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Monday, 8 May 2017

An Esteren Esoterica

The Black Moon Handbook is fifth book to be released in English for the French RPG, Les Ombres d’Esteren or Shadows of Esteren, published by Agate RPG. What stands out about this roleplaying game is its art—every book appears in full colour and is superbly illustrated, but there is more to it than just its art, stunning as it is. Introduced in Shadows of Esteren 0-Prologue, the roleplaying game is a low dark, fantasy setting with Lovecraftian overtones, the core rules being presented in Shadows of Esteren 1-Universe, a gazetteer of the setting and several scenarios in Shadows of Esteren 2-Travels, and a full length scenario in The Monastery of Tuath. The Black Moon Handbook focuses upon the one subject and supports it with several scenarios, a bestiary, and more. Its subject matter is ghosts and hauntings.

Originally, The Black Moon Handbook began life as Ghost Stories, a stretch goal for the Shadows of Esteren 2-Travels kickstarter which would be divided into two books. The Black Moon Handbook is one, the other is Hauntings, a collection of short stories set in Esteren. At its most basic, The Black Moon Handbook presents an examination of ghosts and hauntings in the Tri-Kazel peninsula, but it is actually a bit more than that. It is actually an examination of ghosts and hauntings in the Tri-Kazel peninsula plus commentary, supporting this with detailed write-ups of four figure associated with hauntings, several examples of hauntings and ghosts, detailed descriptions of four common ghosts, and more. Where the slim book is clever is in the way that the material is presented. On the one level, it presents information about ghosts and hauntings so that the GM can add them to his game—or not, as some of the options in the scenarios attest—but on another, it presents this information in a such way that The Black Moon Handbook is itself is an in-game artefact which the GM can give to the players and their characters. Once they have played through the book’s scenarios that is. In the book, the information is presented by Steren Slàine, an occultist and ghost hunter who it is implied is a wanted woman for her having distributed The Black Moon Handbook and its heretical content. Throughout though, both the author and her information are commented and debunked in a commentary written from a scientific standpoint by the Alienist, Enyl Mc Bedwyr. This gives the book both a pleasing balance and a pleasing sense of verisimilitude and the reader is left to make his mind up as to the existence of ghosts in Esteren. That is until the very final pages of the book when the differences of opinion are confirmed one way or another...

The book opens with ‘Haunting Phenomena in Tri-Kazel’ which looks at ghosts and ghostly phenomena on peninsula, how and where they might manifest, and how they can be exorcised, and how the Demorthèn and the Temple approach such incidents. What Steren Slàine suggests is that hauntings commonly occur in two locations. One is the haunted house, where great misfortune or suffering has occurred, the other is the cursed place, where even greater misfortune or suffering has occurred, whether in one incident or over the course of time. Haunted houses tend to be relatively small locations, but suggested cursed places include prisons and places of great battle. Ghosts might be anchored to a location or building, or to an object as ‘object of power’, but they might also be capable of possessing the bodies of the living, sometimes at the cost of the host’s very soul. Ghosts tend to exhibit strong emotions—regret, remorse, desire, yearning, and so on—and often have unfulfilled needs or desires that if addressed may allay their haunting activities. In some hauntings, addressing such unfulfilled needs may not be possible and an exorcism is required. This may involve an Occultist engaging in spiritual combat with the ghost—and rules are included for this—but flames can often be used to destroy or drive out a ghost. This though is not guaranteed method, the danger being that a ghost may still return, let alone the fact that the authorities frown on the indiscriminate use of fire to destroy property.

Included amongst these descriptions of ghostly types and hauntings are descriptions of typical signs of their manifestation. These are nightmares, the cold, drafts of air, shadows, and reflections in mirrors. Variations upon each provide the Leader—as the Game Master is known in Shadows of Esteren—with elements that he can use to build atmosphere and direct the story, whether ghosts and hauntings exist in the Tri-Kazel peninsula or not. Answering this question lies at the heart of the debate in The Black Moon Handbook between Steren Slàine and Enyl Mc Bedwyr. Although the supplement itself does eventually give an answer, the Leader is free to decide whether or not they do, being provided with the means to support his decision either way. What this also means is that the Leader can run scenarios with or without actual ghosts and hauntings, but still using these atmospheric elements. The scenarios without are pretty much akin to episodes of Scooby Doo or perhaps U1 Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, the first scenario for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons from TSR (UK). This enables the Leader to sow the seeds of doubt in the minds of the player characters as to the existence of ghosts and hauntings, and then, in a bait and switch, have them encounter an actual haunting or ghost!

‘Figures’ presents five individuals of note, connected to either The Black Moon Handbook or the scenarios presented in the next chapter. Thus they include both Steren Slàine and Enyl Mc Bedwyr, as well as a Varigal haunted by her past, a tortured assassin, a witch hunter, and a reckless knight seeking to restore his family fortunes. As with other books for Shadows of Esteren, these five NPCs are each accorded a full write-up and a full-page illustration.

‘Ghost Hunting’ provides the Leader with five examples of possible hauntings and ghost sightings across the Tri-Kazel peninsula. These are not scenarios in the traditional roleplaying game sense, but shorter affairs designed to be played in one or two sessions that come as detailed outlines rather than fully presented ready-to-play scenarios and so can be run with the minimum of preparation. The first scenario is ‘Rounding Up Stray Souls’ and is set at boarding school for rebellious children in the kingdom of Gwidre where salvation of sinners is sought through education and reeducation. When the adventurers are visiting the school, the headmaster asks them to look for a teenaged girl who has gone missing. In the wake of her disappearance and subsequent discovery washed ashore on the beach below the school, another pupil begins claiming that she keeps seeing the deceased girl’s ghost. Then more and more of the pupils do, so the question is, is the school really being haunted or has it fallen prey to a case of mass hysteria, what the supplement terms a ‘collective fear’. This is the first of the scenarios to offer both the mundane and the outré options and to be honest, the outré option is often not as interesting as the mundane option. In some cases the mundane option is more challenging in terms of roleplaying rather than ‘roll playing’.

‘The Key to the Past’ and ‘Bloody Trail’ are the second and third canvasses and are so closely connected that arguably, they should one scenario rather than two. In ‘The Key to the Past’ the player characters are hired to retrieve documents from a castle whose family were all tragically slain. The castle is said to be haunted and if the documents can be retrieved, ownership can be claimed and it can then be knocked down, destroying a bleak site and having a road built in its stead. What at first seems a simple task escalates into survival horror as the player characters are trapped in the mist enshrouded castle and forced to deal with the consequences of previous events in the castle. Both ‘The Key to the Past’ and ‘Bloody Trail’ make extensive use of the NPCs and monsters given elsewhere in the supplement, with the player characters having to go after the NPC responsible in the second part. ‘Bloody Trail’ is much more straightforward than ‘The Key to the Past’ and not quite as interesting.

The fourth scenario is ‘The Return of the Missing One’ deals with long aftermath of a terrible clash between mankind and the dread Feondas known as ‘The Buried Battle’. A husband long thought to have died in the battle has returned after some fifteen years, much to the delight of his widow. The question at the heart of this canvas is whether this returned man—who does not look all that much like her husband—really is her husband returned from death in another’s body or a con man working to take advantage of the wealthy widow’s grief? This is a nicely down character piece. It is followed by the fifth and final canvas, ‘Spectral Dance’, which unlike the previous four canvasses, takes place in an urban area. Thirty people, attendees at a private event, have all been found dead and it is thought that they were struck down by a local legend, the Wing of Death. Again, the line between the mundane and the outré  is easily delineated here and much like the earlier ‘Rounding Up Stray Souls’, this is an easy scenario for the Leader between the mundane and the outré options. It ends the quintet of canvases on a solidly entertaining note.

The ‘Bestiary’ contains just four entries, all of which appear in the preceding canvases. Three are new monsters. The Bodysnatcher is a ghost that enters the body of the living to possess them at the cost the original personality—either to subdue it or destroy it; the Claws of Limbo is a fog-borne entity that attacks its victims physically and mentally, which might be one of the Feondas or not; and the Anchored Ghost is a spirit which can be a place or a traditional ghost. The fourth entry is a detailed NPC, Joderine, who appears in the canvas, ‘Key to the Past’. She is the most difficult to use outside of the scenario in which she appears, but as an almost Rusalka-like thing, the Leader should be able to adapt her to a situation or scenario of his own design. Overall, this is a reasonable mix of new creatures, all four of which quite restrained what they are capable of, at least mechanically. In storytelling terms, they have a lot of potential though, especially in building upon the atmospheric elements presented in ‘Haunting Phenomena in Tri-Kazel’. Again, just like the five NPCs in ‘Figures’, these monsters are given a full page write-up and a full page, full colour illustration.

Physically, The Black Moon Handbook is a beautiful book. As with other Shadows of Esteren titles, The Black Moon Handbook is engagingly laid out and rich in full colour detail and artwork. The artwork is simply fantastic and show just how much effort goes into this RPG. The cartography is also very good and this is one of the few supplements for the RPG where the maps have been allowed to shine. Unfortunately, the writing is not as clean and tidy as it could be, the translation and localisation not quite as smooth as it could be. Another issue is the tone of the annotations from the pen of the Alienist, Enyl Mc Bedwyr, which is more disparaging and sneering without being constructive or helpful. If was that would have better countered the in-game author’s writings and perhaps better supported the mundane option.

It is entirely up to the Leader whether or not ghosts and hauntings exist in his Tri-Kazel peninsula. The joy of The Black Moon Handbook is that its content can be used either way, to run scenarios in which there no ghosts, but simply a strong belief in them or scenarios in which the beliefs are vindicated. Or for greater effect, be run to instil a sense of complacency into the player characters as the existence of ghosts using the mundane option, then shake their beliefs with a real haunting! Either way, The Black Moon Handbook is really only an optional supplement for use with Shadows of Esteren, but exactly what the Leader needs if he wants to bring ghosts and hauntings into his game—whether they are real or not...


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Agate RPG and Shadows of Esteren will have a stand at UK Games Expo, which will take place between June 2nd and June 4th, 2017 at Birmingham NEC. This is the world’s fourth largest gaming convention and the biggest in the United Kingdom.