In Free League’s Vaesen, Fairies Capture Changing Culture
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Nils Hintze: I imagine them coming from the forest in the middle of the night, after a big party in the village and everyone is drunk and have started to fall asleep and you can see it like glittering on the lake or a mist rising from the forest.
You rub your eyes and you see that there’s something flying among the trees. And I think it’s, the fairies coming towards the village. A tailor named Vidkun has found one of the fairies magical magical path and followed it to a grove filled with riches. He has brought jewelry and money back to the village Nora Uh, and bought everything he could ever want.
What he doesn’t know is that his money will twist the minds of those who spend it. For that madness to end, the Fairy Queen must be tricked into accepting her own stolen treasures as a gift.
Lucas: Hello, and welcome back to Making a Monster. It’s been a few weeks. I know I took some time off after my vacation in the Rocky Mountains. That’s where I recorded the running water ambience you’re hearing in the background, but I’m back now. And I’ve got a list of monsters as long as my arm to share with you.
And usually this podcast is about one monster in particular, a given specimen or a certain species, if you will, but not every game. Treats monsters that way. The ones that treat them differently, offer unique gaming experiences with unique perspectives on folklore and culture. Today’s interview is one such a departure.
We’ll be talking about fairies. All of them. It was recommended to me by a previous guest, Michael Sands, creator of Monster of the Week.
is there anybody else you think I should talk to, anybody who might kind of enjoy doing this?
Michael Sands: I just got in the mail the other day, this which is Vaesen from Fria Ligan, it’s, a slightly anachronistic, 19th-century, Nordic countries game of folkloric monsters and, investigating those. It does some quite interesting things with how they generate monsters. So I thought you might want to get in touch with them.
Lucas: I might, and I did.
Did I pronounce your name right?
Nils Hintze: You can say it either way, but Nils Hintze in Swedish. Had a little bit of a German, it’s an old German or, or, probably Netherlandish name.
Lucas: And is that where you’re calling from Norway?
Nils Hintze: Nope, no it’s Sweden. The most Southern part of Sweden people say With that, we speak as we have a porridge in our mouth part of that. And we kind of do. So it’s not certain my pronunciation is the best Swedish name. sensor and I’m a freelance writer. I mostly work for the free uh, and I am the lead writer for Vaesen.
I’ve always been like, wanting to write and just use my imagination a lot, I wrote plays for theaters and I wrote short stories and, Then I started to write for in 2006, I started to write for a role-playing game called The Octoberland, Swedish steampunk game.
And then later the same author, he published the second version of that game for the Free League. And he asked me to write like the scenarios and campaigns. And when I started to do that, I was like, why haven’t I written role-playing games? I love role-playing games. I love to write. So I was like, “Hmm.”
Lucas: can you tell me how you were involved or how this game came to be before it was published?
Nils Hintze: First it was a book, a book with illustrations and texts about vaesen in the North. Johann Egerkranz did this book with text and illustrations about a Nordic vaesen, Nordic creatures where he, um, he collected like old stories from a 19th century Sweden and Norway and Denmark, and just made a book about it. And it’s, it became really popular, and has sold really well. And it’s, it’s a really good as well, of course. And he is a guy who has illustrated a lot of role-playing games before but after this book he was able to illustrate a lot of other great things as well. So at first it was that, and then the Free League decided they wanted to make a role-playing game out of it. I was contacted with like, we’re going to make a game it’s about monsters of the week and it’s going to be like a game called, uh, an old Swedish game.
That was like a copy of shield, the, the American game. which I loved when I grew up with what it was, my game, so I was hooked from the start, but, uh, I went to a meeting with them and they, at first they didn’t tell me that it was, Johann Egerkranz’s a book we’re going to work with. So it took me a while to understand that.
And when I did, I was really hooked on it. Cause, cause I love that book. And at first I thought was that I should just write a campaign for the game. But then they asked me, could you write this chapter? And I wrote that chapter, could you write some more? And I wrote one chapter, one more, one more.
And then I written the entire, rule book. and I wrote that the campaign as well, at the same time, for this product, they had a fairly good overview. What they wanted.
It should be a monster of the week. It should be 19th century and so forth. So I kind of try to realize their, plan and, and write something that would be, in the same mood and the same that Johann Egerkranz’s illustrations.
I wanted to make them come alive. Cause I think his illustrations are very much alive and I think the monsters that he draws are, I think they’re not just monsters. You can see that they are intelligent, that they want things, they think things, they are multidimensional, they’re just orcs about to find gold or whatever. So I wanted to have that in a game.
Lucas: Can you tell me what the word vaesen means?
Nils Hintze: It really means creature, monster. It’s a Swedish word, vaesen, but, but it’s kind of like, it’s hard to translate really. Cause it’s, it’s also, if you say vaesen in Swedish, you think of something magical, something that exists in a pond in the forest with a mist around it, something that kind of like will haunt your soul.
You don’t think about orcs. You don’t think about classical demons really. Vaesen is like a, and it’s kind of similar to the word soul as well. You could say “your vaesen” as in “your soul.” so it is creature, but it’s not exactly the same.
Lucas: That’s fascinating. Was it important to culture in a particular way what Johann’s work did was he capturing a certain part of culture and folklore that the vaesen occupy?
Nils Hintze: I would say that he captured, not a particular section of it or something like, I think he captured the whole thing very good. Vaesen existed in the 19th century in people’s minds because they wanted to, explain the inexplainable. They wanted stories about how children could die from famine and from suffering and dreaming about, going somewhere and having an easier time of finding rich luxuries and stuff.
And I think Vaesen was created out of that and every vaesen it’s kind of connected to where the stories were told. So the stories about vaesen are, are different all over Sweden, and you could almost say that really there’s only one vaesen, but you talk about it differently in different parts of the country. And I think it captures all of that very good. One of the things I understood when I started to work with the material more is how connected it is to my own background, my own history. I mean, my ancestors told stories about vaesen and that was the most fascinating for me to just go back and look, what were the stories that existed in Bjuv where I grew up?
Uh, what was the stories that existed in, I dunno, Northern parts of Sweden and so forth. And I think it really. He got that connection between the rural country and those creatures.
Lucas: So obviously I’m, kind of a 21st century American. what are the things that I would need to know in order to understand 19th century Sweden? I know it’s a big question.
Nils Hintze: It is, and I think I could answer it in so many ways. One way I want to answer it is to say that you should, if you want to play Vaesen, you should probably play it where your ancestors are from, you should play it where you are living now and just start digging in their surroundings. What are the old places that existed here?
So that is one answer, but if you really want to play in the Nordic countries, We had a choice in this aspect. We could either try to like explain the entire Nordic parts of Europe, uh, in like 500 page book, or we could go, the way we did that. We said that it’s, um, eh, it’s a version, it’s a mythological version of the Nordic countries.
So you kind of make up your own version of Sweden in the 19th century. But of course there are some, some things that are true. How would he say? You could say that it’s, it’s a country that is about to be, um, urbanized. It’s about to be industrialized. It has been a Christian for a very long time, but, and the game is really about this, how people stop living in these rural communities, where they have been living there for like thousands of years in the same small villages telling the same stories. But during the 19th century, they all moved – not all, but many of them moved to the cities and started to working in the industrials in, in industries. Um, and I mean, there were a lot of big science evolutions or whatever we want to call it.
So life really changed for a lot of people. And one thing that happened is that the stories about vaesen wasn’t really relevant anymore. It wasn’t necessary anymore when we’re going into the 20th century, those stories changed, and many of them were forgotten. So the whole game is about, how society changes during the 19th century, railways, uh, mines, uh, industries, uh, Chemical wastes so forth. Um, so, so I mean, if you’ve got that urbanization part, you can just place it anywhere in the world.
Lucas: Yeah. that’s happened everywhere.
Nils Hintze: Yeah, I mean, so, so you don’t have to know that much about Sweden in particular? I don’t think so.
Lucas: How would you describe the game as a whole and, , the kinds of mechanics that are in it?
Nils Hintze: It’s absolutely a monster of the week game. You have your base, your headquarter in a town called Uppsala in the middle of Sweden and you venture out in the rural parts of the country. You’re all city people and you go out into these villages where things have started to go wrong since the vaesen are, are obviously noticing that people are changing. And some of them are like going mad. Some of them are killing people. Some of them are disappearing. Sometimes it’s the vaesen that are the victims, but things are changing. So you’re going out into this countryside, places where you’re isolated, there is no help and there is, always a mystery to solve. There is a way to make things kind of okay. And I would say it’s not a game where you’re like compete against the game and try to make as good character as possible. It’s a, it’s a game where you tell stories and you help each other and you, the game officer could ask the players, give me some good ideas.
I can come up with anything and so forth. That would be absolutely okay to do.
Lucas: Yeah. So does it operate on a central mechanic, in the way that Dungeons and dragons would rely on a 20 sided die?
Nils Hintze: Yeah, it does. I think almost all of Free League’s game have, have the, the Year Zero , engine, which is y ou roll like a you roll like a dice pool of D-sixes and sixes are hits. If you fail you can push the roll, and that means re-rolling, but that also means taking some kind of damage. You, you, get angry or you get wounded or you pay a price to, to, to try again.
So that, that is the basics of the game. That’s the core of the mechanics.
Lucas: Of all the vaesen in this game, is there one that you, uh, that sticks out to you as, uh, kind of the best one to talk about or one that exemplifies your work or the tone of the piece, or just your favorite?
Nils Hintze: I would say all of that Uh, and in fairies I know that fairies is a part of the Swedish folklore, but to me, it’s also a very, I know, Celtic or British, but
Lucas: That’s why I wasn’t sure of the pronunciation, uh, the, the word crops up in a lot of different places.
Nils Hintze: Yeah. But I think they, they really, they are absolutely my favorite and I think they really set the tone for, for, for this game. And to me they’re like they, they should be written by Neil Gaiman and be a part of the Sandman comics they would fit so well in, in his stories. I mean there are like beautiful creatures who have almost no empathy. They do whatever they want. And they don’t really care about the consequences of their actions and they could be really grim, but also really, um, give things and promise things. Absolutely. So there are like these kind of like a prick, these psychopaths who are really powerful and hard to, to hurt you can’t really hurt them.
And I think that they can be used well in the, in a vaesen game. and I imagine them coming from the forest, uh, in the middle of the night, after a big party in the village and everyone is are drunk and have started to fall asleep and you can see it like glittering a on the lake or a, or a mist rising from the forest.
And, you know, you rub your eyes and you see that there’s something flying among the trees. And I think it’s the, it’s the fairies coming towards the village, just wreck havoc with their, with their magic, driving people mad and changing time. And just doing tricks that to them are just funny, but they could be horrible.
I mean, they’re, they’re absolutely interested in babies and children fascinated by them, but they have no moral, they don’t care what they do. So I think they could be really both horrible and comical and, and interesting as well.
And I think they could be interpreted symbolic as well.
I’ve thought about it a little and I think they could be a symbol for dreamers. I mean, they, they, um, they often offer gifts. They often promise things, but that gold is most often just sand and they could be interpreted in a way, a really harsh way: the dreamer, who will inevitably go wrong, who will be punished for, for, uh, thinking too big
Lucas: Yeah, I think the English word for that might be hubris.
Nils Hintze: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. That kind of the bad part of creativity, or you can even interpret them as madness as people. I mean, people, uh, are effected by the fairies, but they have really just lost their minds have been driven insane. Um, so it could be like a way to talk about a mental illness as well.
I think they are interesting and have a depth to them.
Lucas: absolutely. I mean, you’ve hit on all of the reasons why I’m making this show, because I think all of these, all of these different meanings can be bound up in an individual creature and they often are.
Nils Hintze: And I like creatures that aren’t evil. I think evil is uninteresting. Fairies will absolutely do evil things they will do things that are bad, but they are not evil. They have no evil intentions, they just don’t care. They want to have fun kind of, uh, that is more interesting. I think.
Lucas: Yeah. So let’s talk about how this is. Implemented in the game a little bit. I know Michael sands game, monster of the week, which shares, it’s a name with the genre. Doesn’t have a monster manual. It doesn’t have a list of monsters that you can pull and then put in the game and use in that way. How does Vaesen do it?
Nils Hintze: Vaesen does have a monster list or, uh, or a vaesen list. But it should be interpreted it. Like, these are examples of vaesen, this is how you can do it. And with every vaesen there is in game text, and there are a big section with examples of how to use this vaesen in a conflict, how to build a mystery around them.
So you can use the information really flexible. it’s not like firm facts hammered into stone that way.
Lucas: So they’re almost more like a template that you could apply to any number of things.
Nils Hintze: Yeah. Yeah. And I think that corresponds well with how vaesen are. I mean, how old folklore is, I mean, there are so many versions of what a certain creature is and can do and can’t do, and how you stop it and so forth.
Lucas: So there isn’t a, you wouldn’t have a page on a certain monster that would say, this is how strong it is, or this is how many hit points it has, or this is how charismatic it is or this, these are specific actions it can take?
Nils Hintze: There are some characteristics. They have like three values, four values. Nope, sorry, five values. They have like how many dice they roll to use magic, how many dice they roll to manipulate and so forth, but, uh, in the rules, it is stated that they can, they can do like types of magic, but the specific enchantments and so forth must be decided and adapted to a specific mystery.
So, I mean, in one mystery, a creature can do this and another mystery, they can do that. They should be adjusted. To “en-heighten” the mood and the theme of a scenario. There’s always a ritual. there are no monsters, or maybe there is one monster, but. Yeah, I think there is one monster who can be killed, with force.
Uh, all monster must be driven away by a ritual. You must do something specific to, to make them go away. And that corresponds with how, how they were, uh, spoken about in folklore. If you hit to a fairy, they, they don’t take any damage. You can’t kill them, you can’t fight them. You have to do something To make them go away and there’s suggestions for what this could be in a particular scenario.
So it says there that some fairies will leave if they feel tricked or outsmart or when their spells are broken. So that could be one way that, that the player characters will have to defeat them, or you can drive them away by blowing into our dwellings with a bellows. And, um, and so there’s a certain way you can make a ring with,with the bells, from, from a shirt or sprinkle Holy water and so forth.
So a big part of the mystery is finding out what is the ritual to, to make this vaesen calm down, or die or go away. And if you fight the vaesen, it won’t go well. You might survive, but they’re both really powerful and you can’t really hurt them. So that, that is not a good idea in this game.
Lucas: So the process of actually playing our running this game, would be a bit more like 20 questions. sort of a game of, leading your players to the right pieces of without outright telling them this is what you need to do.
Nils Hintze: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. That, that is absolutely one part of it, finding the information, finding out what to do, but in good mysteries, I would say that there is choices to be made. Yeah. I mean, In some, some sometime you will find out, no, we shouldn’t do any ritual to drive this vaesen away, a way, or maybe different groups of players will do different things. So in the best mysteries there’s like a, a moral question as well.
And there is always, every mystery has it’s built around two conflicts. There’s always a vaesen conflict and the, a human conflict at a location where you go to, so there could be like conflicts between two groups in the community, and most often you wouldn’t solve that conflict. It’s just something happening while you try to solve this mystery.
Lucas: How do you think the, the vaesen conflict and the human conflict interact? Is it important that they match?
Nils Hintze: I don’t think so. I, I think it could be a really nicely done with, with like a theme that is the same for, for both the conflicts. I mean, if you have like a hopeless love theme in the human conflict, you should have something corresponding that in the vaesen conflict, but you really don’t have to.
Lucas: As you would like this game to be played, especially talking about fairies. do you think that kind of gives us when we go into our regular lives? Does this sort of help us understand any issues that we’re dealing with even now that urbanization has happened and the industrial revolution is over?
Nils Hintze: think there’s this game has a really clear theme To me. I think it’s obvious that that’s the vaesen gave us something and I mean the strong Christian belief in, in, in, in Sweden, I had a good impact. I mean, it was, it was helpful to, also to have a firm place in the world to live somewhere where your ancestors has lived for, for, uh, centuries, to know how to explain things.
I think that was a really, What are you saying in English, “trygga.” Secure, it gave security, a mental security. And I think it helped people understand the world. It helped people get through the crisis. And I think now we live in a time where most things are not certain. Everything is questioned. Your identity is up for grabs.
I mean, it could be whoever you want, you can transform in however ways you want. You can, you are never finished with who you are. I mean, it must be so much harder to be a teenager today than it was in these times. and I think of course there’s both good and bad things. I mean, it must be horrible to be certain teenagers and with certain things and in the 19th century, it must be absolute nightmare in some aspects. But in some ways I think it also was good to have a society that is understandable, a world that is comprehensible.
I think the game is about, It’s about the world, leaving the world where, where you can explain things where you can like symbolically talk about things and going into this really harsh and hard industrialized world.
I mean, th th th the cities in the 19th century, they were like the nightmare version of our, poor, places in cities today. Even if those are bad as well. Fairies and vaesen stands for a way to openly speak about dreams and, and longings and, and, uh, hurt uh, that is really simple. You can just talk about this, The stories that are also shared, they’re shared in a community. You’re not alone in this. Everyone knows these stories. And then we went into a world where everyone is alone. Yeah, you can do everything, but you have nothing to stand on and you’re, you have no one around you, everyone moves around. So my aim was to find this point in history when it goes from one thing to the other, both things have their good things and their bad things. Yeah. I’m rambling a
Lucas: No, no, I I’m. I’m if you, if we had a video feed, uh, yeah, you can tell I’m just, I’m rapt. Um, This is Michael gave me good advice. Like this is exactly the kind of thing I was hoping to discover when I started this project. It’s it’s beautiful.
Nils Hintze: Oh, great. I agree with you. I think all games should have a theme and I think they have a theme. I think you want something with choosing those rules instead of those rules and so forth. And, and that is much of what interests me as a roleplayer as well.
Lucas: Nils Hintze continues to write and design RPGs, including Farsight, a space opera conversion for D and D fifth edition. Follow him on Facebook to learn more: https://www.facebook.com/HintzeNils.
Vaesen is available directly from Free League publishing, or Fria Ligan in Swedish, or wherever you get your games. The Free League continues to create new and exciting RPG products like the Kickstarter smash, The One Ring, which brings fifth edition mechanics directly to Tolkien’s middle earth.
Nils was an amazing person to interview. And there’s a lot that I couldn’t include in this episode. We talked about Tales from the Loop, the game he designed from Simon Stalenhag’s, art book of the same name. Stalenhag’s evocative concept art was a viral sensation for its wistful look at an alternate 1980s Sweden full of pastoral vistas and rusty robots. You might also recognize Tales from the Loop from Amazon Prime’s 2020 serial adaptation. So I couldn’t leave that tape on the cutting room floor. I’ve made it available as one of many perks for the shows patrons at patreon.com/scintilla studio. Follow the link in the show notes to see this and all the other amazing things you can get by becoming a monthly supporter of the show.
Music in this episode is by Arcane Anthems, who creates free music for tabletop role-playing campaigns, streams, and podcasts. This track is called “The Wild Mother Guides,” and is one of many tracks inspired by D and D juggernaut Critical Role. You’ll find a link to his work in the show notes. Be sure to tell him I sent you!
Thanks for listening to Making a Monster. If you like what you’ve heard and you want to support the show, please share it with the people you play games with your recommendation or a link in your discord, lets other people know they can trust me with their time and attention and it’s a real gift to me and the creators I feature. I’ll be back next week with a brand new episode. See you then.