Friday, October 9, 2015

Octhorrorfest: The Elder Sign, Turning the Outer Dark For Old School Fantasy and Horror Games

We all know that the original cleric's "turn undead" ability comes directly from the famous scene in Hammer's Horror of Dracula in which Van Helsing creates a makeshift cross to drive the count back into the sunlight, destroying him.
Turning undead has become a staple in D&D starting at the very beginning. But there is something else, directly from the horror inspirations of Appendix N itself, that allows protection and, possibly turning. I am speaking, of course of the Elder Sign. At the moment, I am only going to focus on the hand gestures and the version of the sigil as referred to by H.P. Lovecraft himself. I am ignoring Derleth's pentagram version outright.

We know that some Elder Signs (yes there are likely multiple) are used to ward of the terrors presented in Lovecraftian fiction.

"In some places they was little stones strewed abaout—like charms—with somethin’ on ’em like what ye call a swastika naowadays. Prob’ly them was the Old Ones’ signs." H.P. Lovecraft, The Shadow Over Innsmouth

"At another house, where people were stirring, he asked questions about the gods, and whether they danced often upon Lerion; but the farmer and his wife would only make the Elder Sign and tell him the way to Nir and Ulthar." -  H.P. Lovecraft, The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath

Here we have a case for the ability of  an Elder Sign, or THE Elder Sign being able to ward off "evil" in some way. One of these is obviously a mark of some sort. It is referenced as being like a swastika. I believe that this means that it is runic in nature, as opposed to a more stylized sigil. The second is obviously a hand sign, and is mentioned as such in other works, though not in a protective manner. This again leads me to believe that there is more than one Elder Sign, but I digress.

One such Elder Sign, and I believe it to be a protective one, is actually drawn by Lovecraft himself in a letter to Clark Ashton Smith.

“Again thanking you in Tsathoggua’s name for the recent shipment, & hoping to see more items from your pen ere long, I append the Elder Sign & the Seal of N’gah, given in the Dark Cycle of Y’hu.”

He then signed his name as “Ec’h-Pi-El” and drew both of the figures mentioned above. We are here only concerned with the Elder Sign. Which he drew this way:

Interestingly, Lovecraft's Elder Sign, IS a way of writing a specific rune! See the chart of FUTHARK Runes below.
The 18th Rune, Berkanan/Bjarkan, when written as "tree script," is a clear depiction of the elder sign. This cipher makes hatch marks denoting the row of the rune on the left side of the "trunk" and the column of the rune on the right. This rune means "Birch" and as such is often related to birth, healing and protection/sanctuary. That's right. The rune that looks like the Elder Sign is a protective rune. Interesting, no? It is no stretch of the imagination to see this Elder Sign as one which can ward of eldritch horrors.
The hand sign (also due to the rune's placement in the FUTHARK "alphabet") is one, I believe which holds three fingers downward (row) and two upward (column.) There is, again, a real world parallel to this. This parallel is the Mano Cornuto, or "Sign of the Horns," which many will recognize as the "Metal Sign." In folklore this has long been believed to ward of evil and curses, such as the evil eye.
Turning the Outer Dark

So, we have this little bit of folk magic to drop into a game. How does it work and what is the ruling on using the Elder Sign for turning creatures of the Outer Dark? Very simple. Any character of any class may attempt to turn the outer dark. Use the cleric's turning table from your chosen game for this. 
When a character attempts to turn and eldritch horror they must first make a "fear save" (use save vs. magic with no modifiers) to pull it together enough to accomplish the task. If they succeed they make the Elder Sign (hand sign) To determine what level the turning is at, take the number that the save is made by and divide it by 2, rounding down. The turn attempt is made at this level. Example, a Shoggoth shambles down the hall toward your thief. The thief makes the Elder Sign and rolls her saving throw. Her save is 13 and she rolls 17. This is 4 higher than the required save. Dividing the result in half, we get a turning level of 2. Roll a D20 on the turning table to see how many hit dice are turned, just as a cleric turning undead. The thief in this instance rolls a 13, allowing her to turn 3 HD worth of eldritch horrors. The Shoggoth has far more hit dice, and is thus unaffected. Very unfortunate for your thief. Hope you had the will on your character sheet filled out.
 Graven Image: The Elder Sign
Now, on to inscribing the sigil form of the Elder Sign. Anyone can create this charm in exactly the same fashion that anyone can use the hand sign. Engraving stone, wood etc, with a successful check of course, will make the amulet effective for 1 day per level of the character who creates it. The Elder sign can be inscribed upon anything. If carried, no eldritch horror (of designated hit dice) may  attack the bearer (unless attacked first, thus negating the properties of the sign.) Additionally, if hung over a threshold, eldritch horrors may not enter into it. A magic-user capable of crafting amulets may also create such a talisman, but the hit dice affected are not rounded down, and the effects of the amulet are permanent unless dispelled.