The Esoterrorists: Worldbreaker (GUMSHOE)
This mega-adventure/anthology clocks in at 91 pages of content if you disregard editorial, ToC, etc., and one of the pages is devoted to a brief hack for Night’s Black Agents – and as an aside, my favorite GUMSHOE game so far is pretty much Esoterrorists with some Night’s Black Agents-rules spliced in.
This review is based on the perfect bound softcover version of the book, which sports the name on the spine, making it easy to find in your RPG-library.
Anyhow, this mega-adventure, structurally, has an introductory scene, and then allows the agents and GM to choose from 4 scenarios that may be run in any order; after these have been completed, the adventure has a furious final module. In many ways, this is thus akin to Night’s Black Agents’ excellent “The Zalozhniy Quartet”, with one crucial difference – there is less interwoven content. In said adventure, the sequence in which the respective modules are tackled would influence the overall plot and how they behave with regards to each other; this could seriously increase the replay value. Worldbreaker does not sport connections between the scenarios, which makes preparing the module easier, but also decreases the replay value of the entirety and makes the respective parts feel less connected and more disparate. Worldbreaker also sports only one possible finale, instead of multiple ones, but said finale is developed in a more nuanced manner and feels, as a consequence, less like a cut-scene/final fight.
Which of the two approaches you prefer remains ultimately up to you, but personally, I’d have loved to see the myriad connections and versatile endings; this would have bloated the page count by, according to my rough estimates, at least 20 pages, though, so not sure that’d have been feasible. There is one further aspect on a formal level that I was less than enthused by, and that would be the continuation of the annoying tendency of GUMSHOE modules not sporting proper maps. There is not a single map included, in spite of the fact that more than one scene would have really benefited from having at least some sort of map. Without an expert GM, this mega-adventure can feel somewhat indistinct regarding dimensions etc., and I strongly advise getting some building plans and maps from the public domain when running this. On the plus-side, the book features quite a bunch of handouts, though these are not collected in an appendix – you’ll have to copy/print them, and cut them out. An appendix would have been more comfortable there.
Okay, the formal aspects out of the way, this is an Esoterrorists module, and as such, it is a HORROR adventure. If you’re easily offended and consider horror to be problematic, if you want sanitized games…why play a horror module in the first place? This module includes gore, twisted stuff, death, psychological horror, etc. – you know, horrific stuff? Its setting is the Ocean Game version of the real world that acts as a backdrop for both Esoterrorists and Fear Itself, and the focus is on investigation. This also is not a module for Esoterrorist (or at least, investigation) novices – it can be tough, and the introductory scene has a component that works much better if it is properly contextualized by previous adventures. Worldbreaker works best as a campaign capstone, as it is a) deadly, and b) has potentially a huge impact on agents and OV. I assume familiarity with the terms of Esoterrorists in this review.
Okay, this is as far as I can go without diving into SPOILERS. Potential players should jump ahead to the conclusion.
All right, only GMs around? Great! So, the game starts in San Francisco, where something twisted has happened, and I don’t mean in the fun way. The OV meets up at the luggage carousel in Sand Francisco ( a notion kinda making this more real to me – when I first visited the US, it was San Francisco where I landed), and from there, the investigators are off to the Basement. What’s that, you ask? It’s a discreet sex club catering to an international crowd. As an aside: The club’s footage features one of the most compassionate and understanding ways in which BDSM is depicted in a piece of mainstream media – usually, it’s depicted in a rather twisted manner, when in real life, a relaxed and often playful atmosphere is cultivated. As a lifelong practitioner, that was nice to see. Oh, and the BDSM folks are not the bad guys for once. I know, right? Instead, they are, alas, the victims – victims of an example of a textbook American family. Wholesome, nice, kids and granny included. The Powells entered the club, brutally slaughtered everyone, and then committed ritualistic suicide. Investigating the scene also sees the handler, Mr. Verity in OV-terms, snap – the lady (also called Mr. Verity) attempts to kill herself – hopefully, the agents can intervene.
Anyhow, analysis of the footage and investigation into the family’s background, leads to some twisted realizations – slug-like ODEs, so-called Symps, seemed to have taken over the family, only to then infiltrate different persons attending the BDSM-club – and from there, the threads of the plot’s narrative spread out through the 4 main chapters/episodes. And yes, the family’s home and all the small investigative scenes yield further clues – in spite of the finale being more linear than “The Zalozhniy Quartet”, the massive investigation has a surprising amount of failsafes, second chances and similar tricks, by which the pacing may be maintained.
Each of the episodes has a somewhat different gameplay and focuses on a different type of horror: The first of the scenarios puts the investigators on the trail of an international lobbyist, hunting the guy via a series of escalating incidents from new Jersey to Leicester and Italy, with the theme and chapter-header being “Coulrophobia” – we have a murder-clown adventure, where twisted clown ODEs cause fatal traffic accidents – yes, plural, for they have built a kind of crèche wherein new ones spawn. With their own, strange rules to uncover, dangerous incidents and the requirement to understand their twisted, obsessive MO, this is a great, classic horror investigation, one that, like the others, benefits immensely from the agents doing their legwork properly – this is a deadly scenario, but one that is very much beatable by smart agents.
The second Symp has an agenda that is, in a way, less flashy, and which may be the toughest investigation of the scenarios within – the chapter is called “Geoslasher”, and the notion is pretty cool: The (for copyright reasons) renamed Google-company of the world’s streetview etc. Pictures hae been showing killings – and it’ll take some serious sleuthing to uncover everything. This one is also when experienced OV agents will realize that something bad is going on: Organ grinder…as a “oh yeah, and then there’s that ODE”-encounter. Just kinda happens right there. Things are becoming rather twisted. Oh, and obviously, discerning the game of the Symp, how the streetview/satellite imaging corresponds with the murders…that’s a pretty tough cookie. I love the slow burn here, with paranoia, estrangement and technology-anxiety being some of the leitmotifs featured within.
The third episode made me recall “The Seventh Circle”, but works imho better: This one is plain ole’ survival horror done well – set in the Actun Tunichil Muknal caves of Belize, its theme is one of a reality TV show diving into ancient Mayan sites – and the dark that haunts these places. Against a backdrop of ancient legends and cults, this is all about navigating a labyrinthine place of darkness, of light and survival – it is the one scenario that is closest to the structure of many horror games and movies. It also sports a rather rudimentary ad nigh useless (and ugly) map of the labyrinthine caverns, and feels easily like the least exciting of the scenarios of the campaign. It plays better than it reads, but considering what the Popol Vuh and associated legends offer, it feels like it seriously undercuts the potential of its own premise; in many ways, it feels most like it could have benefited from a few extra pages.
The fourth and final regular episode is one that I’d indeed suggest to run as the last one – “Heart of Outer Darkness” once more takes us to Morovia (I have to visit this place at least once!) and begins like an international spy story, dealing primarily with weapons’ shipments – and the trail leads to Africa, first to Ebola-ridden Liberia and then to Nigeria – it turns out that the ODEs have come upon the grand plan to not only supply nuclear material stolen from Chernobyl to the dread Boko Haram, no, they also want to weaponized frickin’ Ebola. In the hands of arguably one of the nastiest extremist movements ever. The stakes are high here, and indeed, the finale of this one is easily one of the best in any GUMSHOE scenario – not only can the agents prevent a nuke being used, the trail leads them to the master of the Boko Haram, who turns out to be a mystery man, a nigh demigod ODE, mainly interested in playing the eponymous Ocean Game, a psycho-magical fugue in which contestants are driven insane. The twisted being not only escalated its involvement in the states of mankind, it also pronounces doom for all of the world and seeks to sow dissent and paranoia – and its set-up is masterful. Indeed, and that should be emphasized: This is an exceedingly well-structured horror-campaign that GETS horror. The book is never cheap or excessive or dumb with its concepts.
The finale obviously took a cue from the whole Fyre Festival debacle; seeded throughout the campaign, a cornucopia of clues can help the agents determine entry vectors to a take on said festival, on an island that shouldn’t be there. No map is provided. Boo. An island, where, coincidentally, a passenger flight vanished, and where esoterrorists from all over the world engage in a twisted, massive debauchery-style festival interspersed with human sacrifice of the passengers…to the largest ODE ever to attempt to enter the world, a being so vast, it might shatter the membrane! This scene perfectly encapsulates the notion of how the membrane is thinned – it is grotesque in a truly twisted manner, this strange juxtaposition of the mundane and celebratory, and the cataclysmic madness. The primary antagonist doesn’t put up a fight – but he doesn’t have to. The entity is here. And any attempt to combat it results in instant death for the agent. No check. Heck yes. Having the chutzpah to properly go all out? Yeah! The endgame, even for triumphant agents, thus is very grim – the standard proposed solutions have, at best, one agent as a lone survivor of the insanity here – but when the fate of the world hangs in the balance, can the OV agents do what needs to be done?
Editing and formatting are top-notch on a formal and rules-language level, I noticed no significant glitches. Layout adheres to the series’ two-column b/w-standard, with quite a bunch of amazing b/w-artworks throughout. The cartography is a big weakness of the module; it’s rudimentary and not very appealing when present. The softcover sports glossy pages, and is well-crafted.
Robin D. Laws’ Esoterrorists is my favorite contemporary horror game, and frankly, I believe that it’s not as popular as it should be primarily because its modules have been somewhat problematic. Worldbreaker breaks that tendency, thankfully. This is HORROR. It’s not cheesy, it’s not redundant, it is genuinely clever, modern horror that works exceedingly well regarding pacing, variety of themes, and plot structure. This is, in short, the Esoterrorist module that the game always deserved, but never got. I adore this, I love it to bits, and while I have some niggles here and there, I can genuinely recommend this campaign to anyone with a soft spot for modern horror campaigns. I have barely touched upon the complexities of each chapter, and there is a lot to love and explore, so many clues to put together, so many variables, that I indeed consider it to be an excellent investigative horror scenario. With better cartography and a few more pages, this could have become my all-time favorite horror mega-adventure, but even as is, this warrants a unanimous recommendation. Even if you disliked all the other Esoterrorist-scenarios (heck, I hated a lot of them), check this one out. It’s genuinely awesome. 5 stars + seal of approval.
You can get this amazing horror mega-adventure here on OBS!
The print copy may be found here at Pelgrane Press’ store!
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