Skräck i gamla Sverige

In English-phonetics, that’s “skreck ee gamlah svair-ee-eh.” The Spelens Hus group is playing Väsen, which is a great title. It doesn’t mean horror or monsters, but the entity, essential being, or the term I used in Sorcerer & Sword for the exact concept, imminent. Viewers will notice that Max is taking time off (work stuff), and we have included new players Henna and Peter, the latter taking on the GMing for the game. You may recall Peter from previous posts regarding Trollbabe, The Whispering Vault, Cosmic Zap, and Zombie Cinema.

He has set our game in the textual period of the late 1880s, located in the area where most of us live in real life, Norrköping, including a wonderful trove of images, maps, and documents (see attached). It is, no pun intended or necessary, one hell of a place for it. Not only are centuries of legend and literature manifested almost every square kilometer, but it’s also the quintessential hybrid and clash between old farming Sweden and new industrial Sweden as of about 1900 … to the point where national sterotyping paints it as the worst of both in a boring way, somewhat like parts of Iowa and Nebraska in the U.S. The game text explicitly turns both of these qualities up to 11, and although its example is Uppsala, I say with residential pride that our location is far the better choice.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how it differs from Call of Cthulhu, which is a very popular game and general setting in Sweden, including translations and many local variants. “Naturalistic investigators, members of an occult lodge, encounter lurking monsters in town and country, trauma ensues” is well established in pop culture here, especially in role-playing. Why then bother with Väsen?

The answer lies in the embedded theme: väsenerna (“the beings”) are not existential challenges to reality, but rather the reality which precedes the new one, in which one’s character is at the point of divide. To encounter one in all its terrifying features is not a destroying blast of insight regarding one’s entire existence, but rather a revelation of one’s divided identity. They perfectly capture the fact that one may need monsters, and that the industrial modernity may presage more horror than the old monsters held. My character, for example, is not a driven monster-hunter, rather, he is troubled by religious corruption and rather sympathetic to the goblins and ghoulies that are evidently housed right in his very church.

The elegy is a very present-day challenge to the Swedish or generally Nordic audience, which I am not sure I can articulate. Bluntly, modern Nordic culture bills itself and self-identifies as extremely “foward, ahead, progressive, brightly facing the future” in a fashion which denies the grubbiness, conflicts, and compromises of its transition into the 20th century – all of which shaped the somewhat muted or self-censored policy and culture conflicts of today.

The first video is our preparation session, for which we all brought almost-finished characters to finalize our readiness for play:

  • Magnus, played by Nathan, a street urchin with some awful background that fills him with terror
  • Rut, played by Henna, a young woman cursed or hexed with aging, a prolific author
  • Hilding (called Carlsson), played by Ola, a slick thug seeking a new life
  • Else, played by Helma, a nonconformist outdoorswoman avoiding her engagement
  • Otto, played by me, a hard-drinking doubtful young priest

I think the audio recorded strangely, so that none of our voices quite sound like us. As of this writing, I’m editing our first session, which is more normal-sounding, and will add it soon, including more document/image material Peter used.


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11 responses to “Skräck i gamla Sverige”

  1. A Sense of Place

    I am curious how the fact that the fictional space is also a place you can look out your window and see, is adding to the experience of play? Listening to the discussion it felt like there was a solid sense of place. In comparioson to something like Call of Cthulhu, where many of the others are rooted in cosmic fantasy rather than local folklore, Vaesen seems to be pulling on the experience of Scandanavia. 

    A second thought: there are enough interesting things just among the charcters themselves that the supernatural elements may seem banal by comparison. I do not think this is a bad thing; I am interested to see how the characters interact with one another. 

    • Taking your second thought

      Taking your second thought first: the issue of high-content player-characters vs. high-content backdrops is real, and Väsen conceivably pushes them together a bit. We don't know yet (for our group) whether the starting characterizations and issues will be left behind as busywork as we "play the adventure," or if they will blossom into drama that's provoked by the situation. I'm seeing the same question arise for the Godsend Agenda game I'm in right now; like Väsen, its fundamental concept is very 1990s, and rich-characters vs. rich-setting tend to hit zero-sum relationships in that context. It's not a bad feature to see that question arise, but the answers per game and per group are definitely big issues for play.

      For Väsen, the cultural touchpoints of the character richness are strong, especially for the people I'm playing with and for myself in an immigrant-y way, so it seems to me the chance is good for mutual reinforcement between the characters' personal crises and the situation at hand. The former might tend to remain as personal backstory rather than explicit conflicts in the moment, but we do seem likely to appreciate these backstories as feeding into how our characters react to things and interact with one another. We'll see!

    • Regarding playing in “the

      Regarding playing in "the world you know," is this something you've done much, or at all?

      Because for me, it's so common it's almost a default. A lot of us early Champions players discovered right away how much fun it is to play superheroes in your group's actual location, and how quickly local culture and politics leap into the foreground of situations. You learn a lot about what each person really thinks and feels, much more so than if they had presented their personal public-face about such things.

      Therefore since the 1980s I've often focused on known locations, whether to me or to anyone at the table (who can be "location and details" person). I almost always play Sorcerer "right here and now," and a range of versions for doing so is the default for Champions Now. Our game of the early-early version set in St. Louis (really just 3rd edition with one or two practices included), the San Antonio game, the Pacific Northwest game, the Massachusetts game, the Los Angeles game, and the Göteborg Depths game are all here at the site as very explicit examples – for each, at least one and usually more of the people playing were intimately familiar with the locations, which were applied extremely naturalistically.

      It doesn't surprise me that a lot of one-shot mystery-type convention scenarios are often set at the convention where they're being run, or that tons of zombie games and scenarios direct the group to use their actual location the same way, with or without "playing yourself." People often do it anyway when it's not required. I like to get past the novelty or kitschy aspects of doing so into the unforced depth that I mentioned above.

      I also habitually use these known and real locations for the origin point to extrapolate into past or future setttings. That extrapolation can be literal (e.g. Chicago 500 years ago) or fanciful (this space station is like Chicago but 100 years in the future). Science fiction and fantasy authors do this all the time, probably a lot more than fans of canon realize.

      Years of doing this hit a strange developmental point for me when I decided to work on what would become Spione, to almost a mid-life crisis levels regarding Berlin: visiting the city five times in two years, studying German, extending or discovering myself deeper and deeper into political alleyways and viewpoints there, even presenting the game as an event at the Stasi Museum. More than once I restrained myself from calling my wife and announcing that we had to start packing in order to move there. If I'd been single I am certain that I would have done so.

      Tim Koppang really likes the extrapolated version. In Mars Colony each of the four political parties are supposed to be like a contemporary actual party, not literally its future version, but I think people get wrapped up in the real parties and make it weird. Whereas in 39 Dark, you're required to form the four factions as hybrids of real-life present-day fringe political groups, so their fictional identities are not too distracted (see my example in Treason for a reason).


    • I have done some rp in known,

      I have done some rp in known, real world places. For example, Salisbury where  I went to college became a backdrop for some Marvel Super Heroes and Vampire. A few years ago I ran a Southern Gothic style of Call of Cthulhu centered in and around Atlanta. In both cases the real world touch stones became important to play in their familiarity, though not necessarily integral. 

  2. blending fiction and facts

    is … interesting and personal I feel most of all I'd have a lot of homework to do to be able to play Elsa in a way that does respect the historical time and place she lives in. I'd love to spend day's in the library to finally get a grip on local history and womens history in this city, but that is not an option right now. So apart from that I during my vacation had a lot of books in my hands that were printed during that period and that I love to hike in the woods around Norrköping as well as among the industrial buildings left from that period as well as visiting the museums housed in them for me playing isn't that different from playing other games.
    I'm still not sure who my character, Elsa, is, but Ron's description of her as nonconformist is probably somewhat misleading. She is an only child to a well of merchant family and even though her heart isn't really into it she tries to be a good girl and preparing to take over the business some day. In other words, she is doing her best to keep her connection to the Society and any interests or ability in seeing or interacting with those beings who prefer to be unseen. Most probably she pretends to do a lot of voluntary work for vikar Nyströms parish (he is not the most perfect cover for inappropriate behavior, but she can't be picky in her situation).
    I too do look forward to see how the relationships between characters are going to develop and influence interacting with their environment.

  3. Session 1!

    We begin our game, as well as move into the new configuration of who has which authorities, how we talk to one another, and what the purposes of play may be. Here's the direct link into it!

    In terms of GMing apportionment, you can't get more different between Dialect and Väsen, but that permits us to learn an important lesson. I think the need, at the outset of a location-specific fictional shift, for a solid sense of immediate location and how our characters are positioned in it is exactly the same, of equivalent necessity, for exactly the same reasons. Good examples include the transition into the asylum, when Ola asked for a better understanding of how we got into the building at all; and, a bit later, the positions of Otto, Hilding, and Else as they moved into the corridor on different errands, as we had different ideas about who could be talking with whom.

    I'd also like to call attention to something which can be under-appreciated: in terms of quantitatively producing sound, Nathan doesn't seem to talk much, but if you watch, you'll see a lot of nonverbal communication and response going on, both from him and toward him. It would have been a completely different social game experience without him.

    Finally, although at the time of character creation it seemed like writing out four individual character relationships was premature and over-constraining, doing so actually helped me a lot. Here's what I'd written for Otto between the preparation session and this one:

    • Determined to save Carlsson from a wicked Godless end
    • Doesn't trust Rut – she seems rootless and weird (plus, writers)
    • Trusts and relies on Else, but would like to see her properly married as arranged by her family
    • Would like Magnus, who is sniveling and disreputable, to move on down the road to some other town

    I think you'll see all of these explicitly in my play, and I fancy they went a long way toward establishing a baseline for Otto, which he may stick to or change, per person, as play continues.

    • I am working my way through

      I am working my way through the videos of part 1. Perhaps not that deep a thought, but I enjoyed Peter's opening / setting the background and situation. Some might not appreciate such an opening, but I thought it established time and place very well and drew me in as an observer. And it seemed to arrow down to play in a deliberate way. Curious what the players thought? 

    • I am super curious about how

      I am super curious about how this game evolves specifically in relation to your comments about transitive media here:

      On the surface, Vaesen looks a lot like Nordic Call of Cthulhu in that there are information containing NPCs and documents to be rolled out to the players until they discover THE THING TO DO.  I'm unconvinced that that is really the case but I only played a couple of sessions of a Vaesen game that was cut short by other factors.

    • I’m not using any phrases

      I'm not using any phrases like "the Nordic Call of Cthulhu" or endorsing them in any way. It's too easy for someone to infer judgments like nothing but or to assume specific thematic content. Also, I mentioned the game's distinctive and divergent thematic content as I currently understand it.

      You specified

      … in that there are information containing NPCs and documents to be rolled out to the players until they discover THE THING TO DO. 

      Again, subject to my merely initial contact with the game so far, this appears to be the case. I'm pretty sure I don't have to tell you that this technique or presumption became the standard of play for … well, almost anything by the mid-1990s. It's not even "discovery," as the thing to do is scheduled and expected; good play is a matter of abiding by its understood steps – don't rush, don't distract, don't disrupt, or as I call it, "Jesus is coming, look busy." This standard was and remains embedded hard in European role-playing culture, especially in combination with high-end publishing. To do anything differently, you have to claim or admit that you're not "really" role-playing, and if you don't, you'll be hit with fierce accusations that you're not.

      I don't know what you mean by "I'm unconvinced that that is really the case" because it contains two dials (convinced/unconvinced vs. really/not-really), but I definitely don't see a burning question to resolve. Whether Väsen is or isn't Call of Cthulhu strikes me as a clickbait identity topic, especially since "really" is one of those loaded qualifiers which guarantee endless wanking. It's not like fifty to a hundred other games haven't adopted the model that Sandy Petersen initiated forty-plus years ago, so if another one does to some extent, so what? If the extent is 10% or 50% or 99.9%, so what?

      I'd rather abandon such topics as unseemly and get into Väsen as such, maintaining the questions I raised about character backstories, or the evolving "how we play" among as persons, as being of more interest.

    • The importance of

      The importance of relationships
      “Finally, although at the time of character creation it seemed like writing out four individual character relationships was premature and over-constraining, doing so actually helped me a lot.”
      This is very interesting as I had found it impossible and waited until the end of the first session to do so, but I agree that it seems an important thing to do as early as possible in this game. Not because I needed to see the other characters in play, but my own, to know who she is. I had no intention to write something just to have to change it immediately when we started playing. Not knowing my character before a bit into play, however “backstory” is established during or through character creation is typical for me and sometimes I wonder if others have the same problems and if it gets better with experience (and how long will that take).
      Just for the fun of it, here's how Elsa relates to her companions:

      Hilding: I fear and distrust him.
      Rut: I look up to her, she seems independent and successful, how did she achieve that.
      Magnus: I treat him like I treat other people with a lower social position than mine, friendly but somewhat distanced.
      Otto: while I trust him to help me live my double life (I usually will cover Society work by telling people I do “charity work for the church”) I suspect he conspires with my parents to marry me of as soon as possible.
      I'm looking forward to see if and how that will change through play.

      Character creation did include a lot of nice and meaty things that never make it onto the character sheet and I'm somewhat concerned about the meaning of that, but I realize I will have to wait for a couple of sessions to see what will happen.

  4. Sessions 2 and 3

    It was a bad week for recording! The audio went to hell for session 2 of Väsen, session 3 of Godsend Agenda, and session 3 of consulting for A Quiet and Lonely Hell. All of which were extremely relevant to discussions here and to internal topics across them.

    We've now played session 3 for this game, and considering the many possible topics to develop, I decided it was best to wait until now, so the discussion wouldn't jump off from my summary but rather from observed play.

    Here are the direct links to the session 2 summary and to session 3, both inside the YouTube playlist.

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