[Game Dev] On Wraith: the Oblivion and an Untitled Ghost Game

These thoughts are brought to you by a spirited attempt to play Wraith: the Oblivion last year. Not even run it – one of the Chrises who’s married into my old V:tM squad was kind enough to step up and give it the old college try, so I got to stat up the ghost of Bill Hall and Private Walker and sit on the other side of the screen for a change. Started well enough, but the sheer unrelenting misery of Stygia was not what any of us needed in times of pandemic and isolation, and we rapidly degenerated into what the other Chris insists on (accurately) calling Carry On Haunting. But it did leave me thinking: what would it take to make a Wraith game work for me?

A vampire is a dead person walking around being a predator, it eats blood so it can stay alive, that matters because eating blood is tricky in a society that frowns on that sort of behaviour and you have to do morally questionable things to stay alive, and that hooks you into the core “a beast I am lest a Beast I become” aspect. And almost every time you roll dice, the game reminds you of that by forcing in the Hunger dice and altering the consequences of the roll.

Wraith, as it currently exists, is an overdeveloped mess of guilds and legions and powers and conflicts and PvP gameplay without a core sense of what a session looks like, what the little characters we play do and why they do it and how the rules make sure it’s done. I’m sure everything it needs is in there but no edition of Wraith has successfully put that core loop explicitly front and centre; it always feels like a Vampire hack that hasn’t quite been thought through and pulled tight.

To me, a person who tried to learn Wraith by reading the books, there’s a huge amount of ink spilled on top down stuff – but apart from “join guild, get powers” it’s not immediately clear how this impacts at session level. Wraith seems more interested in its worldbuilding than in being played.

They got “what is a ghost” but didn’t follow it through. There isn’t the same almost… autonomic start-up process for a session there. Vampire, when in doubt, starts with feeding, because someone will be hungry, and feeding has consequences or is a platform for exposition, and “eat blood” is the central fact of vampire existence. I don’t see anything that concrete in Wraith – any such confident answer to “what shall we do tonight, Brain?” Something about “resist the Shadow” doesn’t click – it’s too passive, I think, or perhaps that “fuck with each other” gameplay loop doesn’t make for a functional table when the default for RPGs is that we play together. Maybe Spectres should actively wander through sessions more, make Oblivion a tactile threat that always needs to be worked around? Maybe Wraith should be run as, I don’t know, a storytelling game of survival and psychological horror?

I really like the guilds and if I had my druthers I’d lean more heavily on them as splats. What KIND of ghost you learn to be really matters and says a lot about your character and your goals in play, and it could be a choice. I feel the moral centre of Wraith is “you can choose to save yourself”, the work of resolving fetters and getting out of this awful existence should be the arc, and the act of choosing what kind of ghost you want to be feels like a good start to that.

I could see how a V5 hack might work, with dice swapping pools, but what to hook them off? Better pools near your Fetters, maybe – hammer home that sense of being tethered to a place, an object, a moment in time… Haunt Dice.

So yeah, I’m really hoping for Wraith 5 or whatever it gets called. But it has to be at least as iconoclastic as V5 is in terms of mechanics, and a lot more direct about how it plays and what makes it worth playing. In the meantime, I’m half tempted to knock up something that explores this same turf, because I very much doubt I’m going to get the Wraith I want. I won’t be able to use the cosmology, but the idea of an unstable and hostile underworld between Haunts might give me enough peril to hang the whole concept on. I don’t have a good name for this yet, so Untitled Ghost Game it is.

[V:tM/V:tR] Top Tips for Vampire Storytellers

Ask the players where their characters get their blood from. Really make them think about it, especially if the PC in question has no business hanging around fingering hoboes or picking up prostitutes. Do they have a trusted servant who bares vein for them twice a week (paid overtime for the pleasure, of course)? How does the servant feel about this? Above all, what would happen if that safety net of regular, planned, safe feeding was taken away? This is always a good plot to break out if the PCs don’t create one for themselves, or in the lull while you frantically work out how the hell the local Tremere are going to react to having their chantry filled with lawn ornaments or what the Toreador primogen thinks about having her childe’s illegal blood doll left in her conservatory with a note saying “people who live in glass houses can’t throw stones”.

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