Vaccinated, Kickstarter Non-Starter, Paper Given, Medieval Exorcism, Book Received, Dungeon Crawl Classic Thoughts, More

Above illustration from Paul Huson’s Liber Spirituum, now available here.

I’m now fully vaccinated, having spent two days after the second Moderna shot squirreled away watching a Rocky marathon. It did turn out to be more inspirational and interesting than I had thought it would be.

A little while ago, we had an interesting Kickstarter for a “Hastur Tarot Deck.” The project was fully-funded and featured full colour art for a Tarot deck based on the one that John Tynes and I wrote up for Delta Green: Countdown two decades ago. Trouble was, the publisher hadn’t checked with John or I or Arc Dream, who own the rights. Shortly after someone contacted the Kickstarter to point this out, the whole affair was shut down due to “personal issues.” I believe an official release will be Kickstarted later this year, so Mythos fans should have something to which to look forward.

I’ve been holed up at the International Congress on Medieval Studies, where I gave a talk on saints being conjured – mostly Saint Helen and Saint George, with a side note on the St. Christopher prayer. My thanks to the organizers, and I hope to present again in subsequent years.

In preparation for the paper, the introduction to Florence Chave-Mahir and Julien Véronèse’s Ritual d’exorcisme ou manuel de magie?, a publication of one of the first known exorcistic manuals, dating to the early fifteenth century, that includes sections that are very much in the model of what most readers would typically call “incantations.”

Volume 2 of Golden Hoard’s Ars Notoria seems to be in shipping limbo of some sort, with Amazon asking me to approve the order. I’ve heard that this is only temporary, so there’s no need to worry.

I’ve also received John R. King IV’s new book The Faculty of Abrac, which I believe is a review copy that I will not have time to review. If I were to tell the author something helpful, it would be that an index or more detailed table of contents would probably inspire people, including me, to find the text more accessible.

My quarantine Dungeon Crawl Classics campaign is moving toward its conclusion. It is a fun game, although I feel that around level 5 (which might map roughly to 9-10 in other editions) the whole thing starts to break down, as the truly insane combat-ending spell results become commonplace. I’d suggest that anyone running it also insert a “save on a natural 20” roll, to balance out magicians rolling save difficulties that no one can ever beat.

Our Pendragon game continues well into the Anarchy era. Apparently there are plans afoot for an expanded three-volume version of the Great Pendragon Campaign, but that might be some time away.

Published in: on May 13, 2021 at 1:03 pm  Comments (1)  

Four Wizards Jump to the Fore, Upcoming Magical Events

Today’s image, poor as it is, represents two pages from the Éditions du Monolithe Liber Thozgraeci, another lineage of the Key of Solomon, displaying the seals of of the seventy-two names of God.

Projects have called me away from writing here. I’ve had to prioritize jumping back into the research on eighteenth and nineteenth-century astrology and alchemy, as well as the complex and contentious saga of Olivia Serres. Next, witch bottles, and then back into the text written by the Four Wizards themselves for final / lengthy tightening up.

Stephen Skinner and Daniel Clark are preparing to release Volume 2 of their Ars Notoria. Note that the product description on Amazon seems to be that of Volume 1; I believe the new work will be on more of the operative end of matters.

During my hiatus, I’ve missed a great deal of events that I wished to tell you about. There’s an event with PSU Press this Friday with four authors of recent books in their History of Magic series, which should be worth seeking out. The Warburg Institute has also had some interesting magical talks, such as this one.

Friend of the blog Al Cummins had a talk on necromancy given in recognition of the latest Magic: The Gathering Release. Watch it here.

The Arkham Gazette 3, including my article on Goody Fowler, is now available in print on demand here.

I’ll try to keep up.

Published in: on April 27, 2021 at 9:04 pm  Leave a Comment  

General Update

I haven’t had much to say lately, having a pile of work to do and a pile of gaming to amuse myself afterward. I’m in the vaccination cycle right now, so I’m hoping to be out and about more soon, especially if enough people can also get the same benefit. I might not be heading overseas this year, so I’ll be missing some of you a little longer.

My next review will be Precious Apothecary, although it might take me a while to get to it. I’m doing some deep diving on magical incantations involving the saints, especially directed at St. George and St. Helen, along with pulling together two books at once.

Among books received is Aaman Lamba’s new work Great French Occult Romances (see above), which he was kind enough to send. It includes the Red Dragon novel that I mentioned in my review of his previous work, plus other fictional texts from the same period.

I’m taking a break from the main text in order to continue to work on the illustrations, and to work on some of the background of Olivia Serres and Robert Cross Smith, a.k.a. Raphael. I’m also trying to wrestle with some ideas about when the “occult,” in the way we conceptualize it as a category including magic, alchemy, and astrology, came about. I’m open to reading suggestions on all of this, of course.

Has anyone considered writing a history of the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game? It would be great if someone were accumulating all the institutional wisdom of the people involved in its creation, evolution, and distribution.

Take care, everyone.

Published in: on April 13, 2021 at 12:01 pm  Comments (3)  

The Elucidarium Elucidated, Magic of Rogues Escapes, A Modern Liber Spirituum, Even More Books, Your Bank Account Suffers, Book of Four Wizards, Gaming

I wasn’t sure quite what to blog about this week, but I was provided with a variety of riches from friends, email, and social media. First, Joseph Peterson came to the rescue with a new book, Elucidation of Necromancy, to be issued in December:

Since it first appeared over 500 years ago, the Elucidation of Necromancy (Lucidarium artis Nigromantice) and the closely related Heptameron have become essential guides for individuals seeking to call on angels and other supernatural beings for help. Countless amulets and pendants have been made with its designs, and elements have repeatedly been adapted and incorporated into other manuals of ritual magic. In spite of this, neither a critical edition nor a translation has been previously published. In particular three manuscripts of Lucidarium have come to light recently, which provide a clearer and fuller ritual than the printed Heptameron. For example, they add critical instructions for making the seven angel sigils, which have become so widely known. Together they bring to life this important current of esoteric tradition, showing how it has been repeatedly adapted and used by different individuals for centuries.

Bobby D. also pointed out to me that Klaassen and Wright’s Magic of Rogues is available on Kindle ahead of the print publication, so this has jumped to the front of my reading queue for the time being. One of the first footnotes portends another release from the same authors: Everyday Magicians in Tudor England: Legal Records and Magical Manuscripts.

We also have a twentieth-century work with some deep grimoire roots – Paul Huson’s Liber Spirituum, due out in May:

Drawing on this wellspring of knowledge and such venerable works as the Key of Solomon, The Magus, Heptameron, Three Books of Occult Philosophy as well as others set down a unique and informed set of rituals, in addition to employing his own artistry in the creation of distinctive imagery.

Using the highest quality photographic reproduction and printing methods, Paul’s personal grimoire has here been faithfully and accurately reproduced for the first time. In addition to preserving the ink quality and use of gold and silver paint, this facsimile reproduction has maintained all of Huson’s corrections, including torn, pasted, missing pages and his hand drawn and renumbered folios. Preserved as well are the unique characteristics of the original grimoire paper as it has aged through the decades. In this way, the publisher has stayed true to Paul Huson’s Book of Spirits as it was originally drawn and painted.

Editiones du Monolithe is releasing another work this month: a facsimile edition of a Key of Solomon from the Tozgraec text group held at the Russian State Library.

Finally, we have the second volume in Troy Books’ reproductions of J. H. W. Eldermans’ work(s) on gnomes, the Gnome Grimoire, edited by Wilbur Taal. My sense is that these are much more works of a creative mind than compilations of folklore, but it might be of interest to readers nonetheless.

As for the Book of Four Wizards, I’ve been poking into what I thought at first was some sort of magical amulet made in the shape of three crosses. As it turned out, it’s actually a devotional work by the seventeenth-century Tavistock poet William Browne – you can see an example of it here. I’m not quite sure what the original author’s intent was – as a work of poetry? Did they view it as an amulet?

The Pendragon game has gone into Anarchy, so everything is upended and crazy and wonderful. Both my Dungeon Crawl Classics games, of which I speak very little here, are steaming along.

Talk to you in a week, when maybe I’ll have read something.

Published in: on March 6, 2021 at 11:48 am  Comments (4)  

“Wokeness” and Pendragon

Knight from Pendragon Rulebook

I was asked about the desire of some players of Pendragon to play characters who are not necessarily white, male, Christian, heterosexual, upper class people in the comments to my last post. I think it’s an interesting question, so I’m going to write another post about it. 

Let’s begin with an issue of my own making, because of an aspect of the game I omitted: Pendragon’s setting draws on history, legend, folklore, and literature from many different periods to differing degrees, and encourages GMs to do the same. Greg Stafford did draw heavily from Mallory, but he wasn’t afraid to dip into some unpublished French manuscript or steal a scene from Excalibur if it was what worked. 

Among all of that, there are certainly opportunities to play all sorts of knights of different genders, backgrounds, faiths, and sexual orientations. These are not anomalies – most were built into the official game at one point or another. Early on, Greg allowed pagan knights out of player concerns as to playing Christian warriors, and the rulebook started discussing the possibility of women as knights way back in 1990. This is not to say this inclusion is always done thoroughly or particularly well. Still, bringing in players who might not want to play what they see as the “default” in an Arthurian literature game has been key to the system from the beginning.

And sometimes they just need to be brought in. For example, my Pendragon groups have begun with most characters being pagan, because they feel more comfortable with that. As time goes on, however, some of them create Christian characters, because they feel comfortable with trying them out. I don’t know how to analyze this, but I think that being open to accommodating other people may lead them to reach out similarly. 

One other note about wokeness. I’ve always found that whatever dangers may arise from attempts to be inclusive are a distant second to those that arise from its absence. I have a recent example from Pendragon that establishes this.

A few months ago, Chaosium released a quick start that also reflected the changes in the upcoming sixth edition rules. It sparked off considerable controversy in the fan community, with some people very angry about what they were seeing. Why? Because the quick start adventure mentioned the possibility that female knights might be characters, and a statement that the art of Pendragon books from this point forward would include more women in armor.

Yes, the rulebook suggested how to include women as knights back in 1990. That artwork at the top of this page? From the current rulebook. Will the rules be changing anything about their inclusion? Not really – it remains at the group’s discretion.

Yet we have had some people furious because an upcoming book might have slightly different art that harms no one and has no impact on their lives or leisure time activities, but that might encourage other people to buy the book and play the game. Those are the people who worry me, frankly.

It might be best to end with a dimly-remembered anecdote from a lost message board about Greg Stafford. Someone once told him, “I won’t play Pendragon until I can play a lesbian Jewish knight.” Greg said, “Come over next Tuesday!”

Published in: on February 8, 2021 at 8:34 pm  Comments (6)  

Review – The Pendragon RPG

The Great Pendragon Campaign and 5.2 edition Pendragon rulebook

I had a request on Facebook to talk a bit about Pendragon, so I’ll give it a shot. Those who showed up for something else will have to wait until next time.

The Pendragon role-playing game was first published by Chaosium in 1985, as one of the grand works by Greg Stafford, perhaps better known for creating the world of Glorantha. It has appeared in multiple editions over the years, with the “sixth” (Chaosium editions often have questionable numbering) being slated for release soon.

We cannot discuss Pendragon without also bringing up the Great Pendragon Campaign. A shorter version was published along with the first edition of the game, but 2006 saw the release of the GPC, a massive campaign taking your players over eight decades, from the midpoint of King Uther’s reign to the Battle of Camlann. The book was so huge that some supplemental material, even the index, had to be omitted. The current thought is to re-release it as multiple volumes, to which I’m looking forward. It’s the killer app to Pendragon, so it’s hard to discuss one without the other.

I can say that I’m very happy with the system behind this game. Pendragon take the BRP skill-based percentile system and chops it down into a d20 system, using only the d6 and d20 as its dice. Within this system, most people will have a 1 in 20 chance of rolling a critical, and an equal chance of rolling a fumble, on each roll, reflecting the swings of fortune from the literature.

On top of skills, Pendragon adds Traits, which can guide or compel characters in their actions while still allowing for player autonomy, and Passions, which cause characters to be swept up in their emotions and gain bonuses to their skills for a short time. Given that all the characters are knights, this means the main differences between them are based on their heritage and personalities, driving the roleplaying. Amazing successes, terrible failures, and making the character’s emotional states matter in terms of mechanics – all of this makes Pendragon a good choice for system for modern, Critical Role-inspired gaming styles.

(Also, just to be clear, your characters can play those really high-and-mighty chivalric knights, but the game acknowledges that’s a high standard that most players can’t reach. Thus, players are more likely to play ordinary schlubs with odd personality quirks and hang-ups, who get in their own adventures while Lancelot and Tristram and Gawaine are off on their quests. And the GPC still provides opportunities for those characters to be significant in the larger stories of the game.)

Pendragon also encourages a structure of “one session equals one year.” Have you ever had the experience in D&D in which your characters go on multiple adventures and ascend to the heights of their power, all within about a month and a half? Pendragon slows down everything. Magical healing is rare, and healing is slow, so a knight will often be out for weeks after a combat. This is not a disadvantage – it means that everything slows down, allowing for relationships to build, world-shaping events to occur (through the GPC), and marriage and children take on great importance. A long-running campaign will often move to playing the children and grandchildren of the original knights, who may bring in the Traits and Passions of their parents.

The strengths of Pendragon are largely due to the amazing job that Greg Stafford did on the book. Some of its downsides come from that singular vision as well. Some key rules – especially dealing with marriage and child survival – are relegated to supplements, thus leading to that sheaf of papers visible in the rulebook above. We also get some odd situations, like Greg deciding to rename most of the locations with non-Anglo-Saxon names in some supplements for a while, causing a lot of paging back and forth. I’m not bitter.

The other major downside comes from the source material. That’s not because you need to be an Arthurian scholar to play or run the game; that might give you some additional insights, but it’s hardly necessary. It’s that much of the Arthurian literature was written about characters who were European in origin, Christian, male, heteronormative, and products of a hereditary nobility. Today many players are not one or more of those categories, and might have understandable objections to having to play someone of one of them. How can a GM decide if this game would be right for their group?

It depends upon the objections. Pendragon does a good job of providing a setting that shows toleration to both Christian and pagan faiths in Britain, although the rules tend to favor Christians due to the overlap of Christian and chivalric traits. If you want to be another faith, you might check out The Book of Knights and Ladies. The rules try to deal with women as knights – not that well, I think – but some handwaving can make them work. In a game in which heredity is important, it’s good to look at options for LGBTQ characters to be able to perpetuate their households, whether by adoption or magic (especially as the latter amounts to handwavium in this edition). The game system is set up to mechanically favor Cymric/”Celtic” characters, but Knights and Ladies allows characters to come from a wider geographical range. Class – well, you can just forget about removing class without tossing out a lot of the game and most of the GPC, so I wish you the best if you want to try.

One aspect of the rules is the usage of the Hate (group of people) passion. For the most part, this is aimed at Saxons, who I think we can agree did all right overall in the world later. It can apply to the Picts as well, but I don’t know how many people identify as Pictish these days. Then we bring in the Irish and the Welsh… and it might generate problems. It’s worth thinking about your group and whether using these passions is worth the risk.

In terms of RPG logistics, while the game is probably best with about four players – in line with the default party size of most recent D&D rules – it requires probably about four hours to run a single year successfully, assuming that the year is uneventful. Gaming sessions seem to have gotten shorter over time on average, so that’s another factor to consider.

At any rate, it’s a game I love and enjoy. If you decide to play it, I recommend picking up the Book of Feasts and the cards that go with it. It’s not necessary – just a lot of fun.

If you’ve had your own experiences with Pendragon, or have more questions, please let me know.

Published in: on February 7, 2021 at 3:10 pm  Comments (1)  

This Week’s Books, the Elucidarium Elucidated, Book of Four Wizards, Gaming Update

Books I’m Working With Lately

I hope you’ve had happy and restful holidays, and that the new year will be kinder to you than the last one.

The above books are among some with which I’m working at the moment. I’d like to highlight two. The first is the Belanger’s 10th Anniversary edition of the Dictionary of Demons (issued by one of my publishers). A few years ago I wrote a series looking at different articles from different demonic dictionaries. I thought I’d posted my closing recommendations, but apparently I never did. That makes it easier for me to say, “this one,” as it’s been expanded with material from many grimoires that have gained more recent prominence.

The one that has been taking much of my energy is Alexandra Walsham’s The Reformation of the Landscape, a study of views, attitudes, and practices connected with one’s surroundings across the British isles, stretching from the earliest recorded history to about 1750. I’m reading it for a paper I’m working on, but it also checks off a lot of different boxes for me – folklore, psychogeography, matters Cornish, Arthurian legends, and so much more.

Apparently there’s been quite a bit of work ongoing regarding the Elucidarium Necromantiae attributed to Pietro d’Abano, a precursor to the Heptameron. You can catch up on it in this Glitch Bottle podcast, and maybe follow the links within to join a group of people trying to learn more.

(Edited to add Book of Four Wizards content) Right now, I’m working on a spirit compulsion that mentoins Rhadamanthus, one of the Greek judges of the underworld. I had seen something similar before in Additional MS. 36,674, so I tracked it down and I’m transcribing it for comparative purposes, working back and forth from my photos (often more clear) and the PDF (shows more of the gutter between the pages).

I’m on a holiday break from RPGs, which gives me some time to catch up on my planning. I’m encountering some of the interesting unstated tensions that these games bring to the table that I don’t see in D&D. For example, Pendragon provides incentives for characters to become chivalric and idealistic, but it also has a set of procedures in Book of the Warlord for officers that encourage them to sell out for wealth. Dungeon Crawl Classics seems like mostly a straight D&D neo-clone on the surface, but the charts for wizards and clerics require or encourage them to build in their own particular goals which the group as a whole must choose to pursue, work in, or ignore, building in extrinsic motivations that GMs would need to build into the plot in other games. It’s been interesting to see how these have played out differently than how I’d thought they would have.

Take care out there, everyone.

Published in: on December 26, 2020 at 7:04 pm  Comments (2)  

Books Near my Desk, Grimoire Scholarship Online, Medici Magic Forthcoming, The Book of Four Wizards

Books in Reach of My Computer Today

I thought it might be amusing to periodically post illustrations of the books within reach of my computer, so here’s the first. Questions welcome.

Joe Peterson has posted a new full-color manuscript facsimile, Vad. Slg. MS. 334 from the collection of the Kantonsbibliothek St. Gallen, on his website. Mihai Vârtejaru has made two posts giving an overview of the work and an analysis of the angelic sigils within.

Brian Johnson just posted the cover of his next Hadean release on social media. I’ve blurbed it and enjoyed it considerably.

Cover of Brian Johnson’s Necromancy in the Medici Library

If you didn’t catch my talk at the Rural Gothic: Samhain Surprise conference, you can purchase a recording at the Folklore Shop, along with many other great offerings from The Folklore Podcast.

I’m currently working through a lengthy Latin confession in the Book of Four Wizards, once again including numerous errors. Fortunately I found two different versions of the text, one dating back to the eleventh century, so I’ve been able to sort through most of it. Other than that, my re-reading and footnoting of the text has reached 70% of the total text.

I seem to have roped myself into running another Dungeon Crawl Classics game, this one on a monthly basis. The weekly game continues, with the group stranded on a mysterious purple planet where they travel inside the belly of an illusionary sandworm. My Pendragon group finally slew their nemesis, Black Annis, but must prepare for an imminent Saxon invasion.

Published in: on December 12, 2020 at 12:53 pm  Leave a Comment  

RoberCon 2020 This Weekend – Lovecraft and Gaming Talking

This year, our local sci-fi / fantasy / gaming convention, RoberCon, is entirely online.

I’ll be moderating two panels. The first is Saturday at noon EDT, when I’ll be hosting a discussion of Lovecraft’s “The Colour out of Space.” The second, at 11 on Saturday, will be a bunch of us talking about different roleplaying games.

A badge is only $15, and it gets you into these two panels and a bunch of others. If you’re a fan who’s getting stir-crazy, this is a great opportunity to hear some passionate people talk about what they love, or get some Discord gaming in.

I’ll return to regular blogging soon – and if anyone wants me to speak at an event that’s actually about grimoires and weird magic as we move toward Halloween, just let me know!

Stay safe and take care, everyone.

Published in: on September 21, 2020 at 8:12 pm  Leave a Comment  

Life, The Book of Four Wizards, Fairy Magic, Traditional Witchcraft, Magic Bowls, and Gaming

Still in lockdown, even though the region has opened up slightly. I don’t have a lot of a faith in our ability to deal with the opening responsibly, especially over a holiday weekend.

I’m continuing work on The Book of Four Wizards. I’ve spent some time delving into the Eye of Abraham, the classic charm to detect theft by hammering a nail into a drawn eye while saying an incantation, in response to which the thief cries out or has their eye water. I’ve got at least seven different examples of various lengths and taken from different sources. I sometimes wonder whether this is an expression of antiquarian interest, or an attempt to acquire different versions to ensure efficacy through comparison.

I’ve recorded a talk on fairy magic for Treadwell’s lecture series, so keep an eye out for that.

In the comments, Michael Craft asked whether I might review a book dealing with traditional witchcraft. Speaking generally, I try to avoid literature that attempts to recreate traditional European folk practice. When I have tried to read a book, or listen to a podcast, or otherwise engage with this material, I often struggle, because I can see the seams between materials, the rhetorical flourishes covering up questions, the proposed ideas that solidify into certainties, the use of outdated sources, the anachronistic usage of later ideas, the lack of footnotes, etc. etc.

I’m not saying that people cannot get spiritual fulfillment out of these texts, or that others can’t admire a recombination of elements of the past and present done through a compelling narrative or inspiring poetry or resonating prose or magical exploration. Yet, at the same time, I prefer to focus on history in an attempt to understand it, not to evoke or interpret it, and much of that involves unlearning the fundamentals of what today’s occultism teaches and seeking works that provide a framework for doing so. That sort of process doesn’t really accommodate itself to writing reviews of modern works that are chiefly desirable to people who are seeking something else in their literature. We certainly have better reviewers for that.

(EDIT: Just to be clear, this isn’t aimed at particular authors or paths, among which there might be those engaged in careful, thoughtful examination of historical evidence and conscious and admitted reconstruction. Yet this isn’t the norm.)

For those who find it useful or interesting or spiritually compelling to read more historical material – or who just put up with all of the above – you might appreciate Dan Levene’s A Corpus of Magic Bowls, available cheaply through Lulu. My copy came slightly banged up, and I’m not sure whether the black and white photographs were plates in the original, but it’s certainly worth the price.

I’m wrapping up my long-term Rules Cyclopedia campaign in the next few months. Pendragon is going strong, and I’m running a potentially short-term weekly Dungeon Crawl Classics game for some colleagues and friends during the shutdown. I’ve been enjoying the latter, for what it’s worth. DCC publisher Goodman Games also published a good number of Cthulhu scenarios back in the day that I reviewed here over the years. I can see why them tapping their DCC authors to write them was never compelling to me, as the design goals of the two are diametrically opposed. This is more light yet deadly gonzo stuff, which is perfect for particular groups.

Stay safe and healthy, as always.


Published in: on May 24, 2020 at 9:53 pm  Comments (1)