Release The Trolls – How to Run Vaesen One-Shots (or Campaigns)

Vaesen is Free League’s game of folk horror investigation, where 19th century Scandinavian investigators explore the conflicts between humanity and the Vaesen – supernatural creatures like werewolves, ghosts, and fairies. It uses the Year Zero Engine, and for me this fits the game really well – and it has a structure to its investigations that make it great for one-shots or episodic campaigns. There’s even a follow-up Kickstarter running at the moment (well, depending on when you read this) to bring the game to Britain and Ireland.

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Each mission, you’re called out to somewhere, and travel there to try and resolve the conflict of the area. This gives a great Town-A-Week structure to Vaesen, and I really enjoy running it – even though investigative games aren’t always my bag. Here are my four top tips for making it sing:

Prep the Structure

Firstly, Vaesen has a whole chapter dedicated to Mystery design. This is absolute gold, and I’d recommend reading – or even following along – with this to create your first mystery. That’s what I followed when I designed the Haunted Mill introductory scenario, and it works well. Like Tales From The Loop, Vaesen assumes a Three Places style of prep – where players are free to explore nodes as a countdown continues, leading up to a final confrontation.

One word of warning – the published adventures (in the core book and A Wicked Secret – don’t always follow this structure. By all means run them as a way in, but they play around a bit with the prep advice – so don’t rely on them as models.

Nail Your Places

If you’re starting from scratch with your prep, you might be wise to think about your confrontation first – how can the conflict with the Vaesen be resolved? – and then think about where that could happen. From that, you can think of your core places in the town. I’d suggest that usually, you want something like this

  • A place where the regular townspeople meet and ill-informed gossip can be had (a PUB, if you like)
  • A place where the ‘traditional’/modern view of the Vaesen is represented (this is often a CHURCH, but it could be a factory or a work camp)
  • A place where the old ways are kept, and the Vaesen are respected (a SPOOKY PLACE, maybe on the outskirts of the town)

As long as you have those three, you’ll probably have enough to feed the players clues to lead to the confrontation. One thing I’ve noticed in play (at least among my group) is that a pub is expected – make sure to consider what excitement and clues visiting the tavern can bring, even if it’s not a major location. On a practical note, the investigators need somewhere to stay, and it’s usually best if this is a place of relative safety – several of the rules kick in to recover conditions here, and it lets you pull no punches in other confrontations. 

Add Friends, Enemies, and Frenemies

Your Vaesen will almost certainly need allies – either humans wrapped up in its worship like a cult, or actual products of the Vaesen – a confrontation against a lone monster is rarely exciting without some other parties to contend with. For most Vaesen it’s relatively easy to give them some agents in the town – and remember that any one with Enchant can Command Animal, so don’t rule out packs of wild dogs or the odd bear to contend with.

When I prep Mysteries, I think it’s good to have some actual conflict during the investigation – ideally fairly early – and often this will be with the Vaesen’s agents, rather than the Vaesen itself. Plan for this and put it into your Countdown, and throw it at them early.

In a town, you’ll likely have quite a few NPCs to detail – and portray at the table. Painting them with broad brush strokes, or just giving each of them one distinctive feature to portray, will help them to stand out to your players and make the investigation more role-play based. 

Countdown Fast And Early

Each mystery has at least one countdown which is the Vaesen’s (or another faction’s) reaction to the investigators showing up in the town. This is the device that adds urgency to the game and prevents turtling, so go hard and fast with this. I like to trigger the first countdown within half an hour (game time) of the PCs arrival, and often almost as soon as they pitch up. Starting with a bang forces investigation and exploration, and reinforces the danger the community is under.

So, my top tips for running Vaesen – either as a one-shot or an ongoing campaign. Have any of you tried it, as a player or GM? Anything you’d add?

Review: Call of Cthulhu Starter Set

I have a complicated relationship with Call of Cthulhu (CoC), Chaosium’s venerable, once disappeared, now resurrected d100 game of acute sanity-smashing horror. Like Traveller, terrible experiences in my early days as a player have made me resist it’s appeal. Unlike Traveller, I suspect that CoC is really quite good. It takes the right GM (or “Keeper,” in CoC parlance) to make it sing, certainly; but it’s an ever-present at UK conventions now – the tendency for PCs to die or go insane in the face of cosmic horror makes it an ideal one-shot game.

So, the Starter Set. It’s a slim boxed set, with three books, handouts, investigator sheets (some pre-generated – always useful, some blank), and a set of dice – with an extra tens d10 for bonus dice rolls. Like all Chaosium’s recent products, it has stunning art and layout, although the covers of the books leave me cold with their massive text and small pictures.

The Fluff

20190626_173110Alongside the pregens, there are four adventures in this starter set. The first, Alone Against The Flames, is a choose-your-own-adventure solo game, in which you generate your investigator (which is a nice touch!) and attempt to avoid being burned in said flames. I know from my own experience that these things are a bugger to edit and write, but it’s a great way to learn the basics of the rules and even character generation, and well worth the effort. It would be great if new games could have something like this – I can think of only this and the excellent Monkey 2nd incarnation that have this.

The next adventure is Paper Chase, a one-on-one (“Duet,” is I think what the cool kids call them these days) adventure; and Edge of Darkness and Dead Man Stomp, two ‘traditional’ group Cthulhu adventures. These are, I believe, all ‘classic’ CoC adventures that have been updated and revised, which is no bad thing. All do very well to showcase what 1920s CoC is all about – investigative, slow-burn but not boring, and satisfyingly dangerous.

What the adventures are also excellent for is explaining how to run them. There’s plenty of advice for the GM, sorry, Keeper, and reminders about rules which are really helpful. I wouldn’t mind more of this in all published adventures – I like a reminder of rules I’m likely to forget – and ideas for pacing and what to do if the players get off track. Dead Man Stomp also has a mature and helpful section on how to address racism in the 1920s – the adventure is set in Harlem – in a sensitive way.

The Crunch

The second book contains “introductory rules,” and is easily the slimmest of the three. It manages despite this to contain character generation, skill description, and sanity and combat mechanics, which is admirable. I’d go so far as to say you could just use this for long-term play – you could easily buy Doors to Darkness after this and continue your game.

What’s great is to see them condense what appears as a traditional “hardback book” game with plenty of rules into a slim pamphlet with just the important ones. I guess this does demand the question of what else is in those two big hardback books that makes your game better – and the answer of course is Chase rules; every game needs Chase rules, and Luck spends and more gorgeous art of course.

The One-Shot

This is an excellent resource for the one-shot GM. Both of the two full-party adventures are ideal for single-session play, and contain a lot of explained structure that really helps you to think about prepping your own investigative one-shot (for more on this, see the series I did that starts here).

Indeed, this is an ideal entry drug to the joys of Cthulhu one-shots, to the point where I’m actually considering running Dead Man Stomp myself at one of my meetups – as much to get my Cthulhu chops in as anything.

All in all, a great product – and a fine addition to the new crop of Starter Sets. Even if you play Trail of Cthulhu or Cthulhu Hack, all the adventures in it are classics that it’s easy to drift or steal structure from – and it’s excellent value.