In today's Digital and Dice podcast, our hosts spoke briefly about sanity shattering books. Though the idea of forbidden knowledge exists in multiple systems and settings, it is particularly prevalent in Call of Cthulhu, where it can have some pretty severe effects.
Forbidden knowledge is usually acquired through the reading of arcane tomes and other occult texts, which may or may not be cursed themselves. The reader of these books gains an unprecedented insight into the hidden nature of things, though the implications are so staggering that the character walks away forever changed. They may learn a cosmic truth, discover the incantation of powerful spell, or draw the attention of something that they have only just now been made aware of.
Potentially, this is beneficial to the character. Having the option of using a powerful and dangerous spell is probably a good thing, though actually using the spell is another matter entirely. And if there is something else out there beyond mortal scope and ken, it may be good to know about it so that one can prepare themselves against it, particularly if it is malicious.
However, the costs are simply too great. Characters lose their sense of self and their worldview is often shattered. Using spells found in these tomes of arcane lore can bring great harm to oneself or others, or even the world itself, as it is quite common to accidentally summon something more powerful and malicious than you had intended. Playing with forbidden knowledge is the very essence of the age old adage "The path to hell is paved with good intentions." There is enough of a reason to tempt people towards it in the first place, but to acquire the necessary knowledge to use it safely would utterly break the character.
However, the players don't always realize this and dangling the option out there for the players works very well in a game where a high level of lethality might be expected. Dropping bits of forbidden lore are somewhat like the bayonet-key analogy from tonight's show. You might well need the knowledge inside to progress the story and to make it possible to ultimately thwart the lurking terror that exists. But to engage with it at all is a huge burden.
And giving it to your enemies gives them a leg up over the PCs. Your enemies know things the PCs don't and have powers they could never wield, because they have done and are willing to do things beyond what any reasonable person would. This makes the enemies very dangerous, to the party and to themselves.
And this all works outside of horror. In a D&D game I've ran before, the party was made aware that they were going to be encountering a rather dangerous enemy. The party's wizard had come across a spellbook containing a useful spell a few levels over what he was able to cast, but I informed him that he could attempt to cast the spell anyway, at risk of a potentially dangerous miscast. When push came to shove and the dice caused the party to come close to losing the critical fight, the wizard decided to use the spell at great personal risk, nearly killing himself in the process and even then only managing to utilize a weakened version of the spell. It did help them win the encounter, but if he had failed the necessary check any worse, he could have potentially killed himself or others with the sideffects. But introducing the option to him in the first place was a judgement call I made as the GM, and I reasoned that giving the option could only make things more interesting, as the choice of whether or not to use the spell was always on the player. Looking back on it, they should have been able to beat the enemy without using the spell, assuming the dice didn't continue to ruin everything for them.
You could even implement the idea of dangerous knowledge in a more mundane manner. A good example of this would be a political intrigue campaign. if one of the players learns a dark secret about a nobleman and uses that as leverage to blackmail the noble, the noble might retaliate by hiring assassins to silence the player before he leaks the information, because he already knows too much. Though this isn't exactly a curse in itself, it does further the idea that it is dangerous to know. And a whispered word or scrap of writing can be just as dangerous as any cursed sword.
For a look at a very specific magical item that some might consider cursed, I encourage you to take a look at my post "The Deck of Many Things" over on my personal blog. Until next time…Game on Internets!
- Draconick, Digital and Dice Contributor
I, Nick “Draconick” Johnson, am a writer and roleplaying enthusiast with over ten years of experience in various tabletop roleplaying games both as a player and as a GM. I am also somewhat involved in other forms of tabletop gaming such as wargaming, board games, and card games. It is my hope that by creating and maintaining this website that I can share my unique take on all things within our hobby and to foster a community of like-minded individuals.