The Esoterrorists 2nd Edition (GUMSHOE)
BEST Non-PFRPG Supplement of 2015!
The Esoterrorists clocks in at 161 pages, 1 page front cover, 2 pages of editorial, 3 pages of ToC, leaving 155 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
I received a print copy of this book for the purpose of providing a critical and unbiased review. This book was moved up in my review-queue due to this fact.
The Esoterrorists is the game that originally introduced the GUMSHOE-engine, which has since then been used in quite an intriguing array of systems that provide some overlap and options to combine them.
The system you’re probably most likely to know the engine from would be “Trail of Cthulhu,” Pelgrane Press’ investigative Cthulhu-horror game – and thus, you can already deduce the focus of GUMSHOE. Focus? Well, it is my firm belief that no roleplaying game system’s engine is perfect. Pathfinder, for example, excels in complex builds and combat simulation. If you take a look at the investigative aspects…well, not so much. I believe that both players and GMs benefit from a change of pace and system once in a while and so, in a way, GUMSHOE was the natural step to take for me, since it can be considered to be almost diametrically opposed to PFRPG in focus. GUMSHOE is a roleplaying game defined by a focus on the story and roleplaying investigations, as opposed to tactical encounters.
Esoterrorist’s 2nd edition can be pretty much considered to be the most easy to learn of the GUMSHOE games – the book can be considered to be the basic-version of the rules, without the more complex additions of other variants. From a didactic point of view, this book does a great job explaining the system – to the point where I tried handing it to someone not familiar at all with GUMSHOE. The lady cooked up a character and understood the system almost immediately. So yes, the presentation here is de facto better regarding its user-friendliness than in comparable GUMSHOE-games.
The system is very much ability-driven (though the GUMSHOE term “ability” here does not refer to an ability-score, but rather a skill): Investigative abilities contain e.g. Cop Talk, Document Analysis, Flirting – you get the idea. Now here’s the cincher though: You have one point in an investigative ability? You’re one of the best in the field – auto-success.
I know, w-t-f, right? But what about degrees of success? Well, the interesting thing is that each ability in GUMSHOE is treated as a resource – you can e.g. spend points of your investigative abilities to unearth ADDITIONAL information. The result of this structure is that the GM has a different task, as do authors – the structure must, by virtue of the game’s design, provide multiple ways towards the end. Expending points from the investigative abilities can open new venues of investigation, provide short-cuts -the system pretty much enforces well-written investigations: You can’t provide a railroad, you need to make the research modular. This is pretty much genius. (Yes, abilities spent regenerate.)
The abilities not related to the field of investigation directly would be general abilities: These follow different rules and contain melee (via scuffling), health, stability, etc. – here, failure is a distinct possibility. You spend ability points and roll a 6-sided die to see whether you succeed. To keep a character from investing all in one score, the second highest score must at least be half the highest.
So that would be the basic system – it is simple, elegant and, as you may note, bereft of e.g. complications like the cherries provided in Night’s Black Agents. While this makes the rules-frame of Esoterrorists less intriguing than that of comparable GUMSHOE-titles, it does provide a crucial advantage – adaptability: Basically, you can graft all specific GUMSHOE-rules you want into esoterrorists: From Night’s Black Agent’s thriller combat to Fear Itself’s (review coming!) psychic rules or any combination thereof, esoterrorists ultimately represents the most effortlessly customizable of the GUMSHOE-games: Whether you’re looking for pulpy action or face to the grindstone horror, the system can be customized for just about anything. Oh, and since it is set in our contemporary times, Trail of Cthulhu + Esoterrorists = Cthulhu Now…or Delta Green -as just some examples.
But this is not simply a rule-book – it is also a campaign setting. I do not own the Fact Book (which is a player-handbook, or so I believe), but all you actually need is in here. The basic premise is pretty simple: The investigators work for the OV, the Ordo Veritatis. This organization is an ancient secret-service-type of order that seeks to protect the unwitting mortals from the dread creatures that seek to invade our world from the Outer Dark. No, the OV is not going to inevitably betray the investigators. They’re actually the good guys… Yeah, I know – crazy, right? I’m pretty much as stunned by this as you are! It is pretty interesting to note that the book actually contains specific information on how investigations are handled – for the players!
Procedural protocols, if you will, with different levels of staffer-experience for the analysis backdrop of the OV, add a significant level of awesomeness to the campaign setting as presented and provide further options for tight, fun roleplaying – you want your capable support-guys back at home to live, right? After all, if Jefferson hadn’t known about this obscure bullet coated in virgin’s blood and mandragora, you’d all be dead by now… Oh, and there’s this other thing you should know: Veil-outs are crucial…for a reason.
You see, the basic premise of esoterrorists is that there’s a struggle going: Basically belief and perception shape our world and what we have achieved with our enlightened society means that the laws of physics are strengthened. If belief in them fades, the veil gets thinner. Horror, breakdowns of how the world works etc. means that the membrane that shelter us from a world of horrors thins. Esoterrorists, the enemies of the OV, seek to let more entities into our world and spread terror and fear simply because the breakdown thins the membrane between our structured world and one of infinite possibilities, of innumerous nightmares – and from power to megalomania, there’s a lot to be gained here. The intriguing component from an academic point of view here would be the fact that this echoes perfectly the idiosyncratic perceptions of reality we all are subject to, the psychology of our weltanschauung. Where in Cthulhu, the default assumption is that ignorance constitutes bliss, here, it is an ideology that keeps us alive. And yes, this means that you actually can blend both in intriguing ways. It also is absolutely tailor-made to evoke themes like that of the Silent hill-franchise, where doom and dread and a world most twisted lurks beneath the surface – when the veils thin and there’s a breach, things start to become odd, horrific…dangerous. Thus, more so than anything else, deniability, the cloaking of what’s truly going on, is justified as a thoroughly noble cause. This simple set-up lends a level of believability and concise motivation to the default campaign setting that is absent in most similar games. It also provides a superb justification for the procedural protocols of dealing with the creatures from the outer dark. The OV’s ethics and code of conduct are impeccable and allow you to actually play the good guys – which is something relatively rarely supported by such games.
Another analogue, beyond the Silent Hill-one, would obviously be Hellraiser – and indeed, the creatures from the outer dark sport, at least in part, overlaps with these beings. However, what truly sets them apart would be that they get what horror is all about. The esoterorists sport, in some way, relatable motivations – while twisted and insane, there are some sample cells that resonate with the deepest, darkest parts of our psyche: From violent bikers beaten into submission by an entity of twisted bones and jagged thorns to collectible-card-game-players conjuring twisted images from the cards to those looking for deviant sexual experiences with beings from the outer dark, the cells (and sample adventure-hooks provided) are nasty and diverse. What about a club of serial killers who meet once a year to engage in a particular vile tradition? Or a nasty international financial conspiracy? From the personal to the geopolitical level, there are a lot of intriguing hooks here.
But they fall short of the creatures introduced in this book. The beings here are truly horrific in that they play with human fears, are both iconic and innovative and still sport a level of personal connection that is downright genius. Know how in Silent Hill, the monsters are visualizations of anxieties, guilt-complexes and traumas? Well, this one kind of goes one step further. There would be the Discarnate, for example – a shapeless, incorporeal entity, a ghost in the machine in the vilest sense of the word. Not only is the dread potential of these creatures vast, their means of creation (and stopping them) is downright disturbing: To create a discarnate, a cell of cults has to build a tomb r tunnel, then ritualistically slash their wrists and collapse the tunnel upon themselves – the entity then takes some components of the personalities and minds of the targets and begins its assault. How do you stop it? My dear readers, I’m not going to spoil that!
What about the Nester? Creeping towards sleeping victims (preferably obese or pregnant people), these creatures jab their hooks into the target, scoop out the abdomen and crawl inside, sealing the belly behind them. Yes, that’s not only nasty, that’s friggin’ nightmare fuel! Or what about a creature that essentially is an outer dark variant of an STD, urging its victim to infect even more targets? Yes, these creatures are disturbing, and delightfully so. However, this fact is further emphasized by the glorious b/w-artworks provided for them – or what about The Host, outer dark entities that thrive on religious mania, subjugating believers and feasting on others? Words clearly fail me here, for however hard I try, I fail to properly evoke how exceedingly well-written these creatures are. But perhaps one example of artwork from within the book helps me make my point:
The prose is even creepier than that. And yes, there is a creature-book on these beings, but alas, I do not own that one.
But let’s get back to the task of the GM here, shall we? Basically, the book’s user-friendly nature extends to the task of the GM: Advice on clue-structures and the like help create structures that make the respective scenarios easy to run. Char-sheets are provided alongside an extremely handy investigator matrix that helps the GM keep up to date with agent resources and skills. There is also a handy ability-check-list ( so you don’t accidentally construct your scenario to include an ability the PCs don’t have), a handy scenario-worksheet, adversary-sheets and a sheet to track an esoterrorist cell and even extremely detailed station duty worksheets – 3 of them!! A massive 3-page index also makes using the book very easy on the GM.
I mentioned station duty, didn’t I? Well, while the default assumption is one of supernatural agent-gameplay from case to case akin to Millennium or X-Files, the other default game-style is that of station duty: Essentially, there are some places where the membrane threatens to thin – agents of the OV are then sent to the area for long-term operations. In this case, we get a COMPLETE TOWN. No, I’m not exaggerating – there is a massive, completely detailed small town provided here: With copious amounts of NPCs to interact with and hundreds of possibilities: Almost each character has several optional story-threads you can or cannot follow, threads which may turn into pure horror. It’s hard to properly depict the level of excruciating detail, from establishing cover identities to the disturbing concepts provided here. Let me just say that this section is the closest to a proper Twin Peaks/Silent Hill-simulator I’ve ever seen. In case you didn’t know – these two franchises constitute some of my favorite pieces of media…ever. Add to that a significant array of delightfully twisted hand-outs from which clues can be extracted and we have a section that may justify getting the book all on its own – it’s basically a whole sandbox-campaign, all ready for you and your players.
Speaking of Sandbox…
The book also sports a short sample scenario with Prophet Operation Bungo, which, contrary to the tradition of sample scenarios in core/campaign-setting-books, actually is fun, delightful and more detailed than I would have expected.
Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no glitches. Layout adheres to an extremely slick, stylish and atmospheric 2-column-b/w-standard and the pdf provides several downright legendary b/w-artworks. The pdf comes with an EPUB and a MOBI-version and a printer-friendly one…but quite frankly, I’d strongly advise you to get the print. The paper is thick and glossy, high-quality and if you’re anything like me, this will be used A LOT.
I’m a cthulhu-fanboy and thus, it should come as no surprise that I got Trail of Cthulhu back in the day. My friend Paco got my Night’s Black Agents, which is a glorious game. I never got Esoterrorists and wouldn’t have bought it – the title and concept didn’t particularly appeal to me, so why bother?
My gut-feeling and instinct was never this wrong in my whole reviewer’s-career.
This is the best horror-book I’ve read in years, regardless of setting.
Let me elaborate: After more than 15 years of obsession with vampires and the cthulhu-mythos, both themes have become kind of predictable to me. I *love* both, but at one point, games focusing exclusively on either ultimately become the doom of horror – predictable. We fear what we do not understand. As soon as we get our oomphteenth Mi-Go or Yithian, their horror is lost, they become predictable foes. Similarly, vampires can, in the long run, lose their fascination. This is, ultimately, what made me turn my back on the GUMSHOE-system for a while and the primary reason I did not start reviewing books of the system sooner – I was burned out on the subject matter and so were my players.
Esoterrorists changed that.
You could argue that I’ve never played a vanilla esoterrorists-game. You’d be right. What I did when this book hit my shelves, was something different: I dusted off Night’s Black Agents and added the whole concept of the membrane to the game, introduced entities from the other dark and recruited the agents into the OV, which, of course, was among the organizations the vampires sought to infiltrate. I added creatures of the outer dark and the station duty town to my trail of cthulhu games. And suddenly, they were new – disturbing, fresh and diverse. Beyond resonating with iconic themes and a fresh perspective, this book is not only innovative – it GETS HORROR. No, really. This understands horror to a point that bespeaks not only the vast talent of Robin D. Laws and Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan as writers, it also constitutes an eureka-effect I haven’t had in ages – this humble, little book has inspired me to an extent I have not experienced since I first stumbled over Ravenloft and Planescape back in the day. It is incredibly frustrating to me that I cannot properly put the genius of this book into words, cannot convey the level of impact this book’s ideas have had on my games.
Don’t get me wrong – Night’s Black Agents is quite frankly the better game regarding pure mechanics – it’s more complex, more diverse and the thriller combat and chase rules are exceedingly smart. But, at least to me, Esoterrorists is a book that’s infinitely more compelling because its prose, the concepts provided, are just so incredibly compelling, because they feature the experience of jamais-vu and because the horror presented here actually really strikes home: This is not blood and guts, this is psychologically disturbing in the way that only great horror is – where the true ramifications are slowly build up. This is the antithesis of the jump-scare-movie – this is smart horror that sticks with you.
This is not only a game – Esoterrorists is basically, a gigantic, awesome template that can be applied to just about any horror game you can conceive. It works in a plethora of contexts because its theme resonate with our very basic, human psychology.
It is my firm conviction that this book belongs in the library of any self-respecting GM looking for inspiration regarding horror-settings and how to create compelling set-ups. If you’re playing ANY GUMSHOE-game, this book can be considered a vast amplifier: The concepts within this book are so incredibly compelling and fun, they managed to re-ignite my spark for cthulhu-related material by virtue of the means by which you can use the content herein to enhance the world of the mythos.
I haven’t been this excited by a book, any book, in a long, long time – even only as an idea-scavenging-ground, this book is superb by any definition of the word. And know what? While my Top ten-list of the year usually is restricted to Pathfinder-supplements, I will grant this one status as a candidate – its contents and ideas are simply too compelling and can be a vast inspiration in ANY context you can conceive. I firmly believe that simply reading this book makes you a better horror-GM, even if you ignore the rules and setting. You won’t be surprised, then, that I’ll add my EZG Essentials-tag to a book that scores 5 stars + seal of approval, a book that blew my mind.
If horror interests you even in the slightest, if you even tangentially like smart, psychological horror, if you even remotely enjoy Twin Peaks, Silent Hill, The Evil Within, X-Files, Millennium and if you really want some fresh wind in your respective horror of preference, then this book should go right to the top of your to-buy list. It’s that good.
You can get this superb book here on OBS!
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