Posting Note - This review has been submitted to RPG.net on the 26th of January, 2009.
The Esoterror Fact Book
Note – This review is of a draft of a book yet to be published. As such some of the content of the book may have changed by the date of publication. Also, this review has been written in return for access to this draft, and although the comments and opinions are my own (with definitely no editing or censorship from the game’s author or publisher), I feel it’s important to add this caveat. Recently I was driven to go through my RPG bookcase (once more) and look at some of those RPGs that I had ‘shelled’ out for but never got around to playing. One such game was the Esoterrorists, Robin D. Law’s game of modern conspiracy-horror, which was published by Pelgrane Press in 2006. This subject - conspiracy-horror - has always been a favourite of mine, and I’ll pretty much purchase any RPG that touts such a theme (you can take that as a note to any perspective game developers out there).
Recently I was driven to go through my RPG bookcase (once more) and look at some of those RPGs that I had ‘shelled’ out for but never got around to playing. One such game was the Esoterrorists, Robin D. Law’s game of modern conspiracy-horror, which was published by Pelgrane Press in 2006. This subject - conspiracy-horror - has always been a favourite of mine, and I’ll pretty much purchase any RPG that touts such a theme (you can take that as a note to any perspective game developers out there).
When I originally brought the game (a standard sized, 8x11, 88 page book with a very striking cover) I wasn’t too happy with either the game itself or its presentation. I say this because I felt that the system was a little too light - mechanically anyway - for my liking and it lacked enough background on what the antagonists were after in the game; a very important aspect of any conspiracy-horror game! The end result was, at that moment in time at least, while I read the book cover-to-cover, I quickly shelved it and moved onto something else.
But late last year I was looking to for something short and sweet to fill my gaming needs, and The Esoterrorists seemed to fit that bill (mechanically light, simple to explain background – perfect for gaming over Skype!). Now, if I’m an addict of conspiracy-horror games, then I’m even more of a completist when it comes to games I get a liking for. After rereading the core book, I compulsively popped online to see what other support was available (on the way purchasing pdfs of all the campaigns/adventures Pelgrane published) and noted that Simon Rogers (the head honcho at Pelgrane Press) had recently solicited for volunteers to review the upcoming Esoterror Fact Book. A quick email to Simon resulted in being informed that the book was currently in layout (see http://simonjrogers.livejournal.com/88280.html for a sample of the cover art), but that if I was willing to write a review or blog about the manuscript he’d send me a copy anyway. Hence this review!
Right then, enough of the background stuff, on with the show… With the draft PDF weighing in at over 130 pages, it seems pretty obvious that this book is going to be much larger that the core rules. It is touted by Robin in his intro to provide “players and GMs of The Esoterrorists with extensive background details on the covert battle to bring about a supernatural apocalypse—and the heroic men and women who struggle secretly to stop it” and this it does, even in ways I never expected.
With the draft PDF weighing in at over 130 pages, it seems pretty obvious that this book is going to be much larger that the core rules. It is touted by Robin in his intro to provide “players and GMs of The Esoterrorists with extensive background details on the covert battle to bring about a supernatural apocalypse—and the heroic men and women who struggle secretly to stop it” and this it does, even in ways I never expected.
It is divided into multiple chapters, ranging from an Operations Manual for the agents of Ordos Vertatis – the secret organization the players work for - through a section on The Enemy – discussing the Esoterrorists themselves – and finishing up with GM Advice – information on how a game using the Gumshoe system (the mechanics that run The Esoterrorists RPG) are best used. As each of these chapters deals with a distinct part of the game, its background or system, I thought that each warranted closer examination in turn.
Written as a primer on how the Ordos Vertatis (or OV) operates, this chapter is the largest in the book. It explains how OV monitors the world for signs of Esoterrorist activities, what it does with the information it gathers, and provides a large amount of detail how agents should conduct themselves in the field.
This is fantastic material, and fills in many of the gaps that are missing in the core rulebook. It is detailed enough to allow a GM to structure their adventures in a consistent manner, while not giving too much away about the actual workings of the order – and as such able to be given to the players to read.
While one of the better sections of the book, my only disappointment is much of this level of detail really should have been in the core book; especially the information on running an investigation - the Gumshoe system was specifically written to run this type of game of crying out loud!!! - and the Veil Out - the OV term for tiding up all the loose ends of an investigation.
Special Suppression Forces
While the name of this group might sound stupid, this section focuses on the OV’s equivalent of Delta Force – the Special Suppression Force (or SSF). Not only detailing what this unit does and how regular field agents (as represented by the Player Characters) interact with them, it also provides information how to run a campaign focused on this type of roleplaying. Most importantly, however, are the extra combat rules and mechanics that it provides, something that was very much missed in the core book.
At first I was unsure how to react to this section. I mean on the one hand it is good to know that units such as this are out there to back up the characters, but I don’t know if they required so much detail? Also, in some ways, this chapter is a bit of a mess and feels out of place in regards to the rest of the book. The new combat rules, or “Extra-Crunchy Combat” as Robin puts it, are another component that I thought was missing from the core book. Unfortunately as presented here, they sort of feel a little ‘rushed’ and out of place. I get the feeling that with a bit more playtesting out a few of the more ‘interesting’ decisions made here would have been ironed out.
Detailing the motivation and structure (or lack of it as the case may be) of the Esoterrorist threat, this chapter is another vital component of the game that has long been missing. Most importantly it covers a range of personality types who have the potential to become Esoterrorists, as well as various suspect cells and operatives that seem to fit this mold.
Again, and I hate to say it, but I’m not sure that this section is quite right. On the one hand has a couple of excellent ‘essays’, presenting information on the Esoterrorists from an OV point of view – both the sections on Psychographics and Esoterror Leadership: An Oxymoron? are an amusing mix of in-game and flavour text that really get you in The Esoterrorist mind-frame. However, on the other, after this the chapter dissolves into just descriptions of Esoterrorist cells and other operatives. While I’m usually in favour of such material, I feel that there are probably too many examples presented here (especially as I, myself, rarely use such material straight from a book) – with 10 cells and 13 operatives detailed. This might sound a bit harsh, but this is a pattern that seems to develop from this point of the book onwards.
Highlighting a number of individuals who are possibly working for one side or the other, this chapter is thankfully one of the shortest in the book. I won’t go into too much detail, but I felt that this probably could have (again) been even shorter (it covers 8 such persons) or better yet rolled into the previous chapter. On the plus side, there some interesting personalities amongst the examples, and it does demonstrate how almost any archetypal character could be used in an Esoterrorist game.
One of my favourite sections of the book, this chapter covers numerous locations where the Membrane - the substance that hold back the very horrors the Esoterrorists want to contact - is weak. Opening with a great little essay on what the Membrane really is and how it has changed over the years, it even presents information on how the Veil Out undertaken by OV agents affects it.
A real fun chapter, it gives a GM an insight into not only why the world is the way it is, but also why it so important for OV to do what it does. Moreover the example locations are all interesting and well thought out. Again, I feel that there are too many examples here, but otherwise this is the stuff that really motivates a GM to run The Esoterrorists.
While the core rule book gives potential GMs some information on how to run games under the Gumshoe system, here Robin takes the opportunity to summarises all the ideas and experience he has gained from writing – and contributing – the other games using the same base mechanics (such as Fear Itself, Trail of Cthulhu and Mutant City Blues).
As a GM support tool, these pages offer more suggestions to a GM about running an Esoterrorist game than anything else written in the hundred odd pages before it. In fact, I’d almost say that this is worth the price of the book alone (but as I don’t know its retail price, I can’t really say <smile>). In some ways it is a shame that this wasn’t made available earlier, say as a freebie or in a stand-alone publication, because again it does more for the game than anything else I can think of.
I don’t quite know how to sum up this review, maybe something, somewhere between pleasure and disappointment? I say that, as no matter how much I try to look passed it, really, most of this information should have appeared as part of a core rulebook (and maybe that is a plan for the future – a reprint of the core system and the factbook together?). I also feel that it is a little to ‘verbose’ in places (probably like this review), and that a shorter, maybe tighter, book would have been in order (especially, and here I go again, if portions of it were in the corebook). Unfortunately I can’t say much about the art or the layout, which holds me back from giving an unreserved recommendation (I should say that I’m not a big fan of the layout of either The Esoterrorist rule book or Trail of Cthulhu, although the art has been top-notch!).In the end I think that this book might breathe a bit of life back into The Esoterrorists (a game I’ve felt has been left behind since the release of Trail of Cthulhu and Mutant City Blues). It adds much which was needed to be said, but perhaps too often goes too far in showing GM examples of each? I’d recommend it has a must have for anyone currently running (or thinking about running) an Esoterrorist game, but if you’re not, make sure you get to see both this and the core book side-by-side before making your own mind up!