(For context, see the Reality Hacks rules).

Interpersonal Hacks

The Truth Will Out (Bullshit Detector): The target of this hack become violently, explosively ill should they attempt to utter a lie. If the victim’s lucky, it’s just vomiting. The hack’s effects last for a few minutes.

Carbon Ghost (Bureaucracy): Given a set of personal documents and a supply of paper, this hack creates a sort of hollow paper golem. The golem’s physically fragile and cannot fight, but it can carry out simple tasks at the command of the hacker. Furthermore, the golem has fragmentary memories drawn from those of the owner of the personal documents. So, get hold of an Esoterrorist’s passport, conjure a golem, and tell it to go to the Esoterrorist’s home, and follow the shambling thing before a light breeze destroys it.

G-Man (Cop Talk): This hack convinces reality that the Ordo Veritatis Agent is a government agent, a Man in Black. It gives a 6-point Preparedness pool for equipment that a sinister government agent might possess – bugging devices, government IDs, earpiece microphones, dark shades, lethal syringes and the like.

Self-Belief (Flattery): Tell the target of this hack they’re good at something, and they gain a 6-point pool in the matching ability. (“You’re really strong=6 points of Athletics”). The target must be unaware they’re being hacked, and the pool vanishes instantly if the target learns they’ve been unnaturally augmented.

 Dream Suggestion (Flirting): The target of this hack becomes aware of the hacker – they dream about them, they can’t stop thinking about them, everything reminds them of the hacker. There’s no guarantee that the target’s feelings are in any way positive, but they’ll certainly attach some degree of importance or emotional weight to any interactions with the hacker. The effect lasts for two or three days.

 Face Change (Impersonate): The hacker’s facial appearance changes to match the person or type they’re impersonating. This isn’t (completely) a physical change – it’s more that people retain a different memory of the hacker’s face. (That said, repeated use of the spell causes physical features and even memories to bleed over).

 Imprison (Interrogation): The target of the hack is rendered unable to move after an interrogation session. They’re psychically compelled to stay in place for at least eight hours. So, interview a suspect in a diner, and they’re stuck in the booth for the rest of the day (better pray they used the bathroom first). For the hack to work, the hacker has to use regular mundane Interrogation on the target before attempting the hack.

 Thing of Terror (Intimidation): This hack works just like Manifest Fear (the Forensic Psychology hack), giving both hacker and target a momentary glimpse of the target’s fears. The difference is that Manifest Fear dredges up their most deep-seated, personal fears and doubts, whereas Thing of Terror flashes their immediate, present concerns. Cast Manifest Fear on a criminal goon, and you get the fear of dying of cancer like his mother did. Cast Thing of Terror, and you learn he’s worried about the Russian mafia shooting him dead in the street.

 Occult Bargain (Negotiation): Draws the attention of a Mystery Man. Basically, the equivalent of putting up a sign reading ‘THIS SOUL FOR SALE’.

 This Is Normal Now (Reassurance): The target briefly accepts everything as normal, mundane and quite unremarkable, no matter how bizarre or traumatic the situation would normally appear. While it provides instant calm, it can make questioning the subject a frustrating experience. (Q: Did you see anything strange earlier? A: No. Q: Who else was in the room? A: Oh, just a nine-foot tall creature made of cockroaches, wearing a skull mask and carrying a dagger in each of its six arms.)

Streetwarp (Streetwise): This hack works similarly to the Spacewarp hack for Architecture, allowing the hacker to bend space by connecting two disparate streets in the same neighbourhood. The hack only works in built-up areas.

(For context, see the Reality Hacks rules.)

Technical Hacks

See The Membrane (Astronomy): This hack enables the Agent to judge local Membrane conditions by observing the stars. The Agent can tell how strong the Membrane is, and the safest direction back to ‘normal’ reality.

Magic Bullet (Ballistics): Activate this hack after missing with a Firearms attack, and spend enough Firearms points to make up the difference between your original rest and the target’s Hit Threshold.

Preservation Vat (Chemistry): Some chemical reactions only work in the Outer Dark. This hack allows the Agent to brew up a clear, viscous gel from common household chemicals. Living tissue submerged in the gel is preserved and doesn’t decay – or die. Stick a decapitated head or evil monster hand in there, and it’ll stay alive.

EVP (Cryptography): By means of this hack, the Agent is able to extract information from random noise. Static on a television or radio is the usual source, but analysing large amounts of numerical data also works. Information garnered in this fashion is not necessarily useful – you’re dependent on what the local ghosts want to talk about.

File Corruption (Data Retrieval): This is close to a literal hack – applied to an electronic storage device, it warps the stored data. The incantation doesn’t affect the functioning of the device, but does change whatever human-orientated information is stored on it. So, apply it to a security camera, and the camera now stores weird, distorted images and no faces can be made out. Apply it to an airline booking database, and suddenly a host of non-existent people have bookings on the plane. The hack’s best used for covering your tracks – instead of deleting data during the Veil-Out, you can just warp it.

Coffee Ghost (Document Analysis): You know how old documents have rings on them left by carelessly placed coffee cups of yesteryear. Well, this hack lets you taste that coffee. Do the mojo, and your mouth fills with the taste of ancient coffee. Or tea. Or whatever beverage stained the document. Look, these are unreliable hacks of a universe collapsing into darkness and suffering – they can’t all be useful.

Ghost Hunter (Electronic Surveillance): Enchants a camera or other surveillance device for one scene to detect invisible entities.

Psychometry (Evidence Collection): Gives the hacker a brief psychic flash of the strongest emotion connected with a particular object. Caution is recommended when using this hack; the emotions of ODEs can have severely deleterious effects on human sanity.

Reality Burn (Explosive Devices): Enchants an explosive device. The upside – the explosion now affects ghosts and other spiritual entities that would normally ignore a blast. The downside – the Membrane’s technically a spiritual entity. Using this hack to deal with a threat isn’t so much going from the frying pan to the fire, to burning a hole in the frying pan and setting the kitchen on fire. Still, needs must sometimes…

The Touch (Fingerprinting): Touch a fingerprint and use this hack – and for the rest of the scene, you’ve got the fingerprints (and other biological evidence, like skin flakes or secretions) of the person whose fingerprint you touched.

Dead Speak (Forensic Anthropology): Your classic Speak With Dead spell. Lets you converse with a corpse. Best used a short time after death – a corpse in a low-Membrane zone has a high probability of getting taken over by the Outer Dark equivalent of a hermit crab.

Parasitic Wasp (Forensic Entomology): Summons a parasitic wasp from the Outer Dark to inhabit a human host. The wasp isn’t under your control – but you can use this spell to eliminate a dangerous Esoterrorist or a corrupt pawn, as the wasp has its own agenda and will quickly take itself and its new host body out of the area.

Kirlian Photography (Photography): Enchants a camera to pick up on human auras, letting you spot possessed individuals or disguised monsters.

The Ordo Veritatis works to thwart the ghastly schemes of the Esoterrorists, who seek to undermine humanity’s sense of a rational, secure universe by playing on our fears and paranoias until reality collapses and the Membrane protecting us from the forces of the Outer Dark is forever torn. The Esoterrorists believe that destroying the Membrane will give them the ability to work magic, but this power comes at a terrible, unthinkable price in suffering and horror. Fighting the Esoterrorists is, unquestionably, a moral act… so, therefore, using the tools of the Esoterrorists would be acceptable, right?

These techniques are not part of Ordo Veritatis training. They may be learned in the field, through interrogating captured enemy operatives or through study of Esoterrorist techniques. They’re passed around, too, by veteran Ordo investigators – unofficially, quietly, and with the greatest of care. They’re a dirty little secret among those who’ve looked into the abyss, and who know that no

Any use of Esoterrorist magic is utterly against the credo of the order, and any operatives who demonstrate knowledge of these techniques will face sanction.

These techniques, called Reality Hacks, only work in places where the Membrane has been severely weakened by Esoterrorist activity – and using a hack will further weaken the barrier, permitting more horrors from the Outer Dark access to our reality.

Learning Hacks

Each Hack corresponds to an investigative ability. The Agent must have at least one point in that ability to learn the hack.

Each Hack must be learned separately at the cost of 2 Experience points.

Using A Reality Hack

To use a Hack, the Agent spends one point from the investigative ability, and makes a Stability test (Difficulty 4, +1 per Hack previously used in this adventure). If the Stability test fails, the hack further weakens the membrane in the local area, possibly letting in more entities from outside.

Some hacks require a target; usually, the target must be within a short distance of the caster – er, investigator, not caster. These aren’t spells. OV agents don’t use magic. Optionally, spending more investigative points lets the investigator work the hack at a greater distance or using sympathetic techniques.

Powerful Esoterrorists are immune to hacks, as are most Creatures of Unremitting Horror.

Hacks only work in places where the Membrane has already been considerably weakened.

Academic Hacks

Interpersonal Hacks 

Technical Hacks 

 


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.

 

(For context, see the Reality Hacking rules)

Academic Hacks

Primal Hunter (Anthropology): You gain a 6-point Scuffling pool for the next scene, but you can only use this pool when armed with melee weapons you have made yourself. A sharpened stick or just a nicely balanced stone works. You deal +1 damage with these primal weapons.

Inter (Archaeology): Instantly disposes of a human corpse. The corpse reappears nearby in a hitherto undiscovered grave, as if it had been buried there for centuries or even longer, with a corresponding degree of decay. So, use it to clean up your hotel room after defeating an Esoterrorist assassin, and some poor future archaeologist will have to work out why there’s a 21st-century knife in a grave that’s clearly from the Hohokam culture of 1400 years ago.

Spacewarp (Architecture): Connect two doors in the same building for one round, regardless of the intervening space.

Exquisite, Isn’t It? (Art History): Convince an onlooker that an event or object should be regarded as an abstract sculpture or a piece of performance theatre; as long as everyone else in the scene plays along with the charade, the target’s unable to critically engage with the subject of the illusion. (“Oh, you’ve just murdered that guy… but it’s ok, this is guerrilla street theatre!)

Debtor’s Prison (Forensic Accounting): The target of this hack becomes unable to distinguish relative values of money for the rest of the scene. They can be convinced that a dollar is worth a huge amount, or that it’s perfectly reasonable to let someone borrow fifty thousand bucks for a cup of coffee.

Manifest Fear (Forensic Psychology): The investigator conjures a brief, haunting image of the target’s most deep-seated fear. Both investigator and target glimpse the shadow, but it vanishes so quickly that only a few details can be made out before it disappears.

T’lon! (History): Inserts an entry of your choice into the next reference book or website the target consults. This entry doesn’t have to relate to history – you could warp someone’s internet search for the nearest taxi company. Anytime they look to an authoritative source for some supposedly neutral and universally accepted information, you’re there.

Word of Babel (Languages): For the rest of the scene, the player characters become able to communicate in a unique language known only to them. Outsiders may assume they’re speaking a rare language like Basque.

Freeman on the Land (Law): The target of the hack loses the ability to disentangle or dismiss legal arguments. As long as the Agent can make some sort of legal-sounding justification, the target is compelled to assume the Agent’s baloney is correct (“you can’t arrest me, officer – you’re not a tugboat! I have a birth certificate, therefore a berth, therefore I’m a ship!”)

Imperative Command (Linguistics): This hack turns a piece of text – no more than four words long – into an imperative command that must be obeyed. For example, zapping a ‘quiet please’ sign in a library would render anyone who reads it temporarily speechless; enchanting a stop sign would force anyone who sees it to stop dead in their tracks. Those afflicted by the hack can ignore the command with an effort of will, but that takes a moment of focussed concentration.

Cryptid (Natural History): This hack transforms an animal into a cryptid monster, making it bigger, more aggressive, and empowering it with supernatural abilities. The hacker has no control over the effects of the spell or the behaviour of the animal; it’s something of a wild shot. Still, it’s generally true that a conjured cryptid will attack the nearest prey.

Demon Summoning (Occult Studies): This isn’t so much a hack as it is focussed Esoterrorism – the hacker deliberately invites a Creature of Unremitting Horror to enter our reality. There’s no guarantee what, if anything, this hack conjures, although the hacker can shape the desired result by providing the ODE (Outer Dark Entity) with a suitable host body or conditions for forming one. (If you want a Torture Dog, then perform this hack in a toolshed with the body of a dead dog.)

Special Means of Dispatch (Pathology): This hack instantly heals a Seriously Wounded or Dying Agent. The downside – the Agent is now permanently connected to the Outer Dark, and is ‘alive’ only as long the connection’s maintained. The Agent cannot survive for more than a few hours in areas where the Membrane is intact. Furthermore, when the hack is performed, the hacker must specify a means of dispatch that can be used to kill the resurrected investigator; the amount of Health restored is inversely proportional to the difficulty of this means of dispatch. (So, “you die instantly if hit by a silver bullet” might be generous enough to fully restore the Agent’s health, whereas “you die instantly if hit by a silver bullet, engraved with the secret pet name your lover uses for you, and only on your wedding anniversary”) is restrictive enough that the Agent might only be healed to 1 Health.

An Agent can only benefit from this hack once.

Rabbit Hole (Research): If used as part of a regular Research attempt (visiting a library, a thorough internet search), the hacker finds themselves going down odd and seemingly irrelevant lines of research. You start off looking for property records about an old house, and end up looking at 17th century French wallpaper or obscure types of heirloom apples or how shipping containers were invented. This obscure line of research will show up again later in the investigation, and will be connected somehow to a person or object of interest – but there’s no guarantee how or where this will happen. For example, the Agents might later meet a bunch of suspects, one of whom happens to be eating an apple from the local farmer’s market. There’s no rational reason why that should be significant, but that’s Esoterrorist magic for you.

Menard Technique (Textual Analysis): When reading a piece of text, the hacker’s consciousness mingles with that of the writer, pushing the hacker into a state of mind where they could have written the text. This may give useful insights into the thoughts and state of the original writer; it may equally drive the hacker into modes of Esoterrorist thought from which there is no return.

Approximate Knowledge of Many Things (Trivia): This hack allows the hacker to sort of vaguely answer one question; the answer is correct but not necessarily useful or actionable. At best, it can give a direction or rough location for further investigation (“where’s the ritual site?” “Uh, by a laundromat”). Trying to pin down the magic by asking an extremely specific question (“of the following list of laundromats, which is the closest to the ritual site in terms of spatial distance in a straight line”) short-circuits the hack, weakening the Membrane without providing useful information.


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.

The CougherIt’s rarely a good idea to mix immediate real-world awfulness with supernatural threats. Killer clowns are funny, but we’re not going to argue the Esoterrorists are behind QANON, even though it’s an obvious set-up. Hitler wasn’t mind-controlled by vampires or the Cthulhu Mythos. So, the existence of these pandemic-themed monsters for Fear Itself or The Esoterrorists shouldn’t be taken to imply that Covid-19 comes from the Outer Dark. However, if you’re running games in the present day (or better yet, you’re reading this from the future and considering running a game set in that brief, awful historical period of the pandemic), then here are some monsters that play off the zeitgeist.

The Cougher

Coughers are messengers and couriers for the forces of the Outer Dark, able to slip through into our reality and lope along at speed, hurrying through the streets to make contact with some deranged cultists or to some other seepage of unremitting horror. They manifest as almost human figures, gangly-limbed and hunch-backed, clad in filthy overcoats, their faces half-hidden behind a cloth mask that never quite seems to fit right.

They’re named for their hideous wracking, wheezing coughs, which they use to scare people out of their way. The cough is so ghastly, so full of spittle and slime, that one’s instinctive reaction is to step back and give way. Packs of coughers use their echoing hacking coughs to communicate, calling to one another across the night air.

They also use these bellowing coughs to hunt. A series of precisely times coughs can separate a victim from the crowd and herd it towards the rest of the cougher pack. Such attacks are rare – coughers are much more likely to be encountered alone – but not unheard-of. Chasing down a courier-cougher can provide useful information about local Outer Dark activity.

Abilities: Aberrance 6, Athletics 4, Fleeing 8, Health 6, Scuffling 6

Hit Threshold: 3

Armour: 1-point (Thick overcoat of flesh)

Awareness Modifier: +1

Stealth Modifier: +0 (-2 if you know about the coughing)

Damage Modifier: -2 or by weapon

Cough: By spending 1 Aberrance, the Cougher can cough loudly. Anyone nearby must make a Stability test (Difficulty 6); those who fail must move away from the Cougher for a number of rounds equal to the margin of failure.

Portal: By spending 2 Aberrance, the Cougher can open a portal to the Outer Dark. It can only do this when unobserved.

All That Remains

  • Medicine: That cough sounds… impossibly awful. Someone with lungs that clogged wouldn’t be moving that quickly.
  • Streetwise: All the witnesses agree that they heard a lot of coughing the night she died.
  • Occult Studies: Three break-ins at occult bookstores – all closed because of the pandemic -, three witnesses who report lots of coughing. And I don’t believe in co-incidences.

Room Raiders

Room Raiders are the latest manifestation of creatures like the Sisterites (Book of Unremitting Horror, p. 105). They haunt public Zoom calls, Discord servers and other video conferences. Initially, they look like a bland human face with a perfectly ordinary background – a cluttered home office, maybe, or a bedroom, or just a blank wall.

Then they latch onto a victim. They might send their victim a friend request, or just stalk them across other public zooms, lurking in the audience. In each conversation, the Room Raider’s background changes subtly, moving closer and closer to that of the victim. The wall behind them suddenly matches the colour of your wall. Now they’ve got the same book-case as you… and the same books. And now the same poster.

(Using virtual backgrounds doesn’t defeat the Room Raider. They can see through them.)

If the Room Raider’s background ever perfectly matches the victim, then the monster strikes. It can pull the victim from their home into the Room Raider’s copy, to be devoured at the creature’s leisure. The Room Raider then starts trawling for its next meal. Often, their lairs are crammed with dozens of previous backgrounds, stacked like stage sets from previous productions.

Room Raiders usually nest in abandoned buildings, near places where they can piggyback on an open wifi connection. They’re remarkably good at making facsimile objects out of trash and their sticky, resinous spittle – what looks like a perfect copy of your home office might be a pile of stacked milk cartons painted to resemble your bookshelves, a desk made out of a sheet of cardboard, and that lamp’s made from the gnawed bones of a previous victim.

A Room Raider can easily be thwarted by making changes to your background – even an errant coffee cup is enough to break the spell. Typically, the creatures gain access to a victim’s webcam so they can monitor the room for changes and pick their moment to strike…

In the ghastly flesh, a Room Raider looks like a squat, long-limbed lizard-thing with a grotesquely oversized mouth in its stomach, but it’s human from the shoulders up. It’s got four arms – two vestigial limbs next to the mouth that end in human hands, for typing, and two longer arms that end in long curved claws, for killing.

Abilities: Aberrance 8, Athletics 3, Health 10, Scuffling 8

Hit Threshold: 3

Armour: None

Awareness Modifier: +0

Stealth Modifier: +0

Damage Modifier: -2 (claw)

Digital Intrusion: At the cost of 2 Aberrance, the Room Raider can psychically infiltrate a computer with which it has an active video connection.

Grab: At the cost of 1 Aberrance, the Room Raider can pull a victim from one perfectly matched room to another. The victim may attempt a Contest of Sense Trouble vs Aberrance to end the call before being pulled through the screen.

All That Remains

  • Photography: Hey, that rando’s got the same photo as the guy who vanished.
  • Computer Use: Ok, I didn’t approve any new contacts on skype. I’ve been hacked!
  • Research: Look, I always check out people’s bookshelves behind them, and that guy has a copy of the Necronomicon too! Just like yours!

 

Isolation Beasts

Isolation Beasts are gigantic; they’re shambling horrors the size of a building, covered in rank, matted hair and dragging their slimy, misshapen limbs behind them. Such monsters can’t exist in our reality except under very exceptional circumstances. An Isolation Beast can survive the psychic pressure of a single witness, maybe two, but it cannot bear to be seen by crowds. This is not shyness – it’s the crushing pressure of our reality asserting itself on a thing that shouldn’t exist.

Historically, Isolation Beasts have lurked in the wilderness, giving rise to legends of giants or yetis, preying lone travellers and small groups. Now that the streets are empty and everyone’s staying indoors, the beasts can risk shambling into the cities for the first time in centuries without fear of being observed.

Isolation Beasts are so huge that aftermath of their attacks look more like disasters than anything else – car crashes, building collapses, gas explosions. They find houses where people live alone, then smash them open and eat the juicy contents. They’re also talented mimics; if a beast fixates on a dwelling with multiple inhabitants, it lurks outside, whispering through the walls in the voices of the occupants, sowing dissent and strife until one of them walks outside – then chomp!

And if one person looks outside – who’s going to believe them when they say that there’s a sloth the size of a double-decker bus lurking in the garden?

Abilities: Aberrance 10, Athletics 8, Health 40, Scuffling 12

Hit Threshold: 2

Armour: 4-point (Fur)

Awareness Modifier: +1

Stealth Modifier: +1

Damage Modifier: +3

All That Remains

  • Outdoor Survival: This isn’t a crater – it’s a footprint!
  • Investigative Procedure: The earthquake stopped when that car came around the corner. Why?
  • Trivia: Ok, the victim took the time to write spiny norman in his own blood. That’s… certainly a thing.

Fear Itself 2nd Edition 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 Unremitting Horror from the Outer Dark? Or spiral tragically into insanity and death? Purchase Fear Itself in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

The following article for Fear Itself originally appeared on DyingEarth.com in November 2004.

 

AP Morton-Blunkett (1899-1921)

“A man, mortal, looks to the world to come…”

A little-known poet who may have become a great talent. He was born in Forrest Court, Berwick, Scotland in 1899, the son of the Lochbridge Toll watchman. He was educated in the Public School, and frequented the library, where I fondly imagine he read the romantics and composed his first clumsy stanzas.

His best early work was a series of short love poems to Naomi, possibly Naomi Hay, daughter of the local policeman, although there is no record of an engagement or marriage.

In September 1921 he received a commission from a local landowner, possibly Sir Walter Hamilton-Dalrymple? to write a laudatory ode in praise of the Burgh Golf Club, to be engraved on the clubhouse plaque. He was offered the princely sum of one guinea, which must have been a cause of great excitement to him.

He took himself to the Isle of Islay, perhaps to seek inspiration, where he was found hanged in his room, having penned the poem below – a strange verse, greatly out of character. We know of no motive for his suicide. Perhaps Naomi rejected him, or perhaps there was a more sinister reason. The local waters are said to be infested with strange grey creatures, named after a dialect term for Satan – the Clooties.

The Sea Speaks Not and Yet…

I cannot sleep.  I hide my face
From surf and swell and blow
Since I have seen the queer grey men
That nightly come and go.

The village squats in sodden dusk
With sea-mist draped, and drear.
And aye the waves, and aye the waves
Come rushing far and near.

When every door is locked and barred
And every curtain drawn
‘Tis then they come, unseen, but heard.
Forsook.  Forgot.  Forlorn.

The old know better than to look.
The young are fast abed.
But I, with lonely cynic’s pride
And science in my head,

I looked.  I shall not look again.
For yet I see them pass,
The hollow faces of the drowned
In mist beyond the glass.

 


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 Unremitting Horror from the Outer Black? Or spiral tragically into insanity and death? Purchase Fear Itself in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

A derelict superyacht hides a deadly secret in this adventure seed for The Esoterrorists

By Adam Gauntlett

Background

In 2004, Ukrainian billionaire Andrej Teresenko (oil exports) commissioned the superyacht Starfire from AS Knutsson shipyards in Florø, Norway. Over 130 ft long, with helicopter landing pad, gym facilities, a large bar (complete with Steinway piano), private movie theatre and luxury VIP as well as ordinary guest suites, this was to be Teresenko’s crowning achievement. He died before he could enjoy it. The media says it was natural causes; Ukraine’s government suspects assassination, probably by the Russians. Whoever did it saved Ordo Veritatis the trouble, as Teresenko was a person of interest in a Dollarmen investigation. With Teresenko out of the way the trail went cold, though operation BLUNDERHEAD was never officially wound up.

However, the research division discovered the yacht as part of its ongoing trawl of the internet, looking for anything that might indicate Esoterror involvement. They found YouTube footage of the yacht, now just a rusty hull in a Norwegian shipping yard. Records indicate it was part-furnished before all work stopped, but nobody’s bought it, moved it or removed any of the contents since Terensenko’s death in 2006. Nor has anyone offered it for sale; the shipyard seems content to let it sit there and rust itself to death. Operation BLUNDERHEAD has been reactivated, and the agents are tasked with infiltrating the shipyard, getting aboard Starfire, and ensuring that there’s nothing more sinister than a ruined Steinway in that decayed hulk.

Preliminary Investigation

The agents may look over the records of operation BLUNDERHEAD or study architect’s plans of Starfire. The plans are still kept on the architect’s servers, so they can be had with Data Retrieval (0 point).

With this, the agents can get a good idea of the layout (as designed) of Starfire, and what to expect. This grants a 2-point pool to Infiltration or Evidence Collection (or both) while aboard Starfire.

If the agents go one step further and spend 1 point Research, Forensic Accounting or similar, they notice that among the many invoices that went out as part of the build were some significant spends on medical equipment. Except there’s no indication on the ship plans that a state-of-the-art medical bay was part of the ship’s design. It’s not uncommon for a superyacht to have a sophisticated surgery ward, particularly if the owner has health issues. However, Starfire’s design doesn’t allow for one.

Heading to Florø

Florø is a pleasant-bordering-on-quaint island town, the most western town in Norway. It has a coastal museum, lighthouse, deer center and brewery. The agents can get there by car, ferry or plane.

Founded in 1860 when fishing was much more of an industry than it is today, Florø gets much of its living from North Sea Oil, though fishing is still important. It was one of the most prominent towns in the area when transport by sea was still vital, but as highways became predominant Florø’s importance slipped. These days it’s the kind of small-ish town with little serious crime and not much to do.

The Knutsson shipyard is well-regarded by anyone who bothers to think about it, which isn’t saying much, since most folk in Florø have little to do with it. A family-run business since 1873, the shipyard’s been moribund since the late 1990s, when old man Knuttson died and left the business to his sons Jostein and Martin, neither of whom have the go-getting spirit their father had.

Reassurance or similar (0 point) finds out that for the last four years large cars with tinted windows visit the shipyard two or three times a year. Locals gossip that the shipyard’s involved in organized crime, perhaps narcotics smuggling. Cop Talk (1 point) pours cold water on this theory. When it started happening the local cops sent word to the authorities in Oslo and there was a brief inquiry, but it turned out there was nothing to the rumor. The cars are just wealthy clients making enquiries about new ship builds. Though it is odd; for all these inquiries, no ships get built. It’s never the same client, either, always someone different, though the cars are always the same. They belong to the law office of Advokat Erik Helgesson, Oslo; checking reveals this to be a Dollarman front, though Helgesson will die before he gives up any useful intel.

A.S. Knutsson Shipyard

Though neat and efficient, the shipyard is clearly (Architecture 0 point) an outdated relic trying to get by on equipment that should have been replaced years ago. There’s plenty of safety code violations and a case could be made for illegal dumping of petrochemicals, but nobody in Florø cares that much. They feel too sympathetic to the Knutsson brothers, two local lads struggling to get by.

The Starfire is berthed in one of the furthest corners of the shipyard, out of direct sightline of the main offices. Almost as if the brothers didn’t want to see it if they could help it.

The shipyard has a dozen permanent employees, mostly skilled trades, perhaps a score or more temp-hires when there’s a big job on, and there are a couple dogs on site, but they aren’t security-trained; they’re just big and noisy. Infiltration difficulty 3 to get into the site, falling to 2 at night when there aren’t as many people. The Knuttson brothers sleep at the shipyard, but nobody else does. In the event of trouble, they call the cops.

One employee, Geir Blomhagen, has an unusual sideline. Every so often, always a week before one of the cars arrive, he picks up a package from the post office and takes it aboard Starfire, where he leaves it below decks. He’s never looked inside any of the packages, though he knows from the return address that they come from medical suppliers. He’s scared to talk about this, but he drinks heavily ever since his boyfriend left him, so he sometimes lets things slip. Reassurance (1 point) gets him to open up.

Getting Aboard Starfire

If the agents get into the shipyard without trouble, they don’t need to make another Infiltration check to sneak onto Starfire. She’s unmanned and unwatched.

She would have been impressive had she ever launched, but now she’s a rusty orange hull. The swimming pool on the upper deck is empty, save for a shallow puddle of rainwater. She has four decks above the waterline and two below, and for the most part she’s exactly what she appears to be: an abandoned superyacht, part-furnished. The Steinway rots in the bar, alongside leather bar seats and walnut fixtures that have long since perished. The en-suite VIP cabins with their luxury furnishings are ruined. Even the flatscreens, never connected, were left here, though at the time it would have been easy enough to remove and sell them to some deserving Florø household, no questions asked. It’s as if the workers were too frightened to touch anything after the commission fell through.

Evidence Collection (0 point) finds Blomhagen’s trail. He always goes to the same place – the bar – and leaves the package on the Steinway. This can easily be told by the marks in the rust and dust. What’s not so easily told is what happens after that. Whoever removes the package leaves no trail.

Evidence Collection (1 point) notices that although the ship ought to have two below-waterline decks, there’s no obvious way to access the second deck. Architecture (1 point) or another point spend Evidence Collection finds a concealed access hatch that leads to the second below-waterline deck.

It is immediately clear, on entering the second below-waterline deck, where all that medical equipment ended up, back when Starfire was built. This equipment wouldn’t shame a top-rated surgical facility. None of it is in good repair and blood and viscera are liberally scattered over every surface. The entire deck stinks like a midden and is slick with greasy fluids. The medical packages Blomhagen brought aboard are here, torn open, their contents presumably used – everything from plasma to harvested organs from China.

Also here is what’s left of Andrej Teresenko, impossibly, necromantically, still alive.

He’s just a torso , his eyeless head endlessly twitching, but he still has a tongue, so he can speak. Intimidation means nothing to him now, but Reassurance might work, if the agents promise they will kill him. He has no combat stats or relevant abilities, Health 3. If the agents try to rescue him to interrogate him later about Esoterrorism or the Dollarmen, the GM should decide what happens next. He probably won’t survive long without the Nurse’s constant attentions, or really specialized medical care.

Back in 2004, Teresenko was already aware that the authorities were coming for him. He wanted a way out, so he could enjoy his wealth somewhere sunny and peaceful. For that, he needed the best plastic surgery money could buy, and he spent a full year looking for someone to suit his exacting needs. That’s how he found the one he calls The Cutter, and The Cutter was his way into the Dollarmen. He promised the Dollarmen access to The Cutter, so their own people could enjoy new identities. In exchange, the Dollarmen would help him hide the loot. Teresenko built Starfire so The Cutter would have a safe haven, then faked his own death and delivered himself into The Cutter’s hands.

‘I didn’t know,’ he weeps with ruined eyes. ‘I didn’t know …’

What Really Happened

Teresenko found The Practice. Specifically, he found a Surgeon-Nurse husband-wife team, Ilya Litvin and his wife Yana, medics in the 1914-18 war fighting with the Austro-Hungarian army, shot by their own side in 1916 for reasons unspecified in the historical record – though as is so often the case, history lies. The Litvins made the transfer to the other side of the Membrane, and for decades afterward made hospitals in Kiev a living nightmare.

Teresenko offered them what he thought was safe haven, but the Litvins didn’t care much about that. However, the Practice wanted new victims and Teresenko offered a steady supply, without all the fuss and bother of having to look for them. So Teresenko got his Cutter, and the Litvins moved to Norway. The Dollarmen soon learned their tame plastic surgeons were nothing but. The Dollarmen decided to make lemonade from their lemons and now use the Practice as impromptu interrogation experts.

‘Tell us everything you know, or we will leave you here …’

The Litvins soon got bored of sitting aboard ship and have been making regular trips first to local medical facilities, then further abroad. They always return to Starfire. It’s their comfort zone.

Ilya and Yana Litvin

Stats as per Unremitting Horror, p. 81-90. The team has no Mortician, so nobody cleans up, which is why the surgery is in such a state. Both still wear military uniforms under their medical gowns, and Ilya has all his campaign medals. He’s also tagged on medals from every other military campaign he’s ever witnessed since 1916, not caring very much which army the medals came from. His skull is over-stuffed with brains, so his Alertness modifier is +3. He’s also grafted new, better hands onto Yana, so her Scuffling is 13. They treat Teresenko like a pet, but he’s also a useful guard dog. They don’t keep his eyes in his head, but in a handy liquor-filled jar so they can see the concealed entrance point. Anything those eyes can see, Yana can see. Infilitration Difficulty 8 somehow gets through that door without being spotted. Otherwise the Litvins know how many agents there are, what weapons they carry, and when best to ambush them.

This scenario seed was inspired by this YouTube video.

 


Adam writes, and writes, and writes. Among his credits are Pelgrane’s Soldiers of Pen and Ink, Dulce et Decorum Est, The Many Deaths of Edward Bigsby, and Silver Ennie Award winner The Long Con. You can find him on Twitter at @ag_Karloff, and online at http://karloff-shelf.blogspot.com/.


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.

The GUMSHOE Community program is now even bigger!

Earlier this year we launched the GUMSHOE Community program, making Ashen Stars content available to creators. We have now expanded the content available, and so the program now includes the following game lines:

If you’re not familiar with the Community Content concept, it means we’ve made some elements of these GUMSHOE games (e.g. some IP elements, art, and layout assets) open for members of the community (that is, you!) to write and publish your own GUMSHOE content on DriveThruRPG.

We’ve got a number of great Ashen Stars PDFs already available, to show you what’s possible. These include:

If you’re interested in learning more about the GUMSHOE Community program, check it out here.

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.

Agents battling The Esoterrorists at the behest of the Ordo Veritatis receive their cases from a rotating roster of briefers, all of whom refer to each other under the same codename: Mr. Verity. Typically they meet their teams on site, near the eruption of Outer Dark activity at the heart of the present case. Mr. Verity never overtly reveals personal details about him, her or themself, but from accent, manner and attire investigators may infer a rich and unknowable life outside the horror-hunting business.

A case requiring extensive local logistical support work features a Mr. Verity from the local area. Unlike other briefers he may appear in subsequent scenes to translate, make introductions, and otherwise handle mundane arrangements.

The default Mr. Verity looks and acts like a mid-career FBI or NCA administrator. Others display a perhaps unexpected individuality.

Grab an unconventional Mr. Verity for your scenarios from this list,

  • A curly-haired, angular trans woman who wears a purple shawl over a black sweater and tweed skirt. Photorealistic stickers of fruits and vegetables cover her laptop.

  • A haunted-looking man of South Asian extraction with intense eyes and extensive burn scars. He unconsciously clicks his tongue against the roof of his mouth when pausing to think.

  • A smiling, heavy-set man with Mediterranean features, shaved head, and large waxed mustache. He wears a Blackpool FC jersey. If asked about it, he says he actually prefers baseball.

  • A tall, frowning man whose accent identifies him as having grown up in Cameroon and then lived for perhaps a couple of decades in the present location. He sports a corduroy jacket and horn-rimmed spectacles. A buzzing fly, to which he directs angry glances, distracts him from his spiel.

  • A woman with close-cropped hair. She wears a suit jacket and a bolo tie shaped like the state of Texas. From her shaded glasses and white cane, agents can tell that she is blind. A glance at her hands reveals a fresh manicure.

  • A young, well-muscled man in a tight My Little Pony T-shirt. Acne scars spot his cheek. He wears a Rolex. Trivia clocks it as a fake.

  • The standard FBI-seeming Mr. Verity, except she has a long-haired tabby in a cat carrier.

  • The server at the diner where the team has been instructed to gather opens a manila envelope containing a partially unspooled cassette tape. He didn’t see the person who left it, but it came with a sticky note describing the agents, and a $50 tip for him.

  • The same Mr. Verity from a previous case, with long white hair, liver spots and other signs of advanced age. The team last met this briefer six months ago, looking decades younger.

Previous Entries