She Sees the Membrane

A scenario hook for The Esoterrorists

Another Ordo Veritatis team just wrapped up a case in the affluent Dallas suburb of Richardson, TX. The climactic firefight with an Esoterror cell made up of telecom contractors has left that group in need of convalescence time. So the Ordo now taps your team to follow up a clue found in the wreckage of their leader’s garage. Reconstruction of her hard drive, melted in the gas line explosion they set off when their capture seemed otherwise inevitable, turns up a name and address: Maria Flores, in Chapel Hill, NC. It appears that just before cell leader Whitney Powers set off the final explosion, she uploaded Flores’ photo and address to a shared Dropbox folder available to other suspected Esoterror cells.

When the team arrives at the address, it finds a horrific scene: someone has killed nearly every member of the Pearson family. Investigation reveals that they just moved into the house. Whoever beat the team to the scene to ask about Flores didn’t take kindly to the discovery that their information on Flores was out of date. The sole survivor didn’t see much, but they seemed to be members of an outlaw biker gang.

Better detectives than the killers, the team can discover that Flores, a pediatric nurse, has moved to her small home town in Virginia, where her father owned a chicken farm. They find her barricaded in her now disused family house, terrified. She has started to see strange things, demonic things, and thinks she’s succumbing to delusions. Maria would have sought treatment, but there were people—absolutely real people, not hallucinations—following her around Chapel Hill. Spooked, Maria bolted for the one place she knew she could hide.

When they win her trust, the team can work out that Maria receives visual flashes whenever she looks at a place where the membrane between the world and the Outer Dark has thinned. Her field of vision goes red and jumpy and silhouetted.

This makes her a target for any Esoterror cell seeking an ideal spot to attack the barrier between realities. Whitney Powers intended to grab Maria as part of her now-defunct scheme. When she knew that was finished, she let others pick up the trail.

Then the sounds of motorcycles roar in the distance. Whoever killed the Pearsons has arrived to take Maria Flores. Can the team get her to an Ordo safe house in one piece, then turn around and neutralize her murderous hunters?


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.

Dwellers break through the membrane separating us from the Outer Dark as solitary predators. They live in lakes and ponds in underpopulated areas. Dwellers find their most fruitful hunting grounds in or near parks and camp sites. They often select spots connected to a murder, tragic accident, or other dark urban legend. When such legends do not exist prior to the dweller’s appearance, its activities soon generate them.

Dwellers can’t be observed directly, though the water they displace as they move toward a shoreline is certainly visible. Their movements may be mistaken for those of a large fish, tortoise, or semi-aquatic mammal.

They attack when people approach the shore alone. The dweller surges onto a leg or arm, using an invisible tubule to inject a parasitic pseudo-larva into the bloodstream. This migrates into the victim’s brain, turning him into a serial killer—often with a theatrical flair for killing, each brutal slaying more elaborate than the last. Outside of the homicidal fugue states caused by the parasite, the subject retains normal consciousness and motivations. When the parasite activates and the red fog descends, the killer often affects a rudimentary mask meant as much to terrify as to conceal identity. This might be a rubber Halloween mask, a hockey mask, or the flayed, cured skin of an early victim.

Safely in a nearby body of water, the dweller receives fearful psychic energy generated by the killer’s attacks, using them to further pierce the membrane. It may go dormant for a period after authorities capture or shoot down the murderer. After a while, it injects another subject, commencing a new cycle of murders. Such recurrences may inspire rumors that the original killer has returned, somehow rendered immortal, perhaps as an eternal physical manifestation of man’s urge to slay man. Like all sources of cognitive alarm these tales also thin the membrane.

The dweller itself offers little physical threat if caught: an Ordo Veritatis agent once bludgeoned one to death with a canoe paddle. In another instance a grenade tossed into a pond did the trick. But if the parasite victim has yet to be apprehended, the murders will continue.


Use dwellers in The Esoterrorists or Fear Itself.

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.

Fear Itself is a game of contemporary horror that plunges ordinary people into a disturbing world of madness and violence. Use it to run one-shot sessions in which few (if any) of the protagonists survive, or an ongoing campaign in which the player characters gradually discover more about the terrifying supernatural reality which hides in the shadows of the ordinary world. Will they learn how to combat the creatures of the Outer Black? Or spiral tragically into insanity and death? Purchase Fear Itself in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

Though founded in Britain and with long history in the West, the Ordo Veritatis has in recent years come to regard Japan as key strategic ground in the battle against the Outer Dark. These extra-dimensional demons and their human minions, the Esoterrorists, thrive by spreading panic, anxiety and cognitive dissonance. Japan’s propensity for urban legends of curses and malign ghosts gives its homegrown Esoterrorists an automatic head start in their efforts to tear a hole in reality. Not only do tales of eerie menaces such as the Kuchisake-onna (“Slit-Mouthed Woman”) and Aka Manto (“Red Cape”) readily circulate in Japan; they trigger genuine panics. An instance of a Slit-Mouthed Woman provoking a panic in South Korea chilled OV analysts on every continent.

Local operatives try to defuse these incidents by ensuring that they rapidly wind up in movies, TV shows and manga, thus rendering them absurd. Some within the organization fear that the group places too much confidence in these Veil-Out techniques. They worry that as people around the world increasingly steep themselves in outlandish pop culture, these gambits may wind up propagating urban legends useful to Esoterror.

Workers in the Anglo OV hierarchy refer to their Japanese colleagues as J-Branch, a term not used or needed in the country itself. For geopolitical reasons the Ordo could not establish itself in Japan until after WWII. Early attempts to impose the Anglo-European structure bore mixed results, leading headquarters to back off in favor of local control under more familiar consensus-based management principles. Certain maverick agents in Tokyo or Sendai now complain of a faith in bureaucratic procedure that eclipses even that of head office.

Western OV operatives rarely conduct operations in Japan, whose agents know the territory better than they ever could. More commonly a J-Branch agent will be dispatched outside the country as an adviser to a local team when a drowned ghost or yokai-inspired ODE shows up elsewhere in the world. If they can pop up in South Korea, further manifestations in San Francisco, Vancouver or south London may not be so far behind. Especially when they have human accomplices to spread the word.

hat tip to this installment of the A.V. Club’s Wiki Wormhole


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.

Excerpt from an internal Ordo Veritatis monograph:

A polemic pamphlet describing the 1616 trial and execution of a woman for double filicide unknowingly portrays a textbook case of Outer Dark activity. (The accompanying illustration, on the other hand…)

Margaret Vincent of Acton, just outside London, murdered her two young children, aged 5 and 2, during a time of extreme tension between majority Protestants and persecuted Catholics. As is true in many such cases today, Vincent killed her children believing her deed would speed them to heaven. Vincent’s execution occurs as part of a wave sending a large number of (actual or suspected) Catholics to the gallows. The pamphleteer claims that, prompted by the devil himself, Vincent secretly converted to Catholicism, motivating her crime. One does not require a grounding in the modus operandi of Outer Dark entities to receive that claim with a grain of skepticism. Given the pressure at the time to paint Catholics as dangerous enemies, this part of the prosecution’s case may be a political embellishment, intended both to secure a conviction and to smear the targeted community. That said, the crime clearly took place in an atmosphere of social hysteria. In addition to sectarian strife, Vincent’s town of Acton was embroiled in a land rights dispute with neighboring Willesden that threatened to boil over into violence.

This emotional context strongly indicates the presence of a heavensender, an Outer Dark being that enters our world when social contention heightens. It preys on psychologically destabilized women with fervent metaphysical beliefs, inducing them to kill children in their care. As is common in such events, the shock of their crimes then reverberates through the surrounding community, creating the psychic backwash that ODEs use to feed and breed.

Unsurprisingly the pamphleteer’s account makes no reference to the neutralization of the heavensender, which according to the worldview of the time is reckoned as a Biblical demon. The accompanying woodcut, however, offers a startling indication that some proto-Ordo Veritatis investigators may have directly observed the creature. Like an actual heavensender, the so-called devil depicted appears humanoid, with scales on the torso, and a trio of appendages thrusting from the cranium. A heavensender uses the latter to exert hypnotic influence on its victims.

One wonders whether a Jacobean operative used the heavensender’s Special Means of Dispatch, a rapier dipped in placental tissue, to dispose of it. (Modern agents complain of sourcing difficulties.) Or perhaps the very same entity remains at large today, looking for another community riven by social tensions, in which to find its next victim.


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.

Giving Out Clues

xps sampleThis is an excerpt from the most recent version of GUMSHOE – The Esoterrorists 2nd Edition. It is GM-facing advice on the most central element of the game – how the characters interact with the scene in the game’s fiction, and how the players and GM use GUMSHOE to handle the delivery of information in as seamless and flexible a way as possible.

Rolling for Clues and the GUMSHOE Style

Just as in games where you roll for clues, players always have to describe a logical course of action that might lead to their getting information, directly or indirectly suggesting the ability they use to get it. In the traditional model, there’s a roll; you supply the information on a success. In GUMSHOE, this step is skipped — but it’s the only step skipped.

Traditional style:

PLAYER: I examine the body looking for a cause of death.

GM: Roll Forensic Anthropology.

PLAYER: I succeed.

GM: It’s blunt force trauma to the back of the skull. There are traces of a slimy residue.

GUMSHOE style:

PLAYER: I examine the body looking for a cause of death.

GM: [Checks worksheet and sees that the player’s character has Forensic Anthropology] It’s blunt force trauma to the back of the skull. There are traces of a slimy residue.

In neither style do you see players grabbing their character sheets as soon as they enter a new scene and shouting out, “Anthropology! Archaeology! Art History! Evidence Collection!” They don’t do this because it would be weird, boring, and stupid — and because in neither case does it fill all the requirements necessary to get information from a scene.

The only difference between GUMSHOE and those systems is the lack of a die roll. You know your group. Give out information in the same way you would usually give out information: actively, passively — GUMSHOE doesn’t care. Your players will solicit it, or you will give it out, just as you always do. There will be a strong effect on your gaming, but from a subtle change.

Giving Out Clues

The rules say “To get information, the rules say the PC needs to be in the right place, with the right ability, and use that ability.”

This section deals with each of these preconditions. In short, though, whatever you’ve done in other games, you should always err on the side of giving out information, not holding it back.

Having the Right Ability

The rules offer a number of ways to call on abilities, depending on the situation. Choosing the right way to call on an ability is crucial to the forward momentum of your investigative plot. Make this choice according to the consequences of failure.

If the consequence of failure is that a character fails to get a piece of crucial information, success should be automatic, provided that the character has the ability in question, and the player thinks to ask for it. However, any credible attempt to get information that would yield a given clue yields that clue, whether or not this is the ability you’ve specified in the scenario.

(Even at that, you may need to improvise during play if no player steps up to claim the needed clue, bending the details of the scenario so that the same information can be garnered with a different ability, possibly by another player.)

Using the Right Ability

You can give out clues both actively and passively.

By default, though, GUMSHOE assumes that the use of interpersonal abilities is active; the players have to correctly choose an appropriate ability and describe how they’re using it to open a contact up to questioning. When you see that players are hesitant, tell the player with the relevant ability that his experienced character can sense that it will work here:

  • “You get the feeling that this guy will crack if you lean on him a little.” (Intimidation)
  • “He seems kind of smitten by you.” (Flattery)
  • “The squeal of a police scanner tells you that you’ve got a wannabe cop on your hands.” (Cop Talk)

Being in the Right Place

GUMSHOE procedural series require their own conceits in order to keep the story moving in an entertaining manner. They require the audience’s complicity in looking the other way. Here GM and players handwave certain elements that break the rules of realism in order to keep the game running smoothly, just as TV scriptwriters do. For example, the conceit of primacy in shows such as Law and Order ensures that the lead characters get the juiciest cases and more action than any cop is likely to experience in a lifetime. Just as the aforementioned devices arise from the requirements of TV drama, GUMSHOE’s conceits grapple with the limitations of a roleplaying session.

The major device you’ll want to adopt, needed for all but the smallest groups, is the conceit of elastic participation:

Use the concept of elastic participation to ensure that there is always a PC in the right place.

Roleplaying is traditionally a group effort like shows which focus on small teams of investigators. When an ensemble cast tackles a big case together, they split into partnerships to split up necessary tasks. The scriptwriters make sure that obstacles are always matched to the capabilities of the characters in a given scene. In a roleplaying game, where responsibility for the obstacles lies with the GM and task splitting is determined by the players, some additional fudging is required to match the two elements.

GUMSHOE works best when you assume that everyone is kind-of sort-of along for every scene — without squinting too hard at any resulting logic or staging absurdities. That way, the group continues to enjoy collective access to all of the investigative abilities needed to gather clues. Perhaps even more importantly, the concerted minds of four to six untrained roleplayers are often needed to replicate the deductive skill of a single professional investigator. Often, the easiest method is just to specify characters are on the scene when they are needed.

Most of the time, you can just let the group sort through the clues without constantly justifying the use of the elastic participation conceit. That’s what a conceit does: it says, “Let’s not worry about this annoying bit of realism.”

You can collaborate with the group to come up with ways to conceal the breaking of the fourth wall that occurs when six people pile into an interrogation room or examine the same piece of physical evidence. Two-person teams can be dispatched to perform particular tasks while keeping seamlessly in touch with the rest of the team. Assume, for example, that suggestions given by players whose characters aren’t present in a scene represent cell-phone conversations, head-up displays, or other high-tech transmission equipment which is appropriate to the genre. A technical expert can lend his ability to another PC by watching a video feed on his laptop. When necessary, you can establish that an absent character with a specialized ability briefed the PC on the scene, telling him what to look for. In many cases, one agent can bag evidence and let the technician look at it later

Try to guide the group so that the splitting into teams trope occurs during non-investigative sequences. A stakeout that leads into a chase scene needn’t occur under the assumption that everyone is “sort of there.” By finding ways to break it every so often, you hide the conceit.

Enlist your players in maintaining it.

(Elastic participation is not unique to investigative games. Most groups playing a classic dungeon-delve campaign allow characters of absent players to be present to use minor, exotic abilities. At the same time, the characters are typically not treated as present when a big fight breaks out.)

GUMSHOE Is As Hard As You Need It To Be

Rolling above a number on a die can be immensely satisfying, because of the potential for failure and the relief of tension if you succeed. In GUMSHOE, we leave that tension for general ability tests. This has led some commentators to suggest that gathering information in GUMSHOE is “too easy,” as if rolling dice were a skill. But GUMSHOE doesn’t care how difficult your clues are once you’ve obtained them — it’s all about getting the clues. We recommend that core clues are straightforward, so that adventures don’t get bogged down, but if you want more difficult clues, even ciphers, cryptic images, or complex documents — help yourself. Certainly, if anyone in your group claims “it’s too easy,” you’ll be ready to hit them with something brain twisting.

Ordo Veritatis statisticians have shown a significant increase in Outer Dark manifestations during election campaigns. Politicians’ frequent resort to the psychology of fear to arouse passion in their constituencies increases the supply of that most demon-friendly of emotions. This syndrome most affects partisans, who during this period pay greater attention to views they vehemently disagree with, stoking anxiety and aggression. They act as vectors, pumping cortisol into the bloodstreams of friends, co-workers, and relatives.

(Spawnings of Outer Dark Entities spike at Thanksgiving and Christmas, as politically opposed family members who do not usually spend time together spill jagged cognitive dissonance into the psychic oversphere.)

Social media now allows prolific vectors of political unease an unprecedented reach. Most of these posts originate from sincere individuals terrified of a future where the other side has gained supremacy. A few however emanate from isolated Esoterror trolls planting strategic keywords into the collective discourse.

If you came to this post from a link, chances are that it was nested among posts of one or the other category.

Take a deep breath, focus on a happy memory, and keep Esoterror out of your head.

These factors pertain wherever unpredictable elections occur. However, of all the systems, the one that generates the highest wattage of membrane-thinning energy is the US primary process. With so many candidates vying for support from the most vehement supporters of a single party, the sense of uncertainty and chaos rises markedly whenever the podiums and satellite trucks swarm into town.

One Esoterror cell in an upcoming primary state has decided to piggyback on this dynamic for a planned summoning. Door-to-door canvassing offers the perfect opportunity for a kidnap and kill operation. Cell members plan to lure canvassers to their doors, subdue them, and prepare them for sacrifice. Nabbing a candidate is too much to hope for: they come with reporters and support staff in tow. But grabbing a solitary young campaign worker, especially on doorsteps obscured from outside view, poses no great challenge. It won’t take too many disappeared canvassers before national news attention creates the atmosphere of overwhelming dread that Outer Dark conjurings depend on.

With OV threat matrix computers primed for electoral hijinks, it takes only one missing canvasser incident to dispatch your team of investigators to the site of the first kidnapping. Can they find the victims before they’re turned into ODE fodder? And then veil it out with a reporter staked out at every picturesque diner?


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.

Thank you as always for gathering on short notice. I trust you found your travel arrangements satisfactory.

Two nights ago local police officers patrolling the city’s entertainment district found a corpse in an alleyway. Due to its condition our contacts within the force referred the case to us.

The body is that of an as yet unidentified man in his mid-twenties. Our analysts classify it an FOI [Fatality Of Interest-ed] due to two factors. One: All pigmentation has been drained from the corpse. Two: although it bears no signs of epidermal trauma, the victim’s bones, from toes to skull, have been reduced to a fine powder, as if pulverized from the inside. Assuming this victim’s demise matched others in our record bank, he died after his bones were crushed. An agonizing way to go, and naturally one we hope each of you avoids.

The loss of pigmentation and internal skeletal crushing correspond to an Outer Dark Entity known as a Night Light. It manifests as a swirling nimbus of dark energy illuminated by within by hundreds of tiny lights—usually multicolored, but sometimes monochrome.

Night Lights manifest during holiday seasons, when people hang festive lights outdoors. Here in the western world they most often come at Christmastime. The recent habit in cold weather cities of leaving lights up throughout the winter has extended their hunting season. They may also appear at Halloween, during Mardi Gras, or at secular light art festivals. Unsubstantiated reports link them to Diwali in India and, in a variant visual form, lantern festivals in China and Korea.

Manifestations link to the childhood trauma of a particular individual unwittingly serving as the creature’s psychic locus. They occur during adulthood after an incident triggering memories of the original trauma. The scourging memories always connect to the holiday in question: a fatal accident on New Year’s, a harrowing beating on Mardi Gras.

The Night Light hunts secondary victims connected to the locus, striking opportunistically at those moving about alone at night. Typically it begins with loose connections—an acquaintance met at a party, someone who sits next to the locus on public transit—then moves inward, to friends, family members, and ultimately the locus him or herself. The final killing occurs either on the actual holiday, or on the anniversary of the instigating trauma.

To destroy the Night Light, identify the locus and enable that person to come to terms with or resolve her relationship to the trauma. For example, if her mother was slain on Christmas Eve, find the killer who was never caught. Then, with an physical token related to the traumatic incident on your person, strike the Night Light with any blade, or with a stun gun.


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.

Antioch, CA, a city of about 100,000 in the San Francisco Bay area. Mr. Verity meets the team in a sleepy old-fashioned coffee shop catering to truck drivers and retirees. He lays out your next assignment as follows:

“A local medical doctor and hobbyist paranormal investigator named Randy Harb has been raising awareness of a phantom hitch-hiker story. According to reports he claims to have assembled, several motorcyclists have picked up a young woman thumbing it on Highway 4, in the vicinity of the 160 off-ramp. She wears motorcycle leathers herself and carries a helmet, and directs them to a residential address in Antioch. When they drop her off, she vanishes into thin air. The bikers then knock on the door of the home she directed them to, at which point an elderly man or woman informs them that their daughter died in a bike accident twenty years ago. Harb only has second-hand accounts, as you’d expect in this variation of a classic urban legend. However, two motorcyclists have disappeared in the past six weeks. Harb has been going on forums speculating that the woman’s ghost has turned vengeful and taken them.

“More likely an Esoterror cell has piggybacked on this legend, staging the disappearances. They might be faked, or the cell might be taking and killing innocent bikers. We fear that they are attempting to, or have already, summoned an Outer Dark Entity. An ODE called either a Wayfarer or, more recently, a Vengeful Hitcher, appears in several case files. It appears by the side of the road, flagging down drivers. It then devours them, takes their vehicles, and uses them in other kill-kidnappings. A Wayfarer’s activities parallel those of a serial killer, except that it is physically quite competent in resisting apprehension.

“Your mission: find the cell, if any. Learn whether Harb belongs to it or is being used by them, as amateur paranormalists so often are. Stop them from summoning the Wayfarer if they have not done so. If they have, find and destroy the creature. Then shut Harb up and veil this out.

“Take care not to activate currently unrelated public fears. Two potential panic vectors concern us here. One, the mysterious plague that wiped out Antioch’s original inhabitants during the gold rush. Two, concern arising from the city’s unusually high population of registered sex offenders. These may interact unpredictably in relationship to the phantom hitch-hiker legendry, perhaps altering the Wayfarer’s capabilities. Exercise all due caution.”


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.

Deliver Us From Evil belongs to a cinematic category well-known to roleplayers: the movie that doesn’t really pay off, but serves as a strong mood and tone reference for a game. Specifically, it comes as close as anything in the DVD racks to conveying the feel of The Esoterrorists. In this entry in the based-on-supposedly-real-life-story horror sub-genre Eric Bana plays NYPD police detective Ralph Sarchie. With a gung ho partner played by Community’s Joel McHale, he investigates a series of crimes connected by symptoms of demonic possession. He finds a connection between the cases in the uncovering of an ancient evil by US soldiers in Iraq. For much of its runtime, through Scott Derrickson’s direction, it presents a compelling fusion of the hard-boiled modern cop drama with supernatural horror. Along the way the story picks up a third player character role model, a hipster priest with a dark past played by Edgar Ramirez.

Like many mash-ups the film falters in the stretch, when it has to decide which genre it will maintain its loyalty to and jumps back into the conventional. Deliver Us From Evil sticks to its supposedly real roots by concluding with a not terribly fresh or exciting exorcism sequence, distinguished only by the fact that it takes place in a police interrogation room. If you’ve seen one cinematic exorcism, you seen this one too. However, since the direction, particularly its fusion of creepy mood with cop drama elements, far outclasses the material, you can select choice snippets and sequences to inspire your Esoterrorists players. The entering the creepy basement with guns and flashlights drawn sequence would serve particularly well in this respect. Also useful for this purpose are squad room scenes in which the cops scour security footage and find signs of the uncanny. Swap in Outer Dark Entities for the 70s paperback demons and you’ll be cooking with gas.

For an actually fully recommendable Derrickson movie, check out Sinister with Ethan Hawke and a supernatural enemy very much like an ODE. Derrickson is now in development on the Marvel Dr. Strange movie. The many Steve Ditko frames he’s posting on social media are raising my hopes for his take on psychedelic occultism. In the meantime, if you spot Deliver Us From Evil on disc at a bargain price, snap it to excerpt it as tone fodder for your next Esoterrorists run.

 

 


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.

Page XX

A Column about Roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

When we of the Pelgrane-Industrial Complex write and test GUMSHOE scenarios, we take care to avoid short circuits—moments that, early in play, could conceivably allow the investigators to abruptly move to the end of the story. The dissatisfactions of short-circuiting are various. The players miss out on all the fun interactions, problems, and thrills set out for them to explore, leading to a feeling of anti-climax. You never want to end a scenario with the players wondering, aloud or implicitly, “Is that all there is?” Nor do you want to end a play session after an hour when the group expected at least their standard three to four hours.

Less well considered than the problem of short-circuiting is its opposite number, the need to hot-wire. Hot-wiring, a term I just made up*, refers to the process of cutting material from a scenario to fit a rapidly diminishing time window. You may need to hot-wire because:

  • you have too much adventure left for one session, but not enough for two.
  • one or more key players won’t be able to make it next time.
  • you’re running a one-shot, perhaps at a convention.
  • a key player has to bail early on this session.

The less linkage between scenes in an RPG scenario, the easier they are to hot-wire. In an F20 game like 13th Age, you can drop a couple of the fights. Where the connective tissue between battles seems too hardy to dispense with entirely, you can even elide your way to the climax with a few lines of description: “After several days fighting your way through the orc lands, you finally find yourselves standing at the foot of the Crusader’s grim tower.” Hillfolk’s scenes are so modular that you can stop at any time. Additionally, the narrative driving remains as much up to the players as the GM. And of course in The Dying Earth the picaresque characters continually skate on the edge of comeuppance, with a closing explosion of chaos to rain down on them never further away than the nearest Pelgrane nest.

GUMSHOE, however runs on way scenes connect to one another. Ripping out those circuits means finding the quickest route between where the characters currently are and a climax that makes sense and feels right. GUMSHOE is an investigative game, meaning that players want to come away feeling that they investigated something. Finding clues is the core activity, so you can’t elide that away from them. It would be like skipping not only the connecting fights but the epic final throwdown in a 13th Age run.

To hot-wire a GUMSHOE scenario, find the final scene you want to land on. Some scenarios present multiple climactic scenes based on player choices. Most converge the story into a single final scene, in which certain choices may be foreclosed, penalized or rewarded depending on what the protagonists have already done so far.

Given a choice of climaxes, pick the one that you think the players can work toward most efficiently without feeling that you shoved them onto a greased slide. The ideal hot-wire job doesn’t appear as such to the players. The way to achieve this is to still give them opportunities to be clever. The difference now is that the reward of that cleverness becomes a faster propulsion toward the finish line.

If given one final scene that can play out in various ways, quickly scan for the payoffs it provides to past decisions. See how many of them the players have already made, and how many still lie uncovered. If you can find a way to route them through some or all of those choices on the fast lane to the climax, great. Otherwise, them’s the breaks when you’re rewiring on the fly.

Your main task? Identify the shortest logical-seeming route from the current scene to the end point. Look at the section headers for the various Lead-Ins to that scene. Skip back to those scenes and locate the core clues that enable the investigations to reach it. You may find one or several.

Linear scenarios can be harder to hot-wire than ones that provide multiple routes to the conclusion. A journey investigation as found in Mythos Expeditions may have to use the narrative elision technique to get from the problem at point C in the wilderness to the final one at point J.

Where the climax boasts more than one lead-in, pick the core clue that you can most easily drop into the situation at hand. Or find a core clue that gets you to that penultimate scene, letting the players take it from there.

Let’s say you’re running a modern Trail of Cthulhu scenario** using abilities imported from The Esoterrorists. The climax occurs after hours at an aquarium theme park, where Deep Ones orgiastically empower themselves by tormenting killer whales. The investigators are partway through the scenario, having discovered the fatally slashed corpse of a rogue marine biologist in a gas station bathroom. As written, the corpse lacks ID and the investigators have to crack other scenes to learn who the victim was and then discover she was onto something fishy† at the aquarium. The investigators can discover the latter clue one of two ways: by tracking down and winning over her justifiably paranoid wife, or cracking her notes, as found in an off-site backup.

To hot-wire that scene to lead directly to the orca-torturing aquarium orgy, plant a clue to the off-site backup on the corpse. In the original, the murderers took her purse and car, to cover their tracks. After you hot-wire the scene, they were interrupted by a station employee while trying to steal the vehicle, and fled. This allows the team to find the victim’s tablet on the back seat of her car and use her Dropbox app to access her file. Present this so they have to, as would be usual, search the car for clues, and then figure out that her files might be accessible from a file storage interface app. That way they still get to feel like they’re doing the work of GUMSHOE investigators, feeling a sense of accomplishment as they screech toward their final assignation at that theme park.


*In its roleplaying context. Settle down, car theft enthusiasts.

**Warning: scenario does not yet exist. But GUMSHOE is OGL now, hint hint.

†Honestly extremely sorry about that. I am writing this the day before Gen Con, and it is also very, very hot.

Previous Entries Next Entries