[Broken Spokes] Dividing Up the Universe for Fun and Magical Profit

A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.

— attributed to George S. Patton1


One of the components of the Broken Spokes campaign / adventure framework that I have yet to solve to my satisfaction is the magic system. See, I like the flavor of GURPS Cabal‘s decanic magic: the thirty-six decans of the Zodiac, the aethyrs that control them, the color and symbolic correspondences, all that. But I’m not a fan of the rules underneath it, GURPS‘ many and narrowly defined spell lists. It’s a chore making spell-casting characters and either making cheat-sheets for the players, referring to books or trying to keep the details in mind. I’m much more comfortable with the freeform sort of system one finds in Mage: the Ascension.

So GURPS Thaumatology should be my best friend, right? It’s a toolkit book on creating magic systems that has a section on realm-based magic, which is essentially the freeform sphere magic of Mage. That should make ginning up my own system easy.

Only, it’s not, as I am too damn picky. Most of the decans correspond one to one with GURPS‘ colleges of magic, which separate spells into categories like Sound, Animal or Technology. I do not necessarily agree with or find useful some of the distinctions those spell colleges make. So I want different categories or realms, but of a number that the decans are still useful to some degree. I’ve got some possibilities in mind, but none of them are fitting just right:

Mage: the Ascension’s Spheres

There are nine of ’em. Drop Prime, because it doesn’t work in the context of GURPS Cabal and split Entropy into Death and Fate, as Mage: the Awakening did and you’ve still got nine. That divides evenly into thirty-six, at least, but that’s also a lot of unoccupied decans. Does that matter? I was never going to use those anyway.

On reflection, I could go from decans to the planets, or maybe astrological houses. GURPS Thaumatology conveniently has correspondences for those too, but Mars and Aries are much less spooky that Harpax and Anoster. I could use the number, but swap in decan names.

Alternately, leave Prime in as the “meta-magic” realm and that makes ten. It’s not mystically resonant, nor does it divide evenly into thirty-six.

On further reflection, including Spirit might be that smart, in that it creates a similar issue I never reconciled in Mage: when most of the universe the mages careen through is made of Spirit, that would be a highly abused sphere, wouldn’t it?

The Gramarye

There’s a magic system for FUDGE called the Gramarye. It has twelve realms, which again I do not entirely agree with, probably because they’re meant to work with a “mythical medieval Europe” and I’m a practical twenty-first century kind of guy. While twelve is a pretty good number, I’m not down with distinguishing Animal from Body, or breaking Illusion — essentially Sense — away from Mind.

Gramarye also has “colleges,” which others might considers verbs or techniques. These are ably covered by the GURPS version of realms being divided into levels that break down how a mage affects things within that realm.

Ars Magica

An oldie but a goodie, Ars Magica is, so far as I know, the prime source, if not progenitor, of the idea of a magic system where areas and types of influence are combined in different ways. Ignoring the techniques, or verbs, there are ten forms, or nouns. Again, I don’t necessarily agree with some of the divisions, even in light of the intent for them to reflect the worldview of the wizards who composed them. In fact, the forms of Ars Magica are awfully similar to the realms of Gramarye. Huh.


In which I take a bit of this, a bit of that. Consider these two lists:

Mage: the Ascension Spheres Gallimaufry Realms
  1. Correspondence
  2. Entropy
  3. Forces
  4. Life
  5. Matter
  6. Mind
  7. Prime
  8. Spirit
  9. Time
  1. Air
  2. Correspondence
  3. Death
  4. Earth
  5. Fate
  6. Fire
  7. Life
  8. Mana
  9. Mind
  10. Time
  11. Water

I started with the nine spheres from Mage, eliminated Spirit, split Entropy into Death and Fate, redistributed the contents of Forces and Matter among the classical four elements, which is in keeping with the cosmology of the Cabal’s universe and renamed Prime to Mana because that’s a Mage thing.

It introduces new corner cases. Where does a tree fall, besides the forest? Life when it’s alive; that’s easy. And when the wood has died? Death? Earth? Neither is terribly satisfying and it can’t fall under Matter because Matter’s gone. And what about light? Is that an aspect of Fire?

Numerically, the gallimaufry is one shy of a happy dozen. What else could go there? Light? Void?


And so finally we come to the possibly apocryphal quote that kicked off this post. I do not have an ideal solution in hand. So I should just pick something and forge ahead. If it doesn’t work, I can review and retool. When everything is made up, it’s all entirely revisable.

In a situation like this, I think it’s best to do something decent, rather than wait for the inspiration to strike that provides something perfect. So my gut instinct is to use the spheres from Mage without faffing around with the gallimaufry approach. They’re familiar, I’m comfortable with the divisions and they’re easy to teach. But it doesn’t seem right.

Do you have a suggestion of another realm-like configuration to consider? I like to think I’m open to new approaches on this.

1 I can’t find an authoritative source showing Patton wrote or said that, just “witty quotes” sites like BrainyQuotes.com attributing it to him. There are enough variations in wording that it makes me wonder if it’s one of those nuggets of wisdom that just floats around the sphere of human knowledge.

Looking Forward to GURPS Horror

In the designer’s notes of GURPS Horror, Third Edition, author Kenneth Hite concludes with ” . . . 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.” Conveniently, Hite wrote the fourth edition of the book as well. Seems probable he retained one or two things for this latest printing.

The GURPS line developer Sean Punch keeps a blog over at Livejournal. I keep an eye on it for the “this week in GURPS” updates. Aside from sly hints about unannounced releases, he updates the status of higher profile projects. In the most recent post, for instance, GURPS Horror is now waiting on the art.

It seems like this book has been in the pipeline forever now, although it’s probably only been two years or so. The received wisdom is that rule and mechanics-heavy books sell better than the sort focused on setting and genre content, so while I can understand why certain projects get priority over others, like GURPS Low-Tech.

Of course, it’s always just my luck that the specific supplements I want to buy get lodged in the pipeline. The same thing happened with Eden Studios back when their output still measured in multiple books per year. They’d crank out the All Flesh Must Be Eaten supplements when all I wanted was The Book of Hod and The Book of Geburah — the former made it out; the latter languishes in the Hell of All But Done.

At any rate, GURPS Horror slogs ahead. I’m particularly looking forward to the PDF companion Worlds of Horror, which I guess contains the updated mini-settings from the third edition of the book. Of those, I think The Madness Dossier is the one I really, really want to read; you know, that thing I cribbed content from for Broken Spokes last summer. And I really, really hope there’s more content in this one, because the original version was so amazing — and amazingly brief on examples.

Are there any more fans of The Madness Dossier out there? Speak up! (And I really would like to get back to filling out that TenFootWiki I began as a campaign source document too.)

[Broken Spokes] Walpurgisnacht

Note: because we meet to play Broken Spokes on Thursday nights and what has come to be Actual Play Friday on Held Action immediately follows, these session reports are going to lag about a week behind. Whatever you’re reading about on Friday, we’ve already moved on to some other huge calamity requiring resolution.

This week was the first session of really real, actual factual role-playing for this campaign, after wrapping up character creation the week before. I was nervous, because I’d been scrabbling to expand my initial story seed for some time, mostly unsuccessfully. For whatever reason, I was having difficulty spinning out twists and complications to make things more interesting. As it turned out, what I had was enough.

The theme of the night was adaptation and modification. Right off the bat, Laban reminded me that last time we briefly discussed the prospects of turning the campaign calendar back to the pulp adventure era of the 1920s and 30s. The idea appealed to me because not only is it a fine era for high adventure and it rules out technological wrinkles like cell phones and the information wellspring of the internet, but the time period’s perfectly in sync with riffing on modernization versus traditional rural life and other Lovecraftian elements.

Continue reading

[Broken Spokes] Character Creation Redux

Last week, I thought we were going to dive into kicking off Broken Spokes. In actuality, we spent most of the evening finishing off character creation, primarily equipment and the players tweaking the bits of their characters about which they’d had second thoughts between the first creation session and now.

As it turns out, they were both concerned about their characters’ gear. That’s a fair point, but one I tend to gloss over as a GM because equipment lists put me to sleep. I’d rather just assume they have everything they would reasonably have and leave it at that. Not so with these two guys.

In a lot of ways, it was helpful and educational to follow them through the gear load-out process, picking up tidbits like:

  • GURPS Lite lacks automatic fire rules. We had to do some detective work with Basic Set: Characters, since I had neglected to bring Campaigns, thinking that the combat rules in Lite were all I needed for the evening. (This turns out to be a standing point of contention about the fourth edition of GURPS Lite, I found while browsing the discussion forum at Steve Jackson Games’ website.)
  • Ammunition matters. This week I’m bringing GURPS High-Tech so Laban can have his choice of things to propel at qlippothic horrors at high velocities.
  • For some folks, it’s not enough to say “You have everything a person like your character could reasonably be expected to have, on their person or back at home.” It’s enough for me, but I am learning to respect others’ desire for fully detailed inventories of pockets, backpacks, vehicle storage compartments and basements. I exaggerate for humor, but really, Wayne’s cat burglar has to keep all that stuff somewhere.

The Flatwoods Monster

An artist's impression of the witnesses' description of the entity.

The Flatwoods Monster is one of the more oddball UFO incidents of the 1950s. It has all the classic components of an archetypal close encounter: an object crashes in the woods of Flatwoods, West Virginia. Frightened locals investigate the disturbance, whereupon they run into a bizarre, inhuman creature with glowing eyes, claw-like digits and . . . a skirt.

At least, that’s how they described it to authorities, so that’s how the rendering artist portrayed it, which took a great deal of the edge off the encounter as it made the news circuits of the day. Some skeptics suggested the “monster” was a confluence of a startled barn owl, opportune tricks of light and shadow that gave it a wholly imaginary shape and mass and frightened observers already predisposed to be jumpy by a falling meteorite and unexpected aerial navigation beacon.

Now, Frank Feschino, on the other hand, author of Shoot Them Down!: The Flying Saucer Air Wars of 1952, maintains those West Virginians saw the operator of the object in some kind of flight or possibly encounter suit. In this version, the claws become remote manipulator arms and the skirt a propulsion / levitation unit, as witnesses said the thing floated above the ground. In fact, it could even have been a drone or automaton, attached to the object as a repair unit.

The Reptoid Agenda

In the world of the Cabal, this very nearly escalated into a full-blown diplomatic incident between the reptoids and the surface dwellers. While the reptoid nation largely follows the leadership of King S’sathurax, there are always elements whose loyalty to a given leader is greater or lesser than the majority of the population. In this instance, a flight pod piloted by a member of the fractious House Sharpfang violated the treaty between the reptoid nation and the Cabal that reptoids would not reveal their existence to the masses of humanity. If not for some quick-witted cabalists inserting themselves into the situation as both officials to indirectly ridicule the witnesses’ reports and ostensibly clumsy Men in Black who couldn’t decide if they were Treasury Department agents or reporters, the populace might have given the Flatwoods encounter more credence.

Continue reading

Broken Spokes

Maybe it’s just the people with whom I play, but it’s been a real struggle to get this Cabal game going. It’s been at least a month and a half since we made characters. The cast consists of a half-demon with raven aspects and a burglar bonded with some kind of astral entity from the Vault of Lost Things. Due to various family and work commitments, we haven’t been able to get together since March, at least. It’s been more than a little frustrating, in all honesty.

The good news is it gave me plenty of time to think about the background for this campaign and how I want to blend Cabal with the Madness Dossier mini-setting from GURPS Horror in a campaign framework named Broken Spokes. To that end, I decided to use Uncle Bear’s Ten Foot Wiki as my documentation tool. I’ll get into the details of that in a future post, but for now suffice to say it’s changed how I write and I haven’t yet decided if I like this way better than sitting down with a fresh notebook page or a plain word processor file.

The wiki model certainly makes it easy to leap from topic to topic. Whenever a proper noun comes up, I put it in double brackets, which turns it into a link. That link either leads to a piece of information I’ve already written, or it’s the means by which I create the information. This is great because it supports stream of consciousness creation. The drawback, which I only realized this weekend when I thought about the characters the players created, is it makes it really easy to get away from what’s important.

Background information is well and good, but it never has the same level of importance to players as it does to the person who wrote it. The thing I want to do differently with Broken Spokes, which I pretty spectacularly failed to achieve in the past even when I tried, as in Mage: The Suppressed Transmission and Paragons of Freedom, is actually use the hooks the players give me. It’s an obstacle I have yet to beat. I hope that if I do it right this time, GMing will feel less like inventing a new adventure each week and more like just rolling with what the players want to do, because they’re interested and emotionally invested in something they created themselves, rather than being presented with an obscured, but already full canvas by a self-satisfied GM.

I’ve got some good hooks, too. The half-demon is ripe with potential as a plausibly deniable agent for the infernal hierarchy — just the existence of which gave me a startling number of ideas for how they fit into the cosmology of Cabal. And the cat burglar’s Vault of Lost Things, well, I can’t get into that right now, but it’s a very exciting concept to play with in conjunction with material pulled from Madness Dossier. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

Carnage the 13th Goes (Un)Live

Last week, Carnage‘s new website went live, unofficially marking off the countdown to the convention’s thirteenth gathering in November. That can seem like a long way off in April, but I appreciate the head’s up. I’m a poky writer at the best of times; combining that with the desire to playtest adventures beforehand can get hairy.

But I’ve already given some thought to what I want to run, including adventure particulars. In keeping with the horror theme, I plan to run a GURPS game using Kenneth Hite’s Cabal universe, as well as a return to the Boston franchise of Ghostbusters International, which went so well last year — still up in the air whether I want to go GURPS again or switch to Cinematic Unisystem.

Beyond that, I’m not sure what to run, as I’ve climbed on board the good ship Carnage as staff. There will still be lots of running around this year, except now it will be with purpose. Working as staff is fun and something I tend towards naturally, but it does put a crimp in one’s ability to run games.

I hope to squeeze in at least a game of Arkham Horror somewhere along the way. Last year’s session was sparsely attended, but I’m not sure if that was the Saturday night time slot or the myriad viruses that flew thick and heavy. If last year’s convention “flu by,” then 2010 will be the Year of the Antibacterial Wipe, I think.

The Unending List of Things to Do

Let’s do a quick project recap, in the manner of A Terrible Idea:

  • International Traditional Gaming Week: observed.
  • Langdon Street Cafe Geek Week: attended.
  • PAX East trip: delayed to 2011. I hear it was fun, though.
  • GURPS Cabal adventure: percolating.
    • Cabal magic system revamp and adaptation via GURPS Thaumatology: to be undertaken.
  • GURPS Ghostbusters adventure: sitting in the back of the mind.
  • Semi-hush-hush game day project: picking up steam.
  • Books to read and commented upon: embarrassingly behind.

As you can see, I have my action items laid out for me. If only my real life were so easily organized into bullet points.

Adventuring Adventurers of Adventure

I didn’t think this GURPS Cabal adventure would capture my imagination like it did. I got in two and a half good hours of writing last night at Muddy Waters, scribbling down initial thoughts and setting details. That flip through the book last week not only refreshed my memory, but somehow got my brain willing to play with the Cabal setting in a way it didn’t want to back in the summer of . . . 2006?

Conversely, I’m having a harder time thinking about the Ghostbusters adventure. I thought I had a solid premise that tied in nicely with this year’s theme at Carnage, but either I’m not feeling it, or my brain’s just more interested in Cabal at the moment. And I can’t fault it; doing something substantive with Cabal has been a goal since I swiped a character or two for Mage: The Suppressed Transmission. I think I need to take a similar dive into the source material for Ghostbusters. Not the movie; I’ve got that memorized. I’m talking about the original box set from West End Games. They got something very, very right with that game and its presentation. Always go back to the source when you need rejuvenation.

Speaking of going back to the source, I pulled the chocks out from my notion of running an old school dungeon crawl for International Traditional Gaming Week. I have four interested players, a system by the name of Labyrinth Lord and the castle of a certain mad archmage. This should be good.

Reading Labyrinth Lord is weird, though. I came to role-playing games post-third edition of Dungeons & Dragons. The differences between that version of the game and the one Labyrinth Lord emulates are staggering. Ten minute turns when poking around the dungeon? Random encounters being built in to the GM’s plans? And the old chestnut of races as classes? What madness is this?

Are You Ready to Join the Cabal?

Before tonight, I thought one of GURPS Cabal‘s biggest drawbacks, to a person like myself, who likes to run games in locales he knows personally — namely, New England and northern America — was its entirely understandable Eurocentrism. Given the Cabal allegedly grew out of pharaonic Egypt and the setting itself was devised as a roiling pot of the major monsters and horror tropes of today, which also descend from European and Near Eastern sources, that kind of focus can’t really be avoided. Emphasizing the focus, in fact, is, or was, because that’s what Kenneth Hite did, the right thing to do.

But it did leave me feeling intimidated for a long time, lacking the deep knowledge of history and occultism that Cabal exudes. A Tuesday night brainstorming session at the coffee shop, though, produced a list of potential settings in which to run for Carnage. Given this year’s horror theme, Cabal made the list, but as an afterthought. I didn’t think I’d be any more confident about running something there than before.

However, I just took a flip through the book for the first time in quite a while. The historical references are as dizzying and dismaying as ever — saying more about my own education than anything else, I think — but I did find one plot seed reassuring in its proximity to home: Martense College,1 one of the Cabal’s “black schools,” calls upstate New York home.2 A hundred miles or two to the north and east would put it right in my stomping grounds. Picture it: a small, prestigious liberal arts college about forty-five minutes south of Burlington harbors power-mad faculty, would-be wizards and the heirs to the world’s magically-derived fortunes.

I can see the game as a clash of cultures: the refined Hermetic theory of the Cabal versus rough and rural mysticism, the kind that gave rise to Lavinia Whately’s bastard son. Plus, stone chambers leading to Faerie and crashed reptoid astronauts protecting the last of their nursemaids fit right into the Cabal’s lunatic cosmology.

1 A reference to the Martense family, I bet.

2 Where “upstate” refers to any point north of New York City.