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Author Topic: Grammar & Grimoire: An Aklo-based magic system for CoC & horror generally  (Read 4282 times)

Posts: 2

« on: April 22, 2008, 07:19:19 PM »

Hi there,

This is conceived as an add-on for Call of Cthulhu rather than a standalone. Hope it's alright to post it here? The idea is to base a magic system on Lovecraft's eldritch vocabulary and the hints he drops of how magic works (chiefly in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward). Feedback greatly appreciated!


Posts: 2

« Reply #1 on: May 01, 2008, 06:53:47 PM »

Y'know, I was told that this was a great site to go to for advice on game design. Evidently, I was mistaken. I mean, even a "sorry, we don't discuss add-ons or substitutes for commercial systems, design your own from scratch or nothing" would have been something.
Eero Tuovinen
Acts of Evil Playtesters

Posts: 2591

« Reply #2 on: May 01, 2008, 08:10:55 PM »

Well, what can one do? I myself make a point of trying to catch first thoughts threads that haven't had any responses, but this is strictly voluntary for us, not an obligation. I noticed this thread when you posted it but didn't have the time then to look at it, especially as you just did a general call for feedback with no particular questions, and the thread was pretty fresh and would probably catch somebody else's interest. I'm not speaking for everybody here, but my attention usually goes to specific and contextualized design problems, simply because just chatting about a game necessarily won't lead anywhere or be very helpful to anybody.

Hints for gaining attention for your design efforts:
  • Start by explaining what you are trying to achieve and in what context, with perhaps a little introduction for yourself and your gaming history if you're here for the first time. Ask clear questions about specific parts of your design; not doing that indicates that you don't really need help, but rather that you just want to chat. Not explaining the context increases the likelyhood that others won't answer the questions you're interested in.
  • Post the pertinent parts of your draft directly into the thread, formatted for the forum. The right answer here is not that the whole 100 page document is pertinent; if that is the case, you need to narrow your questions down. By posting pertinent bits directly you increase the likelyhood of somebody getting inspired by your project, and you also cut the workload of others who won't need to read through lots of run-of-the-mill material to get to the parts you need help with.
  • Be constructive in bumbing your threads, this is a rather gentlemanly place. One courteous method is to simply post some specific questions you're currently struggling with, for example, as opposed to complaining that nobody's giving any attention to you. An even better one is to think upon the project and reformulate in a new, more interesting thread; it's typical that one might go to the playtesting forum with playtested material after First Thoughts. This can be done even if nobody comments upon a First Thoughts thread.

Anyway, onwards to the business at hand. What we have here (I'm condensing for the benefit of others reading the thread; also, you can tell me if I've misunderstood something) is an old-school CoC rules mod, it seems. The angle is pretty interesting from a Mythos point of view. The rules approach is faithful to how CoC works. The content describes an alternative magic system predicated upon mystical power words that are learned through drug imbibing and intense meditation. The feel is "gamerly" in that characters might grow tentacles or other chaos mutations by misapplying the magic. Great Old Ones are reinterpreted as hypersemantic concepts that provide short-cuts in using the magic words. Then there's a preliminary word list. A pretty compact document in all, and includes the design notes I asked for above.

I like it! Reminds me of Alan Moore more than H.P. Lovecraft, though, or Call of Cthulhu for that matter. Implies a bit different interpretation of the cosmology than CoC. I suppose that it would be imperative for only the GM to have the canonical word list for Aklo, so that the players might reveal the structure of the language and the dread beings behind it step by step. The thing about physical mutations that might be helpful or harmful is a bit much for me aesthetically, I can see it devolving into laughter. Then again, the whole idea of characters who use magic in an analytically competent manner is something that's peculiar to CoC and not so much my own preferences regarding Lovecraft.

A mechanical issue that always comes up with these syntactic magic systems is that there is actually no particular correlation between spell "strength" and how complex it is to express in words. Some systems that use word magic in this manner are Donjon and Zu magic from The Shadow of Yesterday. (Both are available for free in case you don't know them.) My experiences with these indicate that if you don't have some other mechanics in place to regulate the cost/effect balance of magic, you actually won't have a very strongly thematic magic system: the spell "kill man" is rather cheap, while "transport man to someplace" probably is more expensive, to coin an example. If that happens by chance to work the way the designer intents it to, that's cool; in The Shadow of Yesterday that's pretty much how it works.

(I note from your examples that you're relying quite a bit on GM interpretation to preserve cost/effect balance. That's of course workable if the GM has a handle on the rules, but perhaps you'll want to say that explicitly. Also, if I were in your shoes, I'd include some explicit rules for the GM to track back and change his decision if he comes to regret it later that he decided that "kill man" is a two-word spell and now has players killing indiscriminately. Something about syntactic pathways rearranging themselves out of stress when a single spell is used too many times or something like that, so that I could switch around the required words and in general keep the players on their toes.)

But most pertinently, what we really need to know is, what kind of Call of Cthulhu do you run? There are at least three kinds and they have rather different needs. You write in the document that this system might be closer to what Lovecraft envisioned. Is that important to you, or are you simply looking for variety here? Or is this intended to correct some flaw in the old system, something apart from the system not feeling Lovecraftian enough? I like what you have here, but can't really say whether it could be improved further without knowing more about your relationship to CoC.

Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.
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