Some of the people reading this have never used a card catalog. I found myself recently explaining to my 16-year-old daughter what card catalogs were and how they were used. She did not seem impressed. In her defense, that’s probably about as valuable a skill nowadays as knowing how to crank a car to start it.
I bring this up because the way we conduct research has changed a lot over the past twenty to thirty years. Understanding old-school research can be handy when playing a game like Call of Cthulhu, where research is usually a key to success.
I became keenly aware of just how much research had changed when I was asked to do a lay sermon at my local Unitarian Universalist church. We were covering the theme of history, and I wanted to talk about the church’s history. I specifically wanted to focus on where the church’s founders originated from, the indigenous peoples who originally owned the land, how it was acquired, early church members’ role in King Philip’s War, etc. I found quite a bit of information online. One of the more interesting tidbits was during King Philip’s War, churchgoers at one of our parent churches streamed out midway through a Sunday service to do battle. As useful as online information is, even more, fascinating was having access to church archives. None of the materials dated as far back as the 17th century (there were no Unitarians or Universalists back then), but many 19th-century documents from both the church and its members discussed its history. Seeing the different perspectives was quite eye-opening—this is the type of material that rarely gets digitized—and likely never will be. No Google search will find it, no “dark web” site will have the material, as it just doesn’t exist digitally.
Where will I be going with this thought process? Probably in two directions, depending on whether I’m running/playing in a modern game or in a historical setting. Let’s keep that thought on the fact that while we are in a world where we are used to any information we want being instantly available digitally, it’s quite possible that your local cultist is not inclined to share their “Eldritch Tome of Summoning and Controlling the Ancient Ones.” An investigation can involve discovering the mere existence of a book, followed by trying to find it. Perhaps more insidious will be inaccurately digitized tomes. A nasty sorcerer might provide a doctored scan of a tome as a way to trap their rivals into casting spells that will lead to their doom. Or there could be unknowing people who provide inaccurate translations or scans with errors—missing pages, poorly OCR-ed text, etc. Consider the possibility that the tome itself may have malicious intent and skews the results of digitization efforts.
Even incorrect digital tomes can be cause for alarm. One can imagine organizations like Delta Green scouring the web for eldritch tomes, whether accurate or not. The hunt for this can involve determining—or, perhaps, more importantly, finding who uploaded it in the first place in a search for the original tome.
The Laundry novels touch on the idea that magic is an esoteric form of mathematics. Might the mere search for keywords or phrases found within a tome have some effect?
Much of what I wrote above can be ported into historical games. One can picture libraries with poor translations of various tomes—just like the Call of Cthulhu RPG has Mythos Tomes of various translations that are less effective than the original books. However, there is also an opportunity to add lots of flavor around the infrastructure of yesteryear’s libraries. Like the darn card catalog I mentioned at the start of this article. If you’ve never seen one, visualize lots of baby file cabinets storing index cards that provide lists of books—some parts of the catalog index by title, while others by subject. With the right card, you can find where the library shelves any given book, along with the fact that the library possesses that book. If this sounds at all remotely interesting, check out Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, which features academics on a search for the historic Dracula in a tale spanning much of the 20th century. And if Dracula were to be immortal, imagine the size of his library—and the challenge in cataloging it.
However, keep in mind that cultists are unlikely to have a nicely organized library. And suppose someone is unaware of what they possess. In that case, it could very well resemble the storage closet that served as my Unitarian Universalist church’s archives—having read those tomes, my sanity seems to still be intact.
Card Catalog image licensed via Creative Commons. Photo by David Fulmer via Flickr
Archives Closet image from the author.
~ Daniel Stack
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