[Sword & Sanity Dissected] The Language of Lovecraftian Magic

It is no secret that Gary Gygax was heavily influenced by Jack Vance and The Dying Earth saga when he penned the rules for how magic would work in Dungeons & Dragons. I believe the system he devised works well for the game, and does what it was designed to do – capture a sword & sorcery (S&S) feel, while providing a manageable game mechanic for characters capable of casting magical spells. But what if Gygax had approached it from a different angle? If D&D had been a game of cosmic horror infused sword & sorcery, or a genre I like to call sword & sanity, I doubt he would have taken Vancian influences and applied them to magic. I would imagine he would have taken a more Lovecraftian approach. In this article I intend to discuss how to take the existing rules used in D&D (or more specifically in Castles & Crusades), and put a Lovecraftian spin on them to provide the necessary flavor required for the sword & sanity genre.

The game mechanics discussed can be used for any edition of Dungeons & Dragons, but are specifically written for Castles & Crusades. As with most game materials I will present, this article is considered Open Game License (OGL).

Thoughts on Tweaking Rules

My intention for writing the Sword & Sanity Dissected series was to present ideas and suggestions that could help modify D&D to bring out a stronger S&S feel from the existing rules. It is important to note that I have not drastically altered any of the existing rules. I did not want to attempt any major rewrites of the rules themselves. They work just fine as published. I simply wanted to look at them from a different prospective and tweak them as needed.

Drawing Inspiration

When preparing for any game I feel it is important to stay as close to the source material as possible. This goes for game mechanics as well as any genre materials that are being using for inspiration. Personally, for my game I mainly look to the triumvirate of pulp fantasy and horror fiction – H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard.

These three men were very different writers, and had different world views. But artistically they did share some commonalities, and they have all been credited for contributing to what has become known as the Cthulhu Mythos. Lovecraft referred to this game of a literary shared mythological universe as Yog-Sothothery. The Mythos family tree is still alive and well, even after all these years. Only now it has extended beyond its literary roots and has found an abundance of new material in the roleplaying field.

Looking over all the available Mythos lore what can we draw upon to help introduce the needed flavor and textures to modify the current Vancian magic system and help bring forth a Lovecraftian vibe? Look to the very beginning, before Lovecraft even knew there was a thing called the Cthulhu Mythos…


In the story “The White People” Arthur Machen wrote of “Aklo letters”, along with other oddities such as the chief songs, the Chian Language and “the real names of days and months”. Given the context in which he spoke of them Machen obviously intended the reader to assume Aklo to be a system of written letters that formed some sort of secret arcane language. Nothing was really ever explained in the story about the origins of Aklo, or any details of the nature of the letters themselves. He simply wanted to weave a web of oddities to add weight to the weird tale he was telling. The mentioning of Aklo was simply a device used to build an otherworldly atmosphere. His method was very effective at drawing the reader in, and selling the weird nature of the story.

Later in one of the first acts of Yog-Sothothery H.P. Lovecraft introduced Aklo into a few of his own stories. Just as Machen before him, Lovecraft only wrote of Aklo in passing, adding very few details, but this line from “The Haunter of the Dark” is most telling:

The text was, he found, in the dark Aklo language used by certain cults of evil antiquity, and known to him in a halting way through previous researches.

From the story it can be assumed that the Valusian serpent-men from Robert Howard’s Kull tales used Aklo for their own dark purposes. It can also be assumed that the language is vastly more ancient than the race of mankind, but no specifics were ever shared, so we are left with only speculation. In one broad stroke Lovecraft was able to weave a tapestry from a thread that stretched from his own tales to Howard all the way back to Machen.

Other writers have gone on to include Aklo in their own writings. Ramsey Campbell introduced the Aklo Unveilings and Formulii in his own Severn Valley Mythos. Alan Moore used Aklo in a most intriguing manner in his short story and comic book The Courtyard. In this story Moore introduces a new spin on Aklo, that not only is it an alien language, but also a mind altering drug. When the letters and the drug are used in conjunction it has the ability to allow gateways to open in the human mind. I can’t help but also make a connection to the Spice Melange from the Dune saga.

Aklo in a Gaming Context

Now that we have established Aklo as a springboard for reimagining how magic is approached in D&D (Castles & Crusades) let’s talk about its application to the existing rules. In short, I would suggest making no adjustments to the actual rules themselves. Aklo can be applied as a fresh coat of paint or as a new skin on top of the existing framework that is already there.

Spells in D&D are defined by three main characteristics – material, somatic and verbal components. Aklo seems to cover all these components by itself. The Aklo letters can be drawn, which fulfills the need for somatic components, and the recitation of Aklo words are used as verbal components. Taking the same approach as Alan Moore, Aklo can also refer to a mind altering drug, which easily explains the need for a material component. This recipe can be defined by the game master (if at all), and the manufacturing of Aklo can be alchemical. I would even suggest allowing characters to produce their own Aklo as long as they have all the needed components for the alchemical formula.

When under the effects of Aklo the spell caster has the ability to see the world much as a tribal shaman does when ritualizing mind altering drugs, except with much more mental control. It can be assumed that through the use of Aklo the spell caster has unlocked the secrets of magic, and is able to think in a many-angled fashion that allows him to bend the laws of nature and physics. When combining the material, somatic and verbal components of Aklo a desired spell effects can be performed. If a sanity system is in place in your game it could be suggested that prolonged use of Aklo could have a detrimental effect on the mental stability of the spell caster, but I will leave the discussion of this for another time.

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