They were a chance assembly of people who all happened to have some curious story current in their own family or neighbourhood which had puzzled them, and deserved (as they conceived) further investigation. Each had supposed that his own particular problem was a unique one, and was surprised when he found someone else with a similar or parallel story. It was the discovery that there were so many such tales abroad, far more than anyone had expected, which induced the original founders of the society to form themselves into a club for the investigation and testing of alleged manifestations of the supernatural.
— Sir Charles Oman, “The Old Oxford Phasmatological Society,” JSoc.Psych.Res. 33:622-23 (March-April, 1946)
In his ghost story “The Mezzotint,” M.R. James mentions “the Phasmatological Society” in passing. Often dismissed by Jamesian scholars as another of the master’s fertile inventions, this real ghost-investigating group was founded at Oxford University around 1874 (Oman recalls the date as October 29, 1879, but other sources differ). It continued operating at least until 1886, at some point establishing a chapter in London. The Society appeared in the London Truth as late as 1894; its members included the military historian Sir Charles Oman, Lord Haldane, the Bishop of Gloucester, and other eventually eminent personages.
They were less eminent as Oxford undergraduates, of course, though still quite well connected. The player characters might be such dilettante investigators, following up on the kind of tales James’ narrators recount as having safely occurred in earlier days or on queer stories that happen to their own peers or dons. The real Phasmatological Society took testimony from ghost witnesses and other paranormal experiencers, and then investigated the reports. Player character Society members might even investigate earlier James stories themselves, letting the GM invent sequels to the various horrors, or follow up on clues left by their great forefather the clergyman, philosopher, and ghost-breaker Joseph Glanvil (1636-1680). Like James’ protagonists, they encounter treasure hunts, cryptograms, mazes, and other puzzles with the clues hidden in church architecture or manor house bookshelves.
Jamesian adventures can take place entirely in the Victorian milieu of the original Phasmatological Society, of course, or in James’ own Edwardian era. A revived (or covertly continued) Society might investigate ghosts in the Trail of Cthulhu 1930s; its antiquarian membership makes ideal foils, marks, or clients for the Bookhounds of London. A swinging ’60s mod-occultist scene follows the guru and impresario “Chorazin” in London and San Francisco (FoDG, p. 304), and a modernized Society could emerge in Soho, Chelsea, or Berkeley to investigate the phasmatic wreckage in his wake. (Use the Activist or Scholar backgrounds; FoDG, p. 044.) The modern-day Phasmatological Society makes an ideal framing device for Fear Itself adventures or a cover group for an Ordo Veritatis “station-watch” squad hunting Esoterrorists.
A Pleasingly Random Ghost
Jamesian ghosts, while nicely tailored to their individual stories, don’t have any determinable order or logic to their abilities. In GUMSHOE mechanical terms, they have one to three Abilities: Aberrance (for all ghosts), Health, and and Scuffling (the last two for material, materialized, and possessing ghosts). All ghosts can spend Aberrance for minor effects such as cold spots, poltergeist activity, weird noises, and so forth; such effects cause damage or other mechanical effects, if any, equal to the spend.
Their ratings depend on their power, which is measured in dice. Most Jamesian entities have two dice in each Ability; minor ghosts have only one die in each Ability; major specters such as Count Magnus have three or even four dice in each. Each time the ghost appears, roll its dice in each Ability; the total is the pool it has available for that night. All Abilities fully refresh each sunset unless the ghost is exorcised or otherwise destroyed (usually by burning its remains).
Roll the ghost’s highest dice pool, take the highest two dice rolled, and divide the total result among its Alertness, Stealth, and Stability Loss bonuses. (Jamesian ghosts deal heavy Stability Loss penalties, as a rule.) For one-die ghosts, roll one die, add +1, and divide the result as above.
Roll one die on one Power table for each die in the ghost’s abilities. The number after the Power name is its Aberrance cost to use. A one-die entirely immaterial (Aberrance-only) ghost probably only rolls on the Oppressive Powers table, but the GM might pick a suitable power from one of the other tables if desired. Ghosts with any dice in Health or Scuffling can automatically materialize once in a scene for 2 points of Aberrance, even without the Materialize power. Those ghosts also roll one die and split the result between attack damage bonus (default is +0) and defense bonuses while material (expressed as minuses to damage). Materialized ghosts almost always have the Corpse quality (damage halved, shotguns do 2 pts, firearms do 1 pt).
1 Disgusting Touch (2): foe must make a 6-point Stability (Difficulty 5) test to touch or when touched by the being during the scene
2 Disquieting Touch (1): attack using Scuffling, damage (+0) comes off Stability
3 Foetor (0): Forces a 5-point Health test (Difficulty 5) in close combat
4 Freezing Terror (1): attack using Aberrance, damage (d+0) comes off Stability
5 Grapple (2): forces test of its Aberrance or Scuffling vs. foe’s Athletics or Scuffling; if foe fails, foe cannot escape for a number of rounds equal to margin of success and their Hit Threshold drops to 2
6 Materialize (2): may materialize to make physical attacks (damage comes off Health) with Scuffling, spend 2 again to dematerialize into foul vapor immune to material attacks
1 Abduction (2): may carry (or Apport, if it also has that power) an unconscious or Grappled victim to one pre-ordained place (usually its grave)
2 Apportation (1): may teleport to its own death site, gravesite, image, and/or name
3 Familiar (1): may appear as, or operate through, a rough beast such as a cat, owl, rat, spider, or similar creature
4 Follow Victim (1): automatically follows target; spend only required when victim changes conveyance or significant direction
5 Inhabit Matter (2): may possess and animate organic matter such as linen sheets, wood carvings, trees and vines, corpses, etc. with a Health pool either equal to the ghost’s Health or to 1d per point of Aberrance spent
6 Spider Climb (1): can climb up walls (if ghost is immaterial, applies to inhabited matter, familiars, or ghost in materialized form)
1 Confusion (2): on a failed Stability test, target is dazed or struck forgetful
2 Create Darkness (1-3): increases Difficulty of visual tests (including Hit Thresholds) in the area by amount spent; spend of 3 further increases Difficulty of all Stability tests by +1
3 Desolate Cry (1): triggers 3-point Stability test in hearers
4 Oppression (1): lowers victim’s Stability pool by 1, cannot be refreshed by normal rest, usable once per week
5 Send Nightmare (1): triggers 4-point Stability test in one victim
6 Terrifying (2): +2 to Difficulty of Stability tests