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On the Hunt, into the Vault

The Whispering Vault is a special game for me, as, along with Over the Edge, it significantly influenced me to shift into role-playing design at all and, more so than OtE, provided crucial play-experience during the creation of Sorcerer. I like to describe it as the 1990s' best unknown horror game, and better than most picks for the known ones. It is arguably one of the single best games of that decade, with immense long-term play potential despite its apparent one-shot focus. Its author had previously written the Mayfair Games (almost-)D&D supplements Demons and Demons II, if you remember those.

I have, however, not played it in almost twenty years and often keenly felt the lack throughout the heady days of new playtests and new publications during the early 2000s. The lack was not only for myself but has become evident to me, more and more, among the people I knew who "never heard of it" or had just enough recognition to dismiss it casually.

I made a little handout for players to refer to during play, which is my best shot at quickie orientation for the game (attached). I also jump-started character creation by making several numbers-only Stalkers; the idea being that they would choose pictures for the characters, grab a sheet and its associated rules, and add crucial characterization through the further specifications of character creation for a cohesive whole, thematically their own rather than mine. Here are the pictures.

Let's see, Nataneal chose the "classy" pic with the umbrella, Lennart chose the jannissary-looking one, Tintin chose the angel/robot thing, and Willy chose the vampire-ish looking one, if I remember correctly. They went on to specify historical backgrounds, the Focus Skill, and their Keys of Humanity. I've attached the sheets too.

This is also the first session of play I've recorded at my new local role-playing home, Spelens Hus here in Norrköping. I underestimated the background noise so our voices may be a bit murky compared to my screen play sessions, but I'll be fixing gains and feeds and stuff as I go along, eventually to optimize. Anyway, Spelens Hus is the physical property for an umbrella organization, SIN, which contains a variety of local gaming groups. I'm now in N.Ö.R.D., the role-playing group, and thus part of SIN, and thus authorized (or whatever, it's not that formal) to use Spelens Hus as a play location.

Remember two years ago as I hunted all over to find role-players and couldn't? That's because none of this was in place at that point. Now, it's like a convention all week long, every week.

As for this play session, I'd like to draw your attention to the way the players moved into both the system and their characters, piece by piece. By the final scenes in the hospital, each Stalker had taken on specific mannerisms and priorities, and each player was always playing them extremely faithfully to the Keys they'd created. They also quickly oriented toward the dice and, eventually, their specific Disciplines and Servitors. I did forget to explain Karma, which might have saved them a failed roll or two, but they weren't really up against dire stuff yet, so they might as well save it.

The game goes against certain expected tropes, so you can see the players adjust to the relationship between the Stalkers and the world, in that each Stalker is from a specific point in history but isn't thrown off or stereotypically out of place in the particular place and time for a Hunt, and that they can rely on the Veil to help them fit in, and even use it to their advantage. Apparently they assumed they'd be fish out of water, but were surprised at how easy it was simply to stride into the hospital room and "be" administrative medical officials.

I know the game is supposed to be a romp through as many historical and semi-historical places and times as it can stand, but I also could not help but set it right where we were playing, albeit a generation or two prior to the present, when the city was rather different. It seemed to pay off well.

I'd love to discuss this game further. Please comment & question!

Department: 
Actual Play

Comments

Rod_A's picture

Hi Ron, really fun to see this game! Whispering Vault was something I was intrigued by, but never got around to playing, when it came out. Time to take another look.

Here's something I'm curious about, related to the general topic of using information skills (or whatever they might be called, game by game) to position PCs in a situation. When you called for the History roll upon the Stalkers' arrival in the world, what did you envision as the range of possible outcomes? Like . . . on a failure, would it have been possible for the Stalkers to not ever know they were in Sweden, and would you perhaps have characterized the world and the people in a "fuzzier" way, to reflect the uncertainty?

Ron Edwards's picture

That's a good question that received some discussion among us afterwards as well.

First, here are the tools. The relevant Insight skills are History, Occult, and Deduction (the only named skills for this attribute) and Sensitivity, which is an Awareness skill. Perception, also in Awareness, is not relevant to the basic inquiry, as it’s notice-y in logistic terms, like "this thing is here"or "that thing is about to pounce on you," and not about what the thing might be or mean.

Sensitivity and Occult are highly specialized. The first is like a homing beacon effect toward the Enigma that is corrupting the Dream. (As I mention during the game, this may or may not be directly caused by the incursion of the Unbidden into the Dream, and although it usually is, the Enigma and the Unbidden are decoupled except in the case of the most developed stage of the Unbidden, the Architect.) So if you're trying to "sniff out" the Enigma, use Sensitivity. It's easier when you're closer to it or considering its situation or effects carefully, so it's not so useful just to show up and start Sensitivity-ing with no context.

Occult concerns the use of occult knowledge by mortals or, I suppose, Shadows whose abilities qualify, and unlike Sensitivity, isn't a "sniff" skill but rather an analytical one. You have to be looking at and dealing with something that may be occult, and if it is, you can understand its origins, purpose, and operational details.

Deduction and History are more generalized and conceivably can be used pretty much at any time and without stating very much "what are you asking," at not-impossible Difficulty levels. Therefore these are the only two skills that go directly toward what you’re asking about, although conceivably a Focus skill invented by a player might qualify sometimes (e.g. Politics, as Tintin wrote onto his sheet).

I think Deduction is relatively trivial in this regard, at least as written, as it’s the infamous GM-driven “nudge you when you need it” skill so common at this historical point in writing RPG texts. To play it a little more intelligently, it can be repurposed a little to invent a clue into existence as a player prompts by investigating things and seeking dot-connections, i.e., the Batman skill. But most of the time whatever would be gained by Deduction is just as easily provided by the player asking and the GM answering, or the GM simply telling them. The edge case that justifies a roll would be some situation in which miscommunication or incomplete information is significant, and therefore more fun to play without anyone dictating whether you “get it” or not.

That was a long way to go finally to arrive at History as the most important skill for this topic. I’ve looked over its description and have decided to paraphrase it like this.

The default is that no Stalker participating in this Hunt has any familiarity with this place and time based on backstory, and that no one is using the History skill to orient themselves. In this case, the Stalkers can certainly proceed with the Hunt and trust to the Veil (and possibly Masking) to situate them in others’ perceptions without even trying. In my opinion, but not mentioned in the text, doing this means a lot of other Skill rolls will become more difficult, including but not limited to Perception for immediate dangers, Masking because you don’t know how to Mask what you’re doing, and, significantly, Sensitivity because there’s less context for what’s “weird” and what’s not. I also think the Veil would be much more generic in its effects, so you would appear vaguely appropriate or perhaps at average levels of status or access, rather than very specific and appropriate to what you’re trying to do.

In these circumstances, I would definitely be describing things more fuzzily and sometimes more confusingly, but their situation isn’t impossible; the Stalkers will not be blundering around not even knowing there are cars or how to use money for that spot. They can do anything pretty basic like read things, find their way, or talk to anyone, although perhaps with more step by step rolls with higher Difficulties. In this case, they would eventually have been able to say they were in Sweden, and roughly when, just by observing things, but since none of them were from that era or anything similar, they would work their way through situations pretty much reactively, and by “feel” – rolls for other important Skills would be a lot harder, and each would get them "less far" than they would otherwise.

Two examples from our game stick out, both of which I considered carefully in play for exactly this reason.

First, their History rolls weren’t very good, just a 10, designated in the text as an “Easy” success (“Difficult” is 12). So although they had a place and time, and a little context (industrial depression), they could not, for example, get to the hospital on their own; they would have to seek directions and interactions, and that would take a lot of time – I did have the impending lobotomy in mind, and there’s another nuance there which did not come into play so I’ll keep secret until after we play again. You can probably see me look pleased in the video when they used Delve on a person who was, as it happens, very much thinking about the hospital, because that allowed a much more rapid and labor-saving way to find it and get there. I was prepared to play otherwise, but it was nice to see them acting like Stalkers and not like Investigators.

Second, the successful (if marginal) History rolls and the effects of Delve, especially since the latter were shared across the four Stalkers via Whispering, also made it possible for their masquerade at the hospital to be exactly on target. They were the right kind of administrative inspectors with the right badges and papers, and given that they conformed with their Veil-assigned “parts,” the effects of their actions were perfectly appropriately Veiled, as I mentioned when I said all the office’s files and papers were completely filled-out and signed, even if the Stalkers had done nothing of the sort in person. If they somehow had just waltzed into a similar situation with no prior Skill use and especially no History, the Veil would have justified/portrayed them adequately, but less specifically and without the authority they sought, so the rolls to do stuff (Charm and Intimidate, in this case), would have been much harder, with +3 or +5 Resolve targets. Significantly, they would by definition be skating much closer to the Forbiddance when they did anything with their Essential natures, which for a Stalker is very close to anything they do at all.

Most generally, too, having a successful History roll or two on-hand allows me to add more complete explanatory details of different kinds, at all times, any of which then becomes raw material for players to use for specific actions and descriptions of things. As we know by now, having that raw material fill the atmosphere of play is very often a way for new plot to emerge that no one engineered or anticipated, which is a good thing.

The converse applies too, when such details are prepped but may be missed or misunderstood for significant outcomes. Getting only a 10 on the History roll led me to omit two important things from my description of the encounter on the bridge: the existence of a particular civic feature just a block away, and the specific physiological and ecological circumstances of alcoholism during that period of Nordic history and culture, both of which are relevant to this Hunt.

Gordon C's picture

I'm excited to see this! Whispering Vault has been on my list to try for a while - while I've always worried there's something about the color/style I don't QUITE get, the somewhat structured play and the overall inventiveness are a big draw. The next few days are a bit busy, but I look forward to viewing and commenting soon

Ron Edwards's picture

The color and style have always stood out for me among the raft of edgy/horror urban/fantasy games of that time.

Part of it is the Champions vibe, that everything you're looking at is just chassis for whatever you do with it, and related, that there is no objective setting that the authors have in mind that they're sharing with you. There is an immense amount of trust afforded to the actual users/players of the game; it does not provide too much "for" you, while still specifying enough to challenge you to do "this," rather than, for example, just custom-skinning a generic engine The only other game of the time that does that as fully is Zero.

Part of it is also the personal, rather uncompromising grit that underlies the flashy hip horror imagery, much like the same sense I get from the original Over the Edge relative to its flashy hip conspiracy Illluminati imagery. Human drama and pain tend to veer into gaudy and familiar plot territory in many of the games I'm thinking about, whereas here the text consistently returns to a fictional person's feelings or even a fictional horror-entity's feelings (for both Stalkers and Unbidden). Furthermore, the metaphysics of the setting tend toward the existential - this is "how it is," but there's no sense of right or purpose to the cosmos being like this. The Stalkers only strive to preserve its integrity because they were themselves once human, i.e., for human resaons of compassion, not because they believe or value the ultimate or grand purpose "of it all."

Ron Edwards's picture

We finished up! I’ve learned that I have to modify my recording plans a little, as the space is simply too acoustic for the microphone. They have a studio recording room there but I was hoping for more visibility, so I’ll try it anyway and see.

This link goes straight to the second session inside the now-expanded playlist.

I messed up a few rules along the way. The details for Disciplines are “pits” in terms of play-design, being quite local and picky, so I kept missing little payments in Vitality or Karma, or specific limitations on range or perception. During the second session, the players are more familiar with their sheets and have either put some time into reading the rules scans I included for them or want to do it during play, so I gratefully accepted correction a few times. You can see it with Lennart using Savage and Frenzy and with Willy using Translocate, notable in each case because they were pointing out what the rules did not let them do rather than accepting my hasty and more generous ruling of the moment.

Looking across the whole experience, the most significant goofs of this kind concern the Radiant Orb, after the Unbidden is bound. First, communicating with it requires a point of Karma, and that might have added some agony or tension to the subsequent conflict of mending the Enigma, as the latter required a fair amount of Karma spending to succeed. Second, the Orb can’t be whisked easily to the Vault as we did in play; it needs to be transported physically back across the Rift and taken there. Although this specification probably had no immediate effect on our scenario, it does reinforce some useful cosmos/setting concepts which I’m sorry to have missed – for example, why the game is titled as it is.

I spitballed a few rules when I would prefer not to. How does one jump the initiative sequence to defend someone else? It seems like a very Stalker thing to do. Annoyingly, not only did I have to improvise a rule, I messed it up in application so that the exact Stalkers that were ineligible were the ones who went ... Also, I could have sworn there was some standard way of assisting one another but I either mis-remembered or couldn’t find the page in time.

However, in the case of granting more flexibility and utility for Servitors you’re mastered, that’s textual. I tried to play up that feature of mastery vs. non-mastery as much as possible, especially because the Servitor-heavy Stalkers are almost by definition not so good at combat.

The players displayed truly beautiful internalization of the meaning of the game. The ending combination was all driven by them: reassuring of the Aesthetic after binding it and confirming its reformation + consulting with Maria (the Supplicant) to see what she wanted to do as well as her basic motivations and outlook that involved her in the first place + risking the Forbiddance to take a hand in banning lobotomies. The business about showing their Keys to the Aesthetic isn’t an explicit rule, but it is 100% in accord with every mention of doing that in the rules.

They also embraced the Forbiddance’s value as a story component rather than just a power-limiter, which tied as well to their appreciation for history and local concerns – the people and place were not just a stage set to them. The lobotomy issue was a very nice touch insofar as their interference into the Dream was only a tad off-history and therefore skirted violating the Forbiddance without crossing the line. It shows that the players see their characters as assessing the “cosmic rules” rather than merely enforcing them. Willy and Lennart are both history fanatics so that helped the history perspective, but I think it applied to everyone. Although we’ve officially finished playing, you probably aren’t surprised to hear that I have already done a little bit of research on another location and historical period in which I’d set the next Hunt. I bet it wouldn’t be too hard to organize a reunion sooner or later.

I also call attention to how all the players instantly processed the purpose of using and gaining Karma when I explained the rules at the end of the session: “spend hard, gain hard,” i.e., there’s no point in being stingy with it. Although I didn’t include it, the session ended with some similar points about Experience, especially as all the players were intrigued by the differing options of “power up” vs. “buy off Keys and fade away.”

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