Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Tomefoolery, part seven: disposal

Commentarii linguae graecae, 1548

My last post in the series apologies for its tardiness, but that was a full year ago, so all records are now broken.

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, why TOUEs exist at all, the capabilities of evil books, and last time, on safely containing your TOUE.

This time: on getting rid of the damn things. This post will naturally be fairly applicable to other forms of artifact.

There are a couple of major routes to tome disposal. This depends, basically, on whether you just personally want to get shot of them, or whether you are trying to permanently destroy them. Since we're taking the approach today that you view their existence as a menace, the likely reason for taking the first option is that you simply don't have the resources or knowledge, or indeed that a book is simply indestructible.


So, you have a powerful tome you need shot of. What to do? There are short-term and long-term options. The best options will depend on the tome in question and its relationship to you.

If you are personally afflicted by some kind of accursed tome, then simply getting it out of the way may be an acceptable option. In this case, distance or transfer of ownership are reasonable solutions. You want it unable to bother you personally, whether it's tormenting you, tempting you into evil or drawing fiendish cultists to attack your second-hand car dealership.

At the other extreme, you may take a more socially-conscious view and want the tome locked away from everyone. Here, we'll be looking at ideas from last time, but without that inconvenient proviso of leaving it accessible in case of need.

Bury Them Deep

If you've got your hands on a monstrous grimoire and are horrified by it, you may want to consider simply burying the thing in the deepest darkest hole you can find. This is a reasonable short-term measure to wash your hands of the thing, though it's almost certain to eventually burrow its wormlike way to the surface, be dug up by badgers, or mysteriously discovered. Another consideration is that if anyone is after the tome, unless you keep a constant watch on the hole, it will be difficult to prevent them getting their hands on it.

Tooomes Iiin Spaaaaaaaaace!!!

For those with the technology, firing a tome of ultimate evil off into the depths of space may be a good bet. It's much like burying, but with several advantages. This will depend to some extent on your assumed technology level: an early space age game generally makes this easier for the disposer, while a stellar empires setting makes it rather more difficult.

One of the advantages is permanency. Providing you can find a way to get something out into space - and, hopefully, out of orbit - it is very difficult to reverse that. In general, retrieving a spaced tome will be vastly more complicated, difficult and expensive than spacing one. A spacer has only to (basically) send the TOUE off at high speed.

Retrieving a spaced object requires you to first work out where it ended up. Mathematically, this means knowing the exact origin point and the precise angle at which it was spaced; ideally you also want to know enough to calculate its acceleration and likely current velocity, and exactly how long it has been travelling. Volume of space grows (as Harry Harrison taught me in The Men from PIG and ROBOT) as the cube of distance from the origin, and a TOUE is very small. As such it rapidly becomes statistically impossible to find one without very precise information.

Of course, TsOUE have many possible powers, and telepathically drawing deluded fools toward them is a likely one. It's also possible that a TOUE is able to magically direct its movement and thus return to Earth (or whatever planet), although it must also be strong enough to achieve re-entry and tough enough to survive it, plus the impact. A safer bet might be heading for a space station or similar. Now there's a fun scenario possibility. What astronaut could resist reading a book that bumped into their orbiting research station?

Regardless, in most cases you can assume it's far less likely that a TOUE will turn up again from space than if you simply buried it.

A second issue is technology. Generally, you need much more sophisticated technology to retrieve a spaced object than to space it. You need to travel much further, fast enough to catch up the object. You then need technology capable of carefully retrieving a small object travelling at incredible speed, and then returning with it to Earth. This is amazing stuff. We're just about getting to the point of performing intercepts on enormous comets a short distance away on well-known orbits. Doing this at all would be very impressive; doing it discreetly will call for either even better technology to hide what you're doing, or enough spacefaring in the setting that nobody notices one more launch.

Spacing also offers options like launching a TOUE into a star or black hole, which should be fairly final, unless the TOUE can pull a Superman.

One issue with spacing is that, like burying, you're essentially losing the TOUE and thus ceding control of it. This is a particular problem if there's anyone at all who wants it. They might be able to retrieve it; they might also interfere with the launch in some way, steal the TOUE from the spacecraft, the person due to perform the spacing might be corrupted, and so on. Going along yourself and personally spacing it is the best way to guard against these things. That's really simple to arrange for the average PC, right?

There's also some possibility (skewed by narrative laws and unholy powers) that a TOUE will encounter someone else. There are other planets to take root on and lie dormant for millenia. There may be aliens who can be corrupted. Perhaps the TOUE can find vast sources of untapped power floating in space (like I said, Superman).

The MUOS 2 satellite launches from Cape Canaveral.

As I mentioned above, technology level greatly affects how useful a technique this is. If spacing a TOUE is barely possible, then successfully doing so should be pretty final. If kids make daily trips to Saturn to attend school in their personal hypercraft, and have augmentic brains that let them trivially calculate infinitely large primes, the chances of the TOUE being picked up are a lot higher. Similarly, if you assume a massive information economy (monitoring and retention of all data) then finding out exactly where the TOUE would have ended up is much easier, making retrieval simpler.

Burial at Sea

The ocean has a lot of appeal as a permanent hiding-place for things. It's deep, almost entirely unknown, extremely inimical to human life, vast and full of complicated mysteries. It combines many of the advantages of space, with the benefit of being far easier to access when you're dumping evil artefacts.

In this section, we can safely assume that a TOUE will not be destroyed by anything as puny as mere water, nor by the appalling pressures of the ocean depths, or by the all-consuming biology of the sea. But it's still very unlikely that it will be recovered, unless someone knows where to get it. This poses the same sort of retrieval problems as space; you don't need to travel at light-speed to catch up with it, but you will need to survive the pressure and actually find the damn thing, most likely in pitch-black water and buried feet deep in muck.

One of the consequences is that supernatural retrieval may be far more likely. Most settings (Call of Cthulhu notwithstanding) will more easily support ocean-going spirits than anything that you can despatch to fetch an object from space. It's also easier to accept the physically possibility, because a demon swimming down to the ocean floor takes an acceptable amount of time, whereas a demon travelling at light-speed isn't necessarily something you want to excuse. Of course, if you treat this as a very difficult ritual whereby you can request a single object from a very potent demon, and they just summon it from the depths of space, that's perhaps more campaign-acceptable because it has fewer consequences than easily-summoned demons travelling infinitely fast.

The other thing is that it's easier to handwave a TOUE resurfacing from the ocean than from space, assuming you want to retain some mocking semblance of plausibility and you aren't giving your TOUE the power of space flight. Strange currents slowly draw the book to the surface. It's eaten by a shark or embraced by a squid that is then caught by a fisherman. A deep net snags the TOUE from the ocean floor. Even turning to supernatural summons, in non-future settings you can fairly easily explain a diver being mystically drawn towards the buried tome, and it isn't an utterly weird thing to happen. In the space version, all happenings on space missions are carefully recorded and a TOUE turning up would definitely attract attention, because how the hell is there a book in space? Only a fairly advanced spacegoing setting could easily handwave that sort of thing.

Let's Do The Time Warp Yeah

So we talked about hiding things in space, but what about time?

Time travel is a pretty well-established device in both sci-fi and fantasy. As such, there are few campaigns where you can feature a TOUE but no kind of time travel is remotely possible. This is especially true if you assume a one-off capability that involves using the TOUE itself as a focus.

A fairly classic technique would mesh well with the antediluvian sort of tome, ancient with mystery. This technique has you send the damn thing back in time, effectively creating a paradoxical eternal time loop where the TOUE originally comes from the future, eventually gets sent back to its "origin" point, and is never actually created. You might send it back so far that it sparks the Big Bang, explaining a lot about the universe.

You can also, of course, force it into the future, essentially leaving it as a problem for some future civilisation. Done strongly enough, you might leave the TOUE on the lifeless husk of a dead Earth in the unthinkably distant future, or right before the final expiration of the universe. Perhaps it triggers the birth of a new one - though likely a tainted one.

Any of these might be a satisfying mechanism and narrative outcome when dealing with a TOUE that's important to your campaign.

The obvious drawbacks here are that you need access to time travel, but a very specific level of time travel, in which using this to dispose of a TOUE is actually useful. If Evil Lord Gurgle has only to twiddle his Time Remote to nip back a few millenia and retrieve it, there's no point. Also, introducing time travel to a campaign poses its own problems that mean it should generally be done with thought.


Assuming the characters have access to magic, be it inherent or drawing on some other power, they may be able to apply some kind of long-term binding to the tome. Often, this may effectively reversing the process by which the tome entered the campaign in the first place: its original wards were broken. A ward can take many forms, some more specifically magical than others. As well as a generic imprisonment spell, there might be a powerful immortal guardian keeping eternal watch, or even a high-tech solution. "Containment field" isn't that different from "magical ward", and you can certainly get creative with technobabble in this kind of situation.

This sort of protection may seem more reliable than simply burying something. The details will vary, but a good binding may well make the tome hard to find at all. It should, at least, keep a tome safe from casual prying and passers-by, and prevent it from exerting too much supernatural influence. Essentially, a binding should lock the TOUE down for a few decades or centuries, and make it someone else's problem. This is the same approach you generally use for immortal monsters, powerful ghosts and vampires, relics, hellmouths and so on.

A binding may or may not also physically hide the TOUE. If you're folding it into a dimensional hole or its native hell-dimension, it may not be in our world at all. You might also be rendering it inert enough to be indistinguishable from any other book, or melding it into the earth or something. These will help to protect it from anyone not in the know.

The downside is, of course, that to an antagonist with their own magic or knowledge, a binding may be a lot less protective than dumping the TOUE into the Marina Trench. The literature is full of villains who stroll or sneak into the Final Resting Place of the Evil and break it free to wreak havoc once more In Accordance With The Prophecy. They would, at least, have needed to learn to pilot a submarine with the trench option - and Necromancer/Submarine Pilot is a highly unusual combination of skills, probably commanding a significant premium in the business world.

Grave matters

Burying things is often suspicious, especially if you're trying to do it surreptitiously. Understandably, people tend to get antsy about that sort of thing. You can bury small objects on your own property, of course, but then it's fairly easy for people to guess where to dig. Chucking things into landfill can be difficult unless you have legal access; dropping a TOUE into your rubbish leaves it up to chance whether it really gets disposed of, or someone decides to pick it out and take it home.

One of the possibilities is to take advantage of existing burials. Leaving things in graves or coffins has a long and proud tradition. One advantage is that you don't have any suspicious digging to do, and it's relatively easy to get undertakers to add a package to a burial. They're unlikely to care what it is, assuming only that it's something important to the deceased.

Another point is that it's far less likely to be dug up in the future. Well, the immediate future. Humans have this tendency to feel like it's fine to dig up graves after a few hundred years and take all the stuff out, which is a bit weird. But in the short term, it's unlikely. With an ordinary burial, especially allowing for supernatural influence, it's entirely likely that badgers will establish a set around the tome, bored children will decide to dig for treasure at that exact spot in the field, a construction team will unearth it with their diggers, and so on and so forth. This is to say nothing of deliberate cultists searching for the TOUE. A TOUE inside a grave is very much protected from this kind of disturbance by physical, cultural and legal barriers. Kids don't tend to dig up graves, and construction work in cemeteries is unusual. Badgers will struggle to dig through a coffin and are unlikely to get established in a graveyard in the first place.

Of course, there is some small chance that the TOUE's influence will result in your dead friend becoming an undead horror or being possessed by some dire extraplanar abomination, but you can't have everything.

The Buckingham gambit

You know where's a really good place to hide things? Somewhere that's already under incredible levels of security. When you're looking to get shot of an apocalyptically evil tome full of sinister spells and secret knowledge, shoving it under a floorboard in Buckingham Palace might not be a bad shot. Good luck with that one, Whateleys!

Of course, there are some complications. The first is, of course, getting into position to do that, and arranging that the object won't be discovered by routine security checks. You could try officially giving it to Her Maj, if you can find a way to ensure she'll actually hang onto it, and also won't hand it out to passing researchers in the royal libraries.

A second issue is that there are many locations undoubtedly more secure than Buckingham Palace. However, they are mostly set aside for top-secret intelligence agencies, nuclear facilities and so on and so forth. These are some of the last people you want getting their hands on a TOUE, because they have a lot of people who are really quite comfortable with killing, very strong tendencies towards ends justifying means, and some pretty twisted ideas about what they're supposed to be doing. Do you want the CIA having access to byakhee? Or deciding that making pacts with deep ones is the next logical step from arming all those rebel groups that immediately become monstrous totalitarian regimes? North Korea is a very secure location for hiding things because it's really hard to get inside and anyone can be arbitrarily killed at any moment - this does not mean it's a good idea to leave the Necronomicon there, let alone an actual TOUE that actively works to seduce people to the dark side.

Another good option might be a major celebrity, of the type not inclined to read strange Arabic texts, if you can find a way to convince them that the item is worth keeping in their house. Maybe persuade an artist to paint the celebrity's face on the cover, or something, and present it as a priceless and unique piece of art - the less it seems like something to try actually reading, the better.

If you have the opportunity, a highly restricted library collection is actually a pretty good bet here. It's a lot easier to get books into a library than out of one. Here, let me turn on my Librarian Powers...

Okay, so what you want to do is to get access to a really huge library. It's crucial that this is not a library that ever throws things away, so a UK Copyright Library is a good bet. That's probably not that difficult: you can often pay for access. Next, start looking through the materials kept in compact storage. These will be accessible only by staff (or robots these days) and consist of tightly-packed boxes on massive rows of shelving, each containing one item (or a few issues of a journal). The only time a book gets accessed is when someone specifically requests it.

Next, take a careful look through the catalogues, including lists of things that they have which haven't been catalogued. These are particularly valuable because it suggests they are considered unimportant, and that nobody looks at them. This is exactly what you want.

Order up some of these items, until you find one with a large box. Find an opportunity to add the TOUE to the box before returning it. It will be sent deep into the bowels of the library, never to be looked at again unless someone happens to completely randomly call up that same incredibly uninteresting book.

Even supernatural powers seem like they'd find it difficult to exert that level of influence, because it's a pretty technical process - the book needs to essentially understand what's happened to it, and know what its shelfmark is, in order to give someone the information to retrieve it. Normal supernatural powers do things like draw someone physically to a book, but that won't help if your cultist isn't allowed anywhere near the library - particularly easy with modern robot-based stacks where a human may not physically be able to move through the building and books may be stacked many metres above ground.

The weakness here, of course, is that you're relying on tricking the librarian in the first place to get your book archived. Here, it is a massive advantage if you are a librarian. I could easily have pulled this trick myself, as well as many other bits of trickery that these kinds of blind, rule-based systems use.

The second weakness is that the TOUE might be able to corrupt one of the library staff who work with the stacks, who could at least get access to the book, and it would be fairly easy for them to then call it up on their own behalf. There's very little you can do about inside agents, though.


So this is the real stuff. Actually ridding the world, once and for all, of these tomes. Assuming, of course, that your particular TOUE is amenable to such methods.


It's perfectly possible to let a TOUE have exactly the same weaknesses as an ordinary book. This could work well if you have a glass cannon setup in mind, where the item is immensely dangerous but very vulnerable. It can also take on the mob boss role in an evil cult: the problem isn't beating up the pensioner, it's the hundreds of armed killers at their beck and call, which both makes it difficult to get anywhere near them, and promises horrible death if you succeed.

Book burning (3)


I discussed using countering forces in the post about safely containing your TOUE, and most of this is applicable here. If you can find something that opposes the nature of the tome in question, it may allow you to destroy the tome despite its supernatural resilience.

Anathemic substances might simply destroy the tome, like antimatter and matter. The nail from the True Cross causes the evil tome to melt into sludge. The Seed from the Flower of Life causes the Tome of Death to burst into flame. Bands of cold meteoric iron make the Book of the Fey crumble to dust.

A more complicated option has the anathema cripple the TOUE, stripping it of its protections. In this model, applying the anathema renders the TOUE vulnerable to damage in the same way as a normal book, but doesn't instantly destroy it. This might make things more interesting in some games; it also offers some explanation of how TOUEs might survive for centuries, since it takes a concerted effort to destroy them, not mere contact with a particular substance.

Acquiring some kinds of anathema will themselves require some serious effort. Others shouldn't really be hard to find, so this method allows for variable difficulty. Bear in mind also, though, that it could lead to the premature destruction of a TOUE you had plans for, if the players come up with the right idea early.

The Hobbit Gambit

The most classic of artefact-destroying methods, the Hobbit Gambit requires a quest to a meaningful location to destroy a powerful item. This can be a place that's inherently powerful (the holiest temple, the hottest volcano, the place where reality is thinnest, the place where magic doesn't work), or a place related to the artefact (the place where the TOUE was written, the author's tomb).

The main point about this method is that it's a quest, not just a technique. Typically, getting to the location is itself a challenge worthy of a whole scenario or campaign arc. Whereas some of the other methods should logically be quite straightforward and quick, the Hobbit Gambit emphasises the significance of what is happening. As such, this is likely to work best with TOUEs that are written to be major elements of a campaign.

The conclusion of the quest should be straightforward: getting here and surviving the gauntlet was the challenge, but actually hurling the TOUE into the stellar void is kept mechanically simple. There may well be tests of morals, personal sacrifice or other narrative elements tied into the hurling, but it's not drawn out. This option aims for a meaningful, punchy finish to the extended journey.

My Final Form

While the Hobbit Gambit turns a MacGuffin into a questline with a relatively simple end, this option turns the MacGuffin into an epic battle.

Simply put, the characters discover (one way or another) that the book will actively resist being destroyed. Perhaps approaching with this intent will awaken it to full sentience, and it will unleash its magical powers. Perhaps the TOUE cannot be destroyed because of the dread demon bound within, which must be unbound and then destroyed to put the evil to rest. Perhaps it cannot be destroyed in this reality; the heroes must enter another plane of existence, or even the book itself, in order to destroy its essence, which manifests in a more martial form.

This option provides a flashy, action-packed finish to a TOUE-based plotline. It will work best with books that have powers suited to something resembling a normal battle. Still, that might include summoning minions, shapechanging, taking control of other creatures (but preferably not the PCs), or fancy telekinesis. It will also be best suited to games with robust combat mechanics; in some systems, epic battles are very swingy or fall flat, and that's not what you want.

The Ritual

The final option I'm going to present here is a big, impressive ritual that destroys the book.

Some of the earlier options have a very simple finish: it might be hard getting to the TOUE, or taking it where it can be destroyed, but the actual destruction is kept simple. Here, it's the process of destruction that's the focus.

A destruction ritual should be fairly involved. Preparation, study and competence are important. Essentially, the ritual itself is a mini-adventure. The PCs need to have learned exactly what they need to do, acquired any necessary components, and then need to perform the ritual correctly. It may be a single ritual that must be completed in one stretch; alternatively, it could just be a series of steps that have to be performed in order. The former will tend to demand more hard choices of the PCs when things go wrong, while the latter may allow for more variation and interest during the process, since interruptions are possible. It's even possible to have a ritual take place across multiple locations, such as visiting the Seven Shrines of Solitude in turn, while fending off cultists and demons along the way.

Traditionally, the ritual will involve testing the resolve, morals and fortitude of the PCs. They may be tempted by visions, or have to perform vile deeds. The TOUE may challenge them mentally, by calling up terrifying apparitions or invading the PC's memories, or PCs may need to meditate. It might also provide physical challenges: chanting for hours in a cold crypt is hard work, ritual bleeding can cause weakness, and there may be feats of strength to perform.

A measure of combat can be introduced without turning this into a massive battle. The TOUE might summon rats or insects, posing more of a distraction than a real threat. Alternatively, they could call up a minor demon or two, which the PCs need to defeat or banish without abandoning the ritual entirely. It might also try the odd attack spell, or even threaten the PCs directly if it's that sort of TOUE. Again, these should be occasional hazards to watch for, rather than the focus of the confrontation.

Most GMs will probably want to build the ritual towards a climax, with each stage being more dramatic than the last, and escalating threats. Another possibility is to work the other way: the tome grows weaker as the ritual continues. This has the mechanical benefit of keeping pace with the PCs, if their resources are also being depleted. A third is to work along thematic lines rather than escalate: the Four Elemental Whatsits are a classic, for example.

This sort of thing will probably work best where the PCs already have the TOUE they want to destroy. Either they have acquired it and brought it to a place of safety, or they have easy access to wherever it's being held (the University library, an abandoned temple, whatever). It's possible to have them invade a sanctuary and perform the ritual amidst cultists, but that's more of a Final Form, to be honest - nothing wrong with that, mind.

This will probably be the last in the series. I feel like I've covered just about everything I usefully can, and I've let this get incredibly drawn out. I hope someone's enjoyed it. Please do let me know if you use or adapt any of these ideas; I'd love to know how they work out.

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