Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Archaeology & Adventurers...

In the wild and lawless no man’s land that was China’s western territories, there was a bounty of fame and fortune to be had. The territory was largely unmapped and any voyage undertaken could benefit from the cartographical information to be recorded; at most, abundant wealth and academic renown lay in store.

Before the invasion of the foreigners, the Celestial Empire was completely self-contained, bound in Confucian thinking and observant of the laws of feng shui. For millennia, construction was carried out by means of astrological and geomantic observation; fear of ancestral reprisal meant that these cities and palaces, once lost, were never unearthed. Once the first sinologists from Europe made this connexion, that there could be centuries of untapped wealth and knowledge lying waiting to be discovered in the central Chinese Plains or the distant Western Mountains, the hunt was on.

The vanguards for such expeditions were the translators of the many texts revealed for the first time to the Westerners. From various palace and temple collections in Canton, Shanghai and Peking the sinologists learnt, not only the background to thousands of years of culture, but of treasures untold. Of course, they had already accessed Marco Polo’s Account of his travels to ‘Cathay’ to whet their appetites, with its lurid descriptions of fantastic empires and great wonders.

Once the research had been completed, all that remained was to set forth with the right provisions and equipment. This was not always easy: territorial boundaries were constantly shifting throughout China’s turbulent history and passports were gained only through subtle negotiation and a lot of ‘squeeze’. The possibility of encountering bandits had to be factored in as well. Further, the thought of digging always caused a panic among the Chinese as the possibility of disturbing ancestral graves had dire consequences. The insistent Archaeologist always ensured a supply of ammunition and several dependable guns.

Along with these the eager archaeologist would also have copies of the following texts: Zuo Zhuan ‘Chronicle of Zuo’ (written from 722 to 468 BC), the problematic Bamboo Annals (which covers the period from 2497 to 221 BC) and the Shih Chi, ‘Records of the Grand Historian’ (written from 109 to 91BC), three texts which form the foundation of any investigation into Ancient China

With the modern-day difficulties insured against, the only thing to be done was to set out and make discoveries. High on any Adventurer’s list would be the following:

The First Emperor

Chin Shi-huang-di, the First Emperor was a visionary builder: he built strong and he built huge. The Great Wall of China was a breathtaking sight for the first European visitors: Samuel Johnson, unable to visit the edifice himself urged all of his friends to make the journey to see it. However, practical as this structure seems, the rest of the Emperor’s buildings had far less earthly outcomes in mind.

Chin Shi-huang-di was obsessed with the attainment of immortality. He collected alchemical texts and surrounded himself with Taoist wizards; he built mountains from which to discuss the management of his kingdom with Celestial beings and from which he hoped to be carried off to Heaven by a great dragon. In later times he feared lest Heavenly agents were spying on him: to circumvent this he built covered walkways between all of his palaces and randomised his daily routine so that no spies would learn of his whereabouts. Having survived several assassination attempts, he died whilst on a journey to the eastern coast where he contracted pneumonia while defeating a ‘sea monster’ (most likely a beached whale): his body was brought home behind a wagon of rotting fish so that any watchful spirits would be fooled into thinking that the Emperor still lived. His tomb, filled with the enigmatic Terracotta Warriors, was described in the Shih Chi or Historical Records of the time:

“As soon as the First Emperor became king of Ch’in, work was begun on his mausoleum at Mount Li. After he won the Empire, more than 700,000 conscripts from all parts of China laboured there. They dug through three underground streams; they poured molten copper for the outer coffin; and they filled the burial chamber with models of palaces, towers and official buildings, as well as fine utensils, precious stones and rarities. Artisans were ordered to fix automatic crossbows so that grave robbers would be slain. The waterways of the Empire, the Yellow and the Yang-tze rivers, and even the great ocean itself were represented by mercury and made to flow mechanically. Above, the heavenly constellations were depicted, while below lay a representation of the earth. Lamps using whale oil were installed to burn for a long time.

The Second Emperor decreed that his father’s childless concubines should follow him to the grave. After they were duly buried an official suggested that the artisans responsible for the mechanical devices knew too much about the contents of the Tomb for safety. Therefore, once the First Emperor was placed in the burial chamber and the treasures were sealed up, the middle and outer gates were shut to imprison all those who had worked on the Tomb. No-one came out. Trees and grass were then planted over the mausoleum to make it look like a hill.”

The Tomb of the First Emperor was discovered in the southern plains of Shensi in 1974. So far discoverers have unearthed four major pits, three containing formations of terracotta warriors in battle formations and one which is empty. The tomb described above has not, in fact, been unearthed but its location has been well hypothesized. This does not mean that the greatest of Chin Shi-huang-di’s works is therefore denied to Archaeologists searching in an earlier period: they may find it first only to lose it due to arcane barriers or agents, or may find another, less well-known edifice with greater rewards ... and dangers.

Layered Palaces

The adherence to geomantic principles which the Chinese displayed meant that all of their major cities had features in common: all of them had square surrounding walls with north-south and east-west main streets dividing the city into four quarters. There was a central palace and temples to various powers in the south and north (depending upon appropriate positioning). This basic pattern (which still holds true for the older sections of modern Peking) means that most searchers can gain an instant understanding of the layout of a buried Chinese city.

The tricky bit is that new emperors often abandoned old cities to create newer ones with better feng shui. These new headquarters were often not far from the previous cities and sometimes overlapped them, in order to correct some trifling geomantic principle. This means that archaeologists often hit serious paydirt, but sorting through it and determining which parts came first and which later, was a real headache!

Forgotten Texts

Not all archaeological finds are buried under the earth. Ancient scrolls are valuable in their own right, not just for the information that they contain. During the Burning of the Books in 213 BC, many ancient and valuable texts were hidden, buried in clay jars or pipes, or beneath slabs of stone. After the establishment of the Han Dynasty many of these precious works were unearthed and returned to the Imperial libraries – but not all of them. While, no doubt, some still lie waiting to be discovered, many others became family treasures passed on through generations.

The greatest library in Chinese history was the Han lin (literally, ‘Forest of Pencils’) library in Peking. The best literary works of the ages were sent there, along with all the winning essays of every bureaucratic entrance exam. During the Boxer Rebellion, the Moslem general, Tung Fu-siang, burnt it down. Since the library was next door to the British Legation headquarters, many of the besieged broke through the adjoining walls and rescued what scrolls and documents they could – sadly it was officially not that much, but was this the real state of affairs? How much of this material was actually restored to the Chinese people? How much of it was secreted away into saddle bags and bedrolls for later evaluation?

There is a steady demand for such old texts, either legitimately sold or stolen from private collections. Some are considered so valuable that potential owners would even kill to obtain them. Given such a scenario, it is possible to become embroiled in an archaeological hunt without ever leaving the Shanghai city limits.

Niya, City of the Wastes

In the middle of the newly-obtained Chinese province of Sinkiang is a terrifying emptiness, ringed at its extremities by a series of struggling, lonely oases. This is the Taklamakan Desert; the name means ‘place from which no living thing returns’. Doesn’t that sound like just the spot for a Mythos adventure? The lost city of Niya supposedly lies beneath this waste.

Apocryphal stories state that this city is mentioned in Pomponius Mela’s De Situ Orbis – if it is, then it occurs in an earlier translation than is currently extant. The legends state that there are dragons buried beneath the city and that the settlement was a black haven of blasphemous teachings. In the 1980s, excavations discovered the remains of many pagodas dotted around the desert: in geomantic lore, pagodas are ‘correctional features’ bringing mountain energies to places where they are normally absent. What would be so important and deadly that you would need to weigh it down with the energy of a mountain? To this day no-one knows.

Investigators should not be confused by the fact that there is an oasis on the edge of the Taklamakan, between Cherchen and Keriya, also called ‘Niya’; this place is possibly a holdover of the original city, or possibly only the name has survived in local currency to be assigned to a new habitation. In any case, the oasis of Niya is a straggle of run-down buildings surrounding a pitiful water supply and a pathetic grove of tamarisk trees: surely no lost city here...

The Xia Dynasty (2100 to 1600 BC)

After a great confusion amid the Miao peoples, the sun came out at night, it rained blood for three days, a dragon appeared in the temple, dogs howled in the street, summer water turned to ice, the earth cracked until water gushed forth and the ‘five grains’ were subject to mutation. Heaven issued an order to overthrow the Miao and a bird-bodied man killed the Miao leader with an arrow. Thus the Xia came to power.

Most of the above is probably propaganda dispensed by the Zhou Dynasty to justify the takeover of the previous Shang Dynasty; however, all that is known of the Xia Dynasty, which follows hard on the heels of the rule of Huang-di, is taken from ancient texts and documents: no edifices and few ruins, objects or remains have ever been found. According to histories written by later commentators, there were 17 rulers of this dynasty ranging from 1739 BC to 1687 BC, the last being Chieh Kuei, who surrendered his rulership of the country to the new rulers of the Shang Dynasty. Only the repetition of information from disparate writers confirms this state of affairs. What’s really going on?

Some commentators claim that the Xia were an invented people, whose stereotypical traits were the direct opposite of those of the Shang. This is seen as proof that they did not really exist but were created to justify the actions of the Shang Dynasty in seizing control. Archaeologists are in two minds as to whether those fragments unearthed as ‘Xia remnants’ are actually that, or are in fact the remains of a Bronze Age community known as the Erlitou Culture, so named after the village where their first artefacts were discovered in 1959.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Rip It & Run: Stereotypes

With the possible sole exception of roleplaying, the use of stereotypes is considered unacceptable behaviour.

Relying on stereotypes can get you into a lot of trouble: assuming, solely on the basis of a person’s appearance, that someone comes from a particular racial, cultural, or socio-economic background, and that therefore they will behave in a certain way, is, metaphorically, a really quick way to take a long walk off a short pier. As they say, to assume is to make an ‘ass’ of ‘u’ and ‘me’. Mainly ‘u’, but you get the idea.

However, when it comes to gaming, it’s a really useful tool. Just as the genre of a game fills in a load of information that the referee doesn’t describe about a place and time, so too do stereotypes fill in blanks about the NPC individuals that players encounter. In setting a scene, sometimes the Keeper tries to aim for a certain outcome: obtaining that result, depends upon meeting, or foiling, expectations

Take an example. The referee locates his team of players in a back alley in the wrong part of town; the players are looking for an opium den to which certain clues have led them. In setting the scene, the Keeper mentions the squalor, the seediness and four individuals – unkempt, unwashed and unprepossessing – loitering in the shadows. The referee can take the scene in a number of directions but let’s boil it down to two options: one, the shadowy figures are thugs protecting the opium den and its criminal network; or two, the figures are undercover police officers keeping tabs on the joint. In the first instance, the players will prepare a strategy to bypass the defenders, either through guile or strength of arms; in the second, their approach will result in considerable surprise when they discover the presence of agents of the Law.

In the first instance expectations are met; in the second, they are foiled.

Having stereotypes creates a kind of shorthand that flags to the players what they should expect. Every type of employment or social position has a typical manner of presentation, from bank clerks to rag-pickers; conforming to these behaviours allows players to effectively anticipate events and reactions. Thwarting these expectations produces surprise and interest: what if the rag-picker quotes from Goethe and sings arias while conducting his business? How will your players relate to him then? Where will this interesting character take the team?

Another way to use the notion of stereotypes in gaming is in constructing a party; this is especially useful when your players are time-pressured and sessions are few and far between. Remember when you used to play Dungeons & Dragons? When you put your team of players together you made sure that all your bases were covered: Fighter to kill things and kick in doors; Cleric to heal damage; Magic-User to blow things up; Thief to pick locks and scout ahead. Regardless of the game that you’re now playing, this kind of role assignment is still valid, especially when you’re trying to throw together a “quick and dirty” party for an infrequent session. Most games outline various character archetypes that support the genre that they’re trying to portray and they help very well in this process – pick up any White Wolf game and you’ll see it happening.

Of course, a game like Call of Cthulhu doesn’t use strongly-defined archetypes for grounding characters (apart from assigning skills based on an occupation). In these instances, it’s possible to slap a label on a raw, undefined character and get a headstart on how that character works in the milieu. Say you have a CoC character generated using the Journalist occupation skill set: you could just run with a stereotypical newshound concept and come up with a Karl Kolchak persona on the fly; or you could slap some other kind of label on the top and add a twist.

Say you decide to call your reporter a “Brick”. To the basic skill set you add some combat skills and you tweak their stats to emphasise Size and Strength; now you have a journalist who’s not above intimidating sources to get their story, and who’s not afraid to wade into the bad guys’ HQ in pursuit of a lead. Or maybe you slap the label “Novice” onto your reporter: now you’re not defining skills or stats so much as you are informing personality traits. This character will trust to idealism and Luck and will unknowingly wander into trouble through inexperience; a good Keeper will recognise that the player is accurately portraying a chosen role and will match their characterisation with suitable outcomes.

Other labels you can apply are “Coward”, “Hard-bitten”, “Generous”, “Upbeat”, “Mysterious” or “Stoic”. In fact, there are millions to choose from. It’s best to step back from your character and look at what will best suit your group: do you have enough gunslingers? Are there enough researchers? Enough people capable of using magic? Discuss options with your fellow team-mates: if you are all hooked in to what each of you are bringing to the group, you all (including your Keeper) will know what you’re jointly capable of and you will be able to anticipate your outcomes more effectively.

Friday, 26 July 2013

Happy Birthday Lord Dunsany!

“The Gibbelins eat, as is well known, nothing less good than man. Their evil tower is joined to Terra Cognita, to the lands we know, by a bridge. Their hoard is beyond reason; avarice has no use for it; they have a separate cellar for emeralds and a separate cellar for sapphires; they have filled a hole with gold and dig it up when they need it. And the only use that is known for their ridiculous wealth is to attract to their larder a continual supply of food. In times of famine they have even been known to scatter rubies abroad, a little trail of them to some city of Man, and sure enough their larders would soon be full again...”

“The Hoard of the Gibbelins”, from The Book of Wonder

On the 24th of this month, Lord Dunsany turned 135.

Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany (24th July 1878 to 25th of October, 1957) was the inheritor of the second-oldest title in the Irish peerage and lived for most of his life at the seat of the baronetcy in Meath, Ireland, near the ancient castle of Tara. Throughout his life he wrote and published many works of fiction, including novels, short stories, plays and poems, generating a strong readership in his lifetime and greatly influencing fantastic literature from then on.

He began writing as part of the Irish Literary Revival alongside such luminaries as W.B. Yeats, Lady Gregory, Francis Ledwidge and Padraic Colum. His first published collection, The Gods of Pegāna (1905), he paid to have put into print, earning commission on sales; he never had to resort to doing this ever afterwards, his books achieving instant acclaim.

He enjoyed hunting and shooting and playing chess, once even playing Capablanca to a draw in an open exhibition. Strangely enough, he was also an outspoken activist for animal rights and a card-carrying member of the RSPCA. He was a prominent member of the Scouting movement also. During World War One he enlisted as a Captain in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, having also served as a second-lieutenant with the Coldstream Guards in the Boer War. During World War Two, having moved to Shoreham in Kent, he served as a reservist and Home Guardsman in England’s most-bombed village during the Blitz. Along with his love of cricket and his extreme height (6’4”) he reads like a prototype for Dorothy L. Sayers’ character, Lord Peter Wimsey.

During the mid-point of his life, and having travelled the world promoting his writing, he left his ancestral home in the care of his only son Randal and moved to Kent, to continue his literary endeavours. It has been said that he experimented with writing forms to try and push them to their limits, before giving up and moving on to fresh challenges. His first novel, Don Rodriguez: Chronicles of Shadow Valley (1922), was criticised for being too episodic and rambling, indicating an unfamiliarity with the form in this first foray. Later novels, most notably The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924), showed an acquired mastery of the style.

Dunsany working process was idiosyncratic to say the least. He wrote whilst sitting on a hat crumpled on his chair. He wrote only with quill pens which he cut himself and never edited his work – all his drafts were final. His wife, Lady Dunsany Beatrice Child Villiers, typed up his manuscripts before they were sent to be published. It was said that he composed his stories whilst out hunting, gathering his family and friends around him afterwards to run his ideas by them. Incidentally, the hat was stolen by a visitor to Dunsany Castle.

For the most part, Dunsany’s tales are dreamlike and fantastic, concerned with mythical beings and fantasy lands. He did have some success however with his Jorkens books, a series of stories framed by the device of being told by Joseph Jorkens, a bibulous raconteur and mainstay of the fictional Billiards Club of London, for the price of a whiskey and soda.

In 1957, at the age of 79, Dunsany took ill whilst dining out with friends. Rushed to a hospital in Dublin, he died from what was later diagnosed as appendicitis. He was buried in Shoreham in Kent.

Lord Dunsany received many honorary degrees during his lifetime, from British and Irish institutions as well as from abroad. His influence upon the writing of the Twentieth Century is immense: J.R.R Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, Ursula K. Le Guin, Jorge Luis Borges, Jack Vance, Arthur C. Clarke, Michael Moorcock, Neil Gaiman, and Gary Myers – all have claimed to have been inspired by him and his influence is readily apparent. While on a lecture-tour of the United States, Lord Dunsany spoke before a crowd amongst whose number sat a young Howard Phillips Lovecraft and the flame of inspiration was set. HPL later said of his own works: “there are my ‘Poe’ pieces and my ‘Dunsany’ pieces – but alas – where are my Lovecraft pieces?”

Happy Birthday, Lord D.!

Review: "Death Valley" - Season One

“Let’s get out there and kill something!”

Created by Curtis Gwinn, “Death Valley - Season One (Uncensored)” (2011), Liquid Theory/MTV/Paramount, USA.

“One year ago, Vampires, Werewolves and Zombies descended upon California's San Fernando Valley. Authorities remain baffled by their origins. These are the stories. Of the cops that capture the monsters. And the camera crews, that capture the cops. Death Valley...”

Well, as if “Todd and the Book of Pure Evil” wasn’t bad enough, here we go again! This time it’s “Death Valley”.

The premise of this show is relatively simple: the undead have invaded California’s San Fernando Valley and are causing mayhem. In response to this threat, the state has created the world’s first necro-specialist police unit – the Undead Task Force, or UTF. This fledgling team of misfits, under the hard-nosed direction of Captain Frank Dashell, hits the streets every day in search of zombies, vampires and werewolves, to take down with extreme prejudice.

(Why is it, by the way, that werewolves are classed as members of the undead? It doesn’t seem logical to me, but I guess, in this case, these guys are just trying to cast as wide a net as possible, in terms of scary beasties.)

Following in the footsteps of reality TV low-budget production values, “Death Valley” takes the “COPS” format and adds an extra layer from the darkside to ramp up the humour. This is like watching “Hill Street Blues” crossed with “Barney Miller” but with a hell of a lot more blood.

Like “Todd”, the humour here is not of the Noel Coward-esque variety: we’re definitely aiming for the lowest common denominator. This is ‘smut-and-exploding-entrails’ territory, so if you’re looking for the glittering verbal repartee exemplified by Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, do not enter.

The character list is a collection of stereotypes the creation of which wouldn’t have raised a sweat among the writers. To begin with, we have Billy Pierce, a mental dwarf who thinks he’s God’s gift to women, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary; next, we have officer Kirsten Landry, whose giggly, blonde, rookie status is underscored by the fact that she’s a virgin; then we have Carla Rinaldi, a feisty latina who’s quick on the draw and holds grudges; finally, in the one-dimensional cast category, we have John ‘John-John’ Johnson, the low-brow black cop who prefers a baseball bat to a gun and is basically identical to Billy, except for race. All pretty standard stuff really, although the writers did push themselves by making Carla gay which, in the final analysis, isn’t really that much of a stretch with this type of humour (seriously, you get the idea that this show must have begun life as a plot for a porn flick).

The two remaining permanent cast members actually have a little bit of polish to them which marginally raises them above the herd. Officer Joe Stubeck, the long-suffering bald partner of Billy the narcissist, is married with children, trying to do his job by the book and to set the right example for the community, especially his kids. His exasperation with his team members is palpable and, while certainly no Einstein himself, his frustration with those around him creates quite a lot of comedy gold. Watching him and Billy take out a nest of zombies while Billy quizzes him on what to do if you run out of clean underwear before wash-day is surreal and hilarious; also nerve-wracking because Billy. Simply. Will. Not. Focus. On the task at hand.

The final character is Frank Dashell, head of the taskforce. He is the hard-bitten cop’s cop: seen it all, done it all, armed with a wealth of experience and insight. He comes off as a blend of Walker, Texas Ranger and the glue-sniffing pilot from “Flying High”. In each episode he delivers the mandatory “listen up...!” speech which deteriorates, “Office”-like, into a rambling, wincingly-painful, too-much-information monologue. He spends most of his time not listening to anyone, avoiding the obvious and somehow landing on his feet regardless.

The rest of the show is full-on gross-out, blood, mayhem and violence. Our main characters manage to take out scores of shuffling undead monsters without getting scratched or bitten (with the inevitable consequences); extras and newcomers get chopped in the crossfire. The rule of thumb is, if a newbie cop has just been transferred to the UTF at the start of an episode, don’t get attached: they’ll be chanting “Brains!” before the credits roll. Our cast escort werewolves to Lock-Down on full-moon eves; they investigate reports of strange old ladies keeping their zombified husbands tied up in their living rooms; and they infiltrate teen-age ‘turning parties’ hosted by vampires. The fun never quits.

What makes it work is the reality TV approach and the UTF cops’ teeth-grinding ineptitude. The cameramen and sound technicians who escort them through their daily rounds are inevitably crunched down like corn-chips, as the vamps and werewolves find new and interesting means of causing chaos – loading zombies with bombs (“bombies”) is a favourite tactic. There’s a constant sense that if only these guys would concentrate on the task at hand and forget about their personal dramas and obsessions, the epidemic of undead nightwalkers would soon be contained.

Crucial to the show’s credibility (!) is the fact that they set up the rules for the show and then stick to them. Fresh zombies move quickly; older ones slow down: headshots take them out. Vampires get burned by sunlight; their saliva has a narcotic effect on humans; and they indulge in very strange funeral ceremonies. Werewolves gradually transform as the moon becomes full, if they’re long-time sufferers of the condition; newbies change far more rapidly. Most of this stuff is par for the course; some of it is peculiar to the show. Regardless, the fact that they stringently observe their own rules makes it all hang together.

In the final analysis though, it’s a very adolescent level of humour that’s being paraded here. If boobs and fart jokes and men behaving badly are your cup of tea, then there’s stuff here for you to enjoy. A lot of stuff. For me, I had some fun with this, but I had to acknowledge to where it was being pitched and rein in my expectations.

Three Tentacled Horrors.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Astrological Musings...

In Britain in the 1800s, astrology was a subject of some concern: Church-minded people saw it as an affront to God, as outlined in His Bible; others were as accommodating of it as the seasons. Almanacs were big business and sold in the tens of thousands, earning publishers millions of pounds; attacks upon the prognostication business were viewed as much as an attack upon free-will and belief as upon pecuniary ambitions. The justice system saw things in a far more black-and-white fashion: under Section 4 of the Vagrancy Act of 1824, anyone receiving payment for “pretending or professing to tell Fortunes, or using any subtle Craft, Means, or any Device, by Palmistry or otherwise” was thrown unceremoniously into gaol for a minimum three-month term, with, or in preface to, a period of hard labour. Some argued that this was obviously meant as a deterrent to gypsies and thieves, but the ‘anti-astrologists’ saw it as a sanction by the Establishment in favour of their cause and made sure that all levels of society felt the lash of the Law.

Almanacs were commonplace throughout Britain and it was rare for any household, especially rural homes, to be without a copy of Old Moore’s Almanack which began circulating in 1697; by the early Nineteenth Century with a rising tide of interest in all things occult, other almanacs joined the throng with authors hiding behind mystical noms de plume in order to head off the vitriol and outrage of the moral majority. Inevitably, vicious in-fighting took place between the various astrologers themselves, who belittled each other’s claims as to accuracy and the quality of their predictions. Court cases were fought, legal definitions refined and reputations ruined while the public predilection for astrological insight refused to wane: furious condemnations of the astrologers’ art were, as often as not, printed alongside the daily horoscopes of such news organs as the London Times and the Daily Mail. Astrologers attempted to thwart exposure by calling themselves ‘astronomers’ and hiding behind companies claiming to be ‘telescope manufacturers’; they curried the favour of their more upper-class clients seeking public endorsement but, as the Twentieth Century loomed, many of these customers preferred not to have it known that they dabbled in the ‘quasi-science’ of stargazing.

After the Great War, there were more pressing concerns besetting the British community; post World War Two, very few people regarded astrology as a serious threat to moral correctness. In 1974, the Vagrancy Act was amended and its mystical clauses removed altogether; in all likelihood, very few people noticed or cared.

The following are a selection of the astrological publications which were prevalent in Britain and the United States from the Seventeenth- to the Twentieth Centuries; the various almanacs were published annually from the date of their inception until funds to print them ran out. Included are some of the strident attacks upon horoscopes and their casters, pamphlets in support of the ‘science’ of astrology and some predictive works of a more acceptable nature, based upon the Bible.


Christian Astrology (aka An Introduction to Astrology)

Throughout the Seventeenth Century astrology was almost universally held to be an active force in peoples’ lives; at the height of the English Civil War, astrologers such as William Lilly (1602-1681, above) earned huge respect for their prognostications which were published widely and speculated upon by all levels of Society. Strangely enough, most of the astrologers at work at the time rallied on the side of the Roundheads and, with the Restoration of the Crown, most fell – along with their ‘science’ - into disrepute. By the start of the Eighteenth Century, astrology was the province of the lower classes, the uneducated and the illiterate. The practitioners were wielders of a craft not deep in its intricacies: signs and omens were interpreted, comets and eclipses were feared, the phases of the moon discussed in terms of the best times for planting cabbages and so forth. As a science it was homespun indeed and inextricably linked to the rural lifestyle.

William Lilly, the most famous astrologer of the English Civil War, wrote this manual as an introduction to the art in the Seventeenth Century and it became an English classic of the field. You’ll note that he used the ‘C’ word in the title to take the curse off the whole project. Much later on, as a sideline to his other literary endeavours, ‘Zadkiel’ (whom we’ll discuss shortly) took the opportunity to edit and reprint it with annotations and remarks: he retitled it An Introduction to Astrology and named himself co-author.

English; William Lilly; London, 1647; 0/1d2 Sanity loss; Cthulhu Mythos +1 percentiles; Occult +3; 6 weeks to study and comprehend

Spells: None

English; William Lilly & Lt. Richard James Morrison, RN, ‘Zadkiel’; London, 1850s; 0/0 Sanity loss; Cthulhu Mythos +0 percentiles; Occult +3 percentiles per issue; 4 weeks to study and comprehend

Spells: None

Moore’s Almanack (aka “Moore’s Vox Stellarum”, “Vox Stellarum”, “Old Moore’s Monthly Messenger” or “Old Moore’s Almanack”)

“It has been brought to my notice that in the higher circles of Society (unless I am borrowed from the kitchen or surreptitiously taken out of the pocket for private perusal) I am, in my humble garb of a penny or twopenny almanack, seldom permitted to shine forth (as I am told I ought to) in the upper parts of the mansion. This has determined me to put on once a month a fashionable coat; not exactly a court suit but garments that will shew due respect to my new clientele.”

-Old Moore’s Monthly Messenger

In 1697 Francis Moore (above, left) started his almanac – “Moore’s Almanack” – and it became the guiding manual for the lower classes, directing and diverting their lives on the basis of its prognostications and practical advice. It was destined to be a tome of the common people, forbidden ‘above stairs’ and largely unknown amongst the educated classes. By the Nineteenth Century and the arrival of such astrological superstars as ‘Raphael’ and ‘Zadkiel’, astrology began an upward rise and, in the hands of newer writers and publishers, “Moore’s Almanack” morphed through a number of title changes into a more sophisticated astrological journal and, as the above quote shows, more than certain of its burgeoning readership amongst the middle and upper classes.

English; Francis Moore, et.al; London, from 1697; 0/0 Sanity loss; Cthulhu Mythos +0 percentiles; Occult +1 percentiles per issue; 1 week per issue to study and comprehend

Spells: None


The Philosophical Merlin – A Complete System of Occult Philosophy

Robert Cross Smith was born in 1795 and came from a working-class background. Self-educated, he became enamoured of astrology and spent his life trying to find a way to make astrology pay its way for him. He moved to London and fell in with the occult underground, becoming friends with Rosicrucian Francis Barrett (author of The Magus) and John Denley owner of an occult bookshop in Covent Garden, who would later help publish and sell some of Smith’s many works.

Conceived by Smith (wjo later adopted the nom de plume ‘Raphael’) and balloonist/occultist George Graham, The Philosophical Merlin was released in 1822 through John Denley’s imprint. It claimed to be a translation of a manuscript once owned by Napoleon Bonaparte but was merely a pastiche of material cribbed from Barrett’s Magus, who, as a friend of the authors, obviously had no issue with their wholesale ransacking of his masterwork. The public were less inclined to be amenable to the book and it sold very badly, with the unsold copies being eventually remaindered.

English; Robert Cross Smith & George Graham; John Denley, 1822; 0/1 Sanity loss; Cthulhu Mythos +1 percentiles; Occult +3 percentiles; 10 weeks to study and comprehend

Spells: None

“The Astrologer of the Nineteenth Century” (aka “The Straggling Astrologer”)

 “The Straggling Astrologer” of 1824 (later re-named as “The Astrologer of the Nineteenth Century”) was Smith’s first foray into the world of journals and was a weekly magazine with himself as editor: he is identified only as one of ‘the Mercurii’, a spurious group which he claimed was comprised of the brightest intellectuals in the land, indulging in occult matters. Complete with articles written by “HRH the Princess Olive of Cumberland”, supposedly the unacknowledged daughter of King George III’s brother, the magazine failed to attract much interest and folded after 22 issues. Smith’s new publisher Walter Charlton Wright, took the remaindered issues and bound them together as a book which was launched for sale in 1825. In this collection, Smith revealed his new nom de plume which would serve him for the rest of his career – ‘Raphael’.

Not discouraged, Wright and ‘Raphael’ decided to produce a second edition of the periodical, with colour plates and more edifying articles. Dedicated, somewhat unexpectedly, to Sir Walter Scott, the magazine covered such topics as invoking spirits, anecdotes of the dead and “wonderful prophecies by celebrated astrologers”. Sales tanked and Wright became bankrupt; he was forced to sell the magazine to another company – Knight & Lacey – who also lost magnificently on the project and who sold it off to another London bookshop, where it faded away.

English; Robert Cross Smith, ‘Raphael’; 44 issues: John Denley, 1824, Walter Charlton Wright, 1825; 0/0 Sanity loss; Cthulhu Mythos +0 percentiles; Occult +1 percentiles per issue; 1 week per issue to study and comprehend

Spells: None

“Urania; or the Astrologer’s Chronicle, and Mystical Magazine”

“[This periodical] will be sufficiently authenticated to attract the attention of those who are believers in the doctrines of sidereal and occult influence, and to none other do we write.”

-from the First Issue

Returning to his first publisher John Denley, Raphael launched this monthly periodical in 1825, during his attempt to re-release “The Astrologer of the Nineteenth Century” with Walter Wright. Its lofty claim to cater only to true believers was to be its downfall as there were few of the faithful to keep the project afloat for more than a year. The title “Urania” is a reference to the fact that the planet Uranus was seen to be especially associated with astrology.

English; Robert Cross Smith, ‘Raphael’; 12 issues: John Denley, 1825; 0/0 Sanity loss; Cthulhu Mythos +0 percentiles; Occult +1 percentiles per issue; 1 week per issue to study and comprehend

Spells: None

“The Prophetic Messenger” (aka “Raphael’s Prophetic Messenger”, “The Prophetic Almanac” & “Raphael’s Astrological Almanac”)

“[May 1831] will be a month of disasters...One of an illustrious family is troubled or afflicted; something remarkable may happen to a Princess, or a Noble Lady; a great man dies, and there is evil news from foreign parts.”

-The Prophetic Messenger, May 1831

By 1826, Raphael had decided to abandon astrology and open a coffee house instead. In seeking funds to back this project he discovered that Walter Charlton Wright, the unlucky publisher of “The Astrologer of the Nineteenth Century” was solvent again and, what’s more, willing to embark upon another magazine venture with Smith. They planned a more daring organ, an annual which would combine occult sensationalism along with predictions which were highly specific; most importantly, it included astrological forecasts for every day of the coming year. Surprisingly, probably for the publisher and editor as well, the almanac boomed and demand forced a reprint to take place. The formula of a daily advice chronicle designed for city-dwellers struck a chord with Britain’s middle-classes and they flocked to buy it: by 1831 there were over 8,000 subscribers.

The May 1831 prediction above was supposed to refer to George IV but was a month premature; instead, the “great man” turned out to be Raphael himself, who passed away due to complications surrounding tuberculosis in May of that year. An astrologer by the name of Dixon came forward to Raphael’s widow to ask permission to continue the journal, only to find that the astrologer had already handed over the reins to other editors in the form of two of his students, Palmer and Moody by name. In annoyance, Dixon, who had always been critical of Raphael’s predictions, printed “The True Prophetic Messenger of 1833” in opposition and then faded from the scene.

Wright continued to publish the “‘Messenger” and handed over the title of ‘Raphael’ to a series of astrologers: Palmer (now working solo) died at the helm in 1837 to be replaced by one Medhurst, who predicted as ‘Raphael III’. Wakely took over in 1853 to be replaced a year later by R. V. Sparkes who continued until his death in 1875. In 1876, the youngest ever ‘Raphael’, Robert T. Cross, took over at the age of 25 and kept the magazine flourishing until he died in 1923. By now renamed “The Prophetic Almanac”, Cross’s tenure saw circulation increase to over 190,000. The almanac is still in publication today as “Raphael’s Astrological Almanac” but it is a much reduced affair in comparison to the earlier iterations; copyright has remained with the Cross family ever since his death.

English; Robert Cross Smith, ‘Raphael’; Walter Charlton Wright, from 1826; 0/1 Sanity loss; Cthulhu Mythos +0 percentiles; Occult +1 percentiles per issue; 1 week per issue to study and comprehend

Spells: None

A Manual of Astrology

The success of his “Prophetic Messenger” magazine, led many other publishers to beat a path to Raphael’s door in order to convince him to write more books. He decided to do just that and released A Manual of Astrology in 1828. It is notable in that it contains a vindicating example of the powers of the stars at work, namely the correlations between King George III and a Mr Samuel Hemmings, of a much lower station in life, who were both born at the same time and on the same day in close proximity to each other, commenced their lives’ work on the same day, married at the same time on the same day and died on the same day. Raphael made sure in this instance to claim an advance for his book of £100 and he was wise to do so: being such a technical manual its sales were commensurately slow.

English; Robert Cross Smith, ‘Raphael’; Walter Charlton Wright, 1828; 0/0 Sanity loss; Cthulhu Mythos +0 percentiles; Occult +3 percentiles; 8 weeks to study and comprehend

Spells: None

The Royal Book of Dreams

Between 1828 and 1831, Raphael lent his name to many hastily penned texts designed to ride on the back of his increasingly-popular almanac, “The Prophetic Messenger”. The publisher Walter Wright hit upon the idea of throwing the word ‘royal’ into each title to insinuate that the books were somehow sanctioned by the Royal Family. As a ploy it worked wonders and was even used to good effect by Raphael’s other publisher, John Denley. This work springs from the Book of Daniel and the story of Joseph in the Holy Bible and discusses interpretations of common dream scenarios.

English; Robert Cross Smith, ‘Raphael’; Walter Charlton Wright, 1828; 0/0 Sanity loss; Cthulhu Mythos +0 percentiles; Occult +2 percentiles; 3 weeks to study and comprehend

Spells: None

The Royal Book of Fate, Destiny and Foreknowledge

“...Without writing or calculations of any kind, [it] contains four thousand and ninety answers to sixty-four questions of the most important subjects of human life.”

-from the Preface

In a fit of playfulness in 1829, Raphael claimed that this work was a printing from an ancient manuscript which he had edited after purchasing it from John Denley (who obviously published and sold it). It claims to deal with the most oft-heard queries from those having their horoscopes cast – such as “shall the enquirer ever become rich?” – but saves the reader the tedium of having to make complicated astrological calculations or to consult star charts.

English; Robert Cross Smith, ‘Raphael’; John Denley, 1829; 0/0 Sanity loss; Cthulhu Mythos +0 percentiles; Occult +0 percentiles per issue; 2 weeks to study and comprehend

Spells: None


“The British Almanac”

With a slew of innovations which meant that printing was cheap and marketable to the middle- and lower-class masses, publisher Walter Charlton Wright – whilst living high off the earnings of Raphael, his astrological almanac and associated writings – looked further afield to find other writers willing to see their work in print. He found Charles Knight, a bitter, anti-astrological polemicist and supporter of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK), and invited him to pen his own almanac, devoid of any hint of the ‘pseudo-science’. Knight set to with a will, seeing in the release of the annual “British Almanac”, a means of loosening the hold that “Moore’s Almanac” and its imitators had over the minds and actions of the British public.

English; Charles Knight for the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge; Walter Charlton Wright, 1829; 0/0 Sanity loss; Cthulhu Mythos +0 percentiles; Occult +0 percentiles per issue; 1 week per issue to study and comprehend

Spells: None


Raphael’s Sanctuary of the Astral Art: Being a Book for the Boudoir, Drawing-Room Table, and Evening Parties

A shameless bid for the public’s spare change, this book, instigated and published by Walter Wright, has only a passing acquaintance with the pseudo-science of astrology. Rather, it contains some fairly innocuous parlour games with a vague similarity to divination by tarot cards and a mild form of automatic writing. There is an introduction which discusses some astrological theory, but this can be safely skipped over by eager readers keen to get to the ‘boudoir’ bits.

This was the original Raphael’s last hurrah: Robert Cross smith passed away shorthly afterwards from the effects of tuberculosis. As discussed above however, there were plenty of others out there keen to assume his mantle.

The pen-name ‘Raphael’ was not lightly chosen. The Archangel Raphael appears in the Apocryphal Book of Tobit, where he heals the hero of the story by means of a fire-blackened fish (Biblical Cajun cuisine?). In Hebrew mysticism, Raphael is the keeper of a mysterious text entitled the Sefer Raziel, wherein all knowledge of the world and heavens is contained. According to Barrett’s The Magus, Raphael is also the Angel of Science and Intelligence, so it’s obvious that the choice of name was not an idle one.

English; Robert Cross Smith, ‘Raphael’; Walter Charlton Wright, 1831; 0/0 Sanity loss; Cthulhu Mythos +0 percentiles; Occult +0 percentiles; 1 week to study and comprehend

Spells: None


“Zadkiel’s Almanac” (aka “The Herald of Astrology”)

“I regret to see that some fighting will still go on; yet the slaves are seen to be freed, and the nature of the quarrel will be entirely altered; and, after the month of May, it seems to die out by sheer exhaustion...I find Jupiter strong in the Ascendant, which will render the people pacific and reasonable, and disposed to peace, which, I have no doubt, will take place under the benefic influence of this Eclipse.

-Zadkiel, in 1864, accurately predicts the end of the American Civil War

Newly retired from the Royal Navy, the pugnacious and self-righteous Lt. Richard James Morrison, decided to reject scientific and heretofore-accepted astrological dogma and strike forth, Quakerishly, on his own path of stargazing and cash generation. A prickly Biblical fundamentalist, he lectured widely through the industrial capitals of Britain, especially, Manchester and Birmingham, espousing his views on the state of the world and mankind’s place within it. A charismatic speaker, he convinced many working-class illiterates to follow his cause and, in this fashion, established his bona fides.

Having entered the game with his idiosyncratic views of prognostication, Morrison decided to launch his own almanac, patterned on Raphael’s version but designed to undercut its market presence. It was bolder, brasher and, more importantly, cheaper than the Raphael version and soon outsold it across the country: by 1867 “The Herald of Astrology” was moving over 44,000 units annually. Morrison chose to publish under the pseudonym ‘Zadkiel’ an angelic figure known as the standard-bearer of the Archangel Michael. In time his publication changed its name to “Zadkiel’s Almanac” and nearly became the pre-eminent fortune-telling organ in the country.

English; Lt. Richard James Morrison, RN, ‘Zadkiel’, et.al; London, from the 1830s to 1931; 0/0 Sanity loss; Cthulhu Mythos +0 percentiles; Occult +1 percentiles per issue; 1 week per issue to study and comprehend

Spells: None

A Plea for Urania

Christopher Cooke was a young lawyer who attended a lecture given by Zadkiel and was, as a result, convinced of the truth of astrology. He offered to act as legal counsel and a kind of amanuensis for the famed astrologer and was fated to live to regret it. Zadkiel made abominable use of Cooke’s education and connexions, embroiling him and others in various financial schemes that inevitably crashed hard, leaving Zadkiel blithely unaffected. Cooke’s position as a lawyer was a tenuous one as, incontrovertibly under the law, astrology was illegal; however he devoted much of his life to fighting for a reform of the Vagrancy Act and to helping those who felt its sting. In 1854, he wrote this book which is a measured series of arguments acknowledging the anti-astrologists’ causes for complaint but reasonably countering these with strategies which would make them less offensive in their eyes. He ends by describing the ‘science’ behind the art, in a convincing description of its mathematical rigour. The book sold only 250 copies and was quickly remaindered; had it been less measured and more sensational, it might have performed somewhat better.

English; Christopher Cooke; London, 1854; 0/0 Sanity loss; Cthulhu Mythos +0 percentiles; Occult +2 percentiles; 4 week to study and comprehend

Spells: None

The Solar System As It Is, and Not As It Is Represented

Zadkiel’s highly idiosyncratic approach to the subject of astrology was outlined in 1858 by this and other similar works. According to this book, he describes the planets revolving around the Sun as we know them to do, with the exception of the Earth: apparently, the Sun and Moon in this model revolve around our planet. The Sun he says is 365,006 miles from the Earth and it revolves at a rate of 99,897 miles per hour; we know in fact that the Sun is 93 million miles distant and rotates at 558,000 miles per hour. Reviews of this work were confused and generally poor; despite this, Morrison lectured on the subject to almost 1,000 people in March of that year at the London Mechanics’ Institute in Manchester. The incident only served to prove - to Morrison at least - that the critics were very much his intellectual inferiors.

Morrison died of heart failure in 1874. His mantle as ‘Zadkiel’ was passed on to R. V. Sparkes who was, in what was more than somewhat a conflict of interests, also ‘Raphael V’. With his death in 1876, Alfred James Pearce took over as ‘Zadkiel III’ and re-invented the magazine, successfully boosting sales beyond the 100,000 subscribers mark by the time of his death in 1923. Without him at the helm however, the almanac quickly dwindled and folded by 1931.

English; Lt. Richard James Morrison, RN, ‘Zadkiel’; Manchester, 1858; 0/1d2 Sanity loss; Cthulhu Mythos +0 percentiles; Occult +1 percentiles; 3 weeks to study and comprehend

Spells: None


Forty Future Wonders of Scripture Prophecy

With the rising acceptance of Darwin’s theories and the increasing numbers of astrological publications, the Rev. M. Baxter decided that he wasn’t going to take it any more: returning to the ‘Good Book’, he re-calculated the actual age of the Earth from Bible sources (a little over 3,000 years) and began to dig into the books of Daniel and The Revelation to definitively prove that God-botherers had been prognosticating long before ‘Raphael’ and his ilk and that Darwin was just an uppity, turncoat ‘Undergroundologist’.

In this book, which had a phenomenal impact upon the reading public, the good Reverend combs methodically through the Bible (including some “ancient ones” kept in the British Museum) and identifies every prophecy, explaining painstakingly what they mean and when they will come to pass; he admits that the dating is tenuous, given that calculating years depends upon the interpretation of differing calendrical systems, and therefore, for most prophecies he gives two absolute dates, or a range of years wherein, he assures us, they will come to pass. Obviously, Biblical prophesying is an inexact art. And to spice things up even more, there are 50 funky illustrations!

English; The Rev. M. Baxter; “Christian Herald” Office, London, 1866; 0/1d3 Sanity loss; Cthulhu Mythos +0 percentiles; Occult +1 percentiles; 6 weeks to study and comprehend

Spells: None


When Were You Born?

With the advent of the Twentieth Century, astrology and its various transatlantic snake-oil salesmen were still hard at work, and dumbing-down the art, or ‘pseudo-science’, to make it more palatable to the next generation of almanac buyers. One of these was the ever-mysterious “Cheiro” (pronounced “KI-RO”) and his slew of publications such as this one, which commands “‘Know Thyself’ and Thy Friends” (whee!). Cheiro generated quite a bit of street cred by hanging out with members of the SPR, notably Harry Price and Eric John Dingwall.

With his spooky scowling photograph to kick things off, a confident declaration that your marriage partner will be selected and the promise of engravings illustrating “Life’s Mysterious Triangles”, who wouldn’t shell out 2/6- for this little gem?

English; ‘Cheiro’; Herbert Jenkins Ltd., London, 1925; 0/0 Sanity loss; Cthulhu Mythos +0 percentiles; Occult +1 percentiles; 1 week per issue to study and comprehend

Spells: None


“Raphael’s Ephemeris”

Produced as an adjunct to “Raphael’s Astrological Almanac”, this yearly guide to the positions of heavenly bodies in relation to the Earth is an annual necessity for astrologers across the British Isles and dates from the end of Raphael VI’s tenure – 1923.

English; ‘Raphael’, et.al; London, from 1923; 0/0 Sanity loss; Cthulhu Mythos +0 percentiles; Occult +0 percentiles per issue; 1 week per issue to study and comprehend

Spells: None


The following is a list of other astrological publications extant throughout the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century, some by Raphael or Zadkiel and their supporters, competitors and detractors. I have not been able to track down all of them for their publication details and so forth, apart from some scraps here and there, but intrepid Keepers may choose to flesh them out into full-on Mythos texts for their players to stumble over if they so desire.

The Astrologer’s Magazine
Astrology For All
Astrology in a Nut-Shell
The Book of Fate
The British Journal of Astrology
Companion to the Prophetic Messenger
A Complete Refutation of Astrology...in Reply to the Arguments of Lieutenant Morrison and others
“...This system of imposture has lately been gaining ground in the British Empire...the present work may, in some degree, be instrumental in checking its progress.”

-T. H. Moody
Defence and Exposition of the Principles of Astrology
Esoteric Astrology
The Familiar Astrologer
The Grammar of Astrology, containing All Things Necessary for Calculating a Nativity
The Hand-Book of Astrology
The Horoscope
The Key to Your Own Nativity
Modern Astrology
The Textbook of Astrology
A Treatise on Zodiacal Physiognomy
“With respect to the vision of the Ghost of the Flea, seen by Blake, it agrees in countenance with one class of people under Gemini, which sign is the significator of the Flea; whose brown colour is appropriate to the colour of the eyes in some full-toned Gemini persons. And the neatness, elasticity, and tenseness of the Flea are significant of the elegant dancing and fencing sign Gemini. This spirit visited his imagination in such a figure as he never anticipated in an insect. As I was anxious to make the most correct investigation in my power, of the truth of these visions, on hearing of this spiritual apparition of a Flea, I asked him if he could draw for me the resemblance of what he saw: he instantly said, 'I see him now before me,' I therefore gave him paper and a pencil, with which he drew the portrait, of which a facsimile is given...in this work.”

The Voice of the Stars
[Astrology] has been sick, but not dying; silent, but not destroyed. Struck down by foul calumny, fettered by ignorance, slandered by falsehood, pressed to the earth by prejudice; yet lo! it lives, moves, and rises again...”


The Stars Are Right!