Vaesen – Nordic Horror Roleplaying, the Sweden-set roleplaying of folkloric horror set during the nineteenth century published by Free League Publishing. 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 beyond. In turn they take the Player Characters to the central valleys of Sweden where strange things are happening—possibly an abduction, but definitely drowned cows; to an ironworks where the owner has been bewitched by a local preacher; across the Danish straits and onto Jutland to confront the guardian of the moors; and across the Gulf of Finland to northeast Russia as guests of honour at an event held by the ruling noble. What sets this quartet of adventures apart is their seasonal nature. They are all standalone, and there is one for each season—spring, summer, autumn, and winter.
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 Seasons of 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.
Also included with every scenario is a set of trigger warnings, kept to a minimum, and unobtrusively placed in the top, lefthand corner on the opening page of each scenario. Plus, there are notes too, for running each of the four scenarios with Vaesen – Mythic Britain & Ireland, although of course, the Game Master will need to make some adjustments in terms of names and geography.
Seasons of Mysteries opens with ‘A Dance with Death’ set in the ‘dales’ of central Sweden in the springtime. Here in a traditional farming community, mostly concerned with its cattle and its music. Here a farm labourer woke by the banks of the nearby lake unaware of how she got there and two cows have been found drowned. A local farm owner asks the Player Characters to investigate. What they discover is a miasma of paranoia and uncertainty, fuelled by an undercurrent of unrequited love and a Faustian pact. There is a degree of misdirection in the scenario, including a big floating clue, and a sense that the villains are not always what they seem. There are nice roleplaying touches too, such as making friends—or at least good impression—with the locals at a party, including finding out just how well the Player Characters can dance. This scenario has a lovely bucolic feel, a twisted tale of love and desire and possession at the appropriate time of the year.
Taking place at the heart of summer, ‘Fireheart’ literally boils with heat and everything is seen through a heat haze. The mystery focuses on the Häryd ironworks on Lake Hären in Smolandia, owned by two brothers. As drought dries up the land around them, one brother grows greedier and greedier as the other comes to believe that an evangelist preacher has bewitched the first, leading to a rift between the two. There is certainly something going at the ironworks, for the brother who remains is obsessed with his wealth and his foreman, known as ‘Swine’, drives the ironwork’s labourers mercilessly. If the Player Characters can get past Swine, whether through subterfuge or stealth, they can perhaps discover something about the first brother’s obsession, but get toom close they too might end up suffering from it as well! As the temperature rises, confrontation is all but inevitable, though it will perhaps force the truth to be revealed. This is fantastical on a grand scale, a back story out of myth and fairy tale, which will lead to an encounter with the greatest of mythical beasts. Unlike the other scenarios in the anthology, ‘Fireheart’ uses a mythic not found in Vaesen – Nordic Horror Roleplaying, but introduces it here.
One of the themes of Vaesen – Nordic Horror Roleplaying is the conflict between modernity and change, and the old ways, and this best explored in the anthology in ‘The Devil on the Moor’. This is set on the moors of Jutland where the Danish Society for Moorland Reclamation is conducting an engineering project to restore the land to its former fertility. Taking place during the Autumn, the lead engineer believes that a demon is sabotaging the project. The Player Characters will have the past notes from a reputed Danish folklorist to examine for clues, but must also find a way to get the recalcitrant locals to talk as everyone seems on edge and strange mists swirl about the place and seem to make people disappear. There are some gruesome moments too, though less of a sense of misdirection as in the other scenarios in the anthology. In the notes on adapting the scenario to Vaesen – Mythic Britain & Ireland, the author suggests referring Sir Arthur Conan Doyles’ The Hound of the Baskervilles for its sense of isolation and its mists swirling across boggy terrain, and that atmosphere fits this scenario too, which is a well-done retelling of a revenge from beyond the grave mystery. The scenario does not forget Linnea, the woman who originally invited the Player Characters to reform the Society, either, as she plays a central role in getting them involved in the events in Denmark.
Seasons of Mysteries comes to a close with the very, very wintery ‘A Winter’s Tale’. The Player Characters are invited by a Russian nobleman to a symposium on the strange and the supernatural at his home in the province of Ingria, once a Swedish possession, but now part of the Russian empire. Their journey is interrupted by a terrible snowstorm and they are forced to take refuge in a nearby inn, along with several other guests, some of whom were bound for the same symposium as the Player Characters—including two very well-known monster hunters! Unfortunately, not all is well at the inn. The owner’s sister died recently and as the weather closes in, the intensity of the snowstorm increases and the temperature drops, and try as they might, nobody can keep a fire going for very long. Potentially, this scenario could descend into one of survival horror, but investigation and interrogation lies at the heart of Vaesen – Nordic Horror Roleplaying. There is a lot of exposition to get through at points, but it is not like the Player Characters are going very far. Plus, all of the suspects and the clues are to be found in one place, the inn, in what is a bitterly claustrophobic scenario.
Physically, Seasons of Mysteries is a lovely looking book. The cover is stark and wintery, and has a lovely tactile feel. The scenarios are all well written, the handouts are well done—if a plain in places, and the cartography is excellent.
One issue with the previous anthology, A Wicked Secret, was its lack of geography and history. Sweden at the time when Vaesen – Nordic Horror Roleplaying, A Wicked Secret and Other Mysteries, and A Season of Mysteries is set, is unlikely to be a familiar place to many Game Masters or their players. There was not always the explanation of the whys and wherefores to a scenario, but that is not wholly an issue with Seasons of Mysteries. It could have done with a little more geographical explanation or a map, as to where its scenarios are set, at least for those set in Sweden, in relation the country as a whole. This is less of an issue with the two scenarios set outside of Sweden, where enough information is provided.
The investigations in Seasons of Mysteries are not necessarily wholly original, primarily because their threats are drawn from folklore and the stories around them, so there is often a sense of the familiarity to the scenarios. This does not mean that the scenarios are bad, because they are all well written and plotted, and they very effectively explore the clash between tradition and modernity, which often leads to a breakdown between man and Vaesen which is explored in Vaesen – Nordic Horror Roleplaying. If perhaps there is a downside to the adventures it is that they are seasonally based, which as much as that plays into and influences the nature and atmosphere of each scenario, it means that they are not quite as versatile. Nevertheless, Seasons of Mysteries is an excellent and engaging second quartet of mysteries, each markedly different in terms of tone and feel and each presenting different challenges for the Player Characters in Vaesen – Nordic Horror Roleplaying.