Friday, July 19, 2024

Vaesen Is An Excellent Way To Bring Folk Horror To Your Tabletop

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Tabletop games, as a rule, try to go for as broad a cultural experience as possible. Of course, that’s usually code for a white, western cultural experience, but even then it usually is pulling from the pop cultural primordial ooze that isn’t really tied to one specific culture. So it was fascinating when Free League, creators of Tales From The Loop, Forbidden Lands, and the Alien RPG, announced a game that was going to draw entirely from Norwegian folklore. Several of their games have had a strong regional slant, particularly Forbidden Lands which is mostly set in an alternate Sweden, but Vaesen is perhaps the most “Nordic” book they’ve put out. Set in a history I wasn’t familiar and using a folk tradition I was only faintly familiar with, I didn’t go in expecting an easy connection. Once I dug in, thanks to the review copy of the book and GM screen provided by Free League, I found one of the best folk horror RPG’s I’ve ever played.

What The Heck Is A Vaesen?

Like with Tales From The Loop, Vaesen is centered around the work of Swedish writer and illustrator Johan Egerkrans and his book Spirits and Monsters of Scandinavian Folklore, which details many of the spirits, spectres, and beasts that inhabit Scandinavian folklore. They’re basically a different iteration of the cross-cultural “fair folk,” but filtered through the more distinct cultural milieu of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland. There’s an edge to these, many of them reflecting a colder, darker part of the world than those which produced our more traditional concept of fairies and trolls. It’s important to also keep in mind that while there’s a presence of things like trolls and sea serpents, this is not a book about Norse Mythology. These are the little folk critters you hear about from your grandma, not epic mythological monsters.

The problem in Vaesen is modernization. Vaesen, as a rule, are not harmful to humans. At worst they seem to be indifferent to us, not adhering to our concepts of good and evil. But this RPG is set during the 19th century, when new industries and new technology are rapidly changing the ways of the world. The farms and woodlands where the Vaesen coexisted with humans are being replaced with rapidly growing cities. Trains and steamboats plow through land and sea while factories belch out clouds of black smoke. The rules and barriers that were so carefully maintained for centuries are being torn down, and the Vaesen are pissed. At one point, there was an organization known only as The Society who helped keep the Vaesen in check, but they’re long gone under mysterious circumstances. This is where the players come in.

Fighting The Beasties

Church Grim from Vaesen
Church Grims are not inherently violent, but they will defend their church with ruthless ferocity.

Not everyone can see the Vaesen, with those that can having gained “The Sight” thanks to some physical or emotional trauma they’ve experienced. You are one of these people (lucky lucky), and you’ve been charged to rebuild The Society and protect humanity AND the Vaesen from themselves. You’re basically a Victorian, Nordic Men In Black. Which is awesome.

What’s less awesome is that you’re pretty much totally outgunned by the Vaesen, who are usually more powerful than you and almost impossible to kill. Knowledge, creativity, and guile are your main weapons here, and as such the game centers much more around storytelling and mysteries than it does combat. I think my group only entered combat once while running this game, and that was more of a stalling tactic than anything. It’s not quite as hopeless as in, say, Delta Green, but it definitely adds to the fear and horror central to the game.

Who Are You?

The Occultist, a class in Vaesen
The occultist is skilled with magic and mystery, and can use her abilities to strike fear into her enemies.

Because “The Sight” can happen to anyone, the range of playable archetypes is pretty wide. You can be a writer, an occultist, a military officer, or even a vagabond who gained their site while traveling the open road. Each have their benefits and drawbacks, with most of the background being centered around the flavor that helps create stories. Reading through each one is a great way to understand how people interact with the Vaesen, and it’s really fun creating your character. Your skills and talents are affected by what you pick, but as you go you’ll quickly be able to define your own identity.

One cool thing you’ll get in Vaesen is access to the headquarters of The Society, a huge but decrepit mansion in Oslo. It’s your home base and safe place between missions, and part of the way your character and team will develop is by adding rooms to your headquarters, upgrading your existing facilities, and hiring staff to help you in your adventures. It’s very similar to the Stronghold system used in Forbidden Lands, but with a more 19th century flavor.

Rolling The Dice

Vaesen map

I won’t go too far into the system Vaesen is using, since it follows the same basic skeleton that most Free League games do (I did go in-depth in my Forbidden Lands review, however): roll a certain amount of d6’s when trying to make a skill test and counting each six that comes up as a success. This extends to combat, where your actions are determined by the same skill checks you use when not in combat. This is a little counterintuitive and hard to grok when you first start, since Force and Agility are used almost constantly. You have to get into the swing of using the same skill 10 different ways, which is actually kind of freeing when you get used to it. Both players and GM’s can use this to come up with some interesting solutions to problems that may arise.

This is a horror game, through and through, but it’s never cheap. There’s some gruesome stuff, but that’s overshadowed by the grim atmosphere that permeates the game. It’s almost blunt about how it presents some of its darkest moments. Since the focus is on mysteries, it doesn’t really take time to dwell on things. The gruesome murder, the terrifying puppet show, the creepy moose; these are all just clues to help the investigators figure out what’s really going down. This is all helped by Egerkrans’s art, which has a jagged and sketchy style that really makes everything seem like the accumulated knowledge of centuries. These aren’t pictures drawn by experts, they’re drawn by people forced to study the Vaesen when nobody else could.

While most Free League games are less rigid than others, I think Vaesen felt the most collaborative. Even as the GM, I found myself having a conversation with players as much as I was telling a story. There’s a lot of scary stuff in this game and it doesn’t pull any punches, but it’s not unfair. It really encourages everyone to pay attention and work together to deal with the problem, and it gives plenty of ways for creative problem solving on the part of the players.

The Verdict?

I think this one flew under the radar for a lot of people, which is understandable. There’s a lot of excellent horror games out there, most of which are a bit less localized than what Vaesen is working with. The Scandinavian nature of Vaesen does, however, mean that it has a very strong identity right out of the gate. The mysteries at the core of the game were usually enhanced by the cultural differences between the setting and the players, and the less restrictive gameplay meant there was plenty of time to get immersed. If you’re into folklore and how we interact with it, especially the way that the modern world conflicts with the magical past, this is a game that absolutely needs to be on your wishlist.

You can pick up Vaesen at the Free League shop or at your FLGS. I’d also recommend picking up the GM screen and Custom Card Deck while you’re there (or just get the bundle), they’re a big help for keeping track of things as you go. For extra fun, they recently released a book of mysteries (adventures) titled A Wicked Secret & And Other Mysteries, that you can pick up here.

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Images and review copy via Free League Publishing

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