Monday, October 24, 2022

(Orpheus) Crusade of Ashes

While I eventually mellowed on this book, the first 50 pages or so of Crusade of Ashes were viscerally unpleasant to read. My notes are filled with sad-boy comments like, "ensuring the canon events happen by making the attack brutally unfair" and "the meticulous planning of this attack makes me feel dirty as a GM."  Maybe it's because I'm not really a horror guy. The mercenaries of NextWorld attack Orpheus headquarters and slaughter everyone, from upper management, to the scientists, the facilities workers, and the projecters lying helplessly in their cryogenic cradles. Then, a bunch of specters come and capture the ghosts of the dead, either devouring them on the spot or dragging them to some unknown, terrible fate. And the PCs are so helpless in the face of this brutality that the book actually suggests that they should be somewhere else entirely and only hear about it after-the-fact. 

It depressed me, because it's a cruel plot, with few options for heroes to even mitigate the damage, let alone stop it, but also because Orpheus has so far been my favorite part of Orpheus, and canonically it is no more. There was a part of me that was like, "shut up about your damned 'movie model' for five damned minutes, okay? I'm still trying to grieve." However, upon more sober reflection, I can acknowledge that it was in many ways an inevitable development. "Pride cometh before the fall," and all that. One of the things I enjoyed about Orpheus (the organization) was the foolishness of their pride, and my own genre-savvy smugness that the fall was coming, so I guess it's a little hypocritical of me to see this quite dramatic fall and think, "what the hell is this bullshit?"

I think the problem might be the suggested theme, "loss of control." That makes me uncomfortable. . .

Now let me be real for a second. After writing that last line, I asked myself the question, "what is it about a loss of control that makes you so uncomfortable," and I realized that I am teetering on the brink of turning this post into a therapy session. Maybe it's sufficient to reiterate that I'm not a horror guy, and so I wouldn't necessarily even be able to appreciate the good kind of poking at my deepest fears and insecurities.

However, as a GM, it makes me uncomfortable because I'm not sure I can properly convey the difference between "loss of control" as a literary theme that is indelibly linked to Orpheus' scientism and hubris and "loss of agency," a poor GMing technique that is indelibly linked to me being a dick. Especially because it's not just that Orpheus gets blown up, the player characters are framed for the crime and hunted by the FBI (as well as NextWorld mercenaries and freelancers who are being paid to finish the job). The FBI doesn't care about the characters' guilt or innocence, because it just wants a scapegoat. Their real agenda is to persuade the public (and presumably the Congress who would need to write the enabling legislation) that it should act as the sole regulatory agency for projection technology. Meanwhile, the book also has basically nothing good to say about the media, who are apparently eager to hype up the manhunt for the sake of ratings (though we bloggers are the true heroes - "'blogs' are actually the characters' best hope").

The net effect is a serious discussion about shutting down all the PCs Background points and player advice about how to get along when the entire system is against them (even though most of that advice boils down to a variation of "you probably can't").

I guess a Kafkaesque nightmare where the machinery of law has prejudged your guilt and refuses to entertain evidence of your innocence is also a kind of horror, right? Though if the GM really wants to do it right, they'll have to "ensure the game's hostile tone contains unpredictability and variety."

Ah, hell. I think this book is describing hell.

Oh, I shouldn't be such a grump. I can kind of see the intended game, the fun version of all this that players are going to want to play. You're a noble fugitive, who may be wrongly accused, but who won't let that stop them from doing good deeds, helping the helpless, and investigating the dark secrets that led to Orpheus' downfall. Eventually, you'll turn the tables, find the architect of your shattered life, and bring the fight to them. I mean, that's a Season 5 plot if I ever heard one, given the title of the whole fucking game, but I could see it working, once the players started growing jaded about the game's procedural elements.

I'd feel a lot more sanguine about it if I could remember the identity of Mysterious Antagonist #1 (that's what they're called in the book). This story is going to have a payoff in one of the future supplements, and maybe that will be enough to retroactively redeem it in my eyes (I kind of feel like it must have happened, because my overall memory of the series is positive).

Some of the secrets are pretty interesting, though. Orpheus tested the first intentionally build projection chamber on death row inmates, in a sinister experiment called Project Flatline, and test subjects decided they'd be happier as free ghosts than live prisoners. They are now some of the most powerful spirits haunting the world of the living, with some of them providing muscle to a criminal gang, a few following a charismatic leader known as Uriah Bishop, a few unaccounted for, and one of them anchoring a really gross mission.

Look, it's horror. A death row inmate who can physically possess the living is scary. I get it. The fact that he uses his ghostly possession powers to do really upsetting things to women . . . Ehh . . . Talk it over with your group, I guess. Crusade of Ashes is kind of a poster child for session 0. Personally, I think the Project Flatline guys should be Hannibal-esque murder wizards instead of realistic misogynists, but then, I'm not really a horror guy.

The other noticeable trend in the metaplot is that it is becoming more explicitly a Wraith: the Oblivion game. The Shadowlands are mentioned. The reason Orpheus hasn't discovered ghosts older than 3 years is explicitly because of the Week of Nightmares (alluded to in some of the Mage: the Ascension books, but never something I felt the need to address directly). The specters definitely have more backstory to be shared.

I'm a bit nervous about this development. Wraith brings a lot baggage to the story, and the proper amount can add the weight of history to the setting's secrets, but too much threatens to turn Orpheus from a bold limited-run game of its own into a really niche Wraith: the Oblivion campaign. I mean, I've made peace with the fall of Orpheus as a concept, and I understand why it happened, but we're two books in and already I'm missing the science fiction and procedural elements that made the core book such a unique world. Why couldn't Orpheus' hubris have caught up to it in book four or five instead?

Overall, I think this book can make for some enthralling reading, and killing off the titular organization a third of the way through the line is certainly a fearless move. However, I also think that if I were ever to use Crusade of Ashes in a game, I'd probably have to go with the watered-down version of the plot where Orpheus survives in diminished form. The Season 1 finale is simply too early for a late-series shakeup to the format.

Ukss Contribution: We learn that specters "hate the beach with a notorious passion." It's unclear from context whether that means all specters hate all beaches, or if it's just that the specific specters in that single Artifact write-up happen to hate the specific beach where the ghost radio was found, but since I love the beach, it makes me happy to think that evil ghosts do not. I'm not sure how I'll work it in, but the beaches of Ukss will have anti-haunting properties.

PS: It's another good time to donate to RAINN.

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