Thoughts, Words, Works

Ghost Stories @

Since I'm currently updating this website with long-overdue changes, I might also note that I've added to my link list a friend from college, whose recently-started blog is both an entertaining read and highly indicative of his personality. It's called The Zeppelin Diaries and his tagline is, "I like my coffee black, my dames classy, and my dialogues fictitious. Updating Daily with posts about D&D and related hobbies!" If that doesn't pique your interest, maybe you should re-evaluate yourself. Taking a little inspiration from his style, I felt like commenting on RPGs. I'm currently running a game of Orpheus, a little-known spinoff RPG by White Wolf from all the way back in 2003, which puts players into the shoes of grim-present ghostbusters and part-time (or full-time!) ghosts themselves.

I'm a particular fan of Orpheus for two reasons. First off, the sourcebook is easily the most stylistically polished RPG rulebook I've ever read, good enough that one might read it cover-to-cover even if one had no intention of playing the game. In an interesting move that plays out not unlike starting a movie in media res, the book begins with a several page fiction-piece jump-starting the reader's introduction to the setting. Then, following a brief introduction into roleplaying games and how Orpheus fits among them, the initial, background-setting chapter begins. But unlike most RPG sourcebooks, which simply describe the setting in didactic prose, Orpheus puts the reader in the mindset of investigator by presenting a collection of fictional primary sources: a tabloid with a special on the afterlife; internal training documents from Orpheus corporation; email exchanges and online chat logs. Each piece is a story of its own while constructing a picture of the Orpheus setting like a collage of magazine clippings. Even the chapter title pages are peppered with mood-setting quotes, some from within the world of the book, some from real-life movies, like this gem from Memento (not even a ghost movie!):

Natalie: What's the last thing that you do remember?
Leonard Shelby: My wife...
Natalie: That's sweet.
Leonard Shelby: ...dying.

The other reason I'm fond of Orpheus is the stories it lends itself to telling. That is, after all, the main reason I play RPGs: I always love to see what humorous or awesome anecdotes can come from a particularly good gaming session. (Incidentally, it sounds like this is also why Mister Flask liked Neverwinter Nights 2.) Maybe only other players of RPGs have the patience to listen to and appreciate these sorts of stories, but I think there's certainly something of value to them. I won't yet mention anything from our current game of Orpheus, since I'd rather wait for one or two more sessions, when we'll have completed our current plot arc, and I can talk freely without spoiling my players on what's coming up next. Instead, I'll relate my favorite part of the only prior game of Orpheus that I played, a scene so memorable it has stuck with me for years:

Our Crucible (that's Orpheus-slang for "party") was sent to deal with some sort of ghost that was making construction equipment run amok and preventing a certain old building from being torn down. Well, while we were checking it out, we happened upon a Reaper, one of the baddest, nastiest, dead-est, single enemies that a party in Orpheus can face. After throwing a variety of objects and supernatural powers at it to no avail, we fell into the same tomfoolery that it seems many parties in the history of RPGs fall for: setting the surroundings on fire. Suffice to say this covered our escape and also dealt with the problem of the building demolition being obstructed, but it turns out that even burning down a condemned building is considered a dangerous act of arson in the eyes of local law enforcement — and can you blame them, given the possibility that the fire could spread and all that?

So our party decided to go back the next day in the flesh to check out the scene. While there, we happened across a law enforcement officer who questioned why we were trespassing onto a crime scene. Every member of the party took it upon himself (or herself) to explain at once without compromising the confidentiality of the mission, so pretty soon we were trapped in an escalating storm of lies and cover-ups. It couldn't be helped that the police officer got pretty suspicious and started taking IDs, planning to bring us in to the station. Reckless as usual, we decided that we didn't want to sit through police questioning, so a couple of us projected into ghost-mode on the spot and started causing a supernatural ruckus. While the officer panicked at the sandbags and lightning bolts flying around him, one of our party manifested her ghost form just substantially enough to snag the IDs out of the officer's pocket and dive back in through the window of our car while we made a getaway. Unfortunately a SWAT van of reinforcements was showing up at the scene right as we departed, and the only way our driver, Dave, could think to get past them without prompting a chase was to play chicken with the SWAT van. Luckily for us, the van driver pulled aside at the last minute while Dave stayed the course and we escaped safely.

But the story doesn't end there. Rather than risk a bigger debacle from keeping the entire thing secret, our group soon found itself in a court hearing with Orpheus' lawyers telling us to keep silent while a very flustered police officer and public attorney accused us of obstructing justice. Our side explained that we had been investigating a dangerous ghost that had shown up right as the police officer was collecting our IDs, and we had fled the scene for our own safety. The officer, dubious of this convenient excuse, accusingly commented that he had seen a ghostly form dive into our car as we drove off.

To which Dave replied, "Did you? That explains why the car was handling so strangely!"


User Comments

Aaron @2010-07-19 03:37:06

Dude, this rocks. How did you not tell me you had a blog?! (Many apologies if you did, but I wasn't listening. Actually, that's probably what happened, cancel that.)

Also, I definitely agree about the excellence of the Orpheus books' layout, particularly in the messily-scribbled side-notes to official company documents, and the fact that all of the example texts involve one of the five or so "main characters" the book focuses on. It really helps get you more into the campaign world.

I normally find sourcebooks intolerably dull; this one's definitely an exception. Actually, I've heard that the sourcebook of the new-ish Dresden Files RPG follows a similar methodology; have you heard anything about that one, good or bad?

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