The Esoterrorists: Albion’s Ransom II – Worm of Sixty Winters (GUMSHOE)
The massive second part of the Albion’s Ransom-saga clocks in at 80 pages, 76 if you only count content and take away editorial, etc. The review is based primarily on the softcover print version of the adventure.
This review was requested by my patreons.
Now, first things first: This module does not require that the group has completed part I of Albion’s Ransom, “Little Girl Lost”; if the PCs were rather successful in the previous adventure, the Esoterrorists enact a contingency plan to make sure that the events herein take place. Considering the way in which the first adventure “cheated” to put the players in a serious disadvantage, that feels like a bit of a cop-out to me and may be something that rubs you the wrong way, big time. A triumph in adventure #1 ranks as one of the hardest things to achieve in an investigation scenario I have ever seen; the very least I expected was to see this adventure acknowledge the skill it took to achieve a victory by presenting a branching path of sorts or some kind of serious benefit. Alas, while success in the previous module does make things a bit easier, it’s not by much and the overall impact on how this module plays out, is pretty subdued. More on that in the SPOILER-section below.
It should be noted that, depending on the tastes of you and your group, this adventure may work actually better as a stand-alone, for the themes evoked in this adventure are radically different from “Little Girl Lost.”
If you’ve enjoyed the previous adventure for its subdued themes, is mystery-angle and slow burner tension build-up, etc., then you’ll be surprised to hear that this adventure is a rather action-heavy scenario that diverges pretty significantly from the themes and mood established in part I. In a way, this is closer to fantasy in a modern world than actual horror.
Now, there is one more note: GUMSHOE, as we all know, does investigation really well and is slightly less amazing regarding combat. However, this book was released a long time ago and the system has since come a long way. If you run this today, I’d probably suggest revising it for the rules established in Night’s Black Agents and Double Tap – and indeed, the adventure may actually work better in such a context than in the more down-to-earth Esoterrorists context.
In order to talk more about that, I need to go into heavy SPOILER-territory, though. From here on out, only GMs should continue reading. Potential players should skip ahead to the conclusion.
All right, only GMs around? Great!
So, I already touched upon the structural issues regarding the transition from book #1 to #2. Since we’re in the spoiler-section now, let me spell it out clearly: Catriona’s fate is utterly meaningless. While the pdf begins with a detailed post-mortem and veil-out section for adventure #1, that should have been in the previous book. Similarly, the utterly grating idea of a compromised Mr. Verity, one of the big things that dragged down the previous adventure and made it unfair, is resolved as an aside – the character in question gets stats and all, but ultimately, he does not contribute anything of significance to the plot of this adventure.
You see, whether or not Catriona was saved, Isa Kenaz’ plan works. They had a contingency. Now, personally, I applaud that – smart villains are a good thing and the cabal would be pretty stupid if it didn’t have such a failsafe for their villainous masterstroke. However, I object to how meaningless the module makes…anything that was achieved in module #1. If she ends up as a brainwashed priestess, we get stats, sure. But her impact on the overall story? Pretty much non-existent. If the PCs managed to rock module #1, they won’t have to face an ambush-scene in the so-called Boggart Hole. That’s pretty much it.
Now, the remainder of the adventure represents a RADICAL departure from the first adventure. Wherein “Little Girl Lost” was very psychological and reminded me in parts of Twin Peaks or The Killing, this one goes a completely different route. One attack one could have made on “Little Girl Lost”, beyond the structural issues I complained about, would be that it’s not really a horror-adventure. It’s a meticulously-crafted, very difficult, but rewarding investigation with some mystery and conspiracy elements added. Well, if you liked that, if you enjoyed that aspect, there is a pretty good chance you’ll hate this adventure, or that you’ll at least get some minor form of thematic whiplash. It almost feels like the author tried to do the exact opposite of what he did in “Little Girl Lost”, falling off the bandwagon on the other side.
That elaborate, smart Hell Haven safehouse system, the one that only really diligent investigators could even find out about or crack? Well, it’s handed to the PCs on a silver platter and the module spends the majority of its page-count dealing with the PCs trying to hunt down the leadership of Isa Kenaz, all while the Fimbulvetr is unleashed. Yes, this cheapens the achievement of cracking it in module #1. No, there are no benefits for doing so.
Which brings me to another aspect in which the module diverges greatly from the previous adventure in both structure and theme: As the mythical winter of Norse apocalypse is unleashed, Isa Kenaz is devoting time and resources to sacrificing for Níðhöggr (called Nithogg in the book, but as you know, I’m particular about that type of thing…) and Bergelmir, gaining the support of two types of supernatural goons: Ur-Mensch (German for: Prehistoric human) Svartalfr and Trolls. Yes, you’ll be duking it out with basically degenerate, magically-mutated creatures from myth. See what I meant with “modern fantasy”? In fact, close to the end of the adventure, optional scenes deal with Bergelmir and Níðhöggr manifestations. I’m not even kidding you.
The adventure takes on a distinct, post-apocalyptic notion the further it progresses: As temperatures plummet and society starts to fall apart, there are some genuinely freaky and spooky scenes to be found herein, but they are contrasted against taking all limitations off. PCs get uncommon vehicles and can drive them, the strict weapon laws of the UK fall away – where module #1 was devoted in a truly impressive manner to generate a sense of realism, this module kicks that all out. And it’s, to a degree, doing so intentionally – the contrast is intended to heighten the desperation and scope of what’s at stake. Unfortunately, the veil-out on a success and sheer scope of otherworldly incursions will be exceedingly hard to justify. This adventure, in short, doesn’t really allow the PCs to be good agents of the OV, instead focusing on damage control.
If module #1 was a smart, horrific, psychological thriller, then this is a popcorn-cinema action flick.
This 180° turn regarding themes is also represented in the structure of the module: The main plot, as noted before, focuses on hunting down the leadership of Isa Kenaz and on foiling their plans to further escalate the Fimbulvetr. Whereas module #1 required METICULOUS time-management skills on part of the players to succeed, this adventure does the opposite, putting the progression more or less in the hands of the GM. This wouldn’t be an issue per se, but after “Little Girl Lost” has hammered in, in both structure and consequence, time and again, that EVERY.MINUTE.COUNTS., this adventure does the opposite, which can be frustrating. The module can span multiple weeks in theory, and players will be conditioned after adventure #1, particularly if they failed to save Catriona, to agonize over every single decision. This puts a serious damper on the action-flick-like mentality of the adventure, as the detailed planning is often simply not required or has no significant consequences.
On a GM-side, it is nice to see a ton of floating scenes that can be used when the PCs travel through the icebound UK, and some of these, as mentioned before, offer genuinely creepy visuals. These are, however, undermined by the end-of-the-world survivalesque aspects of the adventure; what would be really disturbing and horrific in a regular context feels like just the consequence of the fantasy-apocalypse that has intruded into the world. Structurally, these floating scenes amount to dressing in most cases, but serve as a means to emphasize and improve the transitions from the respective hunting down of the Isa Kenaz leader of the week.
Okay, that sounded more vitriolic than it should. You see, the progression from leader to leader is per se nice; I also found myself enjoying the fact that a halfway capable GM can render the hunting down of these fellows in a modular manner. While the cult leaders themselves remain comparatively pale, the section has huge merits, even though I personally would consider this, the main meat of the adventure, to work better as a scavenging grounds, mainly due to the law of diminishing returns. You see, each of the cults is categorized by the same avid prose, meticulous research and compassion for its members. Take the Moravian splinter sect Adorers of the Wound. What another writer would have depicted as a sect of crackpot Christian fundamentalists gets a valid and rather nice background: The sect, born of anxiety towards ones own sexuality, in particularly homosexuality, has resolved this anxiety by basically connotating the desire to engage in same-sex sexual acts as a desire to pierce Christ’s wounds or be pierced like he was. There is some ideological background here that makes sense, that renders it plausible that its members follow such a creed. The same goes for the Covenant of Morrigan, a hardcore feminist group of green activists or the biker gang Sons of Satan. These groups are not depicted as condemnable beings, but rather as victims to Esoterrorist machinations and infiltration, and their respective members indeed are portrayed as plausible beings. And yes, the amazing Desdemona Reinhart character makes a reappearance and in fact may be crucial to stopping the downfall of more than one of these cults. It should also be noted that they all have wildly different themes, morals and that resolving the respective situations requires different strategies, in spite of the structural similarities. In that way, this chapter can be considered to be a resounding success that highlights very well the strengths of the author’s prose.
At the same time, the cults all suffer from the same problem, namely the somewhat opaque nature of their respective bases – the only maps we get are overview maps of the country as well as one of the final location of the adventure; the respective bases thus remain opaque and require some fleshing out by the GM, making that aspect needlessly work intense. And yes, GUMSHOE is less reliant on maps than other games, but the infiltrations thus, ultimately, feel just as opaque as the finale of “Little Girl Lost.” That weakness notwithstanding, one can consider this section of the module to be a success and GMs should, even if they don’t run the module in its entirety, find a place for these cults in their game.
As a whole, the structure of the module does suffer from the thematic overlap here: While the floating scenes can, and should obviously, be used to establish the worsening of the climate and to present a change of pace, they ultimately contribute to the thematic whiplash between pretty conservative and well-crafted investigations and the world coming apart in the frigid cold of the Fimbulvetr.
And then, there would be the finale, which sounds pretty amazing on paper: After the Sons of Satan-chapter, the PCs will quickly see an escalation of potentially globally catastrophic levels, namely the fact that the Esoterrorists have a sleeper in the British military, atop the HMS Vengeance. That would a nuclear sub, capable of nuclear strikes. The PCs thus are faced with what feels like a James Bond scenario in the end: A race against the clock to get atop the sub and prevent a nuclear winter. The military base does not get a map, and, once more, remains opaque. The PCs stop the final agent and that’s it. The Fimbulvetr subsides, but frankly, at this point, a proper veil-out of all that can have happened should be nigh impossible…and is instead brushed away as “the cold did it.”
After literally nuking the fridge regarding themes, and figuratively in game, that feels like a bit of an insult. It also posits a huge logic bug within the module as a whole: While rising panic and global tension serve as a backdrop to potentially justify the race against the clock and the inaction of the sleeper in the sub, we have spent two whole modules highlighting how ostensibly smart Isa Kenaz is supposed to be. If they really were that smart, they’d have launched the nuclear component right after the triggering of the initial onset of the Fimbulvetr. The internal justification for this component not being employed sooner feels, at this point, flimsy at best.
Editing and formatting are very good, if not perfect, on both a formal and rules-level. Layout adheres to a 2-column b/w-standard and is nice. The b/w-artworks within similarly are pretty neat. Cartography is another matter – it is too sparse for its own good. If you really want this, I strongly suggest getting the print version. The pdf lacks bookmarks, which, at this length, is a grating comfort-detriment; if you only want a pdf, detract at least half a star from the final verdict.
I almost didn’t believe that the same author wrote these two adventures, were it not for the evocative and interesting cults as well as the depiction of organic, multi-faceted characters. Ian Sturrock’s prose is per se amazing and inspiring…but. This module may not fall into the traps of its predecessor, but one could have claimed that the first part of this saga failed as a horror module, due to being too psychological, too deeply-routed in the mystery. I didn’t, because, to me, that made it fresh and unique.
“Worm of Sixty Winters” misses the mark of being horrific on the other end of the spectrum, by burying relatable elements under the coat of the supernatural cold apocalypse. It’s too easy for players to stop caring about the details, and the structure of the module doesn’t help engender an adverse response: The lack of consequences from Part I can act as a huge demotivator, and the escalating state of Britain’s clime generally results in an atmosphere (haha) of cold indifference, where the agents do what needs to be done – i.e. kill ‘em all. In that way, the module almost feels like a precursor to Night’s Black Agents, but without the refinement and stakes of moving against a massive conspiracy. The horror and intricacies of Night’s Black Agents can be pictured as scalpels that are slowly twisted; in comparison, this adventure is a sledgehammer. It strikes once with blunt impact, but after the novelty of the escalation this represents has worn off, it’ll be rather hard to return to the covert, methodical playstyle championed by Esoterrorists.
In short: This nukes the fridge regarding the basic themes and tenets of the setting. An immediate response may be “Awesome!”, but in the long run, it hurts the game. And also, to a degree, the system. The opaque locations don’t help infiltrations and made me think that I’d rather be playing Shadowrun. The pretty much straight-forward fantasy-elements made me want to play a game that excels at portraying exciting combat. Instead on focusing, like the first adventure, on playing to GUMSHOE’s strengths, the module seems hell-bent on trying to depict a type of gameplay that can work in GUMSHOE, but which needs to be executed with the utmost care.
From the lack of true consequences regarding the first adventure to the sudden run-and-gun mentality to the unfitting finale, I, as a person, absolutely despised this module. In spite of liking some aspects of it, it is the first Esoterrorist book that I really wish I hadn’t bought. While “Little Girl Lost”’s unnecessary cheap shots at the players and narrative cheating regarding the big boss annoyed me, it absolutely excelled in the investigation angle. I was so stoked for this sequel, mainly because I wanted it to win; I wanted to see this develop the story further, develop the intricate web “Little Girl Lost” had spun. Instead, I got the equivalent of a Roland Emmerich movie with a thin coating of rudimentary investigation; almost as if this were a conciliatory note by the author for being too difficult, cerebral and challenging in the first book. If this was intended to be completely different from book #1, then it succeeded. The problem is, that it’s not different in a good way.
And this is where we come full circle. This is why I’d consider this to be functional, yes, but less so as part #2 of the series, and even less so in the context of Esoterrorists. Where “Little Girl Lost” is an adventure I’d love to run in pretty much any GUMSHOE-system, in spite of its flaws, this one falls short of capturing the high-octane espionage of NBA, the themes of Esoterrorists or the desperation of Fear Itself.
How to rate this? OH BOY. As a person, I absolutely despised this module. For me, this is one of those rare 1-star-“what were they thinking”-moments. However, as a reviewer, I am required by my own ethics to try to abstract my own biases from the verdict as much as possible.
In light of that, I can provide a limited recommendation for this adventure for the following things: The cults per se are interesting. If you want to scavenge them and run them on their own, then this may be worth checking out. If you don’t mind your Esoterrorists game mutating into basically fantasy against an apocalyptic backdrop, then this should not elicit the same visceral response from you. Similarly, if the relative lack of consequence, change of pace, etc. don’t mind you and if you always thought that Esoterrorists should be more action-packed, then this may well be a module you can enjoy.
I have rarely gritted my teeth to this extent, but I have to concede that I can see this working for some groups, and rather well at that. This leaves us with the structural issues and the opaque nature of locales as well as with the issues regarding the interplay between this module and its predecessor. Thus, while I as a person would not recommend this to anyone (get part #1, fix the cheating aspects, have fun), as a reviewer, I have to admit to this probably having an appeal for some folks. Hence, my final verdict clocks in at 2.5 stars for the module of Ian Sturrock and Matthew Sanderson, rounded up due to in dubio pro reo.
You can get this adventure here on OBS.