Looking Back To The 80s With The "Realism" of KABAL!
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  • Looking Back To The 80s With The "Realism" of KABAL!



    My very first issue of Dragon magazine was #63. It was full of goodness, but the thing I obsessed most over was a full-page advertisement for an RPG mysteriously called KABAL. It featured a photograph of some Grenadier miniatures on what we would now call dungeon tiles. The three books and gamer aids portrayed in the ad were printed on parchment, something I found irresistible. The text promised the dangling carrot of "realism."

    "Realism" seemed to be the watchword for RPGs competing against TSR's behemoth. There was a school of thought that hit locations and a death spiral were indications of a more mature game. A skill system, where experience is applied only to the skill used, was pure sugar on top. KABAL assured all of that stuff. It also promised to be "much faster and much better than any other game you've played." Deal me in.

    The game came in a small box containing three booklets and a series of reference sheets. The pages are made of vegetable parchment, with covers of a thicker material. The interior text is mostly in a sky-blue cursive font, a curious choice more than likely the result of the game’s designer owning a fancy typewriter. The artwork, though sparse, is a step above much of KABAL’s contemporaries.

    KABAL stands for Knights and Barbarians and Legerdemain. The game is loosely class-based , with each class having their own group of unique skills. The classes are fighter, marksman, magik user, and thief. Every character is assumed to be a combination fighter/thief/marksman. Some will qualify as a magik user if their psychic ability characteristic is high enough. You can also play a shaolin priest, which seems to be the game's version of ninjas which are, as every 1980s gamer knew, superior in every way to any other class. A friend of mine once said "ninjas could kick Aragorn’s ass."

    KABAL uses a standard array of characteristics (strength, dexterity, endurance, and so on), but ranks them on a scale of 6-120! This is achieved by rolling 6d20 for each one. Every characteristic also has a “factor” equivalent to its square root. This is just the start of a series of overly complicated rules. For example, a single combat attack takes between two to four rolls. You also need to make a handful of calculations with each new enemy you face and strike. Calculations involving square roots, cubes, decimals, multiplication, and division are scattered throughout and performed on the fly.

    The game includes 300 spells, random dungeon generation, close to 100 skills, and over 100 monsters, of which the moose(!) is among the deadliest. Seriously, if you encounter a moose, you’re going to die in a bloody antler-frenzy. KABAL is a poster child for the naive game design we often saw in the wake of D&D’s exploding popularity. It is virtually unplayable but, in a sort of "so bad it’s good" way, KABAL is a delight.
    Comments 18 Comments
    1. Sunsword's Avatar
      Sunsword -
      With that cover illustration, did the game cover armor?
    1. amerigoV's Avatar
      amerigoV -
      Quote Originally Posted by Sunsword View Post
      With that cover illustration, did the game cover armor?

      Base on his description, armor likely involved a cubic spline to model it, and thus everyone went without
    1. Zarithar's Avatar
      Zarithar -
      A little platemail might have helped defend against the claws of those flying tiger-monkeys... just saying. Maybe that is supposed to be some sort of native jungle tribe though? Square roots? Division? Cubes? Just... no.
    1. TerraDave's Avatar
      TerraDave -
      Now that was a good column!

      Realism as expressed in complexity was certainly a big trend, for about 20 years.

      FGU games like Chivalry and Sorcery and Aftermath where certainly in that mode. As where the somewhat more successful Rolemaster, MegaTraveler, and GURPS.

      I look forward to the next one!
    1. Kelanen -
      Excellent column! I am also looking forward to the next one.
    1. CapnZapp -
      Aaah... the joys of having regular wildlife more deadly than orcs or monsters Brings me right back to my MERP days!
    1. CapnZapp -
      Quote Originally Posted by Sunsword View Post
      With that cover illustration, did the game cover armor?
      At least the illustration suggests realistic boob armor...
    1. JeffB's Avatar
      JeffB -
      I really wanted this way back when..

      Then I picked up their other game- M.I.S.S.I.O.N. Their modern day spy game. Same blue font, and I remember the system being as wonky as described here for KABAL.

      Never bothered with another product from them.
    1. Von Ether's Avatar
      Von Ether -
      A poster child for a "Heartbreaker Fantasy RPG" if I ever saw one.
    1. CarlZog's Avatar
      CarlZog -
      I bought a copy of this from the designer at GenCon South in 1982. I never played it. I sold it at another con in the late '80s to fuel my shift to historical minis.


      The author of this post is correct that there was a phase in the early '80s in which attention to the minutiae of combat details was equated with "realism". KABAL may have been among the more egregious examples, but Arms Law and Spell Law (later to become Rolemaster) was part of that too. I was entranced by it all at the time. TSR's Bio-One hit location booklet is still be sitting in my copy of Top Secret, waiting to incorporate even more visceral detail into that game!


      As for the odd layout and graphic design of KABAL, the cursive type and the parchment paper were designed to give it the allure of something arcane.

      The light blue type color, however, had a more practical purpose -- piracy prevention. That color was invisible to most photocopiers at the time, preventing people from making cheap copies of the books to distribute. TSR's Tractics used the same color.
    1. aramis erak's Avatar
      aramis erak -
      Quote Originally Posted by CarlZog View Post
      The light blue type color, however, had a more practical purpose -- piracy prevention. That color was invisible to most photocopiers at the time, preventing people from making cheap copies of the books to distribute. TSR's Tractics used the same color.
      Blue was also a common mimeographic ink color.

      It was also a popular color for ditto machines (aka spirit duplicators).

      Most small press games used mimeo back in the day; judging from images on scribd, the text is too clean for mimeo, so it's likely offset and in non-photocopy blue, rather than mimeo or spirit.

      Photocopy prevention was not the typical reason for blue inks - inexpensive ink was. Kabal, however, does look to be due to anti-copying, as it strongly looks to be lithographic or offset printing, from what was a probably optically transcribed cut plate. (note that optical transcription to cut plates was lat 19th C... TA Edison, 1880.)

      Kaball was actually fairly high production values for the time. FGU and several other companies also used optically transcribed typed manuscripts; it was a standard for many publications outside the games industry as well. Most universities had a plate cutter which would take the manuscript pages, and cut a matching plate. This was the most expensive part of the process. Many places, the plates were assembled by casting lead for impression printing; some companies cast lead for page creation, printed a handful, then had those used for art layout, which was then sent for optical transfer to lithographic plates.

      TSR, Avalon Hill, and a few others were exceptional in their product quality... but the early TSR products show signs of having been typewritten with proportional spaced typewriters, then optically transferred to plates.
    1. Connorsrpg's Avatar
      Connorsrpg -
      Cool little article
    1. Over the Hill Gamer's Avatar
      Over the Hill Gamer -
      Quote Originally Posted by Zarithar View Post
      A little platemail might have helped defend against the claws of those flying tiger-monkeys.
      It looks like nighttime. Maybe they are in their PJs.
    1. ccs's Avatar
      ccs -
      Quote Originally Posted by aramis erak View Post
      Blue was also a common mimeographic ink color.

      It was also a popular color for ditto machines (aka spirit duplicators).

      Most small press games used mimeo back in the day; judging from images on scribd, the text is too clean for mimeo, so it's likely offset and in non-photocopy blue, rather than mimeo or spirit.

      Photocopy prevention was not the typical reason for blue inks - inexpensive ink was. Kabal, however, does look to be due to anti-copying, as it strongly looks to be lithographic or offset printing, from what was a probably optically transcribed cut plate. (note that optical transcription to cut plates was lat 19th C... TA Edison, 1880.)

      Kaball was actually fairly high production values for the time. FGU and several other companies also used optically transcribed typed manuscripts; it was a standard for many publications outside the games industry as well. Most universities had a plate cutter which would take the manuscript pages, and cut a matching plate. This was the most expensive part of the process. Many places, the plates were assembled by casting lead for impression printing; some companies cast lead for page creation, printed a handful, then had those used for art layout, which was then sent for optical transfer to lithographic plates.

      TSR, Avalon Hill, and a few others were exceptional in their product quality... but the early TSR products show signs of having been typewritten with proportional spaced typewriters, then optically transferred to plates.
      Now that's a useful post!
    1. AriochQ's Avatar
      AriochQ -
      As a teenager in the early 80's, it seems my friends and I were drawn to numerically complex systems. I can recall taking pride when a non-D&D player would exclaim how complicated the game seemed and that they 'could never understand it'. There was a bit of intellectual elitism associated with the game in the early days (at least in my crowd, although I suspect more broadly as well).
    1. Lord_Blacksteel's Avatar
      Lord_Blacksteel -
      I remember the ads for this too and thought it was both coolly presented there - like you said parchment character sheets! - but also amateurish and trying to present itself as a "better" game than AD&D which seemed arrogant even then. That said a lot of games tried that same approach.

      Can we show the ad here? I'm betting far more people saw that than the actual game. I can pull a pic from my Dragon Archive if that would help.
    1. numtini's Avatar
      numtini -
      So what's an Origins 82 sold in zip lock edition worth?
    1. vivsavage's Avatar
      vivsavage -
      Quote Originally Posted by Lord_Blacksteel View Post
      Can we show the ad here? I'm betting far more people saw that than the actual game. I can pull a pic from my Dragon Archive if that would help.
      I would imagine it would be okay. I'll ask the admin.
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