GURPS Cabal Capsule Review by Alex White on 21/10/01
Style: 5 (Excellent!)
Substance: 5 (Excellent!)
A wonderfully researched book that presents a detailed magic system and a plethora of ideas, that is generic enough to be used for any system or game.
Product: GURPS Cabal
Author: Kenneth Hite
Company/Publisher: Steve Jackson Games
Cost: $44 Australian
Page count: 128 index
Year published: 2001?
Comp copy?: no
Capsule Review by Alex White on 21/10/01
Genre tags: Fantasy Modern day Horror Conspiracy Gothic Generic
Review: GURPS Cabal GURPS Cabal, by Kenneth Hite, and additional material by J. M Caparula, Scott Haring and S. John Ross, explores the fascinating, detailed and complex world of the occult. It gives us the Cabal, a secret society that would make the Illuminati proud. It gives a roleplaying version of real world astrological occult practices and a remarkable cosmology large enough to cater to just about any type of campaign style or story setting.
The first thing I noticed about Cabal, and perhaps one of the reasons that I bought it, was the amazingly evocative cover by Christopher Shy, which can be viewed here . An additional bonus for this book is that the larger part of the internal art is also done by Chris Shy (although the resolution and brightness of the pieces is not high enough- a common problem for Shy’s work).
To get some biases out of the way: I detest the GURPS system for a number of reasons. Despite this, I really appreciate many GURPS supplements, and GURPS Cabal is definitely one of the better ones that I own (the other being GURPS Discworld). I am also not at all knowledgeable regarding the occult, other than reading this book and Atlas Games’ Ars Magica supplement The Mysteries. Finally, I bought this book only for the magic rules I heard were contained within. The Cabal itself presents almost no interest for me other than giving me some ideas as to mystic hierarchies and levels of initiation. I have more than enough conspiracies from my Conspiracy X, World of Darkness and Ars Magica books. The Cabal is too powerful and too big to be intersting.
The layout of the book breaks from the typical GURPS style of having sidebars for supplementary text. Instead, it is divided into two columns and has boxed text for additional information. Since this is normal for most other game books, it works well, and despite the large font of the headings, the borders are thin and simple, giving plenty of room for the text.
The Parting of the Veil
For me, the tone of the book was set by the opening fiction. It is a well written and the climax was unexpected to say the least. I really enjoyed it, short though it was. This short Introduction then gets down to giving a brief explanation of what exactly the Cabal is: a super secret conspiracy that has controlled and guided historical events and actions since the first dynasty of Egypt. Ken Hite also gives us an clarification as to how “real” his magic system is. He is using the post 15th century theories Cornelius Agrippa, as well as the texts of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (John Dee, Crowley et al). In a box is Kenneth Hite’s bio, giving his previous credits.
Chapter One: Lies and Legends
To quickly summarise this chapter: The Cabal has secretly controlled everything that has ever happened. Originating in Egypt, they not only infiltrated, they created many of the most important political and economic institutions of the world. The basis of their power lies in the potent Hermetic magic system, based on the 36 Decans, which underlies all of creation.
We get a chronicle of the Cabal’s machinations and movements from Ancient Egypt to modern day. To be honest, most of it is pretty mediocre. The Cabal did this, the Cabal did that. Various Big Names have done Amazing Things over the years, from causing the Black Death to the Inquisition and allowing the Renaissance to occur. There are some neat ideas within this turgid mess, some of which could allow for a quite interesting historical game, or inspiration for contemporary stories. In addition to these points are the text boxes. The name of the Cabal is explained (it comes from Kabbalah, the Jewish mysticism), and we get a look at the Golden Dawn’s role, as well as how important Victorian London is.
The Cabal around the world is described, and a text box gives several explanations as to why China is left out of the equation. The Cabal’s goals are also expounded, as well as general occult goals. All of these could be used for almost any supernatural conspiracy, and such illuminated ideals such as the Holy Grail, the Philosopher’s Stone, Transcendence and the creation of a Thaumarchy (a magical empire such as Ancient Egypt) are all goals that could be adapted to any setting.
Chapter Two: Laws and Lodges
Here we have the details of the Cabal, its structure, ranks, an interesting system of “Ultors and Passers” (basically a where each member (called a passer, Latin for Sparrow) has two avengers- Ultors- who look after him and protect him. Thus each member is looked after by two other members, who have two members looking after them and so on.). This system allows for a whole bunch of things. For a start, it gives the PCs a reason to be together. It also gives the PCs a reason to get involved in mysteries. If your passer was to go missing, then you would want to find out what happened. Alternatively, your Ultor could ask you to do something for him, or you in turn could get assistance and help from your Ultors. The line of Ultors that extends right to the top ranks of the Cabal can also help for political games. The movers and shakers (the PCs perhaps) of the Cabal could use the excuse of their third or fourth generation passers being intimidated by supernatural forces or another Cabal member to galvanise action or ruin an enemy.
Rival secret societies are also presented, from the archaic Chevaliers de la Crâne (Knights of the Skull) as blood thirsty pirates to the Pavane des Vampires, which is remarkably similar to the World of Darkness’ Camarilla.
Within the Cabal itself, various Lodges make up the internal structure, and a few examples are provided. Suggestions on making your own lodge are given, for both the GM and for players. It seems that Lodges are the hub of Cabal games, and it is within and between Lodges that inter-Cabal conflict takes place, since all Cabal members belong to at least one Lodge. A Lodge is the source of the PC’s information, resources and is most likely where the fellow PCs and friendly (or not so friendly) NPCs come from (and the Ultor and Passer system takes place within a lodge).
Then there is a lineup of the famous Cabal faces- the Grand Masters or Magistri Ipsissimi. Among their illustrious ranks are: Cagliostro, John Dee, The Insidious Doctor Fang and Erasmus Rooke. Several pages are devoted to their backgrounds, but I see only minimal usefulness since most games won’t deal with their level of power at all. Of course, these are supposed to be the main NPC plotters and planners, and I suppose that they could draw characters into their schemes as pawns. Since they are so powerful though, there is little point and it would end up annoying the players as they wonder why such powerful people need the PCs.
Despite this, there are a number of interesting and useful text boxes throughout the chapter, which give plot hooks, rules and magical theories (Mappamondi for example, being the maps of the world that can help in spells or cosmic understanding), or places (such as the Great Library of Alexandria).
But everyone who bought this book didn’t do it because of the Cabal. The real magic to this book is the, well, magic.
Chapter Three: Realms and Spheres
Here the real reason for buying the book is made clear. The background and cosmology of the world of Cabal is given light. Creation as we know it is merely a hologramatic like layering of the 36 Decans, the magical fields from which everything derives from. Every possible experience or existence is characterised by one of the Decans, and they derive from the “Prime Mover” within the realm of Atziluth (called by some, God). By drawing on the magical energies of the Decans, a sorcerer can work wonders.
There are four realms, all of which are fantastic and very open to an individual GMs imagination as far as story and plot ideas go. What is presented is familiar to most fantasy gamers, but is made strange due to the different names. The material realm called Assiah, the Astral plane called Yetzirah, the Iconic realm where gods reside called Briah, and finally Atziluth. This Chapter is fairly short, but it covers a lot of ground and does to very competently. Supplementing the main text are explanations or additional information regarding further occult beliefs (such as Planetary Spheres and their power over or within the Decans, how to get to the Dreamlands and the Sephiroth, realms of existence parallel to the four realms). The Astral plane is perhaps the most interesting and it gets the largest treatment. It is here that literally anything could happen. Within Yetzirah lies Faerie, the Dreamworlds, and the Pearl-Bright Ocean, all of which just scream out with potential. Despite the dearth of details, there is enough here to lift entire other game lines or concepts and put them here (or put the magical cosmology of Cabal into another game setting, such as Call of Cthulhu with the Dreamlands, Changeling: the Dreaming for Faerie, or 7th Sea for the Pearl-Bright Ocean). Here the generic qualities that I normally detest are a boon, and as I read though it, I found myself thinking of using the stuff here in my Ars Magica game, or using it for a Castle Falkenstein game, or even a Mage: Sorcerer’s Crusade game set in the Umbra/ Pearl-Bright Ocean with swashbuckling and magnificent underwater cities. Even Atlantis gets a look in, and once again, the background here is pretty much compatible with most other game settings.
While this is certainly a great chapter, more lies only a page away, in the form of the detailed Hermetic Magic system.
Chapter Four: Hermetic Magic
Hermetic magic makes use of the building blocks of creation. According to the Cabal, it was created by one of the Grand Masters, or by Thoth-Hermes, or any number of primal magic/knowledge gods or figures. At its heart, it involves making a link between the caster and the relevant Decan.
There is a detailed system and background regarding Astrological modifiers, and then the Decans are explained individually.
The only problem with this chapter (and a problem that I’ve noticed for nearly all GURPS books) is that it requires that you own or make use of the GURPS magic system and the GURPS Magic book. This means that all you are getting is a list (albeit an interesting and detailed list) of modifiers that you can add to your normal fantasy style spell system. GURPS Magic has its foot firmly in the fantasy genre. Cabal and the Hermetic Magic system is a much more historically accurate and interesting system that in my opinion, does not fit at all well. We are given few (if any) examples of actual occult type spells. Instead, the Decanic system is relegated to having to tow the line of the GURPS Magic spell college system. We are given no spell lists, which makes this book almost useless unless you own another magic system, or want a pre-made uber conspiracy. Also, a pronunciation guide would have been nice for the Decans.
Nevertheless, the richness and detail of the system makes Hermetic magic come alive. It is further expanded (for the better) with three pages of extensive “Other Potential Modifiers”. These include the ever popular solstices, and knowing the True (or Legal) names of someone to control them; even that old chestnut of Virginity (or the idea of being “pure”) is included. Throughout this chapter, various other types of magic are mentioned in text boxes, such as ritual magic, or rune magic, but here it falls into the problem of referring to another GURPS product (such as GURPS Voodoo or GURPS Vikings). The Decans section finishes with a useful table giving the college, Sephirath, Zodiacal position, planet and page, which is useful for quickly finding the Decan (obviously).
The Laws of Magic are also given to us: the Laws of Sympathyu, Contagion, Similarity and Names. This is the theory behind the reason of the Decans. “Like affects like.”
A large (page and a half) text box gives some optional rules for dealing with the complexity of Hermetic magic. All of these optional rules allow the GM to make of his magic exactly what he wants, such as limiting the total bonus level to an arbitrary number in order to keep magic difficult (since someone could easily stock up on bonuses until the End the Universe spell was an automatic success), or making the ritualistic element to the magic vital for success. All of these are good ideas that allow for different types of games and styles- gritty, fantastic, or whatever.
As incredible as it seems, the chapter doesn’t just end there. It goes on to talk about Alchemy and Sacred Architecture, both concepts that I am familiar with due to reading The Mysteries for Ars Magica. Magic items also get a look in, with the Decanic bonuses applying to the enchanting of items (which would greatly increase the power of items or make them easier to make).
Finally, we get an example of this complex system actually works. While this is only one example, it is fairly comprehensive and goes through what each modifier does and what would have happened if they weren’t used. It makes clear that Hermetic magic allows magic to be cast even in low magic areas (according to GURPS) and in this world, it is what makes the difference between the Quick and the Dead.
Chapter Five: Cabal Campaigns
This chapter is short, but it presents a number of interesting ideas. Firstly, it gives the option to define the size of the Cabal. The Cabal doesn’t have to be a megalithic world-spanning conspiracy. It can be small, or, alternatively, it can be huge. Material here that allows the GM to flesh out the ultimate goals of the Cabal and what it thinks is also here. The usefulness of this chapter is not limited to the Cabal. It could be used to create any form of supernatural organisation, from a small magical society to something that rivals Vampire: the Masquerade’s Camarilla. How are the characters interacting with the Cabal? Are they friends or enemies? Inside the Cabal or outside it? And just how powerful are the PCs? What sort of game are you trying to make? Fantasy? Horror? Conspiracy? What kind of mood? Are you wanting a cliché filled action romp exploring cosmic truths? How about a Cthulhu-esqu gritty investigative game? In a text box, we are given three sample campaign frames.
Here I want to mention one of the more amusing ones: the Black School Days. I laughed out loud when I read it (although it isn’t that funny). What it is, is a take off of Harry Nutter and those types of books. A Boarding School for young boys to become magicians, set in Victorian Camp. I can just imagine all sorts of funny nonsense going on.
The other two are an “Outbreak” type of game, where diseases and illness fester across the world. The third is a historical Fall of the Roman Empire setting, which allows for sword and sorcery type games or decadent, jaded mages in their final attempts to save the empire from the Goths. All three of them are good enough to evoke at least a few ideas and get the imagination flowing.
Then the book turns into an advertisement: two pages of “here are some other GURPS books you could use for your Cabal game. Included are GURPS Atlantis, GURPS Egypt and GURPS Steampunk. These two pages are wasted pages in my opinion, since they give no real information as to how to use the other books, and no additional information regarding the Cabal, the world of Cabal or the magic is presented, or indeed how to run a game using any of those things. It is really just a big ad.
Chapter Six : Cabal Characters
Those familiar with GURPS books should know the format of this chapter. Different character types (concepts basically), races and finally Advantages, Disadvantages and Skills. The races section comes up with a few ideas to add to the game (magic wielding snake men, or the traditional vampiric warlock, but ultimately, you are told to refer to Book X for more information. At least the spirit section (which, although well done, doesn’t strike me as being very in theme. Why are spirits allowed to be PCs?) is complete, being adapted from a number of other GURPS books (Voodoo, Spirits and Undead).
Another take at the GURPS advantages and disadvantages with a Cabal tint is also here, but it is the new ads and disads that are really Cabal-esque. While some of them are enough for entire stories or plots to be based around (such as Body of Swarm, Spirit Jumper or Pestilence) others just make sense, like Secret True Name or Rank (Cabalistic). Those Disadvantages that affect a Cabal character in a different way from normal are also here, innumerate being one for that Black School Days idea, a bumbling class idiot or a Rincewind type character.
It is the skills that interested me. While I was disappointed to learn that all magical skill was based from a single skill (Thaumatology), I particularly liked the new skill of Gematria- Kabbalistic numerology.
Chapter Seven: Wonders and Magics
A great list of magical items, magical components and constructs fills out this chapter, from dragons blood and orichalcum to the Seal of Solomon and the Uraeus of Isis. This chapter adds not only detail to an already detailed setting, but it gives an idea of the mystique of the setting, the magical nature of the world and an idea of what sort of magical items are a good idea (a magical tarot deck that helps with help with spell casting is good, a Deck of Many Things is not). For those infernal minded PCs, rules for demonic magic and contracts are provided, and the ever-popular Words of Power (the words God used to create the universe) are also given their own rules.
The final chapter Gods and Monsters gives us a bestiary of the types of critters that inhabit the four realms. From Gargoyles to Serpent-Lords, each one is a story just waiting to happen. Astral plane denizens are also here, and include Elementals, Astral parasites and the Yithoghu (psionically solidified ectoplasmic Astral slavers who rival Atlantis). The deities of Briah are discussed, but here things get a bit metaphysical. Are the Gods here really gods? Is Neptune the same as Poseidon? Have icons like Batman and Elvis reached the mythic status of an Eikone? An interesting and strange additional are the Ultraterrestrials- the Greys who mutilate cattle and sexually molest isolated farmers in the Deep South are given a nod. Here, they are some sort of Fae/Qlippoth/Eikone hybrid. I guess they are here for completeness sake, but they do seem out of place.
Finishing this chapter (and the book) are the nasty guys- the Demons and the Qlippoth. Demons are self-explanatory, but the Qlippoth are not. The Qlippoth are essentially the shells and leftovers of God’s first Creation attempt of the universe. The two versions of humankind’s creation in Genesis (1:26-27 and 2:7) are used as proof. These fragments are nasty, diseased and malignant perversions and seek only to regain their former place in creation, usually by completely destroying the universe. They are the kind of ultimate bad guy, but are also pretty mindless. Sample stats for Qlippoth insect and rodent types are given.
A one page glossary of Hermetic terms, a bibliography (which includes The Mysteries!) and a useful Index end the book.
GURPS Cabal is an amazingly good book. Despite a few problems, the pros weigh out the cons. It offers a detailed magic system based on real world occult practices, as well as a detailed and thoroughly well thought out universe. There is a plethora of material, useful for any game setting or style. The magic system itself can be streamlined down to the barest minimum, or you could use it in its entirety, including materials, solstices, knot magic and all. It details a fairly uncreative but nevertheless complete occult secret society, and gives a fantastic cosmology for the PCs to explore. We get magical items, magical beasties and Gods. We also get Chris Shy artwork, and although some of it looks too dark and the resolution in printing was a bit grainy, it does complement the material well.
GURPS Cabal can be easily used in just about any game that involves magic to some degree. For a fantasy game that wants a bit more attention for the wizard character, to the Ars Magica game, to a Harry Nutter (sic) boarding school for magic, or even an Astral plane hopping adventure a lá Planescape or Spelljammer.
It is difficult to express the texture and richness of the material presented here. While it primarily concentrates on Astrological magic, demonic magic, numerology, Sacred Architecture and Alchemy are all possible with this book.
If there a major problem with the book it is it’s reliance on the GURPS magic system and other GURPS products (most notably GURPS Magic). No spells and no actual system except for the theory, laws and modifiers are presented. In order to get spells, you need to either have another system (I recommend Ars Magica, the best roleplaying magic system ever invented) or use the GURPS one.
All in all though, Kenneth Hite has presented a magnificently researched and detailed book. There are reams of inspirational material that is generic enough to be useful for any game.