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Wraith: The Oblivion 20th Anniversary Edition Review

Posted on September 18, 2018 by Shannon Hennessy

Once upon a time, many years ago in the closing months of the 20th Century, one of my best friends said to me “We’re going to do something new.  Something different.  We’re going to play Wraith.”  being in a group of players that was consistently made up of myself, the significant other of my best friend, and my best friend-as-Storyteller, I was immediately intimidated.  I had no idea how to play Wraith, and – truth be told – had no idea how the rules worked or how the setting would be laid out, etc.

Let’s be clear here; Vampire is easy.  You’re a vampire and you live in a city and you blah blah blah all night long until the sun comes up.  And let’s also be clear that with Werewolf, you’re a werewolf and you live in the near-city or wilderness – or, as I’ve proven in MY OWN games of Werewolf that I’ve run – in the city proper and you blah blah blah all day and night long until your phase of the moon hits and you’re rocking at full-tilt Gnosis and Rage…

But Wraith was different.

Wraith was fucking PERSONAL.

“Here’s what I want you to do, Shannon” he said.  “I want you to think about death.  I want you to think about the worst possible death that you could die.  I want you to think about drowning or dying unexpectedly while you’re going out to get something to eat.  I want you to hold onto the feeling of that… of the emotion of that… and when you’ve got THAT locked down?  THAT’S when we’ll create your character, and I’ll help you to do it.”

Wraith was about as supernatural and frightening to me as the World of Darkness – at least, the World of Darkness that we knew at the time – ever got.

It was story-driven drama.  It was character-driven conflict.  It was cogs within gears within transmissions of the great machinations of Stygian politics.  It was endless, sunless day-to-day survival against the forces of Oblivion who were, to me, MUCH MORE ferocious and malnourished than any of the Wyrm’s minions because, in the end, they were – effectively – the “Great Nothing” that “The Neverending Story” painted as its primary antagonist.

The Wyrm… the Weaver… if it could be said that “they” want anything, it most certainly isn’t a LACK of ANYTHING.  “They” want “something.”  Something IS NOT nothing.

And Malfeans and their countless armies of spectres?  It’s not that they want to watch the Underworld burn.  They want Oblivion.

They want NOTHING to exist in the place of EVERYTHING.

So we created my ghost for this game… and when we were done, I felt drained to be honest.  And my best friend said “Okay.  That’s that.  Now, we make your Shadow.”  

“My what?”

“Your Shadow.  The part of you that WANTS to be dead.  The part of you that wants the madness of the Underworld to end.  The part of you that wants to move on into the Great Nothing… because all of this?  HURTS.  The Shadow doesn’t like it.”

“That’s… fucked up.”

“He’ll help you at times.  Not always, but sometimes.  I mean, he IS YOU.  Think of him as Rage Points in Werewolf, after a fashion.  He’s your enemy, but he can be useful, too.”

Suffice to say we didn’t play those characters much, and the game didn’t last long.  In all honesty, it was too stressful to me at the time, which is a funny thing for me to say now twenty some-odd years down the road after having a son, being widowed at 35, buying a house, and charging ahead through it all.  But at the time, thinking about the depth of Wraith – about the darkness of it – wasn’t how I wanted to spend my game time.

Fast forward twenty years into the future into the middle of 2018.

I’m much older, I’d like to think that I’m much wiser, definitely more mature, a little beat up from wear and tear, but my heart – or a part of it, anyway – still lives in the gothic-punk World of Darkness, and a little piece of that part of my heart is hidden across the Shroud on the Isle of Sorrows in Stygia.

Benevolent psychopathology is a term I use for things that I find myself both terrified by and, simultaneously, obsessed with.  Wraith: the Oblivion falls into the category of benevolent psychopathology for me.

When I heard that there would be a release of a 20th Anniversary Edition of the game, I was overjoyed with expectation.  Having not read ANY of the Geist books and having been completely out of the loop with White Wolf Games Studios – and Onyx Path Publishing, for that matter – I started watching from afar to make sure I didn’t miss the initial release of the book.

Suffice to say, I am in no way, shape or form disappointed in what I have received.

    Some people reading this will remember my reviews from my days with Ex Libris Nocturnis.  Others, who got into the games long after ELN closed its cover and locked itself shut have no idea what my reviews are about or how they work.  DrivethruRPG is, effectively, set up for my “style” of reviewing which has, admittedly, changed over the years to keep up with my understanding of objectivity and maturity.

    I use a five-star system, pass or fail.

    1 star for appearance.  Yes or no.  Is the book beautiful?  Does the book strike me, inside and out?  Was there as much care for internal artwork as with cover art?  Does the book “live deliciously?”

    1 star for overall content.  Yes or no.  Does the book DELIVER what it said it would deliver?  Is the book claiming to be core rules nothing more than a gateway to a half dozen other sourcebooks that will be required to run the game coherently, or is the book a game in and of itself slapped betwixt two covers?

    1 star for readability and proofing.  Yes or no.  Mistakes are made.  I’ve written sections for these books, and I know for a fact that you can spend hours and hours and hours going over them with a fine-toothed comb and there will STILL be an error here or there.  It happens.  Names get spelled wrong, pages end up breaking in odd places, etc.  In the end, is the book put together PROFESSIONALLY?  Is it obvious that someone TOOK THE TIME to edit the book REASONABLY?

    1 star for viability.  Does the book add to the existing mythos of the game it supports or not?  Can the game be played – FOREVER – without the book?  Will it make the game A DIFFERENT GAME if the book is added into the mythos?  This star is really for Storytellers.  As a Storyteller, I’m going to ask myself “Should I pay money for this book to give players something wonderful that they have not seen before?”  Is is a Player’s Guide to the Technocracy – which, back in the day, RE-DEFINED Mage: The Ascension COMPLETELY – or is it just another grimoire of “pew-pew!” Thaumaturgy Rites?

    1 star for overall quality-in-ownership.  I’ve written some SHITE.  Seriously.  There are things floating around out there that I SINCERELY WISH did not have my name attached to them.  Did the developer of the game line get too busy to redline what was being submitted to him or her appropriately?  Did the developer drop the ball after the contributing freelancer wrote a bunch of garbage to fluff a wordcount?  Is the book I paid for supposed to be what I’m reading?  Am I expecting too much professionalism from a legacy company that has put out some of the greatest Storytelling games ever created?  Or am I expecting a book to be something that it isn’t.  Am I wanting a book to be written one way while, what was published, is something completely different.

    In all honesty, I think that of the five stars, that last one is the MOST subjective, even though I will do my absolute best to remain entirely objective throughout my reviews.

    That being said, let’s do this.

    The Prologue: The Face of Death is, quite simply, a graphic novella that takes some absolutely stunning Wraith: the Oblivion artwork superimposed with text blocs that explain the fundamental concepts of the game.  Had this been something 1st or 2nd Edition contained, my best friend would not have had to spend the time that he did explaining to me what Wraith was and what it was all about.  It is beautiful, it is chilling, it is darkly poetic, and it is also very emotionally driven while remaining matter-of-fact and succinct.  This is your Ghost Story.  This is your beginning.

    Chapter One: The Introduction is just that, and it serves as a syllabus for what you can expect throughout the course of your reading while working with the Table of Contents as a map.  You’re given a basic Lexicon – and my only complaint here is that there are a couple of “What is that?” terms you’ll run across later that aren’t immediately identified (for example, “Labyrinth, the” even though there are a couple of terms directly related to the Labyrinth or that coincide directly with it) – but aside from that, it’s a concise little thing.

    Chapter Two: Setting is where things get down and dirty, but in all fairness, is also where things get a little sketchy.  Sketchy isn’t necessarily a bad thing, mind you… but there are times where contradictions are made that can leave the reader saying “…and whaaaaaaa?”
    A good example is the issue of the Fishers and the Treaty of Paradise.  Be careful with this part and know that what you’re reading is not necessarily what happened.  Another would be the narrative explaining the Dark Kingdom of Obsidian.  Another would be “Okay… wait… are ALL of the Ferrymen on their own in the City of Dis now?  Did they ALL turn away from Charon?  Or was it just the Shining Ones?  Or was it the Ancients who existed pre-Rite of Severance?”

    Confusion can set in, and while it isn’t fair to write the entirety of the chapter off as bullshit – because it isn’t by a longshot and there’s some amazing information offered up here from the dawn of Stygia to the formation of the Stygian Republic to the founding of the Ferrymen to the building of the Necropoli, to all of the Great Maelstroms, etc. – there are some parts here and there that simply do not jibe well with other parts here and there.

    In the end, an intelligent Storyteller and his or her Circle will be able to use and clarify any confusions that they come across.

    This chapter has the most “player meat” of the book.  This is the chapter, other than the mechanics-related chapters that the players will sit and devour for hours.

    I’ll say this as a fan of the game as well as an objective reviewer: The MAP of Stygia is freakin’ AMAZING.  It’s something that I can’t ever remember having been provided with before.  It harkens back to a sort of Forgotten Realms look at Waterdeep or a setting like that with commercial and military districts, Hierarchical and municipal management districts, Guild speakeasies… it’s an awesome resource that works very well with the written imagery of what is presented in the book.  Pull it all together into a black bouquet with the history of the Guilds, the Legions, where they live, how they think, what they want, how they endeavor to achieve their ends, and you’re PROVIDED with a solid few nights-worth of game time without even mentioning the words “Skinlands” or “Spectres.”

    Need to know how to buy and sell?  Done.

    Need a weapon forged?  Done. 

    Need to know where to head to find work?  Done.

    Need to know this or that about the history of this faction or that faction?  Done.

    Need to know how to get to a specific Necropolis tonight (hint: The Midnight Express)?  Done.

    Unsure about the politics of a Legion or their views on being a wraith? Done.

    It’s all here.  While there are a few hiccups, Chapter Two leaves no room for disappointment in just the sheer scope of information that it provides.  As a Storyteller, you can spend your first night of gaming with an open Q&A, or you can print out this chapter of the .pdf for your players to review a night or two before character creation and be in front of the eight ball for time-management’s sake.

    Special note should be paid to the final entry in the chapter: The Mnemoi.  Basically, if there’s a “bad guy among good guys,” it’s the Mnemoi Guild.  See, if a ghost is anything, really… if anything gives a ghost “power” or “substance” outside of the Shadowloands, it’s memories.  Guess what the Mnemoi manipulate? 

    I’m not saying they’re new, or even new and improved.  I’m just saying that they’re THERE… and they’re waiting for you.

    For better or for worse.

    Chapter Four: Character, and Chapter Five: Traits serves as a Player’s Guide for the 20th Anniversary Edition of Wraith: the Oblivion, but it is just as useful to Storytellers as to players in regards to NPC generation.  The Three A’s of Attributes, Abilities and Advantages are presented for players to work with, as are finishing touches and ideas on how to create a pre-death situation for the character as well as a death concept, which of course will leave a “Deathmark” on the subsequent Wraith PC when they pass into the Shadowlands.

    All of your Guildbooks are here, as is the meat for the Magick of the Dead, aka, Arcanoi.  Now, I’m not saying that a ghost can just up and start some heavyweight spellthrowing with the likes of a Technocratic Magi or even a high-level Thaumaturgist… but let’s give a little respect where it’s due here.  If you go about messing around in the affairs of the Dead, or the Shadowlands, or with ghosts who have Haunts that they don’t want you messing around in, or corpse-bothering when you have no business or right to do so, you’d better get ready.

    The Mnemoi, as an example, may not be able to throw a fireball at you or use direct “Pattern Magick” to rend you crippled… but they can make you disappear.

    From everything.  Everywhere.  Forever.  As if you never existed.  And no one will know you’re gone except for the Mnemoi who initiated the “spell,” because NO ONE REMEMBERS YOU EVER EXISTED.

    And they are able, conversely, to do the same thing to themselves if they are threatened or hunted.

    That’s no small amount of HEAVY, in my opinion.

    Chapter Six: The Shadow is the Shadow Player’s Guide for the 20th Anniversary Edition of Wraith: the Oblivion.  It covers everything you need to know about the “dark half” of every ghost.  Shadows can be bargained with, they can be sated temporarily, but they will never stop crying out for what they want, which is to bring the wraith closer to Oblivion.  Even the Ferrymen, who have been separated from their Shadow STILL have to deal with the Pasiphae that their Shadow has become at every turn.

    This chapter takes a nice, long look at each and every aspect of Shadow character generation including Thorns that the Shadow can use (that are SORT of like sub-Arcanoi in a sense), Angst (the “fuel” that “powers” a Shadow) and Harrowings… which are always a little scary because you never really know if your character is going to make it out of one or if they’re going to be consumed by their Shadow and become a spectre.

    If you’re not sure what a Harrowing IS, got watch the movie “Jacob’s Ladder.”  THAT is a Harrowing.

    I really like the idea of Shadowguiding.  I think it is ingenious.  A special pat on the back should go to whomever invented it and implemented it into the rules system.  I think that it solves a lot of mechanical problems with Shadows, and I think it REALLY has the potential of bringing a group of players closer together as a functional “family” unit.

    Chapters Seven through Nine are the Storyteller’s Handbook to the 20th Anniversary Edition of Wraith: the Oblivion.  While these chapters focus predominately on the Storyteller and in helping the Storyteller tell an amazing Chronicle’s-worth of stories, I think that they are also vitally important for players to skim over.

    Special note should be paid by players to Chapter Nine that explains things like the Fog, Maelstroms, the Tempest, Fetters, Passions, Resolution, damage and combat in the Shadowlands, as I really think it helps someone new to Wraith understand how combat with a Corpus made of Plasm is a bit different from flesh and bone.  These things are all explained better – or more importantly, in MORE DETAIL – than in previous chapters.

    Chapter Ten: Spectres is where we get into the “bad guys” of Wraith: the Oblivion.

    You may be a Thrall to a nastier-than-average Freewraith… but he/she is not a spectre.

    Consider yourself lucky.

    If there is ANYTHING in the World of Darkness that could be classified as “evil,” it is the servants of Oblivion, or spectres.  They are not like your Shadow.  They are not like to Haunter in the opposing Guild.  They are not the Renegade who harasses you every time you try to catch the one Ferryman’s attention.

    They want DESTRUCTION.  Of everything.  Everywhere.

    Listen… and understand.  That Terminator is out there.  It can’t be bargained with.  It can’t be reasoned with.  It doesn’t feel pity… or remorse… or fear… and it absolutely WILL NOT STOP until you’re dead.” -Kyle Reese, “The Terminator

    The 20th Anniversary Edition of Wraith: the Oblivion took the Black Dog Game Factory’s release of Spectres and kicked it up a notch, gave it a little bit of a bath, slopped some deodorant on it, and made it something better.  And having both owned and reviewed THAT BOOK back when it was released, I can say that was no easy feat.

    Everything that you could possibly need to create spectre NPCs is here – cause, effect, motivation, how they do what they do, how they get where they’re going, how they survive in the Tempest, how they have generally made an artform out of destroying ghosts via Dark Arcanoi and Shadecraft… Hell, there’s even rules on how to let your freak-flag fly and run a game with nothing but specter PCs.

    The author turned an oogie-boogie book of scary things into what is, for all intents and purposes, ANOTHER Player’s Guide within the book.  The result is no small amount of impressive and provides for antagonists that are unfathomably complex in their motivations and desires.

    Quite possibly one of the more notable chapters of the book as a whole, I sincerely enjoyed reading Chapter Ten from beginning to end and was left, almost, with a sensation that I had taken TOO MUCH in from all of the additional information provided by it.

    Chapter Eleven: The Risen.  The Risen is the Player’s Guide to The Crow, sure… that’s ONE WAY to look at it, I guess.  It’s a little short-sighted, but it definitely A WAY.

    But if you’re going to say that, then isn’t Jason Voorhees a Shadow-Dominated Risen?

    Wouldn’t a Liche be, in many ways, something that caught the ire and eye of what is probably the most AWESOME Player/Storyteller vehicle within this chapter, the Acherontia Styx?

    Everything you need is here.  Are you new to Wraith and want to stick to the Skinlands for a time before Helldiving into the Shadowlands?  Try a Risen.  They have their own system, their own special Arcanoi that work in the Skinlands… and there are ghosts that hunt them across the Shroud in an attempt to destroy them or bring them back to where they belong to face the consequences wrought by the violation of Charon’s Law.

    It wa a really cool sourcebook, and I’m glad that The Risen didn’t get forgotten in the 20th Anniversary Edition.

    Chapter Twelve: The World of Darkness includes everything that you need to know to give you a running start regarding crossovers in the World of Darkness.  How other denizens would react to ghosts, how Arcanoi effects other denizens, how other denizens’ powers effects ghosts, Relics, Fetters, SPECTRAL Relics, Artifacts and Fetters (very cool, thank you!), and basically just serves as a sort of user manual for the incorporation of other supernaturals that exist side-by-side wraiths so that you’re not completely limited to one sunless day after another in your Chronicle.

    There’s some REALLY great information in here.  The “magic items” alone make this chapter a hoot.  Lucky’s Mr. Bunny made me think of Child’s Play… because come on… Chucky is essentially a possessed Artifact…

    Chapter Thirteen: The Other Dark Kingdoms takes a nice chunk of wordcount to serve as a bit of a travel guide for the Dead in regards to what else is out there beyond the Dark Kingdom of Iron, Stygia, the Tempest, etc.

    In short, this chapter sort of expounds upon and condenses, at the same time, the Dark Kingdom of Jade (Asia) sourcebooks for the 2nd Edition of Wraith and adds to the mythos with the Dark Kingdom of Obsidian (parts of the Americas), the Dark Kingdom of Clay (Australia), the Bush of Ghosts (Africa), the Svarga (India and, possibly, Pakistan), and the Mirrorlands (the Caribean).

    Whenever I read setting books like these for the World of Darkness, my first thought is “these guys are smoking WAY too much high-grade methamphetamine to do THIS MUCH WORK!”  It pays off.  While I personally don’t have a whole lot of use for too many different settings outside of the Dark Kingdom of Iron, these setting books – and I call them that because, collected, THEY COULD stand SOLIDLY ALONE as a “Book of the Shadowlands” supplement – are ON POINT.  Most of the Dark Kingdom of Jade stuff is stuff I comprehend and understand fairly readily.  I’ve read the original supplements, read the Kuei-Jin stuff for Vampire back in the day, etc., but the opening up of new trade routes and areas in the Shadowlands the way these settings do?

    Unrivaled.

    Just the SHEER ATTENTION TO DETAIL is, to me, like nothing that I’ve ever seen in any role-playing supplement before.  And trust me when I say I’ve seen PLENTY of them.

    The Bush of Ghosts and the Dark Kingdom of Obsidian write-ups were my favorite, but that’s a completely subjective thing.  I just find it AWESOME that everything that Stygia thinks that they know about Africa is ABSOLUTELY WRONG in every conceivable way, and I was TRULY INTIMIDATED with the manner in which the Americas were handled. In both cases, it was as though I was being taught the DARK SIDE of African and Mesoamerican mythology… in the World of Darkness… none of which I was supposed to EVER know about.

    Arcanoi specific to each geographical locale are provided, as are small Lexicons to add a bit of authenticity to your games when your players set sail to dark, distant shores. 

    And that’s about that, by God.

    All things being equal, I cannot readily remember the last time I had as much fun reading an RPG book.  For my lot, it made me feel young again to see so many ideas I was introduced to so long ago and how they have evolved – some drastically, some only slightly – and that the spirit of the game is still exactly what it needs to be: “Hope.”

    Even with the Tempest spitting at you.

    Even in the face of Oblivion.

    -Shannon

    Wraith: the Oblivion 20th Anniversary Edition is available now at StorytellersVault.com.

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