miércoles, 23 de marzo de 2016

Shadows of Esteren

I just finished reading Shadows of Esteren (Book 1) and I wanted to share my impressions about this game.

Shadows of Esteren is a little world. The setting is based in a peninsula called Tri-Kazel which is spiritually linked to a somewhat celtic inspiration. This peninsula is isolated from the continent by an almost impassable mountain range, and the sea surrounding the rest of it is so stormy and furious that it's equally impassable. This continent is simply called the Continent, although it's known it has at least two different nations, one of it is a Theocracy, and another is a more scientific nation.

This setting is a low fantasy one, meaning medieval fantasy, with no elves, dwarfs or any other creature usually imagined in such settings. The supernatural part is represented by the Feondas, which is just the common name of an array of creatures that tries to kill other living beings. These feondas seem like twisted versions of vermin, animals, plants and humans, and nothing is explained about them except what they are thought to be.

There are three supernatural-kind-of ways to understand world. The native way is based on spirits of nature. Under this perspective, the Feondas are the expression of the fury of such spirits for not having been paid the proper respect. From the Continent came a faith in a one god, creator of everything, and to the faithful of it, Feondas are demons, enemies of that one god. From a different country of the Continent came the Magience, a kind of Magic-Science based on the fabrication of artifacts that use a kind of energy called "the Flux". For magientist, the Feondas are just part of the natural world, just not yet understood.

After reading the ambientation, one is under the impression that Feondas are far from being the the most important topic, while the differences between the traditionalist nature-spirit-believers, the one-god faithful and the magientist are truly important.

The writing generally do a good job at presenting each part of the world under a different, subjective vision, stating that is a collection of testimonies of different sources about the peninsula, gathered by a noble and delivered to his counselor. Reading it is very enjoyable and actually makes you want to play stories in this setting. It has enough details to feel defined but not enough to make it constrained, so each group of players can (and should) define its own Tri-Kazel to reflect what they prefer regarding how precise each represented viewpoint really is.

The rules are simple, just 1d10 plus some modifiers and versus a target number to be reached (or surpassed)

The skill system has a nice detail: there are several narrow skills called Disciplines. To access one particular Discipline you need a general skill that includes that Discipline. This general skill is called Domain, and some Disciplines are accesible from several Domains. Domains are from 0 to 5 points, while Disciplines are from 6 to 15. Some Disciplines, like weapon disciplines, have to specialize again from 11 to 15, so you can be a legendary swordman with Longsword 15, but you use other one-handed blades at 10 and any Close Combat way of fighting with 5. It's a nice point that all artisans know a bit about other crafts, and any specialist in a particular science has a basic knowledge on all of them, because it helps reflecting how most skills actually work in the real world, more related than isolated.

The most different thing about the system is that the place of attributes like Strength or Intelligence is taken by personality traits called Ways. Everyone is average in Strength, Intelligence and the rest of traditional attributes/characteristics/abilities, except when they buy a particular advantage or disadvantage related to it, and when you divide people in a 1d10 range, pretty much everyone is average.

The definition, then, is about how the personality is. The ways are Combativeness, Reason, Creativeness, Empathy and Conviction, and are evaluated from 1 to 5. Most usually, more is better, but there is a caveat. Since they express personality, to "help" playing your character as it is, there is the "test" idea. For instance, if your character is in a very emotional situation you're probably portraying that and behaving in a way the emotion is getting the upper hand instead of the tactical advantages, but if you are not, you will have to make a "test". You'll roll 1d10 and compare with a target number equal to your Combativeness (which also represents how much you tend to let yourself go with your emotions) plus a modifier.

It's a nice thing to see how personality actually influences what you can do, and even with its limitations (a person with high Combativeness and Reason would not be as emotional as one with high Combativeness and low Reason) it is interesting. After all, in the instance of a fight (a particular easy one, when you are used to think reallistically about them) what you can do is obviously important, but it's far more important what you're willing to do.

Ways mean personality, then, not ability as it, so Combativeness means how quick you are to anger (and any emotion, really) and prone to solve problems through force (of will, shouting or fighting, that depends on your details). Reason represent how prone you are to think about things, not how well you do, and likewise with the rest.

Overall, it is a system with nice ideas to experiment and to represent the normal world, but it has a few problems.

First of all, the supernatural systems (Magience, Druid-kind-of and One-God religion) are not coherent with the low-fantasy the setting is presented to be, nor with the ambientation presented through the book. The first problem is that the Druids and Faithful have what amounts to powers. Powers that most usually work to some extent in a clear way. For instance, both have magical healing, the Druids can make lighting fall on you from the sky and the Clerics can freeze you to death. When a person is able to freeze somebody to death in the six seconds a combat round represents, with but a prayer, its religion is not a matter of faith anymore. The same happens with the Druids and the nature-given favors, such as petrifying an enemy. And both are not coherent with a low-fantasy setting, at any rate.

As for Magience, it could have been a bit more coherent, but it is not in a different way. Magientist artifacts are usually difficult to use (to switch them on you usually have to expend a round and a roll) and breakdown prone, and that I could understand. It's a way to mix a kind of steampunk in the setting and I'm ok with such more or less experimental artifacts to be difficult to use, specially in a rainy, cold place like a celtic peninsula, with mountains and swamps and whatnot. What I find most incoherent about Magience is Flux. Flux is an energy extracted in a liquid form, from just about anything. There are different types of flux (mineral, vegetal, animal and fossil). Fossil flux is already "extracted", while the other types are depending on what you have grind to extract flux from. It's a bit like Mage's quintessence, that is everywhere, in everything. In the ambientation you are told that magientists are most famous as the inventors of Nebulars, a kind of lamp. They use these lamps often and the greatest cities have nebulars to light the streets (at least, on the good neighbourhoods) Then you get to the system and see that a single, portable Nebular uses one Flux charge every 12 hours. How many charges do a whole neighbourhood worth of Nebular lamposts use? Keep that number in mind, because you need to grind about 400 pounds of rock to get one single charge. Now multiply and see if it's reasonable to use that amount of matter. Add now that the refined charge is about three ounces of mass and the rest of the matter grind is turned to a contaminant amount of something ashy, nothing you could do something with, and then it's even more incoherent the world that has been presented to you with its rules.

And, of course, magientist weapons use one charge per use, while damage is about the same of a bow. Honestly, if the first portable firearms had had no advantage over a bow but required a process of a whole day and a couple hundreds of minerals for every shot... we'd still be using bows or crossbows.
In conclusion, it seems a nice setting to play stories about intrigue, mysteries, thrillers... but it needs to tune way down the powers of druids and clerics and a deep revision of the magience thing.
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