Tabletop Review: Shadows of Esteren Book 0: Prologue

Shadows of Esteren Book 0: Prologue
Publisher: Studio 2 Publishing
Cost: Free (To Kickstarter Backers)/TBD (Everyone else)
Page Count: 83
Release Date: 10/16/2012 (Kickstarter Backers)/Winter 2013 (everyone else)

During the Shadows of Esteren Kickstarter, if you pledged high enough, you were entitled to a free copy of Book 0: Prologue which would act as an introduction to the system. Even better, you got the book months ahead of the general public. I purposely waited on my review of Book 1: Universe so that I could have both Shadows of Esteren reviews up in the same week. If you read that review, you know that I’m pretty impressed with the system that Shadows of Esteren uses, but that I find the world a bit too generic and shallow. Of course, the system has just started being translated into English, and only with time will we know if this is a minor complaint or an issue that plagues the franchise from beginning to end.

With Book 0: Prologue, you are getting a ten page overview of the Shadows of Estern universe and system, six premade characters to add to the ones from Book 1: Universe and three complete adventures to play through: Loch Varn, Poison, and Red Fall. That’s a pretty nice package, but until we know what Studio 2 Publishing plans to charge for either the hardcover or PDF version, I can’t say whether this will be a good deal or not. I can say that I really liked the introduction to the world/system, found one adventure to be terrible, one to be exceptional and one to be pretty good aside from one issue that I can’t believe no one caught and that is sure to be terribly confusing if you play through all of these adventures with your gaming troupe. Now, let’s take a look at what the eighty-three pages of Book 0: Prologue has to offer.

The “Origins” section of the book is an introduction to the system and world of Shadows of Esteren. It’s VERY different in style and tone from Book 1: Universe and I really liked that juxtaposition. All of the information about the world, its peoples, the culture and so on in Book 1: Universe is written in character. By a lot of different characters, each with their own outlook and opinions. I really liked that, but it did make it hard to disseminate fact from fiction or to have some base universal viewpoint. The way Book 1: Universe describes the world of SoE is going to be a little too esoteric for a chunk of gamers, and so Book 0: Prologue will be of great use to them. The information about the Tri-Kazel peninsula is written out of character in the third person, so it’s more like most RPGs where the writers are explaining both the world and system to you without any artistry of fiction intermingled with substance. Because of that, you can really see what the developers are going for in terms of mood and tone. You get that nice baseline that a lot of DMs (or “Leaders” in the Shadows of Esteren system) want in order to make a game run smoothly. Now this doesn’t mean that one way of explaining the world SoE takes place in is better than another. One gives you vivid imagery but is also vague and sometimes contradictory. The other is textbook RPG writing, which makes it easier to grasp what the writers are going for, but it also looses a bit of the uniqueness that you find with the other format. In truth, I find both compliment each other nicely. If you have trouble getting what you need from Book 1, you might be able to get it from Prologue and vice versa. Now that’s not to say you get the sheer amount of content in the Prologue that you do from Book 1, but it will be a great help to those that don’t want to read two hundred pages of fiction, and only have that as an option, in order to get a feel for the game world.

The Origins section gives you history on the world and really talks about the supernatural and psychological aspects of the game. You’ll be able to read this small section and known all the different factions, classes and cultures on the peninsula. You also get some quick start rules on the system itself, including six premade characters along with their full page gorgeous artwork. I know I mentioned this in my review of Book 1: Universe, but Shadows of Esteren has the best art I’ve seen in an RPG in years, if not decades. I haven’t been blown away by RPG art like this sine Timothy Bradstreet’s early Shadowrun and Vampire: The Masquerade work. Basically, a person can pick up Book 0: Prologue, read the rules section (but not the adventures!) and be able to walk away with enough understanding of the rules to PLAY the game with the help of a good Leader…albeit it not enough understanding to run the game itself. Think of Prologue as a very deep set of Quick Start Rules bundled with three adventures and six premade characters.

All three adventures contained in Book 0: Prologue revolve around the dangers of fossil Flux, a mysterious substances used to power scientific devices but that also can cause madness and sickness in living beings. In all three adventures it is suggested that players use the premade characters contained in either Prologue or Universe as those characters, hometowns and back story are intricately tied to the adventures. You can definitely play the adventures with characters made by the players, but if this is someone’s first experience with Shadows of Esteren, playing pre-generated characters might actually be the better choice in terms of learning how the rules – especially since SoE is more about the narrative than rolling dice.

“Loch Varn” is the first scenario and it’s by far my least favorite. I really didn’t like this at all. It’s not that the story is bad. The plot revolves around a ghost wanting revenge on those who wrong it and players having to make a tough decision between which side (the ghost or the one who murdered it when it was a mortal) is in the right. It’s how the adventure flows. “Loch Varn” involves a lot of flashbacks and blurring the line between what is dream and what is reality. It is bound to confuse players and Leaders alike…and not in a good way. Perhaps if this adventure is done by a Leader who knows the ins and outs of Shadows of Esteren AND you had players who had experience with the game under their belt, “Loch Varn” could be interesting and perhaps even fun to play through. However, for people brand new to the system, this adventure will not only fall flat on its face, but it will frustrate the entire troupe taking part and perhaps push people away from the system entirely.

There’s nothing I hate more than “It was all a dream” bits and “Loch Varn” uses this repeatedly. I get WHY, as it’s try to create a feeling of unease and make the PCs paranoid about what is real and what is not, but I’ve yet to meet anyone that likes this particular trope and to combine it with flashbacks is just going to leave newcomers to the system completely lost. “Oh you’re dead. Not really, it was a dream! OR WAS IT? Now you’re repeating the dream, but it’s in reality this time. OR IS IT?” Yuck. A good intro adventure should be somewhat simple and be a learning experience in terms of mechanics and the system’s world. “Loch Varn” just doesn’t do anything that an intro adventure should. Worse yet, the Leader will have to spend hours pretty much crafting this adventure into a very linear affair to make it work properly for newcomers and at that point, “Loch Varn” will be like roleplaying a visual novel. So this is definitely one adventure I would warn newcomers to steer the hell away from until both they and the people they are playing Shadows of Esteren really know what they are doing. Otherwise it’s like dropping Tomb of Horrors on someone whose only roleplaying experience has been linear turn based JRPGs.

Thankfully the second adventure in this package, “Poison,” is a PERFECT adventure for newcomers to Shadows of Esteren, be they player or Leader. You have a simple premise, players will have to flex their might and their minds to overcome obstacles and solve the problems and every aspect of the system gets a workout, but not so much that new players and Leaders become confused or have to look up how to do a particular ruling. The adventure definitely has a specific line of progress, but it never feels like it’s on-rails, so players have room to explore and try things out without feeling like they are holding up the story. It’s a good story too. The village of many (or all) of the PCs is plagued by a terrible sickness that wracks the sanity and flesh of those afflicted. Players have to figure out what is the cause of the disease and then try to find some way to stop it. There are lots of red herrings to keep the players guessing and the end battle gives you an option between a more mundane climax or one that leans to the supernatural/sci-fi. My advice is to take the more mundane one. It works better and it’s more realistic. You can even have a more depressing ending where, if the players don’t solve the mystery, the village erupts into pure chaos with the sick and diseased becoming completely psychotic, attacking anything living in their path. What I love most about this adventure is that it is horrific in terms of seeing friends, family and acquaintances becoming sick from an unknown malady, but the end result is never “a wizard did it” or something you’d see in a high fantasy game. No matter which climax you pick, the source of the poisoning and why it occurred it completely grounded in reality. This is definitely my favorite of the adventures and one I’d highly recommend to anyone who wants to play Shadows of Esteren. You won’t get a better feel for the system or the mood SoE is trying to express than right here.

The final adventure in Prologue is “Red Fall.” The one major problem I had with this adventure was that a major character that this entire adventure revolves around, Herven, has the same exact name as a major character which is integral to “Poison.” They are not the same character though and this will only serve to confuse players, especially as all three adventures in this book are meant to be played as a min-campaign of sorts. How hard is it to come up with a different name, especially for two very important characters in two very different adventures? This is just sloppy and I can’t believe no one involved with the editing process didn’t catch this. Thankfully this is an easy fix: CHANGE THE NAME OF ONE OF THE HERVENS! Still the sloppiness here has me a bit worried about the quality of things to come.

Aside from this one issue, “Red Fall” is a pretty good adventure, albeit it one that uses two very common tropes: amnesia and murder mystery. The marks the second adventure in this collection that uses amnesia as a core plot point to force PCs down the path the adventure wants them to take; the first being parts of “Loch Varn.” It bothers me that the same trope is used in two of the three introductory adventures as amnesia is up there with “it was all a dream” as something I tend to detest…and I know I’m not the only one. The murder mystery part is done especially well though as one of the PC wakes up by a lake, badly injured with the half eaten corpse of Herven beside him. He, and the other PCs have to figure out who killed Herven and why. The truth behind who killed him and why is somewhat unexpected (although a bit reminiscent of the old “WWE Higher Power” angle, if you get the reference) and that only leads to a bigger mystery that the PCs have to solve. The adventure does have a weird subplot about child abuse that the PCs and their players may never discover, but Leaders will find it an important plot point and help in the characterization of several NPCs and also in framing how the story unfolds. This is another adventure where the PCs might never discover the truth behind the murder or the bigger mystery behind that, leading to a definite interaction with the “supernatural.” I put supernatural in quotes even though the adventure itself does not, because once again, what happens here feels more sci-fi than mystical. That’s one of the things I like about Shadows of Esteren though. There’s the constant vibe of “Is it magic or science?” throughout nearly every aspect of the game. I’d definitely give “Red Fall” a thumb’s up. It’s not as good as “Poison,” but it is worlds better than “Loch Varn.”

So overall, I’m quite happy with Book 0: Prologue. I’m really digging Shadows of Esteren so far. I enjoyed the world and rules overview and I’m always blown away by the art. I have mixed feeling on the adventures. One was great, one was pretty good and one was not something I would ever recommend the use of unless everyone involved was well-versed in the system…which obviously isn’t going to happen stateside for quite some time. I’m a little worried about the overuse of memory loss as a plot hook, but I do like the constant use of mystery in each adventure and the need for characters to think their way out of situations first and foremost. Too many fantasy games, low OR high, are almost purely combat oriented and I want story when I play a tabletop RPG. If all I wanted was mindless killing, then I have plenty of video games to let me do that. I’m hoping that with further published adventures, we’ll see something else used to hook players into participating. Still, two out of three adventures are well worth experiencing and the overview bit is wonderfully done. If you pick up Book 1: Universe, you’ll want to pick up Book 0: Prologue as well, simply because of how useful a budding SoE Leader will find it.

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