The Alexandrian

Hack & Slash posted On the Visual History of the Illithid the other day and pointed out that, in the original Monster Manual, the portrait of the mind flayer was surrounded by an irregular octagon that was completely unique within that tome:

Mind Flayer - Monster Manual (1977)

“Although several creatures in the monster manual have borders, most are square. Only two other creatures, the Bugbear and Type V demons have octagonal borders and both of their borders are more regular. Each pane of the mind flayer border is of a different length, no two matching.” Which feels oddly appropriate, given the dimension-rending origins of the mind flayer in many versions of their mythos.

I was struck by the idea that you might be able to take that octagonal border and turn it into an iconic symbol or badge. An Icon of the Flayer. A couple dozen minutes of fiddling around in Photoshop gave me this:

Icon of the Flayers

Second Maiden's Tragedy

A fellow by the name of John Warburton was once a huge fan of Elizabethan theater. He spent a great deal of time collecting original manuscripts of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays. By the time he was done, he had most likely accumulated the largest and most impressive such collection in the known world.

One day, John Warburton sat down to enjoy a nice pie that his cook had prepared for him. Stuck to the bottom of it he found a piece of paper with Elizabethan handwriting on it.

His cook had been tearing pages off the scripts and used them to cook pies on. And she’d been doing it for years. According to Warburton, dozens of scripts had been destroyed by his illiterate cook.

It’s a tale so horrifying that it could very easily be true.

Some, perhaps shying away from the idea of a cultural conflagration infinitely more pathetic than the Library of Alexandria, suggest that Warburton may have simply invented the story in order to claim greater treasures than he had ever truly possessed. But whatever the case may be, very few Elizabethan or Jacobean play scripts have survived to the modern day. The vast majority of the plays which have survived (including all of those commonly ascribed to Shakespeare) have done so in editions published during the 16th and 17th centuries shortly after they were originally performed. (The academic slogan of “publish or perish” has never rung quite so true.)

It should perhaps be noted at this juncture that the search for original Elizabethan play manuscripts is not merely an endeavor to fill reliquaries with interesting bits of historical trivia: Finding an author’s original manuscript would obviously and immediately resolve dozens or even hundreds of textual problems introduced by the text’s imperfect transmission through scribes and printers. (In cases where a text’s lineage can be tracked, it’s possible to trace the slow accumulation of its errors, like a game of Telephone played in slow motion across decades of history).

But of perhaps equal importance is the fact that in an era before ubiquitous printing and copying, plays were produced from handwritten scripts: Scribes would prepare a fair copy of the author’s foul papers. And then additional scribing would prepare handwritten sides for each actor (listing their cues and their lines).

These handwritten documents were the heart of Elizabethan theater. And the few of them that survive provide an invaluable and unique insight into how that theater operated.

The play most often referred to as The Second Maiden’s Tragedy survived to the 20th century only as a handwritten document. It was among those texts which survived Warburton’s cook, apparently being professionally bound by Warburton along with several other scripts into a volume which is now referred to as Lansdowne 807 in the collection of the British Museum.

And this script does, in fact, provide invaluable insight. For example, the reason the play is referred to as The Second Maiden’s Tragedy is because King James’ censor, George Buc, wrote on its back page:

This second Maydens tragedy (for it hath no name inscribed) may wth the reformations be acted publikely. 31 Octobr.
1611. /. G. Buc.

And throughout the script we can see the “reformations” (i.e. censorship) of Buc, and the exact ways in which he modified the play both in terms of form and content.

The script also served as the promptbook for the King’s Men. This tells us a lot about how much recorded detail the Jacobean theater felt was necessary for staging and re-staging a play, but it also tells us about how prompters wrote their cues and the physical format of the script (which can, in turn, tell us something about what Jacobean printers were looking at as they set the type for a playscript and, by extension, what information can be gleaned from the printed copies of those plays). For example, we can identify the play as having belonged to the King’s Men because the names of several actors have been written into the script’s cues by the prompter. This might seem like a small thing, but beyond its immediate import in terms of identifying the place of The Second Maiden’s Tragedy in history, it can inform in a broader sense.

In Romeo & Juliet, for example, there is a stage direction in the earliest printed versions of the play which reads “Enter Will Kemp”. Will Kemp was the name of the clown worked for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and for many years it was not uncommon to see commentators on the play conclude that Shakespeare wrote his characters with specific actors in mind (since he had referred to the character by the name of actor he intended to play him). It is certainly possible (and even likely) that Shakespeare did so. But as we can see from The Second Maiden’s Tragedy, it’s just as possible (and even likely) that Kemp’s name was added to the script by the prompter.

Another interesting feature of the Second Maiden’s Tragedy manuscript is the method of deletion: Although often individual words and lines will be struck out (in a familiar manner), longer passages (and some shorter ones) are frequently marked for deletion (by both the censor, the prompter, and the scribe) by simply placing a large X in the margin next to the offending text.

Turning to Romeo & Juliet again, we can find in the original printed versions of the text numerous passages which contain strange repetitions. For example, in Act IV, Scene 1, Friar Lawrence tells Juliet:

Then as the manner of our country is,
In thy best robes uncover’d on the bier
Be borne to burial in thy kindreds’ grave:
Thou shall be borne to that same ancient vault
Where all the kindred of the Capulets lie.

But with The Second Maiden’s Tragedy as our guide, we can hypothesize what happened. One of these lines was marked for deletion, but the mark for deletion was ignored (or misunderstood) by the compositor responsible for typesetting the play. The passage should be properly read as:

Then as the manner of our country is,
In thy best robes uncover’d on the bier
Be borne to burial in thy kindreds’ grave:
Thou shall be borne to that same ancient vault
Where all the kindred of the Capulets lie.

(This is a smaller example. Other examples in Romeo & Juliet can run to half a dozen verse lines or more before restarting.)

In short, The Second Maiden’s Tragedy is a fascinating document. It’s one which has been periodically picked up, examined, and re-examined countless times over the centuries since it was first written. But in the 1990′s, interest in The Second Maiden’s Tragedy suddenly spiked to a fever pitch.

And it was all because of a man named Charles Hamilton.

Go to Part 2

Originally posted August 2010.

A hodgepodge of updates about the site that you may find useful.


Many, many moons ago I updated the Alexandrian to WordPress. One of the things that got lost during that transition were the old index pages (like this one for RPG-related content). I was hoping to rebuild them quickly, but it turned out to be time-consuming and WordPress wasn’t friendly towards the formatting and… well, it didn’t happen.

It still hasn’t happened. But I have added a couple of indices that you may find useful: Gamemastery 101 (featuring links to the various adventure design essays, the Art of Running articles, open game table stuff, and Random GM Tips) and RPG Scenarios (including original scenarios and remixes for D&D, Gamma World, Orkworld, and Eclipse Phase). Links to these can also be found in the sidebar on the right.

I do try to make robust use of tagging and categories. Hopefully those, combined with the search function, will help you find other stuff quickly. But the primary utility of the indices is to make it easy for new readers to find the “big” stuff quickly, so hopefully I’ll find time to do more of these in the near-ish future.


I’ve added a Twitter feed to the right sidebar. If you’re also a twitterer, I would like to encourage you to do the thing where you stalk me online (or follow me or whatever). I don’t know if I’ll be saying anything as interesting as “the piercer is now the juvenile form of the roper”:


But if you find the things I say here vaguely interesting, you might find the things I say on Twitter vaguely amusing.


A few years back I ran a theater company called the American Shakespeare Repertory. Our primary project was the Complete Readings of William Shakespeare and while running that project I wrote a number of (hopefully elucidating) essays and posted them to ASR’s website. In the near-ish future, I’ll be shutting down ASR’s old website, so I’ll be transferring this old Shakespeare-related content here to the Alexandrian in the form of “Shakespeare Sundays” over the next several months.

Eternal Lies - Will Hindmarch, Jeff Tidball, and Jeremy KellerThe effect of prolonged exposure to extreme temperatures in Trail of Cthulhu is very straight-forward: Investigators are considered to be hurt, resulting in them suffering a +1 difficulty on all tests.

The designers of Eternal Lies had a desire to make exposure to extreme heat more mechanically interesting and they introduced a rudimentary heat track. I found their treatment interesting, but wanted something a little more robust (particularly when it came to treatment and recovery). These mechanics are specifically designed for desert travel.

(They’re also not exactly “untested”, but I don’t have a series of posts called “minimally tested”, so here we go.)


0. Not suffering heat.

1. Can only make spends after first resting for 10 minutes (to gather their thoughts and spirits).

2. Difficulty of contests +1 (including hit thresholds).

3. Difficulty of tests at +1.

4. Can only make 1 spend per day and must make it in the morning after a good night’s sleep, before the day’s temperatures begin to rise.

5. Cannot make any spends.

6. Can only refresh 1 Health per day. If Heat Track would advance, it remains at 6 but character suffers 1 damage.


Desert Travel: +1 Heat track per day. Characters who traveled during the day are considered to be under extreme heat conditions for the purposes of treating heat.

Camping: Characters who take a rest from traveling by camping for one full day are considered to be in favorable conditions for the purposes of treating heat.

Oasis: An oasis or similar place of significant respite may be considered “controlled conditions” for the purposes of treating heat.


A given character can be treated for heat once per day.

First Aid/Medicine in favorable conditions to prevent advancement or reduce position on the heat track by 1.

First Aid/Medicine (difficulty 3 + heat track) in extreme heat conditions to prevent advancement or reduce position on the heat track.

First Aid 1 / Medicine 1 in controlled conditions to bring an investigator back to 0.

Trail of Cthulhu – Cheat Sheet

September 29th, 2014

Trail of Cthulhu - System Cheat Sheet

(click here for PDF)

I’ve done several of these cheat sheets now, but for those who haven’t seen them before: I frequently prep cheat sheets for the RPGs I run. These summarize all the rules for the game — from basic action resolution to advanced combat options. It’s a great way to get a grip on a new system and, of course, it also provides a valuable resource at the table for both the GMs and the players. (For more information on the procedure I follow when prepping these cheat sheets, click here.)

This set of cheat sheets is for Kenneth Hite’s Trail of Cthulhu. I’ve talked about the GUMSHOE system in past, including what I consider to be its flaws and limitations. Have I been converted? Hmm… not exactly, but I’m not going to get into it here. (Partly because I want to let those thoughts finish baking before sharing them.) So why have I prepped a system cheat sheet for the game? Well, partly because Hite’s really good at what he does: The Stability/Sanity mechanics are fantastic (particularly the metagame methods of playing out long-term madness). And the method used to present the Mythos by treating it as a catalog of mysterious possibilities instead of an encyclopedia of cemented facts is just flat-out excellent and is possibly enough to recommend purchasing the core rulebook even if you never intend to play the game at all.

Trail of Cthulhu: Eternal Lies - Will Hindmarch, Jeff Tidball, and Jeremy KellerBut the major reason is Eternal Lies, a mega-campaign designed for the game by Will Hindmarch, Jeff Tidball, and Jeremy Keller. My great love for The Masks of Nyarlathotep and the influence it had on my node-based approach to scenario design may be well-known to readers of the Alexandrian, and Eternal Lies, while having very little directly in common with that campaign in terms of setting or plot, manages to capture perfectly almost everything that I love about its structure while, in my opinion, improving the actual content within that structure. I’ll also be talking more about Eternal Lies at some point in the near future, but the key element here is that it’s prompted me to run an entire Trail of Cthulhu campaign and that means I need a cheat sheet.

Which means that you get a cheat sheet, too.


I keep a copy of the system cheat sheet behind my GM screen for quick reference and also provide copies for all of the players. Of course, I also keep at least one copy of the rulebook available, too. But my goal with the cheat sheets is to summarize all of the rules for the game. This consolidation of information eliminates book look-ups: Finding something in a half dozen or so pages is a much faster process than paging through hundreds of pages in the rulebook.

The organization of information onto each page of the cheat sheet should, hopefully, be fairly intuitive. The actual sequencing of pages is mostly arbitrary.

Page 1: The core mechanics coupled to a list of the investigative and general abilities. Being able to rapidly identify pertinent investigative abilities that might be able to pull information out of a scene is pretty much the heart and soul of the GUMSHOE system, so I put these lists front-and-center for easy reference during play.

Pages 2-3: I’m not 100% satisfied with the sequencing of information on these pages. (For example, the stuff on “Explosives” should conceptually come under “Combat Options” instead of proceeding it.) But I made some compromises to make everything fit onto two pages instead of three, and in actual play this doesn’t seem to have a significant impact on ease of reference.

Pages 4-5: Similarly, my original intention was to get all the Stability and Sanity rules on one page, but they just don’t fit. So Sanity spills over onto its own page, but fortunately the remaining space is filled up nicely with the rules for Tomes and Magic.

Page 6-7: I knew the “Explosives” table was going to be part of the cheat sheet as soon as I read it in the rulebook. (Explosives may not come up frequently, but that table is too finicky for me not to want it at my fingertips whenever it comes up in play.) I wanted the references for “Credit Rating” handy because it felt important to keep that contextualized. The page on “Firearms” got added later based on the fact that I kept reaching for it during actual play.


These cheat sheets can also be used in conjunction iwth a modular, landscape-oriented GM screen (like the ones you can buy here or here).

Personally, I use a four-panel screen and use reverse-duplex printing in order to create sheets that I can tape together and “flip up” to reveal additional information behind them. My Trail of Cthulhu screen currently looks like this:

  • Page 1: Basic Mechanics (Credit Rating/Explosives printed on the opposite side, Firearms behind it).
  • Page 2: Basic Combat (with Physical Injury/Recovery/Other Danggers behind it).
  • Page 3: Stability
  • Page 4: Sanity/Tomes/Magic

I hope you find them useful!

Trail of Cthulhu - Kenneth Hite



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