Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Orpheus: A What the What? Review

What the What? Reviews offer a quick overview of various smaller, OOP, or Obscure RPGs.

PREMISE
Corporate ghost agents carry out missions and fight other ghosts.

Before I go into detail I have to set up some context. Orpheus came out the year before White Wolf blew up the original World of Darkness. In some ways, it is a spiritual successor to Wraith, which had been capped off some years earlier with Ends of Empire. Like Mummy: The Resurrection, you can connect some of the elements of Orpheus to the fallout from that line's conclusion. More importantly, Orpheus is another stand-alone product line within the WoD setting. It is intended to be run independently of the other lines. What makes it unique is that the line as a whole was planned as a limited and complete campaign series. WW would later do that with some smaller lines (Scion, Changeling the Lost), but this is even more deliberate and established. The core book establishes the rules and basic stories. Each of the five books following are hybrid sourcebooks and campaign outlines. Each moves the story forward in a loose, but linear way. That means that the focus and premise of the game shifts as the line continues. GMs could fruitfully run Orpheus simply from the first book or opt to follow the larger plan. For this structure the authors make reference to film beats and plot progression. So the Orpheus core book sets up the characters and gets them in place for what would be the big change twenty minutes into a movie. For purposes of this overview, I’m going to focus on the situation set up in the core rulebook. In the “What Else Is There” section I’ll touch on the other supplements but try to remain relatively spoiler free.

WHAT DO THE CHARACTERS DO?
The characters work for the Orpheus Group. This corporation employs them to undertake “fixer” jobs- some mundane (cheating spouses, checking security), some paranormal (confirming hauntings, clearing ghosts), and some questionable (stealing security codes from the departed, terrifying victims). Interestingly, Orpheus is known for their “ghostbusting” in the setting, and employment of people who can interact with the spirit world. Other companies exist which also engage in these operations. There’s some question about how much is publicly known and how much accepted. The game background and narratives are a little contradictory on this point. GMs will have to decide how they plan on handling that.

Each character can exists temporarily or permanently as a ghost. Players can choose one of four approaches, called “Laments.” Two of these maintain a physical body. Skimmers can voluntarily leave their body to operate as a spirit; they leave behind a vulnerable body. Sleepers also leave their body but require a high-tech process to do so which involving equipment and time. They cannot quickly return to consciousness. While the Sleeper can remain out longer, there’s a distinct gameplay advantage to being a Skimmer. Two types have no physical form. A Spirit is effectively a ghost. They suffer from the disadvantage of possessing a dark doppleganger, and of course they’re dead so that’s not so great. A Hue, on the other hand, is also a ghost, but of a person who took a strange new drug called Pigment (a major plot point for the campaign). They exist more weakly, but have greater control of their powers.

Each Spook is further defined by a class, called a Shade. A player’s choice of Shade defines which powers they have an affinity with and which they cannot take. The five Shades are:
  • Banshees: Can create emotion responses or even tear at physical objects with their wail. They also have access to visions of the past and future. 
  • Haunter: They can inhabit and possess inanimate objects such as cars or guns. They can also manifest a damaging aura. 
  • Poltergeist: Can telekinetically lift and manipulate objects. They can also manipulate their own etoplasm to create weapons and tools. 
  • Skinrider: They can possess and control people. They also have the ability to briefly manifest enormous strength to affect the real world. 
  • Wisp: They can entrance or beckon onlookers with their aura. They can also see cracks in the “Storm Wall” which separates the real world from the deep lands of death. Using these cracks, they can effectively teleport. 
Powers in Orpheus are called Horrors. Instead of a large list of choices in a track (as is common with most White Wolf games), a power has a set of effects and there are a relatively small number of them. One of the most interesting aspects of the game is that different Horrors can interact. The players are organized into teams, called Crucibles. Team members can learn to share energy and boost one another. When particular Horrors combine, they create a new and more potent effect. This encourages diversity and teamwork within the group.

WHAT’S THE SYSTEM LIKE?
Orpheus uses a version of the classic Storyteller system, common to old World of Darkness games. Actions are resolved using a dice pool of d10s. Most actions combine an attribute and a skill rating (usually from 1-5) to provide a number of dice to roll. Other ratings may substitute for those. Players have to match a difficulty on each die to count as a success. Each “1” rolled cancels a success. Rolling a “1” and no successes causes a botch. The dice pool allows players to perform multiple actions with a reduction in dice for each action. The system is relatively easy to pick up but in practice has a high kludge factor. Every Storyteller campaign I’ve seen has had different takes on what’s important and what gets ignored.

The complete rules for the game appear in the core book. The system does add a few new wrinkles to the standard Storyteller mechanics. Veterans of other WoD games may notice these. The unique traits for Spooks include Stains, Spite, and Vitality. Stains are visible defects on their character’s ghostly form. These have advantages and disadvantages. Spite is a manifestation of the character’s rage. It can be drawn on, but high levels have consequences. Vitality is the core “power” trait of the system- which can be transferred and modified. Orpheus also offers several variations on classic ST character creation. Players pick Roles- background professions- which have suggested point allotments and talents. GMs can choose to globally increase the power level of the campaign, in which case a role adds bonuses depending on whether you go for a medium or high power version. The “Nature” picked by characters in Orpheus has mechanical implications beyond regaining Willpower, a new detail.

WHAT’S COOL AND UNCOOL ABOUT IT?
Having these books available as pdfs offers an important benefit. The GM can easily choose which of the 53 pages of setting material they want to distribute to the players. That’s easier to do electronically, rather than having to photocopy sheets.

Some of the background material ends up being more than a little unclear. White Wolf often uses clippings, found material, and journals to set up the background. That’s excellent for creating verisimilitude and tone, but makes it harder to figure out what’s going on for the GM as well as the reader. It will take several readings for the Storyteller to put the pieces together here. Different readers may come away with drastically different senses of what the world looks like. I know my image has changed each time I’ve read it. That’s great- open and offering many readings, but at the same time because the line is a linear series with more episodes contingent on this one, I think this needs to be more direct. There’s a lot going on in this core book. Even more than some of the other WoD books, the have to completely set up the material. Other lines know they have the room to get everything out there in multiple supplements. As a result this book can feel overwhelming- almost too rich. In particular, I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone without a passing familiarity with Storyteller. You need to understand the basics of that system and style of presentation to make your way through this.

The game also works best when the GM has a chance to read some of the later volumes and see what’s coming. That allows for foreshadowing and planning, and it also explains many of the hanging details from this core book. One problem the game has is in the practical disparity between the different kinds of Spooks. Spirits and Hues are dead, eliminating many interactions and putting limits on how they interact with the physical world. Sleepers have a serious disadvantage- made really problematic by the events at the start of the second volume, Crusade of Ashes. Any modest mechanical benefits these types gain feels heavily outweighed by the downsides. It almost seems like WW wants a more narrative, story-driven approach with this series. The way they hand-wave things, the looseness of the powers, modeling the structure on films, and the overall arc suggest this. But they still cling to system with significant mechanics and rules exceptions. It isn’t that Storyteller is a high-crunch system, but it does have more crunch than this setting requires.

WHAT’S THE CORE BOOK AND WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
The core book contains all of the basic rules. There’s enough there to easily run a campaign in this setting or integrate the material into another game. The pdf’s available, but a little pricey at $18 as of this writing. It might be better to hunt for a used copy, which can be purchased for around that price. There are five volumes in the complete campaign arc: Crusade of Ashes, Shades of Gray, Shadow Games, The Orphan-Grinders, and End Game. All of these, with the exception of the last volume, include some player-facing advice and information. There’s some strangeness in that last volumes include material better suited for making new characters (i.e. new advantages and such). I don’t know if the implication is that characters will die or get replaced. GMs looking to run a longer campaign may wish to take a look at these options before running from the main book. Each volume is fairly significant and useful- and each changes up significantly the campaign’s course. For example, the events at the start of Crusade of Ashes pulls the rug out from under the players’ feet. GMs will find both new options and material as well as details on the campaign arc in each volume. Even if you’re not planning on running the full show, they’re worth reading. General World of Darkness supplements aren’t that essential or useful with this line. They can be skipped. There’s also a single anthology of fiction set in this world, Orpheus: Haunting the Dead.

WHO MIGHT LIKE IT?

  • Fans of Old School Storyteller looking for a way to get back into that setting without investing in a massive line of products. 
  • GMs looking for a longer, story-oriented campaign with a fully developed arc. This could easily be played out over many months, with the GM expanding or contracting story beats as needed. 
  • Modern horror gamers who want a fairly equal balance of action, horror, and conspiracy- with perhaps more weight on the action side of things. 
  • GMs thinking about playing around with adapting an older setting to a newer, slimmer system: FATE, Savage Worlds, GUMSHOE, and True20 all come to mind.
  • World of Darkness or other modern horror gamers who want a new challenging NPC or adversary group.
  • Gamers looking for a grittier and darker spin on Ghostbusters
OVERALL
I really like some of the key concepts of Orpheus. The premise makes for interesting NPCs when approached from the outside (my same reaction to the Prometheans from the new World of Darkness). I could easily see running a campaign just from the core book, without heading off into the large and pretty amazing campaign arc they’ve laid out. I appreciate systems that offer mechanics encouraging teamwork and cooperation. The idea of new synergies coming from those powers could easily be lifted for other games. And generally Orpheus is one of those rare rpg books- a compelling and interesting read.

The game feels a shackled to a system that’s crunchier and more mechanics-oriented than it needs to be. White Wolf games talk about narrative and story, but still offer lots of rules. I really wish that they’d do a second, almost FATE or other rules-light version. Orpheus would really benefit from that approach. It could also potentially make the disparity between Laments less an issue.