Shadows of Esteren is a low, dark fantasy RPG set in a world on the edge of great change, but still looking to older traditions and still fearing that something unspoken lurks in the dark beyond man’s understanding… The setting is the Tri-Kazel peninsula, an isolated and hilly, heavily-forested spit of land cut off from the rest of the Continent. It is divided into three countries, all descended from the same tribes, but now following own their paths. Tol-Kaer adheres to the old tribal ways and the Demorthèn spiritual cults; missionaries from the Great Theocracy to the north have converted Gwidre to the Temple of the One God and adopted feudalism; whilst Reizh, fascinated by the machines and ‘toys’ of the Confederation, has taken up the science of Magience, developing and creating devices powered by ‘Flux’, an energy derived from matter itself. Although these ideologies predominate in each of the three countries, they are not exclusive to any of the three countries despite their being inherently antagonistic towards one another.
What is common to all three countries is a fear of the Feondas, an enemy that the Demorthèn consider to be the expression of death and destruction unleashed by chaotic nature spirits; the Temple see as demons; and the Magientists regard as a natural predators to be neutralised. The exact nature of Feondas remains undetermined, but all fear their predations and what their corrupting influence might turn human nature to… It is this, combined with the facts that the rules for Shadows of Esteren do not quantify or necessarily stats for the Feondas, that the rules include a solid Sanity mechanic, and that the rules possess a certain brutalism have led some to describe the RPG as at least being Lovecraftian, if not actually Cthulhu Dark Ages done right.
Shadows of Esteren 0-Prologue is the first title released for the game. It is not the full RPG, but rather an introduction to both the rules and the setting. It comes complete with a description of the setting, a discussion of its themes, an overview of the game system, six pre-generated characters, and ‘Omens’, a trilogy of three complete scenarios that serve as a prologue to the game’s overarching campaign. What strikes the reader first about Shadows of Esteren 0-Prologue is how good the book looks. Eighty pages of full colour, painted artwork that both inspires and awes the reader.
Mechanically, Shadows of Esteren is simple and straightforward, at least in 0-Prologue. The core traits of a character’s personality are defined mentally by five Ways – the Way of Combativeness, the Way of Creativity, the Way of Empathy, the Way of Reason, and the Way of Conviction. Each Way possesses Qualities and Flaws – positive and negative aspects, so for example, possible Qualities and Flaws for the Way of Combativeness include assertive, optimistic, brash, and stubborn if high a high value, but calm, level-headed, pessimistic, and sad if a low value. Each Way is valued between one and five. Similarly, Domains, the system’s broad skills, such as Craft, Close Combat, Erudition, Magience, Prayer, and Science, are also valued between one and five. Beyond a value of five, a character must specialise in one or more Disciplines, each of which is valued between six and fifteen. Thus a character might have a Domain of Close Combat 5 and a Discipline of Bastard Sword 9, meaning that his rating with a knife would be 5 and 9 with a Bastard Sword.
To undertake an action, a character totals the value of an appropriate Way, Domain, and Discipline and adds them to the roll of a ten-sided die to beat a set Difficulty Threshold – the standard being eleven. It should be noted that all six of the pre-generated characters have their values pre-totalled for ease of play. The same mechanic works with both in combat – which is short and brutal, and the Sanity system. Rolls for the latter are made with only the Game Leader – or Game Master – only knowing the Difficulty Threshold. The full rules for Sanity are not presented in Shadows of Esteren 0-Prologue, but rather presented on a case-by-case basis in the three scenarios.
To play through the three scenarios in Shadows of Esteren 0-Prologue, a total of six pre-generated characters are provided. They include a female Varigal, a courier and messenger for hire; a female warrior in training; a male spy turned archer; a male Demorthèn trainee; and a male Adept of the Temple. By playing through ‘Omens’ using these six, the intent is that the players can transition onto ‘Dearg’, the Shadows of Esteren campaign, though the Game Leader could instead have them use the characters given in Shadows of Esteren 1-Universe or have the players create their own. The six in Shadows of Esteren 0-Prologue have ties of varying strength to the region and to each other, though this need not be established before play begins of the three scenarios as if played in order as presented, they begin in media res.
‘Omens’ consists of ‘Loch Varn’, ‘Poison’, and ‘Red Fall’. Throughout, the authors use icons to highlight certain elements of particular moments and scenes – Gore, Psychology, Supernatural, and Suspense, as well as tips for the Game Leader and suggested musical cues. Many of the latter come from Of Men and Obscurities, a CD of music specifically written for use with Shadows of Esteren, but cues are given for other soundtracks also.
‘Omens’ takes place in Loch Varn’s Vale. It opens with a bang in ‘Loch Varn’, the characters under attack and unsure of where they are. The situation is intentionally unsettling for both players and characters, and the aim of the adventure is for them to uncover where they are and how they came to be there. Equally, this is not an easy scenario for the Game Leader to run and quite possibly a frustrating one because the players are not necessarily in full control of their characters. Further, as the initial scenario of the trilogy, it is probably too difficult an affair for the inexperienced Game Master. One suggestion made is that the scenarios of the trilogy be run in a different order, but this feels at odds with the intent of Shadows of Esteren 0-Prologue and certainly defuses the impact of playing ‘Loch Varn’ first.
The second and third scenarios in Shadows of Esteren 0-Prologue are shorter and more traditional affairs. ‘Poison’ sees the characters investigate an outbreak of illness that sees many of its victims sent into a murderous rage before they die. The characters are caught up in this as they investigate and there is even the possibility of their coming down with the illness and suffering its effects. ‘Poison’ is the most straight forward adventure of the trilogy, such that it works as an easier introduction to Shadows of Esteren for both the Game Leader and his players. Initially, the third and final scenario, ‘Red Fall’, feels very similar to ‘Loch Varn’, but rather than every character beginning the adventure in an unexpected situation, it is just the one. Despite the reuse of amnesia to set up a scenario, ‘Red Fall’ is a murder mystery that adds a greater complexity over ‘Poison’.
Physically, Shadows of Esteren 0-Prologue is beautifully presented. At its worst, the book reads a little oddly in places, but that is an issue with the translation. Nevertheless, it is an engaging read.
One complaint about Shadows of Esteren 0-Prologue is the lack of explanation as to its secrets and an explanation of what the Feondas actually are. Certainly there is no explanation in Shadows of Esteren 0-Prologue or indeed in the next book, Shadows of Esteren 1-Universe. Rather the explanation is saved for a later book. Some readers or Game Leaders will be disappointed by this, but for Shadows of Esteren 0-Prologue, this is not an issue. The mysteries presented here have as much explanation as is needed.
There is much pleasure to be had in Shadows of Esteren 0-Prologue. It comes from the obvious love put into its presentation, from the effort put into presenting a world in a relatively small page count, and from the triptych of scenarios that work hard to immerse the player characters in the setting. Lastly it comes in the presentation of the mysteries in Shadows of Esteren 0-Prologue, not just in the individual scenarios, but in the feel that there is more to this RPG. Atmospheric and engaging, Shadows of Esteren 0-Prologue is a well done introduction to the mysteries and setting of Shadows of Esteren.