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

Sunday 10 March 2024

An Esteren Engagement

It has been over a decade since the first release for Les Ombres d’Esteren or Shadows of Esteren, in English. That was Shadows of Esteren 0-Prologue, which provided us with an introduction to this low dark, humancentric fantasy setting with Lovecraftian undertones, as well as a set of player characters/NPCs and three ready-to-play scenarios. The English-speaking hobby was fascinated by this French roleplaying game with its themes of tradition versus modernity, science and industrialisation versus faith, and monotheism versus spiritualism, as well as captivated by its artwork which looked like nothing then being published. Shadows of Esteren 0-Prologue itself was subsequently made available for free to download. However, since the publication of Shadows of Esteren 0-Prologue in 2011 and its release in English in 2012, releases from the publisher, Studio AGATE , have been slow to appear. Shadows of Esteren 1-Universe introduced its setting of Tri-Kazel peninsula in more detail, introducing properly the three nations of the region—Tol-Kaer with its old tribal ways and Demorthèn spiritual cults; Gwidre which has been converted to the Temple of the One God by missionaries from the Great Theocracy from the rest of the continent to the north and adopted feudalism; and Reizh, which has taken up the science of Magience, developing and creating devices, machines, and ‘toys’ powered by ‘Flux’, an energy derived from matter itself, though not without its cost to the environment and land itself. It also provided rules for character generation and is also available as a ‘Pay What You Want’ title. The third release, Shadows of Esteren 2-Travels expanded the setting from an in-character point-of-view, as well as several ‘canvases’ or short scenarios, a longer scenario, and more NPCs as well as a bestiary. Together, these three releases form the core of Shadows of Esteren and they underpin the sixth release, Shadows of Esteren 3-Dearg.

Shadows of Esteren 3-Dearg – Volume 1 is the first part of the campaign for Shadows of Esteren. It is a highly structured campaign, specifically built around the themes of Love, Ethics, Guilt, and Adoption, which will in turn will be explored by one of the players and their character, supported by a combination of NPCs played by the Game Leader and what would otherwise be NPCs played by the other players. This together with the detailed set-up requirements—in comparison to other campaigns—makes Shadows of Esteren 3-Dearg a more demanding campaign than those other campaigns. Although it suggested that parts of the campaign can be played through in a single session or so, really every part of the campaign deserves more time and attention given its thematic and emotional depths. This includes expanding the campaign with extra content. The scenarios in Shadows of Esteren 0-Prologue can serve as prequel and The Monastery of Tuath can be added too as it further details an NPC important to the campaign. In terms of requirements, ideally, Shadows of Esteren 3-Dearg – Volume 1 should be played through by at least four players as well as the Game Leader. This enables the Game Leader and her players to explore the campaign’s four themes, each of which corresponds to a particular archetype found in Shadows of Esteren 1-Universe. These are Eoghan, a Warrior whose theme is Love; Finn, a Magientist whose theme is Ethics; Adeliane, the Demorthèn whose theme is Guilt; and Joris, a Theologian whose theme is Adoption. This part of the campaign also has four secondary narrative arcs—Ambition, Origins, Regret, Vengeance—but does not specifically focus on them or their associated archetype to be found in Shadows of Esteren 1-Universe. Although the campaign works best with these pre-generated Player Characters, there is advice for the Game Leader should a player want to play a different character type or want to roleplay against the associated theme and its narrative. This has the side effect of increasing the preparation time for the Game Leader.

Shadows of Esteren 3-Dearg – Volume 1’s themes are explored in a new type of scenario called a ‘Focus’. In Shadows of Esteren 3-Dearg – Volume 1, these are used to delve deep into the motivations, history, and relationships of an individual Player Character, essentially portraying and examining key scenes in his life. A Focus can also be used to explore different aspects of an ongoing adventure. Whilst each of the four Focuses in Shadows of Esteren 3-Dearg – Volume 1 concentrates on one particular Player Character, the other players will take the roles of NPC involved in that Focus and they will earn Experience Points for their own characters, though not as much. Mechanically, playing through a Focus will grant a Player Character both Experience Points and points in Determination. Points in Determination, together with his Passion, set the value of a new Player Character aspect introduced in Shadows of Esteren 3-Dearg – Volume 1, Drive. Drive measures a Player Character’s engagement with both the theme of his Focus and what matters to him, the higher it is, the more likely the Player Character is to act impulsively when following the Drive. A Player Character will also earn further Experience Points and even extra Advantages depending upon the value of his Determination.

There is advice in Shadows of Esteren 3-Dearg – Volume 1 for the Game Leader on running a Focus. This covers portraying NPCs, adapting existing Player Characters to the campaign, and both the opportunities and difficulties of running them. The advice is excellent, but ultimately, most of the difficulties can be avoided by players being prepared to buy into the demands of the campaign’s set-up and play style. That said, the preparation time required to set up the players with the NPCs needed for a Focus that is not for their character is more than a normal scenario requires. It should be noted that Shadows of Esteren 3-Dearg – Volume 2 will explore two further Focuses. The four Focuses in Shadows of Esteren 3-Dearg – Volume 1 can be run in any order, although a very ambitious and organised Game Leader could actually work with her players to switch back and forth between the various scenes in the four rather than playing through them in linear fashion. Either way, since NPCs can appear in more than one Focus, this is effectively troupe play and the Game Leader best work through the huge cast of characters to work out which players should be roleplaying which NPC and which Focus in order to be consistent.

Shadows of Esteren 3-Dearg – Volume 1 begins by presenting ‘The Vale of Dearg’, the setting for the bulk of the campaign. This details the various locations and factions plus NPCs, throughout the valley, in particular the village of Dearg and the Black Feathers, a gang of bandits plaguing the region that will grow to become a destabilising threat over the course of the campaign. There are rules too for hostile weather as much of the campaign takes place during winter, and also for ‘Advanced Character Generation’. This adds further steps to the process, including giving a Player Character ties to his native or adoptive homeland, Drive as detailed above, a Narrative Arc, and Relationships. Of these, Narrative Arcs are actually tied to both player and his character so that if the character dies, the new one with continue the narrative Arc. This is designed to get the new Player Character involved without any complications. There is a guide for the Game Leader on creating Narrative Arcs in Shadow of Esteren, but in Shadows of Esteren 3-Dearg – Volume 1, they are primarily explored in its four Focuses.

Another aspect of Shadows of Esteren 3-Dearg – Volume 1 which the Game leader, and her players in particular, will need to buy into, is the horror within its story and the way in which it can affect their characters’ emotions and lead to a loss of control. There are points within the campaign—and the Focuses especially—where the Game Leader is expected to suggest, even indicate how a Player Character is feeling. In play, this can be handled through roleplaying means or mechanical means as best fits the player’s style, but again, this requires the agreement of the player to allow this and marks Shadows of Esteren 3-Dearg – Volume 1 as being very different in comparison to other campaigns. Again though, there is good advice on handling all of this.

The four Focuses form the second and middle part of Shadows of Esteren 3-Dearg – Volume 1. The first ‘Gaol: Of Love and Fury’, explores the theme of Love as an unrequited love triangle is formed between the Player Character, Eoghan, his rival-then friend, Mael Mac Govrian, and a local girl, Céliane. She falls in love with Mael Mac Govrian and Eoghan goes away for military training in a neighbouring Dukedom. Eoghan will also encounter the activities of the Black Feathers. The theme in ‘Modhannan: A Better World’ is Ethics, as Finn runs away from the Vale of Dearg to study in Reizh to become a Magientist, but field assignments in disputed territory will lead to him facing the first of several dilemmas. Joris, a Theologian, is the protagonist of ‘Mac Thogail: The Legacy of the Rose’, who comes to question both his faith and his origins, the latter being the Focus’ theme of Adoption, as he works towards becoming a member of the clergy. There are hints too of heresy linking in the background in this Focus. Lastly, in ‘Coir: The River Child’, the Demorthèn, Adeliane, must come to terms with the Guilt she has faced throughout her life since a friend disappeared when they were children. Options are given to suggest how and why the friend disappeared, as well as the possibility that she is actually still alive. There is the suggestion that if she is dead, that her ghost might be capable of helping Adeliane, though this comes with some downsides too. All four players whose characters undergo their own Focus can expect to face dilemmas and trauma, but it is this last Focus that is the most demanding and the most harrowing, and the roleplaying skill and emotional fortitude of its player will be put to the test.

The campaign proper starts in the third and final part of Shadows of Esteren 3-Dearg – Volume 1. This moves the timeline up to date and after the events of the scenarios played through in Shadows of Esteren 0-Prologue. In effect, what that means is the four Focuses in Shadows of Esteren 3-Dearg – Volume 1 are effectively flashbacks, which some cases, will take one or more of the Player Characters to locations previously visited in Shadows of Esteren 0-Prologue, before the effects of events of the scenarios in Shadows of Esteren 0-Prologue play out. The campaign proper in Shadows of Esteren 3-Dearg – Volume 1 actually begins with its prequel, the Player Characters all together and en media res, being chased by some unnamed monster before being forced to take refuge in some tunnels in the mountains surrounding the Vale of Dearg. What they discover in the tunnels hints at things to come in the following scenario, ‘Scourge’. This takes place at the height of winter, with it being particularly cold, foggy, and snowy, and the inhabitants of the Player Characters’ home village of Dearg having to ration food due to poor harvests. They see signs of disturbance coming from the neighbouring village of Fearìl, fires and smoke, but it is too cold to travel. Then a refugee arrives, half out of his mind, and telling of the terror that befell Fearìl, then more refugees, who bring the terror with them. There are hints that something indescribable—or could it be ravenous wolves or murderous crows?—has attacked Fearìl. The Player Character whose Focus was Love will certainly want to investigate as Fearìl is where his betrothed, Céliane, lives. Investigating Fearìl will initially only reveal confusion and uncertainty, as it appears that the Black Feathers bandit gang has attacked the village as well. Some of the villagers fled to the nearby Fortress of Smiorail—where Eoghan, the Warrior whose theme and Focus is Love, did his military training—and it appears too that this has been attacked. This is intentionally confusing and it takes no little gathering of clues and investigation to determine what is behind the attacks. The final confrontation is nasty and challenging and will potentially have long lasting consequences… This, and the discovery of Céliane, unfortunately comatose, is where this part of the campaign comes to an end.

Physically, Shadows of Esteren 3-Dearg – Volume 1 is incredibly well presented. It is profusely illustrated and the artwork is superb. The maps are decent too, but the book does need a slight edit in places. The layout is notably open and easy to read, with icons used throughout to indicate important notes for the Game Leader, scenario hooks, options to include monstrous encounters or supernatural elements, key scenes, setting suggestions, and so on. Several of the setting suggestions include what music to play in particular scenes, including from Shadows of Esteren’s own soundtrack.

Ultimately, the issues with Shadows of Esteren 3-Dearg – Volume 1 are twofold. The first is that Shadows of Esteren 3-Dearg – Volume 2 is not yet available. Thus, the campaign is currently on a cliffhanger. The second is that the campaign and its Focuses and themes are demanding, not just in terms of set up and organisation, but also in terms of roleplaying and emotions. Every player is expected to roleplay both a character who will experience traumatic and difficult events as part of the character’s childhood, and numerous other NPCs who will often be present at the traumatic and difficult events of another Player Character in his Focus. Which is, of course, demanding for the Game Leader to prepare and run. It is also a campaign that works best with the pre-generated Player Characters to be found in Shadows of Esteren 0-Prologue, because despite the advice given to suggest otherwise, not using them in a campaign specifically written for them, only increases the amount of preparation required by the Game Leader. Ultimately though, if the Game Leader is prepared to undertake the effort to set the campaign up and her players are ready to accede to its demands and mature enough to handle its emotional heft, Shadows of Esteren 3-Dearg – Volume 1 will deliver a horrifying dark and disturbingly grim roleplaying experience.


The Kickstarter for the second part of the campaign, Shadows of Esteren 3-Dearg – Volume 2, can be found here.

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