Given that it is a game about playing a dead person, in some ways it is appropriate that Wraith: the Oblivion was the first of the World of Darkness games to die – not even making it past 1999. Having received even less support than Changeling, in some respects it’s the member of the initial “big five” World of Darkness RPGs which both needs the most love from a 20th Anniversary edition and, you would think, would be one of the easier game lines to sum up in a big fat 20th Anniversary rulebook – after all, since less was published for it, less needs to be compiled, right?
On the other hand, in some respects Wraith is the most genuinely clever and cutting-edge of the original World of Darkness games. Whilst White Wolf spent most of the 1990s trying their hardest to adopt a pose of being sophisticated artists bringing a new level of sophistication to tabletop RPGs, it was rare that their games actually reflected this in terms of system and the supported gameplay and the overall concepts being played with. Wraith was a major exception in this respect.
With Rich Dansky, respected in the fanbase for the work he’d done on the original game line, in place to write this updated edition, would it provide this unique game with the treatment it’s always deserved but never quite received, or would it be another victim of the reputed Wraith Curse?
Usual Note On Methodology
Just in case this is the first Kickstopper article you’ve read, there’s a few things I should establish first. As always, different backers on a Kickstarter will often have very different experiences and I make no guarantee that my experience with this Kickstarter is representative of everyone else’s. In particular, I’m only able to review these things based on the tier I actually backed at, and I can’t review rewards I didn’t actually receive.
The format of a Kickstopper goes like this: first, I talk about the crowdfunding campaign period itself, then I note what level I backed at and give the lowdown on how the actual delivery process went. Then, I review what I’ve received as a result of the Kickstarter and see if I like what my money has enabled. Lots of Kickstarters present a list of backers as part of the final product; where this is the case, the “Name, DNA and Fingerprints” section notes whether I’m embarrassed by my association with the product.
Towards the end of the review, I’ll be giving a judgement based on my personal rating system for Kickstarters. Higher means that I wish I’d bid at a higher reward level, a sign that I loved more or less everything I got from the campaign and regret not getting more stuff. Lower means that whilst I did get stuff that I liked out of the campaign, I would have probably been satisfied with one of the lower reward levels. Just Right means I feel that I backed at just the right level to get everything I wanted, whilst Just Wrong means that I regret being entangled in this mess and wish I’d never backed the project in the first place. After that, I give my judgement on whether I’d back another project run by the same parties involved, and give final thoughts on the whole deal.
The Kickstarter campaign for Wraith‘s 20th Anniversary version ran from December 2014 to January 2015 and raised some $295,645. This was quite big by the standards of RPG Kickstarters in general, but fell short of the amounts raised by those for 20th Anniversary Werewolf, Mage, and Changeling. (Vampire: the Masquerade‘s 20th Anniversary edition wasn’t the subject of a Kickstarter.) In fact, it’s only a bit more than the amount raised by 20th Anniversary Vampire: the Dark Ages, and the reason for both games underperforming the other three may come down to the same: both games had their popularity simply eclipsed by the others in the marketplace, now as when they originally came out.
What Level I Backed At
Shrouded Restless Dead: You will receive a copy of the Deluxe Wraith 20th Anniversary Edition, a copy of the Wraith 20th PDF, and the Wraith 20th PoD as close to cost as we can give you (see description in the text to the left). You’ll get digital wallpaper featuring a collage of the dark and beautiful art from Wraith: the Oblivion 20th. You will also receive the Wraith 20th Storyteller’s Screen, a sturdy three-panel screen featuring darkly beautiful art from the Wr20 book on the outer side, and on the inside there’s a selection of charts and other info to make the Storyteller’s job a little bit easier. You or your character’s name will be listed on the credits page as a Wraith. Please note extra for shipping outside US/Canada.
Delivering the Goods
Delivery was estimated for November 2015; I actually got my physical copy of the book in February 2019. This is a pretty major delay that even the process of producing the deluxe hardcopy can’t really account for.
The delay is simple to explain: Rich Dansky took way longer to write the dang thing than expected. Not his fault, not even Onyx Path’s fault: he’d agreed a timeline with them based on the notion that he’d be able to work on the book full-time since he was otherwise between jobs, he then landed a new job which couldn’t wait and demanded a hefty amount of his time, this substantially slowed down the writing process.
What is Onyx Path’s responsibility is the decision to just let the situation drag out like this. Whilst I can understand why they would be reluctant to pull Dansky off the project altogether – after all, it was funded in part on the strength of his name recognition – would it have been impossible to just get in some more people to do the heavy lifting and have him brief and approve their work? It would mean less words came directly from the hand of Dansky himself, but I think most backers would have been fine with that so long as the text met his approval and if it allowed work to be done in parallel to get the book finished more promptly.
The thing is, it’s wholly possible that it would have been impossible for Onyx Path to do that – they may well not have had the budget to hire extra writers without taking money from some other aspect of the project. In fact, given the way they seem to have been helpless to sort out significant Kickstarter delays in the past (to the point where they seem to have moved to a more stern policy of “we don’t start the Kickstarter without a draft of the book done”) and stories of them paying a not-very-good rate to their freelancers (a problem they admittedly share with a lot of RPG publishers, but which is particularly bad with their release schedule, since pay-on-publication clauses mean that payments to freelancers, as well as being thin, can often be quite delayed), it really seems like Onyx Path do not have much in the way of loose funds they can use to plug this sort of gap at all.
That’s understandable, but it does mean that they can end up in a situation like this one, where they have no real choice except to wait until the book is good and ready and can’t really do much to help that process speed up. It makes them seem like a rinky-dink small press, which in some respects is exactly what they are but given the ambitious they espouse and the product lines they try to provide for they really can’t afford to be. The idea of game lines like the World of Darkness or Exalted games being mostly served by a tiny indie company that the dev work is outsourced to and who still, after years of operation, struggle to get in on the conventional distribution circuit seems incongruous. In some respects it’s a major accomplishment of theirs that they are able to do what they do as well as they do, but in other respects it means that sometimes situations come up which a publisher of the clout that White Wolf had in the 1990s would have been able to sort but Onyx Path are incapable of resolving nearly as smoothly.
Reviewing the Swag
The Dearly Departed: Wraith 1st Edition
Before I get into the rewards themselves, let’s look at the basis for this whole thing. The original release of Wraith came out in 1994, with its design credited to Mark Rein-Hagen, Sam Chupp, and Jennifer Heartshorn. According to Rein-Hagen’s afterword, the game developed a reputation at White Wolf for being cursed in some respect; it drew on ideas which Rein-Hagen had originally cooked up for Inferno, a design he’d kicked about before doing Vampire: the Masquerade and had abandoned after a series of bizarre accidents affected playtesting. Supposedly, once material from Inferno started getting recycled for Wraith, bad luck started affecting this project too, giving it a troubled gestation.
Regardless of whether this is genuinely the case or simply a matter of Rein-Hagen hyping up some coincidences and random setbacks for the sake of building the mystique around the game, there’s a pinch of truth to the idea that Wraith was a cursed game line – not in the sense of its creation, but of its reception. The original plan for the World of Darkness line was that it would be built around five major game lines – Vampire: the Masquerade, Werewolf: the Apocalypse, Mage: the Ascension, Wraith itself and Changeling: the Dreaming.
As it turned out, the grand plan changed direction as a result of market realities and the desire of White Wolf’s designers to stretch their creative wings. Additional game lines like Hunter: the Reckoning or Demon: the Fallen were added to the roster, with a more limited range of support than the major lines but fitting particular niches the major lines wouldn’t quite fit. And as far as the big-league game lines went, it turned out that expecting the market to embrace five of them was, in retrospect, overambitious. Vampire, Werewolf, and Mage took their places in a triumvirate at the head of the roster, with sales and popularity outstripping the other game lines, whilst Wraith and Changeling ran into issues.
Changeling had a mixed reception, and I’ve outlined a lot of my issues with it in my review as linked above. The whole Banality thing I find eye-rollingly infuriating, and I know for a fact that I wasn’t alone in that. In addition, the game line’s brightly-coloured whimsy, whilst an appropriate note of hope to conclude the game line on, at the same time seems incongruous next to the gothic-punk stylings of the other four games, which I suspect was a turn-off for some.
Changeling, then, languished somewhat; it took a while for the support line to be officially suspended, White Wolf instead simply releasing less and less products for it, but it at least kept having new products coming out for it each year from its release in 1995 until 2001. It also got its own entry in the Dark Ages line of medieval-themed prequel games in 2004, as well as a section in the cross-gameline Time of Judgment book which provided apocalyptic end-of-the-world scenarios for those lines that didn’t get a standalone book to mark the end of the original World of Darkness run.
Wraith, though? Wraith ended up perhaps falling as far below Changeling as Changeling fell short of Vampire, Werewolf and Mage in terms of support from White Wolf, which presumably reflects a similar shortfall in commercial performance. Though White Wolf were quite proud of the game, it simply never got all that much traction; the end result was that it became the first World of Darkness line to get cancelled, failing to make it into the new millennium as the 1999 release Ends of Empire pulled the trigger on the setting’s apocalypse early. (On top of that, as part of a grand inter-gameline crossover event the afterlife setting literally got nuked.) It didn’t even get a Dark Ages prequel game, Hunter: the Reckoning taking its spot instead; for the last five years of the original run of the World of Darkness setting the main ghost-themed game was the small, self-contained Orpheus, which took an extremely different approach to the subject matter.
Whatever can be said about Wraith’s shortcomings, they can’t be blamed on a lack of ambition. Wraith is nothing less than an RPG based around death and the afterlife; player characters are people who have died but whose spirits have not passed on to whatever form of annihilation or transcendence exists in the great beyond. Instead, they remain attachments to the world of the living via their Fetters – physical things or places which have some sort of significance to them, perhaps because of some connection to their guiding Passions.
The underworld has layers to it; the Shadowlands exist close to the world of the living and are a sort of dark reflection of it, from which the living world can be perceived and influenced. Beneath that is the roiling chaos of the Tempest, at the heart of which is Oblivion, the darkness that annihilates and devours. But there islands of stability in there; mysterious realms called the Far Realms, which purport to be the afterlives of various religions (but may well simply be simulacra crafted by powerful underworld entities) and, somewhat more accessibly, the empire of Stygia, which lays claim to the dead of Western civilisation. (Various other Dark Kingdoms claim the souls of people from other cultures.)
Stygia was founded by Charon, the first and greatest of the Ferrymen who help souls navigate the Byways through the Tempest, and once upon a time it made arrangements with the emissaries of the Far Realms to assign souls there appropriately. But between the benefits to be had from enslaving souls and a breakdown of trust with the Far Realms, that process ended – and now Charon has disappeared and it seems like the centre cannot hold. Renegades seek to cast down Stygia, whilst Heretics proclaim various post-death religions and try to impose their own vision of what it means to be dead and what the dead must do to attain transcendence. And if that wasn’t enough for player characters to contend with, there’s the fact that in death there’s very little to shield you from the depredations of your dark side, your Shadow, that urges you to self-destruction bit by bit.
Although the core book bears a few scars of its troubled production process – a number of editing and layout messups are sprinkled throughout – to my mind the major problem Wraith has is that the basic concept of the setting requires about twice as much explanation as the core book actually has space to give. Some rather fundamental principles are quite poorly explained – they try several times to explain when wraiths are and are not affected by solid objects, but each time they try it feels like the matter becomes more unclear, not less.
Other aspects of the setting either don’t get the writeup they desperately need, or aren’t given nearly enough detail. So, Stygia is a big deal in the setting and presumably you would expect journeys from the Shadowlands to Stygia via the Byways through the Tempest to feature from time to time in most Wraith campaigns – all well and good. I have no fucking idea of how the player characters are supposed to accomplish that journey, or for that matter what sort of thing they see, hear and experience along the way. In a game format where my players depend on me verbally describing stuff to know what their characters are seeing and hearing, that’s kind of a huge problem.
For that matter, Stygia itself is scarcely described. The Legions it assigns the dead to are given a very brief rundown – a single sentence each – which given that these are supposed to be major underworld institutions feels absolutely insufficient. Not one Heretic or Renegade faction is clearly described; we are given a broad-brushstrokes look the definition of Heretic or Renegade, but not enough to get a grip on what they actually believe. You have these passing mentions of guilds who used to teach the various Arcanoi – the mystical powers that wraiths can use to give themselves an edge either dealing with the living world or manipulating the realm of the dead – but we’re told they all disbanded when Stygia disbanded them. I figure this is setting up a plot twist where they turn out to still exist after all, because then at least they’d provide something resembling a reasonably-characterised social organisation for player characters to join.
On that note, one of the things which makes Wraith stand out from the other early World of Darkness games is that, in the 1st edition core book at least, it doesn’t seem to have “splats” like the Clans of Vampire, Werewolf Tribes or the Traditions of Mage. This makes it awkward and difficult to figure out what a “typical” Wraith campaign is expected to focus around. There’s all sorts of groups which could provide that sort of splats – the Renegade factions, the Heretic factions, the Legions, the Guilds (if they still existed) – but none are actually described in the core book to anywhere near the level of detail they’d need to perform this function.
On the whole, it feels like the setting is only about half-explained here in the core book; whilst doubtless it got more detail in subsequent supplements, this compares poorly to the preceding World of Darkness games, since you can run a viable core-book-only Vampire, Werewolf or Mage game much more easily and with much less effort interpreting the material and inventing your own explanations than Wraith, even with the 1st editions of those games.
Still, a few people did make the attempt to get to grips with Wraith, and I can sort of see why; buried underneath all this is a genuinely original dark fantasy setting desperate for a better presentation, along with a small but startlingly original contribution to game design. As far as the setting goes, it’s a really interesting bid to try and work out what an afterlife where souls just sort of accumulated and people don’t have any more answers about the ultimate questions than we do in life would be like. For instance, Stygia practices slavery extensively, because slavery wasn’t taboo in Western culture until about 150 years ago and the generations of dead from eras when slavery was an accepted social institution greatly outnumber the modern dead. Likewise, the history of Stygia includes stuff like the rise of Christianity giving rise to increasing numbers of Christian-flavoured wraiths, with the “Fishers” encouraging wraiths to come with them to Paradise being like the early Church’s “fishers of men” and later generations giving rise to groups of Crusaders.
In addition, you have the Shadow. This is perhaps the only really original and groundbreaking White Wolf ever made to tabletop RPG design, but gosh is it a fascinating one. Your Shadow is the dark side of your character; it has a distinct personality from yours which is statted up, can offer you little bonuses and help the more you indulge the self-destructive tendencies it encourages in you, sits waiting to take control of you whenever it gets powerful enough to dominate over your psyche, and is played by one of the other players at the table for most of the game. (When your Shadow takes over your player character, you get to play the Shadow-controlled wraith, but you are encouraged to do so in a manner consistent with the characterisation the other player – your Shadowguide – has established in play.)
The upshot of this is that every player spends most of a Wraith session playing two characters – their own wraith, and the whispering voice of self-loathing and self-destruction in the ear of the other player characters. This is a daunting prospect not just from a logistical standpoint but also in terms of the sheer amount of trust you need to put in the other players not to take it too far and be dicks about it or deliberately push OOC buttons that it would be triggering or otherwise fun-ruining for them to push. The upshot of that is that Wraith is a little less amenable to casual play than other World of Darkness games; it’s much easier to see your way to doing a pickup game of Mage with people you don’t know that well, but for Wraith if you are going to bother with the Shadow stuff at all (and if you junk it you dispose of the one really standout feature of this core book) you really want to do so a group where the participants all know each other quite well and have a high level of trust in each other.
That factor by itself may well have contributed to Wraith not gaining as much traction as the others – because Wraith is less suited to casual play, the immediate impact is that it’s less amenable for playing at conventions or demonstration games at game shops or the like, which in turn means that it’s got a more difficult on-ramp than other games in the World of Darkness line. Even if a group does trust each other enough to consider using the Shadow mechanic, they may be put off by the additional logistical trickiness it builds into the game, and the fact that some aspects of the mechanic aren’t explained brilliantly probably contributes there.
For instance, it doesn’t give particularly clear guidelines on what to do if your Shadowguide isn’t able to make a session – my inclination would be to just let one of the other players do the Shadowguiding for the session, but giving some overt pointers may make the concept seem much more accessible to those who find it a bit daunting. Plus, despite early White Wolf being very keen to promote LARP and live action suggestions for running Wraith being provided, more or less no consideration is given to how you are supposed to implement the Shadow in a LARP context. There you can’t just have the players Shadowguiding for each other because you could conceivably have players physically off on their own or in separated groups doing what they do, so you have a weird situation where a player could derive an advantage by physically avoiding their Shadowguide so as to not allow them to get influence or control.
Although it did get a second edition, it still seems like Wraith never overcame the issue of having a comparatively weak core book, since the new edition had its own issues. (In particular, it completely omitted the game mechanics for recovering Pathos – an essential resource for wraith characters – and whilst later printings did insert them as errata at the back that’s not really a good look.) Arguably, out of the “big five” World of Darkness games it is the one which could potentially benefit from the 20th Anniversary treatment the most. In particular, a big fat 20th Anniversary core book can have the space to properly unpack the game’s various concepts to an extent that the original core books for 1st and 2nd edition simply didn’t have the space to do. In a very real sense, there is more at stake in this Kickstarter than any of the other 20th Anniversary edition releases – because this edition of Wraith could well represent the redemption of the game line.
The Resurrected; Wraith 20th Anniversary Edition
This did exactly what it needed to do: update the Wraith mechanics to the Revised/20th Anniversary iteration of the Storyteller system, provide all the details on all the different Arcanoi and other system toys, and most importantly cram as much setting information as possible between its covers so as to clarify everything which was somewhat too vague in the original book.
In particular, the metaplot-agnostic approach of the 20th Anniversary lines of World of Darkness games means that their core books have taken a very “cards on the table” approach, laying out the facts of the setting without having to worry about keeping some bits and pieces secret for later revelation via metaplot developments. Thus, we get deeper looks at more or less all aspects of the setting, along with a proper look at some subjects the original core book was rather coy about.
In particular, the book is open about a fact which you might have guessed would be the case from the original core book, but which 1st edition gave no useful details on: namely, the fact that far from being extinct, the Guilds have remained active on an underground level since they were banned, along with details on how to join them, how Guild membership works, and how they have survived in the first place.
The last point recognises the fact that the Guilds remain the sole route for mastering certain types of Arcanoi – which means that if you need someone to utilise those Arcanoi, there is no choice other than working with the Guilds. Banning a Guild isn’t like banning a political party or terrorist group – it’s like banning an entire profession, and obviously some professions are vastly more vital to a functioning society than others.
As such, the authorities in Stygia are obliged to turn a blind eye – or in some cases actively collaborate with some Guilds on an under-the-counter basis – in order to stop society unravelling, whilst the ban on other Guilds (particularly those which specialise in fucking with the world of the living in defiance of Charon’s law) is enforced much more tightly. The ban isn’t purposeless – it still means that the Legions can step in mercilessly if any of the Guilds start overtly stirring up trouble – but it’s nowhere near as absolute and unflinching as the 1st edition core book made it out to be through its unreliable narration.
(A tangent: fuck “unreliable narration” for the purposes of writing an RPG setting guide. Your setting guide is supposed to be addressed to referees and level with them on what’s going on – or admit that you don’t have an answer to a particular mystery and encourage referees to come up with their own take. Don’t outright confuse the presentation of the setting by refusing to break character, and don’t assert that a particular bit of text is unreliable narration when it shows no sign of actually being narration at all in any conventional sense.)
Other important stuff detailed here includes some more information on the Legions, the inside story on Spectres (sinister agents of Oblivion) and the Risen (wraiths who cheekily became alive again), details of the other Dark Kingdoms of the Underworld corresponding to major non-Western cultural groupings, an appendix on Orpheus and using its ideas in a Wraith game, and in general a much more fleshed-out and approachable take on the setting than the original offered.
In addition, there’s much more support given when it comes to discussing how to handle stuff in actual play; the section on Shadowguiding, whilst it still doesn’t crack the problem of how you implement the Shadow in a LARP context, gives much better support and suggestions on how to Shadowguide in a fun and responsible way, as well as advice on the pros and cons of changing up the assumed “each player plays their Wraith PC and someone else’s Shadow” format (plus a big fat caveat about taking out the Shadow altogether – Dansky takes the not unreasonable position that the Shadow is so thematically central to Wraith that if your group wants to remove it, maybe you should have a serious talk about whether this is even the right game for you). There’s also a great swathe of different campaign concepts and ideas offered, all to help with the “what the fuck do you actually do?” problem which Wraith suffered from a little in its original incarnation.
In short, Wraith finally has a core rulebook which delivers the game’s full potential, rather than being a mere suggestion of that potential which required the rest of the game line to fill out. I would put the 20th Anniversary Edition of Wraith in the top tier of the World of Darkness Anniversary Editions.
Handbook For the Recently Deceased
This is a 40-page pamphlet offering a beginner’s guide to Wraith. There’s no system stuff in here – just a very clear, basic explanation of how to approach the game from the perspective of playing your Wraith, Shadowguiding for another player, and actually running the game.
This is some much-needed stuff; to be honest, many RPGs (particularly from the World of Darkness line) could do with this sort of proper, extended breakdown of “What the hell are we supposed to be doing with this?”, providing a suggested model for what your group should be concentrating on for your earliest delvings into the game. Wraith, however, cries out more than any other of the “big five” original World of Darkness games for this sort of treatment, due to the combination of its offbeat concept, highly experimental features like the Shadow, and bizarre cosmology making it daunting to approach. This is true of either of the editions I’ve covered here; whilst the 20th Anniversary Edition offers much-needed clarity, it also offers a tidal wave of information to sift through.
Perhaps the biggest revelation here is the assumption that starting Wraith characters will spend most of their time in the Shadowlands, the zone where the afterlife borders on the land of the living, rather than in Stygia proper. So much verbage is spilled on the subject of Stygia in the Wraith core that the natural assumption would be that Stygia is the focus of the game, whereas in fact it seems intended to act more like a distant colonial authority trying to exert its control with varying degrees of success over the Necropoli of the Shadowlands.
The clarification on how Wraith campaigns are expected to start out is welcome and, in some respects, could have done with folding into the core – that said, including it in a brief pamphlet which won’t be a daunting chore for anyone to read does have its uses in getting a group of people to buy into the idea of a Wraith campaign.
Book of Oblivion
This is yer standard “grab bag of essays on various subjects unlocked as stretch goals and compiled into a book” tome that Onyx Path have done from time to time in their Kickstarters, such as the Tome of Secrets for Vampire: the Dark Ages. Such books have tended to be mixed bags, but Book of Oblivion is actually pretty good, mostly because the topics it discusses either usually expand on major issues like Shadows or Spectres or shed important light on questions which I didn’t feel like the core rulebook gave enough information on, like what the Labyrinth is actually like inside and how expeditions into it are supposed to work or details on the other Dark Kingdoms.
The only real disappointment I had in the game was the appendix offering three very brief descriptions of some Necropoli, because I felt they were so brief as to be almost useless, not really giving me much of a handle on what the places in question are actually like. What does it look like to a Wraith that visits them? How does the geography of the living city and the Necropolis intersect or differ? Where are the entrances to the deeper levels of the afterlife? How do you get from Necropolis to Necropolis? If these are questions previously answered in the 20th Anniversary core book, I’ve already forgotten again.
Ugh, the panels are in portrait orientation as opposed to the correct landscape orientation.
I’m quite pleased to have my name included in the book – it really is the set that this game needed all along to really tease out the best of it.
Higher, Lower, Just Right or Just Wrong?
Just Right. Yes, I needed to wait a little longer to get the deluxe book, but I feel it’s worth it in the case of this game in particular, which I consider to be the most artistically and creatively interesting of the entire classic World of Darkness line.
Would Back Again?
On balance, yes. Sure, the delivery of this project had its issues, but they’re issues which Onyx Path has specifically taken steps to correct in their subsequent peojects.