Emmy Allen’s Esoteric Enterprises, a first approach

Note: This is not as much a review as it is an abstract of my first impressions after having read the entire game, and some recollections of the original blog entries. Also, I’m writing directly on English, not in Spanish and then translating. I thought it was important to mention it.

Esoteric Enterprises (EE) is the brand new offering by Emmy Allen (of The Gardens of Ynn, The Stygian Library, and Wolf-Packs & Winter Snow fame), and none of the hottest titles out there right now (seriously, go get it!)

EE is a game about “the underworlds of organised crime and the esoteric”; setting-wise, it’s similar to some World of Darkness universes, to wit, Orpheus and Hunter the Vigil (as Emmy states on the introduction,) but also Unknown Armies. This means it’s a game set in the modern day world, but also that the world, although similar to ours, it’s not exactly the same; in the game world there are monsters, magick, and weird things, like some Lovecraftian creatures, a few Changeling the Dreaming things, but most taken from D&D, everything with a dark twist, of course.

System-wise, being part of the Old-School Renaissance, it’s obviously based, at least to some extent, both on Moldvay’s Basic and Cook’s & Marsh’s Expert sets, and also Lamentations of the Flame Princess, to the extent that EE includes LotFP’s streamlined Skill System, with its own set of skills (Charm, Contacts, Forensics, Technology, Vandalism, and several more).

As for its original systems, EE contains a great deal of wounds management: each type caused by bullets and explosives, knives and claws, hammers and punches, fire and acid, electricity and cold weather, poison and diseases. Each type containing their own effects, all horrible and painful (this game is not for the faint of heart: here, some examples: “You’ve been squashed into a pulpy mess, so there’s really barely anything left to bury or reanimate,” “Your organs are shutting down one by one. You’re a Dead Man Walking. Plus, you spend the next round vomiting everywhere, and lose your chance to act”… yes, this is a game where characters die, and easily, unless they are smart).

The are rules for ageing, attribute loss, breaking equipment, cave-ins, escaping bonds, being left alone in the dark, hacking, shape-shifting, drugs, torture, mental damage and a bunch more things. It’s very complete as well as flexible for the referee to implement ad hoc rules when he need resolving something not covered by the book.

Cash & Downtime covers what the characters do in their free time between adventures, and how they spend their gold… I mean, their dollars. There are also systems to manage medical experiments, monsters as player characters (called spooks), spellcasting, running heists, and a great deal of gamemastering information.

One of its best features are the chapters called Rolling up the undercity and Rolling up the occult underworld, which allows you to create the underworld with just a bunch of dice rolls, including locations, tunnels, cults (like the worshippers of Amanita Muscaria, don’t you love it!?), factions and more. Much more.

There are many things I left out, but in conclusion I can say that Esoteric Enterprises is an excellent game and setting, full of ideas. You can run it as body-horror drama, supernatural noir, dark fantasy or urban grimdark. With it, you can run a campaign based on The X-Files, The Invisibles, Neonomicon, Hellblazer, Hellraiser, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Lost Boys, Tokyo Gore Police, and some Cronenberg nightmares.

“Are you sure there aren’t any flaws?”

Well, there are a few typos, but nothing too annoying.

“Anything else?”

Well. It’s illustrated with photographs, which are kind of ugly. Remember that cyberpunk game which used photos instead or drawings, and how weird it looked? Well, here happens the same. I would have prefered public domain illustrations, like other of Emmy Allen’s works, but this is not something to hold against the game, let’s be honest and remember that indie games rely heavily on stock art, but you can’t find many modern day stock artwork, so it’s photos.

I have to tell you, though, that despise the pictures, you should try it, it’s a great game and when you are on the table, it’s the emergent story what counts, not the book’s illustrations. Oh! And I made some random tables.

Ugly picture, right?

Short reviews | In the Light of a Ghost Star; Black Sun Deathcrawl; Ford’s Faeries; Campfire Tale

Here’s some short reviews.

In the Light of a Ghost Star

A set of minimalistic rules that is a true wonder. The rules fit on one page, and the rest of the booklet is an introductory adventure, some illustrations, and tools for players and referees. Among the best that science fiction has to offer. Get it!

Black Sun Deathcrawl

It is not hyperbole to say that there is nothing like it. It is not a hyperbole but almost, because recently there have been some things inspired by Black Sun Deathcrawl, or at least that remind us (In the Light of a Ghost Star, Mothership or Null Singularity). Anyway, this masterpiece of cosmic horror and nihilism made clear the need to create games with a different, more serious and dark approach. Based on Dungeon Crawl Classics, BSDC takes us to a world where life on the planet’s surface has become impossible and we can only seek refuge in the depths … existentialist dungeon crawling, if you want. Get it!

Ford’s Faeries

This bestiary inspired by the illustrations of Henry Justice Ford is a little jewel. Fairies and monsters for your OSR campaign (I already saw myself using some of these pages in Dolmenwood.) It’s free, too. Get it!

Campfire Tale

An adventure for Labyrinth Lord and The Black Hack. It is brief, more than adventure, an encounter, ideal for the next camping of the players. It is not very deep or brings anything original, but it is fun and will get you out of trouble when you have nothing ready for your next session. Get it!

How to read (and understand) Silent Titans

Originally published on Reddit.

Yes, Patrick Stuart writes great books that require an extra effort from the referee, but it’s always worth it in the end, and perhaps making the books more accessible would go against the real value of the work. Silent Titans is no exception.

If you haven’t tried Silent Titans, allow me to help you a little. First, you must know that the book structure makes sense, the dungeon maps make sense and the writing makes sense.

The maps are abstractions

You don’t need more detailed maps to run the dungeons; all the dungeons are short, they all have 7 rooms and each room has one or two doors. The game is not about complicated labyrinths, it’s about weird things happening in these smalls buildings.

Maps here are more like diagrams roughly portraying the layout of the building and the rooms composing it, with arrows that show you how many doors there are and where they lead to.

“The map is really just a quick reference to remind you of the areas described in the prose, but the prose is the «sole source of truth» rather than the map.” [Source]

Information is where it needs to be

The book mentions a lot of stuff you don’t know nothing about, for instance, in the dungeon called R8-B8, T.A.C.s are mentioned but you don’t know what T.A.C.s are. At the end of the dungeon description, that is, after the last room (easy, there are only 7 rooms), there is a list of monsters, one of these is the T.A.C.

Also, if you have the PDF, have you noticed that some words and phrases are underlined? Those are links! It sends you to the relevant page. Click on T.A.C. and you will be directed to the description of this monster.

There’s structure in the chaos

This book is chaotic, it portraits the chaotic nature of the setting; but there’s a structure you can’t notice until you have read the first 14 chapters. Wait, wait, wait! Don’t be scared! Some chapters are a page long or so. In my mind, the first 13 chapters work as three chapters: introductory information, first dungeon and the sandbox & city description. Each of these three parts are different and don’t follow a structure, because they are about different stuff. But then you get to the 14th chapter, which in my mind is the first section of the fourth chapter, that is, the Titan R8-B8‘s description:

  1. Two pages that explain how to explore this area (a Titan is both a land and a dungeon, it’s a big part of a bigger map). It describes its towns (three towns explained in a single page; you don’t need more details). It includes a description of the roads and paths you find there and where they take you; some of them take you out of R8-B8 into another Titan-Land. These are also underlined, so in a game session, you can go to the relevant page in a click.
  2. One and a half pages overview of the dungeon: there’s the abstract map and a brief summary of each room. Additionally, there’s a comment on encounters and general description of the atmosphere, texture, doors and other features.
  3. Several pages that describe each room in depth. The complete description of the room is in the same page.
  4. The Avatars. That is, the monsters you find in this dungeon.
  5. This structure (points 1 to 4) is repeated for all the Titans-Lands-Dungeons. So, when you familiarize with one, you can find what you need in another.
  6. After this, you find a description of Titan Diamonds and Ego-Machines, which are mentioned before several times. Remember, information is where it needs to be.
  7. After that, there’s a brief discussion about how to continue the adventure, an interview, some tables you might need during the sandbox & city part. There’s also the rules of the game (one page, taken from Into the Odd) and an «I search the body» table. And that’s it.

The first dungeon map doesn’t appear in the main map

You can think the purple tower with a head in the spread overland map is the first dungeon (Dementia Bomb), but it’s not. I wasted a lot of time trying to conflate the first dungeon map with that illustration.

The book is color coded

When you navigate a Titan, the roads table include destinations highlighted in different colors; each color refers to a specific Titan. For example, R8-B8 is pink and Birk is purple. This is a sample navigation table.

And I think that’s all you need to know. It took me a while to understand the book, for two reasons: you have to read several chapters before you get the hang of it, and I don’t have a lot of time to read. Patrick says that you need to read the book before you run the game, and he’s right. You need to understand what is going on so you can do you work properly.

Mouse Box

One mini-game that will make you break your head is “Mouse Box”, in the dungeon/Titan Brom. If you haven’t figured it out, don’t fret! I have you covered here.

The Prismatic Demon and the Pentangle Shield

According to Patrick Stuart crowsourcing campaign for Gawain and the Green Knight, this bit was omitted from Silent Titans:

If the PCs defeat the Prismatic Demon and recover the Pentangle Shield, the following takes place;

The Memory of the Shield

Seeing the Image of Mary on its inside will suddenly trigger a complex memory.

  • This is the Shield of Gawain.
  • Together you defeated Doctor Hog and sent the Titans to sleep.
  • You tricked a False and Cruel Knight into attacking the core of the Titan Birk.
  • This is the body floating in Birk’s final chamber.
  • This allowed Doctor Hog to think Gawain was dead.
  • And that caused him to reveal his final plan, to raise Chronos from the Afon-Mor.
  • The last thing you remember of Gawain was that he sought ‘The Green Chapel’.

For your convenience and use on the table, you can download the lost memory on PDF.

The Maze of Uriel

We have the map and we know each of the rooms/eggs correspond to each of the rookeries; there are 12 rooms but only 7 rookeries, but only 7 rooms have a hole in them. Which room corresponds to each rookery? You can decide that, it won’t change the game at all if you assign this room or that other room.

Extraneous Rules

Sometimes, you are asked to roll will saves with disadvantage; but that mechanic is not from Into the Odd. Is it the same as in 5e (roll two dice, use the worst)? Or you add a penalty (-1, -2)? It doesn’t matter, actually. You can use the Impaired rules from ItO.

Review | An Analysis Into the Nature of Man & the Satanic Power He Contains, by James Raggi for Lamentations of the Flame Princess

Premise

An Analysis Into the Nature of Man & the Satanic Power He Contains (edit: 30 minutes after I made this entry, DTRPG decided to ban the book and it’s no longer available from that seller; but you can still buy other products) is one of four products launched by Lamentations of the Flame Princess for the GenCon 2019, and of the four is the most notorious due to its controversies around its supposed content, but not its real content, which few know except for some photos and decontextualized comments.

Originally titled Zak Has Nothing To Do With This Book, the title describes the module’s premise (the story, if you like), but it is also a meta-commentary on the controversies in which its author, James Raggi, has been involved. At the end of the review I will talk more about this.

A group of parishioners finds a forbidden book, everyone immediately recognizes the book as “evil”, and the village priest determines that the owner of the book should be executed. Everyone agrees and determines that the owner is the jester, Zak Canterbury. Everyone knows that the accusation is false, they don’t feel good about it, but any protest could cause suspicion to fall on them. This fear is exacerbated because all eight involved are victims of a curse and have a magical tattoo, but nobody knows that others also have their own curses and tattoos, so they will do their best to keep both characteristics secret. If this means sacrificing Zak, so be it.

This is where the adventure begins, the PCs soon discover the situation and what they do depends entirely on the players. There is nothing to indicate that the best course of action is to defend the accused, nor to join his accusers; they may well ignore the matter and let it be resolved without their intervention. They could also take advantage of the situation, as is typical of the old-school style, and stealing the book passes its personal use.

The good

Each of the 8 characters is described in some detail (and each has its own full-page portrait). What James Raggi presents to us is not an adventure in the traditional sense, it is not a script, it is not a story, but a situation; the referee must improvise every moment based on the actions of the players.
To achieve this, each NPC has enough information to understand their motivations and can be interpreted appropriately.

The curse that weighs on each one, and the powers granted by their tattoos, help this task, in addition to causing the situation to become “weird”, a characteristic usually associated with LotFP products.

At the end of the book, two quick reference tables are found to always keep in mind the motivations of each character, as well as a quick description of his curse and his tattoo. These tables should be printed to always have them visible.

Also included is a single page chronology with the relevant events before and after the discovery of the forbidden book, until the arrival of the characters.

In the description of the forbidden book it is revealed to us that it is a spellbook that contains several common spells, a new spell (bloody, grotesque, dangerous), and a virus spell.

This spell is a novelty; it is an undetectable spell that is prepared automatically when a Magic-User prepares a spell from this book, or by transcribing any of them to his own book and preparing it from there. The virus spell does not count towards the daily spell limit nor does it increase the study time, it is automatically prepared and, when the MU casts the first of its highest level spells prepared that day, instead of the expected effect, it is the the virus that occurs.

Another good thing: One character is called Blackie Ritchmore.

The Bad

Due to the type of situation raised, it is impossible (or almost) to include a guide on how to run this adventure. This is not a defect in itself, as an experienced referee should be able to handle it without too much trouble, but a referee with little experience will be in trouble trying to understand what is expected of him.

The adventure lacks introduction, it would have been a good idea to add a comment about the expectations of the game.

The book tells us that, whatever the intervention of the adventurers, if Zak survives, he will feel grateful to them. This does not make much sense but it can be ignored, unless the referee wants to continue the adventure. In this case, ten ideas are given: Zak has ten jewels that he is willing to offer them, but each one was hidden in a different place. We are given a brief summary of where they were hidden and the difficulties to recover them. However, each of the ten options would be very difficult to pursue if Zak does not get rid of his curse, but that is not the problem, the problem is that most of these adventure hooks are uninspired, and it feels like they were drafted with haste.

This haste is present in several parts of the book, it is clear that James Raggi did not have enough time to present all his ideas.

Nor are we given any explanation about the curses and tattoos, or the forbidden book. This information is not essential to run the adventure, but it could have been useful to understand it better and have some idea to improvise. Of course, a lot of backstory is something that these modules should reject, but a line or two for each thing would have been a good addition: “The virus spell uses the book as a vehicle to search for a new carrier.” About the tattoos and curses I can’t think of any justification.

Conclusion

An Analysis Into the Nature of Man & the Satanic Power He Contains is a good product for those who like the adventures and supplements produced by LotFP, but this is more difficult to use than others, however I do not see how it could be facilitated, because the expectation the game is total improvisation.

If you don’t like LotFP products, this one won’t change your mind.

If the adventure seems interesting to you, but the typical elements of Raggian Grotesquerie are not to your liking, it can be easy to change them, as these are mainly limited to the new spells.

The Ugly

Surely all the readers of this blog know the situation of Zak Smith and the accusations of sexual abuse against him (accusations, on the other hand, credible). Among those indirectly affected by these events is James Raggi. Raggi, in his public statement, said he had made the decision not to publish new books by Zak, not to reprint the three books he wrote for LotFP, and to cancel the projects that were underway, in which Zak was involved.

Soon, and without any foundation, some people began to claim that it was a lie, that Zak Smith would continue writing and publishing with James Raggi under pseudonyms.

This, of course, is offensive. There is no indication that this was the case, but that did not stop the detractors of James Raggi and LotFP to continue perpetuating that rumor and giving it as an absolute and unquestionable truth.

Raggi, as always, defended himself against his attackers using satire, so he published a book called Zak Has Nothing To Do With This Book, which refers to the real situation he was going through: accusations of continuing to collaborate with Zak (Smith), and also to the content of the book: Zak (Canterbury) has nothing to do with the forbidden book.

It was very easy to get fast and wrong conclusions. Of course it was!

At first (and I include myself here), many assumed that it was the way James Raggi told us that, in his opinion, Zak Smith should not be considered guilty until a court of law determined that he did was. Some people made him the target of his attacks, again (in this I don’t include myself: if James thinks Zak is innocent and I think he is guilty, neither his opinion nor mine are important because we are not part of the jury that will determine his guilt or his legal situation; I may disagree with James’s opinion, but that does not mean that he deserves the attacks and disqualifications that he has been a victim.)

However, after reading the text (and James’s detractors should read it too) it is clear that the book is no defense of Zak, it is a satire about the false accusations of continuing to collaborate with Zak in secret, and nothing more than that.

Zak Smith has nothing to do with Zak Has Nothing To Do With This Book, also known as An Analysis Into the Nature of Man & the Satanic Power He Contains. The book is not about Zak Smith, it’s about James and his attackers. The jester is not Zak, it’s probably not James either. And this must be said clearly.

In my personal opinion, all those people who attack James Raggi and demanded DTRPG to remove this book, especially those who continue to play D&D 5e, are hypocrites. Wizards of the Coast erased Zak Smith’s name from the credits of his product so that no one realizes that they collaborated with a sexual abuser and possibly a rapist, which is a cowardly move and only concerned with the prestige and profits of the company. James Raggi did not erase the name of Zak, what he did was to completely remove Zak’s products from his catalogue, which implies a great economic loss for him, but the fact of having written a satirical book called Zak Has Nothing To Do With This Book was enough for his detractors to return to the attack. One would think that the real crime is not sexual abuse but to use the name of a sexual abuser.

My conclusion is that these people don’t care about Mandy or the accusations; they see in the whole situation an opportunity to destroy James Raggi and his company. This goes beyond simple animosity for a style of play that is not the one that these people like, more it seems a strategy to eliminate the strongest competitor, before which their products pale in quality of production and content.

An Analysis Into the Nature of Man & the Satanic Power He Contains

The Village and the Witch | A Review

The Village and the Witch is a supplement written by Davide Pignedoli (Black Dogs) to be used with Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and any OSR. It’s what we usually call a supplement. (Those are affiliate links, friends.)

What is it about? The introduction to the supplement says:

This module is designed to generate a Village, a Witch, and some additional weirdness: two pages with die-drop tables to outline the village (map and content), and two pages with a series of random tables to generate a Witch and its connection to the village. The rest of the module contains some instructions, random or less random NPCs and other weirdness, some digression about alignment and so forth. All this material may very well be used in different scenarios; a village where to play one of your adventures, or a witch to insert in one of your plots, or NPCs and other stuff.

And it’s true. It’s not a written adventure but a series of tables and die-drop tables to make an adventure on the fly, or more specificly, to design a situation. There are many tables to create a witch, a village, the witch’s enemies and allies, recent events perhaps linked to the witch.

One basic principle of good game design it exactly that, you don’t write stories, you write situations for the player characters to interact with as they see fit, or not at all. Situations than will resolve themselves without the PCs getting involved. And this supplement offers plenty of useful and interesting ideas to do that.

Sometimes the witch will be good, sometimes, evil, and sometimes, neither. The same goes for his or her sex. The dice can say the witch is male, female, both or none. Make of that what you will. I will follow the rules and see what I come up with.

The supplement makes an excellent use of public domain images, the layout is clear with no fancy background or fonts, simple white backgrounds and white/grey tables. Only the cover is awful! But one should not judge a book by its cover, now, ain’t it?

After giving a nice list of NPCs that function as enemies or allies of the witch, it gives a table about “stories”:

You need stories more than numbers for NPCs. These stories should not provide a distraction, but make the village feel alive and help characters get involved with NPCs.

This makes sense, the supplement doesn’t provide full stories or backgrounds for these NPCs, instead it provides a random table with 12 results (“Revenge against power,” “Arranged marriage,” “Orphans and drunks,” and others). The author suggest rolling once a day of adventure time, and useing the result to escalate tension between the inhabitants of the village, but id doesn’t provide a way to do that. It’s not a big deal, a referee with some experience should be able to use the results or adding his own, but a couple examples or a little explanation would have been good.

Finally, it ends with an insightful essay about alignment, explaining the author’s view on Neutrality, Law and Chaos, as well as Good and Evil. To illustrate his point, Lawful aims to order and a bigger purpose than one’s own life, and therefore is usually seen as Good; Chaos is everything that is non-human: sorcery, nature, elves. Neutrality is simply the statu quo, a will to be part of the current order of things. Dwarfs and halflings are usually neutral; the author doesn’t explain this, but it can be inferred that they are not chaotic even when their are not human because they are too similar to humans, while elves are too alien and weird to actually relate to them.

So, for three dollars, this supplement is more than worth it! It doesn’t have any important flaws or downsides, it reads well and looks good, and offers good option for any campaign. It’s perfect for LotFP but it can be used without any problem in any vanilla fantasy game, and with a little conversion, it can be used in practically any system. I will no doubt use it in my own LotFP campaign, and, if the stars are right and I can finally finish reading Zweihänder and start a game, I will use it there.