Thursday, September 30, 2010

Review: The Esoterrorists

So, while reading the Open Game Table volume 2 (you can find my thoughts on it here) I came across an interview with Robin D. Laws of - among other things - Robin's Laws of Good GMing fame. The interview was talking about a game system that Robin had put out called Gumshoe. I remembered hearing mention of gumshoe on Robin's live journal a few times, but I'd honestly never given it much thought. Curious though, I read the interview to get what seemed to be a rave review of an investigation type RPG. Curious, and very interested in seeing different takes on mystery type RPGs, I found and bought a copy of the Esoterrorists. I've been reading it slowly (emphasis on slow, this is a thin book and I've had it for two+ weeks already), and have to say it is a good little system. Not without its flaws, but a good little system none the less. So, read on for a bigger break down and review of the Gumshoe system, as found in The Esoterrorists, by Robin D. Laws.

Just The Numbers
Presentation: 8.5/10
Layout: 8.5/10
Rules: 9/10
Character Creation: 9/10
Provided Material: 9.5/10
Final: 89/100 (B+)

The Esoterrorists looks like a gaming book. There really isn't any other way to say it, I mean it is thin and light - a major plus for carrying in a backpack full of school books, but it is definitely a gaming book. Still, that isn't a bad thing. The cover has an intriguing picture of a woman, dressed in modern day clothes with a flashlight and a pistol heading down some stairs. The primary color here is brown, but the fade from light to dark definitely gives you a sense that the woman is peering into the unknown, which is exactly the feel I think the game is trying to give you.

Inside the book, the art is nice and clean. Done in a comic book style which seems to go against the Horror feel, but far be it for me to say comic book art can't do horror. The pages are clean and crisp, the text is a simple black against white, and the borders of the pages have enough going on to keep you interested - and more importantly framed in to the reading - while not being too distracting.

On the downside, I get the impression that some of the art was supposed to have been color and was turned monochrome afterwards. This seems to cost some detail in some of the pictures, where things are not as sharp as they probably were meant to be. It also makes some of the section front pages (like the Gumshoes Rules one) hard to read if you're not in a very bright light. This isn't a major take away, all the important stuff is black against white, but it is a bit annoying in less than ideal lighting conditions.
Score: 8.5/10

While overall I think the Layout in the book is good, and you can very quickly get a handle on the system by simply reading it from cover to cover, it is also not without its faults. For some reason there is no indent, or blank line, at the start of a new paragraph. The only way to tell one from another is if the line before it ends before reaching the right side of the page. This might not be a problem for some, but it can lead to some confusion as you end up in a completely different thought than before and have to double check that you changed paragraphs before continuing on.

I'm also not a fan of the side bars in this book. This is another area where I think they did the layout/art in color, and then had to go monochrome. The result is black text against a darker background with lines through it, which makes some of the side bars harder to read than they should be.

Aside from these two things, the book is fairly well laid out. Going from the start of the book, to the back, will get you all the information you need in about the information you'd want it whether you were a GM or a player. The GM stuff is near the back, the player safe stuff is near the front, and for all the information and potential in the book it is very small and easy to read.
Score: 8.5/10

Ok, so this is what brought me to the game. I'd heard (and not from Robin) that Gumshoe was the game system to use for mystery style games. It was a sentiment I heard echoed elsewhere, enough that I hunted down a copy specifically to check that out. I wasn't disappointed. However, before I start I should point out, Gumshoe and the Esoterrorists makes no move to hide what it is trying to do. It is trying to capture the feel of mystery television shows. This means that reality is only kinda there, the rules for non-mystery things are kind of light, and the game is designed to be broken down into an episodic format. That being said, lets go into the system.

So, as I said, the system is fairly simple. It is designed to be run fast and easily. The game advertises in the beginning that a GM should be able to pick up all the nuances of the rules within 50 minutes, and be able to explain how it works to people within 15. With Gumshoe, if you're a fast reader you could probably do it in 30 and 5. Everyone only needs their character sheet, a pencil, an eraser, and a single D6. That single die is what you roll for every check you'll make, with difficulties ranging from a 2 to an 8. 2 being the really easy, while 8 is nigh impossible (being as a D6 can't roll an 8 on its own).

The investigation rules however are where Gumshoe shines. And by shines I mean I think it is a touch of simple brilliance. Even if I don't fully agree with it as the 'best' way, it is a clever take on how to handle things that simply amazed me that no one had done it before. Simply put, there are no rules to find clues. The reason for this is because finding the clue isn't the fun part, it is the 'work' part that if messed up can stop the game cold. Putting the clues together is fun, so finding the clues should be easy mechanically. Which it is. Simple, clever, and something anyone can pick up and understand in seconds.

The rules however are not all candy and gravy though sadly. Like I said, the rules are simple, and with the emphasis on a type of show, skimp on certain areas. Gear is mentioned, and even given some uses, but there isn't anything on what it could cost, how players could acquire it, or really anything about it at all aside from some examples of how it may work. It is, for the most part, an after thought. The same seems true of combat, while maybe not the stapled on thing gear is, it is a little too simple for my tastes. The rules state they may (and by now they may have) make more complex rules, but for now there isn't much in the way of options for combat. You attack, you do damage, you take damage. Of course, if any game could get away with that, it'd be a game with the focus on mystery instead of action.

Finally, in some places the rules aren't as clear as I'd like. Players get pools of points to spend, how the pools are made is mentioned once, buried amongst other things, but there are no clear cut guidelines given. How big the pool is for one is never said, merely implied. This confused the heck out of me for a while before I went back and found the line I had skipped over somehow.

Still, over all the rules work, and work especially well for what they are trying to do. The over sights are there, but they seem intentional more than mistakes. The way investigation works more than makes up for it in my opinion.
Score: 9.0/10

Character Creation is fast and easy. It is a simple point buy system. You get points, you spend points, you get abilities. These abilities give you pools to modify rolls (remember, you're just throwing 1d6, and it has to get to 8 at times somehow). Honestly, I could go more in depth here, but it really is as simple as that. XP progression is the exact same way. You get XP, you spend it, you get stuff. XP is even handled at a 1 to 1 rate it seems for upgrading things. You really can't get much more simple than this, and if you do need help, the book has some good advice for how to have the group spend at least some points to make sure they never get stuck in the game.

About the only thing taking away from it is that at times the rules just let you make assumptions for connections. Like in the rules, it is never flat out said that 1 XP gets you 1 skill up, but it is pretty much said. This could be nit picking, but having the mechanics clear cut can be very important, especially when learning a game.
Score: 9.0/10

Even more so than the rules, Provided Material is where I feel the Esoterrorists really shines. It goes beyond simply giving you a sample adventure and some characters/monsters. There are detailed sections for how to set up adventures, hints and tips for setting up mysteries, and examples throughout the book of how to handle situations with good examples. As much as I may have griped above about Robin not being clear enough with some of the rules, he does know his story structure, and gives you all the tools you need to make your own adventures, complete with some advice on where to get the inspiration you may need.

Honestly, some of the most fun in reading the book was getting the structure for setting up the mysteries. Something you can use in any game, or even other creative endeavors. Definitely worth a look.

The default setting is a bit on the silly side, but then again this is also by design it seems. Players are part of a group that is working against the Esoterrorists. The Esoterrorists are people who try to make the world believe in magic and monsters in an attempt to bring magic back, with themselves the ones controlling it. As such, the Esoterrorists create situations for the public to make them doubt reality. A supernatural killing here, a ghost sighting there, and it is up to the PCs to discover what is going on, how it links to the Esoterrorists, stop the plot, and clean up the mess. A bit silly said that way, but I've seen much worse handled very seriously, and well too, and the combination you can get of Hellboy meets Monk is just too good to pass up.
Score: 9.5/10

Like I said, I like the Esoterrorists. It is a fun, quick, and simple little system. It seems like it would be a great system for bringing new people in with, especially if they like shows like CSI or Castle.There are some issues with the layout, and I really do think they meant to have a color book before going Black and White, but these are all easily looked past with what the game gives you.

Especially of use is the fact that the game does deliver on its promise. You could easily explain the rules to someone in 15 minutes enough so that they could play. You can also learn them enough to run the game in about an hour. There are some spots you'd still need the book (for tables and such) but you could do it.

The game also delivers nicely on giving the feel of a cop drama, or mystery series. Even with the horror stories that the game comes with, and the policing of the world against people trying to summon monsters. It looks like a game that could easily provide hours of fun, either as a medium length campaign, or as that thing you do for 2-3 sessions between other games.

Final Score: 89 (B+)