Last week I introduced the process behind the preparation of an Olympic GMing game. It was kinda bare-bones – you only get an hour, and you have to use some specific ingredients – but that’s okay, because a huge part of the creation happens during the game itself.

Roleplaying games, amiright? Right?

Let the Game Begin

The first party arrives at the table, and I explain where we are – a generic cosmopolitan European city, night time. Because I’m running XCOM tomorrow and that’s the setting for that game. The characters are agents of a secret Order fighting the supernatural, but they have common daily lives. They got a message telling them to arrive to the car park (because… dunno, it’s a place where you meet. No?) but the message wasn’t usual (let’s start that employer-employee conflict). They’ve been asked to kill someone, which is very unusual, and also, they only got a few details.

I gave a short description of every character – and didn’t forget about the cufflinks – and explained the concept behind the system: you always succeed in finding a clue, it just costs a use of a skill of your choice. I distributed the characters to the players, warned them about showing the secret page to the others, and asked “is everyone okay with their character?” while exchanging glances with the player that took Moosa (the undercover boss), nodding to each other.

I decided the car park was next to a supermarket, because Back to the Future. The players roleplay a bit, trying out their characters. The ex-married couple get into a fight – in both runs of the game – and I make a remark about how strange it is that the two of them were invited to the same mission. Yanos declares he likes Kelly and is sorry to see her and Rafi apart. Awesome. Moosa is a stranger, coming from… City B. No one in the group worked with him before, but he knows the secret Order code (a Latin phrase, as one of the players decided), so he’s one of us. I mention you can freely contact the bosses of the Order – not directly, but you can leave them messages, and they usually come back very quickly. I want the players to be able to chat with the bosses, so I can make the latter mysterious, aloof and unhelpful. The bosses are against what’s happening here, for a reason I’m not sure of yet. The important thing is having a conflict. Between employers and employees, that is.

I figured the supermarket will be Scene 1, which will lead to Scene 2, and then to Scene 3, the last one, that’s supposed to be a big climactic battle in a place of worship, as you might remember. But after we began, it turned out the supermarket was two scenes, and actually took up at least half of the game time. I described a car sitting alone in the car park – because there’s always one, even in the middle of the night, it’s probably abandoned or something – and one of the players took that as a relevant detail and decided to investigate. So of course it’s important! Why, it’s the rented car that Anya used to get here. Anya’s the name of your target. And when they hack the security cameras, they discover she left the vehicle, walking toward the supermarket about two hours ago, and didn’t came back. And also… she carried a big bag. Because it’s a mysterious thing that I can use later when I need to create a solution for something. Wait, there are also strange marks sprayed on the side of the building (why? because the players asked), and even stranger, it appears they have no mystical significance. (Why? to make things more complex).

In retrospect, I understand it was the first scene of the game; the 2nd scene started after they walked around the building and discovered the supplier entrance that led to the storeroom, which was filled with blood, filled, with, blooooooood

…because it was time for an injection of drama.

Drama! *jazz hands*

But there’s no body! There are all sorts of body parts, all over the place. And tiny gremlins who worship them! Why gremlins? Because I work on an XCOM game and it has gremlins, that’s why. But also so they’ll be someone to talk to, because at this point I understand that people like Sandra, who have a lot of conversation skills, can’t use them unless there’s someone around to investigate, convince, or whatever (in the second game I also added a parked truck with an NPC).

The blood is sprayed in strange ways! Dunno why. But I start to get an understanding of what’s going on. There was some sort of arcane ritual, or something like that. Anya, the NPC everyone’s after, was part of it. But I’m starting to realize Anya isn’t the villain – she’s a victim. And then, when the party checks the security cams inside the building, they discover Anya was kidnapped by a couple of strange dudes.

Meanwhile, by the way, Moosa’s player digs in Anya’s big bag and discovers her diary, written in code, keeping it to himself, in secret. In both runs of the game. I decided she actually wanted to stop esoterrorists, and there’s a horrible mix up with the boss. It was already hinted at from the fact someone kidnapped her, which makes the players think the bigger picture is stranger than they thought. If and when Moosa figures out the code, he’ll discover the rest.

They try to chase the vehicle with the kidnapped Anya – in both plays, the cop’s player used the skill “talk with cops” to ask HQ for details about the vehicle. A great moment to add some more wham – the dude in charge of tracking vehicles told the cop, how funny, you already requested details about this vehicle a few months ago. The players look at me bewildered. I fill in the details: Our cop was part of another operation for the Order, and it went wrong, and the evil guys stole the Order’s vehicle. Which is this one. At the end of that mission, the cop and his buddies were able to return the vehicle – which means it still belongs to the Order.

Someone from within the Order kidnapped Anya!

Employee-employer conflict!

Time for some Place of Worship

The party arrives at a cathedral (in the 2nd game, a mosque – to keep things interesting for me), and while on the way there I take the opportunity to remind everyone about the horrible rain, the general gloomy feel of the city. I have no idea how the cathedral look like, so I turn to the players, and ask one – what’s its name? And another – what’s unique about its physical properties? Thanks Dungeon World!

Meanwhile, I sort of understand what’s going on, thanks to the questions and decisions we made throughout the game so far. So when they go inside, they see a group of people in robes around an unconscious Anya, in the middle of some horrible ritual, and there’s a guy wearing all sorts of jewelry, obviously in charge of what’s going on – and he’s one of those who kidnapped Anya. And the people themselves, the ones in robes? They’re all friends of ours! Why, here’s the second ex-wife of Rafi the cop! And here’s Yanos’ secret lost son! And Sandra’s brother!

All of them are part of the Order, supposed to stop magic at all costs. What are they doing! What! Are! They! Doing! And in order to drive the point that everythings a bit scary and unclear – Esoterrorists is basically a horror game – it looks like Anya’s body is breaking up into small snakes that make their way toward the people in robes.

From that point on there’s a big kerfuffle, ending up with the arrest of the villain, but not before the following details are revealed: All the people in the robes look very sick; it seems like the ritual is supposed to cure them; they were probably desperate and the man in jewels exploited that – maybe even infected everyone in the first place; and in actuality, Anya discovered all this and tried to stop them from betraying the Order, but she couldn’t talk with the bosses about it – including Moosa – since any of them could be in on it. An unfortunate mix up followed, making Moosa think she’s the betrayer (in the first game, Moosa managed to read the diary while in the rain outside, running into the cathedral, shouting in horror and sorrow, stop, stop. In the second game, Moosa tried to shoot Anya before anyone rescues her, to keep his honor).

Wait, that’s not the end – one of the reasons the villain got captured, is thanks to the cufflinks. Yay, they’re important! It turns out, completely by chance, and only because I have to use the cufflinks before the game ends, that there’s some sort of unwanted interaction between the cufflinks and the villains jewels. When the villain raises his hands – Moosa do the same, and vice versa. Both of them are quite surprised by that, and Moosa uses this new power to help the others capture the villain before he escapes. What’s up with the jewels? How can anyone even inject magic into objects, that’s supposed to be impossible, as I’ve deliberately said several times throughout the game? Well, that’s a mystery for some other time!

Thanks for Playing

And that’s it. GUMSHOE, the gaming engine behind Esoterrorists, did its job. I didn’t exactly used all of it, although I did added a small element of physical skills, because I knew the players were going to want to, and because rolling is fun – unlike investigative abilities, you do roll the physical skills. I went the Paranoia XP way and said “when you need to do something, invent the skills for it. You can do that twice, each get 3 points”. And it worked great.

I won 2nd place out of eight GMs, not because my mystery was especially elaborate or coherent – remember the bit with the symbols on the supermarket’s wall? The players didn’t remember it as well, and that’s good, because I had no idea what to do with them – but because the game was entertaining, and Olympic GMing is, first and foremost, about the question “did the players had a good time”, before “how true was the game to that event’s theme”. So like any other con game.

Comment and criticize below! Based on the original Hebrew post, from my Hebrew blog.