[Game Review] The Esoterrorists

“The Esoterrorists” by Robin D. Laws from Pelgrane Presss.

I picked up the Esoterrorists from the IPR booth at PAX East. It is a surprisingly slim, non-pretentious volume at 88 pages. It was also the first dead-tree game I have bought for a while, as all my purchases lately have been PDFs through various outlets and read on my iPad.

I was aware of GUMSHOE* because I read Robin Law’s livejournal daily. He posts occasional updates, hints, or little drabbles that don’t make it into books; the link is above and can be added to an RSS reader. I have also made most of my way through his newest book, “Hamlet’s Hit Points” which discusses emotional beats.

I tend to think of Robin Laws written games like Feng Shui and Dying Earth as these tiny, compressed awesome gems of indie games who syphon off the best ideas from the raging community and presents them with clean, easy to comprehend rules that guarantees, at minimum, a very strange gaming experience. I do love them, and I am far from alone.

I read this one cover to cover, so my thoughts…

What the heck is this thing?

It’s a horror gaming system with a thin veneer of setting laid over the top. For many years, those of us who love horror have gone back and forth on the best way to play and run a horror game. The old Call of Cthulhu 5th edition system was the ANSI Standard for Horror Systems**. Sure there was a CoC 6th edition and a CoC d20 and a CoC worn as a hat and a myriad of other horror games of all shapes and sizes and levels of awesomeness and Changlingness. And there was KULT, a Very Special Game. When we talk about horror gaming, we’re talking about CoC 5th edition as a base state and sort of working from there.

The problem with CoC 5th edition is it uses this crappy wargaming system where a single botched roll can bring an entire adventure to a screaming halt. This is terrible. Horror games are games of discovery. Otherwise, how do the characters find the horror? If they’re too dumb to miss it, they’ll never be horrified!*** GUMSHOE attempts to address this core problem in horror gaming… with a very simple system that assumes all investigative rolls succeed automatically.

It’s clever. It works. It fixes the issue. But…

The Overall Package (Organization, Presentation, Readability):

In the days of expensive, glossy, full-color artwork in RPGs, the Esoterrorists feels a little old school with its black and white pages and its sparse layout. Perusing the tables at PAX East, it felt like every book was this full color loving work of art. Esoterrists is back to the 90s.

But it didn’t seem to impede the reading of the text. The text is laid out single width with generous margins, so even the 88 pages of book feels less than 88 pages. A little thread of ascerbic sarcasm runs through the book and its a joy. Yes, this is horror, and yes, everyone is going to die, but that’s okay — here’s a hack to get the next set of chararcters in the mix so the story can go on! Yay! And a bullshit detector skill! Everyone needs one of those!

I’m not knocking a non-glossy-hollywood production here because the text is fantastic and readable. It’s good stuff.

The Setting:

And here is where the Esoterrorists falls down. The book sort of kind of has a setting. You’re in a super secret black ops group and there are bad guys called the Esoterrorists and they do bad things. You need to stop them.

And that’s about all you get. Granted, for the nitpickers out there, the book has 4 monsters. No real stats or anything. But they have pictures! Kind of.

So that’s that.

(Yes, I know there are now supplements that fleshes out the Esoterrorists and books of monsters and all that good stuff.  But still.)

The Rules:

GUMSHOE is a cool system and I found, as I read through it, I like it alot because it is so dead simple. Each character has a set of investigative skills. These never fail. Then the character has a set of more physical and mental skills (SAN is swapped for STABLIITY but it is still SAN) that the character can and will fail. Players have pools. They roll a single d6 against the target. Make it, things are good. Fail it, things are bad.

The system is like thus:

– In doing an investigation, if the character has the right skill and says they are using the skill, it works! Yay! Tossing in a few pool points may make it succeed extra awesomely.

– In doing stuntly things, the GM sets a target. The characters can toss in from their die pools. They can work together. They can support actions. Someone rolls a d6. Points are added together. Either it works or it doesn’t.

There you go, you’re playing the GUMSHOE system. The book does flesh out all the special cases and how to handle health and sanity and those important bits but that, right there, is the core.

Various Bits of Awesome:

I want to call out the adventure at the end of the book. I normally skip adventures at the end of books but it was a full 1/3rd of the book so I felt I should read it. I’m glad I did because it’s amazing.

The investigators start with a ritual murder in a downtown DC and use it to follow a black ops gone bad and people being grabbed and sent to the Dominican Republic for sacrifice and a little cannibalism. I don’t want to spoil the adventure but I want to call out some bits:

– It walks through how to put together a great investigative plot.
– It shows how to make the assumptions that characters will get the clues.
– It also demonstrates the right places to use physical tests.
– The adventure is nicely paced so the horror is contained to the reveal at the very end.
– It’s excellently written and worth the read in general for “how to write a cool adventure.”

Wrapping up my thoughts:

The Esoterrorists is worth the $10 to download it as a PDF. GUMSHOE is a good idea with more good ideas that solves a clear issue: how does one do procedural investigations in an RPG that don’t hang on every die roll succeeding?

I knock it hard because it needs other supplementary material to make this game a full boy. Very rarely do I want more pages in an RPG. Normally they feel overstuffed and bloated from trying to make an esoteric pagecount. NPCs who don’t need to be there, an extra adventure, whathaveyou. This time, I dearly wished for more monsters, more GMing advice, and simply more stuff about the setting. Since the core book came out, several books of supplementary material have been released to flesh out the setting. But it feels a little bait-and-switchy and I would have been happy with a 128 page core book with all the material rather than an 88 page book with extra books to buy.

If you are interested in the GUMSHOE system, by all means, buy it. For me, reading the Esoterrorists has made me want to read Trail of Cthulhu very badly; and that is the next RPG teed up for me to consume because Cthulhu does not lack for setting and the idea of a Cthulhu where people could actually play out a story? Yeah, awesome.

Overall: a 3.5 stars out of 5

* Also, GUMSHOE is the system in Trail of Cthulhu which is a slightly different discussion.

** NIST has lots of time to set standards, you see.

*** This is the CoC Dumb Trackstar hack.