Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Esoterrorists / Rules lite proof of concept

I've been rehearsing this review in my head for days. A more forward thinking person would have made notes, but that's not me, so you'll have to manoeuvre your way past numerous half remembered jokes and observations to reach the core of this review. 


I think I started at the wrong end with Gumshoe. The Esoterrorists is a Gumshoe game, written by Robin Laws and published by Pelgrane Press. The Gumshoe system, as I have observed in other posts, is an investigative system designed to support procedural investigation games - CSI games, Mentalist games, Miss Marple games etc. 
The system has two mechanics - Investigation based skills and General skills. Investigation skills always work, never fail and exist to push the plot ever forward. General skills include most 'doing things' skills such as those used to fix a car or kill a man dead. General skills require a dice roll to use, and there is a chance of failure. 

So why did I start at the wrong end? What does that mean? 
I first read Trail of Cthulhu, which is 247 pages long and has a fairly fleshed out rules system. I then read Fear Itself, which is 90 pages long, and I was disappointed to see that a large chunk of the rules text was word for word the same as ToC. 
Now I own The Esoterrorists, which weighs in at a massive 87 pages, and features a bare bones setting and system. 
I looks as though each subsequent release of a Gumshoe powered game has expanded and developed the rules and presentation somewhat, adding value and discussion to the original framework. 

I see it as a proof of concept. The Esoterrorists gives you exactly the right amount of setting and system to springboard a game. All you need from there on in is some imagination and an eye for mystery construction. 

What I like about it:
  • It's an easy system to learn
  • It's a new idea
  • The setting is simple, adaptable and universally understood - you investigate the paranormal for a secret society. You're like a more casual Men in Black or an X-Files team with better funding
  • The drive is to solve the mystery, not necessarily blow shit up (although that option remains open)
  • The book is cheap and short
  • Everything is adaptable, given a basic level of imagination
You could do a lot with this game. A better GM than myself could tell a really gripping story using The Esoterrorists. I could run a fair to middling game, getting better with practice. 

What I don't like about it
  • The system doesn't go into as much detail as later Gumshoe books
  • It's short - Whilst this is also good, as it makes it an easy buy, the fact that you can get 2.5x the word count for 2x the cost if you buy ToC makes The Esoterrorists  a bad deal on word count
  • The setting id a bit too sparse at times
Trail of Cthulhu, in addition to featuring more rules and setting material than The Esoterrorists, also goes into how to write a crime mystery, with hints, tips and discussions on how to construct a story based on clues and deductive reasoning. The Esoterrorists does not do this. It gives the GM some basic advice - keep the investigation moving. always keep moving forward etc. ToC tells you how to plot out the story, at which stages the larger clue should be discovered, how to shuffles scenes and clues around, stuff like that.
This is a terrible miss from the Esoterrorists, one which makes baby Jesus cry. 

As I said, though, The Esoterrorists is a 'proof of concept' game.  It's a new system and setting coming from a small publisher, and serves to test the waters before they dive in with further publications.
This, I think, is why it's such a light book. Why write, layout and publish 200+ pages if it's not going to sell? 
What this book gives you is a new way to run a game, and it is a new way. It's not a rework, or a hack, or 'inspired by', it's genuinely new, creative thinking. 
It gives you a setting framework that you can hang a good number of games on. It gives you a simple, effective rules system that allows for a story to flourish without bogging the session down searching pages and cross referencing source books. 

I would describe The Esoterrorists as 'Lean'. It's ready for action, which is a great thing for a new system - Up and running on the day of purchase. You definatly can't say that about D&D.