Tuesday, December 20, 2022

(Orpheus) The Orphan Grinders


Ew. That name. It's never adequately explained, and the speculation for why this new breed of ex-spectres might be called "Orphan-Grinders" is so weak that I suspect the name doesn't mean anything at all. Maybe they're "orphaned" by the spectre hive-mind, or maybe they're worse than spectres "because they understand the quality of mercy and yet ignore it as a failing," or maybe someone in Orpheus brainstorming meetings came up with a clever turn of phrase and nobody could bear to strike it from the whiteboard.

Anyway, the Orphan-Grinders (ew) do address one of my issues with Orpheus' setting - the bleak reactionary cynicism behind making the fall to becoming a spectre a one-way street. Spectres so far have been one of those "dark side" groups that follows the weird fictional trope of recruiting primarily from among their victims. Like, a dark and sinister ghost who has given over completely to their most terrible passions of hate and rage, that makes sense. And it makes sense that when a serial killer like Cyrus J. Randall dies, they have only a short journey to becoming a spectre. But then the people this serial-killer-turned-dark-ghost tortures and kills, they become spectres too, and suddenly they're on the same side, working towards the same goal? You could very reasonably frame becoming a spectre as a tragedy, that the supernatural rules of being a ghost are such that even well-justified hate and rage make you lose all control, but wouldn't that out-of-control hate and rage still largely target their former enemies?

Sure, sometimes in the real world, an organization will put its recruits through an unnecessarily abusive training regimen and the result will be new members with fanatical loyalty. And sometimes an abused person will cleave tightly to their abuser, but even in those situations, there's a more nuanced psychological process at play here. The recruits can consider themselves elite because they endured the abuse. The abuser's rage is followed up by overwhelming love-bombing. 

I don't know . . . humans are complicated, I guess. However, from a pure storytelling perspective, it's one of my least favorite tropes. It's marginally justified here, because the chthonic deity, Grandmother, incorporates most of the spectres into her hive mind. And the hive-mind experience is, in fact, described as "suffused with love," so telepathy combined with crude psychological manipulation could explain a loyalty to Grandmother. But it's fucking grim. These torture victims are being exploited by their torturers to torture more people and the ratchet only turns towards "evil" because there's no terminology in the system to differentiate between living murderers who became murder ghosts and innocents who died and then because of the fucked-up cosmology became murder ghosts.

I mean, for fuck's sake, the Lost Boys. They're spectres who got their start as abused and neglected children and they never fail to give me the heebie-jeebies, and not in a way that inclines me to explore the horror genre. They have an especially gruesome appearance in this book, and I'm going to have to quote the worst of it, because it's fucking terrible in a way that I wouldn't want to write the words that could do it justice: "A fourth, had wrapped the lower half of its face in duct tape, while the upper half appeared purple and bloated."  It's such a visceral image, especially when you know the backstory - Sister Grace was a nun who "took care" of orphans, many of whom died in the abusive foster homes she placed them in because, "Grace mistook their authoritarian natures as merely strict, but loving, like herself."

And excuse me while I all-caps rant for a second:


Okay, that's mostly out of my system now. It's a very uncomfortable adventure. Sister Grace is not nearly tormented enough about her deeds, and the text doesn't seem to appreciate the gravity of the story it's telling. I think you could do interesting horror about the wicked proprietor of an abusive orphanage who was tormented by the ghosts of the children she abused and who eventually came to feel such remorse that she was willing to submit herself to their violent revenge, but in order to be interesting, and not whatever the fuck this was, you kind of have to take the side of the ghosts, at least a little. White Wolf liked moral complexity, but the moral complexity here is in the audience's capacity for forgiveness. She doesn't deserve it. She can never deserve it. But she needs it. That's the terrible power of grace (I'd say "no pun intended," but I can't actually speak for White Wolf's motives in choosing the character's name).

But this gets us to the heart of what's wrong with Orpheus' (and really, Wraith: the Oblivion's) presentation of spectres so far. You can't introduce characters like the Lost Boys and then assign them "it" as a pronoun, or, at least, you can't unless your story is about the tragedy of their objectification. Because they are not the monsters. The Sister Graces of the world are the monsters. The violence of the Lost Boys is her violence, translated forward into the future. It's not proportionate, and it's not just, and it's directed towards the wrong people, but so was what she did to those children. The pain caused by a tormented ghost is just the pain of an uncorrected injustice, made literal through the power of metaphor. The Lost Boys don't need redemption, they need healing

And you can certainly interpret this book's de-spectre-izing mechanics in that way, if you wanted to, but the presentation doesn't make it easy. When you're done with the redemption, what you're left with is an "Orphan Grinder," a dark antihero with powers related to the spectre hive mind, who is constantly in danger of backsliding and become a new, more powerful form of spectre known as a Lawgiver. There's a sweet-spot where that plot works, like with the signature character Tom Hayes, who was an Orpheus agent who died in the raid, then his daughter died from the mass pigment poisoning and he became a spectre to try and rescue her soul, but he failed and came to regret his actions, becoming an Orphan Grinder out of his overwhelming guilt, and so now he's a free agent in the anti-spectre resistance, too ashamed to return to his old comrades, but too responsible to give up the fight, making deals with sinister entities and running the risk of pushing things too far . . . That's an arc. It's good. Now, let's do one for Maria, the former Lost Boy (Girl) who is being mentored by Beth Savitch, former spectre whose main crime was failing to get revenge on the Chupacabra that killed her sister. . . Oh, right, it would be weird to have a character that was the ghost of an innocent little girl who fell into a terrible rage after her untimely death and was subsequently adopted by a grim antihero and trained to be an antihero instead of a vengeful shade and now seeks redemption for the dark deeds she performed before being raised to full awareness of her condition. And, sure, I'd watch that anime, but it would only be good if it somehow acknowledged how weird it was.

All these words and I haven't even talked about the main plot - the worldwide spectre invasion. It's a perfectly adequate plot, and has been fairly foreshadowed in the books so far, but it draws upon the weakest part of Orpheus' original pitch - its tenuous connection to the larger World of Darkness. As we get deeper into Grandmother's motives and origins, we're being introduced to more and more of Wraith: the Oblivion's terminal metaplot. Turns out Grandmother's hive mind isn't the only spectre game in town, she's opposed by Mr Jigsaw, a potent spectre who works for the Malfeans, and that information only makes sense if you knew that the Malfeans were the old enemies of Stygia, the grand kingdom of the dead that no longer exists because Grandmother ate everyone.

In one sense, this is White Wolf just doing the thing that White Wolf always does - introducing a change to canon as a metaplot event. One of the (arguable) weaknesses of Wraith: the Oblivion is that it introduces a whole new afterlife that's not connected to any real-world beliefs or anything the players are familiar with or care about, which is fine for a pure fantasy game (it's used to great effect in Exalted, for example), but maybe a modern horror game about ghosts should focus on haunting the real world . . . I know, let's blow up Stygia and everything in it. Likewise, the shadowguide system was a little weird and intense, so let's change it so that ghosts have exterior spectre dopplegangers and then instead of just pretending that's how it's been all along (considering that this is ostensibly an entirely new game with a new title and branding), we'll have the canon NPC drop a hint that the nature of the ghost-shadow relationship changed around the same time as the shit that went down in the Underworld.

It all adds up to a growing sense that we were never actually playing Orpheus at all. That such a game never even existed. Rather, it's a soft reboot into Wraith: the Oblivion, revised and all this Orpheus business is White Wolf taking another approach to the transitional woes that plagued Mage: the Ascension. We're seeing what it would be like if they'd called the M:Rev core The Bitter Road and then slow-dripped the old factions, apres retcon, into the setting as part of an Apprentice-to-Disciple level mini-campaign.

And to be entirely fair, it's probably a good way of doing a radical edition change, especially in an interconnected universe as complex as the World of Darkness. But I'm on the record as never really liking the World of Darkness that much (even as I enjoyed many of the individual games), and I have the same problem here. The best parts of Orpheus were the parts that were distinctly Orpheus and they are gradually falling to the wayside. 

So I don't know how I feel about this book. I like Grandmother as a villain, but I don't care for her backstory. I like that spectre-hood is no longer a hopeless condition, but I don't like the way it conflates victims with villains. I liked the hives blossoming into their final form, but I felt like the spectre invasion was one-sided to the point of overkill. I guess the best way to sum it up is that the farther we get away from the core, the farther we get away from the core . . . and I fucking loved the core.

Ukss Contribution: Frick and Frack, the identical twin ghosts who independently and simultaneously murdered each other at exactly the same time and who have carried their grudge into the afterlife. The names are a little twee, but I enjoyed the horror with a tinge of farce.

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