Aside from the fantasy fiction genre, I love investigative horror and gothic horror stories. Also known as thrillers, these stories typically feature a villain-driven plot, presenting obstacles that the protagonist must overcome.
Thrillers are designed to keep the audience on the edge of their seats as the plot builds towards a climax. Literary devices such as red herrings, plot twists, the discovery of important information, and cliffhangers are used extensively as story-telling tools.
Dungeons & Dragons™ 5th Edition is set up nicely for building stories in a fantasy fiction world. 5e also does a great job of giving GMs the tools to incorporate many of the characteristics of the thriller, such as crime, ransoms, captivities, heists, revenge, and kidnappings. DMs can utilize investigations and whodunit techniques in their story-telling just fine using the existing 5e rules.
But 5e, as we all know, is limited to a medieval setting, using combat as one method to solve problems, and typically focuses on growing a character’s personal power through the leveling process. If you want to take a story into more contemporary times and set your adventure in more realistic places, the core rules aren’t really set up for that kind of story-telling, intentionally.
For thrillers, especially ones that could take place in more recent time periods and real locations, Jeremy Forbing and Oliver Clegg have done excellent jobs in expanding 5e into the thriller and horror genre. In their respective works, Masque of the Red Death Player's Guide and the various Ravenloft expansions, they provide GMs some excellent rules and mechanics to create your own modern thriller story in 5e.
There are some not so new kids on the block, however. Matt Corley and M.T. Black collaborated on and released last week Whispers in the Dark, another approach to running thrillers at the table. Mr. Corley is quite familiar as the lead designer of Tales of the Old Margreve and contributed on other works published by Kobold Press for the Midgard setting. This year, he has also published Lamp’s Light Sanatarium, an effective way to bring horror into any RPG campaign; Haper’s Tale, a collaboration and labor of love with his daughter; and collaborated with Sandy Peterson on Ghoul Island – Act I: Voyage to Farzeen.
M.T. Black, a Guild Adept on DMs Guild, has published a vast collection of one-shot adventures and has collaborated with many other well known authors whose works are also published on that same site. His more prominent projects are Baldur's Gate: Descent into Avernus, Mordenkainen's Tome of Marvelous Magic, and Waterdeep: City of Encounters.
Their approach on Whispers in the Dark is different from the work done by Messrs. Forbing and Clegg, where the mechanics depart from the class system of 5e. This method allows players to customize and grow their characters using feats, skills, and expertise primarily.
Having read through the chapter on character creation, I have to admit that this method is quite brilliant when you think about it. Detectives, as an example, do the same type of job in real life: Investigate crimes, interview witnesses and suspects, come to a conclusion of who is the likely perpetrator of the crime, then prove their case. But each detective possesses additional gifts that either make them unique or give them an advantage over their foes. That can be said for any profession in real-life, fiction, and non-fiction.
What I also like about this method of character creation is that it is not about amassing power and capabilities to kill monsters (in fact, the characters are capped at level 10). It’s about solving puzzles using experiences your character already has, through their relationships with other characters (new and old), and the personal growth of learning a new skill as they gain experience. It is also more about the life lessons your character has or will experience.
Now, I know that it can be argued that the same sort of mechanics are available in the core rules. But this is a different way for the player to think about their character in how they can be more social, curious, and willing to solve problems without always resorting to combat. Social and exploration are the two primary pillars that will dominate any thriller RPG. Combat is not removed from these rules, but deemphasized as violence in modern times will land your character in jail, fast.
Sanity and madness mechanics are also presented well in Whispers. If you’ve ever watched The Alienist (TNT), Broadchurch (BBC), or Happy Valley (BBC), you see the characters struggle to maintain their sanity as the story progresses. In Whispers, Mr. Corley takes the madness and sanity rules from Lamp’s Light Sanitarium, and offers them to GMs in Whispers.
Sanity, madness, tension and suspense are all characteristics of the thriller genre in general, and are a crucial feature in investigative thrillers. Characters rarely rely on their physical strength to overcome their adversaries, but rather on their mental resources. Often the adversaries are not external (another characters or other circumstances) but internal (phobias, insanity, urges, feelings, fears).
Even when the adversaries are other characters, the conflicts are usually played out through mind games, deception and manipulation, or even sustained attempts to demolish each other’s mental equilibrium, as opposed to the typical physical action in classic thrillers. Characters may explore and exploit the cunning and often disordered psychological motivations of others, as well as question their own emotional stability.
Mr. Corley’s madness and sanity rules are simple and straightforward (also used in Lamp’s Light Sanitarium). He uses the familiar organization for madness found in the core rules, but transforms them in a real-life way that the players can relate to as they role-play their character.
There are two simple charts the player or GM can roll against for Transient and Short-Term Psychoses, and Long-term and Indefinite Psychoses. What’s different with these rules is that for each psycoses, there is a description of the disorder and also one for the disorder’s acute effect. The disorder is what the player can role-play and the acute effect is what the GM can role play. This method allows the player and GM “to be creative and develop the character’s idiosyncrasies,” as Mr. Corely puts it in the chapter.
The layout of Whispers is professional. The pages have breathing room, and are not jammed with endless text, tables and images that don’t make sense. Each page is simply illuminated and the right kind of fonts are utilized throughout. Despite being 73 pages, the publication is easy to skim and is a quick read. You’ll be up and running in no time.
To get you started fast, Whispers provides the GM with an adventure called "The Crow," that takes place in 19th century New Orleans, along with six, thoughtfully created level 1 pregen characters and handouts. These characters are not professional investigators, and get involved in investigation these murders by chance.
This story also possesses a mysterious villain called “The Crow Man” that the characters experience throughout the adventure (GMs can use The Crow Man as a character in their own adventures). Besides the police, there are external forces in the story, referred to as “eldritch societies,” that have also taken up an interest in the murders. These societies can either help or hinder the characters, or your characters can be from one of these societies as an option.
“The Crow” gave me a feeling of dread as I read through it, featuring scenarios for your players to experience mental, emotional, and psychological stress. I enjoyed it and want to see more in future publications (they hinted releasing new material in an upcoming crowdfunding campaign).
There's one caveat to using Whispers in your games: to successfully run a successful thriller adventure, you need to have the right kind of players at the table; ones that loves the social and exploration side of role-playing more than the combat side. The AngryDM put it nicely in an article he published on running a mystery. “...The dirty little secret is that when players are demanding a mystery game, they are secretly asking you to engage THEIR brains. THEY (the players) want to solve something and feel like bada$& detectives. They are really saying they want a puzzle.” He also warns that the GM must be “...really good at running mysteries and [that you need to know] how good your players are at solving things.”
So if you are like me and would love to run an RPG version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” or Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None,” Whispers in the Dark gets you off the ground fast, solving crimes, and leveraging your PC’s skills to outwit your version of Moriarty or The Crow.
I highly recommend that you purchased this supplement if you want to run a successful thriller at the table. It’s available now on Drive Thru RPG for $9.99 (presently on sale for $4.99 as of this writing).
Author’s note: A review copy of Whispers in the Dark was provided by the authors. I purchased my own copy of Lamp’s Light Sanitarium, referenced in this article.