Shadows of Esteren: The Creepy Progeny of Gothic Horror & Medieval Fantasy

Does gritty and grim Shadows of Esteren, with its dark gothic horror elements, have what it takes to challenge classical High Fantasy fans among RPG players?

I’ve had the opportunity to review a massive amount of Role-Playing Games over the past couple of years for EN World News, and the sheer number of RPGs out there keeps me to a pretty tight schedule with only one review per week! There are plenty more games I never get a chance to read and review from all corners of the RPG community, and I daresay there are more than a few “awesome” games that miss their spotlight moment in an EN World Review column.

Case in point, in the early part of this year, I did come across a couple of 2012 RPG releases that had never come across my desk for an EN World Review, but seemed noteworthy enough to merit a closer look. One of these games was Shadows of Esteren by Agate RPG.
It was the focus of a massively successful KICKSTARTER campaign to translate it from French to English, and then release it to more gamers in the RPG community.

Currently, Agate RPG has released two books, Book-0 Prologue and Book-1 Universe, with the promise of several more books to follow. These first two releases introduce a grim realistic fantasy world which is both magic-light, and has a notable lack of pointy-eared or massively-bearded player races.

But does gritty and grim Shadows of Esteren, with its dark gothic horror elements, have what it takes to challenge classical High Fantasy fans among RPG players?

Shadows of Esteren

  • Design & Development: Nelyhann, Frédéric “Tchernopuss” Hubleur, Aldo “Pénombre” Pappacoda, Joëlle “Iris” Deschamp, Ludovic “Elenyl” Monnier-Ragaigne, and Laurent “Nico du deme de Naxos” Duquesne
  • Illustrations: Yvan “Gawain” Villeneuve (cover); (interior) Yvan “Gawain” Villeneuve, Olivier “Akae” Sanfilippo, Fred Pinson, Bruno, Revolver, Rémi “Remton” Le Capon, Nelyhann, Nicolas Jamme, and Joël Belin
  • Publisher: Agate RPG /Studio 2
  • Year: 2012
  • Media: PDF (Prologue 80 pages / Universe 290 pages)
  • Price: $4.99 for Book-0 Prologue (available from RPGNow) / $24.99 for Book-1 Universe (also available from RPGNow). Book-1 Universe in Hardbound $37.63 is available from Amazon.com

Shadows of Esteren
is a gothic-horror medieval fantasy role-playing game published by Agate RPG and Studio 2, assisted with the collective of authors and illustrators that make up ForgeSonges. Book-0 Prologue contains a brief overview of the game setting and mechanics, and includes explanations of character concepts, offering a party of up to six ready-to-play examples. Book-0 Prologue also offers a series of three interconnected adventures, which can be an introduction to the game setting and play. Book-1 Universe offers very detailed information about the Esteren setting, particularly to the lands of Tri-Kazel. Character generation, game mechanics, and spells are also presented in Book-1, along with a Sanity system for characters that have seen too many horrors in the world of Esteren.


Production Quality

The production quality of Shadows of Esteren is truly exceptional, with a visually gorgeous presentation, excellent writing, and an easy to read layout. In both books, each page is lavishly designed with a faux tome-parchment look which does not detract from the reading experience. Little imperfections appear from time to time on the parchment edge graphics which enhance the feel of the effect. The pages are glossy and thick, making page flipping quite easy.

The writing style is very engaging, particularly in Book-1 Universe, where concepts and background information are imparted by NPCs or taken from in-setting manuscripts. Book-0 Prologue is more of a matter-of-fact in style, but still a good read. Special information and notes are imparted in boxes with a parchment color and texture different than the page so that it stands out.

For navigation, there is a decent table of contents, as well as indices in both books. Book-1 Universe also sports a glossary of terms with page number references. Regretfully, I did not have the PDFs for review purposes –I had the physical copies instead – and so I do not know if there are bookmarks for quick paging.

But it is the artwork which makes Shadows of Esteren truly outstanding. The cover art is eerie and foreboding, setting the reader up for the horror theme of the game. And the interior art is both amazing and plentiful, and it feels like nearly every page has another original illustration. The artwork definitely enhances the reading experience, and almost all images were related to the content on the page.


“…a gritty, realistic world”


Shadows of Esteren
is a role-playing game which aspires to be a multi-media experience. In addition to the core game books being published, with two out and four more on the way, Shadows of Esteren offers a collection of themed music to play at sessions, and eventually, a video game. The game also has an official website for press releases and a forum. Samples of the theme music can be found on the composer’s MySpace page.

The main elements to keep in mind for the Shadows of Esteren is that the world is grim and dangerous, filled with horror, and magic is more supernatural, in that it is rare, powerful, and scary. There are no elves or dwarves or halflings, there are no magic-users casting spells every time the party gets into a bad scrape, and there are no points of light. The world of Esteren is just that dangerous. It is a world not unlike the one depicted in George R. R. Martin’s Songs of Ice and Fire series, with races and cultures of men living in a dark medieval setting, and encountering supernatural forces now and then – with predictably disastrous results.

As a setting, Esteren draws from many European Dark Ages influences. The Tri-Kazel lands, which are the focus of the campaign setting, have a significant Celtic feel for its art and culture. Beyond the sea is a place called merely the Continent, whose immigrants invaded and warred with the peoples in Tri-Kazel. Religion is a major impetus in the setting as well, with a monotheistic religion called The Temple, coming along with immigrants from the Continent, which has opposed the native Demorthén – a religion not unlike Druidism. The historical parallels are blurred a bit, but clearly present.

There is also a somewhat Steampunk-Fantasy element present in the Magientists – artificers who harvest a magical essence called Flux to work wonders and invent magical devices.
Book-1 Universe is the core rulebook and sourcebook for Shadows of Esteren. Book-0 Prologue is a handy supplement to have, but not entirely necessary to play the game. Book-1 Universe is divided into for hefty chapters, with a number of sub-sections relating to the main topic.

The first chapter deals with the peninsula of Tri-Kazel, relating history both ancient and recent, as well as the geography of the lands. There are also sections focusing on the major nations of Tri-Kazel: the Kingdom of Taol-Kaer, a city-state called Osta-Baille, the Temple dominated theocracy of Gwidre, and Reizh which is a land strongly influenced by the Continent and the Magientists. The authors go into great detail about these lands and their history, as well as politics and society. And the knowledge of the world is imparted by way of NPCs in world holding discourse, or from texts and manuscripts of Esteren. This method of writing is rather engaging, and makes a story-quilt of the content, rather than a list of historical and political facts.

The cartography of Tri-Kazel is detailed here as well, and the map of these lands is truly gorgeous. I should note that the setting is quite small compared to other fantasy settings, with the entire map of the peninsula comprising only about 250 miles by 250 miles in size. There are advantages to having an “intimate” setting, such as allowing the players to integrate themselves into such a world. There is also a detailed gazetteer describing many features and strange locales on the peninsula of Tri-Kazel.

One important sub-section in this chapter was the discussion of the Feond (pl. Feondas) who are the “bad guys” of the setting, and these are creatures of horror, pure and simple. They are monsters which might resemble animals, plants, or people, but are comprised of earth, stone, flesh, or vegetation – and sometimes all of that put together. They can sometimes appear as hybrids of multiple creatures put together, and are terrifying to behold. Utterly alien, evil, and murderous, the Feondas are a constant threat to Tri-Kazel life, and to the inhabitants of the Continent.

Lifestyle
is discussed in amazing detail in the second chapter, spanning almost fifty pages of content in Book-1 Universe. The chapter is divided into sub-sections describing customs, crafting, food and famines, giving a run-down of daily life from birth to death for the inhabitants of Tri-Kazel. The authors also discuss architecture of various communities, as well as delve into the differences between the various societies of the nations. Currency and trade is explored here, although the barter system is the common currency in most of the peninsula.

The coinage is not the typical gold/silver/copper, but triangular coins called daols – azure, flame, and frost – named for the patterns on them. Finally, the arts are discussed in all their forms from music to painting. But there is a particular emphasis on Bards in society, who act as lore-seekers and keepers, diplomats, and adventurers. Bards are one of the character archetypes in the game, and the authors make a good case for a highly appealing persona for a player who has the gift of a silver tongue.

The third chapter in Book-1 Universe proceeds to explain various factions in the world in greater detail. In many respects, this is actually a focus on the other archetypes for characters, like the Bard. The nature of Demorthén, The Temple, and Magientists are unpacked and examined, giving players and the Leader (GM) insights into how they are played, how they interact with the world, and various sub-cultures of these groups. Additional archetypes introduced are Varigals and Hilderen Knights – the first reminded me of a cross between Tolkien’s Rangers and the Pony Express, while the Hilderen were rather like Crusader Knights. This chapter ends with some Rumors in the world about strange occurrences, supernatural forces, and groups – all rich fodder for potential adventures or a campaign.

But there are also no classes or levels in Shadows of Esteren, offering players a chance to craft the character they want to play, guided by a general archetype or profession.
The final chapter goes into the game system itself, including character creation, mechanics for combat and skill resolution, the three magical systems (Demorthén, The Temple, and Magientists), and the sanity system. Yes, your character can be presented with horrors so awful that they can have a psychotic break just like in CoC.

The character creation and skill system have some really unique elements, but at its heart is still a resolution system of a die roll + ability + skill level meeting or exceeding a target number representing difficulty, except a d10 is used instead of d20. Target numbers range from 8 (easy) to 35 (superhuman). That said, there are some very cool character mechanics at work here that are worth noting.

Rather than ability scores, characters have Ways. Ways range from 1 to 5, and define a character by their Combativeness, Creativity, Empathy, Reason, and Conviction. But the most interesting part about Ways is that they are both a positive and negative quality to them. So a character with a high Reason Way might be considered ingenious and focused, but they will also be over-cautious or prone to abstraction. The Ways are linked to various skills, but they also provide a role-playing definition for the character’s personality and habits. As a third of one’s experience points come from playing in character, Ways also provide a measure for the rest of the party and the Leader to determine who at the table is “roll-playing” instead of “role-playing”.

The skill system is also very interesting, in that it allows characters to advance in a main skill to a competent level, and then branch off into disciplines where they can excel to mastery. As an example, there is a Combativeness skill called Feats, which allow a character to perform acts of amazing physical prowess. So a character can utilize Feats for a roll in general, but might have made Acrobatics their discipline, and have a higher skill level at that than their Feat skill level.

Overall, the character generation system is quite thorough, concentrating more on creating the persona than minutiae of scores and figured characteristics. There are a good deal of role-playing related decisions to make during the process, such as professions, origins, and age – the latter actually matters, as it gives a skill bonus, but comes with a negative quality called a setback. All these, with the addition of traits from the Ways score, can allow players to create a character with a real personality right from the start.

Gear and goods for sale is also discussed in this section, including costs for services. Hazards which might befall a character or party, such as diseases and poisons, have their own sections as part of the overall game play.

Advancement is a experience-points-to-improve-X system. Skills and other character features are increased over time, and with training (spending points).

I also found the spell systems in Shadows of Esteren to be pretty cool, offering considerable diversity between the three disciplines. The Demorthén and those devoted to The Temple use a spell point system based upon certain Ways scores, and make a difficulty test to determine if the power or effect transpires – or fails. The effects they create by either summoning natural spirits or by channeling their deity’s power into miracles vary in area or targets effected and power level, which in turn requires more difficult target numbers and expense of spells points (called Rindath and Exaltation, respectively). The Magientists employ the use of artifacts, which are powered by Flux – a substance made of distilled and refined magical energy. They can extract Flux from a variety of raw materials, ranging from rocks and soil to living beings. Artifacts include items such as Energetic Gauntlets to deliver damage by electrical shock and Vision Glasses to see microscopically or grant night vision.

Sanity is a major factor in Shadows of Esteren, and can be just as dangerous to a character’s existence as a Feondas’ teeth. Certain horrific monsters or when presented with terrible events of slaughter or destruction can affect a character’s sanity inflicting mental trauma on them unless they succeed in a resistance test. Over time, this can lead to mental scarring, phobias, or even mental disorders. However, a natural roll of 10 on the die during a sanity test grants the character mental hardening, which increases their ability to resist future horrors. There are some great details on various emotional and psychological ailments in this section, and it feels well thought out and complete.

One thing that is glaringly absent is a Leader (GM) chapter in Book-1 Universe. There is scant information on running a campaign scattered throughout chapter four, but there is nothing about building an adventure or running a session. Further, there is no bestiary or monster manual of any kind, leaving Leaders in the dark about creating animals, NPC enemies, or Feondas as threats against the heroes.

But actually, that’s where Book-0 Prologue is an awfully handy accessory to accompany Book-1 Universe. While it does not have a monster manual, Book-0 has three successive adventures with an interlocking meta-story, giving Leaders a good idea how adventures and encounters might be built. And along with those adventures – Loch Varn, Poison, and Red Fall – there are encounters and some creatures and NPCs from which a Leader might extrapolate how to build their own encounters and threats. While not ideal, it is something that can make the whole thing work so that the rich setting of Shadows of Esteren has someplace to go!

Other books to be released for the Shadows of Esteren setting include:

Book-2 Travels
– which will give even more details of the setting and a bigger map. The KICKSTARTER for this book was launched yesterday, by the way.

The Monastery of Tuath
– a supplement dealing with aspects of The Temple, as well as an adventure setting.

Book-3 The Official Campaign
– a campaign arc

Book-4 Secrets
– delves into the “backstage” of the campaign setting with shocking revelations for the Leader to drop onto the unsuspecting characters


Overall Score: 4.0 out of 5.0


Final Conclusions


In the end, I can find myself forgiving Agate RPG for neglecting Leaders needs in Shadows of Esteren - because the rest of the game is just so mind-blowingly awesome! Although some of the game mechanics are similar to other RPGs I’ve played, there are a lot of new concepts put together in a very cool and very exciting ways. The character generation is fairly simple, but very in-depth, and the magic system has reasonable limits and amazing potential.

The game is role-play intensive, rewarding good players who keep in character with extra experience, but also has a flexible combat and skill resolution system that is fairly fast and easy. And the setting of Esteren is both vibrant and dark, wondrous and horrifying – a great mix of medieval fantasy, gothic horror, and maybe a few Cthulhu-esque tentacles thrown in for good measure.

While it is a definite annoyance to have to buy Book-0 along with Book-1 to get a template for adventure and encounter development, as well as monster design, the PDF price is more than reason for all that you get from the contents. Definitely worth taking a look at if you want to take your heroic fantasy to places dark and shadowy…


Author’s Note
: This Reviewer received a complimentary copy of the products from which the review was written.


Grade Card (Ratings 1 to 5)

  • Presentation: 4.75
  • - Design: 5.0 (Gorgeous book; fantastic writing; a great overall read)
  • - Illustrations: 4.5 (Creepy cover and lush interior art; excellent cartography of Tri-Kazel)
  • Content: 3.75
  • - Crunch: 3.5 (Solid rules; innovative character gen and magic; “wherefore art thy MONSTERS?”)
  • - Fluff: 4.0 (Fluff aplenty; rich world and cultures; need more Feondas lore if they are the baddies!)
  • Value: 3.5 (Awesome price on a mostly complete game; at least Book-0 is a cheap buy to add to the cost of Book-1)

Endnote: A KICKSTARTER for Book-2 Travels for Shadows of Esteren was just launched yesterday, and was completely funded in just a single day! Click here to check out the KICKSTARTER.
 

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Dragoslav

First Post
Thanks to the success of the current Book 2 Kickstarter, Book 0 is now available to the public completely free. You can grab it and check out the gorgeous art here: http://rpg.drivethrustuff.com/product/109112/Shadows-of-Esteren---Book-0-Prologue

Book 2 is a great book for GMs, since it has several short adventures, an adventure long enough for a short campaign, a bestiary with interesting creatures and NPCs, and a table of stats for mundane animals such as horses, wolves, and rats (personally, a table like that is something that I've wanted since the beginning).

With Book 1 and Book 2 together, you get everything you need as a GM to design your adventures and NPCs, as well as a ton of supplemental material on world-building (on overland travel, sailing, rumors, etc.) that is laden with potential plot hooks.

Full disclosure: I was a copy editor for Book 2.
 


BrandonHodge

First Post
If the banners weren't reminders enough, don't forget that this Shadows of Esteren Kickstarter is currently entering its last 48 hours! The rewards on this one are amazing, the atmosphere of the setting intriguing, atmospheric, and cohesive, the mechanics are solid, and the production values are out of this world. Don't miss out on this one, folks--it really is a piece of work!
 
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