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The Indie Game Shelf: Cabal

The Indie Game Shelf: Cabal

Welcome to The Indie Game Shelf! Each article in this series will highlight a different small press roleplaying game to showcase the wide variety of games available. Whether you’re new to the hobby and looking to see what’s out there or you’re a veteran gamer looking for something new, I hope The Indie Game Shelf always holds something fun for you to enjoy!

Cabal: An RPG of Corporate Conflict

Cabal from Corone Design [1], written by Andrew Peregrine [2], is a GMed roleplaying game designed for 2 or more players to explore the activities of a single, secretive company, conspiracy, or other organization dedicated to a specific purpose. While designed as a standalone game, it is also explicitly noted in the text that Cabal can be integrated into other games to provide a framework for managing the exploits of a large organization featuring covert aims and activities. Cabal‘s resolution system (based on d10 or d100 rolls) is simple and looks to provide outcomes of major milestones around which a story is built. The focus of the game’s mechanics is on organization management and missions, and the game is geared toward long-term play.

The Story

Cabal does not come with prescriptions for a particular setting or story. The presentation assumes a modern-day time period (with room left over for fantastical elements like occultism or advanced technology), but the mechanics are abstract and flexible enough that the “default” setting is easily hacked into whatever is preferred for a particular group’s needs. The core of the game supports a secret society or group pursuing hidden ends through a variety of means (political, economic, military, or whatever), but the specifics of this organization are decided at setup for each game group.

The organization on which the story focuses is considered the protagonist of the story—the only “character” recognized by the game. The players represent the Board of Directors of the organization, and so together all represent the game’s single “character,” but board members have no mechanical distinction or impact; they are simply the in-fiction representation of the players’ decisions made on behalf of the titular cabal.

There are people in the game (“Employees”), and opportunities are presented for those people to be portrayed by players over the course of the game. However, mechanically, people are merely resources brought to bear by the true character, the organization, and player ownership over a particular Employee is not assumed. In addition, Employee creation is very simple and quick, and Employee survival is similarly not assumed, nor is it even particularly desirable if the ends of the Board of Directors could be furthered without it.

The story, therefore, is truly “about” the organization. The game begins with the organization having some core purposes as its motivating force, and the narrative produced through play is about the organization’s pursuit of its aims. The overall story is mechanically broken up into Missions, which are in turn broken up into Operations. The game mechanics drive the organization’s conflict with other organizations or static obstacles, and the structure of these conflicts drive the smaller stories involving individual people. As stated, though, those individual people’s stories may be quite short in service to the organization. The organization is what matters.

The game rules encourage (and are designed for) groups to design their own Cabal, but the game text also includes a collection of sample organizations that can be used as templates for playable organizations as well as ready-made antagonists for the Board. The sample organizations were contributed by a variety of writers and include descriptions and game information for groups ranging from a cult of shadowy psychics pulling the strings of various world powers all the way to a global disaster relief and rescue organization. The text also includes sample team construction, suggested mission ideas and structures, so while the rules allow for a completely built-from-scratch game, the text also contains plenty of starting points and guidelines to help the story along.

The Game

The game begins with the the non-GM players (the Board of Directors) designing their Cabal, the organization that forms the center of the story, and the only “character” recognized by the rules of the text. Cabal creation involves narrative elements like the type of organization and its goals, but the real mechanical meat is deciding on the organization’s Attributes. This is accomplished via a point-buy system and decided collaboratively among the Board. Attributes function as both a measure of the amount of strength an organization can bring to bear as well as a kind of “hit points”; when organizations fight each other, they do so with the intent to damage each other’s Attributes. While all Attributes serve the purposes mentioned, a few also have additional mechanical impact. For example, a higher “Finances” score raises the maximum score of other Attributes, and the “Specialists” Attribute directly impacts how mechanically powerful the Cabal’s Employees are.

Once the Cabal is constructed, the organization then assembles Teams. Teams are also constructed using a point-buy system (with the number of points available depending on the Cabal’s “Specialists” score). While deciding on Attribute scores defines the organization’s inherent traits and strengths, constructing Teams decides how the organization performs on the ground. Teams are largely defined by what they’re good at. With a fixed number of points to spend, would the Cabal be better served by a single, generalist team, or a larger number of more specialized teams? Should all teams be of equal strength, or does one elite team get the lion’s share of organization support? These are the kinds of questions the Board must answer for the good of the Cabal when designing Teams.

Each Team contains a number of Employees equal to the number of players on the Board of Directors. The Team construction phase dictates how much each team is backed by the organization, which indicates how much each team member has access to training, equipment, and the like. However, this backing is not so much a resource pool as it is a template from which all team members are built. This template can (and usually does) leave some room for customization, so individual team members can be distinct from each other, but in any kind of specialized team, most will have similar core strengths and all will be of roughly the same power level until improved by experience. The organization can, over the course of the game, recover from team losses or even replace an entire team by hiring new personnel. When they do, however, the new personnel arise from the organization’s team design specifications, and any previously gained experience disappears along with Employees that are lost. Everyone’s replaceable, but there’s also no substitute for experience.

The organization on which the story focuses is considered the protagonist of the story—the only “character” recognized by the game.
In the way the Cabal is defined mechanically by its Attributes, Employees are defined by their Skills. Also in the way the Cabal’s Attributes serve double-duty as both a measurement of capability and as “hit points,” Employee Skills work similarly. As Employees accumulate wounds, they also amass skill penalties; once their penalties overcome their skill ratings, they are incapacitated.

Resolution rolls take place in one of two scales. On the organization scale, the roll is pretty much a d100 vs. (roll under) an Attribute. This basic roll may be modified based on the difficulty of the goal. An unmodified roll might be an Average task (“getting a good deal on supplies”), while a -50 modifier may apply to something “Almost Impossible” (“getting hold of experimental tech”). For organizations taking on (read: directly attacking) a rival organization, resolution instead goes to contested d100 rolls vs. Attributes with outcome and degree decided based on a combination of whether each opposing roll succeeded or failed and by how much.

The difficulty modifiers of organization-level rolls can be impacted by the organization planning and executing Missions. Further, aside from attacking other organizations, Missions are also the means by which Cabals can gain points with which to raise their Attribute scores. Missions (particularly larger-scale Missions) can be broken into multiple Operations, with each Operation potentially involving a different of the organization’s Teams. Task resolution involving the Employee scale generally involves a d10 roll vs. a target number that is dictated by the Employee’s Skill rating. Teams participating in Missions are the means by which Employees gain experience and can raise their Skill ratings.

The design of Missions, rather than a GM responsibility, is a collaborative effort between all players. The Board decides the scope of the Mission they would like to attempt (which dictates the potential reward as well as the difficulty), but the GM arranges complications and obstacles. This process benefits from being split up across sessions, so the game overall is geared more toward long-term campaigns than toward one-shot play.

The Table

There were several design points in this game that stood out to me. Firstly, the idea of the players assuming basically anonymous roles and acting as a single “character” is quite an exercise in collaborative play. I say “anonymous” in the sense that although there could easily be in-fiction representations of the individual members of the Board of Directors, each as simple or detailed as desired, the board members’ avatars are mechanically neither distinct nor significant. Decisions are made, and the organization acts; the resulting mechanistic resolutions and effects apply to the Cabal as a whole.

Secondly, I enjoyed how individual Employee’s power scales are controlled by investment and backing decisions made by the Cabal but not affected by the number of Employees on a Team. In effect, if this game were played with two different groups, and both groups identically allocated their Cabal points, but Group A had more players than Group B, then Group A’s Teams would be more powerful than Group B’s, simply by virtue of having more Employees per Team. But at the same time, the individual Employees of Group A’s Team would be equal in power to the individual Employees on Group B’s Team. This lets the structure of an organization scale seamlessly to any number of players, from a single board member on up, which I find a very cool piece of design.

Finally, while players do sometimes take on the roles of actual people in the fiction of the game (the Employees), the rules and mechanics of the game ensure that these people are largely fungible and ultimately disposable. The rules go so far as to call out Employees as not characters themselves, but as “assets” belonging to the game’s lone character, the Cabal. This breaks from the model of play of most RPGs, and to my mind requires a significant amount of player buy-in before the game is even brought to the table. The value of Employees is literally measured in the game mechanics solely by what they can do for the organization, which is a pretty dehumanizing idea that might strike some people a little close to home.

The use of people as mechanical resources (effectively, equipment) casts an interesting shade to this game’s overall tone. As a design decision, I applaud its effectiveness in supporting the game’s theme that, basically, individuals don’t matter; only the organization matters. As a theme, it may require some sensitive handling, as the game if not encourages, then at least actively makes room for the players to make decisions that may involve agent sacrifice for the good of the organization. Whether this involves a studied callousness or moments of great dramatic tension will differ from group to group and player to player. The potential exists for some very dramatic storytelling moments focusing on the needs of the collective over the rights of the individual, and between that and the overall tone of ultra-capitalist and corporate attitudes of people as resources, this game is one that deserves some group discussion before a campaign begins. What’s significant is not the theme being explored; what’s significant is that the game’s players are cast in the roles of the “bosses” making those decisions.

The Shelf

Cabal is available in print and PDF from Indie Press Revolution [7], and in print-on-demand and PDF from DriveThruRPG [8]. What strikes me most about this game is its conceit that the players are not portraying mechanically significant individual characters, but are instead collectively representing an entire organization as a single “character.” It puts me in mind of Bluebeard’s Bride [9] (Whitney Beltrán, Marissa Kelly, and Sarah Richardson), the dark fairy tale game of feminist horror, in which players assume different aspects of a single central character. That game, as well as the intensely problematic Everyone is John, both mechanically rely on a kind of rotating control of the main character, however, and not particularly on collaborative decision-making. The theme of mechanically representing a party’s parent organization or other common resource comes up in many games, notably lately in games in the Forged in the Dark [10] family. The recent entry Band of Blades [11] (Stras Acimovic and John LeBoeuf-Little) even introduces PCs that are not under individual player ownership, but they are still central to the game’s story. Finally, I can’t think of games involving characters acting collectively without thinking of Headspace [12] (Mark Richardson), in which cybernetically altered agents inhabit a collective consciousness and share both each others skills and emotional burdens. What Cabal offers in a collaboratively run organization without playable people being central to the story, however, strikes me in my experience as unique.

If you’ve got something on your shelf you want to recommend as well, let us know in the comments section below. Let’s fill our shelves together!