Friday, 16 January 2015

In Which the Writer Confesses he has a Problem with Esoterror

I haven't written, or tried to write, very much material for GUMSHOE's Esoterrorists modern horror RPG, now available for second edition. One of the reasons for this is that I have a problem with the Esoterrorists themselves. I don't understand them, so I find it difficult to write about them.

I should point out now that I haven't read the second edition; all I have is a .pdf of the first edition main book and some of the supplements, including James Semple's music, which is excellent. For all I know my problems are solved in that book. I hope they are. I'm going to pick up a copy this weekend and find out, but before I do I figured I'd better try to put my problem down in writing now, with my fragile brain as yet untainted.

The Esoterrorists and Night's Black Agents cover very similar ground. Both are modern horror systems, both rely heavily on spycraft tropes, and both tend more towards action than contemplation. You won't find a member of the Ordo Veritatis - the good guys, theoretically anyway - worrying about whether or not to sell a Mythos grimoire to pay rent, or strolling down Paris' side streets trying to avoid Breton's accusing gaze. No, a member of the OV is most likely to shoot first and ask questions later, then perform a veil-out, covering up the facts of the case.

But there is one significant difference between NBA and tE: NBA has an identifiable opponent. Even before I picked up the book, I knew enough about vampires to form some kind of opinion about them, and the main text has enough additional information that I never felt at a loss for what to do with these adversaries. Did I want mutant space vampires? Occult bloodsuckers? Satanic conspirators? Not a problem.

Whereas with the first edition of Esoterrorists I read the whole thing cover to cover three times, and still had no real idea who the Esoterrorists were. I mean, I get that they're evil dudes, and that there's a Membrane that's at stake, but 'evil dudes' is a pretty one-dimensional concept. Do they all have evil tattoos? Decoder rings? Is there some kind of yearly meeting of evil dudes, like the Bilderberg Group, or Comic Con?

I think part of the problem must be that I've never taken conspiracy theories very seriously. It's not that I think there are no conspiracies; sure, there are, but I don't think any of them are really as wide-reaching or omnicompetent as they're made out to be. More often than not they seem to be an excuse. People never want to believe that the world is actually as borked as it appears to be, by accident; someone's got to be in charge, dammit. The religious have an answer to that one, but I've never been religious, and I've no desire to start now. Though that does sound like a fun idea for a term paper. 'Organized religion as conspiracy theory. Discuss.' The Papacy alone'd be worth a few hundred thousand words.

It doesn't help that, in many ways, the Ordo Veritatis seems more a mirror image of the Esoterrorists group than its opponent. Both organizations seem to share a similar cell structure organization, both are well funded - though we never find out how, and someone's got to be paying for all those toys - and both have friends in high places in all the governments of the world. It all sounds a bit too much like the Prisoner's final episode, where Number 6 discovers who Number 1 has been all this time.

I think my dissatisfaction came to a head when I read the introduction to Operation Whirlwind Reaper, in the Factbook. You meet Ms Verity - the contact who gives you your marching orders - in a rice paddy in Myanmar, and after she's finished her speech all I could think was, 'It's a bloody good job Verity's plot-protected and can do no wrong, otherwise I've just been told to go into a disaster zone and shoot aid workers. There's a special hotel at the Hague for people who do that. I wonder, if I book in advance, can I reserve a room next to Slobo?'

There have been similar games that I've enjoyed without questioning the main concept. Mage's war against the Technocracy, for example, or Delta Green's continuing battle against the Greys, with a side order of cannibal Nazis. Yet this time I find myself uneasy. Is it that the players always take order from Mr or Ms Verity without question, and march off like little wind-up toys towards the plot? Well, probably not; Delta Green's A Cell operates on broadly the same principle, though there was never the same assumption of infallibility that there seems to be with Verity.

No, I think it really has to be the Esoterrorists themselves. For all that the concept ought to be an easy sell, they stubbornly refuse to come alive for me. Evil dudes is all they are, and I can't work with evil dudes.

This could just be a time when I need to push myself, embrace the madness. I'm going to have a look at second edition, and after I've done that, I'm going to write a synopsis of an Esoterrorists scenario, using whatever newfound understanding I will have come to possess. We'll see if that breaks the deadlock.  


  1. I had a similar issue with the game's setting; there isn't enough definition of what the sides are and what's at stake.

    I found that Grant Morrison's The Invisibles helps, although it's more of an inversion of the concept in that the good guys are the ones trying to break reality, because reality is wrong and corrupt. Even so, it helped me define the central conflict in the game, and maybe the Esoterrorists aren't bad guys after all?

  2. Sure; I loved the Invisibles too! But the OV seems too straight-laced to contain a Mr Six, Jack Frost, Tom o'Bedlam, or Fanny. Still, it's one way to look at the game universe ...

    1. That's what I mean. King Mob and the gang are the Esoterrorists, so the players are working for the bad guys, although they may not know it.

      Now it makes sense that Verity is sending the player-characters to do some dubious jobs, and we can play an arc that has the player-characters working through the age old "terrorist or freedom fighter?" question; maybe the Esoterrorists aren't the bad guys, and maybe their ultimate goal is a noble one, but is it worth the cost? Is there a third way?

      It's not what was intended but it gives me more to work with than what's already there and should give the players some interesting choices to make, and that's what it's all about.

  3. Personally, I think the best Esoterrorist product is actually the monster manual -- the Book of Unremitting Horror. They have some profoundly disturbing critters in there, and plenty of plot hooks and a pair of fairly good adventures.

    That said, Esoterrorists does have a bit of a... hm... "excessive nastiness" problem. NBA adopts a somewhat more sanitized/stylized approach to the conspiracy genre. Esoterrorists, on the other hand, starts one adventure with an IRA terrorist feeding a bunch of North African orphans into a meat grinder, has a rapist in another adventure, has at least one or two pedophiles (I think one in the adventure you mention), auto-cannibalism... it's interesting, certainly, but also much heavier than anything I'd be inclined to use at the gaming table.

  4. Karloff, how did you go reconciling OV?