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"Safe" Cthulthu Magic

CoC 7e New to Cthulhu

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#1 Twilight8846

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Posted 01 November 2015 - 09:45 PM

I'm looking to start a Pulpy game in 7th Edition, albeit in modern times, kind of a noir/modern hybrid really. So I want my players to have access to magic, but I don't want this to be a meat grinder.

So what would this fine community suggest for that? Lower the sanity cost? If so how much? Would removing the sanity cost of Casting the spell be to much (keeping in mind the cost for reading to tomb the spell is learned in would be in full effect.) Or maybe allow the investigators to find special amulet thingies which shield their minds from the drain of Casting the spell?(not really sure how that one would work out or be explained...)

When answering try as though you were explaining it to an idiot, I've only run one or two games and haven't used the magic system at all, and am still learning it.

Thanks in advance for any advice you give.

#2 GBSteve

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Posted 01 November 2015 - 10:11 PM

I've done something similar in Trail of Cthulhu and it worked very well. Just remove the sanity costs for casting spells, although you might impose a Sanity check for casting really nasty spells. You can change the rules in play if things get out of hand or the characters become too powerful. As long as you tell the players what kind of level you're aiming for and that adjustments might need to be made as you go along.

 

I had my characters belong to a magical order and undergo an initiation ritual before they could cast spells at all. Although you might instead have this be the thing that prevents the Sanity loss. And if ever they break the strictures of initiation they start to lose SAN again from casting or worse, lose all the accumulated SAN in one go.


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#3 Utech

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Posted 02 November 2015 - 02:31 AM

I'd keep an eye on three things:

1) magic points

2) sanity loss

3) casting time

 

Magic points will end up functioning a lot like ammunition in the sort of game you describe. You'll want to have a good long think about how many spells you want flying around. If you want lots of eldritch action, you will probably need to hand out more magic points or make them accessible through objects or oaths or the whims of strange beings from beyond. If you don't mind making magic quite similar to technology, you could keep track of how many "clips" of magic points are being carried by each investigator, and allow those clips to be lost - or even stolen!

 

Sanity loss will need to be tempered or eliminated. I'd suggest implementing something akin to the possibility for a backfire or explosion when using a firearm. That is to say that if the roll to cast a spell is botched, the investigator takes a big hit to their sanity. Thus there is always some danger when casting. An alternative would be to keep sanity loss as is, but have sanity loss from spells fade rather quickly over time - perhaps regaining one point per hour or something like that.

 

Casting time is something to play with. You may want some spells to fire off quickly (pray and spray?) while others operate more like a blunderbuss. You might even consider speeding up some spells that take weeks or months according to the rules. These might be less powerful versions of the existing spells. For example, you could have a combat-capable Create Gate spell that generates gates on the battlefield that last only a few minutes or seconds. 

 

Hope that's helpful.



#4 SandyPetersen

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Posted 02 November 2015 - 07:41 PM

I guess I don't see how magic really works in a modern setting, at least not for PCs

 

I can see it as something used by a friendly NPC (a tribal shaman, perhaps), or a villain (i.e., Charles Gray in The Devil Rides Out). For me, having a player use magic in today's setting seems anachronistic and off-putting. That' s just me though I suppose. 



#5 The_Tatterdemalion_King

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Posted 02 November 2015 - 08:29 PM

When answering try as though you were explaining it to an idiot, I've only run one or two games and haven't used the magic system at all, and am still learning it.


What kind of magic do you want them to use? How do you picture it?
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#6 Shimmin Beg

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Posted 02 November 2015 - 08:44 PM

As Sandy says, players having ready access to magic will change the feel of the game, so I'd think carefully about exactly what it is you want.  Utech outlined ways that you can achieve various effects.

 

Off the top of my head...

 

Players having magic means it's out of your hands - you can no longer control the amount of supernatural content in a scenario.  All your games are likely to be some variant of urban fantasy, without much ability to switch between magic-y, science-y and plain weird to give scenarios different flavours.  Because no matter how hard-scientific your scenario is, people casting spells tends to mess with that.

 

The SAN costs of most spells reflect the fact that they do really nasty things.  You can knock the costs out, but if your players are hurling Red Signs about, this is less a pulp game and more a supernatural noir.  Take a good long look at the spells available and think about which of them you actually want players having access to, because that selection will determine the tone. 

  • If you allow them Candle Communication, Gate and Eibon's Wheel of Mist you might get a sort of noble-pulp group of mystical delvers into hidden truths, using their powers to get into trouble and as cinematic problem-solving devices. 
  • If they have Flesh Ward and Spectral Razor it's likely to be more like occult pulp, or even a Western, with combat magic being hurled back and forth.
  • If you give them some of the darker spells like Consume Likeness or Red Sign, this is going to be a grey-to-black morality game.
  • Some of the ritual spells can produce extremely potent effects over time - time which NPCs don't necessarily have, but PCs can deliberately spend downtime building up their stockpiles.  PCs can also share these, while antagonists are often alone.  Watch out.
  • Summoning spells can completely transform a game - if the Investigators can call up a hunting horror or even a byakhee, they can deal with an awful lot of obstacles easily.

Keeping magic points at their base levels will mean PCs can use one or two spells a day, which may allow for a pulp-with-a-bit-of-magic feel.  The more spells they are able to cast, the less it will feel like a pulp game and the more like a magical setting.

 

I think the thing to bear in mind about Cthulhu spellcasting is that it's all bespoke spells.  You need to consider the impact on tone, setting and balance of allowing each individual spell into your game, bearing in mind that the players will likely be able to use it as many times as they want.

 

Also, players tend to form relatively optimal go-to strategies quite quickly: if they gain the ability to summon a hunting horror, then you can reasonably assume that before any major confrontation they will do so, and they will also use horrors to assassinate people they suspect of sorcery, fly them rapidly to distant places, hunt down and capture suspects, and so on.

 

 

I guess I don't see how magic really works in a modern setting, at least not for PCs

 

I can see it as something used by a friendly NPC (a tribal shaman, perhaps), or a villain (i.e., Charles Gray in The Devil Rides Out). For me, having a player use magic in today's setting seems anachronistic and off-putting. That' s just me though I suppose. 

 

 

I tend to agree with Sandy - once you have PCs using magic, it isn't really a modern setting so much as an urban fantasy setting, because the magic becomes a constant presence.

 

On the other hand, I might tend to skip the tribal shamans (Mythosy though they may be), and have the magic-wielding NPC be an estate agent or Android developer who learned some very odd stuff somewhere.  It's weirder that way.



#7 MikeM

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Posted 02 November 2015 - 10:05 PM

For pulpier play, you could just make the spells more available (i.e. spells are normally pretty rare in CoC), allowing the PCs to use them as they will - with all of the consequences. I would avoid lowering/removing the Sanity cost of spells, as without a consequence (Sanity cost) then magic use is more or less harmless - and that's not really the spirit of the game (IMHO).

 

You may want to define what pulp gaming means to you - pulp means a lot of very differing things to different people. It sounds like you want more 'magical action' in your game, so grating access to more spells provides the players the opportunity to use them. That simple action may be enough to get what you want. Keeping the premise that the Mythos is abhorrent/indifferent/bad to humanity (Sanity costs for using spells) maintains the need for the PCs to be respectful of the power they have to hand - and also the knowledge that power corrupts and has consequences. Likewise, allowing the PCs access to NPCs who can cast spells can also achieve this goal - although, for a pulp game, the PCs may become bystanders to the action - a careful balance is required.

 

If used in a modern setting, then using magic should be very problematic. What happens when 'normal' people see your PC casting a spell and 'making something strange happen'? Panic? Fear? Anger? How quickly does this get on the Internet - and then what happens? How quickly do the heroic PCs turn into villains in the public eye? Does their magic use cause riots/mass panic that results in death and injury to many others (calling for Sanity losses to the PCs when they understand they caused this loss of life). 

 

Spells are essentially the 'big guns' - figuratively speaking - just like handing the PCs a tank, you have to know why you are giving them a tank and the probably consequences that will follow. Otherwise, you might find a PC summoning Cthugha to light a cigarette - which, I guess, is not what you want to happen.


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#8 DavetheLost

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Posted 02 November 2015 - 11:05 PM

I like magic to be kind of subtle and always mysterious. In CoC "magic" can just as easily be alien super science.

Remember that using magic is warping reality at a pretty fundamental level. This is why it has a SAN cost.

 

Two things you could do to increase the level of magic in your games without changing them into urban fantasy are to simply increase the availability of new spells to the PCs and also to reduce the SAN cost for PCs casting spells.

 

In my games spells are rare and hard to find, making them more common would obviously allow the PCs to increase their magical arsenals.

 

SAN cost could be reduced either by a multiplier (x1/2, x1/3) or to the minimum possible ofr that spell, or by -1, -2, etc. This makes using spells much easier on the psyches of your PCs while still making magic dangerous and sanity threatening.



#9 Twilight8846

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Posted 03 November 2015 - 12:20 AM

The magic wasn't going to common by any means, at least not in the world as a whole. My plan for Controlling the ago the PCs can use would primarily be by limiting the books, or at least what spells l, if any, are in any given book.

I understand it will take much out of the Horror aspect of the game, but that is kind of my goal sense all my players don't really like horror, and this is the best system with a use able non-ouch-my-brain modern magic system while also having a good deal of focus on investigation built right in. Which I plan to use to help with deciphering clues.

I thank everyone for the advise they gave and will probably be using a hybrid of what a number of us suggested.

#10 yronimoswhateley

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Posted 03 November 2015 - 02:52 AM

I think I can picture a couple examples of ways it can play out, without feeling too much like generic urban fantasy:

 

  • In the Television show Supernatural, the "investigators" routinely use magic that rather resembles CoC Call/Bind/Dismiss type spells, generally to control and dismiss the Monster of the Week, and about once every season or two to conjure and make deals with the devil and so on when a dramatic story arc calls for them to do something really, dramatically dangerous.  If Supernatural were a CoC campaign, it looks like there could be a sanity cost for the Call spells, but the costs for Bind/Dismiss spells seem to be hand-waved away with sanity rewards when the investigators use such spells to triumph over the Monster of the Week at great risk and danger to themselves.
  • There's Clive Barker's Lord of Illusions, which seems to fit the original post's description of a modern noir setting which uses magic.  The characters in this film seem to be able to use magic in ways that can vary from minor parlor tricks involving levitation of small objects, minor illusions, and so on, to reality-twisting spells of sanity-shattering magnitude, and the use of magic seems to be a slippery slope where the more powerful magic seems to be the secret provinces of soulless cultists who've pursued more and more powerful and darker and darker magic until they no longer respect for even their own humanity or reality:  magic in that universe seems to be something that investigators wouldn't want to use, but may find themselves tempted to use anyway when pushed far enough, sort of like crossing the line into crime and violence for traditional noir characters.  Most of the main characters seem to keep magical abilities secret by disguising it as magic-show tricks, since using magic seems to have the side effect of attracting the wrong attention from more powerful sorcerers and eldritch abominations, on top of eroding sanity and corrupting the magic-user.  Clive Barker's characteristic story-telling tropes seem to treat magic as something of a monstrous sexual perversion of some sort:  the only people who seem to talk about it openly are either depraved or corrupt in various ways, or are the sorts of people who routinely roll up their sleeves to do the dirty work of dealing with that world on the behalf of outsiders.
  • The little bit I've seen of the Constantine franchise, which (at least from the handful of TV show episodes I've seen) seems to have something of a noir vibe to it, seems to treat the protagonist's use of magic like a double-edged sword, where using magic to solve problems ends up being a bit like trying to dig your way down out of a hole:  magic is deceptively easy to use and there's plenty of temptation and opportunity to use it, but there always seems to be a hidden cost eventually.  A traditional CoC cost to sanity is probably the easiest mechanical way to model this, though it seems to take the form of each major use of magic indirectly costing the life of or corrupting a friendly NPC that trusts the PCs, or attracting the attention of personal demons, or banishing one monster while opening the door to another, and generally fixing small problems by causing bigger ones.  Magic users in this universe seem to end up with few friends and terrible reputations, and rather than going insane in traditional CoC ways, the magic-using protagonist seems to grow more and more despondent, hopeless, self-destructive, callous, and cynical as time goes by - I'm not sure that would make for very inspiring Call of Cthulhu gaming, but a creative keeper might still be able to make use of it.

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#11 Utech

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Posted 03 November 2015 - 04:45 AM

I immediately thought of Cast A Deadly Spell. (I wasn't familiar with Witch Hunt, which is a sequel.)

 

I'm all for world creating that takes things in a different direction. Having magic be common - or even omnipresent - can work out just fine. In many ways, it's window dressing. But window dressing can be fun.

 

Any game of CoC is going to involve tacit or explicit agreement that either: 1) This is a parallel universe situation in which none of these events are a part of our history (or present); or 2) We're playing in the real world as accurately as we can manage - while still making it fun.

 

In a parallel universe situation, go for it! Dinosaurs with lazers on their foreheads fighting fungi from Yuggoth. Conan battling Mi-Go. A valley girl slays all sorts of demonic riff-raff. Nazi zombies. Zombie nazis. Unicorn estate agents... You can feel free to include as much or as little magic as you like in these games.

 

If we're playing in the real world in a historical setting, we have to all agree that the stakes can never really get too high because . . . the world didn't end. If we're playing in the real world in the present, we run into the same problem with a slight delay because the press didn't cover the game events of last week. You're rather limited in these games as to how much magic you include.


Edited by Utech, 03 November 2015 - 04:46 AM.


#12 DAR

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Posted 03 November 2015 - 06:43 AM

I'm fine with players being able to use magic, I'll even set it up (ala the old Pagan Publishing Gaslight sourcebook) if it seems right. I do admit that it plays better in a Pulp rather than Purist setting - though even old Armitage was willing to use some magic when needed...

 

My method of increasing castability is that as the Cthulhu Mythos skill increases, there is decrease in San cost, and a identical though lesser effect from Occult skill. It seemed to work as a rather decent balance to that in-game.

 

I think the biggest issue is making sure that the magic matches the style of game that you want. I do like the 7E conceit of "Deeper Magic" because it seems like a excellent way to balance out basic "player magic" against the idiosyncratic and powerful magic of the NPC's.

 

D.



#13 GBSteve

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Posted 03 November 2015 - 01:01 PM

My magical setting was GUMSHOE purist. There was no getting back lost Sanity. That makes it much darker, especially when the players started to discover the extra secret hidden cost of using magic.


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#14 Gaffer

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Posted 08 November 2015 - 02:06 PM

I'd recommend losing 1 SAN for each casting, so that the cost is a slow drip that may be judiciously recovered. However, if a PC casts something with really nasty effects -- Wither Limb, for example -- there would be a considerable loss for such a horrific act, as well as for those who witness the effects.

 

For spells that summon up awful entities, the usual SAN hit for seeing them would pertain.

 

As for NPs, in the misty days of yore when I started playing Original D&D, I created a ritual to store mana points needed to use spells in gems and other artifacts. I still use this sometimes to make CoC wizards and witches powerful enough to go toe-to-toe with well-armed and savvy investigators.


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#15 SandyPetersen

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Posted 09 November 2015 - 07:30 PM

I always like the idea of spells that are so awful they do something permanent to the user. This appears in many different old tales - I can remember a story I read where a certain spell can only be cast three times in the user's life. And another in which the spell ages him a decade. 

 

The concept of having Sanity as a cost for spell-using, in a game where loss of Sanity is the end of your guy's Player-controlled life, is another way of accessing this concept, and that's really why I had it. That, and the desire to have my bad guys have almost free access to spells, and the players have a much more limited ability. 

 

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#16 wombat1

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Posted 10 November 2015 - 08:14 PM

What would people think of the following idea, which diverts the original poster's idea slightly:

 

So one could devise a system along the following lines, first, that most of the spells in Call of Cthulhu (certainly those with SAN penalties,) do indeed blast sanity.  But second, other spells may exist which do not--one possible easy source for these could be, say, RuneQuest, or the non Mythos spells in CDA, since those run on a system that syncs up easily.  This of course takes us away from the Mythos roots of CoC, but it doesn't have to be "All tentacles, all the time."

 

But now making the wheel go round again, how would one merge in spells from systems which also have power systems, but in which magic users run around with more than just 3d6 worth or nearly so, of power points.  I here specifically think of the elemental magic of Chivalry and Sorcery, in which spells can be added up, but in which each spell adds a cost.



#17 yronimoswhateley

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Posted 12 November 2015 - 02:07 AM

In a pulp setting, or even in a more realistic one, I think a lot of "magic" can fly under the sanity radar with little or no cost:  for some examples:  faith-healing, fortune-telling, spoon-bending, exorcism, even a little necromancy in the form of seances... the people who believe in such things may come across as a bit kooky, but not necessarily deranged cultist insane.  The casual skeptical observer can dismiss this sort of "magic" as a trick, something that's all in your head, or something that can be explained by comfortable, normal "science" or "religion":  it's psychosomatic, it's matrixing, it's swamp gas, it's faith, it's clairvoyance and it runs in my family....

 

In contrast, the really reality-warping mythos magic, the stuff that permanently alters reality, contacts inhuman monsters, causes real injuries, and so on, should always cost sanity.  This is the sort of magic that can't be swept under the rug of skepticism and which can't be dismissed as harmless eccentricity - it's the stuff that should leave its witnesses and its casters questioning their grasp on what they once called reality.

 

So, I suppose you could pick out a small list of the more harmless kinds of magic a character in your world might have, and a character might start out knowing one such spell, and might even be able to learn additional spells with a lifetime of dedication.  These characters are the horror story exorcists who cast out devils, and psychics who investigate haunted houses, and the occasional pulp characters who learn a few "mind tricks" from years of study with yogi gurus or Indian shamans or white witches or whatever.  These characters would have their little specialties, like being mediums or faith-healers or clairvoyants or whatever, and using their special ability would come at a reduced or no sanity cost, as long as they tread lightly with it. 

 

If they learn and try to use more dangerous mythos magic, however, it costs sanity as usual, and if they abuse their powers, there should be a cost there as well - these characters shouldn't be drawing too much attention to their abilities, in a world where nightmare monsters of the abyss might notice!  I don't even think you'd need any special character-creation rules or balancing act for those characters who have only one such trick to them - in a lot of cases, things like seeing visions and ghosts can work as much in your favor as a keeper as a storytelling device as anything else, and an opportunity to leave an ominous message in her own handwriting for the investigator with the "gift" of automatic writing or to pelt a house with a shower of stones at a tense moment for an investigator whose shtick is levitating small objects could be a more powerful and unsettling storytelling device than traditional sanity loss.


Edited by yronimoswhateley, 12 November 2015 - 02:09 AM.

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#18 GBSteve

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Posted 12 November 2015 - 11:23 AM

I strongly recommend reading Ken Hite's short supplement Rough Magicks which offers a way of bringing magic into a Mythos setting without going all tentacles all the time.


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#19 finarvyn

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Posted 22 November 2015 - 01:10 PM

You could start with a list of "cantrip" spells which are low power but give the player something to cast. These might include lighting up an area, starting tiny fires, small gusts of wind, and the like. That might give players the feel of casting spells while still avoiding the "wizard with a fireball" effect.


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