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Enter The Shadowside - Core Book $4.99
Publisher: FableForge
by Jason C. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 11/27/2014 00:09:00

Before I tell you about Enter the Shadowside, let's talk about the supernatural in RPGs. There are two huge mistakes people make when putting the supernatural into RPGs.

The first is that sometimes they don't clearly define what the supernatural does in their RPG. We generally have some idea of what the real, non-supernatural world is like, and how it works, so we need some type of system or mechanics or at the very least instructions about what to do when something supernatural happens in our game, whether wielded by the players, by monsters, or just as a condition in the world.

The second mistake some RPGs make is that they don't make the mechanisms of the supernatural, whether quasi-scientific or mystic an actionable fact, something that both impacts and can be impacted by player action. If nothing can ever be done about a ghost, that may be fine for a book or movie, because at the end the audience high fives each other and goes about its business, but in a RPG or other type of interactive fiction, you want the player's actions to have consequence in the world.

Some of my favorite settings and scenarios fail at least one of these tests. The Forgotten Realms has a ridiculously detailed and contradictory account of how magic works, but there's never a clear statement of what player characters - even epic level player characters! - can affect even the smallest part of it. Sometimes freeform play or group-customized material bumps up against differing player expectations - quick, can Dracula go outside during the day? (Yes.)

The original World of Darkness games avoided the second mistake in the grandest of fashions, putting supernatural, scary stuff right in the hands of the players from the first time they said "pick a Clan". But over time, the varying game lines developed the first mistake. Players drove each other crazy trying to make the games fit together. (This should never have been done, but nobody asked me, or I suspect, White Wolf.) So a lot of modern supernatural games since that time have worked hard to fix that first mistake, working out complicated ideas for what supernatural abilities really represent, where they come from, a coherent cosmology, and so forth. But few remembered the great strength of the World of Darkness approach was its playability, how it was (at least at first) tightly organized around player-character views and activities. It resulted in a lot of wasted words describing some dumb god or demon or ancient order of magicians that simply did not matter in play.

Enter the Shadowside, which recently went for a new Kickstarter, manages to avoid both of these mistakes, organizing its supernatural world cleanly but making sure that the player characters are situated effectively in the world as well. The world of Enter the Shadowside is one in which characters form pacts with mysterious spirits in order to gain occult power. In order to do this, they normally connect up with one of the organizations that exist in the world. There are nine, organized by whether they are anarchic or orderly (or neutral), and egoistic or altruistic (or neutral). Interestingly, whereas in many supernatural settings the organizations are all centuries old, some in Enter the Shadowside are definitively modern, including a shady Russian corporation and a 4chan-a-like message board.

The system is an interesting one - characters are created via a "turtle shell" of assigning points, in which many stats combine in various ways to create several derived stats. The system is a simple d20 roll with various bonuses or penalties attached, though it's explained in a somewhat strange way. (I couldn't really puzzle it out until I saw the chart comparing outcomes to target numbers and was surprisingly underwhelmed.)

The characters use the mysterious shadow dimension of imagination called the Shadowside for their own purposes; what I find interesting is that unlike many games, the characters are actually more effective and flexible there than the natives, since they bring with them the realities of our world. This also explains why some of the powerful entities there want to partner with characters; it benefits their agendas too.

One thing I very much like about Enter the Shadowside is the clear instructions to the GM, being quite up front about what the first few sessions should be like, what the next sessions should be like and so on. There's even a section of the book that introduces two of the nine organizations that don't appear until the "Endgame" - this is a mystic game that actually expects you, in your campaign, to get to the end of the world in a reasonable time. That's very cool.

Probably there's no need for the "please don't pirate this" page. Who pirates things anymore anyway? Nerds and losers, whatever. All the cool kids buy their stuff at drivethrurpg dot com, while wearing sunglasses probably.

If there's a weakness to Enter the Shadowside, it's that the GM section doesn't clearly indicate how I bring a group of characters together and how I oppose them both effectively and dramatically. Is it best to chase them? To attack them directly? Is this a game where they should be targeted or is it too big for that until they pull something off? What is the roal of individual character goals versus teams in this game? I would like to see a more thorough breakdown of how to get from character creation through the first few sessions, to get that all important inertia going.

And the glossary for what all the various factions call all the various skills and things in the setting is just too much to absorb (and won't actually produce more than one or two good jokes.)

I would highly recommend Enter the Shadowside if you're looking for a well-organized modern horror-magic game that is both well-detailed and clearly actionable. The system isn't anything special - hopefully the new Kickstarter edition will spruce that up a bit - but it seems at first glance to get the job done. And the Endgame concept is really awesome.

It's not that expensive and it's quite solid. Check it out.

[4 of 5 Stars!]
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Enter The Shadowside - Core Book
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