Sunday, 7 March 2021

Folkloric Fearsome Foursome

A Wicked Secret and Other Mysteries is an anthology of scenarios for Vaesen – Nordic Horror Roleplaying, the Sweden-set roleplaying of folkloric horror set during the nineteenth century. It presents four mysteries which will take the members of the Society, the organisation which investigates the situations which arise from the clash between modern society and the traditions that have grown up from living alongside the supernatural creatures called Vaesen, to the boundaries of Sweden—and just beyond. In turn they take the Player Characters to the west coast of Sweden where sudden wealth has been found on Wrecker Isle, into the northern forests where logging expansions have been hampered by tales of a strange beast, to the resort town of Mölle on the south where sin and murder can be found together, and to an island off the coast of Estonia where a mother has been driven to try and drown her new born baby.

All four adventures follow the same structure. The ‘Background’ and ‘Conflict’ explains the situation for each scenario, whilst the ‘Invitation’ tells the Game Master how to get the Player Characters involved. In A Wicked Secret and Other Mysteries, the primary form of ‘Invitation’ is the letter, which will typically summon the Player Characters to the town or village where the mystery is taking place, the getting there detailed in the ‘Journey’, typically a mix of railway and coach journeys. It should be noted that every mystery has moment or two when the Player Characters can prepare and goes into some detail about the journey. There is an opportunity for roleplaying here, perhaps resulting in longer travel scenes than the core rulebook necessarily recommends. The ‘Countdown and Catastrophe’ presents the Game Master with one or two sets of events which take place as the Player Characters’ investigation proceeds, sometimes triggered by the Player Characters, sometimes triggered by the NPCs, whilst ‘Locations’ cover NPCs, Challenges, and Clues, all leading to a ‘Confrontation’ and its eventual ‘Aftermath’. For the most part, the mysteries are well organised, a mix of the sandbox and events which the Game Master will need to carefully orchestrate around the actions of her Player Characters. Only the most pertinent of the locations in each town or village is described and the Game Master is advised to create others as needed, though she will very likely need a ready list of Swedish names to hand for whenever the Player Characters run into an NPC or two.

One issue with the anthology is its lack of geography and history. Sweden at the time when A Wicked Secret and Other Mysteries and Vaesen – Nordic Horror Roleplaying is set, is unlikely to be a familiar place to many Game Masters or their players. So, some context might have been useful, such as why the island of Oesel, located off the coast of Estonia, is part of Sweden rather than Estonia at this time or the seaside resort of Mölle’s scandalous reputation for mixed bathing on its beaches during this period. However, a little research upon the part of the Game Master will offset this. Another is that there is some advice as to how to use these in a campaign, but the four scenarios would not all together work as a campaign as beyond the letters to the Society summoning the Player Characters to each mystery and each mystery involving Vaesen there is nothing which connects the quartet. They are better used as one-shots or slotted into an existing campaign.

Another issue is the similarities between the four scenarios. Each of the four takes place at the four corners of Sweden—North, East, South, and West—and that does mean that getting to any one of them involves lengthy travel. All have priests who play ultimately negative roles in the mysteries, and it would have been interesting to see some variation upon that. Likewise, it would have been interesting to see what an urban mystery for Vaesen – Nordic Horror Roleplaying looks like to contrast this similarity.

The anthology opens with ‘The Silver of the Sea’. A priest requests the Society’s help after his mentor has been found dead, supposedly of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, after visiting Wrecker Isle, the bleak, rocky archipelago off the west coast of Sweden. Here the Player Characters will discover something fishy is going on—and not just the smell from the fishing industry which has made many men rich. Combining insular natives with a piscine theme lends ‘The Silver of the Sea’ a hint of Lovecraft’s dread Innsmouth, but there are no Deep Ones here. This is Vaesen – Nordic Horror Roleplaying, not Call of Cthulhu. The Game Master has some fun NPCs to portray and ultimately, whatever way the Player Characters resolve the situation on Wrecker Island, someone will suffer—and not necessarily the villains of the piece. This will occur more than once in the scenarios in A Wicked Secret and Other Mysteries.

If ‘The Silver of the Sea’ feels open and bleak, exposed to the Baltic Sea, ‘A Wicked Secret’ feels constrained and isolated in comparison. The Player Characters are hired by an industrialist who wants to log the rich forests around the village of Färnsta, but his opening efforts to negotiate with the villagers have come to nothing after one employee fled the village babbling about a beast with red eyes and the other went missing. The village will initially feel welcoming, but all too quickly the Player Characters will find themselves being hunted as their inquiries trigger a response from the same threat faced by their patron’s employees. There is potential here for a red herring, but otherwise this is an entertaining scenario.

‘The Night Sow’ takes place in the seaside resort of Mölle in southern Sweden where amongst sun, recreation, and mixed bathing, there have been a series of murders and disappearances. This time, the members of the Society are asked to investigate by the women who encouraged the Player Characters to re-establish the Society, as one of her former colleagues is staying in the town. The relationship between the two women is mentioned, but not explored in depth, the likelihood being that it will be expanded upon in a future supplement. Once in Mölle, against a background of social tension over the scandalous activities on the beaches—an aspect which the adventure could have made more of, the Player Characters will encounter strange hotel guests, a reclusive lighthouse keeper, and a beast which hunts the Mölle peninsula.

The last scenario, ‘The Son of the Falling Star’, takes a more personal turn when one of the Player Characters receives a letter from his cousin and noted sociologist, Hugo von Kaiserling, requesting his help. Hugo’s wife recently gave birth to their first child, but she has turned against the boy, believing him to be evil so much that she attempted to drown him—forcing her husband to commit her to the local sanitorium. The local priest’s solution is an exorcism, but Hugo refuses to believe in any of this supernatural nonsense, so wants the Player Characters’ help. They of course, know better, and once on the island of Oesel, will need to steer a course between the husband’s scientific rationalism and the wife’s (and that of the priest) fears of the ungodly. Of the four scenarios in A Wicked Secret and Other Mysteries, ‘The Son of the Falling Star’ takes a slightly different tone in not presenting the Vaesen as monsters and presenting opportunities for the Player Characters to interact with them rather than confront them. This is a refreshing change that brings the quartet in the anthology to a more interesting and nuanced climax.

As with the core book, A Wicked Secret and Other Mysteries is a beautiful book. It is nicely laid out, the artwork is excellent, the handouts are good, and the maps are good too. It should be noted that as a physical artefact . the book actually feels good in the hand. Two nice touches are the inclusion of some sketches at the end of the book and there being two versions of each handout—a plain text one for the Game Master for easy reference and one for the players and their characters done in period style. This really is a good reason to see the handouts printed twice and other publishers should take note.

The investigations in A Wicked Secret and Other Mysteries are not necessarily wholly original, their mysteries and threats being easily replaced by something from the Mythos or something from common folklore. However, what makes the mysteries stand out is the Vaesen, the morality which underpins each mystery, and the consequences of upsetting the balance between the Vaesen and men. These are folkloric mysteries which result from the breakdown in the relationship between men and Vaesen which comes with the clash between tradition and modernity, and there is invariably a price to be paid for this breakdown, often in resolving each mystery and after… A Wicked Secret and Other Mysteries is an excellent and engaging quartet of mysteries, pleasingly different in the challenges and mysteries they present, and absolutely what the Vaesen – Nordic Horror Roleplaying Game Master should have on her shelf.

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