My group has recently started a campaign of Esoteric Enterprises. In my opinion, this game is one of the best things to come out of the OSR movement. EE takes modern urban fantasy into the realm of episodic dungeon crawling with a strong emphasis on occult horror. The setting assumes that characters will be criminals and outcasts, searching out ancient treasures, and delivering them into the wrong hands for cash. You could alter that premise if you wanted, but I decided to embrace it fully for this campaign.
The rules are based on old-school D&D but include some changes I appreciate, including ascending armor class and two hit-point pools: grit (recovers quickly) and flesh (recovers slowly). There is a simple but functional skill system that includes both skill level and attribute bonus in the check. I wish this was a roll-high d20 check, but instead we get roll-under d6. That is old-school, and it works, but I think it a missed opportunity for improvement.
Every class may wear armor and use any weapon, as is appropriate for a modern setting. Magic users can bestow scrolls and blessings on their comrades so that everyone can, if they dare, throw some spells. Despite these features, the classes feel completely distinct and wonderfully in-tune with the setting. This is accomplished with special abilities and having most skill points tied directly to class.
Magic is dark and perilous. Occultists can use it somewhat safely so long as they don’t push their abilities to the limit. Options to do so are dangled before the player’s eyes as a constant temptation. Vancian memorization is a thing, but Occultists can also cast any spell in their book with a ten-minute ritual. Mystics must roll to appease their dark patrons in order to cast a spell. They may do so all day without limits, in theory. Failed rolls bring consequence, however, and a smart Mystic will attempt to solve his problems with charm or a shotgun before resorting to spells.
There is no setting or introductory adventure provided. The rules do include a strong, coherent theme and an extensive system for randomly creating your own undercity. The randomization system is innovative and fun, but did not provide a workable result when I tried it. After seeing what dropping dice produced, however, I was able to construct my undercity by selecting sensible options from the copious tables provided.
One of the reasons I have shied away from other urban fantasy games was the overt presence of fae creatures. EE has them too, but they are compartmentalized and easy to leave out if you want. Artwork in the game depicts characters as humans or monsters, rather than elves or dwarves. This works for our campaign, which is set in Baltimore, Maryland. Native American mythos and ghosts from the city’s actual history (and Edgar Allen Poe) are a better fit than the fae.
The pdf rulebook has some typos on the first page of character creation. They are easily fixed, but don’t give a good first impression. The text layout omits indentation or separation between paragraphs. It looks like a wall-of-text. I found it difficult to read at first, but eventually got used to it. The type is large and clear, with the exception of some magic tables in the full-color version. The black-and-white printable version, which you will also receive, keeps everything as clear as can be. This is important to me as many other games cause me eye-strain. Artwork is always a subjective matter but I really like the color photos used by the author. For a modern setting, it works better than black and white line drawings.
Esoteric Enterprises is a wonderful game and my group is having a blast with it. This is all the more impressive in that EE is the work of a single designer, Emmy Allen. She is an amazing talent. EE is bursting with creativity and written in a voice that betrays her love of the genre, dry wit, and appreciation of what makes OSR games worth playing.
[5 of 5 Stars!]