Horror in idyllic Scandinavia - a Mephisto review
Scandinavia in the 19th century is not as tranquil as one might think at first glance. Here, too, the drastic changes brought about by industrialization are intruding and disrupting the old order. But not only is society in upheaval; the supernatural beings of Scandinavia, called Vaesen, are also reacting to the changes. As ancient traditions are forgotten, and industry encroaches on nature, many of these beings feel threatened and respond aggressively accordingly. While humans and Vaesen knew how to live together for many centuries, confrontations now occur again and again. Some humans have the gift of seeing the Vaesen, who are normally invisible in their true form. This people form the Society, who wants to protect humanity from the Vaesen. From their headquarters, a castle in Uppsala, they seek out these creatures.
Vaesen is another role-playing game by Fria Ligan, based on the same rules base as Forbidden Lands. Four attributes and twelve skills define player characters. For tests, the combined value of an attribute and a skill determines the number of six-sided dice rolled. Any 6s rolled are successes, and the more successes achieved, the better. Characters are created based on ten archetypes. In addition to their game statistics, characters also need a motivation, a trauma (a bad experience that scarred them), a dark secret, and relationships with the other player characters. Depending on the chosen archetype, the resource level (the financial means) is also defined, and the different archetypes have various talents available giving them further bonuses.
Instead of hit points or damage levels, characters in Vaesen have three physical and three mental states they can check, each of which means the loss of a die. If all these conditions are checked, a character is broken and thus out of action. There is a risk of critical damage, which may become permanent at the end of the adventure if the character is particularly unlucky. However, some of these injuries can also provide special insights that improve a character. Because of the small number of conditions, fights are correspondingly dangerous and carry the risk of a character being broken quickly. Most Vaesen cannot be defeated by normal weapons either but require rituals to banish them forever. Since many of these creatures are suitably terrifying, the game also provides rules for fear, so characters often have to pass fear tests when they first encounter an enemy.
A central element of the game is the Society, a group of people with the second sight who deal with the Vaesen. Even though the Society has a long history, it has been gone for several years. The player characters are now a new generation with the Society's headquarters, but they must rediscover its knowledge for themselves. The only contact with a former member is the woman who granted them access to the castle but otherwise spends her time in an asylum.
The Society's headquarters also takes on an essential role within the game. Various resources, rooms, and upgrades can be used between adventures to restore the headquarters from its dilapidated state to its former glory. The rooms give corresponding benefits, for example, to gather knowledge or resources, heal damage or even provide equipment.
Another chapter briefly and compactly introduces the mystical north. Even though Vaesen is set in the 19th century, it does not claim to depict this time historically correct. Instead, the setting should roughly provide the atmosphere without clarifying which changes happened precisely at which time. Accordingly, life in general and, above all, the city of Uppsala are portrayed briefly.
Much more space is given to the Vaesen themselves. After the brief general explanation about their origins and powers, the rulebook introduces a whole arsenal of creatures that have sprung from Norse mythology and revolve around ghosts, fairy creatures, and trolls. The emphasis here is on background rather than game statistics. As mentioned earlier, Vaesen usually cannot be defeated by brute force. Even if their abilities are predefined to a certain extent, the details are left to the game master to provide for surprises accordingly. Small adventure ideas about the Vaesen offer story hooks for the game master.
The book concludes with a chapter on game mastering, clearly structuring adventures in their flow and central conflicts. Usually, there is a primary conflict and a secondary conflict. While the primary conflict must be resolved, the secondary conflict presents an addition to the adventure. The game also works with an escalation system that allows the game master to steer the adventure towards disaster if the players do not act skillfully. Notes on atmosphere, etc., are also provided in the chapter, as well as some tips on how to present the game world.
The book concludes with the adventure The dance of dreams, which confronts the players with a threatening enemy and is meant as a hook for a larger story. The adventure offers a solid introduction to the game world and should be quite challenging for beginners. In addition to the free character creation via the archetypes, the book also offers tables for creating characters by rolling on various tables for the character's life path, which determines the statistics.
Vaesen offers an exciting setting and an intriguing facet of horror that draws on the traditional mythology of Scandinavia. After all, the inspiration for this role-playing game was a book of the same name about the mythological creatures of Scandinavia. The time period of the 19th century and the idea of the Society, which has to be rebuilt by the player characters, adds to the fascinating background. The rules system is coherent. The important thing here is that the Vaesen cannot be defeated by brute force, but the players have to use investigative work to find out their weaknesses, so they have a chance to stand up against them. I enjoyed Vaesen's ideas very much. In particular, the extremely atmospheric illustrations convey perfectly the flair and the contrast between the seemingly idyllic world of Scandinavia and the ancient horror that lurks beneath.