If you play, played, or ever want to play a table top role playing game like Dungeons and Dragons, stop and pay attention! I have had the pleasure of reviewing one of the most well thought out TTRPGs on the market from Saturday Morning Scenarios and written by Matthew Corley and co-authored by M.T. Black. Whispers in the Dark introduces players to the darker side of New Orleans during the Reconstruction Era. The adventure is horror and mystery based, sending players to investigate a set of gruesome murders. Author Matthew Corley best described it using the Matt Lillard scale of creepiness. Whispers in the Dark is like Matt in Thirteen Ghosts. Know now, that this will be how I will rate all horror games from here on out.
I will be keeping the adventure portion of Whispers in the Dark spoiler free. You have been warned about the rest.
Realism In A Classless System
Whispers in the Dark features a classless system and instead focuses on ancestry and backgrounds to replace race and class. The adventure has three ancestries to choose from, a common human, a Lengian human and a Deep Blooded human. They are each well thought out, granting the player proficiencies in skills and other key features.
The Lengian and Deep Blooded human are mixed races and thus grant different features like dark vision. But they also have negative features as well that will affect game play. Deep Blooded humans are monstrous and will have a penalty when it comes to persuasion checks. Lengian humans are foul blooded and animals hate their scent. This means all animal handling checks will come with a penalty as well.
The backgrounds for each player character are just as important as the ancestry. This gives an idea of what the player character has been doing up until the start of the adventure. Were they an antiquarian? Maybe a detective or a Doctor of Medicine? The adventure has eight backgrounds to choose from to help allow player character customization.
This choice will increase the player character’s proficiencies in skills and weapons as well as granting another saving throw proficiency and the possibility of more languages. It also grants players equipment and money to start the adventure off with. This player character set up still adds in a bit of fantasy elements but adds in a stronger sense of realism to fit the narrative of the story and location.
A New Way To Level Up
Since Whispers in the Dark does not feature classes, the level up system is a bit different. Instead of having specific classes grant special skills, players will be able to choose feats as they level. The proficiencies and level features remain the same for everyone as they go. This way players can customize their play style in how they distribute their ability scores and what feats they choose along the way.
Think of the feats as skills one might learn as the adventure progresses. A player character with the Doctor of Medicine background might decide to take the Gifted Healer feat. Normally in traditional Dungeons and Dragons players either take an ability score improvement or a feat, but Whispers of the Dark keeps them separate. Leveling also grants additional skills, expertise and weapon and tool proficiencies.
By having everyone follow the same level up table, it makes the process far easier. It still allows for player character customization by deciding what feats, skills and expertise you want. I built a mockup character and leveled them using the system. It worked perfectly and I didn’t have to worry about all of the additional content and could focus on how they would naturally progress. The leveling system fits very well into the direction of the adventure and the world being built around it.
If You Saw What We Did…You Would Go Insane Too
The shining feature outside of the adventure within Whispers in the Dark is Corley’s madness and sanity mechanic. I have always felt a disconnect when playing tabletop role playing games when something like death and resurrection happens and afterwards people continue on like everything is fine. The new mechanic helps to solve that and other problems by having players role for those types of reactions.
Player characters will all have a sanity score that will be altered throughout the game through the use of sanity checks. For example, your adventuring party is heading home and stumble upon some unspeakable horror like a murder or monster roaming the streets at night. Each player will make a sanity roll. If they succeed, then they are able to maintain their mental coherence.
If they fail, they not only lose a bit of their sanity but also role on the madness table. The affects range from not having use of their eyes until the unseen horror leaves or ending up with night terrors from the event to much more. There are positive affects as well, such as gaining a plus two to initiative because the player is now on edge and rearing to go.
Depending on how sane a player character is will also decide how long the madness affect will last. It is possible to only have transient insanity, but it is also possible to have indefinite insanity. It all depends on how well they are able to maintain their mental coherence. If a player were to lose all of their sanity, they would go insane and the player character would become another non playable character within the world.
It is also possible to regain sanity points. This is done by taking time off adventuring and taking part in light activity. This process helps add a sense of real mental health into the game. Walking away from near brushes with death or dealing with the death of a friend is never easy, even for the hardened adventurer. Corley’s mechanic helps adventurer’s play out those mental struggles and how they would handle self-care in their off time.
The Crow Man and Overall Feelings
Now I am a lady of my word and will not spoil any of the adventure, but I did want to touch on it briefly. The story itself helps to tie together the world in which Whispers in the Dark is built. A darker and more sinister world with underlying secrets that add to its mystery. The adventure includes everything you need to get it running as well as six pre-generated player characters with a deep history and connection to the story. The next adventure is set to be released in March of this year and will continue to explore more of this haunting world.
Whispers in the Dark is everything I have ever wanted in a tabletop role playing game. It features horror and mystery, an easy classless leveling system and mental health awareness. There is also enough information that if one wanted to take the sanity/madness mechanic and add it into their own game, they could do so easily. I highly recommend picking up a copy of this adventure and running it for your group!
Whispers in the Dark is available now and can be purchased through DriveThruRPG. Also keep an eye out for Corley’s upcoming project Devil’s City, that introduces players to 19th century Chicago and HH Holmes. The kickstarter will feature a novella written by Corley and Sara Tantlinger that will introduce Holmes and his first five victims and also a Whispers in the Dark sourcebook and mini campaign that will begin where the novella ends.
This article was originally published 2/21/20