After being told a fairy story as a child, did you ever check under your bed or in the closet before you pulled up the covers for the night? If so, the horror-tinged Vaesen might be for you.
The base game book places players in Sweden at the beginning of the industrial revolution. As people move from villages into cities and forget their folk customs, strange and sometimes sinister events are on the rise for your party to investigate and hopefully solve. What follows is a rich new world to explore with its roots firmly dug into the cultural past, and even though it doesn't always stick the landing, Vasen is an imaginative - and often beautiful - addition to the best tabletop RPGs.
What is it, and how does it work?
- Game type: Horror TTRPG
- Players: 2 - 6
- Complexity: Moderate
- Ages: 14+
- Price: $49.99 / £39.99
- Play if you enjoy: Alien: The Roleplaying Game
This is a game of investigating the strange and the supernatural, from ghosts to fae folk (collectively known as 'Vaesen'). In a rational 1800s world of metal and steam, ancient traditions are being forgotten, and the entities they were designed to honor are not happy about it. Players take on the role of everyday individuals who, thanks to some past trauma, can see into this spirit world, revealing creatures invisible to most. You’ll need to use your second sight to intervene before they cause havoc.
While tackling those spirits,, players are also tasked with resurrecting something called "The Society" - an ancient order, now defunct, that was dedicated to investigating the supernatural. A former member pulls your party together and gifts you the keys to its headquarters, a crumbling castle full of unknown treasures. In game terms, you deal with this castle between adventures, spending some of the resources and knowledge you’ve gained to discover or build new rooms and hire new staff. These have in-game benefits you can call on at a later date. A beautiful butterfly house, for example, helps heal mental conditions.
Speaking of mechanics, Vaesen uses the excellent Year Zero dice pool system common to a lot of games from the publisher, Free League. Players have four stats and each is associated with several skills. To attempt a task, you add the value of a stat and skill together and roll that many six-sided dice. Sixes indicate success. A single six is normally enough, but on occasion, you may need two or three for a tough task.
Either way, if you fail, you can reroll by taking a 'condition' which represents physical or mental damage of some sort. Conditions can also be gained through injury or witnessing horrible things. If you have four conditions and suffer another, your character is 'broken', potentially giving you a permanent flaw or even resulting in death.
Is it any good?
Although it's billed as "Nordic Horror Roleplaying", only two of those things are strictly true. It’s certainly Nordic with its Swedish setting, which most groups outside that country should be able to recreate thanks to some helpful background material in the book. And of course, it’s a role-playing game. That leaves the horror part, which is where the game veers into interesting, if potentially divisive, territory.
It clearly wants to be a horror game. You can see this not only from the title but from the illustrations, be it with grimmer monsters in the game master's section or from the included scenario. And while it can achieve horror it is, tonally, much more of a mixture than the presentation would suggest. While some Vaesen are wicked in the traditional sense, many are simply disgruntled with the advent of the modern world and need placating in some way to avert disaster. Players must still investigate the situation, piece together clues, and take the necessary steps, but unless they get it badly wrong, it’s more of a supernatural mystery game than a horror one.
This tone is reinforced mechanically with the version of the Year Zero engine the game uses. In contrast to another Free League horror game (Alien), combat and fear checks are both less lethal and more complex to handle. It’s still an excellent, free-flowing system, especially compared with crunchier fare like Dungeons and Dragons books, and it works well here. It just feels as though the designers were aiming for a slower, more considered pace than outright terror.
To help groups get to grips with this, there’s an excellent section on how to construct a mystery scenario. This advice is much better than that given in other horror and detective games, and will be a huge boon to new game masters. In fact, the book as a whole is littered with little stubs of information that would make great starting points or inspiration for scenario ideas. These are fantastic snippets that both help set the atmosphere of the game and provide plenty of imagination fuel at the same time.
Meanwhile, rebuilding the castle and delving into the history of The Society is a neat idea thematically. It gives players something meaningful to do between adventures and provides structure to your campaign. Translating that into rules, however, is something of a mixed bag. The idea of adding rooms and staff to your growing headquarters, based on the number of new things you learned in your last scenario, is great. But the book implies that this involves you opening locked doors or venturing into a cellar for the first time, as though you wouldn’t do all of that the first time you got the keys. It’s hard for the game master to narrate this in an engaging way.
Should you buy Vaesen?
The core game of Vaesen has an unusual and evocative setting, and the Year Zero engine makes it fun to play, but groups may find it difficult to decide what kind of game they want it to be. If you’re after horror, mystery, or fantasy, there are better options out there.
However, the game is unique nonetheless because it straddles all three camps. What's more, the best thing about Vaesen as a concept might be how accessible it is, resting as it does on familiar culture, history and myth. Players can slide into the world like ice and every collection of folk tales is a potential sourcebook.