What Do I Know About First Impressions? Whispers in the Dark Quickstart Rules (5e OGL)
During the d20 boom, there were a lot of RPGs that created d20 versions of multiple genres. Many of these d20 games did not do much to instill a feeling of mastery of the rules from the designers. There wasn’t much of an examination of what genres best utilized a level-based structure, or why some of the rules that existed in the OGL existed, and how they interacted with other rules to produce a specific effect.
I’ve seen a lot of reservations about OGL based RPGs in light of the 5e OGL’s release. While it is 100% true that many genres and styles of games are better served with a different framework than the d20 level based system, I also think that it is true that many people reticent to look at non-fantasy d20 based games produced in the modern era are assuming that designers are producing similar results to the products that came out during the d20 glut.
While it isn’t true of every game I have seen, it definitely seems that many d20 designers have a better grasp of what individual rules elements do within the game, and how they interact with other aspects of the game, than many of the “boom” era games.
With all of that said, today I’m going to look at Whispers in the Dark, a cosmic horror game that utilizes the 5e OGL for its framework. This is a quick start, so I’m approaching this as a “First Impressions” article, rather than a full review.
I received a review copy of this quick start to look at, referred to me from a fellow gnome at Gnome Stew from the producers of the product.
The PDF is 78 pages long, with a faux parchment treatment to the pages. The book has clear headers and chapter layouts, and there is photo-filtered manipulated artwork throughout the book. The cover and a few interior pieces are original pieces as well.
Introduction and Mythos
The introduction explains that this product is meant as an introduction to what might appear in a larger product, explains the difference between investigative horror and heroic fantasy, and includes a link to the 5e basic rules. It also explains what appears in the rest of the product.
The Mythos section briefly touches on the idea that the supernatural in this setting is tied to the Elder Things, Great Old Ones, and Outer Gods, and name drops a few of the best-known names from Lovecraft and related cosmic horror. There is also a paragraph, called out in its own sidebar, discussing the problems with Lovecraft and mentioning that others have contributed to the genre of cosmic horror.
I appreciate this sidebar. It’s not nearly as damning or direct as the disclaimer in Fate of Cthulhu (which I loved), but it’s the bare minimum that I would expect, and I appreciate the added note that others have contributed much to what we think of as cosmic horror, beyond Lovecraft.
Character Creation, Ancestries, Backgrounds, Feats
The next four chapters, taken together, are the guide to putting together a character for the setting. Most of these steps will be familiar to players of Dungeons and Dragons, with one exception. Characters don’t pick a class. All characters get the same progression and benefits from gaining a level.
Ancestry has characters choosing from “common” humans, Lengian humans, or Deep-Blooded humans. I’m not entirely comfortable with this division, and part of it is a legacy of Lovecraft and the connotations found in his works. While none of those ancestries indicate that you will eventually turn into something corrupted and horrible, there is an element of “something alien in the blood, undetected,” that feels uncomfortable from Lovecraft’s overly obsessed fixation on being “pure-blooded.”
Honestly, I wish social strata was part of the Ancestry/Background mix instead, and any potential supernatural powers were reserved for feats, with less of a direct correlation between bloodline and supernatural power.
Different ancestries determine extra skill proficiencies, access to a bonus feat, a choice of saving throw proficiencies, languages, and potential advantage against supernatural effects, connections to other communities, and penalties when dealing with certain other creatures that can detect your nature.
Backgrounds include the following:
- Doctor of Medicine
Backgrounds determine more skill proficiencies, give you weapon proficiencies in some cases, provide a saving throw proficiency, additional language, starting equipment, and savings. Essentially, some of the baseline factors that are part of character class in D&D are split between ancestry and background in Whispers in the Dark.
Many of the feats have a similar construction as 5e feats, granting either a significant additional ability, or a less significant ability and a bonus to a relevant ability score. Gifted Healer is likely going to be a popular feat in this setting, given the lack of (at least baseline) magic.
There are two feats, Lurking Lackey and Whimpering Minion, that both feel like they are harshly named for a player character taking them. These could have easily been termed something like “Non-Descript” or “Loyal Right-Hand” and still done the same thing. The naming convention bothers me on two levels—players may not be “heroic” in the traditional fantasy sense, but I don’t think to be good at something that will be advantageous for the setting should earn you a nasty epithet. Using these naming conventions, it would have been just as appropriate to call the Wary Hunter feat “Murderous Opportunist.”
The other problem I have with these names comes from looking at the pre-generated characters included later in the book. Looking at Minnie, a character who spent time in a mental institution, giving her Whimpering Minion, and having her as the only pre-generated character that spent time in a mental institution, creates a “story” for what someone with the feat looks like. It’s a judgment call on someone that has suffered from mental illness, based solely on giving her a feat that gives her advantage on some saves when she is near someone that she is attached to. Given that this could have been much more neutrally expressed, especially when tied to her backstory as being with her brother when she experienced supernatural trauma, this feels very harsh.
There is a section at the end of character creation that offers optional rules for ability checks for the setting, some of which I like a lot. In broad strokes, they layout when a character can aid another, make untrained intelligence based checks a bit more difficult, and sets the amount of time a character has to spend before then can attempt to make a check doing the same thing again. The only optional rule that rubbed me the wrong way as imposing an automatic failure on a natural 1 for skill checks. I think the inclination is to introduce more chances for failure in more dangerous games, but often, all that happens is the PCs feel like bungling idiots when the dice are rolling badly. I would rather have the roll still succeed, or fail, as usual, but have the 1 only count as introducing a random complication into the scene unrelated to the PC’s success or failure.
Equipment, Damage, Healing, & Rest, Magic
The equipment section limits the melee weapons on display to a few different types of swords, and adds in some revolvers and other firearms. There aren’t any cumbersome additional rules for firearms, other than those that already exist in D&D 5e, but there also isn’t any substitution for armor, so getting hit is going to be a much more frequent reality for PCs.
Hit points and incapacitation will look familiar, but the odds are slightly more against you in this case, with a successful death save or stabilization roll having a DC of 12 instead of 10. Taking a cue from the gritty optional rules in the DMG, short rests are 8 hours long, and long rests involve staying safe and sound for a week. Any character that is incapacitated takes a lingering injury, again, in a manner similar to the optional rules from the DMG, but without the abundance of healing magic to help them clear up.
Magic is a very short chapter that indicates, yes, there is magic, no, you can’t have it yet, because it’s not detailed in the quick start.
This is probably the best place to note that, while all of the rules for generating a character, and the stats for equipment and the like, are all included in the quick start, definitions like exactly what an action is versus a bonus action, what you use reactions for, initiative, and the structure of a combat round are not included in the quick start.
That means the following quote isn’t exactly accurate:
“This book contains everything you need to play including complete rules, pre-generated characters, and a scenario”
Although if you look up the link for the 5e basic rules, you should be able to patch together all the information you need.
Madness and Sanity
This section includes rules for the Sanity score, Short Term/Transient Madness, and Long Term/Indefinite Madness. Essentially, you get your sanity score from adding your bonus from one ability score to the total from another, and that resulting score is used as an ability score for determining a bonus. When you fail checks, the ability goes down, and at certain thresholds, you suffer either short term or long term effects.
Short term effects go away with short rests, while long term effects go away with downtime or between adventures. There are rules for treatment to allow the restoration of the actual sanity points, in addition to the end of various short or long term effects.
There are a few headers that list various elements that call for sanity checks, like encountering Forbidden Knowledge, certain classes of creatures, fear and terror, psychic attacks, and brushes with death. Each level of sanity has its own random chart to determine what happens.
The positive: none of the disorders on the table involve using a real-world diagnosis to imply that a character has randomly caught a bought of kleptomania. The negative is that you still have some pretty specific effects, triggered randomly, rather than being tied to the personality and experiences of the character, or the situation at hand.
While it’s been adapted from similar rules in the DMG, I can’t help but think it would be great to break much further from the mold established in Call of Cthulhu when it first came out. Both Fate of Cthulhu and the Sprawl Supplement Touched: A Darkening Alley have better, more modern approaches that still evoke some of the feel of cosmic horror stories. I especially like The Sprawl’s approach of coping mechanism, things that you establish as part of your character’s personality, that may become cumbersome and get in the way of forward progress when the character feels less stable after stressful encounters.
On the other hand, if we’re emulating D&D, but making mental stability a parallel track to physical stability, why not introduce stability as something that works more like hit points, with lasting instabilities being triggered a 0 stability like lasting injuries?
In any event, sometimes I think the mass shadow of Call of Cthulhu obfuscates the emulation of cosmic horror, versus the emulation of cosmic horror as translated by the Call of Cthulhu rules into gaming, and then translated into another system.
Also, this is a personal issue for me, but twice in the sanity chapter, we get quotes from DC Comic’s Joker to introduce a section. There is a lot of weight that Joker carries when it comes to representing a mentally ill-character, and the dangers of mental illness that I don’t think are positive aspects to bring to the game. In fact, as much as The Killing Joke isn’t my favorite story by a long shot, it’s actually a great example of coping mechanisms as established above. Not everyone pushed to their breaking point becomes Joker. Gordon throws himself into his work, potentially to the detriment of his marriage, and Batman attempts to fight crime to keep others from suffering the same way he did as a child, to the detriment of a more recognizable life. Both of those aspects come from who the character is, and not a random table.
The Crow Man and Appendix A-D
The Crow Man is the scenario for this quick start, wherein investigators in the reconstruction era New Orleans track down a mysterious killer to stop them from performing a ritual at the behest of a cult. In addition to the adventure, there are creature stats, pre-generated PCs, and Handouts for the adventure.
Side Note: Investigation Rules
Before I get too deep into the setting and structure of the adventure, I wanted to bring up something that seems to be a “default” rule, that doesn’t appear in the previous sections of the quick start, but which I liked. Whenever the PCs are investigating a site, if they ask for something specific in the investigation that aligns with pertinent information (in other words, they picked up on clues and determined that X described in the scene is going to be important going forward), they get advantage on their checks to check out the scene. I really like this as a rule for an investigative scene.
Another rule that I think should have made it into this quick start, which is kind of implied from a single feat in D&D 5e, is making a passive investigation check standard (and not just something you get when you pick a certain feat), and establishing that the passive score is the “floor” for checks. This allows for adventure design that means some characters will be able to find clues and advance the plotline. In fact, I think that this is also a great reason NOT to use the “natural 1 fails a skill check” optional rule, since you already run the risk of PCs missing clues whenever a randomizer is at play.
There are a few places where the adventure mentions that the PCs may draw unwanted attention if they get into a public altercation, or if they fire a firearm, and that reminded me that it would be a great addition to this kind of game to have some kind of heat mechanic that can build up when the PCs are incautious, allowing the GM to spend heat to introduce new complications.
Setting Elements Reinforcing Cycles of Play
Right off the bat, I appreciate that one of the potential hooks is the assumption that PCs are part of the Cobalt Club, a club of people that dabble in weird stories and esoteric knowledge, which gives them an excuse to know one another, and to hear about the kinds of stories that the game wants them to investigate. I also like the use of New Orleans over various New England locations, to allow for a more diverse implied setting, but “with great power comes great responsibility.”
I also like the idea of a potential recurring sinister organization in the form of the Onyx Confederacy. Clashing two secret or semi-secret societies against one another over the supernatural makes for a stronger campaign structure, opposed to “you just happen to want to investigate weird stuff together, and weird stuff just happens to be going on.”
The Mystery Itself
The PCs can investigate several murders, find out what they have in common, determine the supernatural entity that is performing the murders and the signs that come with the entity, and potentially stop the ritual before it is complete. Eventually they may find the final victim, with the climax being determining who that victim is and protecting them. They also have a chance to meet up with a local figure in the supernatural community, who can provide them with some enigmatic help before their final confrontation.
Now, I want to touch on some things that are included, and a little bit on how inclusion + context are really important.
There is a drag queen included as one of the victims, and they are played up as having a decadent lifestyle. Additionally, one entry uses the pronoun “he,” and later in the adventure, “they.” Not only does it feel like it falls into some bad stereotypes (marginalized person is a murder victim, drag queen is ‘fecund’ partier), but it feels like addressing these topics deserves a lot more discussion in this adventure.
There is lore mentioned about crows, attributed to Native Americans, and Madam Laveau’s help is shown to be enigmatic and mysterious. All of the authority figures the PCs encounter are white, until those figures run out of useful information, and then they can get help from non-white characters, whose dealings with the supernatural are mysterious and potentially dangerous.
Reason, logic, and science belong in the realm of white characters. The supernatural, which may be helpful, but also dangerous and unpredictable, is in the realm of the “other,” which is associated with the non-white. I don’t think that was an intentional trope being added, but it is a trope that has been so firmly entrenched that its easy to fall into.
The PCs may be playing people of color, but despite the diversity of New Orleans as a setting, white feels like the default. The only time we get a description of a person’s skin color is when we are being told they are Egyptian. And, again, that person of color is associated with the supernatural side of things.
The contour of modern fiction has been carved by stories that have marginalized many different people. Filling that contour without intentionally doing the work to dig a new path means the story is going to flow in a manner that is marginalizing, even if you weren’t thinking of marginalizing anyone when you opened the damn to release the flow of your creativity.
I am both interested and wary of what I’m seeing in this quick start. There is an awareness of how the existing rules work, and what optional rules can be adapted to evoke specific genre tropes, but there is also a lot of inertia at play, both in mimicking the style of Call of Cthulhu RPG tropes, and in general supernatural storytelling.
I love some elements of the world-building, like utilizing a more diverse setting, adding in secret societies and organizations to reinforce PC buy into the setting, but I also hope that people with a better grasp of the diversity of cultures can get some input into this version of New Orleans. Games need better diversity in material, but game products need better diversity of creators as well.
I’ll be very interested to see this develop, and I hope that the final, full product can break some of the inertia that appears to be affecting the quick start. That said, I’m a little concerned that those bits of existing inertia take up a lot of space in the quick start, which would necessitate a strong commitment to restructuring some assumptions.