24 January 2015

The Books of the Fallen Empire: Stuff You Can Use

I entered a competition on another site for submissions based around the notion of the Fallen Empire.  This piece, about thirty "lost" books a party might rediscover, won the top prize; I remain rather pleased by it.

It's a bunch of archetypes: most the names, and in many cases the flavor text as well, come from real world examples of those archetypes.  Feel free to gank at will, and use them to develop the archetypes for your own campaigns!

A Journal of the Plague Year: “Poor Tiranara was entirely in an uproar - another love sonnet talking about the “Dark Man” of my fantasies?  I soothed her, in the end, but Trinity, am I tired of repeating that I say what I must to satisfy the public!”

The seminal diary of a great poet/author, about whom most of what is known comes from the text (and interpretations thereof) of her works.  The diary conclusively proves that a lot of the critical presumption is wrong -- what people widely believe the author meant by this or that element is completely contrary to the author’s express intent.

Ab Urbe Condita Libri: “Being the Fourteenth Volume of the History and Lore of Mighty Selisengard, May The Queen of Cities Reign Forever!”

Some (or all) of the missing volumes from a celebrated monumental history (or encyclopedia) long believed to be incomplete.

Archimedes Palimpsest: The motion of the Whole is the same as the Sum of the Motion of its Parts; namely, that In cases when the fall of a rider on a white horse occurs, it is beneficial if one reads aloud the Second Precept Against Harm or completes a number of virtuous acts.”

An important lost work, known to scholars.  Some thrifty scribe took the last copy, scraped the parchment down, and inscribed an insipid, rambling religious text on the sheets ... but there are very faded marks of the original, and it might be able to be restored through sorcery of some sort.

Arzhang: “These are the signs of My Coming, and what which has been sent down to thee.  From Me is the truth, but most men do not believe.”

The holy scripture of a major religion, long lost and passed down only in oral tradition.  It may have sections contradicting in whole or in part current practice (which may have been corrupted in transmission), or detailing rites that have been forgotten, however consonant they may be with contemporary beliefs.

Book of the Watchers: “The man said to the woman, ‘You know what the priest is braying?  He says in his sermon that a comet is coming and that will be the end of the world!’”

A religious tome telling a familiar tale, well known to adherents of the dominant faith -- so much so that the faithful all recognize the familiar phraseology, and many can recite sections from memory -- but with numerous differences, in cadence, plot and characterization.

Bunnye Raising Fr Ye Victualles & Profite: “Linseed oil (raw, not boiled), 1 anker; gum camphor, 4 drams; oil of cajeput, 1 dram; oil of anise, 1/4 dram.  Mix with ye bunnye’s hay, 3 or 4 times daily.”

A hopelessly mundane book on a completely boring (or disgusting) subject ... only a section, two-thirds of the way through and seamlessly incorporated into the binding, details a dire prophecy or other warning, deliberately hidden there by the creator of the book.

Canon of Proportions: “If you place a spherical body between various objects - that is to say with sunlight on one side of it, and on the other a wall illuminated by the sun, which wall may be green or of any other color, while the surface on which it is placed may be red, and the two lateral sides are in shadow - you will see that the natural color of that body will assume something of the hue reflected from those objects.”

A massive series of notebooks, unmistakably in the hand of a renowned artist or scientist (despite being written in an odd mirror-image script), demonstrating that -- unknown to contemporary scholarship -- she was a genuine polymath, in complete command of many sciences and fields of study.  Included are many examples demonstrating that she invented certain things centuries before they became known to the culture - as well as some inventions not yet known to science.  Plainly they were compiled as a galley proof before publication, but there is nothing to indicate why they never were published.

Canticles of the Rose City: “Gandeleyn lokyd hym est and west, Be euery syde: ‘Hoo hat myn mayster slayin? Ho hat don this dede? Xal I neuer out of grene wode go Til I se sydis blede.’”

An epic song cycle -- or great work of fiction -- beloved in the present day ... and proving that it was written many centuries before its attribution to the person everyone had believed all this time was the author.

Casca the Mercenary: “XVII Kalends Sextilis: ... so when the whipping was done and that poor hook-nosed chap with the cross was dragged down the street, I sent Julia out to mop the blood off the cobbles - I’ve had poor business enough this week without that!  Marcian says the criminals will be nailed up just after noon, poor bastards.  I think I’ll go watch.  Aemilia came by at last - she’s newly betrothed to a fine young fellow ...”

A diary of someone ordinary, but who was witness to some significant historical event and has some startling eyewitness details (or, alternately, who just lived in a particularly extraordinary era).  There may be several such diaries, all from correspondents living in the same period, referencing some of the same events.

Dictionary of Forgotten Things: “There are fifty-four cities in the island, all large and well built, the manners, customs, and laws of which are the same, and they are all contrived as near in the same manner as the ground on which they stand will allow.  The nearest lie at least twenty-four miles’ distance from one another ...”

An atlas describing an unknown land in exhaustive detail, an encyclopedia with entries of people, events and/or creatures with which scholarship is unfamiliar.  The punchline is that these are fictional, intended to be fantastic inventions.  (I’ve noted that many players of fantasy RPGs have a hard time conceptualizing the notion of not-real myth and fantasy within their own gameworlds’ cultures.)

Dr. Chase’s Receipt Book: “Moisten a sponge with oil extract of paraffin, roll it in fine powder of borax, and push it onto the wound for several hours daily.  Make sure that the band holding it to the limb is of undyed, unbleached muslin or linen.  For an obstinate case, use an insufflation of powdered vegetable charcoal.”

A large book stuffed with old, forgotten techniques for a field (or several fields) of science, industry or magic which went out of vogue for economic, cultural or technical reasons.  The reasons no longer apply, due either to changing viewpoints, scientific advances or other factors: for example, a useful herbal preparation that ceased to be employed because of wide access to a substitute herb, one no longer in cultivation.

Gingerbread: “4 Kelusse: Dawn - No change.  8 AM - Golden light in the southern sky, tinged with green.  10 AM - Light much reduced.  Noon - Golden light completely vanished.  2 PM - No change ...”

A book of detailed research, compiling events and patterns pertaining to then-current events.  It was plainly a work-in-progress compilation, without evident conclusion ... then.  Subsequent well-known events and/or history complete the pattern, and it would make much more sense to a researcher now.

Gnostic Bible: “I said to the savior, ‘High One, will all the souls be led safely into pure light?’ She answered and said to me, ‘These are great matters that have arisen in your mind, and it is difficult to explain them to anyone except those who are enlightened.’”

An entire book -- or collection of chapters, tales and/or essays -- devoted to one of the world’s leading faiths ... and which completely contradict several major doctrines of that faith, or introduce doctrines hitherto unknown to it.  The work may have been excised from the canon centuries ago as apocryphal.

History of Cardenio: “Fabian. Your master is wondrously distracted. / Giraldo. I believe so, sir, but I have ceased to wonder at his wondering wanderings. / Fabian. Why? / Giraldo. It seems to be his habitual manner after escaping away from any damsel's chamber.”

The text of a long-lost play (or novel) popularly attributed by literary scholars to the greatest author in the culture’s canon ... unfortunately, there are enough stylistic differences in the actual text to place the authorship in doubt.  Or is it, indeed, the true author’s voice, and if so, where does that leave his known corpora of tales?

Libri Sibyllini: “To cast the Blaze of Glory, it is well to have long fingers, up to one shaftment at the maximum length.  This is necessary in order to attain the perfect flow for the second and seventh passes of the left hand ...”

An ancient book of magic describing new spells or new techniques for casting them.  However, the book was written before the long centuries perfected contemporary sorcery, and the book makes some dangerously flawed presumptions, subsequently discarded, as well as using long-forgotten units of measurement.  Alternately, there are spells within far more powerful than their present-day analogues ... and far more dangerous and uncontrollable as well.
Meretricum Vita: Some who were formerly convicted of heresy, and whom I confuted at the Council of Warwik, have dared to write to your Reverence that my opinions are neither orthodox nor in agreement with the Consistory. ‘The wife surprised me, coming up suddenly, did find me embracing the girl with my hands in her coats, and indeed I was with my mortar in her pestle. I was at a wonderful loss upon it and the girl also.’  What about this monstrosity merits anything beyond our calumny?” 

A legendary R-rated work -- whether fiction or non-fiction -- that was suppressed by the Powers-That-Be and has previously survived only in fragments, angrily quoted in more “decent” works as examples of the original’s immorality.

Mother Shipton Predictions: “The world to an end shall come, in eighteen hundred and eighty one.”

A book of collected prophecies from a “soothsayer” celebrated in ancient times, but long since discredited as a charlatan or madman.  The degree to which all the prophecies are useless is, of course, up to the GM ...

Pneumatica: “Let us now proceed to construct the necessary instruments, beginning with the less important, as from the elements. The following is a contrivance of use in pouring out wine. A hollow globe of bronze is provided, such as A B (fig. 6) pierced in the lower part with numerous small holes like a sieve ...”

Descriptions of scientific apparatuses which can be readily made by contemporary technology -- including steam engines, vending machines, wind-powered machinery, reciprocal pumps and the like -- but are unknown to, or forgotten by, current culture.

The Secret History: “When she had bared her nakedness, she would sink down to the stage floor and recline on her back. Slaves to whom the duty was entrusted would then scatter grains of barley from above onto the calyx of this passion flower, whence geese, trained for the purpose, would next pick the grains one by one with their bills and eat.”

A history of well-known events by a noted historian of the period ... only describing all the salacious, ribald and even obscene details he left out of his “official” history.  A litany of infidelities, crimes, backstabbings and betrayals, often from individuals held out to be blameless (or even prominent culture heroes) in standard historical canon.

Tironian Notes: “Sdn at fst rfsd Agn he tld hr of th hm in whch y wld lv, th rch frs + ivry ncklcs th he wld gv hr ...”

It’s not so much that the book is in an ancient language; it’s that it’s written in what was apparently a standard shorthand of the day, which removes many vowels and makes heavy use of abbreviation and then-current idiom, rendering translation extremely difficult.

Tombs of the Kings: “Seventh Fane, Eleventh Sepulchre - here was interred Lady Arathena Elyanwe, illegitimate daughter of Prince Alveron II, buried in a kimono of sapphire blue embroidered in gold and green, also with a sapphire set in a platinum ring, and holding a kidskin bound Canon of Changes, while ...”

An immense, dry work, listing in exhaustive detail every tomb of every noble in the land, the biographies of said nobles, every item placed in every tomb, down to the middle names of the daughters-in-law of the masons who mortared up the tomb entrances ... that sort of thing.  The vast majority of these tombs are well-known and looted ages ago ... but one obscure section references some no one has heard of before.  Right under the current sprawling royal palace, somewhere.  And there are two pages torn out of the book.

Wyzards, Ye Care & Feeding Of: “I demanded he give me cheese.  He glared at me, then turned back to scratching that paper with the feather.  Useless master, I served him out by performing my relievements in his bin of enchanted spices -- Worthless spirit, keep on writing my words or I shall bite you.”

A somewhat jocular diary/owners’ manual of wizards, written from the point of view of a familiar.  The kicker is that although the book is many centuries/millennia old, the authoring familiar is known to the party -- either the familiar of a wizard they know, or the familiar of the party wizard -- and the book is either unmistakably in the familiar’s speech patterns, or else describes the familiar accurately enough to make an identification.

Contes de la Mere Oye: “My father, he died - but I can’t tell you how / But he left me six horses to drive on my plough / With a wimmy lo, wommy lo! / Wimmy lo!  Wommy lo! / Jack sing saddle oh!”

The original manuscript for a commonly known children's book of rhymes and/or folktales -- apparently in the author’s own hand -- but upon close examination, has some significant differences from the modern-day text.  The book is also heavily annotated in the margins, in the same hand, which indicates that the author’s intent is something else entirely: a prophecy, a satire of contemporary political events or persons, secret arcane knowledge, and the like.

Freedom and Necessity: “You must choose how you, and even I, proceed now ... for I cannot.  I have trusted in that natural reserve and discretion that I know to be so strong in you, dearest Cousin, to keep the source and contents of this letter from the knowledge of any other, unless the time and company be such to recommend their revelation.”

An epistolary work, purporting to be the correspondence of two famous -- or infamous -- individuals, not otherwise known to have had a romantic relationship, but clearly indicated to have had a torrid one indeed.

The Music Lesson: “I met up with the Khibil around dusk, and we went over the plan again.  That took a half hour, no more.  Then we sat in the bar, saying nothing.  There were dancers, but the Khibil just sneered.  I guess he wasn’t much for that kind of stuff.”

A diary detailing the theft of several works of art, magical artifacts or crown jewels, well known to the modern-day world.  The problem is threefold: first, they are not known to be stolen; second, a plainly ancient book has details and elements that fit only in modern-day times; third, the author (or another principal character) is known to the party -- the description is unmistakable -- but with a completely different personality than that depicted in the book.

Physiologus: “The shark is an amphibious animal: that is to say, it does not take in water, but breathes and sleeps and brings forth on dry land - only close to the shore - as being an animal furnished with feet; it spends, however, the greater part of its time in the sea and derives its food from it, so that it must be classed in the category of marine animals.”

A bestiary which describes known monsters and/or animals, with a lot of the details not only being wrong (or just differing from conventional wisdom) but glaringly so.  Many other setting details are surprisingly off-kilter as well ... to phrase things in 21st century terms, “Iowa” is situated by the sea, the “Grand Canyon” is north of Canada, and the “raspberries” given as the favorite food of sparrows are bright green and the size of softballs.

Trebatius Testa: “If any evil into which one has made, it is the right song and judgment. Let it be, if any man be evil, but if any man be good?  I deny any praise to the Emperor, for he knows the difference no more than does a swine!”

A play, story, ballad or other work of fiction, known to modern-day connoisseurs, which appears to be in this case the prototype of the work.  In the original, it heavily defames the rulers, Beautiful People and/or aristocracy of the period ... and is bowdlerized just as heavily to strip the salient details out in the final version.

Unaussprechlichen Kulten: “I hath dreamed the dreams of the Serpent-Folk, and communed with long-dead reptiles, and eagerly watched through the Ages the unending sorrows and suffering of mortalkind. I await the day when the hand of doom shall rise, and cast aside the remnants of a jaded, decayed mortalkind: and Those who Crawl and Slither shall again inherit the World.”

A detailed dissertation -- in monograph form, handwritten, even in an era of printing -- of one or more awful Pariah Cults, examining their practices and doctrine in nauseating detail.  Historically correct references to contemporary places and events are given, as well as allusions to how contemporary known figures are Secret Initiates.  The only hitch: the historical record makes no reference to the cult/s at all.  Anywhere.  Completely unknown.


  1. Oh! These are great!
    Also, quite useful. The players in my BRP game have been on a quest for their faction's librarians... to retrieve a bunch of overdue books. They just received a cart full of random volumes, many/most quite useless. These will be good fodder to inspire and pull from when they finally sit down to look through them...

    1. I did want to avoid cliches ... everyone has the same old Lost Books of Lore, and they're all pretty much the same, barring the ones that are Cursed Cthulhu Mythos Books of Lore. I wanted archetypes of lost lore with a little twist beyond the "Oh, cool, ancient secrets!" riff.

      Credit where credit is due: my wife Amanda enthusiastically pitched in and came up with several of these. Beyond that, the names attached to many of the archetypes come from real books of the appropriate archetypes - Cardenio, for instance, was one of the two "lost plays" of Shakespeare, until a (somewhat suspect) text was unearthed in the 70s.