Designer's Notes: GURPS Cabal and GURPS Horror, Third Edition
by Kenneth Hite
"Now is the winter of our discontent,
Made glorious summer . . . "
-- William Shakespeare, Richard III, I:i:1-2
GURPS Horror, Second Edition, by J.M. Caparula, was one of the first GURPS books I ever bought. It's the second printing, and my copy still has a Chicago Tribune handy "clip 'n' save" serial killer guide from the summer of 1991 in it as a bookmark, so I probably bought it in the winter of 1990. This was one terrific book, from the Michael Whelan "Smiler" cover all the way to the six pages of recommended film and reading (which, not incidentally, first introduced me to the writing of Lisa Goldstein). The GMing advice alone was the first really useful guide to horror gaming as such that I'd ever run across, even after a decade of playing Call of Cthulhu. And in Chapter Three, I first read the story of the Cabal, an ancient order of monsters and magicians who ganged up to greedily hoard supernatural power for themselves and occasionally whale the tar out of the PCs. (I later found out that Scott Haring invented the Cabal back in 1987, as a two-and-a-half-page sidebar in the first edition of GURPS Horror. I hope Scott likes what I did to his babies.) The whole concept was pretty cool, but two things in it really resonated.
"And for less cause than this, a strong cabal
Can make one's life a labyrinth of troubles."
-- Jean-Baptiste Molière, Tartuffe, IV:iii:68-69
The first thing was a passage, I presume written by Caparula, that truly embodied the Cabal for me: "Cabal Masters of the past are mummified in preservation chambers in secret catacombs, awaiting resurrection. Mages specializing in necromancy are rumored to have already animated some of the ancient Masters, who are now walking the Earth again." That's an almost perfect example of good game book text, regardless of its virtues as English prose. (That "are rumored" may be passive voice, but here the uncertainty about who, exactly, is doing the rumoring adds to the unease.) You have words like "necromancy," and that great Biblical echo of the ancient Masters "walking the Earth again." You also note that the Cabal has pretensions to Egyptian antiquity ("mummified") that don't really tie in with the wack Dr. Who phrase "preservation chambers in secret catacombs," but you still get a nice, jarring anachronism out of it -- it seems kind of creepier to have a "preservation chamber" tucked away in an "ancient catacomb" rather than in a gleaming bank of freezers in a professional building somewhere. You also note that the Cabal isn't as unified as it would like to pretend -- someone is spreading those rumors about their fellow Cabalists, who would seem to have jumped the ancient conspiracy gun by reviving their Masters early. You also note that these ancient Masters are just "animated," not having necessarily achieved "resurrection." Eeewww.
The other absolutely dead-on thing in that chapter, for me, was a line drawing by (I guess from the signature) John D. Waltrip on page 33. Here we have a Peter Cushing-looking dude, most likely a Cabalist, with a horrible grimoire open in his hand (you can see the pentagrams). He's standing in front of a leaded-glass window; you know, just from that detail and the drape, that it's one of those impossible, overstuffed, brocaded Victorian-Edwardian studies you see in Hammer Films and Sherlock Holmes episodes. He's about to read a spell, and you can see by the lift of his eyebrow and the quirk of his mouth that he knows it's some seriously bad juju. But hey, he's Peter Cushing -- he's a Cabalist -- he'll survive whatever (or Whoever) it is. But that eyebrow lift is saying, "Shame about those drapes." Or, possibly, "Shame about London." Looking at that picture, you just know that that's how the Cabal operates. No angst, no moaning about the dark glories of the whatever. Just creepy Peter Cushing types reading from grimoires to see how much of the leaded glass is blown out afterward.
So, when Steve Jackson and I dropped mutual hints that we'd like me to write a whole worldbook on the Cabal, I resolved to make it worthy of that Peter Cushing-looking dude. I wanted to capture that whole Hammer Films feeling, and write a world "where The Mummy meets Imajica," as I believe I told the long-suffering Herr Doktor Professor Kromm. The Cabal wasn't hunted, they were the hunters. But even hunters can run into trouble deep in the jungle. My desire to challenge a conspiracy that, from the design document, had an armlock on the world's supernatural resources meant that I had to give them more worlds to conquer, or rather, to explore -- to hunt in. The throwaway mention of the Kabbalah gave me those worlds; in order to get bigger, wilder planes I went with the Four Worlds rather than the Ten Spheres (although I later wrote up the Sephiroth and put them back in again). I also had to reconcile, and then expand mightily, the Second Edition description of the Cabal -- I decided early on that I would, if possible, not contradict a single word of that description. Instead, I would add more detail, more backstory, and a few things the Cabal forgot to mention ten years ago. (I wound up fixing the Latin degree names and changing only one other detail -- see if you can spot it!) I knew I was on the right track when Egyptian history obligingly gave me a chaotic hole where I could stick the otherwise-unattested "Khaibitu-na-Khonsu." The rest fell into place after that. It was time to decide what the Cabal was hiding.
It has always amused me that there are whole rafts of modifiers and special cases and calculations and so forth in GURPS for shooting a gun, which is in actuality one of the simplest things in the world -- but that casting a spell in the basic GURPS magic system is three dice and a cloud of dust. Wham, bam, fireball, ma'am. Nothing like any system of magic ever practiced in the Real World, certainly. The Western "Hermetic" magic tradition (the one the Cabal, as practitioners of "Egyptian wisdom" would use) is delightfully lush and maniacally complex, rich with flavors and nuances stemming from Babylonian religious iconography, Renaissance paint chemistry, and probably serious neurological disorder. I resolved to make Hermetic Magic potentially very powerful, and at least as complex as firing a gun -- and get in more of that Hammer Films flavor as I did it. Since the Cabal used the basic magic system in GURPS Horror, they would have to in GURPS Cabal, too.
Frankly, I was kind of relieved by that decision -- C.J. Carella had already designed a really cool Ritual Magic system for GURPS Voodoo, and I didn't want to reinvent that wondrous wheel. I was free to come up with a "magic system for gearheads," as I described it, again to Dr. Kromm, who had to have been wondering at that point what he had unleashed. (Unreliable witnesses claimed to have heard me refer to the book as "GURPS Black Ops for Nephilim fans, and vice versa.") In the end, sanity won a precarious rear-guard victory, and I designed a bunch of "lenses" for people who wanted more of the flavor with less of the work. (I rewarded myself with the Sidebar From Hell, in which I came up with magical modifiers for every imaginable thing from sweaters to solstices.) To backstop me, I rescued S. John Ross' incredibly cool and evil Black Magic rules, and matched them with some Words of Power. (It occurs to me, now that it's too late, that Words of Power would be even neater if casting them only cost 36 points of energy, instead of 360. Try it and see.) The rest was just a matter of jamming in as many Easter Eggs and lathering on as much flavor as I possibly could. (And thanks to Chris Shy's amazing art, there's no shortage of creepy Peter Cushing-looking guys in this book, either.) With the campaign chapter especially, but throughout the book, I tried to make sure that there were always slots and modules for any GM or player to change, insert, ignore, or turn up to eleven anything and everything in the book. All good game books say, "You can change whatever you want." I wanted this book to show you how, and give you some idea of why you might want to. I wanted GURPS Cabal to be sticky, but not heavy; to be as fine a piece of work as GURPS Warehouse 23, Black Ops, and Illuminati, my own personal "Holy Trinity" of GURPS books, but to be fully adjustable by people whose tastes ran more toward, say, Psionics, Voodoo, and Blood Types.
"And much of Madness, and more of Sin,
And Horror the soul of the plot."
-- Edgar Allan Poe, "The Conqueror Worm"
At some point along the line, SJG decided that, since they were releasing a chapter from GURPS Horror as its own book, they should revise and reprint GURPS Horror, too. At the time, I seemed like the logical candidate for the job, and so another book's worth of writing and research landed on my desk while I was giving para-elementals a good beat-down. The words "bit off more than I could chew" recurred more than once as I set about reconstructing, restyling, and revising GURPS Horror. The first decisions were the easy ones that SJG had already made -- the Cabal chapter obviously went, as did the three "mini worldbook" settings in the back. GURPS Cliffhangers now covered the Roaring '20s, Steampunk (and Screampunk) covers Victoriana rather better than a chapter could, and a handful of GURPS books gave us "Modern Day" gaming with a vengeance.
I kept virtually all of the second edition's gaming advice -- I knew from practice just how good it was! It had, in fact, been a major influence on my own book of horror GMing advice, Nightmares of Mine, which, none too available to begin with, had dropped startlingly out of print with the publisher's (Iron Crown Enterprises') bankruptcy. Fortunately, the rights reverted to me, and I set about revising, GURPSifying, and tightening much of that work to become my own contribution to the Third Edition's newly-reorganized sections on GMing advice (including more focused advice on high-powered games and superheroic horror), campaign creation, and player advice. This last was a new departure for me; I put my own horror games in a mirror, and figured out what worked for my players. (I had almost as much fun coming up with modern-day horror-bashing gear as I did the "Five Rs" and "Five Ts" of monster-hunting.) The other major section I kept was the Foes chapter -- but I completely tore it out and remodeled it. Rather than a litany of bestiary stats for formula critters, I took the things from the ground up. What fear does each monster symbolize; what does it prey upon? Then (with the able help of stat-wranglers Jesse Lowe and Werner H. Hartmann) I came up with racial templates for almost forty monsters from ghouls (three kinds!) to evil clowns to Things Man Was Not Meant To Know. Some of them are new, and one of them (the "ripper") wound up completely original to the book! With these changes, the monsters stop being targets, and start being true personalities, symbolic and important to the story. Plus, the second edition came out a year before every horror gamer in America started dressing up like a vampire -- now, at last, you could play a monster using GURPS Horror. (I also had the advantage of Kromm's excellent GURPS Undead, from which I stole liberally.) I realized that since I'd just gone to the trouble to create monster templates, I'd better replace the old character types with proper templates, too -- this was one ready-to-play book.
Except that I'd removed all the settings. Not to worry; I borrowed a notion from Bill Stoddard's fabulous GURPS Steampunk and added three "Worked Examples" to demonstrate how I built horror campaign frames using the tools and parameters I'd explained earlier in the book. For each frame, I added other variations to allow maximum utility, and gave five sample narrative arcs or story seeds to get GMs going. One of the frames got yanked at the last minute (although don't be surprised if it turns up on the schedule in a different form), but the final draft still boasted three "Tales to Terrify":
- "Seas of Dread, Sails of Daring," in which I combined GURPS Horror with Swashbucklers for a dark pulp-fantasy Western in the pirate Caribbean. (This setting also allowed me to cram in seven more monsters from the second edition that I would have had to leave out otherwise.)
- "Blood in the Craters," which is an investigative, somewhat gritty Steampunk-Horror campaign set in the ruins of London after a Martian invasion. Here, I tried to explicitly demonstrate how to use the new monster fear themes to build monsters tuned precisely to a setting's feel.
- "The Madness Dossier," which slides an open void of psychological dread underneath two of my favorite comic book series from the last decade, Grant Morrison's The Invisibles, and Warren Ellis' Planetary. I made it an espionage campaign set amid the fragile scrims of reality; the foes here are Babylonian demons -- or alien entities -- or genetically engineered control castes -- or all three. This frame is about tone and experimentation, and pushing the envelope of setting design for the sake of a bad feeling.
All that was left was the Bibliography and Filmography, which I nearly doubled in size. I left every film and book recommended in the second edition on the list, although I felt obliged to change one or two annotations (Charles Fort is the farthest thing from "unreadable"!) and fix the publication data. Each "Tale to Terrify" got its own mini-bibliography of inspirational reading, too. By the end of the process, I was well into the Late and Increasingly Chilly Autumn of Horror, but I think that I successfully updated what I've always thought of as "my first GURPS book" for the new era of GURPS, and added some stuff that whoever writes GURPS Horror, Fourth Edition in ten years will keep around. Enjoy it until then, and pleasant screams.
Article publication date: March 22, 2002
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