Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Friday, 21 November 2014

An Esteren Companion

To date, the French RPG, Les Ombres d'Esteren or Shadows of Esteren, published by Agate RPG, remains an intriguing game. This low dark, fantasy setting with Lovecraftian overtones has been explored in just two releases in the English language—Shadows of Esteren 0-Prologue provided us with an introduction to the setting as well as a set of player characters/NPCs and three ready-to-play scenarios, while Shadows of Esteren 1-Universe presented that setting, the Tri-Kazel peninsula, in more detail. Both were beautiful books, but they also left much unsaid about the setting, in particular its secrets and the true nature of the world and the Feondas, the strange and hideous beasts that threaten the inhabitants of the peninsula. In addition, the books have their own problems. In places their writing has been obtuse, a problem that comes from their being translations of books in another language. This is not to say that the translations are poorly done, but they are not done by native English speakers and that does show in places. The other problem is the sheer density of text, typically written in character. This gives the world flavour aplenty, but it does sometimes make the setting inaccessible and details difficult to find.

The third release, Shadows of Esteren 2-Travels, suffers from similar issues, but not to the same extent. It does though, have problems of its own. Its structure heavily weighs in upon those problems. The original French version began life as two chapters—‘Cartography’ and ‘Canvasses’, but to these have been added three more chapters in the English edition of Shadows of Esteren 2-Travels. The first of these new chapters provides a full length, detailed adventure, the second gives yet more NPC/player characters, and the third some actual secrets to the setting.

Initially, the contents of ‘Cartography’, the first chapter, is difficult to digest. It consists of descriptions of different places around the Tri-Kazel peninsula. Little more than snapshots,  together they initially feel slightly incoherent, but it quickly becomes apparent that these are the reminiscences of a Varigal, one of the travellers and messengers who spread news and stories via the secret ways each apprentice learns. They are full of little details such as that narrow pass known as ‘Faol Ròd’ or ‘Wolf’s Breach is said to be haunted by a giant barbed wolf appeased every twenty years by the sacrifice of a hero or that the previous villagers of Aimliù were said to hear things upon icy winds of the sea and shied away from sunlight, which is why they were put to the sword before the War of the Temple. Eventually these reminiscences switch to providing more detail about particular places, such as the newly rebuilt city of Expiation, constructed by the Temple on the site of vile heresy  as a model of the perfect town should be, and the Carmine Chasm, a maze-like canyon uniquely home to blood red flora and known for its lamenting wind and the ‘white cross widows’, the small spiders that collectively weave great webs. These longer descriptions are more accessible, and thus for the Game Leader—the Referee in Shadows of Esteren—are much easier to bring into his game. Rounding this chapter are notes the geographical features of the Tri-Kazel peninsula and travelling them, including a nice guide to the ‘Stermerks’, the ideograms used by the Varigals to mark the dangers and difficulties upon the road.

Chapter 2, ‘Canvases’, presents five short adventures intended to be played in an evening or a single session. They are more like extended encounters as they do require the Game Leader to flesh them out and provide game stats for each the NPCs, which means that they are easier to adapt to a particular playing group. Unfortunately, the quintet is an uneven lot in terms of quality. They begin in uninspiring fashion, with a pair of familiar plots. In ‘Blood Feathers’, an exiled family has turned to preying on lonely and lost travellers, while in ‘The Disappearance’, the player characters fall in with the Tarish—the equivalent of the Gypsies in Shadows of Esteren—and are honour-bound to find out happened when both their companion and a beautiful girl disappear. The fourth Canvas, ‘Say it with Flowers’ is a murder mystery and again uses a rather familiar plot. This is not to say that a Game Leader could not run these three encounters well enough, but more that their plots do not evoke the game world as well as a Game Leader might like. 

Fortunately, this cannot be said of the third Canvas, ‘Night of Fright’, which finds the player characters in a village, unexpectedly and oddly alone. It is a terrific set-up and needs relatively little in the way of preparation compared to the others. The Game Leader should have plenty of fun with it and once he has run it for one group, it worth running again for another. Or indeed stealing it for another game and setting! The fifth and last Canvas, ‘The Shipwreck’ is not as fun as ‘Night of Fright’, but it does bring out much of what is interesting and unique to the setting of Shadows of Esteren—the tension between progress and tradition, and in particular , the ecological dangers of that progress. In ‘The Shipwreck’ the player characters come across a seaside village poisoned by the wreck of a Magientist ship.

The third chapter, the first of three wholly new ones to the English edition of this supplement is devoted to a single, lengthy scenario, ‘A Life Choice’.  It has the player characters hired to accompany a Magientist to reclaim her son whom she thought dead, but who was actually kidnapped by his father and taken to join what is essentially the equivalent of religious fundamentalist cult. Unsurprisingly, neither the father nor the head of the cult want the boy to go, and worse, the boy thoroughly hates his mother. There are though those within the cult that want out and are prepared to reveal its secrets, secrets that may aid the player characters in rescuing both the boy and those that want to leave. What ‘A Life Choice’ boils down to is a custody battle, and quite a meaty one at that. There is a lot of detail to the scenario and certainly plenty for the Game Leader and player alike to get their roleplaying teeth into. The initial parts of the scenario have room to expand it a little with other adventures, possibly with some of the Canvases given earlier in the book. The intent here is to turn it into a campaign of sorts, but even with the addition of those canvasses, or others of the Game Leader’s own devising, ‘A Life Choice’ is not quite long enough to be a full campaign. One issue with the scenario is that the writing is not quite as clear as it could be, so the Game Leader will need to give ‘A Life Choice’ a more careful read through than is the norm. Otherwise, this is a good, challenging scenario for all concerned.

‘Figures of Tri-Kazel’, the fourth chapter, describes and illustrates eighteen new NPCs. At least one of these appears in the previously presented chapters, but this is not followed through with the rest, though is nothing to stop the Game Leader from adding the NPCs to one location or another. The chapter also includes some details on the setting’s ‘Mysterious Powers’, in particular how they are used by some of the NPCs given earlier. Whilst useful for those NPCs, in the long term, these powers are limited in their application as just how often can a Game Leader use them in his campaign? In general though, as well designed as these NPCs are—including stats, personality, description, and associated rumour—and as beautifully illustrated as they are, they do feel out of place in Shadows of Esteren 2-Travels.

Rounding out Shadows of Esteren 2-Travels is ‘Bestiary’, the fifth chapter which presents a mini-menagerie of monsters. Stats are provided for several mundane creatures, but what will be interest to the Game Leader will be the full stats and full write-ups of ten the strange and deadly Feondas! Of course their inclusion is only to support the scenario and Canvases that appear elsewhere in the book, but they do provide us with a glimpse of the distantly forthcoming supplement, Shadows of Esteren 4-Secrets. As with the NPCs, each creature write-up includes the stats and general description. Each creature also has its own particular powers and several come with supplementary information or associated rumours. All are nicely detailed and even those that feel a little unoriginal, like the Vampire Bats, are well done and come with more flavour than they might have done in any other horror RPG. Most though are original and interesting and should test the player characters. Of course, the problem with it being a glimpse is that we are left wanting more and there is at least one more book  to come before the publication of Shadows of Esteren 4-Secrets. That wait is frustrating, more so given that no ‘real’ secrets are given away, we are not told the true nature of the Feondas, but we are least given the opportunity to examine some in detail—and a very welcome opportunity it is too...

As with the first two releases for the game, Shadows of Esteren 2-Travels is a full colour book that is beautifully illustrated. The artwork is excellent, being evocative and eerie throughout. Surprisingly, the writing is better than in the previous two supplements. It is not as dense or obtuse as in Shadows of Esteren 0-Prologue or Shadows of Esteren 1-Universe. That is primarily due to shorter pieces, especially in the snapshot descriptions of the various locations given in Chapter 1, ‘Cartography’, though not in the full scenario, ‘A Life Choice’, which as has already been mentioned, will need a careful read through before being run.

Although lacking access to the original French version of this supplement, from examining just the contents of the first two chapters of the English language version of Shadows of Esteren 2-Travels, it suggests that the original version had more of a focus. With three extra chapters, the English edition loses some of that focus and has a disparate feel to it. This is not to say that the new content is not useful or interesting. Some of it, particularly the secrets at the end of ‘Figures of Tri-Kazel’ and the  ‘Bestiary’ of chapter 5 support both the scenario outlines of ‘Canvases’ and the longer scenario that is ‘A Life Choice’. The NPCs are another matter and they do feel lost amongst the rest of the book.

Overall, Shadows of Esteren 2-Travels is more accessible than previous releases for Shadows of Esteren, but not as focused or as detailed. This makes it more of a companion supplement than one that concentrates on the single subject. It also means that there are several sections of the book that contain material that will need the Game Leader’s attention and development in order to be of full use. As to the parts of it that are good—‘Cartography’, ‘A Life Choice’, and the ‘Bestiary’, not forgetting ‘Night of Fright’ from ‘Canvasses’—they are more than worthy of a Game Leader’s attention.