As far as gaming industry figures go, Mike Nystul has had a chequered history. It’s him that the spell Nystul’s Magic Aura in D&D is named after, and his career has spanned writing reasonably well-received material for Fantasy Hero in the 1980s to courting serious controversy through his management of his Kickstarter projects in recent history.
At some point in between these extremes you had the 1990s, with their fascination with modern-day settings, dark horror, grossout splatterpunk, PCs-as-monsters and occult weirdness. You cannot say Nystul didn’t tap into the zeitgeist, for one particular game line he started back then managed a unique combination of all those features.
The Whispering Vault
Very much a pet project of Nystul’s – having been self-published by him in a preliminary edition before he set up Pariah Press to put it out more professionally – The Whispering Vault is intended as a horror-themed pick-up game and is simultaneously a great success and terrible failure at that goal.
The main reason it’s a failure as far as pick-up games go is that it’s an extremely high-concept game, with a whole heap of stuff which would need to be explained to the player group if they are to be able to engage with the game effectively – and thus the referee is going to need to have a really tight handle on that material accordingly. Furthermore, the nature of the concept means a certain amount of preparation is required on the part of the referee, which is the exact opposite of what you want for a pick-up game.
The concept is this: the cosmos is comprised of two realms, the Realm of the Flesh where we live and the Realm of Essence which is the home to various spiritual forces. These include the Primal Powers, who oversee the grand cosmic order and enforce it, and the Aesthetics – entities who gaze from the Realm of Essence to the Realm of Flesh and who dream of it; it is that Dreaming which shapes, populates, and to a large extent creates the Realm of Flesh in the first place.
The problem comes when an Aesthetic begins to become overly fascinated in the Flesh, yearning to join and be part of it rather than merely Dreaming it. Occasionally, an Aesthetic will succumb to this temptation and cross the space between the Realms, entering the Realm of Flesh as one of the Unbidden – a self-created horror who by its very presence warps the Realm around it, creating an Enigma where things are not as they should be. A town with its streets wrapped in an infinite loop so there’s no way out, a house plucked out of time where as far as the residents are concerned it’s still the 16th Century, a hospital where once you’re checked in you can never leave – those are all examples of Enigmas which could be created by the arrival of an Unbidden in the world.
At first little more than slavering beasts, gorging on whatever aspect of the Flesh drew them in, Unbidden gradually become more and more integrated into the world, eventually becoming Architects – master manipulators who can treat the Flesh as close to a home away from home as a thing of Essence ever can. Architects, especially those who have come to understand and take control of their connection to the Enigma left behind by the entry into the world, are the most dangerous Unbidden, but let’s be clear – any of the Unbidden are dangerous, whether they are hiding inside a mortal Vessel or are exposed as their true Avatars.
The Primal Powers have their own means of stopping the Unbidden, however. From time to time across history, human beings have fought the depredations of the Unbidden; those who come to the attention of the Powers through the promise they showed have been elevated to the status of Stalkers, creatures of Essence whose only connections to their former mortal selves are their memories and the five keys they bear, each of which corresponds to a mortal emotion. When the depredations of the Unbidden prompt a human to cry out for help, the Supplication is heard by a Stalker, who gathers their Circle of fellow Stalkers and prepares to journey to the Realm of Flesh, there to set about the Hunt – the process of tracking down, subduing, and dragging the Unbidden back to the Realm of Essence, there to be shut away forever in the grand prison established for such deviants – the titular Whispering Vault.
Now, in principle that’s a lot to keep straight. (Note the extreme use of 1990s White Wolf-style Excessive Capitalised Terminology). At the same time, here’s where the book’s strengths as a pick-up game comes in: once you grasp that overarching concept (you are alien reality cops operating with only a thin veneer of humanity to take down alien reality deviants), much of the rest of the book is dedicated to making it really smooth and easy to start playing. The system is reasonably simple, the character generation process offers you enough cool powers to feel badass without providing such a large number of choices as to prompt decision paralysis, and the ritualistic structure of the Hunt itself really helps you get into the mindset of the Stalkers. (For example, as part of the journey from the Essence to the Flesh you have to go past a Guardian, who won’t let you past unless you are behaving in a recognisably Stalker-esque fashion.)
The book notes that once players are used to the structure of the Hunt you could well skip parts of it entirely, but providing the full structure the first go-around or two would really go a long way towards establishing the weird, alien atmosphere of the game. Aesthetically, the art in the book is highly splatterpunk-influenced, and the various Shadows (things from between Essence and Flesh that the Unbidden can wake up and make into their Minions) really illustrate this with their gruesome descriptions – next to Kult, this is the closest thing to a Hellraiser RPG there is out there.
One thing which I think you can credit The Whispering Vault with is coming up with a genuinely novel type of horror for RPG purposes; as opposed to the horror of discovery as in Call of Cthulhu or Kult, or the personal horror of Vampire and its various imitators, the default style of Whispering Vault tends towards something I’d call impersonal horror. The PCs themselves, whilst they may face dire threats and shudder at the way the Unbidden has reshaped the world, are also themselves objects of horror, and much of the horror experienced by players and referee alike comes equally from the Unbidden themselves and the things the Stalkers are happy to do in order to stop the Unbidden. Indeed, the Stalkers are sufficiently amoral that in a particular scenario they may well be the unsympathetic ones compared to the Unbidden. A realm where people don’t grow old and die sounds like a lovely, happy place – but it’s also exactly the sort of Enigma that the Stalkers are supposed to resolve.
Still, the game seems adaptable enough that you don’t necessarily have to go the full splatterpunk route with it; I reckon with suitable tweaking of the powers and the processes of the Hunt you could very viably make it into a Sapphire and Steel RPG, since that has an extremely similar premise. Amoral protagonists – check. Protagonists have weird alien powers and mysterious origins – check. Protagonists are dispatched by nebulous higher powers to fix problems in reality and time – check.
About that last point; one particularly nice idea with the Vault is that, because the Realm of Essence is outside of space and time, the Stalkers can be injected at any point in the timeline – so you can set your Hunts whenever you like. If you fancy doing campaign play, there’s also useful pointers for doing that – in particular, the idea of a Watcher game, Watchers being groups of Stalkers sent to a particular time and place which, for whatever reason, becomes a source of recurring problems, so they can slap down the problems as and when they arise.
Perhaps the greatest success of The Whispering Vault is the fact that Nystul clearly has this very specific idea about what the game is like, but is also able to simultaneously explain it with great clarity and at the same time offer clear suggestions as to how you might deviate from the baseline concept and what that might entail. It’s a short little game – less than 150 pages long, and that’s with a generous amount of art and a large typeface – and yet it’s more gameable and packed with more cool ideas and fun toys than contemporary releases with twice the page count.
Take, for instance, its brief discussion of the sort of mortal sorcerers and secret societies who might butt into an investigation for their own purposes – that greatly expands the scope and possibilities of the game, and the book’s able to throw in guidelines on designing mortal characters, a brace of useful basic NPC stats to use on the fly, and a delicious sample of mortal conspiracies all in the space of 20 pages or so.
It’s kind of a shame that the Vault has fallen into comparative obscurity. Nystul’s own Pariah Press put it out in the early 1990s, but then the rights got sold to Philip Reed and Christopher Shy’s Ronin Arts, who put out a reprint of the core book and supplements and also issued a brace of microsupplements for it in 2003. (In between Reed and Shy getting it and Nystul selling it, the game was briefly owned by Chris Pramas, who established Ronin Publishing – eventually to become Green Ronin – in order to put it out.) That endeavour seems to have sputtered out, though the core book and a cross-section of the microsupplements are available on lulu.com (though irritatingly the PDF offerings on DriveThruRPG have been pulled). What Reed and Shy intend to do next with it, if anything, is unclear, though arguably it’s better off in their hands than in the hands of Mike Nystul, whose recent Kickstarter errors have rather tainted his reputation as far as business and project management goes.
Mastering the Vault
This is one of the microsupplements tossed out by Ronin Arts in 2003, and amounts to a grab-bag of stuff which was evidently lying around in Pariah Press’ files since at least 1995. I’m not plucking that number out of thin air, mind – a good chunk of the book was written by Nigel Findley, who died in 1995. About half the page count is given over to a long essay in which Findley really drills down to identify potential pitfalls in refereeing the Vault and identifies some points of best practice; this essay alone largely justifies the purchase of the supplement, if only because of how adeptly Findley dissects the game and discusses it. Findley also provides a brief outline for a Hunt which is a little too long for an adventure seed but a little too under-developed to really usefully save the referee much in the way of preparation time.
The other components of the booklet are less essential. Vault creator Mike Nystul gives a brief set of notes on running the Unbidden as player characters, but ultimately these are too brief to be of much use – this and the associated adventure notes feel like the first draft of longer pieces, rather than something actually ready for public perusal. Perhaps more useful is Chad Brinkley’s Invisible History, a timeline of Unbidden-related incidents throughout history; the nice thing about the time-hopping nature of The Whispering Vault is that any time Chad mentions in the timeline that a Circle of Stalkers solved a problem, that Circle might well have been the PCs in your home campaign, so the timeline isn’t a mere worldbuilding exercise but in effect a fat stack of mini adventure ideas.
The Book of Shadows
This is a brief collection of additional Shadows to use as Unbidden Minions. Fun, and supposedly a taster of what was going to be incorporated into the 2nd edition of the game, which Bruce Baugh was in the middle of designing until recurring health problems knocked him down hard enough that he reluctantly wrote off the possibility of completing the project. They’re fun, I guess, if you want more Shadows, but goodness knows you already had a tasty enough collection in the core book.
The Vault and Time
This is rather disappointing, not least because Chad Brinkley devotes nearly a third of this supplement to a timeline of absolutely mundane events. This might have been handy back in 1995, if you wanted help cooking up a concept for a game set at some point in history and you had absolutely no research material onhand, but even as early as 2003 Internet connections were pretty much ubiquitous (or at least were anywhere you were likely to be playing The Whispering Vault) and wikipedia had all the entry-level history timeline material you could need. The remainder of the supplement consists of “Well, duh“-level advice on running historical scenarios, and a brace of uninspiring executions of historical settings. This could have done with being a substantially fatter book so as to give the historical settings more room to breathe.