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Author Topic: The Hardboiled GMshoe Reviews: Vaesen  (Read 582 times)

Dan Davenport

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The Hardboiled GMshoe Reviews: Vaesen
« on: February 22, 2022, 08:27:19 AM »
Introduction

The name’s Davenport. I review games.

So the other day a dame walks into my office. Good lookin’ — kind of a Swedish model type.

‘Cept she had a cow tail.

“Hallo,” she says. “I am here with a review copy of Vaesen.”

“Great,” I says. “What’s a vaesen?”

“I’m a vaesen — a creature of Nordic folklore. A troll, to be specific. The book is about creatures like me in a fictional 1800s Scandinavia.”

“You don’t look like a troll,” I says. “No warts or claws or big teeth.”

“Those are mountain trolls,” she says, gettin’ a little huffy. “I’m a forest troll. Some of us look mostly like humans. Mostly.” She holds up her tail.

“S’cuse me, then,” I says. “Wanna hand over the game?”

“I’ve changed my mind,” she says.

“Really?” I says.

“No,” she says. “Just trolling you.”

https://freeleaguepublishing.com/en/games/vaesen/

Substance

Setting

Vaesen takes place in Scandinavia in a deliberately vague 1800s time period. The Industrial Revolution is in full swing, but in the dark corners of the North lurk folkloric creatures — the stuff of dreams and nightmares. These are the eponymous vaesen. Normally invisible unless they choose otherwise, the vaesen are always visible to special individuals with the power of the Sight. These are the PCs.

If the book has any weakness, it’s definitely the lack of information on life in Scandinavia in the 1800s. Aside from a general tech level revealed in the equipment, there’s just not much there. I certainly wouldn’t feel confident in running the setting “correctly” if I had a group that cared about historical accuracy.

That said, if the game doesn’t cover the specifics well, it does an amazing job of conveying the atmosphere of the setting. Reading the setting description invoked the chill of an icy wind blowing beneath the boughs of a dark and ominous Nordic forest.

The game presents an innovative way to get the PCs involved with the world of the vaesen. They are contacted by — or motivated somehow to contact — a survivor of the Society, a disbanded organization dedicated to studying and (when necessary) banishing vaesen. This individual reveals the history of the Society to the PCs and provides them with the keys to the castle formerly serving as the organization’s headquarters. The PCs become the founders of the reborn Society. From there, the PCs can explore the castle and gradually uncover its various amenities and resources to help their nascent Society improve its capabilities. I love the fact that the game is thus able to pull diverse PCs into a motivated group with minimal handwaving.

As to the vaesen themselves, the book presents 21 of them. Some are well-known, like fairies, ghosts, giants, sea serpents, and trolls; others are more obscure, like the myling, nisse, spertus, and vaettir. Each receives an extensive write-up, including both the rituals commonly known to banish them and the secret requirements for these rituals that will require extra research to reveal. Given the detailed descriptions, 21 is a respectable bestiary. My only qualm is that unless you happen to be familiar with Scandinavian mythology, coming up with additional creatures will be problematic.

The vaesen can posses three forms of magic: Enchantments, Curses, and Trollcraft. Enchantments affect an entire location and possibly its inhabitants, Curses attack directly or from a distance, and Trollcraft warps reality. Fittingly, when Enchantments or Trollcraft are used to create atmosphere rather than to directly affect PCs, they work automatically and potentially evoke fear in the PCs. This avoids blown rolls adversely affecting the mood and flow of the adventure. The rules stipulate that humans (including PCs) can learn magic, allowing for witches and wizards in the setting.

System


Character Creation

Vaesen utilizes an archetype-based character creation system. Characters are comprised of four attributes — Physique, Precision, Logic, and Empathy — and 12 very broad skills. Attributes range from 2-5 and skills range from 0-5, but only the archetype’s main attribute can start at 5, and only the archetype’s main skill can start at 3. Archetypes also offer a selection of three talents (special perks), of which the player can select one. Finally, archetypes including options for finishing touches, including a motivation, a dark secret, a trauma, resources, and equipment. Although this design mostly precludes more than one of the same archetype in a given group, that’s almost a feature rather than a bug, contributing as it does to variety in the PCs. In any case, character creation is quite simple and speedy.

Task Resolution

Vaesen uses a simple attribute + skill system. The game rates both attributes and skills in terms of six-sided dice that are rolled together, with a six representing a success and additional sixes adding success levels. Modifiers add or subtract dice, and levels of difficulty add to the number of sixes required for success. It’s a simple, transparent mechanic.

PCs have three physical and three mental Condition levels that each cost one die from a task roll. A fourth Condition taken results in putting the character out of action and inflicts a critical injury.

A player can push a roll — rerolling any dice on a roll that did not come up six — at the cost of taking a Condition. (Yes, this means that a character may cripple himself in order to push a roll.) I really like the cost/benefit ratio here.

Combat

A physical conflict begins with all participants drawing a card from a deck numbered 1-10, the number drawn becoming the character’s initiative. I don’t care for this for two reasons: (1) It adds another tool to keep track of on the table, and (2) it ignores the reflexes of the characters.

Characters use the Force (Strength) skill for unarmed combat, Close Combat (Strength) for armed melee combat, and Ranged Combat (Precision) for ranged combat. As always, I’m a bit leery of Strength being the base for hand-to-hand combat attacks, resulting as it does in big, strong creatures also being more accurate in their attacks. However, because extra successes add bonus damage levels to the attack’s base damage, attacks and damage are handled with one roll — always a good thing.

Speaking of damage, damage levels stay very low — a good thing, since there are only three damage levels. Many weapons have a bonus to accuracy, however.

Characters in combat get one slow action (such as an attack) and one fast action (such as a defense) per round. That means that characters are helpless to defend against multiple attacks in a given round. That, plus the low number of damage levels, makes combat something to be avoided — appropriate for a horror game.

Vaesen Stats

Vaesen have different stats than do PCs: Force (for attacks and strength), Body Control (for dodging, sneaking, chasing, etc.), Magic (for spellcasting and resisting magic), Manipulation (for trickery and persuasion), and Fear (the difficulty of a Logic or Empathy roll to resist becoming terrified of the creature). I particularly like the way Fear works in this game. Most creatures only evoke Fear the first time they’re encountered, although some are so scary as to have a second Fear rating for subsequent encounters; thus, characters can get used to dealing with most vaesen. In addition, each fellow character up to three adds +1 dice to the roll, simulating the bravery from numbers.

Style

The art in this book is simply gorgeous — sometimes whimsical, sometimes creepy, uniformly beautiful and evocative of folklore. I don’t know if any game’s visuals deserve to be called “flawless,” but the art in Vaesen is pretty damn close.

As mentioned previously, the writing is equally as evocative. It’s also impressively clear. I seldom found myself re-reading rules in order to fully grasp them, and that’s high praise coming from me.

The layout makes reading easy on the eyes, with the artwork enhancing the feel of the book without becoming distracting or intrusive.

Like all good roleplaying game rulebooks, Vaesen includes an index.

Conclusion

I think it’s safe to say that Vaesen is a niche game. It is, however, a niche game that’s beautifully and skillfully done — so much so that I can see it drawing gamers into its niche if they give it half a chance. I count myself as one such convert. If you’re a fan of traditional horror and dark fantasy that’s creepy but not gritty or gory, and if you enjoy the 1800s as a setting but are tired of Victorian England, then this is quite likely your game.

The GMshoe gives it five out of five fedoras.
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