Can we talk about horror and mysteries in games for a minute?
In principle I like both these things, particularly in the media I enjoy. In reality, at the table, they may be the worst gaming topics I’ve ever come across. The evergreen popularity of Call of Cthulthu means this is obviously not a widespread feeling. For my tastes and abilities, though, I trip up on them a lot. My horror tends to be too horrible and triggery, especially if I lean into disempowerment and body-horror themes. And mysteries end up being too convoluted when I design them, demanding so much problem/puzzle solving that there might as well not be characters present at all.
Thing is, I know how to fix those things! I could, if I cared to, renovate those skills. If I’m being honest with myself, mystery is already part of almost everything I play, particularly when it comes to big reveals and sudden recontextualization. Love me the element of mystery, just not, you know. Capital-m Mysteries. Horror also shows up a lot in my games but when I run a game in the capital-h Horror genre, things get out of hand.
With that in mind, I was excited to try Vaesen.
Swedish Fairytale X-Files
Vaesen is Free League’s game of gaslight Scandinavian horror, and the Society that faces it down. It’s set in 19th century Uppsala, Sweden, which is both weirdly specific but also super-broad. Lots of things happened in the 19th century, and my American public education didn’t really cover Scandinavia other than Vikings.
I’ve been a fan of Free League’s Year Zero Engine games ever since Mutant: Year Zero, which we played a ton. But I feel like they’ve gotten less tight and interesting ever since: Genlab Alpha was less good, and Mechatron and Elysium remain on my shelf, read but unplayed. Forbidden Lands is a fun system but the default setting is not awesome. Love the Coriolis setup but the system changes did not work for us. Can’t speak to Alien or Twilight: 2000 yet, but Vaesen is nearly a return to form, more in line with Tales From The Loop: simple and focused.
I’ve played darned near every Zero Engine game and Vaesen is near the top of my list.
Innovations to the Zero Engine
Every Zero Engine game fiddles with the basics of the game in some way. For example, they all have some version of pushing, that is, rerolling the dice that didn’t produce a success (a 6, usually) at some risk to yourself. The version in Vaesen is brutal: you take a mental or physical condition (temporary harm) when you push. No risk, just harm.
Damage converts to permanent changes, for good or ill, when you return to your headquarters. Bad outcomes become permanent defects, good ones become insights. It’s mostly better than the Lovecraftian “madness” stuff with a few iffy gamified mental health bits (PTSD and dissociation being standout examples).
Terror is the game’s most direct nod to the horror genre, and it looks like other fear mechanisms out there. Under certain circumstances, the GM can impose a fear check of varying difficulty. If you can’t beat the difficulty on the first try, you can push like always, but pushing does damage to your stats (as does terror!) so it’s a very quick spiral. The end result, should terror befall your character, is a choice to flee, fight, stand there in a daze, and so on. It’s fine, but not novel.
There’s an interesting knot of rules around resources and social class: your character comes with some equipment, and before every mystery you roll your Resources stat to see how much other stuff you can grab on the way out the door. When you return, it’s most likely gone forever unless you’ve made certain improvements to your headquarters. Later, the social class to which you belong gives you leverage for acquiring additional gear while away from home. Class is a small but important detail in the setting and this is a nice way to mechanize that.
Otherwise? The four stats and the spread of skills will look familiar to anyone who’s played other Zero Engine games, as does skill use and conflict. Very easy to take and run with immediately.
One of my favorite bits of Zero Engine games is the baked-in campaign, the shared enterprise, or whatever common effort element they’ve included. Not all the Zero Engine games have this, and the ones that don’t feel like they’re missing something.
In Vaesen, the characters belong to The Society for whatever contrived reason, all gifted with “The Sight” and able to see and interact with the (otherwise invisible) vaesen. At the start of the first session, they’ve just received the keys to the Society’s former headquarters, Castle Gyllencreutz in Uppsala, Sweden.
The campaign, such as it is, revolves around discovering the mysteries of the castle. Each addition or uncovered secret gives the Society a neat new advantage. There’s also a good chance that it’ll trigger a complication for the Society back at home: police curiosity, a nosy journalist, some vaesen deciding to haunt or co-exist in the castle. It’s very lightly structured, and there’s no end-game condition the players are aiming for.
In our game, the Society discovered a secret occult library hidden behind a false bookshelf, and a forgotten gallery of items brought back to the castle by the mysterious former Society members. Meanwhile, a go-getter journalist had taken an interest in the Society, and a tiny fairy queen’s court was about to take up residence in the crawlspaces and vents they can’t get into. Weird, colorful, and some good excuses to have scenes and character development in the castle.
How To Build A Vaesen Mystery
The meat of the game is in its procedure for creating a mystery, a vaesen-caused situation that’s drawn the attention of the Society. Turns out that, without any conversation about what the Society is for, this is a weird and empty premise for a game. Or at least it was for my players, who didn’t connect with the Scooby Doo quality of the game until their characters found themselves invested in the situations and the outcomes.
I suspect that players who are totally fine with delving dungeons because that’s what you do with a dungeon, will be okay with how Vaesen deals with mystery creation. That’s because you arrange the clues into actual, physical locations.
There are three big ideas behind a Vaesen mystery: primary and secondary storylines, and a catastrophe countdown that drives urgency while the mystery remains unresolved.
The primary storyline is all about the inciting incident: a vaesen has done something, or a supernatural event has transpired because of a vaesen. Someone’s dead or cursed, something weird is going on, and so on. The clues necessary to piece together a solution to the inciting incident are always available to the characters, Gumshoe style. You can’t screw it up, as long as you go to every location and get every primary clue.
Secondary storylines are optional and exist only to complicate and enrich the basic setup. The Society isn’t only hunting a werewolf (for example), they’re doing it in a town where two shipping companies are fighting with each other about harbor rights. Your troll hunt in the backcountry might also have to contend with the squabbling married couple you’ve hired to lead you to its lair. On paper the secondary material feels frivolous, but in play it’s my favorite bit of the game. The “clues” around the secondary material aren’t automatic, like with the primary storyline. You may or may not get the whole picture.
Finally, there’s the Catastrophe Countdown. It’s essentially a Front like in Apocalypse World. The GM can tick the clock whenever they feel like it, but especially if the action is slowing down. Each tick escalates the situation and hints toward what’s to come. At the end of the countdown the catastrophe itself takes place and the mystery is no longer resolvable. It’s not a formal, system-driven system, and I’m skeptical that many GMs will be willing to pull the trigger themselves and just make the mystery fail.
I ran the mystery that came with the rulebook, to see the clues/locations/countdown material at work. Then I did that procedure once more, and found I was able to create a more dynamic, adapting situation than the pre-existing material provided. I’m sure that’s just a matter of having it all in my head, rather than constantly referring back to the list of locations, clues, NPCs and the countdown clock.
The Premise Carries The Day
At some point you need to decide how much Vaesen is about the mysteries, the overarching cosmology, and the personal stories of the Society members. The occasional complications that arise from upgrading the castle do a good job of challenging the Society itself, but turning those complications personal is where the good stuff is. The premise, that every Society member can see the vaesen and have been personally impacted by them, does much more of the investment work than the mysteries, I think. And that’s where roleplaying through a mystery is best in my mind, when the revelations and stresses of the investigation show us the characters.
The dark fairytale vibe of Vaesen is startling, when you start reading the examples of play. What looks like a spooky haunting reveals an abusive parent who beats his child. A lady troll magically coerces men to seduce and consume them. It’s got serious, heavy darkness to it, all wrapped up in cuteness and weirdness. The monsters and the vibe are derived from Vaesen: Spirits and Monsters of Scandinavian Folklore by Johan Egrkrans, who also provided the gorgeous illustrations for the game.
What really caught the attention of my players was the underlying premise of why the vaesen are suddenly a problem: the creeping modernization of 19th century Scandinavia. I leaned hard into the imagery of failed farmsteads and downtrodden families moving into the big cities, and city life being exciting and very modern in contrast with the backwards rural weirdos. We had a terrific, long, in-character argument in fact about exactly this: What is the point of the Society? Are we here to fight vaesen, or are we here to help humanity and vaesen live together? Are we pro-human or anti-vaesen? What did our forebears have planned? That’s all interesting stuff, and a very strong, memorable moment in play for us.
The Not So Great
I think a common feature of many mysteries in fiction is that they don’t really care about personal growth and development. This is a feature of Vaesen as well, and you have to fight against it to put the spotlight back on the characters. In other Zero Engine games, for example, there’s a sentence or two explaining how to change your relationship with other characters. And there’s usually an XP or two to be earned for helping or protecting friends. But Vaesen offers neither. If you started the game distrusting another PC, you’re going to distrust them forever. It’s trope enforcement rather than growth facilitation. It’s trivially easy to change of course! But as written, it’s a clear signal the game wants you to direct your attentions back to the mystery.
The other not-so-great bit of the game is the practical outcome of the mystery creation rules I talk about above. It produces a dungeon-like experience, with players moving from location to location and dealing with some central challenge in return for a clue, and it feels stiff and formalistic. Leaving out that structure, and driving the situation through interactions with NPCs, vaesen and the catastrophe clock, is more dynamic and flexible. But that’s on the GM to manage.
So does all that add up to Vaesen being an unproblematic alternative to Call of Cthulhu? Not really! Vaesen is its own horror thing and thank goodness, we’re already overloaded on Mythos stuff.
Vaesen’s alternative to “madness” is pretty good but you still end up with gamified mental illness. And thematically you’re not facing existential horror at all: the vaesen are weird and they’re creating problems due to, ultimately, colonialism, modernity, and capitalism. We read repeatedly that humanity and the vaesen had coexisted and had an understanding. This is profoundly different from Lovecraftian horror, if you care about the existential underpinnings of the Mythos and not just the monster-hunting. If you wanted a more Lovecraftian experience, though, it wouldn’t be hard to refactor the setting and use the system as-is.
The Castle improvement/discovery minigame is very cute, but I wish it drove more actual campaign-style play. I hesitate to say it definitely doesn’t, because I really did like the fun little complications that emerged from their improvements. But I feel like it’s mostly on the GM to integrate those into the more provocative material. A nosy cop who was perhaps involved in investigating the odd murder of a character’s spouse, a rival group of occult investigators who prove to be responsible for the animated corpse that scared a character into discovering their Sight, stuff like that. It’s not in the rules but it’s all there.
I know a lot of gamers have strong opinions about mysteries: how to plan out an interesting one, whether mystery-oriented gaming is good or boring, and whether the puzzle or the characters is more important. To its credit, if you set aside the game’s own make-a-mystery procedure, Vaesen is flexible enough to accommodate your own mystery and horror philosophy.