Wraith: The Oblivion, 2nd Edition

“The Storytelling Game of Passion and Horror”

Copyright 1996, White Wolf

Original Design and Concept by: Mark Rein·Hagen, Jennifer Hartshorn and Sam Chupp
Written by: Bill Aguiar, Jackie Cassada, Mark Cenczyk, Ben Chessell, Richard E. Dansky, Graeme Davis, Ian Lemke, Steve Long, James A. Moore, Joshua Mosquiera, Nicky Rea, Ethan Skemp, Wendy Soss, Cynthia Summers, Richard Watts and Fred Yelk.

Wraith book cover

Hardcover rulebook, 8 1/2 by 11 inches, 291 pages.

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You're dead. Yet here you are, "living" in a grubby copy of the real world. There are a lot fewer people around, and a lot less stuff. Is this heaven or hell? It's Wraith: the Oblivion. The wraiths, or Restless, are sticking around because of unresolved regrets, powerful emotions that prevent them from moving on to whatever afterlife religion promises...because this isn't it.

Like the other games in the World of Darkness, Wraith offers players an opportunity to explore their character's depths in a grim setting where much more powerful figures are playing political games. In contrast to most of the other offerings in the World of Darkness, the struggles of more powerful figures are both more distant and more immediate, as will be explained below.

The setting of Wraith is removed from the rest of the World of Darkness. Most of the other powerful beings of the World of Darkness have little interest in entering the realm of the dead, and there is nothing to bring them there. The Restless can, if they choose, take short visits to the Skinlands, but once there, interacting with the living is difficult, and the real battles for them remain on the dark side of the veil.

Beneath the Shadowlands, in an extradimensional sense, is the Tempest. The Tempest seems to be a mixture of physical chaos and emotional turbulence, and is described as a storm, where time and distance have no meaning. Within the Tempest are islands of stability and safety. The biggest and easiest to reach is called Stygia. Further away are other islands referred to as The Far Shores. The Tempest itself is home to Spectres, dark beings who seek nothing more than the utter destruction of the physical world of the afterlife and its absoption into the Tempest. Occasionally, the Tempest surges forth in great Maelstroms that destroy all but the most solid regions of Stygia and the Shadowlands. The Maelstroms are mysteriously linked to events in the living world, either a harbinger or a result of great turmoils like the world wars. They are growing more frequent and stronger.

Travel through the Tempest is dangerous. There are safe paths, if you can find them, and there are the mysterious Ferrymen who travel these paths and fight off the threats. The Tempest occasionally breaks through into the Shadowlands, and the resulting portals permit wraiths to travel to and from Stygia. The trips to the Far Shores are described as too dangerous for most unless accompanied by the Ferrymen.

The afterlife is thus a spooky copy of life, neither eternal reward nor punishment. Wraiths speak of Transcendence, where they resolve their Fetters, the issues that keep them from moving on to their proper place after death. There are rumors that Transcendence can be found on the Far Shores, but there are strong hints that this is not the case. The other choice for a Wraith is Oblivion, where they release their fetters and their personalities and cease to be...although this feeds the Tempest and makes it stronger. Those who rule and protect Stygia try to prevent Wraiths from seeking Oblivion, although their methods are brutal and unappreciated.

The greatest of the Ferrymen, Charon, was master of Stygia for millennia. Charon's motivation was originally to keep the afterlife safe from the Tempest, and to assist the dead to seek Transcendance. In time, he built the city of Stygia to keep back the Maelstroms, basing it on the Roman Empire then in power in the Skinlands. As time went on, he continued to modify the political system to mirror that of the living, in part because he saw it was more workable, and in part, to make it easier for the newly arrived dead to adjust. Thus, Stygia has elements of Rome, overlaid by feudal government and the industrial and information revolutions.

The upheavals of the world wars and the atomic age had their effects on Stygia as well, as massive maelstroms threatened to demolish all Charon had built. Eventually, one of the ancient primal beings of chaos rose and tried to destroy the entire structure of the afterlife. Charon faced the foe alone, and won a Pyrric victory, falling into the Tempest. Stygia is now leaderless, and Charon's lieutenants feud for power.

With the collapse of central authority, there was a corresponding rise in groups that challenge it. The Renegades are those wraiths that reject Stygian rule. There are many Renegade groups who cooperate only in the loosest sense of the word. Some seek a new order to the afterlife, most prefer anarchy, and a number of them just like to break heads.

One of the more interesting concepts of this afterlife is the shortage of raw material. Items and structures in the living world that have great emotional significance appear in the world of the dead, and if an item of significance to many in life is destroyed, it becomes a powerful and solid artifact in the afterlife, although one that decays slowly over time as the living gradually forget it. Lesser articles strongly valued by individuals who have died have a physical reality in the afterlife as well: emotional tokens such as old stuffed animals, houses, cars, and the like. These relics do not function unless a Wraith invests it with power.

Aside from these emotional tokens, there are only two raw materials to be had. One is the solid stuff of which Stygia is made, which the state mines. The ectoplasmic substance of wraith bodies is stronger and more durable. Wraiths are physically forged into items such as weapons, chains, coins, and bricks. This soulforging is permanent and if the wraith has any sentience left after the process, it will be insane. These forged items faintly moan and scream. While this was originally used as the ultimate penalty of Stygian justice, with the fall of Charon, soulforging is increasingly the fate of the powerless, even the innocent.

Depending on how the Storyteller decides to run the game, the great turmoil of Stygia might be entirely ignored to focus on the emotional turmoil of the Restless characters trying to resolve their Fetters and gain Transcendence, leaving the game. It is also possible for the characters to be hunted by Stygian forces hungry for more fodder for soulforging, creating a grim and horrific setting indeed. Or, as depicted in the example of play in the book, characters may serve Stygia and resolve mysteries and go on adventures much like those in the rest of the World of Darkness.

 

Magic

The dead have access to occult powers called Arcanoi. Arcanoi are taught by guilds, political groups created by Charon as echoes of the medieval guilds to teach and preserve their arts. In time, the guilds attempted to overthrow Charon and were defeated. All of the guilds are therefore illegal, although most of their arts are still sought after, and the guilds keep a low profile.

Arcanoi are divided up by the 13 guilds: Harbingers, who can travel the Tempest; Pardoners, who fight the Shadows, the dark side of a Wraith's personality; Proctors, who manifest in the world of the living; Oracles, who have a limited ability to predict the future; Artificers, who can enter into objects, possessing them and giving them the power to function as they did in the world of the living; Chanteurs, who manipulate emotion through song; Monitors, who can manipulate the ties between a wraith and their fetters in the material world; Masquers who can shape the flesh of wraiths; Spooks who haunt the living; Haunters who create strange manifestations in the physical world; Sandmen who manipulate mortals through dreams; Puppeteers who possess the living; and Usurers who can transfer energies between wraiths.

Arcanoi are fueled by a Wraith's Pathos and Willpower and follow the typical Wraith rules. A player adds the dots she has in the Arcanoi and the appropriate paired Attribute , and deducts the required number of points of Pathos and Willpower (or sometimes Corpus, a wraith's hit points) to power the effect. Each Arcanos has a listed cost. The referee determines the difficulty level and the dice are rolled. The difficulty level is usually that of the current thickness of the Shroud, the wall between the dead and the living, which defaults at 9. Arcanoi are thus difficult to bring off.

Passions and Fetters

The personal transformation of characters is always in important theme in the World of Darkness. Wraith characters have a few characteristics that are important to this process. The two factors that make a Wraith character a part of the Shadowlands (as opposed to simply passing on to their eternal reward) are the character's Passions (emotions left over from life) and Fetters (physical objects of emotional significance). Passions are described (for example, "Watch over my dogs"), an emotion (love, sense of responsibility, regret, etc.), and a rating from one to five. Characters start with ten dots to spend on Passions.

Characters also start with ten dots in Fetters. Fetters may be tied to Passions or not, and their significance could be a mystery to the character (and player).

 

Characters in Wraith: The Oblivion

The conceptualization phase in Wraith begins by asking who the character was in life: their occupation, how they died, and what is it that the character regrets strongly enough to keep it tied to the Shadowlands. Characters also had their Nature and Demeanor.

In the Advantages phase, players selected a Background, which included the usual contacts, allies, and mentors. Some of the more interesting features of Wraith's backgrounds include items of emotional significance to the character: Artifacts (items that continue to exist in the afterlife, with powers, such as a gun that doesn't need to reload), a Haunt (a place where the wraith stays), Legacies and Memoriam (items and memories of the character in the lands of the living, which a wraith can use for support). Characters also determine their Passions and Fetters in this stage.

In stage five, the finishing touches phase, players also noted their starting Pathos (the energy that fuels the character; analogous to a Vampire's blood points or a werewolf's Rage). Pathos started at five, with a bonus if the character had a Memoriam. Willpower also started at five. A Wraith also had a Corpus score, a measure of their bodily integrity—hit points, in other words.

The Shadow

W:tO had an innovative feature unlike any other game in the World of Darkness. Wraith characters were all haunted by their Shadow, an amalgam of all of the character's self doubts and negativity. The shadow was created by the player, but then handed off to another player to handle. The shadow's job was to undermine the self-confidence of the character and push him or her into rash actions that served the shadow's goals. The shadow's goal went beyond the destruction of the character, although that was always the end goal. The shadow also wanted to cause pain and humiliation to the main character, and show that the shadow's perspective on the character was right all along. Shadows were thus nearly fully developed characters in their own right, although simpler than a Wraith character, and required a separate generation process.

Shadows started with an Archetype of their own. The rules recommended against simply choosing the opposite of the character's Nature, as that was uninteresting. The sample archtypes provided for shadows were rich enough to make almost any of them fit. (Examples included the Perfectionist, the Martyr, and the Leech.) Shadows started with seven points of their own Passions, and magical abilities of their own called Thorns. Thorn powers were fueled by the shadow's own pool of Angst.

The game spent several pages explaining how Shadows should be played ("Shadowguiding"), and how Storytellers could avoid abuse. The very careful instructions ("address comments to the character, not the player," "allow only one person to speak at a time," "player and Shadowguide [should]...discuss the character") indicated the authors were aware of just how risky this particular type of play could be. As a final confirmation, the rules remind Storytellers that they must sometimes take over playing the Shadows from the Shadowguide player.

 

Combat

Combat followed the basic World of Darkness pattern, complicated by the fact that Wraiths are generally immaterial. (They could use the Embody Arcanoi to become solid in the Skinlands; that is, in the material world.) Under normal circumstances, a Wraith is said to be Corporeal. Anything that would normally harm a living human does one point of Corpus damage, and the wraith becomes incorporeal for a few rounds. Incorporeal wraiths cannot be harmed in the Skinlands, but in the realms of the dead, they can still be attacked and take damage. Wraiths can heal normal damage by paying one point of Pathos for each point of corpus recovered or recover all lost corpus by fading into one of his or her Fetters for an eight hour rest.

W:tO also has aggravated damage, which can only be healed by rest and the expenditure of three Pathos per point. Aggravated damage was caused by Stygian Steel or barrow-flame (weapons and fire created in the Shadowlands), spectre claws, and so forth. (There are an assortment of powerful spectral horrors provided in the book.)

An unusual aspect of combat is the "taunt." Wraith permits characters to banter as they fight, or a player may choose to have their character spend the combat turn taunting their opponent without physically attacking. The player rolls their manipulation + expression against a difficulty of their opponent's wits + 4; for every two successes in a taunt action, the opponent loses a die from their next action. Teams of characters can taunt together to cumulatively reduce an opponent, but when one player fails their taunt roll, no further taunting that turn will be effective.

Wraiths can't die, of course. When their corpus is brought to zero, they are unable to sustain themselves and fall into the tempest for a psychological torment called a Harrowing.

Harrowing

Harrowings are the ultimate in character manipulation. In the context of the setting, spectres in the Tempest drag a wraith in, often with the wraith unaware of the change in their environment. The chaotic nature of the Tempest lends itself to manipulation by spectres, and they may choose to create a scene of such normality that the wraith is fooled. Spectres attack a wraith's personality through manipulation and craft, making it appear that their trusted allies and friends have betrayed them, and at the same time, the wraith's shadow attacks, forcing the wraith to question not only his sanity, but also whether it's worth continuing to struggle against Oblivion. Some wraiths are destroyed by the harrowing. Most apparently escape, but in weakened form, and a few emerge stronger.

In the game, the other players take on the roles of spectres, possibly even masquerading as their own characters, while the player who is the wraith's shadow is encouraged to do her worst. The rules state that referees should not accept pat decisions by players to do the right thing no matter the cost: this is psychological torture, and the character is supposed to feel it.

A wraith is dragged into a Harrowing as a result of having their corpus or willpower drop to zero. A wraith will also be harrowed when a Passion or Fetter is brought to zero, either temporarily or permanently. Should a wraith succeed in fighting off the harrowing through good roleplay, the storyteller may reward the character with an increase in points in Fetters or Passions.

Transcendence

As noted above, games in the World of Darkness often have a theme of the character actualization: moving beyond their normal state and reaching a more spiritual state. As may be expected, this is a strong theme in W:tO. While the rules offer a suggested set of mechanics, following it would likely take a tremendous number of sessions to complete, not counting any complications the Storyteller might choose to throw in.

 

Summary

Wraith: the Oblivion is an odd game. While all of the games in the World of Darkness focus on the psychology of the characters to at least some degree and offer self-improvement as a potential goal, W:tO's mechanics force players to pay more attention to their characters' internal state than anything else in the World of Darkness line. At the same time, the power struggles of Stygia are more remote and separated from the characters' immediate concerns than other games. The core book does not even provide enough detail of the major forces competing for the succession of Charon. We have the conflict between The Hierarchy and the Renegades, and we know both forces are splintered and fighting among themselves, but not a word as to who the movers and shakers of these forces are, the alliances that Restless might join, or anything else to draw characters into the conflict. Besides being distant, we found major inconsistencies in the setting that make it difficult to visualize. Physical objects are rare in the afterlife, working artifacts even moreso: how does Stygia manage an industrialized society, particularly one with computers, when there's little raw material and no energy sources?

So W:tO is apparently more about characters dealing with their issues against a distant backdrop of conflict. But Transcendence is such a lengthy and difficult process that it seems all but impossible. But without Transcendence, what is a wraith to accomplish? One might assemble a team to go on a quest to protect or resolve a Fetter, but we have trouble imagining a group wanting to play more than one chronicle.

We were troubled by two of W:tO's innovations as well. The Shadow is a fascinating idea that might lead to some interesting situations, but it required maturity and care. The game's strong advice on shadowguiding shows that the authors understood this as well. We note with interest that the idea of players directly opposing one another has been borrowed in some indie games, most notably Polaris.

Far more dangerous is the Harrowing mechanic. The storyteller is told that characters cannot be permitted to simply stick to their moral and ethical views—no matter what they do, it's going to cause pain, and the character is supposed to feel it. The other players are encouraged to join in the experience of trashing the Harrowed character, and worst of all, the Harrowed wraith cannot tell if they're having a really bad experience or if they're in a Harrowing, as they can't feel the transition to the Tempest. So suddenly everything turns awful, their character is being abused, and everybody in the group is in on it...we can't see how this can be good for most groups. And harrowing, while it's supposed to be rare, is also supposed to be a constant underlying threat to the Restless.

We consider W:tO was one of the weakest offerings in the second edition of the World of Darkness. It might serve as a sourcebook for a single character in a mixed party, but make a poor game for a group to focus on without a great deal more work.

Personal Note from the Curator

Reading Wraith was my first exposure to the World of Darkness, largely because the setting sounded so fascinating. It was a spectacularly poor choice. Wraith is far away from any of my gaming interests, and really doesn't do the World of Darkness justice. Original and creative? Unquestionably. But in my personal opinion, it would take a really specialized group to want to run an actual Wraith chronicle, and I simply cannot imagine anybody wanting to do more than one. I have trouble even seeing a single Wraith character as a member of a mixed World of Darkness game. Perhaps its best use is to explore the afterlife of a beloved, and deceased character from a different game, to help the player let go.

—RAD

July 31, 2011

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