The Face of Death

0 Skulls

"...neither inspirational nor a fitting introduction ... clumsy, boring and near-incoherent, with a droning narrative more likely to make you sleep than want to run or play a game of Wraith: the Oblivion."

Reviewed by J. Edward Tremlett

Once in a while, you might chance to hear someone ask on a gaming forum if anyone's ever seen an early product for Wraith: the Oblivion known as The Face of Death. Once the resident smartasses stop making references to the infamous Faces of Death series of "real gore" videotapes, it is usually revealed that The Face of Death was an illustrated story - one meant to introduce the reader to the world of 1st Edition Wraith.

Those who ask usually say they saw it on a shelf, once, a long time ago. But they weren't into Wraith back then, so they didn't bother looking through it when they had the chance. And now that they are into the game, they can't find any copies of this particular book {it's even rarer than Dark Reflections: Spectres, apparently!}, and want to know what it was about, or if they were imagining things. Indeed, for some it has become a holy grail of sorts, much like DR:S, or The Risen.

As someone who came into the game after the 2nd edition, I was one of those people who saw The Face of Death leering at me from a shelf, but didn't take it up at the time. So when I had the opportunity, a few years ago, to snag a copy of that odd, elusive book, I did. And I took it home with trembling hands, eager to finally read this slippery, sought-after gem of early Wraith.

Sadly, I discovered that the gem was badly cracked and flawed - near-worthless, in fact. It is play-by-the-numbers, early White Wolf angst-drek that both numbs and grates, alternately enlivened by good art and dragged further down by bad. Apart from a few good pictures that could be used in a game, there is nothing here to recommend it to the Storyteller or player, and I'd be afraid to pass it around the table as an "introduction" for fear of people losing interest and wanting to play Vampire, instead.


The story is that of a new Wraith named Kirk, as narrated by an anonymous Ferryman, with the occasional sidebar of OOC explanation. Kirk is Reaped out of his prison cell after he dies, and is dragged off to see both the Tempest and the Shadowlands, and introduced to Spectres, Hierarchs, Heretics and Renegades {though the proper names aren't always forthcoming}. After gaining some measure of wisdom from the Ferryman, he's given a sexually-ambiguous kiss - followed by a scythe - and then rides off on his Relic motorcycle, off to see the Shadowlands on his own.

What's wrong with that? For starters, the story is so dully and lugubriously told that, in spite of the horrific things going on, I didn't feel like I really cared about anyone in it. It did not hold my interest at all, and coupling that story with art made me like even the good art less than I should, and really notice the bad.

Another problem is that the story is incoherent. Part of that could be poor editing, as it seems some pages were put out of place: the bit where we go to meet his family {getting swamped in yet more angst} and discover what the Restless are feels like it should have been much sooner in the book. That snafu - if it was one - adds incoherency to a story that already doesn't make much sense, but the true fault must be laid with the writers on that one.

And there's also a problem with the story, itself: it is quintessential early White Wolf, where tragic non-entities in need of a father figure are happy to be talked down to in the guise of being taught the particulars of their new condition. I spent half the story hoping that Kirk would actually do something, other than be led around by the nose by the Ferryman. But he did nothing but gain a longer, stronger nose - and a Relic motorbike, thanks to his living friends - which makes his driving off at the end seem more like his being set up for a grand, horrid joke than an accomplishment.

{An example of where the basic WW formula worked, and the tragic entity was not only a character, but actually did something, is the illustrated introduction to Werewolf: the Apocalypse 2nd ed. Ghost Story: Homecoming from Buried Secrets works as well for Wraith. But this is not those, sad to say.}


What's to recommend about the book, then? The general answer is "the art," and there is some good art here. But it's nothing to spend $13 bucks over.

There are, however, two points of collector's interest for long-term Wraith fans:

1) There is, in Ends of Empire, a Ferryman named Kurt - an artist who took his own life and has spent his dead years running around on a motorcycle. I don't know if Kurt was meant to be Kirk, and someone got the name and a few facts wrong, or if they're two different people. But the similarity suggests a connection, and if you're certain Kurt wasn't Kurt Cobain {which I doubt} then this could shed some light on the youngest Ferryman of all.

2) Early in the story, we are told - obliquely - that "their father killed ours," in reference to Vampires. This has led to the canard that Charon, the "first" Wraith, was actually Abel, the first victim. Saying that this has been retconned with extreme prejudice is something of an understatement, but if you're ever wondering where it came from, here you go.


Those two curiosities - and the art - aside, The Face of Death is hardly worth the trouble to find. If The Face of Death was meant as an inspirational introduction to Wraith: the Oblivion, then I'm sorry to say that it failed miserably: it is neither inspirational nor a fitting introduction. In fact, it's so utterly awful that just reading it is enough to temporarily erase all my good memories of Wraith, and make me realize that even though I love the game, I'd have given it a pass after reading this.

Yes, it really is that bad, and it's always sad to be reminded that, no matter how much you may love a particular game, there were some products made for it that really weren't worth the money to buy, much less the time to read. So while I hate being so down on any White Wolf product I review, I have to be honest, and say that The Face of Death isn't worth even half of a skull. It's clumsy, boring and near-incoherent, with a droning narrative more likely to make you sleep than want to run or play a game of Wraith: the Oblivion.

I've given it 0 Skulls out of 5, and while it might be worth your time to pick up just for some of the art, don't feel like you're really missing anything by not being able to find it.

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.