Tabletop RPGs have become something of a passion of mine, especially when we start getting into the horror and mystery genres. I’ll send a hapless adventurer straight into a kobold infest cave any day of the week, but rooting out some hidden eldritch conspiracy or struggling against the unknown and unknowable are really more in my wheelhouse. So, when I got to fiddle around with Vaesen: Nordic Horror Roleplaying, I was well and truly intrigued.
Vaesen sets players to the task of finding and understanding troublesome Scandinavian mythic creatures in the nineteenth century. So, you could make some easy comparisons between it and Call of Cthulhu, only less oppressive and more trolls. It’s a fascinating setting that I was woefully unfamiliar with that leads to some fun alien feeling encounters that aren’t just another shapeless mass of tentacles; even those get boring after a while. To make matters even better, it was made by some of the fine folks that also created the amazing Tales from the Loop tabletop RPG that people liked so much that Amazon made a pretty decent show about it.
The system it employs is fairly narrative focused and rules light. Players have four core stats and twelve total skills associated with each. Should a nefarious skill check rear its ugly head, i.e. a reason for those players to roll dice, they roll D6’s equal to the stat and skill associated with that action. If they roll a six on any one of those dice then they succeed, unless something is particularly difficult. Multiple successes can lead to additional effects and, should none of those dice come up as a six, they can choose to take a condition for a one time re-roll. Conditions stick with a character until healed and act as both a negative modifier for appropriate rolls in the future and as a sort of health mechanic. Gain too many conditions and a character will no longer be able to act, often due to severe injury or death or possibly a mental break down.
Conditions can, obviously, play a big role in a particularly dangerous adventure and lead to a lot of good character moments; if you’re familiar with Blades in the Dark then they may sound like a less damaging form of that game’s trauma system. Interestingly enough, monsters in the world of Vaesen have their own condition tracks that dictate how they may act after taking so much damage. Importantly, reaching the end of this condition track is not enough to fell most of the system’s big bad beasties, that can only be done by actually discovering a ritual or action that will do away with it for good and that itself may not be entirely correct.
Now, whenever I run a game I can be something of a masochist when it comes to an established setting. I have a habit of looking at a lovingly created, fully fleshed out world in a rule book and throwing it all out the window to establish my own setting within that world. It’s a terrible habit, GMs, don’t do this, especially don’t do this in the case of Vaesen, which boast an interesting and rich world with abandoned secret societies, deep folklore, and nearly forgotten mythical creatures straining to maintain relevance against the onslaught of technology and newly imported religions. It’s a solid setting, don’t monkey around with it too or you’ll miss out on a lot of the elegant simplicity already in the game.
Now, I like the system a whole lot, if you can’t already tell. It’s fun and easy, and won’t turn away new players, especially with the exhaustive tables that players can roll on to help generate interesting characters when they are paralyzed by choice, but that’s not even my favorite part of this whole thing. The book itself is gorgeous and well worth springing for a physical copy to sit on your bookshelf if that’s the sort of thing that interests you. It is positively filled with beautiful illustrations of strange monsters and vivid characters in a way that reminds me of old World of Darkness campaign books from back in White Wolf’s glory years. Not only that but the feel of the paper and you flip each paper is evocative of delving through a dusty tome for some shred of forgotten knowledge.
Vaesen is a great rpg, but it isn’t without its faults, I’m afraid. While the deep setting is great for an extended campaign, it takes some tweaking here and there if you want to play it as a one shot story, especially in regards to the base building aspect, which really is a shame. Additionally the combat mechanics are a little subpar and will be a pretty sizeable turn off for many. It’s a great game with a lovely setting, but it will still take some cajoling to get this to the table with my group.