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ColoradoCthulhu

Mythos Spells and Player Characters

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Our group recently completed the "Crimson Letters" scenario from the Keeper's Rulebook and I chose Emilia Court and Abner Wick as co-conspirators. In my version of Crimson Letters, Emilia Court is a witch and a direct descendant of Keziah Mason. After dispatching Ms. Court, the players found 'The Diary of Keziah Mason' which is written in Colonial English and contains two spells that Emilia used during the scenario.

I referenced the 7th edition Grand Grimoire and came up with these two spells which can be learned by one of the characters (there is only one female character in our group) after intensive study of the Diary.

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The Witches Way (only females can cast this version of the spell)

Cost: 12 magic points; 1D8 Sanity points
Casting time: one round

Lets the caster assume the form and capabilities (flight and senses) of a raven, while retaining her intelligence and intentions. Assuming the form of a raven costs 1D8 Sanity points each time, up to a cumulative total of 8. The spell must be cast while the sun is down and its effects only last until the following sunset.

Requires 3 flight feathers from a live Fan-tailed raven (Corvus rhipidurus) as a spell component placed at the caster's bare feet, which are then consumed in a thick smoke shrouding the caster as the incantation is spoken. The smoke dissipates to reveal the caster in raven form.

Return Thee to Safety (only females can cast this version of the spell)

Cost: 5 magic points; 1 Sanity point; (10 POW one-time cost)
Casting time: instantaneous

The caster vanishes in a puff of smoke, to re-appear in a prepared location. The location is defined by creating a single Gate Box. Once the box is prepared, the caster sacrifices 10 POW (a one-time cost) and places elements of her body inside the box (such as blood, teeth, or nails). If these elements are removed and the box purified, the spell will not work, requiring the witch to prepare the box once again (and also repay the POW cost).

When a certain phrase or gesture is performed, the caster is immediately transported to inside the Gate box, wherever it may be. The location of the Gate box might be as far as several hundred miles distant. Presumably the box could be moved without the witch’s knowledge ─ a surprise on her arrival! Each time the caster travels in this manner it costs 5 magic points and 1 Sanity point.

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My concern is giving one of the players magic powers which may then unbalance the game going forward. I've put some limitations on these spells, but I may consider other limitations so that the spells are not used very often. Also, as these are witches' spells (black magic), using the spells may corrupt this character who isn't evil at all.

I'd like to get some input on balance concerns and how these spells may be further limited before I consider allowing the character to study the Diary and learn the two spells.

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Mechanically the balance is delivered by the SAN cost; the character will be aware that each time they cast these spells they're one step further towards a total collapse of their mind. One is also limited by the box as a conduit - how safe from harm is that box when unattended? Who knows about the box? That should play on the character's mind. 

Socially, and it's a brilliant touch having only one investigator able to cast these spells, this character could soon draw some unwanted resentment, suspicion and even envy from other pc investigators. Why is is you that can fly to safety on a whim? You left us to face the beast? What are you becoming? This could be the best balancing method of all. 

On a first glance, those look full of story possibilities.   

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The POW cost is a tremendous cost. The ramification of it is that you could cast that spell just one or two times and make your character completely unable to resist the effects of spells cast on them because of a weak POW.  What will happen is that they will get potentially unbalanced advantages in one or two games and then render themselves very ineffective from then on. That might be a good lesson to learn.

Right now, my players know over a half dozen spells between three characters. And they have only cast one of them once. Because they are too afraid to cast them. And that is exactly how it should be. They know the mechanics consequences of those that they've researched the most. And they've learned spells that they don't fully know the consequences of. There is no rule that says that players are entitled to RAW descriptions of spells. In fact, it is always best if the name used for the spell is completely cryptic and they can't look it up.

Edit:

Here is an analogy. And I'm not trying to patronize you or anything ColoradoCthulhu, so if this is second nature to you, maybe it will help newer Keepers anyway. In D&D, everyone has complete knowledge of all of the rules. As an adventure game, the culture of D&D is about managing resources that you know intimate details about to their fullest. I say "culture" because, although that is what is most common in D&D circles, it doesn't have to be played that way. But it is, I'm sure partly because it also creates a common language that people speak.

Horror investigation is very different. The most fun is had in Call of Cthulhu the less you know. And that particularly means spells. Consider these example exchanges:

Dungeon Master: You find a dusty book on a shelf. Contained within the pages are a spell that you can copy into your spellbook.

Player Character: Cool, which spell?

Dungeon Master: Ray of Frost

Player Character: Cool! *starts looking it up in the book*

Dungeon Master: I got you. It can be cast on a monster up to 120 yards away as an Attack and does 1d10 damage. [I don't know the exact stats.]

[Riveting. Now, that is hyberbolic. And it doesn't have to be done that way. But anyone in the audience who has played D&D knows that this is common, especially among DMs developing skills.]

Keeper: "After an intense period of study, and your mental stability wracked by these revelations, you uncover the secrets of an eldritch chant that calls upon the powers of some otherworldly force. You think, perhaps, that the chant could be used in a pinch to inflict harm on your enemies.

Investigator: What does the tome name the spell as?

Keeper: Forceful Deliverance of Enemies

Investigator: What can I discern about what it does?

Keeper: Not much, I'm afraid. There are horrid pictures of flesh being rendered. And there appear to be risks to you as well for tapping this source and inflicting this harm.

Investigator (OOC): Where would I find this in the rulebook?

Keeper: You have the information you received. [Knowing that Forceful Deliverance of Enemies is a unique name, not in the Keeper's Rulebook.]

Now, kind Keepers wouldn't be this extreme, but the idea is to illustrate what might be possible and to model expectations with players.

I like Call of Cthulhu because the change in style tends to put players into learning mode and, if they've come from D&D or other "mainstream" fantasy adventure games, they are more likely to learn and adapt to these new parameters if you use them from the beginning.

Bringing this full circle, the point is that CoC Investigators shouldn't need to get total knowledge of any spell. This is part of what keeps balance. The spell, as written, is for Keeper's eyes only.

Edited by klecser
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Give them a point of mythos every time they use such powerful spells. The external manifestation of the spell says nothing about the internal mechanics. Maybe during "return thee to safety", Nyarlathotep appears and carries them personally through impossible dimensions, while whispering horrible advice in their ear. Maybe during the transformation into a crow they sense all the other possible forms they could transform into. Sanity loss for the people who see their friend suddenly vanish or transform. Cue hearing strange flute like notes in the night. A mythos point might even encourage them to use the spell.

Edited by EricW
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I appreciate everyone's feedback concerning Mythos spell use by player characters. I may just remind the player that casting these spells effectively makes her a witch, and not one of the good ones. :)

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On 1/22/2020 at 2:11 PM, ColoradoCthulhu said:

My concern is giving one of the players magic powers which may then unbalance the game going forward. I've put some limitations on these spells, but I may consider other limitations so that the spells are not used very often. Also, as these are witches' spells (black magic), using the spells may corrupt this character who isn't evil at all.

I'd like to get some input on balance concerns and how these spells may be further limited before I consider allowing the character to study the Diary and learn the two spells.

IMO the two spells you list are not worth further limiting.  The SAN loss for turning into a raven is pretty dreadful.  As bad as seeing a mutilated corpse (1d8).  Nevertheless, lets pick these spells apart for you.  If you wanted to be a complete monster you could force the newly fledged raven to have the same fly skill as the character i.e. nothing + basic raven skill, and have them hopping and flapping awkwardly around the backyard learning to fly, while going slowly more crazy after each casting.  This sort of defeats the entire purpose of the spell however so I would advise against it. 

In terms of "corruption", don't worry, that lost SAN will mount up.  If you are looking for what it will do to the character, they will begin to develop raven-like movements, and attitudes.  They will begin to enjoy the smell of rotting carcasses, and crave the meat like a ghoul despite being unable to safely digest it like a raven or a ghoul.  They may accidentally forget that they cannot fly.  They may develop a weird hopping gait.  On the other hand, they may find the whole experience of turning into a raven traumatic and become phobic about the entire experience, hating everything about ravens.  I mean... imagine the first time you turn into a raven... and then you cannot change back until sunrise... but you don't know that it isn't permanent, and there is no-one who can teach you how to change back.

I also think that the transformation time for the spell is bad.  Ravens like most birds are not nocturnal, so only turning into a raven at night is pretty useless as they can't see.  It isn't as if they are a special species of "night raven".  The birds will most probably simply find a place to roost and fall asleep at night, but the poor players now have a day bird that can't operate properly.  Yes, you can fudge that, but perhaps they should turn into an owl instead?  Certainly "The Witches Way" doesn't quite convey what one is about to do to oneself, and imagine characters' horror when first they experience a weird and painful transformation into a bird, then they realise they can't change back at will... that's when you apply the SAN check.

As to Return Thee to Safety... the title of that spell should be "save thy life at the price of thy mortal soul's vigor".  Admittedly, a character is likely to have a POW of 50, but that means they get 4 uses of this spell until it will become fatal.  Without some means of gaining POW back, this spell is really just the temptation of cowardice, where you die a thousand times.  

Next up, in C'thulhu one never knows quite what spells will do.  You normally get "some" idea of what your spell can do, but until you actually cast it, you really don't know.  For example, you might name a spell "Blessing of the Hamadryad", when in fact it calls forth the Dark Young of Shub Niggurath.  Now if the members of an ancient Greek Cult believed that the Dark Young were the blessing of the help of a tree spirit, you have the basis for the confusing name.  "The Witches Way" is good in this respect in that it doesn't quite tell you what to expect, other than it is "a spell of flight, used to convey the witch to the Unholy Sabbat".  Return Thee To Safety is too easy a name imo.  Too descriptive.  Calling it "The Embrace of the Dark Man", or "The Hunter's Curse", or even "Unholy Deliverance" might be better, especially if you make a joke about the movie "Deliverance" at some stage prior to false prime the party.  

Finally, remember that it doesn't matter if the party can use a spell.  Power of this sort can actually create corruption in the caster.  I can't count the number of utterly unethical uses I have seen selfish CoC party members put spells to, without much prompting from myself.  In fact, I am of the opinion that as the terror kicks in, personal ethics (like plans) do not last long after contact with the mythos.

Edited by Darius West
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On 2/3/2020 at 5:47 AM, Darius West said:

"IMO the two spells you list are not worth further limiting.  The SAN loss for turning into a raven is pretty dreadful.  As bad as seeing a mutilated corpse (1d8).  Nevertheless, lets pick these spells apart for you.  If you wanted to be a complete monster you could force the newly fledged raven to have the same fly skill as the character i.e. nothing + basic raven skill, and have them hopping and flapping awkwardly around the backyard learning to fly, while going slowly more crazy after each casting.  This sort of defeats the entire purpose of the spell however so I would advise against it. 

In terms of "corruption", don't worry, that lost SAN will mount up."

See the spell description above, "Assuming the form of a raven costs 1D8 Sanity points each time, up to a cumulative total of 8."

"As to Return Thee to Safety... the title of that spell should be "save thy life at the price of thy mortal soul's vigor".  Admittedly, a character is likely to have a POW of 100, but that means they get 9 uses of this spell until it will become fatal.  Without some means of gaining POW back, this spell is really just the temptation of cowardice, where you die a thousand times."

Also,

"Return Thee to Safety (only females can cast this version of the spell)

Cost: 5 magic points; 1 Sanity point; (10 POW one-time cost)"

Both spells have set losses for Sanity or POW, so the losses are not ongoing.    

Edited by ColoradoCthulhu
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I think that even one loss of ten POW to be significant enough to make a character think twice about getting the benefit. I guess the point here is that you choose how to effectively administer it. If you want to increase the cost of a spell, do it. 

Another consideration here is that you can always craft consequences that players don't forsee. If you think your players are "abusing" Return Thee To Safety, introduce a new consequence. Players never know and see all. That is an axiom of this game. If your group is new to CoC, it is imperative that they understand sooner rather than later that this is not a "all knowledge, all the time" RPG.

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4 hours ago, ColoradoCthulhu said:

Follow-up on what happened after showing the player the two above spells. The Investigator decided not to study either one as they are too risky. :)

 

Wise choice. I was about to suggest finding another grimoire full of terrifying spells, if you are going to have a couple of tempting yet terrifying overpowered spells, why not provide more temptation? 😉

 

Edited by EricW
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If you want to be especially cruel you could arrange for the PCs to encounter a harmless looking and friendly old Miskatonic professor who specialises in ancient witch lore, who offers help and encouragement with their esoteric studies, and who strongly suggests they read the book, to see if there are hidden clues which might lead to other conspiracies. A professor they might come to rely on in the future for advice.

Nyarlathotep always encourages humans to learn more about the mythos.

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3 hours ago, EricW said:

If you want to be especially cruel you could arrange for the PCs to encounter a harmless looking and friendly old Miskatonic professor who specialises in ancient witch lore, who offers help and encouragement with their esoteric studies, and who strongly suggests they read the book, to see if there are hidden clues which might lead to other conspiracies. A professor they might come to rely on in the future for advice.

Nyarlathotep always encourages humans to learn more about the mythos.

It's funny that you mention Nyarlathotep as the last two scenarios we ran, Crimson Letters and Of Wrath and Blood, are connected to him through the books the Investigators eventually find. 'The Diary of Keziah Mason' mentions "The Black Man" as guiding her in witchcraft and 'The Cult of Ghouls' grimoire from the Baltimore Chapel of Contemplation cites "The One Who Waits in the Dark" - both are avatars of Nyarlathotep. :)

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