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Shadows of Esteren: The Triumph of the Gothic | News

Shadows of Esteren is a role-playing game already funded on Kickstarter. It is funded almost 1000% and has become a great success. The campaign is entering the final rush. These are the last days to go to the project page and decide whether to support it or not! 

This low fantasy medieval RPG with influences of gothic horror, is characterized by the harshness of everyday life and the complexity of the interplay between cultures. It is called “a transmedial adventure” by its creators. The game was released 8 years ago in France by Studio Agate, a collective of authors and illustrators eager to produce quality material. 

It is published by Agate RPG.

Honors & Accolades

Unlike most other projects on Kickstarter, which can only be imagined with the aid of previews and promises, Shadows or Esteren is already 8 years old. In that time, it has become the most internationally recognized French game, with dozens of books, a video game, four music albums, concerts, and appearances at the most famous conventions. This game was awarded the titles of Best New Game, Best Manual, and Best Art at the Diehard GameFAN Awards 2012. In 2013, it received the Best Interior Art and Best Production Values awards from the prestigious GOLD ENnies Awards at GENCON in Indianapolis, and Game of the Year from the SILVER Ennies. 

Titles Aren’t Everything

While awards may grow a game’s reputation, its real value lies in its content. So let’s delve deeper. Shadows of Esteren is a game focused on investigation and survival that emphasizes player immersion and character interactions. The world is populated by people who struggle with everyday life, and who must also watch their backs to guard against the supernatural threat hiding in the dark.

The sources of inspiration mentionedinclude the movie Braveheart, Tim Burton’s works (especially Sleepy Hollow), Princess Mononoke and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind by Miyazaki, and the manga Berserk by Kentaro Miura (more the beginnings of the series, I hope, and not where it stands now… But that’s another discussion).

If you want to get a more precise idea, you can download a quickstart called “Book 0” on DriveThruRPG. Which is not such a quick start, because the main PDF is about 83 pages! In the pdf you will find an introduction to the Esteren Universe, a summary of the game system, six pre-generated characters, three scenarios and more.

The aesthetic of Shadows of Esteren

I say, “Hats off!” to the Aesthetic of Shadows of Esteren! 

It is one of the game’s true strengths. The illustrations are many and of excellent quality, varied both in style and content, but nonetheless homogeneous in their ability to paint the visual aspects of the game. I think that between the images in this article and those that you can admire on the project page and in the quickstart pdf, you can easily get what the game is all about. The maps are also beautiful and seem to invite the reader to play and explore.

The layout is the classic two-column style, but what impressed me are the details. A dividing line here, an illustrated corner there. With the variety of designs, lines, cuts used, it is clear the editors and layout designers are very talented. I believe their ambition was to make these manuals their flagship product, and I think they did so admirably.

We had the pleasure of reviewing the PDF of the basic manual, and assure you that this quality extends throughout its almost 300 pages. Just leafing through it, the different solutions applied to the pages provide a long series of pleasant surprises to admire.

The world: the peninsula of Tri-Kazel

Shadows of Esteren provides a setting in which life is hard. The Tri-Kazel peninsula is a place where hunger, fear and war are constant and concrete possibilities. It is a medieval land with strong celtic influences, divided into three kingdoms, three dynasties born of three brothers. Magic is everywhere, but is neither trivial nor omnipresent; it retains an aura of mystery and danger. The influences of science and technology come from the continent, and the religion of the One God is starting to take hold.

Scenarios illustrating contrast, change and confrontation are rooted in a difficult and sometimes frightening everyday life. You can find cults, orders, organizations, social and cultural differences interacting between the three realms. In the background, the mysterious Feondas (“enemies”) plot in the shadows and disturb the lives of the people of Tri-Kazel. 

It is a living, breathing world, not necessarily based on its originality but on the immersive play facilitated by the depth of its presentation. Tri-Kazel reminds me very much of George R. R. Martin’s Westeros.

The system of Shadows of Esteren

Characters in Shadows of Esteren do not have the classic six characteristics describing their physical or mental abilities, but are abstracted into advantages and disadvantages. 

Each character has 5 Ways that determine its main traits: the ways of combativeness, creativity, empathy, reason and conviction. They are rated from 1 to 5 in degree or potence or whathaveyou, leaving the players free to decide how these scores intertwine to create a deep and multifaceted character.

Knowledge and skills are organized into 16 Domains, each of which are divided into various disciplines. These disciplines then have different specializations. The final value ranges from 0 to 15, of which a score of 15 represents a real legend within a particular specialization.

Task Resolution consists of [(1d10) + (Domain / Discipline / Specialization score) + (score of the applicable Way)] to overcome a threshold of difficulty. Of course this is only the base on which a world of rules is built, but the impression I got was that the system isn’t particularly complicated but is rather intuitive, instead. On the other hand, the fundamental rule is: if a resolution test risks slowing down the pace of the game, it should be handled another way.

The use of the Sanity attribute illustrates how the game will be hard on the PC’s.

Details can make the difference

The graphics did their duty in really convincing and amazing me, but there are also some smaller, additional elements relevant to the quality of the content.

For example, in the scenarios various icons are used as markers that enable the master to quickly find key information, or identify tips for underlining the horror or the supernatural elements in play. There are also icons that mark suggestions useful in making the game more immersive, or recommendations for background music (another part of their product line).

Why the Kickstarter of a game already released?

Part of the material was not available in stores for quite some time, which generated some demand. Further, the cancellation of conventions due to Coronavirus left many products in storage. Hence, the initiative to post a Kickstarter to sell them, and at a discount.

Kickstarter is not an online store, but there are additional products that need financing. First of all, an art book, in both digital and physical formats. Then, thanks to various unlocked stretch goals, Kickstarter versions of some of the manuals, as well as art prints, comics, pocket books, MP3 albums, dice, and even metal coins. There really is a lot on offer, and for an extremely attractive price.

The Kickstarter offer of Shadows of Esteren

Unfortunately, there is so much material and so many possible pledge levels it is not possible to describe everything, so I advise having a look at the samples and information on the Kickstarter page.

I should also mention there are two separate offers; one for the art book alone, in a digital ($20), normal ($40) or limited edition version ($100).

The other offer is for one or more of the manuals. The complete digital package is offered for a pledge of $60, while the single physical basic manual is the reward for a pledge of around $50 (its selling price). In addition, however, in the event all the stretch goals are unlocked: A2 map, mp3 album, prints, PDF compendium, a comic book, an mp3 album, a pocket-sized book and metal coins all become available.

The complete collection of books can be obtained by pledging $200 in support. Certainly a hefty sum, but we are talking about several manuals totaling more than 1100 pages, along with an impressive amount of other items, from the 4 albums to the Dungeon Master’s screen.

Final impressions

My thought after this journey into Shadows of Esteren was, “But how did I not know about this?”, followed by, “I must bring this to my group for them to try!”, and ended with a powerful “I must have it!”.

Beyond my collecting craze, there is no doubt about the editorial quality of this product, as stated above. The success it seems to be enjoying is an excellent business card for those who, like me, still did not know of it. The Kickstarter offer is full of varied game materials and items, which is why it should be considered in light of everything offered in return for the support pledged, rather than judged on the basis of the amounts tied to the different pledge levels. 

For now, I can only speak of my impressions of the game itself. I believe that the quality that I have seen in the details can be considered a guarantee. Shadows of Esteren is a game with a deep and vivid world, a hard and intriguing setting. The system was created to support the game, not to slow it down. The Gothic touch is the icing on a cake that I can’t wait to taste.

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