Earlier articles have covered the Free League Publishing RPG Vaesen: random comments on the preview and nearly complete alpha, a walkthrough of character generation, a (too?) detailed analysis of difficulty factors, and some very broad comparisons with other YZE games.
In mid-2021 I said this:
… I’ll give an overview of the system and drill down on what I think are the most interesting bits:
- establishing and enhancing a Headquarters
- the structure of adventures, or Mysteries as the book calls them.
- how vaesen work, mechanically and thematically
This is that article.
Note that much of this is considered “GM-only” information. While I’ll try not to reveal any big secrets, players should beware.
So my (hypothetical) readers don’t have to reread half a dozen articles, here’s the setting of Vaesen and an overview of its player-facing rules.
In the Mythic North, a land much like 19th century Scandinavia, vaesen – invisible beings of the wilderness – have mostly in harmony with mankind until the current era. Increased industrialization and urbanization, and the abandonment of the “old ways”, has upset the balance. Supernatural occurrences have become more frequent, and more deadly.
The player characters, who have encountered the vaesen before and can see them, have gathered in Upsala to meet with a strange old woman. She tells them she used to belong to a Society dedicated to resolving problems between vaesen and mankind, and gives them a key to the Society’s abandoned headquarters.1
As members of a new Society, the player characters travel across the breadth of the Mythic North solving mysteries and hopefully saving lives. But at what cost …?
Vaesen uses the Year Zero Engine found in other Free League games.
Characters have four attribute scores, each of which has four associated scores for skills (which may be 0).
When game play reaches a decision point, players add their character’s most relevant skill and its associated attribute plus any modifiers for equipment or circumstance. Then they roll that number of six-sided dice.
Every six that shows is a Success. Normally one Success is enough, but difficult tests may require two or even three Successes. Extra Successes can also add effects, e.g. advantage in close combat.
Zero Successes is a Failure, whcih means some irrevocable circumstance. Maybe your character is sneaking, and they’re found out. Maybe they’re trying to convince a non-player character (NPC), and the NPC refuses to listen. Maybe they take physical or mental damage.
The player only gets one roll, unless they’re willing to risk the PC’s well-being by taking on a Condition.
Conditions and Injuries
PCs can “Push” their skill checks by taking a Condition. If they Push their roll, they reroll all dice that do not show a six.2
Each character can suffer a Mental or a Physical Condition. Which they suffer depends on the type of skill they “Push” or the type of damage they take. Each Condition subtracts a die from the relevant type of skill check.
Player Characters can take three physical or three mental Conditions before they’re Broken. Broken characters can take no actions and must immediately take a randomly generated Critical Injury, again separated into physical and mental. Physical injuries range from the mildly debilitating (foot injury or broken finger) to the fatal (punctured lungs or crushed chest); mental injuries range from minor (confusion or fealing overwhelmed) to extreme (possession, split consciousness).
Most Critical Injuries leave the victim with a Defect that affects a skill. With medical intervention and rest these Defects may heal. The worst injuries, however, leave the character with a permanent Insight that they can use once per game … if the character survives with their body and mind intact.
Headquarters provides not only a place to rest and recuperate, but an ever improving resource for research, medical care, and preparation for the next Mystery.
In the first session the Headquarters only has a mundane library and a butler who mostly does cleaning and other butling. After each Mystery characters acquire Development Points based on what they encountered in the Mystery, what they brought back, and whether they solved the Mystery. Development Points can buy Upgrades, which may be:
- new Facilities, e.g. an armory, an infirmary, a seance parlor, a workshop.
- Discovered Facilities from the old Society: e.g. the botanical garden, the occult library, a treasure chamber.
- Contacts, e.g. a banker, a patron, a police constable, a psychiatrist.
- Personnel at the Headquarters, e.g. a caretaker, a chef, a gardener, a mystic.
Some Upgrades have other Upgrades as prerequisites, e.g. it’s no use reviving the botanical garden without a gardener.
The Headquarters also has risk. Each time the players buy an Upgrade the GM rolls dice to determine if a Threat emerges. Threats can include police and legal interference, malicious journalists, officious priests, criminals, ghosts, vaesen, … anything that a mansion or castle full of mysterious people doing mysterious but probably Satanic things might attract.
Vaesen gives advice for designing a mystery:
- What Vaesen are involved?3
- How do they and humans come into conflict?
- What misdeed provoked a crisis?
- What is the location like? What is the atmosphere like?
- What clues lead to uncovering and resolving the conflict?
- What happens if the players don’t resolve the Mystery in time?
Likewise there’s a pattern to each adventure, which I’ll just quote from the book:
- PROLOGUE: If necessary, each player character gets a scene from their daily life
- INVITATION: The mystery is introduced, giving the characters a reason to visit the location
- PREPARATIONS: The characters prepare at their headquarters
- JOURNEY: The Gamemaster describes the journey to the location. The characters can gain an Advantage
- ARRIVAL: The characters arrive at the location.
- PLACES: The characters investigate a number of places, often three, in search of clues
- CONFRONTATION: The characters confront the creature or the humans behind the conflict
- AFTERMATH: The characters head back to headquarters where they gain Experience Points and find out whether their Defects and Insights have become permanent
(“Advantage” here refers to preparation the players can take to give them a bonus die when the preparation pays off.)
Some people look down on frameworks and structure, ignoring that the entire hobby started with the ubiquitous structure of the Dungeon. If the above seems a little too “railroady”, nothing says the GM has to stick to the structure as written. But it’s nice to have for those days when inspiriation doesn’t strike and perspiration sets in.
As stated above, the Vaesen come from Scandinavian myth: trolls, elves, nature spirits, house spirits, etc. The book describes almost two dozen vaesen.
What impressed me about the Vaesen in this game, however, is that defeating them doesn’t require massive firepower or arcane spells as in That Other Game. The “Ritual” required to appease or disperse a Vaesen is simple and often requires only knowledge of the specific Vaesen. For example, a ghost can be lain to rest by figuring out why it still haunts the living: what task remains undone or what wrong remains unavenged.
As always each Vaesen entry includes advice on what sort of conflicts it might be involved in, what Secrets one must learn to understand it, and what Ritual will appease it.
As I said before, Vaesen is one of the YZE games I most want to run (or preferably play):
Vaesen offers the sort of investigative horror I liked in Call of Cthulhu, only with Norse folklore instead of tentacle monsters.
The base system is simple yet versatile. The risk of Mental Critical Injuries makes “sanity” systems look simplistic in comparison. One of the two big selling points for me, however, is the ongoing mini-game of improving the group’s Headquarters … and keeping it safe from nosy neighbors, officious officials, and supernatural threats. The other is that players battle not made-up angry seafood but creatures from actual folklore, and use their idiosyncratic weaknesses to resolve the situation without resorting to unnecessary violence.
If this were a real review, I’d give this game two thumbs up, ten out of ten, or whatever other simple-minded numerical system editors chose. As it is, I’ll simply appeal to my hypothetical readers: Let’s Play This.
In the rules this is Castle Gyllencreutz, but the GM is free to substitute any other large structure and initial encounter. If I run a campaign, I’ll probably introduce the Society after the first Mystery, and have the players meet a brusque lawyer or relative. Meeting the frail former Society member herself might be a Mystery in and of itself. ↩︎
Sometimes it makes sense to push a roll to get enough successes. ↩︎
Although an adventure with a hoax might be interesting. “If it weren’t for you and you meddling … adults …” ↩︎