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Defender (Lvl 8)
Review of Enter the Shadowside by Marco Leon
I’ve always been a huge fan of occult and horror, whether it’s movies, books, or role-playing games. When Call of Cthulhu first came out, I was ecstatic at finally being able to role-play out the plots and stories of Lovecraft, August Derleth, and other authors that I had read all during high school. Even when I GM’d other role-playing games like D&D, Traveller, and Shadowrun, I could not help but want to spice up the occasional adventure with horrors and dreadful entities plotting to destroy the heroes. For me, horror elements have a way of just creeping into adventures now and then, regardless of the genre of game I’m running for my players.
It’s not too often that I run across and RPG which is based upon pure horror and the occult, but recently a new game of this sort was published a couple months back. Enter the Shadowside is a role-playing game written by Marco Leon, which is reported to have grown out of a fantasy game and game system developed over the course of a dozen years by he and his friends. This system offers players to create a persona in a gritty modern world full of secret mystical societies, and strange occult happenings, as well as alien entities from a place called the Shadowside, which desire to “join” with the characters as spirit guide, ally, and source of great powers!
Enter the Shadowside
- Designers: Marco Leon
- Illustrators: Adam Isailovic and Jesus Garcia
- Publisher: Marco Leon
- Year: 2012
- Media: PDF (75 pages)
- Cost: $4.99 (PDF from RPGNow)
Enter the Shadowside is an indie style horror genre role-playing game in a gritty modern setting of the world. The game contains rules for character creation and character development, including a character sheet, as well as introductory background information about the Shadowside for new players. There is also material and content for the Story Host (Game Master) about running a campaign in three Acts - with specific information about Act III provided by the author.
Overall, the production quality of Enter the Shadowside is generally good, with a few downright excellent bits and a few parts that are merely fair. The material is presented in a fairly logical fashion, and the author’s writing style is edgy, witty, and enjoyable to read.
However, the layout of the PDF was somewhat problematical at times, particularly in how the text was jumping from a single column margin-to-margin style on a few pages, then into a three column which feels a bit crowded and back again with no warning – overall, it felt a bit jarring at times to the reading process. And chapter headings have a font size not greatly different than major headings within it, which made their beginnings and endings a bit dubious. While there was a table of contents, the PDF lacked bookmarks, which is always a bit frustrating when you want to navigate between major topics in the rules. And there was a spidery scroll-ish font used here and there throughout the book, and rather extensively on the character sheet and on a major Story Host reference sheet. While one could argue that the font was fairly cool looking, it was almost painful to read in small print size, and I found myself having to use hugely increased magnification on the PDF just to make out important rules.
The artwork in Enter the Shadowside ranges from fair to excellent as well, with some very creepy and awesome images expected in a horror role-playing game. The introduction to the setting of the Shadowside is accomplished with what amounts to a 16 page comic book for the first chapter of the PDF. While the storyline and dialogue are fairly edgy, and reveal some great fluff content in the game, the artwork itself was rather like a lackluster homage to Gaiman’s Sandman comic. Thankfully, the rest of the artwork in the PDF is of a bit better quality.
As mentioned before, Enter the Shadowside is a horror role-playing game, set in the “real” world where the characters have become mystically aware of an alternate dimension called the Shadowside. The Shadowside is a place of dead spirits, demon-like entities, and perhaps even elder gods, lying parallel to our own world. The player-characters join one of the secret societies with access to this powerful and often horrific realm, and have gone through an ordeal where they allow themselves to become partners with a ghost, spirit, or other entity. The process of this willing possession is called Heirogamy, and gives the character access to other-worldly power and knowledge in a variety of ways.
The character generation system is a solid mix of mainstream gaming principles with some unique indie twists along the way. There are seven principle stats – Endurance, Strength, Dexterity, Mind, Spirit, Charisma, and Life – and seven more stats that are averaged from the original seven stats – Health, Constitution, Agility, Reflexes, Awareness, Presence, and Beauty. All these are housed on the character sheet inside the shell of the World-Turtle (see character sheet diagram), and all these stats are used to perform various activities in the game, from skills to powers granted from the Shadowside “partner”.
Each character also gets a few skills, and there is no real skill listing here – it’s completely open to whatever makes sense for a person in a modern setting. For instance, a character who is a doctor might have a skill of Surgery or Diagnosis, while a police officer might chose to have Investigation. What the skills are named and how they function is a matter for the player and the Story Host to decide. The character will also start with a few items which add benefits (a tablet can add +1 to Mind, for instance), and then they are ready to begin play. Like Skills, there is no list of items in the game, and the Story Host and Player decides what would be appropriate based upon the character’s background.
The author encourages players and Story Hosts to make sure that characters have as detailed a Lifestory as possible as part of generation. There is great emphasis on role-playing and character development here, and while the lack of things like a Skill list or Item list seems puzzling at first, I honestly think that the author might have hit upon a solid mechanic to encourage creativity and role-playing over roll-playing. The lack of character classes and rigid structure also help this concept along, and allows players a lot of freedom in character creation.
Once the characters have been created, it then falls upon the Story Host to pull the plot strings, gather the player-characters together, and eventually seek out a secret society to join. The author has created several different mystical societies, each with their own goals and ways to seek power from the Shadowside, as well as possessing unique powers (spells?) that the characters can learn once they gain a spirit-ally:
- Fujin’s Blood – Asian Mafia adepts
- Malleus Diaboli – Elite Catholic Knights and Priests
- Somosa – Voodoo and underworld crime
- The Sisterhood of Salem – Wiccans and neo-pagans
- Greater Thelema Society – Rich occult ritualists
- Accelletrix – Corporate/government high-tech occultists
- SCAV3NG3R – Internet anarchists hacking the Shadowside
Most of these organizations are opposed to each other in some way or another, and their own conspiracies for achieving their ends. There are sadly only a few powers described for each secret society should a character join up and enter into Heirogamy using their methods. The author suggests that players and Story Hosts can come up with additional powers. Likewise, the spirits or entities which characters take as allies are also completely open, and there are sadly only a couple examples upon which to use as a template.
So while Enter the Shadowside is full of fluff content and plot ideas, there are some mechanics and lack of details which are a bit disconcerting. One of the more bizarre mechanics is something the author calls Jacob’s Ladder, which is used to determine target numbers for actions. It uses two vertical axes and a diagonal demarcated line, and the Story Host is supposed to use a ruler to match up the two opposing numbers and find the target number on the diagonal line (see illustration). I found this mechanic to be utterly obtuse, when so much else in the game, from powers to actions, relies on simple addition of skills and stats. Surely, a simple formula could have been found to generate a target number between two opposed numbers without relying on a sheet of paper and a ruler?
The remainder of the book contains a lot – and I mean a lot – of fluff content as well as suggestions for running the campaign in Three Acts. However, I was a bit disappointed to find very little crunch with regards to threats a character might face, entities they might have to defeat, or even NPCs which might oppose them. The PDF ends with a run-down of how the cataclysmic Act III is to be played out, but again it’s almost entirely fluff and very little crunch to go on.
Overall Score: 3.1 out of 5.0
On several levels, Enter the Shadowside comes across as a really intriguing game concept. With a wide open class-less character generations system, the game begs players to create intricate personas which can be as real as people from our own lives - save for their “possession” by an ally spirit. And the creepy premise of the Shadowside and the secret societies which operate in it are truly inspiring concepts for any Game Master to want to play with. But sadly, I was underwhelmed by the lack of crunchiness in the core game manual, particularly for the Story Host who must do a massive amount of work to create a campaign with few resources other than cool ideas and fluff. But the price of the game is quite modest, so even if it feels a bit incomplete, it might well be worth looking at as a new style of role-playing.
So until next review… I wish you Happy Gaming!
Author’s Note: This Reviewer received a complimentary copy of the product in PDF format from which the review was written.
Grade Card (Ratings 1 to 5)
- Presentation: 3.25
- - Design: 3.5 (Exceptional writing; but bizarre shifting layout and definitely needs bookmarks)
- - Illustrations: 3.0 (Good artwork overall but needed more; the introductory comic was a letdown)
- Content: 3.0
- - Crunch: 2.5 (Lacking in crunchiness overall; bizarre and unwieldy combat/skill resolution mechanic)
- - Fluff: 3.5 (Cool premise and tons of interesting and creepy fluff!)
- Value: 3.0 (Inexpensive game, but feels incomplete)
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