Published on October 20th, 2014 | by Luke Turpeinen1
Guide to the World of Darkness, Part Five (Wraith)
The Wraith legacy of games is a little different than other game series in the World of Darkness, and the games tend to be less similar to each other than the games of other lines. None of the games in this legacy series share a name, unlike all the Vampire lines and sub-lines. That said, all of these games are centralized around the idea of being dead and interacting with ghosts in the Underworld. Each line approached the idea differently, and I feel as though they all did it successfully.
Wraith: the Oblivion
I don’t think there was a stranger game to be published in the World of Darkness than Wraith. Sure, there were weirder books with truly bizarre monsters and situations but as far as core game books go, Wraith was the most surreal. There was an inter-party conflict built into the game with the Shadow mechanics and the majority of the game took place in planes of reality not our own. That said, Wraith didn’t sell very well and the game died in its Second Edition, in 1999, instead of getting brought into the World of Darkness Revised Edition.
Main Conflict: Psyche vs. Shadow, the Renegades/Guilds/Heretics vs each other and the Hierarchy
You just died, but you weren’t ready to go yet, your ties to life meant that you didn’t pass on- not all the way. After dieing you are stuck in a shadowy, decayed version of our world where lonely souls form makeshift social groups and try to keep the evil spirits at bay. Worse, the most terrible parts of your personality, that voice at the back of your head that makes you want to yell or strike out in anger just got a lot louder. If you give in to it, the Shadow might take over forever this time.
Wraith is one of the most theatrical/artistic of the World of Darkness games, in my opinion. The themes are a lot about depression and abuse, self-loathing and despair. But ultimately Wraith is about over-coming spiritual obstacles by facing your problems proactively and honestly.
The art in Wraith is AMAZING. Apart from the cheesy character portraits, the black and white ink work of the rest of the book is simply stunning. Wraith’s art is dark and brooding, but at times full of manic energy- much like the game.
Wraith had a focus on mechanics that would help progress the story and characters, much more than other WoD games at the time. Your Fetters (people, places or objects from the mortal world) and your Passions (strong emotions about your life and death) are important traits that help you move between layers of the deadlands and power your ghostly powers, respectively. This means playing in character and being interesting awards you more benefits from a gamist perspective.
Wraith is one of the few World of Darkness games that is actually horrific. The setting and mechanics are designed to make your characters choose between some very hard moral and ethical situations. For example, many of the tools and materials of Stygia are made from souls that have been beaten and hammered into “physical” objects. Wraiths hope and believe that the soulforging process destroys the consciousness of the unfortunates used, but soulforged items still moan…
The Shadow is the dark part of your soul- that voice in your head that makes you want to lash out in anger or laugh at others’ misfortunes. In Wraith, each player has their own character, but they also play the Shadow for another player’s character. You have a couple simple stats and a resource pool that you can use to help you influence your shadow’s host. Some shadow players are very antagonistic, constantly hampering their other half. More subtle shadows give their help freely until a critical moment and then deny it unless the psyche player gives in to their demands. This is one of my all time favorite mechanics ever to be included in any roleplaying game ever.
The cosmology of the world was kind of hard to understand. On top of that, most of the game takes place in multiple layers of the Underworld without much of a connection to the land of the living. The Tempest is one of the most important “physical” and metaphysical features in the game and even the opening description is a literary shrug of the shoulders.
The Stygian part of the setting wasn’t explained in a way that made it especially useful as a storytelling tool. You don’t get an idea of how many wraiths there are, if the old wraiths turn the younger ones into soulforged objects or if it’s the other way around or a mix? The book mentions wraithly culture but never really shows it in action.
The Guild War back story was convoluted and didn’t really effect the game world in a way that mattered. Trying to make groups of wraiths that would justify having a bunch of different powers felt forced
End of Empires– This is the book that ended the Wraith line officially. It took the form of mostly story sections concerned with tying up the metaplot, though there were campaign ideas and a disclaimer that this didn’t mean you had to stop playing the game. Wraith’s 2e core book has many stories and has a strong metaplot so for many fans this was the best way to end the line, and it works very well if you actually read all the chapter fiction.
Shadow Players Guide– The SPG is the absolute most essential book for anyone to get who buys the Wraith line. You thought you had some ideas on how to play a good shadow? Not as good as the ones in this guide book, I guarantee that! I’ve never seen such a deviously clever rules supplement based entirely on a set of obscure side rules.
The Risen– What if your wraith is so angry and driven that they decide to put on their old bodies and return to the skinlands? Risen gives you rules for playing characters like the Crow. This doesn’t integrate well into the larger picture of Wraith, but it could be an effective base for a unique campaign.
Wraith may have ended in the Year of the Reckoning, but Orpheus followed soon after. While the game wasn’t properly a sequel to Wraith, it did touch on many of the same concepts and it was primarily about ghosts in the classic World of Darkness. Orpheus was published as a six book, hardcover, limited run (much like the limited runs of Prometheus, Changeling and Hunter in the new World of Darkness).
While its connection to the rest of the WoD was limited to start with, towards the end of the books its ties to Wraith get MUCH closer. This is because the books were mostly a continuing adventure, though they each added character types and mechanics as well.
Orpheus did distinguish itself though, mostly by focusing on living humans who could project their souls into the ghostly realm. The other conceit that made Orpheus stand out is that the player characters all worked for an organization called the Orpheus Group who hired people with the power to project to do jobs for them, a central private investigation firm of sorts. Of course, being the World of Darkness, this didn’t end altruistically, but that made it more fun.
The system Orpheus used was late Revised edition World of Darkness. The core book barely mentions the other game lines, though it does say that you can choose to include them but they don’t really add a lot to the story (which I agree with).
Geist: the Sin-Eaters
Main Conflict: Sin-Eaters vs Ghosts, Sin-Eaters vs their Geists
The Pitch: Your whole life has been touched by death, from an early age you were susceptible to the call of the grave. When the call finally came due, the day you died you weren’t ready, so you took the bargain. In return for holding off your death, you let a powerful spirit called a Geist ride back with you. Now it’s always at the back of your mind, your near-silent conscience whispering things into your psyche. Time to get to work.
The Geist works as a great update to the Shadow mechanic of Wraith. In Wraith, the shadow was played by another character and always tempted a character towards self-destruction, but Geists are more complex. Geists have urges and desires based on who they were at the time of their death and some iconic/archetypal aspect of death. The Lady in Blue might want to help children because she was a school mistress in life, and she may take vengeance on someone who harms children by drowning them because she drowned in the river. Geists aren’t necessarily good or evil, they are small gods of death and they aren’t nice.
Geists’ powers are well designed and interesting. Each sin-eater can get effects from combining two modifiers: Keys and Manifestations. Manifestations generally tell you what an effect does and a Key usually tells you what an effect touches. For example, the Marionette Manifestation lets the sin-eater control things with their will- if the Stigmata Key is used with it, the sin-eater can affect ghosts; if the Industrial Key is used then the sin-eater can affect machinery.
Sin-eater culture is said to be always changing as fads go in and out of fashion and new slang gets invented. This contrasts nicely with the Mage setting where everything is based on ancient tradition and pacts, and it allows the sin-eaters to be much more punk than the other supernatural types.
The life of a geist has a pretty straight forward mandate- deal with ghosts. How one chooses to do this is personal, some choose to destroy harmful ghosts and others try to help them by eliminating their ties to the mortal world. There is debate among Sin-Eaters as to the real difference between these options, but the latter is easier on the conscience.
Making your krewe’s mythology was poorly explained and didn’t seem to make much sense. I design a geist for my character and now I have to re-design it for my krewe’s myth? Why is my geist now telling me it’s the ghost of Elvis? I like the idea of pledging to a group Ethos that is bound by the geists during the forming ceremony, but the rest of this can go as far as I’m concerned.
The Underworld wasn’t well explained in the core book, and that makes a lot of the game very hard to conceptualize. The fluff gives you some cool hints, but even the geography terms used in the Underworld are barely explained. This makes Book of the Dead almost essential.
There are less story-based mechanics in Geist than there are in Wraith. This makes sense when comparing it to the other nWoD games, which have tried to be fairly universal in their rules, but I feel that it makes it less interesting. Incorporating rules like Aspects from the Fate system to represent the wants of your Geist is a good idea.
Book of the Dead– When your game is expected to go to the Underworld frequently, it’s nice to know what the place is like. Book of the Dead is really a good resource for any WoD game that makes a trip to the other side, and should be picked up by anyone playing a Moros Mage in their Awakening campaign as well.
Other World of Darkness Guides