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Saturday, 24 June 2017

It's the End of the World

Worldbreaker is something that The Esoterrorists has never had before. Originally published in 2006 and then in a second edition in 2013, The Esoterrorists is Pelgrane Press’ roleplaying game of investigating and combatting occult terrorists intent on tearing the fabric of the world by exposing it to the creatures of the Outer Black. Notably, it launched the GUMSHOE System, the publisher’s investigative, clue-orientated roleplaying mechanics, which it has used for the majority of its roleplaying games since, including Mutant City Blues,  Ashen Stars, and Night’s Black Agents. In that time, The Esoterrorists has been supported with numerous scenarios and a supplement or two, but it has lacked is a campaign. Worldbreaker is the campaign that fulfills that lack.

For decades the Esoterrorists have conducted occult activities and conspiracies aimed at tearing open the membrane between our reality and the horrific vortex of the Outer Dark. Only the Ordo Veritatis has worked to thwart their activities, throwing back any demons that slip through tears in the membrane, breaking up Esoterrorist plans, and conducting operations to cover up what really happened, lest the fear and the horror become known and so further weaken the membrane. To date the Esoterrorists have been conducting single operations, but now their plans seem to be coalescing and pushing forward towards to a very final end. From a brutal ritual in an underground club in San Francisco, agents of Ordo Veritatis—the player characters—will find clues and links to greater plans, clues and plans that will lead them back and forth across the globe. This is the set up for Worldbreaker, a campaign detailing the Esoterrorist efforts to bring about their final plans written by the designer of the GUMSHOE System and The Esoterrorists, Robin D. Laws.

Taking its cue from previous titles from Pelgrane Press like The Zalozhniy Quartet for Night’s Black Agents and even older campaigns of investigative horror like The Complete Masks of Nyarlathotep, the structure of the campaign in Worldbreaker has a beginning and an end that are set, but the scenarios in between can be played in any order. Clues are laid in the initial scenario with links to each of the following four and then clues gathered from the four build links to the campaign’s climax. Following these clues will take the Ordo Veritatis agents from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. and back and forth across the USA and then on globetrotting investigations to Leicester in the UK—a nod to the author’s attendance of Continuum, to a cave system in Belize, to Moldova, and Nigeria before the final destination can be determined. The campaign itself is not only globetrotting, but so are several of the scenarios.

Worldbreaker opens in San Francisco with the prologue, ‘Into the Basement’, a descent into the aftermath of an assault upon alternative lifestyles which culminated in a bloody ritual and a suicide pact. How and why did a middle class vanilla family come to commit such acts? Answering these questions presents the agents with the first clues to the campaign’s greater conspiracy. The scenario plays out as a traditional law enforcement investigation, with lots of clues to gather and organise from the crime scene, so it feels very like an episode from the C.S.I. franchise. That said, the bloody nature and adult themes of ‘Into the Basement’ definitely make it a scenario for mature gamers and set the tone for campaign to come even as it plays out in a very straightforward manner.

(Note: This review will discuss the four scenarios in Worldbreaker in the order in which they appear in the book. So when the scenario number is mentioned, it should not be taken as the implication that they should be played in this order—Worldbreaker is not The Complete Masks of Nyarlathotep.)

As the title of the first scenario suggests, it involves clowns. Drawing on the rash of random clown sightings in 2016,  ‘Coulrophobia’ begins simply with that, a thin link to the sighting of a man dressed as a clown that becomes more when the first of series of strange car-related deaths occur nearby. Are the deaths related to the clown sightings and if so, how? Following the trail leads to another outbreak, this time in Leicester in the UK. This scenario shifts from the prologue in terms of skill, involving much more in the way of interpersonal skills than it does technical or forensic skills. One issue is that the scenario’s UK-set scenes do not feel particularly authentic and still some Northern American in their details. Nevertheless, the Ordo Veritas agents will need to work quickly if the clown sightings and the strange deaths are not to spread…

Where the other scenarios in Worldbreaker are quite contained, the second scenario, ‘Geoslashers’ threatens to sprawl as the Ordo Veritatis agents investigate how the world’s leading search engine—here called ‘Waltz’, but as the author suggests, substitute the one of your choice—is managing to capture the sight of dead bodies with its street-mapping and satellite-imaging technology. Is this simply a case of one too many a coincidence or is someone playing to the cameras? A much more open scenario, this pulls the investigators hither and thither, and the GM will probably need to juggle its various scenes around in reaction to how the players and their investigators conduct the investigation.

The third scenario, ‘New Crystal Maiden’, is the most straightforward and easiest to run in the campaign. Set in Belize it draws from horror films like The Descent—which itself is probably a big clue as to what happens—in having the protagonists trapped and hunted in a cave system. This turns the more traditional investigative horror of most scenarios for The Esoterrorists into a survival horror adventure and just like a traditional horror movie, it includes a cast of deplorables that when it comes down to it, you are happy to see shredded in the dark. This cast of deplorables is in fact all too modern, the cast and crew of a new reality television series to which the agents can attach themselves to.

As with the second scenario, the title of the fourth scenario, ‘Heart of Outer Darkness’ says a great deal about its inspiration and its story. The Ordo Veritatis agents have to travel into dangerous territory and the ‘heart of darkness’ not once, but twice. Once in the furthest reaches of Eastern Europe and the quite literally ill-regarded territories caught between the old Soviet Union and the new Russia, then again into war torn Africa and the rebel-held forests of Nigeria. Both journeys have a tired, wrung out quality to them, the first of old espionage tales, the second of old colonialism, though the trip through west Africa is the one in the campaign that touches the most upon contemporary events, in particular the ebola outbreaks and the activities of Boko Haram. Both trips also highlight the limitations of Ordo Veritatis  as for the most part, the agents will be on their own as they travel up country. The journey structure of the scenario means that it builds to a definite climax and feels as it should come fourth in the order that the scenarios should be played, despite the fact that they can be played in any order.

Rounding out Worldbreaker is its climax, ‘Swallowed’. Each of the preceding four scenarios come with pipe clues which feed into this scenario and the mystery of a disappeared passenger flight. It allows the Ordo Veritatis agents to pull any last strings together before confronting the Esoterrorists and their very final plans. This echoes the end of the Call of Cthulhu campaign, Shadows of Yog-sothoth, but brings it up to date with a party, a degree of bureaucracy, and a very matter of fact attitude. 

Physically, Worldbreaker is a slim book, ably illustrated by Chris Huth. It feels slightly rushed in places and perhaps could have been better localised in places. Each of the scenarios is neatly organised with notes on handling, clues leading in and out, as well as suggestions to the veil out, the procedure for covering up each Esoterrorist activity—though in the case of ‘Swallowed’, that veil out is going to have be very big indeed. (There are also notes for running Worldbreaker for Night’s Black Agents included in an appendix.) Throughout of course, the skills required to push each investigation forward are clearly marked, though what is clear is that the expenditure of investigation skill points is kept low throughout. This also has the effect of confining the majority of the campaign’s mechanical aspects to the use of general skills—mostly in fights, scuffles, and the getting out of the way.

In terms of structure and scale, Worldbreaker does feel very much like a Call of Cthulhu campaign. A small mystery leads to a conspiracy and a larger mystery which in solving will reveal a global threat and ultimately the means to defeat it in a final confrontation. This should not be taken as a criticism, for there are some very fine Call of Cthulhu campaigns and the model has been proven to work again and again. Worldbreaker though, is a campaign for The Esoterrorists, and that means it is a contemporary affair, more brutal and often sordid in tone, its horror not quite so arcane. It is also a short campaign by any measure, none of the scenarios being more than a few sessions long, which also means it can be better paced and Ordo Veritatis can thus save the world—if not necessarily the player character agents—in quite short order.