THIS SEPTIC ISLE
Troubled by trolls and vexed by vaettir John Power Jr. leaves Vaesen’s Mythic North behind and heads to more familiar surroundings to speak to Graeme Davis, author of the game’s new Mythic Britain & Ireland supplement....
It has been a long, hard journey for our mismatched band of disgraced priests, back street doctors and dilettante artists. Summoned from the cosmopolitan university town of Uppsala out to this windswept village on the Danish coast it’s fair to say we have not received a friendly welcome from the locals, suspicious as they are of our city ways.
Our, let’s say, specialist expertise has been called upon by an engineering company hoping to drain these ancient moors and make them fit for modern purpose. Unfortunately for them their machines are mysteriously breaking down their workers scared off, and just beneath the surface dark secrets and wicked misdeeds are inexorably clawing their way into the light.
Welcome, to the ‘Mythic North’.
Released in 2020, ‘Nordic Horror’ roleplaying-game Vaesen is set in a ‘mythical nineteenth-century Scandinavia’, a land where the hidden realm of the titular vaesen -trolls, lindworms, church grims and the like- butts up and against our own increasingly secular world. A land where despite industrialisation and scientific discovery giving birth to our new world, the old refuses to go quietly, leading -as the saying goes- to a great variety of morbid symptoms to appear.
Based upon the book of the same name by author and artist Johan Egerkrans -a handsomely illustrated field guide to the myriad creatures of Scandinavian folklore- Vaesen makes use of Free League’s own, now familiar, Year Zero engine to create a game of both folk and very human horror.
In Vaesen players are members of The Society for Studies of the Invisibles and Protection of Mankind (henceforth The Society), a secretive organisation dedicated to protecting humanity from the more esoteric dangers of the world and, on occasion, vice versa. Gifted with ‘The Sight’, our heroes are those rare few who, through accident of birth or trauma, are able to perceive the unseen world of spirits and the supernatural, that which normal folk might just catch a glimpse of out in the corner of their eyes.
From their well appointed base in Uppsala players must sally forth out into the icy hinterlands, those places where newly built roads give way to dirt tracks, old traditions and beliefs die hard and secrets, and indeed bodies, rarely stay buried for long.
Whilst Vaesen’s antiquarian setting and themes of occult detection may bring to mind Call of Cthulhu, its mysteries tend to operate on a smaller, more human scale, one where grand cosmic nihilism gives way to often pettier concerns, more M.R. James than H.P. Lovecraft. Insane cults and world ending plots are replaced by jilted lovers nursing cold hatreds and petty industrialists whose greed has brought them into conflict with the otherworld. Where Lovecraft’s antagonists are in many ways unknowable, Vaesen’s are often all too familiar, and as a result their misdeeds and dilemmas have the potential to hit all the harder.
Still, for all it eschews world ending horrors Vaesen can still be a surprisingly dark game. Whilst at first glance Egerkrans illustrations may give the book the feel of a collection of children’s fairy tales, linger over the illustrations of Ash Tree Wives, Mylings and The Neck and the horror beneath the surface soon becomes visible. In that though Vaesen is true to its roots, the original folk tales and fairy stories of Northern Europe from before the Brothers Grimm began the process of sanitising them for a modern audience, tales where no woodsman appears in the nick of time to save Red Riding Hood from the big bad wolf.
Whilst the supernatural lies at the heart of each Vaesen mystery, the solution is rarely as obvious as charging in with guns blazing, silver bullets, cold iron and holy water at the ready. Instead this is a game of puzzle solving and detection, overcoming local suspicions and misaligned motives, teasing out the all too human shortcomings that have invariably led to conflict between the two worlds to find a way forward.
Having sent us scurrying from the Norwegian coast to the Baltic Sea and back, Vaesen has spread its wings with Mythic Britain & Ireland. Rolling across the dark waters from Scandinavia like a gloomy sea fret, this brand new sourcebook covers the Atlantic Archipelago and its inhabitants, supernatural and otherwise. It is, it has to be said, a perfect fit. Britain and Ireland are lands steeped in folklore as rich as that of Scandinavia, countries where mysterious prehistoric monuments stand on gloomy plains and the misdeeds of the past habitually haunt the present.
To bring this Mythic Britain & Ireland to life Free League approached veteran games designer Graeme Davis, or rather, as he explains, he approached them. ‘I'm a lifelong folklore geek and I had been toying with the idea of a folklore based RPG for some time, but the closest I got to doing it was GURPS Faerie in 2003,’ he explains.
‘When I first saw Vaesen, I realised that it was the game I'd been wanting to make all along, only set in Scandinavia. It clearly needed a supplement on Britain and Ireland, and I wanted to be the one to write it. Luckily, Free League liked my pitch!'
Remaining in the late 19th century, Vaesen’s Britain and Ireland -populated by men of science like Stephenson and Brunel- is perhaps an even more apt location for a game where, as Davis points out, ‘the upheaval of industrialisation, and the way that both mortal and supernatural folk respond to it, is a major theme of the setting.’
‘Being set in the 19th century, there are built-in themes of tensions between classes and cultures, between urban and rural areas, and between industry and tradition,’ he explains and the book begins with a lengthy introduction to the United Kingdom of Victoria’s time, and its increasing divisions.
Whilst Britain was at the height of its power, this was after all the seat of the empire upon which the sun famously never set, the Isles themselves were riven by tensions, between the classes, between town and country and most notably between the four nations that then made up the United Kingdom, with calls for independence -notably in Ireland- becoming increasingly loud and in many cases violent.
Indeed one of our favourite sidebars in the book is titled ‘Fenian Fairies’ and speculates how the interaction between those fighting for Irish independence and the denizens of the mercurial otherworld might play out, probably not in the mortals’ favour Davis suggests. It’s understandable that a topic that over a century on is still unresolved has generally been left to the discretion of the games master but it’s certainly an area ripe for exploration.
Completing this gazetteer of the Isles, Davis takes us on a tour of its major cities, the people -historical and fictional- whom we might encounter and the locations we might find them in, from the leather upholstered private clubs of London to the dockyards of Belfast and onto more esoteric realms such as the otherworlds of Celtic myth.
Much like our original Uppsalans, British characters are members of their own occult order, in this case the Apollonian Society, whose London townhouse comes complete with that essential feature, a ghostly manservant. Davis ties the Apollonians into much of Britain’s storied magical history and you will not be surprised to find such well established figures as John Dee and Edmund Spenser appear alongside the, perhaps, lesser known likes of 17th century antiquarian John Aubrey and William Stukely, famous -in the real world at least- for his 18th century investigations of Stonehenge and Avebury.
Davis’s love and knowledge of Britain’s secret history shines through it all but fun as that all is, and apart from the digression into Victorian Britain’s baffling monetary system it is all fun, it’s the 14 new vaesen culled from the folklore of the Isles that are the book’s star attraction, each one brought to life once more by Vaesen’s original artist Johan Egerkrans.
With a wealth of folkloric beings to choose from narrowing down the selection seems like a difficult job, something Davis readily admits. ‘It was a tough choice,’ he says. ‘I originally presented a shortlist of around 20 creatures, and talked them over with Johan, whose art is so much a part of what makes Vaesen special. Between us, we whittled my list down to those that offered the best game potential combined with the best visual potential.’
The final selection then ranges from the barrow haunting Banshee of Ireland to the Knockers, inhabitants of the tin mines of Cornwall and the seal like Selkies that populate Scotland’s coasts. Much like the original book’s vaesen this diverse cast of creatures goes from the playful and mischievous to the bloodcurdling and cruel, though few are as outright horrific as Davis’s favourite, the nuckelavee, which he describes as ‘a demonic, centaur-like creature from Orkney. It is so bizarre and frightening, and so unlike anything else I've ever seen from anywhere else in folklore.’
THE NUCKELAVEE, “A DEMONIC, CENTAUR-LIKE CREATURE FROM ORKNEY. IT IS SO BIZARRE AND FRIGHTENING, AND SO UNLIKE ANYTHING ELSE I'VE EVER SEEN”
Another challenge Mythic Britain & Ireland presented Davis was in not just narrowing down the selection but pinning down the essential qualities of creatures that by their very nature defy simple classification. ‘Given that there's almost no part of Britain and Ireland where twenty miles' travel doesn't land you in a place with a different accent and culture, there are bound to be differences in the details of folklore,’ he explains and points to the iron clawed hag, a creature he admits to having ‘a soft spot for’ and whose mutable nature means that ‘there are just so many different ways of looking at them and using them in stories.’
To reflect this diversity most of the vaesen featured in the book come complete with a list of notable regional variations. So, for example, in the case of Scotland’s seductive, if very much murderous Glaistig, Davis provides details of other beings that occupy similar folkloric niches elsewhere across the isles, such as the Irish Baobhan Sith and Manx Leanan Sidhe.
‘In general these differences are minor, but still interesting for a game, where the players might be faced with something they don't know, about a creature that is otherwise familiar,’ Davis says, adding that whilst ‘there are differences between northern and southern England, Welsh folklore is very much its own thing, while there are significant similarities between Scotland and Ireland - perhaps because they were both Gaelic-speaking nations originally, while the Welsh language is Brythonic and closer to Breton and Cornish.’
For those who wish to explore the mist shrouded folklore of the British isles further Davis has included a bibliography and particularly recommends Katherine Briggs’s A Dictionary of Fairies. ‘I first picked it up in the mid-70s, and I've not found a better reference since then. It's exhaustive in scope, with enough detail to provide ideas for mysteries and encounters which the GM can then supplement with their own research online,’ he explains, ‘It’s harder to find than it once was, but worth looking for.’
Of course a bestiary of banshees, boggarts and black dogs is all well and good but they need a good mystery to be placed within and Mythic Britain & Ireland ends with three such scenarios that take us from rural Gloucestershire, to a mining village in Wales and back to the smog filled streets of London. Filled with superstitious locals, high minded interlopers, zealous priests and decadent artists, bar your investigators ending up in a burning wicker man they tick all the folk horror boxes you might expect, and its clear Davis “gets” Vaesen and what differentiates it from its more tentacular peers.
‘The cosmic horror of Call of Cthulhu, to me at least, has alway been largely about the futility of human endeavor in the face of vast, uncaring, incomprehensible powers in a vast, uncaring, incomprehensible universe,’ he says. ‘You can never win, but you can try not to lose - at least, not today. In Vaesen, it is far more possible to right wrongs and make peace with the supernatural. Faerie thinking and morality may be different from those of mortals, but they are not so entirely alien as the entities of the Cthulhu Mythos.'
“FAERIE THINKING AND MORALITY MAY BE DIFFERENT FROM THOSE OF MORTALS, BUT THEY ARE NOT SO ENTIRELY ALIEN AS THE ENTITIES OF THE CTHULHU MYTHOS”
On the subject of the game’s taxonomy though Davis sees Vaesen as more of ‘a folk investigation game’ than an outright horror one. ‘Historically, folklore and fairytales have included some very dark themes indeed, and they were only cleaned up fairly recently, by the Victorians in the 19th century and by Disney in the 20th and 21st centuries,’ he explains.
‘Certainly you can have horror elements if you want, and for some creatures that is about the only option, but you can also have pure fairytales with only a little darkness in them. No one has to include horror in a game if they don't want to.’
‘There's a difference between portraying horror, or the potential for horror, and being an edgelord for its own sake - or so I've always believed,’ he goes on, adding ‘there must always be a dialogue between GM and players over what the limits are and which topics are particularly upsetting for each specific player.’
Likewise as well as setting expectations at the start of play Davis advises that he ‘would never advocate for loss of agency on the part of the player characters, because the whole point of a roleplaying games is collaborative storytelling and group problem-solving. But there is a significant difference between challenging the players and robbing them of all agency.’
Whilst the book is now out and in people’s hands, Davis’s work with Vaesen seems far from done. A good beast is hard to keep down and he has already started to publish those creatures left on the cutting room floor via the Free League Workshop on DriveThruRPG, and indeed look beyond our shores, collaborating with Polish writer Paweł Marszałek on some adaptations of Slavic vaesen.
Indeed whilst Britain and Ireland’s mythology may share some DNA with Scandinavia, Mythic Britain & Ireland shows how easy it would be to expand the borders of Vaesen's world beyond the cold, foggy north of Europe. As the world grows smaller who knows what righteously angry spirits may have hitched a lift with looted relics back to the heart of Empire, or indeed where our intrepid investigators may find themselves heading next.
With folklore to be found wherever we have built our homes, and human weaknesses universal, perhaps a globe trotting campaign to rival the iconic Masks of Nyarlathotep could be next, with it’s own spin of course, Around The World in 80 Vaesen anyone?
This interview originally featured in Wyrd Science Vol.1 Issue 3 - The Horror Issue
Vaesen - Mythic Britain & Ireland is out now available from Free League Publishing - Frialigan.se
Keep up to date with Graeme Davis & his new indie RPG studio The Rookery on Twitter - @RookeryP