Books 0 serves as an introduction to both the game mechanics and to the world of Shadows of Esteren. The game setting, as written, is not too different than it was described to Terrible Gamers by Clovis Fremont. Players are told that the driving forces behind Shadows of Esteren are the psychological struggles of player characters who find themselves in a dark foreboding world. Each character is pulled almost to (and sometimes just to) the point of mental collapse by competing interests, obligations, principles, and beliefs.
To mediate the internal struggles of the characters, Shadows of Estern offers a pretty simple system that starts with character creation . Character creation is linked to a semi-narrative ranking of how the character that a player is creating might go about solving everyday problems. Is the character imaginative? Does she empathize with the creatures and animals that she encounters? Is she dedicated to a set of beliefs or ideas? Or does she resort to violence when she does not get her way? The answers to these questions help to determine a character’s attributes.
Shadows of Esteren’s action resolution system is best described as a one dice system. Whenever a character attempts an action the player rolls one d10, the results of which are then added to a character’s attribute and/or skill scores. This sum is then compared to a number that corresponds with the difficulty of the task. Meeting or exceeding this difficulty score means that the character accomplishes what they had set out to do.
Book 0 of Shadows of Esteren also contains a set of three premade adventures and premade characters (should a group choose to use them) so that newly initiated players can jump right in. Terrible Gamers spent a lot of time reading through, though importantly not playing, these adventures. We like how the adventures give potential GMs all of the resources necessary to either present the story as it is written or to take the module “off of the tracks.” It is also nice to see that AGATE RPG (the French company behind Shadows of Esteren) includes recommendations to help the GM make the Shadows of Esteren adventure modules more immersive experiences.
These suggestions run the gamut from instructions on how to manage suspense to potential track selections for GMs who like to use music in their games. Terrible Gamers takes these recommendations to be in line with AGATE’s design philosophy. Shadows of Esteren is “built” to be more than just a game. It is a fantastic world that is built around a true multimedia experience. For instance, there is already a Shadows of Esteren musical score and plans for a novelization, as well as graphic novels.
While there is a lot to admire in Shadows of Esteren Book 0, both the game and the book are far from perfect. Terrible Gamers feels that Shadows of Esteren struggles at times with its own identity as a game. The game’s simple d10 game mechanic is a great example of this. While the mechanic is relatively easy to use–a single d10 roll is used for every task in the game–it fails at being “out of the way” enough to give the Shadows of Esteren a real narrative feel. This is because game, in addition to trying to be character driven, is also trying to capture the reality of life and death in a medieval setting.
Whenever the possibility exists for a character to meet with disaster, Shadows of Esteren checks to see whether or not that possibility transitions into actuality by requiring dice rolls. Even here, however, Shadows of Esteren does not quite capture the gritty grim dark feel of similar games (Warhammer Fantasy Role-play 1st and 2nd edition come to mind) already on the market. Maybe we are wrong, but we feel that one die roll game mechanics, at least ones that do not seamlessly tie in to the narrative structure of the game, make players feel more like victims of bad rolls than of the terrible reality of the game world.
Terrible Gamers noticed a number of other problems with Shadows of Esteren while reading through Book 0. The most glaring of these is the adventure modules. As we have already said, there are a lot of good things to say about Shadows of Esteren’s premade adventures. In fact, it is not the quality of the writing or the resources provided to potential GMs that are at issue. Instead, Shadows of Esteren’s game modules, at least those found in Book 0, suffered because they are far too complex for what they claim to be–a series of adventures suitable for novice GMs and players.
For example, Loch Varn, the very first adventure that appears in Shadows of Esteren Book 0, is supposed to be played as a series of disjointed out of sequence hallucinations and flashbacks scenes. It took Terrible Gamers a few read throughs of the module before we were fairly comfortable with how the story was supposed to play out. Even then, we are sure that, if we tried to run this module, things would not go as planned, and that there would be more than one instance where the GM would need to stop the action to be sure that the story was headed towards the “scripted” conclusion. Given this, we feel that the Loch Varen module is suitable only for experienced GMs. Players who are new to role-playing or GMing would be well advised, in the interests of both their sanity and enjoyment, to steer clear of this adventure.
We also are disapointed with Shadows of Esteren’s implementation of horror elements. Players are told that supernatural forces are at work in Esteren, and that these forces cause people to live in fear. Despite this, Shadows of Esteren explains that nobody knows the source or the motivations of the dark entities that prowl the night. This surprised Terrible Gamers because of the way that Shadows of Esteren’s design team tackled the struggle between three opposing understandings of the world present in their game.
It is one thing to want to leave the or elements of the game a mystery to the players, it is another thing entirely to suggest that, in this complex world with three well-defined ideologies, no one has come up with an explanation–right or wrong–for the ever present supernatural forces present in the world. We are really disappointed that Shadows of Esteren did not have competing, yet very detailed, explanations for the supernatural bits of the game.
Here is why: as examples the supernatural presence could be explained by those who follow the “old ways” as vengeful spirits of the land. Those tied to Esteren’s newest monotheistic faith could explain the paranormal as the presence of demons. And finally, those with a more scientific bent could explain the presence of the supernatural as illusion or as yet misunderstood natural phenomena. Nothing like this was present in Shadows of Esteren, and Terrible Gamers feels that the inclusion of competing explanations would actually add more of a sense of mystery and including no information at all.
Our last “criticisms” of Shadows of Esteren are minor, and in some ways it feels almost unfair to mention them at all. As we have mentioned Shadows of Esteren is being developed by a French design team and then translated into English. For the most part, the translation work is very good; however, there are some parts of the text that are a bit awkward. This awkwardness is not something that the detracts too much from the game, but it is noticeable enough to be worth a mention here. Terrible Gamers also gets the feel that Shadows of Esteren is a little cluttered at times with too many recommendations of “outside” materials related to the games genre.
Terrible Gamers does not want to give the impression that we do not like Shadows of Esteren. As we have said before, we really admire the intellectual scope of the game, and the passion with which the developers pursue the games core themes and concepts. It is also fair to say, that there is a lot of good stuff to be had in Shadows of Esteren Book 0. The game mechanics are simple and easy to learn, and a lot of thought and effort has been put in to giving players the resources needed to both play the game and to capture the “feel” of the game at each play session.
These things, however, need to be weighed against Shadows of Esteren’s negatives. As simple as the game mechanics are, they do not quite succeed at creating a game that is either gritty and realistic or narrative and character driven. In addition, players who are new to the role playing hobby need to be aware that the “introductory” adventures provided in Book 0 are overly complex, and probably difficult to run.
All of that being said, Shadows of Esteren must be doing something right. The game already has a large following and strong community in France and has gone through a number of successful kick starter campaigns aimed at launching the game in the English-speaking world. Not only that, but the genuine excitement and passion of both Shadows of Esteren’s designers and volunteers that Terrible Gamers witnessed during Gen Con 2013 cannot be dismissed.
So while, in our opinion, Shadows of Esteren is not quite “there” yet, Terrible Gamers thinks that this game has a lot of potential. We look forward to seeing the status of this game at next year’s Gen Con. You had better believe that the Shadows of Esteren booth will be one of Terrible Gamers first stops next year in Indianapolis.