The other day, Facebook showed me an advert for something interesting. Not, I fear, interesting for the exact reason that the algorithm suggested it might be, but interesting nonetheless.
Shadows of Esteren purports to be "a medieval role-playing game somewhere between Ravenloft, Game of Thrones and Call of Cthulhu" - yes, two out of three of those ARE extremely relevant to my interests and the third isn't exactly a million miles away either, so I can see why the recommendation came through.
What piqued me about this wasn't so much the premise, though, as the pimping. Somewhere between this RPG and that RPG by way of that currently-hyped fantasy product. Which is fair enough, but... isn't mashing RPG systems together something we can do for ourselves?
Nevertheless, I made with the clickening and sought deeper...
Shadows of Esteren is a medieval role-playing game with a horrific and gothic influence. Drawing inspiration from Celtic myths, this universe has a discreetly fantastic side hidden under a bleak, realistic surface. This world is populated with humans who have to struggle through tough daily lives, while facing a supernatural threat lurking in the dark. With the focus of its adventures being investigation and survival, Shadows of Esteren favors an immersive mood and interaction among the Players.
So it's Gothic, it's Celtic, it has a slant toward investigation and player interaction... this isn't, so far, looking like anything I couldn't just... run myself. Under some rules system I already own.
This particular atmosphere is drawn from several sources of inspiration: the harshness and romanticism of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart; the universes of Tim Burton, particularly that of Sleepy Hollow; Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke; as well as Berserk, the manga by Kentaro Miura.OK, it wears its heart on its sleeve, I like that, but these still feel like inspirations for a campaign. I might see merit in running a dozen sessions of something that's influenced by all these things (well, I haven't read Berserk, but you get the idea), but buying a set of rules that work toward that fairly narrow plane? Do we need a whole system specifically for that atmosphere?
I find myself asking this question of new RPG releases quite often, and I'm increasingly sure that the answer is no. I don't think we need to reinvent the wheel every time we decide to run a different kind of game, tell a different kind of story. I think, or feel, or perhaps suspect, that in the last forty or so years we've seen more than enough sets of rules for pretending to be wizards or vampires or ordinary people trapped in a web of supramundane terror to need no more.
Now, I hear a predictable objection flapping through the air like the Shantak-bird, so let me hoist my elephant gun forthwith before I'm carried off to Kadath: I am not saying that we need fewer games. Let's blast "but more games is better you want less games means you hate fun" out of the sky right now. I'm saying we need more games - as in "my role playing game using this system with these house rules and these resources and inspirations, which I run in this style directed toward these goals" - and fewer systems.
I don't think you need to make up a whole new RPG rule set from scratch just to play a Celtic-themed horror game. I am, at my time of life, disinclined to learn a whole new game system that stands alone, but I would welcome a creative fillip and a shot of pure inspiration in the arm for a system that I already own and know and play. I would like to read a very well produced, exquisitely pretty supplement - something with well-tuned gameables, consistent art and usable resources, designer's notes on what's been changed and to what ends. I would like to see the RPG 'industry', especially the DIY RPG 'industry', shift away from endlessly reinventing the wheel, and toward doing something inventive with the wheels we already have. How else are we supposed to go from wheels and axles to Big Ben?