Sunday, 7 April 2013

Tomefoolery, part five: powers

Commentarii linguae graecae, 1548

Part of a continuing series of uncertain length on Tomes of Unspeakable Evil and the PCs who love them. I've discussed how people get their hands on such books in the first place, the effects of their dreadful contents on tiny human minds and the purposes and designs of the tomes themselves, and most recently why TOUEs exist at all.

Today I want to take a more general look at the sort of powers, abilities and general properties a Tome of Unspeakable Evil might possess. I reckon the list below is a reasonable starting point.

  • Gift of tongues
  • Speech
  • Dream-haunting
  • Book possession
  • Imprisonment
  • Physical attack
  • Flight
  • Spellcasting
  • Madness
  • Physical transformation
  • Fire resistance
  • Water resistance
  • Regeneration
  • Meme implantation
  • Domination

Okay, let's take a closer look at what I actually mean by those arbitrary bits of terminology.

The Gift of Tongues

This is hopefully pretty obvious, but I mean the language of the text changes so anyone can read it. I'm sure I've seen this before in fiction. While the stereotype of ancient tomes has people scrabbling round for ancient school Latin or long-lost Asiatic languages, it's perfectly possible to have one that's eager to be read, and able to help the readers out. Looking at the list of reasons for a TOUE to exist, this makes most sense for books designed either to spread some message, to ensnare victims, or otherwise cause damage. A mage's personal spellbook or a straightforward compendium of knowledge is much less likely to have such a property. In the former case they probably don't intend anyone else to read it - they may go so far as to use a cipher, magical writing or traps to prevent it - and in the latter authors don't necessarily have much reason to consider future readers who don't speak their language. In fact, they may see the use of some languages (say, Latin) as a way of restricting dangerous knowledge to an educated subset who can handle it.


Of course, there's no reason why a tome can't speak as well. It would be pretty in-your-face, but as long as you're happy with that. Perhaps it only starts speaking to someone once they've read it, and are beginning to fall under its spell. Perhaps it doesn't speak, but changes its text to convey new messages. Or perhaps it gloats like the worst pantomime villain, eerie voice echoing down dusty hallways. Perhaps its whispers carry across the library, always ceasing before anyone can track down the source, trying to lure potential readers towards it. I have to say, the idea of the villain always hidden in the shadow of the tall chair (or who always appears in shadows, or disappears like Batman) being a book rather appeals to me.


Does exactly what it says on the tin. Though it can be damaged, the book will repair itself. This might be a rapid process, with matter drawn from the air or dust around it to rebuild lost pages. On the other hand, it might require a kind of feeding, as the TOUE absorbs paper and ink from other, more innocent books to rebuild itself. It might tie in to my earlier thoughts on vampirism, with the TOUE only able to regenerate by drawing energy from a reader to fuel the process, in one way or another.

Another option would be for a less direct but more insidious regeneration. Perhaps the book, when wounded, directs vulnerable minds to start rewriting the missing sections, piecing together lost fragments, or otherwise repairing it. It may not care about maintaining its original integrity; perhaps it's perfectly happy to be a Frankenstein thing of mongrel pages and materials from across time and space, so long as its terrible contents are complete.

Perhaps the tome's malevolent magic even makes it like a starfish; every torn-out page able to regenerate itself into another copy of the book, if only it can find a suitable mind to repair it, or suitable other books to devour. In this way, innocent bibliophiles might be baffled to find this tome in their collection, where a scrap of paper used as a bookmark or bound into a flyleaf has corrupted an innocent book into a copy of itself. Evil tomes might sprout, fungoid and loathesome, in the dark and melancholy heaps of a bookseller's graveyard or the bins a library's binding room. Surely that, in itself, is a scenario waiting to be written.

Book possession

That blends nicely into the next idea, which is that the tome itself can corrupt, control or simply overwrite other books. This might only apply to other magical books, whose power it absorbs as it spreads, or it might apply to anything.

In a subtle version of this, the tome initially just influences nearby books with something of its nature, which will of course depend on the book. A heartwarming novel gains cryptic cameos from unsettling masked figures who quote lines that scratch at the reader's consciousness, and the characters seem a little deranged as the book progresses. A mathematical treatise includes unusual equations that hint at unexplained mysteries. A medical text is no more graphic, but seems to take a mocking delight in its discussion of bodily frailty and to rejoice in its lurid colour plates.

Perhaps, instead, the control is more ephemeral. The reader suddenly detects unsettling undertones in the story, or is sure they read a doom-laden and alien quote just moments ago, but on flicking back they find only harmless writing. It is only when fully engrossed in reading, the mind vulnerable, that the tome's influences rises to the surface. This power might be an interesting symptom of someone partially under the tome's power: no matter what they read, sooner or later they find the text of the tome leaking through into it...

A nice bold version, of course, is that the tome literally overwrites nearby books. Whether page by page or all at once, their contents are blotted out, replaced with the horrific contents of the tome. This is particularly useful for tomes that want to be read, either to gain slaves in the process or to spread havoc. The Revelations of Glaaki would love an ability like this.

This might tie into the regeneration (again) by providing a means of survival in extremis for the tome. Set on fire by pathetic quivering mortals? Just project your essence into a nearby book, visible only momentarily as a loathesome cloud of foulness before you find sanctuary and begin to plot again, though it might take you some time to recover your power.


Dreams are a classic of horror, of course, and it's natural for a magical book of enormous evil to strike when the mind is vulnerable in sleep. They might provide a means of communication, letting the book project suitable images to tempt someone into reading it, or guide them to its location. Alternatively, it might use this power to drive people mad with horrific images. It might project itself - or a mask, perhaps an attractive or powerful person - into dreams to actually talk to people, or grant them lucid dreams where they can converse and plan. It might grant them visions showing how to find great treasures, or give them dreams where they use its power to conquer armies, gain vengeance, or even do great deeds for the benefit of all humanity. As always, the type of dreams will vary with the book's nature and goals. A book trying to tempt people will be inclined to show them what they want to see, or rather what it thinks they will want to see - some books will be far more wily and deceptive in this than others. A book of Khorne, for example, is most likely to be very direct and unsophisticated in its attempts, but perhaps relentless and forceful, while a book of Tzeentch will probably work very slowly, patiently, and with a complex network of lies and half-truths, never giving away its true aims, even if it feigns weakness or honesty.

This sort of power can be a two-edged sword. A tome might have no control over its influence, and simply inspire nightmares or thematic dreams, which PCs could use to track it down, learn about it and destroy it. The kind of dreams inspired will give clues to the book's nature and goals (though they should be taken with a pinch of salt). Raw power might leak out into the building or district, corrupting and maddening citizens, which some books are perfectly content with. Other tomes might have perfect control, choosing specific victims through unknown means, or perhaps targeting those who have interacted with some other arcane artefact or place. For example, a book might track someone who has taken an amulet, or invoked a particular spell, or visited a sinister temple.

Physical abilities

Flying books are a pretty classic idea, with all those nice flappable pages. However, a tome might also scuttle spider-like or crab-like over the floor, with nice creepy sound effects. It could turn into a cloud of letters and dust, like the classic vampire, and whoosh away through keyholes. It could even extend legs, tendrils or wings to move around.

The extent of a tome's senses is also important. Can it see and hear, in particular? A tome that can do both has a great advantage. A hearing-only book is potentially quite fun: I'm imagining a batlike book here, which flutters about finding its way by sound and tracking down people by the noise they make. Or it could be a static, blind, speaking and hearing book, which can't tell what the reader is doing (except interacting with it) except by what they say and what it overhears, and so the readers have at least one lever of control over it by what they are willing to say. A sight-only book might be functionally deaf because it only understands the language it's written in (even if it's as common as Latin, or even French) rather than because it can't hear at all; on the other hand it might be totally dependent on what it sees and on the written word. Perhaps, like some D&D manuals, it has a single staring eye on the front cover, or perhaps any part of the book can see.

Physical attacks are potentially important, depending on genre. Biting is a pretty straightforward one, and a book might use its weight, nasty metal clasps or even grow unexpected fangs to chomp on tasty victims. A book that actually eats people (or needs feeding in general) has nice horrific potential, as Terry Pratchett already realised.


Ordinary books, of course, are often fairly vulnerable. Not so the Tome of Unspeakable Evil; well, possibly. It depends what you want from it.

Fireproofing your books can be an important decision. A tome that's vulnerable to fire has a handy weakness which players can exploit to destroy it - fire might even be the only thing that overcomes regenerative abilities or other escape routes. In a light game, this could be an easy and predictable technique which players can use to eliminate a troublesome tome with a little bit of planning.

In a heavier game, a powerful tome is likely to plan around its weakness, taking measures to protect itself. There might be magical wards that extinguish any fire brought near it, or it might simply be encased in a metal box for that bit of extra security. Moreover, such a tome may respond immediately and brutally to anyone trying to bring fire near it, without bothering to check their intentions: blasts of ice, powerful winds, mental assault, lightning bolts, summoning creatures to remove the fire... a less magically-inclined tome might instead flee the sight of fire, taking refuge in rafters or shifting itself to the body of another book at the slightest provocation. In some cases, fire might be a way to force a reluctant tome to divulge secrets or obey instructions - at least for now. The tome may be reluctant to use its full strength until it's definitely under attack, and treat the fire merely as a threat worth obeying, not wanting to really test its prowess against a determined human who has managed to impress it (by capturing it, for example). Or the book may not have abilities that let it directly confront humans.

On the other hand, a fireproof book eliminates a key weakness and forces players to look for other options to deal with the book. Certain books really should be fireproof - anything Hell-related, pyromantic or otherwise fiery in nature, for a start. Books of iron, stone, or otherworldly substances are a good bet too. The book might be completely fireproof, or simply be able to regenerate despite severe burning (though completely incineration might work). This is a sensible choice for the most powerful tomes, where a mundane solution may not fit into the feel you want, especially if you're intending to have the destruction (or otherwise disposal) of the book as a quest in itself or a long-running feature of a campaign.

Very similar issues arise with waterproofing, and to a limited extend with physical damage, though fire is really the easy get-out that needs considering most. A tome might be impaired by waterlogging, and need careful drying to restore it to full 'health', though perhaps it won't actually disintegrate as an ordinary ancient book might. Flying through the rain, for example, may not be an option, and this sort of thing could actually provide a nice check on a tome's powers.


Naturally, any ancient tome is likely to be immune to the major effects of time and decay, except insofar as they make it look cool. There are a couple of exceptions, though.

The first exception is the kind of tome that's half-disintegrated, providing only bewildering fragments of information, or else a smeared and faded text that requires huge effort to make out. Such tomes may rejoice in their damage, which perhaps makes them seem less dangerous than they really are. Others simply put up with it as the price of a dangerous existence, being snatched from the burning ruins by desperate cultists. Those able to communicate might grumble about their injuries, or boast of them.

The other likely kind of damaged tome are those able to repair themselves (see Regeneration). Perhaps they simply haven't yet replenished their power enough to do so when discovered, or perhaps they use their decrepit state to draw attention, and even pity, from a scholar or bibliophile who might spend the time to restore them or to study their remains.

Reproduction and Meme Infection

One arbitrary division you can make for tomes is into unique 'individuals' who might jealously guard their status (or simply be utterly unique), and 'type specimens' that are simply one physical expression of an Ur-Tome. The Necrotelicomnicon or the Ildatch are reasonable examples of the former, while something like The Revelations of Glaaki is a good example of the latter.

The second kind are keen to reproduce themselves and spread across the world. These are likely to include books of revelation, books designed to corrupt and enslave mortals, and books whose purpose is simply general malevolence and chaos. On the other hand, books with a strong personality and sense of self may be less interested in duplicating themselves - what evil tome wants a rival, after all? On the other, other hand (the one with peculiar claws and scales you tend to keep under your jacket), the idea of a whole family of evil tomes working together as one towards joint evil goals seems pretty cool to me... In some genres you could even think of it more like a Sinister Six-type supervillain team. Of course, that sort of idea doesn't necessarily call for them to be related - or even to all be books. One member of an evil team turning out to be a sentient magic book would potentially be a pretty nice reveal.

Anyway, I was here to talk about mimetic infection. This is the idea that, as well as simply having people physically copy it, or some of the regenerative ideas I mentioned above, a TOUE might use some of its other powers to force people to rewrite it. For example, people who have read it might feel compelled to rewrite it, possessed by a fragment of the book's consciousness that wants a new body to take on and grow into its full power. Alternatively, a book might inspire even ignorant writers through dreams. In the case of revelatory books, inspiring someone to write down the message through dreams or direct dictation are established ideas, and this is precisely how texts like The Revelations of Glaaki come about.

This ability makes a single physical copy of the book more like an agent than the heart of the evil. PCs might find themselves trying to eliminate multiple copies before they can wreak havoc, or tracking down a chain of increasingly old and powerful copies of the tome (much in the vein of vampire-hunting). The books themselves might be symptoms - very dangerous symptoms - of a much more fundamental foe that needs to be dealt with, such as a powerful spirit, lich or mage whose influence reaches out to corrupt the world.


Of course, a tome that doesn't have magical powers isn't much of a tome.

I've already touched on trap tomes, but of course trapping people doesn't just have to be the book's core purpose. It can be simply a tool used by the book to get its way. The book might engulf people, but it could also turn them into statues (or other books), bind them with spiderwebs, or otherwise render them helpless.

Other spells are likely to be tied into the book's specific nature. Necromantic tomes will raise the dead, perhaps control darkness and cold, implant horrific visions and drain life. Elemental tomes are simple enough. Books tied to a particular individual, on the other hand, might have very specific powers that link in with elements such as an ancestral castle or temple.

For books eager to gain temporal power, either in general or to fulfil long-term goals, then enchanting magic is a good bet, and ties in well with various kinds of mind-draining abilities I've discussed before. Some tomes might potentially have whole armies of mind-slaves; of course, cult-type books could reasonably have quite large numbers of actual acolytes, who aren't necessarily strictly enslaved.

Tomes with a heavier magical feel might want to pick up some wizardly world-shaping powers, giving them more of an archmage (or lich) vibe. Conjuring magical shackles, firing off bolts of lightning, creating portals, or even raising magical fortresses out of the very earth are all nice possibilities. Monster-summoning is always fun.

If you want to play up the "book" aspect of the entity, you could introduce themed abilities such as firing off bits of text, which might turn into razor-edged projectiles, form flaming barries, or tie people up like snakes. Perhaps a book can do different things depending which words it decides to use. Pages might detach from the book and transform into batlike spies, or even attackers - a whole flock of pages could harry a target before returning to the book (and this would provide a possible way to slowly weaken the book, by destroying pages rather than confronting the whole tome). Leather bookmarks could become tongues (again with the Pratchett). This sort of thing does carry the risk of seeming corny, cartoonish or just plain silly, and depending on the game you're running it might really mess with the mood. On the other hand, a GM might be able to take something that could seem silly and use it really effectively in a serious game.

Transforming people into other things is a nice classy move, though perhaps not suited to every kind of book. A tome might simply mutate or otherwise physically corrupt victims, particularly anyone it manages to overpower physically or mentally. This could be simply a nasty thing to do to people, ideal for books of plague-magic or raw chaos, or it could be a method of creating monstous servitors. Other tomes might go the whole hog and turn them into statues, dolls, oddly-smoking crystals, horrific living paintings, spiders or whatever you like.

The classic sort of Tomes of Darkness tend towards more gothic magic. They can slam and lock doors anywhere in a building, conjure up spiderwebs to choke and slow victims, deepen shadows and create strange noises or hallucinations. Weather is another good option for such tomes (and indeed for any tomes - weather is a really good mood device). Rather than simply conjuring straightforward monsters, such tomes might summon beings of raw shadow, or draw things from the nightmares and hidden fears of the household. Friends might be made to seem monstrous so a panicking victim will attack them, and ordinary things warped into hideousness. Madness and deception are the main focus here. Of course, you can also summon clouds of bats, grow twisted vegetation, and even warp the geography of a building so victims get hopelessly lost.

Tune in next time...

Next up I'm planning to think about what to do with a tome when you've actually got one, but we'll see.


  1. My players are going to hate you ...

    1. Glad to hear it! Do let me know if you use anything, and how it works out for you. I'd love to see some of my ramblings getting put into effect.

  2. You'll notice - I know you follow the campaign journal on YSDC (where I don't use a pseudonym). :)