Although it's probably not the plot that's especially grim. You've got a drug, pigment, that when you take it you can see ghosts. And if you die while high on pigment, you automatically become a weak type of ghost known as a "hue." So, if the villains were to suddenly need a lot of ghosts very quickly, they could poison a big batch of pigment, and take advantage of the horde of weak and confused hues to advance their nefarious underworld schemes. A classic supervillain scheme.
But then, the authors of Shades of Gray made the choice to luridly describe the symptoms of strychnine poisoning, and the grief and chaos that would naturally happen in the wake of a mass poisoning, and it stops being a superhero plot and starts being an atrocity.
I suppose it's an artistic line that I don't often notice. I can watch Spiderman thwart a mugging or a bank robbery and think "ah, this is a fun adventure," but realistically, there's nothing fun about this at all. Even in a robbery with no casualties, people get PTSD from having armed men screaming and pointing weapons at them, and the stolen money that seems so abstract in a comic book is, for a real person, a rent payment or a month's worth of meals, or a child's medicine. To describe the perpetrators as "villains" or even just "criminals" is to put a blanket of bland words around some actually pretty horrifying behavior.
So, of course, when your genre is horror, maybe you just lean into it. I can respect that, even if it occasionally makes for a painful read. However, now that I'm at the halfway point in the series, I can officially say that I'm conflicted about Orpheus as a whole. It's still my third or fourth favorite World of Darkness game (maybe even second, if it turns out that both Hunter and Demon are less cool than I remember), and it's probably the one most likely to withstand the test of time. Yet I'm coming to think that I only really like a watered-down version of the creators' original vision. I like the occult/sci-fi procedural element, where you're working for this mysterious corporation, using its sinister technology and the ghost stuff is merely spooky. Ooh, there's life after death, and humanity is recklessly charging ahead in its exploration (and exploitation) of the most primordial mystery of the human condition, but maybe you're just solving a difficult murder or bringing peace to a haunted house and it all stays very PG-13.
Orpheus wants to do more than that, though. It also wants to present a frightening horror experience . . . by which I mean it wants to creep you out . . . by which I mean it sometimes feels like it was written by a bunch of creeps.
Okay, that may sound a little harsh. I meant "creep" in the horror-genre sense of the word. Like "that clown with the big knife is a total creep." Or like, "that Jessica Fletcher, she's a real creep, isn't she?" It's obvious that they're trying to push our buttons, is what I'm saying.
The reason the villains need so many helpless ghosts is because they are building a Spectre Hive, an underworld structure that influences victims in the living world towards self-harm or depraved acts of violence. Helpfully, there are specific suggestions. And yeah, they go there.
This isn't 90s White Wolf. They didn't revel in specific imagery, but that's something I had to read. My day was made worse by reading this book. And I suppose it's allowed. This is entertainment for adults, and some adults like being creeped out. I just have to accept that I'm going to keep feeling ambivalent.
Another source of ambivalence - the fact that the main plot sets the PCs up to fail. This is one of those delicate situations where failing to thwart the plot leads to a more interesting outcome than going in and being a big hero. The question is how to do this without annoying your players. The book suggests withholding information until it's too late . . . which is maybe realistic enough to be forgivable, because, seriously, how often are the PCs privy to drug deals, let alone extra-secret deals where ghosts have tainted the product with strychnine? There's a balance to navigate. If the players know about the poisoning before it happens, but can't stop it, they might feel cheated. If the players don't know about the poisoning in advance, and then later find out about it, that's not an rpg blot - it's just a background event in the world. You might be able to present it as a mystery to be solved, just like the hauntings in a regular procedural game, but the solution this adventure aims for is making mitigation feel like a victory. The players get there just in time to save some of the victims, but it's still a total shitshow.
It could work, especially if you're playing with a group that's more into the horror elements, but I think it would be tricky to pull off. That may be why the book has a sidebar literally titled "This Sucks," which I might as well have quoted in its entirety because it makes all the same points I did in the previous paragraph. Still, I'm glad it was there, because it does at least make me feel like the book has my back. It knows it's trying something difficult, and encourages GMs to rise to the challenge. It's kind of funny, though. I don't think I've seen any rpg company be more willing to point out its own flaws, "yeah, we see those red flags, but we're going to just charge right ahead." It's a tendency that aggravates me when White Wolf is being maximum gross, but I appreciate it here.
Now, let's switch gears and talk about this book as a miscellaneous supplement for Orpheus as a whole. It's exciting, because it adds a whole new Shade (ghost type) and some fun new Backgrounds, but there's no reason, aside perhaps for space reasons, that Phantasms couldn't have been in the core. I guess the lore reason is that their Nature group is rare in the setting and Orpheus hadn't found any yet, but Phantasms are largely drawn from "Architect, Avant-Garde, Celebrant, Dreamer, Gambler, [and] Visionary" Natures, which are going to be highly appealing to a certain type of player. It feels really arbitrary that they were excluded.
And, look, it probably was. They have to put something in the "Unearthed Players' Guide" chapters, and the one in Shades of Gray was probably already running short as it was. That's the only explanation for the inclusion of new Roles. Those are brief suggestions for a character concept, accompanied by some suggested traits. Like the "Prospector" who is super imperialist and prioritizes both Physical Attributes and Knowledges. Roles are as useless here as they were in the core, and, really, they should have been taken out to make room for the extra Shades (although it might be premature for me to lump them all together. I have a vague memory of the later ones being a bit better justified as late game surprises).
The book also has a new tier of ghost powers, the level 3 Horrors, and while I'm certain they were core in Wraith: the Oblivion, they do at least feel legitimately like a game-changing revelation to be discovered along with the new lore.
Overall, I'd say that Shades of Gray is a successful supplement. I feel significantly less jerked-around than I did after Crusade of Ashes, yet somehow I also feel like the stakes have been raised and the players are being drawn into entirely new kinds of conflicts. Don't mistake my ambivalence about the tone and genre for a disinterest in the mysteries.
Ukss Contribution: My favorite of the new Horror powers was "Beckon Relic" where you just sort of reach into the depths of the underworld and draw out a random item. You can control the size, based on how much Vitality you spend, but other than that, you can only control the purpose for which the item will be used. Reach for a weapon and you might get a broadsword or you might get a tommy gun. Go for broke and summon a car, and you could get any model from the entire history of the automobile. It's the fun sort of chaos power, and maybe Ukss could have a magic wand or enchanted bag that does something similar.
PS: Remember RAINN
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