I got to talking with Sasha of Pelgrane at Gencon UK and ended up picking up Fear Itself and the Gumshoe version of The Book of Unremitting Horror and then, later, picking up a copy of The Esoterrorists on PDF. While most of the interest during the convention seemed to be fixed upon the Gumshoe version of Cthulu - Trail of Cthulu - its a shame that this hoary old classic, revamped and timeless as it is, seems to be overshadowing the work already done by Robin Laws (on the system) and Dave Allsop (on the modern horrific vision) of this trio.
So, I'm reviewing all three in one go since they, together, form part of a 'metaverse' all within the Gumshoe system and all with enough commonality that I think they deserve to be viewed as a whole. Incidentally the Unremitting Horror cover above is from the d20 version, not the Gumshoe version which instead has a rather grotesque image of The Mystery Man (I think) on its front cover.
I should also mention that, subject to final approval, I'm considering doing a Gumshoe version of my game @ctiv8, though as I think will become apparent in the review I'm by no means shilling for the game here.
There's two separate things going on in these books. One is the presentation and 'selling' of the Gumshoe system, as a solution to a role-playing problem in pursuing investigations. The other is the presentation of Dave Allsop's wickedly twisted imagination, which is as though Chris Morris was in a freak teleporter accident with Sean Hutson and a bag of genetically engineered cockroaches, only to materialise inside a David Lynch film.
Robin Laws should be familiar to just about any serious roleplayer by name and should definitely be familiar to any and all game designers. Robin's name appears across a whole swathe of innovative (but sane) games that include many of my favourites from Feng Shui and HeroQuest to Over The Edge - a game that helped transform my group's expectations of role-playing rules. I say 'but sane' because while I love the independent game movement to death there is a degree of innovation for innovation's sake and a threat of getting lost exploring one's own colon with a head lamp in that environment - which can become self indulgent. Robin Laws doesn't seem to have fallen victim to that and while Gumshoe pushes the boat out a little further than anything other than, perhaps, OTE I think it still remains on the sane side.
Dave Allsop should also be familiar, mostly as a brilliant artist whose disturbing visions and great skill have graced many games but he's also an accomplished writer (the bastard) and SLA Industries while not his vision alone was greatly influenced by his darkly disturbing thoughts and imagery which, for many, elevated it above a Cyberpunkish shoot-em-up into something else. The inclusion of Dave's visions and his stark and hopeless 'Ocean Game' seem to have given him the freedom to express these visions relatively unhindered and the whole arc of these games is all the better for it.
Adrian Bott is the co-author of The Book of Unremitting Horror who accomplished the feat of keeping Dave's dark visions, fleshing them out beyond the conceptual level and yet retaining the feel of them and also created some of the entries - particularly the artefacts section. In this new Gumshoe edition Adrian created additional material and several new rules and additions for Gumshoe particular to The Book of Unremitting Horror, along with scenario outlines.
The Esoterrorists uses a great deal of comic-book style artwork and presents a far more 'dynamic' and capable feel to the game and the system than the other books and while the artwork isn't stand-out marvellous it does a fair job of representing the look and feel of the game as written. You could easily see The Esoterrorists being a comic book or a techno/occult thriller TV series and the comic book stylings fit that well. It does suffer from border creep and in what is already a fairly slim book at around 90 pages you get the feeling that the book could have been slimmed down further - to a Hogshead type 'New Style' booklet without the border creep.
Fear Itself clocks in at the same number of pages and the presentation is, overall, fairly good. The few pieces of artwork that do appear in the book are, in fact, made to feel extraneous by the layout and many of them, particular the woodcut style ink work, don't seem to fit the aim of the book so much as photographic and montage style work which, to my mind, better fits the genre being portrayed.
The Book of Unremitting Horror, for the most part, recycles the artwork of Dave Allsop and cannot be faulted on that front though, personally, I felt that the cover lacked the brooding dread and surreal otherworldliness of the original cover of the d20 version - still, it makes sense to have the books with different covers.
The writing in both The Esoterrorists and Fear Itself is straightforward and to the point, great for explaining the system work in these two games but the game world is not so clearly or eloquently defined. This makes it a relative breeze to know how to play, but not so clear about what to play. I found The Esoterrorists to be slightly better at explaining how the Gumshoe system works than Fear Itself was but the difference is only marginal.
The Book of Unremitting Horror repeats, with a couple of additions, the work in the d20 version and so retains the high quality standard of writing, revealing the game world of The Ocean Game through the various creatures, stories and artefacts found throughout the book. This can be mildly frustrating as with White Wolf books tendency to hide important information in fiction but the writing is of a much higher standard here and the investigative quality of piecing things together as a GM mirrors the investigations of the PCs during the game and could allow a group to develop something of their own spin and interpretation which, in a game of this nature, isn't necessarily so much of a problem as with other games. Indeed this could draw people in, sharing interpretations and understandings of the game world in much the same way that SLA and other, more overtly 'metaplot' type games have done in the past.
While the background of all three books is interwoven together through the medium of Unremitting Horror each of the books has its own spin. In The Esoterrorists the characters are capable investigators who are fighting back and The Esoterrorists also lends itself to more conventional modern conspiracy/occult type games as well as pure horror.
Fear Itself places the characters in the role of victims more than investigators, the unwitting recipients of the attention of horrors, slashers and other dark events and, while this fits within the context of Unremitting Horror it seems angled more for short term and one off games and the temptation to replicate horror movies with it is far stronger than anything else.
The Book of Unremitting Horror on the other hand presents a coherent and darkly surreal mythos the equal of Cthulu or the world of Kult with a full background, albeit jumbled up, based around cults, The Outer Dark, the sinister and incomprehensible Ocean Game and the strange and dark creatures that this otherworld spawns. While it can be used to provide things for the other games I feel that Unremitting Horror is more than just a resource book for antagonists and is worthy of its own devoted campaign of either of the other games.
The Gumshoe system skirts the edge of going too far in its singleminded pursuit of a solution to one specific goal. This is not unique to Gumshoe by any stretch, many innovative and creative 'rules light' systems that are built to address specific problems also suffer from the same issues. While they solve one particular gaming issue or emulate some particular aspect of a genre particularly well they fall down in other areas.
The specific failing of conventional RPGs that Gumshoe attacks is that of the investigative game. The problem being that a missed roll or two can end up bringing the whole adventure grinding to a halt as that essential clue is missed by everybody, preventing them from progressing to the next scene, antagonist or clue. Gumshoe overcomes this problem by making clue detection automatic, provided someone has the appropriate skill, and rather than rolls being used to find those clues, points are spent out of investigative pools in order to gain advantage from those clues.
An example might be that a blood sample from a creature is found in a test tube. Some sort of medical investigation skill might then reveal the clue that these particular test tubes are used by Pharmax, a company based in the local area (an address is given) and involved in the creation of transgenic animals for transplants. This would be given for free, if points were spent an analysis of the blood might reveal a particularly effective toxin against the creature from which the blood was taken.
It is the presentation of ideas on how to better handle investigative games that helps the would be GM just as much as the system. This is, really, a different approach and a description of how best to implement that approach as much as it is a quality of the system itself that aids investigative games. Still, this is done well. Where the system runs into problems is elsewhere, though they're not too serious.
For non-investigative actions characters still have pools and these pools ARE their skill level. All rolls are done on a single dice against a regulated difficulty from two to eight. If you want to get a higher score you spend points out of your pool in the attempt to accomplish the feat. This means that this is a game of resource allocation rather than skill per se. This does suit the horror genre, or at least the survival horror genre, but I can see it being frustrating for those who like to play particularly skilled individuals as it can make characters unreliable. Spend enough points to be guaranteed victory and you'll soon be reduced to no points at all and pure luck. Don't spend enough points and your character will still feel useless. Limited resources is great for building tension and making people scrimp but I can see it being very unsatisfying for certain types of player.
This particularly seems to fall flat in combat which, admittedly, isn't necessarily a big part of investigative games but the lack of ability to spend pool points to increase damage or apply special debilitating combat effects (at least as the game is presented and written) denies the expert combat-munchkin their moment to shine.
No horror game would be complete without some form of stress/insanity rules and Gumshoe represents this with another pool called Stability. Horrific and otherworldly events risk that Stability and without it you go mad and/or suffer a mental collapse of some kind, yet the possible large losses can be offset by risking smaller amounts of Stability on the rolls against the source of stress. This is a pretty good way of going about it though, to my mind, it lacks the elegance and depth of the Unknown Armies system the 'betting' nature of it seems suited to inducing a sense of risk in the players.
The one aspect of the rules I really didn't like was the variable allocation of skill points (for investigative skills) dependent upon the number of people playing. For a regular and reliable gaming group this is no issue whatsoever but for relatively fragmentary and unreliable groups even deciding how many people should be counted as 'regular players' is a bit tricky. I would prefer the strength available to characters to be more regular and the investigations etc to be the variable part.
- Great system and advice for investigative games.
- Encourages rounded characters.
- Compelling gameworld - spread across the books.
- System falls a little flat in non-investigative scenarios.
- Could be frustrating to 'expert' players.
- System books lacking in world information.