REVIEW: Vaesen

There is a powerful, beautiful, and genuinely moving game contained within the pages of this book, but it is struggling to get out.

The story of the creation of Vaesen is that of a home-coming.

In the book’s preface, the artist and writer Johan Egerkrans explains how he spent his childhood flicking through the pages of old monster manuals, imagining what all of those weird and wonderful monsters might look like in real life. Years later, he and his editor came up with the idea of producing a book inspired by Nordic myth and folk-tales. The result was called Vaesen and it was a huge success resulting not only in the book’s translation into English but also the commissioning of a load of further books in which Egerkrans would draw and describe gods, dragons, and all kinds of undead monsters.

Noting the success of the Vaesen books, a plan was hatched for Egerkrans to repay the inspirational debt he owed to all of those old monster manuals by allowing his work to form the basis for an entirely new game produced by Sweden’s Free League press, a continuation of the same art-first approach to licensing and creative partnership that saw Free League turn the art of Simon Stalenhag into the Tales from the Loop RPG. The result of this partnership is called Vaesen, it is full of Egerkrans’ artwork and it has been about as successful as any contemporary RPG that isn’t Dungeons & Dragons.

The book itself is a thing of rare beauty. Large, luxurious and adorned with a really evocative piece of cover art, the book’s internals are beautifully printed on thick, sepia-toned matte paper that makes the book feel like a collection of fairy tales handed down from generation to generation. Aside from being really good, Egerkrans’ art also lends the book a sense of aesthetic cohesion that really makes it stand out. As an object, Vaesen is undoubtedly one of the prettiest RPGs I have ever seen and that’s some accomplishment given that every new RPG to get a release seems to be pushing the envelope of what off-set printing can achieve at reasonable cost.

It’s tempting to say that the game is set in the late 19th century Sweden but the book contains no fixed dates and you could comfortably run a game set at any point before World War I but after the end of the Napoleonic wars. The point is that the game is set in a period when industrialisation is starting to reshape where and how people are choosing to live; towns are expanding to accommodate people in search of work and the countryside is emptying both of its people and of its traditional beliefs. As the old ways are abandoned and the old world is dug over to make way for the new, humanity’s covenant with the spirit world has been broken and the ghosts, spirits, and fairies of Nordic folklore are venting their anger on the human population.

Up until recently, the boundaries between the world of the humans and the world of the vaesen had been patrolled by a secret society which, though ancient, has taken a variety of forms down through the years. The most recent of these forms was a kind of scientific research association that would ‘investigate’ the vaesen and use their accumulated knowledge to help protect the human population. This lasted until the vaesen started to work together and staged an attack that wiped out the membership of the Society. Its leadership dead and its institutional memory decimated the Society fell into ruins until its last surviving legal guardian happened to run into a group of people whose previous encounters with the paranormal have left them able to see and fight the vaesen. This group of people are the players and their job is to rebuild the Society by investigating the paranormal and helping to protect humanity from supernatural depredation.

Simply stated, this is the kind of set-up that makes my nipples throb as it’s evocative, interesting and it provides a great steer not only for a GM trying to come up with ideas for a campaign, but also for people creating characters. You know exactly where you stand with this introduction and, even without knowing anything else about the setting, my creative juices are already flowing.

Character creation is fairly straight-forward: You select an archetype, you come up with the dark secret that gave them the ability to see vaesen, you then distribute a number of points, choose yourself an advantage, and determine how you relate to the other people in the group. There’s not a huge amount of meat to this section but, as with the old White Wolf games, the art-work is pretty evocative and there’s enough of a steer to give the impression that you’ve created a character with a bit of dramatic heft. More unusual is what comes after…

Having created everyone’s characters, the group is then walked through its first meeting as well as its encounter with the Society’s final legal guardian (a powerful elderly psychic who has only just been released from the Uppsala insane asylum). The legal guardian reveals the existence of the Society and immediately hands them the keys to a ruined castle.

Vaesen is a game where there are decisions to be made both before and after the session. Pre-session decisions usually revolve around telling the group how you have spent the time between missions and choosing a particular area of preparation. So maybe your character spent their downtime doing target practice or going through the Society’s ruined library in which case you’ll get an in-adventure bonus to either your ranged attack or your learning. Vaesen is a game of dice-pools in which the point is to gain a single success. You roll a number of dice equal to your stats + your skills and then you either subtract or add dice based upon your injuries or any advantages you might have going into the adventure. Post-session decisions involve not only how you choose to recover from your mental and/or physical injuries but also how you choose to spend your development points.

For me, development points are why you would choose to play Vaesen rather than dusting off your old copy of Eden’s old Buffy the Vampire Slayer RPG and creating a PC named Sven. The idea is that while the PCs gain experience points for the stuff they accomplish out in the field, these successes also translate into material gains for the Society. So while you might individually spend experience points to pump up your skills or obtain another advantage, you have a group discussion to determine where the Society should spend its development points. Development points translate into concrete stuff like doctors who move into the castle and help to bandage a character’s wounds between adventures but also new rooms and facilities that get built, discovered or restored within the castle. These new allies and facilities can improve recovery or increase access to material resources but they can also grant advantages that the characters then carry with them on their next adventure. I love the visual of the PCs unlocking new rooms in a ruined castle and I adore the idea of groups collectively choosing where to invest their development points.

The rules come across as pretty light but the boons granted by both the castle and the players’ advantages mean that there’s a bit of complexity and quite a bit of modifier juggling. This is one of those games where canny players marshal their resources and then unleash a torrent of buffs that have players rolling buckets of dice at climactic moments. It’s also a game where you track conditions rather than hit-points and different conditions result in de-buffs that accumulate until you develop critical injuries that then have to be managed during down-time (there’s a risk that they can be permanent and some of the permanent injuries result in spiritual breakthroughs that are actually beneficial). There are quite a few moving parts to the damage and recovery systems for both mental and psychological health but it’s mostly just tracking lists of things and the processes are all quite clear. It’s a bit of a pain but it’s just book-keeping and I imagine it becomes second-nature after a few sessions.

Given the strength of the set-up and the relative simplicity of the rules, I was absolutely sold on Vaesen as a concept. I also quite like the fluffiness of the rules as the book states quite early on that you only perform skill-tests in situations of stress as conversations between GM and players are generally all you need. There’s also quite a nice bit where the game describes opposed rolls and suggests that in the case of a tie between two parties, the best option is to find some mutually-agreeable compromise. Between the reasonable tone of the writing, the quality of the physical  book, and the beauty of the artwork, Vaesen comes across as a very charming RPG and I think that goes some way towards explaining its success. Unfortunately, problems start to crop up once the book moves beyond the rules and starts trying to get across how the game is supposed to work at a narrative level.

While Egerkrans’ fantasy bestiary provides Vaesen with all of its artwork and a lot of its charm, there are problems associated with building a game around a monster manual. These problems become apparent once you actually start looking at the vaesen themselves as the book provides you with a piece of art, a load of rules governing the vaesen’s individual magic powers, and some really really specific examples of a context in which the individual vaesen might be encountered followed by a description of the ritual that the players should use to kill the vaesen.

Now… in fairness, the book does include a chapter for GMs in which they tell you how to design an adventure for Vaesen. The problem is that while this chapter talks about stuff like how to set the mood and provides some (frankly baffling) flow-diagrams instructing you on how to extract a plot from three locations and a boss battle, the underlying structure of the adventure simply does not change. This is a game in which the players hear of something bad happening in rural Sweden, they then travel to the place where the bad thing happens, investigate the bad thing, work out which vaesen is responsible for the bad thing, research the vaesen until they find an appropriate ritual, and use said ritual to murder the magical creature so that humans can go back to clear-cutting the forests and strip-mining the mountains. So while the game does provide you with a clear narrative structure, said structure is very episodic and there’s no suggestion of how to build campaigns that look like anything other than a series of monster-of-the-week bug hunts in which the players and the Society get incrementally stronger and so face stronger and stronger vaesen. This is all a bit repetitive but it’s also thematically thin to the point of dunder-headedness.

I read Vaesen, I re-read the advice for GMs, and then I put down the book and uttered the word “Grim”. Frankly, having spent a few hours looking at Egerkrans’ wonderfully warm and quirky artwork as well as reading the set-up about how Scandinavia is changing in the face of industrialisation, the absolute last thing I want to do is run games in which the players spend their time waging racial holy war on the magical inhabitants of rural Sweden. I don’t care if they’re harming humans… why is this game about killing fairies rather than empathising with them and (at the very least) reaching some sort of compromise? It’s almost as though the creators of Vaesen watched Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke saw the bit where humans use explosives to murder the spirit of the forest and started exchanging high-fives and shouting ‘Fuck yeah!’.

Egerkrans’ artwork is beautifully humane and the context in which they are placed is both sad and evocative but none of these emotions are present anywhere in the game as written. Change the artwork and this could literally be a bug-hunt game like D&D or Call of Cthulhu. It is both utterly bizarre and completely tone deaf.

I think the root of the problem lies in the decision to present the vaesen in quite literal terms rather than examining the mythology and emphasising the themes that the original stories would have drawn upon. For example, one of the more colourful vaesen to appear in the book is a creature called a Nisse that looks like a tiny axe-wielding old man. Nisse, we are told, are often bound to individual farms and they will act to protect the farm regardless of the wishes of the farm’s owners. One of the suggested conflicts involves a theatre company where one of the actors has ‘taken control’ of the Nisse and is using it to bump off her rivals so that she can get all the best roles. In this example, the Nisse is a weapon and PCs attempting to deal with it would have to work out the power-dynamics of the theatre company and then deprive the ambitious actor of their weapon by performing the ritual that kills the Nisse.

But how can you want to murder a freaky little guy who looks like this? A better way of telling stories about the Nisse would be to look at the fact that they are bound to individual farms, think about the fact that the period saw traditional farms being either absorbed or radically-changed by the rise of industrialised farming practices, and conclude that maybe the Nisse are a way of exploring the tension between the needs of big industrialised farms that enrich capitalists and the needs of small traditional farms that feed families. It’s not that Vaesen isn’t a game about the growing pangs of modernity and the need to strike a balance between embracing change and retaining one’s values, it’s just that none of these rich and evocative themes find their way into either the game’s systems or its GMing advice and I think that’s because the game designer has struggled to move beyond the idea of Egerkrans’ original book being nothing more than a monster manual with really good art.

Vaesen should be Scandinavian Princess Mononoke or the second Hellboy film. It should be about the conflict between change and tradition, old and new, young and old, strange and mundane. It should be a game about fairies defending themselves against a human race that has been driven mad by capitalism and finding a way to embracing the future without losing one’s soul. The vaesen are not evil monsters to be killed, they are tragic figures driven to violence and disorder by a world that has been fundamentally changed by the needs of industrialised capitalism. This should not be a game about humans saving humans from supernatural beasts, it should be a game about understanding, negotiation, empathy and finding a way for humans and vaesen to co-exist.

Now… you might very well argue that this is not the game that Free League produced. You might also argue that one should judge things on their own terms rather than in terms of its success or failure at being something you happen find more interesting. You would be right to present these arguments. You would be right to say that I am being a touch unfair but I would argue that the vision of the game I have is evident both from Egerkrans’ artwork and the initial set-up whereas the vision of the game communicated by the rules and the GMing advice is born of the fact that RPGs tend to revolve around killing monsters so that’s where the designers chose to focus their energies.

Vaesen contains the bones of a really rich and evocative RPG but the book, as written, simply does not put any meat on those bones. This is not to say that you cannot run Vaesen as a game about environmentalism and the growing pains of modernity but the game provides little to no support in helping you to run that game and so the game’s ability to produce a 19th Century Scandinavian Princess Mononoke is solely reliant upon the strength and imagination of the GM. Something that is equally true if you decided to run said game using any other set of rules inspired by the urban fantasy genre.

I really like Vaesen and I can already think of a couple of campaign ideas that use the mechanical bones the game provides but those campaigns will be very different to the game the book encourages you to play. For all its charm, the luxury of its production values, and the quality of its art, Vaesen is quite possibly the single most tone-deaf RPG adaptation I have encountered since ICE’s old Middle-Earth Roleplaying suggested running a Lord of the Rings game in which the characters hacked and slashed their way into the mines of Moria in order to pick up as many magical objects as possible before booking it to the closest town.

There’s a great game contained somewhere within the pages of Vaesen, it’s just going to take a lot of time and effort to dig it out and isn’t that time and energy what we’re paying for when we buy a licensed game?

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