As you probably know, Robin Laws is hard at work on the second edition of The Esoterrorists, his legendary horror game that introduced the GUMSHOE investigative system. I hadn’t planned on running it any time in the near future, because I’m focused on my 13th Age campaign; but I very much wanted to see where Robin was taking the system. I placed my pre-order and downloaded the latest draft of the game in PDF.
I’m glad I did, because Esoterrorists 2e includes a wealth of system-neutral advice on running a campaign full of secrets, conspiracies and treachery…which just happens to be where my Blackmarch campaign is going.
In particular, the Antagonist Reaction section in the Station Duty campaign frame reminded me that my bad guys are not taking a break while the PCs hunt them down. They’re becoming aware that someone’s poking around in the forest and asking nosy questions down at the docks. They’re gathering their own intelligence, and laying out their options — ranging from “watch and wait” to “kill them now.”
(But, um…don’t tell my players.)
Here are just a few of the Esoterrorist antagonist responses that Robin presents in the game, divided into the three categories of Defensive, Offensive, and Supernatural, arranged roughly in order of intensity. Whenever the player characters make significant progress, either as part of an investigation or in the campaign as a whole, the GM can run through the list of responses and pick the most appealing one. (Cross a response off the list after you’ve used it, to keep the campaign fresh.)
Destroy Evidence: The Esoterrorists take steps to erase the evidence of their activities. They might destroy old newspaper articles and Town records or cover their tracks by removing forensic evidence — especially evidence that the player characters are about to find. The investigators arrive at the Town archives just in time to see a fire break out; they find the Esoterrorist ritual site, but, during the night, someone sprays the field with caustic chemicals to destroy any trace of evidence.
13th Age note: Whether there are records to destroy depends on how close to civilization your campaign takes place. If the Archmage, Emperor, Priestess, Dwarf King or Elf Queen lack an institutional presence, evidence of your conspiracy might take the form of eyewitnesses who have to be eliminated in ways that look like an accident.
Misdirection: The Esoterrorists attempt to deflect the investigation, by providing either an alternate explanation for the horrific events or a scapegoat. Everything wraps up neatly. It’s more than enough to satisfy any mundane investigators, like the police or FBI, so this tactic can remove such assets from the player characters.
The Specialist: The cell calls in support from the wider Esoterror network, bringing in a specialist. This specialist, who might be an assassin, sorcerer, technical expert, government official, or even an ODE, arrives in Town under an assumed name and makes covert contact with the cell. Effectively, you bring in a “special guest villain” for the episode.
Buy-Off: The enemy targets one of the Local Residents, offering something the character wants. Money’s too easy; the Esoterrorists are more likely to play on the character’s ambitions or personal needs with some Faustian bargain. That girl you’ve always wanted? Medical treatment for your dying parent? The respect of the whole Town? Anything you want… as long as you promise not to ask any more questions.
13th Age note: Want to buy off a 13th Age character? Look at their One Unique Thing, backgrounds, and icon relationships. Rob Heinsoo once ran a demo where he offered a character who loved the Diabolist the chance to turn her into a good guy — all he had to do was sacrifice one of the other characters. The game ended with one less gnome adventurer in the world.
Break-In: The cell sends a specialist from out of Town, a disposable asset, or just some hired criminal to break into the Station and steal the characters’ records, weapons, or other tools. If the characters have acquired any solid evidence of the Esoterrorists’ activities, like ritual items or the remains of alien creatures, then such items are stolen in the break-in, leaving the investigators empty-handed. This response can be combined with Bugging or Arson to add injury to insult.
Hit Squad: At this stage in the response ladder, the Esoterrorists have lost all pretence of subtlety and dispatch a few armed goons to eliminate the investigators. They’ll cover up the killings later — right now, their priority is to kill the Ordo agents and their local allies.
13th Age note: Depending on the tone of your campaign, you may or may not want the bad guys to save the magical fireworks as a last resort. Crazed sorcerer-priests of the Serpent God tend to shoot right past “buy them off” and proceed directly to “summon giant snake to eat them.”
Subtle ODE: The Esoterrorists summon an entity from the Outer Dark to spy on or harass the investigators. Such creatures do not present a physical challenge but may still disrupt investigations or cause added problems for the Ordo agents and their allies. Bleeders, death tappers, dream tearers, a Man in the Bar, and scourgers (all from The Book of Unremitting Horror) are good candidates. The Esoterrorists might even loose a sleep hag if they want to eliminate the player characters in an untraceable manner.
Possessor ODE: One of the player characters’ close contacts (maybe even a Source of Stability) is taken over or replaced by a summoned horror. Dementia larvae, sisterites, soliloquies, the Glistening, nesters or skin crabs can all cause behavioral changes or replace human victims. Alternatively, the Esoterrorists can arrange for a creature to possess a human host or call an alternate version of their target out of the shifting planes beyond the Membrane. This possessor does not reveal itself immediately but attempts to subvert the player characters’ investigation or insinuate itself into their trusted circle. If possible, it eliminates the player characters one at a time, perhaps even jumping from host to host as it works its way through the group.
13th Age note: Ahh, possession. Here’s a great opportunity for your players to take the ritual rules from 13th Age out for a spin as they try to exorcise the spirit or demon. Once they become aware that their friend or ally is possessed, you might want to drop hints that exorcism is an option. Otherwise they might just say, “Welp, guess Bob’s a monster now,” and do what adventurers do to monsters.
Overt ODE: Many creatures of Unremitting Horror are savage, destructive monsters. The Esoterrorist cell is unlikely to escalate the conflict to this level until late in the game, when their plans are advanced enough that they can weather the attention that monster attacks will inevitably attract. Potential “hired guns” from The Book of Unremitting Horror include packs of blood corpses, a clootie or even a feral drowner in Towns near water, an organ grinder if you want to hurt your players, ovvashi, residue daemons, or torture dogs. Scaulers also make good assassins.