The original Esoterrorists game was born out of a desire to have an investigative role-playing game in which success did not depend on getting lucky with die rolls, but on inginuity in asking the right questions in the right places, leaving the random die rolling bit to resolve things like combat and other areas where failure doesn't derail the entire plot - no more flunking one roll and missing a crucial clue!
That came out in 2007, and was well received. Now, in 2013, here is the Second Edition. Honed by over five years of enthusiastic playing and with new developments like an improved initiative system, and coupled by a lot more background detail to empower the GM to make excellent and consistent adventures within the Esoterrorist setting, this work has great promise indeed. Of especial note is the setting 'Station Duty' that is included in this work, a sandbox in which GM and characters can operate.
Characters are elite investigators dedicated to combatting the Esoterrorists, a deranged and dangerous group who seek personal power by evoking malign paranormal phenomena. Oh, and they have day jobs as well. The whole thing is kept under wraps and most people haven't a clue as to what is going on. Yet by creating mass hysteria with staged fake supernatural events, the Esoterrorists create the conditions for real supernatural events to occur... and, if not nipped in the bud, eventually the Creatures of Unremitting Horror will turn up - and you don't want them to become a regular part of this world, that's for sure!
Character generation is based on deciding on your investigative and general abilities, and then adding in the necessary game mechanics. There are certain guidelines to follow for those intending to play Station Duty, but otherwise you can be pretty much whatever you want to be. If you know GUMSHOE (the core mechanic) already, it's all quite familiar; if you are new to it everything is explained clearly. Take time to study it, it is a refreshing approach to character generation that places your concept of what a character is like and how he operates at the core of the mechanics, never mind your role-playing.
Next, the GUMSHOE system itself is explained. The basic premise is that the game is not about finding clues, it's about interpreting the clues that are found... so finding stuff out is designed to be the easy part. There's as much discussion of the underlying philosophy of the system as there is of mechanics: intentional as you need to understand the way in which its all supposed to work at least as much as you need to know which dice to roll when. This is a game that benefits from everyone around the table understanding the rules, yet they are straightforward enough that they are easy to grasp. Despite the emphasis on investigation, all the usual stuff about combat, other task resolution, wounds, healing, chases and the like are here with the necessary game mechanics laid out with enough detail and explanation to enable you to use them with confidence. Just take the time to read it!
Then the Ordo Veritas is introduced. This is the loose umbrella organisation within which the characters operate. It's well-funded and provides the characters with leads, resources and a network of contacts. It also lays out how they should conduct themselves and enforces the desired result: that the general populace should never find out what is going on. This chapter is littered with ideas that spawn adventures and even whole campaigns as you read through it: potential GMs should take notes! If you are not itching to start running (or at least playing) the game by the time you have finished the chapter, either go back and read it again or, sadly, this isn't the game for you. But if the concept and mechanics appeal, you will be wanting to rush out and round up some players... hang on and finish the book first, there are more gems to come. Although not stated, it is likely that this and following chapters are best left for the GM's eyes only. Even if you are good at separating in character and out of character information, why spoil the fun of finding things out during play?
The next chapter is The Enemy, in which the Esoterrorists themselves are presented. There's a wealth of detail about their underlying philosophy and goals, their organisation, what Ordo Veritas knows about them and more... oh, and a whole bunch more of scenario seed ideas scattered around. Sample Esoterrorist cells, notes on making up your own and a whole troop of monsters are to be found here as well. Each one comes with hints as to how to use them in your campaign and notes on which character skills will be most useful in detecting, comprehending and defeating them.
This is followed by a chapter called Scenarios, jam-packed with advice and ideas on creating the adventures that will make up your campaign. There's an interesting discussion on what makes the Esoterrorists different from other games with a similar theme: this one has a narrow focus with a single - albeit wide-ranging and diverse - adversary. That said, it is not hard to retool the system to run with a range of adversaries or to concentrate on a different one. However, the things that set the Esoterrorists out are detailed here so that you can highlight them to aid in making the game distinctive and unique.
Next up is Running Scenarios, again full of useful hints and tips on running the game effectively. This is not a game to pick up and run, prior preparation and planning is essential in order to be able to present the characters with all the information that they will need to solve each case.
The rest of the book (nearly half!) is taken up with the Station Duty setting. The concept here is that instead of the characters being sent on missions all over the place to deal with weird events, the weird events are concentrated on the township in which they are based. It's basically the 'small town horror' trope, in which you can either invent a town or use a real one, perhaps even the one you and your players live in, as the setting for the campaign. One advantage is that it gives the characters some emotional ties to the places and people affected by supernatural events - they live there and the people are family and friends. By getting to know the place, it can become more real within the shared alternate reality of the game, rather than being yet another place that the party sweeps into, deals with a problem and leaves, scarcely having time to get to know the counter clerk in the local diner let alone building any meaningful relationship with the people and surroundings.
The whole process of setting up your township is explored in detail - and it's as much fun as playing there will be! There are loads of ideas here, much which you'll find of benefit whenever inventing townships for games never mind for this one. The Station itself - a base for the characters under the auspices of Ordo Veritas - also needs to be devised, and there are hints aplenty as to how to do this as well. The discussion then moves on to how to create adventures in your township, and deal with the specific issues that using a single location for a whole bunch of horror will cause.
To get you started, there's the outline of an adventure - Breach Zero - to kickstart the campaign. This is followed by a vast array of 'Persons of Interest' - a host of NPCs you can throw in as and when you need them. With this campaign style, you want to have them around all the time, even when they are not involved in the adventure in progress. Don't just bring them in when they are due to be affected by something, the impact is all the stronger when something bad happens to someone the characters have been interacting with for months. There's also a section on key locations, which can be mapped on to important landmarks in your own township. A handy concept is a selection of thumbnail sketches of various locations - each comes in two sorts, one neutral and one for when you need to create a sinister atmosphere. There are several scenario outlines, not as detailed as Breach Zero but enough to get you started, and a section of Local News to throw in as appropriate. The emphasis is Small Town America, but if you want to set your campaign elsewhere it ought not to be too hard to reskin it to work.
And there's more: another developed adventure called Operation Prophet Bunco. This could be played out in your Station Duty setting, but it would work just as well if you have chosen the 'sent to investigate incidents all over the place' model for your campaign. Of course, you might decide to combine the two, sometimes the adventure comes to the characters and sometimes they have to go to it, a model that I'm considering at the moment. It's a cracking adventure and well worth running however you want to use it.
Finally there are character sheets and other worksheets to keep everything in order: scenario outline tools, party sklls summary, NPC note sheets, Esoterrorist cell logs and more.
Overall, this is a real gem of a system and setting. If you like investigating and battling supernatural horrors in the contemporary world with a game system designed to facilitate it, this is the book you need. Thoroughly recommended.
[5 of 5 Stars!]