Friday, 1 November 2019

Esoteric Enterprises - actual play!

So I ran Esoteric Enterprises for my sweetie. Here's how it went down.

We used non-random character creation. The character she ended up making was a bit odd. She went for a ghostly spook, with very high charisma, good intelligence and wisdom, and completely shit physical stats. Inhuman Beauty as her starting power (improving her Charm skill even more, and shifting reaction rolls in her favour). For gear, she basically put everything into social advantages; among other things, all the wealth-based advantages meant she came in with a ridiculous starting Resources of 7, as well as being bilingual and some other stuff.
The character's backstory was where the weirdness came in. Effectively, Katarina was the soul of a wizard from a parallel world who, upon dying in weird circumstances, found herself thrown into this world, taking over the life of one of her parallel selves. 

The game is set in Kuersberg, a little industrial town in Northern Russia, where they mine uranium and make weapons. Major factors in the town include various shamanic cults reflecting indigenous arctic beliefs, lots of Dero, a hospital where occult weirdos experiment on the patients, and a brood of mosquito-vampires.

So, the session began with a little narration about the experience of dying, her soul falling helpless into the maw of oblivion, reality falling apart, and then being spat out into a new reality.
She wakes up in bed in an unfamiliar apartment. Realises very quickly that she can't physically touch anything, as she passes through the blankets on getting up. A little investigation of the flat reveals that it seems like she lives here; there's a doctorate certificate framed on the wall with her name on it, and a few pictures of her and her family. Putting everything together, she concludes that this person must be some sort of neurosurgeon, probably doing OK for herself.
She finds an envelope on the counter. Written on it is her emergency code-word for any situations where she might have had her memory altered. This is intriguing; whoever wrote this knows her secret code-words and contingencies. Unfortunately, she's a ghost, and can't touch the envelope to open it.
Exploring the apartment fully revealed a 'space' between rooms which no door led to. Concluding that there was a hidden room there, she promptly walks straight through the wall, and finds herself in a pitch black space. Groping around, she gets a feel for the boundries of the room and where the furniture is, before locating a coil of rope that's fully physical to her and which she can pick up. (In EE, magical things are completely tangible to ghosts, so they can hold/be hurt by magic weapons, etc. She's just found an enchanted rope). Wrapping the rope around her hand, she switches the light on and finds herself in a hidden laboratory/surgery theatre. As well as the magic rope, there's a few occult tomes here, and a big ominous surgical slab with restraints to hold down a victim.
Leaving the hidden room via its secret door, she reads the letter to herself; it details whose flat this is (a parallel version of Katarina who became a surgeon rather than a wizard), the assets available to her, and a brief overview of occult activity in town. In particular, it mentions that she was an employee at the local hospital, where there are a few other supernatural workers.
This being done, she goes and reads those occult books. They are: The Vivinomicon, Madotsuki's Dream Diary, and The Engines Of The Gods. In quick succession, these cause her to re-roll her physical stats (she gets lucky here, and her dump-statted str/dex/con re-roll to be pretty good. Still useless when she can't touch things, though), allow her to astrally project while dreaming (giving her all the properties of a ghost while she does so; basically useless), and lastly to rip holes in reality (spend a HP, roll on the table And Hell Shall Follow for what happens). Her nature warped by the horrible things she knows, she settles in to get used to her new ghostly form.
She also concludes that, since she can physically touch her magic rope, this will let her touch things, and so unravels its fibres to make a glove woven around one ghostly hand, letting her actually hold stuff. Smart.

Her next step, then, is to travel to the hospital and meet with these occult hospital-workers.
She introduces herself to them, and makes contact with Petra (a latant psychic), Ivan (a cultist of the Coyote), and Ilsa (a banshee). She learns that this world's Katarina has put herself into a medically-induced coma while doing experiments with Dero blood, in an attempt to astrally project into the Dero hive-mind. It seems this world's Katarina was a franken-fran tier mad scientist. Since it seems this world's actual Katarina isn't coming back from her coma any time soon, she's told she can basically take over the comatose woman's life for the time being. She is, at this point, on pretty friendly terms with the Hospital, and I alter her reputation score with them to reflect that.

The next week is spent laying low and insinuating herself back into the occult underworld here. She makes some contacts, picks up some rumours. Learns about an entrance to the buried undercity that's just been found. Learns that an irritatingly persistant detective has been investigating the hospital for crimes they didn't commit, but is coming close to uncovering the ones they DID commit.

With not much else going on, she decides to go explore the undercity. Going to an old abandoned mining-site, she finds a shaft leading down to a now-abandonned uranium mine, and explores down there. It's mostly abandoned, although she does meet an urban shaman in the mines offering a little tribute to the uranium-spirits. Contact is brief and wary, but not hostile. A little later she meets the various undead bits of a miner who died in a cave in (a torso and two hands), which crawl after her. Walking away at a brisk pace, she finds a crack in the rock leading to a natural cave system, and flees into it.
This leads her deeper into the undercity, and eventually she clambers from this now-dry underground river into a buried tomb complex. The first room she finds contains various skeletons laid out on slabs, and as she investigates their bones, their rest is disturbed and all 20 of them reanimate to punish her for her trespass! The fight is brief; they can't hurt her (she's a ghost) but they can snatch the torch she's been carrying (in her magic-rope-glove). She wriggles free of their grasp and flees the room, slamming the door behind her, and finding herself alone in the dark.
This is a problem. Re-opening the door, she quickly snatches her torch back and slams it shut again, fleeing and hoping the angry skelingtons won't come after her.
A little further exploring in these tombs brings her to a room where a single huge book stands on a lectern. Katarina concludes it's probably magic, maybe cursed, and decides not to poke it yet but instead to come back to it.
Deeper into the tombs, she finds another room, with sarcophagi lining the walls, and feels a looming spiritual presence here. Searching the place, she picks up a few scattered coins, before hearing the voices of people approaching!
It turns out, the voices approaching are Sergai (a cultist of Dionysus) and Ida (a fairy slaugh). She greets them cheerfully, and the pair seem friendly. A chat is had - it seems the two are new to town and not really affiliated with anybody - and the three of them decide that it would be a great idea to get drunk and make out in this OBVIOUSLY HAUNTED tomb (it turns out Ida has some Fairy Wine that can even get ghosts drunk! lucky!). Sergai's shirt is just coming off as the gestalt ghost haunting the chamber notices what's going on, and is PISSED.
Combat begins with a howl of "WHO DARES DEFILE MY RESTING PLACE?" as the gestalt-spirit gets a surprise round to act in, lifting a stone slab poltergeist-style and hurling it at the trio. It passes harmlessly through Katarina, but Sergain and Ida are both hit; Sergai is knocked unconcious and crumples to the floor, while the slab catches Ida in the gut, and she collapses, coughing up massive amounts of blood and starting to bleed out from internal damage.
Ida Sergai's unconcious body from the room, and Katarina follows, slamming the door behind them. At this point, Ida has maybe a minute to live unless something can be done to slow her bleeding; luckily, Katarina has her magic-rope-glove so she can at least touch Ida enough to try staunching the bleeding, albeit at a penalty. She rolls, gets VERY LUCKY, and Ida's bleeding slows down, giving her maybe 20 minutes before death claims her. Sergai wakes, and the trio flee back to the surface (it turns out Sergai and Ida have an exit to the surface not far from here, which they lead Katarina to). A taxi is called, and Kat brings the pair to the hospital so her buddies can treat their wounds.
In the end, the hospital ends up recruiting Sergai and Ida to join their little coven. Katarina's reputation with the hospital is raised again, and she's now closely allied with them.

At this point, she turns her attention to the other problems facing her allies, namely the cop investigating the hospital. Meeting with him - still drunk on fairy wine - she pretends she's a potentially useful witness, and works out what the guy's up to. Turns out, he's been finding the exsanguinated and mutilated bodies of the mosquito-vampire's victims, and thinks the hospital is to blame, concocting a theory that the hospital is involved with organ harvesting.
A few Contacts skill rolls later, and she makes contact with the Mosquito Vampires, and explains what's going on. The mosquitos thank her for her information, give her a big wad of cash so everybody is square, and promise to deal with the issue. A few days later, the cop is infected with Mosquito Vampirism, and joins the vampire brood as a plant in the police force. Her reputation with the vampires improves from this little service.

Katarina lies low for a few days; after all, she's been seen getting a taxi with two people COVERED IN BLOOD, and been talking to the cops, so she doesn't want to attract too much more attention.
During this time, she witnesses a traffic accident, where the victim just sorta snaps, and starts lashing out with telekinetic power. Kat decides not to intervene, and watches as the latant psychic is eventually shot down by police marksmen.
A little later, she sees some kids fleeing from an abandonned building, and goes to investigate. Within, she finds a Collector of Eyeballs, one of the weirder creatures inhabiting the undercity, and establishes friendly contact! The two have a chat, and decide that they have a lot in common (Katarina also collects eyeballs, as it turns out). They arrange a meeting between Katarina, the Collector of Eyeballs, and the Collector's friend, a Lurking Lamp.
Three days later, not expecting an ambush, Katarina goes back down to the abandonned uranium mines, to meet the eyeball collector and the Lurking Lamp. And, surprise, it's NOT an ambush! The three discuss eyeballs and trinkets, to some trade, and chat about the state of the undercity. Katarina learns about the Dero, as well as hearing about various subteranean monsters such as the lithic courts, the morlocks, and so on. Overall, this is a productive meeting.

This is where I end the session.

The meat of the game came down to the various factions in the underworld, with Katarina's actions mostly being attempts to curry favour with the Hospital and potential allies. She's engaging nicely with the reputation & police attention systems, which is good, and really exploiting her good Contacts skill. The undercity's there to provide diversions with dungeon-crawling, although she's not found the most interesting and dangerous spaces down there yet.
It's going pretty well. Kat's half way to level 2 already, and making friends and allies. Apparently, she wants to find somewhere safe in the undercity to make her subterranean lair, and find some way to start clawing back magical power, as not being a wizard anymore is a pain in the neck. At some point, she'd like to work out where this world's Kat has astral-projected to, or to go back to her home reality, but those are a long way off.

But yeah. That's how the game tends to play. It's going how I hoped, and seems to produce a good mix of weird and grittiness.

I will leave you with some page-shots of the PDF, to show off my fancy graphic design. These pages can be quite busy, so the PDF will come bundled with a bonus art-free version that's more dyslexia-friendly and won't bankrupt you if you try to print it.

Friday, 18 October 2019

Review - The Shivering Circle

By Howard David Ingham. Buy it here (no, seriously, buy it, it's good). Website here.

Well, this is absolutely my jam. I love this.

It's a 60 page book. Short and concise. It gives you an engine for a particular style of game, and a setting - Hoddesford, England - to run those games in.
It's full of a very specific, very evocative atmosphere. Modern rural middle-England, the sort of place where the plastic veneer of modernity is slapped over somewhere older and more odd. It's incredibly British, and if you're British yourself you'll recognise this stuff immediately. I grew up in a town that might as well be Hoddesford myself, and this stuff really resonated with me.  The book absolutely nails the tone of the place.
It feels political. Not that it has a message per se, but rather that it recognises the state of modern Britain and ties that into the horror. Like, for example, you take the way our underfunded social services let down poor kids, and the way this produces angry directionless teenagers who, sure, they're gonna cause trouble for everybody else, but they're far more troubled themselves. Right? And then you get these hopeless bitter kids, and take something old and dark that preys on that sense of being abandoned, and... that's a coven, right there. The book implies that this keeps happening. That there will always be poor children that society has abandonned, who become prey for the things witches worship, and that when it ends tragically for them (it always ends tragically for them), that just fuels the cycle.
The book makes them sympathetic, almost. Almost. It's a sort of tragedy of the state of the country being exploited by dark occult forces. Kind of a microcosm of the whole setting, really. The problems that face this sort of town IRL, turned dark and horrible by the supernatural.
The weird's never fully explained. You see hints and glimpses. The actual horrible truth is something you'll work out in play. You get a haunted fox-hunt that sometimes hunts people; an old old man living on the hills, hunting with a hawk, in communion with old pagan bird-godesses; a spooky old manor with parapsychologists poking it; the ministry of defence doing horrible psychic experiments on kids; a charity shop that is just fucking horrid; and a bunch of other stuff, all tying back in vague and ominous ways to the Shivering Circle, a circle of standing stones that serves as the load-bearing central pillar of the setting.
Seriously, this shit is good.
The rest of the setting is similar to that coven of kids I mentioned. It keys in on different tensions you might find in modern British society (fox-hunting, the general ukip-gammon-arsehole infestation the country's suffering, social deprivation, etc etc). There's some grade A queer representation in here; off hand mentions where it's no big deal. Likewise, there's women presented ranging from strong to flawed to fucking horrible, and it nicely avoids anything too sexualized or stereotyped; all of the sample NPCs given feel very true-to-life. As a solid lefty myself, I approve. Bigger RPG companies could take some notes from the way this game handles this stuff.

The system presented is decent. I'm not wowed by it like I am the setting, but it seems pretty functional. You get five stats - Compassion, Courage, Dignity, Health, Hope -  rated 0-10, roll 3d6, and hope to beat a DC. Get an extra d6 if it's something you're good at, or d6 less if you're shaken in that stat.
Critically, you only roll at key points. If you pass a roll, that stat goes up. If you fail, it goes down. Your character's capabilities will shift over time, without needing an XP mechanic. I really like this.
If really bad shit happens on the roll, you'll be shaken in that attribute. A few different things can cause this. It's bad news.
As you keep succeeding, you get an escalating increase to the difficulty for that stat, that resets once you fail a roll. So you'll find problems mount up until you hit breaking point, and then catch a second wind. Again, I like this.
The engine is really simple but looks like it will produce escalating tension, ratcheting things up and providing release valves. It hits the same thing I like about a game like Don't Rest Your Head.

My only criticism here is the selection of stats. They're a bit vague and arty for my tastes and I find myself struggling to work out which would apply in different situations. (That said, you avoid the 'justify why you use your best stat for everything' problem here by the fact that rolling the same stat over and over will make it harder to succeed). If I were to hack this, I'd possibly re-name them to slightly more traditional concepts. It's a minor quibble, though, and it's quite possible that shit'd work out fine in play.

Your character sheet has a ring of standing stones drawn on it. As bad shit escalates, you colour them in. Once only the stone in the centre is left uncoloured, things have come to the head, and you tell the GM, who can steer things appropriately. If the final stone gets coloured in, you're fucked. It varies what exactly happens, but that's game over for that character.
It's simple, evocative, and I love it.
Of note: there's three different character sheets, with different numbers of stones in the circle depending on the type of game you're running; 5 for 1-shots, 9 for short-burn campaigns (of maybe 6 sessions), 13 for longer games. Scaling shit up and down for different styles of game is good.
Like everything else in the game, this mechanic is all about setting the pace things move at, providing escalating tension.

From what I can see, it's mechanically simple and flexible, and everything in there is fine-tuned for it's specific purpose. The author very clearly understands how the game is meant to play, how the mechanics incentivise and push things, what the core loop of the game is. From reading it, the game is a little more collaborative in intent than most I play - it's one of those games where "if you pass a roll, you narrate what happens, if you fail, the GM does" so players need to be invested in telling a good story. I've been having an itch for something like this for a while, though, and had great fun last time I dipped into this style of game.

There's a few pages on supernatural abilities PCs might have. Low-level psychic abilities, or a little dabbling in ritual magic. It's low on concrete mechanics (you basically roll like for anything else when you want to activate a power, with some slight tweaks) but high on how this stuff works diagetically. The section sets expectations for what supernatural stuff in the game world will consist of, rather than defining everything numerically. I like this.

Character gen is simple. Assign some numbers to your five stats, and then the rest is free-form diagetic stuff. What you're good at, what you're scared of, what drives you, etc. It's quick and simple but drills down onto the core of the character.

In terms of visual stuff, the book is fairly simple. Some public domain art, but otherwise minimalist. It's print-on-demand from DTRPG, so the print quality is what you'd expect for that.
The layout is good, though. Information is divided up nicely, with bold text picking out the key mechanical bits. The whole thing is given in a very informal, conversational style. I found it really compelling to read; you get this wonderful sense that Howard is telling you about this really cool RPG in person. For reference, there's an SRD in the back of the book that gives things in slightly more plain and technical language. This is useful, more things should do this.

It's not perfect, but nothing is, but it comes fucking close and the only real quibble is something that's trivial to fix.
It's PWYW on DTRPG. Go buy it. Give the author good money for it, because it's a good fucking game and I want more shit like this to be made. I think I payed about 15 quid for it, and I regret not paying more because it's worth it.

Monday, 7 October 2019

New Class - The Visionary

Visionaries are odd people. Plagued by ill health and madness from birth, each is a frail, frightened, wide-eyed thing, overwhelmed by the signs and portents they see at every turn. Something in their mind processes the world differently to other people. They see things others don't, understand things in ways other's can't, draw bizarre connections between things. By all accounts, they're totally insane, tormented by hallucinations, delusions and paranoia.
Except, of course, that they're frequently entirely correct. Their insights have a habit of being correct, and their madness has an underlying method to it that might be obscured even from the visionary. 
Many such individuals find themselves locked away in sanatoriums and asylums, or kept behind closed doors by families ashamed of the lunatic in their midst. Others go out into the world, becoming vagrants, hermits, or social dropouts. A few manage to find themselves recognised as oracles, kept somewhere safe and consulted for prophecy. 
A significant number, however, are recruited as adventurers. Neither front-line combatants, nor skilled problem solvers, a Visionary contributes little directly to their party's success. Any party that can recruit one, however, knows the value of the wild-eyed, babbling prophet accompanying them. When things are about to turn nasty, the Visionary becomes the metaphorical canary in the coal mine, and when the party's course is in doubt, the Visionary's insight becomes invaluable.

HD: d4
Saves: As a Magic User
Attack: As a Magic User
Experience Costs: As a Magic User
Weapon & Armour Restrictions: If your system restricts gear by class, no armour or shields. Weapons limited to one handed weapons, spears, thrown weapons, and slings.
Madness: The Visionary is not even slightly sane, and is not very good at hiding it. The precise details are up to you to decide; they might hallucinate wildly, have weird obsessions, find themselves driven to constantly complete arbitrary rituals, talk to themselves (or to things nobody else perceives), believe things that seem nonsensical or baseless to others, or something else. The exact details will vary wildly from Visionary to Visionary, but all exist as a coping mechanism for the visions they are constantly beset with. While there are no hard-and-fast requirements for their actions, it will always be clear to anybody observing them that they're mad. They can suppress this for a time if they wish, doing their best to put on a facade of sanity, but while doing so all their other Visionary abilities cease functioning, and they cannot gain experience for anything they do or achieve while pretending not to be mad, even if they were only feigning sanity for a small portion of the venture. 
Uncanny Insight: A Visionary can, if they concentrate, find themselves knowing all sorts of things that they shouldn't have any way to find out. The information comes to them filtered through weird symbolism and hallucinations, but they can still glean a certain amount of truth from it. To use this ability, the Visionary must be able to concentrate for a few seconds (a full round in combat) to put all the signs together. Roll a d10. On a 1-9, the Visionary gets to ask the GM a single yes-or-no question on any topic, and get a truthful answer. On a 10, the Visionary's insight has run out; they cannot ask about that general topic again until they gain a level.
Foreboding: Visionaries also tend to have a sixth sense for danger, even if they're often unable to articulate exactly what the nature of the threat might be. Whenever the Visionary or their companions are about to do something truly foolish or dangerous, or whenever they face an oncoming threat that they have no knowledge of, the GM should give the visionary a warning that they're in danger (if they want to know what from, they can use Uncanny Insight to find out more). After receiving this foreboding. the Visionary has two options available to them. They can either tune out their danger-sense, losing access to Foreboding for the rest of the day, or concentrate on it, allowing them to benefit again the next time danger looms. Concentrating on their danger-sense is mentally taxing; each time they they do, the chance that their Uncanny Insight fails entirely increases by 1 for the rest of the day. (IE: if they want to keep their Foreboding active after the first time it goes off, they fail Uncanny Insight on 9-10. After a second warning, Uncanny Insight fails on 8-10, and so on).
Second Sight: Visionaries literally see things other people don't, and sometimes those things are really there. They permanently get the benefit of See Invisibility. However, anything they can see in this way is hard to distinguish from mere hallucinations and false-positives; the invisible things get the benefit of the spell Mirror Image, with 4 imaginary duplicates of themselves; when the Visionary targets an invisible thing they can see in this way, randomise whether they hit the real target, or just prove that one of it's imaginary duplicates isn't real (eliminating it), until either the real one is revealed, or else all the duplicates are proved to be imaginary.
Uncanny Reflexes: A visionary is often aware of threats a split second before they begin, and if they concentrate on this, they can be surprisingly hard to pin down in a fight. If they spend their entire action doing nothing but trying to avoid harm, they get +4 AC and +4 to their saving throws against any attacks directed against them; doing this doesn't prevent them from moving. 

(It should go without saying that this class models somebody driven mad by supernatural prophecies and visions, and in the real world this is not at all how mental illness works. Keep taking your meds.)

Thursday, 3 October 2019

OSR is Survival Horror

No, really. Hear me out on this.
I'm don't play many video games, but survival horror is something I find fascinating.

Generally accepted qualities of survival horror games:
  • The game isolates the player in an inherently hostile environment, in which everything is a potential threat.
  • The player avatar is somewhat dis-empowered, and cannot reliably defend themselves through brute force alone.
  • Survival instead requires alertness, careful resource-management, avoiding threats, and so on.
  • Exploration is often a focus; to succeed you must keep pushing forward into danger. Environments are set up to facilitate this.
  • Shit's creepy. The game's atmosphere is often oppressive, sureally disturbing or overtly threatening.
This is all stuff that a classic oldschool dungeon-crawl does well.
Your starting PCs find themselves in a dangerous environment (the dungeon) that's full of monsters that can absolutely kick their faces in, if it comes to a direct conflict. They're cut off from the support of civilisation and surrounded by threats. To succeed, the PCs have to move forward carefully, to budget resources such as HP, spells, light, etc, to avoid random encounters where possible.  The game's about negotiating a space that wants to kill you. 
If you run it right, a good dungeon crawl evokes similar tension and building nervousness that a game like Silent Hill does, you just need to hilight the overtly horrific elements of the monsters and space.

The basic set-up of an OSR game (particularly at low levels) supports this. Exploration turns (and their associated mechanics such as light management, random encounter checks, etc) push the game towards being about exploration, and the combat mechanics are pretty fucking unforgiving if the enemy land a hit. 
I genuinely think that if you wanted to run a Silent Hill style game, or a zombie survival game, or whatever, then an OSR-style framework could work very well. You'd want to swap out gold-for-xp for something else to motivate your PCs, but that's not too hard if you understand what's driving your protagonists forward. An 'XP for uncovering horrible secrets' mechanic could work fine to mimic the 'I shouldn't want to see more but I can't resist the curiosity' drive you often see; your PCs then have a nice tension between wanting to witness the horror and needing to survive it. Once you've got that down, it's largely cosmetic design to actually produce the adventure.

Anyway, this isn't a big post but it's a thought that's been knocking about inside my head for a while.

Sunday, 29 September 2019

Some Monsters From Esoteric Enterprises

Here's some stat-blocks I've been putting together. The final book is coming very soon, I'm finishing the layout but the text is 99% done save for indexing. Anyway, monsters:

A delver into forbidden science. A grafter of limbs and organs, sculptor of flesh, puppeteer of neurones. A transhumanist whose experiments have pushed them far beyond the limits of the fragile human frame. Multi-limbed, some arms ending in delicate fingers, some in scalpel-like claws, slithering forward on improved appendages that emerge from the bottom of a white lab-coat. 
Desires further materials for experimentation; either perfect, unharmed human specimens, or else the strangest beasts to be found within the undercity.
Fleshcrafter: 5 flesh (1 dice), 12 grit (4 dice). AC 10. Saves 14+. Syringe (+4, d4 damage, and poison) or 4 claws (+0, d4 damage) . +4 bonus to saves vs poison & sickness. Dexterity, Constitution, & Intelligence all 18. Medicine & Technology 6-in-6. 
When using a syringe attack, can choose one of the following poisons if the victim fails their save:

  • Complete paralysis 2d4 rounds.
  • Lethargy (skip every other round’s action to rest) for the next turn.
  • Begin Bleeding Out from the lungs.
  • D12 toxin damage to flesh.
  • Counteract the effects of all drugs and poisons affecting the victim.
  • D12 damage to Dexterity, Intelligence and Wisdom.

These are children, that commit murders. Utterly feral, lacking morals. They kill because it's fun, laughing and chattering as they do it. They don’t understand why what they do is wrong. They aren’t stupid, though; you can reason with them, so long as your reasoning doesn’t rely on appeals to their conscience.
Murder Child: 1 flesh (1 dice), 4 grit (2 dice). AC 13 (small and nimble). Saves 16+. Stealth 4/6. Stolen knives (+3, d6 damage). When attacks ignore grit, +3 damage and the victim starts bleeding out. Dexterity 16.

A feaster on human flesh, gaining strange power from it but sacrificing a sliver of their humanity with each meal. Wiry, crouched forward, feral, yet somehow compelling. When they’ve fed recently,  healthy looking, becoming progressively more gaunt the longer it’s been since they last ate human meat. Gluttonous. Love the hunt.
Capable of blending into normal society just fine so long as they eat regularly. When they hunt, they coordinate with other killers; vampires, murder children, slashers, death-cult assassins, lycanthropes, each other. Move in loose packs, utilise traps and ambushes.
Wendigo: 5 flesh (1 dice), 10 grit (2 dice). AC 13 (naturally tough). Saves 16+. Stealth 4/6. Butcher’s knife (+3, d6+1 damage) and Bite (+3, d4+1 damage). 

On a bite that does damage to flesh, heal that many lost HP. Can track by scent.  Charisma, Strength and Dexterity 13. Carries 5 bear-traps (Save vs Machines or d10 damage) and can set snares, pit-traps etc.

The winner of a genetic lottery, a whole host of recessive traits and divergent bloodlines coming together into an individual of  tremendous supernatural power. 
This is what humanity could be if they cast off the shackles of mundanity and mortality. A few such beings achieve great things, revolutionising entire fields of art or science, or pursuing temporal power so that they can bend the world to their will. Others descend into the occult underworld, burning the candle at both ends as they pursue supernatural power in all its forms, before dying in a storm of bullets or a flurry of unnatural claws. 
Most, though, are taken by the Men in Black. And, for the most part, they go willingly. Popular wisdom in the underground holds that this is the last that’s seen of them.  Sometimes, though, they resurface. Perhaps they’re highly placed in government, enacting the sorts of policies that keep the occult thoroughly underground. Or their name is connected to multinational organisations of staggering reach and influence.
Sometimes, they’re seen in neat black suits, with porcelain masks and insignia that makes your eyes hurt to look at.
Promethean: 7 flesh (1 dice), 25 grit (5 dice). AC 13 (agility). Saves 10+. Pistol(+9, d8 damage) or duelling sword (+9, d8+3). All stats 18. Have perhaps one to three powers from this list:

  • Create fireballs at will: all in the blast radius must Save vs Hazards or take d6 damage.
  • Total immunity to mind-control.
  • See through illusions, invisibility, disguises etc automatically.  
  • Mastery of how gravity affects them: they can levitate, walk up walls, over ceilings, fall without injury etc.
  • Flesh that can be re-shaped and altered at will. Appearance is whatever they want it to be, when they form natural weapons they attack 3 times at +9 for d4+3 damage each time (two bites and a claw), can re-create serious injuries.
  • Ability to read the surface thoughts, emotions, etc of everybody nearby.
  • Those they address by name must make a Save vs Stunning or obey any direct order made that names them.
  • Immunity to fire, electricity, acid, cold and other ‘energy’ attacks.
  • Tue ability to drain blood with a touch; +9 to hit, d4 damage to flesh and heals the Promethean that much.
  • The ability to dispel any magical effect they spend a minute interacting with or studying. 

Stubborn Foetus
An embryo, maybe four or five months old. Stubby limbs, current eyes, bulbous head. Wet, sticky, red. Crawls blindly. Dead, but doesn’t realise it. Craves warmth, life, vitality. 
Foetus: 1 flesh (1 dice), 0 grit (no dice). AC 12 Saves 16+. Gentle Bump (+0, 1 damage). Immune to all the stuff the undead are immune to. All stats are 3.

Plague Zombie
A corpse host to a horrible infection, bacterial engines stirring dead flesh into unwilling motion. Beginning putrification, infectious matter dribbling from its mouth, eye-sockets, orifices. Skin pocked and swollen with boils. Thinks only dimly, decaying neurones slaved to bacterial desires. Just being near it is a health-hazard.
Plague Zombie: 10 flesh (2 dice), 0 grit (0 dice). AC 10 Saves 14+. Claw (+2, d4+2 and infection) and Bite (+2, d4+2 and infection). Immune to poison, cold, sickness, and everything else the undead are immune to. Double damage from Holy things. 
On a successful claw or bite attack, victim must Save vs Poison or contract some disease (p. xx). 
Those killed by a Plague Zombie, or a disease contracted from it, reanimate immediately as more Plague Zombies.

Angry Fossil
A long dead monster of the primordial past. Its body skeletonized, its bones mineralized. Excavated, reconstructed, put on display. Reanimated. Acts like it did when it was a still-living dinosaur, prowling, hunting, giving rise to the deep rumbling calls of its kind from a throat long-rotted away. In its primitive saurian mind, it is alive and thrust into a strange cold world it cannot understand.
(Insert your own joke about ‘angry fossils' and OSR games here).
Angry Fossil: 10 flesh (2 dice), 15 grit (0 dice). AC 17 (made of stone, and agility). Saves 10+. 2 claws (+5, d8+1) and/or bite (+5, d12+1) and/or 1-3 horns (+0, d4+1) and/or stomp (+0, d8+1) and/or thagomizer (+0, d12+1). Immune to poison, cold, sickness, and everything else the undead are immune to. Double damage from Holy things. Which attacks it makes depends on what sort of dinosaur it was. 

Prismatic Child of Vor Glaurung
Life from the other side of the wave-particle duality. Stable self-reinforcing patterns of light, constructive interference producing a field of colour that interacts with itself. Perceive physical things only dimly. Fascinated by things that glow or give off radiation. Has a mastery of light and darkness, shadow and colour; can shift its form to produce holograms.  Enjoys petty deceptions.
Prismatic Child: 3 flesh (1 dice), 7 grit (2 dice). AC 12 (weird anatomy). Saves 12+. Dazzling Light (Blind 1 round & 1 damage, Save vs Stunning resists). Immune to physical damage, cannot be physically touched, totally immaterial. Covers an area roughly 20 ft across, in which it can produce any visual image it wants; not an illusion (no saves to ‘see through’ it), just a mass-less hologram. Bright light does 1 damage per round of exposure, spells such as Darkness do d4 per round. 

Ghost Train
The echo of a subway train, now cancelled following some horrible accident. Or maybe it was a bombing or a suicide or a hijacking that did it in, or it was just the victim of budget cuts. It hardly matters anymore, it was decades ago and even the elderly and nostalgic hardly remember riding that route. 
It appears like a subway train, but one from the past. Old and obsolete, crusted with graffiti and mildew and neglect. Belching diesel fumes, grinding endlessly into the night. Stopping at buried stations whose entrances are blocked from the surface. Taking on only the restless dead and the morbid explorers of the underworld. 
It’s almost alive and aware, sharing a gestalt of the frustrations and worries of those who rode it. Behaves like a squirming serpent of steel and glass. Those who get in its way it barrels into, grinding them down beneath its churning wheels. 
Riding the ghost train is easy. Find a station it stops at, pay two coins to the conductors (stats as Petty Spirits) and it will let you ride it. Its route winds across the subway tracks of the undercity, and beyond. Ride for too long and you might find yourself in other cities, or even other worlds; Stygia, Dis, and the Earth’s Veins all receive the ghost train at times.
Ghost Train: 18 flesh (6 dice), 6 grit (2 dice). AC 16 (metal). Saves 7+. Crash (+0, 3d10). Immune to Physical damage. Those boarding the train treat it as physical, those on the tracks treat it as immaterial. Crash attack affects the material world, but does as much damage to the train as well. Regenerates 5 hp a round.
This default ghost train has three carriages. For each extra carriage, add 2 flesh dice and 6 flesh points. Passengers on the train are mostly ghosts and undead, but all are equally tangible to each other while they ride it.

A huge snapping turtle, it’s shell covered in rough detritus that blends into the muck where it hides. From its jaw extends a long appendage with a fleshy bait on the end that the turtle wiggles hypnotically, drawing prey in range of its bite. In some cases, even otherwise intelligent prey can become mesmerised by the gently undulating lure. 
Angler turtle: 4 flesh (1 dice), 8 grit (2 dice). AC 16 (shell). Saves 16+. Stealth 5/6. Bite (+3, d8 damage). Animal intelligence (int 3).
Can cause the hypnotic waggling of its lure to resemble something desirable to its prey (easy food, a big pile of money); it has no conscious control over what, instead each victim sees whatever their mind thinks makes most sense as ‘something I want’ in their current situation. A save vs stunning sees through the illusion but can only be attempted after an interaction with the turtle or its bait.
Attacking its lure has AC 10, but gives the turtle a free bite attack immediately, at +4. 

Black Goat
A bestial avatar of the Black Goat Of The Woods With A Thousand Young. Shaggy body, weird octopoid eyes, head crowned with curling horns. Subtly deformed and asymmetric, off-putting to look at. It staggers and scrambles, voice rasping. It carries the blessings of a divinity that’s old and savage and inhuman, a force of dark fecundity.
Black Goat: 4 flesh (1 dice), 2 grit (1 dice). AC 12 (agile).  Athletics 4/6. Saves 17+. 2 horns (+1, d4). 3/6 chance to cast  one of the following spells if it spends its action twitching and confulsing: bleeding curse, darkness, spider climb, parasitic infestation. Animal Intelligence (int 3)

Cave Bear
Once, these creatures were apex predators in an ice-age world. Revered by some of the earliest cultures as semi-divine in their own right, existing at the heart of widespread bear-cults. Those times are long past. Humanity has prospered, spread across the globe in a position of total dominance. The once-revered bears have been driven underground, taking refuge in subterranean lairs.
The bears have not forgotten that they used to be worshipped. Like the cat and the crocodile and the serpent, every troglodytic bear knows, deep in its sinewy heart, that it was once a divinity, and it might be once more.
Cave Bear: 8 flesh (2 dice), 16 grit (4 dice). AC 13 (agility and thick hides). Athletics 3/6, Saves 13+. Bite (+6, d8) and two claws (+6, d6). If both claws hit, draws the victim in for a ‘hug’; next round, does d12 damage to that victim automatically instead of claw attacks. Unusual animal Intelligence (int 5). Memories of divinity give it a 7+ save against divine magic (such as from mystics). 

Collector of Eyeballs
A dweller in the undercity, a bizarre blend of human, bald flightless bird, and naked mole-rat. It’s body has the pink, saggy wrinkled skin of an elderly human, hanging loose over a gangly emaciated frame. Torso squat and drooping, its arms and legs extend out seven feet, have an additional joint that allows them to bend oddly. Each limb ends in a set of talons like chicken-claws. Its head is bald, almost featureless. A narrow slit of a mouth with rodent-incisors, and empty skin-lined eyesockets. Like looking at a horrible naked old man whose limbs unfold further than they should.
It hunts eyeballs. Not to eat them, just to treasure. Its kind trade notable eyeballs like children trade pokemon cards, and have all manner of cunning methods to keep them preserved.
Collector of Eyeballs: 4 flesh (2 dice), 6 grit (2 dice). AC 12 (nimble). Saves 15+. 2 Claws (+5, d6 and pluck eyes) Stealth & Sleight of Hand 4-in-6. Dexterity 16, Constitution 5. Can ‘see’ perfectly well in the dark despite lacking eyes. 
Claw attacks have 10 foot range. Any claw attack that deals damage to flesh also results in the Collector plucking out one of its victim’s eyes, unless protective goggles etc are worn. Once it’s plucked out a pair of eyeballs, it pops them in its eye-sockets and heals fully.

Radioactive Vampire
A creature of the deep lithosphere. Composed of dense meat and sinew, like layers of translucent leather over luminous blue-green uranium skeleton. 
Four long spider-limbs emerge from a squat flat central thorax. Between its shoulder-blades, a face. Vaguely human, but withered and desiccated, as if mummified by the dull alpha-particle radiation it exudes. Sunken eye-sockets, lips pulled back from shark-tooth studded gums. 
It skitters like a monkey-centipede hybrid. Squeezes through gaps no human could fit into. Glows in the dark. Out of the shadowy recesses of a crack in the wall, a ten foot, luminous arm gropes out to clutch at prey, dragging it back to the things ragged mouth.
Radioactive Vampire: 7 flesh (2 dice), 7 grit (2 dice). AC 16 (nimble and made of uranium). Saves 15+. 2 Claws (+5, d6) or Bite (+0, d10 and blood draining). Athletics 4-in-6.
If both Claw attacks hit the same target successfully, can make a free Bite attack that hits automatically. 
If a Bite deals damage to flesh, it drains vital fluids and heals as much as the damage dealt.
After a turn of proximity, or on a successful Bite attack, Save vs Poison to avoid contracting Radiation Sickness. Immune to radiation. Half damage from heat and electricity. 

Neural Slime
A mass of protoplasmic grey matter, an amorphous squirming conglomeration of neurones. Absorb and incorporate the neural data of its victims, engulfing their heads to draw out the electro-chemical data trapped in their brain matter. Dimly intelligent, a gestalt of all the minds already absorbed.
Neural Slime: ?? flesh (1-10 dice), 0 grit (0 dice). AC 11. Saves 14+. Extrusion (+0, d12 damage to intelligence and mind absorption). +7 to saves against mind-affecting stuff. Intelligence 15, Charisma 5, Wisdom 5. 5 HP per HD.
They sense vibrations and heat, allowing them to detect living beings even in total darkness and silence. 
Whenever it deals damage to Intelligence, heals that much damage that it’s suffered. If this would bring it above it’s starting HP value, it instead heals to full, and gains an additional HD with 5 HP.

Root Dryad
As dryads inhabit the trunks of huge trees above the ground, so these strange, pale spirits inhabit and embody the vast networks of tree roots beneath the earth. Take the form of pallid, misshapen women, stretched out to seven feet tall then hunched over, trailing little white-rootlet hairs from their heads. Their eyes are faintly luminous green. Their voices soft, like crumbling loam.
They love the wonderlands beneath the earth. Tend to roots and fungi and mulch like a responsible park ranger. Sing to the stone and seeping water. 
Despite their malformed bodies, their voices are achingly beautiful. 
Root Dryad: 4 flesh (1 dice), 5 grit (1 dice). AC 12. Saves 14+. Root Lash (+2, d6 damage). Charisma & Dexterity 16.
Double damage from fire, cannot drown. Can swim through soil like it was water, see in the dark perfectly. Recovers 1 HP per round while resting in her particular root-mass, dies if the root-mass is dug up and destroyed. 
Can cast Awaken Plants at will, and Suggestion once per turn, singing to do so.

Thursday, 5 September 2019

Terminology - Diegetic vs Non Diegetic

In this post, I'm going to clarify and explain some terminology I use when discussing RPGs. It's going to be wordy and pedantic. It's also getting posted up because I made a quick post on twitter, people got the wrong end of the stick, and now I want to explain what I mean in more than 240 characters.


First, I'm going to give a definition of the term as it's used in film studies (which is where I'm stealing it from).
Diegetic (adjective): Actually taking place or existing in the fictional world depicted.

Non-diegetic (adjective): Not actually taking place or existing in the fictional world depicted, an external thing to the fictional world depicted that the audience percieves.
'Diegesis (noun)' has some accademic stuff attached to it, but I generally see it used to mean 'the concept of things being diegetic' or sometimes 'the fictional world that diegetic things take place in'.

So, for example. A scene's musical soundtrack is non-diegetic. John Williams wrote some music, an orchestra played it, and now that music is being played to the audience at the same time as we watch the scene. However: music coming from in the world is diagetic: a good example of this is when we see characters actually singing or playing instruments. Jessica Rabbit singing 'Why Don't You Do Right' in Who Framed Roger Rabbit is diagetic; in the fictional world she's literally singing that, whilst The Doors playing at the beginning of Apocalypse Now isn't: it's a soundtrack added for the audience.
Other stuff in films that's non-diegetic includes the credits, subtitles, voiceovers, slow-motion, all that stuff.

You can apply this to other mediums, too. In comics, the white boxes around panels are non-diegetic; the world doesn't exist enclosed in a little white square. In video games, your mini-map, control scheme, etc are all non-diegetic; they're contrivances to make the game work, not real things that exist in the fictional world depicted.
With me so far?

(As an aside, while this is technically academic language, I've seen it used plenty outside academia. I studied theoretical physics at university - until I ran out of money for tuition and got kicked out - so I never had any formal academic interaction with the terms. I picked them up from watching film & anime reviews on youtube. Anybody who pays much attention to film criticism and analysis has probably come across the terms.)

Anyway. This is an RPG blog, and I'm here to talk about RPGs. So, Diegesis in RPGs.

One thing I find attracts me to various games - notably Powered By The Apocalypse and OSR games - is that you first interact with things using the fictional actions of your PC to affect the fictional world. You treat the world as a real, consistent place, and the GM adjudicates what happens based off that. 

I find it useful to talk about 'things that exist in the fictional setting' versus 'things that only exist for the players'. So, it's useful to me to steal terminology from film studies and talk about diegetic and non-diegetic elements of games. Diegetic things are things which exist or happen or are observable in the fictional world, while non-diegetic things only exist to the players, on an out-of-character level.

Here's some things that are diegetic in RPGs:
  • A PC's equipment.
  • A character's height, weight, eye colour, etc.
  • Alignments, probably; if you can cast 'detect evil' to know that that monster over there is objectively evil, then alignments are concrete forces in the game world, and your paladin being Lawful Good is a diagetic fact.
  • A wizard's spell-slots in D&D; a wizard can meaningfully talk about 'I have two spells left today, and they are Sleep and Spider Climb' without breaking the fourth wall.
  • Blood Points in Vampire the Masquerade; it's an observable (and generally understood) fact of the setting that you need to drink about a pint of blood each night to make up for the blood used to wake up, and if you don't you'll start starving, likewise that using your powers probably needs about a pint of blood.
  • Getting Turned On in monsterhearts. While its expressed through a slightly simplified game mechanic, it is a fact of the setting that a PC has experienced a stirring of erotic or romantic desire. Their response to this varies, and might involve more game mechanics, but the state of being Turned On is a real thing in the fictional world.
  • That some PCs are stronger than other PCs. Gronk the Fighter can lift heavier weights, hit harder, break down doors better, arm-wrestle better etc than Elzebeth the Wizard.
  • Being injured: the victim has - in the fictional world - been hurt, and might be bleeding, have broken bones, etc. 

Here's some things that are non-diegetic in RPGs:
  • Dice rolls.
  • Numerical measures of things like HP, attributes, etc. Those are abstractions being used to quantify a more complex fictional thing for the purposes of game-play.
  • Experience points, inspiration, bennies, etc that give the player a resource to use on a meta-level that doesn't represent anything in-world.
  • Lines & veils over what content and themes will make it into the game.
  • Mechanics that allow a player to introduce content to the game, such as Stars Without Numbers's Connect skill, which gives a PC a chance to know an NPC they just met from before the game began, letting the player define what their relationship is like. There's a LOT of collaberative world building techniques and mechanics out there that do similar things.
  • Mechanics such as fate-points, 
  • References to other media. A lot of old Paranoia adventures had PCs whose names were puns, took the piss out of other RPGs, and so on: these jokes are on the meta-level, for the players: a paranoia called Hamburg-ELL-R was not named by Friend Computer to be a reference to old macdonalds adverts, and nobody in the setting will get the reference.
  • Metaphors and themes of the game. For example, I'm in a V5 game where we're explicitly exploring ideas around power, control, and moral judgement; these things are gonna come up and be relevant. Our PCs, however, aren't aware that they're being used to discuss these themes; they're just people.
  • Character 'theme songs' and other inspiration. 

To clarify: this is not the same as the distinction between 'fluff' and 'crunch' (also expressed as flavour vs mechanics, lore vs rules, etc). 

To repeat.
The distinction between diegetic content and nondiegetic content is not the same as the distinction between flavour and mechanics.

Why is this? Something can be a game mechanic and also diegetic. (See: blood points are a real thing in VtM, and so 'spend a point of blood to rise each night' is just... what happens in the fiction). Something could also be non-mechanical and not diegetic (for example "Changeling the Dreaming explores themes around loss of innocence, growing old, dementia, etc" is not a mechanic but not a diegetic fact, neither is "This game will not include rape or sexual assault, or any mention of those").

So why am I explaining this?
I think it's useful to be able to discuss if a game element is diegetic or not when discussing game design, and I've not really seen useful terminology for. 
Mostly, these discussions use the terminology for fluff vs crunch, which leads to active confusion. 

This area of gameplay/game design is one where even subtle distinctions in phrasing can dramatically alter meaning. I think it's useful to have a precise term that means 'this thing and only this thing' with no room for confusion or other common usages. 

If you start thinking about things in terms of diegesis, you get the tools to explain and explore stuff nicely that you wouldn't otherwise. For example:
  • Are the powers a D&D 4th edition PC has diegetic or not? Do the different weapon strikes, moves, spells and so on represent distinct techniques a PC has been taught? Can a 4e fighter talk about the different techniques they use? Or are they a non-diegetic abstraction that simplifies the chaos of combat into maneagable gameplay? Or is it somewhere between the two?
  • Similarly, D&D 4e uses its 'bloodied' mechanic to take a previously non-diegetic mechanic (losing HP) and make it somewhat more diegetic; it's an in-fiction fact that when half of a monster's HP are gone, it's got visible injuries, blood everywhere, etc. It allows you to discuss a non-diegetic thing (how many HP has the monster lost?) in diegetic terms (is the monster bloodied yet?).
  • Is the symbolism in a game diegetic or not? As a audience, we know that a vampire feeding is a bit rapey. Could a toreador poet draw on that symbolism in their poetry, describing feeding using rape as a metaphor? Etc.
  • Can lines and veils be made diegetic? For example, there's a difference between 'this is a game where you won't encounter sexism' and 'this setting is completely gender-blind and no society sees any differentiation between genders; sexism is a meaningless concept in this setting'.
  • Can game mechanics be made diegetic? What happens if you take the idea of a 'class' in D&D and make it an obvoious measurable thing; so that you can cast 'detect barbarian' to tell if a PC is a barbarian, just like if you cast 'detect evil' to tell if they're evil.
This is something that I deal with a lot because a lot of my design goals centre around the boundries and blurry areas between diegetic and non-diegetic mechanics, ways to make a mechanic more diegetic, and ways to make non-diegetic mechanics at least parallel diegetic things (for example, gold-for-xp is non-diegetic, but it parallels a PCs diegetic desire to get rich because being rich is nice. Likewise most systems which reward XP for specific achievements). Discussion and design around 'can we make this mechanic more diagetic' and 'can we represent this diegetic phenomenon with an elegant abstraction' are some of the areas I'm most interested in. 
(as an example: whenever a Wounded Daughter ressurects, she's left robbed of some of her potential, a little more withdrawn and a little more bitter and resentful. She's somehow lesser, and although she can grow past that, it's a serious and unpleasant thing: representing this by a debt of XP that she won't benefit from expresses it in a neat, simple way; the XP is an abstraction for the more diegetic idea of the PCs rich inner life being eroded.) 
These are all conversations we can be having already, but the use of the terminology allows us to be more precise and better understand what's being said.

Lastly: is using academic terminology to discuss RPGs gatekeeping? I'm pretty sure it isn't. 
As I've said earlier, I have no academic background in this sort of thing, and picked the term up from youtube. This isn't something I'm familiar with because I've got the privilege of a liberal-arts education. I'm not even particularly posh or anything, I just watch too many youtube videos. 
On top of this, I do think that tabletop RPGs are kind of lagging behind other media in terms of analysis. Even in terms of interactive media, there's far more discussion for videogames and larps than there is ttrpgs. We basically have the Forge and that's it. Treating the subject matter as something that you can discuss in depth with technical language isn't necessarily a bad thing. If I'm having a deep technical discussion with another RPG writer about this stuff, having the precise language to describe what I mean is useful.
Hell, if somebody uses a term I don't recognise I can just ask them to define it. 
The expectation that all discussion around a medium should be accessible to new players without much grounding in the discussion is unreasonable; it keeps the discussion at a shallow level. Some discussions are gonna be in-depth and require a good understanding of the subject matter, and they're not gonna be easy to grock until you've been in the field for a while. Expecting discussions to dumb-down and avoid academic language so everybody knows what's going on will - in practice - just stifle more in-depth discussion.

Anyway, there you go:
Diegetic & Non-diegetic as terms for RPGs. Now go forth and use them in conversation, it will make you sound clever and help explain your thoughts better.

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

Disminster Town, a randomly-generated Occult Underground

So. I'm mostly done writing up the systems for generating a city for Esoteric Enterprises. The basic idea is that, before the game begins, you can drop a bunch of dice on a sheet of paper, and the numbers and position tell you what's there and how they interrelate. You do this twice; once to generate the physical layout of the undercity, and once to generate the various active factions and the political relations between them.
I'm gonna do this here. This isn't pre-planned or anything; consider it a sort of Actual Play for GM prep. Not everything is quite done, so if I roll something I haven't yet generated, I'll just have to make shit up to fill in the blanks, but that shouldn't happen toooo much.

So, to start, I'm gonna roll up the undercity itself: a mess of tunnels, caves, bunkers and ruins beneath the city, infested with supernatural weirdness. This is basically a small megadungeon that your PCs can drop in and out of as the campaign progresses.
The first step is to drop a bunch of dice onto a sheet of paper, and record what dice landed where (both the size of the dice and what it rolled). I don't have a camera, so I'll just draw the results in MS Paint. Here's what it looks like.
You roughly link up the map, joining each dice to a couple of neighbours with a line. Each dice is a complex in the undercity, and the lines represent the connecting tunnels between them. There's a bunch of tables for what these actually are. You can look up the number on the dice for what the complex is. For the connecting tunnels, look at the size of the dice at each end.
Applying this to our map, we get this: 

And then lastly, we just want to tidy this up. I'm gonna add another entrance from the surface, and tweak a couple of the connecting tunnels and complexes (since it makes sense to have two limestone cave complexes connected by a natural feature, and there's a derelict subway station that's away from the rest of the rail network that I'm gonna turn into something more fun).
I'm also gonna add a scale to the map, and colour-code some of the connections and complexes for easy reference.

This is pretty arbitrary, but I've divided the undercity into 5 rough types of area. Natural caves are blue, the subway system is yellow, the city's old mines are red, ancient ruins are green, and the city's infrastructure is purple.
Anyway, we'll be coming back to this. 

Next up, we want to see who our factions in the undercity are.
This uses the same method as before: drop a bunch of dice and see what you get. Here's where my dice landed for this:
Again, the result on the dice tells us who the faction are. Link the factions together like before, and the dice-size at each end tells us how the factions linked relate to one another. 
Doing this to our results, we get this rough network.
So far so good, right? But this is very bare bones, so I'm going to look up each of the factions, roll up the most relevant details, give them a name, etc. Let's see what we get.

Here's who these factions are:
O'Riley's Sausage Factory, an abotoire/butchers family business. Makes pork products. To give them an edge in the market, they employ a banshee, the ghost of a dead employee, and a cultist of Anassa the Spider Queen.

The Court of Grinding Hematite. A collection of chivalrous geological beings that have emerged from the depths of the earth. On a noble quest to smite and destroy the Children of Taash. Suffice to say, the conflict between an ancient vampire progenitor and the lordlings of the earth's core has not yet kicked off in ernest, but will be explosively disastrous when it does, with mere mortals caught between two titanic forces.
The Rosellini's. Standard Sicilian Mafia.
The White Eye Cartel. Smugglers from the European mainland. Specialise in counterfeit goods and bootleg alcohol, with a side-line in human organs and the memory-wiping drug Nepenthe.
The Puck Society, an occultist cabal. A variety of different fields of study, but their current research is largely into mind-affecting magic. 
Work closely with the Troy Town Gaming Club, a group pushing the possibilities of mind-shattering revelations as detailed in The Green Book (the diary of a teenage girl descending into witchcraft and madness in the early 19th century).
The Blake Street Lads. A collection of bored working-class kids from Blake-Street 6th Form College. Thoroughly infiltrated and controlled by members of the Puck Society and Troy Town Gaming Club; many of their college teachers are involved with the two cabals, and poor kids are excellent test-subjects. Suffice to say, being infiltrated by magicians working on mind-control and sanity-erosion is not great for the members' mental health.
The Carter Family. Local hard-man types. Care a lot about keeping up appearances, run protection rackets. Their conflict with the O'Rileys goes back generations.
Hillside Massive, another gang of angry kids. Mess around with various drugs, enjoy their cocaine. Also infiltrated by the Troy Town Gaming Club, which probably bodes poorly for them.
The Disciples of Pluto, Dis Pater. A cult worshipping the Roman lord of the underworld. See to it that the dead stay in their proper place, have a controlling interest in the city morgue. Led by Flavia Secondus; once, she was an oracle of Dis Pater, bringing His commandments to His followers in Roman-occupied Britain. She's a ghost now, but she still does the same thing. The cult are old.
The Usurian Society. A minor cult of Mammon, deity of obscene wealth. Basically a rich-kids club, where the unreasonably posh have decided that rubbing their money in the face of the poor is actually a holy calling. Date back to an 18th century Hellfire club that went weirdly spiritual.
The Crookeville-Marsh Family. Old, wealthy, and influential. Old money going back to the Renaissance, known for their trade interests in the south pacific. Have a distinct family 'look', with wide, round, pale eyes. The inner circle of the family, those of purest blood, have rubbery pale skin and luminous lamp-like eyes, and dwell in the permanently flooded basements of their ancestral home. The family patriarch is Ezekial Crookeville, a 15th century vivimancer who's still alive. The family matriarch is Volborolnos the Fecund, an ancient aboleth. It's best not to think about Ezekial and Volborolnos's love life, but they continue to produce descendants. 
The Dravinskis, a Ukrainian crime family. Heavily tattooed, involved in smuggling. Professional and courteous, but will fuck you up if you betray them. Have backing from abroad.
The 10-legged Spider. An occult research group. Possess the Eltdown Shards, detailing the culture of Triassic spider-people of supposedly magnificent power that they want. Looking to acquire Pnakotic Manuscripts that will allow them to reach into the past and contact these spiders. Most of their number are Arachnophile mages, with a few cultists of Anassa the Spider Queen in there too.
Greyguard Security. A mercenary company with dealings in the occult underworld. Saw some action in the middle-east, saw some nasty shit get dug up by archaeologists out there, and decided to limit their work to the British mainland. Thoroughly infiltrated by the Children of Taash.
Taash, an ancient vampiric progenitor from the biblical era. Dug up during the recent unpleasantness in Syria, and promptly used Greyguard Security to get themselves transported to the less war-torn UK. Taash himself is an 8-foot-tall, six-armed porcelain-skinned monstrosity of radiant beauty, claiming to a child of the goddess Tannit. In truth, Taash is a being of pale violet ichor that parasitically controls exsanguinated human corpses. His children retain some of their own blood and personality, but are likewise infested with Taash's ichor, which transforms them into marble-skinned Adonises. Taash and his children want to go back to the good old days of blood orgies and human sacrifices, and they're taking steps to get this done. Greyguard Security are merely the first front for their expanding infection.

Let's go back to our map of the undercity.

We have four cult strongholds, but only two cults in the city. I'd say that two of these are in fact the various hidden grave-shrines of the cult of Dis Pater, each representing a different aspect of the worship of Pluto. We can also say that the Reliquary was built by them in the city's history.
We can stick the Cult of Mammon in another cult stronghold, but this leaves one empty. What to do with it?
I'm going to stick a reclusive cult into the fourth stronghold. Since two factions (O'Rileys and the 10-legged Spider) have Anassa cultists among them, I'll make it a stronghold for Anassa cultists who mostly don't interact with the rest of the occult underworld.

There's a mad-scientist's laboratory on the map. Again, without a faction of mad doctors, these people are probably recluses and politically neutral. Let's say that Dr Alice is more interested in her cloning experiments, doesn't take sides, but will patch you up if you pay her. 
There's likewise a Morlock Camp, which again has a minor tribe in it that don't really get involved with outsiders. Let's call them the Flint-Scent tribe. Since the Morlock Camp will have a route down to the deeper veins of the earth, it makes sense that this is where the Court of Grinding Hematite emerged from. In fact, to explain why these Morlocks aren't an active faction of their own, let's say that the Flint-scent are direct servants of the Grinding Hematite. 
We've got an Underground Club here. It makes sense initially to have it be controlled by a criminal group, and I'm gonna pick the Carter Family for this. However, we know that Taash's children are depraved hedonists (and vampires hunting in nightclubs is a fine old tradition), so I'm gonna say that Taash's children also have a strong presence here, probably aiming to take control soon. Let's give it a name: Azrael's Club seems pretentious and edgy enough.
It's worth noting that the Flint-scent's camp is right next to Azrael's Club, connected by a section of natural caves. This immediately puts the Grinding Hematite and Taash in contact with each other, so we can expect that conflict to kick off soon!
Lastly, there's a few gang strongholds down here, and plenty of gangs to assign them to. Let's put both of the infiltrated street-gangs in them, giving them, and the wider alliance of the street-gangs and occultist cabals, some healthy access to the undercity.
Here's how our map ends up looking:
Lastly, let's roll up a few events for what's going down directly as the PCs enter the equation. I rolled some dice and got the following results:
There's a mainstream religious revival going down, making life difficult for people on the fringes. Maybe fire-and-brimstone Baptists want to get all of the dodgy pagan cults in town.

There's a serial killer stalking the streets, which makes life hard for everybody.
A bomb just went of recently. I'm gonna say this was Greyguard Security's work (on behalf of Taash), attacking the holdings of the Crookeville-Marsh family, who Taash sees as a threat.
Lastly, there's a job for the PCs! Word gets to them that somebody's been targetting the families of the Disciples of Pluto with harassment and intimidation, attempting to psyche them out. The cult of Dis Pater don't know who's responsible, but want it fixed. In truth, it's just our angry fundamentalists being obnoxious.

So, that's our town.
Looking at everything here, it's got old mines, a lot of old roman influences, and is probably close to the see considering that the Crookeville-Marsh family are basically Innesmouth People. I think I'll put it in Cornwall, making it an old tin-mining town. I'll call it Disminster, and say it's a once-prosperous tin- and silver-mining town that's fallen on harder times since the mines shut down. Since then, it's still by the sea, and police presence is low, so the harbour makes sense as a place where various foreign criminal organisations (the White Eye Cartel, Rosellinis and Kravinskis) to make a beachhead in Britain. Clearly, there's a conflict between fairly modern bible-thumping protestant christians, and the older pagan cults in the town, as well as various well-embedded old-money families with links to the occult and/or crime. Everything's a bit run down, with lots of timber buildings slowly falling apart. Probably graveyards everywhere, too.
All things considered, although things are currently peaceful, there's some tension there ready to blow up, in multiple directions.

I'm quite pleased with how this process works. There's enough noise and random detail to make pulling out interesting threads easy, and things come together quite organically. I could have spent ages deliberating, but instead I got to roll and see, which is fun in its own right. Putting all this together has been a couple of hours of rolling, sketching and inventing details. I'll still need to roll up the layouts of individual complexes, each of which is (again) a handful of dice dropped on the paper and linked up, to give a network of tunnels and rooms. But that can wait, as I only need to roll up a complex when the PCs decide to explore there.

Anyway, here's some art from the book, to give you a feel for the tone.

Esoteric Enterprises - Complete Edition is nearing being done, and I for one am excited. You should be too, tbh, because it's gonna be great.