might be a more independent entity, such as the creation of a dark-humoured deity. A nicely ironic twist might be a devourer-tome that uses the souls of prisoners as fuel for its master's magical deeds - right up until it exhausts its supply, and devours its current master to replace them. Tzeentch or Nyarlathotep alike would appreciate such a TOUE.
With prison books, their personality and actions would depend on a combination of things: the identity of the prisoner(s), the identity of their current owner, the nature and conditions of their imprisonment,