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