Looking in Dark Corners – Whispers in the Dark: Quickstart Rules for 5e

Whispers in the Dark:

Quickstart Rules for 5e

Author: Matt Corely & M.T. Black
Publisher: Saturday Morning Scenarios
Page Count: 78
Available Formats: PDF & Print
PDF (DTRPG) – $1.99
Softcover/PDF Combo (DTRPG) – $14.99
HardcoverPDF Comb (DTRPG) – $22.99

Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition is popular, as is Sandy Petersen’s Mythos Cthulhu Roleplaying. For those wanting a Mythos bent to their 5e game, dripping with horror, investigative possibilities, and firmly rooted in the Mythos but without all the tropes and baggage a fantasy game brings—your options are sparse at best. Authors Matt Corely and M.T. Black’s Whispers in the Dark updates and revises Dungeons and Dragons’ basic 5th edition rules to do just that. In doing so, it gives players a rules engine that is familiar and comfortable. Whispers in the Dark is set in post-Civil War American history—a time of considerable upheaval and change—Reconstruction through the turn of the century.

The Whispers in the Dark Quickstart is a lengthy 78-pages, but don’t let that put you off. Its contents include character generation, rules changes, new rules, a fully developed scenario, and six pre-generated investigators that amend or replace Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition basic rules. The character generation rules should be familiar to anyone who’s played D&D 5e. There is little deviation from its parentage save for the Races being called Ancestries. The Quickstart includes three Ancestries, all humanoid, with one having Deep One ancestral roots and the other the Plain of Leng, both part of the Cthulhu Mythos. As with non-human races in D&D, these too impart particular ancestral abilities. A list of Backgrounds and Feats appropriate to the period and everything you need to equip and run your investigator is here.

There are only a few rules changes and new rules for gamemasters to wrap their heads around. The changes and new rules cover short and long rests, so they are more realistic. Short rests are now eight hours, after which players may spend their Hit Dice to regain some of their lost Hit Points. Long rests are now seven consecutive days spent doing little more than light activities and sleeping, after which players regain all lost hit points. There are notable changes that affect Death Saves, now requiring a difficulty of DC12 versus a DC10 to succeed. Once stabilized, PCs roll on the Lingering Injuries Table to ascertain if they’ve sustained a long term injury or effect that may impact their recovery time (i.e., broken ribs imparts 1d4+2 long rests to fully heal).

The most notable new rules are those for Sanity. Losses to an investigator’s Sanity is triggered in any number of ways. The effects of any loss are important, both mechanically and narratively. The Sanity rating and resulting modifier are derived from an investigator’s Charisma score plus their Wisdom modifier. When a Sanity check is required, the process is like any other ability check. The investigator must meet or exceed a difficulty test to avoid losing Sanity. Failure can potentially have serious implications. Sanity losses are always 1d4 and are considered “transient episodes,” meaning they last until the end of the encounter. Short term episodes, resolved after a short rest, result if a second sanity loss occurs while suffering from a transient episode. Suffering repeated losses where the rating drops below 50% of its maximum, the psychosis becomes a long term episode. These effects last for several weeks following the adventure. Several d12 charts help GMs determine how the transient, short, and long term episodes manifest mechanically and narratively.

This being only a quickstart, there are obvious omissions. The most notable are the limited options available during character generation, forbidden tomes, and magic. Though the options available are more than enough to give players a taste of what Whispers in the Dark has to offer. Chapter 9, “Magic,” contains a few brief paragraphs and serves merely as a teaser, ending with “Exploring the role of magic in the world of Whispers in the Dark is beyond the scope of this product and will be included in detail in the upcoming corebook.” (p. 26)

The quickstart’s final 40 pages contain the scenario “The Crow Man,” an investigative scenario for a 1st–2nd level party of three to five investigators, written by Matt Corely and M.T. Black. The estimated playtime is two sessions. The “The Crow Man” is set within the French Quarter of New Orleans in October 1874. Following two gruesome murders, the investigators are drawn into the investigation and find themselves at the heart of a dangerous and evolving mystery. Can they find the clues necessary and quick enough to stop the Crow Man, or will they be too late?

The scenario works with player-created investigators or with the pre-generated investigators provided in the quickstart. In my opinion, the pre-gens work well as they all have a broad array of proficiencies and backgrounds appropriate to the scenario.

I ran “The Crow Man” for my group using the pre-gens, and everyone universally enjoyed the scenario. They were fully focused on the investigation—finding it easy to get into character and the unfolding story. Three of the four players were D&D 5e veterans and experienced investigative gamers. The fourth had almost no prior roleplaying game experience. All easily grasped the core concepts and mechanics of Whispers in the Dark. I feel the veteran players may have struggled slightly with coming to grips with the idea that although this game is a derivative of Dungeons and Dragons, it is not that game. As such, it requires a mental change of focus and approach to situations. Due to time constraints, I concluded the scenario after 5-hours, easily adapting the story on the fly and accelerating the story without the players even realizing it. The investigation culminated in the session’s only combat encounter, to which the players were unable to thwart the Crow Man’s plans. During the impromptu epilogue scene, they learn how their failure led to yet another gruesome murder.

Is Whispers in the Dark a game for you? The answer depends on what you want out of the game and what your preferred game engine is. There is a litany of investigative horror/Mythos games to choose from, using different engines to power their stories. If your group is well versed in D&D 5e and wanting this type of game experience without having to learn an entirely new system, I believe Whispers in the Dark will be a game for you. If like me, you have extensive experience with this genre of games, you may find yourself struggling with the changes that using a Dungeons and Dragons-based rules set bring. When I ran “The Crow Man,” I found myself wanting to ask players for rolls that were in-line with another game, not a 5e derivative. I fully grasp the skills and proficiencies used in Whispers in the Dark, and while they’re broad in nature, I feel they don’t best represent the genre or the time period in which the game is set.

Whispers in the Dark Quickstart is a solidly written investigative horror game that shines, but not as bright for me as other games. To be fair, I prefer the mechanics of a different game engine that is more suited to this genre, but I know Whispers in the Dark will appeal to a broad audience because it’s approachable. That audience will be D&D players looking for a different experience without the baggage of having to learn an entirely new game system. To those players, Whispers in the Dark is going to shine the brightest. It will also appeal to newer gamers, as its core mechanics are easy to learn, particularly for players.

For me, the scenario is hands-down the best part of this quickstart. I found it very well written with a compelling story and an engaging plot that cried out to be played. The authors are well versed in the horror genre, and it shows. They imbue the setting, plot, and personalities with a sense of realism that only comes from a skilled writer.

Overall, I enjoyed reading Whispers in the Dark and running “The Crow Man.” While it may not become my “go-to” game for this genre, it is certainly a fine game. It will definitely appeal to a certain segment of the hobby and well worth the price of admission for the digital copy.

~ Modoc

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