Vaesen Alpha Comments

2020-01-08

Fria Ligan / “Free League” dropped an alpha version of their upcoming RPG Vaesen to Kickstarter backers. It’s still missing a number of things, notably an introduction and the stretch goals unlocked during the Kickstarter. Still, it’s complete enough to get an idea of the final product.

Having read most of the PDF – I skimmed the “what is roleplaying” section and assorted tables – I’m going to give some quick (?) impressions.

Background:

As stated in the Kickstarter, player characters investigate dark and mysterious misdeeds of the Vaesen, the capricious, mostly invisible beings that haunt the “Mythic North”. Through a previous encounter with the uncanny, player characters all have The Sight, which allows them to see Vaesen even when they don’t want to be seen.

The Mythic North is rougly Scandinavia in the 19th century, with less attention to chronology and historical detail.1 (Plus, Scandinavian fairy-folk, obviously.) It’s a time of upheaval. Industrialization is well under way, and young, ambitious people have forsaken rural villages for the big cities. Railroads have changed – or in some cases obliterated – farms and forests.

Upheaval in the mortal world parallels (provokes?) conflict between the Vaesen and their mortal neighbors. Old compromises are broken. Hauntings, disappearances, and strange deaths are on the rise. Many Vaesen, previously quiet, seem to have gone mad. Like in many a Shakespeare play when the social order is disturbed so is the natural order.

Conditions

Vaesen‘s player-facing rules will be familiar from their other RPGs. One significant difference concerns how Vaesen represents physical and mental trauma.

Each point of physical or mental damage inflicts a Condition. In addition to marking abstract damage, and subtracting a die from physical / mental skill rolls, each Condition has a narrative effect: Exhausted, Angry, Frightened, etc. PCs can take three mental or three physical Conditions before they’re Broken.

As in other Year Zero games, physically Broken characters can do little but talk or attempt to crawl away. They roll on a table for a debilitating Physical Critical Injury, ranging from sprains and wounds to potentially lethal damage. Mentally Broken characters can do little but defend themselves against further attacks or attempt to escape. They likewise roll for a Mental Critical Injury ranging from confusion or trembling to a mental breakdown. Both types give the character Defects that act up once per session as a penalty to some skill. The most severe Injuries can lead to Insights that enhance certain skills once per session, as partial compensation for their debilitating effects. Injuries, and their Defects and Insights, can become permanent.

To simplify the GM’s job, NPCs and natural animals simply mark damage off a Physical Toughness score, typically between 1 and 3. (Large animals may have a higher Physical Toughness.) NPCs take mental damage off their Mental Toughness. Mechanically it’s about the same, but with fewer decisions and bookkeeping. Broken NPCs and animals are simply eliminated from the fight.

Vaesen also take damage as Conditions, although most can take more than three conditions before being Broken. (Unlike mortals, Vaesen don’t distinguish between physical and mental damage.) Only three of these conditions add a penalty to dice rolls. However, when a Vaesen is “Broken", they’re (usually) driven away but not permanantly harmed. The only way to put a Vaesen down permanently is with a Ritual.

Resolutions and Rituals:

One of the things I really like about Vaesen is that resolving a Mystery isn’t a matter of good die rolls, studying Mythos Lore until one goes mad, or inflicting massive damage. Like in many old fashioned supernatural horror stories, the PCs must research the creature and find out what specifically destroys it or drives it away permanently. Sometimes, as in many ghost stories, that means figuring out what it wants.

In many game systems, performing a ritual requires rolling dice against some Lore or Magic attribute. In Vaesen, it’s a matter of doing specific in-game actions, with no dice involved. The classic example is laying a Ghost to rest: find out what it wants, resolve the situation that binds it to the mortal world, and maybe give its remains a Christian burial. To kill a werewolf permanently one must pierce it with a silver weapon. Beings of non-human origin may require more unusual actions, usually with a twist.

In some cases, the Vaesen may not be the real problem. Maybe the fault lies with greedy or angry humans. Maybe another Vaesen, unseen, is instigating the conflict. A GM might even switch things up by making the haunting a hoax. Each of these possibilities sounds better to me than the standard tropes of horror RPGs which all too frequently devolve into “bug hunts” or Yet Another Apocalypse. (Or angsty sparklepyres.)

Headquarters:

As noted previously in Vaesen the PCs have a Headquarters. By default this is Castle Gyllencreutz in Upsala, which is centrally located and has a university. The castle starts with a basic library and a “butler” to look out for the place. It was also shuttered and neglected for decades after the last occult society there disbanded. It’s in serious need of repairs and a regular staff.

Resolving mysteries gives the PC group Insight Points which they can exchange for Upgrades: more staff to handle the estate and grant specific bonuses, contacts in the outside world whose expertise they can leverage, and material improvements like an extensive occult library or a botanical garden for anti-Vaesen herbs.

However, a Headquarters invites Threats, like nosy policemen or neighbors, dark secrets in the castle itself, rivals out to discredit these upstart PCs, and relatives or officials who think the PCs have gone mad. Thus the PCs have to keep their activities quiet lest a disbelieving and generally hostile world destroy them as it did their predecessors.

And then there’s, you know, the threat of rampaging supernatural monsters …

Mysteries:

As one might hope, the GM-only section gives a step-by-step outline for creating a Mystery. It starts with the idea, usually a Vaesen that wants something from the mortal world or inflicts its own problems on neighboring humans. From there it leads GMs through standard scenes in a Gothic story: an initial Invitation, an opportunity to prepare for the trip, techniques for seeding clues at the destinaton, and a structure for scenes leading to a final confrontation and its possible denouements. The Alpha version also has notes on pacing, ratcheting up the tension, and tangling the players and their characters in the plot.

Beta and Beyond

The draft so far is an “alpha” draft, so some things – maybe a lot – could change before the final product. Backers have already made dozens of notes on the draft, from minor typos and grammar fixes to requests for clarification. (I couldn’t help but reference my correction to the probability tables, especially since I wasn’t the only one.)

Hopefully we’ll see a Beta draft in a few months, with most (all?) of the promised strech goals and revisions. The latest update also mentioned that they’d open the Pledge Manager in “a few weeks”, so maybe the end of January and beginning of February. I’d really like to register my add-ons, just to get that out of the way.

When there’s significant news, I’ll undoubtedly blog about it.


  1. Compare to typical fantasy RPGs which are a mishmash of cultural, social, and technological elements spread mostly through Europe’s medieval period, with scattered anachronisms from the Bronze Age to the early Modern period. ↩︎