The Shadows of Esteren – General Overview
The fourth Shadows of Esteren Kickstarter finished a week ago. Between that and Onyx Path’s 20th Anniversary Mage, which funded a couple of days earlier, it was a bit of a pricey month for me. Had I the money, I would also have put in for the second Dwarven Forge Kickstarter. Sadly, it ended up being less of an outrageous deal than the first one had been, so I don’t feel as badly about it. The reality is that I’ll likely buy the requisite sets from their eventual storefront offering of the Caverns, and I’ll be out a little bit more money than I would have been.
I got into Shadows of Esteren relatively late, in terms of their growing success. They’d already managed to pull off two successful Kickstarter campaigns by the time they were brought to my attention, covering the Prologue and Universe books. The Travels Kickstarter was the third campaign they put together, and their tag line was enough to sell me on the spot – ‘A medieval roleplaying game somewhere between Ravenloft, Game of Thrones and Call of Cthulhu.’
There are few things that encapsulate my interests better than that. A general consensus was that, if I missed out on this game, I’d be missing out on the one thing in life that was tailor-made for my predilections. Naturally, I pledged a lot of money for this, ending up with the limited editions of every available book, as well as all of the nifty add-ons that came with the well exceeded stretch goals. And there were a lot.
Looking over the contents of the Osta-Baille Collector set that I ended up with, there are some eleven bundles that are still in shrink wrap (artwork, pre-generated characters, a GM screen, map tiles, game aids, etc.) along with the three books and the box to put most of it in. In addition, there’s another box and scattering of game stuff that will show up this coming GenCon, due to the logistics of printing all the stretch goals and fulfilling the added material.
Because they’d already funded two Kickstarters by the time I got into the middle of it all, they’d put together the budget to get stuff printed and ready for distribution, so immediately after the Kickstarter finished, they offered everything that was already printed for pick up at GenCon.
I’ll be honest. This went a long way to impress me. My very first Kickstarter RPG pledge was for a game that has yet to see the light of day (and many of the people funding it are threatening legal action), and many of my subsequent pledges went into products that took about a year to fulfill. Otherwise, the absolute shortest turnaround was the previous Dwarven Forge campaign, which had product to me in about six months. (Hence why I regret not giving those guys more of my money. They’re pretty awesome.)
It also helped that the writers of the game were absolutely wonderful to talk to. The main designer (as I understood it) talked about how much he loved Ravenloft, to the point that he learned English simply so he could read the various supplements that had never been translated into French. Oh, and did I mention that this was a French game that ended up being translated into English? Probably an important point to keep in mind as I move forward.
That’s one of the first things you realize about the game when you start looking through it. This is not an American game, by any stretch of the imagination.
The first clues lie with the artwork. The covers of my limited edition rulebooks hearken back to the ‘Green Man’ legendry and motifs from Europe, with three variant foliate masks as decoration. The interior art gives us an old world sensibility, ancient lands overgrown and lost from an earlier age, with rough peasants as our avatars in this strange and pastoral setting. High, desolate mountains and moss encrusted cenotaphs portray wild places that man has no real business in approaching.
The game text goes on to talk about the present realities of war and fear and starvation, things that modern American games don’t see fit to bother with. In this game, the horrors that lurk in the shadowy, mistbourne woods are less of an issue than making sure that the crops don’t fail and the people of the village and make it through the long winter. This is the lowest of low fantasy.
I will be completely honest. I’m not entirely sure that I know how to run this game. The setting is incredibly dense, to the point that the world has yet to be fully described. Within the course of the first three books for the game (Prologue, Universe and Travels), the focus has remained on the peninsula of Tri-Kazel, with a lot of time spent on the small villages high in the mountains of Taol-Kaer. There are details of the world beyond Tri-Kazel, which hint of more civilized lands that dabble in the local version of Magitek, but the best that a character will likely find of that are the broken and abandoned factories left to rust in the high mountain valleys.
By stating that this game is almost beyond my skill level is not a critique of the writing or the ideas behind the game. If anything, I’m unwilling to run this game until I know I can do it justice. If I were to try to introduce Shadows of Esteren to a new group, I would want to infuse it with the same richness of detail that the books themselves offer. To do anything less would almost be insulting.
The thing is, I don’t believe I’m alone in my mystification of the setting. The very first book produced for the game is the Prologue book, labeled Book 0. This is a set of adventures which are recommended to be run as a linked trilogy. In essence, the game designers understood that there was no easy way to hit the ground running, insofar as the broad portrayal of the setting and its inherent spookiness. So logically, they offered up a set of canned adventures that both teach the players the system and the GM how to properly bring the world to life. There are also suggestions as to which order these adventures should be run in, as the overall psychological effect on the players would be markedly different.
And yeah. Psychology is a heavy element for this game. One of the most impressive things, for my part, is that each of the different scenes in the scenarios have a suggested soundtrack. Braveheart, Silent Hill and Full Metal Jacket are all on the playlist of recommended music, as well as tracks from the symphonic concerts that were written especially for the game. (It says something that the most recent Kickstarter offered concert DVD’s for stretch goals. These guys take their atmospheric resonance pretty seriously.)
All in all, Shadows of Esteren is one of those games that I’ll work toward running in the eventual future, when I have both the proper table of gamers and the time to do the product justice. I have no regrets in my purchase of these books, but for the time being, they’re going to have to wait on my shelf for a while.