Occultism (Shadows of Esteren)
Publisher: Studio 2 Publishing
Page Count: 140
Release Date: 07/26/2015 (Kickstarter Backers)/TBD (Everyone Else)
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After a long dry spell, Shadows of Esteren saw not one, but FOUR releases in July. For foodies, The Esteren Culinary Journey was released. Ghost Stories was actually released as two separate books – an in-game supplement known as The Black Moon Handbook and a collection of short stories simply entitled Hauntings. Now I’m finally playing catch up with the four, final, and longest release of the quartet – Occultism. Like The Black Moon Handbook and Hauntings, Occultism is geared towards the supernatural side of Shadows of Esteren. Is this many releases about ghosts, feonds and things that go bump in the night too many in too short a time frame, or is Occultism a fine complement to the previous two releases, letting horror RPG fans get a giant fix all at once? Let’s take a look.
While there are four sections to Occultism, over half the pages of the book are dedicated to a single adventure called “A Tidy Room.” In many ways, Occultism is actually an adventure with a lot of supplementary material rather than a sourcebook. Perhaps a good comparison would be to Call of Cthulhu‘s Island of Ignorance. So for those of you looking for pure mechanics, stats and the like, you might want to check out The Black Moon Handbook first and then come back to Occultism. For those of you primarily looking for a long mini-campaign for Shadows of Esteren, you’re Occultism‘s actual target audience.
After a brief short story acting as the Prologue for Occultism, we dive right into world fluff in Chapter One, “Occultism in Tri-Kazel.” Here you get a firsthand look at how the occult, and more importantly occultists are looked at in the world of Shadows of Esteren. You are given possible origins for the study of the occult and also two distinct ways of viewing the supernatural –with blinders of faith and blinders of rationality. Each one has their own positives and negatives and it really just depends on what type of character (or NPC), you are trying to make.
Speaking of making characters, it’s here you’ll learn the four types of occultists (Occultists, Mediums, Sorcerers and Tarish) and how they all vary from each other both in concept and character creations. Occultists are more spies meets scientists, carefully testing theories and poking at the darkness while making sure no one knows that they are up to. Mediums are up front about their interest in the supernatural, almost wearing it as a badge, and are willing to put their mind, body and soul on the line to learn the truth about apparitions and boogeymen. Sorcerers are similar to those you find in Call of Cthulhu or Dungeon Crawl Classics in that they are believed to make deals with….other things for power and are willing to sacrifice sanity for power. Knowledge justifies any means, which also means that these occultists are genwerally hunted and meant to be NPCs only. Finally the Tarish, who hold secrets of the past long forgotten – even to themselves. The Tarish are hard to define. Perhaps the closets comparison I can make are to the Vistani of Ravenloft.
In Chapter 1, each of the four aforementioned groups are given a section for character creation. You’ll get examples of famous people in Shadows of Esteren that are that type of occultist, special checks that they can make compared to other characters and professions for characters that want to be a specific occultist type. Finally, you’ll also find some new disciplines (Hypnosis, Dream Interpretation, Mental Phenomena and more), a new Disorders (no spoilers, but it is essentially being a sociopath), an optional rule that lets you use XP to increase your Mental Resistance trait. Finally the chapter ends with a look at Occult Arts and how to properly play out visions given to mediums or other psychic characters. This is a very long chapter (40 pages) and it’s extremely in-depth. The SoE team could have easily released just this chapter as a nice supplement, but instead they give you a whole lot more.
Chapter Two is “The Circle of Emergence.” This chapter is all about the origins and organization of a nefarious group of occultists that will not only make an excellent reoccurring antagonist for your players, but are also at the center of the adventure that makes up the bulk of the book (and the next chapter). Tjere is a lot of background information and tips on how to run the Circle in your games without making them two-dimensional or cartoonish super-villains. After all, the Circle doesn’t feel it is bad. It is above morality. Knowledge and learning about the way the world works supersedes concepts like ethics and mortality. You’ll also find a hodge-podge of other information including a look at the drug trade, some Circle NPC stat blocks, a few story seeds that can be fleshed out into full adventures and more. It’s a bit chaotic, but a good read.
Chapter Three is “A Tidy Room,” and as mentioned throughout this review, the majority of the book is devoted to this mini-campaign. It is the largest published adventure for Shadows of EsterenThe Black Moon Handbook, you can run the adventure with supernatural or mundane causes at the root. The adventure will still be spooky, but I love that you can tailor these to be as grounded in reality and rationality as you like. There’s a nice level of flexibility in these latest SoE adventures that you just don’t see in other games.
The adventure is essentially a murder mystery with the PCs having to figure out who killed a young girl. Unfortunately mob justice decides a homeless vagrant is responsible and while the PCs try to disprove the claim, they find themselves targets by someone powerful enough to see them arrested and accused of a crime they couldn’t have possibly committed. The adventure spirals from there and really gives players a hard look at the seamy underbelly of a low fantasy society. There is a lot here to take in and the GM will have to spend a lot of time prepping for numerous twists and turns, but the adventure is highly memorable and easily one of, if not THE best for Shadows of Esteren so far. It’s very different from a lot of published adventures out there. It has Call of Cthulhu style investigating, but in a very different manner (no Library rolls here!), along with V:TM style intrigue and politicking. “A Tidy Room” is well worth picking up Occultism for and it’s fantastic how the entire book is essentially extra fluff for this one adventure.
Finally we come to Chapter Four, which is the Bestiary. It’s not very long and only contains two monsters, but each monster has several pages devoted to it. Both creatures are for use with “A Tidy Room” but can also see use in your own homebrew adventures.
Overall, Occultism is a fantastic addition to the Shadows of Esteren library. If you’re in need of a long adventure for SoE, Occultism is a must own. If you prefer to homebrew your own adventures, Occultism can be passed up, but even if you don’t use the adventure it contains, there is a lot of great fluff and character creation information in this book that still might make it worth your while. Of course, Occultism also boasts the usual terrific art that Shadows of Esteren is known for.