Enter the Shadowside is a new roleplaying game from FableForge. It’s available as an affordable 75-page PDF. It’s a modern-day supernatural conspiracy game written by Marco Leon. The first thing it reminds me of is Unknown Armies. In Enter the Shadowside, player characters have spirits riding around inside their heads. The second thing it reminds me of is Sorcerer.
The Shadowside in the title refers to the game’s parallel universe, or alternate reality, or dimension of dreams, or whatever you wish to call it. It’s a reality overlaid upon our own, where the souls of the dead go and the ghosts come from. It’s created by the thoughts and dreams of people, much like in Planescape. Belief Creates Reality, or “Cogito Ergo Mundus” (which literally means “I think, therefore the universe” and is grammatically as correct). The different religions of the world are explained as merely different ways to contextualize the Shadowside and its phenomena.
The PCs belong to one of nine—or seven, really—organizations or secret societies that are nicely laid out in a three-by-three grid with the axes of Altruistic–Neutral–Egoistic and Orderly–Neutral–Anarchic. The Altruistic Orderly and Egoistic Anarchic organizations are recommended only for the endgame of a campaign and even then as NPCs. Indeed, they aren’t even described with the rest of the organizations in the organization chapter, but in a special appendix at the end of the book that says “DO NOT READ ANYTHING BEYOND THIS POINT UNLESS YOU ARE A STORYHOST AND HAVE RUN AT LEAST SIX SESSIONS!!” I confess to cheating, here.
“StoryHost” (sic), incidentally, is the game’s Game Master figure.
The organizations, each of which have their own paranormal skills, are Fujin’s Blood, who are a mystical Yakuza; Diabolus Malleos (a.k.a. Διαβόλου σφύρα), who are the local Knights Templar; Somosa, the Voodoo guys; the Sisterhood of Salem, who are witches, vampires and werewolves in the WoD vein; the Greater Thelema Society, the descendants of the Hellfire Club by way of Aleister Crowley; Accelletrix, who are the magical megacorporation; and finally, the only one that I consider really interesting, the SCaV3NG3R.
The Scav3ngers are the mystical Anonymous. They’ve found the occult reality through “creepypasta”, the urban legends and ghost stories of the internet generation, on various forums. I think the concept is interesting and sort of grounded in reality in a way that the others aren’t. Their slang is inspired by 4chan and other online forums. They call the apocalypse “Longcatnarök”, which captures the gleeful irreverence of the culture. This is good stuff, and I’m sort of interested in seeing the eventual SCaV3NG3R sourcebook. The game is coyly suggesting that these are the heroes of the setting by using certain of their slang terms as the game’s core terminology. For instance, in the gameworld, Hierogamy and Shadowside are the Scavenger terms for these things, while the other organizations use their own names.
The game’s system looks lightweight and workable (I must confess to not having had the opportunity to test it in practice), though the resolution mechanic involves the use of a table called the Jacob’s Ladder. I understand the motivation to inject flavour into the ruleset itself, but the introduction of a chart you must refer every time you roll and check the target number with a ruler is inelegant. The character sheet also contains some potential for great confusion. Here, meet the World-Turtle.
The World-Turtle is where you mark down your character’s stats, a number in each of the boxes. Simple, right? Except that once your character enters Hierogamy (i.e. gets a spirit riding in their head) you also mark down the spirit’s stats in those boxes, in a different corner, and in the middle you put the combined value. The Turtle looks nice, but will end up cluttered and confusing.
In general, the visual side is where the game fails. The game is laid out, for reasons beyond my mortal comprehension, in a hideous three-column format with a typeface that is slightly too large, leading to very short lines and an unpleasant reading experience. There’s a reason the two-column format is the standard. The short lines also lead to great many syllable breaks, which the word processor has inserted more or less at random (well, not randomly, but I’ve never seen a word processor that can reliably and accurately do syllabification in English). The font itself is Arial, which should never be used for anything and commits an aesthetic crime with the introduction of drop cap initials. Seriously. Two columns, and for all that is good and pure, find a font that can differentiate between the capital I and the lowercase l. Even Comic Sans can do that.
Enter the Shadowside doesn’t explain much. The GM is called the StoryHost, which you are not told anywhere. The term just pops up in the middle of character generation. The game uses six- and twenty-sided dice, which you must figure out by carefully reading the Mechanics chapter. It could use a page in the beginning going over the basics: this is how the game is different from other roleplaying games, these are the dice you need, the basic rolling mechanic goes like this. Another thing I find myself wanting is a StoryHost chapter telling you what to do with the game, what kind of adventures to run, perhaps a recommendation on whether all the PCs should be from the same organization or if a mixture is possible. In general, there should be a few lines on how the organizations regard one another. These omissions limit the usability of the game and make it seem like a work in progress instead of a finished product. Also, someone new to roleplaying games could probably apprehend that this is a roleplaying game but not, perhaps, what a roleplaying game is. A short introductory adventure might not be out of place.
The game has an interesting community aspect. There’s a subreddit for it, and the author espouses the concept of “open canon”. Basically, if you want to write your own Enter the Shadowside supplement and sell it, go for it. He retains copyright to the game, but will not demand royalties. He also reserves the right to say what’s official and what isn’t. I think this could’ve been more succinctly presented as some kind of Creative Commons licence (cf. Eclipse Phase), but I’m not an expert and can’t be sure. The idea, however, is interesting and I heartily support experiments like this. The author also describes his views on DRM, which I can agree with—hell, the PDF isn’t even watermarked. I can’t really find much to criticize in the price tag, either.
So, is it a good game? Perhaps. I must confess that I am somewhat jaded towards the whole genre of occult conspiracies. In a post-Foucault’s Pendulum and Illuminatus! world, it’s a difficult one to work in (cf. the execrable Da Vinci Code), and if it takes itself too seriously, it easily becomes a parody of itself. If done well, though, like in Unknown Armies or Delta Green, it can be something sublime. Enter the Shadowside is right there on the edge, saved mostly by its refusal to delve too deeply into the setting. The system looks functional, if a bit clunky. SCaV3NG3R is genuinely interesting organization.
Full disclosure: I was offered and accepted a free review copy from the designer.
Later addendum: Since the original publication of this review, the publisher has released an edited version of the core rules, 88 pages long, where the layout issues I complained about above have been fixed, making the book a much more pleasant read.