Saturday, November 14, 2020

REVIEW: A Wicked Secret and Other Mysteries

It's funny: I've written a number of posts over the past few weeks about the centrality of campaigns over individual scenarios, yet I remain a huge fan of prewritten adventures, as even a cursory examination of my retrospective posts will reveal. I don't think there's any contradiction in these two positions, but it's probably worth examining them in a future post. For the moment, what I want to do is talk about the first adventure anthology for Free League's Vaesen

Titled A Wicked Secret and Other Mysteries, the anthology is a sturdy hardcover, whose 104 parchment-like pages are filled with full-color illustrations by Johan Egerkrans and Anton Vitus. Taken purely as an artifact, it's a beautiful book that feels good to hold and to peruse – much like the Vaesen rulebook itself. This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Free League's RPG books, whose physical quality is unmatched by those of almost any other game publisher right now. 

The first of the anthology's adventures is The Silver of the Sea by Tomas Härenstam and takes place in the Bohuslän archipelago, along the west coast of Sweden. The characters receive a letter from a young priest living in a fishing village of the area, explaining that his mentor is dead, supposedly of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The priest does not accept this; he believes this "suicide" was staged by one of several sinister groups operating in the area. The locals are suspicious of outsiders and largely uncooperative, which initially gives Bohuslän the feel of a Nordic Innsmouth, even if what is actually happening here isn't quite the same (as the characters eventually learn). 

The eponymous A Wicked Secret by Gabrielle de Bourg concerns strange incidents in a forested region of the north. An industrialist hoping to "modernize" the region runs afoul of locals, some of whom are none too interested in the "progress" he and his logging company hope to bring. He calls upon the characters to investigate the community of Färnsta after one of his employees is driven mad and another goes missing. This is quite a lengthy scenario and involves lots of hunting for clues, interacting with NPCs, and traveling to remote locales to unravel the mystery of Färnsta. 

The Night Sow by Nils Hintze, designer of Vaesen, whom I interviewed recently, takes place in the village of Mölle in southern Sweden, which has become a popular seaside tourist destination. Mölle has a scandalous reputation due the fact that men and women are encouraged to mix on the same beach, something unheard of at the time. Naturally, many locals, including the village priest, are none too keen on this – a recurring theme in these adventures, as you've no doubt noticed. Amidst this social tension, the characters uncover a series of murders and disappearances, as well as evidence of an ancient evil that may be behind it all.

Finally, The Son of the Falling Star by Kiku Pukk Härenstam takes place in Estonia, home to one of the characters' cousin, Hugo von Kaiserling, whose wife has recently given birth to their first child. His wife, however, wants nothing to do with the child and sees him as a "monster." Hugo hopes the characters can talk sense to his wife and a local priest, who both believe that the child is under an evil spell that can only be broken with an exorcism. Naturally, there's more truth to the wife's beliefs than Hugo and his rationalist mindset is willing to accept.

All of the adventures touch upon the clash of "the old ways" with the changes Scandinavia is undergoing in the 19th century – industrialization, urbanization, and science-fueled skepticism, among others. This makes sense, as these are the central themes of Vaesen itself. They provide excellent sources of conflict and drama, in addition to helping to distinguish Vaesen from other supernatural investigation RPGs. This is not simply Call of Cthulhu in 19th century Scandinavia, despite superficial similarities, as these adventures all make quite clear. 

I'm a strong proponent of historical roleplaying; I believe the past, if well presented, can be every bit as interesting as any imaginary world. On this score, A Wicked Secret receives mostly high marks. Each scenario highlights a part of real world Nordic history that was otherwise unknown or only dimly known to me, whether it be "the sin in Mölle," the 19th century Swedish logging industry, or romantic nationalism in the Baltics, and uses it to provide context for the strange events the characters are investigating. This is exactly what I want out of historical adventures and was pleased to see A Wicked Secret exceed my expectations.

At the same time, I do have a couple of small complaints about the adventures. As I commented above, there's a certain sameness to the initial set-up of each scenario: the characters receive an invitation to visit a far-off locale to solve a murder or a disappearance and find the locals uncooperative and/or suspicious, often due to the influence of a local priest. While each of the four adventures is in fact quite different, I nevertheless worry about the perception of repetitiveness. Had a scenario or two been set in, say, a larger urban center, it might have helped alleviate my concern.

My other complaint concerns the portrayal of the local priests – not so much their role in the scenarios but little details that don't seem to ring true to 19th century Scandinavia. For example, none of the priests, despite being clergy of the Church of Sweden (or, in one scenario, the Russian Orthodox Church), are married. Instead, they all come across as ersatz Roman Catholic priests, right down to the Russian Orthodox priest owning a copy of the Rituale Romanum, a Latin book of blessings and rituals that seems an unlikely possession, for both historical and doctrinal reasons. This is a small gripe but I mention it because it stands out against the otherwise compelling presentation of time and place. Further, I genuinely appreciate that all of the adventure recognize the importance of the local clergyman to a community, as well as the thematic role that religion ought to play in adventures of this sort. 

All that said, I'm very happy with A Wicked Secret and Other Mysteries. Any one of these scenarios would be a terrific kick-off to a Vaesen campaign, making the book invaluable to any GM of the game. Even if one does not use the scenarios as written, they aprovide lots of useful information in the form of maps, NPC write-ups, new vaesen, and historical information, all of which could be adapted to other uses. I like this book a great deal and look forward to the day when I might be able to use it with one of my regular groups of players.

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