Posted on May 5, 2011 by Flames
Pelgrane Week continues here at Flames Rising with a new design essay by Matthew Sanderson. Matthew tells us about writing the forthcoming The Love of Money scenario for the Esoterrorists RPG.
Following the Money
“An idea is like a virus. Resilient, highly contagious and the smallest seed of an idea can grow.” – Inception
Looking back now, I think that best describes how the creative process began for me with The Love of Money. It all started with the hunt for an initial concept, a small seed, which then germinated and continued to expand into the final work. That hunt began with me asking myself one question: what would make this an Esoterrorist game? I’ve been playing roleplaying games now for about eleven years and in this time I’ve played in a great many games where I’ve thought it could work really well in another game’s setting. However, when I set about writing an adventure myself, I generally ask myself the question “why this game?” I like to feel that the story has a meaning, that it’s not a square peg trying to fit into a round hole.
So, I turned to the core rulebook and looked at the core tenants of the Ordo Veritatis as my first step. There, it outlines that the OV don’t kill members of the Esoterrorist movement lightly, since that act only helps to damage the Membrane, and thus actually helps the movement even further. At that moment, a little light bulb turned on somewhere… So many times in games I’ve run (and no doubt countless other GMs will be able to empathize with me here!) the players have tracked down the bad guys, and rather than try and reason with them or find a non-violent way to resolve the situation, they’ve brought out the guns and started firing away. Kill the bad guy, the problem goes away… In the world of the Esoterrorists, the problem doesn’t go away. If anything, it creates an even bigger problem.
There was my seed. I wanted a problem that guns wouldn’t solve, that resorting to the typical “shoot it and the problem dies” response would actually give the enemy exactly what they wanted. Now, to put it in context. Again, looking to the core rulebook and The Esoterror Factbook for guidance, I stumbled across a small paragraph that mentioned about how the OV believed there had to be a way that the Esoterrorist cells world-wide were financially able to operate. There had to be a funding network somewhere… That light bulb just got a bit brighter.
To put this in a little bit of context, I started off wanting to pursue a career in writing from a young age. As I started reading, I found a fair few authors I really admired started off in the field of journalism and then moved into becoming novelists. So, I went to university and read English Literature and took a minor in Multimedia Journalism. I remember one of the most enjoyable case studies we did in that time was over the Watergate Scandal. Woodward and Burnstein have subsequently been inspirations for dozens of journalist characters I’ve played in RPGs over the subsequent years! The one phrase that came back to me though when reading that passage about the possibility of their being a funding network for the Esoterrorists was “follow the money”.
Thus, I began establishing how such a funding network might logically function. They’d need a vast amount of resources at their disposal, that was obvious. It couldn’t be something like a bank or other purely monetary body, since someone could have tracked the trail back to them a long time ago. So, what other way was there to generate vast amounts of money? Natural resources. I bounced a few ideas around for a while, contemplating a group in control of the oil fields (just think, the rising fuel costs could be helping bring about the Great Project as we speak!), but then thought about precious metals and gemstones. It was an industry that certainly controlled vast amounts of funds.
A bit of research later, I came across rhodium as being one of the rarest and most expensive metals in the market. Digging a little further, I learned one of the places that it was found was in the waste from spent nuclear fuel rods… That light bulb flared again. The idea came to me that this metal came from the void created between the two halves of the splitting atom. A void in space at an atomic level. Might the Membrane itself even be broken at that point, and the explosion the result of the collision of subjective and objective realities? As such, rhodium could well be the Philosopher’s Stone that the Esoterrorists have been looking for.
Another section of the core rulebook came to mind about devices that the movement had recently created that were able to activate if certain criteria were met. The two lines of thought came together in that moment. The funding network was leaching funds out of the gemstone and precious metals industry (literally leaching off the bounty of the Earth). They were using this to fund Esoterrorist activities world-wide whilst also gathering all the rhodium they could get their hands on to create a device that would be capable of punching a whole through the Membrane to the Outer Dark. The activation of this device would be poetic justice: the Ordo Veritatis, their adversary, spilling blood over it in the belief they would be ending the cell’s threat.
In the same moment, the title for the adventure came to me. I usually have a hard time in coming up with titles for anything, but this one came to me quicker than most. The OV were effectively going to be following the money right back to the heart of the Esoterrorist movement… the very root of the problem… Timothy said it best: for the love of money is the root of all evil. The title was chosen.
The heart of the scenario was ready. Everything else fell into place like a series of dominoes falling over and knocking into the next one in line. The physical setting of the adventure was an easy choice as Amsterdam was at the center of the European gemstone industry. The conspiracy itself began to take form pretty quickly, and then came the work of setting up the PCs themselves and their role in the events unfolding. I’ve played in many games where the PCs just seemed to be an afterthought to the story. They are people brought in from almost random perspectives to get involved in the events about to unfold. I didn’t want that to happen with my adventure.
I usually write games for conventions, and as such, provide pre-generated characters as standard. However, there’s no reason why it couldn’t be run with an existing group of PCs. Essentially, they are ordinary people, bringing their own personalities with them, that have been swept up in the conspiracy and how the events leading up to the adventure beginning have touched them individually. There’s no reason why these events couldn’t happen to existing PCs, which could be an interesting ride to go down leading up to the final investigation. Making it playable as a stand-alone game, the pre-generated PCs provided make them already part of the story, with all the groundwork done before entering play.
The main thing is that these people have had these events take place in their lives that bring them into contact with the conspiracy. I needed something that would make it personal for them. Something that would make them put aside all their thoughts about training and procedure. Something that would make them want to spill the blood of those responsible. This was perhaps the most challenging detail of the whole process.
With a first draft laid out, I got a few friends together from the local roleplaying society and we tried the a few sessions of play testing. It was the first time I’d tried something like that myself with work I had produced, and it was definitely an eye-opening and enjoyable process and certainly owe people a great deal of thanks on that front. It’s their feedback that ultimately lead to the changes being made that polished the whole thing off into it’s finished state. All in all, the original concept remained the same at the heart of the conspiracy, but the journey along the way to discovering it may well have taken a few detours from the originally intended path.
I originally had the whole thing pinned on a single character being chosen as the one that if they pulled the trigger then the device activated. During play testing, the players twigged very early on (especially when one of them broke and tried to join with the enemy, only to realize what they were up to and then turned back again with all the information they needed to make sure it would never be able to work… You’ve got to love players for those moments!).
So, rather being able to simply leave the target behind (which would be a sensible way to stop the conspiracy in that version), I choose to pin it around the whole team instead, that they as OV representatives would be collectively responsible. Another group playing the next draft realized their role in the plot and found a completely non-aggressive solution to the threat. Again, thematically it fitted well into the values of the OV, but was somehow lacking a bit as a satisfying ending for the players who were looking for something a bit more intense. The next draft then took into account of the ability of the PCs to just step back and take a hands-off approach and pretty much solved the problem. In subsequent tests, it seems to have hit the nail on the head.
Now that the whole project is nearing completion, I’m incredibly proud of what I’ve produced. It’s unlike any other feeling out there, to see your initial idea grow and blossom and be delicately crafted along the way into the final product.
Here’s to hoping that everyone enjoys running and playing The Love of Money as much as I have enjoyed writing it!
Matthew Sanderson – 2011