This article is long overdue. I had intentions of playing SoE before I wrote the article about the game mechanics, but alas the Autumn is a very busy time for me at work, and quickly my time to organize a game and test drive SoE evaporated. As not to delay things too long, I will review the game mechanics as someone who has 30 years of gaming, and hundreds of systems under my belt. So let’s take a tour of the mechanics of Shadows of Esteren.
Disclaimer- I was provided a copy of Shadows of Esteren by the Esteren team.
Previously on Gnome Stew
The full rundown on the Shadows of Esteren setting is in my previous article . Take a few minutes to refresh yourself with that article, as I want to keep this article focused only on the mechanics.
A Tour Of The Rules
Weighing in at just over 100 pages, the rules make up about 1/3 of the book, and are located in the last third of the book. In a theme that is going to come up throughout this review, this is a light system that puts its focus on the players and story and not on tactics and crunch. For easy of review, I have broken the book down into some major sections and not by the actual chapters.
The Character creation rules cover all aspects of character creation and advancement, and is the largest portion of the rules section. It starts with a focus on both character and group backgrounds before going into any mechanical steps of character creation. You are then guided through the character creation process step-by-step with an easy to follow set of instructions.
One thing that really stands out in SoE are the Ways. Unlike most RPG’s, there are not the common stats (Strength, Agility, Endurance, etc). Rather SoE uses Ways: Combativeness, Creativity, Empathy, Reason, and Conviction. These are mental characteristics which make up your general personality, and your rankings in your Ways also inform the kind of personality you have. The Skill system is a tree system with the Skills grouped into large domains, which contain more specialized disciplines. Skill selection is influenced by the characters profession, birthplace, and social class. The Ways combine with Skills, so Science+Reason combine and represent your ability to logically understand a scientific problem.
After Ways and Skills, there is a lifepath mechanic, that provides some background based on age. Then there are some secondary stats which are derived by combinations of the Ways. Finally there is an initial set of experience points that the player can use to round out their characters by acquiring and increasing Skills, or picking up Advantages. It is here in the Advantage section that you can take Advantages that model the more traditional stats such as Strong, Smart, Nimble, etc. The chapter rounds out with some final character touches including an Action Point/Bennie system, equipment, and a section on character advancement (an XP based system).
When you are done with this system you not only have all the mechanical aspects of your character complete, but you have worked out some history, a connection to the group, as well as some indication of the overall personality. There is no doubt that characters are a major focus of the game, with the number of pages dedicated to their creation.
The resolution mechanic is a very simple one, which combines Way + Skill + 1d10 to overcome a difficulty threshold (DT). There is an automatic success if your Ways + Skill exceed the DT. Likewise there is a failure if the DT is higher than what you could possibly roll. A critical success is rolling two 10’s in a row, and a critical failure results from two 1’s in a row. Finally there is a margin rule so that the better your roll, the better your success (and a worse failure for a worse roll) as compared to the DT.
There is another type of check called a Test, where the player rolls 1d10 to attempt to roll higher than one of their Ways to avoid indulging in the negative version of that trait (i.e. Reason vs. Doubt). In a way this is a mix between a classic Saving Throw and Fate’s compelling of an Aspect. The GM can call for these in order to tempt the character into acting on the negative side of their Ways.
There is an optional rule, which I love, that allows you to combine different Ways with Skills so that you can use your Science+Creativity to creatively solve a scientific problem. While you run the risk of the player with a high Creativity asking for every check to be based off of Creativity (“Because I am creative.”) it creates a flexibility that allows the GM to call for checks with more variety.
Overall, I like this mechanism. I love margins and I really like the optional Ways rule. My only concern is that 1d10 is a more narrow range of possible results than a multi-die or exploding die type of mechanic, but that is a personal preference and not a critique on the mechanics.
Combat System & Health
The combat system is pretty straight forward and plays right off of the base mechanic system. One roll determines if you hit and how much damage you do. There are a few combat options including different fighting attitudes (e.g offensive, defensive, quick, etc), but not the array of options you would see in more combat-oriented games. Weapons have a fixed amount of damage, and armor subtracts from damage taken. Damage is managed on a damage track, with levels of deterioration affecting rolls. Natural healing is slow, but not too slow to impact the flow of the game.
This combat system is light when compared to something like Pathfinder or 4e. It feels more like a simplified Burning Wheel combat system, where damage comes on quick, and one does not fight a group of bandits alone. Groups that have a large tactical need are going to find this system lacking. A group that is more story based will find this system clean and quick.
The magic section covers chapters for all three magical traditions: the druidic Demorthen Arts, the divine Miracles of the Temple, and the technomagic of Magience. The Demorthen Arts and the Miracles of the Temple have a very similar set of mechanics, while both feel like their respective arts. They are based on having/knowing certain types of power, and then being able to craft your own spell by selecting number of targets, area, length, and effect. It makes for a very flexible casting system that creative players will enjoy. The powers scale well, and at higher levels are capable of some impressive effects.
The Magience has a different feel. It is based on extracting Flux (i.e. mana) from various living objects and using the Flux to power artifacts. Magience is the industrial revolution version of magic in Eberron. It lights streets, heals people, powers artifacts, but all at the cost of dirty Flux extraction factories. The chapter on Magience feels a bit light and in need of more content, which hopefully will be addressed in an upcoming supplement.
The rules close out with a Sanity system. There are things in the world of Esteren that should not be seen, and those that encounter such things are changed by them. The Sanity system is a detailed system where the GM manages the overall sanity ratings of the players, and through role playing brings about clues to their traumas. The rules provide background and detail for the GM to play out the various traumas which can occur.
The SoE mechanics are light, with a very character-centric focus. It is a set of mechanics that drive a story-based type of game in a very unique fantasy realm. I found the rules to be a lighter read than the setting material. That is not a bad thing at all, as the authors of Shadows of Esteren had a specific tone and feel in mind for their game, and the setting is the clear focus of this book. The light rules support the tone of the game, putting the focus on rich characters adventuring in a beautiful and dangerous land.
After reading it through and letting it digest, the rules as they exist in Book 1 are fully playable but there are things that are not present that a GM will need going forward. One example is a Bestiary. With other Shadows of Esteren books being translated, I suspect that these things will start showing up in future volumes.
My apologies to everyone who has been waiting for the second part of this review. I would have liked to have gotten a playtest in before this review, but I hope that my perspective as a system promiscuous gamer is of value.