Posts Tagged ‘World of Darkness’

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.

This is the second of two posts describing seven role-playing games that changed my life. In this post, I’ll go from number four to number one in the reverse chronology. There is something very appropriate (but coincidentalI about this division: apart from Alternity, the games of the last post were all games I first encountered after I left school. Now we get to the games I played in my first years as a role-player – the formative games, as it were.

Dungeons & Dragons

Seeing D&D on here is probably not a shock to a lot of people. What might surprise some is how high I put this on the list. That’s because D&D wasn’t really the game that brought me into roleplaying. Sure, the second “real” role-playing game I played was a short campaign of AD&D. But we never really got off the ground, and though I thoroughly enjoyed it, what really got me into the hobby was being in a “class” where Vampire, Call and Shadowrun were where it was at. Sure, we played Dungeons & Dragons – but it wasn’t really as cool.

Where D&D really got going for me was much later, when I had become the teacher of the class, and was organizing fantasy LARP with a group of three other guys. We hung out a lot, and soon we decided to start playing a campaign. One of the others was the GM, and the point was to play a very “political” game with no real dungeon crawling, and more story telling. In other words, this was the game that taught me how cool campaigns can be. I haven’t been so privileged as to be part of a lot of great campaigns – but this one lasted around a year, I think, and was really, truly, great. We were on the same page, we developed our characters together, and we just had a real blast. I think that is the greatest thing D&D has done for me. Sure, it showed me how much fun role-playing can be much earlier – but really, at that point I was already well and truly hooked.

Call of Cthulhu

People who remember last week will know I have tricked you – a little. You see, I said last week that Call almost took the place of Alternity. Well, it did – it was one of those games that taught me the joy of the ordinary man, even (or maybe particularly) in the face of the extraordinary.

But Call taught me something else as well. It taught me that you can play a role-playing system without using the system. In reality, most of the CoC games I played were free-form. We all had a Credit Rating and a Cthulhu Mythos score (usually 0 – we always played starting characters), and we certainly had (too few) Sanity Points.

But we rarely actually used the stats much during the game. The Basic system was very clunky, complicated and confusing, and we didn’t really need them. We used the stats to figure out who the character was, and that was a great reason to have the stats, but we almost never tested them. That also meant that at some point, the stats started to disappear. In that way, playing Call could be considered going from a trike to a bike with training wheels: in the beginning, it feels the same, but gradually, the wheels come off, and you hardly know the difference, because you were not using them anyway. And so, Call helped me get into rule-less scenarios,” scenarios with no system, which took up most of my rpg attention for several years, and also prepared me to accept Fastaval scenarios.

Like with Alternity, Warhammer FRP could go here as well: it also helped me understand this. Warhammer was more martial, and much simpler (and better explained) than Basic, and so we tested it more. But really, we only used it for fighting, and many Warhammer scenarios didn’t really have fighting.


Hey, what did you expect? I started playing in the late ‘90ies – of course Vampire was going to be on here. And my first real roleplaying game was in fact a Vampire 2nd edition game – I played a biker type Bruhja, who was quite violent.

Later on, Vampire was all the rage. I bought all the WoD books I could afford. I wasn’t actually all that into Vampire, being more attracted to Mage and Werewolf. But everybody else was a huge Vampire fan, and I was more than happy to play – and GM – it.

Much later, I ended up GM’ing a Vampire: the Requiem chronicle that lasted for more than a year of playing at least once a week. I was living in a dorm, and two geeks who were my closest buddies at the time created a character each. I had an idea for a short introduction that ended up taking most of the time we had. That’s where I really learned what an organic thing a role-playing game can be – and how much the game gives to you if you can just sit back and listen to it. I had a fair bit more than “bangs” – but after the first session or so, I think I wouldn’t have needed much more. I could have just brought one or two bangs to the table, and all would have gone well. Of course, part of what kept the game running so well was my preparation.

And so, Vampire (and WoD in general) was the game that taught me both to be a player, and to be a GM.

Fighting Fantasy

…which brings us back to the very beginnings.

Little Elias is about 7 years old. In the after-school care, some of the older boys are playing a game. Little Elias, 7 years old, really wants to join.

The older boys are playing Fighting Fantasy, and I was hooked. For several years, I wanted to “talk a game” with my parents. I wanted  the “Monster Manual” for Christmas, and I gobbled up the “Choose your own adventure”- books in the series. Yes, indeed, I was well and truly sold. Seven years old, and I was a role-player.

Another game taught me a lot about the tropes of dungeon crawling: Hero Quest. But by the time I met Hero Quest, I had known Fighting Fantasy for years.

Fighting Fantasy is also a game of a simplicity I didn’t encounter again until certain indie games more than a decade and a half later. Three stats it had: Strength, Stamina and luck. Everything was dealt with by using one or two of those. And yet they managed to have a book of more than a hundred pages of some of the most imaginative monsters I have ever encountered.

It was not a very good system. But by golly, did it ever catch my imagination. And twenty one years later, here I am.


Mage: the ascension magic, doing it like the Lady

My parents are moving out of the house they’ve lived in for the past 25 years and moving into something significantly smaller. This means that they want to get rid of all the stuff they don’t have room for – including my old stuff. And so, my mother brought a big box of old roleplaying books. Among these books was Mage: The Ascencion, one of the roleplaying games I liked best, but never really got to play, except in brief, one shot sessions – and this is really a game where you need to have a campaign in which to define your character and, not least, the way you cast spells.

Mage: the awhatening?

If you don’t know Mage, it’s a very post-modern game of ordinary humans who suddenly Awaken to find that they can influence the world with their will. In this world, reality is literally a product of the collective minds of every ordinary human (the “Sleepers”), and so reality changes with the mindset of each new age. Magic that follows the rules of the current reality will be easier to perform, while magic that breaks it risks incurring “Paradox,” reality’s way of fighting intruders.

Each Mage will quickly find himself a certain style of magic and join a corresponding group that centres around that style of magic. Player characters will usually join one of the nine traditions,* such as the Order of Hermes, specializing in “classic” magic with spells and symbols, the eastern artial artists of the Akashic Brotherhood or even the mad scientists of Sons of Ether or the Cybermages of the Virtual Adepts. Opposing the Traditions are three other factions, chief among them the Technocracy, divided into technical Iteration X, biotech Progenitors, political New World Order, financial Syndicate and space-faring Void Engineers. The remaining two factions are the mad Marauders and the devil-dealing Nephandi.

Magic in Mage is left very open. There are nine “Spheres,” each of which you can have up to five Dots in – as per WoD standard. Each dot allows you to do more things with what that sphere governs. Dot 1 usually deals with sensing, dot 2 allows minor manipulations, 3 is minor transmutation (so changing something into something else, or creating from nothing), 4 is major manipulation and 5 is major creation, at least when talking about the spheres that deal with “things”: the spheres of Forces, Matter, Life and Mind (to a certain extent). So in order to halt a speeding bullet, you’d need Forces 2, throwing lightning bolts or powering your computer without a power source is Forces 3, while Forces 5 would allow you to create a major thunderstorm.

Casting a spell involves describing what you want to do, finding out which spheres you need, then describing how you are going to go about casting that spell – what kind of ritual you’ll use, etc. Then you roll your “Arete” (a stat for your magical prowess) to find out if you succeed.

*: In the revised version, there is a tenth tradition, “The Hollow Ones,” but I was never a fan of them.

Problem: the Solving

I always loved the feeling of the book, but the magic rules always seemed a little too stiff to me. You’re supposed to design flashy, showy spells, but the rules seem to encourage precise, inconspicuous spells, and there’s little in the rules to encourage flashy storytelling – that doesn’t mean it won’t happen, but it’s not that well integrated into the rules.

There’s also an issue with the spheres: they are sometimes quite rigid, to the point when it seems a little silly. A beginning mage can do almost nothing, and sometimes you want to do a little effect when you realise you can’t, because you haven’t got the right sphere. Also, with each dot of a sphere being such a big step, it makes little sense that increasing your knowledge of, say, Forces doesn’t always increase your ability to manipulate forces

So, a more flexible system that encourages storytelling great spells would be good. As written, there is a big difference between the magic system and the rest of the system, and the book even devotes a chapter to magic, independently of the other rules. This to me makes a lot of sense to me: the game is about ordinary humans who attain the ability to bend reality to their wills while still essentially being humans – as opposed to Werewolf and Vampire, where you actually turn into a supernatural being. Of course the reality bending is going differ from doing mundane things.

With this in mind, and with Apocalypse Drow still relatively fresh in my mind, I had a thought to change the way magic works, using parts of the system from Lady Blackbird to better simulate magic.

Gathering: the magic

In Lady Blackbird, you have a number of traits, each with a number of tags. When you want to act, you take one die, plus one per applicable trait plus one per applicable tag. So, for instance, the character Cyrus Vance has these traits and tags:

  • Ex-Imperial Soldier: Tactics, Command, Soldiers, Rank, Connections, Maps, Imperial War Ships
  • Smuggler: Haggle, Deception, Sneak, Hide, Camouflage, Forgery, Pilot, Navigation, [Repair], [Gunnery]
  • Survivor: Tough, Run, Scrounge, Endure, Creepy Stare, Intimidate, [Medic]
  • Warrior: Battle-Hardened, Shooting, Two-Gun Style, Pistol, Fencing, Sword, [Brawl], [Hail of Lead]

It strikes me that a lot of these are very much like “skills,” and that they are a little boring, really. What I’d like to do is convert all the things about a character that affects his spellcasting into traits, and then give him a bundle of tags to attach to that. The tags should be aspects that are easy to weave into a spell, and which improve the play experience of playing the game.

The things that could be turned into traits are for instance: the Mage’s tradition, the Mage’s specific group (if he has one), the Mage’s concept/personality, and the mage’s spheres.

Let’s exemplify with my old character from a one shot thing I did. My character was a hermetic mage (he was a member of the Order of Hermes) who was an avatar of Odin, as such using runes to cast magic, and who used his PDA to write runes on. He also had a spear-like thing as a focus, and he had a glass eye. Being hermetic, he had a fair amount of Force magic. His Traits might look like this:

  • Order of Hermes: Scholary, secrets, language, ritual, secret names, House [whatever]
  • Avatar of Odin: Lost eye, spear, rune magic, crows, Old Norse
  • Technomage: PDA, Computer, Programming,
  • Forces sphere: Speed, Lightning, Electronics, Weather, Battle Magic, Spear
  • Entropy sphere: Soothsaying, Wyrd, Throwing Runes, Looking into Mimirs Well

These traits and tags could use some work, but you get the idea: have effects and foci connected to the traits. You then take one die per trait and tag that applies to the spell you are casting and roll them all, determining success based on how you roll.

Something else that might be imported is the Pool: in Lady Blackbird, you can add more dice by spending your “pool.” In Mage, you have something called quintessence which is originally meant to lower difficulties and power certain effects. But I think it would make sense to have it give you extra dice, as well as doing all the other things it does.

There is probably more that would need changing. But this is an outline for making a spell-casting system for Mage that makes a little more sense to me.