Just like when you’ve done a lot of reading in some given fiction genre, if you read a lot of role-playing games, you’ll see games that talk back to previous games, sometimes very explicitly, sometimes not. Call of Cthulhu was routinely ridiculously weak on providing a rationale for why the player characters were involved in the situation at all (a lot of dead uncles were involved), or why these people were together, or why they were so invested in investigating eldritch horrors that they’d be willing to keep going after things got obviously weird and dangerous.
Delta Green addressed this in a simple, straightforward way: you’re part of a secretive special-ops group that tells you where to go. You already know that the bad stuff exists and that where it emerges, it’ll hurt a lot of people unless someone with half a clue deals with it, and, unlucky for you, you’ve got that half clue.
In Delta Green and other games with secretive special-ops groups investigating the paranormal, it always turns out that some or all of the organization is itself corrupt. So Esoterrorists flipped that: it provides a reason the players can have faith in their organization. The titular Esoterrorists are the setting’s villains. They’re trying to destroy reality, as one does.
Without getting too deeply into the setting’s metaphysics, it’s just not possible for the player characters’ organization to thwart the villains’ efforts unless they remain on the side of good. If they were corrupt, they’d be actively advancing their adversaries’ goal. So, within the setting, every day reality hadn’t unwound could be taken of itself to be conclusive evidence that the organization was still sound.
Shadowrun is a fantasy/cyberpunk game where you’re a crew that gets hired to do heists. One of the biggest clichés in RPG-dom is that in Shadowrun games your handler betrays you and you don’t get paid. I’ve never even played or read Shadowrun and I know the cliché.
Blades in the Dark is a game about being a criminal crew in a gritty fantasy city, and an explicit rule of the game is that you always get paid for your jobs. It doesn’t bother with a diegetic rationale, those are just the rules. And those are the rules because not getting paid just wasn’t fun.
20 Exchange Place has a compelling premise: criminals have taken control of a bank in Manhattan and there are dozens of hostages. You’re the hostage negotiator. Also, apparently, the SWAT team’s tactician. It’s quick, and I found the pacing competent. I played through it three times and every time things go horribly wrong, there’s a high body count, and you, personally, go down as responsible for the situation. It put me in mind of all the above because, well, this wasn’t fun…
Of course, not every game is trying to be fun. There are great games very much about not having any good choices. But the bar’s just plain higher to do that while still pulling off making it feel satisfying. And I didn’t find this game to meet that bar…
This appears to be a first game; I hope we see more from the author.