Sunday 22 February 2015

Lore Garbage

Kiel Chenier has suggested over on G+ that for DM appreciation month (never knew there was one until now) DMs should waffle self-indulgently about useless things about their own game world. I need very little encouragement to waffle, so here are ten bits of trivia about the fantasy English Civil War:

1. As far as practitioners are concerned there are two sorts of magic; witchcraft as practised by uneducated peasants and sorcery, practised by educated gentlemen. In truth it is all the same; the same effects are achieved by both in similar ways. The chief difference is in language. Witches say their spells in English, with maybe a bit of old Anglo-Saxon, Cornish or Welsh, Sorcerers tend towards educated tongues like Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Arabic or even for followers of Dr Dee, Enochian, the language of the Angels. Though even that distinction is breaking down as since the Reformation more and more Sorcerers are finding that spells in vernacular languages work well enough.

2. If you are a magician researching spells you need a library, and many religious works are as good a source of magical knowledge as any. No magician in England is without a Bible (though the Old Testament is worth a mere 50sp for research purposes and the New Testament another 25sp) and the Talmud and Koran weigh in at 50sp each. Giordano Bruno got himself burned at the stake for openly saying that the Bible is a manual of magic, and if someone can divine all its secrets they will be a master of such. More abstruse religious works such as the Liber Divinorum Operum by Hildegard of Bingen or the Mirror of Simple Souls by Margaret Porete are worth a lot more as research material, but possession of such night be considered heresy by  various churches.

3. Clerics can research spells as well, and they can often do so by reading the same kinds of books as magicians. The Bible and religious works are worth a lot more to them, but works by religiously minded sorcerers like Pico della Mirandola are pretty good too. Again the spectre of Heresy rears its ugly head. An Anglican who openly quotes the Koran while giving blessings is looking for a painful defrocking.

4. The Ranter prophet Abiezer Coppe is only 23 in 1642 when the wars begin in England, not long out of Oxford University, but he is already making his mark with his impassioned preaching and advocacy of free love and anarchism. One of his key slanders against the Anglican Church is his insistence that various Bishops are up to their eyeballs in witchcraft.

5. Sightings of mythical beasts have always been common in rural England due to a combination of excessively cheap ale and benighted ignorance. Now learned men are taking an interest in such matters, and there is a definite feeling that something awful is happening to the fabric of mundane reality. The Reverend Dr Samuel Fell, former chaplain to King James and supporter of King Charles, is interested in any such outbreaks and is rumoured to be sending exorcist spies to investigate them. He blames the Puritans for questioning the doctrines of the Anglican Church, but was himself a Calvinist in his youth.

6. Prince Rupert's dog, Boye, is a hunting poodle of a rare breed and is reputed to have magical powers, including leaping up and snatching musket balls aimed at his master out of the air. The Ottoman Caliph, Murad IV, wants one just like him and if you can dognap Boye for him he might award you some of his fabulous wealth.

7. Mother Shipton's prophecies are all the rage since they were published in 1641, and many a wacko theory of impending doom has been hatched on the basis of reading portentious poems such as: When pictures seem alive with movements free, When boats like fishes swim beneath the sea. When men like birds shall scour the sky. Then half the world, deep drenched in blood shall die. Watch out for the Hag's Head moths that have Mother Shipton's profile marked on each wing.

8. The Royal Navy is now Parliament's Navy, the whole lot mutinied and are having a whale of a time drinking themselves stupid in every port town in England. Trouble is that the Barbary Corsairs never went away - sure there were treaties to stop their razzias and slave raids but don't forget Jan Janszoon, the Dutch Muslim renegade, once took over the Isle of Lundy in the Bristol Channel and used it as a slave market for five years from 1627. They had better sober up and get back out on patrol...

9. Bermuda is run by the Somer's Isle Company, a collection of nobles who support the King. The Parliamentarian population of Bermuda may yet rebel; the North American tribesmen sent to Bermuda as slaves after the Pequot War in Massachusetts may still have some fight in them, if they can be induced to fight. Others have left with the Eleutheran Adventurers to establish a religiously free (ie Puritan) colony in the Bahamas, though the last expedition sent that way was lost...

10. Men can turn into wolves. It is a well attested phenomenon that during the German wars men who had seen too much of the blood and terror of those interminable campaigns, still raging on, have become conscienceless beasts and eat human flesh. And it wasn't just foreigners who were so weak, oh no, English and Irish mercenaries were known to partake of the anthrophagous feasts as well, and many such men have returned to England to fight for and against the King. It will be a savage war...

Sunday 15 February 2015



Let it be known among the wise that the ancient and most perfect art of Scarabomancy has been rediscovered and that lectures in such will commence in Tumissa on 12 Fesru, at the gong of Awakening in Azure at the Temple of Ksarul .

Herein I shall outline for the curious what this art entails, for in this decadent age few, even among the wisest of the wise the adherents of the Doomed Prince, have even heard of this most marvellous method of divination and interpretation of the knots of Skeins of Destiny.

First you need a scarab beetle, obviously. This attractive little beetle is most sacred to Ksarul, master of the most mighty beetles that roll the planets and moons through the sky, and himself manifest in the great fireproof beast that moves the sun itself. Each scarab is, in a minute and most infinitesimal way, an aspect of Ksarul himself and thus can impart wisdom from beyond this most prosaic of planes.

Second you will need chalk and a bit of flat floor, and on it you shall inscribe the Ten-Fold Circle of Fate and the Fifty-Five glyphs of the Tongue of the Scarab (copies available from myself after the lecture, price 50 kaitars and worth every qirgal). The very best method is to permanently incise the Circle on the floor of a dedicated Shrine of the Scarab, but as the Provost of the Fabric of the Sacred Space has no spare rooms at the moment, I will instruct students in the use of Mriddu’s chalk.

Thirdly, you will need pen, ink and paper, and fourthly, the most important ingredient, dung. Most dung will do, chlen is ideal, but hma and hmelu do just as well. Do not be tempted to use human dung! It is easily available (all too easily given the woeful culinary standards of the Tumissan temple refectory) but the stench is awful, the consistency poor and it will make your scarab ill, if he can be persuaded to approach the stuff at all.

The procedure is as follows:

Ask the questioner (or yourself (but not out loud or people will think you mad (which I am not))), to state their request of the Mightiest and Wisest of Gods in no more than thirteen words and two symbols of punctuation. Write this question, in any language, scarab beetles are perfectly multilingual like their master, on a piece of paper two choptse wide by one hoi long and roll it into as tight a cylinder as you can.

Take a lump of dung, ten mlo will do nicely, but a weak or small beetle might only be able to cope with seven or eight, and roll it into a ball. Insert the question into the ball of dung and place it on the Glyph of Questioning in the very centre of the circle.

Take a Darsha leaf, and roll it round a mlo of Aira grass, a mlo of Chumaz, three mlo of Hnequ weed and a pinch (and believe me, only a pinch) of dried Urugal root. Set fire to the roll of herbs and inhale the smoke in Loruni fashion. When the room has stopped spinning, get your scarab and blow upon it the smoke. When the scarab has stopped waving its legs in the air and coughing place it on the circle at the Glyph of Wisdom (that’s the big square one).

Observe closely the path it takes to the question using the left eye, and then observe closely the path by which it rolls the ball of dung out of the circle using the right eye. Do not use both eyes at once! If this process takes more than two kiren you have probably used too much Aira grass. If you lose consciousness before the end of the process I suggest you use fresher Chumaz, and if you find yourself distracted by the green translucent Vringalu singing Pijenan drinking songs you have used too much Urugal root and should seek professional demonological help immediately.

By analysing the path of the sacred scarab it is possible, with practice, to determine with amazing accuracy the course of the questioners skein of destiny with respect to his question. So if you are asked ‘Ohe, shall I wed the handsome mat weaver or the ugly slave merchant?’ and the scarab crosses the Glyph of the Impaled Ahoggya, the Glyph of the Left-Centre Eye of the Zrne and then abandons its ball of dung on the Glyph of the Missing Finger and bites the questioner, the answer is of course neither you silly person, you are going on a long sea voyage in the course of which you will inevitably drown.

The many relations of Glyphs to knots of fate are detailed in the scroll ‘Key to the Skein of the Scarab, or Silly Answers to Stupid Questions’ by the mighty seer Arkha’anu the five-legged, who himself was a scarab, so he should know. Copies of this are being produced in the scriptorium of the Plume of White clan for those students willing to take ship on this barge of most excellent wisdom to its ultimate destination, the Sea of Fate itself.

Oh, yes, the last stage of the process is wash your hands.

Rusala Yi’isia hiNashomai, Friend of the Scarab, Twitcher of the Refulgent Blue Curtain and Kusijaktodali of the Temple of Azure Ambivalence, Teacher of Scarabomancy

All hail Ksarul!

Saturday 14 February 2015

Yan, Tan, Tethera, Methera

I am currently re-reading a book I last read when I was maybe eight or nine, the Cuckoo Tree by Joan Aiken. It is set in an alternate 18th or 19th Century (it isn't clear which) and among the fine collection of grotesques and rascals decorating it's pages are a gang of Smugglers called the Wineberry Men. Aiken did her research well, smuggling was a big deal in England's past, and my own reading has shown that it is entirely plausible to suggest that the early 17th Century could have been it's origin as a big business.

Tonnage and Poundage

It was all about the money. It had been traditional for centuries for Parliament to vote newly crowned kings of England the right to levy 'Tonnage and Poundage', customs duties on goods entering and leaving English ports. King James I had however abused the system. He upped the rates, levied extra surcharges and put the whole operation under the control of customs farmers. These were consortia of rich merchants and aristocrats who paid the king a fixed annual rent for the right to take duties at ports; they of course hoped to make a profit, and brought a keenness and rigour to the task that the easygoing Royal officers had always lacked. However this early attempt to privatise public services went about as well in the 17th century as similar efforts have in recent decades; the system was full of corruption and the new farmers were accused of all sorts of abuses, but the king got a regular income and he had saved himself and him ministers a dreary administrative burden so he was happy.

When his son Charles came to the throne Parliament refused to vote him Tonnage and Poundage until the abuses had been stopped. He carried on levying the duty anyway through the farming companies his father had used. Parliament declared the imposts illegal and in not so many words implied the king was a thief, one of the reasons Charles refused to call a Parliament for over a decade, until his disastrous handling of the Bishop's War in Scotland forced him to.

The Owlers

The chief item being smuggled was wool. There had been efforts throughout the later middle ages and Tudor period to transplant Flemish weavers to England, but most English wool was still going to the continent to be made up into cloth and wool duties made up most of the customs income. The Owlers were smuggling gangs who spirited the stuff away in the middle of the night, and hundreds of armed men were engaged in the trade to fight off the privatised excise agents.


Packing wool for export involves compressing the rather low density fleeces into compact packs by sticking it in a wooden form with a square jute bag inside, stamping it down and sewing it shut. The packs are about two foot by tow foot by three and are damned heavy – an oversized item in the LotFP rules – and these are bound up by rope into gigantic packs weighing twenty-six stones. The importance of the wool trade to the economy is symbolised by the Lord Chancellor sitting on a woolpack in Parliament.

They are also ideal for smuggling. Once the pack is sewn shut no one is keen to cut it open as it will be the devils job to get it all back in, and all kinds of stuff can be hidden in the padded depths of a woolpack. In the early seventeenth century sugar and tobacco were starting to be brought into England from her newly founded colonies in the Americas and Caribbean. There had always been a good trade in imported wine, especially fortified wine like port and brandy – tonnage was in fact 'tunnage', a levy charged per tun (barrel) of wine.

Counting Sheep

Back when the Anglo Saxons invaded the British Isles everyone spoke Celtic. Over most of Britain the Celtic language died out and there are remarkably few Celtic loan words in modern English, but somehow it hung on in counting systems for sheep. There are many local variants of this counting system and a gang of smugglers called the Riggwelters (the local dialect for sheep on its back that can't get itself upright due to a heavy fleece) in Lincolnshire use the words as code names. From one to ten the numbers are; Yan, Tan, Tethera, Methera, Pimp, Sethera, Hethera, Hovera, Covera, Dik.

Any, all or none of the following reprobates may be members of the gang;

  • The Vicar of Holbeach St Marks, the Reverend Dr William Toad. Toad is a local man, son of the previous smuggler 'king' who made enough money to send his son to Cambridge to study Divinity. William's position in the Church of England used to put him above all suspicion, but the local Puritans have no respect and openly accuse him of all sorts of crimes in the street, some of which are actually true. He's dying to have a couple entombed alive in woolpacks and dumped in the salt marshes in the local version of the mafia concrete boots, but prudence has so far stayed his hand; but with a war on all kinds of vengeance may be possible.
  • Lucy Hay, Countess of Carlisle. A society beauty and cousin of the Parliamentarian general the Earl of Essex, Lucy's husband is one of the chief investors in the Yarmouth Customs Farm. Lucy goes through his papers tipping off her smuggler cohorts as to their operations. She got into the trade in her youth; her father is the Earl of Northumberland, who made deals with his local Owlers to get the wool from his estates to market without paying the King his cut. Lucy has gone the whole hog and become an Owler herself.
  • Lionel Pepys, Norwich gadabout. Lionel learned witchcraft in his youth from his grandmother, being particularly adept at spells of charm and illusion. He lives a fine life among the provincial gentry and aspires to be published poet, while at the same time ordering his rival Owlers kneecapped with blunderbusses and gifting them mutton pies laced with scrapie infected sheep brain.
  • Toby 'the Frog' Letchworth, customs clerk. Officially a customs officer, he went over to the Owlers long ago, and cheerfully abuses his position as Land-Waiter at Yarmouth to intercept goods being brought in by rival smugglers from abroad and appropriate them for himself. He usually haunts the 'Happy Flounder' alehouse in Yarmouth, an obese oaf with a broad grin who holds court in a backroom with his bewarted cronies. Actually immensely strong and can fold a silver sixpence in two round a whispered curse with his fingers, and have it planted on a man he wants harmed by a nimble fingered potboy.
  • Diligence 'Ma' Lubbage, confectioner. Ma smuggles Caribbean sugar and spices from the far east and even chocolate, though the early 17th century version is more closely related to the bitter drink of the Aztecs than the modern sweet. Has an African slave working at her shop in Norwich who helps her cast spells and adds various dubious herbs to her sugar loaves to make them addictive and much in demand. Half hearted knife fights between podgy addicts have broken out in alleyways over her 'sweets'.
  • Harry Dangerman, 'I am not the Sethera, I am a free man!'. Harry claims he is forced into being a smuggler by witchcraft but he may have just partken in too much of the potent hashish and opium he picks up from Levantine company traders in Amsterdam. Says he is haunted by the ghosts of dead rivals who follow him around with their mouths stuffed with wool and that he was once ambushed by a demon shaped like a great white bladder filled with air when he tried to quit the business.
  • Piet Vanderboer, sea captain. Known as 'Vanderbastard' by his crew, Piet is a Calvinist who dresses in bible black and a fierce disciplinarian who will keel haul a man for picking his nose on deck. His rather unique theological view is that all tithes and taxes are inspired by Satan to prevent God-fearing merchants like himself making a living, and that the guilds of sailors and tradesmen who try and set wages and trade practices are devil worshippers. The Hidden Hand of God works his miracles of prosperity through markets, and his blessing is reflected in the gift of wealth to the Godly. More conventional types wonder if he has mistaken Mammon for Jesus, but he always has a suitable Bible quote to justify his many acts of fraud, piracy and murder.
  • Lillian 'Poxy Lil' Lasalle, gun runner. Lillian was a much in demand prostitute until smallpox ruined her looks. She learned to hate the gentry and their wicked ways while she was on the game and is now an ardent Parliamentarian who brings in firearms from the continent to supply the various pockets of resisters in Royalist dominated areas like the South West and Ireland. She has contacts in the perfume trade in France and can source poisoned Eau de Cologne.
  • Gerard 'the Giblet' Smethwick, butcher and poulterer. Runs his contraband overland on the backs of pigs with the aid of his swineherds and he and his confederates retail their smuggled goods in their butcher shops, just ask for the 'special meat'. Sometimes you will get just that, special pork-tasting pies with a good thick crust and plenty of pig-trotter jelly and maybe the odd toenail.
  • Michael Maunder, publican. Runs the 'Fighting Cock' alehouse known for its cheap beer and lively cockfighting scene. Will dope his own birds on 'Colombian snuff' and watch them rip the shreds out of his rivals and then offer the losers the chance to work off their gambling debts by carrying a woolpack for him. Woebetide someone who dies not play their part, Michael is a witch with a talent for spells of seeking and finding, and marks all his packs with rune carved magic bones for easy recovery.