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.