Shadows of Esteren – Book 2: Travels
Publisher: Studio 2 Publishing
Cost: $15 (PDF)/$40 (Physical)/$110 (Limited Edition Physical Copy)
Page Count: 200
Release Date: 09/03/2013 (PDF for Kickstarter Backers)/November 2023 (Tentatively for physical copies and everyone else)
Get it Here: Nowhere yet…
Shadows of Esteren is a French role-playing game that hit English speaking shores hard last year. I personally was blown away by their first offering, Universe and mostly enjoyed the adventure collection, Prologue. The series has had three very successful Kickstarters, with each pulling in far more money than before. Hell, the series even went on to win three awards from us in our 2012 Tabletop Gaming Awards including Best Art, Best New Game and Best Core Rulebook. So it’s no surprise that I happily backed Book 2: Travel as I had the previous releases.
Unfortunately, I can’t say I enjoyed Travels anywhere to the same level as I did the previous two Shadows of Esteren releases. Cracks started to show in the Kickstarter campaign, which may have raised the most money yet, but it was also the most chaotic and unfocused the series has had so far – partly because it was being run in tandem with a French crowdfunding site. Another aspect that made me wonder about the quality was that the original French copy (which I have) was only ninety pages long. For this crowdfunded release, they more than doubled the pages. Was the added content going to be padding or actually relating to the original theme and material of the book? The answer is a mixed bag as the original book consisted of what was just Chapters 1 and 2 in this new English version of Travels. The new chapters include a very long adventure (possibly even a short campaign!), an entire chapter of NPCs that takes up TWENTY PERCENT of the book and a Bestiary, which finally gives the game stats for some of the monstrous creatures in the game known as Feonds. Overall though the content was far duller and drier than with the previous two releases and the book just felt slapped together patchwork style, leaving you a book that felt like a Frankenstein’s Monster content-wise. I’m glad I read it and there are some helpful items within Travels, but this is the first Shadows of Esteren release I’m actually disappointed in and I can’t say it’s worth anywhere close to the physical price tag Kickstarter backers were charged to get it.
Chapter 1 of Travels is entitled “Cartography” and along with Chapter 5 (which we will get to much later on…), it’s one of the best pieces in the book. The end of the chapter DOES feel slapped together though as the seven page section on travel mechanics and Varigal signs feels like it should be in a different, more aligned chapter. It’s sandwiched right between the huge section on various important locations in the land of Tri-Kazel and then a twelve page section on sailing and various important locations on the water. Maybe if the “Travelling” section had been put at the beginning or tail end of the chapter, things would have flown better, but where it currently sits kind of disrupts the uniformity, mood and theme of the chapter. It’s a minor quibble to be sure, but it’s an example of the layout and editing issues I have with Travels for much of the book.
The good news is that most of Chapter 1 is awesome. The writing is drier and stiffer than in previous releases, although that could be due to a different localizer/translator as it’s not this way in the French version. The content is still good though, and that’s what’s key. You get write-ups on nearly 100 locations through the game world. These are brief little bits ranging from a page to a paragraph, but each one helps to flesh out the game world, as well as provide the GM with many new places to set adventurers in. You can definitely tell the team behind the game put a lot of effort into the locations as the world seems to come alive as you read about each place. It IS hard to read this entire chapter in one setting due to the writing style and the fact this section covers a full fourth of the book, so my advice is to take this in spurts so locations and details don’t blur together. You can really tell that these fifty pages, along with the mechanics piece and the sailing are what Travels was really supposed to be about as it’s the highest quality while everything else feels shoved into the book to pad the page count. That doesn’t mean the quality of the rest of the book is bad (although some parts are less than impressive), but it does mean that the other sections don’t really create the same mood or level of awe and interest.
Chapter 2 is entitled “Canvases.” This chapter contains five short adventures meant to be played in a single gaming session. I really shouldn’t call them adventures as they aren’t very fleshed out and a lot of work is left up to the DM unlike what you’ll see in Chapter 3 and in Book 0: Prologue. These are more four page plot hooks or story starts akin to the big collections Catalyst Game Labs puts out for Shadowrun sometimes. I wouldn’t consider running these if you are new to GM’ing, but a seasoned GM, especially one very familiar with Shadows of Esteren can really make these work, helping them to not only entertain your players, but customize them for the playing style of your troupe, thus making them all the more memorable. Now the quality of the adventures ranges significantly, as some are rehashes of tropes we’ve seen a million times before like “Blood Feathers,” where you have an evil family suckering in travelers and killing them for their stuff. Blood Feathers is just extremely generic and it’s disappointing that the chapter started off with it. “The Disappearance” is extremely simple in scope, story and follow through as PCs try to figure out what happened to an NPC ally and a beautiful girl he met in the town they are currently in. It’s pretty pat and obvious how things will unfold, even to a rookie gamer, but like Blood Feathers, both work for what they are, even if they aren’t very impressive. “Night of Fright” is the third adventure in this chapter and it’s AWESOME. Players have to deal with an abandoned village that shouldn’t be abandoned. What happened to everyone and are they truly alone. This adventure has so many fun twists and is a blast to play through as a GM or PC. It’s the highlight of the chapter and by far the only spooky or horrific adventure in the chapter (or book!). “Night of Fright” is exactly the type of adventures that should be coming out for Shadows of Esteren rather than filler that could be played in any setting. Adventure Number Four is “Say it With Flowers” and it’s a simple murder mystery. Again there is little substance to this piece and it’s a pretty straightforward adventure, but the generic nature of this and some of the others is a chance to learn the mechanics of SoE so it’s not a total loss. The final adventure in this section is “The Shipwreck” and although it’s not scary or horrific, it really does capture the mood, themes and aspects that make Shadows of Esteren unique. Basically you have a flux equivalent of an Exxon-Valdez spill and the only way to clean it up is for some brave PCs to make their way through the polluted water, risking becoming contaminated and/or having to deal with a massive sea serpent. It’s brilliantly done and I really enjoyed it. So basically Chapter 2 has two really good adventures and three kind of dull generic pieces that while not bad in any way, aren’t especially good or notable either.
Chapter 3, “A Life Choice,” was espoused as one of the big selling points of the expanded English edition of Travels. This chapter is nearly fifty pages long and completely devoted to an opened ended campaign about parental rights with the climax being a very long court based custody battle. MAN THAT SOUNDS JUST INCREDIBLY EXCITING DOESN’T IT? Well, no it doesn’t. It sounds dull and boring. Well what if I add that one of the parents is a Magientist and the other is a member of a creepy cult that has their own self-sustained community in which free will is beaten and humiliated out of all who live there? Now it gets a little more interesting. What about if the cult engages in a regular human sacrifice and the sacrifice begs the PCs to save her, even if that means risking their client getting their child back – a child that hates them and doesn’t want to be with them due to the brainwashing lifestyle of the cult? Now it might start to get interesting and creepy for some of you. Yes, the adventure is mostly talking heads so for those of you that like dice chucking and hack and slash dungeon crawls, “A Life Choice” is definitely NOT up your alley. For those that really want to flex their roleplaying muscles though, “A Life Choice” might be a fun adventure, although I have to admit I’m one of those gamers that doesn’t mind talking in character for long stretches with other players with nary a die roll, but I just couldn’t get into this adventure. Sure the cult aspect of the village is somewhat interesting and the diametrically opposed philosophies of each parent might be something you can pull off without making it extremely black and white or preachy, but it will take a very special GM to make it happen.
The next chapter is “Figures of Tri-Kazel” and we see a full fifth of the book go to eighteen NPCs. I’m fine with having a book devoted to NPCs or if say, you had a major NPC tied to each major region covered in Chapter 1, but what’s here are just randomly included characters that writers though might be fun to just throw into the book. Sure an enterprising GM can make use of them, but if you’re going to devote a fifth of a book to NPCs, you might as well just make a little supplement full of them and give this space to more on the titular subject of TRAVELS. There are some interesting characters in here; don’t get me wrong. There’s also some really great artwork which highlights why Shadows of Esteren will probably win our Best Art award again this year with Travels, but you can REALLY tell this chapter was just thrown together and tacked on when the pages could have been better spent elsewhere or just plucked out and given even more pages to make a full fledged supplement.
Another problem I had with Chapter 4 is that you are given a “Mysterious Powers” section with the clarification that the full rules won’t be out until book four which is a few years away from an English version. This whole section feels like a tease and it doesn’t help that the rules and mechanics provided here are not only vague, but obviously not going to be the end result when Secrets hits. This is another example of where I’d rather they had fleshed this idea out as a supplement rather than give it to us partly in Book 2 and the rest in Book 4.
Finally we come to Chapter 5, “Bestiary.” This is my second favorite chapter in the book as it finally gives players and GMs alike some stats for feonds and regular creatures alike. It’s a great little section and it provides all the creatures needed to run the short adventures and mini campaign contained within the book. Again though, it’s a shame to see them say, “the bulk of this will be in Book 4: Secrets. Honestly, since Secrets is more and more sound like the DM Guide and Monster Manual put together, Secrets REALLY should have been Book 2 and Travels should have been something the team behind Shadows of Esteren worked on down the road instead. Talk about your mixed up priorities. Thankfully “Bestiary” is wonderfully done in terms of mechanics, art, layout and descriptions of the creatures, which means I have high hopes for Secrets. It’s just a shame that the English version of Travels ended up being a hodgepodge of ideas instead of more cohesive book. Sometimes bigger isn’t necessarily better and Travels proves this.
So can I recommend Travels? Certainly not with the same fanatical gusto with which I did Universe and Prologue. There is a very noticeable drop in quality with Travels, but don’t mistake that for me saying that the book is god awful and should be burned. Rather the first two Shadows of Esteren releases were SO GOOD, there had to be a drop off at some point and this was it. The end result isn’t that Travels is a horrible book, but rather a decent but heavily flawed one and the system as a whole would have been better served by Secrets coming out first or the new content placed into the English version being fully fleshed out as supplements instead of the way they were done here. I definitely can’t say anyone should pay forty dollars for the hardcover and I thank Cthulhu I didn’t pledge for the Limited Edition version as I had with Book 1. Even fifteen dollars for the PDF is a bit steep considering the quality of the content is all over the place in this one and there’s nothing here you actually NEED to play SoE with as it is most fluff, some eventually award winning art and some adventures. No you can pass on this one, but we’ll be kind and call it a thumbs in the middle. SoE zealots and completionists will want to get this one, but it’s definitely something I’d pass on otherwise with the currently attached price tag. Here’s hoping this is a onetime burp for an otherwise amazing product line.