This blog post is best read in the dark. Alone.
I'm going to take you to a calmer, cosier world, where people could walk for miles across lonely moors, down country roads, and along beaches, without meeting a single living soul. A world where the pace of life is slower, but the heart rate is through the roof. A cool world, where your brow occasionally prickles with sweat for no reason.
A cold sweat, to accompany the chills down your spine.
Welcome, reader, to the world of Montague Rhodes "Monty" James, and his beloved stories of horror and the supernatural.
Welcome ... to The Design Mechanism's Casting The Runes.
M R James
M R James was a profoundly thorough and meticulous mediaevalist scholar. His works can still be cited as definitive in his field. However, James is most famous for his collection of ghost stories, all set in a charming, pastoral realm; an England which was beginning to disappear in the real world even during Monty's lifetime, as the 20th century reeled from one world war and lurched towards a second one a decade later.
The world of horror literature was changing. Ghost stories were more and more being seen as passé, and the world was lapping up the weird fiction of HPL and his acolytes. Stories of science fiction were beginning to fill the pages of magazines, displacing the dreaming country lanes and haunted fens with harder stories of American derring do among the stars.
But during the traditional Christmas Eve story telling sessions when the world outside was dark and still after the Solstice, and the wind rattled the windows and made the candles in the room flicker and cast dancing shadows to fuel the imagination, M R James' world of deeper shadows lived on to this day.
Casting The Runes And Other Stories
James' work is regarded as unmatchable in his field. Evocative; conversational, like a written transcript of a story narrated verbally (you can practically hear Monty lean forwards from his spectral chair in the afterlife to speak to you); and, most of all, terrifying; his stories have inspired homages, imitations and downright parodies.
"Casting The Runes" is one of James' most famous horror stories, where Karswell, a man of poor and vulgar character, casts a dangerous spell over Dunning, the story's protagonist. Dunning discovers that Karswell had cast the runes, slipped him a sheet of paper inscribed with runes of summoning.
Other famous James ghost stories include Lost Hearts, a suspense story involving a young orphan and haunting visions of two Traveller children with missing hearts; Count Magnus, a vampire story of an obnoxious man whose ill character lead to a Faustian deal, and an evil which lived on long after his death; and O Whistle, And I'll Come To You, My Lad, one of his most famous stories, which centres around the discovery of an odd whistle on a beach ... and the slow, building terror which follows when the protagonist blows it.
You can read the stories here; but for best effect, you can either buy his books as hardcopies, to hold in your hands, feeling the paper beneath your fingertips as you turn the pages and read out the words under a solitary lamp in the dark ...
... or you can set a roleplaying game in M R James country, and play a character.
This is the setting for The Design Mechanism's Casting The Runes.
The Tabletop Roleplaying Game
This project of The Design Mechanism was announced with a little mystery - "What is Project Rose Garden?"
Aficionados of M R James immediately caught the reference to "The Rose Garden," one of James' short stories, and immediately drew the conclusion that they would be looking at a new horror game.
First of all, just so you know ... the engine for this game is not based on Mythras. There have been plans to release Casting as a Mythras game, with the familiar d100 engine; but this is not that day.
Casting The Runes' engine is based on Pelgrane Press' GUMSHOE engine, devised by Robin D Laws and Kenneth Hite. It begins with a preface by Ramsey Campbell.
RAMSEY BLOODY CAMPBELL.
The quality that makes [James'] best tales – which is to say most of them – unforgettable is his wit in communicating horror.
-- the Preface
Moving from the Preface, the rest of the book presents the usual sections - an introduction to roleplaying games, an intro to the world of M R James (I refuse to give it the umbrella term Monty Country in the same vein as "Lovecraft Country"), the character generation rules, and chapters devoted to gameplay, acquiring clues, creatures, magic, the historic period and locales, campaigns, and sample scenarios, along with an Appendix which is, basically, the "Appendix N" of ghost stories and tales of strangeness.
But really, those are mere technical details. What really matters is what this game is about, what it does, and what makes it unique, not only from the other games I am looking at in this blog, but also from other Gumshoe products such as Fear Itself, Night's Black Agents and The Esoterrorists.
It even differs in play from The Design Mechanism's other horror roleplaying games, After The Vampire Wars and Weird of Hali, both of which I have already covered in this blog.
GUMSHOE is an investigative game. Your characters, known as Investigators, are presented with a mystery. You explore the mystery, gathering Clues, until it leads you to a place of unremitting horror (or "pleasing terror" if you like) from which you recover ... or maybe not.
Presenting Jamesian Horror
The elements which make a Casting game unique are the tools by which M R James himself presented his stories. Casting really is best run in a semi-darkened room, preferably with inhospitable weather pounding on the outside of the glass.
Far from being cosy, James’s stories frequently present a reassuringly ordinary setting that is invaded by the malevolent and terrible. Sometimes everyday objects take on or harbour hideous life, and at times the juxtaposition of these elements borders on surrealism.
-- the Preface
Gaming Casting is about setting a style. Your investigations are not in the style of Delta Green, all kicking down doors and taking names at gunpoint. Casting is about a methodical gathering of facts, even as the darkness gathers about the Investigators. The atmosphere of a Casting adventure should always start with an almost cosy mundanity - your Investigator wants to write a travelogue about Sweden, or they come into possession of some weird, ugly mezzotint, or they stumble across a rusty whistle on some beach.
As the game progresses, your characters invariably sense that something is amiss. A sense of unease begins to fill the air. If your Investigators are alone, they sense things out of the corner of their eyes. Odd synchronicities catch their attention. A sense that they are not alone, and that they are somehow being watched from afar.
If your characters are Investigators, along the lines of Hodgson's Carnacki, they can become accustomed to these feelings; but your Investigators can be hapless members of the general public drawn into this terrifying world. Retired postal workers, school teachers on holiday, formidable bustling women in tweeds rampaging about the village on bicycles - the appeal of the game is to land them in a situation where they find that they have bitten off far more than they can chew. So much more fun to have their body hairs prickling in response to dark terrors far beyond their little circle of experiences.
GUMSHOE Investigators are based around certain key elements - Abilities, Health, Stability, and the Sources of Stability which keep them on this side of the sanity membrane. The usual characteristic rolls and skill percentages do not appear in this game. Rather, your Investigators are good at some things, and they are healthy and mentally sound at the start of the game, though both can get eroded as the game progresses.
If you are not used to GUMSHOE, please read page 13, the section on Investigative Abilities. It's that important.
Many of your Investigators are likely to come from a unique background: gentle beings of leisure, people of independent means who can come and go as they please. Investigations in M R James' worlds are delightfully free of the scent of luchre, and Investigators can board a train or hail a cab and visit anywhere, without a hint of screaming poverty, running short of money to pay for a meal or a few nights' stay at some village inn. Their independence is a heady brew which can draw your Players in to their Investigators' short lives.
Casting paints a golden age for people who were able to go anywhere, do anything, and come back with warnings for the curious not to go there.
Each Investigative Career (Authors, Antiquarians, Collectors, Physicists, Doctors, Secretaries, Historians, and so on) is prefaced with a monochrome thumbnail portrait and a brief quote relevant to that career from either a James story or from some other source. You are encouraged to have your Investigator come from one of those investigative careers and to settle into that role.
The game would not be the same without a healthy bestiary of strange entities to haunt and terrify your Investigators. The creatures are drawn from a variety of sources, not just from James' stories. The creature entering via the window in the pic below comes from The Mezzotint:-
You can tell it was a creature of uncouth mien, because it refused to use the door like a civilised person. Shocking, its lack of standards.
There is a section for Gamesmasters on how to create such mythic or folklorish creatures, from Little People to vampires, from Black Dogs to Cornish Piskies and Nockers.
It should be obvious that most supernatural beings are lethally dangerous, and that any reckless Investigator, however strong, who dares grapple with one will soon meet a horrible end. That’s as it should be. Supernatural terror lies in the physical helplessness of puny mortals before the unknown.
This is also a chance for GMs so disposed to cunningly undermine and critique the brute-force-and-sheerbloody- ignorance attitude rampant in Edwardian England. Any victory or banishment of the unearthly enemy should come from more than just a straight bat and a strong right arm. Knowledge, and more than a bit of luck, will be required.
-- Casting The Runes, The Design Mechanism
The list of creatures begins with a vampiric, ghostly creature from the mind and pen of William Hope Hodgson's Carnacki stories, the Aeiirii Manifestation, and follows up with elementals, familiars, Arthur Machen's Children of Pan, Ghosts and Ghouls (with lists of Stability costs associated with ghostly manifestations), Demons (from Casting The Runes), Mummies, Night-Ravens, and the Sheeted Ghosts from "O Whistle, And I'll Come To You, My Lad."
The chapter moves on from the lesser creatures to actual gods - the two examples given being Odin and Sweet Mama Hecate, below.
This is then followed by a list of game stats for mundane creatures - bears, boars, bulls. Dogs, cats, tories.
"Do not cross this field unless you can run a hundred metres in nine seconds, because the bull can run it in ten."
-- famous sign on a farm gate
The next chapter is all about magic, and its effects on the setting. Magic, in this book, is not really for the Investigators, unless it is somehow defensive - magic circles and amulets to ward off evil, nazars to be worn and carried and so on.
This chapter captures the essence of the sorceries of Casting The Runes, Count Magnus, O Whistle And I'll Come To You My Lad, and the dark forces controlled by Mocata in Dennis Wheatley's The Devil Rides Out. Magic is something to be warded against, more than it is a tool for the Investigators to use. The price to pay is heavy - Health, Stability and so on - and it is best wielded by the kinds of barbaric NPC Gamesmaster vulgarians who never had much in the way of Stability to start with.
The workings listed in this chapter are delightfully thematic, and some horrific, to be enacted only at great cost. The book does not encourage Investigators to learn them - with sone exceptions, such as Protective Circlle and Warding.
What follows next is a list of dreaded tomes, along with their contents and costs for reading them. Fairly standard fare, something you'll have seen in Call of Cthulhu and other games. After this is a section on extraordinary items - vampire hunters' crossbows of rowan or hawthorn wood, protective amulets, Carnacki's "Electric Pentacle" (basically, a force field), the Hand of Glory (anyone want to enact scenes from The Wicker Man?) and witch bottles.
The next chapter covers the period of James' life - Edwardian England. The chapter delves into incomes, social class, and similar. The section on money is actually dressing - no matter the social class of the Investigators, they should never lack for money to get them to where they want to go, or to buy replacement items for what they need, whether it be a new umbrella or Derby hat, or shot for a Purdey shotgun.
This chapter is more about giving you a taste of what people did, and what was available to them: telegrams, rather than emails; libraries of heavy books, rather than a bunch of PDFs on a tablet; clothing, weaponry, investigative equipment - a Kodak Brownie can potentially be more dangerous than a twelve-bore shotgun, for instance.
The history of this chapter is staggering, evocative, and worth reading all on its own. This, along with the Appendix with its sources, is the biggest love letter to the Edwardian era, both real and imagined, that anyone not born in that time could ever hope to write.
You are not restricted to the horror stories of M R James. The same period gave such delights as John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps, and your characters could become embroiled in spy scandals against various political groups at the time, even as the forces of more supernatural darkness gather on the horizon ...
Think of a famous author whose stories defined that era in ways which still take the breath away. You're invited to set your stories in the Edwardian era, and in Monty Country
damn, that one slipped out
but you can be inspired by other authors, if you like. Proust. Joyce. Kafka. Anais Nin. W Somerset Maugham. Maybe not Edgar Rice Burroughs - too pulpy, and maybe more than a bit colonial. Rainer Marie Rilke. D H Lawrence. George Bernard Shaw. You can extract elements from these books and bring them in to add flavour to your Investigators' delvings, turning them into bright, strange, convoluted dramas where they only occasionally veer into Gothic darkness. The mundanity of their everyday dramas contrasts with the bitter, weird darkness of the supernatural.
And sometimes, the mundanity can present the Investigators with threats more immediate than any centuried corpse rising from its crypt.
The Last Word
Casting The Runes is a departure from The Design Mechanism's d100 fare, but it is a delightful addition to their library. Being a standalone horror game based on GUMSHOE, Casting is mechanically compatible with Fear Itself, Night's Black Agents, The Esoterrorists, Trail of Cthulhu, Delta Green, Republic, and any other game based on Pelgrane Press' GUMSHOE engine. Yes, it stands alongside its GUMSHOE siblings as a game in its own right, well worth opening and looking into as an introduction to GUMSHOE games.
This is the brainchild of Paul StJohn Mackintosh, and it is one of the best roleplaying supplements I have had the privilege to come across.
Additionally, it doesn't take much effort to convert the non-crunchy materials for use in a wide variety of alternate settings. Consider taking the game engine from Weird of Hali or After The Vampire Wars in the setting, if you must insist on playing the game with Mythras rules. Even the Circles and Extended Conflict rules from Frostbyte Books' Odd Soot are useful and can be ported to this setting, if you would like to set your Casting game in a more esoteric 1920s of Difference Engines and interstellar travel in Comae Space.
Pick up this book. It is easy to lose yourself in a time period just over a century ago, such is the powerful writing in this book.
Just remember, when you come back into this world, to check to make sure that you're not bringing Something back with you from the depths of the book.
And whatever else you do, do not blow that damn whistle.
Here you have a story written with the sole object of inspiring a pleasing terror in the reader; and as I think, that is the true aim of the ghost story.
- M.R. James
Edited by Alex Greene