Sunday, January 1, 2023

(Orpheus) End Game

Over the course of its limited run, Orpheus has frequently described its approach as "the movie model," comparing itself to horror films like Alien and Event Horizon, but after reading End Game, the piece of media that I'm most reminded of is How I Met Your Mother.

That's not meant to be a burn (well, okay, maybe a light scalding). What I mean is that in retrospect it's obvious that the end of the series was planned from the beginning, that plan was noticeably telegraphed at various points in the series' run, and the full potential of the planned ending was exhausted approximately halfway through. Shades of Grey had exactly the right amount of Underworld mystery, and those tantalizing hints of another world were not surpassed now that we have a book that actually lets us go there.

It's not that it's bad. There's something to be said for the stark imagery of Orpheus' Underworld. It is a wasteland of the dead, made up of long stretches of featureless grey dust, occasionally unsettled by massive storms of blood and detritus, inhabited by roving gangs of spectres and resting atop strange ruins that seem to exist outside the stream of human history. You cross over to "the other side" and it's just . . . nothing, a place where the lingering strands of memory that make up a ghost go to wither away.

It could be thematic. It's not, but it could be. What it really is is a giant Wraith: the Oblivion easter egg hunt and I'm not really sure who it's for.

People whose favorite part of Wraith was its bleakness and its intimations about the inevitable triumph of entropy? They're deep in the lore about Stygia and the Emperor and the Legions, but what they really want to see is a reality where it all went away, where the spectres won.

And I'm not sure that category of hypothetical fan actually has any members. I know, it's the internet, and I know that every setting that features a distinct villain has spawned "what if the villain won" scenarios. But I'm pretty confident in saying that no one wanted to see the spectres win. Because they're not just villains, but troll villains, and gross troll villains at that. "Mweh heh heh, I'm going to make cufflinks out of your eyeballs and then you will finally see the beauty of darkness, and by the way I read your diary and it was cringe as shit" . . . Okay, let's explore that guy's triumph over a bunch of cool goth antiheroes . . .

Maybe it's just me, but I'm not feeling it. The driving force of the adventure is a conflict between the inhuman evil of Grandmother's spectres and the formerly-human evil of the Malfean spectres and it's like, I don't know who these guys even are. The very concept of a Malfean was introduced in The Orphan Grinders, but only discussed in vague and evasive terms, and now there's a bunch of them and they're coming up with plans and having agendas and getting destroyed by Grandmother and I'm supposed to just quickly buy in to the idea that they are the last thing standing between humanity and total destruction and I should be contemplating an alliance with the lesser evil. It's cosmic-scale drama, but there's no human-scale hook.

Of course, it's easy to criticize from the back seat, but it does raise the question of how I would end Orpheus, if given the responsibility. My gut reaction is to say, "I wouldn't," which is definitely a bit of a cop-out, but I'm not the only one who's thinking it. Near the end of the book, when it talks about continuing the campaign after the resolution of the metaplot, there's a section called "Endgame Ignored" that suggests:

A troupe might also want to explore how the world changes as the number of ghosts and projectors increases. The chronicle could take a more science fiction tone, with post-life existence as the "science" whose implications are explored.

How does the widespread knowledge of ghosts and projectors affect law and politics? Do conscious post-life entities demand civil rights?

And so on, through a bunch of other questions about religion and national security and ethics that are collectively so interesting and fraught that you could easily get five full rpg supplements out of them. A lot of that section had me going, "wait, are they just now thinking about this for the first time" because I kind of assumed that was going on in the core book. Thinking back, though, I realized that these issues were only lightly touched upon, because those are the sort of questions you ask if you want to make Orpheus, but also exactly the sort of questions you'd desperately avoid if you're making a World of Darkness game. Why don't the easily-provable supernatural powers of the various WoD splats wind up dramatically changing the world? Shut up. You haven't noticed a "plot hole," you're just deliberately prodding the conceits of the genre.

So I guess the main thing I would do to improve the end game is just not make it a stealth Wraith: the Oblivion reboot. The best part of Grandmother and the Underworld plot is that it gives shape to the theme "Orpheus doesn't know what's out there," and that's ultimately what they need to be - an "out there" that makes a mockery of the setting's scientific hubris. The science-fiction premise of the game is that there's a new technology that makes people think they can conquer death, and the thing that makes it good science fiction is that death has a thing or two to say about that.

You can keep the wasteland and the ruins and the storms. You can even keep Grandmother, if you make her one hazard of many instead of "God's Evil Twin" (actual suggestion from the book). But in addition to all the bleak and dangerous stuff, you also need a temptation. In the throes of your hubris, you will think of this as a bold new frontier, and in the first act you'll be right, but there's more out there than you can possibly imagine. 

And yeah, that kind of sounds like the overall arc we did get, with the haunted houses and shady crime stuff being the temptation and the Underworld being the stuff that punctures the dream, but that stops working once the Underworld becomes a place you can go. The role of the Underworld in the campaign is as a backdrop for the players' confrontation with Grandmother, where failure dooms humanity and success ensures a continuation of the status quo. And that's fine as far as it goes, but it's also presented as a place. A whole world with inhabitants and landmarks and rules for travel and navigation. So what happens if you step off the critical path? If you go to the Underworld simply to be in the Underworld?

I don't want to give the impression that End Game gave no thought to this issue. There are suggestions on the last five pages for alternate Underworld campaigns - treasure hunting, archaeology, colonization. However, the bulk of the rest of the book describes an Underworld utterly dominated by monsters, with treasures and landmarks that mainly serve to oppose said monsters, and that's not quite enough.

There should be non-spectre ghosts there, and a reason for those ghosts to be there. And the game should just directly confront heaven and hell and reincarnation as concepts, maybe not giving direct answers, but at least acknowledging that they are questions people are going to want answered.

This is all starting to sound very Wraith: the Oblivion, but I was serious when I said I wanted less Wraith baggage. Because the Wraith material here winds up mistaking easter eggs for payoff. Once you start introducing Wraith elements, the game winds up being about the resolution of Wraith conflicts.  I may wish there was more to do in the Underworld, but I'm wishing for Orpheus type activities - scientific exploration, criminal capers, intelligence operations, and the attempted monetization of the sublime. And then maybe monsters come and screw that up because there's always something you didn't know.

Although, now that I'm pitching it, that just sounds like the core Orpheus experience, so why do we even need an Underworld at all? That's a question neither I nor End Game can answer.

Ukss Contribution: Excalibur. If early 2000s White Wolf wasn't afraid to be so on the nose with a fantasy element, I'm not either.

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