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The Esoterror Fact Book
The Esoterrorists 1st Edition is a very slight book by RPG standards coming in at a relatively miserly 88 pages and so it was inevitable that at some point there would be room for a sourcebook and, eventually, a second edition. I’ll be honest and say that the low page count was one of the things that attracted me to it in the first place; that, and the fact that it focussed on one of my favourite fiction genres, the investigation. Most gamers I know have come at RPGs with a background interest in fantasy or sci-fi and so it’s not a surprise that investigative games have had a fair amount of criticism over the years. Some of this criticism is justified although more often the discontent is down to a lack of experience of the genre and, perhaps more importantly, how to run a game or how to play a clued up investigator when you’re actually Geoff the computer guy.
This book sets out to help with all of that.
The book is housed within a very evocative cover showing a brain-sucked operative collapsed at a desk in front of a computer that is “erasing data” while a clawed, shadowy form disappears from the room. Nice.
The internal layout is designed to simulate an “Operations Manual” for Ordo Veritatis agents and it continues this conceit throughout most of the page count; it is written for the agent, not the player. The writing is contained in two columns against a background that resembles a hurriedly put together set of notes complete with fake “shoelace” binding. Interior art is grainy, disturbing and occasionally gruesome. All of this fits the game’s feel and links nicely to the tone and look of the main rulebook.
The first 40 odd pages outline for the operative how the OV functions and how it gets its information about apparent Esoterrorist threats; a computer program called Debby-Ann, for example. We’re then given advice on how to carry out an investigation, the protocols and, really useful this one, how to conduct an interview with a suspect. We’re told what the expectations are with regard to lethal force, how to best stage a “veil-out” for the end of the mission and how to get support, if needed, in order to complete the operation. We also get some explanation as to OV recruitment and what can happen if an agent steps across the line of ethics or, worse, totally loses it during an op.
This section is excellent in staging a framework for the setting of the game and placing your character within it; a game like The Laundry has a handful of novels to establish principles but the Esoterrorists had no such luxury until now.
There’s also a small section on “Station Duty” operations but this is covered in a lot more detail in the 2nd edition rulebook.
We then move on to Special Suppression Forces; the branch of the OV that wades in all guns blazing to deal with creatures from beyond the membrane. If you want your game of Esoterrorists to be more of a gun-fest then this is the branch to use for scenarios and there’s a sample scenario at the end of the book to try it out.
This section is followed by some extra-crunchy combat options; the book helpfully informs you that this is not part of the operations manual and is for game play, which is not too jarring. Personally I’d choose combat options carefully in order to preserve the feel of the game; critical hits can add some spice to combat and called shots have come up a couple of times in play for me so they will be handy additions. A lot of the options here are also included in Night’s Black Agents and, as that game is billed as a Techno-thriller, the rules fit nicely into it. I’m not sure about using most of these options in Esoterrorists unless you’re considering an entirely SSF based game; everything is optional of course.
“The Enemy” is the next section, covers around 70 pages and is an absolute explosion of ideas and inspiration for scenarios. The book gets back into training manual mode and presents details on 10 known Esoterror cells, 13 known individual Esoterrorists, 8 npcs who are linked with the occult but not necessarily Esoterror itself and 11 locations where the membrane between our world and the Outer Dark is particularly thin. Each one of these can launch a scenario or campaign and can be interlinked to provide enough gaming to last you until the end of days. The book itself just provides the information that an agent could find from the OV on that particular subject but the GM and players could take any of that information anywhere. The ideas these generated were powerful and I found it very difficult to read about the next entry because I was scheming on how to use the last one whilst trying to read on.
Also found here are psychological profiles that Esoterror agents could fall into and suggested uses of abilities to deal with them; another boon for the fish out of water investigator.
We then have a GM advice section – not part of the training manual – and to end things off a scenario for the SSF called Operation Whirlwind. The GM advice is as helpful to players as it is GMs and expands upon the rationales behind the game, frequently using comparisons with TV shows to get its points across; this works well as most of the shows used as examples are well known to most if not all. The scenario for the SSF style game looks very good in covering the main differences between that style of game and the usual investigative approach although I struggled to get my head around the main ODE (Outer Dark Entity) enemy.
At the rear of the book there is a handy acronym list – like most organisations the OV is rife with these – and an index.
My only real grumble with the book, bearing in mind I’m a bit of a pedant on this, is the number of errors within the text which should have been picked up by a proof reader before publication; you can’t catch them all but there are a few too many contained within. Some of the page references within the book are slightly out and a promising cross reference to the introductory scenario within the main rulebook is fluffed by calling a character “Rusty” at one point (correctly) and “Dusty” a few pages later. Minor stuff which doesn’t affect the quality of the content but may prove irritating to some.
The game needed this book; it expands the background wonderfully and provides great advice for developing characters and helping the players to visualise exactly what their job as OV investigators is all about. The only misgiving I would have is that the target audience of players are, in my experience, not likely to bother reading it and the book will mostly be perused by GMs. This is a shame as it represents a fantastic opportunity for all players to understand the setting, genre and rules a little better which will inevitably lead to a more coherent experience at the table. Maybe I’m being cynical about players in general here.
For me this book was a palpable hit and highly recommended, if not essential, if you’re plunging into the world of Esoterror and want to maximise the experience.
Review written by ragr