Sunday, 15 April 2012

Hauntings - The Final Word

In my previous posts I've described potential hauntings as spirits of place, half-forgotten memories of the past, and as creations of possession and obsession. This time I want to talk about a third potential haunting scenario: the otherworldly. As with the previous posts, examples are going to use the Gumshoe format, with the Bookhounds setting.

M.R. James is a literary exemplar I come back to again and again. His creations are my ideal when it comes to ghostly scenarios, mainly because he managed to combine the mundane world in which we all live with an otherworldly, menacing, half-glimpsed terror. In most of those instances the terror evoked was ultimately linked to some human event or tragedy; one of my favourite stores is The Haunted Doll's House, which is probably the most frightening example of that type. However those aren't the only ghosts M.R. James had to offer. Canon Alberic's Scrapbook features something completely other, something with eyes, of a fiery yellow, against which the pupils showed black and intense, and the exulting hate and thirst to destroy life which shone there, were the most horrifying features in the whole vision. There was intelligence of a kind in them -- intelligence beyond that of a beast, below that of a man.

In other words, a demon.

Cthulhu Mythos gaming has a love-hate relationship with more mundane belief systems. The feeling generally seems to be that if things like Cthulhu and the Old Ones exist then they clearly take precedence over anything else, and while this can lead to attempts to shoehorn the Mythos into human iconography (so Nyarlathotep, for one, is both Baron Samedi of Voudon fame and also Set and Thoth of the Egyptians, never mind the Green Man or witchcraft's Black Man or a host of other avatars) these attempts seem to leave a bad taste in many peoples' mouths. The Old Ones are the great alien unknowables, and their more human-friendly avatars are knowable by definition. The two concepts don't mix well.

At the same time, Mythos gaming also has a problem with magic. In a sense, it's the same problem. If the forces of the Mythos take precedence then presumably the rituals of so-called shamans and occultists have little or no effect. Either that, or they're somehow leeching power from Mythos sources. Otherwise humanity can, in theory, rival the entities of the Mythos, by accumulating power of their own to oppose the likes of Cthulhu. The odds are a bit low, since humanity clearly lacks the resources to be a real threat, but smuggling in the magical equivalent of a suitcase nuke is possible. The existential hopelessness is lessened somewhat by the knowledge that something can, in fact, be done to change things.

In the Rough Magicks suppliment Kenneth Hite discusses Lovecraftian magic, and says in part:

Attempting to fully define Lovecraftian magic would seem to be a simpler task. Indeed, we make just such an attempt later on in this book . . . But really, we’re all better off not knowing.

Which is perfectly reasonable, from a gaming perspective. A certain granularity is fine and fair do, but codifying everything such that each detail has its own defined remit is neither possible nor desirable. Even Dungeons and Dragons, a far more rules-heavy system, never achieved that; why, then, should Gumshoe? Better not to know. The lack of knowledge lends mystery which can only help make the incredible seem credible.

However he goes on to suggest several possible scenarios to describe magic: toxic pollution, Elder Thing technology gone wrong, a gift from Nyarlathotep or Yog-Sothoth, trans-dimensional energy manipulation, an aspect of Dreaming - take your pick. The intent being to allow the Keeper to decide what definition best fits their game, so that they can then explain magical influences and effects.

I'm going to go one step further and suggest that, when demons exist at all, they are creatures created by magic or from the same stuff that magic is made of. So if magic is toxic pollution, the after-effects of the energetic collision of the great elemental gods. Where their overwhelming forces meet their impenetrable fields, pieces of space-time come unstuck. Where this dimensional fallout lands, reality weakens and magic becomes possible then demons are also aspects of this toxic pollution. If magic is something else, then so too are demons.

Humans tend to like to see patterns so we codify things as much as possible. That's why we construct elaborate demonologies and try to force these entities to fit into our view of what the world, both seen and unseen, is. However for the purpose of this discussion that view is essentially wrong; there is no pattern here, and a demonology is as useless as a cotton candy slingshot. Demons don't need an Asmodeus figure in order to function; they don't have to be fallen angels, or any other human myth-construct. They exist because magic exists, and if somehow magic were to cease to exist then so too would they. They are as much part of the Mythos as Cthulhu is; they come from the same star-stuff.

Certain settings create magical systems unique to that environment, and Bookhounds is one of those. Bookhounds borrows a touch from Leiber and proposes Megapolisomancy, in which ritualists use the city as a sorcerous engine to accomplish magical effects. They draw on the polis itself to harm their enemies, or create an effect of their own devising. In a system of that sort it follows that demons are also creations of the city, unique to the city. In some cases they may be completely unique, while in others they may be modified versions of a pre-existing concept. Or to put it another way: the Yaoguai that exist in Chinatown may be rooted in Chinese mythology, but they are creations of the London megapolis and cannot be encountered outside of that environment. Something very like them might be found in Macao, but only very like, not precisely the same entities.

The question then becomes are these things created independently of human interference, or are they aspects of the city that arise as a consequence of ritual activity? Ultimately that decision has to be up to the Keeper, and will depend on the needs of the game. The paramental entities discussed in Bookhounds seem to be creatures created by the ritualists who raise them, but it doesn't follow that all such entities are raised by ritualists. Each city has its own soul, created almost unwittingly by the hundreds of millions of people who live, have lived and will live there. It is likely that this soul has many thousands of aspects, most of which go unnoticed by most people. Those few who have noticed that the Euston Underground tunnel has teeth or that the cracks in the pavement near St Pauls have a tendency to whisper odd fragments of lore probably are wise to keep that knowledge to themselves.

With that in mind, here's an example:

The King of the Cats

There is a folk-tale that always has the same ending, no matter how it begins: the self-proclaimed King of the Cats takes his kingdom from his recently deceased predecessor. Aarne-Thompson type 6070B is how it's known to folklorists, a neat classification that fails to encompass a megapolistic truth: there is a kind of Kingship, and it changes hands on an irregular basis.

Those who chronicle the City claim that in the past thirty years there have been four Kings. That is as far as modern chroniclers will go; no doubt there were Kings before the year 1890, but nobody can say with certainty what they were, or where. Most agree that they are cats, or at least look like cats. The first of the four was in North London, somewhere near Islington. Then the Kingship passed to an entity in East London, somewhere near the docks, circa 1912. Suddenly in 1915, possibly the result of an air raid, the Kingship passed to another North London creature, and after about ten years the Kingship passed once more, this time to a West End entity, somewhere near Soho.

There demonic creatures generally have little to do with people. They may be indifferent or cautious; few have been able to communicate with them, and of those who have managed it few are what anyone would call reliable witnesses. However when they have dealt with humans it usually ends badly for the human. They dislike wizards it would seem, possibly because rival megalopolisamancers disrupt the patterns that the Kings rely on.

They have been known to 'adopt' megapolisamancers. Or at least, there's one known example of a wizard who benefitted from a relationship with the East End King, and who for a time became first among his peers. However that individual didn't live more than a month after the Kingship passed in 1915, and whatever his secrets may have been, they apparently died with him. It seems that no bargain outlasts the Kingship, and when a new King takes the throne not only are all previous treaties moot but also the former friend becomes a hated foe. 

Game Statistics: Athletics 12, Health 9, Scuffling 9
Magic: 8-12 (this seems to vary, and may be linked to the phases of the moon)
Hit Threshold: 6 (small and fast)
Alertness Modifier: +0
Stealth Modifier: +2
Damage: +2 (claws)
Special: can only be harmed by a weapon made for the purpose in the area it haunts, from materials found in that area, and then enhanced by a megapolisamantic working in that area. So a knife made in Soho from metals scavenged in Soho and then enchanted in Soho could injure the current King, but wouldn't work on his successor. Of course, the current King would view attempting to make such a weapon as an act of war. Alternatively an event that significantly disrupts megalopolisomantic energies, such as a fire that engulfs an entire district or a zeppelin bombing raid that burns the docks, might do the trick, but an event of that magnitude is difficult to arrange.
Notes: Kings ignore humans most of the time, except when they engage in megalopolisomancy. Any attempt undertaken on their turf can attract their attention, and retribution, unless efforts are taken to mollify them beforehand.
Stability Modifier: +0
Description: While they may seem to be cats at first glance, Kings are physically marked out from their fellows. The King of 1890 had what appeared to be wings. The 1915 King was a split-foot. The 1925 King had extra ears, and the current King is supposed to have a vestigial second tail. Though mutations can occur naturally in an ordinary feline, care must be taken by any megalopolisamancer in case the mutation is more significant than it seems.   

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