Tuesday, December 6, 2022

(Orpheus) Shadow Games

Ah, the gradual transformation of Orpheus into a new edition of Wraith: the Oblivion is proceeding nicely. But don't let my sarcastic tone fool you, I'm largely okay with it. The antediluvian mystery of the old spirit world is one of the key elements of Orpheus' spooky atmosphere, and it continues to develop nicely here - a dread tower of imperishable ghost metal is hurled by an apocalyptic storm through the barrier between worlds, where it strikes the earth like a meteor, causing a terrible earthquake in the physical realm. Meanwhile, the baleful intelligence coordinating the spectres' reign of terror is becoming bolder, revealing itself to the psychically sensitive through recurring nightmares. She is a chthonic death goddess, known only as Grandmother, and through her agents in various cults, she's spreading the cursed street drug, Pigment, which causes anyone who dies with it in their system to become a weak and tenuous shade. Soon, she will herself breach the barrier and her army of fanatical ghosts will reap a terrible harvest of souls.

All very exciting, but I still miss Orpheus. It was the game's most interesting invention, that single-handedly shifted it into a new genre of horror/fantasy, and nothing in any of the books has filled the gap caused by its absence.

Oh, the book tries. It introduces a new replacement - Lazarus Redux - which at least tries to be ethical to both living and dead and whose entire reason for existence is to prepare against the possibility of a new underworld apocalypse. Which, okay, I'd have to be some kind of cynical turd to hate it for that . . . but maybe I'm just learning a thing or two about myself in the course of this blog.

First of all, it misses the entire point of having "projector firms" in the first place. Like, the theme of this book is the player characters' transition from reactive to active, from victims of shadowy conspiracies to a bold resistance movement, but is this something I even want? Shadow Games gives us a vision of what early-2000s White Wolf thought a well-run projector firm might look like (the local coffee shop, Spooky Brews, is an unofficial satellite office!), but I was much more invested in the story of a poorly run operation. If you're going to pitch me something you insist on calling a "coalition against entropy," at least do so in the shadow of the late-stage capitalism that would make such a thing unthinkable.

Also, Lazarus Redux is officially founded by the game's signature NPCs, who canonically survived the destruction of Orpheus, and that's the worst kind of metaplot shenanigans. The purpose of signature characters is as a placeholder for PCs, so that when you're reading the book, you can imagine the sort of things the players might get up to. Unfortunately, there is no suggestion anywhere in this book that you might want to run a "PCs found their equivalent of Lazarus Redux" campaign. The suggestion that "if you ask, you're certain to find that each player has a favorite signature character" was . . . adorable in its optimism. That you might exploit these preferences to feed missions to the PCs does not strike me as tenable.

But the worst thing about Lazarus Redux is the name. Just yikes on that branding. You could have just named it "Lazarus," and people would have gotten the picture. Or, if you were feeling bold, you could have gone with "Redux." It's modern, it's vague, and it has all the exact same connotations as "Lazarus." Combining the two just comes across as goofy.

I know I've been a bit harsh on LR in this post, and most of that has just been resentment at the fact that it's replacing the main thing that drew me to the game in the first place. Honestly, you could run a ghost-hunting game as heroic fantasy. And you could make the new heroic small business into an NPC operation in order to spare the PCs the tedium of securing permits and zoning and whatnot. But the thing with the name, that's not even my opinion. It's commented on in the opening fiction. By the second paragraph of the book, the narrator calls it "stupid" twice. Before we know literally anything else about it. Maybe, if you find yourself in the position where you're going to publish the words "Damn stupid name if you ask me" you can just take a few minutes and brainstorm something else.

Anyway, Lazarus Redux is the sort of business where the founder is the CEO, and the CEO is the main point of contact for clients and contractors, so that makes it a more wholesome form of capitalism. None of those tedious dark and sinister secrets lurking around in the background, threatening to become subplots.

Yeah, okay, I could very well have just held off on running the Crusade of Ashes story until the conspiracy stuff was fully played out, using the shocking swerve in the game's direction as a signal for the beginning of the campaign endgame, and the canon story actually works pretty well if you assume that each subsequent sourcebook has an accelerating pace. It's just a weakness that the Lazarus Redux plot acts contrary to that tendency (they are set up to act as a new patron, suggesting this stage of the story is in it for the long haul.) And that's exacerbated by Shadow Games' mishandling of the series main villain - the mass murderer turned ghost by Orpheus' unethical experiments, who now serves as Grandmother's point man in the physical world, the practical and ruthless intellect behind the spread of pigment - Uriah Bishop.

Now, Bishop is a good villain, but book 4 is too late in the series to be learning this vital information. It's revealed that he's Crusade of Ashes' "Mysterious Antagonist #1" and the information just completely fails to land. Oh, the guy who was name dropped in the core, then barely showed up in the next two books, is actually the one behind everything? I guess that's more economical than having a second named NPC suddenly show up out of nowhere. 

The only things we definitely knew about Mysterious Antagonist #1 is that he had a strange ability to secure the cooperation of the spectres and his pockets were deep enough to afford to keep NextWorld on call indefinitely, even as it deliberately drew-out its murder-for-hire scheme. And we learn here the reasons for those traits. He can cooperate with spectres because he made a bargain with the dark goddess that controls their hive mind. And he has a lot of money because his cult is a linchpin of the pigment trade.

This just goes to show the weakness of the information slow-drip, though. Because the plot only works if it's established that someone out there is making Pablo Escobar-scale money off the pigment trade. And the fact that the head of that cartel has a connection to Orpheus only works if the PCs know who the head of the cartel is. And the PCs can only know about the head of the cartel if he has a presence in the campaign. And if he has a presence in the campaign, then it's also super relevant that he is the leader of a cult.

If I were to try and fix this plotline, I think I'd have to largely reverse its course. Baseline, the core Orpheus experience is this sci-fi/fantasy world where science establishes the existence of ghosts. Orpheus advertises on prime time, imitators have been spawned, and the idea has permeated into pop culture. And part of that, as something that's a big setting element even from the beginning, is a religious reaction. The Missionary Works of the Holy Ghost presents itself as a mainline Protestant denomination that is at the forefront of incorporating these scientific revelations about ghosts into its theology and practices. It has developed post-life sacraments and offers its fellowship to Christian ghosts. And at the start it serves mainly as a foil to Orpheus, an ostensibly altruistic organization that underbids the Orpheus Group for many of its so-called "fumigation" or exorcism services, but respects the spiritual gravity of what it's doing.

Then, you dig deeper and discover some disturbingly cult-like behavior among its upper echelons. It turns out the head of the church is himself a ghost! Then you find out that the church is super-rich, thanks to its role in the pigment trade. Then the Crusade of Ashes plot happens. The ghostly head of this wealthy mega-church is the prime suspect, but why? So you dig deeper . . . OMG, he's the ghost of a dead mass murderer, and he has a connection to Orpheus' sinister Project Flatline. Was this just about revenge? Maybe it seems that way at first, but then the poisoned pigment thing happens, and that traces back to Bishop too, which seems contrary to his well-established interests. And that is when you learn about his connection to Grandmother.

Of course, I may have to reassess this position, pending the withheld information from upcoming books. The thing I'm discovering about Orpheus, reading it from the position of a more experienced consumer of media, is that it has a lot of great parts, but that the whole suffers greatly from being spread out among six books. It seems like a prime candidate for a cleaned-up 20th anniversary edition.

Ukss Contribution: The Maggot Revolver. It's a magical revolver that shoots maggots. The wounds are exactly as awful as you're imagining. Gross, but I'm going to remember it forever (in fact, I do remember it, not just from Orpheus, but from Exalted: the Abyssals. I suspect that it got its start in Wraith: the Oblivion, because it definitely seems like the sort of idea that you want to reuse as often as possible.)

1 comment:

  1. I would definitely agree that Orpheus needed a whole corebook of "you are a nice normal Orpheus employee, whatever those adjectives mean in this case," and then a second book of "you start learning Orpheus' dark secrets," and THEN the book where they blow Orpheus to bits.