See P. XX
A column on roleplaying
by Robin D. Laws
SRD or SDD?
With editorial for Hillfolk and Blood on the Snow completed, it’s time to take a break from DramaSystem to work on another of the obligations arising from our November Kickstarter. That would be the System Reference Document for Open GUMSHOE.
On one level, this seems like an exercise in cutting and pasting, taking the basic iteration of the rules as found in the upcoming Esoterrorists Enhanced Edition (the text of which you can grab now as a preorder benefit), cutting out the setting-specific bits and then adding in elements from the other GUMSHOE games. It does however require some thought on what an SRD ought to be doing.
When you decide to throw a game system open to all comers, you naturally give up control over what happens to it as others present it for their own creative purposes. This is a concern because GUMSHOE departs from some standard assumptions and becomes a better play experience when GMs and players understand where, how and why it does this.
For example, rating points in abilities mostly don’t represent a simulated resource in the fictional world. Instead they function as a sort of narrative conceit, measuring the characters’ spotlight time and how they grab it. (A few abilities, like Health and Stability, can be regarded as measurable resources in the game reality—although of course they’re still an abstraction. When you break your leg, you can’t consult a numbered meter to see how many points you’ve lost.) GUMSHOE seems confusing to some players until they grasp this. This explanation, though not a rule, strictly speaking, serves as a key tool to enhance play. So while you might categorize it as GM advice or a player note, it’s really a pivotal component of the game. As such, the explanatory text should be available to anyone publishing their own GUMSHOE adaptation. We can’t require adopters of the license to use it—as indeed, we can’t force them to make any particular choice. We call this Open GUMSHOE, not Passive Aggressively Controlling GUMSHOE. Still, we can encourage people to include it by making it part of the standard boilerplate text in the document.
This reflects a broader priority. We’ve chosen to make GUMSHOE available to other designers. Yet we remain its foremost custodians. If we’re going to let it out of the nest like this, we’d better provide excellent care and feeding instructions. We want others not only to produce GUMSHOE games, but to design great GUMSHOE games. It should therefore contain at least some guidance on how to do this.
The GUMSHOE SRD differs from the most famous versions of its breed, the D20 and its descendant, the Pathfinder document, in that it won’t also comprise a playable game unto itself. It’s not The Esoterrorists with the IP elements scrubbed out, but rather the set of components you need to build your new game on the GUMSHOE chassis.
If you’re designing a GUMSHOE game, we want you to be able to do it well. So it has to contain at least some signposting showing you how to adapt it to your needs.
For example, the build point totals for purchasing investigative ratings vary with each iteration of the game, depending on how many of those abilities the game includes. So the SRD can’t just give you the flat numbers as they appear in The Esoterrorists or Ashen Stars or whatever, because you might include a different number of investigative abilities in your GUMSHOE game. The document has to break from the text as third-party publishers might incorporate it into their rulebooks to provide the formula to calculate what the build point totals should be.
At least in these passages, the System Reference Document becomes something else—a System Design Document. We’ve gone from SRD to SDD.
Extensive passages on how to design GUMSHOE games go beyond the scope of the project. That sort of thing is better saved for occasional columns like this one. But the SRD does have to provide designers with the basic tools to construct GUMSHOE games without having to reverse engineer from the existing books. A balance must be struck here. If the document contains too much advice, it might create preconceptions that might lead other designers away from what would otherwise be brilliant leaps away from the game’s current assumptions. Too little, and it doesn’t give them enough to simply reproduce what we’ve already established in another setting.
GUMSHOE is not a generic system, but a chassis on which you can construct an emulation of any investigative genre. For a classic example, see the grenade. Grenades in the real world work the same regardless of the context in which they’re exploded. In fiction, they can work quite differently, depending on the reality level of the genre at hand. So in the Tom Clancy-meets-postmodernism-meets-visceral horror mix of The Esoterrorists, grenades are pretty deadly. Mutant City Blues treats them as less effective than the super powers at the heart of that setting. If you for some inexplicable reason decided to fuse high energy action movies with investigation, you might make yet a third choice, depicting them as wildly damaging to property and inanimate objects, while allowing people to escape harm from them simply by jumping and being carried away by the massive fiery explosions they generate.
So again the SRD can’t just pick one grenade rule and make that the default for all genres. It has to provide a quick design note about genre emulation and point you toward the solution that works for your design goals.
Likewise we won’t be providing a complete list of mutant powers from MCB or virology implants from Ashen Stars. But we will give you examples of each special rule structure so you can then kitbash it for your own purposes.
In the process I might even learn something new about my own game, as I figure out what is and isn’t essential to it.
By Matthew Sanderson
In the Aftermath of an Esoterrorist Generated Catastrophe
The Ordo Veritatis would like to believe they continue to have the upper hand in their struggle against the Esoterrorist movement. However, in the upper echelon of the organization, there exists the seed of doubt.
What would happen if the tables were turned and the Esoterrorists grew too powerful? What would happen if the Membrane finally broke down completely and objective and subjective reality collide head on? Control has been generating scenarios and contingency planning for years. Without knowing the nature of how the catastrophe develops, all the end results are also uncertain. The only hard fact that they can agree on though is that the Ordo Veritatis will have failed.
When the Membrane Shatters details just one of the potential ways the catastrophe could occur and what happens in the aftermath. The Ordo Veritatis hopes it will never happen, but they have to be ready in the event that failure becomes a very real possibility.
Setting the Stage
Ultimately, with the vast resources the Ordo Veritatis has at its disposal, there is very little chance that they would be able to miss the event that brings about the beginning of the end. Events would play out right in front of their eyes, for them and the rest of the world to watch, rather than taking place hidden away behind closed doors. What would ultimately seal their fate though is overwhelming opposition that even they can not stand up against or a plan so airtight that the Ordo Veritatis have no move left open to them that they can use to thwart their adversaries with.
The Esoterrorists, and the Ordo Veritatis for that matter, have long been of the opinion that if the Great Project is to be realized, a global unified strike at the very fabric of the Membrane has to be made. Potentially, it could be something that takes place over numerous locations across the globe, performed in such a way that the surrounding and overwhelming influence of objective reality doesn’t seal these minor breaches quickly as would normally happen. However, this is of a low probability in the Ordo Veritatis’s projections, due the fact that no single Esoterrorist cell would have the resources to pull something like that off. Likewise, the number of cells that would need to work together to perform something of this scale is something that goes against normal autonomy of each cell.
More likely, given current projections, is that an event that takes place at one location and then has global reaching consequences. In the last few decades, the ever-present eye of the media makes analysts believe this will be the medium by which the spread of the Membrane damage is carried worldwide. Thus, large televised events always worry Control now. The post 9/11 changes in the media influenced by the movement could well just have been the first step in a larger plan to bring this about.
Rather than cause an event that would have global news coverage, it is more likely that the Esoterrorist movement would try to jump on known proceedings to then get the chance to broadcast their activities through the watching media. It’s little surprise then that the Ordo Veritatis always becomes a little more on edge around the time the Olympics come around and dispatch multiple teams to keep an eye on proceedings.
Exactly what nature their broadcast might take is also a matter of speculation. A mass ritual hasn’t been ruled out, but it’s something that would take a great deal of time and setup amidst the proceeding events so would be incredibly hard (but not impossible) to perform without interruption. Many analysts suspect that the movement may employ the services of a being they call forth from the Outer Dark that could use their power to affect all those watching the broadcast, and thus create the resonance of the event globally. Thankfully, there have been reported examples of such a creature being made manifest that could perform such a task.
Without the Membrane to stop objective and subjective reality colliding, chaos would reign on Earth. The Esoterrorists may well have achieved their ultimate goal, but it would be at tremendous cost, bordering on omnicide. Projections as to what could happen range from anything between the complete destruction of both realities, akin to an anti-matter and matter collision, to a complete subjugation of one more powerful reality over the other. The following presents an option somewhere in the middle of the threat assessment, a merging of both dominions that would ultimately lead to a large part of civilization as we know it being wiped off the face of the Earth.
Subjective reality’s inhabitants and surroundings are defined by those around it. When it breaks through into the objective realm, the beings there (us) would be unconsciously changing everything around us to our own perceptions. One person in an isolated environment would create little damage to their surroundings, unless they were perhaps an Esoterrorist, at which point they could use it to whatever ends they so wished. However, as the number of people increases, the strain on reality being pulled in so many different directions also increases.
Theory has is it that there is a critical mass before the very fabric of reality finally gives way and begins to unravel completely. Thus, the most likely places for this to happen would be the major centers of population. Damage in each city would increase almost exponentially as local inhabitants witness the changes happening around them, only to have their fear and panic create even greater changes on an instinctive and unconsciously level. Like a snowball rolling down a mountainside, this progressively becomes larger and larger, that combined with the overall population of the area then hits critical mass.
Estimations of how long it takes after the Membrane shatters before reality breaks down completely in these locations vary from minutes to hours, but consensus has it that within 24 hours of the initial breakthrough the majority of the damage will have been caused. Major cities worldwide will become cyclones of raw chaos, as what it left there is constantly being torn apart and changed, assuming that they don’t just vanish entirely or leave a break in the world similar to a black hole that swallows everything following critical mass being reached. The ‘surface tension’ of what is left of subjective reality would ensure that these areas don’t extend beyond a certain point, as long as they are devoid of any external influencing presence to cause them to extend any further.
As a result, the theory is that only smaller pockets of society would remain. As these groups of survivors slowly start to band together, a certain percentage may well reach critical mass again and bring about further damage to their surroundings. This second wave disasters should make the reason for these events obvious rather than people presuming initially (as is expected) that cities have perhaps been deliberately targeted, such as in the scenario of a nuclear attack.
As to what percentage of the surviving population is eliminated in this second wave would depend on the number or population density required to hit critical mass. There is a definite likelihood though that a great many of those that remain would also be destroyed by the denizens of the subjective realm that come through once the Membrane has shattered. These creatures of unremitting horror in their ‘natural’ environment (or as close as the merging of the two realities would permit) would still likely be as hostile, if not more so, to those of us they encountered that survived. For a number of reasons, from instinct to the desire of destroying the invader, analysts see no reason why they would react in any way other than with hostile intent.
With the world constantly shifting around them, the survivors would be besieged on all fronts by creatures of their worst nightmares (not to mention the fear that seeing these beings would generate, and the changes that it would then cascade into making around them, etc.). They would walk a fine line between holding onto the memory of the world they knew, which they use to define their surroundings, and falling into primal, ever-changing chaos.
Esoterrorist Survivors and their Reactions
The Esoterrorist movement, following the shattering of the Membrane will be a very different entity than the Ordo Veritatis currently knows it. Projections estimate that the vast majority of the movement currently operates within major population centers. Thus, since these areas are quickly destroyed as per the above hypothesis, world-wide numbers would be cut dramatically. However, those that are left behind would be considerably more dangerous than ever before.
Whilst the mundane ‘grunts’, the small cogs in the operation of the movement, would be guaranteed casualties if caught in the major cities, a small percentage of the movement might be able to pull themselves through towards safety. These would most likely be the most gifted summoners and practitioners of the movement, individuals with the will to shape reality around them so that it is completely under their control. These, like the members of the movement outside of the cities who would soon come to realize their new-found power, would command a power previously reserved for the likes of God. These few would be the ones to reap the rewards of the Great Project.
Exactly how these individuals will act once they have obtained such power is a matter of debate. Given how Esoterrorist cells have been known to work at odds up until now, there’s no reason why such ideological differences will remain once the Membrane shatters. As such, surviving members of the movement may take the chance to wipe out rivals.
Other likely responses are that those who seek to obtain power do so in order to be able to use it over others. They may well attempt to take control of a given pocket of civilian survivors, establishing their own little empire as a God King at the pinnacle of their society. In such groups, great efforts will probably be taken to minimize the chance of adept subjects being able to grasp the secret to controlling the world around them. Any individual showing the potential to consciously change the world would be a threat to the Esoterrorist and thus be eliminated. These are not people that willingly want to share power, so removing it secures their own monopoly and serves to rule the remaining ‘subjects’ in a state of fear.
At the other end of the scale, Psychiatric Metrics have proposed what the impact of the world-changing events of the Membrane shattering would have upon the typical survivors psyche, whether members of the movement or not. One of the major lures to the Esoterrorist cause is the thought of being able to command unlimited power, but people picture this power being in the context of the world they know. They picture it being able to command the people, the places that they see every day, walking as a God amongst men. However, take that world away and they do they actually want this power anymore? They might be akin to a God, but they still reign in Hell.
By this time though, there’s no going back. They can’t undo what they’ve done. The fear is that some of these members of the movement who feel that fate has cheated them of their reward would opt for total annihilation. Some might well decide to quietly take their own lives, if they are in isolated enough locales to believe they are all that is left of the world. Others might well seek to bring about the end of what is left of the world with their power.
If they were successful in this endeavor (either as individuals or as a group that came to work together towards the same goal), projections suggest a number of possible outcomes. At the low end of the scale, representing the least favorable outcome is the complete unraveling of reality. What would previously have been confined to major population areas becomes the norm throughout the rest of the world. Like a wave of chaos that would wash over the land, every last shred of existence would be reduced to raw, ever-changing chaos forever.
At the high end of the scale, representing a more hopeful (albeit still bleak outcome for the survivors) is the theory that as the last of the influence of objective reality gives way to the subjective, it triggers a universal reset, built into the fabric of reality. As has been described in many papers on the nature of the Membrane, the universe is modeled in a way resembling the Yin and Yang. When the merger between both black and white is complete, and all that remains is gray, the hope is that something akin to the reaction of matter colliding with anti-matter occurs. The two, in complete contact, cancel each other out or repel from each other again.
It’s universally agreed that no-one would be likely to survive such an event. However the more philosophically minded members of the Ordo Veritatis wonder if such an event, if it is actually what happens should events lead to this point, would be an explanation of what the Big Bang really was. Many nights have been spent wondering if that’s the case, how many times has this happened before, with the world being made, destroyed and remade in a cycle lasting billions of years at a time. Likewise, if it has happened before, is it only a matter of time before it happens again, one way or another?
Civilian Survivors and their Reactions
Psychiatric Metrics have run a series of projections in the attempt to predict what the outcome of the catastrophe would be upon the surviving civilian population. Unlike the normal psychological impact of a natural disaster, where the survivors have lost their homes, all their worldly possessions, those that survive the Membrane’s destruction will have lost their entire world. Nothing will be as it used to be. There’s no hope of running away to their favourite holiday spot to hold on to a distant memory of better times, there’s very chance that running away to their relatives (especially if they lived in the cities) will provide them with the reinforcement of memory they are looking for. Everything has changed, and that will have a pronounced psychological impact on many of the survivors.
At best, people would become hardened to events around them when they believe that they don’t have the ability to control their situation. The vast majority of the civilian population doesn’t accept the fact that “magic”, as they put it, is possible. They won’t make a conscious effort to change it, because either they don’t believe it is possible, or those who suspect they might know how it works might not dare to given what they would have heard of happening in the major cities, and perhaps when larger groups of survivors came together. Their collective fear and acceptance of the situation around them puts them all in a single frame of reference and their subconscious manipulation of subjective reality acts in harmony with those around them to create the impression of a stable world around them. However, compare it to another survivor camp elsewhere, who’s perceptions are somewhat slightly different and witnesses will be able to see that there’s still changes at work.
Without knowing the critical mass needed to breakdown the fabric of reality in a given location, the exact numbers in which survivors will gather is unlikely. Many would initially try to head to the cities for help, being the centers for major resources and government. Finding these options removed, they might head towards major towns, leading to the second wave of breakdowns as describes above. From there, it’s guessed that people would retreat to isolated locations, small villages and very small towns. Each individual settlement would have to become self-reliant and provide for it’s own, so likely to become very territorial and promote a certain degree of hostility towards outsiders after a certain population number have been reached. The thought of adding one more person to the pot, putting more strain on already limited resources, might not be one that people are willing to accept. In a way, it would become a very feudal-esque society, comprised of a smaller version of individual city-states, but instead on a town-sized level.
Communication with other settlements will likely be minimal at best. If any form of technological communications remain working, it’s most likely going to be by radio. Phones with their lines and exchanges being wiped out in so many areas would be unlikely to work, so radio is the only other viable option left. Those with access to wind-up sets would be able to solve the problem of finding power to run such equipment, but such sets typically only receive rather than transmit. In the case of normal equipment being at hand, the need for electricity is going to be readily apparent.
Electricity would have to be generated from local sources, unless power plants that normally would have provided given locations remain intact. It’s only estimated these stations would remain online for a day or so at best following the initial catastrophe before they shut themselves down due to the lack of human attendance to oversee them and fail-safes activate to prevent problems. Generators are the only other viable option, which then in turn puts an even higher premium on fuel used to run them. Fuel and food would, as a result, become the two most precious resources left within a community.
Another concern that Psychiatric Metrics have risen to Control is that people in such a scenario are likely to be looking for people to blame for the catastrophe. Something like this should have been prevented by the authorities, they should have seen it coming… who knows, it might even be the result of some secret conspiracy that the government have been hiding for years. As such, the civilian population is likely to hold a distinct level of distrust and antagonism towards what is left of any former authority figure. Government officials, military, intelligence operatives… anyone that they can feasible argue as being responsible for the catastrophe being allowed to happen will become targets.
If any members of the Esoterrorist movement decided to jump on this bandwagon, and direct the hate anywhere, they might try to pin the blame squarely on the remains of the Ordo Veritatis itself. The organization dedicated to protecting their interests would be branded those that directly failed and allowed this to happen. For the surviving Esoterrorists, it gives them a direction to channel the civilian’s hatred towards, giving them a lever by which to control the masses, and removes any of the last real opposition that would stand in their way of total control.
This means that Ordo Veritatis agents are going to have to walk a very careful line in their actions with civilian survivors, should this tactic be deployed, given many of the operatives come from fields that would also be targeted with blame normally anyway (government, law enforcement, etc.).
If this given scenario did in fact take place, and with the threat potential identified above, a series of standing orders would be left with Ordo Veritatis operatives world-wide. The destruction of the cities would decimate the organization as much as the civilian world and the Esoterrorists alike. Stations or cells working in small or isolated locations would considerably safer from the immediate fallout.
Safe houses and field operations centers would become designated meeting points, where in the event of the catastrophe the operatives would fall back to in order to regroup, gather resources and plan the next course of action.
Once the operatives are secure, getting an idea of the lay of the land is next on the priority list. In order to function to the best of their abilities, they need to know what’s happening in the immediate vicinity. This means: intelligence gathering to find pockets of civilian survivors; assessing the damage to the area if any large settlements are nearby; locating large concentrations of creatures that have come through from subjective reality.
Once this is complete, defenses need to be established to protect against creatures of unremitting horror that wander the land. Whereas in their raw form, in subjective reality, these beings would have been purely conceptual, in the objective world, with the barriers removed, they will be forced to take at least a partial physical form. As such, they will be clearly identifiable for human survivors. Standing orders have it that any such being encountered should be terminated with extreme prejudice to ensure the safety of the population as a whole. Given the lack of the Membrane at this point, any previous damage that such acts would have caused should be fairly minimal (i.e. no more than what changes could normally be provoked by normal action in the world after the catastrophe at least).
Hopefully after cleansing the area of immediate threats, the last remaining order of business would be to remove the last traces of the Esoterrorist threat. These individuals represent a threat of an order magnitude many times higher than previously faced. As such, extreme caution as well as extreme prejudice is instructed. With the power of Gods potentially at their command, mundane methods of dispatch will almost certainly not be enough any more. Observation, intelligence gathering and establishing any known weakness of these threats is critical to success.
Dispatching the remaining Esoterrorist threat, especially if they have gained control of a substantial number of civilian survivors, could well cause a backlash from any that find out about it. Think what would logically happen if someone stands up and accuses the organization as being responsible for the catastrophe, then they end up dead at the hands of someone who is later found to have worked for the government or the organization itself. It’s not a pretty picture that would be painted for the culprit.
If this final chapter in the struggle against the movement is successful, admitted on a local level, but replicated across the world in other pockets where the Ordo Veritatis remains, then the longest job of all begins: survival and rebuilding society as best they can. Amidst the ashes of what it left of society, there must still be hope, so setting about rebuilding what the survivors knew as the world is paramount.
The Ordo Veritatis can’t allow the human race to slide back into the Dark Ages as a result of the catastrophe. With their guidance, helping humanity to rebuild, one step at a time, they might be able to keep the human spirit alive. It may well be a terrifying, bleak place to live for generations, but with the hope that the human race might eventually regain what will have lost, it doesn’t have to be the end.
As a final closing thought, there is a hope amongst the analysts that after a given period of time, when humanity finally develops and understands the world that they now inhabit, that their collective subconscious might help to create a new Membrane to part the realities once more. If in these dark days, if all hope seems lost, clinging onto this thought might well be the difference between carrying on and falling into chaos.
Until then, Control simply hopes that this is just a potential of what could happen, and not what will happen. Nothing more.