MoN Companion – About Tomes

One topic I’ve been meaning to address for quite a while now is the peculiar approach I took to Mythos tomes in the Masks of Nyarlathotep Companion.  When I ran the campaign many moons ago, one of the problems I had arose when the players got a hold of a copy of the Pnakotic Manuscript and, quite understandably asked “What is it about?”  I had no idea.  The campaign doesn’t say and the rulebook (I had 4th edition) didn’t add much.  This was in the mid-1990s so, while I had some limited internet resources (hello Mosaic!), I certainly didn’t have an effective search engine.  Nor did I have Dan Harms excellent Cthulhu Mythos Encyclopedia (Plug! Now available as an eBook!)  So I fumbled and muttered something about nightmarish text of blasphemy and asked for Sanity rolls.  Later, as I was preparing for the next session, I mustered my limited resources and wrote up a short summary of the book as well as somewhat longer notes for once he finished reading it… in 46 weeks or so.  As the campaign progressed, I did the same thing for some of the other books they recovered.  Those notes, along with all my other material went into a binder, that went into a box, that then sat for quite a while, periodically moved by my girlfriend, then later my finance, then later my wife (I had a far away summer job you see and she was stuck moving us three times.  Sorry honey!)

When the idea for the Companion oozed into my mind, one of the things I wanted to include was expanded versions of my tome notes from my own campaign… now greatly supplemented by the sudden wealth of knowledge at my fingertips thanks to the internet, great books like Dan’s Encyclopedia and the previously praised Ex Libris Miskatonici, the two Keeper’s Companions, a much expanded CoC collection on my part, and the fevered brains of the members of

The entries for each book, which I dubbed ‘write-ups’ for some reason, are based on the CoC rule structure in large part- there is a discussion of the contents as understood by someone skimming the book and a fuller one for those who take the time to study it.  Additionally we provide what information investigators might learn when they try to research the tome, as well as often about its author or the publication history.  To pique player interest we also include an expanded physical description of the book, which I found particularly interesting to research and imagine, as it allowed me to construct a sort of biography for that particular tome… when was it published? Who owned it? How has it been treated? This adds a whole new layer of clues for canny investigators.  Finally, and most importantly, we tried to highlight the contents of each tome as they might connect to the Masks of Nyarlathotep Campaign itself.  Does the tome reveal some secret of the campaign, like Life as a God, or is it tangential to things, like True Magick.

I think that Mythos tomes should be far more than simply a collection of spells, Sanity costs, and skill point gains.  While it is impossible to fully replicate the sanity blasting power of Mythos tomes, I think that when richly described, tomes can be both useful props. setting mood and tone, as well as key sources of clues.  When you treat a tome with the same depth and degree of detail your might provide for a villain or a cult, you enrich the play experience for everyone.

After my work on the Companion I had the good fortune of being asked by Dan Harms (who I’d consulted with a few questions about the more obscure texts from the campaign) to create similar write-ups for some of the tomes in his (still in progress) campaign Fury of Yig.  Dan suggested we also include notes about the availability of the tome in question, which was a very good idea.  Hopefully some day we might see some of this work, both for the Companion and for Fury of Yig, in print?

In the mean time, you can see this approach in action in my Notes on the Turner Codex and in my article Saucer Attack 1928: The Dunwich ‘Horror’ in issue 21 of the Unspeakable Oath.

Next Time: More on Tomes?  This time, reading them!

Question Time: Research and source material for the Masks of Nyarlathotep Companion

M.J. Medwick asked:

I’m interested in your research process for emulating period-specific media – are there particular online resources the authors tend to favor, or is much of that work done “boots on the ground” in libraries and archives?

Speaking personally, I used a mixture of my personal library, internet research, and a few jaunts to the libary.

My personal book collection includes:

  • My mostly complete collection of Call of Cthulhu titles.  Great for finding scenario connections and to see what has come before.  In this case I made use of Secrets of New York, The London Guidebook, Green and Pleasant Land, Kingdom of the Blind, The Cairo Guidebook, Secrets of Kenya, Terror Australis, Delta Green: Countdown, and (of course) Masks of Nyarlathotep.  There were probably more…
  • The Cthulhu Mythos Encyclopedia by Dan Harms.  This is the one book to get.  It summarizes all the major (and minor) elements of the Mythos plus a helpful guide to the relevant fiction and it is where I turn first.
  • Ex Libris Miskatonici by Joan Stanley.  A fictive catalog of the Miskatonic University library special collection, it was one of the primary inspirations to my approach to tomes in the Companion, treating them as real books, not just generic bits of treasure that confer a few spells and points of Cthulhu Mythos skill.
  • Period guidebooks (Baedeker, Rand McNally, Muirhead) to London and New York.  Those before 1923 can sometimes be found in Google Books, which is also a great place to check.  Also a 1927 World Gazetteer, basically a very small atlas with some national stats in the rear; I used this to double-check placenames… which are often different than modern ones, especially outside of Europe and the Americas.  Ditto for archaic transliterations in Asia (Wide-Giles in China, for example).

Beyond this on specific points it was a lot of internet searches reenforced by trips to the library as needed… the internet, despite certain advantages, has its limits.  Google books is a helpful resource, especially since books up into the 20s are now in the public domain and therefore are available in full text, searchable form.

Finally, the Library of Congress photo archive is fantastic, with lots of high resolution TIFF images available to you the tax payer.  Similar archives exist for the UK and Australia.  I’ve used it as the source for the image on this page, for example.


Any more questions?