Review: Shadows of Esteren

Shadows of Esteren is a French role-playing game (Les Ombres d’Esteren) translated into English, and funded through four different Kickstarters (so far). It’s tagline is “A medieval roleplaying game somewhere between Ravenloft, Game of Thrones and Call of Cthulhu.”

The game did quite well in the 2013 ENnie awards, netting gold ENnies for best interior art and best production values (beating out such stiff competition as WotC and Paizo) and the silver ENnie for product of the Year for Book 1: Universe.

Introductions

I first became aware of Shadows of Esteren back in 2012, some time after their first Kickstarter, when I came across their books at GenCon. The company, Agate Roleplaying Games, didn’t have much of a booth (it looking like they were sharing space with at least one other publisher) but the books leapt out at me. They had a nice display, with a stack of books and decent signage. They had the regular cover for Book 1 and a deluxe cover, mostly for Kickstarter backers willing to drop a little extra. Being a big Ravenloft fan, the horror aspects ‘n’ aesthetics appealed to me. The books looked amazing.

However, I came across Shadows of Esteren on Saturday, after I had thoroughly bankrupted myself. So I kept my distance. But I made a note of the name for future reference, so when the third Kickstarter came, with an option to get the first two (and a half) books for a decent price I threw my money at them.

What Is It?

Shadows of Esteren is a tabletop roleplaying game that combines a setting (the peninsula of Tri-Kazel) and ruleset. The game uses its own system and not the d20/OGL ruleset. There are currently four books for SoE: Book 0: Prologue, Book 1: Universe, Book 2: Travels, and Monastery of Tuath. A fifth book (Book 3: Dearg) has been published in French and is likely being translated into English shortly, and a sixth book (Book 4: Secrets) has been hyped since Book 1 and is in the works.

Book 0 is an introduction, with the very basics of the rule system, a description of the world, several NPCs/pregens, and a few short adventures. If not for the adventures, this would be a good book to give to your players to familiarize them with the world and game prior to play. (If you trust your players not to read the adventures, it still can be.) Book 0 is also available for free on DriveThurRPG.

Book 1 is both an introduction to the world and the game system. Clocking in at almost 300-pages, two thirds of this is taken up by description of the world, including ethnicities, nations, factions, and history. The final 100 pages is the ruleset, and a tenth of that is more pregen characters.

Book 2 is more descriptions and world lore, this time almost a travelog of assorted locales and places of interest. There is also some additional rules on travel, a few monster statblocks, some NPCs, and a few short adventures (and one longer adventure). It also introduces more mysteries and teases more factions, providing numerous adventure hooks and hints of other threats lurking in both the wilds and civilized reaches.

Monastery of Tuath is the feature length adventure, set in the eponymous monastery. The book greatly describes the building and inhabitants, allowing it to be used beyond the setting of a single tale.

Book 3 will describe the village of the same name, acting as the starting zone of a campaign, the centerpiece of the world. Most of the pregens from Book 1 are already tied to Dearg. Book 4 (Secrets) will be the big Game Leader book with all the little secrets on the world, truths behind the legends and the like.

Crunchy

The same system is mostly unremarkable. It’s a classless system that defines a character through skills and skill specializations. You add a stat and a skill which along with a 10-sided die to beat a DC. It is a lot like Fate in base concept, or d20 with a different sized die and skills for combat statistics. It’s not unlikely the World of Darkness or Cortex with static numbers in place of a die pool.

While the system is not revolutionary, this is not a bad thing. It’s easy to learn and fairly simple, which allows it to fade into the background allowing the focus to be on the story. This is important for a game based around atmosphere and horror: the focus should be on the character and not the statistics.

The most interesting thing of the mechanics is how ability scores are handled. In place of familiar stats (Strength or Might, Intelligence or Brains), SoE uses five abilities called “Ways” that are really combinations of mental and physical attributes. These are Combativeness, Creativity, Empathy, Reason, and Conviction. Ways range from 1 to 5 and not only affect the character’s mechanical effectiveness but also their personality. A high and low Way can be seen as both positive or negative, and characters have traits tied to their Ways. For example, a character with a high Reason score might be logical and highly rational or they might overthink things and have difficulty making decisions. In contrast, a low Reason score might mean the character is either spontaneous and bold or careless and forgetful.

The game also has three different magic systems: Demorthèn Art, Miracles, and Magientist. Demorthèns are druidic shamen, and use totemic stones to manipulate weather and the elements. Miracles are tied to a monotheistic faith and perform the familiar divine cocktail of healing, buffing, and righteous smiting. Magientist is a form of steampunk quasi-magical technology, your standard magitek.

The first two types of magic are skill-based but fairly rules lite. There’s a chart of effects (damage, number of targets, duration, etc) setting the DC for the skill check needed to successfully cast the spell. Characters have a number of specialities (such as water, life, or animals; purification, protection, or castigation) that a character dedicated themselves towards, allowing players to create personalized spells and effects so long as they’re tied to their speciality. A Demorthèn with a Flame Oghamic stone could start a campfire, throw a fireball, produce smoke, or cook food depending on the need.

Magientists use devices fueled by a quasi-magical substance (flux) distilled from matter, both organic and inorganic. Flux is then used to power steampunk devices (artifacts)/ Most of the rules are related to extracting this fuel, refining it, and attempting to use devices. Sadly, there are precious few artifacts provided in the book, so Game Leaders will have to make their own and do some design.

Combat is similar to a few RPG systems (Cortex for one). You attack with the related Way (typically Combativeness) plus the weapon’s skill and d10. This is compared to the target’s defence. If it’s a hit, you subtract the defence the add the weapon’s damage die and subtract the target’s protection (typically from armour). This means the better your attack roll, the more damage you do. It’s a neat idea but in practice it encourages people to double down on combat skills, because it increases both their chance of hitting and their damage.

Fluffy

Shadows of Esteren is a fluffy game. Most of the books are devoted to either flavour text or adventures. And most of the flavour text is written in-world. Each sub-chapter of the Book 1 has a different narrator with their own biases and perspective. The book covers the history of the setting as well as such topics as food, fashion, architecture, culture, and more. There’s a lot of diverse topics but each is only given a brief section so the book does not feel overloaded with details.

However, there are a lot of in-world terms used. The book throws you into the setting without a lot of explanation for a lot of terms. The book has a glossary and expect to use it. It might take two readings to really absorb all the details and nuances.

Tri-Kazel is a Celtic flavoured world. Odd for a French roleplaying game. There are old forests, the weather is cold, and nature is unforgiving. The land is divided into three nations, each of which is dominated by one of the three major factions: tradition/ Demorthèn, the Theocracy, and Magience. There is also the omnipresent threat of the feond, mysterious monsters that terrorize the land. Feond are a weird catch-all category for magical beasts and monsters, with a dash of Lovecraftian unnaturalness. There’s also the suggestion of witchcraft or other dark sorcery.

The Good

The books are beautiful. Shadows of Esteren has raised the bar on what I consider a good looking RPG. The art budget for the game must have been staggering.

The books remind me of White Wolf’s World of Darkness products, only full colour. There’s art everywhere and the pages resemble parchment with lots of small details. No two pages look alike. The art really helps sell the tone of the book, being an appropriate mix of gothic and horrific with highland terrain and lots of Celtic standing stones. The design changes slightly for the rules section, with the page background being more muted and the art less colourful, often greyscale with a single highlighting colour; appropriate for the different tone required for rules reference versus flavour.

The system is simple and has some nice design elements. There are a few combat maneuvers characters can learn and each character can choose to focus on offense or defence each round, tweaking their statistics.

The world itself is interesting, albeit on the small side. The entire setting encompases a small peninsula, reminiscent in scole of a Scotland. This is a world for smaller, more personal stories and not large world-shaking epic tales. There’s some good tension and different factions and sides to play against each other, with no clear good guy or bad guy. With the feondas, you have have a heroic campaign of humans versus the unnatural, or mankind can be the primary antagonist.

The Bad

The amount of flavour text makes the books heavy to read. It’s not dry, but it’s tricky to find information you want, having to read through what amounts to dialogue. Plus the near constant use of in-world terms, which require constant reference. The book does not hold your hand, easing you into its vocab, but thrusts you headfirst into the text and defines much later. If you’re lucky. Varigals were referenced over a half-dozen times before earning a brief description.

The translator/author also makes some curious word choices. I didn’t catch any mistranslations, but there some seldom used words that made frequent appearances and some curious phrasings. Such as “vegetal”.

The Ugly

The game has two large hardcovers and two smaller accessories, but still feels nowhere close to complete.

Book 2 had a small assortment of animals and some other opponent, but the game feels short of adversaries. While feondas are hyped as a major opponent, there are precious few provided, and no rules or advice on building or customizing a feond. The designers of the game say this is because all feond are meant to feel unique, but without more rules and options, many Game Leaders will reuse the same feond again and again making them feel repetitive and commonplace.

Similarly, there are only a handful of magience artifacts, making it extremely tricky to plan a campaign in the associated nation or have multiple characters making use of the skill.

At this point in its lifecycle, Shadows of Esteren is poorly suited for a rookie Game Leader, and needs an experienced GM who feels comfortable making their own content and generating their own options. The game would really benefit from some Web Enhancements or a larger fan community making homebrew content (which there very well might be, but sadly it’s en français.

Furthermore, the game world feels unfinished, and likely will remain so until Book 4 is released. There are numerous mysteries in the game making it harder to run a satisfying campaign (at least for those wanting to adhere to the canon). We’ll be unlikely to see Book 4 earlier than late 2015 in English, which is a long wait.

The book also seriously needs a larger North American distributor. I haven’t seen the books in stores, and while they’re available a few places online (amazon.com and even paizo.com), they’re not on amazon.ca, which hurts this Canadian. And the shipping prices they were charging the most recent Kickstarter kept me from pledging.

TL;DR

Shadows of Esteren is an interesting fantasy-horror role-playing game that is heavy in flavour and really works to maintain its tone. The first book doubles as rulebook and campaign setting, focusing on the later. And the books are most noteworthy for their excellent production values that have to be seen to be appreciated.

But the game still feels unfinished and cannot be recommended to novice GMs as some content generation is still needed to run extended campaigns.

But I look forward to reading future books and playing a short mini campaign, if I can get ahold of them in Canada.