One of my favourite games is called Eternal Darkness. Eternal Darkness combines a lot of things that I love, such as a fantastic action RPG system combined with Cthulhu-esque sanity mechanics, monsters and most evocatively: Spellcasting. If there is one thing that this game got right it was making magic seem like you were doing something fantastic in bending time, space and calling upon unnatural forces. This youtube video of some of the chanting demonstrates the point pretty well, where as the spell is cast the different gods chant the symbols being used such as “Pargon” while runes fly around the character before slamming down into the ground allowing the spell to “cast”.
During my first Trail of Cthulhu campaign, I didn’t feel like I conveyed just how serious spellcasting was in terms of damaging the mind, sanity and general social life of those who try to actually do it. In a lot of ways I made things like casting spells and summoning monsters far too trivial, which I felt really took away from how horrifying and simply weird casting spells in a game based on the mythos should feel. For Masks of the Dreamer I carefully considered how I wanted to use magic, taking a lot of inspiration from the then newly acquired Rough Magicks.
What struck me about how I got it wrong was that I didn’t make it evocative, creepy and most importantly: Memorable. All things that the magic system I implemented into Masks of the Dreamer set out to fix. My starting inspiration was to go back to the excellent spellcasting seen in Eternal Darkness and think about how to implement something that might approximate its success.
The first and most important thing to do was to break down the individual ideas about magic, particularly ritual magic, into something I could easily represent in an interesting way. Naturally this meant having a selection of familiar looking and some entirely made up symbols, with a mysterious meaning. So far my players have discovered of this language the following symbols:
Now I am not going to pretend I am an amazing artist, so instead of going for more elaborate designs I generally stuck to simpler shapes with only a couple of exceptions (Niselgred for example). In deriving the above symbols I went online and looked at various symbols used in Goetia and from other sources (Rough Magicks has some good ideas here as well). I basically took a hodge podge of things and then decided to start giving them some odd ball names. Generally I stuck with things that were quick and easy to draw, because of my love of physical hand written player aids like the above.
While it might seem kind of silly to call something “Parastion” at first, once you decide on an unusual way of pronouncing it and it becomes a regular “thing” in the game it becomes quite normal very quickly. Additionally, if your symbols are easy to draw it customizes your mythos and keeps players guessing! Remember that while certain things in Cthulhu Mythos fiction have become rather ubiquitous, such as the ever present elder sign, the point of Lovecraft’s writing in the first place was to get away from predictable monsters or rote concepts! Don’t be afraid to mess with your players expectations and have them find those “Elder Signs” aren’t very protective whatsoever!
With this in mind, I decided to slowly grant the players access to different symbols through the story line or via whatever rituals they pick up. These give some hints as to what some symbols might do, such as “Leng” that took the investigators to another dimension or “Parastion”, which seems to just turn up everywhere. In many ways the best analogy for how this works is to think about some alien explorers coming to earth after an apocalypse of some kind. They might discover some of the English alphabet like A, O, S, T, I, W, X and D. To the aliens, this doesn’t have a tremendous amount of meaning and some of those letters are also “words”, like A and I.
In order to correctly piece together human communication in English they need all the letters, then what those letters mean in different combinations and finally what those words put into sentences actually convey in terms of ideas/concepts. It’s actually a remarkably difficult thing to do and the whole thing feels like a really big jigsaw puzzle. Now imagine that if you get the wrong series of letters or words, with the result being that you accidentally draw Azathoth’s gaze, or manage to call some kind of hideous monster to earth or perhaps even worse, just fling yourself into a completely random place in space and time.
That’s part of the fun!
Of course ritual magic isn’t this simple and usually requires more than just the right symbols of power. The right conditions, offerings, chanting, angled lines and elaboration on circles are also important as well. Spells that require some kind of sacrifice on the casters part like a close friend and even body parts can really test the morality of investigators as well. Either way, the language used at the core is always the same and forms the basis for all ritual magic in the game. This has a lot of positive effects, some of which I have already seen in the game since its introduction.
By far the happiest thing was how it immediately caught the players imaginations, with quite a few requests over the game organizing chat and afterwards for where they could find more information about different symbols. Some players are doing a bit of on the side research and experimentation, with quite a few attempts to cast some spells or find them out naturally. Most importantly it gives another resource to the game and another goal for the characters outside of investigations: Learn the meaning of the different symbols.
For example the investigators have worked out from a previous investigation that “Leng” is actually a defined place and it’s filled with horrible things sitting upon long sinuous strands stretching into the skies above. They also know that “Leng” seems to be used for certain spells involving travel to other dimensions, but if it means that it’s always the target or helps get there is currently unknown. This kind of knowledge gives NPCs important bargaining tools when attempting to convince the investigators to do something they want. “If you help me acquire this old tome, I’ll teach you what several of these symbols means and how to use them” is a pretty solid exchange of knowledge.
Best of all, I have only really provided the players with some very basic spells so far and it has already made magic infinitely more evocative than my previous game. I’m eager to see what they think of some of the real magic coming up in the games future. Not to mention once they start to get confident enough to fiddle with the various symbols and see how that might change certain spells function… Sometimes very dramatically!