Archives in RPGs: Candela Obscura
Author's Note: This article will be utilizing information provided in the Candela Obscura Quickstart Guide as well as the narrative roleplay in Candela Obscura Chapter 2, Episode 2 - Flesh and Blood. This article may be updated following the publication of the core rules book or the airing of subsequent actual play episodes.
Is it really horror unless you have an archives?
Seriously, horror as a genre loves a research montage or some kind of academic justification for the nightmarish events taking place. Cosmic horror especially loves to twist the knowledge-gathering scenario and turn it back on the people with the audacity to believe they can know that which is unknowable.
Sitting at the crossroads of these narrative aspects is Candela Obscura, one of the recent ventures by Darrington Press, the publishing arm of Critical Role, to create an RPG system completely divorced from 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons and the world of Exandria. Designed and written primarily by Spenser Starke and Rowan Hall, Candela Obscura is an Edwardian cosmic horror setting built on the bones of Blades in the Dark's mechanics - or as the quickstart guide calls it, Illuminated Worlds.
The Candela Obscura Quickstart Guide (QSG) does a good job of laying out the history, setting, and general mechanics of the Fairelands. It's a world dealing with the aftermath of a great war, one that struggles with economic disparity, immigration, technological advances, and all of the messy human emotions and actions that result from such whirlwind events. Oh, and there's a dimensional rift called the Flare that bleeds into the world causing corruptive magickal phenomena ranging from possessed items to full on creature invasions, depending on how thin the barrier is between worlds.
Candela Obscura serves as a secret organization tasked with investigating, documenting, and ultimately stopping the magickal phenomena before they harm too many people. The organization itself is composed of Lightkeepers tasked with handing out assignments and directing Candela's resources, chapters with local hubs and members set up around the world, and circles within each chapter who carry out the assignments. The quickstart guide makes a point of noting that all chapters have access to "the organization's transdimensional vault, known as the Fourth Pharos." The Fourth Pharos is a lighthouse stronghold within the Flare where vaults store "the most powerful books, artifacts, and phenomena" for safekeeping. It isn't until further along in the guide, past the mechanics and a general portion of the lore, that we learn each chapter house contains its own archives. According to the guide:
Every chapter house—the secret meeting location for each Candela Obscura circle—contains a highly protected collection of books, artifacts, and records. (QSG, p. 14)
I'll give credit where credit is due, the chapter house archives are considered a key asset to the Candela Obscura organization so, at the very least, Starke and Hall have made the archives essential to Candela's operational standards. But that's about as far as it goes. Unfortunately, we've yet to see anyone use the archives in the actual plays that air on Critical Role's Twitch and YouTube channels.
In the first chapter, featuring the Circle of the Vassal & the Veil players Laura Bailey, Ashley Johnson, Anjali Bhimani, and Robbie Daymond and GM'd by Matt Mercer, none of the characters make use of or consider utilizing the archives despite one of them being an eccentric academic. Eccentric academics usually love archives in these types of settings, but no not an archival curiosity in sight. It isn't until the second chapter with the Circle of the Needle & Thread players Travis Willingham, Marisha Ray, Brennan Lee Mulligan, Zehra Fazal, and Luis Carazo and GM'd by Spenser Starke that the archives are first mentioned. And even then it wasn't until the second episode of a three episode run.
So, what happens with the archives in episode 2, Flesh and Blood? Well, Mulligan's Sean Finnerty, a veteran of the great war suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, volunteers to organize and clean the chapter house archives as a means of distracting himself and offering some other form of contribution as he has no literal home outside of Candela Obscura. He even makes a point of saying he'd be more than happy to dust some shelves if it counted as payment for a roof over his head. Unfortunately, a monster from the Flare bent on revenge infiltrates the chapter house, nearly kills one of the player characters, and cleans out the archives of any powerful goodies. Deducing that the creature has obtained information of another chapter house's location, the Needle & Thread attempt to intervene but find the place wrecked, and another archives cleaned out, upon their arrival.
So much for being "highly protected," huh?
Personally, I would've liked to see one or two items from the archives available for the circle to use. Not only would it give us the audience a glimpse of the types of artifacts that might be housed in any given chapter house archives, but it would also tempt the players to take a huge risk in using the item in their desperation to stop the creature. That said, it's not my game and I respect Starke's restraint when doling out the circle's resources.
There are some context clues to be gleaned from watching the actual play, though this information is strictly limited to the events and roleplay of episode 2. How you and your group use the archives within your campaign shouldn't be dictated by this one example.
Anyway, when Sean decides to go do some cleanup in the archives before the real meat of the episode kicks off, he indicates that he goes upstairs. More points in Candela Obscura's favor, the archives isn't in the basement! It's, at the very least, on the second floor of a chapter house. It's stated, later in the episode, that the layout of the chapter houses are all the same with the facades a reflection of the district where they operate. The QSG doesn't provide a blueprint for the chapter house, so the size and shape of the buildings is up to your imagination and what makes sense for the world.
In the midst of the shit hitting the fan, however, there's an exchange between Mulligan and Starke that indicates there's a part of the archives that Sean can't access, which is restricted to only the circle's Lightkeeper. This is one of the downsides of the actual play as we never get further clarification of the upper floor's layout before the story kicks in. Sean's allowed to help in the archives, but his access is restricted, which implies that there are multiple rooms for archival materials - at minimum one for the mundane records and materials and another for the dangerous magickal stuff. If that's the case, then the Lightkeeper would also have to function as the archivist for the chapter house, right? There's definitely a cataloging process as indicated by the tag attached to Lucas Suarez's teddybear from the previous episode.
Given the information provided, there are some gaps and details regarding the operational functions of Candela Obscura's archives that are worth pointing out. Again, this doesn't mean any campaigns have to follow real world archival practices to the letter. I'm just wrapping my head around how Candela Obscura utilizes archives within its setting.
The QSG states that one of the Notable Figures in the organization, Naomi Malik, is the Conservator of the Fourth Pharos. She and her team are in charge of protecting the vaults and any requests for access to records and artifacts go through her first. So, there are two ways we can look at the term for the job Starke and Hall are describing. One, the archival definition. Conservation within archives, libraries, and museums is concerned with the care, repair, and restoration of materials, which is why it's often combined with preservation practices. I guess if you want to really stretch the meaning of "care," then maybe it could apply to the job description, but I doubt it. Two, the legal definition. A Conservator is someone appointed by the courts as a protector or guardian. Obviously, the latter is what the authors were going for, but I can see how they might have chosen the word to be deliberately ambiguous. Who's to say that the Conservator and her team aren't restoring dangerous items within the relative safety of a transdimensional lighthouse? I don't know their lives!
And I know this sounds nitpicky, but terminology matters in a profession that regularly has people believing archives and libraries are the same thing.
Speaking of transdimensional lighthouses, let's talk about the transfer of knowledge within Candela Obscura. If I'm understanding this correctly, while the organization has a central hub to contain materials in the Fourth Pharos, the active operators in the main setting are chosen ad hoc. It's unclear in the QSG whether or not multiple chapters and circles operate at the same time, but there is a silo mentality baked into Candela Obscura with each chapter acting in isolation. This begs the question: are the archives a collection of the circle's activities or the chapter as a whole?
If every chapter has x-number of members and x-number of circles that can be formed from those members, then that's a lot of records and artifacts being stored in the archives at any given time. How long are they stored in the archives? Can a circle access records and artifacts from previous circles that operated within their same chapter house or are those restricted? Who makes the call to transfer the archival collections to the Fourth Pharos? If the chapters act in isolation, then how would a Lightkeeper or any members of a given circle know to ask for additional materials from the Fourth Pharos vaults? I can appreciate the bureaucracy of submitting a request to Conservator Malik, but if time is of the essence, which it always is, then what's the turnaround on getting access to otherworldly materials?
Again, I'm not saying the core rules book needs to answer these questions, but if you're gonna make up an institution it's usually helpful to know roughly how it functions even if other players might come up with something different. When I see the word archives, it means something because it's my profession. I understand how they work, so I would hate for the authors to have included the term only for it to mean storage. That would the real horror.
But we'll see how things shake out in Chapter 2's finale and whether or not the archives are expanded upon in the fully fleshed out rules book or in the adventures of another circle. Until then, I'll be keeping watch, Candela Obscura. I'll be keeping watch.