GURPS Cabal Capsule Review by Doyle Wayne Ramos-Tavener on 13/08/01
Style: 4 (Classy and well done)
Substance: 5 (Excellent!)
Hermetic Magic...and a little bit more.
Product: GURPS Cabal
Author: Kenneth Hite
Company/Publisher: Steve Jackson Games
Page count: 128
Year published: 2001
Comp copy?: no
Capsule Review by Doyle Wayne Ramos-Tavener on 13/08/01
Genre tags: Fantasy Modern day Historical Horror Conspiracy Vampire Gothic
By Kenneth Hite
Published by Steve Jackson Games
1 - Bias: Every reviewer possesses bias in abundance. Mine include: a fondness for Nephilim, the Once and Future Occult RPG that Kenneth Hite was writer and eventual line editor for; a fascination with using the historical occult in RPGs; a lack of kind thoughts for GURPS, the RPG with more system than game.
2 - Contents: GURPS Cabal is a 128 page book, laid out and illustrated in the usual SJG style, with two one-half page-width columns and copious sidebar material, broken up by the occasional map, illustration or full page text box.
There are eight sections in the book, including: Lies and Legends: The history of the Cabal; Laws and Lodges: How the Cabal functions; Realms and Spheres: The Otherworld of Cabal; Hermetic Magic: How to do it; Cabal Campaigns: How to run it; Cabal Characters: The usual crunchy GURPS bits; Wonders and Magics: A few trinkets and some very interesting magical techniques; God and Monsters: How to kill them (PCs, not the Gods & Monsters)
3 - Recommendation: Buy it now.
4 - Criticism: While I unabashedly recommend that you rush out and purchase GURPS Cabal immediately, this is not Mr. Hite's finest achievement. It suffers from the flaw that many sourcebooks (and in particular, GURPS sourcebooks) suffer from, in that the reader receives the distinct impression that the book consists of many fine elements spliced together, but that none of them were developed to their greatest potential.
One imagines Mr. Hite, arrayed in bloodstained apron and leather gloves, furiously stitching mismatched limbs together, muttering under his sweat-soaked surgical mask, "Not enough time, not enough time!"
(But such are the conceits of the critic. Ultimately, the true motives and methods of the author vanish beneath the weight of fantasies of the reader, whose imagination creeps beyond the bounds of narrative into the backyard of the writer, where he is assuredly unwelcome, as J. D. Salinger will no doubt attest.)
The Cabal - the occult organization that is the ostensible focus of the book - is the prime example of this. A loose confederation of supernaturals and sorcerers, the Cabal has used its stranglehold on a particular form of Hermetic lore - the astrological decans - to secure its position as secret masters of the occult world.
This odd collective is not bound together by any particular ideology or myth, but rather mutual fear. Fear of discovery and upset of the status quo. Now these are, dare I say it, human concerns, and easily understandable. But by the same token they seem too ephemeral to hold together a group of supernaturals for well over 3000 years.
To his credit, Mr. Hite does sketch out an interesting history, blending the stories of immortal fae, deathless sorcerers, mortal hunters and wizened scholars. But it still feels very much like World of Darkness Lite, with a GURPS mechanic on top. Perhaps that is the goal. It seems more likely that the hermetic magic that Mr. Hite envisions needed a hook, a story to hang itself on, and the Cabal was the most unobtrusive of hooks to do so.
But a hook that can be easily ignored is a hook that can be easily ignored. Nothing about the Cabal strikes me as unique enough to warrant running a campaign around it.
This is in sharp contrast to Mr. Hite's Nephilim material, where historical idiosyncrasy practically leaps out and rips at your vitals. It is true that some allowances and revisions were made to conform to the background of the Nephilim, but the French conceit, built on a biblical one-liner, was so outré as to nearly mesh with actual historical wackiness.
Even GURPS Voodoo has a much more developed background, with meaty thematic material (the conflict of magic systems as an allegory for the conflict between the Western and Third World).
The Cabal, in closing, seems like an excuse for a merry band of PCs to hang together. I have no objections to this per se, only that such an excuse not be so blatantly obvious.
This brings me to my second concern, one more inherent in GURPS than in the offices of the excellent Mr. Hite. In order to run such a Cabal campaign as described, a whole plethora of GURPS supplements is required: Magic, Grimoire, Compendium 1, and several GURPS books involving undead whose names escape me.
Historical Footnote: Many, many years ago, when I was but a wee lad, I made my first trip to a major convention in Houston, TX, where a certain Mr. Jackson was speaking about his new company, freshly liberated from Metagaming.
He described his vision for a roleplaying game that would cover all genres, and importantly, not require three large, expensive books to play.
20 years later, I think we can assume that the younger Mr. Jackson was perhaps mistaken in his assumptions. End Historical Footnote.
The true heart of the book is the hermetic magic system, which expands on previous RPG attempts to model this elusive archetype (Fantasy Wargaming, Liber Ka, Mysteries, etc.).
Mr. Hite's advance is the incorporation of the astrological decans. These are divisions of the Zodiac into three elements that contribute to the whole of the individual sign. So the sign of Taurus is made up of the decans of Sahu, Iudal, and Ouare, for example.
These decans function as the building blocks of a correspondence system, in which those elements of correspondence that are worked into the casting of a spell increase the effective power of the spell, if the spell effect is in harmony with the correspondences involved.
And there's the rub: the effects of these spells are derived from GURPS Magic and Grimoire. And I don't so much object to the buying of the extra book(s), you understand (see above) as I object to the tone of the effects in said books.
Magic and Grimoire, with a few notable exceptions, are solidly in the camp of D&Dish larger than life, flashy spell effects. And while I don't object to a ceremonial system grafted on to such a beast in a D&Dish fantasy background, the notion of a historically based system of Correspondences, Sympathy and Contagion married to such a beast in a campaign based in the real world strikes me as silly.
I would have much rather ditched the Cabal altogether, and had many more pages devoted to effects that are appropriate to the spell casting system. But that would not be GURPS Cabal. It will, hopefully, be GURPS Ritual Magic, but I ain't holdin' my breath.
My lack of trust in such a result comes from the acknowledgement of a simple truth. GURPS modularity trumps all, forcing us all to swallow that which can be devoured by the most wallets. Feh.
Do not let my mistrust of capitalism deter you, however. The system, flawed as it is, is still the finest iteration of Hermetic magic in an RPG. I only wish it were finer still.
Last, but certainly not least, Mr. Hite presents his cosmology of the otherworld.
Now this material reminds me quite a bit of the hints that Ross Isaacs and others were dropping on the Nephilim mailing list back in the day: a system based on concentric rings around our mundane globe, modeled on the four-world structure of Jewish Kabbalism.
While I have some quibbles about the historical purity of such a conception, I gape in wonder of what Hite has made of it.
Here Atlantis floats, serene and magnificent under the watchful eye of Minos, its God-King. Here the dreams and nightmares of youth grow fat and obscene, threatening to devour entire worlds. Here the Archangels stand eternal guard over the entrance to Paradise, guarding God from all or perhaps guarding us from God. Here is the otherworld of Mage, the Agartha of Nephilim, and many other Otherworlds besides.
This needed a whole book, Ken.
But in my imaginings of what authors think and believe and say, he winks at me and says, "Yes, Doyle, I know. Maybe next year."
And I sigh.