Fans of investigative horror roleplaying and fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons rejoice! Whispers in the Dark released over the weekend at DriveThru RPG and the well-crafted adaptation of the 5E system for this particular genre already sits at No. 5 on the bestseller list. Among the most popular titles under $5 Whispers in the Dark sits pretty at No. 1 and overall the digital product already claims silver bestseller status. The design team of Matt Corley and newly named Dungeon Masters Guild Adept M.T. Black produced the product under the Saturday Morning Scenarios banner, which takes the flexible 5E system in a new direction. I received an advance copy of the material before finalized layout and got a chance to lob some questions at Matt, so let’s get into it.
Shining a light on Whispers in the Dark
Leading up to the release of Whispers in the Dark I tried to follow along the conversation over on Twitter. Matt and M.T. did a great job not only building the hype for their ambitious project but also engaging with gamers and their questions and comments. Hats off to them! It’s challenging to juggle keeping up with social media and the work required to bring projects to life along with everything else in life and this team did a great job.
After looking through the document I am very impressed! I don’t make any secret about being a humongous D&D enthusiast with a fondness for exploring other genres using the 5E D&D system but if I’m honest my initial reaction was skeptical. The design chops behind Whispers in the Dark never came into question; other works by Matt are among some of my favorite content out there. But I must admit at first I thought by removing the entire class structure it grew far afield of D&D. I challenged Matt on this aspect of the material, but only because as a fan of the system I was curious about the team’s design approach.
Below are selections from my Q&A with Matt Corley about Whispers in the Dark
What I really want to ask is, why 5E? I love the system myself and I am fond of exploring other genres with it, but I feel like the system is built around D&D’s goal of fighting monsters and gaining treasure, which Whispers essentially removes or diminishes focus on. Was that something you and M.T. had to address early on?
Hold on while I get up on my soapbox. I’m getting old so this may take a minute…
I would challenge the notion that 5E is designed around fighting monsters and gaining treasure. At its core a fight in 5E is just a series of ability checks with modifiers, just like the use of skills. The primary rule(s) that seem to emphasize combat are the rules around resting and recovering (magical or natural) that mitigate the risk associated with fighting. I’d also say that treasure isn’t a design mechanic, it’s a player incentive that the writer has 100% control over. Provide a different incentive and you’re good to go.
To answer your question, there are a few reasons. The first is that M.T. and I know the system really well and are comfortable manipulating it to achieve a desired result. Add to that the Sanity rules I’ve already written the rules to add long-term consequences and we’re almost there.
The other primary reason is that when I wrote [Lamp’s Light Sanitarium] I firmly believed that there is a sizable portion of the DnD fanbase that wants to play a game like this, but doesn’t want to (or have time to) learn new rules. My experiences writing 5E content with Sandy Petersen, and with the amazing reception Critical Role’s forays into horror RPG have had reaffirmed it.
I also think the writing, organization, and structure of a setting, adventure, and the encounters within it have at least as much with the genre as the rules engine.
Part of the Whispers in the Dark engine I quite like is the elegant approach to removing the class system. Characters gain levels like standard 5E D&D characters, except there is a standardized list of features gained at each level. These features include feats, and in the book there are some feats that represent certain class abilities D&D players will be familiar with from classes like fighter and rogue.
I have to tell you, this is adjacent to how I feel 5E is moving as a system! A while back I remember having a conversation with someone talking about what a sixth edition might look like and I said it could be classless, and you build your character by choosing features from a “menu” like how you have feats here such as Lurking Lackey.
Thank you, I think? I believe, and hope, that sixth edition is a long way off. 5E is an excellent engine for a variety of genres, and I feel like it’s just now been in the public long enough for folks to really see what it can do.
This is a progression we seen in video game engines and software all the time. The initial iteration of a product looks, plays, and functions less smoothly and eloquently than the ones that come to market a few years later. In most cases the program/engine/game doesn’t change much at all. What changes is our understanding of what it is, what it can do, and most importantly how to manipulate it to achieve a desired goal.
What would you say is the mission statement of the game? “Investigate horrible occult crimes using investigative skills”?
That’s pretty close! It doesn’t always have to be occult to be horrible
This game started with Lamp’s Light and the sanity rules I wrote for it. Whispers (and really almost any game I write) has strong investigative elements and/or puzzle solving aspects. Whispers specifically adds an element of historical accuracy, verisimilitude, and consequences to the game that traditional 5E games generally don’t incorporate.
What was playtesting like?
We had about 70 folks playtest and it went great. Honestly, I couldn’t have asked for more useful feedback or a better test run of the game. I learned that the game and scenario worked well and elicited the gaming experience I was after. We needed to tweak a few things, and adjust the organization some but there weren’t any major issues thankfully.
Is Whispers in the Dark easier for non-D&D people to pick up and understand?
It should be straightforward for anyone that’s familiar with d20 games. There’s a cheat sheet for the Sanity rules (which is the biggest mechanical difference) and six pre-gens so that you don’t have to go through character creation before playing. Grab your dice and get going!
When writing the scenario, I made a very conscious effort to organize it a way that made it as easy as possible for the GM. M.T. was invaluable in providing his own take on encounters and spotting holes in the plot and flow. This was also where the playtest feedback was very useful. The GMs especially liked the way the scenario and encounters were organized.
Asking this because the D&D model includes defeating creatures so I’m wondering if D&D players assume that is the case.
Many of them, and that’s why there are sidebars throughout explaining what kind of game Whispers is written/designed for, and the ramifications of a player going full murder hobo
Any challenge to clearly state to players “here is what you do in this game.”?
Not really. Making the genre clear worked great in our playtesting groups. Everyone at the table should know what kind of game they’re playing and play accordingly.
Are there challenges of doing an investigative game if characters fail to find clues?
From a writing standpoint, I tend to follow the Rule of Three which essentially says that for every piece of information you need the PCs to find, there should be three ways to find it. There are also other strategies that can be employed by the writer and/or the GM.
All that said, I firmly believe that for games in this genre there has to be a real chance at failure and/or PC death. Otherwise it’s not really investigative or horror.
Now that Whispers in the Dark is released into the wild, I’m not surprised at all how well the product is doing. I agree with Matt on the flexibility of the 5E system and I applaud the approach they took to adapting it this way. Including an investigative adventure in the book ties the whole thing together into a terrific product, and the team plans to create more content for Whispers in the Dark going forward too.
Did you pick up Whispers in the Dark already? What do you think? Let me know in the comments! If you haven’t, you can get a copy of Whispers in the Dark from DriveThru RPG here.