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Pelgrane Week: The Origins of the Occult Guide

Posted on May 4, 2011 by Flames

Pelgrane Week continues here at Flames Rising with a new design essay by Paula Dempsey. Paula tells us about writing the Occult London a supplement for the Trail of Cthulhu RPG.

The Origins of the Occult Guide

    I can’t recall agreeing to write Augustus Darcy’s Guide to Occult London. The idea was mooted towards the end of 2009 by Simon Rogers of Pelgrane Press and the concept came from him. By then Ken Hite was already working on Bookhounds of London and Simon wanted a guide to occult London in the 1930s to accompany Bookhounds. The back story for the guide, we decided, was that an occultist-about-town, who knew all the personalities in London at that time, was compiling this guide for a mysterious someone amidst murmurings that something very bad was about to happen. Unfortunately, when the occultist, Augustus Darcy, got near the truth he died mysteriously and his writings remained hidden for eighty years until, I believe, a dusty tome was discovered in Simon Rogers’ attic.

    The big challenge was that I’d never ever written anything this long. Previous to the Occult Guide, the longest pieces I’d written were the Mystic Moo columns for Pelgrane’s See Page XX, typically less than 2000 words. Mystic Moo happened because I was joking with Simon that no magazine was complete without an astrology column and he asked me to write one. So I knew I could write short pieces. A whole book, though, was quite a different matter.

    Steve Dempsey, aka Amery Greville, had suggested to Simon that I write the Occult Guide because I have a large collection of occult, folklore and history books at home, so researching it would be reasonably easy. I’ve been reading about folklore and the occult for over twenty years and am particularly interested in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn so I was aware of the people and the groups working magic in London at that time. I also love books set in the 1930s – Jeeves and Wooster and Frank Richards’ Billy Bunter stories – which made it easier to set the tone and use the correct language for the period. Living in London allowed me to visualise the places and made for some good field trips. At first, however, I didn’t think I was writing the book at all. I thought I was just doing some research for the book and that someone else would be pulling it together. This was a misunderstanding on my part, or maybe they were just easing me in gently.

    As I’d never done anything like this before, I didn’t have a plan to work to. After some thought I assembled a pile of reference books and, from Wikipedia, a list of the London boroughs as they were in the 1930s, as a starting point for organising the information. Borough boundaries and names were changed in the 1960s, so I wanted to get these correct. The bibliography was pretty big. The most useful books were Steve Roud’s London Lore and The Aquarian Guide to Legendary London by John Matthews and Chesca Potter for the folklore, legend and magical stuff and The London Encyclopaedia for historical information.

    A lot of time was spent checking facts. Everything that went into the Occult Guide that is not purely fictional was checked to make sure that it had happened before 1933 and was recorded before 1933. I’ll share a secret with you, one story did get through that wasn’t reported until the 1950s, but I won’t say which!

    The first 20,000 words were a list of interesting places and people all of which existed in London’s history or legend. The next job was to flesh these out, weaving in some fictional characters and fictional situations to tell the story of what Darcy found during the course of his research. What I was aiming for was that every entry could be used as the basis for a scenario – that the GM could pretty much open the book at random and find something to build an evening’s gaming around, or that the players could find good locations to explore and search for clues.

    The Occult Guide is, however, a collaboration. Steve Dempsey contributed the character of Florence Hamilton-Beech and her Apokrypha bookshop as well as writing the foreword as Amery Greville and suggesting that the only thing better than an occultist is the mysterious death of an occultist. Ken Hite added his own mix of mystery, magic and Machen and included some of Charles Fort’s commentary on London. Sarah Wroot did the editing and Beth Lewis of Pelgrane Press added the map references which form the only link to Bookhounds. Because the Occult Guide was designed as an in-game artifact there are no stats. This makes it flexible; it can be used with any system, not just Trail of Cthulhu. And there’s a murder mystery in there as well. Darcy died before the book could be completed; Greville edited his notebooks to produce the finished work. So who killed Darcy and who did he upset enough for them to want him dead?

    Paula Dempsey – 2011

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