Vaesen – Nordic Horror Roleplaying
Author: Nils Hintze, Rickard Antroia, Nils Karlén
Publisher: Fria Ligan (Free League)
Page Count: 240
Available Formats: PDF & Print
PDF (DTRPG) – $24.99
Print/PDF Combo (Free League) – 448.00 Kr or $54.83
As an American, not surprisingly, my first language is English; I still know a smattering of Spanish leftover from high school – and a touch of Latin. If I could go back and do it again, I’d have instructed my past self to also gain fluency in French and Swedish. French, so I wouldn’t need to search far and wide for the best English translations of Jules Verne. And Swedish so I could read the works of John Ajvide Lindqvist in its original tongue and be able to get plugged into the Swedish RPG scene.
Vaesen is an RPG published by Free League, using the same Year Zero engine that it uses for many of its games, games like Alien, Tales From the Loop, Mutant: Year Zero, and Coriolis. Like each of those games, the engine has been fine-tuned for its setting and genre.
The genre in question is Nordic horror set in a fictional version of 19th century Scandinavia. It is based on an art book of the same name, featuring supernatural beings, or vaesen, of Scandinavia. The year isn’t specified – and in some ways, is pointless, as the Gamemaster is encouraged to use whatever technologies and events work for their games – and to feel free to mix and match. To me, the game felt more late-19th century, but that could be an artifact of being a fan of Cthulhu by Gaslight and Castle Falkenstein.
The characters in Vaesen possess the Sight. They can see the vaesen even when they wish to be invisible. I was going to say “gifted” with the Sight, but that would be inaccurate as it is brought on by some form of trauma. The characters are based out of the city of Upsala, on the border of the wilds of the North. They have reformed an ancient Society to protect humanity from the vaesen. Vaesen are not inherently evil, but in the changing world of the 19th century, much of the balance between the vaesen and humanity has been disrupted, and they are definitely dangerous.
Or… you can change all of that. The game talks about tweaking Scandinavia’s history (need a war that never happened? Go ahead and add one). Moreover, it talks about how one can adapt the game to other settings – instead of relying upon Scandinavian folklore, base your game on another culture’s legends and folklore. Not being familiar with Scandinavian history or folklore, I initially found this option appealing; as I read more, I found myself growing more comfortable and interested in its default setting. It’s not historical Scandinavia. It resembles it. Much like the way Gotham City and Metropolis resemble New York City without being them.
The book describes the game as a combination of horror, mystery, and adventure, with groups having the ability to fine-tune what they want to emphasize. It is a dangerous world, though it lacks the doom one finds in a game like Call of Cthulhu.
The physical book is a little over 230 pages long – fairly short for a core book nowadays, though it is a thick volume given the heavyweight paper the book uses. In a time of glossy pages, its pages are more textured and make subdued use of color. The digital copy of the book is a well-bookmarked PDF.
The book is broken up into ten chapters, including the introduction – which includes much of the summary I posted above.
YOUR PLAYER CHARACTER
This second chapter goes over character creation at a high level. If you’ve played other Year Zero Engine games, a lot of this will be familiar. In broad strokes, you have four attributes, Physique, Precision, Logic, and Empathy. Each of those attributes has, in turn, four skills. When attempting a task, you roll your attribute score and, if non-zero, your skill score in d6s. Every 6 you roll is a success.
Your age helps determine the distribution of starting points for attributes and skill: younger characters have an advantage on attribute points whereas older ones receive more skill points,
Characters belong to one of several archetypes such as hunter, occultist, private detective, etc. Beyond providing color, your archetype has a single skill and single attribute, which you can spend more attribute/skill points in. By default, your maximum attribute score is 4, and your maximum skill score is 2. Additionally, each archetype has access to a set of talents that only its members can acquire at creation time (later on, this restriction does not apply),
In addition to skills and attributes, characters have a number of other components:
- Talents – sometimes supernatural, sometimes mundane – tricks that give you powers, modify dice rolls, etc.
- Resources – how much capital you have at your disposal
- Equipment and Mementos – Your archetype defines the equipment you have in every adventure – your resources and those of your Society can get you extra. Mementos are small trinkets that also give you an in-game bonus – by interacting with them once per session, you can heal a condition (i.e., damage).
- Condition – Conditions are used to track damage. You have two Condition tracks, mental and physical trauma. Each has three states – Exhausted/Battered/Wounded for physical and Angry/Frightened/Hopeless for mental. Each condition you suffer from takes away one die when attempting tasks affected by it. If you suffer a fourth condition in either track, your character is Broken – suffering a potentially long-lasting wound/trauma – possibly a fatal one.
- Advantage – Through preparation, your character can have one Advantage per session, providing you with two additional dice in the area you prepared for.
The third chapter discusses skills – describing the various skills and how to attempt tasks with them. The skills, given their small number, are fairly broad in nature.
Generally speaking, characters need only a single success, though more challenging tasks may require two or three. Equipment, Talents, and Advantages can give you additional dice while Conditions will remove them. Opposed actions typically involve both parties rolling, with the one with the greater number of successes winning. You can push any check once, allowing you to reroll any failures at the cost of suffering a Mental or Physical Condition.
There are two types of talents in Vaesen. There are talents specific to each of the archetypes in the game. For example, the Hunter has talents that help with tracking prey, herbalism, and marksmanship. The Occultist has more mystical talents – conjuring tricks, the ability to be a medium, and to instill fear.
There are also general talents available to any character. As with archetype talents, some are more mystical (like a religious holy symbol usable against vaesen) while others are more mundane (access to great wealth).
After character generation, as part of character improvement, characters can take talents outside of their archetype – the limitations are just for character creation.
The talents seem to be a nice way to customize characters. They give nice abilities and bonuses, but none are game-disrupting. No character in Vaesen will be shooting fireballs or teleporting, nor will they wield two pistols and shoot foes on opposite sides.
CONFLICT AND INJURIES
One of the things I’ve come to like about Free League’s RPGs is how they take their Year Zero Engine and adapt it for each of their RPGs. Alien has a fairly detailed combat system. Vaesen has a much lighter system.
Combat in Vaesen tends to be fairly quick – after taking four conditions worth of damage, a character is Broken. A Broken character suffers a critical injury (there are tables for physical and mental critical injuries). Some of the critical injuries are potentially fatal (for physical injuries) or chronic (for mental injuries), which have the chance of removing the character from play if not treated. Even if your character is healed, the critical injury effects persist for at least the rest of the game and are potentially permanent. There is a 1 in 6 chance that the critical injury is actually an insight, and if you survive it, you are left with some advantage. Some of the mental damage is from fear checks, often from encounters with vaesen.
Vaesen are often dangerous to fight physically. The rules advise combat with such beings be limited to holding them off long enough for someone to complete the necessary ritual to drive them off.
THE SOCIETY AND THE HEADQUARTERS
This is a meaty chapter and provides much of the background for the game. In the city of Upsala is the abandoned Castle Gyllencreutz, once headquarters for the Society for Studies of the Invisibles and Protection of Mankind – the Society for short. Towards the end of the 18th century, most of the Society was wiped out and then dwindled into non-existence. The characters are refounding the Society, with a former Society member (and current asylum resident) available to them as a questionable resource. The Society and its forebears had their own internal conflicts, especially between those who protect humanity from the vaesen when necessary and those who consider all vaesen to be the spawn of Satan, to be actively hunted and destroyed.
A fun part of the game is building up your Society and its headquarters – in addition to rules for character improvement, the group can also improve Castle Gyllencreutz – getting staff, allies, armories, labs, libraries, etc.
THE MYTHIC NORTH AND UPSALA
This chapter gives information on the setting for the game. It gives an overview of Mythic Scandinavia of the 19th century and the city of Upsala. While I’m far from an expert on 19th century (or even modern) Scandinavia, the text did a fine job giving me the basics. It also empowered me not to worry about the history but rather to mine it for what works for our game.
As one would expect in a game about vaesen, there is an entire chapter dedicated to these beings. Some of the creatures here were unfamiliar to me – beings like the brook horse and the vaettir. But there are also classics like ghosts, giants, mermaids, and werewolves.
This chapter’s start includes a general background on the supernatural, the relationship between vaesen and humans, where they might be found, and magical powers they might have.
The middle (and majority of) of the chapter details many different kinds of vaesen. One thing I really liked is how every type of vaesen has its own set of conditions. Interestingly, some of the conditions actually give the vaesen bonuses. For example, a wounded fairy will initially be playful but lose a die in all its actions, but an additional condition will make it angry and give it a bonus.
The remainder of the chapter details more mundane beings – non-player characters and animals. It closes with a section on adapting vaesen for non-Scandinavian cultures.
This chapter details the construction of adventures, or, as they are called in Vaesen, mysteries.
A mystery in Vaesen has several components:
- Vaesen – something one would expect in an RPG of that name. Who is it, what is its personality, what it wants, etc.?
- Conflict – the mystery will have one or more conflicts. The first involves two or more parties, one of them being the vaesen. Is the other someone who wronged the vaesen? Exploiting its powers? There should also be a secondary conflict – something else going on in the same locations where the mystery is taking place.
- Misdeed – by the time the characters arrive at the location of the mystery, some misdeed has already started the primary conflict. Someone missing or dead. Someone is ill.
- The Location – the mystery needs to take place somewhere.
- Atmosphere – a way to help players get a mental image of what is going on. Some examples given include a hot and dry summer, a priest who hates his congregation, windmills, windy moors, etc.
- Clues – the mystery should have central and peripheral clues. The central ones are critical to solving the mystery, while the peripheral ones fill in details of the mystery.
- Countdown to Catastrophe – if the characters do nothing, the situation will degrade progressively to a horrible conclusion.
This chapter also includes the typical sequence a mystery will take:
- Places (search for clues)
This chapter provides many random tables to help build mysteries, and lots of advice is provided.
I liked this chapter a lot – I love mystery-centric games like Call of Cthulhu and Trail of Cthulhu, but I find it challenging to build them. While this could seem a little on the rigid side, the game encourages divergence as appropriate, and there is a lot of flexibility within its boundaries.
THE DANCE OF DREAMS
Vaesen closes with an introductory mystery. This mystery deals with the Society’s past, giving some insight into its 18th-century troubles, and serves as a great example of using the previous chapter to build a mystery.
Horror, whether in fiction or RPGs, is one of my favorite genres. Vaesen makes for a nice change of pace from my traditional go-to horror game. While it has plenty of darkness to it (it is no Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with its bouncing between humor and horror), it stops short of the doomed universe of H.P. Lovecraft. I’m very pleased to see a new take on horror – H.P. Lovecraft’s universe is fascinating, but it is not all that there is in the genre.
If you dislike other Free League games, this is probably a game to avoid. However, if you’re looking for a new take on investigative horror, I’d strongly recommend this.
~ Daniel Stack
This review was brought to you by our Patrons! If you enjoyed this review and would you like to see us write more in the future, please consider becoming a Patron by clicking the Patreon banner above.