A Game Per Year: The Whispering Vault (1993)

I started to feel that I didn’t know roleplaying games well enough so I came up with the plan to read a roleplaying game corebook for every year they have been published. Selection criteria is whatever I find interesting.

The cover of the 1994 Pariah Press edition of The Whispering Vault.

The Whispering Vault is the most Nineties roleplaying game I have ever seen. I lived and roleplayed through the Nineties but nothing I experienced in that time compares to this.

(I cheated a little because the version I read was actually the 1995 reprint of the 1994 Pariah Press edition, not the original self-published 1993 edition.)

Let’s get into the mood…

To protect the Flesh from the Unbidden, the Powers grant certain mortals Immortal Essence to serve as Stalkers. Because of their mortal origins, Stalkers can return to the Realm of the Flesh to capture the Unbidden and Mend the Enigma.

True Nineties capitalization? Check.

A fascination with elaborate metaphysics? Check.

Dark power fantasies as player characters? Check.

An elaborate dice pool system? Check.

Illustrations that look like this:

An interior illustration from The Whispering Vault.

Check.

And you know what? This is the best thing about The Whispering Vault. It’s such a perfect distillation of it’s time.

A horror game, The Whispering Vault is about extradimensional agents called Stalkers who’s job is to apprehend bad guys called the Unbidden who nestle in our reality. The game is built for one-shots although there are rules for campaign play too.

Each one shot is a mission where the Stalkers arrive at a time and a place in the Realm of the Flesh (aka ordinary reality) and try to find the criminal Unbidden. Time is wonky for the Stalkers so one mission can be in ancient Egypt and the next in modern New York.

Compared to other Nineties horror games such as the many World of Darkness titles, The Whispering Vault is pretty simple and straightforward. This works well for it’s focus on single session, mission-based games where you need to pick up the concept quickly.

One of the most striking qualities about The Whispering Vault is the way it approaches horror. The player characters are powerful and cool, indeed so cool they may sometimes have difficulty in keeping their coolness under wraps among ordinary people.

You never play just a dude. At a minimum, you’re a pale knight shrouded in a monochrome halo, the spikes of your armor reminiscent of the Crown of Thorns. The book gives example names such as Shadowjack and The Grey Man.

Horror is something that happens to other people. The Unbidden have their victims and the gamemaster (this is the preferred spelling) is exhorted to describe them and the horrifying countenances of the Unbidden vividly. The Stalkers can feel sad at this, of course.

Perhaps because of the focus on short games, The Whispering Vault is resolutely without moral shades of grey. The book warns against making the Unbidden too sympathetic or giving them reasonable motivations because this would put the justification of the Stalkers’ mission in question.

The Whispering Vault is at it’s best as a pure artifact of Nineties cool. Once upon a time, this was the fashion.