Vaesen Rules Preview

2019-12-12

Recently I spent way too much money1 on the Vaesen Kickstarter.

Still, I’m pretty confident about it. For one thing, my intended add-ons are the currently out of print Forbidden Lands boxed set (plus PDF), the Coriolis core rules (plus PDF), and the art book Vaesen that inspired the RPG. Two of those I was intending to get at some point anyway, and the Kickstarter price is cheaper than retail in the States2, so I’m saving money. The art book just looks pretty, and it’s nearly $90 USD on Amazon, vs. 250 SEK (~$26 USD) in the Kickstarter.

More importantly, Vaesen itself looks well worth the money: an investigative horror3 tabletop RPG set in the 19th century4 about hunting Norse folk creatures, designed by the guys behind Mutant: Year Zero and Tales from the Loop. The wildly successful Kickstarter unlocked a lot of resources, too, including five Mysteries (scenarios), random tables for a character’s life path, a random mystery generator, extra monsters, and the obligatory GM screen, map, card deck, and dice.

Having read (most of) their first(?) published RPG, Mutant: Year Zero, I’m really impressed with the Fria Ligan (“Free League”) team. Their D6-based dice pool is clean and simple, if a little harsh. In any test of the player character’s abilities, the player adds a base attribute, the most relevant skill, and bonuses (or penalties) from gear and other sources, and rolls that many dice; if at least one die shows a 6, the character succeeds. The player may also choose to “push” a roll, incurring some sort of penalty, which means they re-roll all (failing) dice. If, however, even after pushing a roll, the character does not succeed, there are no more chances; the character loses something. Maybe it’s only hours or a day of effort; usually it’s a lot more.

Not surprisingly, my preference in RPGs falls between the Bastard DM From Hell, “let the dice fall where they may” attitude of “Old School” gaming and the encounter balancing, “we’re the heroes in this story” attitude prevalent in modern gaming. Stories without real stakes don’t interest me much, but neither does grinding through death-trap dungeons where only the ultra-paranoid survive, and where the wisest choice of all might have been to stay home. In my idea RPG player characters risk their lives for some noble purpose, and consequently some may fall along the way through sheer bad luck; at the end, though, both the characters’ goal and the players’ experience should have been worth it. The setup of Vaesen sounds like it strikes that balance between the cosmic nihilism of (for example) the Cthulhu Mythos and angsty but ultimately lightweight romps like Buffy or Supernatural.

Below I’ll quote some updates from the Kickstarter, with some commentary. The grammatical mistakes are in the original; the Fria Ligan crew aren’t native speakers. I’ve only added markup and whitespace.

Basic Mechanics

From Update #14:

In essence the ruleset in Vaesen is a variation of our house system Year Zero Engine. It uses all the things you already know if you have played any of our other games: a D6 based dice pool mechanic where you can push rolls to get a second chance – at a cost. Four attributes, twelve skills, a score of Talents and ready-made archetypes that make creating a player character a breeze (and thanks to this Kickstarter – a streamlined life path system!). Every character has a Dark Secret, a Trauma, a Motivation and a Pride. These, together with your relationships with the other PCs, help define your character right from the start.

Comment: Yes, this is all very familiar if you’ve seen their other games. Not that this sounds derivative or self-plagiarizing; on the contrary, this sounds more like a remix of their greatest hits.

The attributes are:

Comment: Personally I’m not a fan of “base attributes” – Fate demonstrates that a flat list of “skills” can work well – but I’ll grant that in this case I can’t come up with a reasonable alternative.

Vaesen shares a lot of design DNA with Tales from the Loop and its sister game Things from the Flood. It is focused on solving mysteries, has a structured way of writing and presenting Mysteries. It uses Conditions as “damage” instead of hit points (as in Coriolis or ALIEN) or depleting attributes (like in Mutant Year Zero and Forbidden Lands). You also get a Condition if you push a roll.

In Vaesen you can have the following Conditions:

Conditions basically work like narrative hit points. Becoming Angry is both a negative thing from a mechanical standpoint (you get to roll one less die in skill tests for that category) but also a narrative prompt. Your player character is furious, act like it!

Comment: This I like a lot.

One problem with hit point systems, even the Stress Track in Fate, is that they’re fairly deterministic. A player knows roughly how many hits they can take until they’re incapacitated. Random damage helps somewhat, yet here again the law of averages makes estimating somewhat easier, especially (as in D&D) if one has a lot of hit points to burn. Frequently taking damage below some threshold has no effect whatsoever, save to lower the threshold for the next fight.

In this system any hit could hurt, a lot, so the wisest choice in this game, as in life, is to avoid fights. (And as in life, circumstances might put you in a fight anyway.)

However, Vaesen takes a more traditional approach to conflict and combat compared to Tales from the Loop. In this game, the GM rolls dice for enemies, and you use initiative cards, choose between different actions in combat, and measure distances in zones. If you are unlucky enough to become Broken, things get desperate, you need to roll on the Critical injuries table and can only hope for the best!

Comment: This I’m not so keen about. I’m becoming increasingly convinced that initiative and strict sequencing are more trouble than they’re worth, and a more abstract system where everyone acts more or less simultaneously, including simultaneous combat rolls, streamlines combat enormously. (If it’s something one wants to avoid, as I mentioned above, why spend so much time and column-inches describing it blow-by-blow?)

Still, zone movement is an improvement over counting yards / squares / hexes. And Critical Injuries reinforce the risks of direct combat, especially in a horror game. (Presumably they’ll resemble those in Mutant: Year Zero and Forbidden Lands, which are kinda nasty and just realistic enough to keep characters from bouncing back like four-color comic book heroes.)

Fear Tests

From Update #20:

At it’s heart Vaesen is a folk horror game. This obviuosly means that the player characters will get be put in terrifying situations where keeping your cool can mean the difference between life and death. To this end the game introduces the Fear test.

The Fear test takes place when a PC sees or experiences something horrifying. It could be a mutilated dead body, a ghost or a witnessing a violent act. You will get to choose between using your Logic or Empathy in the Fear test and simply grab that number of dice. Then, add a die for every other player character in the scene besides yourself (up to a maximum of three). Characters that are Broken or Terrified do not count towards this. Some Talents also gives you bonuses for Fear tests. The next step is to roll the dice and count the successes. The Fear value of the creature, magic or scene dictates how many successes you need to have to pass the test.

If you fail you became Terrified and you will suffer this state in a D6 rounds. You get a number of Mental Conditions equal to the Fear rating and will have to do one of the following:

As you can see, becoming Terrified is not a good thing! But, you have a second chance, if you choose to push the Fear roll you can roll the dice again, the trade-off is that you gain a Mental Condition right away. Remember, once you are Broken you have to roll on the table for Critical Mental injuries!

Comment: All horror games need a Fear mechanic. Call of Cthulhu‘s SAN spiral might reflect fragile Lovecraftian protagonists, but there are better options. My favorite is Unknown Armies‘s system, which breaks trauma into five categories and allows characters to become hardened (or over-sensitized) to certain categories. Thus, for example, your E.R. surgeon won’t even blink when faced with blood or dead bodies, and your combat veteran won’t flinch at violence, but either might freak out when confronted with demons, tortured by interrogators, or forced to betray their most deeply held principles. Trail of Cthulhu approximates this somewhat by separating Stability – short-term mental and emotional equilibrium – and Sanity – long-term psychological and existential integrity.

That said, Vaesen‘s mechanic is pretty standard: roll vs. some mental characteristic, flip out if you fail, maybe acquire some long-term mental trauma if you hit bottom. The only catch here is, as alluded to above, there’s no slow erosion, just a sharp shock and immediate consequences. Depending on how often the game calls for a Fear Check, that might be a good thing. Just replacing hit points with Conditions might make players more wary of combat, this might make players more circumspect about rushing into the unknown.

Headquarters

Also from Update #20:

In Campaign play your group will gather in your headquarters. The default one in the core book is Castle Gyllencreutz in Upsala. A dilapidated old manor that have been out of use for a long time before you got access to it. However, you can choose to customize your HQ if you like to create your own. You will use your HQ as a base between Mysteries – here you can heal, learn new skills, research things and developing the HQ’s features. The headquarters is an interesting place in itself, and can sometimes be the place for it’s own Mystery!

Upgrades provide the group with extra features and will give them the edge when preparing for the next Mystery. Some of the upgrades available to the headquarters are:

You can choose to develop different features as a group, but developing the HQ also comes with the risk of raising the Threat level, meaning that the more known the group and their headquarters become, the more trouble and unwanted attention they will attract!

Comment: There’s nothing about this I don’t like. Mutant: Year Zero‘s rules for improving one’s community – “the Ark” – is the subsystem that most attracts me to that game, and Vaesen‘s rules for upgrading Headquarters sound like they might be a smaller scale derivative of those. Also, like any good horror game, every good thing just invites more badness.

“The Obligatory” …

If I seemed underwhelmed by the physical Stretch Goals, well, sad to say, I am.

Conclusion

Despite the criticisms and reservations I stated above, I’m really looking forward to getting Vaesen sometime in May. (Or June or July; this isn’t my first Kickstarter.) Maybe by then I can find or assemble a horror-friendly group (and location) to put it through its paces.


  1. Seriously, more than I’ve spent on any others; the next highest was the full printed slipcased set of The Guide to Glorantha from Moon Design (now Chaosium). ↩︎

  2. International shipping charges may wipe out said savings; I won’t know until next spring. ↩︎

  3. The Call of Cthulhu RPG is my jam. ↩︎

  4. The works of Edgar Allen Poe are also my jam, as are (to a lesser extent) those of other Gothic horror writers like Machen, Le Fanu, and Stoker. ↩︎