Inside Pulse 12

Tabletop Review: The Black Moon Handbook (Shadows of Esteren)

The Black Moon Handbook
Publisher: Studio 2 Publishing/ForgeSonges
Cost: Free (to Kickstarter Backers)/TBD (Everyone Else)
Release Date: 07/22/2015 (Kickstarter Backers)/TBD (Everyone Else)
Page Count: 75
Get it Here: Studio 2 Publishing (Eventually)

The Black Moon Handbook originally began its existence as Ghost Stories a free bonus for various Shadows of Esteren Kickstarters like Travels and The Monastery of Tuath, but eventually the project became so big that the Esteren team divided Ghost Stories into two separate works –a fiction collection entitled Hauntings (which we will review down the road) and The Black Moon Handbook, a supplement that acts as both a book for GMs to run spooky occurrences in their SoE games, and as an in-game item that PCs can find and use in their travels. You don’t see something like that very often. As such, this makes The Black Moon Handbook a bit of an experiment which succeeds and fails in very different ways.

The best part about The Black Moon Handbook is the art. Like with any Shadows of Esteren release, the art is by far the best you will see out of any gaming product in our industry. For three years running, Shadows of Esteren has picked up our “Best Art” award in our year end awards and between The Black Moon Handbook and Occultism, it’s definitely the front runner to get the award again this year. Seriously, the book’s art is that fantastic and even if you don’t plan to play Shadows of Esteren, it is worth picking up the books just for the art and stories.

The bad news is that The Black Moon Handbook is the worst written book for Shadows of Esteren so far. Hmm. Let me rephrase that. The Black Moon Handbook is the worst TRANSLATED book for Shadows of Esteren so far. If you’re new to the game or merely a casual fan of it, you might not know that Shadows of Esteren is a French game and each book is written in French and then eventually translated into the English language. All of the previous releases were fantastic. You couldn’t tell that the games were localized. With The Black Moon Handbook though, it’s really obvious. Grammar, sentence structure, phrasing and the like are all very off in the English translation. Some parts of the book are sound and actually read like they were written by someone fluent in English. Other parts read like they used Google Translate to localize the text into English. It’s very disjarring. As someone who reads, writes and speaks both English and French, I could see what the passages were trying to say, but also how whole paragraphs could have been stated/translated better. This made the book hard to read at times, and more importantly, hard to enjoy. Hell, some of the text is STILL IN FRENCH and they didn’t bother to translate things at all. In one of the adventures, an “Item of Power” has its stats and mechanics still in French. There is no English translation for it. That’s extremely sloppy and goes back to highlight how exceedingly poor the translation of The Black Moon Handbook is. So many of you that pick this supplement up will have to have Google Translate on standby if you play this adventure. Due to the lack of quality in the translation you may want to wait and pick this release up once (IF) the digital versions are corrected…or not at all for a print copy.

So now that we’ve got that big warning about the translation out of the way, let’s talk about what you will find in The Black Moon Handbook. The book is primarily written as if it was written by an in-game author, Steren Slàine, who is an occultist in the Shadows of Esteren world. As well, you will be sidebars which act and notations or critical (snide) commentary from a skeptic named Enly Mac Bedwyr. This means the topics in the book often contain two opposing viewpoints – one who believes in ghosts and one who believes only in cold, hard science. It is primarily up to the reader to decide, which author is right – if either. Well, at least until the last two pages when the book makes it abundantly clear which is right by having one of the two die horribly in a short piece of fiction that showcases their belief structure is horribly wrong.

The first chapter gives an overview of hauntings in Tri-Kazel. How they can occur, traditions, folklore, legends and spiritual beliefs. That sort of thing. Haunted houses and spectral manifestations are the bulk of the piece though as the “author” gives theories and conjecture as to how a haunting can occur and the way one can rid a location of the ghost tied to it. The book also designated a difference between a haunting and cursed place, the latter of which is a haunting that was no exorcised or where terrible things keep happening in a once mildly haunted area. You’ll find mechanics for spiritual combat, exorcisms and possession if you wish your Shadows of EsterenBlack Moon Handbook herself.

Chapter three is “Ghost Hunting” and it contains five story seeds. I can’t say that they are adventures since the pieces aren’t fully fleshed out. It’s merely the framework and guidelines for turning these pieces into adventures. A GM will have to do a lot of the work themselves, but each of these seeds are fairly straightforward and simple enough to pull off. The book does say that each seed requires little prep work which is true, as each piece should take no longer than one or two sessions to get through. Besides those scenarios, there is advice on homebrewing your own haunted adventures in Tri-Kazel, a few maps and information on education in Gwidre, which is helpful as your first potential adventure takes place in one.

“Rounding Up Stray Souls” is the first adventure and it takes place in a boarding school. One of the students has gone missing and the characters are hired to find out what happened to her. At the same time another student is starting to see her ghost and slowly but surely things begin to happen? Is the school actually haunted or is it a case of teenage imagination leading to mass hysteria amongst the students? In truth, either can be correct. The story is designed so that the GM can pick either a supernatural or mundane cause behind the events at the school – whichever fits his or her purposes better. In fact, all of the adventures on this collection, save one, give you the choice of supernatural or mundane events behind the adventures. I personally prefer the non-supernatural choices simply because they are more interesting. A bonus that comes with doing the mundane choices is that when you finally DO spring an actual ghost on the players, they’ll be so used to “Scooby-Doo” endings that they won’t be expecting a real haunting, thus making it all the more memorable. If there is one thing I have learned from decades of playing and running Call of Cthulhu is that horror games run the risk of their monsters become the equivalent of Kobolds or Orcs in D&D if you use them too much.

The second and third adventures are tied together and, in fact, really should be one piece rather than two. I’m not sure why the authors made this into two as the first one doesn’t have a real ending and the second really doesn’t work as a stand-alone. The attempts by the writers are…not good. Let’s leave it at that. ANYWAY, “The Key to the Past” sees the characters having to enter a haunted castle. Why? They have been hired to retrieve paperwork that will allow their employer to own the property and then tear it down to make way for a new road. Hey, new infrastructure and a terrible evil place gets razed. Win-win, right? Well, not for the characters who can’t leave once they enter due to the machinations of all the ghosts that dwell within. What follows is a survival horror type affair where the players have to figure out how to escape the castle. The next part, “Bloody Trail” is why the characters are released. It’s to track down the last surviving member of the clan who owned the castle in “The Key to the Past,” who is not only a NPC from Chapter Two, but also a paranoid psychotic assassin who is why all the ghosts are in the castle to begin with. Fun times as you track down this character.

“The Return of the Missing One” is the fourth adventure in this collection. Here a husband long thought dead has returned after fifteen years. He looks very different physically though. Is the answer a con man trying to play off a wealthy widow’s grief or is it that the soul of her husband has taken up residence in a new body. Again, the choice is up to the person running the adventure. This was my favorite in the collection as it’s a lot of fun and can go many different ways.

Our fifth and final adventure is “Spectral Dance.” Here the PCs have to figure out what caused a mass killing at a ballroom gala. Thirty people died at this soiree with people rumbling that a local legend, an apparition known as the WIng of Death is responsible. Was it? This adventure has a lot of detective work and in many ways feels like Call of Cthulhu adventure. It’s a lot of fun whether you go for a supernatural reason or not. The PCs will have to really work to solve this one!

Chapter Four ends the book with a “Besitary.” Here you will find the stats and ecology of four different supernatural creatures. This is pretty cut and dry. All of the creatures are fabulous and the art that goes with them….well, it’s Shadows of Esteren. There is no better art in tabletop gaming right now.

So that’s the book. The English translation can be BRUTAL at times, but the actual meat contained in the Black Moon Handbook is a lot of fun. It’s a fine supplement that just needs to be re-translated in parts. You get a nice amount of fluff, some new monsters, four or five adventures and a lot of information about the supernatural (or what passes for it) in Tri-Kazel. It’s not the best release for Shadows of Esteren so far, but if the localization can get fixed, it’s well worth picking up if you are a fan of the game.

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