Over the last couple of days, I have had a chance to write about my time spent in the world of Shadows of Esteren. With themes like hope and despair and systems that enable storytelling and role-play over combat ruled by numbers, the idea behind this series is to immerse players so they can better feel the sense of dread and loss in a low-fantasy settings. Shadows of Esteren Book 2: Travels really does a nice job of picking up where the last book left off by providing key tools to help finish shaping the framework to your gaming sessions.
The player characters are essentially ordinary, everyday humans who are trying to deal with an unforgiving world. Advancement, magic and mechanics abound, but Shadows of Esteren aims to satisfy gamers more interested in a story than acting as rules lawyers. We have all had those in tabletop sessions, I am sure. Those players who want to eek out every last tiny statistical advantage because they are more concerned with winning the game than experiencing it.
Of course, being a competitive guy myself I can understand that, but Shadows of Esteren embraces a different philosophy. Much of this is presented in Book 1: Universe. Now it is up to Book 2: Travels to fill out the rest of the world. There is no call for a massive bestiary with hundreds of elaborately thought out monsters, though the Feondas are abnormalities that help to create the bulk of the threat here.
Here there are five short stories that help to promote the gameplay, but now gaming aids are more readily available. There are better descriptions and images of important places, and the denizens of the world are presented as part of this book (but not so numerous and complicated that they need a tome of their own). These statistics do come in handy and help to answer some of the lingering questions I had about mechanics after reading through the first two books.
The best comparison I can make to Dungeons & Dragons materials is that Travels feels more like a Dungeon Master's Guide, while Universe felt more like a Player's Handbook. It is more mechanical, with a peek behind the curtain for Game Leaders. Different personalities and places are explained in thorough detail and present the Game Leader opportunities to tell their story - while offering plenty of room to expand upon it on the fly as needed.
Of the prior two books, Travels is probably the driest read. It is the most mechanical, with rules and details that are important, but not as flavorful as most of the content found in the prior books. That being said, it is still put together in very logical fashion and it far more readable than many other similar guides for tabletop games. The writing is excellent and the artwork found throughout is also amazing. As someone who usually enjoys the Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual more than most of the other guides, the information found in the bestiary section was fascinating for me.
You can probably play a solid adventure with the earlier two books, but Travels really feels like the engine that makes everything work and pulls the different pieces of the system together. The players fuel the game's progress through their investigations and actions, but Travels guides the related events to help lead them to a satisfying conclusion for player and Game Leader alike. It is a tool, but the tome serves as an enjoyable tool all the same.
Shadows of Esteren Book 2: Travels is very well-constructed, with a sturdy cover and high quality page paper. There is an attention to detail in how the book is assembled, to the way the text is crafted to the gorgeous artwork found on so many of the pages. Book 0: Prologue offers a free way to peek into this world, but for those interested in delving deeper into the mysteries of Shadows of Esteren, Travels will likely prove essential reading.
Review by Nick