The Esoterrorists, 2nd Edition

I do admit that I am an easy sell on certain tropes. One of these is the conspiracy for good fighting against supernatural threats. In role-playing games, Delta Green is the classic, existing to date in at least four different rule systems. The Laundry Files, based on Charles Stross’s novels is another. ENOC: Operation Eisenberg is a pulpier take. And then there’s The Esoterrorists, the inaugural game of the GUMSHOE system, written by Robin D. Laws and published by Pelgrane Press. The first edition came out in 2007, and the second followed in 2013, which is about on par for how current I am with this stuff. I happened to read it just now, so here are thoughts. I cannot honestly call this a review.

GUMSHOE, of course, is the ruleset created for investigative games that abandoned the surprisingly long-lived paradigm in traditional games – most notably Call of Cthulhu – that to find clues, you had to roll Spot Hidden. When you have to roll for something, there’s always the chance of failure, and if the investigators had bad luck, they’d miss out on clues and if this eventuality hadn’t been planned for (and it usually wasn’t), there was the real danger of getting stuck in the investigation, and then the Keeper would get to come up with something convoluted and weird. GUMSHOE’s solution is that if your character has the appropriate investigation skill, you need only ask to receive whatever clues there are to get. In some cases, there is the question of perhaps spending skill pool points for more information, but in GUMSHOE, the investigation never gets stuck because your characters didn’t find a clue at the crime scene. After all, the book notes, in detective stories and TV shows, the interesting bit is never how the protagonists don’t find a clue. It’s what they do with the stuff they find.

I have previous experience with GUMSHOE from Trail of Cthulhu, and I prefer it over traditional CoC. The system is very simple, and since apart from multiple flavours of horror investigation (The Esoterrorists, Fear Itself, Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents) it also does time-traveling hijinks (TimeWatch), superheroes (Mutant City Blues), and space opera (Ashen Stars), it’s evidently easy to teach it new tricks.

The Esoterrorists, then, is a very tightly focused game. The characters are agents of the Ordo Veritatis, a secret society fighting against the Esoterrorists. The Esoterrorists are a conspiracy of loose cells that seek to break the Membrane between our world and the Outer Dark. This is accomplished by fomenting fear and panic in the public and undermining the consensus reality. The OV’s job is to figure out something is wrong, follow the clues, put down any gribblies, either apprehend or take out the bad guys, and then feed the public a line of bullshit to cover it all up as something mundane.

It’s a really strange read in the media landscape of 2020.

Unlike OV’s cousins the Delta Green and the Laundry, it’s not a conspiracy within the government nor a state-sanctioned top secret outfit, but a very loosely defined group with a cell structure and some sway here and there (ok, there is also a sourcebook on the Ordo, but I haven’t read it yet). Information on the Ordo Veritatis is distributed on a need-to-know basis, and you don’t need to know, because that’s outside the mission parameters.

The mission, then, is where the tight focus comes in. The Esoterrorists sells a very specific session structure, where the characters are called into the location of some supernatural hinky stuff, given a briefing by Mr./Ms. (or Mx., I suppose, but this is from 2013) Verity, and then it’s off to find leads, follow them, probably get into a fight with the other guys, follow some more leads, have a final confrontation, and then sweep everything under the rug so that people can sleep at night.

A really, really strange read.

The book also has another campaign frame, “Station Duty”, written by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, where the OV agents set up a watch station in a small town, and set about unravelling its larger mysteries together with some locals. It’s suggested that the local characters be built using the rules of Fear Itself, a game that I understand is a lot more about running away than shooting back. It’s a very evocatively written chapter, and I like the format of its presentation. The town is very much fleshed out yet given to the GM and the players to develop, and the gallery of NPCs is each written up as a potential victim, someone influenced by the Outer Dark, and as a full-on Esoterrorist.

The Esoterrorists is very light on mythology, though it clearly has Call of Cthulhu in its DNA (but then, which horror RPG doesn’t?). In addition to Health, agents also have Stability, and when Stability runs out, madness follows. The rules for mental disorders are funky. For instance, if the agent gets afflicted by selective amnesia, the group together comes up with a new fact from the agent’s life, such as a marriage, that the PC has now forgotten.

That kind of thing is possible because of the tight mission focus, moderate to high lethality, and fast character generation. Characters are liable to be whipped up quick and enter play without an extensive backstory, and get to work fighting crime. There is a system for dependants and pillars of stability, but it is not very fleshed out. The focus also makes the game look ideal for convention games.

Though the Lovecraftian influences are clearly there, The Esoterrorists is also very different in its aesthetics. Where Call of Cthulhu is all about the nameless horror, indescribable creatures, and the slow erosion of sanity as you discover that everything you thought you knew about the world is not just wrong but also that you being wrong is meaningless, The Esoterrorists is more about highly-trained individuals with a hard, scientific world-view engaging with definable and classifiable horrors that will eviscerate you and then wear your skin for a suit. It’s a graphic, gory horror that does not suggest things. It shines a cold, bright light on the chunky salsa so the forensic pathologist can get to work.

No game is for everyone, which goes double for horror games, but The Esoterrorists looks like an accessible and elegant piece of work, once you wipe off all the blood.

It’s a Trap! A Deep Dive into RPGs at a Museum

As I mentioned before, the Finnish Museum of Games recently hosted a large exhibition on role-playing games. Titled “It’s a Trap! – Role-Playing Games in Finland”, it ran from October 2018 to early January 2019. I went there a lot over those three months, and on the last day, I had my trusty potato in hand and photographed the whole thing for documentation purposes.

Since I’m a crap photographer and my mobile phone’s camera isn’t all that hot either, not all of the photos were salvageable, but here are the ones where you can tell what you’re looking at.

The welcome sign. Note the unfolded icosahedron.

The floor was laid out as a classic dungeon map.

Explanations of the floor were provided to minimise casualties.

The information plaques organized, on the lines of BECMI, into Basic, Companion, and Expert levels. Note also the wardrobe with wizard robes, elven cloaks and witches’ hats.

A closer look.

A look through the door of the main exhibition space.

The original D&D booklets donated to Ropecon by Frank Mentzer back in 2011.

A bit on history. The chest was used for an escape room game played at the museum after business hours.

It’s a hefty chest.

In the summer of 2018, a Tampere gaming group wrapped up their D&D campaign. Then they stood up, took a step back, and photographed the table as it lay. It was then recreated in the museum. It’s hanging on the wall, by the way. Also, those pizza slices kept falling off.

A map on the wall, from the pen of Miska Fredman.

The paraphernalia showcase. There’s a Cthulhu statuette from someone’s home campaign, Alter Ego’s songbook with the nerdiest lyrics, and a hardcover print edition of a World’s Largest Dungeon campaign log, among other things.

On role-playing games as a creative inspiration.

As is only right, the space was dominated by a large gaming table. There were blank character sheets for a number of games, dice, and pencils available. I did witness a couple of games played at it.

A small library cart with a selection of games to peruse and play.

Design notes and campaign notes for the games Rapier and Tähti, and from the archives of Myrrysmiehet.

A showcase of D-oom Products and Aulos, a card-based storygame by Karoliina Korppoo.

History begins here. On top left, Nousius is an obscure fantasy game, ANKH features early Petri Hiltunen artwork and was available everywhere, and on bottom left, we have Dada Publishing’s adventures that are nowadays available as free PDFs.

On the right, we have the character-naming sourcebook Mikä hahmolle nimeksi?, the RPG about nonmilitary service Syvä uni (vaiko painajainen?), Malnoth, the system-agnostic fantasy setting Sateenkaarten kaupunki, the Biblical fantasy RPGs Kuninkaiden aika and Anno Domini 50, as well as the youth-education game Steissin yö.

The other half of that wall. You can almost see on the far left panel the mid-90s, Hiljaisuuden vangit, an alt-historical RPG about resistance fighters in a totalitarian Finland after Germany won WW2, and THOGS.

On the middle panel we have the late 00’s and early 10’s, and the system-agnostic Somalia sourcebook Punaiset hiekat, Chernobyl mon amour, the penguin game Valley of Eternity, Vihan lapset, Hood, and Strike Force Viper.

On the nearmost panel we come to the present day, with games like Pyöreän pöydän ritarit, various OSR publications, the Slavic fantasy Noitahovi, and a couple of Pathfinder adventures from the pen of Mikko Kallio.

There were also various character sheets on display from across the ages.

The Risto J. Hieta showcase. He designed the first Finnish RPGs and is still active, nowadays almost averaging one game per year.

More games!

Going through this shelf by shelf, on top here we have Zombie Cinema in its VHS box and the pirate card game Hounds of the Sea. On the lower shelf there’s Bengalia, an educational RPG about developing countries.

A selection of books from Lamentations of the Flame Princess, such as the first printing of Death Frost Doom.

The Praedor shelf. Praedor is one of the few role-playing games in Finnish that actually has product support.

The other games from Ville Vuorela. There’s Stalker, the musketeer game Miekkamies, the postapocalyptic Taiga, and Mobsters. In the back you can see other editions of Stalker, Praedor, and Taiga.

On the left, Miska Fredman’s work, such as Astraterra, Sotakarjut, Generian legendat, and Heimot. On the right, Mike Pohjola’s stuff such as Tähti, Star Wreck, and Myrskyn sankarit. It’s annoyingly not really visible here, but there are two English editions of Myrskyn sankarit present, the abortive Heroes of the Storm that ran into a trademark issue with Activision-Blizzard, and The Age of the Tempest that you can actually buy.

RPG translations were big in the late 80s and early 90s. Here we have Paranoia, Cyberpunk 2020, and Twilight: 2000. There were also some Finnish originals published for T2K.

Mechwarrior, Shadowrun, Traveller 2300 AD, and Macho Women with Guns in the immensely grotty-looking Finnish edition.

RuneQuest was big in Finland. Like, D&D big. Even bigger.

RuneQuest still has a devout fanbase over here that puts out the occasional fanzine, translation, or sourcebook.

On the left, MERP and Rolemaster. On the right, Stormbringer, Primetime Adventures, Call of Cthulhu, City of Itra, and Unelma Keltaisesta kuninkaasta, a collection of Danish scenarios.

BECMI. Well, we never got Immortals. Apart from RuneQuest, that red box was one of the big gateway drugs. The translation is infamous.

A word on moral panics and corrupting the youth.

Early gaming magazines and role-playing articles and columns from other magazines, such as Risto J. Hieta’s column “Peliluola” from the PC mag MikroBitti.

The Conan magazine was an early source of information for role-players in the 80s. Also here are a few of the print catalogues of the Fantasiapelit game store chain.

Some more gaming magazines. Magus ran for 50 issues and is the longest-lived Finnish role-playing magazine.

Roolipelaaja is the latest attempt, folding after a few beautiful years. If I still have readers from that long ago, I was a contributor for the latter half of the magazine’s run.

When the writer makes a reference to a classic Finnish rock song, the translator has no recourse but to make an obtuse nod toward Philip Roth and beat a hasty retreat. This is about character sheets.

There’s a lot of gamers out there. We don’t know how many, but it’s, like, a lot.

A map from Jim Raggi’s home campaign that he drew back in the mid-1990s. Wonder that he still had it after all those moves.

The wall of faces. Game designers, con runners, publishers, store managers, translators, and just gamers.

The rest of the wall. Because of reasons, the bottom right-hand corner picture is at the time of writing in a large (these are A2 portraits) IKEA bag in my living room.

There was also an explanatory booklet for the portrait wall. Juhana is top middle in the first picture, if you’re curious. The other page visible is not Juhana’s, but the second page of Jori-Minna Hiltula’s entry. They’re to the left of Juhana.

There was also interactive multimedia. The other monitor had a selection of 90s TV clips about RPGs, while the other one had a display of character sheets collected at Ropecon in 2017.

And that’s all, folks. We’ll see when we can get an exhibition done on larp.

Stuff I’ve Been Up To: Sharks in Water Elementals

I haven’t been writing here a lot lately. The reason, as I around a year ago mentioned, is that I’m writing craploads in a lot of other places. While you wait for me to finish the report from Knutpunkt where I spent last weekend, here’s a selection of links to other games things I’ve written.

The post title is a bit of a clickbait maybe, since while I did write a long article studying the infamous cartoon about a shark summoned within a water elemental and what it means from the point of view of marine biology, the historical theory of magic, and the rules of the game, it’s only in Finnish. It’s on LOKI, along with another text of mine written since I did this last time.

There’s also a bunch of new things on PlayLab!:

Plus some research highlights based on other people’s texts, “Dungeons & Dragons & Deleuze”, based on a paper by Curtis Carbonell; and “The Hegemonic Masculinity of Rules Lawyering”, based on a paper by Steven Dashiell.

There’s also some reviews based on games played with me, and they’re pretty nifty as well, so here’s Markku Vesa’s Battle of the Reds and the Whites in Finland 1918 Review”, Aleksi Kesseli’s Arkham Horror Review”, and Elisa Wiik’s Finnish-language review Tales from the Loop – roolipeli teknofuturistisesta 80-luvusta”.

And then there’s that Chernobyl Mon Amour crowdfunding campaign still going on. In addition, I’m working with Jaakko Stenros on a book about role-playing games called Roolipelimaa, out sometime in the autumn.

And running Ropecon! Ropecon season is upon us once again, and the call for program is open. This time around we’re also doing an academic seminar on Friday on the theme of intersections in games. The call for abstracts is out, and will be until April 4th.

Happy Birthday, Hobby

Some forty years ago, the first copies of Dungeons & Dragons were sold. The specific date is a bit fuzzy, but Jon Peterson has laid out the evidence on his blog and January 26th is one of the likelier candidates, and why not?

A forty-year-old franchise is a big deal, and Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson deserve our respect for creating something that could so adroitly carve out its own niche and endure and sustain itself on a changing, competitive marketplace. However, D&D is only a small part of what came out of that Lake Geneva garage in 1974. It launched an industry, created a new genre of games and birthed a peculiar strain of cultural influence that pops up in unexpected places.

To me, the most important thing is that it originated a social hobby. Now starting on their fifth decade, role-playing games have brought people together around the same table, same online chatroom, same larp venue – and unlike sports, they are not competitive. It is just “us”, the “them” are in the fiction. I’ve sat at that table for some seventeen years now, and around it I have seen lifelong friendships form and romance bloom. It brings people together and facilitates communication.

It is also a creative hobby, a “game of the imagination” as the Dead Alewives once described it. Around that table, stories come into being, from slapstick to tragedy and all things in between. I have seen sonnets, songs and short stories arise from that table, and witnessed the formation of epic legends. I’ve also laughed so hard I fell off my chair.

Sure, it’s not always all these things and sometimes it’s none of these things, and not everyone plays for these things. It is these things sufficiently often, however, that I keep returning to that table. Those are the things that make this the most rewarding thing I have ever done.

So, I wish Dungeons & Dragons and the entire role-playing game hobby a happy birthday.

And here’s a couple of songs from way back: