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jueves, 28 de febrero de 2013

Shadows of Esteren: Part 2- The Game System




This article is long overdue. I had intentions of playing SoE before I wrote the article about the game mechanics, but alas the Autumn is a very busy time for me at work, and quickly my time to organize a game and test drive SoE evaporated. As not to delay things too long, I will review the game mechanics as someone who has 30 years of gaming, and hundreds of systems under my belt. So let’s take a tour of the mechanics of Shadows of Esteren.
Disclaimer- I was provided a copy of Shadows of Esteren by the Esteren team.

Previously on Gnome Stew

The full rundown on the Shadows of Esteren setting is in my previous article . Take a few minutes to refresh yourself with that article, as I want to keep this article focused only on the mechanics.

A Tour Of The Rules

Weighing in at just over 100 pages, the rules make up about 1/3 of the book, and are located in the last third of the book. In a theme that is going to come up throughout this review, this is a light system that puts its focus on the players and story and not on tactics and crunch. For easy of review, I have broken the book down into some major sections and not by the actual chapters.


The Character creation rules cover all aspects of character creation and advancement, and is the largest portion of the rules section. It starts with a focus on both character and group backgrounds before going into any mechanical steps of character creation. You are then guided through the character creation process step-by-step with an easy to follow set of instructions.
One thing that really stands out in SoE are the Ways. Unlike most RPG’s, there are not the common stats (Strength, Agility, Endurance, etc). Rather SoE uses Ways: Combativeness, Creativity, Empathy, Reason, and Conviction. These are mental characteristics which make up your general personality, and your rankings in your Ways also inform the kind of personality you have. The Skill system is a tree system with the Skills grouped into large domains, which contain more specialized disciplines. Skill selection is influenced by the characters profession, birthplace, and social class. The Ways combine with Skills, so Science+Reason combine and represent your ability to logically understand a scientific problem.
After Ways and Skills, there is a lifepath mechanic, that provides some background based on age. Then there are some secondary stats which are derived by combinations of the Ways. Finally there is an initial set of experience points that the player can use to round out their characters by acquiring and increasing Skills, or picking up Advantages. It is here in the Advantage section that you can take Advantages that model the more traditional stats such as Strong, Smart, Nimble, etc. The chapter rounds out with some final character touches including an Action Point/Bennie system, equipment, and a section on character advancement (an XP based system).
When you are done with this system you not only have all the mechanical aspects of your character complete, but you have worked out some history, a connection to the group, as well as some indication of the overall personality. There is no doubt that characters are a major focus of the game, with the number of pages dedicated to their creation.

Resolution System

The resolution mechanic is a very simple one, which combines Way + Skill + 1d10 to overcome a difficulty threshold (DT). There is an automatic success if your Ways + Skill exceed the DT. Likewise there is a failure if the DT is higher than what you could possibly roll. A critical success is rolling two 10′s in a row, and a critical failure results from two 1′s in a row. Finally there is a margin rule so that the better your roll, the better your success (and a worse failure for a worse roll) as compared to the DT.
There is another type of check called a Test, where the player rolls 1d10 to attempt to roll higher than one of their Ways to avoid indulging in the negative version of that trait (i.e. Reason vs. Doubt). In a way this is a mix between a classic Saving Throw and Fate’s compelling of an Aspect.  The GM can call for these in order to tempt the character into acting on the negative side of their Ways.
There is an optional rule, which I love, that allows you to combine different Ways with Skills so that you can use your Science+Creativity to creatively solve a scientific problem. While you run the risk of the player with a high Creativity asking for every check to be based off of Creativity (“Because I am creative.”) it creates a flexibility that allows the GM to call for checks with more variety.
Overall, I like this mechanism. I love margins and I really like the optional Ways rule. My only concern is that 1d10 is a more narrow range of possible results than a multi-die or exploding die type of mechanic, but that is a personal preference and not a critique on the mechanics.

Combat System & Health

The combat system is pretty straight forward and plays right off of the base mechanic system. One roll determines if you hit and how much damage you do. There are a few combat options including different fighting attitudes (e.g offensive, defensive, quick, etc), but not the array of options you would see in more combat-oriented games. Weapons have a fixed amount of damage, and armor subtracts from damage taken. Damage is managed on a damage track, with levels of deterioration affecting rolls. Natural healing is slow, but not too slow to impact the flow of the game.
This combat system is light when compared to something like Pathfinder or 4e. It feels more like a simplified Burning Wheel combat system, where damage comes on quick, and one does not fight a group of bandits alone. Groups that have a large tactical need are going to find this system lacking. A group that is more story based will find this system clean and quick.


The magic section covers chapters for all three magical traditions: the druidic Demorthen Arts, the divine Miracles of the Temple, and the technomagic of Magience. The Demorthen Arts and the Miracles of the Temple have a very similar set of mechanics, while both feel like their respective arts. They are based on having/knowing certain types of power, and then being able to craft your own spell by selecting number of targets, area, length, and effect. It makes for a very flexible casting system that creative players will enjoy. The powers scale well, and at higher levels are capable of some impressive effects.
The Magience has a different feel. It is based on extracting Flux (i.e. mana) from various living objects and using the Flux to power artifacts. Magience is the industrial revolution version of magic in Eberron. It lights streets, heals people, powers artifacts, but all at the cost of dirty Flux extraction factories. The chapter on Magience feels a bit light and in need of more content, which hopefully will be addressed in an upcoming supplement.


The rules close out with a Sanity system. There are things in the world of Esteren that should not be seen, and those that encounter such things are changed by them. The Sanity system is a detailed system where the GM manages the overall sanity ratings of the players, and through role playing brings about clues to their traumas.  The rules provide background and detail for the GM to play out the various traumas which can occur.


The SoE mechanics are light, with a very character-centric focus. It is a set of mechanics that drive a story-based type of game in a very unique fantasy realm. I found the rules to be a lighter read than the setting material. That is not a bad thing at all, as the authors of Shadows of Esteren had a specific tone and feel in mind for their game, and the setting is the clear focus of this book. The light rules support the tone of the game, putting the focus on rich characters adventuring in a beautiful and dangerous land.
After reading it through and letting it digest, the rules as they exist in Book 1 are fully playable but there are things that are not present that a GM will need going forward. One example is a Bestiary. With other Shadows of Esteren books being translated, I suspect that these things will start showing up in future volumes.
My apologies to everyone who has been waiting for the second part of this review. I would have liked to have gotten a playtest in before this review, but I hope that my perspective as a system promiscuous gamer is of value.

About  Phil Vecchione

A gamer for 30 years, Phil cut his teeth on Moldvay D&D and has tried to run everything else since then. He has had the fortune to be gaming with the same group for almost 20 years. When not blogging or writing RPG books, Phil is a husband, father, and project manager. More about Phil.
- See more at: http://www.gnomestew.com/reviews/shadows-of-esteren-part-2-the-game-system/#sthash.BBHrMpQQ.dpuf

Shadows of Esteren Review: Part 1 – The World of Tri-Kazel




As part of the You Pick It…I Review It for this year, you requested that I review Shadows of Esteren. As you commanded I have obeyed, and have been hard at work reading this tome. After reaching a certain point in the book, I decided to break this review into two parts. So today’s article is a review of the Shadows of Esteren setting: Tri-Kazel. A few weeks from now, I will return with the second part: the review of the game mechanics.

Rendez-vous à la Gen Con

Shadows of Esteren was an RPG originally developed in France, and was only recently translated into English. Thanks to Studio 2 Publishing, I was fortunate enough to meet up with the Shadows of Esteren crew at Gen Con and they were kind enough to provide me with a copy of the book, some character sheets, and a map of the world.

The Specs

The Shadows of Esteren (SoE) is a 290 page hardcover book, in full color. The artwork is a mix of half-page and quarter page images. There are also borders and watermarked textures on all the pages. In terms of artwork, the quality is on par with any large publishing house, and fitting for the setting. The artwork is often laid out in a way that looks like the pages are ripped, revealing the images. Sometimes the flow of text in these areas can be a bit narrow, but it did not put me off while reading it.
This book was translated from French into English, and I have to say that the translation is solid. I am not an Editor or Proofreader, but in my reading of the text, I only found two grammatical errors. Overall the book reads well and does not feel like you are reading a translation.

One Book…Two Parts

SoE has only four large chapters, each broken up into smaller un-numbered sub-chapters and sections. The first three chapters: Tri-Kazel, Lifestyle, and Factions cover 173 of the 290 pages, and describe the setting. The fourth chapter, Game System, covers how the game is played.
The writers of the book keep these sections separate, meaning there are no mechanics whatsoever in the first three chapters. These chapters are also written as a collection of letters and reports made to a noble.  These sections are enjoyable, and they read like a travel gazetteer.
It is not until Chapter Four that you learn about the mechanics of the game. The writing in chapter four is much more technical in its presentation, and has very few cultural references, as they were covered in the previous chapters.

The World of Tri-Kazel

Shadows of Esteren is a low-fantasy world that contains elements of horror. The game is focused on Tri-Kazel, an isolated peninsula that is made up of three kingdoms: Taol-Kaer, Reizh, and Gwidre. Outside the peninsula is somewhat of a mystery, for sea travel is too dangerous for anyone to attempt, and the mountains to the north are too treacherous to cross. There have been immigrants to come from the main continent, but they have now been integrated into society. This isolated environment allows the authors to focus deeply on the three kingdoms. Though isolated, there is no lack of adventure that can be found in Tri-Kazel.
While Tri-Kazel is a low fantasy world, there is some magic in the form of the druidic traditions of the Demorthen and the more industrial and arcane Magientists. There are no fantasy races, but there are monsters in the form of the Feondas, which have less to do with typical fantasy monsters and more to do with creatures of the Mythos.
The kingdoms in Tri-Kazel are somewhat iconic, each representing one of the major factions of the world. Taol-Kaer is the kingdom of the Demorthen and represents the most traditional of three kingdoms. Reizh is the magically industrialized kingdom of the Magientists. Gwidre is a kingdom controlled by The Temple of the one Prophet.
The three kingdoms are tied to each other through a common history, but drifted apart when immigrants from the mysterious Continent arrived bringing Magience and the religion of the One Prophet. In time Gwidre and Reizh began to transform, while Taol-Kaer has held on to its historical roots. This relationship creates a tension between the kingdoms without allowing it to devolve into total war.
The writers do a very good job of depicting each kingdom, giving an overview of the land, its history, and its government, as well as a description of one of the major cities. While each kingdom is very iconic, the writers are careful to describe that not everyone in a kingdom is a stereotype. You will find followers of the Demorthen in Reizh  and some Magience in Taol-Kaer. Gwidre has some diversity, but is a bit more fanatical.
From a GM’s point of view the land of Tri-Kazel is a land that is pregnant with stories. The sections about each kingdom are made to inspire. There are locations, events, organizations, and individuals that are described enough to understand, but left open enough to draw in the imagination of the GM.

Details, Details, Details

173 pages is a lot of space to talk about a game world, and the writers of SoE do not disappoint. The three main chapters create a large survey of the world of Tri-Kazel. It starts with a history of the peninsula and an overview of the lands. There is a great two page map of Tri-Kazel, which is also available as a separate poster.
From there, every aspect of Tri-Kazel is covered. The first chapter covers the major parts of the world, including the above mentioned Kingdoms, with enough detail to understand each one. The mysterious monsters, the Feondas, are discussed as well.
In the second chapter, there are sections that cover: habits and customs, handicrafts, food, architecture, various groups, currency, and the arts. The third chapter focuses in on the major factions: The Demorthen, The Temple, and the Magientists. The chapter concludes with a section of rumors.
There is a lot of detail covering Tri-Kazel, but the authors have done an excellent job balancing the breadth of topics without overdosing the reader with depth of detail. Each section contains enough information for a GM or player to understand the various components of the world, while still leaving ample room for a GM to interpret and create within those areas.
After finishing the first three chapters of the SoE, I felt as comfortable with Tri-Kazel as I did the first time I finished reading The Eberron Campaign Setting.

Adventuring In Tri-Kazel

So is Tri-Kazel a land that I could run a game within? Without a doubt. This is a land that has a real tactile quality; you can feel this world as you read. After reading the first three chapters, I have an understanding of all the major details of the world. There is so much potential within the tension of the three Kingdoms, the three major powers, and the mysteries within the setting that there is an abundance of potential stories for any GM to tell.
If you like lower fantasy settings that are gritty and mysterious, you will find this setting compelling. The writing and the artwork blend together to create a world that is on par with any of the world settings of any major RPG company.

Au Revoir

My next Shadows of Esteren review will focus on the game mechanics, and if my timing works out, some actual play. Also, I will be taking some time to interview some of the SoE designers to learn about how SoE came to be, how it came to the US, and what fans of SoE can expect in the coming year.

About  Phil Vecchione

A gamer for 30 years, Phil cut his teeth on Moldvay D&D and has tried to run everything else since then. He has had the fortune to be gaming with the same group for almost 20 years. When not blogging or writing RPG books, Phil is a husband, father, and project manager. More about Phil.
- See more at: http://www.gnomestew.com/reviews/shadows-of-esteren-review-part-1-the-world-of-tri-kazel/#sthash.NEiefKtL.dpuf