Review – Rough Magicks for Trail of Cthulhu

Rough Magicks is a Trail of Cthulhu supplement written by Kenneth Hite and published by Pelgrane Press. It is available in both printed and PDF versions, with the print version retailing for $9.95 and the PDF priced at $5.95. I am reviewing the print version.

The Physical Details

The book is a 40-page (though only 38 pages have content), saddle-stapled soft cover. The covers are out of a heavy, gloss stock, while the interior is printed in black and white, with a gray-scale textured background on a high quality paper. The artwork, all done by Jérôme Huguenin, is top-notch in my opinion – it’s highly evocative of the setting and well done. There also happens to be quite a bit of it, something that is unusual amongst most lower page count supplements. Overall, this is a very nicely made book and you’re getting terrific value for the price.

The book’s layout follows the ToC standard, using a highly functional, three-column format. The sections are laid out logically and are generally easy to follow, although on occasion sidebars or illustrations seem aren’t placed optimally. The book also suffers from some layout and editing gaffs, including repeated occurrences of “See page 00“*, a few typos (including in the word Gumshoe on the back cover), and some poorly spaced words and floating punctuation marks. However, these are relatively rare and hardly ruin the overall experience. A very nice feature is the inclusion of page references to the ToC core rule book which makes looking up information a snap.

The Contents

Rough Magicks contains a collection of optional rules and further details on adding magic to any Trail of Cthulhu campaign. Magic in the Cthluhu Mythos is something that’s only vaguely defined and often takes many forms, something which the book stays faithful to by providing a variety of ways of defining and interpreting magic into game terms. Needless to say, many of these are unusual or even weird, which means they really honor the source material. The inclusion of numerous quotes from Lovecraft’s stories also really brings things to life and makes it clear Hite worked very hard to stay faithful to HPL’s vision.

The book opens with a brief introduction followed by a two-page discourse on the various ways magic can be defined in a ToC game. These range from it being a hyper-scientific discipline, to biologically-based technology, to the toxic leftovers of the great elemental gods. The reason so many possible explanations are given is that Lovecraft (and those that followed including R.E. Howard) described the nature of magic in different, and often contradictory, ways across the various Mythos stories – thus Hite presents a large number of possibilities and leaves it to the individual Keeper to decide what best suits his or her preferences.

The book then moves on to rules covering a new, optional general ability – Magic. This allows a group that wants to feature spell-casting more prominently in their game the chance to offer a slightly more refined set of rules. The explanation of the rules is fairly brief – they are not a radical departure from the core ToC rules – with plenty of examples of how they would be used in play. This includes an examination of the magical abilities of the various monsters presented in the ToC core book.

The next section provides a dozen new spells, including spells to call and/or dismiss various entities. Perhaps my favorite is the ritual Call/Dismiss Azathoth which ends with this ominous warning: “Also, it will probably kill everyone there, too.” Each spell gets detailed information on how it can be used, stability test difficulty, opposition, cost and time. The section also provides some variations on spells that first appeared in the ToC core book, allowing a Keeper to keep her players on their toes or offer some interesting variations over the course of a long campaign. Two sidebars, each of which takes up an entire page, provide a scholarly look at exactly what an Elder Sign looks like (something HPL contradicted himself repeatedly about), and some cool names & brief histories of legendary sorcerers of the Mythos.

This section finishes off with a detailed look at the traces that magic use leaves behind that various ToC investigative skills can detect, and a brief look at some of the things powerful sorcerers can do, addressing issues like immortality and time travel. The investigative skill list is particularly good because it provides some very colorful and interesting examples of how a variety of skills might interact with magical clues – all of these are in terms of actual narrative examples, rather than a dry set of rules, and so make for much more interesting reading and, at least for me, more practical use at the table. For example, here’s what’s listed for Cop Talk: “The detective says these designs look just like the drawings on the wall by the Riverside Killer’s victims, back in ’07.”

Of all the material in the book, the Idiosyncratic Magic Expanded section is perhaps my favorite. These rules, which originally appear in the Book Hounds of London campaign frame in the core book, are expanded upon, providing numerous colorful examples of how Mythos magic can be disguised in terms of weird rituals, and how these can be used in conjunction with general skills to provide some additional tactical “oomph” as well as color to characters’ actions. Like the previous section, this section includes a variety of narrative examples of how magic might interface with general skills at the table. For example, here’s what’s part of what is provided for the Conceal skill: “I laid some loose planking on the body in the shape of the Rune Unwatchable, you know, the one we puzzled out the description of from the Pnakotic Fragments.”

The book’s contents conclude with an analysis of Lovecraftian Magick theory, which is a succinct scholarly analysis of how magic is explained in the real world and how Lovecraft described it over the span of more than 50 stories, written over a span of a couple decades. While this information isn’t terribly useful at the game table, it does provide some interesting background material and would be of interest to most fans of the HPL stories.

The Verdict

Rough Magicks is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in expanding the role of magic plays in their game or wanting inspiration on how spells and magic might be described at the table. While I would not consider it a “must have”, it certainly deserves consideration for fans of ToC, especially given the quality of the product in relation to its low cover price. I would thoroughly recommend Rough Magicks and look forward to reading more of the recent supplements Pelgrane has released for the game.

*Ironically, Robin Laws, designer of the Gumshoe system upon which ToC is based, has a long-running column for Pelgrane Press entitled “See Page XX.”