Grumpy RPG Reviews: Wraith The Oblivion
Greetings to my listeners from the Waffle House in downtown Stygia.
Stories and games usually end at death. There are exceptions. For example, in D&D, characters come back from death about as often as real people come back from a 7/11. But those are exceptions. Usually, character death means the player must create a new character, but the game receiving a critical analysis here is different. This game starts with a character’s death.
The company White Wolf struck a nerve with its game Vampire the Masquerade. Gamers played a monster in the Masquerade game. It lets people explore moral and ethical issues in decadent ways. It sold like hotcakes and changed the RPG scene.
White Wolf wanted to follow that success with more material. The company created a series of games where gamers could play as a series of other monsters. This list included werewolves, wizards, and ghosts.
Wraith: The Oblivion
Wraith: The Oblivion is that game about ghosts. More so than other games, Wraith: The Oblivion is a game about death and dealing with death. The game did not enjoy the popularity of the other White Wolf lines. But it did enjoy enough support that a Kickstarter for a lavish 20th-anniversary edition succeeded.
Exploring the Wraith: The Oblivion is like looking into Nietzsche’s abyss. But among other things, I am the kind of man who will toss a lit flashlight into the abyss to get a better look.
The game stresses passions. The passions that elevate you and the passions that destroy you. It explores identity and how memory, connections, and emotions shape identity. The game also has themes of an individual against their environment, society, and themselves. This episode examines the 20th-anniversary edition of the game.
The book includes a section of “Do not go gentle into that good night” – the poem from Dylan Thomas calling for raging against the dying of the light. Thomas calls for resistance to despair, death, and Oblivion with all the passion anyone can muster. Another poet worth quoting here is Charles Bukowski. In the poem “Laughing Heart,” Bukowski urges you to find light where you can. There may not be much light, but it is better than darkness. As you find that light, it becomes easier to find and share.
Here is a summary of the game summary because a lot is going on in the game. Characters find themselves as wraiths in the shadowlands – or the lands of the dead, which parallels the real world. Mostly. Wraiths are the personification of an individual’s emotions and memories. The greatest threat to their world is Oblivion, or the complete dissolution of the individual. The government of the shadowland is the Hierarchy. It is tyrannical but protects wraiths from Oblivion. The game’s purpose is for the characters to escape this hellscape by transcending their worst natures.
To put it another way, you play a character who gets a chance to do the right thing after they are dead. Seizing this chance requires them to fight the system, fight the world in which they find themselves, and even fight themselves. Best to have some friends and allies along the way.
It is worth exploring these elements in greater detail.
In the game context, player characters die, and their spirits find themselves in a grim spirit world. This is the Shadowlands. White Wolf games always have a social dynamic. Much of the social dynamic in Wraith comes from the nominal ruling nation of the shadowlands. This nation is the Hierarchy or the Dark Kingdom of Iron. They are dead but now have more with which to contend than they did while alive. The game, in terms of settings, themes, and writing, is deeply baroque.
The White Wolf games, including Wraith, used variations of what the company called the storytelling game mechanic. This involved rolling sets of dice. Specifically multiple 10-sided dice. A character’s relevant ability, such as dexterity or stamina, would be added to an appropriate skill, such as fighting or performance. The total of the ability and the skill dots represented the total number of 10-sided dice rolled. The game sets the difficulty usually at a six or a seven – so the dice should show that number or higher to be a success. The more successes, the better. But a one on a die also subtracts from the total successes.
Wraiths possess several particular traits. Among these are the fetters, passions, arcanoi, and pathos. Fetters are things that bind the Wraith close to the land of the living and are why they cannot naturally move on. Fetter is another word for a chain or manacle used to restrain a prisoner. Passions are the emotions that drive the Wraith and grant them energy to use special powers, and pathos is the energy gained from embracing their passions. The arcanoi are those special powers and are the only way a wraith can interact with the living. Wraiths have a physical form often based on their bodies at the time of death. This can be messy. To the living, wraiths are typically invisible and as substantial as fog on a windy day.
Wraith is a tragic game. Camille Paglia asserts tragedy plays a game intended to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Paglia writes that our basic biology, the physical form, and all of our drives generate the gravest challenge to our hopes and dreams. She writes, “Consciousness is a pitiful hostage of its flesh-envelope, whose surges, circuits, and secret murmurings it cannot stay or speed.” Wraiths are no longer creatures of flesh, blood, and biology is a memory. But their situation has not improved.
A hypothetical character could be a musician. Their fetter could be their preferred instrument, such as a guitar. And at least one passion would be to perform. But as with most RPGs, this character will not be alone, and other players will also have characters in a game run by the storyteller.
How many people become ghosts in the setting is an open question. Suffice it to say it is not everyone. Further, not everyone who becomes a wraith becomes one with enough strength and will to become a player character – the PCs are a cut above. This is both a virtue and a vice. The PCs have enough force of personality to function as wraiths; then, they have enough personal force to be a problem for the government.
The underworld is full of the dead even though proportionally few of those who die become wraiths. People have been dying for a long time, so the underworld has accumulated many wraiths. And the dead have assembled a society in the shadowlands. It has less to recommend than the living societies – but the dead have fewer options.
The Hierarchy, the state ruling the western dead, has a problem with people who have too much sense of self and self-worth. The Hierarchy carries an Imperial Roman theme. The terminology it uses reflects this theme. For example, the different groups based on death types are called legions. In De Profundis, Oscar Wilde wrote, “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation” (Wilde). This is the kind of person the state wants. But the Hierarchy might consume Wraiths which are that complaint – consume them for their labor, combat tools, or raw materials. There is a lack of raw materials in the shadowlands. Or at least few materials aside from wraiths themselves. So, to make goods Stygia will convert some wraiths into tools, weapons, and other items. This usually happens to the weak-willed wraiths. And to criminals, a category which generally includes PCs. A way to avoid this designation is to become a Stygia pleb and lose oneself in the busy work of the dead (Rein-Hagen, Hartshorn, & Dansky, 2018).
In Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon wrote that society breaks down and reassembles everything. This cycle preserves and serves an elite. And these elites define this power as freedom – their freedom coming at the expense of the freedom of others (Pynchon, 1987). This cycle and attitude is a reasonable description of the Hierarchy industry.
You cannot escape the power and hunger of the state even when you are dead.
Why do the wraiths tolerate this situation? Because they have few other options. For one thing, the Dark Kingdom of Iron is omnipresent throughout the afterlife of much of the western world. For another, it is the primary force in that region fighting to prevent Oblivion from consuming everything. Oblivion pulls at everything in the shadowlands. It also has foot soldiers in the form of wraiths driven mad by their suffering and situation.
Those are the large-scale threats. The game also provides individual threats to the characters in a way also worth exploring. There is a Jungian psychology current in the game, and this is most evident in the form of the shadow.
The psyche is the totality of the human mind in psychology. It is the term for the part of the character run by the primary player in this game (Perroni).
In Jungian psychology, the shadow is a moral problem that challenges a person’s personality. No one can become conscious of their shadow without much effort and personal work. Becoming aware of your shadow involves recognizing the dark aspects of your personality as present and meaningful (Jung, 1981). For example, alcoholism would be a part of the shadow of a person who has a drinking problem but refuses to acknowledge the fact. They cannot do better until they accept this issue and begin to grapple with the situation.
Wraith: The Oblivion makes the shadow an element in the game. Every wraith character has an actual shadow in the form of another player, who whispers poisons into the ear of the primary player. In the game, the shadow is a servant to the force of Oblivion and encourages all kinds of destruction. There are times when the shadow can assume control over the character. To be clear, one player runs the character while another runs that character’s shadow.
For the hypothetical musician character discussed above, the shadow might be a voice that constantly tells them they are no good at music, wasted their time, and should have become a podcaster.
A shadow has its powers. Actions of the central character can make the shadow weaker or more potent – and a strong shadow may take over and start stabbing people in the face. Or maybe work subtly to ruin the central character’s existence.
Wraith is a demanding game. It requires much of the players in terms of emotions and maturity. Frankly, that is part of the appeal.
In Jungian psychology, the self is a union of an individual’s higher self and the shadow of their mind and self-perception (Perroni, 2013). For the game, this includes all the parts of a person, good and bad, the passions and connections. In the Wraith game, this is the state of Transcendence. Escaping from the shadowland requires a wraith to reconcile with their shadow, and resolve their passion, and the fetters. Then nothing remains to bind them to the hellscape of the shadowlands. They move on – to what precisely is a mystery. But it’s better than existing as a wraith.
In the game, few know how to achieve this Transcendence. The Hierarchy prohibits the pursuit of it, and the hungry forces of oblivion fight it. The PCs’ wraiths should help each other the best they can and endure long enough to find a way out.
It is impossible to win Wraith: The Oblivion because it is an RPG – much to the disappointment of Pierce Hawthorne. But Transcendence is a reasonable approximation and lets the characters escape from a bad situation.
There are other factions and factors in play. These include the Renegades – or rebels against the status quo of the Hierarchy. There are also the Heretics or those wraiths who constructed a religion after they died. These groups often offer lies and false hopes, and neither provides real solutions to existence as a wraith.
The 20th-anniversary edition of the game updated the setting and rules. So, this version is an expansion rather than a revision. The anniversary edition of the game continues an error from the first edition.
This is something which needs explanation. White Wolf games lean on social conflict. The tensions and potential violence between cliques and affiliations drive the games. For example, the feuding of the vampire clans drives much of the conflict in Vampire the Masquerade. The Hierarchy divides the restless dead by how they died. This division includes death by violence, old age, disease, etcetera. The musician character might be a victim of disease – alcoholism.
The game does not pursue these groups as the primary source of social conflict. Instead, the game pushes the idea that the power – the arcanoi – characters seek defines social structure. The groups which teach these powers are the guilds – they are nominally illegal under the rule of the Hierarchy. Players will want the various powers and involve the characters with the guilds as much as it gets them the powers. Social division by type of death makes more sense, given the setting. The 20th-anniversary edition does not lean on the division by power as thoroughly as past editions. But the idea is still present. And it is still a problem.
On a related note, the book provides too much material to draw characters away from the concerns that turned them into wraiths. The book presents the idea that the wraiths should be resolving their living business and see the underworld’s madness and politics as an obstacle. At the same time, the book presents the idea that the politics and madness of the underworld are the purpose while attempting to resolve the living business is the obstacle. These two philosophies and modes of play are at odds with each other and do not mesh well.
Characters in the game will have to deal with political machinations and the internecine maneuvering of the people running the Hierarchy. But this does not translate into real-world politics. The dead don’t care what people are screaming about on Twitter. And liberal and progressive means something different when millennia-dead ghosts who are still nursing hate boners about plebeians becoming consol are directing the state’s war engines.
The Wraith books that appeared in the 1990s carried a meta-plot. That is, one book presented sketchy details of a story going on. The next book advanced the story, and so did the following book. Each of the original game lines of White Wolf had a meta-plot. This includes the Mage and Wraith lines. The Mage anniversary edition appeared before the Wraith version.
This is relevant because the anniversary Mage book handled its metaplot better than the Wraith anniversary book. The Mage book presents a lot of options for taking its metaplot. It gives agency to storytellers and players by making the setting flexible. Wraith did not do this even if it came out after Mage. Wraith could have picked up some of the better flexibility philosophy from Mage.
A related flaw is this book does not spend enough time on the shadowlands or that part of the ghostly setting where stories will start and involve the characters.
The book makes up for what it lacks in flexibility by being comprehensive. The 20th-anniversary edition of Wraith provides a detailed guide to Stygia – the Hierarchy capital. This is a first for the Wraith line. The guide to the city is good even if it doesn’t cover the waffle house. The Dark Kingdom of Iron is one of the nations of the underworld – there are others. This book has sections on the nation-states ruling the underworld of the Indian subcontinent, East Asia, Central America, and so on. All that to say, the game is not limited to the wraiths haunting an American city – the scope is more expansive.
A lengthy comic-book story opens the anniversary edition. It lays out many of the game’s concepts in terms of the setting and the game mechanics. This is not original material – the comic book appeared as a book when the first edition of the game appeared on shelves. But it is an effective way to open the book.
The art and design of the book are grimly captivating. Beautiful is the wrong word. For context, you might say “Hades Town” is a great musical, or a movie by David Cronenberg is visually stunning. But they are also engaging, well-made, and memorable. Wraith: The Oblivion, as both a game and a book, is like that. Beautiful is the wrong word, but it is engaging, eye-catching, and memorable.
Some of the Illustrations here first appeared in past books. Full-color images open the sections and chapters. All the illustrations appear well used. Some of the images are abstract, which makes parsing them more difficult. But all these images pop.
Death, dying, and even ghosts have long been a part of the arts. Plays about dealing with ghosts go to the times of Classical Greece. Death frames life and everything in life – and that includes the arts. Death helps the living value life and the world around them (Maes, 2017). Struggling through suffering allowed characters in Greek classics to exert power beyond death (Nietzsche, 1994). Within that context, Wraith is simply part of a long tradition.
Wraith: The Oblivion is thoroughly complex regarding the simplicity versus complexity sliding scale. The game falls somewhere in the middle on the scale of simulation versus emulation. The fights are possible, the ghostly powers are not, and the game is not an emulation of any existing fiction genre.
Is it a good RPG? Yes, if you can accept the premise and handle the material respectfully. Does Wraith: The Oblivion make people want to use it and the terms it uses to tell their own stories? Yes, the game has a dedicated fan base willing to meet its demands to engage in some shadow play. And using the game to tell stories will involve the players using terms like legion, arcanio, guild, fetters, pathos, shadow, and passions.
Shadow play is popular among children and adults across various cultures (Osnes & Osnes, 2001). RPGs are always a shadow play across the mind. Wraith: The Oblivion is another such game, albeit one that is equal parts grim and beautiful. That said, the appeal of the game will be niche. But the number of players who have bought into the game have thoroughly bought into the game.
But this level of buy-in is a good thing. Wraith is a demanding game. What better way to find what light remains, rage against the dying of the light, and seize the last chance once you are dead than with friends?
Jung, C. G. (1981). The portable Jung. (J. Campbell, Ed.) London: Penguin Classic.
Maes, H. (2017). Conversations on art and aesthetics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Retrieved 2022
Nietzsche, F. (1994). The birth of tragedy: Out of the spirit of music. London: Penguin Classics.
Osnes, B., & Osnes, M. (2001). Acting: An international encyclopedia. Santa Barbara: ABC CLIO.
Perroni, E. (2013). Play: Psychoanalytic perspectives, survival and human development. New York: Routledge.
Pynchon, T. (1987). Gravity’s Rainbow. London: Penguin Publishing.
Rein-Hagen, M., Hartshorn, J., & Dansky, R. (2018). Wraith: The oblivion 20th anniversary. Atlanta: Paradox Interactive. Retrieved 202
Rage against the dying of the light
Grumpy RPG Reviews: Wraith The Oblivion