Our first Hunt

Back to the Vault! In this case, as GM’d by Adriano, who is going all-out in terms of locations for our Stalkers’ hunting. I’m not sure what to tell you here except that our characters are also hitting hard right out of the gate – Lilith o’Bedlam (Noah), the Grey Witch (Alessio), and Hazard (me) – which I’ve generally found to be the case for this game. I’ve attached my information here and will add the others’ if they wish.

I’m hoping to generate widespread interest and play by multiple groups for this game. Fortunately it’s legally available via Paizo. My own preferences are limited to the original Pariah Press publications (the core book and Dangerous Prey), but I don’t claim any critical or comprehensive justification for that. If you’re not familiar with it, then the best I can say is that it’s a perfect example of “investigate on missions” and “90s edgelord horror” which remarkably lacks every bad thing about those things!

I played the game as GM a couple of years ago, as posted in On the Hunt, into the Vault. In this game, as player, and from watching during editing, I’ve resolved to change-up some things I do at the table. We’d already decided to help out with the system essentially, but I’d like to scale that back and, more generally, to wait for pauses or obvious grammatical stops before I start talking.

The 6th video includes some post-play reflection and system discussion, including connections or contrasts with the points raised in Monday Lab: Roll to Know. Any follow-up here in the comments is very welcome.

, ,

20 responses to “Our first Hunt”

  1. A few thoughts after the first session

    I didn’t know anything about the human rights violations around the 2001 G8 Summit before this session, but my fellow players have helped me catch up, and I just want to give props to Adriano for fucking bringing it with the Hunt he created.

    As I hope is evident from our three protagonists, The Whispering Vault’s character creation process delivers, and how. Like we noted in the post-play conversation, this is a game that trusts players to create driven, impactful characters—the belief that everyone will want to make this weird, dark fiction together without self-consciousness or arm-twisting practically radiates off the page. And when the almost elemental drives represented by the Stalker’s Keys crash into the crisis situation of the Hunt, the sparks start flying immediately.

    I particularly like the transparency of the numbers in character creation. Choosing your Stalker’s Attributes is an important decision, but the consequences are quite easy to see (and it never seems restrictive…every Stalker gets Servitors, Disciplines and Skills, after all). 

    I don’t have much to say about the system-in-play yet, beyond noting that this game lets you experience the fiction at multiple levels of awareness (your own knowledge of the situation, your Stalker’s, how your Stalker presents in the Veil, and how they perceive the situation’s underlying Essence).

    On an obvious level, you can see all of us engaging in the simple narrative pleasure of being out-of-place time travelers (“No, we’re from…France!” “What’s a G8?” “Is that a Bloc Black member?”) But I know I was looking at the fiction through multiple levels of perception at almost every moment, and it was really cool how easy it was.

    When reading the book, I at first wondered if The Hunt and its preparation could be read as a GM-imposed plot structure. But now I think The Whispering Vault’s prep procedures are just that…prep. There may be a Supplicant, an Unbidden, minions, etc., but what the Stalkers do about those elements in play is entirely up to them (and the Skills, Disciplines and Servitors give you a pretty wide range of options here). I’d definitely like to hear Adriano’s thoughts about this.

    Much like my actual-play experiences with Imp of the Perverse, I think the structure of the Hunt should work very much like a chord progression – it’s there to be played around, or even intentionally acted against as much as it’s there to be followed (if the image of a Stalker burning through their Vitality to defy the Primal Powers in the name of a personal instead of a cosmic justice doesn’t make your eyes light up, this probably isn’t the game for you).

    • I like the way the out-of

      I like the way the out-of-place time visitors effect occurs: enough for some content, not enough to cause stereotypical trouble or comedy. The main component is the diversity of understanding among the Stalkers, based on their History results. Some know a lot, some don't, and you won't nail it (and probably have a head-start on the Enigma) without a really good result. This can certainly affect or shape how they decide to approach the situation. However, as long as one of them has even an Average result, perceptions and interactions of any kind will round things out – with differently-sized holes per Stalker, as with mine in this case. Furthermore, there are other rolls and outcomes in play: Hazard currently understands the interaction of the Enigma with the social crisis much better than the other Stalkers, due to his Deduction result. But it's entirely principle-based and abstract; he has to talk to the Grey Witch to apply it, if things like city locations or historical events are involved.

      The other component is that the Veil is always contextualizing the Stalkers' presence without them trying or needing to know about it. To others, they'll look as ordinary or expected as possible given their behavior, and the Veil fills in the gaps. Since they know one gets across town somehow, all they need to do is go to the station and go through the motions they can see around them, and they'll "have" tram tokens or whatever's needed. The Mask skill is there to help them do extra-weird things and not break the Veil, but they don't have to use it for the basics of going places, getting information, or otherwise. For example, most faux-pas uttered by Hazard during this Hunt, given the total wash-out on his History roll, will not even be heard by anyone but the Stalkers, as they'll be edited out or twisted into acceptable forms by the Veil.

      I'm not sure if that was clear to anyone who doesn't know the game, so, briefly, the out-of-place effect is relevant but not a door slammed in the characters' faces if they don't do well with their History rolls, and the stereotypical comedy of the visitors puzzling out the tram station map, thinking it's an anatomy chart or something, doesn't happen at all.

  2. Some reflections

    Having the chance to try The Whispering Vault for the first time is very exciting, but I should also add that this is my first time being a GM for a group I met online…and the first time in a language other than Italian! Despite the learning curve I'm finding it particularly instructive to be dealing with a game that challenges many preconceptions I've accumulated over time, leading me to reflect on some aspects of my own preparation. I will share some scattered reflections. 

    Noah is certainly correct in identifying the elements of the scenario (The Unbidden, The Enigma) as simple components and not as pieces of a puzzle to be completed in a predetermined order. The thing that amazed me was to notice how the interaction with these same components can take unexpected and bizarre directions, destroying not only the order, but also the idea of topical moments imagined or anticipated by the GM. When Hazard first used his Delve on the Supplicant, I immediately realized how much a large part of my preparation could fly out the window in an instant.The combination of Disciplines and Servitors available to Circle – Delve, The Grey WItch's Foresight, Hounds – forces you to think in reaction, without imposing your own vision but accompanying players along their chosen path. 

    This leads me to reflect on an aspect that I have yet to train: the ability to choose the most obvious reaction to the players' choices. When Hazard unleashed his hounds in the direction of an Essence track, I had several options in front of me. Without making any spoilers, I suddenly froze at which choice might be the "coolest." I didn't like reacting that way, and I have to confess that ultimately the final choice may have been influenced by that, but I tried to counter this first instinct by imagining where parts of my preparation were at that moment and what the Circle was most likely to find at that moment. The ability to think "between scenes," thinking about what has developed in the meantime, is a challenge I found in the face of this game, one I welcome.

    A reflection, finally, on an element that I found very useful in developing more natural choices: the interaction of my preparation with a known environment such as that provided by a topical event like the G8 in Genoa. The idea of a familiar space and time, and the support of physical elements such as maps and images, allowed me to easily recover my steps when faced with unexpected choices and reactions. Conveying the chaos and elements of the protest was, to some extent, difficult: it occurs to me that using more images during our sessions might help. In any case, I really appreciated how the real world is not an abstract background, but hits hard and provokes reactions in the Stalkers. The interaction with the more human side seems to me an important part of the game, and I'm glad I could observe, even so, the fear of the Grey Witch, the disdain of Hazard and the silent fury of Lilith.

    • These are great reflections.

      These are great reflections. I really should not reply at all for fear of affecting or distorting your process, and since I also hope for many sessions of the game and at least several Hunts, we have plenty of time. For now, my only real reply is to say that for me, your depiction and choice of content for the historical situation was extremely compelling.

      And this, certainly:

      … The thing that amazed me was to notice how the interaction with these same components can take unexpected and bizarre directions, destroying not only the order, but also the idea of topical moments imagined or anticipated by the GM. [the array of player-side rules and options] forces you to think in reaction, without imposing your own vision but accompanying players along their chosen path. 

      This leads me to reflect on an aspect that I have yet to train: the ability to choose the most obvious reaction to the players' choices. … imagining where parts of my preparation were at that moment and what the Circle was most likely to find at that moment. The ability to think "between scenes," thinking about what has developed in the meantime, is a challenge I found in the face of this game, one I welcome.

      We have a great road-trip ahead, I think. Part of this exact topic, too, is that your own NPCs may do the same thing. Rather than merely being furniture or delivery systems for those pre-imagined and anticipated moments, they too are moving and acting in and upon the situation, encountering and affecting it just as the player-characters do, and just as unpredictably in terms of pre-play cognition.

  3. Session 2!

    Here's the direct link to the second session inside the playlist. We're also moving into mayhem, to be continued next session, which in this game is uncompromising and harsh. I suspect we'll be losing quite a bit of our temporary Vessels in stripped flesh and broken bones, at best, which is a feature.

    I have some thoughts to share about the Hunt as a fixed structure, and how it is nearly unique among such investigate-secrets + fight-wumpus games, upcoming.

    • In this game, the classic

      In this game, the classic investigation scenario is undeniably present. I suspect it was embedded in the author’s mind as the only viable model for “non-dungeon” play, at that time perceived as mindless. It’s structurally fixed: plop, you’re in, similar to beginning a Star Trek episode with the landing party beaming into place on the planet. We know there’s an Enigma and your job is to fix it, with a relatively limited set of possible spins or potential sets of content involved. One may ask, how does this differ from what I criticized most recently regarding Väsen and one GM’s approach to Godsend Agenda? (and historically, have criticized extensively and notoriously) Am I giving The Whispering Vault a pass for some reason?

      The difference is that the GM isn’t invested in an outcome. There’s no language or methodology about making sure it all works out, about getting the players through the story, about entertaining them as the first priorty, with “failure” being threatened but never actually happening. There’s not one thing in there about climaxing every Hunt with the showdown, and (as everyone I know who’s played it confirms) there simply is no way to stop the Stalkers – trying to slow them down or pace things or plan the tracing of clues is doomed. They are good at finding what they need to know. Their particular profile of what they know (e.g., History vs. Deduction, etc) differs from Hunt to Hunt, as does their approach – to name two, smash-and-fight commandos vs. assimilate and participate in society – but genius story-man GM will have to give up his story-pacing clue-dispersal. I mean, could some such GM play it as if it were Väsen, or, historically speaking, like the dinner-theater Call of Cthulhu convention experience? Sure – by not playing it at all, ignoring all the rules so thoroughly that the comfortable pretense is impossible, to oneself or to others.

      The avenues of potential depth (not the same as complexity) are all second-order and aren’t fixed/programmed. Instead, they arise when different rules and concepts intersect: among other things, Stalker motivations and personalities, Unbidden and human causes for the Enigma (which is almost never what they “wanted”), the historical location, the specific and clearly fiercely-played-in-design role of Karma, specific personalities in motion, the driving urges and possibly ideals of the Unbidden if present, the rules for improvement (which include a critical twist), the various unawakened and awakened Shadows, and the punishing damage rules.

      As individual items these definitely resemble the usual kitchen-sink of over-developed setting splat, but I’m pointing to how they create a rich decision-space rather than merely a bunch of theatrical distractions, or pro forma speedbumps as in Väsen. They are strikingly clear of the messed-up Boolean sets problem I just discussed in Fangs in the Nordic twilight. Factoring in the rather brutal resolution rules, the bottom line is that some Hunts don’t work out! Maybe you catch the Unbidden but only partly stop the Enigma, maybe you mend the Enigma but the Unbidden gets away, maybe there wasn’t an Unbidden and now you know a human sorcery society is infesting a given century like a cancer … and juxtaposed with that, what you do about it [to the people and place involved] and [to the agents] causing the Enigma are not fixed in place. The structure is rock-solid but stops just shy of programming and boots the GM’s control out the door just as thoroughly as the players’. Therefore, the structure operates effectively as a creative Rorschach test with a very distinctive splatter per session, or, if you will, story fuel … so that halfway through the Hunt, everyone is playing in what has developed since the beginning, rather than in what was known and planned from the beginning.

      Contrast the presentation in The Whispering Vault to its equivalent in Väsen. Really: section by section, internally and among them; also single rule by single rule, internally and among them; finally, what’s presented and authentically expected, Hunt by Hunt, as experienced play. Sure, it’s the same structure – what differs is what the structure is for. Not merely as phrasing, but as actual procedures in use, Vault is all about playing on purpose (even if the author only felt parts of it in the dark); Väsen runs screaming from any such thing and bolts the door against its possible pursuit.

      Here’s a related topic of historical interest. You will find, throughout the rules, a few scattered phrases that today would be red alarm bells: “the Forbiddance gives the GM a last-ditch weapon to control bad players,” that kind of thing. You’ll find similar things all over the 1990s RPG texts, but I point to this one and to Zero, Shattered Dreams, Maelstrom, and to some extent, Over the Edge as strange cases in which they are totally out of place relative to any other content or procedures in the game. Each of these systems extends much more influence over play’s content and conflicts to the players than most other games … but then, in spots, as an artifact of writing rather than design, flinches and twists to forestall sudden fears about what one is actually saying.  

      I know this very, very well, for two reasons: first, I was there at the same time, in the same age group, with a similar history of play, and I experienced the same cultural, creative stress or groping desires as these authors. I also point to the writings and RPG design work of Christopher Kubasik. You can find exactly the same flinching phrases sticking out like bent nails in the Sorcerer core book, and in retrospect actually see them appear, then disappear between the original PDF and book versions of the first two supplements. Second, I have spoken with most of these authors and studied the before-and-after work for all of them, and I think Christian Aldridge is the only one who really understood or trusted that potential: strong concrete prep, even structure, but open to use and play for results and meaning. Most of the others, I think, stepped into a scary void and retreated; these works are their high-water marks but they’ll never realize it or, if they do, never believe that anyone would or could actually do it.

  4. Thoughts after session 2

    My appreciation for The Whispering Vault is deepening with each session. For those who have read the manual, I’ll point to Karma spending and Inspirations as hard-hitting, toothy decision points that have come alive in play. I also want to emphasize (doubling Ron’s general points about the game’s embrace of player agency) the total lack of “narrative guardrails” at the level of GM advice or Unbidden stats – this Beast could very well defeat our Circle. In fact (depending on how the dice fall), our quarry could Lilith in the next round or two of combat. And none of us are in control of whether that happens, or anything else.

    In terms of my own play, I’m enjoying getting to know Lilith, scary as she is. I knew I wanted to position her against the ideas of “feminine sentiment” and “angel of the household” that her mortal self would have grown up with. What I’m discovering is that she is very motivated by Compassion, but that her decision-making is also fed through an ethical arithmetic that is quite cold. 

    The scene where she tried to Terrify the Unbidden’s victim was key for me understanding this. As a player, my feelings were very in line with Hazard’s (indeed, Ron’s line about “tormenting a wounded animal” was an emotional gutpunch). And Lilith looked back at me with a somewhat bemused expression and said, “What are you getting so upset about? Surely there are worse things than fear.”

    Finally, I wanted to share a conversation Adriano, Ron, Elessio and myself had over Discord. I think it shows how our group is “slaying the The,” Ron’s phrase for abandoning the idea that The GM is responsible for everyone’s fun. You can see how our little group is setting expectations so that we can get to trustful, genuine play without a fog of anxieties and second-guessing of each other’s motivations (and how this does not have to be a long or difficult process).

    Adriano: Some thoughts: I was a little disappointed in my inability to describe the physical space in a timely manner today; on some days the language barrier is more punishing, and I hope it didn't make our play confusing. The session was fun, and I think it could give me a lot in terms of concretizing physical space in an often abstract phase like combat, but I felt like I slipped into a subroutine of the game, "the combat phase," that was somewhat detached from previous events, perhaps because the pause between the two sessions highlighted this disconnect.

    Noah: Not to undercut your self-reflection, Adriano, but just to add my own perspective, the physical space did feel a bit abstract, but I didn’t perceive that as a lack, and certainly not a failure on your part. The environment created significant constraints for us (consider Hazard opting to “take the stairs” rather than attempt some wire-fu). For me, just knowing Lilith and the Beast were tearing at each other in the confined hallway of an apartment building was enough to really make the choreography come alive.

    ^^^and I want to be careful to respect your self-reflection. In RPG communities I’ve participated in in the past, when someone critiques their own play (it’s almost always the GM) everyone rushes to assure them they’re “Doing great.” And I think a lot of that stems from a fear that if everyone isn’t feeling 100% good and enthusiastic about the game all the time, the players are going to leave to surf Facebook or something. Whereas I think for healthy play we need to take people’s creative commitment as a given – we can make mistakes, have off-days, etc., but our fellow players are here to make stories with us and we do not need to constantly, anxiously second-guess their creative commitment.

    Ron: I agree, and part of that trust includes this point: everyone is happily imagining things. We may not have had a perfectly consistent battle-map visualization among us, but each of us had a perfectly functional imagined version of the physical space, and those individual imaginings were compatible in terms of speaking and listening. I think that is the real medium – the compatibility.

    Adriano: Thank  you for your words, I mean it. It’s hard not to fall back on “Entertainer Gm” sometimes; some of my experiences lead me to this kind of anxious double check with the other players . And this should not be the case; I’ll try to relax and just focus on the moment, without imagining things outside the table

    Elessio: Both Ron and Noah have  made good comments already. So, I add a couple of cents only on what I call "GM anxiety".

    If people every week come to your table to spend their time, it is enough to clear such doubt. There are sessions where everything is great and others where things are undertone (I am not referring specifically to this one, I had a lot of fun. I am speaking in general terms.) Nevertheless, the players are human beings like you: they  can understand that every session cannot be stellar. A small mistake  or a so and so scene won't compromise the overall experience. 

    Also, assume that the perception of the GM and then players is not always the same! I had cases where I felt to have messed up everything, but the people at the table had a great time  — and complimented me. Conversely, when I had the feeling of an awesome game, sometimes the players had just a OK time — and the impression was only mine.

    • For reference about the Hero

      For reference about the Hero Points topic, see James Bond 007 (2): Hero Points and IIEE, and its internal links. In The Whispering Vault, the mechanic is called Karma, and it works like this:

      • Every Stalker starts with 5. From that point forward, they have what they have and do not gain any more in a guaranteed way (i.e., none to begin a session) or through any specific mechanic in play.
      • You spend 1 Karma to re-roll one, some, or all the dice in a single Challenge roll. You don't spend more than 1 Karma at any given moment, but you might continue to spend 1:re-roll  as long as you like to keep altering the result.
      • The system is based on summing matches among the results of a dice pool roll (i.e. varying numbers of d6), so simply seeking higher values as such isn't the point. You'll notice that the Karma benefit is most effective for bigger dice pools, so you can't overcome the relative "power" of varying pool sizes by Karma alone.
      • Some outcomes aren't dice-based, so they will simply take effect and can't be altered with Karma.
      • You gain 0-9 Karma at the end of a Hunt, not by session; it's pretty likely to be 4-6, although I've found that individual Hunts can sometimes bottom out or boom, so the full range is real.

      Significantly, Karma is not used to improve the character's numbers. That is a completely different mechanic, Experience Points. Karma is only used for these re-rolls. [exception: there are one or two edge cases or special things Karma can do which aren't important here or quite rare] So you don't have to trade off between improving results during vs. improving your character.

      There really isn't a single strategy for using Karma, although a little numeracy is helpful insofar as one should know (i) Karma is unlikely to help if you're not rolling many dice in the first place, and (ii) by "bad roll," I mean it's good to use Karma on an unlikely result, so that a re-roll is likely to be helpful, although Hail Marys aren't unknown. The only other consideration is that the two most important rolls during a Hunt are Binding (to quell the Unbidden) and Mending (to resolve the Enigma), and conserving a point or two for these is wise.

      Since you'll probably get as much or more Karma from a Hunt than you started with, I've found that players learn fast to "spend hard," in that we have problems right now and later Hunts are simply that, later. But it's a very limited resource and very valuable – plenty of Hunts' outcomes are affected strongly by someone spending them a little too freely.


  5. Rambling about GM constraints

    Before and after our third session, Adriano raised some points about GM constraints and GM reactivity that resonated with me, because I’ve been thinking along similar lines over the past five months. He said that, at times, the GMPCs he plays feel more like pawns than living characters, and he's still looking for moments where a GMPC steps up and surprises him with an unpredictable yet inevitable reaction (Adriano, please correct and clarify if I'm misremembering). 

    I found his phrasing interesting and helpful. Obviously, there’s a controlling connotation to the word pawn, as in “My NPCs are the pawns I use to create my story.” But there’s also one more in line with the goal of actual play – as in, a game-piece whose moves are governed by system constraints like any other piece on the board.

    Like Adriano, when I started to deliberately honor the movements and actions of GMPCs, it felt very restrictive. If the events of play didn’t bring characters into contact, I couldn’t drop my cool prep into the path of the players….I could just move my pawn one space or two spaces forward on the chess board. In Champions Now, I had a Villain who was acting at the perimeter of a PC’s life, but who we never saw on-screen because we wrapped the game after one climactic arc. 

    In the Burning Wheel game I played next, though, I saw some wonderful creative payoffs by just tracking the off-screen movements and actions of the GMPCs, then seeing those factors interact with the “on-screen” elements of the players. Seeing how a “plot” emerged just by honoring the basic questions of “Who/when/where/what/why” blew my mind, and I really can’t imagine playing other way now.

    There are some things that made this more likely to occur. “Bringing it” when creating GMPCs and making characters that I was excited to play meant that the people and monsters off-screen were proactive and not merely reacting to the players. Also, I’ve noticed that some systems have features that facilitate this – Runequest: RPing in Glorantha gives everyone driving Passions; in Circle of Hands, Social Rank and Professions give GMPCs a rich context for perception and decision-making. The Whispering Vault seems like it gives the Unbidden overwhelming drives toward action.

    However, I think the scary thing about this is that you can’t rely on “sending in the ninjas” to create drama and conflict – you have to trust that your fellow players are creatively engaged, have created characters they care about, and that they’ll make motivated, risky moves that will demand reaction. Basically, you need someone who’s here to play chess too.

    In our post-session discussion, Ron and Elessio noted how playing minimalist systems are great training-grounds for learning to honor characters as rich, proactive fictional entities, because all you have to go on is in-the-moment characterization (this goes equally for player characters and GMPCs).

    I noticed this recently when GMing Lamentations of the Flame Princess with the OSR Lab. I had a bunch of GMPCs with stupid-simple motivations (“escape this horrible place,” “chow down on intruders”). But paying attention to exactly where they were in the dungeon and what they knew or didn’t know at all times created many moments where their actions surprised me, and (from where I was sitting at least) the fictional landscape in play felt a lot richer than it had any right to be on paper.

    Adriano, is any of this tracking or resonating with your experience with The Whispering Vault? What I'm realizing and really like about these concepts is that you can see them in action when you’re GMing an NPC or “just a player.”

    • It’s only been one small Hunt

      It's only been one small Hunt for three beginning Stalkers. I think you two might be over-processing and anticipating and expecting things. I appreciate the motive to encourage, but one of the most important priorities for me is focus on play as it stands at this moment, each time. Let's play the next Hunt for its own sake with the content and methods we have, maybe trying things and building new skills, not building mountains to climb farther down the road, even if it's intended to be a joyful promise.

    • I see what you mean, Ron, and

      I see what you mean, Ron, and I guess we need to slow down a bit, although I have to recognize that some of the comments of Noah touch a spot I would love to explore right now. Damn ambitions of having an answer right now! I may have something more to say on the prep of this Hunt though, particularly for the Supplicant Annalisa and a portion of the unexplored prep, but I'll wait for the release of the final session videos and maybe for some comments from Alessio.

  6. Session 3!

    Our Hunt is concluded, as you can see starting here for about an hour of play. We continued for about an hour of discussion which I may or may not provide later, as it's reasonably interesting for us but probably boring for anyone else.

    The game does not compromise on points and difficulties and risks. Stalkers stay functional if they're maimed, as the bodily vessel is merely a tool, but they are also mortal and can be killed for good. Perhaps more importantly, their mission matters a lot to them – so avoiding injury and treating survival as the first priority is not the key to success. They avoid injury in order to succeed and they may accept it for hte same reason.

    Sometimes there's also a trade-off, as we definitely faced: to concentrate on binding the Unbidden, or mending the Enigma. To some extent it's a matter of time, as a rampaging Beast-type Unbidden can be a very clear threat, but always, it's a matter of Karma reserves, which are very important and must not be squandered on just wanting a cool thing. I'm realizing that years of design which refill and refresh these types of points may have spoiled the skill of accepting damage now to use those points for something more important later.

    But back to the point: that we captured the Unbidden, but the really constructive act is mending the Enigma. On the other hand, as we discussed in the last session, letting an Unbidden run loose will create more Enigmas over time, in addition to the woe it wreaks as direct actions. So at the time (meaning, last session), we chose to find and bind it, then attend to the Enigma later … but my own character, Hazard, is now reflecting that we should have tackled the Enigma when we found it, with more Karma to spare. The game's system agrees with me – there is no Experience or Karma reward for binding the Unbidden – but we responded to the situation of the moment, specifically the ferocity of a Beast, as opposed to the weirdness of a Stranger or the elaborate machinations of an Architect, and that's how it went. And mending would have been tough, possibly unsuccessful anyway. The game does not hand you an easy victory, and frankly, it could have gone much worse than it did.

    You might be interested in this detail: that Stalkers are not assigned missions by any higher power. Their Hunts are voluntary, as one or more of them has heard the call of a desperate mortal from somewhere in time, and they are, to some extent, breaking cosmic rules by interfering, even if it is often to the benefit of reality ("the Dream") that they do so. Failing to mend the Enigma is a real failure, but perhaps the major failure is that the Supplicant, in this case, a woman named Annalisa, remains trapped in the Enigma we didn't mend.

    Pay attention to the different players struggling with the Hunt's outcome. For a few minutes, some of us hunted around the rules trying to find the workaround, in a "the dice didn't work, but there must be a way" mode, and Adriano closed out the session with an extended narration without any role-playing. I had been obnoxious at the beginning of the session so decided not to criticize and interfere at that point, but for purposes of reflection and later play, I'd like to play interactions among us during the journey back to Essence and to the Vault.

    As a final point, I think we applied the finishing Karma and Experience Point mechanics flawlessly, so at least we have a solid, if not rich base for Karma next time, and in Hazard's case, enough Experience Points to boost combat skills and to give Mending a jump. I suspect all of us are going to attend to Mending (we have a strong Binder and none of us were good Menders). I'd thought of Hazard as a "doer," with excellent Deduction and damage and healing (Weaving), and to leave the big tasks of Binding and Mending to others. I found that he was hell on wheels for damage but needs to be able to hit more often, and even without tactical thinking, the character himself demands, after this Hunt, to be better at Mending.

    • Ergh, apologies it took me a

      Ergh, apologies it took me a bit to reply to this Ron. Your points align with my experiences of the game as well so far. I've found it helpful to my learning process to re-read the manual after seeing a game in action. It's like reading an entirely new ruleset. I reviewed the early chapters of The Whispering Vault several times before play to familiarize myself with Disciplines, Servitors, Skills and Combat, but my shaky grasp of the later chapters shows a lot in this session, and I hope to remedy this before our next Hunt.

      One incidental, nice thing is that it's only a Routine Mask Challenge to re-cast our rules conversation in session 3 as a desperate grasping for other options by the Circle (This being Lilith's first hunt, I imagine she'd bridle at the limits of our power and have to be convinced that there wasn't another way).

      I love hearing about the advancement decisions you're making for Hazard (and also look forward to hearing about changes in the Grey Witch). What do you think about the slow rate of change for Skills, which can only be raised a point at a time? I kinda like how they can't be bought up all at once, from a +0 to a +3 for instance. If you want to become a skilled Mender, you have to focus on it over several Hunts.

      I'm afraid that Lilith hasn't taken the healthiest lessons from her first Hunt and our loss of Annalisa Camille to the Enigma and its inevitable Shadowlands. She's beginning to see herself as an agent of cosmic punishment, and is enraged that the Beast wasn't made to suffer more during the combat. From a player-skill perspective, the session taught me that it's hard to hit a revealed Unbidden without draining precious Karma. I opted to reflect Lilith's rage by buying the Frenzy Discipline.

      I'm sticking to the now when it comes to Lilith's character development, not planning, so of course this could all change quite suddenly. It's interesting to reflect how interpersonal interaction at the end of the session might have altered Lilith's current trajectory. Intentionally or not, I think Hazard has become a moral compass for our Circle, or at least sees the Hunt from a broader and more deeply humane viewpoint. Whereas Lilith's conception of her mission is narrowing down toward a single blood-red pixel. I think talking to the other Stalkers while casting the Beast into the Vault could have shifted this dynamic drastically.

    • I think that the game’s

      I think that the game's experience-based improvements are best kept minimal. It's not about excelling as super-Stalkers in some kind of earn-your-awesome arc, although the math is such that every improvement can be felt in play, I think. The changes from Karma are probably more important, especially if we see a Hunt or two with a big jump. The advanced features which really define our Circle's style and even role toward the cosmos come from Karma, not experience points. The Skill, Discipline, and Servitor improvements are fun and feel good, but make more sense to me if they're kept more in that zone than in game-changing alterations to effectiveness.

      Regarding our Stalkers' psychology and moral roles, well, we'll just have to see. I may operate as a brake on your processing, as development across Hunts is a real thing in this game, similar to Champions. "I want my full arc right now!" is understandable, but let's slow down and think of Hunts as units. Specifically: sure, what you're saying about Lilith and Hazard may be true or at least plausible, but it's an eyeblink after a single Hunt. We don't know what historical time/location we'll be at next time, what sort of Enigma will be involved, or what the Supplicant will be like, or anything – so for all you know, in the thick of it, your current perceptions of our characters' moral roles may be knocked askew, and in fact, probably will be. One of Hazard's Keys is Hatred, after all. Better not to over-categorize ahead of time.

    • One of Hazard’s Keys is

      One of Hazard's Keys is Hatred, after all. Better not to over-categorize ahead of time.

      Ha, I hadn't clocked Hatred as one of Hazard's Keys! The complexity that emerges from the Keys, the Hunt's setting, the Unbidden and the Enigma is kinda dizzying. Totally agreed on over-categorizing, Everything I've said is provisional and up for re-interpretation at a moment's notice, like discussing a TV show when only the pilot has aired.

  7. Session 4: the second Hunt

    Here's the direct link to see us begin!

    Play includes a good example of several related points from the discussion so far. As you may recall, my character Hazard failed the History check at the start of the previous/first Hunt. As it happens, Hazard has an excellent chance for success at History, so this failure was very much what we call a bad roll. However well or poorly, I tried to play him as always grappling with the local details and context for the Hunt, behaving reactively to whatever was in front of him, and relying heavily on the Grey Witch who had succeeded with her History check.

    In this Hunt, the positions were reversed and reflected the numbers on the sheets more directly – Lilith O'Bedlam and the Grey Witch failed the History rolls and Hazard succeeded. You'll see in this case that I play him proactively engaging with the details of the Hunt's location and trying to orient the others as much as possible.

    Here's what I'm trying to express: that a bad roll, i.e., failed when your probabilities were pretty good, is not bad in a well-designed and well-played game. And before anyone jumps in with the standard rhetoric, I also expressly defy the convention that it's a "chance to role-play" or a "challenge," or in any way needs compensation and correction. That's exactly what I'm arguing against.

    Let's look very sternly at any role-playing system with "try to do it and maybe fail" in the procedures. Why is that even there? I think there are good answers, but they have nothing to do with simulating fictional physics and they do not include the idea that such a feature is supposed to be there. If it's there, the reason why has to make sense with the rest of the rules and indeed with the purpose of play.

    The actual answers aren't that important for this comment, and besides, I'm teaching whole freaking courses to present and practice them. Right here, I'm being negative and blowtorch-y – I want to rip up the notion that, when playing a game with this feature, that your job upon failing a roll is to be a good sport and that someone else's job is to compensate for it partly so we can keep playing and partly as a reward for being a good sport.

    Screw that. In this rules-set, failing at nearly anything has marked consequences, as any game with failed attempts should. Sometimes they are very severe, e.g., failing the Mending, and sometimes they are more contextual for how other things are played and attempted afterwards, e.g. the History rolls. They also often include suffering and pain for our Stalkers and for other characters.

    Finding what we fail at, per Hunt, is front and center at my reasons for wanting to play. Because I am a good sport? Not at all. Because I am personally invested and excited at our Stalkers' remaining, possibly eroding human drive to keep seeking to help people, to protect the existence of time, to value the Dream (i.e., reality) even after they have already fought the good fight and died in its service. That means that the profile of failed rolls, per Hunt, precisely discovers and defines what this means for them. If failing rolls were presented as they are in Väsen, as speedbumps which are easily compensated for or elided by the story-nanny GM, which are also the most widely-perceived best practices across role-playing hobby culture and design, then I would not play it, for the same reasons I don't bother to play Feng Shui, Cyberpunk 2020, or Mage. I don't want to play The Whispering Vault if real failure at many possible things isn't included. I don't want to play it if we always find the Unbidden, always find the Enigma, et cetera, with nominal failures as colorful fakes and detours, or with successes at the climax assured with a nice bank of bonus points when we need them.

    As a footnote, if you can, review the rules for using Karma in the long-term. They include the possibility of losing your Keys of Humanity, basically, relinquishing your ties to the Flesh and effectively dying the death you met so long ago. Although doing so includes a couple of improvements, the net effect is to make your Stalker less effective, each time, until and if they divest themselves of the fifth Key and fade into final death. Compare this option to "advancement" rules in any and all role-playing games published prior to this one (1994) – I don't think you'll find more insight into thematic and player-chosen characterization in any of them. Think about why this option, even if you never use it, "ties the room together" for the whole game, and can only do so if the failed attempts are really failed.

  8. Sessions 5 and 6: concluding the second Hunt

    For such a formulaic plot concept, Hunts really do become their own dramas. The more I think over my past history of play, the more my mid- and late-1990s play of The Whispering Vault looms up as a major influence on my own preferences and design.

    Here's the direct link to session 5, which proceeds to session 6 inside the playlist; if you haven't checked out this Hunt, please start with session 4, as these three sessions make a really solid unit. It also demonstrates what Adriano has mentioned lately: that the game looks like "you play Hellraiser bad-asses traipsing through time, fighting fallen-god supervillains! With powerz!" … but turns out to be rather grim and empathetic, with substantial revelation of the players' actual and intuitive notions of right and wrong. The big moments of play – aside from the genuine fear that we'd get butchered in the fight with the wolf-like Shadow – concern exactly how the Stalkers relate to the people they have come to save, and how they relate to one another. Whether and how they might change in response is a long-term affair, as indicated by the slow-ish development mechanics, but as I see it, that means their behavior has plenty of room for discovery and expression; the mechanics changes therefore track and follow play.

    That's a point of reflection, I hope, for people who have become accustomed to triggering mechanics of change: "I spend four black tokens and flip my Love to Hate, so that means I hate her now!!" I've played and designed a lot of things with these mechanics, most notably It Was a Mutual Decision, but there's a boundary or threshold beyond which they simply do not work and become the RPG equivalent of Settlers of Cataan – you move it because you can move it, and you figure punching buttons makes it "go," so punch we will. Playing some games like this one, instead, can restore perspective regarding that threshold.

    Anyway, I hope the other people will comment to start some subtopics. As a possible seed, Adriano, I'd point to the game system's outright ruthlessness; it's genuinely impossible for the GM to "save" the players through what we might call soft power. Doing so would require frankly deciding not to play the game. I'd like to know what that's like for you.

    My own take concerns myself as a player, mostly negative. You can see me lament a couple of times about making really stupid choices during play, despite playing a pretty smart character, which isn't fake – pro tip, don't rely on me for strategy, especially when I'm trying to do it. When Hazard succumbs to despair (capital-D actually; it's one of his Keys of Humanity), I fancy now that he's sort-of aware that he's played by such a numbskull. But more significantly, how I relate to others' GMing as a player has been a work in progress for me since 1988, and all the more so right now. For whatever reason, and distinctively in the past few weeks, I'm not really liking myself on-screen. If anyone's interested about that, let me know and I'll follow up.

    • These last few game sessions

      These last few game sessions have been very dense, so much so that it's hard to even know where to start commenting. I'll try to address some of the issues in a scattered fashion, hoping not to create too much confusion.

      I'll start with the point raised by Ron: that once in the fray, the outcomes can quickly become brutal for the parties involved; I couldn't imagine a way to massage these outcomes other than by making up some absurd excuse as to why this interdimensional wolf shouldn't attack. The use of Karma is an important decision in this regard, as the next confrontation could prove fatal without it. The pace, and especially the criteria by which the game assigns these points, are crucial. Note, for example, that in this Hunt all Stalkers have violated The Forbiddance at least once. By rule, none of them will recharge their points for the next session: I like to think that this also says a lot about their choices and the critical junctures they experienced in this session.

      An important part of this game unit is definitely my discussion of two very important issues: that of game expectations and the elements of my preparation.

      Regarding the former, I will not lie and claim that I did not fantasize about game outcomes. I am referring, in particular, to two scenes: the one, out of frame, in which Bul binds The Shadow, and the final confrontation with the former, in Esja's farm. In the latter case, in particular, I felt disappointment and fright at seeing the way in which we got rid of such a scary deity so quickly. On the other hand, embracing moment by moment the logical consequences of the combat rounds led to this outcome, and some of those consequences amazed and delighted me. When Bul, screaming for help and counting on the Veil's protection, found himself threatened by his very own ruse, I chuckled. All I can say is that sometimes it's hard for me to stay in the present moment, but it seems worth trying. 

      Ron and I also had a chance to discuss the elements of my preparation. You'll notice, if you watch the fifth session, that I required a second History roll when the Stalkers decided to search for the body of the tortured servant by heading to the mounds of the dead.  In this case my goal was to compare their result with that of the Shadow, which my preparation had placed in the surrounding woods during the day. But in fact the latter does not have a similar score, and trying to randomize this element, I found myself stuck with an unserviceable result. Unlike other games – Burning Wheel or Blades come to mind -, there is no "fate roll" that determines the coincidence of certain game elements. From this perspective, pushing more aggressively on logical consequences seems like the right solution.

      Understanding when to request a roll, and imagining real consequences for their failures, also constitutes a challenging learning curve. I'm referring in particular, to Deduction rolls. Missing that one in the vicinity of the Shadow massacre constituted a near-fatal disadvantage for the Stalkers. On the one hand, I guess I want to handle it as a GM-required roll, when the elements of the puzzle, whether or not understood by the players, slowly…inexorably…position themselves until they click. That's the solution I used in the last session with Thogrim's secrets.But it feels a bit artificial to me, almost like feeding the players, and while I realize that the mystery is not the point of the Hunt, I fear turning these rolls into a "you're too stupid, here comes mommy GM to feed you".

      I've talked a lot about what could be improved, but what did I like? One thing I'm discovering and appreciating is that my excitement about this game comes from little things, maybe not important in the moment when I'm focused and not paying attention, but that take on their own weight over the long run. Seeing Esja's family being terrorized reminded me of Hazard's words in the previous Hunt, that he didn't want to victimise humans, and again the final words when faced with the cycle of hate and vengeance offered by the Unbidden. Contradictions, duties and feelings, strange things emerging from unexpected elements! I like it, and would like to see more of it.

  9. Preparation details

    I thought it might be nice to delve into an aspect that, in recent times, is the focus of attention on the forum: what kind of preparation is required by the game? How do you create a Hunt? I decided to share the creation process of the second adventure; even if the steps are described in a much more consequential way than in reality – where there have been rethinks or corrections – I think it might be interesting to look especially at that complex of information that the game does not require, but that become a fundamental part of the Stalker experience.

    I had already decided, after our first adventure, that I wanted to focus on the theme of revenge; somehow this overlapped with that of justice, perhaps re-proposing the experience of the first Hunt but giving me a stimulus to explore the aspect of the community and its laws, sometimes tragically destined to exacerbate conflicts. In terms of gameplay, I am required to imagine an Unbidden who decides to abandon the immortality derived from his divine status to indulge in these passions. Where to set this? Where is it possible for this deity to fulfill his needs?

    I've been trying for a while to use a setting that I won't say much about, because I'm greedy for ideas to repurpose to my fellow gamers. Finally, I decided to focus on the Icelandic communities that followed the first colonization of the island, driven by my reading of the sagas and the role-playing game of Gregor Vuga. 

    The map of relationships was assembled from a basic structure derived from the Njàls saga. From there, I began to add a few more households and imagine the presence of servants, and a conflict over land between two families (the first cause for a feud I could think of). I began to imagine who the Supplicant might be, and decided almost immediately that he should be the godar of the community, because of his role as arbiter and his being a "magical" figure. I had not yet imagined that this aspect could be real, but only symbolic.

    An important component in this phase came from the use of a trait generator (https://writingexercises.co.uk/random-character-traits-generator.php), following a suggestion derived from a campaign of Lorenzo (https://adeptplay.com/comment/3866#comment-3866). As the traits began to accumulate, some elements emerged spontaneously:

    – both the godar and his wife shared the character "secretive". Perhaps they might be hiding something, not immediately perceptible?On this basis, I thought that both of them might have become entangled in some revenge ritual, beyond their figure of peacemakers: hence I thought of the evocation of the Shadow-Wolf .

    – Olof's wife, Arngrim, was "mysterious": I could not imagine another mystery in the story of the feud, but I liked the fact that she could be a Psychic, contrary to the Supplicant.

    – the head of the family, Helgi, became a "coward": so that's why his wife left him! Maybe she was the one who suggested the idea of stealing the lands from Esja.

    Many of these traits didn't come into play, and in fact I think I put too much meat on the table. Dealing with all these characters was much more difficult than expected: in this case the need to reproduce a certain community in a naturalistic way clashed with my need for simplicity.

    The map, as you can see, is not a work of art, but it helped me to keep in mind where exactly my components were. I chose to place the Enigma in the sacred place guarded by the godar, even though technically his appearance didn't have much to do with him; it just seemed poetic. I'm not very happy with the Enigma, actually, which prompts me to consider having to reread that part more.

    Regarding place name and era: unlike our first Hunt, I didn't feel the need to be incredibly specific: there are no such important details in choosing Skagafjordur over one of the hundreds of settlements over this period. Instead, I found the use of images of typical Icelandic landscapes to be crucial in reorienting our common perceptions of our surroundings.

    • That map is definitely a work

      That map is definitely a work of art. It is excellent, much more than I (as a player) deserve.

      You might consider sharing these things during play, at least, after our characters were reasonably familiar with the surroundings.

      Anyway, regarding preparation, you're reminding me of something that Greg struggled through and wrote about when GMing Sorcerer & Sword. It's scattered through many posts and comments here so I can't reference it thoroughly, but I think he understood his own issues during the discussions of diagramming. Briefly, he was in the position of preparing a lot of very colorful content … and feeling the need to introduce it all during play. Basically, "I did this, so the players have to see it."

      I suggest relaxing this need, much as Greg realized through the course of that discussion. If X or Y or Z doesn't happen, or if it does and the players never understand why, then so what?

      This also relates to an issue that Manu encountered while GMing Trollbabe, that the GM is not supposed to shift things about so they fall into the player-characters' path. At the time, this seemed bizarre to him – doesn't that mean they'll "never know," or not resolve "the story?" I don't know what he's thinking about in these terms presently though.

      One last point: I think that players, specifically we as players in your game, pick up and enjoy a lot more than we talk about. It was clear and very enjoyable from the start that Arngrim was Sensitive, for example. As long as you play this content so that you're enjoying it, and really use it in play in terms of system, and don't trouble your head with whether we get it or appreciate it, it's fine!

Leave a Reply