Wednesday, 18 March 2020

Review - Esoteric Enterprises

Disclaimer: Note that some of the links below are affiliate links (meaning I get a small percentage of the sale without extra cost to you or the publisher).

Esoteric Enterprises is a modern occult horror dungeon crawling sandbox RPG. It is a synthesis of the premise of World of Darkness and the structured gameplay of old-school D&D, where outcasts and/or adventurous souls venture below the city and become involved in all sorts of illegal things, rub shoulders with the underbelly of society, ally themselves with vampires, and get in the crossfire of various gangs, cults, and supernatural big baddies.

The author, in an interview, describes the game as follows:

    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 mechanics are chiefly based on Lamentations of the Flame Princess with a few twists here and there. The game also comes with a robust system to generate various underground factions and undercity locations to facilitate the sort of free-spirited dungeon crawling and conspiracy the game is built for.

Rules Summary
  • We have the six classic attributes (Str, Dex, Con, Int, Wis, Cha; although Wisdom is relegated to represent awareness, while willpower is absorbed by Charisma). They are determined with 3d6 in order. Modifiers follow the B/X tradition.
  • Classes: Bodyguard (the LotFP Dwarf: increased encumbrance limit, good fighting abilities, great saves, improved Con modifier, although with an increasing Perception skill instead of Architecture), Criminal (the LotFP Specialist; skill monkey), Doctor (high Medicine skill, can heal Flesh, plus they can do "medical experiments"), Explorer (great saves, high Athletics skill, increasing Stealth skill, and improved Dex modifier, but less damage with weapons), Mercenary (the LotFP Fighter equivalent), Mystic (knows spells granted by a supernatural patron, uses Charm skill to cast), Occultist (keeps a spellbook, uses Vancian memorisation), and Spook (represents all non-human characters, slowest advancement, gains a Monstrous Power each level).
  • The Doctor's special ability to do "medical experiments" is outlined over two pages (well into the book), bringing up a large number of examples to judge whether something is "trivial" (resolved with a Medicine roll) or "risky" (Save vs. Machines and worse outcome on a failure) - basically, the Doctor could easily be called Mad Scientist.
  • The Spook class is a catch-all term for everything supernatural. As such, it comes with a bunch of different "origins" (human variant, construct, fairy, ghostly, living, mineral, plant, or undead) that comes with a few advantages and disadvantages, as well as a d10 table of starting powers. Every Monstrous Power has a number of "themes" (Breathe Fire, for example, has Violent, Fire, and Arcane, while Hypnotism has Hidden and Social). A Spook gains a new Monstrous Power every level, and the only restriction they have is that a new power must share at least one theme with one of their previous powers.
  • The skill system follows the X-in-6 chance notation from LotFP. The following skills are in the game: Athletics, Charm, Contacts, Driving, Forensics, Medicine, Perception, Stealth, Technology, Translation, and Vandalism. Each starts at 1-in-6, plus they are modified by attributes.
  • Saves are based on the traditional five: Stunning, Poison, Hazards, Machines, and Magic. They are based on class and level as usual, but they are also modified by attributes.
  • If an action is neither resolved by an attack roll, a skill check, or a saving throw, a "d20 roll under attribute score" type of roll can be used if needed.
  • HP is divided into Flesh and Grit (the former representing actual injuries). Both are based on class and modified by Constitution (although only a single point of Flesh is gained per level, while Grit is the usual "class-based die + Con modifier per level").
  • AC is ascending, base 10. Natural 20s are criticals, dealing damage directly to Flesh.
  • Encumbrance level is calculated by number of items carried. It affects certain saves and skills, as well as movement rate.
  • XP is awarded for treasure only (i.e. works of art, cultural or religious artefacts, items with occult powers, gems, jewellery, and cash - but not magical reagents or bank transfers), and only if they have something to do with the occult underground.
  • Time is generally measured in 6-second combat rounds or 10-minute exploration turns (plus hours and days and weeks for longer activities, as usual).
  • When surprise is a possibility, it's decided with a Perception skill roll on both sides. The surprising party gets a free round to act as usual.
  • When the reaction of the other group isn't obvious, a reaction roll is used: 1d6 + Charisma modifier of leader (2 or less hostile, 3-4 neutral, 5 or more friendly). If the party leader is making a good impression, the result of a successful Charm roll is added to the reaction roll as well.
  • Initiative is 1d6 + leader's Dexterity per side.
  • Attack rolls are 1d20 + Strength or Dexterity vs. target's AC. To-hit bonuses aren't gained by all characters, but other situational bonuses may apply based on tactics (such as defensive or reckless fighting and environmental circumstances).
  • Damage is first subtracted from Grit. When there's no more Grit, damage reduces Flesh. Surprise attacks also deal damage directly to Flesh.
  • When reaching 0 Flesh, instead of going into negatives, you take a horrible wound looked up in a table based on the amount of damage taken and its type, such as ballistic, ripping, bludgeoning, burn, shock, or toxin.
  • If a side loses more than half of its member (or Grit/Flesh in case of a solitary opponent) or witnesses terrifying magic, they need to make a morale check: 1d6 + leader's Charisma (2 or less panicked, 3-4 rattled, 5 or more confident - the table in the book is inverted, but I assume it's a mistake).
  • Between adventures, characters may live their daily lives and also gather information, find buyers to sell their loot, and hunt down contacts to purchase weapons, drugs, and occult gear. Finding sellers, buyers, or other specialists is handled by a Contacts skill roll - whereas actual payment is a d10 roll against the character's Resources score (usually equal to their level).
  • Spells are arranged by rank (from 1 to 8, corresponding to spell levels in other D&D-esque games). There is a single spell list shared by both Occultists and Mystics (a total of 128 spells).
  • Occultists have a spellbook. They learn a single spell per level automatically, but they can also copy spells into their spellbook from scrolls and other Occultists' spellbooks. They can cast any spell any number of times per day if they perform a ritual (taking 1 turn). In addition, they may memorise spells (limited by their level), casting which takes only a single round. They may even memorise a spell in a lower rank slot (but they must make a Save vs. Magic or roll on The Fragility of Mortal Minds table). By using reagents, they can even make scrolls of known spells (casting which also takes but one round).
  • Mystics know a specific number of spells given by their patron. They cannot scribe scrolls or learn extra spells from spellbooks - but their casting attempts always take just a single round. To cast a spell successfully, they must brandish their holy symbol and make a Charm roll (and on a failure they roll on The Fickle Whims of the Divine table). They can also bless someone (essentially granting them a single-use spell that largely follows the rules of casting specific to Mystics).
  • The party's relationship with each faction of the underworld is measured separately using a Reputaion score (-20 to +20). The baseline Reputation starts at 0, but when they come into contact, the party's level and attitude determines a new baseline (e.g. a 5th level party generally showing hostility towards a gang would start at -5). Violent acts towards the faction and general untrustworthiness lowers this score, while acts of goodwill and completing jobs for them improve it.
  • Similarly, a Legal Attention score describes the party's relationship with the above ground authorities. Generally speaking, crimes increase this score, while laying low descrease it - however, it can never go lower than half of the highest score attained. Unnoticed crimes (witnesses silenced, surveillance footage destroyed, prints and DNA scrubbed, etc.) do not increase this score, however. This score also sets the maximum result on Law Enforcement Encounter rolls (the higher end of which involves the spooky Men In Black)
  • Wandering monsters are checked once every third turn, whenver the party causes a commotion, and whenever they enter a populated area. Wandering monsters are encounter 1-in-6 by default, 2-in-6 if the party is noisy or otherwise reckless, or 3-in-6 if they are purposely drawing attention.

Content by the Numbers
  • 8 classes, 128 spells, 66 monstrous powers
  • 57 charts (such as class advancement, attribute modifiers, equipment, monster stats per HD, die-type reference charts for underworld generation, etc.) and 119 random tables (such as random spell per rank, underworld locations, random encounter tables, magical mishaps, etc.)
  • 198 monsters (with random tables for further variations)
  • 5 gasses, 3 spores, 5 slimes, 16 diseases, and 11 curses
  • 39 non-standard magic items

Things I Liked
  • The classic 3d6-in-order might sound too hardcore for some folks, so there are two alternatives: (1) you can use an array of inverse values (calculated as 21 minus the original value, so if you rolled 4, 11, 18, 6, 8, 5, you could instead take 17, 10, 3, 15, 13, 16), or (2) you can take 18 d6s so that each value from 1 to 6 appears thrice, and assign 3 such dice to each attribute.
  • No minimum attribute requirements for classes. Even though attribute modifiers partially contribute towards a character's effectiveness, "niche protection" is largely still achieved through class abilities alone.
  • Very clean rules of recuperation. Grit returns after a short rest (1 turn). Flesh returns at a rate of 1 point per night, +1 point if slept indoors, +1 point if slept in a bed.
  • Well-written "when to roll" paragraph that boils down to the following: (1) if the action is dangerous, (2) if the action is likely to fail but there's still some chance, (3) in combat, (4) if the action relies less on techniques that players can describe and more on actual knowledge or innate strengths of a character.
  • The X-in-6 skill chance thing is nice and all, but what really elevates it is that the number rolled on a success often matters.
  • The description of the Technology skill reminds the reader that "most people" are probably way less nerdy (which means only experts are allowed to roll on a bunch of things).
  • A page of advice for (new) players ("You control your character. The GM adjudicates everything else. The world is not fair. You ned to play ruthless. The GM is not your enemy. You can't really win, but you absolutely can lose. Your character is not you. The rules are a tool, not the point of the game.").
  • There is an incredibly useful "How do I play as a..." section that goes over a bunch of character types and archetypes (from cop and necromancer to femme fatale and the wandering soul of a coma patient), providing useful advice how to represent those characters in game terms (which class to pick, which attributes to prioritise, etc.), often providing multiple similar approaches.
  • Dying is rarely instantaneous, because 1st level characters have practically 2 Hit Dice (one die of Flesh and one of Grit), but at the same time characters still feel pretty fragile. It's just a nice spot overall.
  • A few pages of simple rules deal with various topics: aging, attribute damage and loss, bleeding to death, breaking equipment, cave-ins and collapsing buildings, climbing, digging, disguises, opening locked doors, electrocution, escaping bonds, falling, fire, being left in the dark, hacking computers, mental damage, metamorphosis, narcotics, poison, sickness, sleep deprivation, swimming and drowning, torture, and handling traps and alarms. These rules bits can be easily replaced or expanded upon if found lacking. It also helps communicating what sort of hazards and obstacles the characters are expected to face.
  • If plausible in a given situation, Stealth or Charm can be used to gain a surprise attack during combat (either by disappearing in the shadows to strike again later or by distracting an opponent so another may deliver a deadly blow). A few other fighting options, like defensive fighting (+AC, -attack), reckless fighting (+attack, -AC), or going for the kill (+damage, -AC, -attack) and suppressing fire round out the options in combat.
  • Both Mystics and Occultists can cast spells experimentally, meaning that they can change certain parameters of the spell ad hoc (not making it stronger but different, mostly) - but they must make a Save vs. Magic or roll on the What Has Your Hubris Brought table. Occultists might even transcribe these experiments into their spellbook, and step-by-step research entirely new spells.
  • A short section goes into detail about the dos and don'ts of running games. Nothing groundbreaking for veteran gamers (or those active in the OSR segment of the blogosphere), but it's nice to see these thoughts collected as it might come handy for newcomers. It touches on various things from preparation and character death to running combat, exploration, and heists.
  • If the type of wandering monster rolled has been encountered before, there's a 1-in-6 chance it's the same group. A simple but elegant way to introduce continuity. Will probably steal this bit for other OSR games I run.
  • Simple rules for handling squeezing through tight spaces and chases in active subway tunnels.
  • Treasure tables, including "I search the body", random magic item, random grimoire, and random narcotics, and random encounter tables.
  • An appendix N, compatibility notes with other OSR games, an index (!), and a list of tables - all at the back of the book.

Things I Disliked
  • There are a handful of typos and numerous issues with punctuation and consistency. Better editing and more thorough proofreading would have made the product "cleaner" and easier to digest.
  • Higher attributes are a little more important than in other OSR games, as they affect skills and saves on top of the usual things, like to-hit rolls, HP, AC, etc. They may even be used in action resolution (d20 roll under)!
  • Awareness would be a cooler and more descriptive name for the Perception skill (it gives the wrong impression, IMHO).
  • The possibility of +3 Charisma is often criticised when used with 2d6 reaction rolls - but here Charisma is even more powerful as it's a 1d6 roll. Same for morale.
  • For XP purposes, the exact value of the loot is needed (in USD/EUR), whereas for gearing up an abstract Resources score is used. I do like that Resources is only rolled when it comes to illegal things (for "normal" things, every Resource level comes with a spending limit), but in general I don't like the dissonance between the coin-based and abstract approaches. Might turn out to be just fine at the table, though.

Suffice to say, I'm very much intrigued by this game. I really like the premise, and I'm just about to put together an undercity for my players to explore. However, it isn't without flaws. The change from 2d6 to 1d6 in case of reaction and morale doesn't seem justified, and the entire book - while oozing with flavour - feels a little unpolished (inconsistent terms, missing punctuation, typos, that sort of thing). Nothing that will stop me from running it, mind you.

Esoteric Enterprises is designed and written by Emmy Allen (aka Cavegirl) and published through Dying Stylishly Games. It is available on DriveThruRPG as a PDF (and it comes with an art-free version, too) or as a hardback+PDF combo through Exalted Funeral.

EDIT: I believe the print edition is actually published by SoulMuppet Publishing, and Exalted Funeral is merely the distributor in the US (and apparently Melsonia in the UK).


  1. looks great!

    Not much playing now though cause of corona....

    1. aha! voice-chat (such as discord or roll20) is your friend here!