This article originally appeared in Pyramid #4
There is a strong probability that, if you took a can opener to Mike Nystul's skull and popped the top, a glistening black arm, covered with glowing red eyes, would reach out of the void and drag you in to be devoured.
Game Design by Mike Nystul
Preview by Loyd Blankenship
This is not necessarily a bad thing.
Nystul has been around the game industry for some time; he has worked on products like GURPS Cyberpunk for Steve Jackson Games, Mechwarrior for FASA, and he's been line editor (and author of the first supplement) for MGI's Demons line.
The Whispering Vault is the first release from Pariah Press, Nystul's start-up publishing company. The full game is not scheduled for release until late December of 1993, but Pariah was selling the "black book" edition - a special preview version only available at conventions - at GenCon in Milwaukee. The preview copy was a spiral-bound 5" x 7" booklet, 88 pages long. (The final product will be at least three times this length.)
Vault doesn't have the low-budget art look of many small-press publications. With artists such as Jeff Laubenstein, Jim Nelson, Pat Coleman and other established RPG regulars, the art does a wonderful job of setting the tone for the project.
But the real mood setter is Nystul's text.
"At first glance, the cloisters seemed empty, but Lovely Anna confirmed that the enemy was nearby. Spreading out, we searched with our eyes and our senses, feeling for the Prey in a cloying darkness that was not entirely physical.
"The Grey Man's whispered warning was the only thing that saved me from the Minion's first attack. It sprang from the shadows on coiled limbs, slashing at my face with bladed talons. I responded with a burst of Essence, shooting fire from my hands that withered its fetid flesh."
The Whispering Vault is the latest entry in the line of "dark" roleplaying games such as White Wolf's Vampire: The Masquerade and Metropolis's Kult (a stream that shows no sign of ending, with upcoming releases such as Vault and SJ Games' In Nomine). Indeed, "dark" seems to have replaced "cyber" as the New Hot Thing in the game publishing industry.
Vault players take the role of Stalkers - humans who spent their life pursuing the strange and the occult (the "Unseen") and were elevated to a supernatural status. After their transformation, the characters are transported into the Realm of Essence, where the mystical Aesthetics dream dreams that become reality in the Realm of the Flesh. Normally, the two Realms are separated by the Rift. Some mortals have the power to glimpse slightly beyond the Rift - they are mystics, visionaries and seers (and occasionally PCs!). But when Aesthetics look beyond the Rift into the Realm of the Flesh, they can go a bit crazy.
"You were once human, a captive spirit clothed in the bonds of physical existence. What set you apart from the botched and the bungled was uncommon insight and unbridled curiosity. For years you struggled to make sense of a world that seemed insane by its own standards, but to no avail.
"When you happened upon evidence of the Unseen, you knew at once that you had your first real glimpse of the true nature of the universe . . ."
These spirits cross the Rift to indulge their insane passions, and are known as the Unbidden. The presence of the Unbidden here on Earth is where the PCs come in. They become Stalkers, charged with hunting down the Unbidden wherever they lurk and returning them back across the Rift, where they are cast into a vault to contemplate their errors for eternity.
"Despite a challenging Hunt, we finally tracked the Prey to its lair. Sensing our approach, it knew judgment was at hand and tried to flee.
"The techniques I had learned from the Powers were still untried, but the Essence came easily, flowing along my arm like an electrical charge. At my unspoken command, a chain burst from my palm and struck the renegade's Vessel in the back, lodging deep between the third and fourth vertebrae.
"A twist, a shriek, and another lost soul was made ready for the Vault . . ."
Here is a sample of the ideas and style of The Whispering Vault, taken from the character creation section of the book:
"Tom has always been partial to the late middle ages, having done extensive reading into that period. This will help him play his chosen role.
"Having recently read The Name of the Rose, Tom decides to play a learned monk with a keen mind and a penchant for exploring mysteries that the Church would rather overlook.
"When he was Chosen, Tom's monk was a middle-aged man with a long gray beard who wore a plain brown cassock tied with a rope belt. As an Avatar, his robes become layered and voluminous with a deep hood from which two red eyes glow with the enlightened fire of his immortal soul.
"In life, Tom's character spent most of his time in the library of his monastery, and he decides that his character's Domain will reflect his past. The Architects instruct the Aesthetics to dream him a tower, infinitely tall and twisted as the course of his life. Each of the books in his collection is a memory of what will be or what has been. He lives alone, but in the distance a droning chant can be heard. When needed, his Shadows appear as other monks who attend him silently.
"After perusing the list for Disciplines that would be appropriate for his character, he chooses Conjuration, Dispersal, Domination, Morphing and Translocation. Instead of buying two more Disciplines, he decides his character has Mastered Dispersal and Translocation.
"Tom's Stalker has a Presence of 3, so he can choose 3 servitors . . . he chooses Chronovores and Vapors. Instead of buying a third Servitor, he decides that his character is a Master of the Chronovore, which will allow him to slow time whenever he likes.
"Tom agonizes over an appropriate sobriquet for his Stalker, and eventually settles on Merrik. Filing in the last line on his character sheet, he submits it for the gamemaster's approval."
Stalkers come in all forms - from deceptively human to grotesquely deformed. Some would be considered "good," while others are nearly as frightening as the prey they pursue.
The design of your Stalker begins with the background concept. What did the character do during his life on Earth? Since Stalkers are always chosen from the ranks of those who pursue the supernatural and the Unseen, this allows for some extremely exotic character backgrounds.
Once the background is determined, you begin constructing your fledgling Stalker. There are four basic attributes that define a character: Awareness, Insight, Presence and Willpower.
Awareness defines a character's ability to perceive and interpret supernatural stimulus, and controls the number of Disciplines (see below) allowed the Stalker. Insight is the intuitive understanding of the true nature of things, and is useful for Skill bonuses. Presence controls the being's force of personality, and determines how many Servitors (see below) are available. Willpower designates the Stalker's strength of spirit, determination and self-control. When a Stalker takes a fleshly Vessel on Earth, Willpower defines how powerful and durable the body will be.
Twenty points are spread among these four attributes, usually in the range of 3 to 7. Nystul offers advice for increasing or decreasing the power level of the campaign by assigning more or fewer points, but recommends that the GM allow no more than 8 or 9 points to be spent on any single attribute.
After initial attributes are determined, the player chooses his Stalker's Disciplines. Disciplines are techniques taught by the Primal Powers to aid the Stalker in his quest - think of them as powerful psionic or magical abilities. Nystul is a firm believer in conjuring a vivid image with Discipline names - even if you aren't sure exactly what Rend, Savage, Dissipate or Terrify do, you get the idea that it isn't pleasant.
A Stalker receives a number of Disciplines equal to his beginning Awareness. If he elects, the player may take "mastery" of a Discipline, which allows him to do powerful variations on the power called "Inspirations."
Next up are Servitors - Essence phantoms that can be called to serve your Stalker. Available Servitors include Chronovores, Rotworms, Vampires, Pyrokinetics and Extinguishers. Each comes with its own special abilities. There is a balance problem here, as some of the Servitors (such as Chronovores, which can slow time, or Pyrokinetics, which can ignite things) are more powerful than others (such as Rotworms, which can spoil food and water over a wide area). In addition, there are some Servitors (Rotworms, again, are the best example) that really don't seem to have a place in a campaign where the Stalkers are trying to help the Earth by capturing the Unbidden. I suspect they were put in simply because they were cool . . .
After Servitors are chosen, the player chooses skills. Skills ignore the trite and ordinary - no Lockpicking or Bicycling or Bowling. Instead you have a catch-all "Attack" skill, as well as the more exotic Banishment, Binding, Occultism, Mask and Intimidation.
Final calculations include figuring Vitality - a measure of the Stalker's life force, initially twice Willpower - and Karma. Karma starts as a flat 5 points, and can be spent to reroll a failed die attempt, heal damage, or improvise a special use of a Mastered Discipline, known as an Inspiration. Karma points are awarded at the end of an adventure.
When a Stalker crosses the Rift and returns to Earth, the Weavers design him a custom-made body - a Vessel - with the Attributes Dexterity, Fortitude and Strength. These may be altered from adventure to adventure - each has a base value of 3, and the player can increase them in any manner with a number of points equal to Willpower.
Vault uses a very simple, totally non-intuitive task resolution system. Whenever a Stalker attempts an action and the outcome is uncertain, a Challenge Roll is made. Challenges are based on one of the character's Attributes. Once the GM has chosen the appropriate Attribute, a difficulty is assigned to the task: Routine, Easy, Average, Hard or Very Hard. In the case of a challenge against an opponent, the opponent's Attribute is used to set the difficulty of the Challenge. This difficulty results in a target number. A Challenge is successful if the roll (below) is equal to or greater than the target number.
To resolve a Challenge, the player rolls a number of dice equal to the value of the Attribute the challenge is based on. Here's where it gets a bit strange - the result of the challenge is equal to either the highest score on a single die, or the highest total of matching dice. A couple of examples are in order.
Example 1: Derek's character has discovered a mysterious magical orb. The GM wants to determine how much of its nature the PC can divine. He calls for a Hard Challenge versus the player's Insight of 6. This gives a target number of 15 (according to a table not reprinted in this review). Derek rolls 6d6, and gets a result of 1,3,4,5,4,6. There are two matching dice - fours - resulting in a total of 8. He fails the Challenge.
Example 2: Same as above, but Derek rolls 1,2,3,4,5,6. His total would be 6 - the highest single die (there were no matching dice).
Example 3: Same as the above, but Derek rolls 6,4,5,5,6,6. His total would be 18 (the three sixes are the highest matching total). The Challenge was successful, and the GM tells Derek that the Orb is going to explode in 2 minutes.
Because the die-rolling system defies easy analysis, I wrote a computer program to make 10,000 rolls on target numbers 1-18, with Attributes varying from 1-20. The resulting table shows the probability of success for each different attempt.
"During the Crusades I had seen more than my share of bloodshed, but nothing could have prepared me for the carnage my Vessel was capable of. Crafted of uncommon flesh and animated by immortal essence, this new form was a powerful expression of my will. New instincts guided my hands as I tore the life from my enemies, effortlessly ripping their fragile bodies. There was no passion in it - no fear, no anger, no remorse. I simply did what had to be done. The only thing that bothers me is how easy it was."
Combat is broken down into a series of rounds roughly 20 seconds long. This may vary, though, depending on what actions are being taken during the round. During a round, a Stalker can make a single "Significant Action," such as the use of a Skill or a Discipline. The character can also make one "Insignificant Action," such as small movement or talking to another character.
Order of action is determined by a Dexterity Challenge - highest roll goes first. Attacks are resolved as Dexterity Challenges against the opponent's Defend value modified by any Attack Skill bonuses. When attacked, the Stalker is automatically hit unless he can make a successful Dexterity Challenge against the foe's Attack Skill.
The results of the attack are determined by a damage roll - the only roll in the game that doesn't use the Challenge formulae. Damage is equal to the Vessel's Strength in dice (plus bonuses for appropriate Skills such as Savage or Rend).
When mortals are fighting the Unseen, they have a difficult time inflicting damage. This is reflected in the Die Cap, a limit placed on the amount of damage that can be rolled against a supernatural creature. When a mortal is fighting an unmasked Stalker, they have a Die Cap of 5 - any damage die rolled higher than a 5 is simply ignored. Demoralized or terrified characters have their Die Cap lowered by 1 (to 4, in most cases). Fanatic characters have their Die Cap increased by one. Ranged attacks, because they are so impersonal, have a -1 Die Cap modifier as well.
All Vessels (and mortal characters) have a Fortitude Attribute that indicates how much damage they can take. When a Stalker is hit, the total on the damage dice is divided by the Stalker's Fortitude and rounded down - this is the amount of Vitality lost.
Example: A Stalker has a Fortitude of 4 - so for every 4 full points of damage he takes, he'll lose one point of Vitality.
Vault adventures follow an extremely rigid path - a six-step process consisting of the following steps:
1) Gather the Circle: Each Stalker is assigned a certain role for the adventure - the Advocate (who speaks for the Unbidden prey, and makes sure that its rights aren't violated), the Inquisitor (the leader of the hunt), and the warriors (who take the forefront of all combat situations). When there are more than three players, the extras are all warriors.
2) Summon the Navigator: A Navigator - some sort of huge beast determined by the GM - is summoned to transport the characters across the Rift.
3) Dismissing the Guardian: The Guardian of the path across the Rift will try to bar the way. The GM is encouraged to "elicit authority from the players." Nystul views this step as routine, but important for empowering the players.
4) Calling the Weavers: The Weavers create the mortal Vessels that the Stalkers will wear during the adventure.
5) Mending the Enigma: When the Unbidden walk the Earth, things go wrong. Sometimes crops die, the skies rain blood, mutated animals walk on water, or anything else strange and disturbing the GM can think of. The Stalkers must find out what the problem is, and deal with it, before facing the Unbidden. If they don't, the Unbidden's powers are much greater.
6) Binding the Prey: This is the final step, the showdown with the Unbidden, where the Stalkers capture the renegade and bind him for all eternity.
I feel that this rigid, prescribed format is Vault's greatest shortcoming. I can easily see some of my players saying "Okay, whose turn is it to dismiss the Guardian? I did it last time, someone else get rid of the thing while I order pizza." The formula, while interesting for the first few adventures, seems as if it would grow quickly boring to the players. Nystul has created this wonderful background populated with truly strange and powerful creatures, and then handcuffed the GM by concentrating exclusively on this one method of running a campaign. At GenCon, the speculation was that it would be at least 2 supplements before a campaign expansion was released. I hope they come out quickly.
At any rate, experienced GMs shouldn't have any trouble fleshing out the world with adventure ideas that don't follow the recommended plot.
In spite of my criticism of the adventure format, this is, overall, a great game. It is rare to see a brand-new product from a startup company this well-written and well-produced. The Whispering Vault looks like an exciting new system with a very different flavor from anything that has come before it. I look forward to seeing the final product later this year, and hope that all interested readers will encourage their local retailer to order a copy or three from their distributor. This game deserves to succeed.
Chance of Success Out of 10,000 Attempts
Target Number A
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 1 100 82 66 49 33 16 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 100 100 91 80 61 38 8 8 5 5 2 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 3 100 100 98 93 80 60 23 23 16 15 8 8 1 1 1 0 0 0 4 100 100 100 98 91 77 39 39 29 27 16 16 3 3 3 1 1 1 5 100 100 100 99 96 89 56 56 43 40 26 26 7 7 7 4 3 3 6 100 100 100 100 98 95 71 71 58 54 38 38 12 12 12 7 6 6 7 100 100 100 100 99 98 83 83 70 65 49 49 20 20 20 12 11 11 8 100 100 100 100 99 99 90 90 81 76 62 62 29 29 29 20 17 17 9 100 100 100 100 100 99 95 95 88 84 71 71 39 39 39 27 23 23 10 100 100 100 100 100 99 98 98 93 90 80 80 49 49 49 35 30 30 11 100 100 100 100 100 100 99 99 96 94 87 87 58 58 58 43 38 38 12 100 100 100 100 100 100 99 99 98 97 92 92 68 68 68 53 46 46 13 100 100 100 100 100 100 99 99 99 98 95 95 76 76 75 62 54 54 14 100 100 100 100 100 100 99 99 99 99 97 97 82 82 81 68 61 61 15 100 100 100 100 100 100 100 100 99 99 98 98 87 87 87 76 69 69 16 100 100 100 100 100 100 100 100 99 99 99 99 91 91 91 81 74 74 17 100 100 100 100 100 100 100 100 99 99 99 99 94 94 94 87 81 81 18 100 100 100 100 100 100 100 100 100 99 99 99 96 96 96 90 86 86 19 100 100 100 100 100 100 100 100 100 100 99 99 98 98 97 93 89 89 20 100 100 100 100 100 100 100 100 100 99 99 99 99 99 98 95 93 93
I was so completely boggled by the Challenge mechanic that I sat down and wrote a program to test the probability of making a certain target number with a variable number of dice. Although the table goes up to 20 dice, it is unlikely that anyone will be using that many. Still, it shows the progression.
Article publication date: December 1, 1993
Copyright © 1993 by Steve Jackson Games. All rights reserved. Pyramid subscribers are permitted to read this article online, or download it and print out a single hardcopy for personal use. Copying this text to any other online system or BBS, or making more than one hardcopy, is strictly prohibited. So please don't. And if you encounter copies of this article elsewhere on the web, please report it to email@example.com.