Nils Hintze’s1 2020 Vaesen: Nordic Horror Roleplaying is based on the work of Swedish illustrator and author Johan Egerkrans. Translation is by Niklas Lundmark.
Vaesen: Nordic Horror Roleplaying, is, and I know this will come as a huge surprise to everyone who has read the title, a horror roleplaying game in a Nordic setting. It is published by the Swedish game company Fria Ligan (Free League).
Welcome to Sweden of the mid-19th century! It is a
socialist utopia rigidly stratified, impoverished society, where rapid industrialization brings radical change but not security, where the legions of the poor are free to starve to death and the wealthy still don’t have access to antibiotics.
Plus, there are monsters, monsters who, thanks to the changes in Swedish society, are increasingly coming into conflict with the oblivious humans.
Most people are unaware of the Vaesen, a catch-all term for Scandinavia’s supernatural beings, although no doubt many are familiar with the folktales about them. A lucky few have suffered traumas that conferred on them the Sight, the ability to see the inhuman entities others are blind to. This qualifies them for membership in the Society, an Upsala-based group whose goal it is to deal with eldritch entities on behalf of oblivious humanity. Providentially, because the Society is recovering from a near-extinction event, its ranks are thin and player characters will have their chance to leave their mark on it.
Vaesen uses Tomas Härenstam’s Year Zero game engine, so if you’ve played other Fria Ligan RPGs, you’re most of the way to mastering the game mechanics. Character generation is straightforward: there are just four attributes (physique, precision, logic, and empathy), and twelve skills. Players may choose from ten archetypes, from academic to writer, each of whom has their own talents — or they may use the more detailed life path system provided in the back of the rulebook
The game mechanics are very straightforward. Some of the phrasing is a little counterintuitive: the skill “learning”, for example, is a measure of how much you know, not how quickly you can acquire new knowledge. As one might expect from other Year Zero Engine games, conflict is potentially deadly to body and mind. As is not the case in other Fria Ligan games, trauma can be enlightening; your player character may emerge from their coma with useful new abilities! But probably not.
To balance game mechanic lethality, the supernatural entities with which the player characters contend are entirely immune to physical damage. player characters can blaze away to their heart’s content without worrying that they are disrupting the supernatural world’s delicate balance (save to the extent that the shrieks as the Society agents are torn apart or much worse upsets the monsters). Players invested in surviving contact with Vaesen need to discover what motivates the particular Vaesen and which ritual or other action is needed to send them on their way.
The 200-odd page2 hardcover rulebook itself is illustrated by Johan Egerkrans. Layout is fairly intuitive. Texts for other Fria Ligan games such as Aliens and Coriolis use glossy paper, which I find hard to read, but this uses non-glossy paper. There is both a functional table of contents and a one-page index. Overall, the game is slick and professional-looking (and the bound ribbon bookmark is a nice touch). Vaesen looks fun and I wish there were some prospect that I might get to play it.
Vaesen is available here.
More detail, for those of you who want it.
0. Preface by Johan Egerkrans
The reaction of the artist whose work inspired Vaesen.
A thumbnail introduction to the setting and to roleplaying games in general.
2. Your Player Character
This section outlines the twelve-step process for creating a player character (choose an archetype, choose an age, choose a name, distribute attribute points according to your age, distribute points to skills and resources according to your age, choose a talent, choose a motivation, choose a trauma, choose a dark secret, choose your relationship with each of the other pc, roll for mementos, and choose equipment). There are trade-offs involved: younger characters, for example, have more attribute points but fewer skill points. Archetypes available are academic, doctor, hunter, occultist, officer, priest, private detective, servant, vagabond, and writer.
This chapter details how skills work. Generally, one rolls a number of six-sided dice equal to the sum of relevant attribute + skill. Success requires at least one six. The skills (and governing attribute) are agility (physique), close combat (physique), force (physique), medicine (precision), ranged combat (precision), stealth (precision), investigation (logic), learning (logic), vigilance (logic), inspiration (empathy), manipulation (empathy), and observation (empathy).
Note how unlike certain games I will not mention, 👉 5thedition Dungeons and Dragons 👈, each attribute has the same number of related skills, so players don’t have to choose between them. Frex, one can be both healthy and skilled.
Talents are convenient tricks and traits. Each archetype has three associated unique talents, and there are twenty-four general talents open to all archetypes (my favourite might be “coward,” which allows one to pass combat damage on to another player character). Note that all of the talents are useful and that there are far more available than any given set of player characters will deploy.
5. Conflict and Injuries
This provides the game mechanics for combat and for injuries due to non-combat sources. Combat can be deadly; one may survive at the cost of long-term disability. Player characters who need this chapter have made poor life decisions.
6. The Society and the Headquarters
The tragic history of the occult Society of which player characters are now significant members. Because previous members made life choices involving Chapter 5, the Society is currently down to one enigmatic servant and a madwoman in an asylum, plus the player characters. Lots of room for promotion!
7. The Mythic North and Upsala
Background information on the setting.
Information on various Vaesen the player characters might encounter, as well as advice on how to adapt the game to other regions.
9. The Mystery
Advice on creating and structuring the mysteries at the centre of each adventure. With a bit of sweat, Game Masters may use Vaesen in their homeland or elsewhere outside of Scandinavia3.
10. The Dance of Dreams
An introductory mystery.
What it says on the tin.
1: Roleplaying games are often team efforts. The full credits (excluding the legion of Kickstarter backers) are as follows:
Illustrations and original concept: Johan Egerkrans
Lead Writer: Nils Hintze
Game Director: Nils Karlén
Editors: Tomas Härenstam and Mattias Johnsson Haake
Additional Writing: Rickard Antroia and Nils Karlén
Graphic design: Dan Algstrand, and Christian Granath
Maps: Tobias Tranell
Year Zero game engine: Tomas Härenstam
Layout and prepress: Dan Algstrand
Translation: Niklas Lundmark
Proofreading: Brandon Bowling
Customer support: Jenny Bremberg, and Daniel Lehto
Simon Andersson, Rickard Antroia, Marco Behrmann, Therese Clarhed, Nathalie Clarhed, Kosta Kostulas, Jonas Hertz, Tomas Härenstam, and Anna Westerling
Special thanks to: Axel and Olof Clarhed, Gabrielle de Bourg, Simon Engqvist, and Hanna Wedin
2: I am never sure whether to count the unnumbered pages or not.
3: One could even run campaigns based on Scooby-doo, Ghostbusters or Hilda! Although the rules do not suggest you try than and if you do, you probably don’t want to draw the IP owners’ attention to what you are doing.