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.