Friday, June 28, 2013

GURPS Cabal: How Mailanka Designs a Campaign: Part 2b: the Rules Continued

As I discussed in the previous post, when I tackle a campaign, I tackle it in the GURPS Action model, which involves thinking about my rules, what I want my game to be about, how I want it to play, and then I use that to design my templates.

So what do I want my GURPS Cabal to be about?

Well, let's imagine what a typical GURPS Cabal game might be about.  First, something happens.  Perhaps a creepy mummy slips out of its coffin at a museum and kills a dude and steals some artifacts, or perhaps someone inherits a creepy reality-shard journal that speaks of things that never happened but will, or perhaps your passer dies.  Something happens, and being an occult game, you need to investigate what happened.

We already have a game that makes heavy use of investigation: GURPS Monster Hunters.  Of course, the premise of GURPS Monster Hunters is that  you're out to kill the monster while in GURPS Cabal you are the monster... but on the other hand, is it really so different?  What's the difference between a group of Black Ops soldiers hunting down that mummy to put a stop to his rampage, and a Cabalist hunting down that mummy to ask it a few questions and/or gain access to its dark secrets?  Or perhaps to put a stop to its rampage because it's growing inconvenient.  So we simply rip those rules wholesale from Monster Hunters.

 Once our Cabalists have uncovered the truth to the mystery, the conspiracy begins.  We need to marshal Cabal resources to do something about it.  We need to hide it from the prying eyes of the public.  We need to manipulate those black ops soldiers to slow their progress and let us get to that mummy first, and we need to convince that mummy to join our side.  At its heart, once you get past all the dry bookishness of the cabalists, they're spectacularly social people; they have to be, they secretly rule the world.

So where do we get the rules for that?  Well, conspiracy comes in three, distinct elements.  The first is about understanding power structures, their interconnectedness, and how a conspiracy needs to play out.  Our go-to resource for that would be GURPS Illuminati, but that doesn't help us too much.  Mostly it just offers GM advice and setting suggestions.  Conspiracy is a mode and it discusses that for us.  Otherwise, Action offers some suggestions regarding convincing organizations to do things for you ("Pulling Rank"), and we just toss in some rules about Administration and Politics.

 Next, we need to persuade others to help us.  GURPS Illuminati has some suggestions on what that will look like: You might manipulate people directly, but generally you're going to get someone, an agent, and he's going to do the manipulating for you.  You manipulate one guy, and leverage him to manipulate someone else.  For example, if we want to convince the Black Ops soldiers to back off, we could ask them nicely.  Some Diplomacy or Intimidation checks might do it, but they're going to be really tough and they have an entire organization backing them.  A better strategy might involve getting the organization itself to pull support for their mission.  If we can control someone in their organization, that's much more powerful than confronting the soldiers themselves.

To do this, we turn to GURPS Social Engineering, which discusses dealing with organizations (surprisingly irrelevant, though could be useful for running a lodge), manipulating people (alright), recruiting people (there we go), blackmailing them (bingo!) and brainwashing (Do tell!).  When I was finished researching this bit, I think that was the first time I really began to be afraid of the cabal.

Finally, we need to hide evidence of the supernatural.  Deception.  Remember how that mummy murdered someone?  What if it got caught on camera? What if the police begin to investigate the murder?  This could expose more of Cabalistic influence than we would like, thus we need to dispose of the body, alter the camera evidence and send the police off in some other direction.  Monster Hunters has a sparse discussion of this, to my surprise, but Action 2: Exploits, always my hero, rides to my rescue.  It has an entire section on "cleaning," hiding evidence, faking evidence, making up cover stories, disposing of bodies and etc. I could probably go into more detail, but this will do.

Now that we've hidden our mummy from the world and pulled the black ops team off the trail, we can walk right up to the mummy, help him with whatever he's doing, and get him to join the cabal.  Easy.  As long as everything goes smoothly, we'll have a new ally to the cabal and no muss or fuss.  But when does anything ever go that smoothly?  No, at least one black ops soldier is still on our trail, the mummy isn't interested in cooperating, and somehow the mafia got involved.  What would a good game be without some pulse-pounding action? 

The mode of our action will vary.  We could treat this game as full-on horror, but I think if players are the monsters, they'll want something pulpier.  We could go full-on action heroics, but that strikes me as overkill.  Do we really imagine Cabalist assassins as charging a room full of enemy soldiers while firing round-after-slow-motion-round into their midst and back-flipping out of the way of bullets?  I don't.  They seem grimmer than that: Snipers, thieves, knives in the dark.  If it comes to a fair fight, it's bloody and terrifying, and the only things that can do ridiculously inhuman things are inherently inhuman: Super-fast vampires, super-strong werewolves, and so on.

I didn't turn to anything for this, though both Monster Hunters and Action have some good rules on combat.  I'll use more of Horror's rules, though, and I've been running combat-scenarios for awhile now, so this requires little investigation.

But those three parts together put together the core of how a game will play out, leaving only one last thing to worry about...


GURPS Cabal: How Mailanka Designs a Campaign Part 2a: The Rules

The best supplement ever written for GURPS was GURPS Action 2: Exploits.  Technically, the Dungeon Fantasy series got the ball rolling, but Dungeon Fantasy is too self-contained (witness all the DF fans whining about how there needs to be a "serious" version of DF, or how they need "official" monsters).  GURPS Action 2: Exploits created a set of cohesive rules that could serve as a template for any similar campaign, and indeed, I think one of the reasons it isn't "better supported" is that generic support (like Gun-Fu or Martial Arts) work perfectly well with Action in a way that could suit a variety of campaigns.  I used it as the basis for G-verse, for example.  And it serves as an inspiration for how Cabal will work.

Let me take you aside and talk about how GURPS really works, for most people, and how Cabal was clearly designed, before I get to how I'm doing it and why.  Most people approach GURPS as a vast whole.  They grab the book, say "Like, make a character or something.  Oooh, here's a few ideas!" And off you go.  For example, GURPS Cabal lists the Scion template thus:


Within the Cabal, old blood will tell; families steeped in
occult knowledge and raised to fight the secret wars have
guided the Cabal for centuries. The scion of such a family
may be an eager blueblood or a once-carefree student who got
a big surprise on his 21st birthday. Either way, you can’t
resign from your family.

Advantages: Heir, Secret True Name, Status, Wealth;
your family may have (or be) a Patron or Ally Group; if your
childhood was really strange, you may be Unfazeable or possess
Racial Memory (at the 15-point level).

Disadvantages: Almost anything, from Laziness (“The
Black School has to take me, I’m a legacy.”) to a grim Sense
of Duty.

Skills: Leadership, Savoir-Faire; depending on the family
tradition, History, Occultism, or even Politics.

That's not a template, that's a suggestion.  Kenneth Hite clearly just thought you'd build "I dunno, something kinda magey." And then gave some additional suggestions: Build your mage with things like Heir, Secret True Name, Wealth, some Laziness, Savoir-Faire, and conjure up a back story of hoary, creepy old bloodline that has worked for the cabal for ages, like the Malfoys from Harry Potter or the Dresdens from the Dresden Files.

And that's fine, but it's not what I want.  The above creates situations where people might end up with skills and advantages that never get called upon (like what if Politics is never an issue in an exploration-happy game?) and frankly, that's how most campaigns work anyway, especially in GURPS (which tends to rely on players leveraging their talents rather than passively waiting for the GM to call for them).  But I prefer something tighter rather than a sprawling mess of "Sure, you can do that too." It works, but it's not for me.  I want Action.

So what makes GURPS Action work? Despite the fact that GURPS Action 1: Heroes came out before GURPS Action 2: Exploits, I think the second is what defines the first.  Sean Punch carefully skimmed over all the rules, skills and advantages, and pondered what sort of game he wanted to create, and then based on that game and the rules he devised for it, he created a list of appropriate skills, advantages and disadvantages, and from those, he derived his templates.  This means that every last character only has skills and traits directly useful to gameplay in a way that Sean Punch (and anyone who reads his books) understands.

I'm going to do the same for Cabal (just as I did it for G-verse and for Cherry Blossom Rain).  Is it overkill?  Perhaps.  I know plenty of people who run games the Hite way, and given my enormous respect for Hite, you'll never hear me criticizing that approach.  But my approach not only works well for me, but it generates material that lets it work well for others too.  My take on GURPS Cabal will let people hit the ground running.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

GURPS Cabal: How Mailanka Designs a Campaign Part I: Inspiration

As inevitably happens with me, as school wound down and work eased up, all my suppressed creative energy comes bounding forth, and I suddenly had to run GURPS Cabal.

For those of you unfamiliar with GURPS Cabal, it is Kenneth Hite's masterpiece of hermetic magic, secret history, conspiracy and weirdness.  Imagine Mage: the Awakening, only rife with rich details to its magic, and the actual oddities history would likely throw up at you, plus a very dark edge: You are not heroes fighting in the shadows to protect mankind, you are the puppet masters pulling on the strings of mankind while you delve into dark lore to expand your power.

So I know what I want to run, more or less.  As usual, I have visions in my head about interesting characters: a bratty young witch with a cruel twist to her smile; a gentleman in a brown suit, cigar in hand, as he leans back in an overstuffed chair behind which rises shelves full of arcane tomes; an angel hidden inside the body of a man walking down a busy city street, the glass reflecting his hidden glory and expansive wings as he carries apocalypse behind him;  forbidding, Sumerian runes full of the letters of their dead language and hints of a darker, cthonic reality lurking beneath the edge of the world;  maggot-fleshed Molobrians, with their needle-mouthed squeals echoing off of the insides of a sewer.

But images alone won't get my game up and running.  That'll take time and work and thought.  Time and work require attention span, and attention span, especially with my ADHD, requires a way to deal with my constant distractions, and the best method I've found is to surround myself with things that constantly remind me of my task, and inspire me to do it.  Thus, wherever I turn, I am distracted by things that bring me back to my course, and focus my attention, laser-like, on the campaign I want to build.

A soundtrack helps.  I was initially inspired by Florence + the Machine's No Light, No Light

I've added more to my personal playlist, but whenever I need to think about my game, I just turn on my playlist and already I can feel myself flowing in the right direction.

Art helps a great deal too.  When I have nothing better to do, I'll start hunting for artwork.  Some pieces are pure inspiration, and some pieces are characters that I might use in the game.

Then, of course, books.  Lots and lots of book.  GURPS Cabal is, naturally, my bible, but no matter how deeply you dig into a book, it's never enough.  It gives me a single template on demons, but mentions that there are dozens and dozens.  It talks about lost magic and ancient eras, but it doesn't really give them more than a paragraph.  It discusses the importance of Cairo and London, but there's no discussion of what interesting places or who you might find there.  You can suck the marrow dry from a book, and still be hungry.  So I must look elsewhere.  GURPS Horror will give me more than enough help for fleshing out my monsters. GURPS Thaumatology will help me give my magic even more detail and depth. GURPS Magic will help me with Alchemy and Enchantment, and I'll use it to flesh out the magic a little more. Suppressed Transmission (and the second one, and the many pyramid articles I have) will help me ramp up the weirdness, occultism and historical depth.

Oh but we're just getting started.  GURPS Illuminati and GURPS Social Engineering will both help me work out the conspiratorial angles to the game.  GURPS Action and GURPS Monster Hunters will help me work out some of the rules, so we'll set them aside for now.  And we'll dig out some fiction to read through, like the House on the Borderland, or the Dresden Files.

When I grow tired of reading and want a break, there's always the TV: the Dresden Files miniseries, the Craft, Nightwatch, Constantine, and whatever else I can find.

The idea, right now, is just to sink deep into inspiration, to soak it all in, and turn it into an obsession, because I'll need that energy for what comes next.
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