I had a chance to play Vasen Road this week. It’s a Danish freeform tabletop one-shot scenario by Mikkel Bækgaard. Tayler Stokes ran and hosted, and Jon, Pip, Kathy, and I played.
I almost didn’t play this. Just reading the synopsis, I was pretty squicked out. The game is set in a remote rural area of Denmark. The premise of the game is that something horrible has happened or is happening, and whatever it is is literally unspeakable. As in, it never appears “on camera,” and we aren’t even allowed to objectively know what it is. Instead, the game focuses on a decidedly fucked-up domestic dynamic, on the poltergeist that is trying to tell people something, on the hapless neighbors who peripherally contact this situation. It’s pretty strongly implied the unspeakable might be child abuse, domestic violence, or homicide, but you never get to know for certain what it is. Like ugh that sounds like a recipe for unfun. But I felt pretty comfortable with the discretion of the other players so I gave it a shot.
I was really impressed by how well the game delivers creepy atmosphere. It was sort of like a very good Call of Cthulhu scenario, except the horror wasn’t coming from the supernatural bullshit, it was rooted it something very real world. Not quite knowing what the thing was left the imagination to run wild with whatever the worst sorts of things you’ve ever heard about. The scenario has strong visual imagery too, involving remote homesteads with piles of scrap metal and a coastal set-piece that seems to be central to the haunting. Man, the shit with the eels… Tayler picked out some sparse violin music, and that worked really well.
This game uses an ensemble character technique, where the same characters are assigned to different players at the beginning of each act. I generally find the technique of letting different players offer slightly different takes to be a good one. Additionally here, just assigning characters to players here absolved players the weird moral responsibility of actively choosing to play some really problematic characters. The way the characters are written is pretty impressive and it really lets you into their fucked-up heads. (Which you mercifully get to leave at the end of the chapter.)
This is the sort of game that is good and rewarding although it would be tricky to call “fun.” (Well, okay, playing a poltergeist trying to communicate with a medium is actually pretty fun.) We found levity where we could, introducing inside jokes like “Gamedealio” which I guess you’d have had to have been there to understand.
It’s a really carefully designed game and managed to be much less gross to deal with as a player than I feared. I can’t recommend it unequivocally because of the subject matter, but it’s worth looking at if you’ve got the right people to play with.
Tayler was running this disturbing thing to playtest his “better than X Card” safety tools. I used to think they were busy and distracting, but he’s been working on them a while and I think he’s refined them to a point where they’re genuinely improving play and communications between players on potentially uncomfortable gameplay. For instance, “Display the yellow triangle to call for focus” solves a problem I’ve experienced in a lot of games, where somebody isn’t actually crossing a line and you don’t want to veto them just yet, but you can also anticipate the material going somewhere unenjoyable fast and wish you could remind them to be careful and deliberate because they’re playing around with fire.
We shared a meal during a break. I learned that John’s Pizza Cafe Ltd. in St. Paul offers one of the most satisfying vegetarian pizzas around, the “Veggie 2000.”