REVIEW: Vaesen – Mythic Britain and Ireland

Back in October 2022 I arrived late for a party. After falling out of a taxi with a bottle of vodka in hand, I ventured into the universal love fest that was the critical reaction to Free League’s Vaesen and announced ‘Eh… not for me’.

Vaesen is one of the most disappointing RPGs I have ever purchased… The problem was that I loved almost everything about it: I loved Johan Egerkrans’ quirky and humane artwork, I loved the production quality of the book itself, I loved the idea of a game set in 19th Century Scandinavia, I loved the elements of base-building that come from having you level-up the group’s headquarters alongside their characters, and I loved the idea of a game that was about industrialisation and the conflict between modernity and tradition.

While I loved all of these things, I loved the last of them the most and that is where I felt that Vaesen let me down. Just as Vampire the Masquerade was a combat-heavy urban fantasy supers game that presented itself as an introspective gothic story-telling RPG, Vaesen presents itself as a meditation on tradition, change, and the growing pangs of modernity but in reality it’s a game about travelling to the countryside in order to hunt and kill fairies.

Both games are examples of what people in video-games studies used to refer to as ‘Ludonarrative Dissonance’: That is to say that there is a tension between the narrative told through the game’s story and the narrative that is told through the actual gameplay.

The dissonance in Vampire the Masquerade was born of market forces: The intent may have been to produce a game about exploring transgressive desires and the limits of humanity but the punters wanted books with lists of magical powers and so the minor dissonance of the original rule-set slowly grew into an unceasing howl of discord between what the game professed to be about and what it actually was about. Vaesen’s problem is born not of market forces but of a failure to do the work required to produce a game that engages with its intended themes.

Vaesen’s problem is that it has a great set of themes but it has no system for dealing with the conflicts that arise from those themes. Vaesen’s story is all about trying to resolve the conflict between modernity and tradition but the only relevant rules for conflict-resolution are some hand-wavy stuff about rituals and a combat system. So while the game may profess to be about the growing pangs of modernity it is actually a game about Swedish people murdering fairies in order to make the world safe for commercial farming and strip-mining. Had the game included some rules for resolving conflicts through any means other than conflict then it might have been true to its bittersweet themes but instead the game is nothing more than a series of bug-hunts. This lack of thematically appropriate conflict-resolution rules could have been ameliorated with solid advice on adventure design and tonal control but the GMs advice and most commercially-published adventures all point to a game about Swedish people travelling the countryside, tracking down the local fairies, and murdering them in cold blood.

Vaesen is basically the ideological opposite of Werewolf the Apocalypse; it is Princess Mononoke written from the point of view of the humans who want to wipe-out the forest spirits in order to expand their mining and logging operations. It is a game about the mundane and the profitable waging genocidal war against the magical and the bizarre.

So why did I go out and buy a supplement? Well… turns out that I’m an absolute fool as The Mythic Britain & Ireland supplement for Vaesen is somehow even more slapdash and disappointing than the original game.

Vaesen – Mythic Britain & Ireland feels like a high-quality RPG product. The artwork is just as good as in the original book, the cover is cloth-bound, and the interior pages are all printed on this gorgeously thick matte paper with great pagination and stylish fonts. Even the maps look fucking cool.

Alarm bells started going off when I realised that, despite being about 160-pages long, I had read the entire book (adventures and all) and taken notes in only a couple of hours. It turns out that while those spacious margins and lovely pieces of art may make the book look really good, they’re taking up space that might otherwise have been filled with actual content. To make matters worse, the book contains no less than three scenarios that take up about half the total pages. Much like Chaosium’s Berlin – The Wicked City for Call of Cthulhu, this book presents itself as a sourcebook but it’s more like a collection of scenarios with a few bits of additional background information. To make matters worse, what background information the book does contain is thin, under-developed, and re-cycled from other sources.

Vaesen – Mythic Britain & Ireland opens with a 35-page chapter called (appropriately enough) “Mythic Britain and Ireland”.  It starts with a brief re-statement of the game’s themes (industrialisation is changing the country and forcing more people into the towns, these changes are causing the Vaesen to act up resulting in conflict that needs to be dealt with by members of a secret society) before a description of British society that takes up less space than the box devoted to the names of different coins. The question of social class is also addressed in the form of an optional rule suggesting that while working-class people are incapable of making sense of upper-class people, upper-class people find working-class people easy to both understand and manipulate. This may be stupid and socially illiterate but at least it is easily fixed: +2 to empathy when dealing with people from your own social class, -2 to empathy when dealing with people from a higher or lower class.

While the game acknowledges that England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland are all different countries with their own distinct cultures, the places that are not-London are dealt with in about four pages. Despite Vaesen being a game where the adventuring tends to happen in the countryside, none of the descriptive text applies to places that are not major cities. The closest we get to a description of the countryside is two paragraphs devoted to the question of ‘rural life’ and that’s mostly about pubs and how people who live in the countryside are superstitious and don’t trust city-dwellers. We then move on to a description of London that goes on for nine and a half pages (more than double the space devoted to the rest of the British Isles) and is comprised of a brief paragraph-long description of a notable place like the Tower of London followed by some boxed text containing an adventure hook. While some of the hooks are better than others, none of them are that evocative… apparently the Houses of Parliament are quite old and so they might be haunted.

Even less impressive is the section on famous people living in London that contains both notable authors and their creations. So apparently, in the world of Vaesen, Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson are both real and so is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who is apparently their ‘creator’? Conversely, Bram Stoker exists in the world of this game but Dracula does not. I would say that this was baffling but in truth it’s just incoherent nonsense born of the fact that the book’s writer Graeme Davis clearly just pulled together a load of names associated with Victorian London with no real thought as to how they would fit together to create a world.

This lack of care and attention further extends to the list of ‘mysterious places’ like Loch Ness and The Giant’s Causeway which all come with a brief description but no indication as to how or why you might want to include them in your game. Vaesen is a game about living in the city and travelling out to the countryside to solve conflicts between the mundane and the supernatural: Why are none of the place descriptions relevant to that aspect of the game?

Equally puzzling is the section devoted to local fairy lore: We have a couple of paragraphs on the ‘Sidhe’ and a couple of paragraphs on ‘Tir Na Nog’ and fairy rings but it’s all dealt with very quickly and to no obvious end. I think the purpose of this section is primarily to provide GMs with some anglicised fairy-jargon to stir through their game as it’s neither substantial enough to inspire people to go off and write their own adventures about British fairies nor grounded enough to answer practical questions such as ‘what are the differences between British fairies and Swedish vaesen’ or ‘how does a game of Vaesen set in the UK relate to a game of Vaesen set in Sweden?’ but I’ll return to that in a bit.

The back end of the non-scenario material is a list of generic player archetypes that feel like they might have been dropped from the core book for reasons of space. There’s nothing particularly British (let alone English, Scottish, or Welsh) about them, they’re not especially evocative, and could be added to any Vaesen game. There is then a list of thirteen new UK and Ireland-specific Vaesen as well as some notes on localising critters from the core book. It’s here that this book’s lack of care and attention becomes most evident.

Vaesen – Mythic Britain & Ireland was written by Graeme Davis and the marketing blurb describes him as something of an industry legend. Having never heard of him before, I had a google and found that he cut his teeth in the industry back in the mid-1980s with the original publication of Warhammer. He then went on to write for a load of different games including AD&D2 and Vampire back in the 1990s. He also produced a number of GURPS supplements including the supplement GURPS Faerie from 2003.

I suspect that it’s the GURPS Faerie credit that landed Davis this gig and it was a pretty solid hire on paper as GURPS supplements from that era were of a very high standard. What made them special is that they were written exclusively for GMs who wrote their own stuff: There was never any fiction and never any fluff, or any concerted attempts at world-building, instead the books planted their flag on a particular subject matter and then explored different aspects of that subject matter from a variety of different perspectives. How those ideas fitted into a game, or a campaign world was left up to the GM. So for example, GURPS Faerie provided rules to help you run games about both domestic nuisance fairies and elf-like magical fairies. They also provided support for the idea of fairies being aliens and angels and all sorts of different stuff. In other words, if you wanted to run any kind of game with fairies then GURPS Faerie would provide you with GURPS rules support for that kind of game. I have never run GURPS and only played it a few times but I own a load of GURPS supplements just because of the way that the books break down and engage with different sets of ideas. To be blunt, the vaesen contained in Vaesen – Mythic Britain and Ireland are lifted from work done for GURPS Faerie. If you have GURPS Faerie, you do not need this book and despite being a shorter book that covers a wider range of topics, GURPS Faerie covers each of these critters in greater and more evocative detail than this book. In other words, the vaesen-specific information in this book is not just re-cycled, it is down-cycled. Were it not for the fact that Davis carefully paraphrases himself, I would argue that this book was a unambiguous example of self-plagiarism. Thankfully, Davis stays just clear of falling into that trap. Nothing is re-thought or re-worked for inclusion in this book. Nothing is made special to fit with the Scandinavian vibe of the original game, and nothing has been done to move the critter descriptions closer to the artwork contained in the book.

Even more unfortunate is the way that little to no effort has been made to actually engage with how people living in different parts of the British Isles think about fairies. Everyone knows that Scandinavia has this rich tradition of supernatural lore that is basically about how you need to leave an old boot full of rum and ram’s blood out on your doorstep each full moon or a gnome called Snotlicker will break into your henhouse and fuck your chickens. It’s unique, it’s delightful, and it’s pretty much what the core Vaesen rules are all about. The problem is that this kind of fairy lore is absolutely unique to Scandinavia. Most cultures have some analogue of fairies and most of them have weird folk tales pertaining to their local fairy analogues but the gnomes fucking chickens? That’s all on Scandinavia.

The problem is that while Britain and Ireland do have a tradition of fairy lore they are a) not like Scandinavian vaesen and b) not thought of in the same way across all of the different nations that inhabit the British Isles. While I am not by no means an expert in the folklore of the British Isles, I would argue that the closest these cursed islands come to a Scandinavian conception of fairies is Ireland while the English barely think about fairies at all.

This is not to say that England does not recognise fairies. English people definitely used to believe in fairies and that’s why fairies appear in Shakespeare but English fairy-lore is dead and historical in a way that most definitely cannot be said of either Ireland or Scandinavia.

Scotland and Wales are somewhere in-between these two extremes but I would argue that belief in the ‘little people’ is one of the things that the English use to shame and mock primarily the Irish and secondarily the broader Celtic fringe of English empire. This is not to say that the English do not have superstitions of their own, it’s just that English popular superstition tends to revolve around ghosts and not fairies. In England, every country pub has a ghost but the only places you see mention of fairies are mythological sites that date back to the middle-ages and beyond.

Given what’s included in this book, I would argue that the plan for this book was to produce a Vaesen supplement that would allow people to play in Victorian London. This is why there are lists of places to visit in London as well as Victorian celebrities who happened to be living in London at the time. However, in order to produce a Victorian London supplement for Vaesen, you needed some lore about fairies and because England has no extant cultural practices revolving around fairies, the book was expanded to include Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. The book’s lack of substantial engagement with any these places makes it clear that they’re not really interested in helping you run adventures set in North Wales or the Western Isles, they just wanted London and some fairy lore so they made a few references to Ireland in order to justify including elements of Irish folklore in a book whose primary setting is quite manifestly London. This results in a book that feels both poorly-conceived and poorly-executed.

For me, the most frustrating thing about this creative decision is that while England has no existing cultural practices pertaining to fairies, it has loads pertaining to ghosts: Up until the 1970s there were several famous and well-funded ghost-hunting organisations that would send paranormal investigators out across the country in search of ghosts. Look at hauntings like the Black Monk of Pontefract or the Enfield Poltergeist and you’ll basically find real-world English Vaesen adventures in which colourful characters investigate paranormal happenings. The book does mention bodies like the Society for Psychical Research but it’s only in passing, which is a strange decision given the parallels between English ghost-hunting and Scandinavian vaesen-hunting.

This failure to think about the relationship between Scandinavian and British folklore is evidence of a real lack of care and attention to detail. The book’s lack of thought is also evident in the way that it refuses to engage with the question of how this book is intended to be used. I purchased this book assuming that it would take the basic structure of the Vaesen game and transport it over to England where the players would be called upon to face different kinds of critters in a slightly different context but the book has little interest in providing the kind of contextual support that is required for a UK-based campaign.

There’s none of the lovely stuff about members of the group being approached by the last living member of a society that had been slaughtered by fairies and no thought has been put into developing a UK-specific narrative arc comparable to Vaesen’s story about the vaesen nearly dying out and then re-emerging and performing a massacre. In truth, the text seems to want to have its cake and eat it too as some sections refer to the Society as a going concern that is happy to work with Scandinavian hunters while other sections assume that UK-based characters have inherited an empty shell comparable to the Castle described in the Vaesen core text. Having failed to provide much detail in support of a UK-based game, the book also skates over the question of how the contents of this book might be fed into an existing Sweden-based game as there is not a single word on the question of why members of a society devoted to addressing supernatural incursions in rural Scandinavia would want to travel all the way to London in the first place.

This is weak. It is under-developed, under-thought, and positively stinks of both uninspired writing and editorial complacency. It’s not just that this book is hack-work, it’s hack-work that was waved through by line-editors because everyone paid up-front for a shiny book and who gives a shit whether the contents of the book are actually any good? I was hoping that a UK-specific take on Vaesen might resolve some of my issues with the original game but if anything this has made things worse. I know the bars for participation and quality control are pretty low in the RPG industry as it pays really badly and margins are almost non-existent but it would not have taken much for this game to be both coherent and engaging. The fact that such a thinly-conceived and disordered book was produced by a so-called ‘industry legend’ only makes things worse.

So… if the book is a disappointing mess, how would I do things differently? Well, I am very glad you asked!

Points on How to Run a Vaesen Game set in Mythic Britain and Ireland

The first thing that occurred to me is that Britain has been densely populated for a lot longer and by a broader range of peoples than Scandinavia and so the narrative about industrialisation putting pressure on indigenous magical populations doesn’t really work in a British context. I mean… I doubt that gnomes would get upset simply because Kentish farmers have started using steam engines rather than oxen to pull their ploughs. Britain had a period when great forests were felled and replaced with fields but that had nothing to do with industrialisation as it started not long after the Norman conquests.

The Victorian era sees Britain at the height of its imperial power but while the empire presents itself as a single body politic, Imperial unity masks differences not just between Britain and its colonies in the Global South but also between England and the nations it conquered in earlier phases of the imperial project.

A British Vaesen game is not about cultural tensions between town and country but cultural tensions between imperial core and periphery. Non-English vaesen are not symbolic of nature and tradition being impinged upon by industrialisation, they are symbolic representations of cultural authenticity and heritage being impinged upon by empire. English vaesen are symbolic of trauma, the long-buried past, and of things destroyed in the name of progress.

This means that each nation should get its own version of the Society in much the same way as each real-world nation gets its own college of medicine and football association. The Scottish society is based in Edinburgh, the Welsh society is based in Cardiff, the Irish society is based in Dublin, and the English society is based in London. The English society is the only one to bear a royal warrant and despite the independence of the different societies, it views itself as the empire’s governing body for matters paranormal. The non-English societies do not accept the primacy of the English Society and massively resent its membership. In return, members of the English society view members of the non-English societies as superstitious farmers and village pastors who spend all of their time chasing boggarts across muddy fields with butterfly nets when they should be trying to unravel the mysteries of life and death by making contact with the afterlife.

While there is some mythological bleed-through, each National Society should be embedded in its own local myths and legends. Members of the Irish society would most likely spend their time engaging with fairies in a similar way to the membership of the Swedish society while members of the English society spend their time travelling around investigating hauntings caused by the traumatic advance of industrialised capitalism and the power of the British state.

As the head of an empire that spans the globe, Britain has become a destination for migrants both economic and cultural. These people travel from all over the world to find work in the cities of the British isles and they naturally bring elements of their culture with them. Brave GMs might want to run games that use non-British magical creatures as metaphors for issues such as racism, colonial oppression, and economic exploitation. These creatures can also be detached from their associated human populations by considering the way that British people spent the Victorian era travelling to other lands in order to steal shit and bring it home with them. What kinds of vaesen live in gemstones pried from the carvings of a native temple? Is that statuette a carving of a supernatural entity or an actual supernatural entity that has been stuffed into a crate and dragged back to the imperial core? Is the British museum a repository of beautiful things or a prison for assorted ghosts and vaesen?

Can modernity ever be reconciled with the sacred and the magical? Is ‘Britishness’ just a cowardly way of talking about English imperialism or can non-English identities co-exist with the demands of a modern imperial state? Should they even want to? Whose side are the vaesen on and should human investigators really want to kill them? Are the Societies in the business of wiping out supernatural opposition to empire or is there another path?

This supplement continues and amplifies the problem of the core text: On paper, Vaesen is a really interesting game that touches on a load of really novel themes but in practice it’s a dumbed-down version of Call of Cthulhu because the game never goes the extra mile to think about how to tell stories that relate to the game’s chosen themes. Aside from being a slap-dash mess of under-developed ideas that does really very little to support long-term Vaesen campaigns set on the British Isles, Vaesen – Mythic Britain & Ireland failed to address the problems of the core text or even how those problems might be altered by a change of venue. As with the core text, the basic ideas are good but the book itself does little to help you put those ideas into practice. Given how expensive these books are and how comfortably they meet their crowd-funding goals, Vaesen’s editorial quality control is not just unfortunate, it’s borderline depressing.

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