Trail of Cthulhu Followup: The Spells

In my previous post on The Trail of Cthulhu, I talked about what I perceived as a curious holdover from Call of Cthulhu in which spells take either hours (if it’s convenient to the scenario) or months (if it’s not) to learn, and stating that I could not recall any examples of long-term spell learning. Mr. Hite challenged this, and of course, the battle was joined!

Well, it was less like a battle and more of me sitting down with my shadowy cabal of advisors and asking them whether they could find any examples of long-term spell learning in the Lovecraft canon. I stipulated that the mere acquisition of arcane lore was not the bar – rather, we should have an identifiable spell that was learned. This cuts down on the number of choices considerably.

There’s quite a number of spells in Lovecraft that are learned quickly. In “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”, for example, Doctor Willett learns the resurrection formula by paging through Curwen’s papers. Henry Armitage seems to learn the spells necessary to dismiss the Dunwich Horror in short order. His evil counterpart, Wilbur Whateley, has one of the most telling lines as to how quickly spells can be learned, as it comes from a diary entry that has nothing to do with dramatic timing:

“Today learned the Aklo for the Sabaoth,” it ran, “which did not like, it being answerable from the hill and not from the air…”

On the other side are the spells that take longer, but these are a more questionable bunch. Wilbur is also frustrated at needing to learn “all the angles of the planes and all the formulas between the Yr and the Nhhngr”, but that sounds like a lot of spells.  In “The Dreams in the Witch-House,” Gilman takes a great deal of time to learn how to pass through the angles – but is he learning a spell or trying to create one from scratch? In “The Mound”, Zamacona takes years to master the techniques of dematerialization – but those might not be a spell, and arguably, he’s not really trying to learn the technique himself until the very end of his narrative. (If we go to the revisions, I can also use “The Man of Stone,” which suggests by implication that the time to learn spells is relatively short.)

Thus, I still lean toward the position that a true-to-HPL roleplaying game would have relatively short learning times for spells, once those spells were discovered. I’m not certain whether such a short time would be a good thing in game terms, but there you are.

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Published in: on April 9, 2008 at 11:55 am  Comments (3)  

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  1. I think you’ve uncovered enough evidence of lengthy study to validate, or at least justify, my game-mechanical decision — and I would note that nothing in Trail of Cthulhu disallows learning all spells in a period of hours, if it fits the Keeper’s notion of Lovecraftian drama — but I would propose that your reading of Wilbur’s diary is not the only one possible.

    Couldn’t “learned the Aklo for the Sabaoth” be parsed as learning the Aklo words for the Sabaoth ritual, rather than learning the entire Sabaoth ritual itself? Kind of like learning the Latin words for performing a given sacrament, while learning to perform the sacrament itself takes more (or at least other) time.

    Admittedly, Wilbur is not a model of grammatical excellence.

  2. That’s certainly a possibility. I suppose we will have to do the dreaded “agree to disagree” bit now.

    Thanks for your insights into what is really an excellent game!

  3. I think the more illustrative example comes from Armitage’s study of Wilbur’s diary- I wonder if the whole concept of arduous study arises from the difficulty that the Professor had in breaking the cypher the book was encrypted in:

    “Dr Armitage knew, from the repeated failures of his colleagues, that the riddle was a deep and complex one… All through late August he fortified himself with the mass lore of cryptography… Several times he seemed near daylight, only to be set back by some unforeseen obstacle. Then, as September approached, the clouds began to clear… On the evening of September second the last major barrier gave way, and Dr Armitage read for the first time a continuous passage of Wilbur Whateley’s annals.”

    Armitage requires a full month to break the cipher, a month in which he conducts a relentless barrage of research through various tomes (though from the cipher’s description it sounds like a Vingenere cipher and with that known, relatively easily broken). In short order he turns around and find the spell needed to banish the Horror:

    “The old librarian rehearsed the formulae he had memorized, and clutched the paper containing the alternative one he had not memorized…”
    and
    “We must follow it, boys.’ He made his voice as reassuring as possible. ‘I believe there’s a chance of putting it out of business. You men know that those Whateleys were wizards – well, this thing is a thing of wizardry, and must be put down by the same means. I’ve seen Wilbur Whateley’s diary and read some of the strange old books he used to read; and I think I know the right kind of spell to recite to make the thing fade away. ”

    Armitage had from the 2nd (when he first translated the diary) to the 14th (when they confronted the Horror) to learn at least two spells and learn to prepare (and prepare) a batch of the dust of Ibn Ghazi- not to mention have a couple mild heart attacks and be confined to bed for a day or two.

    I think the literature itself points to spells not being particularly difficult to learn but *much harder* to master. I like to use a system where, once a spell is studied, you have a skill in the spell based on your INT (and maybe your Cthulhu Mythos skill). You can practice and increase your skill and study can give bonuses, but until the spell is mastered, you have a chance to fail.


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