Friday, January 7, 2022

Esoteric Enterprises is Great

 So I just finished a short but spicy game of Esoteric Enterprises, playing roughly 20~ sessions (the players played more but more on that later.)

As usual, it was warped heavily from the core concept, so there were certain mechanical and thematic inconsistencies with 'vanilla' EE that did somewhat erode some of the goals of the system.

The setting was in a fantasy world turned modern, as opposed to a modern world with secret fantasy elements. The inconsistencies with magic and nonhumans being woven into the setting could mostly be handwaved away as 'there are nonhumans who are basically just humans, but nonhumans who are persecuted due to extreme heterogeneity and perceived danger levels are the 'spooks' described in the book.' and magic being known, but illegal due to the usual reason of 'wizards(especially Player Wizards) have proven themselves awful and irresponsible every single time.' The real stickler was having a setting which was not assumed to be a real world capitalist hellscape. Money was an obsolete concept, the police never existed, most petty criminals were not actually criminals because the legal system wasn't derived from Abrahamic morality, etc etc. I 'solved' this by having the 'cops' be the Suppression Bureau immediately- there was no sliding scale from racist rentacop to Mr. Smith, any cop-like figure knew about magic and was committed to suppressing it. Money was also handled via ignoring the details- ones resource level still allowed to you get a hold of things, it was just assumed you got it via community favors, warehouse depots, criminal connections, and sometimes even actually using the obsolete copper/silver/gold/platinum coins once used by adventurers, now used by occult criminals.

Setting aside, the premise of the game was also at odds with EE core- the city was underlockdown due to a SCP-style breach of the Reliquary, so various ancient evils were wobbling around the city. Putting the players in the role of 'superheroes (soon to degrade to supervillain) created tension- if they didn't stop the ancient uberlich from casting Zombie Plague 1000 times and destroying the city and wiping out all humans, the campaign would end, but if they DID stop the ancient superlich, they had to gain Notoriety by casting spells and firing illegal firearms. I'd say the wear of being thankless vigilantes turned them into supervillains, but really certain players just liked being murderhobos so that's more an excuse for them dragging the rest of the party down the notoriety track, not a reason. Still, 'emergence of the first concept of superheroes and supervillains as a prologue to the REAL superhero game' was a theme that definitely goes beyond typical EE fare.

Finally, my server is absolutely popping off with FLAILSNAILS style interdimensional adventures. The influx of magic spells and items not 'native' to Esoteric Enterprises, as well as the whole concept of extradimensional travel being a thing provided another departure from core EE assumptions. There were checkpoints for stopping the influx of dangerous magical items, but they were both understaffed and ineffectual against smuggling for the most part- I could have been more hardcore about it, but that would've made the inter-campaign and one-shots harder for people to run.

Anyway, so there's the disclaimer of how this was different from core EE. Now I'll really start talking about the system...

The living cast at the end of the game, more or less

The Classes
The classes in EE are pretty cool, LotFP-style.
Bodyguards were generally viewed favorably as the tough defensive class, and their ability to avoid surprise when party leader is very useful to prevent deaths (sneak attacks being even more dangerous in EE than otherwise, but more on that later.) Their ability to use Combat Maneuvers without penalty helped them feel relevant when violence broke out too.

Criminals were also viewed favorably, being able to just 'do' stuff with an abstracted roll instead of getting bogged down in plans. Charm and Contacts were definitely the favored skill, as it was important both for encounters and getting a hold of items. Personally, I'm still not convinced skill systems add much to the game, but this is basically a LotFP specialist which most everyone I've met agrees is better than a Thief.

Doctor is, imo, the best class of Esoteric Enterprises. A dedicated 'healer' who is not also a religious zealot is a great addition, ties in well with horrible injuries, flesh, and bleeding out rules, and provides a wacky sort of advancement to the party outside of levelling up by being able to graft monster parts to people. The only thing our Doctor player bemoaned was how he had to spend his own downtime on the other players to enable their dreams of monstrous might, and how flesh healing became completely obsolete after the occultist found Cure Wounds as a spell.

Explorer was a class played by two players, one of whom had rolled up an 18 dexterity and so had a very good time riding that +3 bonus making up for any class deficiencies. For the most part, it felt mostly like an inferior Criminal. This class and its focus on stealth and athleticism would be better in two ways, I think- firstly, the Undercity 'dungeon' generation could do with having a lot more hazardous terrain to make the Explorer more valuable, and secondly, Grit being able to regenerate with a 10 minute rest means combat is usually a safe enough bet to engage in rather than worrying about stealth too much, so the stealth approach is less popular. More on EE character durability later tho.

Mercenaries were well received- the Fighter Class, essentially, the only ones with scaling + to hit, but not as tough as the Bodyguard. Mercs had a bit of extra appreciation due to the inter-campaign flailsnails adventures, where enemies tended to have higher AC than base EE enemies did. Players did feel like they fell into the usual fighter trap of not having anything to do besides hit things, but my fighters have been somewhat spoiled by secret techniques in the past so I think most tables will find Mercs to be a fine fighter-types.

Mystics were definitely the second-place magic user class, but I actually quite enjoyed them. Starting mystics having only a 1-in-6 chance to cast a spell is a bit rough, and making Charm (and therefore Cha) a source of 'attribute dependence' made your starting stat rolls a bit too relevant for my liking. BUT! The way mystics work is that you have a small spell-list, but can cast infinitely (assuming successful charm rolls.) However, failures tend to have compounding and permanent effects- our level 6 mystic, before he was eaten by a dragon, had to have sacrificed a sheep every day for 2 days straight or spellcasting would be turned off, he had to shed informational pamphlets and small idols constantly, he couldn't use the magic weapons he recovered, he had to pray twice a day, etc etc. Now, while I like the idea of incautious mystics being saddled with what amounts to a procedurally generated ritual system, in practice the precise results tended to either fade into the background, or cause that character to be a black hole of needing to be catered to lest they lose their spellcasting and become barely worth sharing loot with.

Our other poor mystic only ever managed to cast like three spells due to not having good charm rolls and being saddled with 'double XP from underground treasure, none from aboveground', so she was basically just a gimpy mercenary with a sword who had a hard time levelling up from all the aboveground shenanigans in my campaign and in others.

Finally, though it basically never got used, the Blessing system was pretty good- basically anointing another person lets them cast a mystic spell later, like they had a scroll ready almost. It was unclear if the requirements for ritually blessing someone were rolled at the time of casting or at the time of blessing, but I think this idea would translate well into other systems to make clerics more community/cult oriented.

Occultists were initially unpopular, as the second translation roll the starting occultist ever made just straight up exploded her head. That player wasn't ever exactly aligned with most game scheduling times, but I feel she probably didn't feel encouraged to try to show up after such an ignominious beginning either. These sorts of table results are the sort of reason why I'd encourage GMs to maybe tweak the tables before running EE, just a little.

However, after the initial reluctance to touch arcane magic with a 10 foot pole, some party members rolled up occultists, and it soon became apparent that Occultists are BUSTED. Cavegirl wrote a post about how balance shouldn't really be the main concern for roleplaying games, but I don't mean busted in the sense of 'linear warrior quadratic wizard' I mean by level 6 the occultists were basically playing Godbound, having gotten ways to improve Translation such that they didn't really have to worry about dying like the first one (and an unfortunate later level 1 one did). It was a good thing the flailsnails games other GMs were running were so hecking dangerous and kept the players on their toes, because there was not a lot that standard EE encounter tables could offer to challenge the occultists. It is not the ability to memorize level 6 spells in level 1 spell slots and cast dangerously that made wizards busted. (I do think the 'dangerously cast' table was way too heavy on 'annoying mental compulsions' compared to 'warped magic result that makes things exciting now' tho.) It's not even the ability to memorize a spell every 10 minutes that really broke open occultists- trading encounter checks for refreshing a spell was usually an ok deterrant. But the ability to book-cast, to cast spells reliably and safely every 10 minutes if you have the appropriate spellbook on hand, that was what really made things spammable.
Problem solving in the Undercity basically boiled down to 'we could think hard, or we could wait 10 minutes to book cast something to magic away the problem.' which was a shame. I think it woulda worked if these rituals required translation rolls and/or reagants, but could be done by anyone with a grimoire perhaps...

While low translation rolls could theoretically keep occultist versatility and power down, in actuality what happened is some unlucky occultists died, boohoo roll a new character, but the ones who didn't became the absolute core of party strategy, with the other players mostly being relevant as meatshields and occasional sources of skills.

As you can tell, I have THOUGHTS on the magic system, so we'll return to it later.

Spooks- Basically everyone agreed spooks were a bit of a trap option. Lots of people played them though, because it was cool, but having no Resources sucks, they take a lot of XP to level up, and they are heavily dependent on good stat rolls to have skills to lean on, or to have some bonuses in combat. Our most successful spooks were a ghost-shadow who spent HP to phase and were mostly immaterial, making them the superior scout, a clockwork maid who was speedy and charm-y, a battletoad who was arguably mostly effective in combat due to doctor mad science gluing bonus attacks to him, a good STR score, and Enlarge support, and a psychedelic mushroom-nymph who wanted to be a pseudo-occultist but ended up as a skill-assist for the real occultists.

I think spooks would be fine if they got some other benefit for combat or noncombat, or if they just didn't level up so slow. After all, a doctor or occultist can use mad science/magic to give people spooky powers anyway, so it feels off that spooks should be treated like having claw attacks (or whatever) naturally is that big a deal.

The players felt they had to engage in a bit of 'mother may I' with regards to whether they could buy something with base resources or if they had to roll contacts+resources to get a hold of something. My rule of thumb was if something was occult, notably expensive, or related to violence it required rolling in downtime to get. I think EE might have been meant to have downtime that was closer to a day long than my week long downtimes, because the players felt like they could barely buy anything. I think the 'Black Market' undercity result is the sort of place the players should find early rather than late (as mine did) to help alleviate this feeling of being underequipped.

That aside I think the equipment list is pretty good, and I like how weapons deal higher damage- helps make up for stat rolls if bad, just like how the Aim action makes up for a lack of attack bonus.
I think the 'Helmet, Heavy Gloves, Heavy Boots' items should protect against certain 'Horrible Wounds' results

Grimoires, I think, should not start translated and copied into occultists spellbooks, but should be things that occultists can roll Translate on when they feel they're ready to up their game, replacing 'free' level up spells. But I once again digress into my 'occultist magic is bananas broken' tirade.

Cold Iron, Silver, and Blessed weapons (which deal double damage to various foes) were a little odd in that they showed up a lot in starting equipment but less so as 'loot' to find, but their inclusion was very urban monster-huntery and made up for the lack of common '+1' weapons, which exist on the treasure tables, but just aren't that common. I think my entire undercity had bout 3 magic weapons generated 'naturally' by EE in it, and I don't think the players found any.

I liked how encumbrance worked in EE, with both movespeed and an increased inability to dodge AoE hazards.

Flesh and Grit
This was my first time using a Flesh and Grit system, and while I kinda liked it in terms of my campaign being about proto-superheroes/villains, I'm not sure it's a good fit for an intended 'street level' campaign. It makes combat theoretially scary even if the players are high level, because crits, sneak attacks, and being shanked while grappled all go straight to flesh, making any attack potentially lethal.

However, this can delete beloved long-term characters somewhat unceremoniously, and definitely may lead players and/or GMs to lean very heavy on the 'grapple, then have buddy bypass grit' strategy, which feels a bit cheap compared to the narrative requirements to make stealthy sneak attacks or distract someone with biting words.

Also, Grit recovering after a 10 minute rest can make high con+level characters feel like a FPS videogame protagonist, with regenerating 'shields' protecting them from harm. So they can both afford to be contemptuous of HP damage because they can heal it all back, making the idea of being 'worn down' by long expeditions mostly useless, but also randomly killed now and again. This feels like it discourages strategizing to avoid damage, because the 1/240 chance to instantly die from an attack is just too unlikely to try to take preventative action against without dragging the session to a halt every time you see someone with an assault rifle, when 99% of the time you'll just wade through a combat and heal to full afterwards. Ironically, I liked Grit best in Ynn, where twiddling your thumbs for a turn causes an Event, making waiting to rest more of a question.

Painkiller drugs can restore Grit, but since lazing around for 10 minutes can do so as well without consequences, no one ever used painkillers.

There is a little-expanded upon condition, 'fatigued' which occurs if your flesh is 0, which makes it so that your grit stops recovering. If this condition became more widespread as a means to shut down grit recovery until a more serious rest was taken I think that could solve things... but in the end I think standard HP with horrible wounds (but not certain death) at 0HP is how I'll run things still.

As a minor quibble I feel flesh recovers too quickly, but this may well be a case of Cavegirl intended downtime to be more like a few days, rather than my default of a week. Speaking of time and returning to my occultist nerf proposals, it is typical that a dungeon 'action' like searching a room, picking a lock, etc, is 10 minutes. With book casting and grit recovery also being 10 minutes, that contributed heavily to 'just Disintegrate the problem lol' issue that obsoleted many approaches.

Inoffensively implemented. I prefer not using skills in games, and some players complained about how skills felt like they added too much weight to ones initial stat rolls, but I don't think the popular X-in-6 approach to skills makes or breaks a game.

The list of combat maneuvers helped counteract starting statistics and lack of attack bonuses causing combat to be a boring whiff-fest of ineptness. I could take or leave the melee stuff, and grappling allowing those not in grapples to attack flesh is a system that I think ultimately is too spicy for me, but I like the maneuvers for guns especially- a multi-attack system to account for automatic bullet spraying, and an aim maneuver to set up slow but accurate shots was nice. I think Aim could honestly be like 'aim at a target, if they don't get to cover you can automatically hit them next round' would not be overpowered, as a +4 to hit led players to mostly just shoot each round and hope to highroll instead. Still, I appreciate EE's attempts to keep to-hit and AC fairly low to prevent numbers creep and to keep enemies easily 'hittable.'

The Horrible Wounds(aka Death and Dismemberment tables) are interesting in that they don't care how far below 0 flesh you go, but how big the attack that brought you to 0 flesh was. Despite my earlier complaints about characters instantly dying, barring max damage hits from guns and big melee weapons, most the time characters will start Bleeding Out rather than dying instantly, allowing Doctors time to shine. I like the bleeding out rules having both an immediate risk of death in rounds, then a secondary risk of death over the timescale of turns if you can't get to safety, with the treatment of each level taking time to treat according to the timescale of the bleed out. These Bleeding Out rules could be expanded and given additional levels to Days or even Weeks in wilderness games to simulate infected wounds and severe internal injuries that necessitate a return to society.

There is a 'Complications in Combat' section that deals with shooting into melee, bystanders being hit by stray bullets, cover, vehicles, and so on that gives a good sense of how shooting bullets is DIFFERENT than just waving swords around.

Adventuring Hazards & Procedure
While as mentioned, the undercity generation doesn't really match up to the dangers of say, a D&D dungeon, the book does provide rules for fire, digging, falling, poison gas, drowning, not sleeping, etc. It's not comprehensive but has some gems, like saying if you fail a roll in darkness it's failed 'dangerously' and something could go wrong like 1d6 damage from an accident or equipment breakage.

Additional kudos goes to the book for describing surprise, initiative, encounter distance, morale, reaction rolls, etc. Notable changes were rolling for surprise only if it's appropriate and using party leader Perception instead of flat chances (important, given that surprise attacks go to Flesh) and reaction and morale being on 1 1d6 instead of 2d6. This made charisma and charm a little too important sometimes I felt, but also made encounters tenser and swingier than 2d6.


Linking purchase of certain items to downtime(DT), as well as doctors and occultists requiring downtime to do their blasphemous experiments and research, made DT a coveted resource in this campaign, as it would often be 'wasted' by a failed skill roll (though I usually took a failed skill roll to mean 'bribes required' or something in similar failing-forward school of thought).

Occultist magic took up the main bulk of downtime actions, as players needed to ask about their schemes to get moss from a poets grave or the tooth of a child or whatever due to reagents. Again, I'd just recommend GMs go through the tables and tweak them to their preferences. The Reagent table in particular can come off as 'pointless nastiness and busy work' and some of the mishaps can come off as 'haha your character is now incredibly annoying to play' rather than really actionable and gameable results, especially when you're rolling a lot on it.

Still, I like the incremental, almost 'roll to failure' nature of the process of transcription and researching new spells. The bigger the spell or scheme, the more likely it will hit stumbling blocks that then require solving actively rather than passively in downtime.

EE has a fairly 'standard' spell list, with a couple of very cool new ones that feel like they define the setting well. However, since these spells are not level-gated or particularly time gated, some spells that would be innocuous in AD&D or whatever become campaign warping. While you could try to tweak every spell, I think it is easier to take one of two approaches.

1- You can embrace the authors chosen philosophy of 'Fuck Balance' and just shrug and carry on. This is what I did, in order to try to get a fair viewpoint of the system. The downside of this is that your Undercity will probably feel like slumming it in a level 1 dungeon you're way too strong for once the Occultists get going, with rare and random spikes of difficulty against like, god-avatars cults (if they have antimagic, anyway...)

2- You can slap some limits on Occultists. Here;s what I'd probably do if I ran EE again.

  • Spellslots require sleep to refresh fully. Spells of any level re-memorized in a slot that has been used since you last slept are memorized Dangerously.
  • Memorizing a spell or book casting a spell takes 1 turn/10 minutes per spell level.
  • Book Casting can be done by anybody, but they have to roll Translation as per a non-occultist reading a scroll. Alternately, you can spend 1 reagent per spell level to avoid a translation roll.

Anyway, the spells that proved very busted were as follows. I'm sure there's plenty of other game-warping effects that would result in you looking at your undercity factions and dungeon maps and going 'welp this is pointless now' but I will limit this to what actually happened, not just hypotheticals.

  1. Cure Wounds- being able to heal flesh instantly and infinitely (given enough 10 minute breaks) made the party immune to attrition, basically. Magical reagents that required the magicians skin or blood in the form of Flesh damage becomes pointless.
  2. Any Information Gathering Spell- Casting Augury on anything you consider doing, or Locate Object on anything you want to find, and so on is very useful, has no drawback, and gameplay wise is one player asking the GM questions for interminable periods of time while everyone else shrivels to dust.
  3. Dopethrone- This spell really falls into 2, but deserves special mention. So basically, you can get a mulligan, an undo, on any action you do, if you're high on something. So what you do is, you have the wizard do everything. If they stand in a daze drooling instead of doing it, you know it was a bad idea. This spell also makes you immune to compounding effects of continual drug use, so instead of becoming a blackout drunk drooling wizard husk, you just book cast dopethrone early in the day, devote some inventory slots to drugs, then go through the day with a -1 to three stats and a godlike ability to see into the future briefly. It's not completely foolproof, but it slows gameplay down immensely, basically demanding triple attention for the wizard player, and is a one-size fits all solution to many problems of information gathering and uncertainty. Depending on your ruling on how it works with regards to random rolls, wizards may be able to use it to exploit miscast tables and either be consequence free on the low end of things, or on the high end of cheese, they may be able to fish for 'the dream of snake people and gain a level' crazy miscast result and level the entire party to the level 20 for the price of a bunch of cheap booze.

GM Advice
This is a jolly good section on running combat, respecting randomness but also your own judgement, respecting player feelings, tone, emergent narratives, yadda yadda.  EE is a nice product both for crusty grogs who live only for rolling dice on random tables, and for people just picking up a RPG book who haven't ran a lot of games before who need some of the basic ideas spelled out for 'em.

Reputation and Notoriety
EE details a way to track faction relations, and relations with the law. Faction relations go both ways, relations with the law only ever deteriorate and can only be somewhat mitigated by reducing their interest to half your all-time high score by covering up crimes or lying low.

One thing I wasn't sure of  was if notoriety should be tracked in the form of 'you cast 5 spells and ran two people over in a car chase, +1 notoriety for spellcasting and +3 for murder' or if that example would be +5 notoriety for each spell and +6 for double murder. I ran it as the former, more conservative estimate, and the players still ended up quite notorious by the end of the campaign.

Another thing I noted with faction reputation tracking was that the biggest bonus is probably the + or - X, where X is highest party level, and it being a + or - is reliant on either you NEVER having been hostile to that faction to get +X, and having majority hostile interactions to get the -X. It's hard to actually get reputation up or down enough to have a faction be your best buddy or worst enemy with interactions and jobs alone, because those probably take a session each or so, and with all the other factions presumably in play, you're not gonna have time to do 15 jobs for True Neutral Tony before the campaign is over... Though I admit, I had too many factions (30) in my city, which definitely contributed to thinly-spread faction interactions.

Heists, Jobs and Events
The described challenges for doing CRIMES are great for improv session construction or informing prep. The tables for Undercity events keep things fresh if you roll on 'em after giving the players downtime, and honestly are 10/10 tools for making a citycrawl seem lively, with factions gunning for each other, random misfortunes, in media res starting points to open up sessions with a bang. I am absolutely stealing and reformatting these tables for my own games in the future and combining them with some of Lungfungus's stuff.

Hazards, Sicknesses, Curses, Undercity Hazards, Subway Tunnels,
This is just a list of diseases and slime molds and poison gases. It probably shoulda been back with the other adventuring hazards, but I can see why it wasn't, since these are more 'undercity specific.' My main complaint about the book is stuff like this- weird formatting choices, and occasional typos and wrong page numbers for where a table is- very much feels like more stuff was added on in later drafts and put nearer to the end without a meticulous lookthrough to link things up. Bookmarks in the PDF woulda been nice too. Still,formatting problems is a forgivable sin when the content is this good.

Treasure tables are mostly cosmetic forms of 'things you can sell for cash,' though there's the occasional useful item or even a VERY useful item in the form of magic.  My players were kept sedated by a supply of treasure from their flailsnail protocol adventures in other dimensions like Ynn or whatever the other GMs were running... but all in all I'd say base EE does not drop enough treasure in its undercity for it to sustain XP demands as a megadungeon alone, which will make doing jobs for factions the primary source of income. I find using a d30 with the first 10 results usually being 'this much cash x100' sort of annoying, but I run my games digitally so I can roll a d30 without issue.

There are both vague tables to make magic items (you could roll a Camera that does Emotional Manipulation when used with 3d10 charges, for instance) and a short (compared to D&D) list of magical items that are a mix of standard stuff like invisibility cloaks and a martian lamp that puts you in contact with an alien researcher. Regrettably I either missed all the results in undercity generation that would have generated these items, or there's no procedure that will place them without GM Fiat, but I think this short list is more than enough to supply a campaign with wondrous items- maybe by your 3rd EE game you'd need to get new magic item lists.

I think magic items are meant to be somewhat rarer in EE, but my campaign (due to intercampaign GMs throwing items out often) was absolutely bloated with magic items from other dimensions, so in this aspect I can't really speak to how treasure REALLY feels in EE, apart from there probably not being enough to support pure undercity delving as though it were a megadungeon.

Undercity Generation
In this prep, you throw a bunch of dice onto a sheet of paper, then furiously consult tables, then each dice is a minidungeon where you do the same thing. I rather like this generation method, and there's a lot of content for different types of areas like caves and complexes.

I would say the methodology used to construct the undercity, while gimmicky in a good way, does lack a certain potential to make compounded, complex problems. You can roll the giant sinkhole, or the kitchen full of propane tanks, but you can't roll a kitchen full of propane tanks teetering precariously out into a giant sinkhole, for example. It's a minor quibble, but the undercity is simply a bit too realistic for my taste- I'd like it more if it was more of a nightmare mishmash where traversal required more problem solving than locked doors and occasionally climbing gear or scuba gear.

While baseline generation is certainly fine and I got good scenes out of it (like a gelatinous cube cornering the party in a kitchen full of leaking propane) I would advise GMs who want to focus on the undercity exploration to roll it up, but treat the results as a 'first step' after which you do a second pass over the rooms, roll up encounters before hand, and spice up some of the rooms to turn them from having just a 'feature' to having a potential 'problem' to puzzle out, and to complicate either prerolled or potential encounters if any. To use another of this author's work as an example, the dungeons here feel like a 'location' in Ynn, without the added 'Detail' to spice it up.

Still, I don't want to be too hard on this- fantasy dungeon generation has like 50 years of disparate development supporting it, while 'modern urban occult undercity' dungeon generation, and my players certainly liked delving it well enough, epecially when they started looking at locations as potential bases for them to take over and refurbish as their own.

Undercity Faction Generation
THIS on the other hand, completely slaps and I have no reservations. With the same 'throw dice on paper, consult tables furiously' method, you can whip up factions and their entangled web of politics, as well as roll how many goons, exactly, the crime families have, which spellbooks the occult librarians are translating, etc etc. My city setting of Oroboro has the weight of like 3 campaigns behind it so I had great fun making these factions references to past factions, but I think this is a great way to roll up a new area with no context to it to produce this sort of lore.

One thing I caution GMs against is getting caught up in how fun this is and rolling too many factions- I made 30 factions, and 10 would have been fine, and for the length this campaign ended up being, 5 would have been fine too if I condensed similar ones and kept the focus more narrow. Factions are complex entities and provide far more than one sessions worth of content- at the minimum, they could provide an intro session to show who they are and their interests, 3-4 sessions based on their rolled interactions with other factions, and probably a session per 'leader/subleader' type if you put in the work to give those NPCs faces and stuff to do. In my own campaign I tended to make things like 'Mob Lieutenants' be minor super-types for extra drama and flashy interest, but if that's too off-genre for your game, stuff like giving them a fancy car, or a flamethrower instead of a pistol, or goons with grenades is a simple way to break up the masses of 'fellas with vests and pistols.'

some undercity complexes

what the faction web looks like with 30 factions

Encounter Tables
Apart from encountering faction agents and the fuzz, there's also your standard undercity dungeon denizens like giant rats and stuff. One odd thing about the tables is that the more dangerous encounters do not roughly correspond to 'depth,' but more to random chance, or location. So there is a bit of a sense of being in a 'starter dungeon,' slapping bat swarms, petty crooks, and sewer animals until suddenly something really horrible shows up. This is a fine mood for low level characters, but higher level ones or larger parties may be bored by such 'filler' encounters as a swarm of bats  hen their grit will replenish from chip damage, making violence a fairly consequence-free action (barring random flesh hits of course) which seems at odds with the intended tone, perhaps.

One thing the encounters do well is that, the way the undercity is set up, the tables that reference each other also serve as local encounter tables to make areas feel different from each other, so they serve the role both as generic encounter table and specific encounter table, but they're all linked so there's always the possibility of 'unusual' encounters that don't quite fit an area.

The Bestiary Itself
A mixed bag of critters, refreshingly succinct. One thing I like is that there is a fair degree of randomness in terms of powers and such to many 'traditional' monsters, so Lycanthropes,  Vampires and Dragons are unpredictable, rather than cliche. This plays really well with the intended setting, where people don't believe in monsters, so you can't be sure what they're actually going to be like when you find one.

While initially some entries feel a bit like filler and 'seen it before, meh', I think it's important to note that EE monsters have different math assumptions, so using an AD&D bear instead of a EE cave bear will have mixed results. And also, if you read the bestiary in full instead of just skimming it and noting familiar entries, you will find there's a lot of very fun and quirky monsters in this bestiary with their own gimmicks and powers and weirdness, like ferret-hydras, concrete nymphs, a ghost of a subway train crash, and more. I regrettably didn't get to use many of them in my own campaign, but there's a lotta neat stuff here.

Review as a Product
I don't buy things very often, surviving as I do on plasma donations, dumpster diving, and generous  patronage for art or games. So when I say Esoteric Enterprises is worth the price, know this is the serious and thoughtful pronouncement of a trash-dwelling gremlin creature who weighs the pricetag of ~10 bucks quite seriously, and made sure to play a whole campaign before declaring it good and great, not some mere casual thumbs up for a game my butler bought on a whim while shopping for weekly monkey jpeg NFTs.

Oh, that aside, the art of the book, done with, I assume, makeup, LARP costumes, and maybe some photo manipulation (as well as some drawn/painted art now and then) was pretty neat I thought, and gave the system a very punk and modern vibe, as appropriate for its described setting.

Lessons Learnt
I think this campaign showed that I don't need to have THAT many things going on at once, and that I can focus deeply on one aspect of a game world rather than trying to spread my focus broadly. This isn't really a new lesson, more like a reiteration that scope creep sneaks into all projects.

Similarly, with regards to focusing on my players, I think the time has come to split my open table into smaller tables with different themes. I can put all the people who wanna be baddies in one group, and the people who wanna be the hero in another group, and have a third group for luck, and then they can all operate in the same general campaign without interfering with each others fun.
Hopefully this will solve another problem with fast-paced open table play, where the people who play a lot get ahead, and those who play less lose the thread of the game, fall behind, and drop out. It's fine to say 'oh it doesn't matter if you're level 1' and that's true, but it does matter if you're so far behind that, as one player put it, "it gets to the point where people seem to be talking in a different language"

This campaign was also an interesting foray into how having Flailsnail Protocols (where characters can drift between campaigns) affects things. It allows players to advance character dynamics with other party members without the presence of a particular GM. It also tends to complicate characters when they pick up mutations and weirdness that isn't the sort of thing you'd make yourself, so you have to decide to either play it straight, adapt to your campaign, or neutralize it somehow. While the go-to explanation since the 80's has just been that magic is unreliable across dimensions and so Sam's +5 Sword of Slaughtering only works in Dave's Monty Hall game, being inert in other dimensions, I found it interesting to try to have more in-universe explanations for why problematic items might not transfer over- security checkpoints at portals confiscating such goods was a pretty fun one, as it allows some counterplay and potential problems.

It's not all fun and games for the players though- I can't be certain, but I think more people died in other dimensions than in their home dimension, and they brought back quite a few awful things with them as well as extraplanar treasures- curses, stalking beasts, plagues. Not all game groups have enough willing GMs to foster this sort of environment, but its been very, very interesting to have multiple worlds linked together via runic portals, dream-projection, and Ynn.

I'd say this campaign was more of a 'palate cleanser' after the heavy tactical cronch of Lancer than anything that was really intended to be a longform campaign. But it doubled as worldbuilding and backstory for when I run a superhero game in Oroboro with the old party as the supervillainous tyrants ruling the city for their own magical enrichment, so that's nice. That's not gonna be next campaign though- the players voted, at last, on the perennial second-favorite campaign pitch, the Wizard School. That's going to be another campaign that exists more for testing purposes than for being one of the longform campaigns, I think- I'm going to bash out a bunch of different magic systems, try out the thematically separate player groups, and have a bunch of Unseen University esque shenanigans by using all those wizard school posts from Skerples and so on.


  1. I'm a huge fan of these long-form retrospectives of yours - they add a very lived-in dimension to all the pretty words. Looking forwards to what you have to say after your Wizard School campaign - Martin over at Goodberry Monthly is finally starting his own!

  2. These condensed campaign reports are some of my favorite posts in the OSR space - you do an absolutely great job at making them very useful, along with just being interesting.

  3. Solid post. Most reviews of Esoteric Enterprises are by people who haven't played the game, and most play reports are for oneshots, neither of which really showcase the things that are actually good about it (or bad). I still think you're giving the game system way too much credit.