Shadows of Esteren is a dark medieval/low fantasy roleplaying game with horror elements. The game, which has picked up a number of nominations and awards (including gold ENnies for interior art, production values, and cartography, and a runner-up silver ENnie for best product of the year for the core book), has largely funded its English releases on Kickstarter, including the recent campaign for Book 3 Daerg.
What This Review Is
I usually do individual book reviews, not overarching game reviews, but my examination of Shadows of Esteren falls somewhere in between. This review is based on Book 0 Prologue, Book 1 Universe, and Book 2 Travels. The Prologue is an introductory book, albeit one that is more integral to the game than usual (this review is based on a physical hardcover, but the pdf of Book 0 can be downloaded for free from DriveThruRPG). Book 1 is the core book. Book 2, with a potpourri of content, is primarily a GM supplement. I’m writing one review of these three books because (for reasons I’ll explain below) I think that the core book is too dependent on the Prologue and Travels to be easily assessable standing on its own. But, while this review goes beyond the bounds of one book, it does not intend to make an in-depth analysis of the game’s systems (although I would point out if there were any glaring flaws) or of the whole of the material available for the game.
The Basics of the World
Shadows of Esteren is set on the isolated, relatively northern peninsula of Tri-Kazel. The traditional culture of the peninsula draws heavily on Celtic and Druidic sources, with a grim vibe – life is unfair and cheap, mental illness is pervasive, there exist limited supernatural threats in the dark, and the society is generally insular. Tri-Kazel exists under a feudal system, with political power is generally in the hands of nobility, those with force of arms, and sometimes those with religious authority. There are several urban areas, but most of the population lives in villages.
This traditional culture and religion is still dominant in one of the peninsula’s three nations (Taol-Kaer). However, the other two nations have embraced newer philosophies, which were imported from the mostly-inaccessible Continent in the last couple of centuries. The nation of Gwidre is dominated by the Temple, a religion with Abrahamic parallels, and has mostly purged traditional religious practices. The nation of Reizh has welcomed Magience, which has the feel of an early Renaissance science/alchemy, although notably darker, with ecological destruction a common theme. While Magience is not purposely opposed to traditional religion, and Reizh does not persecute traditional religion, there is still a significant culture clash between the two. Indeed, with the Temple primarily restricted to one nation (which it dominates), the most prevalent societal conflict is between Magience and traditional practices.
What Kind of Story Is Told In Shadows of Esteren
This is a section I normally wouldn’t include in a review, but that’s because it usually isn’t much of a question. With Shadows of Esteren, however, it was a question I was constantly asking as I was working my way through the books – there’s no license to guide play, it is pretty clearly is not standard sword-and-sorcery fare (even if there are swords and sorcery in the setting), and nowhere do these three books really address the topic head-on. So I think it’s worth addressing early on here. I think that the generic story for Shadows of Esteren might be something like a low fantasy Call of Cthulhu – the characters are looking into mysterious events, there is probably something supernatural around (but even if there is, it probably isn’t the obvious thing, and probably isn’t the root cause of the problem), and the characters will face somewhat horrific circumstances in figuring out what has gone on (but the horrific circumstances are just as likely to be the brutality of their fellow human beings as they are to be supernatural).
Character Creation and The System Basics
There are six archetypes presented for characters in Shadows of Esteren – they are not mechanical in nature, but guides to basic concepts. Those archetypes are varigal (traveling messenger/survivalist), warrior, demorthen (traditionalist druid type), religious of the Temple, magientist (sort-of a scientist), and bard.
Each character in Shadows of Esteren has ratings in five different Ways. Ways are mental characteristics representing the characters outlook on life. In theory, an extreme rating in a Way (either high or low) represents a potential psychological weakness. Mechanically, however, a high Way is superior, with the drawback only coming if the GM “forces” the player to roll to resist the character’s nature. The five Ways are Combativeness, Creativity, Empathy, Reason, and Conviction. Each is rated from 1-5, with the default spread being a unique rating for each Way.
In addition to ways, there are 16 Domains – essentially broad skill groups. Characters can have a rating of 1-5 in a domain, representing a broad competence in that area. Within each domain are more specific skills known as Disciplines. Once a character has maxed out a Domain rating, further progress comes from investing in these more specialized skills. For example, the Feats Domain represents a broad athletic competence, applying to running, jumping, swimming, climbing, and so forth. Once a character has Feats 5, they could get three more ranks in Acrobatics and two more in Endurance, and so have an 8 in Acrobatics and a 7 in Endurance (while still having 5 in any other Feats task).
Characters have the usual gamut of back story, of course, but two aspects of it have mechanical significance. A character’s profession provides points in two Domains. For example, if the character is a Scholar, they will start with a 5 in the Erudition Domain and 3 in either Science or Occultism. The character’s social class (commoner, clergy, or nobility) provides a couple more Domain points out of a list of applicable skills.
Characters by default start in their late teens, but they player may choose to have the character be older. This grants points in Domains, but comes with an equal number of Setbacks (sorry, no on in Shadows of Esteren had a happy life). The Setbacks are mostly more painful than the Domain points are beneficial, so this is not a way to min/max a character – and because it’s a random roll, it’s not (IMHO) a great way to set up plot hooks either. You can probably tell that this is a mechanic I’m not overly fond of, so my Shadows of Esteren characters shall forever start at no more than 20 years of age.
Finally, players get some experience points to spend to round on their character. These points can be used to improve Domains or Disciplines (Domains are much cheaper, so it is much easier to have some small amount of skill in everything than it is to be particularly good at something). Experience can also be spent on Advantages, or Disadvantages taken for more experience.
The basic resolution role is the applicable Way + Domain (or Discipline) + 1d10. An 11 is standard difficulty. Each Domain is by default tied to a specific Way. So, for example, a character with a high Way of Combativeness will by default be better in a fight than a character with a low Combativeness – the psychological antagonism is inherently tied to the physical skill.
Each round in combat, each character is assigned an initiative based on Speed and assumes a Fighting Attitude. Fighting Attitudes modify defense, attack, and/or initiative. Attack rolls are based on a character’s attack + 1d10 as compared to the target’s defense. The more the attack succeeds by, the more damage is dealt (modified by weapon damage and armor protection). As character’s take more damage, they will go down in condition (starting on Good and down to Agony, at which point the character is incapacitated and one tick away from dead). Being in worse condition imposes penalties on rolls, so hitting first (and hard) in combat can be a big deal.
A character has several secondary statistics that are pertinent in combat, mostly based on their Ways. A higher Creativity results in a higher Fighting Potential, which makes Fighting Attitudes more significant. Defense is based on Reason and Empathy. Speed is based on Combativeness and Empathy. Attack is essentially a skill rating, and since combat skills are based on Combativeness, so is a character’s Attack.
Psychology is also of vital importance in Shadows of Esteren, and characters have a sanity chart to go with their health tracking. Along with this, characters have several relevant secondary ratings based on their Ways (either individually in combination) – Consciousness, Instinct, and Mental Resistance. Characters can have temporary or permanent Trauma (mental damage), and will start with Trauma unless their Consciousness and Instinct are balanced. Sanity is more complicated than physical damage, with characters not only having permanent and temporary trauma, but also rules for mental hardening (representing a character becoming more detached from reality while being less susceptible to psychological shocks), mental scarring (specific behaviors that may emerge under pressure), and particular mental disorders (a characters mental disorder(s) are based on their Ways).
Characters may also be able to use traditional (Druidic-themed) magic (Ogham sigil magic), or the miracles of the Temple. Their inherent capacity for these is also based on the Ways, but also requires investment of Domain/Discipline points. As Shadows of Esteren is a low fantasy setting, these powers are not typically going to involve casting Fireball at every group of enemies in sight. Both kinds of magic are limited by the ability to recover power points. Ogham is also limited by the sigil stones the character has. The magical systems are fairly open-ended, with players being able to craft unique spells (within the limits of the character’s power).
Although treated in a philosophical manner, Magience is skill-based (albeit a skill that it hard to learn). Magience is vaguely similar to Victorian science – gas lamps, factories, better medicine, etc. But every Magience device requires a fuel of sorts, and that fuel is incredibly resource-intensive to produce.
Experience is earned for confrontations, progressing the plot, and good roleplaying. Experience can be used to increase skills (as with character creation, much more expensive for higher levels), learning new fighting techniques, increasing defense and speed ratings, or enhanced magical ability (for characters who know Ogham or can invoke the miracles of the Temple).
Contents – Prologue (Book 0)
The Prologue is about 75 pages, consisting of about 10 pages of introduction, 5 pages of basic rules, 10 pages of pregenerated characters (each with a full page of text and a full-page portrait), and 40 pages for three introductory adventures. The Prologue is the place to start if you want to learn about Shadows of Esteren, as it contains the real introduction to the game (Prologue is not simply a ‘beginner game’ whose contents are repeated in a core book).
The pregens include a varigal (messenger/traveler), a close-combat fighter, an archer, a scholar (with knowledge of Magience), an Ionnthen (a Druidic trainee who has not yet learned Ogham), and an adept (warrior) of the Temple. Neither Ogham or the miracles of the Temple are used for these characters, as the Prologue does not include those rules. All of these characters are tied together, and mostly from the same village (Melwan).
That village is tied to two of the three adventures in Prologue – Poison and Loch Varn. Poison is a fairly straightforward investigation that introduces the themes of the setting, including the clashing philosophies of the various factions and the is-it-or-isn’t-it questions of whether there’s really anything supernatural being the terrible happenings. Loch Varn is an exercise in confusion and mind-bending horror for the characters. Prologue suggests playing one of these two adventures as the first, but I come down firmly on the side of Poison. Maybe Loch Varn does a good job of really smacking the players with the setting’s themes, but I would favor starting off in the shallow end of the pool when exploring a new setting and system (that goes for both the players and the GM, as Loch Varn is going to tax the GM’s abilities as well).
The third scenario, Red Fall, is probably more a better fit for characters who are from Daerg’s Vale (such as the pregens in Book 1 Universe). It is also the weakest of the three adventures, ostensibly an investigation, but mostly just the characters walking from place to place having flashbacks of what happened. So I would suggest trying out Shadows of Esteren starting with Poison and ramping up to Loch Varn.
Contents – Universe (Book 1)
Universe is the weightiest of the Shadows of Esteren books, running around 290 pages. The first about 165 of that is setting material, character creation takes around 50 pages, and rules take up around 50 (more specifically, basic resolution is about 5, combat 5, physical health 5, mental health 10, and the remainder for Magience and the magical arts). Like Prologue, Universe has a set of six pregenerated characters (matching the six archetypes), who are associated with Daerg’s Vale.
Contents – Travels (Book 2)
Travels is an eclectic book. Note that, although it is a GM-only book, it is not a “Gamemaster’s Guide.” Rather, it is a collection of material from other sources, revised and expanded (the original book was only 80 pages). Of the almost 200 pages, the first 60 are further in-setting location descriptions, five “canvases” (adventure seeds) occupying about 15 pages, a 50-page adventure, 30 pages of NPCs (two pages per character), and a mini-bestiary occupying a dozen pages. The adventure – A Life Choice – puts the characters at the heart of a culture clash and family dispute.
The art and graphic design in of Shadows of Esteren are excellent (dare I say lavish?), well-deserving of the ENnies that it picked up on that front. There’s even a lot of variation throughout the pages, instead of a neat-looking but monotonous border on every page. Sidebars and art are strewn across the pages fully at home with the main text. The page ‘texture,’ plus the interspersing of full-color and line drawings gives the Shadows of Esteren books a distinctive feel. And it does it without a bunch of text designed to look “handwritten” so that it’s in some scrawled font I can barely read. The books do have some of what I will, for lack of a better word, call typesetting issues – uneven spacing between paragraphs as such.
On the other hand, there are some problems with the writing itself. To be incredibly blunt, the books (especially Universe) read like they were written by someone with a good theoretical knowledge of English, who wrote the books in French and then translated with heavy reliance on a thesaurus. The writing is constantly ponderous and sometimes awkward. I consider myself a reasonably erudite fellow, but there were multiple words in the books that I had to look up because I had never seen them before. I’m not saying RPGs need to be “dumbed down,” but I don’t think that most folks read RPG books like they read some dense existentialist tome. Plus, the overwrought vocabulary extended into in-character speech and writing (most of the world description in Universe, for example, is from the point of view of someone in the world). So it’s not only hard to read, but it makes it harder to immerse in the setting – a village schoolteacher talking to 6-year-olds should not have the speech patterns of a self-important Oxford English professor.
The other broad issue, which bleeds from readability into playability goes back to the ‘what sort of game are you going to play’ discussion I had at the top of this review. Book 1 Universe gives a detailed in-universe description of the peninsula and then the mechanics, but (to me) said almost nothing about the role of the characters in that universe. There’s no “your characters are a motley band of friends/mercenaries investigating the horrors of everyday life” (or however you might want to phrase it). There isn’t a lot of prefatory material in any of the books and what there is focuses on the themes and mood of the world, without really giving a sense of what sort of stories are to be told (note that even this introductory material is mostly in Prologue, while Universe jumps almost immediately into being a worldbook, so as noted above I would definitely read Book 0 before reading Book 1 – this is not one of those introductory/beginner products that contains nothing that isn’t in the core book). Now, maybe that doesn’t matter too much for the player/GM, if we assume that I have correctly sussed it out, because you (having read this review) will be spared that frustration. But I think it’s there if one is looking at the books from a readability perspective.
These readability issues make Shadows of Esteren difficult to jump into. There is a wealth of detailed information on Tri-Kazel, but it will take a dedicated GM to be able to wade through the wealth of detail and make full use of it. Not only is the text a dense, but Universe and its snippets of in-world text lack a good overview and are not well-suited for later reference by the GM.
And that’s a shame, because there is an awful lot of value to be had in those pages. Shadows of Esteren provides far more fine-grained setting detail than one usually encounters at launch in an RPG. And I like the system, especially with low-level “skills” representing general competencies, and then developing into more fine-grained training. The combat system is well-suited to the material, with blood drawn quickly and deeply – there is no taking of massive damage, quaffing of a healing potion, and then on to the next fight.
All told, Shadows of Esteren is an RPG with a unique world, with a solid system, and very pretty-looking books – but one that is significantly hampered by its unilluminating writing.
Promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy.