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VINE VOICEon 1 September 2012
Vampire: The Masquerade introduced the Gothic Punk setting and personal horror storytelling; Werewolf: The Apocalypse made it global and Mage: The Ascension made it cosmic. What would Ghost (as it was originally dubbed) do next? Well, what emerged was called Wraith and the change of name perhaps hints at the creative upheavals that created it. Mark Rein Hagen insisted the game should be existentially disturbing to play and Wraith is certainly ground-breaking and ambitious. It doesn't quite work, though.

Of course, you play ghosts (or Wraiths) and the setting has a doomed, tragic atmosphere. The Shadowlands are a decayed spirit world parallel with the physical world, periodically ravaged by soul storms called Maelstroms and cut off from the living by a barrier called the Shroud. Wraiths cluster together for safety but are governed by a brutal institution called the Hierarchy that bases its power on military might, slavery and "soul-forging" reluctant dead people into objects that have a physical reality for wraiths. Wraiths experience paranoia, persecution and the ever-present threat of being sold into slavery or hammered into household objects.

On a brighter note (perhaps), wraiths are driven by Passions that reflect what mattered to them in life and keeps them in the Shadowlands. By haunting the living, wraiths "feed" off mortal passions that resemble their own. They also guard the Fetters - people, objects or places - that keep them safe from the Maelstroms. Catch is, the Hierarchy forbids you from crossing the Shroud and comes down pretty hard on wraiths caught messing with the living. In fact, the Hierarchy has its own agenda and wants to induct you into its Legions of the Dead and send you into battle against the forces of Oblivion, a sort of gestalt entity representing absolute entropy, served by swarms of hideous spectres.

Spectres are the external "baddies", the monsters lurking in the cracks in the Shadowlands. The psychological horror comes from the fact that you have one inside you and will turn into it one day. Every wraith has a Shadow, their own dark side, whispering and tempting them. It can offer great power, but accepting its help makes it stronger. Eventually it will take over.

The Shadow is the most dramatic innovation in gameplay here. The rules suggest another player becomes your Shadowguide and you theirs. You roleplay each other's Shadows and plot to subvert each other's hopes and dreams. Yeah, grim.

And this is where the problems start. The setting is gripping and the conflicts are fascinating and seriously grasped. The gameplay is the problem. Running each other's Shadows is, for any group of players who aren't semi-pro improvisational theatre veterans, a frustrating experience. Either the Shadow gets neglected as everyone focuses on their main character, in which case a key aspect of the game is missing, or else it dominates all interactions, in which case players fall out and nothing gets done. The safest option is to let the Storyteller run the Shadows, but this places a huge demand on her to be constantly roleplaying these inner monsters while refereeing a story about conflicts with outer monsters too.

It isn't just Shadows that present practical problems. The whole concept of the Shadowlands is, at best, ambiguous and, at worst, hopelessly muddled. Just what exactly are the Shadowlands like? What occupies the spot in the Shadowlands where a tree or a car or a building stands in our world? Do wraiths get forced to go incorporeal every time a car or a door or a person or even a falling leaf passes through them? Or are there no cars, doors, people or falling leaves in the Shadowlands? The rulebook is unclear and later supplements show that this confusion was never resolved by the designers. Sure, wraiths can go hang out in out-of-the-way places, but the rules suggest the dead gather in Necropoli within big cities and try to stay close to the people who remember them. These questions aren't just theoretical: as soon as you start the game players will (rightly) ask, What does it look like? Can I go there? Does this thing exist in the Shadowlands? And the Storyteller has a headache trying to answer, because the question is unanswered at the deepest level of game design.

To a lesser extent, the Hierarchy is problematic too. So Hierarchy wraiths wear masks and chains do they? Why? And where do they get them from? Who's running the Hierarchy, given that most wraiths care only about chasing around pursuing their Passions? Just thinking about the whole chain of command structure and spirit economy (given a workover of relentless tedium in several sourcebooks) drives the central absurdity home. Why would someone dead for 200 years with a passion for designing Neo-Gothic churches end up as a centurion in some ghostly army? Why would anyone?

It's not that these questions are unanswerable (supplements like The Hierarchy and Sea of Shadows: Storyteller's Guide to Tempest have a good stab at it), but that the ambiguity is in the central concept itself, so no amount of worthy essays by subsequent designers really feel like they're properly fixing this world, making it feel plausible and intuitive and consistent. Eventually, White Wolf got frustrated with the game and wiped it clean out of their continuity with a spectral Götterdämmerung that annihilated the Hierarchy and destroyed everybody's wraiths, sort of the designers' equivalent of kicking the Scrabble board into the air and shouting "It's all a stupid game anyway".

Now, look. We're all grown-ups here (at least, if you're interested in a game like Wraith I assume you're either a grown-up or a very precocious adolescent). We can make this game work. We can tweak the background till we're happy with it, or until the cracks don't show too badly, and each group will find its own way of getting round The Shadowguide Business. And if you put the work in, there's a really good roleplaying experience on offer here, something quite unlike any other game. But you have to put the work in; unlike the previous World of Darkness games, wraith comes to you under-developed or, shall I say, half-baked. It has at least been half-baked... to see what a game looks like where the concept is still at the "raw ingredients" stage, you need only look at what White Wolf did next with Changeling: The Dreaming.
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on 2 June 1998
Vampire explores the depth of your character, Werewolf explores your dedication, Mage your resourcefulness. Wraith simply searches out the point you crack, and give in. The setting is darkly superb and detailed. The gameplay is an exercise in psychosis. Quite radically different in it's gameplay to any other game I've played to date, and despite it being superbly intense, I'm afraid it now sits gathering dust on a shelf. It's not that it's unplayable (quite the opposite), it's simply that the players (and myself) refuse to play it. If you feel you can hack depression, and the intense conflict (in party) that Wraith generates, then play away... The experience is a double edged sword.
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on 28 November 2000
Wraith, is one of my all time favourite RPG,s, and it is certainly the most wonderfully gothic in both the subject matter, and the feelingsthat the game creates. The subject matter, is death, or rather what happens to those of us who are fettered to the our former mortal coils. The game delves into a very deep, and often tragic chasm of emotion. Certainly, only those who are mature, will get anything from the unrelenting struggle that the characters will find themselves in, whether it be watching one's loved ones forget, and move on, or the eternal struggle with the Shadow, the inner voice that urges each ghost to let go, to give in to the cloying embrace of Oblivion. However, I doubt many people could play this game once, or twice a month, without relenting to the overwhelming sense of depression that the subject matter can invoke.
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on 31 December 2001
This game is truly amazing. It is an exploration of hope, love, obsession, and all the little things that make the human mind tick. This game has incredible scope, and a truly marvellous setting. Out of all the WoD games, this one is the darkest, the one that epitomises the Gothic-Punk millieu best.
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on 17 October 2001
Opinions on this system are really 50-50. The people who love it are the ones who are willing to get drawn into a game of emotions, with a bleak, stark outlook, and they're rewarded with one of the most intense and gripping games they'll ever have. The others are people who don't get it, so if you prefer to just go kill things as a Garou and rarely think about any emotion that isn't rage, then just walk on by. Everyone else, buy this book NOW.
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on 7 April 2000
For all those reading this take it from me, this book and system ain't worth it, the world of darkness as a whole is pretty good, if somewhat un-balanced, and this book ruins it all, with a mockery of a dice system and some bad ideas thrown into the mix.
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