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Esoterrorists: Actual Play

We played some Esoterrorists over at Jere’s last night, and it was awesome. I may have some more analysis-like thoughts later, but I wanted to get down some actual play stuff before it faded from memory. One of my questions going into the game was how smoothly the flow of play could work; would it be awkward getting clues? Would point spends work well? Turned out that all that can work very well. Here’s how it played out, more or less.

The setup is here. In short, we’re a bunch of former students whose shared mentor, Professor Thorne, has a missing son, Brandon. She’s asked us to find him. After a bit of stage-setting, we headed off to his dorm room and talked our way in to find evidence and talk to his roommate.

Kirby, who spoke Cantonese, split off to talk to the roommate and keep the housemaster busy (“you’ll want to sit in, of course”) while we shook down the missing kid’s room. We did Kirby’s mini-scene first. It played out exactly like any NPC interaction does, with the exception that no rolls were required to get him to say the right things. He talked, Kirby pushed a bit, he talked more. At one point, Jere said “and you can do a Flattery point spend or an Interrogation point spend to get some more info about that.” Kirby did the Flattery point spend, and the roommate opened up a bit more, giving us the name of Brandon’s quasi-mentor and telling us that Brandon had been on drugs Tuesday night. He also mentioned that Brandon had written something on his window in soap and wiped it off afterwards.

We’d have gotten the name out of a later scene in any case, and we were about to find out that Brandon was doing drugs, but the point spend gave us more context. So it wasn’t a case of having to spend points to progress; it just gave us the opportunity to understand the existing clues better.

Meanwhile, the rest of us hit Brandon’s room. Jess, playing a Sotheby’s investigator, identified the painting in the postcard on Brandon’s desk — Jere had a copy printed out along with the Wikipedia article on the artist, and handed it over. This clue was available on sight.

While searching, we noticed a bunch of beetles scurrying around. Jere: “Jeff, you know those are carrion beetles from South America; given their current state of development, they hatched on Friday. The eggs can remain dormant for up to a century, though.” Jeff had the right skill, so he just got the information up front. Very clean, very smooth.

We proactively tracked the beetles back to the closet, in which we found a Mesoamerican vase of some value. We also found a Guatemalan bag full of yage, which I identified immediately, somewhat to the distress of my compatriots. “I sniff it, rub a little on my gums, use my lighter to set a bit on fire and sniff the fumes.” Tom: “… I’m pretty sure I ought to arrest you for that.”

Tom had points in Data Retrieval, so he worked over the computer, getting a bunch of names from Brandon’s email. Most of the emails were oddly encrypted, so we saved those off for later perusal. The email patterns were plenty enough to give us an idea of who Brandon’s closest friends were, though. We also found a bunch of photos of a South American archeological dig, including photos of pots much like the one we’d just found. None of this took a point spend, although Tom did specifically say he was looking at the computer. Jess realized, since she had Archeology, that the pictures were clearly an illegal, unauthorized dig.

Finally, we found Brandon’s diary, which was coded in much the same way as the emails.

Much discussion about the clues, their meaning, and so forth ensued, cut somewhat short when we realized that Kirby would run out of distractions at some point. Jeff paused at the end and asked if he could make a Chemistry spend to notice the traces of soap on the window and do something to figure out what the designs had been; Jere said sure and described a weird mathematical sequence partially based on the Fibonacci series. We headed off to the next scene, pretty satisfied.

That was probably our busiest scene, which makes sense given that everything has to branch off the first scene. We had clues that Jere just handed to the appropriate person; we had clues that were easy to get once we roleplayed looking in an appropriate place; we had point spends prompted by Jere; and we had self-prompted point spends. I’d been concerned that the system would just dump clues on us automatically as we entered scenes, but it’s clearly way more flexible than that.

A strict reading of the rules might mean you didn’t have the clues available with appropriate roleplay, but I think that’d be too limiting. The sample scenario includes that sort of thing. I don’t think you’re blocking investigation by expecting PCs to, say, look inside a closet or open up computer files. The blockage would be if we’d had to make Computer Skill rolls once we decided to look at the computer.

That middle range of clue gathering also prevents any sense of railroading. Clearly our choices did matter, even if they were relatively easy choices. By waiting for us to seek out clues, we were firmly situated as protagonists rather than onlookers. Leaving some point spends for us to request further cemented that.

At the same time, I never felt like we were having communication failures. As Jeff noted the other night, one peril of an investigatory game is that the GM and the players will differ on what’s important, and one or the other will get frustrated. In our play, the GM’s take on important clues was very much up front. It was not at all difficult to understand what Jere felt was important, because the important stuff was all clues, and he was free to say “you notice this, this, and this.”

I found this to be tremendously liberating from the immersive roleplay point of view. Transparent mechanics, n’est pas? But more on that if/when I write again.

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