Monday, October 5, 2009

RPGs I Like: The Esoterrorists

I talked about the Gumshoe rpg system yesterday, so I'd like to look at a couple of games that actually put that into application. I should note this is part of my look at games and supplements by one of my favorite designers, Robin Laws. I'll kind of come back to that point, and some notes about game design style at the end of the series.

RPG Items I Like: The Esoterrorists

The Gumshoe system first appeared in The Esoterorists from Pelgrane Press. This game uses that engine for campaigns revolving around an the Ordo Veritas, an organization dedicated to fighting supernatural conspiracies around the world. It echoes a darker version of the X-Files, closer to Millennium in tone. In terms of other rpgs it comes close to the material of Conspiracy X or Delta Green.

The book itself is a slim 88-page soft cover. The first printing I purchased of it had a real stiffness to the cover and paper, resulting in odd bending and inflexibility. A later version (Edition 1.3) took care of that problem with a more flexible card stock for the cover and less stiff pages. It has a nice full color cover, decent black and white illustrations, and (huzzah!) a proper index. The only defect presentation-wise lies in the glossy cover which uses a laminate. That has a tendency to bend and bubble, especially along the spine and it can peel away at the edges. That's a minor problem, but if your copy gets regular use expect it to happen.

While the premise has been done by other games, The Esoterrorists has some nice twists on that formula. There's the namesake organization itself-- a loose cabal of occultists and lunatics who have banded together to share power and create chaos. There's something refreshing about your adversaries being not a monolithic and powerful organization, but a scattered group trying to push an agenda. The game uses of the word “terrorist” literally-- in that the organization wants to spread fear, terror and uncertainty to power their occult plans. Panic, rumor and hysteria feed these powers and also create new monsters and fiends. The game draws from another Pelgrane volume, The Book of Unremitting Horror, for these concepts. Originally developed for d20 they have since published a version for the Gumshoe system to tie into the links they made here.

As befits a modern game, you have a pretty extensive list of Investigative Abilities (Art History and Astronomy for more obscure examples). You have thirteen General Abilities, including two that represent your current status: Health and Stability. The game assumes competency on the part of the investigators-- they're trained, aware of the situation and (hopefully) prepared to face the opposition. Ordo Veritas provides logistical support, money and so on, but in the field you're often on your own. They can help get characters out of some jams, but severe problems (like a witnessed murder) can't be brushed under the carpet. Unlike other games of the genre, there's little to suggest an alternate agenda for the organization here- they're pretty clearly the good guys.

The mechanics for the system take up about half of the book-- interspersed with some discussion of the Ordo Veritas and other campaign details. As with most horror games it includes a mechanic for tracking fear and mental breakdown, here represented through the Stability ability. The rules spend about three pages on this and handle it well without getting too bogged down. Players can pick up a kind of PTSD from the beings and events they witness. Laws' provides a disclaimer to clarify that this version of mental illness draws from 'pop culture' rather than reality.

The game provides a couple of nice sections talking about what makes Gumshoe different and what makes an investigative scenario run-- it provides good examples to illustrate this. That comes to twelves pages between the player and GM portions. The book only devotes about six pages+ to establishing the background of the setting. However the material paints the broad strokes and GMs familiar with the genre conventions can easily paint those in. It only presents the mechanics for a couple of supernatural foes, but directs the reader to the Book of Unremitting Horror if they need more ideas (or really have to have established stat blocks).

Finally, the length and depth of the scenario presented threw me at first. I'm used to game books with a few pages of plot hooks and then an easy one-shot to get people playing. Instead you get a deeply developed investigation which will probably take a couple of sessions to resolve. Laws' uses this adventure to illustrate how an investigation is created. Each scene has significant detail on the clues available and how those connect with the whole of the mystery. That's a great device, but can be overwhelming at first.

I like the Gumshoe system and I think that The Esoterrorists presents it well. I've run modern occult games and I suspect if I do so again, I'll use this for the system. I'm also curious about how something like InSpectres would fit with this. That's a modern game with a focus on the idea of corporate supernatural hunters. If you're interested in the genre or curious about the Gumshoe system, I'd recommend picking up this game. If it has a flaw (beyond my dislike of the Action resolution system which I mentioned in my Gumshoe system review) it is that I'd like to see more examples and discussion of how to craft these scenarios. Pelgrane does have available a series of columns by Laws talking about that process...which can be purchased as a pdf.