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

CJ Miozzi | 20 Nov 2015 17:00
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Book 1 - Universe

The main rulebook of Shadows of Esteren, Universe kicks off like a campaign setting book. In fact, the first 173 pages focus on lore, with the mechanics starting on page 174 - past the tome's halfway point. The entirety of the lore section is written as a narrative, a descriptive piece of fiction that reveals elements of the world, with characters discussing elements that would normally be given a gazetteer-style treatment. It's all very in-depth - and very text-heavy, with a huge amount of material to pore through.

Just as in Book 0, Universe is wonderfully illustrated, with stunning maps and production values that can rival the big names in the industry. An entire chapter is dedicated to the ominous Feondas, with eerie accompanying illustrations. The book offers in-depth descriptions of geography, settlements, politics, religion, customs, architecture, justice systems, factions, etc... It is one of the most comprehensive treatments I've ever seen a campaign setting given. There is an enormous amount of information for a Leader to absorb - so much so, that it can be intimidating.

Shadows of Esteren

Further, because all the information is presented in the form of a written narrative, it is almost impossible to look something up for a quick reference without having to scan through paragraphs in search of one line of information. Compound this with the vocabulary issues previously mentioned - the usage of more esoteric English words - and Book 1 is anything but a light read. I appreciate the focus on "story first," but I would have liked to have seen information laid out in a more easily digestible manner.

Onto the mechanics: again, the game system encourages diceless play, and the only die you'll ever need is a d10 (interesting that they didn't choose the d20). The system is designed to have its rules interpreted, which I imagine can be a nightmare with a rules lawyer in the group, and was difficult for my seasoned D&D group to grow accustomed to. The system is deliberately light and intended to not be exhaustive, and we found ourselves searching for one single answer when the system wanted us to come up with any number of answers. Again, though, I suspect this system would work really well for roleplaying neophytes, and that veterans can learn to free themselves from the shackles of rigid mechanics.

Similar to other tabletop RPGs, Shadows of Esteren does not include classes, in the traditional sense. Instead, "archetypes" are presented, which are simply pre-made sets of skill selections. Players are free to select an archetype of build their own from scratch.

Character creation puts a heavy focus on background, personality, motivation, and everything you need to roleplay your character. Fluff comes before crunch, and every mechanic is subsequently followed by a description of how it manifests in roleplay. Players select ethnicity, profession, birthplace, social class, and age, and receive different bonuses depending on their choices, sometimes at the expense of a "setback," which include mechanical penalties as well as fun things like a personal nemesis or a bad rumor that follows the character. Like Book 0, Universe offers a new and diverse set of premade characters.

Advancement comes in the form of spending XP to upgrade skills and acquire new spells, rather than a flat leveling system. At character creation, players can choose to take setbacks in exchange for additional XP, which can also be spent on gaining advantages such as extra wealth, an ally, or situational bonuses. XP is awarded for overcoming various types of challenges, including progressing through the plot, roleplaying, and combat.

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