Shadows of Esteren – Prologue

A grim and rocky highlands, etched with snowfall. Deep shadows lurking through clawing forests. A breeze whispering of ancient times and untold secrets. Welcome to Shadows of Esteren!

Publisher: Agate Studios
Authors/Artists: Nelyhann, Bruno Laurent, Aldo “Pénombre” Pappacoda and others
Genre: Horror fantasy
Type of game: Tabletop RPG

Concepts: Shadows of Esteren takes place in a harsh land. There are no elves or dwarves – instead, it is a land where mankind has eked out a living of their own. In the harsh winter climate, famine and plague are never far away. People live in small settlements across an impenetrable peninsula, one in which living off the land is hard and doing so has forged the people to be just as hard. Perhaps the most important individuals of all are the Varigals – travelers who carry messages between the distant and remove townships. But they are not alone in the lands, because among the people live the druids – those wise men and women who commune with the spirits of nature itself, passing down ancestral wisdom from time immemorial.

In addition, pressure from outside the peninsula draws ever closer – followers and emissaries of the Temple of the One True God are not strangers to these lands. Neither are the scholars and adepts of magience, a new art of magical science who can extract minerals from the land  and use it to power great machines. And somewhere deep in the heart of Esteren, a darkness grows – a rot that can’t be seen. Creatures as sinister and unknown as anything that could be dreamed crawl ever nearer. The Feondas are entities of mystery, alien and unknowable, but  always just a breath’s away.

Sound fun? Good. In short, there’s loads that you can get stuck right into, be it exploration styles of gameplay, mysteries, political infighting and so on. The book makes no secret as to the fact that there is a lot more, and promises later revelations as to the nature of the world itself, greater depth on the factions at play,  and so on. But for now, this little PDF gives you all that you need.

Writing: The writing in Shadows of Esteren is atmospheric, prosaic and floral. At times, it verges  on being rather pretentious. It advises that you play excerpts from soundtracks ranging from Silent Hill to Braveheart, and leaves you in no doubt that the developers want to put across just how dramatic and horrific an experience that you can make this game. Some of the advice in the adventures is useful, but a lot of it is kinda on the fluff-side, like the game taking a moment to define the difference between shocking,  gruesome horror  and chilling atmospheric creep.

Despite this, the translation is fairly solid and there are relatively few gaffs – I’m fairly certain that a few of the NPCs names are reused a few times by mistake, but that’s something that a GM can shuffle around without too much difficulty. Overall the tone, although overbearing at times, is never enough to really diminish from the product as a whole.

This file comes with six pre-generated characters, including a varigal, a temple knight, a magience scholar, a trainee druid, a fighter and an archer. There’s a good mix of genders here, and many of the characters come with backstories that incorporate levels of trust in one another, and goals that connect with each other. There are so many free PDFs that don’t put that much effort into their pre-gen characters, so this is a nice treat. Many of the characters are innately connected to the three adventures, too – meaning that if you are running for fewer than six players, you may want to make sure that you have a player ready to play the character who is integral to that particular adventure!

Mechanics: Normally I’m quite hesitant to approach PDFs which offer a cut-down version of a game’s system. They often come across as being grossly simplified, or deliberately lacking. This book tries to reach a pretty decent balance with that, by providing you with just the rules that you need to handle basic actions and combat.

Please note that this PDF does not include rules on how to create your own characters, however. Nor does it contain any rules on magic. Thankfully,  none of the pre-generated characters that come with this book would require it. Actions are undertaken simply by rolling a 10-sided dice,adding your relevant score in a skill, and checking it against a target number. Quick and easy – combat works similarly, and is extremely bloody and fast.

One downside to the PDF is that so much of the character creation process has been cut to make this a quick-and-easy file to run whenever you need it. You still nevertheless find hints as to the greater system at play here – character skills tend to align to ‘Ways’, which are paths through which your characters travel. These Ways are not so much classes, but means by which your character views and interacts with the world – Combativeness, Empathy, Reason, Creativity and Conviction. As you’ll notice, each of these are nicely psychological, and you’re left wondering just how interesting your character could be.

And it’s worth noting that, as with any game with strong horror roots, you have a sanity system. In this book, it’s a little underwhelming to be honest – you’re given a rating which you can lose over the course of the game and, when you run out, your character’s psychosis comes into play. This can make for interesting gameplay if your character’s innate  psychosis is manic, or a more sombre mood if your character is melancholic. Unfortunately  as of this one PDF, this doesn’t amount to much more than advice to  roleplay these moods – they have no in-game systemic impact. At least, not yet.

Design: Well, I’ve been using the artwork throughout this review. Just look at it. The atmosphere of this game is established beautifully in the artwork. The pages of this book are lavished with texture, painted with stunning and haunting landscapes, and it all leaves you with a sense of anticipation. Full love for the artwork, in short.

Playability: The game comes with three short adventures, and they are intended to link together into a short campaign.

The first one, ‘Loch Varn’ is one that I’ll go right out on a limb and say is not a good idea to begin with. Without giving too many spoilers –  it’s a ghost story which involves heavy use of dream sequences and non-linear events. That can be great, and it has the potential and the promise to be great. But for the very first adventure? Before your players have even had a chance to get used to their characters or the world in which they inhabit? That’s a huge misstep. Thankfully, the first two adventures in this mini-campaign can actually be played in any order. ‘Loch Varn’ is decent, but I’d strongly encourage you to play it second.

‘Poison’ is the second adventure, and sees the characters tracing a pollutant that has tainted the village’s water supply. Again, without any spoilers – this adventure quickly introduces the players to many of the main themes and story elements to the universe, including magience. It also does a great deal to cement the tone and atmosphere of the setting, reminding you of the harsh desolation of the world of Esteren. This is an excellent place to start, and makes a far better starting point.

The final adventure, ‘Red Fall’ is a sturdy adventure. It takes the best elements of the previous two adventures, and builds on them to create a murder mystery adventure that sets the players right in the middle. It does occasionally require the GM to poke the players in the right direction for them to find the clues that they need, however, but the feeling of being railroaded is alleviated by a variety of ending options which are all suitably exciting and chilling.

Conclusion: I really do love Shadow of Esteren, and this book is an excellent place to begin. It is free as PDF, but even nicer to get ahold of in print. It’s a lovely setting, with a fast-and-easy system that doesn’t get in the way of the adventures, and a swath of character depth that means that you’ll quickly find yourself growing attached to your adventurers. This particular volume is the best place to begin, giving you all that you need to get a few adventures going. Despite a few hiccups in execution here and there, the book gives you all that you need to have some memorable evenings and sold me on the potential of this game. I wholeheartedly recommend it.

Concepts: 18/20 FINAL THOUGHTS: An atmospheric and chilling Lovecraftian horror game set  in an evocative dark ages type of setting, with stunning artwork and the promise of great adventures for eager players.
Writing: 17/20
Mechanics: 18/20
Design: 20/20
Playability: 18/20
FINAL SCORE: 91%
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