Last Updated: October 12, 2022
REVIEW IN SUMMARY
Based on Johan Egerkran’s Vaesen: Spirits and Monsters of Scandinavian Folklore, written by Nils Hintze and published by Free League, Vaesen is an homage to the fairy tales you’re familiar with — and many you aren’t. While sitting soundly among gothic horror RPGs inspired by turn of the century Europe, Vaesen introduces a new twist for players familiar with the genre— in the world of Vaesen, the cosmic is replaced by the provincial. Vaesen draws players in with a simple play style suitable for beginners — utilizing only ten d6 — and role-play which fully immerses players into the real-world mythology of Scandinavia. As you peruse its pages, you’ll find stunning illustrations, sketches, old wives’ tales, and handwritten notes sprinkled throughout, giving readers the feeling that they’ve stumbled upon an old journal rather than an RPG.
Vaesen’s strength lies in its mythic storytelling and folkloric roots, and it’s well-suited to narrative and role-play focused players. Characters are class-based by vocation, and earning XP relies upon engaging with one’s backstory and working with others. Conflict is also narrative-based — the book is clear that killing a supernatural creature, known in-game as “vaesen,” is all but impossible. Instead, Vaesen relies on the horror elements of its genre to create tension; characters may be physically and emotionally crippled in various ways, resulting in long-lasting consequences.
In fact, the game’s entire system is incredibly light on stats. As game designer Nils Hintze (who also designed Free League’s Tales from the Loop) notes: “All of Ligan’s games try, more or less, to be ‘user friendly.’ I think complexity in roleplaying games is overrated. At least in the written text. In time, when you play the same characters, complexity will arise as the relationships of the NPCs and the Player Characters develop, and the story twists and turns.”
Vaesen provides a clear framework within which players can progress, make checks, and engage in conflict, but it does not dictate much else. Players who enjoy min-maxing may find this aspect of the rules aggravating — story and mystery take precedence here. Rather than use a leveling system, Vaesen uses XP to upgrade characters and their headquarters. Nor are GMs neglected in Vaesen: this book provides two pre-written adventures and an easy to adapt “build-a-vaesen” system for those wishing to create their own in-game version of a mythological beastie. While, again, this may frustrate stat-focused players, Vaesen is a delightfully narratively-focused game suitable for beginners and veterans alike.
KEEPERS OF AN INVISIBLE WORLD
Set during the industrial revolution, Vaesen depicts the rapidly changing world of 20th century Sweden. In this alternative history, each player character has lived through a traumatic event in their life. This event gave them the Sight — the ability to see the supernatural creatures known as vaesen. Now, at the start of the game, the PCs have been called together by a mysterious old woman to join the Society, a declining secret organization dedicated to hunting vaesen. Together, the party will take on jobs to confront vaesen around Scandinavia — and encounter warnings and threats along the way.
Each of these adventures is chunked into its own mystery with its own type of vaesen to confront. Players quickly learn that vaesen are neither good nor evil – this is not a matter of dungeon crawling or murder-hoboing your way through the Swedish countryside, but encountering moral and societal problems between regular folk and the supernatural and making the decision you feel is right. Hinze states: “Swedish folk lore is much more interesting than generic horror monsters. Not only because there is a local connection, but also because they are not black and white evil, and they seem human in how they struggle with things in live, get mad at people, and have strong opinions.”
So, perhaps a boggart is rightfully upset at the introduction of telegraph wires through his home. Maybe the alewife needs to banish a particularly unhelpful ghost that’s spoiling her business. Maybe the local werewolf has been killing cattle because the woods have thinned out. Perhaps not all monsters take on the shape of evil.
Vaesen uses a simple d6-based system common to Free League’s “Year Zero Engine” games. Players make checks by adding their attribute and skill points to roll up to ten d6, with a single rolled six being a success. At the GM’s discretion, checks may be made more difficult by adding additional sixes needed for success. A single roll for advantage may be earned by each player throughout the mystery by discovering new knowledge, working with other players, or whatever else the GM deems a “clue” in the overall mystery. A player’s advantage roll may be used only once to add an additional +2 to a relevant skill test. However, the GM may allow additional advantages for players assisting.
Should a player fail a roll, they suffer a “condition” — one of six penalties, three of which are mental and three of which are physical. Conditions take away one die from the attribute of the condition (a physical condition affects physique and precision, for example). But players can always roll at least one die, unless Broken. Players do have an option to “push the roll” and try again at a harder difficulty, but this too causes a Condition.
If a player accumulates four conditions of the same type, they are now Broken and cannot perform any actions. They may also sustain a “Critical Injury” which the DM rolls for on a table. Beware! Some of these critical injuries may have lasting effects (for good or ill), and some may even be fatal.
Healing conditions requires medical skill checks which may take a single turn or several days to take effect. If no one in the party has any medical skills, players may also heal during downtime activities and visiting establishments such as the hospital.
Though each character has the Sight, there are a variety of ways players can customize their characters to fit into or stand out from the mundane world of Upsala. Characters are built around three categories: personality, characteristics, and talents. Put plainly, personality is your character class and backstory, your characteristics are your stats, and talents are the feats you can take throughout the game. While Vaesen encourages players to use the character creation guide as a framework rather than a step-by-step system, the book does provide a more detailed character creation table in its appendix for those looking for extra help.
Your character’s personality includes their archetype (their vocation in life) as well as their backstory. In Vaesen, your backstory includes your motivation for hunting vaesen, your trauma — the event which allowed you to see vaesen — and a dark secret, which the GM incorporates into the plot. There are ten archetypes players may choose from, such as academic, servant, or vagabond; these archetypes outline your character’s vocation and suggest the skills they ought to take.
Characteristics include attributes, skills, and talents. These stats affect die rolls and mechanics. Those familiar with D&D will have no trouble adapting to this system. There are four attributes — physique, precision, logic, empathy. Skills include agility, close combat, force, medicine, range combat, stealth, investigation, learning, vigilance, inspiration, manipulation, and observation.
Akin to feats in D&D, talents are taken by spending XP earned throughout adventures. Talents are traits and bonuses that effectively “level” characters skills and add bonuses to a roll. A player’s first three talents must be chosen from their associated archetype, so a doctor archetype may choose “army medic,” for instance, but not “journalist.” Beyond their third talent, players are invited to choose talents outside their chosen archetype, in addition to a variety of generalized talents to pick from.
Additionally, Vaesen outlines the type of relationship you can have with other players, your resources (such as your wealth and connections), and your equipment and mementos. These should feature heavily in mysteries at the GM’s discretion.
There is no strict leveling system in Vaesen. Instead, players advance by earning and spending XP. Like other Free League games, players gain XP at the end of each session by answering a series of 8 questions. If the player can answer yes to a question, they earn one XP. This system is incredibly role and ally focused, as these questions revolve around whether the players encountered vaesen, dealt with one’s dark secret, or cooperated with other players.
SHOOTING YOUR ENEMY WON’T KILL THEM
Vaesen’s combat system does not rely on damage or health points, but on actions, skill checks, and conditions. Indeed, much of it feels like ALIEN but with some of the more granular crunch removed to fit the overall narrative-heavy theme.
Combat is divided into rounds and uses initiative by drawing a card from 1-10. (Free League offers a deck of Vaesen cards, but these are not included. The book suggests using a deck of cards, with the Ace acting as a one, as an alternative.) The lowest initiative goes first, with the next lowest following, and so on. Players may swap initiatives with one another, but this must be done at the top of the round and the player characters intending to swap must be able to talk to each other in-game.
The area of combat is called a “zone.” The book defines a zone as “a couple steps” to hit someone, while long range combat requires two zones. This vagueness may prove frustrating to players and GMs alike. However, Vaesen suggests that zones may vary in size and terrain — for instance, a dining room might be one zone, while the kitchen (on the other side of the wall) may be another. A large hall may have two zones.
If players do engage in combat, they may perform two actions per turn: one slow and one fast. The book provides lists of typical fast and slow actions, but does not dictate rules, instead leaving these decisions to the GM. There are also special effects that may affect players and vaesen alike, such as fear, fire, falling damage, and hunger.
Ultimately, the book’s vagueness around combat further emphasizes its commitment to a strong narrative style — combat is not the leading method of conflict resolution in Vaesen. Conflict in Vaesen is nasty, brutish, and short: players are likely to suffer conditions and even permanent disabilities even in short combat encounters. Violence is best used as a last resort, but if needed, it should be used to hold back enemies to complete a ritual or for the players to make an escape.
SUBSYSTEMS – THE SOCIETY
Vaesen is also unique in that it includes a “headquarters” as a core part of the game. Players may use their earned XP to advance their character or upgrade the HQ.
The Society is one of Vaesen’s core pillars and one of its most unique aspects. At the outset of a campaign, players are given the deed and keys to the Society’s headquarters, the dilapidated Castle Cyllencreutz by the Fyris River in Upsala. This old castle serves as the party’s “home base” between mysteries, and the surrounding city of Upsala holds many secrets and resources the players can use to advance between jobs.
After each mystery, the party earns “development points” in addition to XP which may be used to upgrade the castle by purchasing facilities, contacts, and personnel. Each of these upgrades reveals a new perk that adds additional benefits, such as an herb garden for new potions and poultices. However, when development points are spent, they simultaneously invoke a new threat (via a hidden GM roll) the players must face, either within the castle or without. These threats may be vaesen-related, but may also be political or criminal in nature. Lest the players forget, the rest of Upsala is watching their actions, and there are many curious eyes about.
MYTHIC BRITAIN & IRELAND EXPANSION
Should you want to forgo Upsala altogether, another world awaits! Vaesen’s Mythic Britain and Ireland expansion builds atop the core rulebook and includes many more mysteries in the land of the Four Nations. This expansion includes three new archetypes, new social classes, new locations, plenty more vaesen to encounter, and a lively new headquarters to visit — with NPCs you’ll recognize from real-world history.
The Mythic Britain and Ireland expansion takes on a decidedly different feel than its Scandinavian cousin. In the British Isles, the Society is alive and well, and so are the vaesen. After outlining the ongoing history of England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales at this time, this expansion introduces the Rose House, the London chapter of the Society, and its esteemed members throughout history, including John Dee, Edmund Spenser, and Sir Walter Raleigh. Of course, the butler, Hawkins, will see to it that you know all the landmarks and local clubs, such as the Royal Society, to join in the area.
Game designer Graeme Davis reflects on the choice to include literary figures into the game, noting, “This fantastical version of the setting, which we’ve seen in books and movies, and perhaps most notably in Alan Moore’s comic series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, makes no distinction between history and fiction, and to my mind the blend of the two makes the setting even stronger, because it addresses the mental image that people have of the place and time – even if they aren’t consciously aware that they have it – from a lifetime spent absorbing those elements through various media.”
This expansion explores the vast world of Celtic mythology and English literature. In addition to new vaesen such as fairies and selkies pulled from myth itself, this guide allows players to explore the Otherworld of Celtic myth — Sidhe, Tír na nÓg, and other fay spaces are now playable locations. The Isles are bustling with jobs for players to take up; this expansion includes a variety of cities to explore, each with their own legendary vaesen to encounter. Not only that, but players may encounter celebrities and villains of history and literature on the streets: Sherlock Holmes, Sweeney Todd, and Ada Lovelace, to name a few. This expansion also includes two more pre-written mysteries for GMs.
The Mythic Britain and Ireland expansion offers the wealth of Celtic and English folklore to players in Vaesen’s easy-to-play system and outdoes its core rulebook in the selection of mystery and encounters it offers. Players will jump at the chance to work alongside Sherlock Holmes or prove that there is, indeed, a Loch Ness Monster. Beyond these fantastic legendary additions, the Mythic Britain and Ireland expansion provides a wealth of new material for players and GMs to use in its original Scandinavian setting or its new London headquarters. In short, this expansion is a fantastic addition that only strengthens the original material while building a wider world. One can only hope Vaesen travels further into Europe and the wider world in future expansions.
WITHIN THE PAGES
The core rulebook includes an introduction to the rules of the game and a guide to building your character, including ten archetypes and several pages of unique talents to pick from. It also outlines the world of the mythic north, 20th century Upsala, and the Society’s headquarters and history. GMs will be thrilled to find a beautiful bestiary of vaesen for their eyes only, and a unique “build-a-vaesen” system they may use to customize their game. The core book is capped with two pre-written adventure modules, background tables for additional character creation, and two sheets for players to use – one for their character, and the other for the Society’s headquarters.
Though not included in this text, players may also purchase a special deck of cards for initiative, each card decorated with its own unique vaesen.
As previously noted, players who enjoy leveling systems and min-maxing their stats may be disappointed by Vaesen’s relatively simple mechanics. Likewise, combat is relatively simple and altogether opaque in some areas.
The Society’s impact on the nature of the game is a wonderful addition, but some players may find it too constricting. Without a GM to thread plots together, Vaesen’s mysteries may take on a “monster-of-the-week” episodic feel — some players may love this, while others may not. The Society’s core premise in the game may also bother veteran players or those who would rather not be constrained by the game’s rules surrounding the Society.
Finally, it felt odd that players must draw cards for initiative when dice were already available. True, there may be more than six players in an encounter, but drawing cards felt an unnecessary addition to the game over grabbing another die. The tactical implications of trading initiative between players are helpful in a game where combat is an emphasis, but in a game like Vaesen when combat is a rare exception, it felt like an unnecessary complication.
CONCLUSION & SUMMARY
In all, Vaesen and its expansion, Mythic Britain and Ireland is a dream-come-true for gamers in love with folklore and fairy tales. While not built as a dungeon-crawl or even a mind-bending psychotic jump into horror, this game provides an incredibly deep level of verisimilitude close enough to real history to get just under your skin. A beautiful blend of gothic horror, moral dilemma, and whimsey, Vaesen immerses players in the “almost real” of early 20th century imagination left in the margins of books, under floorboards, and hidden in attics. Come explore them, if you dare.
Those interested in Vaesen should also check out Graeme Davis’ indie RPG studio, The Rookery! He’s partnered with Andy Law, Mark Gibbons, Andy Leask, and Lindsay Law to create system agnostic RPG adventures you can use in your home games! They also have a YouTube channel, Patreon, and Discord, all worth exploring.
Vaesen is specially suitable for those who enjoyed any of the following: the Witcher books/games/show, Sabriel by Garth Nix, Draugen, the Banner Saga, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Gnomes by Will Huygen, anything by William Butler Yeats or Hans Christian Anderson, Connan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series.
Vaesen is available both physically and digitally: