Posted on January 5, 2007 by Flames
The official Wraeththu (pronounced RAY-THOO) roleplaying game is based on a body of fiction by Storm Constantine. I should note that, prior to reviewing the product in question, my exposure to Ms. Constantine’s fiction has been exactly none. That said, after reviewing the RPG, I’m tempted to look into it. I found the game itself to be conceptually intriguing, though its execution leaves much to be desired. Something appears to have gone horribly awry between the initial spark of inspiration and the finished product.
The subtitle of the game “From Enchantment to Fulfilment” probably should have served as a giant red flag. It speaks more to the design team’s love of the source material than the actual source material itself. To clarify, the world of Ms. Constantine’s novels (and, thus, the world of the RPG) is a post-apocalyptic Earth where humanity has been replaced as the world’s dominant apex predator by a newly evolved race of sexually androgynous beings — the titular Wraeththu. Sexuality and humanity (or rather, the drive to adapt as humans) are clearly of thematic importance in the setting, though the designers have (unwisely) eschewed these deeper themes in order to concentrate on producing what is, ultimately, the slickest piece of fan-fic ever.
Barring the actual setting description, the designers (not Ms. Constantine, I gather) take every opportunity to place the Wraeththu (as the creation of Ms. Constantine, not as an element of the setting) upon a pedestal in what amounts to overt fetishism. What’s worse, they very much chose to focus on the most base elements of the setting — the sex (as opposed to the sexuality), the in-fighting between Wraeththu clans (as opposed to the politics), and big honking combat (as opposed to the arguably deep philosophical issues addressed by the source material).
All of these choices would be much easier to forgive if the chapter devoted to the setting (and much of the game’s accompanying descriptive text) didn’t make it clear that there is much, much, more to the source material than sex, violence, and war. The game, sadly, deals with little of it, either mechanically or thematically. I think that this is, arguably, the most crippling aspect of the product. Indeed, “From Enchantment to Fulfilment” seems to describe the journey of the design team rather than the game itself. It also explains some of what went wrong with the rest of the game. In a word — fandom.
While the game’s already narrow focus was tightened like a noose by the design team to encompass an incredibly myopic view of the source material (again, as expressed in the chapter of the game devoted to setting), this apparently wasn’t good enough. Which brings us to the second nail in the coffin — the system. Not only is the game’s system highly derivative of other popular products (notably the old World of Darkness line and D&D), but the few areas where it does manage to depart from those other design standards are poorly implemented.
During my initial skimming of the book, I managed to catch some rather glaring mechanical faults — some that even minimal play testing should have picked up. Notably, in the Wraeththu RPG it is possible for a character to have a better chance of successfully performing a given task with absolutely no training in a related skill than they would should the possess minimal training (i.e., Some training) in the same said skill. This is, in my opinion, a rather serious mechanical failing. This will probably be more meaningful if you understand how skills work. . .
All characters have six Primary Stats (Strength, Dexterity, Stamina, Perception, Willpower, and Intelligence), each of which is rated from 1-20 and bestows a modifier that ranges from -2 to -5. Skills are linked to one or more of these Stats, with the modifier of the influencing Stat(s) being added to the Skill’s final rating. Skill ratings are purchased with a pool of points.So, what about using Skills? To successfully use a Skill, you need to roll under its current rating on a d20. If your character doesn’t haev an appropriate Skill, they’ll need to roll under the controlling Stat rating, minus six. And that’s the problem.
We’ll use the example that the book does — Climbing. If one character has a rating of three in their Climbing Skill, their a player will need to roll a three or less in order for them to successfully climb anything. If another character has no rating in Climbing — they get to roll under their Strength Stat rating, minus six. If this second character has a Strength rating of greater than nine, they’ll actually be at an advantage over the first character (regardless of the first character’s strength).
This is, sadly, indicative of the overall design to be found in the game. I’ll avoid a bulleted list of potential problem areas as there’s no need to be petty, though take note – they do exist. Indeed, some further play testing may well bring to light things that I myself missed. There is, simply, much room for improvement where even the basic underpinnings of the system are concerned. Indeed, I think that the game does a good job of showing the fundamental problems with altering existing systems to function differently without wholly understanding those systems first.
Now having brought the hammer to bear on the game, it’s worth pointing out that the product does some things very well. For starters, the black and white artwork (with a handful of exceptions) is very well rendered. Likewise, the layout is clean and crisp. Further, the editing is far above the caliber that I’ve come to expect from most roleplaying games in recent years. The real tragedy is that none of these otherwise excellent production values redeem the game in terms of it finding a wider audience.
As I mentioned earlier, I’ve had no exposure to Ms. Constantine’s works outside of the Wraeththu RPG. The setting detail in the game (notably that found in the “Megalithica and Beyond” chapter) describes a world that I’d very much be interested in exploring, one that appeals to me on a deep philosophical level. Sadly, the designers have failed to mechanically support social roleplay much past “make a skill check” while simultaneously narrowing the thematic scope of the game to focus largely on what they personally like, as opposed to the many themes that the setting seems capable of offering.
Ultimately, I think that this could have been a reasonably successful game with the right people at the helm. The promise is definitely there. Sadly, I feel that Ms. Constantine chose the wrong people to breathe life into this particular project. I know that there isn’t such a thing as a “Post-Apoc Heartbreaker” in Ron Edwards’ personal lexicon — but if there was, I have a hard time thinking that the Wraeththu RPG wouldn’t illustrate it perfectly.
Reviewer: James D. Hargrove