Shadows of Esteren is an interesting fantasy rpg. Originally published in French, it has now gained a translated (and beautiful!) version via Kickstarter as a set of two hardcover books: Book 1 “Universe” and Book 2 “Travels”. The game itself bills itself as “gothic-horror medieval fantasy”, and there’s an element of truth there – though it’s not a horror game, more a gritty fantasy game with some horror elements. Also, some steampunk, which is not always a smooth fit.
The game is set in its own game world, with the current books focusing on the peninsula of “Tri-Kazel”. It’s not a huge area, in raw size, but very mountainous and hard to navigate, and filled with ample adventuring potential. There are three major factions: a pseudo-Celtic one, focusing on ancient rituals and “pagan” traditions, a monotheistic “Temple” which seeks to convert everyone to their “One God”, and the steampunkish “Magientists”, who do… Science! Sort of. It makes for nice drama, but having pagan tribes next to a pseudo-Catholic theocracy and a steampunky group of mad scientists is, at times, a bit jarring. Still, the factions and related geographical areas are nicely written, and should work fine in a game. There’s a lot of very nice cultural detail here.
The main “bad guys” in the setting are the Feond, monstrous creatures which are appearing with more and more regularity, and which threaten travelers (and, at times, settlements). There is no traditional “monster manual” provided here, though some examples are given – the idea is that Feonds should not be predictable or familiar. I like that, though it makes for a bit more GM work.
The rules are… interesting. Instead of traditional skills, characteristics etc the mechanics are based on how you typically accomplish tasks. Characters have “Combativeness”, for example, and “Creativity”, among others. A character with high Combativeness will naturally enough be good in a fight, but will also approach other tasks (for instance, social interactions) from the same angle. This leads to an interesting tidbit: each approach is also a negative factor. That character with high Combativeness may get penalties to some actions, due to being too hot-headed. This is an interesting balance, and makes for fun balances. I have no idea how it works in practice, but it sounds fun. Otherwise, the mechanics are a mix of traditional mechanics and some other innovative bits. To be honest, I have no real idea how the mechanics work as a whole; they are medium-crunch, with some interlocking bits, so it’s hard to get a full understanding just by reading the ruleset. As befits a game with “horror” elements, there is also a sanity mechanic, and going insane is a very real danger.
Book one (“Universe”) is the core player book, it contains the rules, lots of basic info about the game world, and other critical stuff. Book two (“Travels”) is more of a GM book, it has creature stats, more in-depth information about the world (some of it semi-secret), and some adventures. There’s also a thin “Book Zero” available, which provides some more ready-to-run adventures.
The production values are high (as typical for a French game). The art is beautiful and the layout mostly excellent. The sectioning of the book isn’t totally smooth, if you read it from start to finish there are some jarring bits where rules mechanics are mentioned before they are explained, and where important world details and terms are referenced before definitions. These are minor bits, though, and only mean some jumping back and forth while reading the book. The writing is good and at times evocative. In some places I got the feeling that the native language used here isn’t English and that this is a translation; some turns of phrase felt a bit awkward. This is fairly rare, though, and is a very minor quibble. The provided adventures are interesting, with some of them being very untraditional and weird. In a good way.
I like this game. It has some rough edges, and I have no idea of how the somewhat unconventional mechanics actually work, but it’s a refreshing take on the sometimes overly generic fantasy rpg trope. It’s low-fantasy, but still has room for weird horror and some elements not commonly found in gritty fantasy. The fact that it’s also a very pretty game doesn’t hurt, of course.