Designed and published by Agate Editions. Released September 30, 2012. Review copy provided by publisher.


Shadows of Esteren

Described as a cross between Ravenloft, Game of Thrones, and Call of Cthulhu, medieval horror tabletop RPG Shadows of Esteren is heavy – very heavy – on the lore and flavor, light on the mechanics, and perfect for those seeking a story-driven experience.

I’m a fan of horror. Movies, novels, games – you name it. But as anyone who has attempted to run a horror-themed tabletop RPG campaign can testify to, it can be difficult to pull off horror successfully, especially if the game system isn’t designed for it.

Take Dungeons & Dragons, for instance – oh, I hear you groaning already, “There are tabletop RPGs other than D&D, you know!” Yes, yes, but D&D is the golden standard that most gamers are familiar with. Outside of low levels, it becomes increasingly difficult to capture the feeling of powerlessness that is often integral to the horror experience – the system is designed as a power fantasy. But in Shadows of Esteren, you don’t take on the role of an exceptional individual predestined for greatness – you’re an average Joe trying to make your way in a harsh, unforgiving world roiled in ideological tension and the constant threat of a mysterious, supernatural terror.

This review will discuss Book 0 and Book 1 of the system – the free prologue and the main book detailing the game world and mechanics of Shadows of Esteren.

Book 0 – Prologue

Book 0 establishes Shadows of Esteren as “a medieval role-playing game with a horrific and gothic influence,” and everything about its magnificent presentation captures that spirit, from the dark and ominous cover and interior art, to the celtic-themed page decorations. With production values this top-notch, it’s difficult to believe Shadows of Esteren
is the product of an indie team.

The prologue goes on to lay out Shadows of Esteren as a low-fantasy universe, a game about discovery and investigation of occult secrets. While players will have limited access to magic, there are no wizards casually lobbing fireballs across a battlefield in this world, and magical healing is difficult to come by. The thrill of progression doesn’t lie in mechanical advancement, but in advancing through the story and learning more about the mysteries of the setting. To wit, Shadows of Esteren is not for powergamers.

The rules-light system is touted to be “intuitive,” but my group of seasoned D&D players often found itself stumbling about for rules clarifications. Part of the issue seems to be with the translation – Shadows of Esteren was initially developed in French, and while the English translation is by no means incorrect, it does tend to use esoteric words that are not part of the common vernacular – something a non-native English speaker wouldn’t realize. For instance, the game’s skill system offers a list of skills that are meant to be interpreted a little loosey-goosey, with a lot of wiggle room with respect to whether a skill applies to a given situation or not. But when your players are staring at their character sheets and see a skill called “Erudition,” it won’t be intuitive to most that this skill is, for all intents and purposes, “Knowledge.”

The other issue may simply be that our combined decades of experience in a very rules-heavy system led us to look for comparable rules in Shadows of Esteren, and often, there simply was no corresponding rule. In some ways, it was freeing – particularly in combat. Rather than play out as a miniature tactical combat game in which optimized plays must be executed with chess-like finesse, the entirety of the combat system effectively boils down to “roll to attack” – or at least, the simplified combat system that Book 0 introduces. Book 1 adds more nuanced options to this system, but the goal is to make combat a vehicle to character-driven drama, rather than the destination.

Counterintuitively, I’d posit that those who have never played a tabletop RPG would take to Shadows of Esteren‘s rules much more quickly and easily than D&D veterans. While we stumbled around, looking to see if any game mechanics covered some of the actions or situations we found ourselves in, someone without our preconceptions would be free to go with the flow – which is exactly what Shadows of Esteren encourages. I would imagine that once my gaming group would have become intimately familiar with what the rules do and do not cover, we would have been able to do the same.

The rules-light system plays into Shadows of Esteren‘s mantra of “story first.” The rules even encourage Game Leaders to forgo dice rolls or ignore mechanics if it would interrupt the flow of the story or if players are roleplaying with exceptional conviction. This focus is reflected in the order in which the books present the material: setting and lore always come before the rules.

Shadows of Esteren Monster

Shadows of Esteren‘s campaign setting is very detailed, and the Prologue gives us but a taste of what Book 1 offers. In brief, this medieval-Europe analogue – a world of humans, with no fantastical races – is divided into three kingdoms, each with their own shtick: one follows ancient, druidic traditions; one has embraced a new religion of the One God; one is an industrial nation that progresses the technologies of “magience” – a unique take on steampunk in which machines are powered by a form of portable electricity called “flux” – energy extracted from matter. While these nations aren’t directly at war, their ideological segregations ensure a nice, three-way conflict – and conflict (or drama) is the heart of storytelling.

Monsters do exist in this world, and are collectively known as “Feondas,” a word meaning “the enemy.” Little is known of them; they are an omnipresent threat lurking in the shadows but seldom seen, and their ways and thinking are completely alien to humans. In short, they are the perfect recipe for a horrific foe.

With the setting established, the prologue spends a few scant pages on explaining the basics of the system’s mechanics. Where D&D characterizes heroes in terms of ability scores like Strength and Intelligence, Shadows of Esteren uses a system of five “ways:” combativeness, creativity, empathy, reason, and conviction. Interestingly, a high or a low score in a way is neither good nor bad – it simply has associated qualities and flaws. For instance, a high rating in combativeness would mean someone is assertive and passionate, but also impulsive and stubborn. A low combativeness rating, on the other hand, could mean the person is calm and levelheaded, but also pessimistic and listless. This is perhaps my favorite aspect of the game system, because it offers so much more depth than, “I want to roll an 18 in every ability,” and it squarely puts the focus on characterization – and thus roleplay.

Thereafter, the skill system ties each of the 16 skills (or “domains”) to a Way, and each branches off into multiple “disciplines” for specialization. Combat ability is just an extension of the skill system, falling under the domains of close combat and shooting & throwing. Shadows of Esteren isn’t the first RPG to roll combat ability into its skill mechanics, but it’s perfect for a system in which combat isn’t the focus.

The health system is more realistic than D&D‘s, imposing stacking penalties as a character takes more and more damage, and armor offers damage reduction, as you would expect from more true-to-life mechanics. A sanity system plays an important part in the mechanics, with every character selecting a latent mental disorder on creation and rules governing progressive descent into madness as you lose sanity points. The system is grounded strongly in real-world psychology, which adds great depth, realism, and tremendous roleplay opportunity, but perhaps hits a little close to home for those who either suffer from or have had loved ones suffer from mental disorders. The prologue doesn’t go into details, but Book 1 discusses at length the various stages of each of the dozen disorders, and I was hit with a certain twang when I realized that the disorders of Melancholy and Elation matched the exact symptoms of someone I know who suffers from manic depression. This leaves me with mixed emotions – the roleplay opportunities that these rules and descriptions provide are terrific, but most people play RPGs as a form of escapism, and someone suffering from depression, for instance, may not want to be reminded of their struggles by either having to portray – or seeing someone else try to portray – a character with Melancholy.

With the rules established, Book 0 lays out a series of pre-made characters, with a crunch-to-fluff ratio of about one-to-five. Extensive background and personality writeups are provided, serving as a great example of what players should aim for when creating a character from scratch, detailing how a character’s Ways affect their personality.

Thereafter, the Prologue lays out three adventures – called Scenarios – to introduce players to the game and its world. The text states that there’s no specific order in which to run the scenarios, but suggests starting with the second for Game Leaders who are novice roleplayers. Not being new to roleplaying, I decided to run the scenarios in the order in which they were presented: starting with the one that is “intended for a rather experienced Game Leader.” I regret my decision.

shadows of esteren

The first scenario, titled Loch Varn, presents a “complex and horrific story” that is “centered on madness.” To put it bluntly, it’s a complete mindf***. The Inception of tabletop RPGs, this scenario will do its best to keep players confused – but the Leader has to take great care to not get confused, himself. Conceptually, I loved this scenario, but it required an inordinate amount of prep time relative to how quickly you can complete it (each of the three scenarios can be completed in a single session of a few hours), simply because the Leader needs to have a very clear understanding of the entirety of the story in order to properly convey a deliberately misleading picture to the players. Framing the difficulty of this scenario in the context of “roleplaying” was misleading – it wasn’t the roleplaying that was difficult, but keeping track of the various characters, plot, timelines, backstory, etc.

As for the players, reactions were mixed. They were confused – but that is intended. Those who didn’t like Inception didn’t like this scenario, with dramatic “whoa” moments followed by puzzled stares and subsequent laments of, “I hate this game.” What didn’t help the confusion was being overloaded with a new game system and campaign setting – the understanding of which was integral to following the plot – on top of a complex story. Those who were able to better follow along had a greater appreciation of the story and enjoyed how everything came together in the end.

The scenario offers some great roleplaying moments, quality handouts, and a delightfully “shades of grey” moral dilemma toward the end that forces the players to determine the final outcome of the story. That said, the scenario makes certain assumptions about what actions the players will take or conclusions they will come to, with one major story event hinging on a huge leap in logic that I cannot imagine any player making. Another plot point relied on at least one character in the party being able to succeed on a certain skill check – but none of the pre-made characters my players chose to run had the required skill. In both cases, I had to improvise a solution, but I wouldn’t expect a new Game Leader to be able to adroitly handle that and was disappointed that the scenario didn’t give any guidance on how to proceed past such a bottleneck.

Ultimately, Loch Varn delivers the strongest first impression of the three scenarios – but that impression isn’t exactly representative of the game as a whole, and may actually serve to turn some players off entirely. Saving this scenario for when both players and the Game Leader become more familiar with the setting would make it shine, in my opinion.

The other two scenarios are more “classic investigations,” with Scenario 2, Poison, turning out to be my favorite of the three. Whereas Loch Varn has the greatest potential, Poison takes a simple idea and executes it with finesse. “Investigation” adventures are notoriously difficult to pull off, and Poison is one of the most well-written investigations I’ve ever come across, maintaining tension and drama throughout. The scenario starts strong, plunging players into suspense and action, and offers a number of possible endings depending on player actions, with an optional twist that will finish as strong as it started.

shadows of esteren 2

The final scenario, Redfall, also suffers from having mandatory-yet-not-obvious clues that players must pick up on, and a huge assumption that the scenario makes is that one of the players will embody a male character that is susceptible to flirtation. But on the positive side, the scenario does present players with numerous options, and one of its greatest strengths is how it includes three alternative scenarios for the climax. Rather than have the players arrive just in the nick of time to save the day, or have some abridged denouement if the players are too late, Redfall presents one scenario if the players are early, one if they are right on time, and one if they are too late – and all three are equally compelling.

Each of the three scenarios has a strong start and a strong finish – in its own way. Each finds a way to move the plot along that doesn’t feel contrived. Each demonstrates better story writing than I’ve seen in most D&D adventures.

The scenarios are written in a modular manner, with optional scenes that a Leader can include to add more action, or supernatural elements, or gore, or suspense, so different groups may have slightly different experiences. Structured like a screenplay, the scenarios are divided into acts and scenes rather than “encounters,” and while the result does entail a certain degree of “railroading,” as long as the players don’t go out of their way to break the scenario, the railroading won’t be noticeable.

Overall, the scenarios offer a strong, atmospheric and story-driven experience. Leaders are encouraged to make use of evocative and sensory descriptions, and musical tracks from the likes of Silent Hill and Braveheart are suggested to accompany certain scenes for ambience. Dialogue falls somewhat short – what few scripted lines of dialogue are offered tend to feel stilted and contrived, but I’m willing to chalk that up to something lost in translation. Mechanical balance feels a little off, however, with some skill checks that seem too difficult, and only partial direction on balancing combat encounters offered.

Book 0 serves as a solid prologue and introduction to Shadows of Esteren, introducing major themes, characters, settings, and plot threads, but it can easily overload a new player. The game’s setting is rich and creates all of its lore from scratch, complete with calling its analogue to the druid a “demorthen.” I understand that the writers wanted a unique setting, but if something is, for all intents and purposes, a druid or shaman, then creating a new term is just adding needless complexity. Compound this with the great number of difficult-to-pronounce terms and names that get dropped in an adventure, some of which are similar enough to cause mixups (Jaber, Jearon, Deorn), and it becomes a lot for a player to take in at once. Even as a Leader just reading through the book, I found myself having to build a glossary to keep track of definitions, people, and places.

Book 1 – Universe

The main rulebook of Shadows of Esteren, Universe kicks off like a campaign setting book. In fact, the first 173 pages focus on lore, with the mechanics starting on page 174 – past the tome’s halfway point. The entirety of the lore section is written as a narrative, a descriptive piece of fiction that reveals elements of the world, with characters discussing elements that would normally be given a gazetteer-style treatment. It’s all very in-depth – and very text-heavy, with a huge amount of material to pore through.

Just as in Book 0, Universe is wonderfully illustrated, with stunning maps and production values that can rival the big names in the industry. An entire chapter is dedicated to the ominous Feondas, with eerie accompanying illustrations. The book offers in-depth descriptions of geography, settlements, politics, religion, customs, architecture, justice systems, factions, etc… It is one of the most comprehensive treatments I’ve ever seen a campaign setting given. There is an enormous amount of information for a Leader to absorb – so much so, that it can be intimidating.

Shadows of Esteren

Further, because all the information is presented in the form of a written narrative, it is almost impossible to look something up for a quick reference without having to scan through paragraphs in search of one line of information. Compound this with the vocabulary issues previously mentioned – the usage of more esoteric English words – and Book 1 is anything but a light read. I appreciate the focus on “story first,” but I would have liked to have seen information laid out in a more easily digestible manner.

Onto the mechanics: again, the game system encourages diceless play, and the only die you’ll ever need is a d10 (interesting that they didn’t choose the d20). The system is designed to have its rules interpreted, which I imagine can be a nightmare with a rules lawyer in the group, and was difficult for my seasoned D&D group to grow accustomed to. The system is deliberately light and intended to not be exhaustive, and we found ourselves searching for one single answer when the system wanted us to come up with any number of answers. Again, though, I suspect this system would work really well for roleplaying neophytes, and that veterans can learn to free themselves from the shackles of rigid mechanics.

Similar to other tabletop RPGs, Shadows of Esteren does not include classes, in the traditional sense. Instead, “archetypes” are presented, which are simply pre-made sets of skill selections. Players are free to select an archetype of build their own from scratch.

Character creation puts a heavy focus on background, personality, motivation, and everything you need to roleplay your character. Fluff comes before crunch, and every mechanic is subsequently followed by a description of how it manifests in roleplay. Players select ethnicity, profession, birthplace, social class, and age, and receive different bonuses depending on their choices, sometimes at the expense of a “setback,” which include mechanical penalties as well as fun things like a personal nemesis or a bad rumor that follows the character. Like Book 0, Universe offers a new and diverse set of premade characters.

Advancement comes in the form of spending XP to upgrade skills and acquire new spells, rather than a flat leveling system. At character creation, players can choose to take setbacks in exchange for additional XP, which can also be spent on gaining advantages such as extra wealth, an ally, or situational bonuses. XP is awarded for overcoming various types of challenges, including progressing through the plot, roleplaying, and combat.

Book 1 details the rest of the combat system, which still remains light enough to be fast and simple while providing just a little more depth to add variety. This comes in the form of different “fighting attitudes” you can adopt each turn, of which there are four, each allocating different bonuses and penalties to attack, defense, and speed (or “initiative” for you D&D players).

Seven pages are dedicated to prices and descriptions of equipment, goods, and services, including item rarities. The weapon offerings are deliberately not balanced mechanically, with weapons that deal the same damage having wildly different prices. Some very loose rules are offered on superior items that give bonuses – what some might call a +1 weapon, for instance – and I would have really appreciated greater mechanical depth here.

Shadows of Esteren princess

Book 1 also includes rules on diseases, drug addiction, and aging, as well as a “test” system that makes having a high Way undesirable. While a high Way benefits you during skill checks, passing a test check may mean that your high-Combativeness character may have an angry outburst during a heated debate with an important NPC. Of course, if the player roleplays the flaw of his high way, the Leader can choose to not call for a roll at all. Flawed characters make for great stories, and Shadows of Esteren knows how to bring out the roleplay value of flaws.

The system’s magic system is one I’m fond of, allowing for flexibility without burdening players with complex rules. A spell has two components: its mechanics, and its flavor. The mechanics are general rules that explain how powerful a given spell level is – ie, how many people it can affect, how much damage it can deal, how wide of an area, etc. The flavor descriptions are separate and can apply to a spell of any level, scaled according to the mechanics. The Leader can decide what flavor of spells are actually available, depending on the kind of setting he wants to run.

A whole chapter is dedicated to Magience – the magical science of Flux and the machines it powers. It includes rules on extracting flux from matter, the fun mishaps that can happen during accidents – like a burst of 1d10 acid damage to those in 1d10 yards. It also includes rules on using magientist machines or “artifacts,” as well as a list of the artifacts available, presented in a manner similar to D&D stat blocks. Some artifacts are vulnerable to things like humidity or fire, and if mishandled, can give the operator an electric shock.

As previously mentioned, the full sanity system is detailed in Book 1. One feature I quite enjoyed was what happens on a “fumbled” sanity check. Rolling a 1 not only results in sanity damage, but also imparts “scarring,” which can either manifest in the form of nightmares, a phobia, fainting spells… There are almost a dozen different types of mental scars a character can suffer, each with measurable consequences.

My greatest lament with Book 1 is that information doesn’t feel optimally organized for quick referencing. Apart from the lore chapters being difficult to parse during a session, even the crunch can have you flipping pages, wondering if there’s more to a subject than what you first found. For instance, the equipment section lists the prices of some magientist artifacts, like an “energetic gauntlet” – but what is an energetic gauntlet? To find out, you’d have to think to flip to the chapter on Magience and look it up under the list of artifacts.

Bottom line: Despite some missteps, Shadows of Esteren offers a great experience for story- and roleplay-minded gamers. Filled with imaginative ideas executed to the standards of big publishers, the game is clearly a labor of love produced by a passionate indie team – a team that could have used a cutthroat editor who would have mercilessly chiseled away at and refined their oeuvre into a masterpiece.

Recommendation: If you’re looking to immerse yourself in a rich, dark fantasy campaign setting and aren’t afraid of reading or wishy-washy rules, this game is for you. At the very least, View Forum Comments

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