Orpheus bodes well for whatever is to come after the World of Darkness. Its strength lies both in its audacious concept and its intriguing mechanics ... The presentation is not without flaws, some of which are very serious ... However, the overall roleplaying potential kicks major ass, and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it...

Reviewed by J. Edward Tremlett

When Orpheus was announced as eminent, I was very excited at the prospect of a new Storytelling game with ghosts, as you might imagine. As more information came out, I realized that it wasn't going to be Wraith: the Oblivion revised, but rather a whole new take on things. {That didn't stop me from idle speculation, looking for connections and good, old-fashioned fan-boyish drooling, though. It never does, and it never will, either.}

Once it was out, and others got it and reported in, I found myself happy to hear that it either met or exceeded many expectations. Unfortunately, I would have to wait quite a while to get my copy so I could see if it would meet or exceed my own. In fact, I only got it well after Crusade of Ashes winged its way to me, but CoA was so good that I figured Orpheus could shatter continents with its magnificence.

So when I got my hands on The Machine I was more than a little intimidated by it. Was I going to be elated or disappointed? Would I be getting "Ghost stories for Ghosts" or just a sorry attempt to redo Wraith: the Oblivion?

I tried to clear my mind of thoughts of Wraith, Wraith Revised or the like and just take it for what it was: a whole different ballgame for me to enjoy. And I did enjoy it. I found myself enjoying the living hell out of it, to be blunt.

I also found myself scratching my head or annoyed at other times, and noting what I'd change or do differently when I ran my game. But note that I said 'when I ran my game': Even if the book fails to do some things well, it succeeds brilliantly both in others and in its core mission - to make you want to run it. There's some problems along the way that bear consideration, but I think this is a game everyone can appreciate - even if they didn't like Wraith, which is saying something right there.


Before we get started with the review, please note that - as this is a core book - there's a lot of information to go over, and the review will be quite long as a result. I apologize for this in advance, but there's no other way to do the book justice, much less explain why you should highly consider picking it up. The quibbles should be fully explained, and also the many points of excellence, so you can see exactly what you're getting into.


The layout of the book is fairly good, except for the first chapter. I realize that chapter was made to look intentionally cluttered, as a part of the overall effect, but in some cases it went a little too far and readability suffers as a result. {I still haven't been able to get through pages 46-47 without going blind halfway through} However, it's easy to make your way through the rest of the book.

There are a few typos, mistakes, Page XXs and the like {standard for any White Wolf book}, but other than those little weebles the editing is generally good. One glaring problem is the character sheet using lines and dots for Horrors and Stains, instead of just lines, and only dots instead of dots and boxes for Vitality, but that's easily fixed. Another problem that's not so easily fixed is the exclusion of what Wail does to the living, along with a few other things that needed better explanation {You can find the answers in our Orpheus Errata}

The art itself is very good, with some amazing work in here by William O'Connor {the chapter pictures, now appearing as supplement covers} and Christopher Shy {who does darn near everything else, or so it seems}. Rik Martin - who did the amazing Guild pictures in 2nd edition Wraith: the Oblivion - is also in Orpheus, doing equally-amazing pictures for the Shades and Laments. And everyone else involved also did really well, here, too.

As for the art choices: the vast majority of them are good, though there's a few pieces here and there that maybe should have been used somewhere else. For example, the pictures in the IPO report look really weird {maybe the "photographer" used the kirlian camera...?} Other than that, no major problems there, either. A decent job all around.


We start our introduction to Orpheus through the eyes of Richard "Deadguy" Dansky, who wrote the Prologue: Proof of Life. This is an excellent opening story: it manages not only to give us a good sense of what "life" is like for a Sleeper, but also give some hints of what lies below - and inside - Orpheus Group. It also provides some pretty freaky shocks at the same time, as well as introducing us to the menace that is Bishop. Proof of Life is ten pages of Deadguy at the top of his game.


Then we get another ten pages of introduction, via the Introduction proper. In some ways it's the standard Core Book introduction. We're brought up to speed on what we're about to jump into, and given the main theme of the game. We're also provided with a lexicon, handed the general advice about LARPing and given some suggestions on inspirational entertainment - movies and videogames, in the case of Orpheus.

However, since this book is intended as an experiment in limited-series RPing, with little or no crossover from other World of Darkness games, we also get:

* Information on how the Orpheus "movie" - if you will - is going to be structured. I don't know that I agree with the 20-minute breakdown we're handed. I'm also of the belief that the Orpheus series doesn't really make a viable model for a movie, given the nature of RPGs in general. {More on that note some other time}

* Some snippets of information on the five supplements to follow. The supplement rundown is cleverly done in the form of a Radio Free Death broadcast, with <static> obscuring words and phrases to keep the reader guessing. This was a clever idea, as it keeps the suspense up for both players and Storytellers, and it comes off really well.

* A note on why the rest of the World of Darkness isn't kicking down Orpheus Group's door and either taking them over or shutting them down. I don't really buy the explanation of them being "too new" for others to take notice, but that'll do it for me, for now. As I see Orpheus as taking place in a WOD that is not necessarily the WOD, anyway, I don't mind a lack of major crossover in the slightest. {More on that note some other time, too.}


Chapter One: World of the Dead is where we encounter our first big disappointment: I don't feel that the chapter adequately prepares its readers for "life" in the world that Orpheus inhabits. At its best, the chapter reads like an engaging - and darkly amusing - cross between Dilbert and Ghostbusters, with the X-Files and Sixth Sense riding shotgun. However, we also have a lot of stuff that's either repetitive, badly-placed or confusing in there as well, and even by the end I'm not sure where Orpheus Group stands.

I think part of the problem is that the Chapter wasn't arranged for the maximum impact, and - as I mentioned earlier - it's a real visual mess in places. In order to get to the really good parts, you have to slog through a lot of piecemeal stuff that doesn't track very well as presented. Now, once we get going, things improve considerably, but I found that I had to reread the chapter a few times to truly appreciate what was there.

And then, even after re-reading it about three times, I'm not too sure of where Orpheus really is in terms of public perception. Do they have ads on TV, as certain parts of the text would indicate, or are they following their CEO's dictum of not doing anything of the sort? If they're on the cusp of being taken somewhat seriously - especially by the Feds - then why don't they have an article from a "serious" news magazine at the front of the Chapter, rather than a few pages from The Scrutinizer?

After a few re-reads, I'm still not sure of Orpheus Group is John Edwards or Sister Cleo Inc. Maybe this was intentional as well, but I'd have liked a bit more concrete with my mudslide.


After that, we get to Chapter Two: Shades, Laments and Horrible Things, which is where it all starts taking off. It's what's promised by the title, plus a bit more. We learn about:

* Three of the eight default abilities that all characters have access to. These include Dead Eyes {bring able to see ghosts and other projected entities}, Incorporeal and Invisible {fairly self-explanatory} and Manifest {being able to appear to normal folks while dead or projecting}. The other five abilities are discussed later, in Chapter Three, due to their direct tie-in with Natures.

* Five Shades: "meta-natures" that govern a character's outlook on things, provide a basis for their innate Horror {neat-o-keen ghosty power} and affect how they manifest to the living. A player's choice of Shade will also affect her character's starting "Sliding Scale" stats {Vitality, Spite and Willpower}, as well as restrict her choice of Horrors. A signature character is given for each Shade, and we get a little history and background on each individual.

* Four Laments, which are the "character classes" for the game. There are Skimmers {those who can project via sleep/meditation}, Sleepers {those who must be "flatlined" to project}, Spirits {self-aware ghosts who aren't tied down to their attachments} and Hues {'weaker' ghosts who made the mistake of trying a certain drug - Pigment - while alive}. The different Laments have their own advantages and disadvantages, and also have a signature character for each.

* Ten Horrors - the aforementioned neat-o-keen ghosty powers. Each Shade has one Horror that it gets automatically, and another Horror that it finds easier to learn. Each Shade also has two Horrors that it cannot learn, with the exception of the "Skinrider" Shade, as its polar opposite Shade hasn't been revealed. We're told how they work, what they can be used to do, and how they can be used to augment one another through "Yoking."

The experimental nature of Orpheus really stands up and takes a bow, however unsteady at times, in this chapter. The idea of having a "meta-nature" that determines not only your character's general outlook, but also the powers that come automatically or easier, is a departure from the usual "splat" concept. In the other Storyteller games, what you are - or what you fell in with - determines your choice of initial powers. Here, however, that choice is based on who you are, and that choice also blocks certain paths to power forever. It's a compelling idea. In addition, you'll note that there are, in fact, eight Shades, but the core book only provides five; Others are yet to be revealed in future supplements...

The Horrors themselves are all - I'll say it one more time - neat-o-keen, but even more impressive are the way they've been set up. The previous Storyteller game paradigm has "ranks" of power going from one to five {or higher}, with each level giving access to either a certain power, or a certain level of power. Horrors, on the other hand, are all-inclusive: the power level of a particular effect depends on how much Vitality {spiritual power} the character wants to invest in that effect, and/or the successes rolled, if a die roll is needed at all. For example, a novice Poltergeist could make as powerful an effect with Helter Skelter as an accomplished one, provided they both spent the same amount of Vitality.

In addition, each Horror has a listed Benefit that can be used in tandem with another character's Horror - "Yoking" them together for added oomph, or some other effect, depending on the specific Benefit listed.To use the Poltergeists as an example, again, they can spend a point of Vitality and increase the effects of the Horrors going on around them by two points, as though they were step-up power converters. Yoking is not only an extremely cool idea, but it goes some distance in providing a material incentive for the characters to work together.

But, just like any experiment, the chapter could have stood some refinement. One of the rule sets for the Wail Horror is missing - as mentioned previously - and the rest of the write-up for that Horror is a real mess, too. It has a number of different uses {which I'm sure Wraith fans will all appreciate} and these should have been put in some kind of sequential format, rather than a series of paragraphs: there's too many ifs, ands and whyfores in there for clear, easy reading. Fortunately, that's the most complicated Horror, and the others - with the exception of Helter Skelter - are fairly straightforward. Unfortunately, Wail's also the first Horror we come across, so by time time you get to the rest of them your brain might feel like you just took a five-Vitality scream in the left ear.

I'm also not certain that the "fine print" of the different Shades was as well-considered as it could have been, either; In fact, it seems kind of arbitrary at times. I can kind of see why the power to see the future or the past {Forbode} was put with Wail in the Banshee Shade, but why did the Poltergeists get Congeal {think Moliate} along with the Outrage-like Horror of Helter Skelter? And why shouldn't it be the power-freak Skinriders {two guesses what they got} who have the more empathetic Horrors of Wail and Forbode denied to them, rather than the object-inhabiting Haunters?

Other than those problems - which can be fixed and/or monkeywrenched, or else answered in the Errata - the chapter goes a long way in delivering on the promise that Orpheus is going to be something special. You might have to reread parts of it a few times to get the whole picture, but you'll be very glad you did.


Chapter Three: Character Creation is all about making your agents, and this is another place where Orpheus' experimental nature stands up for itself. We get what we'd normally get out of these kinds of chapters: a quick rundown of creation, along with an example, followed by breakdowns of the Attributes, Abilities, Backgrounds and "Sliding Scale" Advantages {Vitality, Spite and Willpower}, along with what you can use those Sliding Scale dots for. Health is also expounded upon, along with how Experience works. As for the standard two-page Character Creation Process, this time it's three, given the room needed for Natures.

But there's also some important additions and changes, too:

* There's emphasis placed on creating the Crucible that the players' characters will be a part of. Every Storyteller game has a bit on making sure that the group's members all work with one another, even if they don't get along, but with Orpheus the notion of inter-party trust and cooperation is essential. Your characters can still have serious disagreements and feuds with one another, but the process of sharing Vitality {more on that later} and Yoking powers leads to a level of spiritual intimacy: one that goes way deeper than any bad argument could ever break. That's underscored yet again in this chapter, to the extent that they say the Crucible should almost be looked at as a character in its own right. In fact, when we get to the Experience section, there's end of Chronicle points to be given out to everyone in the Crucible based on what they did together, and how they acted as a group while doing it.

* Twenty "Roles" are given out as templates for character creation. What was your character before she joined Orpheus, and what Attributes and Abilities does she have an affinity for as a result? Experienced players might not want to use them, and some Storytellers might find them a little silly at times, depending on whether or not they'd imagine Orpheus Group would hire a former prostitute or bicycle delivery boy - even if they can project. On the other hand, the Roles make a good platform for folks who need ideas, or are a little unsure about making a first character for the game. There are also options where the character's starting level can be ratcheted up either one notch or two whole notches due to more experience - or more extreme circumstances - on the part of the character.

* Nature and Demeanor is quite large, here, both due to the fact that a character's Nature also influences her starting 'Sliding Scale' Advantages, and that Nature factors into the other five Default Abilities the characters can use. These are Detect Nature Group {Detects which of the eight Shades is someone more likely to be, based on her Nature}, Misery Loves Company {Make a ghost in her own Nature Group's emotions match the character's desires}, Sense Lifeline {Discover what's holding a ghost in her own Nature Group back}, Sever the Strand {Resolve one of those things for that ghost} and Thievery {Steal Vitality from a ghost in her own Nature Group}. Again, we see how important the "core" of your character is in terms of the game, right here.

* Backgrounds are split between Normal Backgrounds and Orpheus Backgrounds: things that anyone could have, and things one could get from working for someone like Orpheus Group, respectively. Your initial four dots in Backgrounds are to be put into both categories, two apiece, and then you can do whatever you like with your freebies. This seems to restrict choice a bit too much for my tastes, but it's a minor detail that can be overridden by an ST without much problem. There are two ghost-only Backgrounds - Memorial and Reincarnate - which will be familiar concepts to us old Wraith hands. There's also some confusion over what Backgrounds ghosts can't take, too, but - again - this can be rectified by the ST without too much problem as best suits her game. One thing that isn't easily rectified is the fact that, even without taking a single dot in Resources, Orpheus Employees all get 60 grand a year, which seems a bit wonky, somehow. {Of course, this comes in handy if you're using the Plot, as we'll see in future books}

* Then we get Vitality, which is - without a doubt - the most important stat in the game. It is both spiritual 'togetherness' {Health, if you will} and power: almost as if someone squished Wraith's Pathos and Corpus together, if you don't mind the comparison. Vitality fuels Horrors and Default Abilities, determines how "visible" spooks are to ghosts and spectres, rules how 'normal' your character looks {as opposed to dead, rotten, shot to pieces, etc.} and acts as a 'threshold' in determining how well your character can withstand the Spite that's building within her. It's also nigh-transferable between characters, which leads to that deep, spiritual bond everyone shares with one another, even if they all want to punch each other's lights out. Having your spiritual strength and health together both simplifies matters, and makes the game more taut and tense: you really cannot fuck around with what you want to do in Orpheus, making every journey into Spookville a real adventure all its own. You can always spend Willpower or tap Spite to get more Vitality, if you're in a jam, but that's got dangers and risks all its' own...

* And then we have Spite: a two-tiered "Advantage" which old Wraith players might well equate with Permanent Angst {Spite Rating} and Current Angst {Spite Points}. In Orpheus, your negative side keeps its mouth shut and lies dormant, but Spite Points slowly rise up to become Spite Ratings. And as that Spite Rating gets higher, your character starts to slide towards the darkness, getting more Stains, losing dice from her Social rolls and eventually becoming a Spectre. You can "Tap" Spite Points and your Spite Rating for variable benefits, but this runs the risk of increasing Points and Rating. This method of handling one's dark side takes the everpresent menace of Wraith's Shadows and simplifies them greatly, which should be a boon to those who were a bit put off by the notion of Shadowguiding. And while you can get rid of Spite - both Points and Rating{!!!} - it isn't as easy as a trip to the Pardoner...

* Lastly, we have Stains, which are powers one can gain by accessing one's Spite, provided your Spite Rating is high enough to do this. Stains offer both clear advantages and disadvantages, and can only be used by "tapping" Spite {unless you're a Hue, which is one big advantage in their corner}. However, as you can see above, tapping Spite runs the risk of getting even more Spite, which in turn runs the risk of getting a higher Spite Rating and eventually getting more Stains, which decreases your Social Roll dice pool because you look like a fucking psycho... etc. etc. etc. Relying on your Stains is making a Faustian bargain with your soul, especially when you consider that each Spite Point you tap only provides a Stain's power for one turn. {I'd have made it last longer than that, myself}

The Chapter has some problems with consistency, and there's some blatant goofs here and there that should have been caught in the editing process. I also think the Default Abilities should have all been kept together for convenience's sake, and that the chapter's length may put some newer players off. All that aside, I love the interplay of Vitality and Spite. I also like the excising of the Dodge Talent, allowing for more dynamic blocking or counter-attack maneuvers, or else using Athletics to get out of the damn way. This Chapter clearly shows Orpheus to be taking a new direction in things.


Chapter Four: Working the System is the mechanics chapter. It's fairly short, sweet and to the point, with no major surprises if you've used Revised rules for the Storyteller System before. It does look like Falling damage took a bit of a refit, though.

One important note that's specific to Orpheus is the interplay between Vitality and Health, not to mention the fact that while ghosts and projectors can soak Lethal damage, each point of Lethal damage that gets through the soak takes away two dots of Vitality. Ouch!

We also get the skinny on Pigment - the "black heroin" that everyone's doing, these days - in the section on Poisons and Drugs. It's nasty, nasty stuff that lets you see spooks, and damns you to being a Hue when you die. I love it.


At long last, we get to Chapter Five: Storytelling the Dead, which is for Storytellers' eyes only. It's here that things are explained - or not - in such a way that those presenting the game can do so without having certain surprises spoiled for them, either. In fact, we even get ideas on how to give "the future" via the Forbode Horror without giving too much of the plot away, along with some rather evocative - and damned freaky - examples of what you could tell the players.

We're told some of what Orpheus does behind the gloss and PR, and it is a dark thing indeed. We also get information on ghosts and how to "save" them, the strange sort of amnesia the living suffer when they deal with ghosts, and ideas on Tethers you can use for ghosts, along with four tables to randomly generate tethers if you get stuck on the fly.

The "Twisted Reflections" part of the Chapter is bloody brilliant. Here, we have two pieces of information regarding NPC entities: first is an "official" memo from Orpheus, saying what the characters would know or might be told, done up in a manner suitable for photocopying and presenting as a prop, and then we get the actual truth the Storyteller needs to run these things. Every situation and entity is given a "Threat Tag" that indicates what Orpheus Group thinks it is, and how dangerous or friendly it's considered to be. Note that "intelligence" is often a gross contradiction in terms, though.

And then we get NPCs galore. We get folks from Terrel & Squib {and their 13 Ghostsish gear}, Nextworld Inc., well-known repeaters and blips, allied and hostile ghosts, animal ghosts {!!!}, minor rivals and indy operators. We even get quick and dirty optional rules for psychics, should the ST want to use them.

Oh... and we also get Spectres. Oh Goddess, do we get Spectres. If Dark Reflections: Spectres and Doomslayers: Into the Labyrinth had you drooling like a sick little monkey, you are going to love how Orpheus handles them. We get quick and dirty rundowns on their Spectre-specific Horrors, and we get Thorns, which are like Stains, only they don't have to use Spite to fuel them. We are told of the different "Breeds" of Spectres: different types with their own origins, Horrors and M.O.s. And we get very troubling examples of each Breed on top of it.

{And yes, it looks like the Reaper was given a weapon that does 9 Aggravated Damage. This has been explained in the Errata}

One other thing that really stands out here, especially for us old Wraith hands, is the previously-mentioned amnesia issue. Those of us who thought The Fog was a bit wonky at times - W:tA's Delirium for Wraith, as some called it - will most likely find Orpheus' reworking of the idea a breath of fresh air. I don't know if I agree that Spectre activity automatically incurs it, because I think the living should remember the actions of Spectres as well as "normal" ghosts, within reason. However, it isn't much problem to either ignore or fix that, it you'd care to.


But we're not done yet! Last in the line is Appendix: Ghost Stories, which gives "Missions" for the Storyteller to send the Crucible on. What's really good about these is that all the information that's given in the book can be handed right over to the players as In Character knowledge. And that's because while the Missions all do a bang-up job of setting the scene and getting folks into the mood, the exact parameters of what's really going on is all up the Storyteller to decide.

As such, the Missions are gamestarters rather than actual, walk-through Scenarios. This not only gives Storytellers ultimate latitude, but also means that the authors could put a heck of a lot of Missions in there because they don't have to be that long and involved. The stuff should keep your Crucible busy for weeks, depending on how involved you make them, and even if you don't want to use any of them they still give a good notion of what Orpheus Group can do for money. {There's also a few Easter Eggs in there, too, if you're familiar with other WoD Games, and one hell of a wink at us Wraith fans right at the back. Enjoy...}


Orpheus represents a bold, new direction for White Wolf to take. However, just like any other new direction, there are bound to be some mistakes made along the way. The first chapter was a real mess that needed massive reworking, and while the rest of the book goes some distance in making up for it, we're still never quite sure where we are with the public perception of Orpheus Group. There's also some real buzzkilling writing in certain, critical spots that should have been redone to make the book track easier.

But in spite of all those mistakes - which are considerable, as I said before - I am not at all hesitant about saying that this is a game that demands to be played. Even if you never use the "official" plot of the rest of the series, the fun you could have with just the setting presented in this book alone is phenomenal. This is Wraith: the Oblivion meets the X-Files on steroids. This is The Quick and The Dead as it should have been written. This is... ah, fuck the superlatives - I've got a Chronicle to plan. Who's with me?

With the Time of Judgment on its way, Orpheus bodes well for whatever is to come after the World of Darkness. Its strength lies both in its audacious concept and its intriguing mechanics. It takes the notion of human and ghostly interaction, shakes it up a bit and presents it anew for the Sixth Sense and X-Files generation. The presentation is not without flaws, some of which are very serious, and I can only give it 4.5 Skulls out of five due to those problems. However, the overall roleplaying potential kicks major ass, and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to people who liked Wraith: the Oblivion, people who didn't, and all White Wolf fans in general.

Reviews on the Wraith Project are the opinions of those reviewers, and are not necessarily those of the Wraith Project themselves. If you disagree with this review, send in another one. If you still feel like strangling the reviewer, see an analyst.