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.
The game casts you as those reckless or desperate people who do that trafficking, in fact, going on dungeon crawls into the city’s underworld to gain illicit riches. Most recent RPGs have erred towards casting the PCs as heroes, possibly of a criminal nature, but in Esoteric Enterprises the assumption seems to be that the PCs are criminals, possibly of a heroic nature (though that seems unlikely). How did that shape your design approach?
My two biggest influences on the design were older editions of D&D, and various World of Darkness games, neither of which really assumes your PCs are heroic; in the earlier versions of D&D your PCs tend to be very much amoral and profit-motivated, and then in WoD your PCs are generally monsters, often ones who end up doing all sorts of horrible things. On top of that, even in the “heroic” modern style game, PCs often spend a lot of time killing people and taking their stuff, and I find it hard to frame that in my head as “moral”; an average D&D party in real life would be terrifying sociopaths! So, my default assumptions going in were coming off that and the idea of PCs being heroic was never really a consideration.
That said, being criminals specifically is somewhat integral to some of the engines that drive the game; the interlinked treasure/xp/wealth system makes the most sense for criminal types, as do the GM tools for tracking things like police attention and reputation in the underworld. The point of both of these is to mean that, as PCs progress they aren’t just getting mechanically stronger – their place in the world changes too. They go from being desperate nobodies to being fairly well off, having influence in the underworld, and having to deal with police scrutiny. The late game should play quite differently to the early game because you’re clawing your way up the underworld’s social hierarchy, and that brings its own complications.
That social hierarchy, by the way, will vary from campaign to campaign based on how the referee makes use of the extensive tables and suggestions incorporated to help generate a bespoke occult underground for your campaign. (There’s the bit which reminded me of Kevin Crawford.) Can you tell me more about developing that part of the game?
So, one of my pet peeves with RPG design is books that give you the broad setting, and then for the specifics – everything your PCs will actually interact with in play – the GM is expected to just make something up with no real tools or guidelines. It’s a mistake a lot of games, even the big well known ones, make. As much as I love something like V5 Vampire, that book isn’t very good at giving the GM concrete tools to make their setting.
If I want navigating the social underworld to be a significant part of the game, I need to make sure that a given GM will actually make that social dimension as meaningful as (say) a dungeon. It needs to be at least somewhat planned out ahead of time. And the best way to do that is to give specific concrete tools for how you can do that; follow these steps and you’ll get the sort of setting the game is about, but it will be unique to your game.
That’s one of the biggest elements of my design, actually; giving the GM random generation tools for setting stuff. My thinking is that a given person sitting down to put a setting together has a limited pool of ideas in their head, so a book with a big pile of ideas to draw on will produce bigger and richer results than ‘just make something up’ advice. The point of randomisation is to combine these ideas in unexpected ways, so the GM has to actually sit down and make sense of all this randomly-generated information, to pull it all together into a cohesive whole. That step is kind of critical; having to make sense of the results you rolled up fixes the ideas in the GMs head nicely because they’ve had to give it some scrutiny. It also helps with the buy-in, I find; whatever you make through random-generation-and-interpretation will be unique and yours, which makes it feel special.
The specific method (dropping a bunch of dice and determining where they land) was adapted from the blog Last Gasp Grimoire‘s work on the Corpathium setting, and is one I keep coming back to for the amount of information and connections you can wring out of a very simple input.
Speaking of getting a lot out of a little, one thing I really appreciated in the book was the section on how to get a really wide range of different character concepts out of the set range of classes you provide. In the OSR and lots of D&D-adjacent circles people invent new classes at the drop of a hat, but the “how do I make this?” section of Esoteric Enterprises really shows how you don’t need to do that. What’s your thinking on when something deserves to be a separate character class and when something can be bodged together from existing options?
To work well, I think a class needs to have two things. It has to have a distinct playstyle that doesn’t overlap too much with an existing class, and it has to be a meaningful category in the game’s fiction.
By the first one, I mean that the experience of playing that class should feel meaningfully different. As an example, the Doctor in EE is fairly distinct from the other classes, in two ways. The first is that it is, far and away, better at treating injuries than any other class, meaning it’s got a degree of niche protection there. But on top of that, the Doctor’s access to Mad Science works differently to a spellcaster or spook’s supernatural abilities; the Doctor is only limited by the player’s inventiveness and the materials they can get hold of, rather than having to pick between distinct options.
Similarly, it’s always bugged me that the Cleric and Wizard basically play the same, with a selection of pre-prepared spells that they have to carefully portion out. The Mystic as a class is basically my answer to that; by making spellcasting unreliable, and often carry with it requirements and restrictions from the mystic’s patron, playing a mystic feels very different to playing an occultist even if both use the same spell-list.
The flipside of this, of course, is that a class needs its own fictional niche. It needs to be a distinction the PCs would be drawing in character. “This is Steph, she’s our bodyguard”, that sort of thing. A good class, I think, is one where the distinctive playstyle and the fictional niche complement each other well. When you play a Mystic, you feel like you’re having to trust a fickle higher being for your powers, whilst a doctor is driven to find new stuff to experiment on, and a mercenary is mostly concerned with more practical matters.
An additional complication is how the balance of different types of classes influence the feel of the game. This, for example, is why I lumped all the non-human creatures into a single “spook” class; I could easily have written separate classes for vampires and dero and fairies and all sorts of things, but if I did that, you’d have a game where the majority of classes aren’t humans, which draws the focus away from the more normal humans I wanted the game to be about. Likewise, there’s an equal number of supernatural and purely mundane classes, because I didn’t want the game to lean to hard on the supernatural aspects, but I also wanted the PCs to have at least some connection there. The balance of focus for your classes helps dictate the feel of the game, I think.
Speaking of the Doctor, I wanted to address how EE handles hit points. The debate about whether D&D-style hit points represent actual capacity to sustain injury or this sort of nebulous luck and knack for avoiding injury in the first place has raged more or less since the game was published, and hasn’t been helped by the fact that the rules of the game seem to give mixed messages. (If your hit points are partially attributable to luck and skill, why can they be restored to you with a spell for curing wounds? If your hit points all relate to wounds, how come nothing really happens unless you hit 0 hit points?)
For EE you’ve cut this particular Gordion Knot by dividing hit points into two pools – one of which, Grit, really does relate to all that abstract luck and wound-dodging, whilst the other one – Flesh – really does relate to wounds (and opens the door to some delicious WFRP-esque critical hit tables if the pool’s depleted). I really like the action movie logic of how you can get most of your Grit back between scenes, but healing up Flesh takes longer – it seems like an elegant use of the 4E/5E idea of short and long rests, and an instant justification for making the split in the first place aside from the way it solves the long-running question of what the points actually represent. Where’d the idea come from, and what considerations went into its implementation in EE?
I’m gonna be honest: I stole the idea from Last Gasp Grimoire. I hear that the idea had been floating around elsewhere (it was in a D20 Star Wars game or something maybe?), but that’s where I encountered it first, so I incorporated it into my home game and earlier designs, and it worked fine. Like, I’ve tweaked and adjusted the numbers a bit, but the basic idea is adapting somebody else’s work.
People talk about how flesh & grit is one of the big selling points of the game, and that’s nice and all, but really this isn’t an original concept. It’s been floating about the whole oldschool scene for a while now.
Let’s talk more about the old school scene – the OSR, SWORD DREAM, whatever you want to call it. It’s gotten a surprising amount of mileage out of new presentations of D&D – I’m particularly a fan of how Old School Essentials formats things with an eye to ease of use at the table – but at the same time it felt like there’ve been too many points where old school designers have written an entire game just to be a delivery mechanism for their cool house rule. To my eye, EE avoids that pitfall and offers a game which has this very old school attitude, but at the same time is built from the ground up with an eye on both a different aesthetic and a different model of play. (I can’t see murderhoboing in the occult underground presented here quite working out the same as murderhoboing across the wilderness of OD&D.) You’ve not reinvented the wheel, but you’ve used it to make a dune buggy where most other people are selling cars. What’s your take on where the old school scene is going at the moment, and where EE sits in that?
The OSR is far broader than people often think; a lot of games out there present variations on the same core structures, but this is (IMHO) one of the strengths of the scene. It means things are cross-compatible: when I run trad fantasy games I’m pulling in ideas from five or six different books and combining them to suit my taste. In my experience, this is pretty common; more OSR GMs are running the game with houserules or splicing in bits of other games than running things strictly by the book. You have a lot of people doing interesting things with that basic structure; things like Best Left Buried or Troika are really interesting designs.
But the thing is, the OSR is very fractured. You get this quite conservative wing, who just want to play AD&D like they always did and don’t have much time for this ‘narrative’ nonsense (and often tend towards the more socially conservative side), the Sword Dream lot doing their crossbreeding with storygames, the weird arty people (Patrick Stuart, Luca Rejec etc) and then the more DIY oriented folks like myself. There’s a really good breakdown here and I think that whilst these scenes have shared origins, they’re really kinda distinct.
Of course, this is the case from within the movement. All metal music sounds the same to my mum, and the deep split between (say) black metal and power metal is meaningless to her. Same with OSR, just because from the inside there’s these huge divides between what somebody like me is doing and what (say) all those people working on GLOG hacks are doing (let alone the various people trying frantically to disavow themselves from the gammon-faced reactionary contingent)… somebody on the outside probably doesn’t see that.
That’s a great link and I’d encourage people to visit it; it looks like there’s way more to the OSR iceberg than I remember there being last time I had a close look at it.
In the spirit of that sort of cross-fertilisation between games: what EE idea would you really like to see people pick up and develop further in their own work?
I am very pleased with the wounds system I came up with. It took some inspiration from the Dark Heresy critical hits table, but I’ve tweaked and twiddled it a lot to get it working how it does, and I’m very pleased with it. More games should have hitting 0 HP result in horrible complications, rather than boring death or unconsciousness or a simple death clock. It makes hitting 0 HP interesting; being hit with horrible wounds or starting to bleed out or whatever adds a new complication to the fight, changing the context the players engage with it, rather than it just being about depleting resources. It also makes playing a medic rather more fun when the injuries you have to deal with have that much more grit to them.
That’s covered just about everything I wanted to go into, so to wrap things up: what’s next for Dying Stylishly?
What’s next? I’ve got a few projects bubbling away currently. I’m doing an expansion for Esoteric Enterprises, working on a module that’s basically Voyage Of The Dawn Treader with even more religious symbolism, and putting together a transhumanist post-apocalypse game based in Into the Odd. No clue what’ll be done first, this stuff tends to just keep going in the background until one of them ends up finished through mysterious means.