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Stormkhan Cogg of Pavis

Mythos Magic - Is it for Investigators?

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I see many posts on here, discussing how to handle players and spells, investigators and "Mythos Magic", how a Keeper should handle players who want to delve into the Forbidden Arts and so on. I'd like to put forward my own take on this subject, discuss it and leave options 'revealed' for Keepers to use in future games.

Before I start, I must declare certain, ah, strictures:

  1. This is game use in long campaigns; considering how long it takes to digest a Mythos tome, possibly benefitting from knowledge of spells, one-shot or single-session scenarios needn't worry. Unless, of course, they become campaigns so Keepers should keep some ideas to the back of the mind.
  2. Campaigns where the Investigators are intended to become "the bad guys" or, at least, rival cultists needn't use any or all of these considerations.
  3. You do you! Experienced Keepers know that no matter how well planned, how careful the intent is in a game development, we're down to a random factor; not dice, but players. If players choose to change the dynamic of a campaign, then so be it!
  4. These are my own thoughts, in-house rules and experience-based considerations. They are in no way, shape or form official guidance or rock-solid legislation! Pick what you like, ignore what you like. I'm happy to discuss my "considerations" and, of course, completely accept a good argument for difference. These are mere, um, ramblings. :)

Right.

Moving on ...

Consideration 1: Vive Le Difference!

Call of Cthulhu is not a fantasy role-playing game! It is a role-playing game, and it has fantasy (i.e. unreal) elements to it. It's prime element is being based on HPL's literature. Thus at its core, the Investigators are the Good Guys and the Cultists and various nasty creatures, the bad guys. It is based in reality - it doesn't matter what period of history - but that reality accepts magic or at least occult practices are real! However, in this Game Reality, Investigators are not just fantasy characters in sharp, 1920's suits. This is why (in my own experience) CoC stood out from the games of the day. RuneQuest gave us a good alternative system; Call of Cthulhu gave us a game based in (a) reality!

We hit the double-edged athame straight away: it's reality but it allows for Mythos and non-existent opponents with magical skills! So why should an Investigator not learn spells? Why not indeed?

Because investigators - player characters - are the ordinary hero. The guys and gals who are horrified by magic and it's potential for corruption. They are not superheroes, they are the "reality" person in an unreal situation. And, getting back to my proposition that the 'core' value of Call of Cthulhu as a game is that you play an ordinary Joe/Jane in an extraordinary world. And having a list of spells you can cast is hardly 'ordinary'! Not to be too scathing but we're playing CoC and not some D&D-clone; no character classes, no hit point to experience correlation, no "fight first and worry about the law later" thinking.

Well, the latter might still work but you know what I mean!

Consideration 2: Rarity.

Taking that magic exists in the 'reality' of the CoC game, it's not acceptable! It's not the 'done thing'. It's been frowned upon by society as soon as one bloke-dressed-in-sober-clothes said "That woman gave my cow a nasty look and now it's a bad milker - is there a connection?"

Magic may exists but firstly, it's not common, and secondly, it's open use is frowned upon. In so-called Enlightened Times, it's dismissed as arrant nonsense. So, if you were in the know, and had such abilities at your command, then you wouldn't wander around looking like a star-spangled Gandalf or even "that weird guy who talks to his furniture and knows what underwear my Mom has on!"

The argument that 'experienced' investigators understand that magic has a reality is fine ... but how does that sound to those not in on the secret?

Point is, magic in Call of Cthulhu exists but isn't common. In fact, it's so rare it acts as a warning. After all, who casts spells but those linked to the Mythos? Aren't they the Bad Guys?

Consideration 3: Usage.

In this I appeal to Keepers with a personal 'house rule' that's worked most of the time*.

When an Investigator gets their hands on a major spell-giving Mythos book, and they fail to comprehend a spell (i.e. learn its use) then the Sanity check is made (and failed) then they cannot ever learn that spell! We're not talking about someone screwing up an exam, that they can retake later, using another book. They just "don't get it!" They have experience of that spell, and may recognise it's casting or components that are used but it's just beyond them!

This may discourage players who decide their Investigators wish to embark on a career as being an alternative Doctor Strange (TM) and completely miss the point about Call of Cthulhu (see Consideration 1).

* Right up until I had a player who'd decided her investigator who'd 'accidentally' discovered his occult powers and 'collected' spells for future reference. When they did actually learn a spell, it blasted their sanity. It wasn't only realising the 'truth' but the 'true' believer was shocked to find they had been right all along! Zen and the art of Magic, eh?

Consideration 4: A Matter of Trust.

If you are a group of Investigators, who've been through many horrors together and trials yet come through, defeating those damnable cultists, how comfortable do you feel (in 'game reality') when the professor starts to show an ... eagerness to acquire arcane books, blood yet to dry on the covers, to *ahem* add to his knowledge in the fight against etc. etc.? It may be simplistic but "Cultists use magic so using magic may make you a cultist" is a thought for the characters. Yes, you might be gathering counter-weapons but, then again, you seem a bit eager to obtain such-and-such ingredient or be a tad careless over learning that a child has been kidnapped: "Oh, yeah. It might mean they're going to perform the Rite of Akerchaly. It's almost May Eve? We'd better get a move on then ..." A Keeper must take team dynamics into consideration. Should everyone in the group be okay with one person becoming the Level 7 Mage (in CoC terms) then so be it. See what happens. But isn't this actually going against the feel of the whole game?

Consideration 5: Balance.

Many folks - Keepers and players - are okay with the prevalence of magic, reasoning that the bad guys and (let's face it) the feckin' creatures of Call of Cthulhu are so strong that the Investigators need spells, to fight the Mythos on it's own terms. I suggest it's not a form of arms race. The game itself is balanced.

I know, I know - settle down and hear me out.

The Investigators fight the Creatures because they don't realise how incredibly nasty they are. We, as players, do. So if you decide you need to weapon-up, you - not your character - is thinking "I'm in deep doo-doo here!" So, as time goes on, and your characters realises magic is 'real' then you decide to 'arm' your team with some arcane tools. Such as learned spells. These come at a cost. Not only to Magic Points but to your sanity. To balance your strength against Mythos, you are willing to lose your mind! This expects us, as players, to role-play! Worrying about the consequences to your mind, being reluctant to fight fire with fire, is role-playing. Just saying "Yeah, whatever; what dice do I roll to subtract sanity?" is not.

Conclusion.

Call of Cthulhu is based on the stories of HPL, one of which is "The Dunwich Horror". Three university professors versus a profane avatar of Yog-Sothoth! Physically, the challenge seems unbalanced but, heck, they can make "Library Rolls" and such. They do, one of which gains the knowledge - and spells - to remove the creature ... hopefully. The head boffin bags "The Powder of Ibn-Gazi" creation and "Dismiss Deity" spell! Cool! No. Not really. The lead-up research almost killed a very intelligent professor and the performance required three intelligent, and scared, people!

If you want to play Call of Cthulhu, keep in mind that magic happens ... but it comes at an awful cost. Far more than a few points off your character sheet!

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3 hours ago, Stormkhan Cogg of Pavis said:

But isn't this actually going against the feel of the whole game?

*sigh*

Your position seems to make the baseline assumption that it either isn't possible, or isn't desirable, to successfully run a game with Investigators wielding magic. You have your disclaimer at the beginning, "you do you," but then the rest of your post is basically an argument for why Keepers have miscalculated if they use magic. I completely lost faith in the intentions of "you do you" after reading your whole post.

Man, this is a buzzkill. And maybe you didn't intend it that way, but I'm just telling you how I feel. It makes me feel like I'm not supposed to be capable of attenuating to the concerns you raise.

And my concise counter-argument is:

I am capable, as a Keeper, of addressing the concerns you raise.

We can't say "Your Game Will Vary" in the hobby, while simultaneously making arguments that "yeah, but is it right for your game to vary?"

 

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16 hours ago, Stormkhan Cogg of Pavis said:

Call of Cthulhu is not a fantasy role-playing game! It is a role-playing game, and it has fantasy (i.e. unreal) elements to it.

What I'd say is that it is a set of rules written down on paper and if those rules don't stop your players from learning magic then they can learn and use magic as much as the rules let them ( and as much as the Keeper gives them access to spell learning ).

Magic in CoC is limiting anyway ( Sanity cost and POW cost ) so there isn't much scope for players becoming Mordenkainen the Magnificent before their psyches turn to porridge and they have to be written out of the campaign. I think you are overstressing over something that just doesn't happen.

What I think you are really saying is you prefer what Trail of Cthulhu calls the "Purist" approach to playing a Mythos RPG but that doesn't preclude other people playing in the "Pulp" mode ( jetpacks, atomic guns AND SPELLS included if that's what they like ). Neither approach is right or wrong for an RPG but you could argue one is more like HPL's oeuvre.

 

Edited by groovyclam
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3 hours ago, Stormkhan Cogg of Pavis said:

see many posts on here, discussing how to handle players and spells, investigators and "Mythos Magic", how a Keeper should handle players who want to delve into the Forbidden Arts and so on. I'd like to put forward my own take on this subject, discuss it and leave options 'revealed' for Keepers to use in future games.

Completely understandable, and I respect your opinion. This is mine. 

3 hours ago, Stormkhan Cogg of Pavis said:

Before I start, I must declare certain, ah, strictures:

  1. This is game use in long campaigns; considering how long it takes to digest a Mythos tome, possibly benefitting from knowledge of spells, one-shot or single-session scenarios needn't worry. Unless, of course, they become campaigns so Keepers should keep some ideas to the back of the mind.
  2. Campaigns where the Investigators are intended to become "the bad guys" or, at least, rival cultists needn't use any or all of these considerations.
  3. You do you! Experienced Keepers know that no matter how well planned, how careful the intent is in a game development, we're down to a random factor; not dice, but players. If players choose to change the dynamic of a campaign, then so be it!
  4. These are my own thoughts, in-house rules and experience-based considerations. They are in no way, shape or form official guidance or rock-solid legislation! Pick what you like, ignore what you like. I'm happy to discuss my "considerations" and, of course, completely accept a good argument for difference. These are mere, um, ramblings. :)

 I feel there are many more ways spells could be used successfully then simply "they must become the bad guys". I recommend my own video on understanding mythos magic here, and this will form the basis of my entire argument, but spells are useful most as a Plot Device. When they are taken as more than stats on a sheet of paper and instead serve the unfolding narrative, that is when they are most useful. And yes, experienced Keepers very much know how to improvise and adapt as the game sees fit. For example, I never tell the players exactly how a spell works. Ever. That way, it can work as I need it to and will never break the game because spells can work differently in different situations. Spells do NOT have to be a game changer or something that takes away from the atmosphere. Anything can be used to increase the horror aspect and move the story forward, including "magic".

 And yes, I appreciate you taking the time to write all this and again want this to be my argument back, not in any way I'm right and you're wrong.

4 hours ago, Stormkhan Cogg of Pavis said:

Consideration 1: Vive Le Difference!

Call of Cthulhu is not a fantasy role-playing game! It is a role-playing game, and it has fantasy (i.e. unreal) elements to it. It's prime element is being based on HPL's literature. Thus at its core, the Investigators are the Good Guys and the Cultists and various nasty creatures, the bad guys. It is based in reality - it doesn't matter what period of history - but that reality accepts magic or at least occult practices are real! However, in this Game Reality, Investigators are not just fantasy characters in sharp, 1920's suits. This is why (in my own experience) CoC stood out from the games of the day. RuneQuest gave us a good alternative system; Call of Cthulhu gave us a game based in (a) reality!

We hit the double-edged athame straight away: it's reality but it allows for Mythos and non-existent opponents with magical skills! So why should an Investigator not learn spells? Why not indeed?

Because investigators - player characters - are the ordinary hero. The guys and gals who are horrified by magic and it's potential for corruption. They are not superheroes, they are the "reality" person in an unreal situation. And, getting back to my proposition that the 'core' value of Call of Cthulhu as a game is that you play an ordinary Joe/Jane in an extraordinary world. And having a list of spells you can cast is hardly 'ordinary'! Not to be too scathing but we're playing CoC and not some D&D-clone; no character classes, no hit point to experience correlation, no "fight first and worry about the law later" thinking.

Well, the latter might still work but you know what I mean!

I would disagree with the generalization that all investigators are automatically good and all cultists and monsters are automatically bad. Slightly more true would be all investigators are ignorant whilst all Mythos entities are enlightened, but this too is a generalization (The Idiot God Athathoth for example of stupid enemies, although the point could be made that the Crawling Chaos is technically an extension of aforementioned god and acts as his intelligence...). No Call of Cthulhu is not a fantasy RPG, it is horror. And horror has some themes of curses, spells, and the summoning of daemons which permeate the genre. While the "bad guys" use are often the main magic users, the good guys sometimes need to use a spell or two to attempt to defeat the darkness. Then again, the plot device that all magic should serve as comes into play, and there are many different ways a keeper can utilize the uncanny and unholy nature of magic and spells against the players, even as the players try to bend the magiks to their personal will.

 One thing I always say about CoC magic (again, check my video on Mythos Magic:) is that it must come at a cost. It seems your major argument against magic is that it ruins the mood of the horror game, but that means you don't understand the way magic in CoC is supposed to work, at least in my opinion. Anytime the Investigators attempt to use or understand the eldritch, there should be a cost. And this actually will strengthen the players sense they that are nothing but inferior or an ordinary person (not even hero in most cases, to me Call of Cthulhu has the players as victims, whereas D&D and RQ and similar fantasy systems uses the "hero" stereotype. Magic in Call of Cthulhu also greatly differs from that of D&D because of both the cost in sanity / magic points (which keepers should portray more than just saying you lose 10 sanity, they should make the role-play embedded into the losses and gains of the Investigator, imo), and the way the spells actually work. There are very few utility spells in CoC, and even the "utility spells" come with costs not to be taken lightly, plus homebrewing even more complex spells always helps. And again I stress the point of not ever letting your players know exactly what a spell will do.

 The way spells in CoC are supposed to work and be used, I don't think there will ever be danger of a player confusing this game with D&D 5E.

4 hours ago, Stormkhan Cogg of Pavis said:

Consideration 2: Rarity.

Taking that magic exists in the 'reality' of the CoC game, it's not acceptable! It's not the 'done thing'. It's been frowned upon by society as soon as one bloke-dressed-in-sober-clothes said "That woman gave my cow a nasty look and now it's a bad milker - is there a connection?"

Magic may exists but firstly, it's not common, and secondly, it's open use is frowned upon. In so-called Enlightened Times, it's dismissed as arrant nonsense. So, if you were in the know, and had such abilities at your command, then you wouldn't wander around looking like a star-spangled Gandalf or even "that weird guy who talks to his furniture and knows what underwear my Mom has on!"

The argument that 'experienced' investigators understand that magic has a reality is fine ... but how does that sound to those not in on the secret?

Point is, magic in Call of Cthulhu exists but isn't common. In fact, it's so rare it acts as a warning. After all, who casts spells but those linked to the Mythos? Aren't they the Bad Guys?

Very true, magic is rare. No one on here ever said there had to be magic or spellcasting every session, so I mean, we basically know this already.

As to your point that magic is shunned by society, I completely agree and feel you can play this up tremendously in any game you run. But no, not all people who cast spells are automatically enemies of that which is good. Often they are just ignorant.

4 hours ago, Stormkhan Cogg of Pavis said:

Consideration 3: Usage.

In this I appeal to Keepers with a personal 'house rule' that's worked most of the time*.

When an Investigator gets their hands on a major spell-giving Mythos book, and they fail to comprehend a spell (i.e. learn its use) then the Sanity check is made (and failed) then they cannot ever learn that spell! We're not talking about someone screwing up an exam, that they can retake later, using another book. They just "don't get it!" They have experience of that spell, and may recognise it's casting or components that are used but it's just beyond them!

This may discourage players who decide their Investigators wish to embark on a career as being an alternative Doctor Strange (TM) and completely miss the point about Call of Cthulhu (see Consideration 1).

* Right up until I had a player who'd decided her investigator who'd 'accidentally' discovered his occult powers and 'collected' spells for future reference. When they did actually learn a spell, it blasted their sanity. It wasn't only realising the 'truth' but the 'true' believer was shocked to find they had been right all along! Zen and the art of Magic, eh?

This is interesting, but it's a home rule and not in any way necessary unless you are letting your players abuse the magic system. If a player wants to be an occultist let them, the keeper should be able to work with that and make the story still terrifying. The magic is unpredictable and takes more from the caster than it ever gives them. I personally houserule most anything that needs it, and will reiterate to you what I say constantly to everyone. If the "point about Call of Cthulhu" is the creation of a collaborative horror story, then the rules are just suggestions! If you decide it would work better for the story for a player to be able to cast a spell the moment they read it from the scrap of paper, then feel free. If you decide it would work far better if the player had to study the spells for years before being able to cast it, that works just as well. It all depends on the scenario and the situation, and the main thing every keeper must learn is not to be constrained by the rules. 

 I think you should start using magic so it always works for you, rather than sticking to the rulebook or spell description, but that is just my opinion.

4 hours ago, Stormkhan Cogg of Pavis said:

Consideration 4: A Matter of Trust.

If you are a group of Investigators, who've been through many horrors together and trials yet come through, defeating those damnable cultists, how comfortable do you feel (in 'game reality') when the professor starts to show an ... eagerness to acquire arcane books, blood yet to dry on the covers, to *ahem* add to his knowledge in the fight against etc. etc.? It may be simplistic but "Cultists use magic so using magic may make you a cultist" is a thought for the characters. Yes, you might be gathering counter-weapons but, then again, you seem a bit eager to obtain such-and-such ingredient or be a tad careless over learning that a child has been kidnapped: "Oh, yeah. It might mean they're going to perform the Rite of Akerchaly. It's almost May Eve? We'd better get a move on then ..." A Keeper must take team dynamics into consideration. Should everyone in the group be okay with one person becoming the Level 7 Mage (in CoC terms) then so be it. See what happens. But isn't this actually going against the feel of the whole game?

 This does not help your point, since this is a horror game. If a member of the group suddenly begins a downward spiral into madness that began with a spellcasting, it works perfectly into everything Call of Cthulhu represents.

The players feeling comfortable is almost never the main idea of the game. Simply do not give your players spells they can abuse, and I say again, just don't give them the statistics for the spell and use the spell to the story's advantage at all times. Push the horror. If you use the spells included with the Keepers guide, there will never be any way a person can become anything like a mage in d&d, because the magic is fundamentally evil and working against the player (in most cases, this is also a generalization, but to me a necessary one).

4 hours ago, Stormkhan Cogg of Pavis said:

Consideration 5: Balance.

Many folks - Keepers and players - are okay with the prevalence of magic, reasoning that the bad guys and (let's face it) the feckin' creatures of Call of Cthulhu are so strong that the Investigators need spells, to fight the Mythos on it's own terms. I suggest it's not a form of arms race. The game itself is balanced.

I know, I know - settle down and hear me out.

The Investigators fight the Creatures because they don't realise how incredibly nasty they are. We, as players, do. So if you decide you need to weapon-up, you - not your character - is thinking "I'm in deep doo-doo here!" So, as time goes on, and your characters realises magic is 'real' then you decide to 'arm' your team with some arcane tools. Such as learned spells. These come at a cost. Not only to Magic Points but to your sanity. To balance your strength against Mythos, you are willing to lose your mind! This expects us, as players, to role-play! Worrying about the consequences to your mind, being reluctant to fight fire with fire, is role-playing. Just saying "Yeah, whatever; what dice do I roll to subtract sanity?" is not.

True, but this game is definitely not balanced, and the point is actually not fighting or defeating the big bad (in my experience). I have never heard this argument before, but let's assume it does exist and is prevalent.  

 Investigators do not need spells, and spells will often not help them even if they had them. If the players are just saying "what dice do I roll", it's your job as the keeper to push them off the cliff. Narrate and get them into it, show them how anything that happens to the character sheet should be role-played. Also, and I say this because I know people who do it, do not be condescending or tell them they are doing something wrong. Instead, show them how much better role-playing in the RPG is:)

4 hours ago, Stormkhan Cogg of Pavis said:

Conclusion.

Call of Cthulhu is based on the stories of HPL, one of which is "The Dunwich Horror". Three university professors versus a profane avatar of Yog-Sothoth! Physically, the challenge seems unbalanced but, heck, they can make "Library Rolls" and such. They do, one of which gains the knowledge - and spells - to remove the creature ... hopefully. The head boffin bags "The Powder of Ibn-Gazi" creation and "Dismiss Deity" spell! Cool! No. Not really. The lead-up research almost killed a very intelligent professor and the performance required three intelligent, and scared, people!

If you want to play Call of Cthulhu, keep in mind that magic happens ... but it comes at an awful cost. Far more than a few points off your character sheet!

Thank you for taking the time both to write all this and to read my opinion on it. I believe anyone who thinks magic in CoC works like this is misunderstanding the intention of the magic system. And furthermore, anyone who allows the rules and system to get in the way of their games need to reassess their priorities. When you use spells, don't let them EVER be like the D&D spells. Name them unpronounceable names, give them crazy components and weird problems to be solved, use moral dilemmas to up the horror, implement the stages of fear, never let you players know exactly what's going to happen, and always push the horror.

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Thanks, all, for replying to my post.

Some very good points raised and plenty for me to ponder on.

I'm sorry, Klecser, if I offended you by raising these discussion points. I was not stating fact, only my opinion. I was not telling people what is "good" CoC or bad. I was only airing some worries that affected my playing in the past. It's down to style of play - if you are comfortable with Investigators and magic then fine. I'm not the one to tell you to stop it. If I'm stating the obvious to you, or to anyone, then ignore it.

CoC magic rules are far more harsh than other, earlier RPGs. Magic exists in the works of HPL. I guess I personally don't enjoy games where the players are (or slowly become) the  'bad guys' either to run or play. Though the latter does make a fun change. This, I say, on the understanding that even the good guys can use magic and that life is rarely so clear-cut as good and bad.

Each to their own. It was merely my 'take' on the subject, not an absolute or a statement of game law.

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18 hours ago, groovyclam said:

What I think you are really saying is you prefer what Trail of Cthulhu calls the "Purist" approach to playing a Mythos RPG but that doesn't preclude other people playing in the "Pulp" mode ( jetpacks, atomic guns AND SPELLS included if that's what they like ). Neither approach is right or wrong for an RPG but you could argue one is more like HPL's oeuvre.

Precisely, and better expressed using fewer words.

:D

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Just now, Stormkhan Cogg of Pavis said:

Precisely, and better expressed using fewer words.

:D

Yep, me too, pulp ruins the game for me.

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Pulp looks fun to play and a welcome addition to any RPG collection, but it seems to me to be using CoC background and most of the system to run adventure games based on Indiana Jones, the modern Mummy movies etc. Well, 1930-1950's "pulp fiction" style anyhow.

I've never played it, true, but it looks fun. I can't possibly 'diss' the game at all. But I think a bit of me, the deep-down fan of HPL, feels it's ... um ... not Call of Cthulhu. I suppose I'm the sniffy one who thinks it takes the mickey of the original source work and turns it into a light-hearted romp. Nowt wrong with that, of course, but why have it use the Call of Cthulhu mythos and genre? Why not name it, say Pulp Movie! or Uncanny Action! instead?

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Okay, so this is largely a re-stating of previous points made.

I think that the question as to whether investigators should learn mythos spells is ultimately an issue of tone: given the tone of the game I (or we) am aiming for, does the learning of spells impact on the tone of the game, either positively or negatively. If the effect is positive, well and good. If negative, why is that?

Call of Cthulhu is inspired by the genre of cosmic horror, so presumably the game design is intended to facilitate a tone of horror. This is not to say that "the intent of the game is horror" or that "you must play it as a horror game or you'll make Lovecraft cry". But as an obvious starting point, let's assume that the gamers (Keeper and players) are aiming for a "horror game", with a strong tone of cosmic horror. Does the learning of spells undermine a sense of horror? Necessarily?

It's been said by everyone who has ever commented on the subject since the genre was created, but cosmic horror relies on an understanding of one's own insignificance in the universe, as well as traditional sources of horror: threats to life, loss of valued things, confronted by the unknown, proximity to things that revolt us, and so on. Now learning a spell that perhaps doesn't have much utility - such as Contact Deity - doesn't seem to impact some sources of horror. If you're freaked out by weird bugs, an ability to Contact Y'golonac isn't going to make the idea of a tide of cockroaches creeping over you as you sleep any less awful.

Does it effect our sense of our cosmic insignificance? Well, maybe. Before we learn our first spell, the distinction between ourselves and those others that are the source of our sense of insignificance, is clear. Once we take up the tools of these others, then we become a little more like them; like the ones that make us insignificant. And if we are more like them, it's almost like stepping into a different league. We look back at the really insignificant - those who are still ignorant, like we used to be - and we feel like we're now part of a select group. The same way that people may join a "secret" society to be part of the "important" or "powerful" people. As illusory as this impression may be, it's impact on the tone of cosmic horror may be real.

The learning of spells also impacts on horror of the unknown; the more you know about the way things work, the less terrifying they seem. You can keep the mechanical effects of the spells a mystery to the players - and I think it's a good idea - but once you know that you can do things like summon and bind creatures, or contact deities, and that there are these things called "spells" that accomplish these things, then you know more than you did before. The Cthulhu Mythos skill has a similar problem. If the player's can make a successful roll and you as the Keeper go from merely describing what they experience to some amount of explaining, then you are making everything more tractable. Even if you don't mention goofy names like "Fungi from Yuggoth."

Spells definitely come at a cost, both in learning and in casting. And I think that loss of something we value, as I mentioned earlier, is a source of horror. So prudence and self-preservation would limit the actual use of any spells that characters learn. But simply having the spell, and knowing that you could cast it, if you really had to, seems similar to an insecure person who carries a weapon to feel strong. They feel safer, and better, just for having it. Also, as the spell has a cost, it would tend to lead to some sort of cost analysis, limiting the use of spells to those times when the cost of not using the spell is deemed greater than the cost of casting the spell. So simply having the spell seems to be all up-side: it gives a sense of security, it grants utility you wouldn't otherwise possess, and its cost would be measured against potential gain or against loss avoided.

So if you're attempting to achieve a tone of horror in your Call of Cthulhu game, I feel that players learning spells will tend to undercut that effort.

However, is achieving an actual tone of horror in a game - sitting around a table, with the clatter of dice and the crunching of chips - a realistic goal? I can only comment on my own games and I can say that when you do achieve it that it's almost an accident. You try all sorts of tricks and ideas, and very rarely one of them hits the mark.

So when it comes to Call of Cthulhu, it relies mostly on everybody being willing to throw themselves into the conceit of the setting. And if the players are eager to grab on and run with the tone, and portray one of Lovecraft's neurasthenic protagonists instead of a 5th-level fighter in a pinstripe suit and spats, then the characters in the game will run a mile from learning any of the blasphemous lore they uncover. If they learn a spell then it's because they decide that they have to; because the Keeper has run the scenario such that learning the spell is the only solution they can see (true or not) to an inescapable threat.

And if everyone is playing in that spirit, then the question as to whether characters should learn spells becomes moot.

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1 hour ago, tendentious said:

And if everyone is playing in that spirit, then the question as to whether characters should learn spells becomes moot.

You bring up an excellent point. I don't think it is fair to just assume that players are going to min-max every opportunity that they get. Some of the arguments against players learning spells at all seem to assume this table psychology. Is there a lot of powergaming in the hobby? Yes. Does that mean that a CoC investigator will always choose to learn a spell, or always choose to cast spells that they learn? No. My players are savvy enough, and in tune with the setting enough, to be mortified of casting spells. They understand that every single time they choose to cast a spell, they are making both systemic mechanical and mood decisions. Mechanically, they are effectively choosing to undo any of the SAN gains they got from accomplishing goals in scenarios. In terms of mood, they LOVE the flavor of the struggle to learn and the process of learning spells. They play it as knowing that desperate situations may require desperate measures, and learning spells gives them access to nuclear solutions to problems. And then grappling with whether or not to take the nuclear solution is a lot of fun for them. In this context, it seems incredibly odd and sad to me that a Keeper would choose to remove the possibility of this struggle from their players. It seems like a "training wheels that never come off" approach to Keeping. "I can't trust you to use spells with mood and costs in mind, so you never get the opportunity to use spells." That's what it sounds like to me.

Any Keeper needs to understand their players, and shouldn't treat their players like they are fools. I am deeply concerned that some perspectives on this issue seem to treat players like they are fools, and that it is the Keeper's job to not "suffer" those fools. I find it to be a incredibly cynical approach to table management. That, or simple lack of experience in Keeping the game. Just because a Keeper doesn't understand how to do something effectively doesn't mean that there isn't a way to do it effectively. It also doesn't mean that doing it effectively isn't difficult. There are aspects of Keeping that I haven't figured out yet. Whoever is reading this, there are aspects of Keeping that you, whoever you are, haven't figured out yet. And that means it is incumbent upon all of us to ask questions and answer questions more than we give advice. Any advice can be completely useless or even harmful in the right context.

Edited by klecser
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Long time Lurker here, I've been seeing this topic a lot on multiple platforms as well as in person so I thought I would throw my personal opinion in the ring. 

 

I have players using magic (sometimes) in my game. Although it is rather recent I have found it creates a fantastic player dynamic. The player with magic is unknowingly a cultist, praising the mythos in secret. CoC allows you to pick an occultist occupation as well as mythos experience background so I thought why not. Since I am the Keeper I get a say in what cult he joins and how they operate for max RP and Campaign flavor. 

 

Well my player (1) is a cultist of one of the cults that another player (2) has been told my his father (his previous PC) that this cult is very very bad. So now Player 1 is keeping his background secret while investigating these mysteries secretly for the cult, while Player 2 is secretly investigating Player 1. 

 

Player (2) has used magic in front of the players before but it was during a Do or Die situation so there was no time of "hey man what was that". And after that session months have gone by before the two caught up again. But this time with a bigger threat to the city, so they decide to put the fued on hold until all is well.

 

Obviously a keeper must know his group and what would be fun for them, and this type of dynamic is fun for my group. We keep player knowledge and character knowledge the same, so I text or whisper to a character when secret stuff happens and have them do secret rolls from the party. 

 

I understand this type of PC vs PC is not fun for a lot of Keepers, but its fun for us and I have asked my players if this hinders their experience with CoC and they all say no. My players are about 50/50 Lovecraft fans. I think it all depends on the group if Player magic is OK, plus the Keeper has complete control over what spells they learn, so if they learn a spell you don't like its entirely your fault in the first place. 

 

But honestly all this works because my 6 players are RP first kind of players. Our group does no tolerate metagaming nor min-maxing, which is already difficult to do in a system like this where one knife blow my a junkie can kill you. 

 

I think saying it isn't right for investigators to have magic in CoC represents more of YOUR group, not everyone's. But this kind of differences of tabletop RPing is what makes this system great.

 

Rules I live by from my early days of DMing 

1. Don't make a NPC that death will derail the campaign

2. Don't introduce plot points you have no plans for 

3. Don't introduce mechanics that the players can't also do at some point (i.e magic)

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3 hours ago, klecser said:

In this context, it seems incredibly odd and sad to me that a Keeper would choose to remove the possibility of this struggle from their players. It seems like a "training wheels that never come off" approach to Keeping. "I can't trust you to use spells with mood and costs in mind, so you never get the opportunity to use spells." That's what it sounds like to me.

Sorry, but that is far from my intention. I never said Investigators shouldn't use magic.

A Keeper always gauges the mood and intent of their players - that's why Table Top RPG's endure; the personal interaction which may be lost online. I am not advocating the restriction of Investigators; if magic is there then it can be used ... for good or ill. I'm experienced enough of a Keeper (and referee of many RPGs) in that I think I can handle the styles of my players*. I try never to forget, it isn't just The Game. It's meant to be fun and the players - and myself - should play it for fun. Metagaming and min-max may be the idea of someone's fun but not mine personally. So I concern myself with making it fun for my players and the players (I hope) realise that if it's not fun to run, I won't run it. Why should I?

Getting back to magic in CoC, the mechanics are there for Investigators to learn, and use, magic. The mechanics mean that it's not easy, and it has heavy consequences for the character. I get it. The potential for great game-play in the character's own immersion in the magic of the Mythos is, as said, obvious.

I was only raising concerns that players (not characters) might be somewhat blase about magic use. Yes, it's down to the individual players intentions. Yes, it's down to the Keeper's ability to guide. I was only opening a dialogue on the subject.

* Nothing is a certainty.

Edited by Stormkhan Cogg of Pavis
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