The following review was originally posted at Roleplayers Chronicle and can be read in its entirety at http://roleplayerschronicle.com/?p=21586.
Enter the Shadowside is a horror-infused setting surrounding a modern fantasy system, designed to create a unique experience for the players and GMs. It uses a d20 roll-over target number system where the target is determined by comparing the initiators might (a combination of their attributes, skills, and items) to their target’s difficulty (a combination of their attributes, skill, and items for opposed actions or simply a measure of difficulty). These two numbers are placed on a scale, referred to as Jacob’s Ladder, and then connected virtually with a ruler or straight edge to determine the target number (or minimum dice roll needed). This presents the players and GM (referred to as StoryHost) a sliding target number scale always determined by using the chart (so both parties are always aware of what the target number is). The attributes, skills, and items that play into these mechanics are modern fantasy based.
The Enter the Shadowside setting is a horror-infused version of our modern world such as this horrific parallel realm, essentially a spiritual realm where the spirits of the dead and other beings reside, is tapped into for creating the supernatural abilities the characters of the setting acquire. They do this by becoming imbued with a being from this parallel realm (called the Shadowside), gaining supernatural abilities. The system and setting have a lot of abstract behaviors producing a game that is meant to be flexible, but not really meant for the beginning player. It is an advanced system being that much of the crunch is determined through game-play and player input instead of simply existing in the rules. It allows for a huge amount of flexibility, but hampers those who lack the drive to determine these things themselves.
Enter the Shadowside is a unique system and setting for the advanced tabletop role-player. The game demonstrates appeal to those who wish to make their campaigns into “their game” by creating the mechanics presented as flexible or open-ended (such as skills and items). The system and setting also embraces the group participation philosophy on story design by allowing everyone’s character to truly affect the overall design of the campaign. Instead of having a campaign with a defined end, there are plot factors highly influenced by the characters’ design and what organization they belong to. Do they fight for the good of the people or just themselves? Do they attempt to make things better or exploit things to make them worse? It’s truly a game that can be pulled in multiple directions depending on how the players respond to the setting.
Publication Quality: 7 out of 10
I have very mixed feelings on the layout and structure of Enter the Shadowside. The book visually looks great, but is not ideal in some ways. The book is designed as a PDF-only product. This is obvious through the lack of mirrored pages reflected by page numbers always being on the right and a background that doesn’t change from left to right page. That’s not a problem for a PDF-only book, especially those designed for use on handheld devices. However, the book is laid-out in a 3-column format which results in a lot of scrolling while reading the PDF. In addition, there are no bookmarks to help navigate quicker from section to section. You simply have to flip through every page and find what you want. There is no index pointing you quickly to the right sections (this is very important in core rulebooks).
The art, however, is absolutely stunning. There is a comic within the early pages of the book depicting the process of Hierogamy with a venture through the Shadowside. This comic presents an interesting depiction of the Shadowside, but does very little to explain the greater setting as a whole.
Mechanics: 5 out of 10
The Jacob’s Ladder system for determining target number is very interesting and innovative. It’s a unique implementation of a roll-over chart presented in a very simple manner. In addition, the game’s core mechanics are quite solid and easy-to-understand. If you’re a new to tabletop RPGs, however, you may find it extremely difficult to create the skills that define your character. I understand the desire to be flexible, but one must remember that the skills are used as a bonus to your base attributes. Thus, what they are exactly isn’t nearly as important as why your character possesses them (as in, defining how they are better in this skill compared to other characters).
One thing Enter the Shadowside relies heavily on are the different Organizations. Each one defines how the character goes through Hierogamy and what supernatural abilities are available to them. They are described, but not fully described. The content tells you who they are and what they do (albeit in a limited fashion), but it fails to explain why these organizations exist (as in what fuels their actions) and what their end goals are. After reading through the entire book, I have no idea what these organizations want and why they would want it. I’m sure this will be discussed in subsequent sourcebooks, but it really leaves large gaps in the base setting. This is explained slightly within the book as something the GM needs to decipher throughout game-play.
As discussed, skills are discussed but not detailed. Players are supposed to create the skills that define their character concept and provide a reason as to why they have those skills. But none of these skills are defined and the players and GMs are left to determine what is reasonable and what isn’t. They are also left to define what is relevant and what adds no value. Yes it allows for maximum flexibility but at the same time it opens the game to a lot of debate and a lot of situations where the players may try to associate a skill with an action while the GM does not. It is a mechanical implementation of abstract storytelling fluff to provide bonuses to your might when determining your target number. Connecting the dots is tricky, but advanced players may find it easy.
One gaping hole I found is the Item bonuses allowed. Characters carry equipment just like every game. This equipment provides bonuses or penalties to an applicable action. This equipment covers weapons, armor, and mundane items. However, there are no weapons, armor, or mundane items listed in the book. How do I know how much of a bonus is provided for a pistol versus a dagger? What about different types of armor? What bonuses are provided by mundane items? None of this is addressed other than the example character sheets which are not explained. Item bonuses are an integral part of the game, but never actually given. While this may seem like another flexible mechanic like skills, leaving this to player and GM interpretation can result in a thousand possibilities.
Another gaping hole is what do you do with the Shadowside after Hierogamy. Do the creatures come out? Do they attack the characters when attempting to use a supernatural ability? Or is it simply there for grabbing a spirit to perform hierogamy? There’s no bestiary in this book so I don’t understand how the Shadowside affects the greater setting other than providing spirits for hierogamy.
Desire to Play: 8 out of 10
Please note this rating is for the advanced player who can create the flexible mechanics easily. Beginning players may have a lot more difficulty. Enter the Shadowside has a lot of potential and an extremely interesting setting. If you are able to work through the flexible mechanics without over-debating it, the potential for interesting games is quite large. The fluff surrounding the Hierogamy process is enough to grab your attention simply to find out more. But how it plays is really up to the players and their dedication.
Overall: 7 out of 10
One of the reviews I saw stated Enter the Shadowside felt more like a sourcebook than a core rulebook. I agree with that statement as there are too many gaps that need to be filled and too many items that are open to debate. The book seems to focus a lot on the Hierogamy even though it’s only a portion of the game system. Some of the content reads like a blog of forum post instead of providing valuable content such as what you may find in a sourcebook. Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see what supplements come available.
[4 of 5 Stars!]