The mere existence of bloodthirsty creatures and the risk of facing them is one of the leitmotivs of The Esoterrorists and many other terror and investigative games. Realizing the existence of such vile creatures, full of claws, jaws or prehensile appendages and their blind and intrinsic hate against any living being, helps hold the players in tension.
However, as Huxley states: ‘Habit converts luxurious enjoyments into dull and daily necessities’. Thus, the recurrence of creatures too horrific as physical incarnations can become a bad habit that finally kills mystery and turns a good story into another-zombie-shooting-story, a kind of Resident Evil’s succedaneum.
Unfortunately, the use of large amounts of magic will invalidate the rationality of any modern deductive process, making the premise on which The Esoterrorists lays futile. That’s why the game itself suggests the use of fetishes instead of other creepy special effects, such as teleportation or heavenly-sent thunders.
How can we get the most of this tool? That’s what we are going to explain in the following text.
Limits to Fetishes
Firstly we have to understand the limits of what a fetish can do, paying attention to the suggestions in The Esoterrorists core book. Later we may find this premise too restrictive, but now this helps us to start.
“[…] all they’ve learned to do with them is artificially induce various symptoms of mental illness. These range from hallucinations to delusions to risky or self-harming behavior. To activate the curse, the object must be placed in close proximity to a victim. They are often triggered by a particular action on the victim’s part. The objects cannot distinguish between targets and non-targets. For example, a curse object might be created which influences the mind of the first person to unlock a particular door. The creator of the fetish cannot target a given individual, or exempt others.”
Perhaps these restrictions seem to be excessive but are clearly justified in the explanation given by Robin D. Laws in The Esoterrorists Scenario Design Notes:
“[…] they are not sorcerers and can’t throw lightning bolts, kill at a distance, read minds, or whatever. This is to preserve the investigative aspect of the game, so that the reality of physical evidence isn’t thrown out the window by the presence in the setting of efficacious magical effects. When players encounter a locked room mystery, they can be confident that the bad guy hasn’t just teleported out or flown off the balcony”
What can be a Fetish?
When thinking of fetishes what comes to mind are a group of objects related, more or less, to ancient traditions with rustic or primitive distinctive characteristics. Animal body parts, anthropomorphic voodoo dolls and rare ritual weapons or jewelry are just a few of the plethora that some well know traditions have passed into popular belief.
It must be noted that people making these objects presumably live in the modern civilization and nothing’s stopping them from using more quotidian objects in order to guarantee success in their plans. For example, smuggling an old Incan hunting knife into the usual cutlery draw in a restaurant can be a difficult task, while a simple steak knife would be enough to make one of your companions, fallen into an homicide rage, kill a protected witness.
But there is still more. New technologies are not incompatible with the ritual transformation of its components. If a given TV-maker started installing a part in some of their new plasma screens that induces suicide in people watching Channel 8 at midnight, the resulting death wave will be a noticeable event.
Almost everything can become a fetish. The key is not what but how. In an investigative role-playing game this can come in many guises as long as we remember that all of them must fit to the previously exposed prime: make sure that the fetish does not interfere in or interrupt the trail of clues.
Fetishes as an Adversity
An example of fetish can be found in the sample scenario included in The Esoterrorists core book: a voodoo doll made of mud and straw that, when attached to a car, makes the driver lose control over the vehicle at a crucial moment. This is certainly an adversity: it exposes the investigators to an immediate danger. However it does not compromise the trail of clues; it simply adds a source of tension that would eventually harm the characters and, probably, their Stability.
This use of fetishes should be considered carefully since it can become a source of unjustified damage for the characters. In any case, always try to give characters a chance to detect the presence of the fetish by means of controls or descriptions and think in advance if it would not be better to use real explosives or send some thugs, instead of scattering magical devices in the investigators way.
However, making the characters hallucinate with fetishes can have uses other than making time bombs out of them. Conveniently prepared, a fetish can confuse investigators, leading them to see things that don’t exist. Contrary to the previous example, this works pretty well on a long-term basis. Describe credible hallucinations to the player; maybe a kind of mild paranoia, nightmares, shadows that seem to follow him, steps at home in the middle of the night, phone calls with breathless voices, screams or unrecognized noises. Used wisely this would be more than enough to call for some Stability checks in the medium- to long-term.
If you want to give a cruel turn of the screw, you can assign a condition upon which the character acquires a mental illness for as long as he remains under the influence of the fetish. In this case, the Homicidal Mania disease, used, as described, in The Esoterrorists core book, will have a devastating effect.
One more thing must be taken into account if you choose this variant. Don’t assign a mental illness, like those described in The Esoterrorists core book (other than those previously mentioned), since this requires the participation of the rest of players. It could be better to take advantage and let them participate in the madness, watching their fellow besieged by unseen horrors.
Just remember the maxim: as much as possible, always prevent fetishes from interfering in the investigation. These hallucinations will never make the investigator perceive distorted clues or see an unreal crime scene.
Fetishes as a Clue
No matter how it appears in the crime scene or how it is used against the characters, a fetish can become a clue by itself if adequately used.
Taking the common image of the fetish, it can be easy to trace the origin of a singular piece by means of abilities such as Anthropology, Archaeology, History, Art History or Natural History. This can lead characters to plenty of situations such as the well known antiquary, museum or university visits. In the case of the GUMSHOE system, these contacts can be materialized by means of Investigation spends.
A wide range of new possibilities can be brought into the story by means of technological advances. Interesting details can be obtained if an expert eye is applied, making differences between peculiar or unique objects by means of analytical chemistry, electron microscopy or advanced computerized tomography techniques. This can, by itself, make a difference between ‘a small statue’ and, based on the chemical composition of the clay and the pigments, a small statue made in a certain place and within a certain time frame.
In the case of fetishes made with modern components, the situation can be much simpler since plastics and other materials used for constructing them are usually of a unique or rare nature, maybe because the process for obtaining these materials or if the fabrication process is patented, or because only a few companies work in that sector; each one, intentionally or not, leaving their own unique chemical fingerprint on their products.
Fetish as Resolution
As explained above, it is also possible to think of the fetish not just as something that, at a certain point, comes into the PCs investigation but as the finality of the investigation. Making fetishes, as well as bringing unremitting horrors from the other side of the membrane, is something that must be done carefully, in a ritual fashion following precise steps with specific materials and, frequently, within a strict time period.
It is possible to take advantage of this in order to create a very powerful fetish. Possibly one the Ordo Veritatis hasn’t seen before and could be found in some occultist books. A strange wave of thefts and murders, seemingly unrelated, among them, but linked to the process of making the fetish could alarm the good guys: somebody’s preparing for something, yes, but… Where? When? And against who or what?
Analyze the process of making the fetish. Some parts of this specific puzzle can be already in the hands of the bad guys before the investigation starts and the scenes related to the thefts, murders or kidnappings committed on the way are the seeds for the characters investigation. Meanwhile, their opponents keep looking for the rest of the pieces maybe planting false clues if they learn they are being chased.
This kind of scenario can be particularly funny for veteran investigators. Are the items the bad guys are looking for rare or unique? A clever investigator could try to put the possible sources of the materials under surveillance as soon as he knows what they are looking for.
When fetishes fail
Even though fetishes look like perfect weapons (silent and well hidden), they can fail from time to time or work in an improper way, maybe because the weak kind of magic that powers them doesn’t work properly or because, even if the intended effect is achieved, it misses its target and affects another person. This can be used by the GM and the investigators to control flux pace of events in the plot.
On the other hand, if a fetish is made to have a certain dramatic effect which is necessary for the scenario, its magic must work. This could be the death of a witness or the loss of some important information. Even in this case, you can allow the fetish work properly as long as you make sure the information is still available by other means. Maybe the witness had a diary or a copy of the information was kept in a safe place.
Finally, you must consider that, in the same way that things not seeming to be fetishes can finally become them, not everything that seems to be a fetish has to be imbued with real magic. Leave a couple of voodoo dolls in the crime scene or close to the investigator’s stability sources. Soon they will start to feel harassed and maybe they will make some fatal errors.