Interview: Emmy Allen On Engineering Esoteric Enterprises

If you asked me to do an elevator pitch for Esoteric Enterprises, it’d be “Unknown Armies gets the Kevin Crawford treatment”. Which is a shame, because that’d be almost entirely inaccurate. Yes, the game’s based around a party of player characters getting into shady shit as a result of their entanglement with the occult underground, but the cosmos of the game doesn’t have all that much directly in common with Unknown Armies beyond a “modern day setting, grimy magic” aesthetic. Yes, the game does have an extensive suite of refereeing tools and random tables and uses early editions of D&D as its main system inspiration, like Stars Without Number and its ilk, but it’s not actually a Kevin Crawford design – it’s by Emmy Allen, AKA cavegirl, whose Dying Stylishly Games products have paved the way for this, her most ambitious RPG release yet.

Luckily, I know Emmy in real life and she was nice enough to give me an interview, so maybe she can help me out here. Emmy, what would be your elevator pitch for the game?

This is a world basically like our own, except magic is real, and dangerous, and wildly illegal. Of course, plenty of things are dangerous and illegal – such as drugs and organ-legging and bank robberies – so the worlds of organised crime and the supernatural have become inexorably linked. Things are only like our familiar world on the surface; beneath every city there is a literal underworld, where strange things hide from scrutiny, and the reckless or desperate traffic in things humans really shouldn’t be meddling with.

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Middle-Class Malefex

A while back in the comments, Joe from Uncaring Cosmos mentioned Principia Malefex as an example of a British-made RPG. I’d never heard of it, but poking further I thought it sounded rather intriguing – a horror RPG emerging during that strange time period in British RPG publishing which saw other up-and-coming small studios producing material like SLA Industries or Tales of Gargentihr, a product of the era in between the folding of Games Workshop and the rise of the D20 boom and the range of companies that reinvigorated the British RPG market by skilfully riding that wave. Intrigued, I decided to investigate further. What I found was… hm.

So, to provide more context: Principia Malefex is a self-published indie RPG which emerged in 1997, had a small trickle of supplements coming out for it, before a final burst of publishing activity occurred in 2002 prior to the game largely going dark. Poking around Google Groups to get this timeline straight showed a number of connections with Bath University, so if I had to speculate about where this game came from my informed guess would be that Alison Whetton, its primary designer, and her collaborators were members of Bath University’s tabletop games club, got the core book out in a burst of studenty enthusiasm, made a last bid to make a commercial success of the game when they graduated, and eventually came to the conclusion that this was a hiding to nowhere and moved on to other things.

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Mini-Review: Clarifications of Conjuring

Signs of Sorcery is the latest supplement for 2nd Edition Mage: the Awakening. It bills itself as a deeper look at Supernal magic, but since more or less all the magic in Mage is Supernal in nature it’s essentially a big set of both advanced theory and further clarification on all sorts of aspects of the cosmology of the game. This includes discussions of Mage Sight, the Supernal Realms, various types of magic item, the sort of traces left behind by the Archmages, the Exarchs and other major powers of the Supernal World, Yantras, Grimoires, and many other topics besides.

This is a great help in many respects, not least because Mage: the Awakening is a classic example of how brevity is not always clarity. Sometimes a brief explanation of a subject will actually be more confusing than a longer, more in-depth discussion of it. This is particularly the case if the in-depth discussion reveals more of the rationale of why a particular thing is the way it is; if you have an appreciation of the underlying logic of a subject, then its surface facts will be that much easier to recall than if you’re just presented them as a set of disconnected facts with no underlying information typing them together.

Of course, if your Mage campaign is ongoing you might have already reached rulings on a lot of these subjects that are incompatible with Signs of Sorcery‘s take on them – but even then, it’s still a handy resource to have for any campaign where poking the metaphysic is a major part of the agenda, and given Mage‘s themes that will likely account for a high proportion of Awakening campaigns.

Slavicsek’s Star Wars Saga

Defining a Galaxy: 30 Years In a Galaxy Far, Far Away is not, I should say at the beginning, a book which does for the Star Wars RPGs what Playing At the World or even Hawk & Moor did for Dungeons & DragonsPlaying At the World was very much an academically rigorous study, derived mostly from primary documentary sources where possible and putting strong caveats on anything based solely on anecdote. Hawk & Moor had somewhat less rigorous standards of evidence and was a bit more “popular history” than scholarly in its approach, but it made a point of taking into account as many different sources as possible, so whilst it did make more use of anecdote, it at least allows dissenting narratives some space of their own.

On the other hand, Defining a Galaxy presents a single individual’s perspective, and largely does so without providing supporting documentation. Taken with that pinch of salt, though, Defining a Galaxy still represents the most comprehensive one-stop look we’ve ever been given of the origins of the original D6 system-based Star Wars RPG, its impact on the franchise, and how the franchise and its licensed RPGs evolved after that.

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Eberron: Revision After the Edition War

I’ve found Wizards of the Coast’s official offerings this year for D&D to largely be of little interest to me. There was a new Essentials Kit which seems to provide a followup to the Starter Set with more character generation rules incorporated in it. There’s been the Baldur’s Gate and Ghosts of Saltmarsh campaign adventures, but I haven’t been too interested in the official campaigns for 5E. And there’s been various tie-in materials – starter sets riffing on the popularity of Stranger Things and Rick & Morty, and a supplement covering the setting of Acquisitions Incorporated. None of this especially floats my boat.

However, the last major release of the year I find a real treat. This is Eberron: Rising From the Last War. With its main designers credited as Keith Baker (the creator of the Eberron setting) and Jeremy Crawford and James Wyatt, major 5E rules wranglers (Wyatt also worked on the original 3.5E release of the campaign setting), it updates the classic setting from its original presentation in 3.5E-era D&D to provide a basis for running games in it, including a fat stack of religions, cosmological details, races (including honest-to-goodness shapeshifters, dreams in human form, and of course the iconic Terminators Warforged, and even an entire character class (not just a subclass – a whole class, the Artificer) distinctive to Eberron.

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What Music They Make!

Some recent discussions on the Discord channel had prompted me to take a second look at Ravenloft, and as luck would have it I had a chance to pick up Children of the Night: Vampires at a very reasonable price. This was the first of the Children of the Night series, conceived as a sort of companion to the popular Van Richten’s Guides.

Indeed, the credits include a dedication to the late Nigel Findley, who wrote the classic Van Richten’s Guide to Vampires, both setting the format for the rest of a series and providing a classic examination of how to take a generic monster manual entry and extrapolate an interesting villain for it. The Children of the Night supplements carry that idea forwards by providing sets of “worked examples”, if you will, of distinctive characters of the relevant type, fleshed out into fully-developed NPCs. In a nice touch, each NPC writeup also has a mini-adventure associated with it, providing an instant hook for getting the character in question involved in your campaign. Whilst optimised for Ravenloft, as with Van Richten’s Guides themselves it’s no big burden to adapt the material here to other campaign settings, which was an aspect of the Ravenloft support line which I always thought TSR didn’t make enough of.

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Revisiting Dragon Warriors

So, a while back I did a review of Dragon Warriors, where I was rather dismissive about the game, but thanks in part to writing on the subject of the game on the Uncaring Cosmos blog I decided to give it another look and I think there’s more charm to it than I first gave credit.

First things first, I should admit that I was wrong about the combat system – specifically, I overlooked the fact that a critical hit allows you to bypass the armour penetration roll. (In my defence, they don’t actually give that rule in the armour penetration section itself – just the section on attack rolls – so it’s easier to miss than you’d think.)

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