One of my unexpected purchases at Gen Con was a line of RPG books for a game called Shadows of Esteren. I had heard about this game obliquely as its kickstarters were running. While it looked interesting, I had plenty of other kickstarters to be keeping track of. However at Gen Con, I found myself continually looping back to their booth. I was entranced by the miniatures, the art of the covers, and the components of their Black Rose board game. So by Saturday, I had made up my mind to look over their Gen Con specials and walked away with every book they had (physical copies and PDFs), a number of miniatures, the boardgame, and some very cool metal coinage.
It was not until I got home that I discovered that the first book – Prologue – is available free here. And at that price, I have to recommend you check it out.
Book 0 – Prologue Review
Book 0 is an 83-page PDF. The first thing that stood out to me is the art. It’s amazing. It seems like every page has a piece that made me pause my reading and stare at. The art within Book 0 reminded me a lot of Rackham’s Confrontation line. Unlike Confrontation (or more specifically Cadwallon), Agate RPG (the original publisher of this French RPG) seems to have done a much better job at translation. Some of the passages might require a re-read, but this is due to denseness of the writing and not badly translated sentences.
Book 0 contains everything you need to start a Shadows of Esteren game. And I do mean everything. This book has setting, GM advice, pre-generated characters, a rules overview, and three scenarios.
The setting of Tri-Kazel is Celtic inspired, with a broad gothic influence. It is a land trapped between the forces of tradition, magic, science, and religion. I feel like the setting is embroiled in a conflict that has a very Renaissance bent without moving out of the realm of traditional fantasy. It also contains creatures known as the Feondas, one of the sources of horror within the setting.
The game system is simple and has a slightly different focus than most games. It is focused on psychological attributes instead of physical and mental abstractions. The Ways, which take the place of attributes in most games, are measurements of five different aspects of your character’s personality: Combativeness, Creativity, Empathy, Reason and Conviction. There are multiple interpretations of what strength and weakness in a Way means in the game, like how low ratings can be boons and high ones can be flaws.
The main resolution mechanic is Way + Skill rating + D10 vs a Target Number. If your character’s Way + Skill is equal to or greater than the TN, you succeed without a roll. Combat seems simple and quick, and you can take mental wounds as well as physical ones. The full sanity rules are found in Book 1.
The six pre-generated characters round out the first chapter of the book. All in all, the setting, system, and characters only take up 32 pages of this PDF. The lion’s share of the book is the triptych of adventures. Book 0 gives you some advice on what order to play the scenarios and provides built-in ties to the pre-generated characters. One of the best parts of the Shadows of Esteren adventures is the modular horror of the system. The book breaks down horror into Gore, Suspense, Psychology, and Supernatural. At a variety of different scenes in the adventures, the writers call out how to add or highlight these types of horror for your group. The four types each have a symbol for easy GM recognition. If you group finds gore blasé but is all about psychological horror, ignore the gore, and use every psychology enhancement that you can. The book also highlights GM tips and important information for you as you are running the game. Finally, each scene of the adventures has suggested background music from a variety of soundtracks.
What you get in Book 0 is a free introduction to the system and world of Shadows of Esteren. It acts as a great player’s guide for your group, and the adventures are well written and sure to hook your group. Book 0 is a quick read, and if your group likes George R.R. Martin or fantasy games with a horror twist, check this game-line out! If you like what you see, you can get the rest of the PDFs on Agate’s Drivethru page, or hardcopies through your FLGS. The physical copies are just as gorgeous as their PDFs would suggest. I for one, cannot wait to run this game for my gaming group. Perhaps as a one-shot for Halloween…