Emerging Threats Unit: the Basic Story

David Gallo pointed out that the last Emerging Threats Unit post skipped over an important part: I told you the basic mechanical underpinnings before really telling you what the game’s about.

In a nutshell, Emerging Threats Unit is about a small group of scientists and soldiers teaming together in bizarre circumstances as protagonists in an action-investigation horror story. ETU agents are outsiders, folks who arrive at a hot spot that’s broken out, fighting to contain it before the powers that be (known as The Management) write that city or place off as a lost cause and destroy it. If you take a single person as an analogue for all of humanity, there are those who would severe a limb to save the rest of the body — and the ETU exists to try and save the limb before it gets that bad.

The sense of scale is smaller than many stories these days about cosmic horror. Our older stories had such things take place in isolated communities, which would often be devastated, but the scope of threat was usually about saving people in the immediate situation rather than trying to defeat some menace that would destroy all life. That’s what I want to return to, because it’s easier to conceive of cost in those terms.

For instance, let’s say that San Francisco is targeting with some horrific “unnatural outbreak” (the technical umbrella term the ETU uses for a situation, whether it’s a biological contagion, memetic affliction, otherworldly infestation, arcane ailment, etc.) San Francisco itself has over 800,000 people in it, and there are 3 or 4 million in the Bay Area. The Management has the ability to (as rumor has it) destroy the entire area, and trigger a massive earthquake in order to give a logical cause. So the cost of failing there isn’t “the world is over,” but “there is a scar on the world, a wound the rest of the people see and mourn, and that’s our fault.”

On the other hand, it could be even smaller than that, playing with the rural town trope. Maybe the world wouldn’t mourn a small town in Iowa, but that doesn’t mean the ETU agents won’t have the names and faces of the people in that town haunt their dreams.

But yeah, ETU should never be about “if we fail, world over” because that’s the most uninteresting failure, and its one that characters (by definition) don’t have to live with.

The sorts of protagonists vary, all brought together by the CDC’s shadow supernatural wing. Lab geeks with no combat training and soldiers who flunked out of biology or chemistry are both value character types, as of course are those in between said extremes. The common denominator is that every ETU agent experienced and survived a supernatural threat — a current theory is that ability for the unnatural to thrive is tied to how many people have experienced it, so the CDC doesn’t bring in people who have never experienced the unnatural.

But because being an ETU agent is extremely difficult and comes with a limited life span, they’ve found experimental ways of increasing competence and healing…using the very “unnatural sciences” that they seek to eradicate in the world. This includes dangerous drugs that implant knowledge (and, as a side effect, memories) about any number of subjects, so that any team of agents can possibly become temporary experts in a given field of biology, medicine, physics, etc.

Of course, to say the drug[1] is dangerous is an understatement, and it works far more efficiently on those with a high, exercised intellect, meaning that lab geeks make the best polymaths. It’s also one of the main contributors to an agent’s depleting sanity.

The ETU also administers a cocktail to all agents before heading into the field that boosts their immune system, regulates adrenaline, and numerous other things that help agents stave off unnatural infections. The cocktail has a side effect agents colloquially call “a slight case of invulnerability” — mostly that the body’s pain responses aren’t as overwhelming, and minor injuries heal a lot quicker.

Of course, this works best on those who already have hyper-fit bodies, and withdrawal is hellish, especially the more the body is taxed. In any case, while the cocktail helps with survivability in a mission, it’s part of why ETU agents rarely survive to their tenth mission.

Which brings us to the real answer to the sort of protagonists in this setting: those who put themselves through this to protect others from both horrible things beyond and from those who would just as soon nuke an outbreak at moment-one.

The sort of threats are numerous: contagions that create zombies, vampire-like predators that surface and get on ETU’s radar, ghosts or semi-corporeal creatures terrorizing a populace, a self-styled sorcerer using arcane knowledge to bend people, and so many more things. None of these are “OMG Great Old One” — that gets to world-crushing.

I like the idea of what the Cthulhu Mythos once was: a mishmash of incompatible horrors, being explored one story at a time. You don’t know what you’re getting into when you enter a mission — evidence might help you narrow it down, but there’s no wiki that you can use to define any given threat. (Similar with early Fringe, another one of my touchstones.)

So characters don’t really know what sort of threat they’ll have to deal with next, and neither do players! There’s no bestiary or index to refer to (though there will be some past case files to reference), because the agents will piece together what the threat is with evidence and build hypotheses on how to deal with it.

Finally, I like the idea of the CDC running this operation. What’s scarier: someone coming to your home with an FBI badge, or in a hazmat suit? There’s something about a non-law enforcement agency saving people that’s…better for my tastes, especially against unnatural threats.

For those interested in the Emerging Threats Units (whether before this post or now), what do you think of all that?

– Ryan

[1] The drug is a modified version of Mnemosyne, developed by the Orphic Institute of Advanced Research.


15 Responses to Emerging Threats Unit: the Basic Story

  1. David Gallo says:

    I like how I read through this and get bombarded with hooks. Other writers should take note: *this* is the kind of stuff I want to read in RPG books.

    I don’t need stats for everything, and I don’t need answers. I need stuff that makes me think that I want to know more. Hopefully, I get to read more about some of it – and the rest I get to use stuff like this as a springboard for my own ideas.


    “current theory is that ability for the unnatural to thrive is tied to how many people have experienced it….so the CDC doesn’t bring in people who have never experienced the unnatural”

    So being exposed to the unnatural is like being vaccinated – but it also means you have to have a little bit of it inside of you. Lots of places you can go with that, and it gives a great basis for building a character.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      So being exposed to the unnatural is like being vaccinated – but it also means you have to have a little bit of it inside of you. Lots of places you can go with that, and it gives a great basis for building a character.

      That’s a good way of putting it — though they’re also carriers of the unnatural.

      When I get to Unnatural Sciences (what is magic, but the CDC patently refuses to call it that), I’ll be talking about how seasoned ETU agents can’t help but accidentally learn (or rather, be infected by) unnatural abilities and senses. Being saturated with the unnatural means you cannot stop from being further infected.

      – Ryan

  2. Kit says:

    “But yeah, ETU should never be about “if we fail, world over” because that’s the most uninteresting failure, and its one that characters (by definition) don’t have to live with.”

    Ryan, that makes me want to kiss you. Absolutely. This is my crusade, I think.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      It’s also an easy enough hack point, to just say “oh, and this time the world is for-reals screwed.” But it’s easier to escalate than to de-escalate.

      – Ryan

    • Kit says:

      Well, exactly. This is part of blockbusterism and gonzoism; it’s easy to escalate, and then you’re stuck there.

  3. Kevin Veale says:

    I like the premise that the ETU is attached to the CDC. It’s a connotation thing for me: Law-enforcement is interested in secular transgressions of law; doctors are interested in survival, both of populations and individuals.

    It is possible for law enforcement to enforce martial law, but this gets tied up with injustice and other things.

    Whereas if doctors stick you on the wrong side of a quarantine in a way that is going to doom everyone involved, you can still know it’s not an unethical thing for them to have done. And that’s scarier.

    Trying to stop things before Management knocks everything flat is a great motivator, and I like the idea that failures are relevant to story.

    One of the things which stuck with me from the game Prototype was the creed of the Blackwatch unit. They were badguys not because of what they were doing, but because of how it had corrupted them. You could see how they’d started out in comparison to where they were now, and it made the whole thing stronger for the story.

    “We burn our own to hold the Red Line. It is the last line that will ever hold.”

    When the badguys can be terrifying without (necessarily) being hypocrites about how they’re using power, that feels like a big deal.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      All of what you said.

      I should say that one thing I’m rather not planning is for there to be some massive sinister corporate or governmental conspiracy to bring about doom. There’s no Wolfram and Hart, no Majestic-12, no Thule Society. Such narratives become about morality and depart from the narrative of survival, unpredictable infection, etc.

      Certainly there could be room for “sinister conspiracy due to memetic infection,” and I think that’s something the CDC absolutely fears, but I don’t want to define that in the game. If that’s gonna happen as some sort of arc, that’s not going to be built-in setting. In fact, overall I want fears and hypotheses to drive the setting rather than certainty.

      – Ryan

  4. Ryan Macklin says:

    For (my own) reference, the G+ threat with other questions/comments:

  5. I like a lot of this, this spins all kinds of fun ways in the wheelhouse that is my brain. Early X-Files, Fringe S1-3, Regenesis.

    Sort of a Contagion meets Dresden Files?

    Character Creation should certainly have the Exposure Event, hopefully with lots of opportunity for the Player to interject some ideas in the setting. Depending how you did it, Character Creation could be the Exposure Event as who they were before would define who they became?

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      There’s no Dresden Files in this. I’m not sure where you see that?

      The exposure event is interesting, though the trick is to make sure people aren’t overwhelmed and try to be “too creative” too early, or feel like they’re making up something “wrong.”

      – Ryan

    • Well you mentioned “zombies, vampire-like predators that surface and get on ETU’s radar, ghosts or semi-corporeal creatures terrorizing a populace, a self-styled sorcerer using arcane knowledge to bend people” I wasn’t meaning the Dresdenverse but it made me think of early small time Dresden files, as in paranormal investigations meets Contagion.

      I guess Dresden carries a lot of baggage when used in reference to your work? So just forget I said that ;)

      Well re: Exposure Event. You could have like tag lists or “something” as a “This was me before” and depending what kind of Exposure the Player picks from a semi-generic list? They alter some or all of their precursor tags to incorporate the event. It would provide some guidance and prevent the way crazy.

      These are of course just my random mutterings.


    • Ryan Macklin says:


      To be clear, the two main ways that this cannot do a Dresden story: there’s no room for a Harry Dresden-esque protagonist, and the threats are not “kinda monsters but also they hold witty or weird conversations.”

      I’m not dwelling on character creation yet, but you’ve given me an idea.

      – Ryan

  6. Travis Young says:

    I gave the short response to this on twitter, here’s a more point by point of what I liked about each bit (thus far the only negative I have about this gamestub is “I’m not playing it RIGHT NOW”):

    I like the idea of the Management. It reminds me of what is quite possibly my favorite bit about Firewall from Eclipse Phase: That if the Sentinels fail to do it quiet, the Cleaners will do it loud. And it will involve loss of life and precious resources, as well as being less sure that the problem didn’t escape under the cover of that much chaos. It also means that the it’s potentially the last person standing’s final responsibility to call in an airstrike (you know, hurricane. It strikes with air.) on their own position.

    I like that the range of protagonists allows for more than just the Atomic Robo Action Scientist (punching people! For science!) And that the Unnatural Sciences allows you to try and be a little more “hyper-competency” in your particular area of competence (Punchy people get better at punching, brains people get better at brains[1]) but at the potential cost of destroying that competence (at least, that’s how I read it). This leads you to questioning how much of yourself you’re willing to leave on the field, as it were, in order to save humanity, or even just the folks you go into battle with. This builds in a FANTASTIC want/need loop already.

    I really enjoy the scope, also. The smaller horror. The concept that the characters aren’t so much trying to save the world as stop this particular outbreak.

    The requirement of all members of the ETU needing to be pre-exposed allows for a neat little prologue game (or even just a little jam session during chargen) for each of the characters.

    And the point about there being no beastiary is a fantastic one. Our pathfinder game is all about “ok, knowledge check. Now kibitz about strengths and weaknesses so we can work out a plan, eh, fuck it lets shoot it lots”. Which is kinda boring. So, better is a session or two of trying to figure out wtf is going on (“People are dying, we don’t know what or why”) then trying to figure out how to stop it (“what do you MEAN loup gauro are immune to guns?!!? RUN AWAY TIME NOW!!”) and *THEN*, maybe, putting that plan into action (“Ok, we got the inherited silver bullets in the hand of Anne, who’s the best shot among us. Let’s help her make them count.”) And then next week having to figure out something completely different, that can’t even be shot.

    And I, like you, enjoy the idea of someone walking up in a hazmat suit saying “Hi, I’m a Doctor and I’m here to help.”

    [1] I like the nod to Penny. Which I still need to talk someone into playing

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      There are hyper-competency elements that also go for breadth rather than depth. This is a bit of my reaction to playing GUMSHOE — it breaks my sense of the world that every team has (say) at art historian, but sometimes you suddenly need to know art history in an unexpected moment. (I don’t know, maybe there’s an ethereal stalker that hides in paintings.) Well, there’s a drug for that, if you know that’s the situation going in. There’s also calling into HQ while in the field, which takes time.

      That also gets into me wanting to make sure that the game stays interesting for both “lab agents” and “field agents.” (The latter being the work-in-progress term for ETU agents that come from crisis/combat backgrounds; I don’t like it because everyone is in the field.) And that’s where prior playtests of the game have fell down a bit, and why I’m effectively re-designing the larger parts this from scratch live on the blog.

      – Ryan

  7. Sorry to resurrect the post, but I felt the need to say that all of this sounds awesome. I like the idea of doing cosmic horror that stays personal, and the CDC angle is definitely a good one.

    Also, PCs needing exposure to strange phenomena before becoming agents is solid gold.