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Plague of Pulps

by Don Bisdorf

Thousands of years ago, Babylonian sorcerers established contracts with the immaterial beings that modern occultists refer to as the Watchers. From that time forward, any magician who knew the particulars of the contracts could call upon the services of the Watchers.

Generations of magicians have preserved the Babylonian Contracts, guarding them from anyone who lacked the understanding necessary to employ the contracts safely. The magicians who owned these documents always copied them in their original Sumerian language, so that no outsider could decipher them.

Deciphering the Secrets

In 1896, a Philippine secret society known as the Katipunan was planning a revolution to win their country’s independence from Spain. Among their allies was Severino Reyes, a scholar with access to the Spanish government’s collection of occult manuscripts. Reyes stole a copy of the Babylonian Contracts and fled to the Philippines, where he prepared a series of short translations that would allow any reader to evoke the power of the Watchers.

Reyes wrote twenty-one different sorcerous manuals in Tagalog, the language favored by the Katipunan. Each manual was less than twenty pages long and contained the incantations and responses necessary to compel the Watchers to action. The Katipunan distributed several sets of these manuals to various generals and agents before Spanish police discovered the operation and arrested those involved.

In practice, the manuals proved not to be as safe or reliable as Reyes hoped, and it’s unclear whether they affected the course of the revolution beyond producing a few unanswered mysteries and gruesome footnotes. But this was not the end of Reyes’s legacy.

Ten-Cent Grimoires

Reyes’s manuals continued to multiply after the conflict ended. Handwritten and typewritten copies drifted around the globe, translated into language after language, passing into the hands of anarchists, disappearing into the libraries of collectors, or hiding in the pockets of criminals.

By 1910, the term “Manila Manual” had come to stand for any of these copies of Reyes’s work. Many of these documents are nonsense-filled counterfeits, while others are incomplete or inaccurate. Only one out of a hundred will be a true Reyes translation, and the original Katipunan manuals are even rarer. Complete and functional translations of Reyes’s manuals carry as much power and danger as the originals.

A true copy of an original Manila Manual will be in Tagalog. Readers unfamiliar with Tagalog may find this to be an obstacle, but the original Tagalog manuals are the most accurate means of contacting the Watchers other than the actual Babylonian Contracts.

A proper Manila Manual contains a collection of incantations, written phonetically to reproduce the original Sumerian phrases of the Babylonian Contracts. If the reader correctly pronounces the incantations, the Watchers will scratch their responses on the fabric of reality, producing glowing white symbols that hang briefly in the air. These may be counter­-offers or requests for clarification, and the manual will give the reader the necessary incantations to use in reply.

The Manila Manuals

Few people know for certain what all of the manuals were intended to achieve, but some of the rumored powers of the manuals include:

  • Traveling great distances with a single step by leaving the rational confines of our universe.
  • Curing any wound or illness, at the cost of seeing the condition return at some unpredictable time in the future.
  • Summoning a chaotic storm capable of destroying any fortification.

Using a manual requires no magical training, though a strong education may help the reader to comprehend important nuances of the text. A character who wishes to employ a manual must use the Lore skill twice: once to examine the manual and identify any flaws, and once to recite the incantations according to the manual’s instructions.

Examination

A careful magician who finds a Manila Manual should determine its authenticity and accuracy before using it. Even if a manual is genuine, the notes that accompany the incantations may not correctly represent the effects the magician should expect.

The character must study the document for several hours, and then overcome using Lore against Great (+4) opposition. The GM may reduce the opposition if the document is a clumsy forgery, but should not reveal the opposition level to the player.

  • On a failure, the character believes that the document is genuine and will produce exactly the results the document claims.
  • On a tie, the character knows whether the document is genuine or a useless forgery. If the incantations are genuine but will have a different effect than the document claims, the character will not detect this until performing the incantation.
  • On a success, the character knows if the document is genuine, and if so, the character also knows exactly what effect the incantations will produce.
  • Success with style grants the same benefit as a success, and grants a boost the character can use when performing the incantations.

Incantation

The reader uses Lore a second time to recite the manual’s incantations. Opposition for this task may be as low as Fair (+2) if the document is a competent translation. If the document is poorly organized or littered with errors, increase the opposition.

  • On a failure, the PC may choose to either achieve the desired result at a major cost, or may choose to fail with catastrophic results. Failure may be preferable if the cost of success is too terrible to contemplate. The GM should explain the consequences of both options before the PC chooses.
  • On a tie, the PC may choose to achieve success at a minor cost, or produce a slightly inaccurate version of the desired results. For an inaccurate result, the effect might be weaker than desired, or might affect unintended targets, or might include unwanted side effects. The GM should explain the potential cost and inaccurate result before the PC chooses.
  • Success achieves the document’s intended result, which may not be what the reader was expecting, based on the result of prior examination.
  • Success with style allows the PC to adjust the results slightly. The PC might make the effect more potent, or might narrow its scope to prevent collateral damage, or might introduce a delay before the magic takes effect to give allies time to get clear.

Front: It Came from the Newsstand

It’s the year 1913 in Chicago, and Alfonso Petrelli’s newsstand is the place to go for information on the latest current events, or just some cheap entertainment to brighten your evening. Though Petrelli is a short-tempered and suspicious proprietor, his stand is always well stocked with the latest newspapers and dime novels.

He has a few reliable suppliers, and turns away any hopeful peddlers who aren’t already in his good graces. But when a salesman with an odd accent and an armful of magazines approaches him, Petrelli finds that he has bought a dozen in spite of himself. The magazines are strange looking, but Petrelli has paid good money for them, and he intends to earn a profit on them. He places twelve copies of The Words of Doom on his shelves, not suspecting the havoc they will unleash in Chicago.

The Manual

The Words of Doom is a clumsy English translation of one of the original Manila Manuals. On its cover is a drawing of a man wearing a tuxedo, casting rays of energy at a cringing thug in a wrinkled suit. The manual’s introduction explains that it contains magical incantations to utterly destroy a human target.

Examining the document for authenticity is a task with Great (+4) opposition. Success will reveal that the document is genuine, but its true purpose is not what it claims. The manual’s incantations exhort the Watchers to transform the victim into a savage, inhuman monstrosity. The creature will attack anyone it can find and will not stop until someone kills it.

To use the incantations, a character must overcome using Lore against Good (+3) opposition.

  • On a tie, the character may choose to inflict either a mild or delayed transformation. A mild transformation leaves the victim disfigured, but still sane and recognizably human. A delayed transformation produces the full effect at any time from a month to a decade in the future, according to the whims of the Watchers.
  • On a failure, the incantations will either transform a completely unintended target chosen by the GM, or the reader of the manual must herself be transformed.
  • On a success with style, the character reading the manual may specify the first victim the transformed creature will seek out. After this first murder, the creature will be uncontrollable.

Cast

Alfonso Petrelli, newsstand owner; Clement Watts, an unhappy advertising executive who picked up a copy of The Words of Doom on a whim; Dorothy Earle, an overworked salesperson; Anna Scheben and David Holyoke, teenage students with a grudge against a teacher; Lillian Decker, an elderly and powerful occultist who will do anything to possess all copies of the Manila Manuals.

Countdown Clock

12:00-3:00: An anonymous salesman provides Petrelli with twelve copies of The Words of Doom, and then vanishes from the city. Over the course of a few days, Petrelli sells all but three of the magazines.

3:00-6:00: After Dorothy Earle treats Clement Watts rudely at the department store where she works, he decides to use the power The Words of Doom promises him. He stalks Earle after her shift ends, catches up to her at a train station, and uses the manual to transform her. She mauls several people before falling off the platform in front of an oncoming train, which kills her.

6:00-9:00: Lillian Decker arrives in the city, on the trail of the salesman who approached Petrelli. She abducts Petrelli and violently interrogates him to learn who bought the magazines. She leaves him critically wounded in an alley, and starts to hunt for the new owners of the manuals.

9:00-10:00: Anna Scheben and David Holyoke transform their schoolteacher, who goes on a bloody rampage through the school. When the police arrive, the former teacher kills several police officers before they can bring him down.

10:00-11:00: Decker catches up with Scheben and Holyoke and demands The Words of Doom. She is neither polite nor patient, and when the encounter turns violent, she uses her magic to kill them.

11:00-12:00: Decker finds Watts, but he transforms her before she can employ her power against him. Watts is now convinced that he is unstoppable, and continues to use the manual to prey on the many citizens of Chicago he carries a grudge against.

What Is a Front?

A front paces the plots and schemes of villains or the terrible doom awaiting the PCs if they don’t engage with the problems emerging within the setting. Think of a front like a train, hurtling down the tracks toward a brick wall, ready to smash through everything unless the PCs get in the way.

Each front features a countdown clock, a prescriptive and descriptive measure of both what will happen if the front is left unchecked and how much more time is left before the front is fully realized. If the front is ignored, you tick down each section of the clock, until it reaches the doom that awaits the PCs (prescriptive); if something achieves a portion of the front’s future plans early, move the clock directly to that section (descriptive).

As the clock gets closer to midnight, the action becomes more elevated and the stakes become more dire. If the PCs can stop the front early, they may be able to avoid the worst of the consequences; waiting to intervene until the clock is nearly exhausted means that the front will have permanent effects on the setting even if the PCs manage to stop it.

Engaging the Manila Manuals

Finding a Manila Manual is like finding a vial of a deadly plague—with its safety seal broken. If you know what it is, you’ll not only want to handle it with care, but you’ll also want to know who’s been exposed to it and how it’s been used.

They can turn up anywhere. They’re not ominous-looking tomes; they’re lightweight pamphlets, as innocuous as a magazine or comic book. They might be in an executive’s briefcase, or in a secretary’s desk, or on a child’s bookshelf. Wherever you find one, you’re likely to find unexplained deaths and bizarre phenomena.

Here are a few methods you might use to include a Manila Manual in a game scenario.

Quest

The PCs might need to find a specific Manila Manual for a variety of reasons:

  • Someone hired the PCs to find it.
  • The power of the manual will help the PCs achieve another goal.
  • Someone is planning to use the manual, and the PCs must stop him.
  • Someone has already used the manual, and the PCs need to find it so they can reverse its effects.

Difficult Choice

If a PC finds a Manila Manual, it might present a tempting solution to an insurmountable problem. Using the manual might remove an enemy, or might conceal the PC’s misdeeds, or might reveal information. On the other hand, the consequences of reading the incantations can be horrifying, even if the PC performs the ritual correctly. Presenting a choice like this provides an opportunity to explore the limits of a character’s principles, and to confront her with the consequences of her actions.

Clue

A Manila Manual found at the scene of a murder—even an apparently mundane one—might provide a path of investigation. Was the murderer looking for the manual? Does the manual suggest that either the murderer or the victim was an occultist? Is the manual the murder weapon?

Adapting the Manila Manuals

The Manila Manuals are unreliable documents that give easy access to terrible power. Other settings and worlds might have similarly dangerous items in different forms, such as those below.

Superheroes

In the 1970s, a villain named Professor Ultimate placed advertisements in comic books, offering to sell occult instruction manuals for a mere fifty cents. Those who met her price received a randomly selected pamphlet containing the instructions to perform one of several magical feats, such as how to make oneself invisible, or how to gain the power of flight, or how to read minds. The instructions in these pamphlets were genuine, although some had more sinister effects than they claimed. The super­heroes of the era eventually apprehended Professor Ultimate and put an end to her scheme of occult proliferation, but some of her pamphlets escaped destruction, and photocopies, scanned images, and even a few original specimens survive to this day.

Alternate Stunt

Eternal Amulet of Ir: The Council of Ir has deemed you a worthy champion of Earth and has charged you with the task of defending humanity from those who use sorcery for evil. This amulet gives you a +2 bonus to oppose or remove magical effects.

Fantasy

The spellcasting scrolls produced by the ancient sorcerer Xavar are written in a language that is inherently magical, and that anyone—even the illiterate—can read or copy. These scrolls place the powers of a master wizard in the hands of whoever holds them. Unfortunately, copies of Xavar’s scrolls aren’t as dependable as the originals, and reading one may produce unexpected or disastrous results.

Alternate Stunt

Obfuscate: You may use Lore—or another appropriate skill—to place a Magically Scrambled aspect on a document. The text becomes illegible to anyone but you. If you could not read the text before, you still can’t, but no one else can, either. You may actively oppose any attempt to remove the aspect, even if you aren’t present at the time.

Cyberpunk

Just before the Trade Wars of the 2060s, the cybernetics corporation AlphaThought had discovered how to reprogram the human mind to produce psychic abilities. AlphaThought didn’t survive the orbital bombing of their headquarters in Manila, but some of their software did. If you search the right networks on the Grid, you can find a copy, download it through your neural interface, and wake up the next day with telekinesis or clairvoyance. Of course, the AlphaThought project was still in an early testing phase, so the software might have a few glitches. And if you’re downloading a third-hand copy of the original goods, who knows what other malware you might stream into your brain?

Alternate Stunt

Neural Buffer: The Grid is more powerful than the old Internet, but it’s also more dangerous. With this upgrade installed, your neural interface provides an extra mild consequence you can use to absorb stress from malware attacks.