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 details the rest of the combat system, which still remains light enough to be fast and simple while providing just a little more depth to add variety. This comes in the form of different "fighting attitudes" you can adopt each turn, of which there are four, each allocating different bonuses and penalties to attack, defense, and speed (or "initiative" for you D&D players).

Seven pages are dedicated to prices and descriptions of equipment, goods, and services, including item rarities. The weapon offerings are deliberately not balanced mechanically, with weapons that deal the same damage having wildly different prices. Some very loose rules are offered on superior items that give bonuses - what some might call a +1 weapon, for instance - and I would have really appreciated greater mechanical depth here.

Shadows of Esteren princess

Book 1 also includes rules on diseases, drug addiction, and aging, as well as a "test" system that makes having a high Way undesirable. While a high Way benefits you during skill checks, passing a test check may mean that your high-Combativeness character may have an angry outburst during a heated debate with an important NPC. Of course, if the player roleplays the flaw of his high way, the Leader can choose to not call for a roll at all. Flawed characters make for great stories, and Shadows of Esteren knows how to bring out the roleplay value of flaws.

The system's magic system is one I'm fond of, allowing for flexibility without burdening players with complex rules. A spell has two components: its mechanics, and its flavor. The mechanics are general rules that explain how powerful a given spell level is - ie, how many people it can affect, how much damage it can deal, how wide of an area, etc. The flavor descriptions are separate and can apply to a spell of any level, scaled according to the mechanics. The Leader can decide what flavor of spells are actually available, depending on the kind of setting he wants to run.

A whole chapter is dedicated to Magience - the magical science of Flux and the machines it powers. It includes rules on extracting flux from matter, the fun mishaps that can happen during accidents - like a burst of 1d10 acid damage to those in 1d10 yards. It also includes rules on using magientist machines or "artifacts," as well as a list of the artifacts available, presented in a manner similar to D&D stat blocks. Some artifacts are vulnerable to things like humidity or fire, and if mishandled, can give the operator an electric shock.

As previously mentioned, the full sanity system is detailed in Book 1. One feature I quite enjoyed was what happens on a "fumbled" sanity check. Rolling a 1 not only results in sanity damage, but also imparts "scarring," which can either manifest in the form of nightmares, a phobia, fainting spells... There are almost a dozen different types of mental scars a character can suffer, each with measurable consequences.

My greatest lament with Book 1 is that information doesn't feel optimally organized for quick referencing. Apart from the lore chapters being difficult to parse during a session, even the crunch can have you flipping pages, wondering if there's more to a subject than what you first found. For instance, the equipment section lists the prices of some magientist artifacts, like an "energetic gauntlet" - but what is an energetic gauntlet? To find out, you'd have to think to flip to the chapter on Magience and look it up under the list of artifacts.

Bottom line: Despite some missteps, Shadows of Esteren offers a great experience for story- and roleplay-minded gamers. Filled with imaginative ideas executed to the standards of big publishers, the game is clearly a labor of love produced by a passionate indie team - a team that could have used a cutthroat editor who would have mercilessly chiseled away at and refined their oeuvre into a masterpiece.

Recommendation: If you're looking to immerse yourself in a rich, dark fantasy campaign setting and aren't afraid of reading or wishy-washy rules, this game is for you. At the very least, download Book 0 and check it out yourself - it's free.

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