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The Whispering Vault – some rules tweaks? 
1st-Jul-2009 09:46 pm
male cenobite

   The Whispering Vault is among my old favourite roleplaying games. TWV was my first campaign when I started to run games at UNSW Gameplayers eight or nine years ago, and while we only played about six times or so, I have fond memories of those cold autumn Friday nights. This was some of the first gaming that I did with Lucy, Rachel, and Doug; it's probably fair to say that our subsequent Wraith campaign (of about fourteen months in duration) was a successor to TWV. Those players probably came to recognise my preference for baroque and sometimes macabre supernatural settings, and characters who are more spirit and emotion than flesh – aspects present in both The Whispering Vault and Wraith: The Oblivion.

   The Whispering Vault isn't without problems. The game's setting is evocatively described, almost lurid with unsettling and macabre names and sense of ritual... but there's a level of detail invlved here that has a fairly steep learning curve. The Whispering Vault makes a lot of sense to anybody who has seen Hellraiser and can imagine less-malevolent Cenobites, but everybody else asks "So what kind of spirits are we playing exactly, and how does that ceremony work again?" Indeed, the entire "adventure" is a ritual of sorts; it's not enough to simply look for the fallen gods and drag them back into the Vault, the characters must observe the proper way and order of doing things as well.

   Another problem that I have seen reported is that while the player characters are supposed to be potent spiritual beings, it can be surprisingly hard to perform any tasks successfully in this game. I will note that I did not personally feel this way when we played The Whispering Vault, but I've read enough complaints that there must be some validity to them.

   For those who are unfamiliar with The Whispering Vault, this is how the basic game mechanic works:

[The Whispering Vault] uses a very simple, totally non-intuitive task resolution system. Whenever a Stalker attempts an action and the outcome is uncertain, a Challenge Roll is made. Challenges are based on one of the character's Attributes. Once the GM has chosen the appropriate Attribute, a difficulty is assigned to the task: Routine, Easy, Average, Hard or Very Hard. In the case of a challenge against an opponent, the opponent's Attribute is used to set the difficulty of the Challenge. This difficulty results in a target number. A Challenge is successful if the roll (below) is equal to or greater than the target number.

To resolve a Challenge, the player rolls a number of dice equal to the value of the Attribute the challenge is based on. Here's where it gets a bit strange - the result of the challenge is equal to either the highest score on a single die, or the highest total of matching dice.
                                             ~ Loyd Blankenship, Pyramid #4

   Standard Difficulties are Routine (8), Easy (10), Average (12), Hard (15), and Very Hard (18). A character has four Attributes totalling 22 points, thus the average is around 5–6 points, with 4s and 7s being fairly common extremes.

   The author of that review found it difficult to grasp his chances of success in The Whispering Vault, so he wrote a program to determine the likelihood of rolling against any given target number on # dice. The following table is taken directly from the review in Pyramid #4; I've emphasised the standard Difficulty numbers and the average Attribute range so that you have a better idea of the chances you'd have to succeed in actions during a normal game. And the results below speak for themselves – while these numbers may nt be the precise odds of success at a given number of dice, they're close enough for our purposes. And it appears that a typical character does have a fairly low chance at succeeding at anything but the most routine actions.

Chance of Success Out of 10,000 Attempts

Target Number

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18
1 100 82 66 49 33 16 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
2 100 100 91 80 61 38 8 8 5 5 2 2 0 0 0 0 0 0
3 100 100 98 93 80 60 23 23 16 15 8 8 1 1 1 0 0 0
4 100 100 100 98 91 77 39 39 29 27 16 16 3 3 3 1 1 1
5 100 100 100 99 96 89 56 56 43 40 26 26 7 7 7 4 3 3
6 100 100 100 100 98 95 71 71 58 54 38 38 12 12 12 7 6 6
7 100 100 100 100 99 98 83 83 70 65 49 49 20 20 20 12 11 11
8 100 100 100 100 99 99 90 90 81 76 62 62 29 29 29 20 17 17
9 100 100 100 100 100 99 95 95 88 84 71 71 39 39 39 27 23 23

   So, how would I address this if I were to run The Whispering Vault in the future?

   The first step would be to encourage each player to focus on different Skills. A Skill in this game grants the character a bonus to the results of his dice; every character has at least three Skills rated at +4, and a Skill can begin as high as +6. Having a Skill at +4 greatly increases the character's chances of success; assuming an average of 5 dice in the relevant Attribute, the chances of a success increase to 99% for a Routine task, 89% for an Easy task, 56% for an Average task, 26% for a Hard task, and 7% for a Very Hard task. That's a sizeable boost! There are fifteen standard Skills in The Whispering Vault, so it would probably be okay to give players a few more bonuses to spread between them.

   The second step that I'd take would be to expand on the use of Karma. I remember that my old TWV group used Karma to get them out of a few dire predicaments!

   Karma represents good fortune and the favour of the Primal Powers, bestowed upon a character for serving the Powers and reinforcing reality. Karma can used after any roll to re-roll any number of dice. Characters begin play with 5 Karma, and earn an average of five points each time they heal a wound in reality. I would place more emphasis on Karma by increasing the amount that characters receive, and encouraging its use.

   Characters receive Karma when they heal reality or remove threats to the world without using overt supernatural powers or alerting mortals to their true nature. The Powers expect their servants to protect reality, not violate it, so if fallen gods can be recaptured without calling down hellfire in the presence of mortals, so much the better.

   However, some problems can only be solved by summoning a storm of flaming chains at some monster – Stalkers have these supernatural powers for a reason! Provided that the Stalkers demonstrate prudence whenever possible, the Primal Powers will show them leeway accordingly. And to reward Stalkers who do not use up all of the Karma granted to them, I would allow players to turn unspent Karma into experience points at a one-for-one rate.

   This would give players the chance to use as many re-rolls on important actions as their previous actions warrant. If their characters are able to capture fallen gods without disrupting reality too blatantly, they are entrusted with even greater power (via additional experience points).

   (Some readers may recognise a similarity between the basic mechanics of The Whispering Vault and my science fiction games (Radiance), or even the latter One Roll Engine games (e.g. Wild Talents and REIGN) that I run these days. Obviously, I like matching dice. Maybe I should play Yahtzee!)

   Another approach would be to simply run The Whispering Vault with a more recent game system – it would be fairly simple to convert TWV to the One Roll Engine, for example.

11th-Oct-2009 06:13 pm (UTC)
Personally, I've always dislikeed systems whee your awesome points are also your experience. Specifically my experience has only been with seventh sea, but this may also be applicable here - I don't feel that players should have to make a choice between being awesome (or being unlucky) and getting experience. One system that worked quite well in seventh sea was to flip it about, so that players didn't get experience from not spending points, but instead the points they spent became experience - which changed the question from should I be awesome, or should I get XP to when should I be awesome within a scene session, or campaign.

Having left over points become XP feels like punishing players for rolling badly (by saying that to achieve their goals they have to spend what would otherwise be XP).

I don't know if this has been clearly articulated at all.
12th-Oct-2009 07:20 am (UTC)
I can see what you're getting at. Many, many gamers have been conditioned into the reward/punishment use of experience points... especially in games where experience serves to "unlock" new powers and abilities.

(Experience points as a reward/conditioning mechanism are more powerful in D&D and Storyteller, but less powerful in Unknown Armies or just about any supers game I've played.)

Maybe as an alternative, the karma points spent on a roll are indeed transformed into experience points - to be used on either the attribute or skill that was relevant to that roll. You'd need a box next to each stat in which to tally up any points spent on rerolls, and you'd need to rethink the experience point costs of increasing any given skill.

One advantage of doing this is that you can more easily convert to "flat" experience costs, as the higher a stat gets, the less often you'll need to re-roll it. This is good because it prevents PCs escalating to ridiculous high skills in everything, whilst still allowing for the same flat costs at character creation -and- during play.

14th-Apr-2010 04:12 pm (UTC) - GREAT SUGGESTIONS...HERE'S MINE

Great suggestions! Here's mine: When I run WV I just lower the Difficult Numbers (usually by half)! My take is that the players want to feel like Barker's cenobites/demigods & lowering most of the difficulties accomplishes this... Now most of their actions are succesful or with higher probabilities of.

I reserve difficult target numbers for the Unbidden, where cooperation & group actions are best.

Hope that helps (some-one)!

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