Page six of the Whispers in the Dark quickstart reminds us of the many problematic views of H.P. Lovecraft. Even for his time, his race, religion and gender views were extreme.
He’s dead, though, like so many of his characters and isn’t getting royalties. Geek culture has embraced the Lovecraftian-style of horror. We’ve taken stories of those worrisome whispers from the dark that might herald creatures so removed from reality that the very sight of them will drive you mad and made them our own.
In this case, Matt Corley (Lamp’s Light Sanitarium) and M.T. Black (Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus) have taken those stories and made them work with D&D’s 5e system.
Whispers in the Dark: Quickstart Rules for 5e contains everything you need to get started; rules, characters and The Crow Man pre-written scenario. If you’re already with 5th edition rules though books like D&D’s Players Guide then you’ll find the mechanics of Whispers in the Dark very straightforward, if not, then I don’t think you’ll find it that much more challenging.
However, WitD is only 78-or-so plages long. A core rulebook is coming later, and so there’s not oodles of page space in which to rewind and explain basic concepts. It may well be the case, as the authors suggest, watching an intro YouTube on any generic D&D channel first will be worth your time.
The emphasis of this book is helping you use 5e rules to create those Lovecraftian stories and testing the modified system with the adventure. It’s about the atmosphere.
Geek Native pestered co-author Matt Corley and has been able to get three creator-approved suggestions for a Whispers in the Dark playlist. So, with the interests of the atmosphere held high, you’ll find three Whispers in the Dark suitable music collections embedded in this review.
Whispers in the Dark characters
There are no races in this quickstart; there are ancestries. You can be an ordinary human might you might also play a character with some Lengian ancestry, which will give you better dark vision than your mundane human neighbours, a talent for languages and magic but you’ll not be popular with animals. You might even have some Deep Blooded origins, and you’ll see even better in the dark, will be an excellent swimmer, but it’s not just animals your ugly mug unnerves but people too.
There are no classes in Whispers in the Dark either. There are backgrounds, though, for the life you had before dangerous investigations began to unravel around you.
In the quickstart, there are rules for antiquarians, artisans, detectives, dilettantes, doctors of medicine, hobos, journalists and soldiers. These backgrounds influence your skill proficiencies, weapon proficiencies, saving throws as well as starting languages, equipment and money.
Feat selection is independent of background, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have prerequisites to ensure some logical consistency. You can’t have a low Intelligence score, for example, and be a successful Ardent Scholar.
There are no experience points in Whispers in the Dark. No, that’s not because your character isn’t likely to live long enough to need them. Well, maybe not.
Whispers in the Dark uses the milestone system instead. Characters level up when the DM/GM decides enough has happened. Solving a mystery and getting to the end of the investigation is an excellent example of a likely milestone.
Say “Cthulhu RPG” to me, and I’ll immediately think of sanity points and sanity checks.
Whispers of the Dark give me Sanity Scores and Sanity Checks. The system works as you would expect (and it works well). Characters have a starting Sanity Score which is used to determine how likely they are to pass or fail Sanity Checks. A failed Sanity Check costs your character points from their Sanity Score, and thus, the descent to madness becomes more likely.
There are four types of madness in the game; transient insanity, short-term insanity, long-term insanity and indefinite insanity. Failed Sanity Checks means, at least, a brief period of madness.
Like most other Cthulhu mythos inspired games, Whispers in the Dark isn’t one for you if you uncomfortable playing a character suffering from madness.
This is an RPG which haplessly stumbles into a madness equals evil equivilliences, fortunately, but Corley and Black clearly believe that Lovecraftian madness is too closely connected to the Lovecraftian style to be carved out of the game. Many people would agree with them, and I think WitD shows how madness in a Lovecraft inspired game can be done right.
I’m not going to say too much about the pre-written adventure The Crow Man because that would fling open the tome of unspeakable spoilers. I will say, however, that The Crow Man is the proof of the pudding and shows you how the game comes together.
Magic is missing. That’s both understandable, it’s coming in the core rules, and regrettable as I think dark magic must be at the heart of the Lovecraft-D&D Venn pentagram.
Whispers in the Dark is an easy read as it’s well written and cleanly formatted. I think the game does a lot to show how easily 5e can be mastered and modified.
On the one hand, we have unspeakable horror from beyond our world. On the other hand, we have the best of both worlds. D&D blends successfully with the Lovecraftian style, and now we can pick our next Feat as a surviving character levels up while worrying about how we’re going to make that next Sanity check.
My copy of Whispers in the Dark was provided for review. It is available at the Dungeon Masters Guild.
What do you think? Measured observations are welcome and you can leave them in the comment section below.