Jonathan L. Howard is the author of the novels Johannes Cabal the Necromancer and Johannes Cabal the Detective. He is also a video game designer and has been playing roleplaying games since 1980, when he started with the original Basic Dungeons & Dragons, edited by J. Eric Holmes. To this day he will happily bore anyone on the subject of why B1: In Search of the Unknown was a better introductory module than B2: The Keep on the Borderlands.
Heroes of Shadow (releasing this April) brings the necromancer to the game, from a school of shadow magic shunned among reputable wizards; a shadow magic practitioner is largely a product of self-taught trial and error. In advance of Heroes of Shadow, Jonathan Howard gives some ideas on how to introduce one such necromancer into your game: Johannes Cabal himself, a short-tempered but dangerously clever necromancer "of some little infamy."
After detailing Johannes Cabal, we’ll offer ways to incorporate this necromancer, his dubious goals, and his world itself into your campaign!
Johannes Cabal is the protagonist of, so far, three novels and a handful of short stories. In these stories his character has been well defined: a brilliant scientist possessed of a razor sharp intellect, an impressive gift for languages, and a near eidetic memory. He is also ruthless in the extreme, single-minded to the point of obsession, and “has the social conscience of anthrax.”
He is also a necromancer.
“Necromancer” is taken in these books to be primarily the more modern understanding of the word; somebody who deals magically in death, rather than the strict dictionary definition of somebody who uses the dead to tell the future in the manner of a medium. While Cabal has nothing against raising the dead so that he may gather information from them, this information is always what they knew when alive. In Cabal’s world, the dead know nothing of the future.
Cabal’s ultimate aim is to conquer death, to return the dead to life “physically, mentally, and spiritually” exactly as they once were. While perhaps a worthy goal in itself, his techniques lack diplomacy and (usually) legality. Necromancy is a proscribed profession, punishable by life imprisonment or death all over the civilised world—and so Cabal is a practised criminal as a well as scientist.
Cabal’s full history has not been yet revealed in the stories, but some little is known. Johannes Cabal was born in Hessen, Germany, the younger of two brothers. When still a child, his father moved the family to England. Here the intention was for the Cabal brothers to integrate with English society. Their father Gottfried gave the elder son Horst a lot of latitude to find his own way, but the more serious Johannes had his future planned out and imposed upon him; he would read law at university and then join a local firm of solicitors.
A traumatic death changed all that, tipping Johannes into a kind of highly rational madness. He abandoned the life that had been planned for him and set himself on the path of necromancy.
First becoming a necrothologist (a theoretical necromancer, but lacking the deep knowledge), Cabal tried to gather the data he needed by investigating sites of reputed supernatural occurrences, such as the Grimpen Burial Ground, or the Alhambra Theatre (“Exeunt Demon King”). Horst, concerned by his brother’s mental state, accompanied him on some of these expeditions, only to die while examining a crypt with a dangerous history.
The disappearance and presumed death of Horst—Johannes never told anyone of the circumstances—caused a collapse of their father’s health. He died, and was buried in an English churchyard, just as he had always wanted. Mourning Horst and her husband, and unable to forgive Johannes, his mother Liese Cabal returned to Germany.
Disowned and isolated, Johannes Cabal’s obsession with perfect resurrection became all-consuming. He sold his soul to become a full necromancer—a sale he would later come to regret (as detailed in Johannes Cabal the Necromancer)—and gave up all pretence of common morality. Now even murder, should he deem it necessary, was not beyond him.
Cabal is in his late twenties, a little over six feet tall, is lean, blond, blue-eyed, and pale.
He wears black and white almost invariably; a black suit, cravat and shoes, with a white shirt. The only colourful items he ever wears by choice are red tartan slippers at home. He usually wears a hat, either a broad-brimmed fedora or a short top hat in the coachman style. He does not care for bowlers. He wears his coats long and often carries two pairs of gloves; a black pair in kid leather and a pair of surgical gloves for impromptu work in the field.
Cabal goes around with a brown Gladstone bag in which he carries much of his equipment. In it will always be found a roll of heavy cloth containing his surgical instruments, and a padded flip top case (something like a small binoculars case) that contains test tubes of the current batch of experimental fluid upon which he is working. These fluids, injected into corpses, have the effect of raising the dead with greater or lesser degrees of success.
Cabal habitually carries three weapons. In his jacket pocket he carries a switchblade; his cane—a black affair with a tarnished silver skull at its head—conceals a 3 ft. blade with which he is quite a proficient fencer; and his Gladstone holds his Webley .577 revolver, a “weapon of egregious aspect” chosen for its effectiveness rather than its elegance.
The World of Johannes Cabal
Johannes Cabal lives in a world that is very uneasy with magic, regarding it as dangerous and the domain of depraved minds. It has been almost entirely eclipsed by science, yet it still exists and most people accept that it does. Necromancers are usually megalomaniacs looking for a way to corporeal power; because of such, necromancy is formally outlawed in all states, punished by extreme measures. Even nominally more beneficent forms of magic, however, are frowned upon and proscribed; there have simply been too many cases where the road to Hell has been paved with magical good intentions.
On the other hand, there are so many wonderful things that science can accomplish that there really isn’t much need to turn to magic. The physical laws of Cabal’s world are not the same as ours, containing several outmoded ideas from history such as the ether and gyroscopic levitation. Air travel is an excellent example. There are no fixed wing aircraft in Cabal’s world, nor are there dirigibles. Instead, passenger air travel is performed by aeroships – heavier-than-air transports that develop lift by gyroscopic levitation and forward motion through “dragging” the ship along lines of etheric force in the atmosphere. Faster flight on a smaller scale is performed by entomopters, aircraft that gain lift and thrust through the use of rapidly moving wings using the same principles as insect flight.
As can be seen from those examples, there is a distinct “steampunk” tone to the world, but it is not an overt example of the genre. Much of the world bears strong parallels to our own, albeit viewed through a distorting lens.
The world has a mix of technologies dating from the 1870s to the 1950s. There are steam trains and telegrams, but radio and television are also mentioned, albeit in an offhand fashion—as if these are unreliable and niche innovations of very limited use. In this world, they are.
The influences for Cabal’s world are many and varied, but it is essentially late Victorian and Edwardian in outlook and style. Here, men wear hats, and gun shops exist in most British towns on the understanding that no one is going to be so uncouth as to actually want a gun for any non-sporting use once purchased.
Johannes Cabal in Other Worlds
The main limiting factor in placing Cabal into other worlds is that magic is rare in Cabal’s world, but common in most game worlds. This limits his usefulness as a native of such a milieu. As a visitor, however, his objectives remain in place, combined with a degree of unfamiliarity with how things are done there. He is very good at making himself fit in quickly, however; little surprises him and still less shocks him. This is a man who has met Satan, defeated a plague of zombies, and stopped an entity that made Vecna look like SpongeBob SquarePants (don’t tell Vecna I said that. Just to be on the safe side, don’t tell SpongeBob either). Orcs and dragons are not going to faze him.
Cabal is not an obvious fit with a “Forgotten Realms” environment, but he has travelled between worlds before and there’s no reason why he shouldn’t again. Finding himself surrounded by heroic sorts given to quaffing mighty frothing flagons of ale while slaying a dragon with their free hand would irritate him enormously, and Cabal is at his most Cabalesque when irritated. The relative commonality—in that it exists at all—of the resurrection spell, raise dead ritual, and their cousins would astound him. He would be very interested in finding a way of getting that sort of magic back to his own plane, even if he has to kidnap a cleric to do it….
There are three D&D campaign worlds that are more obviously suited for Herr Cabal.
The limited magic, blurred alignments, withdrawn gods, and steampunky technology of Eberron are all plus points for a character like Cabal. I’ve certainly encountered campaigns in which, to avoid diluting the impact of character death, resurrection magic is unknown. In such a world, a driven necromancer like Cabal might find his place.
The Cabal stories often leap, with unseemly glee, into the realms of gothic horror, so the world of Ravenloft is a natural fit. Although Ravenloft now exists in the D&D line as a boardgame, it is also part of the Shadowfell and therefore part of the current cosmology. Cabal has been known to visit at least one pocket universe in the past, so it is quite possible that he might visit the Domains of Dread from his own reality, probably to steal something or otherwise gain knowledge. Alternatively, it’s quite imaginable that Cabal might exist in the Domains as an unwitting “Darklord,” and therefore be a tragic yet impolite central figure about which the DM may weave adventures.
Planescape. There, I said it. Planescape, Planescape, Planescape. It’s been out of print for a long time, and if you can hunt down any of its sourcebooks, you can try converting 2nd Edition material to the current game. That said, some of it does appear in the 4E Manual of the Planes and DMG2. The strange city of Sigil would very much be the sort of place Johannes Cabal might end up in while on one of his knowledge-gathering/stealing expeditions, and the austere Lady of Pain would make a good foil to his own cold nature.
Cabal as an NPC
In and of himself, Cabal is dangerous and knowledgeable, but it’s as a contact and patron that he comes into his own. Cabal resents every minute spent away from the laboratory, and so having reliable “hirelings” to do all the fetching for him would be very useful. In return, he can supply information, training, magic, and even a temporary base so long as the players don’t intend to stay for more than a day or two. It’s easy to conceive of a campaign based entirely on the party acting as Cabal’s cat’s-paws, as he send them on missions of increasing complexity, danger, and duration. It would not be a suitable campaign for characters at the ends of the moral spectrum, however; in other words the Lawful Good and the Chaotic Evil (in the parlance of past alignments) need not apply.
Things Not His Own
Johannes Cabal spends a lot of time and energy securing things he needs for his research. From rare tomes to eldritch reagents to fresh corpses, his shopping list is long and full of things he cannot simply pick up at the local grocer. These are requisites that cannot be had for love nor money, but only by the wilful application of sly misappropriation and sudden violence.
Cabal’s library is extensive and unusual, and he is always looking to expand it. Apart from old favourites like the Necronomicon, the Cabal stories have also mentioned such books as the Cultus Meteorologicus, the Principia Necromantica, and Enquêtes Interdites. (Crossing into the D&D universe, Cabal could very well be after such tomes as the Book of Vile Darkness and the Demonomicron).These are all very rare volumes, and often proscribed, a fact that leads to them being held in private or secure collections and not available for public scrutiny.
Quests for arcane ingredients have been part of roleplaying since the days of the white books, but that should not be cause for falling into a rut. Cabal’s ingredients lists have included the blood of a named demon, the bones of saints, unusual fungi, and liquid shame. The ingenious DM should not fear the whimsical when choosing targets and be prepared to create suitably unusual locations where they may be found, and—if necessary—donors from whom they may be drawn.
Whether the players represent either Cabal or the owners of one of Cabal’s targets, there is sure to be cunning and conflict along the way.
Beware, My Son, the Jabberwock
It’s not enough to just dash down to the corner shop to buy reagents, nor for them to be derived from the bodies of rare creatures, nor for the rare creatures to be in awkward places. Cabal has himself mounted expeditions to locate and kill rare creatures in awkward places that are also terrifyingly dangerous (no ambiguity there—the places and the creatures are both terrifyingly dangerous).
If the players become involved in collecting reagents, you might make the target creature not only dangerous but fictional even within the milieu. The only way to hunt it is to journey through a painting into what is essentially a pocket universe with slightly broken laws of physics, where clerical spells function a little randomly because the gods cannot hear the incantations properly in that distant place, and arcane magic is stubbornly low level but never seems to run out.
The Tractate Middoth, Scratch’n’Sniff Edition
Cabal loves books. Knowledge that other people have already gathered, considered, tabulated, and annotated definitely beats having to do it yourself. The sort of knowledge Cabal deals in, however, ensures that these books are unlikely to ever appear In Oprah’s Book Club. Well, perhaps the very last show. For everyone.
For example, The Shrines of Kopalis purports to be an archaeological report on a lost city, deep within the jungles of any dark continent of your choice (perhaps even the Isle of Dread). The site was destroyed by local progressives, so the book represents the only record of the city’s architecture and contains detailed etchings of the terribly disturbing temple carvings. These carvings may prove useful to Cabal, but the book is rare and potentially blasphemous. Stealing it from a restricted collection is hard enough, but this could well lead into an expedition to locations indicated within the pictures—and the possibility that, within the angles of the architecture illustrated, something non-Euclidean and dangerous lurks within the pages of the book, making it dangerous in and of itself.
The Vengeful Somebody
Cabal is a necromancer, and necromancers are not popular people. He has been pursued by many assorted torch-bearing mobs, witchfinder generals of greater or lesser ability, solitary vigilantes, rival necromancers, and outraged relatives of people whose cadavers Cabal had seen fit to exhume for experimental purposes. These hunters are of greatly variable levels of threat depending on wit and numbers.
Hello. My Name is Inigo Montoya
There have been several attempts on Cabal’s life inspired by pure revenge for injuries suffered by the revenger or the revenger’s family. Bearing in mind that, while Cabal dislikes killing, he is fine with grave robbing, the nature of these deadly slights may be discerned. One such attack could have wiped out humanity as an unexpected side-effect (“The Ereshkigal Working”), but few are that clumsy. The one thing that persistently saves Cabal from a sudden and unexpected death apart from his own wariness, is that sudden and unexpected death is not satisfying to the revenger. It should be noted that Cabal is a hard man to find and harder still to capture, and so his persecutor wants more closure than a sniper’s shot or a knife in the night will provide. Revengers value a good gloat as much as any master criminal in a Nehru jacket ever did. Thus a revenge can consist of three distinct phases.
Firstly, the pursuit. There have been many fine pursuit stories such as North by Northwest and The Thirty-Nine Steps (I would recommend the novel and the ’79 film version). The excitement in any good pursuit comes from unbeatable pursuers—in terms of numbers, capability, or both—and opportunities for extemporised escapes.
Secondly, the inevitable capture and the “You killed my father/outraged my sister/disappointed my dog” speech (it’s fun if the revenge turns out to be for something the players hadn’t even considered before), and then an inescapable death trap for the players to escape from, albeit not easily. Throwing them into a pit of horrors, or locking them in a haunted temple, or marooning them on an island of terrors all work well. It should be at the limits of the characters’ abilities to escape.
Thirdly, hunting and dealing with the revenger. Be assured, this isn’t revenge. It is removing a known threat. It may look like revenge, but it isn’t. Honest.
Unhappily for Johannes Cabal, many of his professional rivals and antagonistic personalities from associated fields do not necessarily stay dead. Here are a couple of possible situations:
- It is a feature of ghost stories from many cultures and many times that the dead remain singularly possessive of their knickknacks and gewgaws. An interesting complication of the players taking some tome or artefact from the hidden laboratory of some long dead sorcerer—a difficult mission in itself—is that the theft may sufficiently irritate the owner that he rises as a revenant or ghost to hunt them down. Some pleasure can be had, for the DM at least, if the connection between the curious orrery the party stole from the last dungeon and the cobwebbed gentlemen who has been bedevilling them recently is not made immediately obvious.
- The party killed the villain. They were all there. They all saw it. The fighter cleaved him from clavicle to crotch while the rogue backstabbed him with a rhino. They all watched him plummet down the mountain, bouncing off every rock on the way, flip through the lava fall, and land in the acid lake. The man is dead. It took them however many adventures to reach him, however many reversals and complications along the way, but now he is as dead as a dead can be. Now they can rip off the stuff Cabal hired them to take. Party.
Except, thanks to some tinkering around with his vital essences, or a deal with devils, or just because he is that evil, he rises again. Just not immediately. That’s worth writing in italics—just not immediately. No matter how cool the villain was, there should be a decent break before bringing him back or the players will wonder if they’re ever going to achieve anything permanent at all. Also, the villain should be changed in some way so he’s not just the same-old same-old they defeated last time. Perhaps he’s now incorporeal, or his new body is a construct, or he requires something unpalatable to live now, such as the life-force of the local peasants. Don’t let the players realise what and who they’re up against until the big reveal. Believe me, done properly it’s a showstopper.
The Character (Sheet) of Cabal
A note on alignment: Johannes Cabal regards himself as a pure scientist and therefore morality is none of his concern. Technically, he is correct in this, but as history has repeatedly shown, while pure science in itself is not a moral issue, the practicalities of experimentation and application change all that. This frequently impacts the lives of others, an impact that Cabal often ignores and not even deliberately. He generally has a very low opinion of the human race, and weighs the worth of an individual against their usefulness as experimental material. That said, he abhors death and only kills in self-defence or because he regards somebody as a burden upon the world in one way or another.
Thus, it is a fine call whether one chooses Cabal’s alignment as Unaligned or Evil. For myself, I would suggest the former; Cabal commits good acts as well as bad as the situation dictates. While his methods are selfish, and therefore evil, his aims are benevolent, and therefore good. For Cabal, the ends absolutely justify the means. Unaligned is probably the best fit for his convoluted sense of right and wrong.
Cabal is not, at first or indeed second glance, and obvious swashbuckling type. First impressions are often misleading, however; he is actually quite adept at fencing and has been known to fling himself about in a faintly heroic fashion. Given his easy recourse to thievery to gather the books and materials he needs, there are definite aspects of the rogue about him. That said, he is also a necromancer and therefore has recourse to magic. Of the magic classes available, the artificer class from Eberron seemed a good fit for a form of magic flavoured with weird science, and so I hybridised an artificer/rogue class up for him. Lastly, I set him at 15th level, so that he is no beginner but there are certainly greater challenges awaiting him.
A set of floor plans for Cabal’s house, the first time they have been published, can be found here.
The Cabal Stories to Date
Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, 2009 Anchor (ISBN: 978-0767930765), Headline (ISBN: 978-0755347858)
Johannes Cabal the Detective, 2010 Doubleday (ISBN: 978-0385528092), Headline (ISBN: 978-0755347971)
Johannes Cabal: The Fear Institute, 2011 Headline (ISBN: 978-0755347988)
- “Johannes Cabal and the Blustery Day” in H.P. Lovecraft’s Magazine of Horror #1 (2004)
- “Exeunt Demon King” in H.P. Lovecraft’s Magazine of Horror #3 (2006)
- “The Ereshkigal Working” in The Way of the Wizard (ed. John Joseph Adams) ISBN: 978-1607012320 (2010)
- “The House of Gears” in Fantasy eZine, (2011)
The chronology of the fictional timeline is best represented as:
- “Exeunt Demon King”
- “The Ereshkigal Working”
- “Johannes Cabal and the Blustery Day”
Johannes Cabal the Necromancer
- “The House of Gears”
Johannes Cabal the Detective
Johannes Cabal: The Fear Institute
Arthur Conan Doyle: For Sherlock Holmes and Professor Challenger, but also his more outré tales such as “The Horror of the Heights,” “The Terror of Blue John Gap,” “Lot 249,” and “The Brown Hand.”
M.R. James: His ghost stories remain powerful to this day. As an experiment, try reading them all (there are only thirty), then watching Ringu and spotting how many themes and images it contains that James first wrote a century ago.
H.P. Lovecraft: Cabal is conversant with the gods and creatures of Lovecraft and they are referenced frequently. Again, all Lovecraft’s work is worth reading, but—as the third Cabal novel The Fear Institute largely takes place in Lovecraft’s Dreamlands—his novella The Dreamquest of Unknown Kadath is especially suitable.
Ray Bradbury: I have never made any secret that the inspiration for Johannes Cabal the Necromancer is Bradbury’s brilliant Something Wicked This Way Comes, specifically the question, “Where do supernatural evil carnivals come from anyway?” Again, Bradbury is a writer who is worth sampling in depth, but Something Wicked This Way Comes, and the short story collections The Illustrated Man and The October Country are good ones to start with.
Vernon Lee: The nom de plume of Violet Paget, specifically the six stories compiled in the anthology Supernatural Tales, all set in medieval Italy. These are strange, feverish stories and they strongly influenced my creation of the fictional Italianate city of Parila in Johannes Cabal the Detective.