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

Sunday, 29 March 2015

An Esteren Mystery

The Monastery of Tuath is the fourth book for the French RPG, Les Ombres d'Esteren or Shadows of Esteren, published by Agate RPG. What has been so pleasing about this low dark, fantasy setting with Lovecraftian overtones is that these four releases have provided both plenty of background material as scenarios that part of the RPG’s campaign. This began with the very first release, Shadows of Esteren 0-Prologue which provided us with an introduction to the setting as well as a set of player characters/NPCs and three ready-to-play scenarios and was continued with the third release, Shadows of Esteren 2-Travels, which included a set of five extended encounters—not all of them of the highest quality, but some of them very good. Now those scenarios are joined by a full length affair, The Monastery of Tuath.

Like previous books in the line, The Monastery of Tuath was funded via Kickstarter. It comes as slim, fifty-page hardback accompanied by a folder of handouts and clues, all in gorgeous full colour. The book itself is divided equally into two sections, the first providing both background material on monasteries in Esteren and the particular monastery where the contents of the second half is set. That second half is ‘Vengeful Words’, a murder mystery inspired by—what else?—Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. Now this could be terribly trite, even clichéd, both as a murder mystery and as a murder mystery in which magic and horror—Esteren of course being a dark, fantasy setting with Lovecraftian overtones—play a part, but fortunately, the authors have not only firmly based ‘Vengeful Words’ in the setting of Esteren, they have lifted it above being a cliché.

The Monastery of Tuath begins with an examination of monasteries and monastic life on the Tri-Kazel peninsula and the nation of Gwidre in particular as part of worship of the One. Essentially it covers how one can become a monk or nun—six years as an Adept before taking one's vows—and then the life and duties afterwards. The vows, and there are six of them, is where monastic life gets interesting. They include Frugality, Abstinence, Anonymity, Temperance, Abstention, and Obedience, and a newly sworn monk is expected to choose several of them to makes vows of, though not necessarily all of them as that can seem as if the monk is too ambitious, too career minded. Not very order of monks swears to the same vows, which can add a degree of politics and doctrinal interpretation to the game. Further, even when they do, the duties of the monks may mean that a monk cannot observe them all of the time—and that applies equally to religious life beyond the confines of monastic ground. So for example, members of all religious orders are expected to attend six masses per day, but the duties of a herbalist or physician may mean that he cannot attend all six and a party of Temple’s Blade knights on patrol could not interrupt their patrol to make their religious observances. Similarly, the ordinary followers of the One are expected to acknowledge the six daily masses if not strictly observe them as they go about their daily life.

As well as the title of this supplement, the ‘Monastery of Tuath’ is also a location on the Tri-Kazel peninsula and the location of the scenario, ‘Vengeful Words’. So the supplement also describes  the history, layout, and current staff and guests at the monastery. Indeed, part of the supplement’s colour fiction is devoted to that history—the story of the famous monk, Beren, canonised for his selfless healing work during a great plague. The isolation of the monastery in the Vale of Thoir and the veneration in which Saint Beren is held has meant that there is a danger of a doctrinal split as one as the monks at the Monastery of Tuath comes to favour the Saint over the One. The various NPCs at the monastery are described in some detail, especially their motivations, which are of course, vital in explain what is behind the events in ‘Vengeful Words’.

Getting to the truth of the events in ‘Vengeful Words’ is as tricky as you would imagine, with red herrings and misdirection aplenty—and that is before the Leader incorporates some of the suggested staging and gamemastering advice given in the adventure. While the Leader will need to make a careful read to keep on top of everything, the players are given help of a sort through their own efforts with a set of full colour clue cards. These come in their own little folder and add a certain verisimilitude to the play of the scenario, which should last one good session or two shorter ones. Now as solid a scenario as ‘Vengeful Words’ is, there is one issue with it. This is the fact that although it is a minor part within the larger Shadows of Esteren campaign, it takes place within this campaign’s environs and there is every danger that the player characters might go rushing off to deal with an aspect the campaign that they are neither ready to, or capable of, dealing with, and that The Monastery of Tuath does not address in any detail. Thus the Leader will needs to take care in steering his player characters away from a course of action that might get them killed.

Physically, The Monastery of Tuath is beautifully presented. Although the book needs an edit here and there, the artwork and illustrations are beautiful, fully painted pieces that are well used in the book. The scenario is well organised and again makes use of icons—‘Gore’, ‘Suspense’, ‘Psychology’, and ‘Supernatural’ to indicate its various elements as advice and important pieces of information—to help the Leader. Apart from the already mentioned issue with the scenario, one other grumble with The Monastery of Tuath is it could have included more information on the various monastic orders to be found on the Tri-Kazel peninsula.

As many scenarios as we have had for—to which ‘Vengeful Words’ is fine addition—it would be nice to have something longer and a bit meatier for both the Leader and his players to get into. The scenario also makes for an excellent destination for the player characters to be going to when the Leader runs the minor encounters to be found in Shadows of Esteren 2-Travels. Coupled with the solid source material on monasteries to be found in the other half of the book and The Monastery of Tuath is a short, if decent addition to Shadows of Esteren.