Game: The Whispering Vault
Publisher: Ronin Arts
Series: The Whispering Vault
Review Dated: 6th, June 2003
Reviewer’s Rating: 9/10 [ Something special ]
Total Score: 53
Average Score: 7.57
“One warning: try to be sensitive to the feelings of the other players. If you know someone will have trouble with certain imagery, leave it alone. A little blood between friends can be a good time, but there is no reason to offend anyone. Butcher responsibly…”
Whispering Vault is a horror game. That’s a warning from it.
This is a review of the PDF version of Whispering Vault. I was vaguely aware that it had been sold printed on to dead trees in the past but I didn’t know much about it. There are lots of great PDF products available in the RPG industry and the Whispering Vault is just one of them. The Whispering is something more though, it’s the first PDF that I’ve read that’s compelled me to rush out and buy the original. I’m poor. I tried to resist. The battle of willpower didn’t last long. I mentioned to a friend that I was reading a PDF of the Whispering Vault and summarised it a little for them, the news spread and by the end of the day I’d heard back from two (not one, but two) roleplayers I’d not talked to in years because they had copies of the Whispering Vault, like it so much and wanted to tell me so. One of them admitted that he’d only used it once, after a single game he’d freaked his players out so much that they thought it best to leave there.
The Whispering Vault is a very good horror game. It’s scary, the premise is wonderfully scary, surreal, yes, but spooky as well. The artwork is similarly spooky and so the book (even through the guise of a PDF) oozes atmosphere. The game’s designed so well that it’s easy for the GM to spook, unsettle and inspire the players. Typical adventures for the Stalkers can begin with their attempt to get past a Guardian and this isn’t a dice rolling matter, this is a matter of getting in character and acting like Stalkers.
The player characters are as good as dead. They are dead, undead I suppose, but not in the traditional sense. The players, the stalkers, have transcended the Realm of Flesh and are now a part of the Realm of Essence. As Stalkers they have an unique connection between the two and this connection allows them to pass between the worlds (getting past the Guardian) and to deal with supernatural problems in the Realm of Flesh.
Sometimes powerful beings from the Realm of Essence, beings responsible (in a way) for the Realm of the Flesh, become obsessed with their creation, abandon their duties in Essence and force their way into meaty side of reality. This is bad. More powerful beings, the Primal Powers, those who employ and empower the Stalkers, don’t like it. Reality doesn’t like it either since the tear between the worlds creates an Enigma that needs to be fixed. The creatures that force their way into the Realm of Flesh are known as the Unbidden and may have human followers or might awake other creatures known as shadows. The Stalkers, the players, have the responsibility of tracking down the Unbidden, capturing it and throwing it into the Whispering Vault where it’ll stay for eternity and healing the Enigma damage too. No, there’s no going in there and laying waste to the Unbidden, it was once a god or nearly so and killing it would be terrible. The Stalkers are powerful but will have to be smart too.
As creatures of Essence the Stalkers don’t have a natural flesh body. One’s especially woven for them each time they go into the Realm of Flesh. In game terms this means your Stalker can have different physical stats for each hunt. You can be the strong guy in one hunt and the dexterous one in the other. That’s a refreshing change. The Unbidden don’t have the luxury of a specially made body, they have to force themselves into a fleshy host as they enter the world.
A Stalker’s physical appearance may well change with each newly woven body but the true appearance of the ascended being won’t. The real appearance of a Stalker is something a player could have a whale of a time deciding; it’s not horrific, but it should certainly be unsettling, strange and surreal. If you can imagine the Stalker as a good Xenobite (ala Pinhead from Hellraiser) then that seems pretty good to me.
Stalkers don’t just have physical prowess. As entities in tune and aware of reality in a way that a mere human couldn’t possibly understand they have very real, important and useful karmic connection to it. Stalkers have a range of supernatural powers to practise and master. One such power is the ability to summon support creatures call servitors and it serves well enough as an example. Servitors are scary and useful. These servitors have an overwhelming compulsion to sacrifice themselves to spare someone else pain. Martyrs have the supernatural ability to ensure that they get their morbid wish and by summoning some and keeping them nearby a Stalker can use them to soak up damage that might have threatened him instead. The Stalker will have to keep a close reign on his Martyrs though because their obsession is so strong that they actively want to drift away from him and sacrifice themselves wherever possible.
It would be entirely wrong to describe Whispering Vault only as a RPG where angelic-demonic-creatures do battle with demonic-shadow-creatures. There’s a lot more going on. There’s the matter of dealing with the Enigma too and that takes more than weird combat powers. Reality left damaged for too long will start to heal itself. It’s healing in name of the greater god insofar as the effected area fades from reality and the memory of mundane people and becomes an isolated Shadowland. These Shadowlands don’t follow the laws of reality as they are in the Realm of Flesh and this means they can be ideal dream-like locations for scenarios. Then there’s a matter of the Supplicant. A supplicant is a mortal who’s either knowingly or unknowingly detected the damage in reality and called for the Stalkers. If a Supplicant has made a deliberate Call to a Circle of Stalkers then they’re probably a mage or a sensitive. They might even know a ritual to call a Stalker when there’s no need for one – but that doesn’t bind the Stalker to the will of the mage. Dealing with the Supplicant could be a complex issue in its self.
This is just a quick summary of the background, there’s plenty more going on but this is the gist of it.
The set up is simple enough – the Hunt, but it has surprising depth – all the catches. A similar summary can be presented for the mechanics; they’re simple but enjoy surprising depth. Horror games need to be light on the plastic polyhedral in order to keep the atmosphere but the mechanics need to be decisive enough too. Ever seen a long duel in a horror movie? Doesn’t tend to happen. The Whispering Vault is quick and deadly. The player characters are encouraged to describe the effects of the combat round based off a simple dice roll – and if they go too far, describing too much damage or success, then the GM is encouraged to address game balance by steering the encounter and controlling the shadow, the human cultist or Unbidden differently. Having said that I want to stress that the mechanics are concrete enough to reassure the players that the GM isn’t cheating the system. If the players get lucky dice rolls then they’ll be as lucky and effective in the conflict. One mechanic that particularly catches my attention is the die cap. The die cap removes the top numbers on the dice from consideration. If you’re dealing 4d6 of damage with a die cap of 5 then you don’t get to count any of the 4 dice that roll 5 or 6. This reduces maximum damage to 16 and makes it less likely to occur. Much of the conflict in Whispering Vault depends on will and intent. If you’re determined to bring down an Unbidden then this will ease your die cap and open up the higher numbers but if you’re unlucky enough to be playing a terrorised human slave who has given himself up for dead then your die cap will be a serious handicap.
I’ve not yet seen the original print (it’s in the post) so I can’t be sure how accurate a facsimile the PDF is. I can be sure that the PDF is sharp and clear, the text is easy to read on-screen and printed and there are plenty of high quality illustrations. There aren’t any bookmarks and that’s a bit of a drag in a 139-paged electronic document.
The Whispering Vault’s biggest success is that it makes you want to play it. It inspires idea after idea by presenting something different and enticing and putting it together with a professional grace. As much as I love the Whispering Vault I feel I need to offer up a caveat; if you’re used to bashing orcs in a four-colour fantasy campaign then the Whispering Vault may well be too far off the beaten track for you. If you want to jump off the beaten track then aim for the Whispering Vault.