A column about roleplaying
by Robin D. Laws
One of my core dicta for The Esoterrorists setting is that its good-guy, anti-occult covert agency, the Ordo Veritatis, never turns out to be have been the secret villains all along. Although this horror game draws heavily on the technothriller, where betrayals of protagonists by superiors remains an evergreen stock element, I recommend striking that particular chestnut from the scenario writer’s kitbag.
I do this for several reasons:
- It punishes players for buying in. The setting and the case-of-the-week structure demand reliable Ordo contacts.
- The setting’s hard horror is already bleak and horrible enough. As a counter to that I want players to feel that they can rely on the people giving them the mission—even if they mostly have to solve problems without calling in backup.
- Thanks to Shadowrun’s Mr. Johnson trope, it lands as an even more common cliché in RPGs than in other media.
- In an RPG context, the loyalty switcheroo particularly annoys players, who respond by vandalizing the fourth wall. They know the cliché, expect the cliché, and are probably talking about the cliché during the scene where they get their briefing from the GMC you need them to trust. Though in general I treat narrative tropes as useful tools for improvised storytelling, this one encourages the sort of out-of-character tactical discussion we disdainfully call metagaming.
Having said all that, you might be seeking s a way to take the familiar theme of betrayal and do it up right. Two simple principles allow you to to flirt with this motif without injuring the players’ trust in the Ordo, the setting—and you, the GM.
Don’t Make It the Twist
Characters in fiction might well be surprised when their allies turn out to be heels. Anyone who’s played more than a handful of RPG sessions expects this as the default. Avoid the dread deflation of unsurprising surprise by setting up a betrayal as part of the mission premise.
- Mr. Verity, the briefer who gives you the mission, betrays you right away. She* shows up with guns blazing. After you neutralize her as a threat, learning why she tried to execute her team becomes the initial spur of your investigation.
- In mid briefing, an alien parasite erupts from Mr. Verity, killing him. After stomping it into ichor, you have to find out how it infected him and what that has to do with his briefcase full of documents.
- Mr. Verity assigns you a mole hunt mission. The Ordo has learned that a member of another team has been compromised—but they don’t know which one. You’re sent to shadow your counterparts and identify the agent who’s gone over to the Outer Dark. Since teams only come together when working a case, you also have to deal with the supernatural threat they’re tracking. Since you’re PCs and they’re GMCs, it goes without saying that you discover something crucial about their Outer Dark Entities that they need to know to save their lives, or those of others. How do you communicate your intel without blowing your mole hunt? Does their case connect to the double agent’s scheme, or is it a side complication?
- You’re ordered to track down a former agent who has gone rogue and already now leads an Esoterror cell. A past personal connection links him to the team. He can identify them, complicating their effort to get at him. But for plot device reasons they’re the ones with the best chance of apprehending him.
- Mr. Verity gives an apparently normal briefing, except the character with Bullshit Detector can sense that they’re lying their ass off.
Also, think thrice before saddling players with the unintentional betrayals of institutional incompetence. As Ken would quickly interject if this was a segment of our podcast, that’s unrealistic in the light of real life espionage, the history of which buckles under the weight of various epic blunders. If you’d like to explore that in your game, look at THE FALL OF DELTA GREEN, which bakes massive institutional failure into its premise, and thus the implicit player-GM contract. Let Ordo agents face a panoply of other awful obstacles, but spare them from being screwed by superiors’ stupidity or venal interference from the upper echelons.
Maybe that’s why the other agencies fail so often—the smart people all got recruited by the Ordo. As mundane agencies flounder, it operates on a lofty, world-saving plane above the rolling ineptitude epidemic of contemporary politics.
Leave the Ordo Like You Found It
Construct your scenario premise to avoid blowing the entire agency as a resource the PCs can trust in the future.
- For your antagonist, use a single rogue agent or team, not the top leadership of the entire agency.
- The conspiracy doesn’t go all the way to the top, but has only corrupted a particular field office or specialist department.
- At the end of the scenario, a favorite past Mr. Verity steps in to confidently take charge, assuring the group that all the weeds have been successfully pulled.
- Use the Bullshit Detector ability to your advantage. When a high-placed GMC makes a statement the PCs can trust, tell the relevant character that they can treat it as 100% reliable.
- Treat betrayal as a one-off, not a staple. One betrayal from agents corrupted by perverse beings of unspeakable torment is misfortune. More than that is carelessness—your carelessness as a GM.
Players get overwhelmed easily in a horror mystery scenario. Preserve the benevolent yet distant hand of the Ordo Veritatis as a backstop they can resort to when you need to nudge them out of a hole they’ve dug themselves into.
* All briefers use this code name regardless of the honorific normally attached to their real identities.
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.