Vaesen Review

For reasons not entirely clear to me, I have never reviewed a Year Zero game. The Year Zero engine is Fria Ligan’s centerpiece, and maybe even their house system as well. Named for Mutant: Year Zero, the game system powers designs as widely varied as the Alien RPG and Tales from the Loop. And now Free League Publishing’s Vaesen. Vaesen is new territory for the Year Zero engine and indeed mainstream tabletop RPGs in general, being a game of fairy tale horror and specifically Scandinavian fairy tale horror at that. While fairy tale horror may not seem like the most natural fit for a system better known for maps, bases, and colored dice, Vaesen ends up being a pretty wonderful take on the system, its juxtaposed strengths working well provided that you buy into the high concept.

The high concept of Vaesen is two-fold: First, all of the player characters have The Sight, the supernatural ability which allows you to perceive vaesen, which can otherwise choose whether or not they wish to be seen by humans. Vaesen are creatures like trolls, fairies, and lindworms, and of course as most people cannot see them, most people do not believe they exist. This builds out a conflict which drives the second part of the game’s high concept: The player characters have come together to rebuild an ancient order called The Society. They have tracked down a former Society member, confined to an asylum, and through her received the keys and deed to Castle Gyllencreutz, the Society’s headquarters in the Swedish city of Upsala. While the Vaesen and the mysteries surrounding them are one core conflict of a campaign in Vaesen, the other has more to do with your neighbors; Upsala residents who see the castle occupied again may be curious, suspicious, or in some cases, inclined to see you locked away just like the old woman you got the keys from.

This is where the game asserts its identity, where it’s clear that this is a ‘Year Zero’ game as advertised. While fairy tale horror can be short or long form, especially in the gaming medium, the intended campaign for Vaesen is all about Castle Gyllencreutz and how it acts as a headquarters. The core rulebook has extensive lists of additions you can make, old rooms you can discover, and people who hang around (or are paid to staff) the castle who can help you as your quests continue. This is the tie-in back to games like Mutant: Year Zero and Forbidden Lands which both have the notion of a ‘base of operations’ more clearly cemented in their high concepts.

At this point, I have to step back. I’ve talked a bit about the conceit of Vaesen and a bit about this vaunted ‘Year Zero’ engine, but I haven’t really talked about what the game is or how it works. The core mechanic of the game is a simple d6 dice pool; the size of the pool is determined by a sum of the relevant Skill and Attribute. While only a 6 counts as a success, the vast majority of rolls require only one 6 to ‘succeed’. There’s actually a chart of dice odds in the book (a nice touch to be sure) and a character with four dice, which is a fairly average pool, will succeed slightly more than half of the time. To make success a little easier to come by there’s the option to ‘push’ a roll in exchange for gaining a Condition. Conditions are the main damage mechanic of the game, and ‘pushing’ lets you lean so far into this that you can even incapacitate yourself in the process. There are three each of mental and physical Conditions; while they have their own labels they’re not unique, only granting increasing penalties to the relevant attributes.

Attributes and skills in the game are, if anything, economical. There are four attributes, Physique, Precision, Logic, and Empathy. Attached to these attributes are 12 Skills, three skills per Attribute. To further the mechanical differentiation a little bit there is also a list of Talents, both general and those gated to Archetypes. While Archetypes are the ‘class’ stand-ins here, they aren’t particularly restrictive, identifying one Attribute and one Skill as ‘main’, setting the range of the character’s Resources (i.e. Wealth), and giving access to a few of the abovementioned Talents. Where the Archetypes shine is what happens outside of the mechanics.

It’s a continuing theme throughout Vaesen that the mechanics are there in service to the characters and the story, no more and no less. Character creation makes this bluntly apparent as you look into the non-mechanical options. Character Motivations and Relationships should be familiar to many gamers; they’re both versions of common narrative mechanics that show up everywhere from PbtA to Genesys. The other character flavor options, though, are way more unique and frankly way cooler. Each character must choose both a Trauma and a Dark Secret, and the examples given within each archetype make it clear that no one should be playing softball here. Let’s look at the Priest, one of the ten Archetypes. The Priest has three sample Dark Secrets: ‘The Devil Speaks to Me’, ‘I Have Stolen My Identity’, and ‘Ensnared by a Vaesen’. These are immediate and strong plot hooks, made even better by the implied relationship that The Society has with Upsala at large. The Traumas are a bit more short-term and direct than the Dark Secrets, tying into why the character has The Sight and why they’re trying to seek out Vaesen in the first place. Going back to our Priest, the sample Traumas are ‘Hurt someone after being enthralled by a witch’, ‘Watched a church grim tear apart some thieves trying to steal the church silver’, and ‘The third owner of a Spertus, serving the church to avoid being twisted’. Clearly the characters should not, neither before the events of the campaign nor during, tiptoe around the supernatural.

Once characters are set up, the game as written has a distinct ‘monster of the week’ feel, albeit tied into some heavy themes. The characters in their capacity as Society members take a long journey out to somewhere being haunted by a Vaesen. Once there, they must solve the mystery of how to stop, drive away, kill, or even bargain with the Vaesen causing all the problems. Inevitably things get creepy along the way, and the book provides good guidance not only how to structure an RPG mystery but also how best to use horror elements to good effect given the medium. The guidance won’t serve as broad-based advice (for that I’d recommend GURPS Mysteries and the Fate Horror Toolkit, respectively), but it does teach how to effectively GM Vaesen, which is necessary for as loose a trope structure as ‘monster of the week’. These adventures can be run as one-offs or strung together, with the mechanics around Castle Gyllencreutz and the role of The Society in Upsala providing most of the fodder for broader campaign structure.

I don’t know how Vaesen compares to other Year Zero games, but mechanically it’s quite light, using basic but tight rules and only a few bits of flair (notably the critical injury rules which are both flavorful and real rough). The bulk of the game is about setting and theme. 19th century Scandinavia is, at least through the lens of this game, a land of dichotomies; the divides between rich and poor, urban and rural, intellectual and superstitious, and yes, Christian and Pagan all shine through in how the game’s written. These dichotomies are also forced upon you as you play: The Society ventures from the city into the country in a typical adventure, and then characters are tasked with dealing with supernatural creatures which (for the purposes of the game) are very real while fending off the attacks and dismissals of intellectuals and Christians. There’s no clever mechanic enforcing these dichotomies, just a lot of good setting material and a few nudges which place the ability to make characters that must fully engage with the setting right at the feet of players.

In a weird way, Vaesen helped me understand old-school gaming just a bit more, even though Vaesen is not what most would call an old-school game. Mystery is in some way the perfect genre with which to interrogate the OSR because mysteries lose their fun and their spark if negotiated through mechanics. While Year Zero is clearly a more modern game than D&D, Vaesen implements the Year Zero mechanics in a fairly hands-off way, making sure it’s the players that get to engage with the horror and mystery elements and not putting them at arm’s length with more rules. What makes Vaesen good is not the rules (which are both nominal in scope and usually straightforward), but the theme, the writing on that theme (who knew that Swedes would write a great depiction of Sweden), and the structure and advice on how to get the theme to work at your table.

Vaesen’s got heft where it counts, and after reading I fully understand why I was seeing the game on so many superlative year-end lists. Just enough mechanics combined with solid writing and solid genre awareness may just make Vaesen my go-to for playing neo-Victorian monster hunters who work out of a gloomy castle. That might sound very specific, but if Vaesen learned one thing from D&D, it’s that a narrow concept works. I highly recommend giving this narrow concept a chance; your inner monster hunter and inner Scandinavian will thank you.

Vaesen is available on DriveThruRPG.

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