On Friday the Shadows of Esteren game I've been playing in for the past year or so came to an end. We had a good time with the game, and several folks asked me to do a review of the game, or at least talk about the system more. With the game over, I figured this week would be a good one to do just that. So, without further ado, let's begin.
What Is Shadows of Esteren
Shadows of Esteren is a Dark Western Fantasy RPG with low magic (though there is magic in the system) and a classic horror vibe. By classic horror the game means more a growing sense of impending doom and dread rather than the pop-scares and raw fear you have in more modern renditions of horror.
Shadows of Esteren further separates itself from other RPGs (some anyhow) by how it views PCs. In Shadows the PCs aren't special because they were born better than other people, under a destined star. No, the PCs are just normal people - for the world - who become the heroes through their decisions, their actions, and their successes and failures. This doesn't mean that the PCs aren't the main characters and shouldn't be the stars of the show, but they don't start off with an edge over the average person like in some other games.
Mechanics wise, the character sheet for Esteren will remind a lot of folks of White Wolf's World of Darkness but it plays out very differently. Skills go from 1 to 15, and your traits - known as Ways - go from 1 to 5. To make a roll you roll 1D10 and add the relevant Way + Skill to come up with a total. In most cases a 10 is an auto success while a 1 is an auto fail. In some cases, a "confirmed 10" (i.e. the die comes up a 10, you roll it again and it comes up 10 again) is a critical success, while a "confirmed 1" is a critical fail.
Finally, combat resolves how you would expect with one caveat. There is no damage roll. You deal damage equal to how much you beat the defense of your target by with the roll. So if they have defense 12 and you roll an 18 you do 6 damage. Weapons are then differentiated by how much they add to the difference when dealing damage. For example, a longsword attack that rolled an 18 over a defense 12 would do 9 damage. 6 for the difference in the roll and defense, and 3 for the damage quality of the long sword.
Ways No Attributes
One interesting thing about Shadows of Esteren is what it uses for Attributes. They're called Ways and they're called that because they're not normal traights. You don't have numbers for how strong, agile, fast, or charismatic your character is. Instead you have a number for how combative/passionate your character is, how logical, how creative, how empathic, and how steadfast. Your Ways give more of a psychological profile than attributes for the normal physical and mental profile of the character.
So how do you determine how strong or nimble you are? You buy that with advantages. Otherwise, you're just an average looking, average strength, average speed person. You're normal, just like most others, unless you spend points to be above average - or receive points to be below.
Back to Ways, unlike most systems having a low way isn't necessarily a bad thing. There is a down side to each Way. If you have a high Combative, you are more prone to flying off the handle and going into fits of rage. If you have a high Reason you are more prone to doubt yourself until you think the matter through more seriously. A high Creative person has problems taking a direct solution to problems. A high Empathy person has problems not getting involved with the affairs of others. Finally, a person with a high Conviction also suffers from extreme guilt. In this way, having a low Way may mean that you can't do certain actions as well, but it also means you don't have to deal with the downsides of the Way as well.
Esteren is a highly narrative session, but it does have mechanics. Like all games with mechanics there seems to be some optimal ways to build in it. I accidentally found one during the game. On Wednesday I'll talk about that, what it means, and how it impacts play.