First, A Cautionary Note
I want to be clear that having an optimal stat is not a detriment to Shadows of Esteren. Every game, by the very nature of being a game, has an 'optimal' stat to raise high. Some games differentiate what the optimal stat is per class, others just how it be a more in general thing. I mean, even D&D has this. After all, who wouldn't like a high con? I mean, if you had your bases covered and could raise any one other stat, most advice columns would tell you to raise Con. Why? because it makes you more survivable.
Empathy - The Ultimate Way?
Without beating around the bush, I think Empathy is the power stat in Shadows of Esteren. Empathy is the key stat to almost every mechanic in the game. Here are just a few of the things a high empathy helps directly with:
- Empathy increases your character's Defense in combat
- Empathy increases your character's Speed (initiative) in combat
- Is the Way tied to the Stealth skill
- Is the Way tied to Social skills
- Is the way tied to Natural Environment, which can be used for a large number of things including medicine checks
In short, you'd be hard pressed to find a character type that doesn't benefit from having a high empathy.
Now when I mention Empathy raises your Defense in combat, keep in mind that this not only makes you more likely to not take damage, but also means that when you do take damage you will take less damage overall. After all, the damage you take is equal to the attack roll minus your defense value.
In short, with the exception of the Magics that key off Conviction - and even then - almost every character concept for Shadows of Esteren benefits from having a high Empathy.
What Balances Empathy?
Now, a high Empathy is a great thing, but remember I said every Way had a bad side to it as well. What does Empathy lock you into? Well, the 'downside' to Empathy is that when you fail to check against your Empathy you're more prone to getting involved in the affairs of others.
That's right, maximizing your Empathy to cash in on all its benefits means you're also more likely to get involved in the plots that are going on in the game. This means more likely to look in on what is affecting your fellow townsfolk. More likely to help your fellow PCs. In other words, in exchange for the power, Empathy means you're more likely to be dragged along on the adventure.
I kind of like that.
You Mentioned An Optimal Build
I did, and I'll share it. This is what I ended up in in the game, and it worked out well. Now this character was built as a combat character. However, putting points in other areas can diversify this build into a lot of things. Still, this turned out to be a simple monster for a combat build.
- Combative: 3
- Creativity: 2
- Empathy: 5
- Reason 4
- Conviction 1
From this I ended up with 6 points in Close Combat at character creation - taking the Swords discipline at rank 6. I also took the two weapon fighting style.
At base values this gave me an attack roll on Standard Attack of +9, a defense value of 14, and a speed value of 8. Two Weapon Fighting gives the option of +2 to attack or defense (your choice each round.) This means either +11 to attack, or - even better in my opinion - a 16 to defense.
There are then advantages (like Nimble) that will increase your defense.
I Mean It, Increase Defense
If you're wondering at the focus on Defense it's because it seems to be the way to win fights. Remember, a high defense not only means you may take no damage, but it also means you take less damage. Much of my character's success in our Shadows of Esteren game over other characters was because my defense was a good 4-5 points higher than the other combat characters. This meant that I was taking 4-5 less damage each time I was attacked then them, which meant I was less likely to be taking wound penalties, which meant I was less likely to have my own attacks miss - or become even easier to hit.
At the end of the game my character on Full Attack still had a higher defense value than the next best combat character at Full Defense. Consequently, while he was fighting to stay alive in much of the final battles, my character escaped more or less unscathed.
The Other Downside
The downside to having such a focused on defense build comes in on how the GM challenges the group. If you're running around with a Defense of 19, and the next character in the game has a defense of 11 then the GM has problems.See, to hit you and do damage he has to roll at least a 19, at which point he's already done 8 damage to another character and hasn't even gotten through your armor yet.
We'vll give the GM a +2 weapon and you chainmail (-3 armor) which seems to be fairly common and easy to get. With this the GM needs to roll at least a 21 to do 1 point of damage to you (21 + 2 (his weapon) = 23 which -3 (your armor) = 20 which is 1 over 19). That same 21 (assuming the other person also has chain) is 9 points of damage to the other PC. Which is enough to put them in the -1 wound penalty, making them 1 easier to hit. That means the second hit is 10 points of damage which is going to have them at -3 and almost in Agony where they're out of the fight. At the same time, you've taken 2 damage.
Defense, and thus Empathy, is simply that powerful. Now, there are ways around this. It's just something to be aware of.