#RPGaDay2015 21: Favorite RPG Setting

RPG-a-day-2015The cover of GURPS Cabal. Four supernatural creatures gaze out menacingly.This is another of those topics where I can hardly choose a single favorite. Not least because I feel like I don’t have enough exposure to settings in play, as opposed to having read the book and shelved it. So with the caveat that it’s one of my favorites mostly because it’s a fun read, I nominate GURPS Cabal.

The Cabal began as a mini-setting in the second edition of GURPS Horror, but it was Ken Hite’s expansion of the original material into a full supplement of its own, along with the usual GURPS rules expansion, that made reading about the Cabal so amazing. Hite took the basic framework of a mutual aid society for sorcerers, monsters, faeries, reptoids and so many others from the depths of classic and modern supernatural stories and blended it with real world history and occult traditions, with an especial focus on the Hermetic worldview.

There’s a dizzying secret history of the world, varied cast of characters to run up against and a cosmology straight out of the kabbalah. In short, it’s an intimidating setting to consider using in a game — I dabbled a couple times in different ways and didn’t feel very successful, relative to the bar of imagination and creativity that I felt the book set[1] — but it’s a damn fine read, and always an excellent source of ideas. But then the hard work — and I maintain it’s hard work, even as other people like to throw “Well, if you can’t figure it out, you’re just not trying” with this kind of high detail, low hand-holding material — of turning it into decisions and characters that will engage the players is still left to be done.

That said, I wish there had been more follow-up material to GURPS Cabal to read, at least. The Cabal gets a mention now and again in fourth edition GURPS material, as they became a new player in the Infinite Earths landscape and figure in the scant setting material in GURPS Thaumatology, but that’s about it, unless it’s all showing up in issues of Pyramid.

[1] I borrowed heavily for Mage: The Suppressed Transmission, and developed the Broken Spokes framework for a campaign that didn’t get past the first session and then a convention one-shot that I still feel embarrassed about.

#RPGaDay2015 11: Favorite RPG Writer

RPG-a-day-2015Kenneth Hite is the clear winner here. He writes gold, and would be the first to admit he’s just sourcing really good inspirational material before hitting “puree.” Suppressed Transmission, The Day After Ragnarok, The Madness Dossier, Night’s Black Agents, Bookhounds of London . . . the list goes on. Hite’s got the knack for that edge of “is this lunacy, or is this inspired?” that gets the brain burning.

Terms for the ‘Fiters and Lurkers

Terms for the ‘Fiters and Lurkers is an interesting glossary I ran across searching for “Corvae Hermanubis” — still not sure what that actually means — of a mash-up role-playing setting including elements of GURPS Cabal, Ars Magica and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

I wonder if the author, Jeb, has written any more for this mash-up, which even manages to namecheck Trinity. I could drop a line to find out, couldn’t I?

The Acme of Research Laboratories

CoastConFan Blog shows us the elements you might expect to find in your modern 1920s investigator’s lab and attached facilities. The first four pictures are of Harry Price‘s own lab. Price was an actual psychic investigator active during the 20s, so everything you see in those photos is in-period and accessible to someone in that line of endeavor.

CoastConFan goes on to suggest some other resources your hardy group of investigators would find handy: a reference library, examining/consultation room for doctors and analysts, storage and a garage.

That may seem like a lot for amateur investigators to pull together and it is. CoastConFan presents those resources as “for a full blow[n] investigators lab that is fully funded and should be consider the absolute acme of a mid-20s lab and headquarters.” So this is a great resource for someone working for the Gilchrist Trust, a magical researcher of Cabal at Martense College, one of the Rosicrucians’ scientifically-minded Parmenideans in that era of WitchCraft, and so on. That vague itch to dig out Angel‘s organization rules has resurfaced. I could see where the acme of research labs falls in spending points.

[Link via Propnomicon.]

The Next Step for Hermetic Realm Magic

I just had a terribly awesome idea: bring the Hermetic Realm system I assembled last year over from GURPS to Unisystem.

It is terrible because I spent too much time on that project last year. Redoing it for another, marginally different system seems like a poor use of time.

It is awesome because that marginally different system has much easier character creation. New pregenerated characters would be a snap and importing the existing set from GURPS would be even snappier. Also, I generally find Unisystem a hell of lot easier to teach on the fly.

But would it make the magic system any simpler to use? That’s the key point that finally came to me in the last month or so. A free-form magic system based on the Cabal’s Hermetic cosmology has to be really stripped down to work in a four hour convention time slot with a table of total newcomers.

So I find myself debating whether I should stick with GURPS and do the stripdown there, or move on to the relatively fresher ground of Unisystem, import the basics and actually make sure it’s simple this time.

I have to do something because I want to run another Cabal game for Carnage. Would my time be better spent making a more robust, flavorful world and scenario? I think it would. But I continue to think longingly about the simplicity of Unisystem when I ought to be focusing on content.

[Eye of the Qlippothim] Mid-August Progress Update

The Sigillum DEI, from John Dee's Mysteriorum Liber Secundus.

I drove myself to work on Eye of Qlippothim this weekend, mainly sitting down at the computer to continue pulling together the various bits of magic systems from all over GURPS Thaumatology to create a flexible, open-ended alternative to the standard GURPS spell system.

Picking Up the Threads

It’d been a while since I worked with the rules document, so I found myself scratching my head in a few places. “Why did I do that? Is it supposed to be a skill modifier, rather than margin of success?”

Originally the plan was to use margin of success as the determining factor for all of a spell’s parameters: how long it lasts, the area it covers, how far it goes, all that. However, I also want to use the familiarity table for range. Instead of worrying about physical distance, a wizard has to be symbolically close to their intended subject: know them intimately or have a link to them, like a treasured lucky charm or sample of blood. If this system is intended to encourage players to accumulate lots of sympathetic modifiers, which it is, then it seems wise to prompt that upfront. Damage and duration can run off margin of success, because they should be unpredictable. But players should be able to judge with more accuracy whether their spell will hit its target, so I think it’s sensible that range work as a skill modifier, so they can figure right from the get-go what kind of bonuses they need to collect to offset penalties.

Organizing My Thoughts Through Rule Aids

In addition to a document collecting and organizing the various rules bits for this system — for which I still haven’t settled on a name; Decanic Realm magic? Hermetic Realm magic? Hermetic Astrology magic? — I’ve been working on GM screen inserts[1] and a “quick and dirty guide to casting magic” sheet for players. One could argue I am putting the cart before the horse, creating accessories before getting the rules completely sorted out, but I’m finding it helpful.

Not only do I vary the work, so I’m not constantly focusing on making all the disparate rules align, which is my least favorite part of the project, but creating the player aid helps me get the process organized in my head. I realize there are missing steps, or that it makes more sense for figuring familiarity range to go before rolling the dice, and so on.

Ever Onward

Until the rules and players collide in a playtest, I don’t think I can make much more progress on them. That won’t happen until Fall-loha at the earliest. So now I will turn back to character creation — I have a healthy list of concepts brainstormed over the weekend and I have GURPS Cabal to plunder for its own concept list — and developing the plot and non-player characters; the latter’s always a rough spot for me. I’m trying hard this time, I promise!

[1] Incidentally, I decided to do this screen in landscape orientation. Whether I buy the premade screen by Hammerdog Games or build my own out of foamcore, I think I will prefer the lower height, which allows my voice to carry and hides less of the table from view. On the downside, I’ll have to create my own front-side inserts, as there aren’t any genre-suitable landscape screens to repurpose, but that’s not a big deal. I already have some ideas in that direction.

My Carnage in Wonderland Schedule

Despite knowing for months now what I want to run at Carnage this year, it took me way too long to come up convention book descriptions. That (embarrassingly minor) task is done, though, so now I turn to the great work of pulling together the many disparate threads to weave into two different wholes.

For the curious, Friday night you will find me continuing the saga of Ghostbusters International-Boston in GURPS Ghostbusters: The Girl in the Looking Glass. This one is based on my own starting premise and ideas gleaned from that game of InSpectres back in June:

There’s strange doings at the Fleming Museum. A phantasmal cat has been spied stalking the premises. Students attest to long, involved, ultimately unrewarding conversations with a giant caterpillar sucking on a hookah. The lead curator has gone missing, last seen walking into the newest exhibit: a recreation of Charles Dodgson’s study. Suit up, Ghostbusters! Characters are provided and no experience is necessary for this frightfully cheerful role-playing adventure.

Saturday night is a rather bolder move on my part, returning to the world of the Cabal I only got to skirt last summer in a stalled campaign. Martense College and its surroundings have lurked in the back of my head ever since then and lately I’ve gotten a lot of interesting ideas to inject into the setting. Travel with me, if you will, into GURPS Cabal: Eye of the Qlippothim:

Looking at sedate Martense College, hidden in the rolling green hills of New England, one would never guess at the secrets lurking beneath its liberal arts exterior. (Most of the time) out of sight of the unsuspecting public lies the black school within a school, the scholomance of the Cabal, educating the next generation of wizards, vampires, faeries and more.

And if a lively student body weren’t enough, reptoid hunting parties stalk the night, redcaps make mischief in the village and the hill clans of Luke’s Notch strike pacts with entities not seen in Creation since before the Great Flood. The lodge members of the Wheel of Ptah have their hands full. Join the fun! Characters are provided and no experience is necessary for this adventure, which uses a variant magic system from GURPS Thaumatology.

Yes, it’s that variant magic system. I’m really going to do this and I’m really going to make it work. August is my month to design and playtest of Eye of the Qlippothim, as I’d really like to give it a runthrough at Fall-loha.

Carnage in Wonderland Wrapping Up Submissions

Carnage in Wonderland‘s staff draw close to wrapping up game submissions in preparation for mailing the convention book all across New England.

Everywhere, GMs feverishly bring together scattered ideas for adventures to compose that pitch-perfect description, launching the plot hook right into the brain of the potential player, firing their imagination with promises of derring-do or dark dealings such that they have no recourse but to list it as their number one choice on their registration form.

I find myself in a similar boat. I have a general outline for my two role-playing adventures, but I don’t yet have the fine detail in place. I’ll bash out some snappy ad copy to catch the reading public’s attention, then work from there to make the reality meet the promise as much as possible.

Right now, all I want to say is that one will continue the saga of Ghostbusters International’s Boston much put-upon staff, who again find themselves sent forth to the Green Mountain State, and my second ever foray into the world of the Cabal — this time with a complete refit of the magic system, no less! I will probably toss in a board game for good measure, likely Frag as I do enjoy it and find it easy to teach.


Yesterday, I opened the Broken Spokes Ten Foot Wiki. The timeline showed me it hadn’t been updated in over a year.1 That’s pretty fricking sad.

All I’ve done is think about it at the back of my mind without really doing anything about it. And I want to run this thing at Carnage.

I’ll get it done, but I need to put the heat on. While also concocting Ghostbusters goodness, running Scions of Time, playing Masks of Nyarlathotep and keeping up with my commitment to myself in maintaining Held Action.

Hm. Looks to be a gamefully geeky summer!

1 About a year and five days.

[Broken Spokes] Keeping Magic Simple, Stupid

I think I may have been looking at this magic system swap-out for Broken Spokes from the wrong angle. At its root, this is about making life easy for me and the players. Rather than learning the complicated interactions GURPS‘ magic colleges, spells and their prerequisites, a realms-based system should be about presenting a significantly shorter list of things to remember, with the decanic modifiers as an add-on that players can benefit from and learn as needed.

With the goal of making this easy for everyone in mind, is it really sensible to go about building a whole new array of realms, or welding something from Mage: the Ascension to the Cabal setting? After all, the spell colleges as written are actually kind of a cornerstone of the cosmology of the Four Realms, in that the decans are wellsprings of form that trickle down to the material world.

Even if I don’t necessarily agree with the divisions of the colleges — Protection and Warning? Really? — it’d certainly be easiest to take them as written. They’re already mapped to the decans for me, after all.

And in the spirit of that apocryphal quote from George Patton, why not just do it? At worst, I don’t like the way they play and then I move on to one of my alternate realm schemes, right?

Addendum: Saturday afternoon, I started putting a reference document together, pulling options together from across the pages of GURPS Thaumatology. It is more than a little dizzying. There’s a fair bit of flipping back and forth through the flexible magic chapter, referencing tables in the appendices — which I am not looking forward to recreating in a word processing document — and being distracted by potential options: “Hm, do I want to add the threshold limitation to this system? That could be fun.” I’m going to stick with keeping it simple for now; spending fatigue points ought to be a sufficient brake on the wackiness.