Shadows of Esteren 2-Travels
The Esteren saga continues with a gloriously and beautifully illustrated campaign world book. Whereas, locales where sketchy in the main rulebook here they are magnificently described and fleshed out. However, they are not done so like a modern guidebook or gazetteer rather much is left to Gamemaster’s imagination where to exactly pinpoint these locales with some broad suggestions penciled. Fortunately, an index exists to keep track of the different locations. The writing is clear but prosaic, as it does invoke a strong sense of place with smells, sounds and mood – but where it fails is perhaps the most crucial is a deep sense of adventure. In this way, the writing is much like Tolkien creating an atmosphere but not an adventure. RPG campaign worlds must straddle both. Like Tolkien, it is very much grounded in the assumptions of High Fantasy – a world breathtaking beauty and mystery – that has echoes of George R.R. Martin yet also has some contemporary fantasy elements like Steampunk Mages thrown in for good measure – but the Gamemaster needs to have already significant buy-in to make the system – for unlike Tolkien there is no literary map to base his adventures upon other than these beautifully rendered books. Onto the contents…
The first section entitled cartography is more of a gazetteer of notable and noteworthy places within the different regions that make up the subcontinent of Tri-Kazel. Each of the regions do have a flare and character but as noted above just as a point of light in an otherwise dark and foreboding landmass where some sort of cataclysmic event happened in the distant past. It is the good feeling of incompleteness here. For it paints in very broad strokes adventure ideas in each of the locales without aping Earth’s own history yet there is something familiar with it. Whether it be the quasi-Celtic nature or familiar tropes of dark fantasy. Then there are macro areas in which provide good starting points for adventure grounds for the beginning player. Included in this section are rules regarding sailing, useful, solid and needed but uncertain why they appear here.
The next section is so-called canvases which are structured scenarios that are akin to one-shots that specifically elaborate and upon the locales described along with the format that will probably be used in future adventures in an easy to follow and organic format. I will not give away the content of the adventures but very much in keeping with the whole thrust of the Shadows of Esteren line which is to provide an epic and poetic campaign. Where I do have issues with it and it is really minor is that it refers to musical inspirations that are not yet readily available at the time of review. Hence, you are reading about a musical cue but have no idea how to place it. I know that the line is more fully developed in France but the fact that little segways or samples of what is being discussed could not appear as freely accessible mp3s on the website is a small annoyance. Furthermore, each of the scenarios are seemingly written by a different author which although they do follow the same organic structure – the writing style is quite different and often jarring. And, for a Gamemaster who wishes to link them to a campaign there are some suggestions but they often do not fit together nicely.
Then we move from one-shots with one format to a full-fledged adventure/campaign in which the organic structure nicely described in canvas gets tossed out with a new method called the modular scenario system which seems odd. Once again, there are musical cues to products that do not yet exist in English. The key notes are there to help the Gamemaster. So, rather than just giving a taste – a full immersion takes place – in which – the adventure (again no spoilers) takes players into the many themes and tropes of the fantasy world. It does so with epic grandeur and that it is reads like a novel – however – as such must be read many times over to really get what the author is trying to convey – it certainly is not an adventure that you can run “straight out of the box”. And, as such lacks really concrete gaming aids – focusing more on narrative and sweeping vistas – leaving an idea but structured sandbox adventures. While likely not to lead to a TPK but it is bound to leave players unsatisfied unless they have already bought-in into the underlying premises of the campaign world. And, that is my issue with it. Most people have a causal acquaintance with the campaign world – and to subject them to this slow descent where they will lose themselves seems to be a tad cruel and misguided for what is the second book in an unfolding line.
Next up is the Figures of Tri-Kazel which is a kind of Rogue’s Gallery of the major personages that give colour and flavor to the campaign world. Each of these NPCs are memorable and great for many return encounters are good for many return encounters. And, in keeping with the overall mood of the book – each tells a story – and the story is ever changing but still consistent with the larger canvas of the campaign world. Each NPC comes with a gorgeous piece of art and lots of flavor beyond just the stats. Thus, making these NPCs alluring and tempting for use elsewhere in other campaign worlds – for each has a magical appeal and allure that is hard to pass up. The only thing is that written description sometimes does not live up to the artwork. Discerning readers will find a disconnect of written text between the description and art presented. That said – sometimes – I agree aesthetics may vary and because the written descriptions are very powerful – it is perhaps only natural that art does not live up to what the imagination conjures up. Which is the problem of novels and online dating – reality rarely matches what has been described. Although, in both cases, the experience is worthwhile into and onto itself. A kind gentle heart may mask the 300kg gorilla.
Standing with but apart is a section called Mysterious Powers which reveals some of the secrets of the campaign world but one that requires a complete and thorough immersion. For they are the high level mysterious organizations that pull the strings behind the scenes.
A Bestiary…of sorts…
As the title suggests – a shortened Monster Manual of sorts. Shadows of Esteren does not have monsters in the conventional fantasy setting but enigmas and most of the horrific encounters that players may encounter are their fellow humans. Either as noble intrigues, mysterious mages/druids or just lost villages. That said – the monsters do exist beyond the Id – and are quite horrific and monstrous. In a way, it does remind me the superior way that Trail of Cthulhu handles the Mythos – as the ultimate unknowable entity that is simply bad or will drive you mad. And, after years of seeing Loot the Dungeon and Steal their Stuff – this approach is very refreshing – it goes beyond World of Darkness techniques by retaining more of a strictly narrativist approach. Thus, you may find in a conventional bestiary – a write up for a dragon – what you are treated to is the Worm of Lambton instead. It may be, as unique as that or it may the part of the every growing spawn of nasty beasties that are beginning to plague the land. And, this is where it reminds me of the Martin’s Wildings…
And, lastly maybe an error in translation or an omission the Table of Contents – refers to Glossary which would be a highly useful to have – however what we are treated to is a bare-bones index. Also, quite useful but given how elaborate the campaign world is detailed – a more in-depth index would be appreciated. Thus, we come to the end of this review. Did I like the book – absolutely – for it sets the quality of art and narrative light years above anything that Dungeons and Dragons can offer – that said – it is for the mature and seasoned role player which is not everyone. Maybe, it is the groups that I have been involved with – but gaming has involved more gonzo and leisurely pastime rather than a concrete exploration of a fantasy world. That said, I do think this entire line speaks to people who wish a heavily narrativist immersive world. The book with its lavish and beautiful art inspires in the same way that Spanish artist Luis Royo inspires but if your style of play is more Frank Frazetta or Boris Vallejo – otherwise – heroic Sword & Sorcery – then this might not be the campaign world for you. But, if you are looking for an epic Tolkien-like world without following any Tolkien’s works and grounded in a quasi-Celtic mythology or very old Gaul sensibility then most certainly you should pick up this book. Sections may require a couple of readings and extensive note-taking – but if you have the time and inclination – you are likely to be rewarded with a deep and rich experience that is likely not to be surpassed any time soon. The few nitpicks of incompleteness – I can only hope that Studio 2 (the English publisher of the line) will remedy in swift order.