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

CJ Miozzi | 20 Nov 2015 17:00
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The other two scenarios are more "classic investigations," with Scenario 2, Poison, turning out to be my favorite of the three. Whereas Loch Varn has the greatest potential, Poison takes a simple idea and executes it with finesse. "Investigation" adventures are notoriously difficult to pull off, and Poison is one of the most well-written investigations I've ever come across, maintaining tension and drama throughout. The scenario starts strong, plunging players into suspense and action, and offers a number of possible endings depending on player actions, with an optional twist that will finish as strong as it started.

shadows of esteren 2

The final scenario, Redfall, also suffers from having mandatory-yet-not-obvious clues that players must pick up on, and a huge assumption that the scenario makes is that one of the players will embody a male character that is susceptible to flirtation. But on the positive side, the scenario does present players with numerous options, and one of its greatest strengths is how it includes three alternative scenarios for the climax. Rather than have the players arrive just in the nick of time to save the day, or have some abridged denouement if the players are too late, Redfall presents one scenario if the players are early, one if they are right on time, and one if they are too late - and all three are equally compelling.

Each of the three scenarios has a strong start and a strong finish - in its own way. Each finds a way to move the plot along that doesn't feel contrived. Each demonstrates better story writing than I've seen in most D&D adventures.

The scenarios are written in a modular manner, with optional scenes that a Leader can include to add more action, or supernatural elements, or gore, or suspense, so different groups may have slightly different experiences. Structured like a screenplay, the scenarios are divided into acts and scenes rather than "encounters," and while the result does entail a certain degree of "railroading," as long as the players don't go out of their way to break the scenario, the railroading won't be noticeable.

Overall, the scenarios offer a strong, atmospheric and story-driven experience. Leaders are encouraged to make use of evocative and sensory descriptions, and musical tracks from the likes of Silent Hill and Braveheart are suggested to accompany certain scenes for ambience. Dialogue falls somewhat short - what few scripted lines of dialogue are offered tend to feel stilted and contrived, but I'm willing to chalk that up to something lost in translation. Mechanical balance feels a little off, however, with some skill checks that seem too difficult, and only partial direction on balancing combat encounters offered.

Book 0 serves as a solid prologue and introduction to Shadows of Esteren, introducing major themes, characters, settings, and plot threads, but it can easily overload a new player. The game's setting is rich and creates all of its lore from scratch, complete with calling its analogue to the druid a "demorthen." I understand that the writers wanted a unique setting, but if something is, for all intents and purposes, a druid or shaman, then creating a new term is just adding needless complexity. Compound this with the great number of difficult-to-pronounce terms and names that get dropped in an adventure, some of which are similar enough to cause mixups (Jaber, Jearon, Deorn), and it becomes a lot for a player to take in at once. Even as a Leader just reading through the book, I found myself having to build a glossary to keep track of definitions, people, and places.

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categories: fantasy