Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Game Review: Shadows of Esteren



A Medieval RPG with a horrific and gothic influence is how it describes itself...

And it’s won a few Ennies...

And the basics are free...

Fair enough, that’s enough of a reason to take a look at it...

I’m going to do this particular review a little backwards, start with the crunch and then move on to the things that everyone is raving about...


The system is D10 base, works on roll plus Domain (Skill) + another mods against target number set in advance by the GM, easily worked and elegant enough.  Character creation is very immersive and they’ve deliberately put it at the back of the all the notes on the world, which I particularly liked.  Some parts of character creation (The setting of the basic defence and speed values, both of which rely on the Empathy level of the character) don’t resonate with my particular view on them, but that’s because as far as I’m concerned, while you have to understand your opponent in a fight, how well you understand their general mental state isn’t that relevant when smack the git is what you’re looking for...

The other is the bias towards younger characters, and on the one hand, I do understand that older people in general don’t like to go out there and mix it up....

On the other hand, I’m 40 and still out there doing stuff I did when I was 20, so I’m not the rule, I’m the exception and I understand that, but for a number of other gamers out there, I suspect the same might hold true.

Age in this will give you negatives, you’ll get an extra skill and a setback (and they’re not easy setbacks) for every additional level of age that you get, so my character has had an episode of extreme violence, a severe illness, and at one point, lost every person that was ever close to them.  But that might explain him becoming a knight and being singularly devoted to the cause, so all is well that ends well.  

Every character has ratings in the different “Ways” of the world, with a Corresponding set of statistics called “Faults” if you’re using the optional sanity system, The ways are Combativeness (Passion), Creativity (Subversion), Empathy (Influence), Reason (Doubt), and Conviction (Guilt).

Combat is swift and lethal, characters can take different fighting stances, and their creativity level affects how fluid they are in the way that they do combat, so while a high combativeness will let you generally fight better, a high creativity will make you a more versatile fighter.  The system is very involved when it comes to the generation of a character, but once the character is generated, it’s very easy to use the rules as they are presented, and that brings me to possibly the most interesting part of the game...

Sanity...

There is a note at the beginning of the book that indicates clearly that the rules for sanity are there primarily for experienced players, and should only be used for the full immersive experience...

I’m experienced...

It’s well thought out, there is some numerical progression within the rules, but it’s been considered from an emotional perspective and considering that it’s to do with your characters mental well being, that’s a good thing.  You don’t just look at the amount of sanity points left and consider that you’re going to make it, there’s a real and definite fear that something unhinging will prove to be absolutely that and not just a few more off the count...

This brings me to the main point of these books.

The Background...



It’s not often you come across something that sits there and makes you pay attention (I know I reviewed Numenera a short while ago, it’s like buses, wait forever, then three at once, bonus pint (and I said pint, not point) for the person who predicts what number three is going to be...), but there’s a reason why this won Ennies for production values and artwork.  It’s always apparent when a studio has built in artists and doesn’t have to source artwork from anywhere else, you can see it in the sheer amount of artwork that appears in the product.  It’s also easily apparent that they’ve got a strong direction from the art team in how the material is laid out and presented.  Barely a page goes by that there isn’t an illustration or a piece of architecture, or a map, to assist with the words that are on the page. 

To say it’s expansively illustrated would be an understatement, I have an understanding of how much art (and good art) costs, I know the difference between a piece of art that was commissioned and had to be explained and something that the artist has been given free reign over, and if these books had not had a salaried and willing artistic crew working on them, they would never have made money from them.

And that brings me to the main selling point for me, which is neither the system, which is imaginative, nor the artwork, which is spectacular...

It’s the world...

I’m a writer, I don’t see things in pictures like everyone else does, the words are my thing, they’re what make the difference for me.  A picture will paint a thousand words, but a hundred of the right words will pull at your soul.

This pulls...


A lot of the world is described from the point of view of someone discussing it, the technique is an older one, but it immediately draws it in because you’re not having it described to you in flat terms, it’s a person telling you the nature of what you’re about to step in to.  For me, that instantly makes it more real, it makes it immediate...

It gives you the sense that someone lives in this world

Of course, there are criticisms, there are many that believe that the information on the world, while lovely and detailed and all manner of entertaining, is being put forwards in small chunks, not huge tomes.  There are some who are saying that the trickledown effect could let the game run for hundreds of tomes and thousands of products before you get the whole story, and I can see where they’re coming from.  While it’s possible that the Forgesonges group are doing it at their pace to eke out every possible sale they can from the matter, it’s also possible they’re doing it at this pace because they want to maintain the quality that they built the game on and see that the only way to do this is to make things at the pace they’re comfortable with, not the pace the market is demanding.

Funny thought on that though.  There’s another game system that’s got hundreds of books out there, each one only advancing things a tiny bit whilst giving people a little bit more to play with in return for their hard earned cash, It’s name?

Pathfinder...

And for me this is a good thing, it means that those who want to go around in the high adventure have a world that keeps evolving for them, and now for those that want their world a little darker, a little more dangerous, but still want to see it evolve, there’s something for them too.

And isn’t that what gaming is all about?


Excellent game, worth it for the background alone even if (like me) you don't agree with some of the systemworks.  Well worth the plaudits it has received, and I’ll likely be getting all the hardback versions of the books shortly.

Shadows of Esteren has the prologue book available for free at http://rpg.drivethrustuff.com/product/109112/Shadows-of-Esteren--Book-0-Prologue, and the rest of the books can be purchased at www.esteren.org

2 comments:

  1. Yes its a good little game. I tend to favour a bit more crunchy rules with combat (but that the wargamer in the back ground) but the world is nicely fleshed out. I have run the first scenario thus far and we all enjoyed it. Will run another soon.

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    1. :) Nothing wrong with a wargamer hiding in the scenery :) I'd be interested to play it as well as run it sometime.

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