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

CJ Miozzi | 20 Nov 2015 17:00
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With the rules established, Book 0 lays out a series of pre-made characters, with a crunch-to-fluff ratio of about one-to-five. Extensive background and personality writeups are provided, serving as a great example of what players should aim for when creating a character from scratch, detailing how a character's Ways affect their personality.

Thereafter, the Prologue lays out three adventures - called Scenarios - to introduce players to the game and its world. The text states that there's no specific order in which to run the scenarios, but suggests starting with the second for Game Leaders who are novice roleplayers. Not being new to roleplaying, I decided to run the scenarios in the order in which they were presented: starting with the one that is "intended for a rather experienced Game Leader." I regret my decision.

shadows of esteren

The first scenario, titled Loch Varn, presents a "complex and horrific story" that is "centered on madness." To put it bluntly, it's a complete mindf***. The Inception of tabletop RPGs, this scenario will do its best to keep players confused - but the Leader has to take great care to not get confused, himself. Conceptually, I loved this scenario, but it required an inordinate amount of prep time relative to how quickly you can complete it (each of the three scenarios can be completed in a single session of a few hours), simply because the Leader needs to have a very clear understanding of the entirety of the story in order to properly convey a deliberately misleading picture to the players. Framing the difficulty of this scenario in the context of "roleplaying" was misleading - it wasn't the roleplaying that was difficult, but keeping track of the various characters, plot, timelines, backstory, etc.

As for the players, reactions were mixed. They were confused - but that is intended. Those who didn't like Inception didn't like this scenario, with dramatic "whoa" moments followed by puzzled stares and subsequent laments of, "I hate this game." What didn't help the confusion was being overloaded with a new game system and campaign setting - the understanding of which was integral to following the plot - on top of a complex story. Those who were able to better follow along had a greater appreciation of the story and enjoyed how everything came together in the end.

The scenario offers some great roleplaying moments, quality handouts, and a delightfully "shades of grey" moral dilemma toward the end that forces the players to determine the final outcome of the story. That said, the scenario makes certain assumptions about what actions the players will take or conclusions they will come to, with one major story event hinging on a huge leap in logic that I cannot imagine any player making. Another plot point relied on at least one character in the party being able to succeed on a certain skill check - but none of the pre-made characters my players chose to run had the required skill. In both cases, I had to improvise a solution, but I wouldn't expect a new Game Leader to be able to adroitly handle that and was disappointed that the scenario didn't give any guidance on how to proceed past such a bottleneck.

Ultimately, Loch Varn delivers the strongest first impression of the three scenarios - but that impression isn't exactly representative of the game as a whole, and may actually serve to turn some players off entirely. Saving this scenario for when both players and the Game Leader become more familiar with the setting would make it shine, in my opinion.

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