Barkhäxan (OSR) + Knakekvist + Gråtmyrsbarn
And now for something completely different!
So, how is your Swedish? If the answer was “rudimentary”, I’ve got some great news: You can actually play this, or use it to freshen up/improve your Swedish! So yeah, this game, to my knowledge, only exists in Swedish. If you are still learning the language, my review notes may well help you along grasping the game.
This rules-light roleplaying game clocks in at 26 pages of content, not counting cover, editorial, etc.; my review is based on the softcover, which is sourced from environmentally-friendly paper and has a textured, bark-like cover, really nice haptic feedback and consistency with the theme there. The book also includes a character sheet not accounted for in my page-count above. The review is based on the softcover of the book, and the softcover costs 89 SEK (~$11-$12).
While I have listed this game under the OSR-header, it is actually more rules-light than even games associated with the OSR like Maze Rats or Into the Odd, so bear that in mind. Indeed, it’s probably best to think of this game as something closer to ultra-lite fireside games like “Don’t Walk in Winter Wood.” If I had to conjure an ideal scenario to play this, it goes something like this: You and your friends are hiking, far away from civilization in the middle of the dense forests in parts of the North of the US, or in Canada…or, well, in Sweden, Norway, Finland…you get the idea! Theme-wise, think of this as a Scandinavian version of the whole Blair Witch-theme, one that emphasis a more chthonic folk horror angle. The eponymous bark-witch being basically the deity-like thing that you really don’t want to cross. Since the game’s original release, the Netflix movie “The Ritual” also captures the vibe that you best depict with this game rather well.
It should also be noted that this book, to my knowledge, was the first collaboration of Pelle Nilsson of Ockult Örtmästare Games and Johan Nohr of Stockholm Kartell. If these two names are not immediately familiar, let me jog your memory: Mörk Borg would be the next game they’d make. As such, it shouldn’t surprise you that this is a seriously art-heavy rpg, with some delightfully-twisted artworks that breathe some black metal aesthetics. The book contains a full 9 full-page artworks, and two pages are devoted to a rather impressive overland map of some Swedish wilderness. This is a genuinely beautiful book; if you did not like the typographical shenanigans that Mörk Borg uses, do note that this booklet does not employ them: The content here is presented in a more traditional manner and usually faces the artwork.
Finally, it behooves me well to mention that this commitment to beautiful art also extends to the two FREE scenarios that are available for download. A very brief discussion of those scenarios follows below the discussion of the game.
Okay, so the book starts, after a brief (and well-written) introductory text by explaining the core mechanic, which is a good thing THAT MORE GAMES SHOULD DO. Ähem. Seriously. Sequence of information presentation is important. You have T6+8 tålighet; this translates approximately to “endurance” and is essentially your HP-value.
Barkhäxan knows 4 attributes: Känsla (~cunning; deals with perception, hunting, etc.), logic (self-explanatory in English); styrka (~strength) and vighet (agility). However, you actually only make two choices, one for each of the ability-pairs above: You set them at one value between 3 and 7, because for one of them, you’ll roll under to succeed, for the other, you roll over the value. If you set styrka/vighet at 3, you are really agile, since vighet succeeds on rolling over the value; you are, however, a bit weaker than usual, and styrka only succeeds if you roll under the value. This test is made with a d10 (T10/tiosidig tärning in Swedish), to give you an idea of the chances of success. This already, in a way, is a limitation of the system. Since the two attribute-pairs are fixed, the system RAW has no way for a character to be both strong and agile; sure, that is easy enough to remedy, but it’s something to be aware of.
However, it should be noted that any alteration to the pairing of attributes has repercussions on the balance of the game: For every point of styrka above 5, you get +1 in melee, and for every point under 5 in vighet, you get +1 in ranged combat. Additionally, this vighet-based bonus is also applied as a bonus when creatures try to hit you. Makes sense: Agile people are harder to hit. If there is any doubt regarding initiation of hostilities on who goes first, it’ll be a compared roll of a d6, though some critters or characters/circumstances may use d8s instead, subject to the GM’s discretion. For comparison: Unarmed damage is T2+1, +1 for every styrka above 5. Weapons inflict T4+1 damage, with melee gaining the same bonus. Ranged weapons instead have a fixed value: So, for example, crossbow+2, meaning that it does T4+2 damage, regardless of vighet. (Which makes sense from a design-perspective, since vighet already enhances the character’s defense.)
To hit, you roll 2T10, and compare that with a creature’s KV (conflict value), and if you meet or exceed it, you hit. Some creatures or circumstances grant protection, which is given as a dice: If you take damage, you reduce the damage taken by the value rolled. Logik is the attribute you use for medicine, among other things, and with bandages, a background in medicine, etc., you can increase your dice and healing capabilities when trying to help. However, känsla is the attribute you test for shelter and survival stuff, so it’s important as well. From a design perspective, I get the assignment of the pairs, but I’d have enjoyed being able to play, I don’t know, a stoner-ex-apothecary/hippy with high känsla/logic, but the system doesn’t account for that RAW. Resting restores T6 tålighet and requires food and, well, not being interrupted.
Creatures usually have a KV of 10 or 11, with tålighet values between 6 and 9 and damage usually alongside the same paradigms as PC attacks; some critters have an integrated protection die due to e.g. strong skin. The sample monsters are pretty much what you’d expect, with the theme focusing on folklore horrors and stuff like gigantic poison spiders. And yes, the barkhäxan, much like in e.g. Blair Witch, is not something you’d want to face. Ever. She is the mistress of the woods, and more of a phenomenon than a creature—but she is malign, and you *will* meet her!
It should be noted that there is also a strong emphasis on problem-solution in this game, so there are a variety of ways outlined here that net you additional dice to roll, such as if a task is part of your usual (job) expertise. You can attain a total of 5 dice to roll this way, and this is in so far important, as this system has a degrees-of-success assumption. 0 success equal failure, and not 1, but 2 successes are required to beat a task without any complications. On your own, with one die, you only get a “you succeed, but…”-result at best, unless the task is part of your expertise or you can get one of these precious bonus dice due to aid, expertise, etc. This means that characters in Barkhäxan tend to be rather surprisingly incompetent when on their own and not preparing/testing in their respective fields.
This obviously ties in with the horror genre tropes, but it’s something one needs to accept within the frame of this game. Apart from determining a name, the character gets clothes and a kind of advantage (which could be expertise, an item, or something – it’s not really defined), as well as enough rations to last the party for 2 days, or you for 4 days if you’re alone. The supplement also lists 10 reasons for why you might be alone in the woods/out there in bark-witch territory: these include being on the run from the law, a pandemic, being paranormal aficionados on the lookout for the Grand Proof of supernatural forces, etc.
The book also provides 10 sample refuges; these let the players choose two advantages, depending on the nature of the refuge; though, interestingly, “tillhåll”, the word chosen, can mean something as mundane as an “environment”, but also has connotations of “sth/sb. haunting the place”; in the way that you can say “this place was my haunt.” But that as an aside. However, strange things can happen in zones that are not secure, and as such, we have a table of 20 entries of strange phenomena; essentially an event test that is important for the impact of the känsla attribute. New environments may well be inhabited when you happen upon them…so beware.
And that’s pretty much it. The game has seen the releases of two FREE sample adventures; both of them are one-shots (as that’s the sole focus of the game – there are no advancement rules); the modules both feature neat maps (but no VTT-friendly versions of them sans annotations, but since combat is pretty much theater of the mind in the game, that’s not too bad, I guess).
Minor spoilers follow. If you plan on playing in a game of Barkhäxan, please skip to the conclusion.
Okay, only GMs around? Great!
“Knakekvist” is pretty much the introductory adventure I expected from this game; set in autumn, it features a few critters, a forester/lumberjack, a creepy shed including a cellar, where a girl who can’t speak and quite a few human bones can be found. It doesn’t become more uplifting after that. It’s a solid introductory adventure for the game, but not exactly groundbreaking. It clocks in at 9 pages of content (sans front/back cover etc.).
“Gråtmyrsbarn” is, in pretty much every way, superior. It is set in winter, has e.g. a die-drop table and a cool idea associated with it, and includes rules for drops in temperature (where btw. styrka is important), and in it, the goal is to look for the vanished younger sister of one of the PCs. There also are undead children involved, as, well, bad winters in the past, poor and rural region…you do the math, so this one may well be not for everyone. I’m usually very weary of this topic, but it has imho been handled pretty tastefully, so kudos. Did I mention that this has a creepy undead kid’s song, fully spelled out? Yeah, this one does a pretty good job; it’s 14 pages of content, so pretty meaty for a free offering as well. I STRONGLY recommend downloading it as well! (Or using it to check out the aesthetic before ordering the book.)
As a whole, I’d have preferred both modules to perhaps feature a bit less emphasis on kids, but that’s a pet-peeve of mine; in Gråtmyrsbarn, the theme is handled well, but in Knakekvist, it seemed a bit like a cheap-shot for empathy. My 2 cents, anyways.
Editing and formatting are very good on a formal and rules-language level; the presentation of the rules makes sense in its sequence, is presented in a concise way, etc. Layout is impressive: Easy to read and parse, its one-column b/w-standard manages to convey information in a tight manner, with Johan Nohr’s fantastic artworks doing a LOT to establish the game’s tone. This is horror. As noted, the softcover is impressive with its textured paper, particularly for the zine-level price point it is offered at.
So, let me be frank: Pelle Nilsson’s Barkhäxan is generally not my game. The lack of depth regarding character advancements, the minimalist rules, the limitations hardcoded into the core ability score engine (as elegant as it is)—they just don’t gel with what I’m looking for in a RPG, not even in a rules-lite one. I’m never going to play this game at the table again. Emphasis on “at the table.”
HOWEVER, and that is important, I maintain that this game has one definite and very important use: I consider this to be a PERFECT fireside RPG. Among the trees, dice on the pine needles/in the snow? Heck yeah!
What is a fireside RPG to me? Well, an RPG that you can play with a bare minimum of stuff: For example, with the booklet, and a few dice. Heck, one could play Barkhäxan without the booklet!
Each character has so few values, each weapon, creature and rule is so simple, that the demands on the cognitive ability of the players are so low that you could play the game without character sheets by simply agreeing on the respective values. You know, and play this spontaneously, after a long day of hiking, while sitting at the fireside….in those deep, dark woods. In the middle of nowhere. Did you hear that branch snap? Is there something around?
This game is PERFECTLY geared toward this experience; in theme, in rules, in everything. Its ultra-rules-light nature means that you don’t need character sheets per se, so they won’t be blown away and you can play this in snow, in storm, etc. And it *is* meatier than pure story-based fireside games.
That being said, when seen without this unique selling point that I just conjured ex nihilo, I’d consider this game to be in the 3-stars vicinity; the lack of hazards and a few other things in the core book bug me. But the availability of two FREE modules, one of which actually almost is an expansion of sorts (and works really well) has to be taken into account; this’d increase the value of the overall package to 3.5 stars to me. And since this fireside gaming angle, even if it’s only valuable to weirdos like me, adds a unique angle to the book, I’ll round up. If you and your friends enjoy trips in the wilderness, consider investing in this game. It’s a handy game to know!
You can get the print-version of Barkhäxan here!
The pdf-version can be found here on lulu!
The FREE module Knakekvist can be donwloaded here!
The FREE Module Gråtmyrsbarn can be downloaded here!
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