Shades of Gray

"...continues to drive the story onwards like a steam locomotive ... might not be perfect, but I'm willing to go out on a limb and call it flawless..."

Reviewed by T. Hurmeranta

The second supplement for Orpheus, Shades of Gray continues to drive the story onwards like a steam locomotive. Published at a relatively tight schedule, the sourcebooks faithfully follow a common format in layout and in presenting both the march of the Orpheus storyline as well as supplementing the game itself with new information, opportunities, rules and possibilities.
It's almost sad when you realize that even this early they're already halfway through the series. Book Three of Six leaves you feeling like the show is only really getting started, and afraid the curtain call is behind not nearly enough corners.


Prelude & Introduction:

Each of the books begins with a short piece of fiction. For the corebook itself the author was none other than Richard E. Dansky, a veritable ancestor spirit if Orpheus ever had one. The opening in Shades of Gray comes penned by Lucien Soulban, developer, inventor (?) and acting godfather of the Orpheus line. "Plummet" tells a more personal, much more grim story than Crusade of Ashes did, laying open the life and postmortem existence of Tom Hayes and how it all ends. Kind of. Sort of. But ultimately not, and reading a short paragraph in italics on page 116 may leave you wishing it had. Fates worse than death are never pleasant to contemplate.

The Introduction itself offers a recap of events that Crusade of Ashes took several pages marked with "Storyteller Eyes Only" to say of Orpheus' past and the roads that led to the present day. "How to use this book", Theme& Mood, a look via the Movie Model, Chapter Breakdown, all is exactly as you'd expect. The one exception is Radio Free Death: it continues to have different things to say in each book about each of the books to follow, only driving you crazy as you try to piece together a puzzle that grows more and more elaborate yet nonetheless remains crippled by infuriating bits that read only <static>.


Chapter One: The Pale Rider

The Pale Rider is the quintessential scenario in Shades of gray, the one that defines the sourcebook no less than the Orpheus Group's swansong told what Crusade of Ashes was all about. True to form, this is the one and only place in the entire book where events are handed to you with a ready script, supporting cast and timetable.

The Pale Rider is the story of strychnine and pigment and why the two must never meet. A secretive nemesis whose reach extends even to the paranoid circles of drug dealers poisons a massive shipment of black heroin, right on the eve of the holiday season.

The story itself is less rigidly organized than Crusade was: the characters have many possible ways of becoming entangled with the tragedy to come, and several leads that might tug at their sleeves before it's too late. Stopping the figurative Pale Rider on his horse may be impossible, but the players have a chance to do more than stand around being victimized, as was almost inevitable during the surprise attack on Orpheus from Crusade. Key figures and locations, suggested events to play out and a rough guideline on what not to let happen if one wishes to still follow the Orpheus storyline flesh out the text of Chapter One. Users and dealers of pigment, ghosts and Spectres who are just bound to run into them, a colleague of Grimm's with a top hat and a big smile... it's all here.


Chapter Two: the Living Ensemble

Once again a chapter goes off in two directions at once. The Player's section looks at factions old and new in the same style that Crusade did. The Spectres, the Blasphemers, the Media {now more than ever} the DEA and more receive both their place in the sun and the author's grueling analysis.

The FBI has had its sights on the characters for how long by now, yet presumably they continue to elude capture and very possibly take the time to stick it to the Man whenever an opportunity presents itself. And what kind of media circus explodes as the full impact of the vast conspiracy to murder penetrates the public's notoriously thick skull? Suggestions and hints of things to come abound, not all of them where you'd expect them {we're handed the first portrait of John Terrel and Lionel Squib, which unfortunately goes and makes them look more like zombies than rival projecting tycoons} For good or ill, the writers go over almost anything short of a direct intervention from planet Mars and do a thorough job while at it. Much as in Crusade it's a matter of taste whether the overview exhausts or exhilarates.

The Storyteller's section brings down a house that I, for one, thought had been reduced to so much slag by Crusade of Ashes. Who is "Mysterious Antagonist # 2"? For that matter, who is Radio Free Death? Is there more to pigment than meets the eye (and laboratory analysis), or are the cultists who claim so just stoned out of their minds? What are the Spectres up to and what do they do with the unfortunate souls they catch? Who were Orpheus Group's secretive backers and why were they funneling millions into a lunatic enterprise all those years ago?

The Living Ensemble answers all of the above. Players who take sneak peeks deserve to be shot without court-martial.


Chapter Three: The Unearthed Player's Guide:

Again, the best way to keep the players' eyes off the sensitive information is not to offer them a red herring but a treasure trove they can't exhaust if they try for a month. Chapter Three reveals the first of the "mystery groups" that Orpheus researchers never could isolate. Fans of Wraith, say hello to old, old friends. Fans of Orpheus, the world just got richer by a whole new level. Fans of "A Nightmare on Elm Street," take to the streets and shout with glee.

For those who prefer to stick by their own characters, we see the publication of third-tier horrors. Some of them explain mysteries such as how RFD works: others can give Storytellers weeks' worth of plots and mysteries: and some just give you that comforting feeling of toting lethal weaponry that'll turn the first uppity Spectre you see into so much interior decoration.

For those who find them of use there are new Roles, and the same can be said of Backgrounds. Personally, the last bit are the one tidbit that makes me both want to congratulate the writers, buy them several rounds at a bar, name my children after them and at the same time toss them through a nearby window for not giving us these right from the get-go.


Chapter Four: Storytelling the Dead:

Appearances can be deceptive and first, cursory looks even more so. Chapter Four opens with the usual ST hints such as how to introduce new characters into the game, what themes and conflicts to adopt and how to do it, the whole nine yards. The impatient are bound to skim over the first few pages and they shall be well rewarded.

Shades of Gray cuts to the mustard and presents us with the origin of pigment, the invisible hand behind the pigment cults and Spectral hives. Burgoyne Preparatory Academy was a harbinger of the latter: "Corridors" in the fiction anthology Haunting the Dead gave us a tour inside one. What they are, where they form, how the spectres expedite the process and what their outbreak on earth portends. The hives are outgrowths of something that begins to appear like cancer on the face of the earth: considering what has crawled past the Stormwall to date, the Wastelands behind them may be even less inviting than was previously thought.

"History of a drug" is no less intimidating. Reading through it you can almost see the fields of pigment in your mind's eye, the dully watching armed guards on one side of the grave and the utter hell that rages on the other. Black blood seeps to the ground in Mexico and Myanmar, in Colombia and in Turkey. It is drunk by the kakos stromithicarum plants that the enigmatic DR. Katilian brought from the depths of the South American jungle, ground to black heroin: such is the origin of hues, while their future {their purpose?} is being increasingly hinted at as the Pale Rider throws a wrench into everyone's works.

Chapter four looks at the activities of the "pigment barons" and Flatliners who sit behind the newest drug to hit the streets like a tsunami, at the composition of pigment {and interestingly, the attempts to fake the real deal on the street-level markets} and the secret factor that turns black heroin from a mere drug into a literal poison for the soul. We also see briefly behind the scenes of the cults that form around the drug: it's not much - not yet - but seeing the hand of Uriah Bishop pulling at the strings ought to get one interested.

The missions at the end of the chapter are, yet again, rather more interesting than what you usually think of upon hearing the words "ready-made adventure." Meeting the voice behind, proprietor and founder of Radio Free Death isn't one I would have thought of. And if uncovering the secrets of the pigment plantations, the cults who line up their members to offer them the stuff hues are made of and watching as Hell comes to earth to roost isn't your cup of tea, then there are more missions of Orpheus' day to tide you over. Whether you're running a storyline where Crusade of Ashes was repelled, or just need an idea for one evening's fun, they're well worth looking over.


So there. The plot thickens like Düsseldorf mustard, events swirl onwards like a kaleidoscope gone mad and the pace quickens like an arthritic leopard's pulse. Shades of Gray looks like Crusade of Ashes wearing new clothes, and indeed it is. But copying is only a problem when it starts becoming unoriginal, and so far we've no fear on that account.

Shades of Gray might not be perfect, but I'm willing to go out on a limb and call it flawless: that said, yours truly cannot in good conscience give it anything but the full five skulls. I might say a lot of things about the book, but regretting I spent the cover price on it isn't one of them.

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.