Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Saturday 18 July 2015

Hiding Horrid Horrors

In 2006,
Pelgrane Press was best known for the Dying Earth Roleplaying Game, the weird and wondrous RPG based on the works of Jack Vance, but it branched out with an RPG designed to address a problem with investigative games. This problem was that the player characters failed to make a particular skill check or roll, they failed to obtain a clue—and if this was a particularly important clue—then the game or scenario could be stopped in its tracks. Now there was nothing to stop the GM from finding a way around this, but until 2006 no RPG directly addressed this issue. The game that did was Robin D. Laws’ The Esoterrorists.

The Esoterrorists introduced the GUMSHOE System, a set of rules designed to handle mystery and investigative style games as well as giving player characters time in the spotlight. Now in truth, The Esoterrorists has since been eclipsed by Ken Hite’s Trail of Cthulhu; certainly that game of Lovecraftian investigative horror has received much more support from Pelgrane Press than The Esoterrorists. The GUMSHOE System has also explored investigations in other genres and subgenres, including more traditional horror in Fear Itself, in a superhero police procedural with Mutant Blues, in a post-singularity space opera with Ashen Stars, and with spies uncovering a vampire conspiracy with Night’s Black Agents. Nevertheless, The Esoterrorists was the first RPG to use the GUMSHOE System and since 2013 it has been available in a brand new edition.

The setting for The Esoterrorists is the here and now, but a here and now whose reality is threatened by occult terrorists—the ‘esoterrorists’ of the title—that work to rip open the Membrane that separates us from the Outer Dark.The esoterrorists—who can range from villages of backwoods cannibals and lone serial killers to covens of crazed housewives and power hungry moguls—hope to gain power and magic and in order to weaken the Membrane encourage a belief in magic in the general public as well as sow doubt and uncertainty in society in general. Where the Membrane is weak between this reality and the Outer Dark, there will greater incidents of the unexplained, of psionics, of magic, and so on, but worse, ‘Outer Dark Entities’ or ‘Creatures of Unremitting Horror’ can enter our world to further spread malignity and terror…

Fortunately, there is a conspiracy dedicated to thwarting the efforts of the esoterrorists—the Ordo Veritatis. It monitors for signs of esoterrorist activity and when the signs are detected, it sends out teams to investigate, to identify, and if possible, neutralise the threat. A team also has one last task—one that sets The Esoterrorists apart from other conspiracy RPGs—the Veil-Out. This is the creation and execution of a plausible cover story for the paranormal incident. Better cover ups strengthen the Membrane, but ineffective ones can weaken it.

It is agent members of these teams that the players take the roles of, each member of the Ordo Veritatis having a mundane occupation in addition to the tasks that he has to take on behalf of both the conspiracy and humanity. Each cell is self-contained and has relatively little contact with other cells or the Ordo Veritatis in general, what contact it does have with the Ordo Veritatis usually being via a briefing agent, either a Mister or a Ms. Verity. Now the ‘Veil-Out’ is not the only aspect of The Esoterrorists that makes it if not unique, then very different from other horror/conspiracy RPGs. In The Esoterrorists, the player characters are naturally the ‘good guys’, but so is the conspiracy that they work for. In other words, there is no inner conspiracy within the Ordo Veritatis with another agenda. Another difference is that the player characters are mundane—they have no outré powers like magic or psionics. Which makes sense given that possession of such abilities is a sign that the Membrane has been weakened, plus their use will further weaken the Membrane. Of course, this does not mean that the player character cannot know about such outré abilities. After all, they are tasked with thwarting a conspiracy bent on acquiring power both ordinary and outré.

Mechanically, The Esoterrorists uses the GUMSHOE System—no surprise given that it was the first. This system is divided into pools of two types of abilities—Investigative Abilities and General Abilities. Investigative Abilities are divided into three categories—Academic such as Art History, Linguistics, and Trivia; Interpersonal such as Bullshit Detector, Impersonate, and Streetwise; and Technical such as Ballistics, Document Analysis, and Evidence Collection. General Abilities include Athletics, Medic, and Surveillance, as well the combat abilities Scuffling and Shooting. During play, if an agent has a rating in any one Investigative Ability, then he can always gain the base or Core clues related to that Ability, but if the agent expends one or more points, he will get more information—during an investigation this an agent’s moment in the spotlight. Similarly, the points from General Abilities are also spent, but not to gain clues, but to perform physical actions, the points being added to rolls of a six-sided die.

A character’s Health and Stability are also represented by General Abilities. This means that an agent has to expend points from the appropriate pool to withstand the effects of poison for example or to get over a potential mental shock. This reflects both the effort made to withstand mental or physical trauma and the ability to withstand this trauma.

One of the complaints about the first edition of The Esoterrorists was that it was too concise. It did go into enough detail about the setting, specifically the Ordo Veritatis and the Esoterrorists. Further, the rules and their explanation were also said to be similarly succinct. Some of these issues were addressed in two supplements. The first, The Book of Unremitting Horror, provided an incredible array of originally disturbing and horrid monsters and creatures, whilst the second, The Esoterrorist Fact Book provided further information about the operations of both the Esoterrorists and the Ordo Veritatis.

In response, Pelgrane Press published The Esoterrorists, 2nd Edition. It addresses many of the problems complained about the original edition—in particular, the rules system. In truth it has not changed from the original edition to this  one, but with another five RPGs having been written since the original publication of The Esoterrorists that also use the GUMSHOE System, its implementation and interpretation has evolved. Thus there is clearer advice on the types of clues that can be handed out and on how to run create and run better mysteries. In terms of background, The Esoterrorists, 2nd Edition better explains the background to both the Esoterrorists and the Ordo Veritatis, exploring why and how they operate, all the better for both the player and the GM.

One issue that has developed with The Esoterrorists since its release in 2006 is that its scenarios feel the same. There is a validity to the that argument. After all, the RPG presents just the one type of scenario—the investigative type—and even if there is plenty of variation on offer in terms of Esoterrorist and Outer Dark Entity threats to be faced, the investigation/monster of the week format is still present. The Esoterrorists, Second Edition takes a concept first discussed  in The Esoterrorist Factbook—‘Station Duty’—and develops it further. Inspired by television series such as Twin Peaks and stories like The Shadow Over Innsmouth, ‘Station Duty’ is a sandbox style campaign in which an Ordo Veritatis team is assigned to reside in and investigate a town and its inhabitants. The team will  be comprised of newcomers—atypical player characters—and locals. Whilst the former possess a wider range of technical skills and knowledges, whilst the local possess local knowledges about the business community, the local police force, religious community, and so on.

The town should be relatively isolated and can be wholly new or based on somewhere that the GM or the players know, but is created collaboratively in terms of its history, atmosphere, and notables features. To this they add a Station and its facilities, the players even adding assets by spending some of the investigative build points normally used to create characters. To this of course, the GM adds the Esoterrorist threat and the reasons for the Ordo Veritatis investigation, but whilst this together forms the basis for a Station Duty campaign, much of the campaign’s details are not set in stone, the aim being for the GM to work off this groundwork and the player characters’ investigations. This is not to say that some structure cannot be applied to a Station Duty campaign, but much of it is created and run in a freeform fashion without adhering to a strict plotline.

A full example of a Station Duty campaign is given in The Esoterrorists, 2nd Edition. It includes just about everything that a GM will need to run it bar plotlines. Key locations, major NPCs or ‘persons of interest’ (complete with interpretations for their being victims, allies, or Esoterrorists), investigation outlines, potential schemes, and more. Also included is a mini scenario that can be used as introduction to the campaign. On the downside, the given campaign is very American in feel and theme—no surprise given its inspirations—so if the GM wants to adapt to another continent, he will have a little work ahead of him.

Rounding out the RPG is the scenario ‘Operation PROPHET BUNCO’. It is again set in small town America, a Californian coastal town that is home to a radio evangelist who is prophesying the forthcoming Rapture. It is a short, one or two-session affair that neatly introduces the key concepts behind a scenario for The Esoterrorists. It can be used as a precursor to the ‘Station Duty’ campaign given in the book or to a campaign of the GM’s own devising.

Physically, The Esoterrorists, 2nd Edition, is neatly presented. The writing is clear and simple, and the illustrations all suitably dark and ominous. Much like the original version of the game, the writing in this edition could be said to be concise, but where this was issue in the original version, here it is a matter of style rather than a lack of information. A definite concern is the lack of Outer Dark Entities—just fourteen of them—and the need to refer to The Book of Unremitting Horror in some cases, which is a shame since the game relies heavily on the originality of its Outer Dark Entities. Thankfully, The Book of Unremitting Horror is worth picking up.

Fortunately, The Esoterrorists, 2nd Edition is neatly developed in just about every other fashion. The rules and the GUMSHOE System are much better explained, the advice is clearer on creating and running mysteries, and the GM receives better support in the form of both the scenario and the campaign. The Esoterrorists, 2nd Edition is a better edition of an original take upon the classic conspiracy horror RPG, ably supported by some original monsters and a great campaign outline.

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