Pining for Orpheus

Cover of the Orpheus book.

Recently, the Kickstarter for the 20th anniversary edition of White Wolf’s (now Onyx Path’s) Wraith ended. That made me reminisce fondly about the greatest campaign I never played: Orpheus! If you don’t know Orpheus, it’s a game in the World of Darkness-series of games*, and is more and less a spinoff of Wraith. The players play either ghosts or humans projecting their spirits from their bodies. In the standard set-up for the game, the Orpheus Group, a company specialising in dealings with the dead, has hired them as operatives, dealing with a variety of cases. A lot of them deal specifically with the spirit world, like getting rid of a troublesome ghost or making sure daddy is all snug in the afterlife. Of course, there are also more nefarious uses for ghostly operatives – like eavesdropping on somebody’s secret negotiations, or conducting industrial espionage. Which means that there is a burgeoning market for incorporeal security. All in all, Orpheus and its competitors are doing a nice bit of business.

If that was all there was to it, it wouldn’t be much of a game. But of course things aren’t what they seem. Both inside and outside of Orpheus, events are unfolding that will drastically change life for the characters – and for everyone around them. In fact, that’s the special thing about Orpheus: by default, it comes with a storyline, outlined in the five supplements that came out for the game. Each contains some new major development in the story, along with some new toys for the players and the Storyteller – new character types, new powers and new ways to use old powers for the players; new allies, opponents, environments and challenges for the storyteller to throw at the players, as well as new explanations for everything that’s going on.

*Orpheus is not really set in the same world as the other World of Darkness Games. Where it would be quite all right to have a crossover between Vampire, Werewolf and Mage, the setting and rules of Orpheus do not exactly encourage having a Garou or a Kindred (a werewolf or a vampire for you laymen) appear in the middle of the game.

What’s so great about it?

Orpheus takes up a significant amount of space on my shelf

Orpheus takes up a significant amount of space on my shelf

I remember when Orpheus was coming out, back in 2003-2004. I would wait with anticipation for the next instalment of the saga, to read about the exciting ways they twisted the story, explore the intricate backstory for the game – and of course to geek out at the new mechanics and rules they put out. My big tragedy was that I didn’t really have a group I could play the game with, so I had to contend myself with reading along, and running a couple of one-shots at local events.**

Since then, whenever I looked at that black-white-grey block upon my roleplaying shelf, I felt a little bit of longing. I haven’t had much time to play campaigns, but Orpheus has always been on the list of games I would love to try my hand at. Why? Several reasons.

  • The setting: I really like the setting. It feels like a slice of real world, but with something odd, disquieting and fascinating on top. Some elements have a whiff of sci-fi, while other parts smack of urban fantasy.
  • The characters: The player characters of Orpheus are real people. At least, they begin that way, and hopefully, they stay that way. They gain access to powerful abilities, but they are still vulnerable.
  • The story: The big plot included is of course a major attraction. I would love to try my hand at unfolding that story and seeing how it plays out.
  • … And the players’ place in it: I like the fact that while there is a great big plot, it’s not actually that meta. The way it is designed, the players are smack dab in the middle of it – and they have a real opportunity to influence events, without necessarily being the primary movers and shakers – though they could be, if that is the way things unfold. It’s a good mean between the lowly neophytes of a Vampire-campaign and the epic heroes your D&D-character might quickly evolve into.
  • The duality: I like how the game turns the physical world and the ghost-world into separate, but related, entities. When you are a ghost, you have supernatural powers, but you can’t easily affect the physical world. When you are a human, you are just a human – but you are also really a human. Plus, the still-living members of the group are safe from many of the threats posed to them by things in the spirit world.
  • The Crucible: The Crucible is the game’s name for the supernatural union that will exist between the characters as they work together and their essence is slowly woven together. This mystical bond can eventually be used for several different feats of power. This is a wonderful addition to the game, as it gives a reason for staying together, also after some of the things that happen in the storyline. It also means that the players have an incentive within the rules to work together and coordinate whenever they are engaged in an action scene – they are actually, numerically, stronger together.
  • The system: I really like many aspects of the way the system underpins the setting and the story. I like how you can change your basic nature – are you sleeping in a tank, projecting from a bed or a straight up ghost? – but doing so requires a significant change within the story (to wit, your death). I like the fact that your Horrors (special ghost powers) have no ranks or dots, but are simply a matter of having the power or not – and of how much power you feed into it.
  • The social critique: Orpheus is no piece of socialist propaganda, but it seems to me that it points several fingers at modern society. Not least at the world of business – Orpheus and its two major competitors are not precisely portrayed with admiration and veneration. They engage in questionable business practices, treat their employees as expendable property and lie to the government, their employees and the public alike. This is not an unusual feature in the Classic World of Darkness, but I do feel that it hits with greater precision here than in some of its older cousins – not least because it has a narrower story.
  • The finality: I like the idea of a campaign with an end point in sight. To be frank, I think an end point will help the campaign be focused, and will help it move on at a good pace. It may also make it easier to pull people together: they know it’s a limited commitment, and that it will move on without them if they don’t commit.

All in all, I like a great many things about the game.

** I have always enjoyed reading role-playing books for their own sake, particularly the ones with heaps and heaps of setting. Old World of Darkness was always great for this, as all of them had massive meta-plots behind them. Unfortunately, they were either mostly irrelevant to players, or the players were just minor pawns caught in the webs of major movers and shakers – unless you “cheated” and created them as major players. New World of Darkness cut down drastically on the meta-plot, which made the games more accessible, but also made the books less fun to read for their own sake – Changeling being a notable exception, at least for me.

So, what’s the bad news?

Of course, it’s not all good. Just as I like a great many things about the game, there are a great many things I am not so fond of with the game. These include:

  • The pacing: One of my major concerns, and a major reason why I never really tried to organise a campaign, is that it would risk being a very slow moving campaign. You need to make an introduction to Orpheus, both game and company, and play a number of regular missions, so the players get to know the situation they’re coming from. Then you slowly introduce some of the elements that will play major parts in the coming plot, before you introduce the first major plot twist. Then you need to play a couple of chapters before each plot twist. All in all, we could easily be looking at several years’ worth of campaign. That’s quite a commitment, particularly if it will take five to 10 sessions before you introduce the first of the six plot twists, and the story begins in earnest.
  • The system: So, I like many things about the system. I also loathe many things about it. The basic engine is White Wolf’s d10 system, the same one used in Vampire, Werewolf and Mage. It works fine to give you an overview of the strengths and weaknesses of the character, but once you start rolling the dice, I’ve often found it to be a bit clunky. That is especially true of the combat system, which is about as precise as a bazooka. Also, it almost requires the Storyteller to use fleshed out characters for their NPCs in a conflict situation, and I don’t want to have to write out scores of NPCs, just on the chance that my players will end up in a fight with it.
  • The integration between rules and world: This is pretty much the same complaint as above, but I’ve often found that the WoD systems have had a bit of a loosey goosey relationship with how the rules and the story affect one another. Take the willpower rules: Willpower is one of the most important currencies the players have, and it’s handed out in a variety of situations that basically boil down to “whenever the storyteller feels like it”. Similar complaints can be levered against the backgrounds.
  • The ending: I really like the story… but I have my misgivings about the ending of it. I won’t spoil it (I might want you to play it with me, after all), but they have a big showdown planned for the end. I’m all for a great big blast at the end, but when I read the final book, End Game, I remember feeling a bit let down. In the books, they talk about the “movie model”, and compare it to Aliens – but as I recall, Aliens doesn’t end so much on a big showdown as it does with a last, desperate attempt to overcome the Xenomorph threat to Ripley and co.’s personal safety (not to mention the threat they pose to all of humanity). Sure, they need to give the characters a chance to show off all the cool powers they have accumulated throughout the campaign, but I feel like they could have done this in a more elegant way. This is not at all a deal breaker, particularly since each group can interpret it as they want, but I remember feeling let down by what felt like a rather generic end to a very interesting story arc.

Bottom line is that I would love to play the game – either as a player or as a Storyteller, but I would have to think carefully about the best way to do it. Particularly bearing in mind everything that has happened in the roleplaying world over the last eleven years – I couldn’t do this without hacking in a few elements of story games and indie game design.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: