Magic in Lovecraftian tales is ineffable, unquantifiable, unworldly, and understandably, a literary device. Magic in games of Lovecraftian investigative horror can be all those things, but to make it so, magic actually has to be the exact opposite. It has to be describable, it has to be quantifiable, and as much it remains a device, it has to have cause and effect, and with those in hand, both a GM and his players can work and describe magics in a roleplaying game as part of its narrative. This is the aim of Rough Magicks, a supplement for Trail of Cthulhu, Pelgrane Press’ RPG of clue orientated Lovecraftian investigative horror, penned by the author of the RPG, Kenneth Hite.
Rough Magicks is a slim volume that expands upon the nature of Lovecraftian magic and the rules for it in Trail of Cthulhu and it begins by addressing a simple question – “What is the nature of magic?” Several solutions are suggested. Is it a hyper-science? Something only known to those who have awoken in the Dreamlands? Is it not magic, but psionics? Is it a genetic holdout from the biological sciences of the Elder Things? One, some, or all of these suggestions are possible answers much in the manner of how the Trail of Cthulhu core rules describe the creatures and entities of the Mythos.
How it expands upon the nature of Lovecraftian magic and the rules for it is done in Rough Magicks all through the simplicity of adding a single new General Ability – Magic. Now in Trail of Cthulhu, it is most obviously the province of the sorcerers and wizards who have had and continue to have dealings with the unknowable and the incomprehensible and so have a grasp of the fundamental workings that underpin the nature of the cosmos. Thus we are dealing with figures such as John Dee, Gaspard du Nord, and Ludwig Prinn, and more latterly, Randolph Carter, and Joseph Curwen. In game, the Ability is being expended to negate in part the loss of Stability, essentially serving as a partial bulwark against the immediate shock that comes with the working of magic and the casting of spells.
The Magic Ability is not wholly the province of the NPC sorcerer or wizard though. If the Keeper allows it, then an investigator can acquire the Magic Ability, but this must be in-game during play rather during character generation. It may be from reading certain Mythos tomes, from encountering or learning it from entities such as Yog-sothoth or Nyarlathotep, from being by an actual sorcerer or wizard, or from being exposed to it at certain places, like Dread Carcosa or the Moon-Pool of Ponape. As much as the Magic Ability partially counters the loss of Stability when casting spells, what it does not, and cannot do, is negate any potential Sanity loss…
In addition to listing the potential Magic Ability gain from studying certain tomes, from Al-Azif to Unaussprechlichen Kulten, Rough Magicks expands upon the rules for ‘Places of Power’, gives numerous examples of casting, and suggests the Magic ratings for a veritable menagerie of Mythos Monsters. Of course, this being a book about magic, there is a whole chapter devoted to spells, pleasingly entitled ‘Cast A Deadly Spell’ which adds new spells whilst also re-examining old ones for dramatic purposes. Trail of Cthulhu being a clue-orientated game means that the casting of spells leaves evidence and just as with Mythos creatures in the Trail of Cthulhu core rules, the investigators can detect evidence of this casting. For example, Bureaucracy could undercover a change of use filed by the Chapel of Contemplation on a certain building or that last night’s midnight mass was no ordinary ceremony with the use of Theology. Not ignored is that signature response to the magics and the entities of the Cthulhu Mythos – the Elder sign, the author discussing what it might look like and there are more suggestions than you think…
Rough Magicks does not restrict itself wholly to Mythos Magic. It also expands upon the rules for ‘Idiosyncratic Magic’ for the ‘Bookhounds of London’ campaign frame in the Trail of Cthulhu core rules – since expanded into a superlative setting book of its very own. More suited to Pulp style games, the purpose of ‘Idiosyncratic Magic’ is to provide boosts to the caster’s General Abilities, and again, these are supported by example effects for each General Ability. Examples are given for each of the various General Abilities, such as wearing pieces of a mirror like monocles until your cheeks bleed to enhance the Disguise Ability or wielding a ‘Dead Man’s Glove’ filled with blood to enhance the Filch skill. All have a certain uneasy, if not out and out gruesome quality, and serve as possible starting suggestions.
Rounding out Rough Magicks is a specific revisiting of magic in Lovecraft’s fiction. This is a more open discussion of the subject, though of course, Hite has been drawing upon and applying his knowledge of Lovecraftian fiction – as evidenced in his Tour de Lovecraft – throughout the pages of Rough Magicks. Here he is more appraising of his sources discussing the various ways in which Lovecraft presents magic in his fiction. This serves as a set of pointers for the Keeper wanting to draw direct from the source for atmosphere as much as it does to highlight Lovecraft’s flexibility when it comes to describing magic in his stories.
Physically, Rough Magicks is another attractive looking book for Trail of Cthulhu, as ever suitably illustrated with a selection of creepy art from Jérôme Huguenin. Unfortunately, the book feels a little rushed in places and could have done with another editorial pass.
Rough Magicks is not a book that the Trail of Cthulhu Keeper necessarily needs, but should he want to expand upon the nature and role of magic in his campaign, then this supplement is more than to the point. Indeed, it would also nicely complement the Bookhounds of London campaign frame and source book with its bibliographic focus and its development of ‘Idiosyncratic Magic’. Perhaps the best aspect of the definition and the quantification at the heart of this book is that it leaves plenty of room for the Keeper to make the magic of his game, ineffable, unquantifiable, and unworldly in play.