Shadows of Esteren Review - Rules Light, Story-Driven Horror Tabletop RPG

CJ Miozzi | 20 Nov 2015 17:00
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Counterintuitively, I'd posit that those who have never played a tabletop RPG would take to Shadows of Esteren's rules much more quickly and easily than D&D veterans. While we stumbled around, looking to see if any game mechanics covered some of the actions or situations we found ourselves in, someone without our preconceptions would be free to go with the flow - which is exactly what Shadows of Esteren encourages. I would imagine that once my gaming group would have become intimately familiar with what the rules do and do not cover, we would have been able to do the same.

The rules-light system plays into Shadows of Esteren's mantra of "story first." The rules even encourage Game Leaders to forgo dice rolls or ignore mechanics if it would interrupt the flow of the story or if players are roleplaying with exceptional conviction. This focus is reflected in the order in which the books present the material: setting and lore always come before the rules.

Shadows of Esteren Monster

Shadows of Esteren's campaign setting is very detailed, and the Prologue gives us but a taste of what Book 1 offers. In brief, this medieval-Europe analogue - a world of humans, with no fantastical races - is divided into three kingdoms, each with their own shtick: one follows ancient, druidic traditions; one has embraced a new religion of the One God; one is an industrial nation that progresses the technologies of "magience" - a unique take on steampunk in which machines are powered by a form of portable electricity called "flux" - energy extracted from matter. While these nations aren't directly at war, their ideological segregations ensure a nice, three-way conflict - and conflict (or drama) is the heart of storytelling.

Monsters do exist in this world, and are collectively known as "Feondas," a word meaning "the enemy." Little is known of them; they are an omnipresent threat lurking in the shadows but seldom seen, and their ways and thinking are completely alien to humans. In short, they are the perfect recipe for a horrific foe.

With the setting established, the prologue spends a few scant pages on explaining the basics of the system's mechanics. Where D&D characterizes heroes in terms of ability scores like Strength and Intelligence, Shadows of Esteren uses a system of five "ways:" combativeness, creativity, empathy, reason, and conviction. Interestingly, a high or a low score in a way is neither good nor bad - it simply has associated qualities and flaws. For instance, a high rating in combativeness would mean someone is assertive and passionate, but also impulsive and stubborn. A low combativeness rating, on the other hand, could mean the person is calm and levelheaded, but also pessimistic and listless. This is perhaps my favorite aspect of the game system, because it offers so much more depth than, "I want to roll an 18 in every ability," and it squarely puts the focus on characterization - and thus roleplay.

Thereafter, the skill system ties each of the 16 skills (or "domains") to a Way, and each branches off into multiple "disciplines" for specialization. Combat ability is just an extension of the skill system, falling under the domains of close combat and shooting & throwing. Shadows of Esteren isn't the first RPG to roll combat ability into its skill mechanics, but it's perfect for a system in which combat isn't the focus.

The health system is more realistic than D&D's, imposing stacking penalties as a character takes more and more damage, and armor offers damage reduction, as you would expect from more true-to-life mechanics. A sanity system plays an important part in the mechanics, with every character selecting a latent mental disorder on creation and rules governing progressive descent into madness as you lose sanity points. The system is grounded strongly in real-world psychology, which adds great depth, realism, and tremendous roleplay opportunity, but perhaps hits a little close to home for those who either suffer from or have had loved ones suffer from mental disorders. The prologue doesn't go into details, but Book 1 discusses at length the various stages of each of the dozen disorders, and I was hit with a certain twang when I realized that the disorders of Melancholy and Elation matched the exact symptoms of someone I know who suffers from manic depression. This leaves me with mixed emotions - the roleplay opportunities that these rules and descriptions provide are terrific, but most people play RPGs as a form of escapism, and someone suffering from depression, for instance, may not want to be reminded of their struggles by either having to portray - or seeing someone else try to portray - a character with Melancholy.