Originally written at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2012/10/22/tabletop-review-shadows-of-esteren-book-1-universe/
I, along with 704 other backers, happily took part in the Shadows of Esteren Kickstarter campaign back in July of this year. I had been hoping for a while now that Shadows of Esteren would receive an English translation. Sure I read/write/speak French, but importing a hardcover RPG sourcebook of this size is not only cost-prohibitive, but as most of my friends aren’t francophones, playing the game would take a lot of work and even more patience. So when Studio 2 Publishing announced the Kickstarter, I was not only one of the first to throw money at them, but I was down for the $90 Limited Edition variant… which my pet rabbit has already managed to gnaw on, unfortunately.
In the original Kickstarter campaign, Studio 2 described the game as “somewhere between Ravenloft and Call of Cthulhu,” but I wouldn’t call that quite right. Shadows of Esteren does have a sanity meter, but it’s more akin to the old video game Eternal Darkness, as you can regain sanity in SoE after being exposed to forbidden magick and horrific creatures, where in Call of Cthulhu, your maximum possible sanity meter crumbles along with your current sanity pool. As well, Call of Cthulhu is far more research oriented, whereas Shadows of Esteren is more low fantasy adventure. As for the Ravenloft part, I can’t really say that is correct either. In Ravenloft, things are a lot more subtle. Players and NPCs might suspect there is something amiss, but a quality Ravenloft adventure/campaign tends to keep PCs in the dark about what sort of monstrosity is out there waiting to devour them. In Shadows of Esteren, every villager, nomad and town drunk knows that there are hideous creatures of all shapes and size waiting to do harm to humanity. These creatures are collectively known as Feondas. When everyone knows there are creepy crawlies out there, you don’t actually have a game with a horror/terror element. Instead, it’s just another fantasy game. After all, you can just replace Feondas with “orcs” or “mind flayers” and it’s roughly the same effect. So I will admit that I was disappointed that Shadows of Esteren is nothing like a “Ravenloft meets Call of Cthulhu type game, but I did find the book and the rules quite fascinating. If you’re looking for a more apt comparison for what this game feels like, think perhaps Vampire: The Dark Ages, except you’re playing as a mortal. It’s the same vibe, as neither game has a Masquerade between man and monsters. It’s just taken for granted in both that there are things that want to eat people out there. It’s just in SoE, you’re playing as the people. Another good game to compare SoE to would be Mayfair’s old Chill system, but set in the Dark Ages instead of modern times. Both games feature PCs trying to figure out the truth of the evil creatures that wish to do humanity harm, and both games let the PCs be able to fight back rather handily (again, unlike Call of Cthulhu). So think of Shadows of Esteren as that – Chill meets Vampire: The Dark Ages rather than Ravenloft meets Call of Cthulhu and you’ll go in with a better mental picture. That’s still a great combination too.
I will say this about Shadows of Esteren – it has the most amazing art I think I’ve ever seen in a tabletop book. I haven’t been this blown away by RPG art since I was a kid viewing Tim Bradstreet’s stuff in Shadowrun and Vampire: The Masquerade. There are about ten different artists that contributed to Shadows of Esteren and I can’t think of a better team that I’ve ever seen assembled for an RPG. Seriously. In any other RPG book that I’ve flipped through, there is always one or more artists whose style or work I find displeasing. It’s all opinion, but this is honestly the first book where I was consistently impressed by each and every piece of art doting my screen or book. My wife, who has never played a tabletop RPG in her life, also loved just flipping through the pages and gazing at the art. Even if you never play Shadows of Esteren, it’s worth picking up this first book for the pictures alone. Had I known that I was going to be this blown away by the visuals, I would have upped my pledge to the $250 or $1000 image and picked up some original commissioned work by the SoE team besides the limited edition version.
Another thing worth noting about Shadows of Esteren is that the game is story first and rules second. There is an exceptionally detailed and deep character generating system (character sheets are three pages long!), but the book is definitely about the land of Tri-Kazel and its inhabitants. 173 out of the 292 pages of the book are about the world rather than the systems. That’s roughly sixty percent of the book. As well, the parts of the book that describe the world of Shadows of Esteren are placed at the front, and only once that content is exhausted does the book start to talk about the systems and how the game is played. This really sets the tone that Shadows of Esteren is about the story the Leader (term for the GM/DM in the game) wants to tell WITH his player’s help rather than a system where die rolls determine how things flow. In fact, the game outright admonishes the use of dice unless absolutely necessary. It’s generally used for a dramatic moment where neither the player nor Leader can be sure if a character is able to actually pull off their action, or as punishment if a player is acting outside of the personality set down on the character sheet. This should probably help you decide whether or not this is the type of RPG you’d like to play or run, but there’s one other big aspect of the writing style that you should be aware of. The entirety of the story/world setting sections are all written “in-character” so to speak. Each chapter and section within the chapter reads as either first or third party descriptions of Tri-Kazel by various residents. The end result that the book reads like a jumble of short stories that may or may not give you the detail (or actual useful information) that you are looking for. On one hand, I really liked this, as it continued to enforce that Shadows of Esteren is about storytelling rather than rolling dice. I also liked that, because it was by specific citizens, the information that you are given is suspect at best, mainly because some of these people clearly have agendas or points of view.
Perhaps the weakest thing about Shadows of Esteren is the world itself. It’s extremely generic and feels like just about any other low fantasy world out there. You have humans and only humans, but you have different societies and races. You have magic-users (known as Demorthen) and clerics, although the effects of spells are more subtle than in high fantasy, where you have fireballs and disintegrates happening left and right. You have the Varigals, which are basically wanderers or gypsy style rogues, and there are Magientists, steampunk style scientists. The Magientists will probably get the most attention from gamers, as Steampunk in Western culture is about where it was in Japan in the mid 90s, but I really didn’t like this being thrown into the system. I mean, I love some quality Steampunk, Sakura Taisen for example, but you can’t have one aspect of the game being about a millennium ahead of the rest of the world and not expect things to rapidly become unbalanced. Do you remember the old (and awesome) video game Arcanum? Think that, but with tech being far more powerful and unbalanced compared to sword and sorcery. I just feel this could have been fine tuned along with the overall world of Tri-Kazel itself. It just feels like another generic low fantasy world in a Dark Ages setting, but with its own terminology for common tropes in order to make it feel less paint by numbers.
The character creation system is where Shadows of Esteren really shines, as quite simply, it’s unlike anything I’ve ever encountered before. Sure there are some similarities to other systems. It has the aforementioned sanity gauge, which is obviously inspired by Call of Cthulhu, but the character creation process and everything about it really stands out as unique and impressive at the same time. Instead of specific stats, you have five “Ways.” These ways are: Combativeness, Creativity, Empathy, Reason and Conviction. You can either have them numbered 1-5 in any order (as in Empathy with a Rating of 4, Reason a 2 and so on) or you can divide fifteen points between them. Neither higher nor lower is better in any particular score. Having a 5 in Empathy, for example, means you are exceptionally empathic, but it also means you are more susceptible to mind control or being duped by a good, albeit false, story. Meanwhile, a 1 in Empathy means that the character is probably cold, selfish, or a loner, but it also means they are in complete control of their emotions and can generally tell a falsehood being told. This is a really great way to do stats, as it forces players and Leaders to look at the negative aspects of having a high score in a particular quality as well as the advantages to a low score in a similar field. It also makes players flesh out their character’s personalities and backgrounds, which is never a bad thing.
There are eighteen sample “professions,” which would be the equivalent of a character class. The game allows players and Leaders to make up their own, but the eighteen here, ranging from Bard to Peasant, should cover most of your players’ needs. Each profession gives a PC their primary and secondary skill, netting them five points in for the former and three points for the latter. Once a character gets more than five points in a skill, they gain a Discipline, which is a more formalized version of the skill. For example, let’s say I decided to make a Merchant. My primary skill would be Relation, so I’d gain five points in that, while my secondary skill could be either Erudition or Craft. Then let’s say, during character creation, I get my Relation up to six points. I would then gain a Discipline from the Relation list. Those include Charm, Command, Diplomacy, Faction Knowledge, Etiquette, Intimidation, Sweet Talk and Persuasion. I’d probably take Persuasion, as I’d be doing a lot of haggling to keep my prices high. So on my character sheet, I would fill in all five bubbles for Relation, and then underneath I would note my Discipline of Persuasion is at Level 6. I’d get to add six to my point total any time I tried persuading someone, and five for any other time I could use Relation. I say point total instead of roll because the game doesn’t require you to roll. Let’s say I wanted to persuade someone. I’d use my six points in Persuade plus whatever my Empathy score is. Each skill has a Way attached to it. In this case, Relation is tied to Empathy. So my total score would be six plus Empathy. Let’s say for the sake of this example, my Merchant has a 4 in Empathy. So my point total would be 10. Thus, I would NEVER need to roll on any Difficulty Challenge (DC) of 10 or less. It would be an automatic success. If I ever needed a score HIGHER than ten, I could roll a D10 (ten sided die) and add that to my total. In this respect, the game is very much like third edition Dungeons & Dragons. However, Shadows of Esteren doesn’t require you to roll. If you can do a really good job roleplaying and/or describing your actions, you can get a success. Again, the key is telling a quality story rather than letting the dice decide everything.
Other stats include Strength, Armour and Defense, which are determined by cumulative totals in various Ways. There are Advantages and Disadvantages you can take, similar to Merits and Flaws from White Wolf games. You can even double stack most Advantages for a more powerful effect. For example, my Merchant would have 100 points to spend on advantages (more if he takes a disadvantage). I could take Charismatic (30 Points) which would give me +1 to Performance and Relations. I could take it a second time for a total of +2 to both skills, and then it would be called “Magnetic” instead of “Charismatic.” I could then spend the remaining 40 Points on Intuitive and give myself another +1 to Relation (total of 9 right now if you’re keeping track) along with Travel and Demorthen Mysteries. See how quickly things could add up?
Something else worth mentioning is that there are NO monster stats in the book. You are given a brief overview on Feondas, but it is completely on the Leader to design and develop antagonists from the ground up. Some players may absolutely adore this level of creative freedom, while some might be frustrated that there isn’t even a sample creature or a tutorial to help them make something. Again, it all just depends on what kind of gamer you are. I’m sure that future releases will delve more into Feondas and various examples of them, but this first book merely sets up the universe of Shadows of Esteren. With Book 0: Prologue having recently been made available to Kickstarter backers, and knowing that the line has at least Book 4: Secrets back in France, I’m sure we’ll be seeing a more fleshed out system in English sooner rather than later.
All in all, I’m a huge fan of Shadows of Esteren and it’s probably my favorite new system of 2012. It’s exceedingly rare that I purchase a physical copy of an RPG book these days. The last time I did so was the Call of Cthulhu 30th Anniversary Edition and the next time I’ll be getting one is the Horror on the Orient Express remake due out next August, so it’s a pretty big deal that I plopped down a large amount of cash for the Limited Edition. Aside from the slightly gnawed on cover, I’m glad I did, because the system is fantastic, the art is some of the best I’ve ever seen in an RPG, and the world, while generic, is extremely detailed and offers so much to an enterprising and creative Leader. I wouldn’t recommend this to someone as their first ever game or to someone who is used to a more structured system, but for everyone else, this is probably the best low fantasy game I’m ever come across, and I can’t wait for the rest of the system to be translated into English.