In the latest episode of their submersible podcast, Ken and Robin talk sunken Dunwich, Gulina Karimova, professionalism, and saving Anne Boleyn.
New creature for The Esoterrorists or Fear Itself
A hole opens up in the road outside your house. You pay no attention to this. Guarded by construction fence, it shows every sign of being regular repair work. Maybe they’re fixing the water mains. Or resurfacing the pavement. But then it gradually dawns that you never see anyone working on it during the day. It couldn’t possibly have opened up during the night, could it? You’d have heard them, and been disturbed by the noise. What construction projects get done in the darkness?
Projects by the workmen do. These beings from the Outer Dark materialize beneath busy urban areas. Drawn to neighborhoods in flux, they absorb and reflect anxieties of homeowners and renters alike. The nature of the change matters not. They show up where foreclosures are rampant, and where rising rents threaten to price out longterm residents. Anyone who gazes down into their holes becomes a psychic power battery. Once empowered they sneak from their tunnels, unlock your doors, and to stand over your bed at night, drinking your essence. As you start to die, your symptoms mimic those of hazardous chemical exposure. Doctors may try to find the source of the contamination, but no matter how many soil tests they perform they never turn up the real truth.
To end an infestation you have to descend into their tunnels. Once underground one finds a labyrinthine dig defying ordinary geometry. Stopping them means finding the original gateway to the Outer Dark. The workmen, with their helmet-like heads, glowing eyes and skulking bodies, individually pose no greater threat than an ordinary person. But there are so, so many of them. And if they take you out in their subterranean home ground, you join their ranks, slaving eternally for more scraps of emotional residue…
Abilities: Athletics 6, Health 6, Scuffling 6
Hit Threshold: 3
Weapon: +1 (pick-axe or shovel)
Alertness Modifier: +1
Stealth Modifier: +2
The Esoterrorists are occult terrorists intent on tearing the fabric of the world – and you play elite investigators out to stop them. This is the game that revolutionized investigative RPGs by ensuring that players are never deprived of the crucial clues they need to move the story forward. Purchase The Esoterrorists in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.’
…or, When Your Car Battery Goes Dead Outside the Jorgamundr’s Lair, It Ain’t No Coincidence
A Column on Roleplaying
by Robin D. Laws
Your assignments for the Ordo Verititas take you into zones where the membrane between our reality and the terrifying realm of the Outer Dark nears the breaking point. In such places you may encounter signs and symptoms of this damage bearing only an acausal relationship to the conspiracies and entities you hunt. The Esoterrorists, and the monsters they foolishly truck with, don’t directly cause these phenomena. Nonetheless, by rolling up the target terror cell, and, more importantly, conducting a veil-out to disguise its true nature from an unsuspecting populace, you can restore the membrane. This brings about a rapid drop-off in TMP (Thin Membrane Phenomena) in the afflicted area.
Though unrelated to your primary mission, these low-level manifestations can nonetheless exact a toll on the psyche. Repeated exposure can in extreme cases compromise agent mental condition, and with it successful mission execution. On the up side, they can help you narrow your quest when more concrete leads grow scarce. The closer you come to people, places and things related to the Outer Dark, the more of these manifestations you will encounter. When their frequency increases, you know you’re on the right track.
Common manifestations include:
- Enhanced pareidolia. The pattern-seeking of the human perceptual array encourages us to see familiar shapes, most notably faces, in random visual assemblages. In CMZs (Compromised Membrane Zones), this effect increases, independent of the viewer. Ordinary random patterns take on the terrifying faces of the entities you are chasing, or of innocent people murdered during the current case. Agents report seeing enhanced pareidolia effects in clouds, ice crystals on windows, knots of wood, peeling house paint, stains from water or other liquids, or even, as in the accompanying photo, in the cooking froth from starchy vegetables.
- Sudden animal death. Maddened wild creatures may burst from the wilderness to drop dead at your feet—after briefly menacing you of course. Likewise with household pets.
- Where the animal does not inexplicably die before your eyes, partial remains might later be discovered, as if from inexplicable predation. In one case, all of an informant’s aquarium fish were found by agents to have been skeletonized. The manifestation affected multiple tanks, and occurred in the room of the witness’ home where an interview was taking place. It occurred in an instant, when neither agents nor the informant were looking directly at the tanks. In more typical instances the head of the animal is found, but nothing else. Cattle mutilation (less commonly reported to also target horses and large working dogs) might be regarded as a subset of this phenomenon, or a separate one. Agents are cautioned to distinguish between this complex of CMZ collateral symptoms and direct predation by Outer Dark Entities, many of which require considerable quantities of protein to remain in this dimension for prolonged periods.
- Extreme vermin infestation. Pest animals suddenly infest an area that should not be vulnerable to them. They do so either in unlikely numbers or out of season for their vermin type. Reported cases from our incident reports include rats, bats, cockroaches, ants, and worms.
- Carcass materialization. A dead animal spontaneously appears somewhere it should not. For example you find a rat or writhing maggot mass in your milk carton.
- Localized weather. CMZs often suffer markedly worse climatic conditions than the immediate area. You may also encounter supernaturally brief flashes of inclement weather. Ordo Veritatis case files record sudden and meteorologically inexplicable bursts of hail, lightning, freezing rain, fog, tornadoes, and typhoons. Overcast skies cover Compromised Membrane Zones so inevitably that their presence becomes unremarkable.
- Fortean precipitation. This phenomenon was discovered by documenter of the unknown, and eventual Ordo Veritatis asset, Charles Fort (1874-1932.) An unlikely substance, object or animal falls from the skies, without apparent source. Examples drawn from case files include beans, roof tiles, mud, oil, excrement, shrapnel, shredded morgue documents, debris from long-vanished airplanes, and the proverbial frogs. When blood precipitates during an investigation, protocol requires you to test its origin. It may be that of an animal, human, or Outer Dark Entity. Some apparent blood falls turn out to be other substances entirely, from liquefied autumn leaves to stage blood.
- Electronic equipment anomalies. Clocks gain or lose time. Harsh whispers in Sumerian or Proto-Indo-European emanate from cell phones. Phantom fingers type threats or indecipherable messages on laptop keyboards. Televisions and personal stereos pop suddenly on, their content either directly disturbing or ironically innocuous. The tendency of batteries, particularly of cars, flashlights, and mobile communications devices, to go suddenly dead becomes so commonplace in a CMZ that you should plan for none of these to work when you need them most. Beware also the effect that may cause the vehicle you drove to your final confrontation to move or vanish.
- Materials degradation. Ambient Outer Dark energy degrades molecular bonds, rapidly aging commonly used construction materials. ODE manifestations are drawn to older, already decaying structures as it is. However even newly built homes, offices and installations can fall prey to this effect. Wallpaper glue weeps and melts. Stairs crumble, as if riddled by wood rot. Locks wear out or seize up. Screws and nails work themselves loose from surrounding wood or drywall.
- Psychic imprinting. Locations absorb extreme negative emotions, which can be released when ambient Outer Dark energy levels increase. You may witness ghostly replays of an area’s noted past murders and violent accidents. Some agents report complex interactions with events, as if drawn back in time to take part in them. Curiously, evidence of their actions in the past may later surface. Through this means an agent active in the late 1990s found herself in the background of the Zapruder footage of the John F. Kennedy assassination—an anomaly whose veil-out cost the organization significant effort and financial resources.
GMs, when you need a random creepy thing to reintroduce a mood of horror simply generate a random number and pick a creepy omen from this list. Or choose a manifestation thematically related to the current case. Give this column to your players in advance, or let them clearly deduce when an effect is key to the case, and when it is a collateral one like those covered here.
See P. XX
A column on roleplaying
by Robin D. Laws
With Kevin Kulp’s TimeWatch RPG blasting through Kickstarter as only a chronoton can, you may be asking yourself if you can put time travel in other GUMSHOE games. We at Pelgrane are not in the business of telling you not what not to do with GUMSHOE. (Unless you want to use it to light your Hibachi indoors. In which case, don’t do that.)
That caveated, here’s how you might do it in the various existing GUMSHOE settings.
The Esoterrorists/Fear Itself/Trail of Cthulhu
One of my favorite treatments of time travel comes, of all places, from an old Batman comic. And not during a cool Batman phase, but from the kooky silver age. In that story, the details of which my memory is doubtless mangling, Batman and Robin go back in time hypnotically. (In fact, now Googling “Batman time travel”, I find that I like this idea because I’m remembering it wrong.) In my memory’s mistaken version of how this works, they possess the bodies of their ancestors, who happen to be conveniently located and remarkably similar in appearance in ancient Rome, the old west, the Viking era and so on.
Lovecraft likewise treats time travel as a mental journey, making it the specialty of the Great Race of Yith. In a Trail game you need go no further than to have a series of weird murders committed by a victim of Yithian possession. When the investigators capture the first suspect, the Yithian simply jumps to someone else—perhaps a PC whose player is absent that session—and forges ahead with the mayhem. To really shut down the Yithian menace, the group must figure out what the entity is trying to accomplish, and then take action to ensure that it is no longer possible. Otherwise the body-hopping from the ancient past continues.
Scrubbing the Mythos detail from this idea for The Esoterrorists or Fear Itself allows you to reverse the direction of travel. Outer Dark Entities come from the future, when they have already breached the membrane, to create the conditions that will later allow them to breach the membrane. They can’t travel directly into this time, but possess those emotionally destabilized by Esoterror provocations. Again the problem is that stopping one meat-form merely slows them down, requiring them to find a suitably vulnerable replacement. The definitive solution depends on rendering what changes they’re trying to wreak in the timestream impossible. After the Veil-Out, the Ordo Veritatis might take temporary relief in the thought that they’ve prevented a future in which their demonic foes win. But plenty of additional ways for them to do it remain, as a fresh manifestation quickly demonstrates.
Mutant City Blues
The conceit in this mutant-powered police procedural is that all weird abilities are already well explicated by science. If you do want to invent a mutant time travel ability you have to find a spot for on the Quade Diagram. Somewhere out near sector F00, where the weirdo dream manipulation appears, might fit the bill. You also want to establish the effects of time manipulation as already measurable, if not fully understood. So perhaps a time distortion field might emit some sort of radiation that enters the bloodstream, or induce over-production of a particular preexisting hormone. As members of the Heightened Crimes Investigation Unit you can perform tests on tissue samples to determine whether victims, alive or on a morgue examination table, were exposed to time altering energies. Finding out who committed the time crime would then be a matter of finding out which local mutant miscreant has the mutation in question. That said, given the down-and-gritty reality level of Mutant City Blues superheroics I would be inclined to make time travel something that tantalizingly almost seems to exist, until the detectives get to the real truth of the matter. Perhaps false rumors of time travel could be connected to the alien beings some people in the world credit with the Sudden Mutant Event that created all weird powers.
The space opera setting of Ashen Stars seems tailor-made for timey-wimey activities. Like several sources of its inspiration, it includes godlike aliens. Or at least there used to be godlike aliens, the Vas Kra, who have devolved into the all-too-moral vas mal. And with those in the mix, even if only in the setting’s past, anything can happen. That allows you to nod to this key genre element without introducing brain-cracking paradoxes that rightly belong in TimeWatch territory. Needless to say the shift from universe with time travel to universe without would be an outcome of the Mohilar War. We might take a cue here from the current, degraded morphologies of the Vas Mal, the former godlike aliens. Now they look like classic UFO grays, which hook up to the motif of missing time. Perhaps in the Ashen Stars universe, missing time derives not from hypnosis or erased memories but from proximity to time travel and its contradictions in minds not capable of handling it. Back in the 20th century, when the Vas Kra came to earth to meddle with the human mind, those taken up into their vessels suffered gaps in understanding because they brushed too close with their transtemporal natures. This leads to the theory, oft-mooted by residents of the Bleed, that the Vas Kra ended the Mohilar War by interfering massively in the past of those forgotten beings. It explains how the war ended, how the Vas Kra lost so much energy that they had to devolve, and why no one remembers that this happened. The fear that this is so leads at least one powerful movement to oppose all efforts by the vas mal to reconstitute themselves, lest time travel come back, unleashing chaos throughout the cosmos—maybe bringing back the Mohilar, too.
Night’s Black Agents
What if the vampires are time travelers? They’re humans who, sometime in the future, discovered how to move through time. Problem: doing so warped their bodies. They became vulnerable to sunlight and had to drink the blood of humans uncontaminated by chrono-energy to survive. Their added strength and resistance to damage (except to the brain or heart) hardly counts as a fair trade. So they send agents back to the past, to prevent the chain of events that leads to their own development of time technology. Stopping those events requires a grand upsetting of the geopolitical power structure. To achieve this they must penetrate and destroy the world’s intelligence agencies. The PCs know too much about this, even if they don’t believe the truth, and hence find themselves on the run from somewhat sympathetic vampires from the future. Who still want to pulp them and take nourishment from their juices.
An Esoterrorist weather control ritual has brought sudden blizzards and extreme temperatures to an unsuspecting England. This they hope will be the first stage of the Fimbulvetr of Norse mythology – a dreadful winter that lasts three full years and heralds Ragnarok, the Viking apocalypse.
You are the American team – brought in as experts in your field – that failed to stop that ritual.
Now only you can prevent the Esoterrorists from causing irreparable damage to the Membrane. In a hazardous chase across a snow-covered Britain, facing sinister cultists, terrifying bikers and ordinary people taking desperate measures to survive the extraordinary circumstances, you must use all your resourcefulness just to carry on.
Featuring additional adventure seeds by Matthew Sanderson which focus on individual tales of horror to personalise the impact of Britain under snow, Worms of Sixty Winters allows your players to fully experience the breakdown of society in the Esoterrorists’ greatest threat to the Membrane.
Given one final chance to make things right, can you prevent the Esoterrorist plot to unleash Fimbulvetr?
|Stock #: PELG013||Author: Ian Sturrock with Matthew Sanderson|
|Artist: Claude Bernier-Tremblay & Jérôme Huguenin||Pages: 80pg Perfect Bound|
See P. XX
A column on roleplaying
by Robin D. Laws
SRD or SDD?
With editorial for Hillfolk and Blood on the Snow completed, it’s time to take a break from DramaSystem to work on another of the obligations arising from our November Kickstarter. That would be the System Reference Document for Open GUMSHOE.
On one level, this seems like an exercise in cutting and pasting, taking the basic iteration of the rules as found in the upcoming Esoterrorists Enhanced Edition (the text of which you can grab now as a preorder benefit), cutting out the setting-specific bits and then adding in elements from the other GUMSHOE games. It does however require some thought on what an SRD ought to be doing.
When you decide to throw a game system open to all comers, you naturally give up control over what happens to it as others present it for their own creative purposes. This is a concern because GUMSHOE departs from some standard assumptions and becomes a better play experience when GMs and players understand where, how and why it does this.
For example, rating points in abilities mostly don’t represent a simulated resource in the fictional world. Instead they function as a sort of narrative conceit, measuring the characters’ spotlight time and how they grab it. (A few abilities, like Health and Stability, can be regarded as measurable resources in the game reality—although of course they’re still an abstraction. When you break your leg, you can’t consult a numbered meter to see how many points you’ve lost.) GUMSHOE seems confusing to some players until they grasp this. This explanation, though not a rule, strictly speaking, serves as a key tool to enhance play. So while you might categorize it as GM advice or a player note, it’s really a pivotal component of the game. As such, the explanatory text should be available to anyone publishing their own GUMSHOE adaptation. We can’t require adopters of the license to use it—as indeed, we can’t force them to make any particular choice. We call this Open GUMSHOE, not Passive Aggressively Controlling GUMSHOE. Still, we can encourage people to include it by making it part of the standard boilerplate text in the document.
This reflects a broader priority. We’ve chosen to make GUMSHOE available to other designers. Yet we remain its foremost custodians. If we’re going to let it out of the nest like this, we’d better provide excellent care and feeding instructions. We want others not only to produce GUMSHOE games, but to design great GUMSHOE games. It should therefore contain at least some guidance on how to do this.
The GUMSHOE SRD differs from the most famous versions of its breed, the D20 and its descendant, the Pathfinder document, in that it won’t also comprise a playable game unto itself. It’s not The Esoterrorists with the IP elements scrubbed out, but rather the set of components you need to build your new game on the GUMSHOE chassis.
If you’re designing a GUMSHOE game, we want you to be able to do it well. So it has to contain at least some signposting showing you how to adapt it to your needs.
For example, the build point totals for purchasing investigative ratings vary with each iteration of the game, depending on how many of those abilities the game includes. So the SRD can’t just give you the flat numbers as they appear in The Esoterrorists or Ashen Stars or whatever, because you might include a different number of investigative abilities in your GUMSHOE game. The document has to break from the text as third-party publishers might incorporate it into their rulebooks to provide the formula to calculate what the build point totals should be.
At least in these passages, the System Reference Document becomes something else—a System Design Document. We’ve gone from SRD to SDD.
Extensive passages on how to design GUMSHOE games go beyond the scope of the project. That sort of thing is better saved for occasional columns like this one. But the SRD does have to provide designers with the basic tools to construct GUMSHOE games without having to reverse engineer from the existing books. A balance must be struck here. If the document contains too much advice, it might create preconceptions that might lead other designers away from what would otherwise be brilliant leaps away from the game’s current assumptions. Too little, and it doesn’t give them enough to simply reproduce what we’ve already established in another setting.
GUMSHOE is not a generic system, but a chassis on which you can construct an emulation of any investigative genre. For a classic example, see the grenade. Grenades in the real world work the same regardless of the context in which they’re exploded. In fiction, they can work quite differently, depending on the reality level of the genre at hand. So in the Tom Clancy-meets-postmodernism-meets-visceral horror mix of The Esoterrorists, grenades are pretty deadly. Mutant City Blues treats them as less effective than the super powers at the heart of that setting. If you for some inexplicable reason decided to fuse high energy action movies with investigation, you might make yet a third choice, depicting them as wildly damaging to property and inanimate objects, while allowing people to escape harm from them simply by jumping and being carried away by the massive fiery explosions they generate.
So again the SRD can’t just pick one grenade rule and make that the default for all genres. It has to provide a quick design note about genre emulation and point you toward the solution that works for your design goals.
Likewise we won’t be providing a complete list of mutant powers from MCB or virology implants from Ashen Stars. But we will give you examples of each special rule structure so you can then kitbash it for your own purposes.
In the process I might even learn something new about my own game, as I figure out what is and isn’t essential to it.
The GUMSHOE system by Robin D. Laws revolutionized the investigative roleplaying game, and is the basis for RPGs that will appeal to fans of many genres: space opera, spy thriller, Lovecraftian horror and two-fisted pulp adventure — with more to come.
Its central premise, though, can be challenging for newcomers to wrap their heads around. What do you mean investigative skills automatically work? If we don’t roll dice to find clues, what do we do?
One of the best ways to introduce new players to GUMSHOE is to run one of our 20-minute GUMSHOE demo adventures for them. These scenarios have been tested through convention play, and provide a solid intro to the rules as well as to individual games based on the system. If you are running something else with your game group, 20 minutes isn’t a hard sell to run at the beginning of a session.
Currently you can download three short GUMSHOE demos:
- Stowaway, an Ashen Stars demo by Kevin Kulp
- Excess Baggage, a new Night’s Black Agents demo by Kevin Kulp
- Ritual Pursuits, a Trail of Cthulhu demo by Steve Dempsey
Halloween is drawing near, and you might be looking for appropriately spooky games to run for your players. Here’s a quick roundup of seven Pelgrane Press games and adventures that might fit the bill:
- Night’s Black Agents by Kenneth Hite - The designer of this mashup of the spy thriller and horror genres describes it as “The Bourne Identity, if Treadstone were vampires.” The Zalozhniy Quartet by Gareth Hanrahan is a Bourne-style Night’s Black Agents run-and-gun adventure in four parts that can be played in any order.
- Ashen Stars by Robin D. Laws - An ENnie Award-winning science fiction game where the players are freelance troubleshooters and law enforcers in a rough sector called the Bleed. Tartarus is an adventure with a setup that strongly resembles a sequel to a recent SF/horror blockbuster movie: an interstellar corporation hires the players to investigate the disappearance of a survey team on the notorious Bad Planet of Tartarus.
- The Book of the Smoke: The Investigator’s Guide to Occult London by Paula Dempsey - 2012 Gold ENnie award winner for Best Writing, this supplement to the horror RPG Trail of Cthulhu takes the form of a guidebook to the actual (if somewhat fictionalized) occult landscape of 1930s London. In addition to being a rich source of horror adventure hooks, the book itself gives readers an opportunity to unravel the mysterious death of its fictional author — though nobody’s succeeded yet.
- Fear Itself - A game of psychological horror, where ordinary people face the terrors of the Outer Black.
- The Esoterrorists - Elite investigators take on occult terrorists bent on tearing open the fabric of reality.
- The Book of Unremitting Horror - A supplement for Fear Itself and Esoterrorists that’s so unsettling a reviewer on RPG.net deducted a star from his rating because it crossed too many boundaries. Not for the faint of heart.
- Invasive Procedures – 2012 ENnie nominee for Best Adventure. In this adventure for Fear Itself and Trail of Cthulhu, players are patients in a hospital where something horrible is happening. There’s no chance to stop it — all they can do is try to get out alive. Listen to an Actual Play session on Role Playing Public Radio in which everyone who played the game died of terror. (Possibly. I haven’t listened to the whole thing, yet.)
Have fun rolling the bones…
Steve Dempsey has done it again! Kill Them and Take Their Stuff is a 15 minute Esoterrorists demo perfect for conventions and to give your players a taste of horror, GUMSHOE style.
You can download the PDF here.
The Esoterror threat is growing. The membrane is thinning. Eradicating the threat did not work. Surpressing the threat is failing. The next step is Containment. We will have to create quarantine zones of areas of high supernatural presence and designate safe zones for habitation. Using force against the Esoterrorists has not worked. We must understand them and their methods in order to defeat them. We must know what they know. Then we can defeat them.
This document is the first step toward that. It discusses the wall between our reality and the Outer Dark, how it is measured, how it can be injured and repaired, and speculates about its nature and purpose. The summoning techniques the Esoterrorists use and how we, the Ordo Veritatis, can counter these actions. There is also a section on how to deal with Outer Dark Entities after they have manifested. Direct contact with ODE’s is not recommended if any other options exist.
The Esoterror Summoning Guide by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan is a supplement for The Esoterrorists. It also includes a short adventure based upon the material presented.
|Stock #: PELG014D||Author: Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan|
|Artist: Phil Reeves, Jeff Porter||Pages: 44 page PDF|