GURPS Cabal Capsule Review by Derek Guder on 24/11/01
Style: 5 (Excellent!)
Substance: 5 (Excellent!)
A singularly useful resource for any modern occult or conspiracy game, GURPS Cabal presents a logical and realistic shadow society as well as a richly detailed magic system.
Product: GURPS Cabal
Author: Kenneth Hite
Company/Publisher: Steve Jackson Games
Page count: 128 pages, softcover
Year published: 2001
Comp copy?: no
Capsule Review by Derek Guder on 24/11/01
Genre tags: Fantasy Modern day Historical Horror Espionage Conspiracy Gothic Generic
I’m a big fan of Ken Hite. Ever since I was first shown one of his Suppressed Transmission columns on Pyramid, I’ve been avidly following the bits of high weirdness and strange occult history that he tosses about with abandon. When I heard that he was going to be writing GURPS Cabal, however, I was not that interested. I assumed it would either be something along the veins of GURPS Psionics and GURPS High Tech (full of rules that I have little use for) or that it would focus on a campaign that I have little interest in (generic global conspiracy with generic magic). I should have known better (and I should have read the playtest files) because when I flipped through the book at the game store I found a lush sourcebook rich in detail for any game involving the occult or large, shadowy conspiracies. That’ll teach me for not paying attention to discussion about it before its release and not trusting in the Hite.
Ken Hite has a writing style that manages to get the imagination chomping at the bit with excitement while at the same time remaining very pragmatic and grounded. GURPS Cabal was a pleasure to read through as I was given a tour of the history and structure of the Cabal, the titular world-spanning shadow conspiracy. As usual, the text is littered with references that add depth or authenticity to one idea, or fill your mind with vivid imagery and possibilities at another. Not to belabor the point, but I find Ken Hite to be one of the most enjoyable and talented writers in the industry. Readers who were put of by his relaxed meanderings in Suppressed Transmission should find a more comfortable feeling here, as everything is much more focused. As is the standard operating procedure for GURPS, a default campaign setting is provided and then there is a fair amount of “What if…” this and “What if…” that on the sidelines.
I did find it interesting that the book did not follow the usual GURPS standard layout format of a single main text column on each page with a thin sidebar about something or other. Instead, GURPS Cabal has two equal columns with varied sidebars stretching, swelling or shrinking as need be (like a “normal” book). It makes for a much more fluid read and a natural appearance. I don’t know if this will be the pattern for future GURPS releases, but I like it.
GURPS Cabal has a nice, dark cover by Christopher Shy, and he is the primary artist for the interior as well. I’m a fan of most of his work, and quite enjoyed his evocative illustrations. Detracts may want to check the work out as well because he has an opportunity to branch out from his “alabaster white man with pitch black eyes standing in the shadows” stereotype that many people criticize him for. The pictures are all heavily “Photoshopped”, so people who don’t like that at all aren’t likely to be pleased, but Shy’s increased range here allows his very moody and evocative artwork to perfectly compliment Hite’s Illuminating equally evocative prose. Kent Burles, the other primary artist, supplied the chapter openings in a style that reminds me of Dan Smith, but not as fun. His work was not bad, but I didn’t find it particularly inspiring.
Ostensibly a sourcebook providing an occult-horror setting, GURPS Cabal delivers quite a bit more than that. A shadow conspiracy that claims descent from forgotten antiquity and wields powerful occult knowledge is presented in detail (although not as much as in, say, Vampire: the Masquerade or Mage: the Ascension - this is a GURPS book after all), but more time is spent on explaining magical theory and the spiritual realms than anything else. In fact, it’s that very magic and “otherworlds” that is the real gem of the book, useful enough to be applied in almost any game.
The Cabal itself started as a group of Egyptian magi who challenged the gods and they survived throughout the ages since then, controlling and manipulating human society along the way. They were deeply involved in any event of Great Import, and virtually all of the important people of history were members of the conspiracy – or their puppets. Or at least that’s what they claim. The society is organized rather loosely, as a basic skeleton of eight stages of initiation are fleshed out with master-apprentice relationships, bonds of mutual protection and Lodges of members formed around common goals. The Cabal itself is a very simply and reasonable (as much as it can be, of course) conspiracy, and provides a good model for other shadow conspiracy games, from virtually any White Wolf release to WitchCraft.
In addition to the Cabal itself, the book provides us with detail on the metaphysics it is a student of. Lightly sprinkling Hermetic astrology with kabbalistic influence yields a rich tapestry of spiritual realms and detailed magic. The members of the Cabal explore the four Realms, which include Assiah (the physical world), Yetsirah (the astral realm), Briah (the iconic realm) and finally the ineffable Atziluth (supposedly the home of God). Across these four, broad Realms lie a huge number of different locations, spheres and planes, of which the book covers only a few possibilities. Fans of spiritual travel or realms like the Umbra from Mage: the Ascension and Werewolf: the Apocalypse should find plenty to amuse their groups with here.
As for the magic of the Cabal, Hite provides us with a primer on Hermetic theory and thought before moving on to explain the 36 decans (basic elements of reality and magic) and their correspondences – elements that magi use to invoke their power. The default GURPS Cabal campaign is one where magic is extraordinarily difficult in the physical realm, and it is the monopoly on this knowledge of how to invoke these fundamental powers that has allowed the Cabal to dominate the occult world hidden in the shadows. With time to prepare, a knowledgeable Cabalist can prepare a frighteningly powerful spell even in a very low mana environment. There is also a great deal of advice on how to scale the complication either up or down. The system presented could easily accommodate a quick and dirty system as well as one requiring not only lengthy rituals on the part of the characters, but some serious thought on the part of the players as they have to determine what powers and elements to evoke in their castings. Anyone looking for some “authentic magical flavor” should find much of what they need here, and it is all easily used with other systems.
As with all GURPS products, a great deal of space is dedicated to changing things or mixing and matching them with other GURPS books as well. While the information on trait modifications and character creation is more than enough for my uses, I would have liked a few more of the crossover campaign seeds. There are several of them, but space considerations seems to have limited them to “natural” mixes (like GURPS Illuminati or GURPS Black Ops) instead of an exhaustive list full of insane and crazy ideas. I always like reading that section of a GURPS book, they’re usually some deranged idea that you’d never have thought of before waiting to be plucked. Additionally, there is a superb section on not only genre, but mode (as in action, dramatic, pulp, silly, etc.) as well. I found some of the most concise and helpful summaries of modes/styles here as I’ve seen anyway, making me all the more convinced that Ken Hite needs to write a follow-up to his horror book, Nightmares of Mine, for other genres.
So it’s… um… great
Well I’m beginning to run out of positive adjectives and starting to sound like an obsessed fan who wants to bear Ken’s children, so I should probably stop now. Suffice it to say that I really enjoyed GURPS Cabal and found virtually nothing to bother me. The history wasn’t anywhere near as fun as the rest of the book and lacked some of the pragmatism or realism that marked the rest of the book, but it was short and over with quickly. Hell, the magic system and all the advice on how to tweak it almost made me want to play GURPS so I could use it directly, and that’s no small task. If you’re looking for an occult conspiracy or some richly detailed magic with at least the ring of authenticity to toss into your GURPS game, you need this book. For everyone else, GURPS Cabal is more than worth the admission price for the general inspiration it will provide to any occult or shadow conspiracy game.