Monday, March 17, 2008

The best Mystery/Investigative RPG ever

Yesterday I purchased and read "The Esoterrorists" (pronounced like esoteric) by Robin D. Laws, published by Pelgrane Press.

It's just over 80 pages, in a large font, with huge margins. It could have been condensed to 48 pages without altering a word. Despite the brevity, it was still well worth the $20 sticker price. In retrospect, despite the low word count, I'd have been happy paying $30 for it - though I wouldn't have known that till I read it.

If you roleplay, and you like mystery stories (even if you've never really liked them in RPGs) you'll love this book.

The rules are incredible - I honestly think this is the best investigation-based RPG ever printed.

Setting: It's a kinda generic Call of Cthulhu meets CSI. The only really cool part is the overall concept. Don't expect lots of "crunch" or even lots of "fluff" - the setting is pretty minimal.

That overall concept does a good twist on X-files "the truth is out there" and conspiracy theory. It's not that there's aliens and demons ravaging mankind, while a sinister conspiracy assassinates presidents and attempts to keep the truths of the world hidden. Instead, the game takes a "reality is majority consensus" take. If enough people believe in something, it becomes real. So, the bad guys hoax monster sightings in order to create monsters. They don't want to suppress the truth, they want to create new truths by preying on faith and superstition.

The PCs are conspirators, suppressing the truth about the supernatural so that it doesn't gain more power from humanities belief in it. The global conspiracy of secret masters is benevolent - it's those crackpot conspiracy theorists who harm the planet. You uncover magical secrets, then actively hide them from the public, for the good of mankind.

That makes me smile. Now, I'm not certain how this paradigm would hold up under the scrutiny of a long-term campaign, but for a one-shot it's a pretty cute idea.

Rules: This is where the game shines.

Say you're watching CSI (or NCIS, or Law and Order, or a Film Noir, or you're reading a Lovecraft story, or a Detective Novel, etc) - How often does it happen that a piece of physical evidence exists (i.e.: it is mentioned by the narrator or the camera lingers on it) but yet never spotted by the detectives, and thus never comes up again? Almost never. If it does happen, it's because the tale you're watching/reading is exceptionally weird, or was edited poorly.

Yet it happens in RPGs all the time. Clue-gathering is typically a single die roll, even in situations where failure to get the clue means the whole plotline stalls out painfully.

That will never happen in The Esoterrorists - instead, your mystery plotline will play out just like it does in the movies and crime novels. I don't want to reveal here how the investigative rules work, since the book is so light I'd be fearful of revealing "the heart of the work" and costing them sales. Suffice it to say, even if gathering the evidence is almost guaranteed, the fun of a mystery scenario is drawing conclusions from that evidence.

The mechanics are elegant, fast, and close to (but not actually) diceless. The GM advice on how to build a mystery plotline is sound, and has already transformed how I think about plot structure.

In conclusion: Buy it. I got mine at Gary's Games in Seattle. Since Pelgrane is a smaller publisher, your local gamestore might not carry it. Their distributors do, however, so ask them to place an order for you.

If you're a fan of the mystery/detective genre, CSI-style television, or Lovecraftian horror, you won't regret it. If you like all of the above, you'll gush about this game like I did.

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