The 1990s take a lot of flack from this writer. I tuned out of the music scene, hated the fashion, didn’t like the comics, wasn’t all that into the movies. It was the decade of my high school career, the one most people get seriously attached to, but not I. No, not I. Yet when it comes to the hobby of tabletop roleplaying games, it was a Golden Age. The 90s saw an explosion in unique voices. They saw industry leaders realize that women existed (and might like to try their hands at roleplaying, too!). And they saw some really, really out there concepts make it into print and onto the store shelves. In those glory days, before the internet boom, and the near demise of tabletop as a hobby, you never knew what you might find when you walked into your local game store.
The Whispering Vault by Mike Nystul is a game that definitely stands alone. It’s so odd, so unlike other games that though I bought it and read it time and again, I have yet to ever run it or even try to run it. I have never played. I only know of one person who actively sought out a group to play it. (I don’t believe he succeeded). Yet, everything points to a fantastically creative and perfectly playable game. I’ve called the game “Hellraiser as a superhero game meets Quantum Leap.” But of course, it goes beyond a pithy one-liner.
For such a small book, The Whispering Vault packs in a lot of strange world building, and gives plenty of great springboards from which to dive into its madness. The basic premise is that there are two ‘realms;’ the Realm of Flesh (the world we know) and the Realm of Essence. Between these realms are Shadows, which can be malevolent. Sometimes, elements of Essence go wrong and transgress into the Realm of Flesh, becoming we might call supernatural events or monsters. Sometimes, humans who become aware of these transgressions, and devote their lives to learning about and stopping them, are offered the chance to ascend, to become semi-immortal beings of Essence, called Stalkers, who battle the corruptions throughout space and time (that’s you). So, a given adventure could have a group of Stalkers (who are similar in a lot of ways to the Cenobites from Hellraiser) traveling to some point in Earth’s history (Medieval Rome, 1920s Kenya, contemporary Japan, etc.) to deal with some Lovecraftian nightmare that has infected local spacetime. While trying to keep up the illusion of normality for those who dwell in the Realm of Flesh, you’ve got to try to repair horrendous, sentient damage. There’s more. It’s pretty bonkers. But it’s also very interesting, and very unique.
The game mechanics are pretty simple, which I love. They seem fairly intuitive, without a lot of math or extra ‘crunch.’ And there’s a lot of effort put into making sure the game mechanics can be pushed aside in favor of good storytelling. I like that. Combat, especially, seems to be quick and dirty, without a lot of fuss and without hours of dice rolling. It seems like being creative and crafting cool moments will get you more than random outcomes of piles of dice.
The Whispering Vault goes on my long list of games I got very excited about, but could not find enough like-minded fellow gamers to actually give it a serious shot. But I still own it. And reading through it again to write this review has reminded me of how cool it is. Looking at the system more has intrigued me, too. Back in the 90s, we were seeing this sort of anti-crunch explosion with games like Everway and Over the Edge, among others. Let’s hope, with the return of popularity in tabletop RPGs, we can see some of these cool ideas get their day in the sun.
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