A Column on Roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws


Excerpt from an Ordo Veritatis threat analysis report (draft version)

Author Codename: Coastpoint

In this department we think often of ODEs (Outer Dark Entities) but too little of a parallel phenomenon, one I will, for lack of a better term, call the Outer Dark Intersection. For the rest of this paper I will use the acronym ODI, while recognizing that it has not been officially recognized by the OV style guide.

Intersections differ from entities as follows:

  • Chiefly, ODIs lack sapience, loosely defined to include such signs of intelligence as personality, individual motivation, learning, and the ability to communicate*.
  • They lack bodies, although in some cases they might be said to have, or be, structures.
  • Accordingly they lack locomotion. An ODI might wink into existence or disappear but once manifested in our reality does not visibly shift position by means other than materialization/teleportation.

In short, where an ODE reminds us of a person or animal, an ODI appears to be a place. We can talk with, or be attacked by, an ODE. We can enter an ODI and move around inside it. While inside, we might confusingly believe ourselves to be under assault, or to be encountering intelligent/autonomous beings. In fact, we are interacting with psychic projections, generated by the interaction of our minds with the irrational variant space of an ODI.

The classic ODI would be the haunted house of legend and lore. When entering a haunted structure, a top investigative priority must be to determine whether it is:

  1. an ordinary building infested by ODEs
  2. an ordinary building manipulated by Esoterror agents to create the impression of an ODE manifestation
  3. an unreal building partially present in standard physical reality, and partly present in an intermediate zone between us and the Outer Dark (see below)

In a house haunted by, say, Dementia Larva or Kooks, the structure itself, though it may be trapped or unstable, serves merely as an environment for the threat. A haunted house acting as an ODI is itself a supernatural presence. Agents entering it project their thoughts, fears and expectations regarding haunted houses into the ODI. It responds by presenting them with their dread imaginings—incorporeal spirits, eerie whispers, hurled objects, vivid visions of past crimes. Generally, in keeping with our notions about hauntings, they begin with the minor and eerie, finally escalating into the downright mind-shattering.

An ODI may locate itself in our world only long enough to trap one victim and then vanish. The Phantom Toolshed, seen in Rochester NY in the spring and summer of 2008, followed such a pattern. Various at-risk teens reported seeing this shed, where according to urban legend money or drugs might be stashed. Some witnesses recounted incidents in which they came across the shed in an alley, industrial park or backyard. Though drawn toward it, they for assorted reasons chose not to enter. At least three others did go in. They found tools inside—a hammer, a hacksaw, a nail gun—and removed them to show their friends. In three cases they later used these as weapons in savage attacks against friends and family. All three had undergone complete psychotic breaks. Our Veil-Out procedure ensured that mental health professionals labeled the detailed and similar accounts of their time inside the toolshed as hallucinatory. In fact, all three recounted a journey through a labyrinthine subterranean network where they witnessed scenes of historical torture, were imprisoned or restrained, and saw their own worst thoughts enacted before them. Each found the toolshed in a different location within the same twenty block radius. Our agents ended the Intersection by finding the buried remnants of an old graveyard ritual, performed by unknown persons sometime in the early 19th century. During that era the upstate New York area became known as the Burned Over District due to an explosion of spiritualist and psychic activity. The pre-Esoterror cult responsible for the rite has yet to be identified. Research continues, with tantalizing hints suggesting that some precursor of the OV smashed the cult and dispersed its members—regrettably leaving the seed of an Outer Dark Intersection behind for later generations to contend with.

What activated the fruits of this ancient rite in 2008 remains unclear. A likely cause would be lone wolf activity by a naïve supernaturalist. However I cannot yet discount the possibilities that fully aware Esoterrorists sometimes hunt down such traces of old magic and, by no doubt twisted means, renew their force.

An ODI can overlie a mundane structure, as occurs in classic haunted house style Intersections.

Particularly brutal murders, especially those where the remains of victims or perpetrators remain buried on site or nearby, render buildings vulnerable to these intrusions. Discovering the truth behind these old crimes and/or destroying (or properly interring) the remains has in some cases suppressed the uncanny in such places. However one cannot underestimate the certainty of razing a targeted building to the ground. Before doing this investigators must be sure that they have truly uncovered and neutralized the factors making the site a vector for Intersection. Absent such precautions, the Intersection may attach itself to them. In the unfortunate aftermath of Operation Glad Strike, agents declared a haunting case complete. Then the lead agent arrived home to find her own condominium transformed into a new host for the ODI experience.

Stepping within an ODI’s boundaries takes one into a space unlike our own. It cannot be the true Outer Dark, because:

  1. contact with it does not bring immediate madness and destruction.
  2. Outer Dark Entities cannot use it as a portal to bypass the Membrane and enter the material world.

I therefore posit an intermediate space, a fold in our reality that defies psychics while packing a destabilizing emotional charge. The Intersection displays some qualities of the Outer Dark, but they are manifesting here, not taking us there. An Intersectionalized structure may appear larger and more circuitous than measurement of its exterior could possibly allow. Note that, unlike outbreaks of the Ocean Game, the experiencer never hallucinates anything that would contradict the notion of being inside a structure, albeit a very strange one.

Inquiry into this area remains dangerously preliminary. Please find attached my proposal for the formation of a new working group. Included is a series of reports on a location in northern Saskatchewan where we might find, and study, a mine shaft infected by an ongoing Intersection.

*This is not to say that all ODEs possess all such qualities—some varieties for example display no documented propensity for communication.


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.

HandofGlory“Look! It burns clear, but with the air around,
Its dead ingredients mingle deathliness.”

— Robert Southey, Thalaba the Destroyer, a.k.a. “The Other Other Romantic Vampire Poem, You Know, The One That Gets No Respect”

From Gerard de Nerval to Harry Potter to the pub-rockin’ Smithereens, the Hand of Glory knocks so sneakily at our culture that of course I had to let it in. Also, unkind and waspish sorts might suggest that this is yet another Thing We Left Out of the Dracula Dossier, when in fact it is of course great fun for all games of horror and creeperie but yes okay fine there’s a Hand of Glory in the Whitby Museum (DH, p. 177) so it might indeed be handy to have written up as a Director’s Handbook-style Object. But you can also use it in a properly occult Trail of Cthulhu game — the Minor Artifact version below fits right into the skeevy world of Bookhounds of London, for instance. And since it began as a cool-sounding mistranslation, it’s clearly ready for the Esoterrorists, to boot.

Quick Esoterroristic Diversion: Early modern magicians, caught in a game of one-upmanship with competing rogues and cunning-men, had to deploy ever more outré magicks to keep their clients happy. Digging through a grimoire one day (probably) in the mid-16th century, such a warlock stumbled over the Greek word mandragora, meaning mandrake-root, which brings sleep (because it’s actually the same thing as opium poppies) and grows beneath the gallows (because eww, which is to say, cool) and shines at night (see opium poppies, supra). He transliterated it into his native French as main-de-gloire, or “hand of glory.” Since that’s obviously not the same thing as a root, it had to be something else: the hand of a hanged murderer (gallows!) that you burn like a candle (shines!) to put people in a house to sleep (!) to rob them. And once warlocks started offering such things for sale, inquisitors started asking witches about them under torture and hey presto genuine occult legend is born. So thus in our early postmodern era, an eager-adopter Esoterrorist with only broken English reads about the Hand of Glory on the Internet. He (it’s always a he) decides it’s actually Hangloria, the possessed demon hand of someone who dies of autoerotic asphyxiation that glows like a computer monitor and puts your chosen stalker target into a trance. And then he tells all his Esoterrorist creepster buddies and sure enough Hanglorias come crawling out of closets all over Bangkok and Macao and Sochi.

Okay, now back to the Hand of Glory in the Whitby Museum.

Hand of Glory

Appearance: Blackish-gray mummified human right hand. Forensic Pathology types it as severed after death, likely from a working-class man given the degree and type of bone deformation and callusing. Occult Studies might twig to the weirdness of a right hand being used as a Hand of Glory when traditionally the left, or sinister, hand was preferred. Of course, other traditions considered the handedness of the hanged murderer more important: the right hand of a dextral killer would be the “murder hand,” and thus more imbued with occult evil.

Supposed History: Research can trace this Hand of Glory back to 1935, when one Joseph Ford donated it to the Whitby Museum. Ford, a local antiquary, supposedly found it inside the wall of a cottage in Castleton in Yorkshire while repairing the stonework. More generally, a Hand of Glory (Occult Studies) is a magical thieves’ tool. Cut from the wrist of a hanged murderer (or thief, ideally at midnight in total silence) the hand is pickled with niter, salt, peppers, lime or borax, and an ingredient called zimat (possibly verdigris or iron sulfate) then sun-dried or oven-dried with vervain and fern. In some traditions, the Hand is potent enough now; in others you need a candle made from the fat of a hanged man, wax, and ponie (possibly one or all of: soap, horse dung, or sesame) to activate its magic. If you have the correct ingredients and a workable recipe, you can make a Hand of Glory in 28 days (17 if making the Hand during the dog-days of July-August) and a Candle in the night of the new moon. (2-point spend for all the ingredients, etc.)

Major Artifact: When the fingers of the Hand close around the Candle and the Candle is lit, the Hand has the following powers:

  • Any locked door, gate, portal, safe, etc. in the Candle light unlocks itself when the wielder spends 1 point (or 2 points for clearly impossible or advanced locks) of Stability.
  • When the wielder utters an incantation (usually given as “Let all those who are asleep be asleep, and let those who are awake be awake.”) everyone asleep in the building remains completely asleep regardless of noise or even attack. A Hand more suited to the world of 24-hour security might force a Difficulty 8 Stability (or Athletics) test to remain awake, or at least allow a +3 bonus to all surprise tests against those inside.
  • The Candle flares up blue in the presence of secret doors, buried treasure, etc. and its light reveals the invisible, including vampires. Vampires with Magic or Necromancy may of course be able to animate or otherwise control the Hand.

Seeing a Hand of Glory work inspires a 3-point Stability test in all witnesses, including the thieves. The Hand must be held in the wielder’s hand to activate the first two powers, although it can be set down upright and continue keeping sleepers somnolent, revealing the invisible, etc.

The Candle burns for 4-6 hours, and can only be extinguished by blood; the Hand lasts until destroyed.

Minor Artifact: To use the Hand, soak the fingertips in unguent or lighter fluid and light it up. When lit, the Hand has the following powers, depending on the number of Fingers (F; fingers including the thumb) it has remaining:

  • Adds +F to all the wielder’s tests of Mechanics, Infiltration, etc. to open a lock or door. Grants the Open Sesame cherry (NBA, p. 31) regardless of wielder’s Infiltration rating. (In Trail of Cthulhu, grants +F points of Locksmith.) The exception: doors warded with owls’ blood.
  • After the wielder utters the incantation, those asleep in the house remain asleep unless attacked. If someone is awake in the house, one finger goes out for each wakeful person. This does not diminish F unless the Director is feeling cruel.
  • Adds +F to the wielder’s (or anyone else watching) tests of Sense Trouble, Conceal, etc. for the purpose of finding hidden treasure, secret doors, the invisible, etc. Counteracts invisibility, e.g.: an invisible vampire adds +6 to the Hit Threshold to shoot her, but with a three-fingered Hand burning, that advantage is down to +3 to Hit Threshold.

Seeing a Hand of Glory work inspires a 3-point Stability test in all witnesses, including the thieves. The Hand must be held in the wielder’s hand to activate the first two powers, although it can be set down upright and continue keeping sleepers somnolent, revealing the invisible, etc.

The Hand burns for 30 minutes per Finger remaining on the Hand, including itself. So a Hand down to one Finger burns for 30 minutes. It can be extinguished by milk or blood; when it goes out it cannot be relit. After each use, one Finger no longer lights, so each Hand has only five uses.

Telluric Artifact: The Hand must be cut from the body of someone infected by the telluric bacteria, like a vampire. (Using the hand of a Renfield is only half as effective; use half F rounded up.)  The pickling, drying, etc. feeds the bacteria while (partially) shielding the wielder from infection. Until you light the Hand and inhale activated bacterial ash, of course. Its powers are the same as the Minor Artifact version, with a few tweaks:

  • The bacteria heighten the wielder’s hand-eye coordination and senses of touch and hearing, improving lockpicking, etc. tests by +F but also similar abilities such as Explosive Devices at the Director’s discretion.
  • The carbonized bacterial-zimat cloud puts everyone who inhales it to sleep except the quasi-infected wielder. If she has friends, they need gas masks or the equivalent to avoid the Difficulty 4+F Health test to stay awake in the same room as a burning Hand.
  • The bacteria also heighten the wielder’s predatory pattern-matching skills and awareness, adding +F to her Sense Trouble, Conceal, etc., and counteracting invisible (including tellurically invisible) targets as a Minor Artifact. Add F points of Notice to the wielder’s pool.
  • The bacteria also imbue the wielder with a rush of self-confidence bordering on the sociopathic. He must make an F-point Stability test to withdraw from the room, avoid touching the valuables, or generally not act like he owns the place.

Using a Hand of Glory requires an immediate 4-point Stability test.

It can be extinguished by anything that might normally put out a fire except milk or blood (or other high-protein or iron-rich fluids), which feed the bacteria and increase its effect on the wielder. (Wielder can now spend Health or Stability on any test improved by the Hand; the Stability test to resist its predator confidence is now Difficulty 4+F and costs F+2 Stability if failed.)

Fraudulent: The hand may have been mummified by actual thieves, or by a homeowner superstitiously trying to guard his cottage from thieves, or by a local antiquary who wanted his name in the paper, but it doesn’t have magic powers.

Connections: The formula for a true Hand of Glory might appear in Le Dragon Noir (DH, p. 273), or in another grimoire owned or coveted by the Bookseller (DH, p. 106). A true Hand makes an ideal target (or resource) for the Caldwell Foundation (DH, p. 160), Extraordinary Objects Department (DH, p. 161), or for the Psychic (DH, p. 96), Enigmatic Monsignor (DH, p. 114), or Online Mystic (DH, p. 126). As an early modern magician, Elizabeth Báthory (DH, p. 63) or her assets (DH, p. 135) may make use of the things. If the Sniper (DH, p. 131) has one, that could explain her ability to come and go from her hits; if Edom has one, it’s part of Pearl’s (DH, p. 52) kit. If Edom uses Minor Artifact Hands as standard field issue, that might put an intriguing spin on the origin of the term Lamplighter (DH, p. 123). In the latter case, if Pearl doesn’t keep tight hold of the stock, a Hand may turn up at Carfax (DH, p. 185) or buried inside the wall at the thieves’ target Coldfall House (DH, p. 188).

 

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.

Field assignments as Ordo Veritatis operatives tend toward the short-lived. Confrontations with the beings of the Outer Dark erode mental stability over time. The organization does its best to monitor the readiness of its agents before sending them out on missions. When possible it pulls members who are no longer fit for duty into support positions as analysts, administrators, or assigning officers. If your character gets out in one piece, he may become a Mr. Verity.

Sadly, not all agents adjust well to life after the Ordo. The organization can’t afford to expend resources carefully monitoring all former agents. It cannot enforce its request that ex-personnel periodically undergo psych evaluations and report any untoward findings. Those most in need of extra help tend to be the least prepared to ask for it.

As a result, it is not unknown for retired operatives to drift back toward the occult, or slip into general debility rendering them susceptible to Esoterror influence. To date, no former agent has gone completely rogue and joined an Esoterror cell. But some wind up on the streets, muttering of impending apocalypse. Certain ODEs have long memories and keep psychic tabs on their past enemies across the membrane between realities. Their hunger for pain makes them exquisite practitioners of revenge.

On occasion, then, it may fall to active members of the group to investigate the disappearances of their predecessors. Most of the time, the missing are quickly found, having gone off the grid in response to a brief, containable personal crisis. They are ushered into counselling programs. The team detailed to find them files an unremarkable report and goes home.

However, where the ex-colleague has succumbed to psychosis and by intent or negligence has begun to abet the schemes of the Outer Dark, agents may need to not only bring the subject into permanent custody, but also take care that any evidence of supernatural activity be thoroughly scrubbed.

Unfortunately, an agent’s operational instincts may not deteriorate as rapidly as his grasp of reality. Paranoid, resourceful, often illicitly armed, your quarry may prove difficult to corner. And dangerous when you manage it. Especially if you’re racing extra-dimensional demons to get to him first.

 


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.

Albion's Ransom: Little Girl Lost coverkafka’s shining review of Albion’s Ransom: Little Girl Lost & Albion’s Ransom: Worm of Sixty Winters is available in full at rpg.net

10/10: “this is British horror at its best.” 

“The Esoterrorists picks up where Cthulhu games sometimes leave off in creating a truly horrific experience without getting into gore and staying true to the cosmic horror that we are truly insignificant against the banal and malevolent forces that look at our speck of a dirt that we call the Earth as nothing. Yet, aptly keeps things local and contextualized it by bringing a local yet alien world in the form of the United Kingdom feeling the winds of a cozy catastrophe blow-in from the Outer Dark. Solid writing, art and editing will guarantee that this adventure will be enjoyed for many years.”

“It is the strength of the writing that the descriptions of the NPCs are so powerful that they might pass for fact. The adventure moves from a modern police procedural and descends/ascends to almost Fleming-Bond adventure without any of the silliness inspired by the films of that genre.”

Sixty-Winters-Cover_reduced1“It is a rollercoaster of an adventure that will really test adventures investigative abilities, in which, players will be thankful for the GUMSHOE rules that does not leave these things to chance. That said, players are no way conscripted into meeting their doom, say, in the way, that Return to the Tomb of Horrors. Rather, it is the grand tradition of the British Cozy Catastrophe. Whereby, the actions of the players do lead to the world going mad, but, they have every chance to set events back on track – preferably before the tea gets cold.”

“Solid writing, art and editing will guarantee that this adventure will be enjoyed for many years. Pelgrane Press continues to hit the ball out of the park with ease, nowhere is more evident than in the phenomenal adventures they produce – the extra features flesh out what dry rules cannot. This adventure is meaty enough that it will be enjoyed time and time again; and like the before mentioned, Return to the Tomb of Horrors creates a familiarity but also dread. So, if you are a Gamemaster, in need of an adventure that may or may not result in a TPK, but, provide lots of thought-provoking role-playing opportunities – you must check this one out!”

Thanks, kafka!

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You are receiving this memo as an Ordo Veritatis field agent certified to perform the forensic duties of a medical examiner.

At your earliest convenience, please access, through the amended usual protocols, the research paper entitled “The Neurological Implications and Structural Alterations Associated with Outer Dark Entity Involvement” (Catalogue #90UODS9) by Dr. Sheldon Saperstein, [REDACTED] and [REDACTED]. In brief, the paper establishes that the mental traumas induced by contact with ODEs are frequently of neurological origin. Alarmingly, Saperstein et al posit that mere remote visual observation of these creatures on our plane of existence may induce structural alterations in the brain. These induce a variety of debilitating symptoms ranging from the commonplace (PTSD, temporal lobe epilepsy) to the exotic (Capgras syndrome, circumstantiality).

When autopsying victims in the field, please aid our research by examining their brains for structural anomalies. Follow this protocol regardless of apparent cause of death. Numerous instances occur where fresh brain traumas accompany fatal ODE attacks that do not directly target the brain. Instead the direct cause of death might be, to name but a few examples, asphyxiation, hypothermia or exsanguination.

It is the hope of the Forensic Anthropology Research Department to assemble over time a database correlating particular brain structure alterations to specific Outer Dark creatures. Whether such correspondences can be clearly established remains a question which can only be answered by thorough evidence gathering.

To this end you will find in your updated protocols package an organ donation form. We strongly request that all field agents explicitly consign their brains to the organization for thorough examination upon their demises, including natural ones. You may already exhibit neurological features of keen interest to the department .

On a related personal note, those of you in the greater New York area might wish to attend memorial services for Dr. Saperstein at the [REDACTED] Synagogue on [REDACTED] on [REDACTED]. His colleagues carry on, his work and sacrifice an inspiration to us all.

 


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.

a column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Looking for a new way to spark ideas for your next player character? Consider stealing a dramatic pole from classic literature.

As Hillfolk players know, a dramatic pole is the essential opposition that defines a character tuned for, you guessed it, dramatic storytelling. It allows the character to be pulled in two directions through the course of the story, fueling inner conflict.

Is Huckleberry Finn innocent, or corrupt?

Is Don Draper real, or an advertising image for a created self?

Is Rick Blaine of Casablanca selfish or altruistic?

You can usually define any classic character in a couple of ways. How you nail this down reveals your perspective on the work and the character. What matters is that you identify a key opposition that spurs the character to pursue emotional goals. This pursuit becomes the action of the story.

Shakespeare serves as a deep mine of classic internal oppositions. As a dramatist, he has to get his characters moving and into collision with one another.

Is Hamlet a man of action, or a man of contemplation?

Is Lear a king or a fool?

Is Brutus an idealist or a betrayer?

Is Juliet a loyal daughter or a romantic lover?

Let’s take Caliban from The Tempest. You could define him in a couple of ways. Rebel vs. servant would work, for example.

For this article, let’s pick another: man or monster. This one reverberates down through the story tradition. We see it again with Frankenstein’s monster, The Wolfman, and “Dexter.” A huge swathe of Marvel comics heroes use the man or monster opposition: the Hulk, the Thing, the Beast, Nightcrawler, and many more.

(To digress for a moment, if you want to sum up the difference between the Marvel and DC heroes, Stan Lee’s creations tend to have dramatic poles, whereas the earlier DC characters don’t so much. Spider-Man’s hero vs loser opposition takes center stage. Superman’s divided nature doesn’t get much play until much later revisionist takes like Man of Steel. The inherent wrongness of that film suggests that the character wasn’t built to support an internal opposition and can’t stand having one bolted onto it retrospect.)

The list above shows us that Caliban’s man or monster opposition serves as a rugged chassis for genre characters.

Most but by no means all genre characters appear in procedural stories, which are mostly about the overcoming of external obstacles. Very often the character appears in a serial format, undergoing multiple distinct adventures. This is the pattern that all traditional roleplaying games emulate.

As the Marvel examples show, serial characters who star in procedural stories can still use dramatic oppositions to hold our interest. However, if they’re to continue their adventures, the opposition can never truly resolve itself. Should Bruce Banner get cured, he becomes 100% man and 0% monster, but that means no more Hulk stories. That’s why experienced comics readers know that a new cure for Banner’s condition will never last very long. It’s just a temporary way of finding a fresh angle on man versus monster theme.

If you start with the idea of playing a man or monster PC, the task of adapting it to various genres falls readily into place.

In a fantasy game, you can literally be a monstrous being, whether an orc or minotaur, who aspires to acceptance and a higher self. If you’re playing 13th Age, you could select icon relationships that heighten the opposition. A fraught relationship with the Lich King, Orc Lord, Diabolist or Three could represent your monster side, even as you aspire to a greater connection to the Emperor, Elf Queen, or Priestess.

Science fiction dramatic poles often center around the nature of humanity. Your monstrous side might be represented as a grotesque or brutish alien morphology, or as extensive cybernetic implants.

Some horror games might permit you to have a bit of monster in you already as you start play. In Trail of Cthulhu, give yourself the drive “In the Blood” and you’re off to the Innsmouth races.

To use the opposition in Mutant City Blues, select mutant powers that make you look freakish, and make sure your powers grant you a defect allowing the question of your slow mental or physical deterioration to drive personal subplots.

When a setting doesn’t allow for literal monstrosity, you can always go for the metaphorical kind. As a cursory glance at history tells us, the real monsters out there are all people. To go back to Shakepeare, his portrayal of Richard III could easily be classified as having a man/monster opposition. (Like pretty well all of the history plays you could also give him just ruler vs. tyrant, but since that fits them all it fails the specificity test of great storytelling choices.)

Your ultra-competent agent in The Esoterrorists could have passed Ordo Veritatis psych evaluation by cleverly hiding her psychopathic nature. She starts out as a sociopath for the forces of good, just like 007 in his classic conception. But what happens when her Stability starts to slide below 0?

Any opposition you can find in literature can work in DramaSystem. The settings described in the various series pitches merely dictate whether the monster side of you is literal or metaphorical.

So for the core Hillfolk setting, as well as other non-fantastical pitches like “Brigades”, “Maroons” and “The White Dog Runs at Night” reality as we know it restricts you to the limits of human deformity. You might give your character a curved spine, paralyzed hand or missing eye in order to underline the monstrous side of his dramatic pole. Or you might find the way it associates disability with monstrosity unnecessarily stigmatizing and decide to chuck this longstanding literary trope into the dustbin. In that case you’ll make your character monstrous by action but not by outward appearance.

Other DramaSystem series pitches draw on genre elements allowing literal monstrosity. Your “Alma Mater Magica” or “Under Hallowed Hills” character could be half human, half goblin. A mecha pilot from “Article 9” could be infected with an advanced case of ATI (anime tentacle ichor.) In “Against Hali” you could be emotionally warped by exposure to the banned play, The King in Yellow. “Transcend”, with its theme of extreme futuristic body modification, revolves around this opposition. If you’re the central character, you might not see yourself as part monster, but family members run by the other players might.

Likewise you can take any of the other oppositions mentioned here and use them as a springboard for your character. The intersection between pitch and opposition makes for a different character each time. Your choice of family vs. love leads you to create a quite different character in the Icelandic saga of “Blood on the Snow” than it would amid the smoky cross-cultural intrigue of “Shanghai 1930,” because the historical contexts are so different.

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