Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Orpheus (Core)

I need to revise my list of White Wolf games I'd like to see adapted to television. I'd completely forgotten about Orpheus, despite its near-perfect procedural premise. It's the not-too-distant future (actually, it's 2003, but it's the not-too-distant future of 2003, not 2003 the historical era - obviously, you'd want to update the timeline) and a shady cryogenics corporation has discovered that some of its clients have seen things while they were frozen. Specifically, while they were in that twilight state between life and death, their spirits wandered through the world of ghosts. Acting on this discovery, the cryogenics company rebranded as The Orpheus Group, and now their main business is paranormal investigation and elimination. . . Though the corporation has dark secrets and mysterious benefactors, and rumors are that its astrally projecting agents can haunt the living just as well as any ghost, especially if the price is right.

It's just so good, people. This has all of the characteristic White Wolf tropes, but they're all used really well. The very fact that it's about ghosts brings in the horror element. Despite the other elements of the setting, this is consistently played straight. Ghosts are murder victims or tormented by obsession or trapped and confused and you've got to deal with them. But then, there's the conspiracy stuff too, and it's unusually satisfying because the questions are concrete. How did this mysterious corporation get its occult technology so quickly? What did board member Jane Kennedy see when she was frozen? Who made the decision to use the projectors for espionage, blackmail, and intimidation? And there's the hubris of science. Orpheus is messing with forces it can't understand or control, but because there's aspects that are quantifiable and repeatable, it can approach this sublime mystery through the lens of technology and the fools actually think that's going to keep them safe. Mage and Werewolf wish they could do "what has your science wrought" so elegantly. There are hints of antediluvian monsters, but the flood was just three years ago so it feels like an immediate mystery. Then there's the power fantasy of projectors themselves, who not only have unique superpowers, but also a kind of super-hero-like unaccountability (because the law is not yet progressive enough to deal with ghosts and astral projection). And the urban fantasy element of living in a world where (informed) people just kind of know ghosts are real, so you've got rivals like the mercenary company with its own projectors or the international gang run by ghosts possessing human bodies. The Orpheus universe somehow gets it all right.

Which brings us to a minor flaw - technically, the Orpheus universe is just the World of Darkness. I mean, the idea shows up in a sidebar about how the other supernatural conspiracies have not yet noticed Orpheus and then a little bit in the description of the Occult ability, but otherwise is quite wisely ignored. However, with the possible exception of Wraith: the Oblivion (which has unsurprisingly donated a lot of its system terminology and basic cosmology), I can't think of a single WoD crossover that would not instantly ruin this game's whole vibe. More than just about any other World of Darkness game, Orpheus needs to be its own thing, with its own worldbuilding.

I think the secret to Orpheus' success is the fact that it was conceived as a limited-run series. They always intended to make precisely six books, and so from the very beginning, they're working towards a plan and with a fairly strenuous page-count budget. As a result, this book has what is probably the least ponderous Storyteller chapter of any old-school WW core. Doesn't even talk about "theme" or "mood" at all, despite the fact that Orpheus has plenty of both. Although, you could just as easily argue that there are some things that are being transparently held back to sell the supplements. There are only two Horrors (special ghost powers) per Shade (type of ghost - poltergeist, banshee, et al) and the way Nature (personality) groups are structured indicates that there are three entire shades that have yet to be revealed. It's the worst kind of supplement slow-drip, but since we know there are only going to be five of them, that takes some of the sting out of it. . . I guess. White Wolf's first limited run series is also its first to require all six books to play the game. 

Nonetheless, this particular book shows admirable focus. It is absolutely well-tuned to play out the early chapters of a sprawling sci-fi/fantasy/horror epic, and if the book seems overly focused on setting a scene, it at least has the advantage of being a really interesting scene. The introduction uses the term "The Movie Model" to describe its approach, saying that the core is like "the opening premise of the movie, those first 15 to 20 minutes before the major plot twist," but I think there's a little bit more meat on these bones than that. It's more like the first 3-4 episodes of the first season of a long-form drama. Of course, that wouldn't have been a very relateable metaphor back in 2003, but that's the advantage of living in the future - you've got all kinds of hindsight.

Although, I may have to confess to just a wee bit of disingenuousness on my part. I'm not coming in to this book a pure, unspoiled newbie. I've actually already read all the way through to Endgame. Granted, that was something like 15 years ago, but I do remember bits and pieces of how the mysteries get resolved. And reading the book with that knowledge, I can say that it's pretty fair about telegraphing the stuff that's yet to come, but maybe it's a problem that the most enticing of its lacunae are destined to be filled. I wonder about the practicality of running a game where you, say, investigate the source of Pigment, the mysterious street drug that allows users to see ghosts when there is a definite canonical answer to this mystery, but they won't let you know what it is until book three, which won't be out for another two months after the core. It's not that long in the grand scheme of things, especially when compared to the glacial pace of current rpg releases, but it's still potentially 8 weekly sessions spent spinning your wheels or diverging from canon, for one of the setting's main plotlines.

Then again, it's all very theoretical now. The entire series has been out for close to twenty years (damn, I'm old) and any GM who really wants to get the most out of the game is probably just going to read all six books before starting anyway. . . but that swings us back around to the "limited run series" issue. Like, yes, it's good that we're not going to be strung along for years and years by a volatile metaplot the core was never meant to cope with, but the certainty of having a known end date does seem to have tempted the line developer into taking the supplements for granted.

Other observations:

Storyteller system is still Storyteller system. This version neither corrects any of its flaws nor takes any risks on new mechanics. I'm wary of the fact that you use your hp for mp, but the regeneration rate can be pretty generous (potentially as many as 5-6 per day for even the slower spirit types) and the way Vitality is usually lost doesn't seem terribly lethal for ghosts. 

The Natures/Demeanors section continues to be a major drag, but at least it has some justification for its existence here (natures now belong to one of eight "Nature Groups" and certain ghostly powers, mainly those related to freeing a ghost from its earthly fetters, can only be used on a target who is part of your same Group). I feel like it was a design error to say that the Natures' bonuses to starting Vitality, Willpower, and Spite would always add up to +5, though because that gives high-Spite Natures a double disadvantage. First, the points you lose from Vitality and Willpower, and second, the fact that Spite itself is a bad thing to have (accumulate 10 points and you'll become a Specter - an unplayable evil NPC ghost). Objectively, the best Nature is Defender, which gives +3 Vitality, +2 Willpower, and +0 Spite. It's the only Nature that doesn't increase Spite (even Caregivers get +1) and it is typically possessed by cops. So yeah . . .

Actually, Orpheus is 2000s White Wolf, not 90s White Wolf, so it occasionally says things that are problematic (for example, one of the Attribute descriptions has a character puppet another character into saying a racial slur, to get said character into a fight with his Asian criminal associates), but it doesn't revel in the grotesque. Like, there are female characters with rape as a backstory element, but no suggestions that you play out that trauma on-screen (and, in fact, a warning that you shouldn't include that element if it would make any of the players uncomfortable). 

The biggest pre-woke legacy problem for me (besides "derangements") was actually a major setting element - the fact that there's no way to heal a specter, despite the fact that it's possible to become a specter by experiencing trauma. It especially hurt in the description of the Lost Boys - they're the ghosts of children who died from neglect and their pain was so severe that they immediately skipped being normal ghosts and went straight to being evil cannibalistic ghosts. I suppose that there's something in-genre about ghost-hood being as arbitrary, unjust, and cruel as death itself, but I'm not sure I can entirely stand a universe where there's no hope for those poor babies.

Finally, a minor gripe. In fact, let's not call it a gripe at all. Let's call it a question. Two types of projectors? Sleepers, who are put into cryogenic chambers and kept on the very cusp of death so that their spirits may act as ghosts even though they are technically alive. And skimmers, who have mastered esoteric meditation techniques that allow them to leave or reenter their bodies, more or less at will. Am I the only one that feels like the existence of the second undermines the absolutely delicious techno-gothic imagery of the first? Like, the Orpheus Group's whole deal is that they are hubristically trying to technologize and commodify the soul using their proprietary machines, so to have this less macabre, more spiritual technique exist alongside the creepy pseudo-coffins could be interpreted as a dilution of one of the game's biggest themes. It serves as an interesting contrast, and I could see how Skimming might be a technique that exists in this world belonging to psychics who don't fit into Orpheus' technocratic culture, but in the hypothetical show, that would probably be a season 2 or 3 reveal (actually, it would be perfectly placed in the Crusade of Ashes section of the plot, but I'm getting ahead of myself).

Overall, this is one of my favorite White Wolf games and I think, as we approach its 20 year anniversary, it holds up better than most (although, there was probably no way for them to know that the Health Insurance Background would one day be hilarious). I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the series.

Ukss Contribution: Ghost elephant. It's a sad story, in-context (was put down after "an incident" at the zoo), but I like the implication that elephants are sentient enough to leave behind a ghost. It rings true to me that the continuity of the tree of life would exist even in a setting where the supernatural is real.

EDIT: Oh, by the way, you should donate some money to RAINN, if you can.

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