Thursday, November 6, 2014

Shadows of Esteren Review

Esteren was originally a French RPG that has been translated to English. The translation is good, but it is full of world-jargon that sounds nothing like English to me and is, I'm assuming, psuedo-celtic. So If you want to master some of the nuances of its setting, you'll have to find a way to memorize words your brain doesn't care much about. I like to think I know something about the subject of word memorization; I learned fluent Japanese over 5 years.

However, I feel in terms of atmosphere it is fairly well presented and in terms of mechanics, it really sings. My play experience is running an introductory adventure from the free to download prologue book (using the battle attitudes rules from the at-cost product).

The setting felt like a bit of Britainic peoples (pre anglo-saxons, maybe?) dealing with the influence of Romans and their ideas of science and other modern civilization double-edged swords. People are clannish and druidic, but influenced by lords and new monotheistic religion.

Esteren is supposed to be presented as a cinematic experience. The adventures have graphics like a director's slate-board and indications that you should use techniques from movies like flashbacks and cutaways to things that the PCs may never know but the players will have to avoid metagaming about. I'm cool with that technique, but skeptical of the constant suggestions for specific songs.

You see, Esteren is supposed to gritty medieval horror, and I find music in horror games distracts. Players are pretty prone to making a joke out of anything they can (we laughed a lot), and music can serve to further distract, so I recommend some nice, ominous, ambient music to truly set a horror mood. Take this scene for example, it's dripping with mood:
But hey, if you want some tools, Esteren is going to suggest them for you. It's fine, but slightly distracting for an ADHD DM like me.

The scenario we ran had a fine plot, but as presented it was a bit hard for me to keep the details straight. It would be easier to run as a dead tree product than a PDF. I had to make lots of notes and charts and timelines to keep it all smooth. But I am admittedly ADHD;  a visual DM who likes to look at maps and their corresponding keys, and there were none in the scenario.

However, as I said, the mechanics were pretty cool.
There are a few basic scores that the rest of your character is built upon, and they are a range between two useful extremes each, so there is less min/maxing (meta-gaming the best build) in this RPG. The ability scores are pretty cool in that they give cues for character traits too.

For instance, combativeness is good for hitting things, but it also makes you a jerk or a hothead or whatever you want to write for your flaws. And if you are investing your points in it, you might also be a little socially awkward. The players had a ball playing these quirks out.

The DM can use traits to decide how a PC perceives the world.

I also liked the latent dementia concept. They provide further role-playing cues as well as a path that characters who see too much horror will fall into.

Combat mechanics are pretty simple and easy to narrate. Each round you can choose a combat attitude which adds a "potential" score to one aspect of your stats (attack, defense, initiative, movement), while reducing another in kind. When players declare their attitude each round, they are giving the GM ideas for how the round will play out. Basically, they are encouraged to declare actions without it feeling odd.

Then everyone in the fight acts on their speed (initiative) order, which is a set number. It can be changed for a round by combat attitude, but it is really simple to run through action resolutions once you know everyone's speed. The basic PDF didn't seem to mention what to do about people acting at the same speed, but I had them act simultaneously.

Attacking is fairly simple. Roll a d10 and add an attack skill and try to beat the foe's defence skill. If you hit, take that margin you won the roll by and add your weapon's damage rating to it, then your foe takes that as damage, save for what damage reduction their armor affords them. Something elegant about that.

Wounded characters will perform worse at everything. This game has a death spiral, which can only be ignored by spending cinematic action points or whatever they are called. So fights can get serious fast.

There is a skill tree and DCs table. Everything is resolved by rolling a d10 and adding it to a skill (or trait if you don't have the skill) score. It's simple. I like using only d10s  and not bothering with any other dice--even for damage--for some reason. Oh, yeah, the reason is simplicity.

I recommend this RPG. I would like to try adapting some LotFP modules or something to it, though those are a bit too fantastical for this RPG, maybe. I'm not even sure if the boogeymen of the setting are even real yet, but there are fantastic things out there like druidic mysteries and psuedo-scientific magic.
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