Cthulhu, horror, roleplaying, RPGs

London’s Miscellany Society – a setting resource for your Cthulhu Mythos game

The Miscellany Society is featured as a starting point and bond for the characters in my Trail of Cthulhu scenario The Keepers of the Woods. In the scenario, it is really just used as an excuse for how the investigators know each other and the Professor who invites them down to Dartmoor. Here, I intend to expand it into a more fleshed out version that you can feature in your Cthulhu Mythos games. I will provide details of the Society’s property on Museum Street, London, as well as an overview of several of the key persons within the Society’s membership, with tips for how you can incorporate them into your games. The Society is described for the 1930’s, the period in which Trail of Cthulhu is set. However,  little work is needed to convert the locations and background to other periods. No statistics are given for individual characters, so Keepers can devise their own. However, notes for how to portray each named character will also be provided.

Today, I am going to give a little background to the Society, and delve deeper into the bookshop that is associated with its residence near the British Museum.

About the Miscellany Society

The Miscellany Society was established in 1926 as an outlet for discussion of folklore, archaeology, literature and other antiquarian pursuits. It is somewhat ahead of its time in seeking a ‘common ground for the wide variety of miscellany’ within these subjects, providing a forum for spirited, multidisciplinary discussion. While the Society focuses on intellectually stimulating talk and the dissemination of the memberships’ research, it has always had a slight bent for the strange, weird and macabre.

Recently these leanings have dramatically increased, with more and more lectures and discussion forums revolving around esoteric themes. This has been particularly encouraged by George Hurcombe, the Society’s current President, which has lead to spirited arguments and disagreements between some members. Although many welcome this new tangent, others complain that the Society’s reputation in regard to the ‘sensible’ fields of study is being slowly eroded.

The membership features a number of notable individuals hailing from various parts of London society, especially scholars, antiquarians, archaeologists and, increasingly, the occasional occultist, and welcomes applications of membership from like-minded individuals. Meetings and lectures are held regularly, usually at least twice a month, some of which are opened to non-members, who can pay (around 6d) to attend. However, the Society’s accommodations, including its library, are available to members at any time.

The Society can be found at 42-43 Museum Street. The building in which it resides harks back to the Georgian period, although its fascia was redesigned at the time that the British Museum, which stands just up the road, was constructed. The building has four floors plus a basement, although the Society owns only the top three floors. The ground floor and basement are both given over to Wyndham’s Books.

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Wyndham’s Books

The bookshop that lies underneath the Society sells a mixture of antiquarian volumes, the odd overpriced first edition, and titles covering subjects such as archaeology, anthropology and history. It fits in well with the other shops hawking artefacts, coins and other memorabilia from antiquity that cluster around the British Museum, seeking to peek the interests of the visitors to that esteemed locale. Wyndham’s Books certainly contains merchandise that intrigues and excites the customers that pass through its doors, enough so that steady business is done. The store’s clientele are generally of middle to upper class, which is reflected by the stock, and also the prices that are charged.

The store’s proprietor, a stern-faced, white-haired gentleman in his early sixties, goes by the name of Errol Johnson. He is an honorary member of the Miscellany Society due to the service he provides to the membership in helping locate rare volumes for inclusion in their library. Johnson is found to be both civil and helpful to his patrons (especially those with deep pockets), although few who engage with him would call him particularly warm or amicable. He is much more affable with those who show a keen knowledge of books and history, and is likely to engage in extended conversation with them. His knowledge of books and their history is seemingly exhaustive and he can be relied upon to source almost any volume dealing with historical or antiquarian pursuits, though the rarer the books, the more expensive the cost will be.

Johnson also has more than a passing interest in esoterica, and stocks a number of volumes concerning folklore, witchcraft, magick, and so forth. These he keeps in the basement store, away from his main stock, and will only discuss with his most trusted customers. He may also come into possession of the odd artefact, which again he shares only with selected clientele. Due to his honorary membership of the Miscellany Society, a large proportion of these individuals are society members, who may be able to provide references for investigators wishing to peruse this material. Although most of the items in this collection are harmless in nature, there is an occasional chance that Wyndham’s Books will carry something a little more dangerous…

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Inside Wyndham’s Books

Two large windows look out onto Museum Street, behind which can be seen a shop front filled with shelving. Over these there is a large, black sign that provides the shops name in gilt lettering. Smaller letters provide the shop’s original opening as “Est. 1894”. In the window of the green-painted front door hangs a sign that lets customers known whether the shop is open or closed. Anyone entering is announced by the ring of a small, brass bell that hangs from the lintel. The interior is rich with the smell of leather binding, dry paper, and beeswax. The bookshelves are solid constructions of oak, kept lustrous from regular polishing.

Although the store appears at first overstuffed with shelves, it quickly becomes obvious that there is a logical order to how it is laid out, with subjects clearly labelled and in turn broken down into their individual subcategories. The shelving lines the walls wherever space is available, with additional bookcases standing in the centre of the floor. Each of these reaches from the floor to the ceiling, which stands some eight feet high. As a result, steps are required to obtain items from the top shelves, something that the proprietor is more than happy to do for eager customers. Antique and rare volumes are kept locked in cases to preserve them and prevent casual handling. These can be found next to the L-shaped counter opposite the main entrance, on which always stands a handwritten ledger detailing the days profits and outgoings. Behind this counter is a door leading into the shop’s offices, as well as a set of stairs leading down into the basement.

The offices are a mess of papers, documents and ledgers, quite unlike the regimented shop front. Over forty years of paperwork litters the space, with the main office containing the most recent, while older material is filed away in an anteroom using a system that only Errol Johnson appears to understand.  Stacks of boxes line rickety shelves alongside bulging ledgers containing accounts that stretch back through the decades, as well as lists of acquisitions for each item that has passed through the bookshops door. Despite the apparent disorganisation, Johnson can always locate a specific documentation within a relatively short space of time.

The offices also contains a large leather armchair and a solid oak desk, hidden away under the clutter. The desk contains stationary mainly, but there is usually a few small bundles of recent acquisitions waiting to be processed, wrapped in paper and bound with string. The desk also contains the current ledger accounting for all recent acquisitions to the store. In the far corner, there is a small, black, metal safe, finished with gilt trim. In this, Johnson keeps any money that the bookshop takes, but regularly empties it, being mindful of thieves (though the value of the volumes on his shelf far outweighs what petty cash the store may hold). It may also contain, albeit rarely, more valuable items that  have been procured, often for special orders. These are generally books, although the occasional antiquarian artefact may also be found behind the safe’s sturdy door.

The basement contains the shop’s collection of esoterica – books and artefacts relating to magic and other, strangers pursuits – can only be accessed by the stairs in the store front. Customers are generally prevented from going down these stairs by the counter itself, but the stairs are roped off for good measure. Errol will usually wait until the store is empty of patrons before allowing individuals access to the collections below, turning the sign in the window to declare that the shop is closed. The creaking wooden stairs lead down into a large open space, walled by crumbling brick. Lighting is provided by dim electric lamps hung from the low ceiling. The walls are lined with metal shelving, partly filled with books, cardboard filing boxes, and several metal strong boxes. The latter of these contain Errol’s most valued pieces. Although there is usually nothing that comes close to a true Mythos tome here (usually), the collection provides a wealth of information on magic, witchcraft, and occultism, both in Britain and abroad. However, if the Keeper wishes, they may include minor Mythos books and artefacts amongst the other items in the basement of Wyndham’s Books.

Errol Johnson (Male book dealer, 62)

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Now in his early sixties, Errol established Wyndham’s Books with his business partner, James Wyndham, some forty years ago. Wyndham, being the primary investor, lent his name to the business, but it was Errol’s knowledge of books that allowed the shop to flourish. He is an astute character, able to quickly assess the needs of his customers and provide excellent recommendations on seemingly limited information. He also knows where everything in the shop is with precision, enabling him to locate books with ease.

Physical description:

Errol stands around 5′ 7″ tall. Age has left him stooped, with greying hair cropped close and a balding spot atop his head. A thick, grey-white moustache sits on his top lip that wriggles like a caterpillar when he ruminates on the matter of a valuation, or how to obtain a particular item for a customer. He uses Oxford spectacles for reading purposes and wears a tweed suit and waistcoat, although he often forgoes the jacket and rolls up his shirt sleeves to prevent them being dirtied by his work.

Portraying Errol:

I am a big fan of Graham Walmsley’s guidance for roleplaying NPCs, as ably demonstrated in his collection of Purist adventures for Trail of Cthulhu. Therefore, here are some things to help you portray Errol Johnson:

  • Read documents over the top of your glasses.
  • Uncannily anticipate your customers needs before they have even finished asking a question.
  • Exaggerate moving your top lip around when pondering over something.

Using Errol Johnson in your games

Errol can be used mainly as a source of information, or an individual who can acquire esoteric volumes for the investigators. However, Errol does not have to always be a help to the players. He may resort to underhand means to obtain requested items, leading to the investigators (or even the society) being dragged into these affairs. He may also hire investigators to obtain such items for clients, putting them in dangerous situations, or leaving them to solve the fallout of a customer getting their hands on something that they shouldn’t. You may also wish to use Errol as an antagonist, secretly plotting away at something in the background and using the Miscellany Society as a cover for his activities, as well as a source of willing and interested individuals who can undertake tasks to further his own goals.

Next time…

In a follow up post, I intend to look into describing the Miscellany Society in detail, as well as some of its key members, and provide a description of the Society’s accommodations.

If you have any requests for further information, or you have any questions about this post, please do get in touch!

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