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Quick, Simple Fun: High Society

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22 Apr 2021 16:58 #322446 by dysjunct
Played session one of VAESEN last weekend and it was a blast.

For those who haven't heard of it, it's a horror investigation game, like Call of Cthulhu, but set in Victorian-era Sweden. The supernatural elements (the titular vaesen) are not really evil per se, more like folktale creatures that want things, which might be at odds with normal human life and desires. So more kelpies, brownies, trolls, etc., all very mythic and a little strange. Most of the "bad guys" are actually people, either trying to use a vaesen as tools against their enemies, or who have angered a vaesen through neglecting to supply its traditional peace offering, that kind of thing.

Call of Cthulhu was my main RPG for almost 20 years until I finally got burnt out. It has some great scenarios but the rules are very creaky, and the average scenario is not good. Too many scenarios written like movie scripts, assuming the PCs do particular things in a particular order, and gods help you if anything goes off the rails. I am a good enough GM that I can improvise around this, but why should I have to? The game's been out for decades, learn how to write a good scenario. Plus, I was no longer especially charmed by the Roaring 20s, didn't think the game translated well into other eras, and then there's the whole Lovecraft thing.

So I am pleased to report that Vaesen takes every best practice of investigative horror RPGs and makes them official. Scenarios clearly lay out who the main NPCs are, and what they want. There's a timeline of what will happen if the PCs don't successfully solve the problem -- a three-step pressure cooker that results in catastrophe.

Another best practice is the existence of a setup hook -- the PCs are all members of "The Society," an organization that has been newly revived by its last surviving member, who is old and wavers in and out of mental clarity. They were invited as members because, whatever their backgrounds, they all have the "second sight" and can see vaesen (who normally can only be perceived by mortals if they choose to be visible). CoC often struggled with reasonable explanations for why diverse characters would be going on adventures together (the doctor, the dilettante, the hobo, and the noir PI all go to the social club ....) but with this, it's taken care of.
Having their patron be of iffy mental stability also solves the challenges of the PCs being overly reliant on someone, which cuts down on the feeling of isolation that is critical to any horror game.

(I'll note that Cthulhu attempted to solve this in later years, with Delta Green and the Thurston Marks Society providing the hook for the modern and classic era respectively.)

The system is a stripped-down version of Free League's Year Zero Engine (ALIEN, Mutant Year Zero, Forbidden Lands, Tales From the Loop). Roll a pool of d6s, get at least one six to succeed. You can push yourself and reroll any dice you want, but you get a "condition," like Exhausted, Wounded, Angry, or Hopeless. Too many conditions and there's two fun critical tables to roll on, one for being physically broken and one for mentally broken. Unlike other iterations of the system, there's no separate dice for gear, stress, etc.

Setting-wise, I was initially a little hesitant about "Victorian Sweden;" not only is the past a different country, but as it turns out, different countries are also different countries! But not to worry, people are people and really all I needed was an appropriate list of Swedish given and family names. Overall the setting plays up the rural/urban transformation that was happening all over Europe at the time. Vaesen are creatures of woods, waters, and hills; as more people move away from the countryside, the old ways are being forgotten and the traditional order, where humans and vaesen lived side by side for centuries, is being upset.

So a very nice central revolving story: PCs are chilling at the Society's castle. They get a letter asking for help (because people have heard whispered rumors of the Society). They take a carriage ride into the boonies, far away from anyone they know or anything that can help. They try to solve a mystery. They return home, and do it again.

The reward cycle is like the other games. There's a checklist of eight questions: Did you participate in the scenario? Did you take risks to protect other people? Did you confront any vaesen? And so on. For every one you answer "yes" to, you get 1xp. 5xp gets you an additional skill point, or a "talent" (kind of like a feat in d20 games). It's all very clearly laid out, and never fails to motivate players to do genre-appropriate things.

Oh, the castle -- like many other FL games, there's a base-building aspect. You wouldn't worry about it for one-shots, but it makes campaign games super fun. The PCs are given the deed to the hereditary castle of the Society, and an imposing iron key. The castle is vastly run-down, but it does have a butler and a library. There's another checklist you go through for the castle: Did you play at least one scene at headquarters? Did you bring occult books or other important items back to headquarters? Etc. Again, for every "yes" you get an "development point." Five development points gets you an upgrade, some of which have tech-tree-like prerequisites, all of which have minor mechanical benefits. E.g. if you purchase the Botanical Garden, then a PC may roleplay a scene there and heal two mental conditions for free. While all of them do make things easier for the PCs, this is offset by the fact that the longer a PC is around, the more banged-up they'll be, and so they need every advantage they can get.

Physically, the book is a treat. Linen-textured cover, cream paper on thick stock, and gorgeous illustrations throughout.
The following user(s) said Thank You: panzerattack, sornars, Erik Twice, Nodens

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14 Sep 2021 23:04 #326520 by dysjunct
Started the second scenario of VAESEN. The last one ended with revenants, possessed innkeepers hanging themselves, and everything burning to the ground in a supernatural witch-fire.

This one is starting with some great creepy atmosphere, involving a trip to the southwestern Swedish archipelago and dastardly herring magnates facing off against fanatic Lutheran priests — the classic conflict we all know and love.
The following user(s) said Thank You: san il defanso, sornars, Erik Twice, Nodens

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