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On Spells and their Multitudes

Posted by Shimmin Beg , in Call of Cthulhu, design 28 January 2017 · 581 views

The Call of Cthulhu rulebook - which is to say, the 6th edition, because that's the copy I own* - has a lot of spells in it. A lot of really quite specific spells. Things like Attract Fish, and Bring Pestilence, and Detransference, and Become Spectal Hunter, and Enchant Inflatable Dinghy (okay, I made that one up).


*Nothing against 7th edition, mind. I'm not actually running any games at the moment, and if I were one of my players could tell me the necessary rule changes. More importantly, I have neither the space nor the cash to buy things I don't need at the moment!


I know a lot of them have been removed from the 7th edition rulebook, which makes a lot of sense, because they're mostly far too specific to be useful; they can only be cast by a particular individual, or members of a specific cult, or by those of a particular heritage, or in the Dreamlands. Honestly, at that point it often doesn't feel worth making them into spells at all: there are a whole swathe of spells for the Horror on the Orient Express campaign which I'm pretty sure you could just replace with flat narration, not worrying about the precise mechanics by which an unspecified cult do horrible things to NPCs.


At the same time, having started to write scenarios myself, I've started to understand why this happens.


I've written up a few antagonists now. Call of Cthulhu is relatively unusual as an RPG, in that for the most part there's surprisingly limited scope for modifying your NPCs away from the "hapless bystander" position. I can think of several factors here:

  • Unless you are a monster, you are almost certainly an ordinary human, mechanically speaking
  • The variation in raw attributes is limited, and they also have very little impact on your capabilities.
  • Most skills are of a type which can't be used in an adversarial way (History), or which Keepers generally don't use against PCs (Persuade), except for combat skills
  • As a realistic game, there is very little you can do to defend against firearms
  • With the exception of firearms (classically, shotguns) equipment is not usually an important part of any confrontation
Basically, an antagonist is just a person. If the PCs decide to gang up on the antagonist, unless they are an exceptionally skilled melee fighter (highly unusual in most games) the antagonist will generally lose. If the PCs decide to ambush the antagonist when they are off-guard, the antagonist will generally lose. If the PCs decide to shoot the antagonist, the antagonist will generally die.


Antagonists aren't usually protected by level-scaling HP or defences (it's not that sort of universe), nor by potent armour, nor by enormous combat skills. They don't have the Plot Armour that such characters frequently have in pure fiction, because RPGs are an interactive medium where protagonists decide how they feel about things, and where players are normally quick to jump to conclusions. Once the PCs decide another human is their enemy, providing they want to do something about that, there are limits to what the one antagonist can do.


The classic defences for a human antagonist are basically obscurity or minions. Not being recognised as an enemy is one of the best ways to survive, but unfortunately doesn't help at all once you are identified. This means it can be quite hard to pull off in an RPG, where players are usually quite conscious of which NPCs appear onstage, which have names and what they do; tenacious in tracking down these leads; and often prepared to flout social conventions in a highly unrealistic manner out of vague suspicion.


Minions are very useful, providing you can keep them to hand. On the downside, only certain types of antagonist really work well with minions. It's all very well for the gloating necromancer or mob boss to sit in her lair surrounded by mooks, the Man in Black to arrive flanked by bodyguards, and so on. Plenty of other antagonist archetypes are more solitary, and in particular, you often can't combine obscurity with minions. If it was Old Janitor Willie all along, Willie can't really go around with a posse of henchmen.


And so we come to spells. There are many potential reasons for having spells, of course. But when you want a human(ish) antagonist to pose a challenge to the PCs, spells are one of the few options you have for arranging that.


But why new spells?
So that's all well and good, you may think, but there's a fat stack of spells in the rulebook, as I said before. Why would I need new ones?


This boils down to a mixture of flavour, appropriateness and archetype. They don't separate neatly, either.


Archetype is fairly simple. When assigning spells, you want them to fit the kind of antagonist you're designing. Some antagonists should be hard to bring down, some should conjure up unspeakable things to hunt their enemies, some should try to win you over with hypnotic words.


In terms of appropriateness, you often have an idea of roughly how an encounter with the antagonist might go. A powerful sorcerer might be dangerous enough that direct confrontation is taking your life in your hands; the PCs build up to that confrontation over time, getting some idea of who they're dealing with and their capabilities, and choosing the best way to approach (often with alternative options, or opportunities to reduce their power, and so on). Another NPC may try to pick off individual PCs and hypnotise them. A third might be able to unleash a desperate spell, hoping to at least make a break for it. A fourth can perhaps defend herself effectively, but has little aggressive power.


Finally, sometimes you want the choice of spells to fit a theme: a sadistic cult might have pain-themed magic, a Cthugha cult fiery magic, a darkness cult shadowy magic.


Despite the number of available spells, it can turn out that there doesn't seem to be anything quite right for all those factors.


Case studies
I'm not going to go into too much detail here, but here are three antagonists I've written into various things.


A is an intermediate antagonist - important to the plot, but not intended to be a huge physical challenge. There are other things going on when they're likely to confront A. I decided what I wanted A to do was keep that confrontation interesting. Specifically, there's an awkward balance in many Call of Cthulhu scenarios depending on whether the Investigators have firearms and are competent with them. If they do, a physical confrontation that didn't plan for them can become trivial; if they don't, a confrontation that assumed firearms can be fatal. In the end, I gave A some magic that makes firearms less effective, so more of the events I wrote for that section are likely to kick off. Hopefully, this will not feel like railroading (good strategy is still better than bad) but reduces the chances of that section feeling like a complete damp squib.


B is a rather passive antagonist who primarily relies on manipulation and subterfuge, and is protected largely by obscurity. It's not at all appropriate for B to be a powerful and dangerous combatant, even with magic. On the other hand, B is the kind of antagonist I'd like to (have the option to) preserve for future reuse. I decided to allocate B some magic that will hamper whole groups of enemies, and render specific attackers helpless. B is the type to prioritise making a getaway over finishing off enemies (B will always have a fall-back plan) so these spells can be used to enable the escape. The idea is that B can be confident even in the face of threats, while not being particularly dangerous to the Investigators. Dishing out powerful attack spells didn't feel like a good call. I also chose to theme these spells strongly towards B's character and B's occult interests.


C is a moderately dangerous antagonist, but again one who operates in wider society. Whereas a cackling madman hidden in a ruined tower might happily wield destructive spells, C has to function day-to-day and avoid attracting too much attention. C is another obscured antagonist, and I wanted to strike a balance between being dangerous and the Investigators being able to survive a confrontation. There is significantly more to come in this scenario after the point where they're likely to identify C, so killing off or disabling most of the party didn't particularly appeal. I decided I'd devise a spell to make the confrontation less likely, basically a stupefying aura that keeps people from becoming awkward. It's set up as something C uses generally to avoid inconvenient questioning, which means I can use it to make them back down (this time!) without specifically identifying the Investigators as enemies. I'm also allocating a means of escape (very different from B's), and a couple of hostile spells. These are designed to be potent, but not necessarily deadly, and have side-effects that help ensure C doesn't throw them around casually. Essentially, I'm aiming for an antagonist who could if forced to probably take out the Investigators (and is therefore a potent enemy to be feared) but who's in a position where they're very reluctant to do so unless it's absolutely necessary. C may be mad, but the insane have their priorities too.


TANGENT: One of the common difficulties with these kinds of settings is that once you've identified someone as a sorcerer/cultist/alien monstrosity, 99% of the time one of you has to die. The only way to stop [insert fiendish scheme here] in a setting where nobody believes in the supernatural is to kill them, for neither prison nor the asylum will hold them for long. Similarly, once they realise you're onto them, and especially if you've demonstrated that you actually threaten their plans in some way, their best option is to kill you. They're not going to leave you hanging around to thwart them, are they? So if you accuse Lord Fiendishly-Vile of being an undead wizard, he typically will not just beat you up and send you packing, saying "let that be a lesson to you!". This is especially true of NPCs who have a role in society or need to inhabit a particular lair: the wandering lunatic may be willing to cut losses and move on, but Lord Fiendishly-Vile has far too much to lose, while the Priest of Urglunk can't abandon the altar at Dore & Totley Station.


Combat spells
One of the factors here is the attack magic. There are a number of hostile spells in the rulebook, but I often feel they're unsuitable for my antagonists, for mechanical or flavour reasons.


For example, Stop Heart requires the caster to plan a cold-blooded murder 24 hours in advance, involves a lot of preparation, takes 1 round to cast, and then might flub. It's appropriate for an assassin (preferably one directed at an NPC, since I don't really want my PCs getting one-shotted by an attack out of nowhere), but is of very little use against a group of PCs, nor is it useful if a fight simply breaks out. A leader type or lone sorcerer probably wouldn't use this.


Wither Limb can (based on the text, at least) permanently hamper an Investigator's ability to do things, quite aside from the damage inflicted. It's not ideal for long-term play, like a campaign where you're trying to maintain some continuity.


Fist of Yog-Sothoth seems like a useful spell, but it's surprisingly hard to use. One MP translates into 1d6 STR (3.5 on average). There's a distance penalty, although that's fine. You then match this STR against the target's CON+STR, which on average will be 20. This means that to have an even chance of knocking out an average human, you want to be investing 6MP, which for most characters is around half their total MP. You also automatically push them STR-SIZ feet, which means usually STR-13. In other words, to knock someone back far enough that they probably don't get to act in the next round (which seems the minimum useful effect of the spell in most situations, cliffs notwithstanding) you probably need to be investing that 6MP. So you can give up half your MP to shove a person back a few feet once, on average. You probably can't actually cast the spell twice with any reasonable chance of success because you'll pass out. This means the spell is actually of quite limited use even to a powerful sorcerer, because its cost scales far more strongly than its usefulness; if you've got enough MP to invest that it's likely to KO targets, you could throw around a whole load of Wracks or some Shrivellings. It's a bit of a shame there isn't a halfway house between "take out of fight" and "gently push".


Implant Fear sounds like a good spell suitable for a sorcerer to drive away enemies, but it costs 12MP to cast. What it actually does is drain a few SAN and cause the target to lose concentration on something. It's entirely up to the Keeper how long this lasts, what it actually means, and what (if anything) they can do in the meantime. It doesn't, for example, state that the person loses control of their actions, runs away and so on. Of course, as Keeper I can do whatever is necessary for it to feel effective in the hands of my antagonist, but I'd really like a bit more structure than this. At a basic level, does it stop the target doing what they were doing, stop them doing anything, make them lose control of their actions entirely, or essentially render them helpless? That's a very important distinction.


Mindblast is a classic, though incredibly unpredictable because it depends on the insanity rolled. It can end up being essentially useless.


Spectral Razor is characterful, though not particularly powerful. As it costs 2 rounds to cast, it's basically unhelpful in most combat situations, especially for a lone character. It's not clear whether you should be rolling to attack with it, which I feel is important. It costs 2MP per round of effect for 1d6 damage, which makes it reasonably priced but at the same time not something most characters can readily keep up for a lengthy fight. If Investigators have firearms, this is not a strong option. If they're able to get into melee range, it's also not a strong option. It's pretty situational, I think - perhaps best suited to a sorcerer with a nice bodyguard of mooks.


Or, you know, you could just use Shrivelling, which seems to be the classic choice from the scenarios I remember. Again, it takes a couple of rounds, during which most groups of Investigators can probably wrestle a single opponent into breaking their chant if not beat them unconscious outright. It's also really quite difficult to use, because you spend MP and then match remaining MP to take effect - this means if you spend enough MP to seriously injure an Investigator most characters don't have enough left to successfully use it,* and if not, it's an ineffectual use of 2 rounds of chanting.


(* I work here on my personal principle that most antagonists do not in fact have godlike POW scores in the 30+ range with which to lay waste to Investigators; obviously this differs between Keepers. I like to keep mine at the mostly-human scale)


I think Wrack is probably the strongest play. It disables a character for a few rounds and is quite cheap to cast, meaning the average sorcerer can still pass the MP roll and even cast it more than once. At the same time, while very disturbing, it has no permanent effects, so you can take several Investigators out without bringing your campaign to a screeching halt.


So! I can easily see how Keepers designing new scenarios have, over time, ended up creating new spells to match the specific situation they want to use them in: this assassination, that ambush, this evil ritual, that climactic final battle. And similarly, I'm going to end up doing the same to equip my antagonists with spells to fit their needs. It is difficult, because for the most part Mythos magic feels like something that should be slow and ritualistic - but unfortunately that doesn't fit well with Investigators' ability to pull out revolvers and spring instantly upon a vulnerable chanting sorcerer.

I'd expand "minions" to cover social abilities in general, since in an investigative game this can be quite important: the evidence you need to get the cops to launch a raid on Paddy O'Stereotype of the Boston Mob (with his conjure-man, but also with a load of well-armed gangsters) is not the same sort of evidence you need to convince your mates that they should come along against a high-society sorcerer. Old Janitor Willie may be someone's uncle who came back a bit strange from the War but, poor feller, he's harmless enough, why are you bothering him?


As I think about this I realise I haven't done much with spell-casting in my Mythos adventures, as distinct from magical powers and effects wielded by non-sapient entities or the environment. In a narrative sense I suppose you want the spell to be less powerful than a machine gun: something to send the message "this antagonist is weird, and dangerous" but not to wipe out the party…

Good point; as long as players are willing to engage with the social pressures that the setting should enforce, the fact that you simply can't do that kind of thing is a powerful defence, particularly where they're less than 100% sure.  So as you say, if they harrass Old Janitor Willie, a couple of locals might have a strong word with them about their behaviour and their investigations can be made more difficult.


I think it gets a little more difficult once characters are thoroughly convinced of the weirdness, and of a specific antagonist's involvement, because it starts to feel more appropriate to take extreme action once you know unnatural forces are involved.  Of course it depends on the type of game, but if it's one where violence is a likely option for players, Old Janitor Willie may still need some way to defend himself from an ambush.  In fact, from certain angles it can help to ensure that ambush murders aren't the optimal strategy for dealing with the Mythos.


(To be fair, this is always a tricky point with hidden-supernatural settings, because unless you can take away people's powers and knowledge, or completely eliminate the supernatural element they're trying to abuse, there's not many options for stopping antagonists short of killing them unless you're in a position to set up a supernatural prison)



As I think about this I realise I haven't done much with spell-casting in my Mythos adventures, as distinct from magical powers and effects wielded by non-sapient entities or the environment. In a narrative sense I suppose you want the spell to be less powerful than a machine gun: something to send the message "this antagonist is weird, and dangerous" but not to wipe out the party…


I think that's about right.  It's one of those things that's so much easier to do in narrative than interactive fiction, because you're trying to send that signal to the players without it being interpreted as "this antagonist didn't kill us, so we can probably beat them".  In fiction you can have characters explicitly deterred from rash behaviour by a sense of brooding menace, and so on.  And you can ensure that this menace results in them biding their time and allowing more of a plot to unfold, rather than deciding this is definitely the main antagonist and they should wait for her with shotguns round the back.


Maybe it's one of the stumbling-blocks of Call of Cthulhu and similar settings?  I mean, it's never entirely clear what the expectations are around engaging antagonists directly, because it varies so heavily between scenarios and GMs, whereas in something like a straight fantasy game you tend to have a better idea.

I don't have a problem with ambush-murder as long as the setting responds to it appropriately. I'm thinking of the frame-story of The Thing on the Doorstep: sure, the Big Bad is dealt with, but the guy who did it is not getting out of prison any time soon. That seems entirely in-genre with the "sacrifice yourself in order to keep the world going" element within CoC.


In games I've played in and/or run, I think there's often been a tension between direct action and gathering evidence to show to someone else. (Mostly in longer games rather than one-shots, which I find lend themselves to the direct approach.) The latter is harder, but more rewarding if you can pull it off; it gets you the Innsmouth Raid rather than locked up without parole. That tension is usually, though I admit not always, enough to keep the PCs from going off prematurely.