The last two Fridays in a row I tried to get an online game together to play The Esoterrorists to no avail. My friend Eric Lamoureux suggested I write a review because maybe people don't quite know what it is all about. I'll explain more about it later but in a nutshell it's about secret agents reacting to threats posed by occult terrorists throughout the globe. I almost liken it to modern Cthulhu type cultists trying to bring these ancient old ones through the thin veil into our world in order to harness the power for themselves. This game uses the GUMSHOE system and I'm also thinking a lot of folks out there don't know much about it. Sure, you may have heard about it before but you're not familiar with the mechanics. I'll also give a brief overview on some of those as well.
First of all, what is this secret organization and what role do the players play in this game? I'm glad you asked. You are elite paranormal investigators working as part of a secret organization known as Ordo Veritatis (Order of Truth). This organization operates in a cell structure on a worldwide basis. Sometimes you are sent out to recruit new assets for the order, occasionally you might be tasked to search and rescue a missing member of the order, but usually you are thwarting the Esoterrorists attempts to weaken the membrane that separates our world from the outer dark. While not operating in the field for the order, you go about your normal daily lives doing your normal mundane jobs. It's your job to protect the innocent, unknowing public from ever hearing about the wickedly evil creatures threatening the world. In fact, that's a part of every mission called the veil out.
As a field agent in Ordo Veritatis, you are somewhat familiar with your teammates. I say somewhat because you never truly know someone in your line of work. You may even recall who recruited and trained you but for the most part you are unfamiliar with who is above you in the chain of command. Mr. Verity is your mission briefer. Sometimes it is a man and other times it’s a woman. The only thing certain is that it's never the same person. You are familiar however with the immediate structure of the organization above you. Field agents who get compromised can't have too much information after all. Your briefer is usually a senior staffer. The staffers are the ones who do the pre-mission research. It's their job to find the jobs. Once a report is deemed viable, the senior staffer puts together the briefing and recalls the most suitable team. You might be in the middle of interrogating a drug addict when the text message comes in or perhaps you're boiling the burned skin off a human skull in order to reconstruct the face for facial recognition software when the message comes in. Again, the only thing certain is you immediately drop what you’re doing to meet at the provided rendezvous point.
Being a secret agent isn't all it’s cracked up to be. You are of course one of the good guys therefore you do have a certain ethical requirement to adhere to. You are to protect your teammates and human life in general. Protecting the values and morals of civil society and the order are inherent to the job. Things you are prohibited from include assassination human enemies, use excessive force, torture, cause public distress, and of course treason. One caveat is that Outer Dark Entities (ODE's) who possess a human form are exempt from the ethical code. Conversely, in rare cases you can also contact Mr. Verity to apply for a Warrant of Exigency (permission to violate the ethical code). These are usually denied though. Ok, I think you get the jist of the order. Let's move on to the Esoterrorists now.
Simply stated, the Esoterrorists are an international conspiracy organization with a structure far different than your own. They are power bankers bent on obtaining even more power or they could be your backwoods cannibals causing fear and unrest in the world. This public fear and confusion is what thins the membrane which separates our world from the outer dark. When the membrane thins enough, these terrorists poke holes into it and bring forth an entity. This is their attempt to harness the magical power that is inherent to the entities. As of yet, none have succeeded in grasping this power but they still try. They could have come across an old misplaced photograph of a creature and the image calls to them. As they gaze upon the artifact it starts to swirl around and become all too real to them. The image comes alive and takes over their mind, urging them to thin the membrane enough to come through while promising magical powers to the unsuspecting victim. Or something like that.
They may not be behind mass murders like the school shootings rampant in the news today but they are perpetuating the despair by keeping it in the news and in the faces of the public. This type of fear and confusion is what drives the Esoterrorists movement. This movement dates back to the Victorian era where rituals and evocations were rampantly practiced. Back then it was mostly nothing more than parlor tricks but today it is very real and these terrorists are doing everything they can to "enlighten" the public. Their power feeds off of the fear. Places where general public fear and unrest is high in the world is where the Esoterrorists will be. Fortunately for us this is fairly easy to spot via news feeds and intercepted satellite communications.
So what is this GUMSHOE system? Great question!
GUMSHOE is the system that was designed to solve the problem of what happens when you fail your notice roll. The game stalls because you didn't get that all revealing important clue. With GUMSHOE you always get the clues necessary to advance the story. This system is more narrative based with simple combat options. Some people say the combat is too simple and that's why they don't like it. Well then, I say to you, have you read The Esoterror Factbook? This gives you a crunchier set of combat rules for those of you who want the tactical aspect of a game to come alive. Ah, but I'm getting off topic now. Let's get back to the basic rules of GUMSHOE shall we. Oh, I should also mention that I'll be looking at the rules for specifically The Esoterrorists as other GUMSHOE games may change the rules slightly.
Let's take a look at The Esoterrorists character sheet first. It's a fairly simple sheet with character name, off-duty occupation, weapons, and abilities. Wait, no hit points or armor class, what the heck? Yes and no. You see, hit points in this game is called Health and is covered under abilities. Armor is used to reduce damage taken not to avoid getting hit. Certain types of armor will reduce damage from gunshot wounds such as a Kevlar vest.
There are two types of abilities, General and Investigative. Depending on how many players there are you will have anywhere from 20-32 points to spend on Investigative abilities. Regardless of group size you will have 60 points to spend on General abilities. Next to each ability is a column for Rating and Pool. Rating is your investigators skill level and Pool is how many points are available to spend on using that ability. If you have at least one point in an ability you are considered an expert in that. At the beginning of each mission your Rating and Pool should be equal. Throughout the game your Pool will decrease but not your Rating. These abilities are split up because Investigative abilities will refresh at a different rate than General abilities. During the course of a mission that may take 3 game sessions, your Investigative abilities might not refresh but some of your General abilities will.
The two most important abilities are Health and Stability. Your Health ability tracks how well your character is doing physically and Stability tracks how well you character is doing mentally. Both of these abilities can be reduced below 0 all the way to -12. Once you go below 0 there are consequences. For Health you need to make a consciousness roll when you reach -0 to -5, and again at -6 to -11. Each of these tiers offers an additional consequence to just simply staying awake. At -0 to -5 you are Hurt, you cannot spend points on Investigative abilities and difficulty numbers increase by 1. At -6 to -11 you are Seriously Wounded, you are no longer able to fight and will bleed out unless someone performs a successful Medic check to stabilize your wounds. At -12 you’re dead, make a new character. Stability has these same tiers labeled Shaken 0 to -5 (difficulty numbers increase by 1), and you acquire a mental illness at -6 to -11. When you reach -12 you are incurably insane. You can commit one last crazy act or choose to be a drooling sack of flesh for the rest of the characters life.
As I said earlier, all important clues are free and will be given to you but there is also a chance to obtain more clues. These additional clues are not pertinent to move the story forward but they allow the players to shine for a moment. The additional clues can be obtained by spending points from your investigative ability pools. The players should narrate what the character is doing, what ability they are using, and how many points they will spend to get the extra clues. It's not uncommon for new players to have difficulty with this aspect of the game and the GM should then tell the players "for this many points in this ability you may be able to get some insight on the matter."
Alright, let's move on to combat. The rules for combat are simple. Determine initiative by who has the highest rating in Scuffling or Shooting depending on what they want to do during combat. This is group based. If any one of the PC's has the highest rating then all of the PC's act before the bad guys and vice versa. This doesn't change from round to round once its established. The book recommends to just go around the table from left to right when it's the players turn. During the GM's turn he is free to determine which NPC acts at that time and in any order. I think I would take the PC's turn sequence a step further. Let them decide who goes on their turn. That always makes for a more collaborative and fun experience on their part. I also find it engages the players more knowing they can change who goes when.
In order to hit an opponent, we need to talk about Hit Threshold. All PC's start with a Hit Threshold of 3 but if your Athletics ability is 8 or higher then the Hit Threshold increases to 4. What does this mean? Well, when my cannibal cultist tries to attack you he will roll a single d6. If he rolls a 3 he will hit you if your Hit Threshold is 3 but will miss if your Hit Threshold is 4. Or will he? Let’s say the cannibal cultist is trying to claw your knife hand and decides to spend 2 Pool points of Scuffling. He rolls a 3 but now gets to add 2 to the roll for a total of 5. The cannibal just clawed at your forearm and now gets to roll damage which is again a single d6. Shooting a gun acts exactly the same way. The only difference between the two are the damage effects. A punch or kick is -2 to the damage roll, a small or improvised weapon is -1 to the damage roll, a larger club or light firearm applies 0 to the damage roll, a sword or heavy firearm adds +1 to the damage roll, and when firearms are fired at point blank range a +2 is added to the damage roll. Don't forget that if your Health or Stability is 0 to -5 then the attack difficulty just increased as well.
These are the overall very basics to GUMSHOE. Simple right? I think so. Now let’s talk about what happens when you complete the mission. You just stopped the cannibals from bringing an entity through the membrane but now have all these dead corpses just laying around. What do you do about that? That's what the Veil-Out is. You as a group need to figure out a way to explain what happened to the world in a way that doesn't raise suspicion and keeps any evidence from reaching the public's attention.
If I were asked to describe The Esoterrorists using movie references then I would say imagine you are Harry Tasker in True Lies but your employer is the Illuminati. Now add in The Void and you'll have it.
The Esoterrorists is recommended by 9 out of 10 Lotus Masters.