Saturday, October 10, 2020

REVIEW: Vaesen

As my friends can attest, I've been singing the praises of Swedish game company Free League a lot lately. Free League is the publisher of Mörk Borg, as well as Forbidden Lands. Since last Fall, I've been playing in a weekly Forbidden Lands campaign and continue to enjoy it greatly. For those who don't know, Forbidden Lands is a survival fantasy hex crawl RPG about "raiders and rogues bent on making [their] mark on a cursed world." It's not only an extremely fun game but exceptionally well made, with production values that, quite frankly, put most RPGs from this side of the Atlantic to shame.

It's these production values that overcame my initial skepticism about Free League's latest roleplaying game, Vaesen. Vaesen – the word (or variants of it) means "spirit," "creature," or "fairy" in several Scandinavian languages – is a roleplaying game of "Nordic Horror," set in a mythical version of 19th century Scandinavia. You can probably understand the source of my initial skepticism. Though I like to think of myself as fairly well read, my knowledge of 19th century Scandinavia is limited. Even more limited is my knowledge of Nordic folklore. Therefore, Vaesen was going to be a hard sell for me – that is, until I saw the artwork of Johan Egerkrans, which fills the rulebook. 
To call Vaesen's rulebook gorgeous doesn't really do it justice. True, the illustrations of Egerkrans are stunningly evocative and immediately overcame my reluctance to give the game a chance. Almost as important, though, is the quality of the 232-page volume itself. Well-bound and sturdy, its pages have a heavy, parchment-like feel that give Vaesen an old fashioned, even "fairy tale" sensibility that works very well given its subject matter. In combination, the art and the character of the book won me over most unexpectedly. Merely as a physical artifact, Vaesen is remarkable in a way few RPG books are (aside from some of LotFP's output, for example).

The premise of the game is that, throughout history, supernatural beings – vaesen – have lived side by side with the people of Scandinavia. Unless they want to be seen, vaesen are generally invisible, except to individuals who possess "the Sight." In the past, vaesen were prone to beneficence, if they were properly propitiated. With the rise of industrialization and new ways of thinking in the 19th century, people are forgetting the vaesen and failing to treat them with appropriate respect. In return, the vaesen are becoming angry and aggressive, lashing out and creating havoc. Some have even left their ancient homes in the countryside to invade the growing cities and spread chaos among those who dwell there.
The player characters are individuals who possess the Sight and have gathered in the city of Uppsala in central Sweden, after having learned that there was once an organization simply known as "the Society" that studied and combated the vaesen. Most members of the Society disappeared a decade ago and, since then, its old headquarters, Castle Gyllencreutz, is now a crumbling wreck. One surviving member of the Society is now in an asylum but she gives the characters the keys and deed to the castle so that they can rebuild it and the Society it once housed. 

As a campaign set-up, it's a good one, not terribly far removed from that of many Call of Cthulhu campaigns. Not only does it provide the characters with a headquarters from which to launch their investigations, it also provides them with two goals: to rebuild the Society and to rebuild Castle Gyllencreutz itself. Over the course of a campaign, players can, like most RPGs, improve not only their characters through the expenditure of experience points but also the Society and the castle through the expenditure of development points. In this way, the characters gain access to new facilities (e.g. infirmary, observatory, workshop), contacts, and personnel. Players familiar with other Free League games, such as Mutant: Year Zero or Forbidden Lands, will no doubt recognize certain similarities to their campaign frames, but this is no simple cut-and-paste. Lead writer Nils Hintze has done a superb job of tailoring these and other systems to the unique setting and atmosphere of Vaesen.
Character creation is straightforward. Each player chooses an archetype, of which there are ten. They are: academic, doctor, hunter, occultist, officer, priest, private detective, servant, vagabond, and writer. The rules suggest that there not be two characters with the same archetype, which I think is a good idea (but then I think it's largely true of D&D character classes, too). Archetypes are more than mere professions, as they provide motivations, traumas, dark secret, and talent choices for the character, in addition to resources and equipment. Motivations, traumas, and dark secrets flesh out the character and provide means of acquiring roleplaying-based experience points, while talents are tricks and traits that grant situational benefits or bonuses. 

Vaesen uses a dice pool system. Hence, character attributes – physique, precision, logic, and empathy – are rated from 1 to 5, representing the number of six-sided dice a player rolls when using them. Skills, of which there are twelve, function similarly. Rolling even a single 6 is a success, though there are occasions (such as combat) when rolling multiple 6's is useful. A failed roll can be re-rolled (or "pushed") but doing so results in a "condition," such as being exhausted or frightened that decreases a character's dice pool for subsequent rolls until the condition is healed. Having used a similar system in Forbidden Lands, I can attest to the fact that these rules are fairly simple and straightforward, with lots of room for interpretation by the Gamemaster. I wouldn't call them "old school," but they're quite unobtrusive and easy to use.
For the benefit of those unfamiliar with the setting and time period, Vaesen provides an entire chapter on "the Mythic North" and the city of Uppsala, including some lovely maps. The chapter stresses that there's no need to stick to real world history and that players and Gamemaster alike should feel free to alter anything they feel gets in the way of a fun game. This is probably the one area where I found myself disagreeing with the game's approach. I believe strongly that, if you're playing a game set in a particular time and place in the real world, there's much to be gained by mining that history in creating characters and adventures (called "mysteries" in Vaesen). Otherwise, why not set the game in wholly fantastical place? Plus, as I have begun to realize, in researching 19th century Scandinavia, there's a lot of fascinating people and events that would make great elements in Vaesen mysteries.

Naturally, the vaesen themselves get a lengthy chapter to themselves and it's perhaps the best part of the rulebook. We learn about their connections to nature, their common homes, and magical powers (including enchantments, curses, and trollcraft – the bending of time and space). Twenty different types of vaesen are described, along with examples of conflicts in which they might take part. This is more than enough to kick off a campaign, though I'd love to see more. A later chapter extensively discusses the creation of mysteries (adventures) for the game by providing not just extensive advice and examples but also many random tables to spur the imagination. An introductory mystery, entitled "The Dance of Dreams" is also included.

All in all, I loved Vaesen. It not only overcame my considerable skepticism regarding its subject matter but proved sufficiently compelling that I now want to give it a serious try with one of my gaming groups. It's certainly one of the most beautiful and evocative RPGs I've read recently, with a ready-made foundation for starting up a campaign right away. I highly recommend it.


  1. Excellent review. I think Vaesen is one of those rare (in my experience) focused-theme RPGs that really manages to hit the proverbial "sweet-spot" right square on the head. It's a great idea that gives you tons of possibilities while not seeming to be too narrowly focused that you feel your options for adventure are too limited or not appealing.

  2. They really do make incredible quality books (Tales from the Loop/Things from the FLood are the same)...well-laid out game books with a coffee-table book aesthetic...thick paper, well-bound and with incredibly evocative artwork.

  3. One of the more interesting and alien Swedish settings I've encountered is Sorgeveden ("Sorrow's Wood") for Hjältarnas tid ("Age of Heroes") by Helmghast, but that's probably because I live in Australia and an entire early iron age campaign setting defined by a rugged forest, connected by a vast river and its tributaries, is really pretty alien to my actual experiences (considering I can dam the local river with my foot most summers). I like how the forest tends to be described by the mix of trees that is the main clue as to where you are in at at the time. For me that's rather alien, but still quite able to be readily conceived.

    The only sad part is that it's only available in Swedish. Still, another reason to learn another language [and not just to translate Svavelvinter ("Brimstone Winter") by Fria Ligon].