Monday, July 18, 2005

The Wraeththu Report

or My Descent into Madness

Colin Chapman started it. It's all his fault.Way back in August 2003 he posted a little item to the RPGnet forums entitled Most Pretentious and Artsy RPG Ever Created?: Wraeththu, starting a thread that exceeded 500 posts. Quickly on the heels of that thread, Wraeththu author Gabriel Strange (posting as gabby2600) ineptly responded with a thread of his own called Wraeththu: Bring on the Clowns. This was also a 500-response monster of a thread. Initially I joined in the guffawing dogpile upon Gabby and his antics, but somewhere along the way I became obsessed with finding out more about the actual game hidden under all the internet gibbering. I started routinely checking up on the official Wraeththu rpg website, stopping by the official messageboards occasionally, sometimes reading the blog of the primary author, and scouring Google for more information. I used the Illinois interlibrary loan system to get a copy of the novels upon which the game is based. (I only made it about 75 pages in before I had to return the book.) Eventually I was so fascinated with the development of the Wraeththu rpg that I started several RPGnet threads of my own: A Wreaththu Thread, Wraeththu: more sample pages (featuring Andy Kitowski's Spulturatorah! rpg), A Brief Wraeththu Update, and Wraeththu RPG on eBay. Once I even edited the Wraeththu entry at Wikipedia to include a missing piece of information.

Worst of all, I just couldn't stop blogging about this game.

It's not like Wraeththu started occupying my every waking thought or anything, but I just couldn't let it go. I really wanted to forget about it, because I sure as hell didn't need to be giving Amazon 42 bucks for this thing. My usual sorts of games involve murdering orcs and stealing their gold. I've never even played any of the World of Darkness games that clearly inspire the Wraeththu rpg. But for almost two years this game has haunted me like Hamlet's father. I simply had to get a copy and read it. Otherwise I might end up killing my uncle and sleeping with my mother or some crazy shit like that.

You see, I'm one of those freaks who digs crappy old games the same way some folks get into Ed Wood flicks. While I usually play games that involve two letter D's and an amperstand, I have a voracious appetite for reading and collecting off-kilter games. Sometimes I get to play them, but usually they just serve as inspiration for my more mainstream gaming. I don't really have the time or energy to devote to a World of Synnibarr game. I feel like I'd need at least one more copy of the rulebook to really pull off a decent campaign for SenZar. And I lack the ability to travel to an alternate dimension where Cyborg Commando doesn't totally suck ass. (Jesus, Gary. How did you go from classics like the Keep on the Borderlands and the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide to this crap?)

What the Hell is a Wraeththu?
or How I Learned to Give Up and Start Loving the Flower Penis

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away (Britain circa 1973) a writer by the name of Storm Constantine churned out a trio of novels called The Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit, The Bewitchments of Love & Hate, and The Fulfillments of Fate & Desire. These books form the original Wraeththu Trilogy. As the story goes:

It was said it had started as small groups of youths. Something had happened to them. Perhaps it was just one group. Perhaps, once, on a street corner of a damp, dimly-lit sity suburb, an essence strange and huge had reached out from somewhere and touched them, that first group. A catalyst to touch their boredom and their bitterness transforming it to a breathing, half-visible sentience. Oh yes, they changed. They became something like the werewolves my grandmother remembered tales of. Spurning the society that had bred them, rebelling totally, haunting the towns with their gaunt and drug-poisoned bodies; all night-time streets became places of fear. They dressed in strange uniforms to signify their groups, spitting obscenities upon the sacred cows of men, living rough in all the shunned places. The final act of outrage became their fornications amongst themselves amid the debris they had created. The name they took for themselves was Wraeththu. To distraught mothers and splintered communities, this spelt three things: death, rape, and darkness. The Wraeththu hated mankind. They were different; on the inside and on the outside. Hungry, baleful fire smouldered in their skins, you could see it looking out at you. They drank blood and burned the sanctity, the security of society, infecting others like a plague. Some even died, it is said, at their touch. But those who survived and joined them were strong and proud. Werewolves really would walk the desert again.

Personally, I think that passage is totally awesome. But the devil's in the details. The Wraeththu, you see, are a race of posthuman glitterboi hermaphrodites with psychic powers and penis/vaginas that resemble flowers or sea anemones. You read that right. Furthermore, they are superior to humanity in pretty much every way and consider themselves the new lords of the Earth. The Wraeththu role-playing game generally expects you to play one of these creatures. Most people on the various RPGnet threads linked above reject the idea of playing one of the Wraeththu, either because they find the concept ridiculous, disturbing, or both. It is not my purpose here to judge the Wraeththu Mythos or Ms. Constantine's literary abilities. Nor do I have any interest in comparing the game as published with designer Strange's various claims as to innovation or realism in mechanics. My intention is to judge the game on its own merits.

The Actual Game
or Finally, The Damn Review

I'm going to go ahead and say right now that I haven't read the whole book. That's the main reason this article is found here on my blog and not in the review section of RPGnet. I understand this may annoy folks looking for the lowdown on Wraeththu. Let me just say that I read the entirety of the Cyborg Commando novel trilogy, but I lack the testicular fortitude to get all the way through this work. Take from that what you will.

Let's start with the front cover, shall we? The book's full title is Wraeththu: From Enchantment to Fufillment, a reference to the titles of the first and last novels of the original Wraeththu Trilogy. A little tag in the upper left-hand corner indicates that this work is part of the "Wraeththu Mythos", perhaps the name of the product line. Three people are credited on the cover: Storm Constantine, Gabriel Strange, and Lydia Wood. (The cover credits aren't shown in this pic I swiped from Google image search.) The crisp white cover is decorated primarily with two images. The first graphic is a rather ornate and kinda neo-Egyptian looking knife. According to page 2 of the text, this knife can be purchased from United Cutlery. The second, greyscale graphic behind the knife is a bit more puzzling. As far as I can tell, it must be one of the aforementioned flower penises, in male mode. When Wraeththu copulate, one partner's flower opens up to serve as receptor while the other extends a tentacle-ly thing that functions as the penetrator. Now maybe the cover graphic is something else described in the text, something I've missed thus far in my perusals of the book. I certainly hope so. Otherwise Wraeththu: From Enchantment to Fufillment is probably the first RPG I've ever encounter with someone's genitalia displayed on the cover. Someone please tell me I'm wrong.

Now let's crack open this baby and see what's inside. The copyright page has caused some stir on RPGnet. You can check out the thread [Wraeththu] We need a lawyer. And I mean NOW!
for the lowdown on the situation, but the basic concern is over this verbiage:

Storm Constantine retains all copywright to material based upon the Wraeththu, or derivative thereof, including characters, locations and plotlines.
At this point I can't say that I'm too worried that Storm Constantine apparently claims all rights to any characters I might make for this game. As far as I'm concerned she can have them. To my non-lawyer eyes the real loser looks to be Gabby et al., since this notice kinda looks like they just signed the entire game away to Ms. Constantine. Just as a theoretical exercise I decided to look up the copyright notices in the two Star Wars rpgs sitting on my shelf. I figured if anyone would be aggressive about protecting IP in a roleplaying game, it would be George "No I Won't Let You Look At The Original Trilogy" Lucas. Strangely enough, neither my 2nd edition d6 Star Wars nor my d20 version seem to contain similar language. But Mr. Lucas, I have this great idea for this guy who's a Wookie cyborg/ninja with lightsabres built into his robot arms! Surely you'll want use him in Episode VII!

On page 3 (cripes, this is going slow) there seems to be an honest-to-God innovation, something I've never seen before in any RPG. Printed above the table of contents is the first page of 'Flick Dice'. At the top of every odd-numbered page from 3 to 403 is a small graphic of each of the standard die types (d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, d20) with a number printed on each die. The idea is that if you lack dice you can open the book to a random page and get a die result. I like it. This is a really clever idea. Unfortunately, the execution is lacking. How can you possibly get an even spread of results for a d6 and a d12 with 200 pages? Some numbers are going to be repeated more times than others.

Okay, no more of this reviewing each individual page nonsense. The first section of the book is the introductory fiction. God, how I hate game fiction in my rulebooks. All you folks who think it helps set the tone for the game are inscrutable aliens to me. (And all writers who hide critical setting info in pages of game fiction are in league with the Devil.) But just for the benefit of everyone reading this report I broke down and read the goddamn short story. I consider each and every one of you to owe me. Anyway, what we've got here is the tale of Mikey, a fat Linux nerd who is tormented and kidnapped by the school jocks. Our hero ends up being sold by the jocks to the Wraeththu, who forcibly "incept" him. That is to say they turn him into a fellow Wraeththu. There's a cute twist or two to the story, one of which was utterly predictable. What struck me odd was that there was no indication in the text that pre-Wraeththu Mikey was straight, gay, or whatever. There was no clue that he had any sexual feelings about anything. Maybe I'm just hung up on the whole flower penis thing, but in a game where alternate sexuality is a core setting element you'd think there'd be some mention of Mikey's attitude towards sex. Even something to convey basic info on simple questions like "Does Mikey like girls?" But no, nothing.

The next section is the standard "What Is Role-Playing?" thing you find in the front of most commercially released games. The credits page earlier in the book lists 4 editors, yet the following line was published:

Role-playing can be defined as: "Let's pretend, with rules, weapons and magic."
How exactly did Jack Chick's definition of an rpg make it into this game? Weapons are not allowed at my game table and while I've read a fair bit of Aleister Crowley in my day, we don't actually cast spells when fighting the Zombie. All the author or the editorial quartet had to do was change the line to "rules for weapons and magic". As written, the passage is just wrong-headed. Did I mention this is the very first sentence of the "What Is Role-Playing?" section?

After several pages of reasonably decent generic rpg advice, we start digging into the enormous setting info dump. I also hate games that put a buttload of setting information in front of the game mechanics. Between this and my earlier crack at game fiction, I'm certain I've alienated all the White Wolf fans reading this report. Um, I liked Street Fighter: The Storytelling Game. Does that help? No? Uh.... if you skip the crap that ties it to the rest of the Aeon/Trinity line, Adventure! is pretty cool? Let me try one more time. If it weren't for the setting and the mechanics I would really like Exalted? I can see by the goths wielding pitchforks and torches outside my window that my attempt to win you all back is getting me nowhere.

Getting back to the matter at hand, the setting material seems to be reasonably put together and covers a lot of interesting stuff. Honestly, if you can wrap your head around the fact that you are playing members of the Flower Wang Gang then the background info provided does a pretty decent job of getting you into the game. There's an awful lot of specialized terminology in the setting, all of which looks like a pain in the ass to learn. But you can hardly blame the game for that, assuming that all this stuff appears in the novels. A nice setting glossary ("Lexicon One". The other two lexicons are at the end of the Rules and Magic sections.) gives brief definitions and pronounciations. Unfortunately, this lexicon is broken down into subsections (people, places, slang, and tribes) so you can look forward to an unnecessarily long search if you need to know what an Obliviata is and you don't know that it's the name of a Wraeththu tribe.

Speaking of tribes, the game has White Wolf-style splats, called tribes. I know I've been picking on White Wolf just a bit in this report, but I got no maneuver room here. 'Elf' is a class in my favorite version of D&D. Anyway, we get the first inkling of game mechanics in the section outlining the tribes. Each tribe member gets a small bonus (usually +1) to a couple primary stats and a similar bonus to two or three skills. A soldier of the Varr tribe looks like a good bet for a fighter type: they get +2 Strength and +1 Willpower, and all combat skills are considered one level higher than their actual score.

We're now 159 pages into this 425 page beast and we've finally hit the character creation rules. Primary statistics are Strength, Dexterity, Stamina, Perception, Willpower, and Intelligence. At one point we're told that ratings for these stats range from 1 to 20, with starting characters normally in the 5 to 15 range. I could have sworn that somewhere else in the book it says that Wraeththu may go above 20 in a stat, but I'm not finding it now. When making a new character each stat starts at 4 (if making a Wraeththu) or 3 (if making a human). You then roll 6d6 and assign each die to a different stat, adding that amount to the base. Then add 10 discretionary points however you like, except that you can't go above 15 without Storyteller approval. Finally, add in any bonuses for your PC's Tribe. (This last step allows you to go over 15 for whatever stats for which your Tribe gets plusses.) Although base plus roll plus spend points makes for one extra step more than most systems, I can't say I'm totally annoyed with this method.

Each stat number gets a stat modifier that applies to skills. A 1 or 2 in a stat results in -2 penalty on appropriate skills, a 3 or 4 gets a -1. 5 through 9 is a 0. 10 to 13 is a +1, 14-16 is a plus two, etc. All-in-all it's a flattened out bonus scheme reminiscent of pre-3E D&D. Unlike 3E I don't see any simple way to calculate a stat bonus. You just have to memorize the chart.

Wraeththu have 3 secondary stats called Energy, Psyche, and Composure. This is where we first encounter the algebraic formulas that will come to dominate the rules. Your Energy stat is equal to 20+d6+(Stamina mod x2). Upon reading the description we find that Energy seems similar to the HERO System stat of Endurance. Just like HERO's Endurance and Constitution I'm not exactly sure why we need both the Stamina primary stat and the Energy secondary stat. Your Psyche is equal to your Willpower modifier plus 1d6. The Psyche stat is used to power a variety of minor psychic powers that all Wraeththu possess, such as limited forms of telepathy and healing. Like the Energy/Stamina issue above, I fail to see why these abilities could not have been tied into the Willpower primary stat.

The third secondary stat, Composure, looks much more interesting to me. Characters start with a Composure equal to 3+1d6+Willpower modifier. Someone with a high composure is a smooth motherfucker. A Wraeththu with a low score becomes susceptible to "uncontrollable rages and bouts of manic depression." This sounds like a nifty little idea, but I'm waiting for someone to let me know that it exactly mimics the Humanity stat in Vampire. Characters with low Composure suffer stiff penalties on social actions and lesser penalties on all other actions, but there is no real mechanic for flipping out and killing people. Personally, I would like to have seen a mechanic that really pushed those uncontrollable rages. The primary way to gain or lose composure is to adhere or vary from the ethos your character's chosen tribe. That means in this game your tribal affiliation functions pretty much as your race, class, AND alignment. That's an awful lot of PC identity to hang on one label, especially if you have a campaign concept that involves all or most PC belonging to the same tribe.

There's a metric shitload of tertiary stats related to combat, referred to as the Base Combat Action Modifiers, of which their are two subsets, the Base Close Combat Modifiers and the Base Ranged Combat Modifers. The individual modifiers are called Aim, Dodge, Damage, Speed, Block, Roll, Leap, and Repair. I'm choaking on this stuff as I type but it's simpler than it looks. Each one of these modifiers is either a single stat modifier (e.g. your Doge rating is simply your Dex bonus) or a relative simple formula (your Base Close Combat Weapon Repair bonus is simply the average of your Dec and your Int). These Base Blah Blah Modifiers are added to your plusses for Weapon Skills (which we'll get to soon enough) in order to find your net bonus. The whole thing is like the math you do in D&D 3.X to determine things like your net Saves or Attack Bonuses, it's just managed a bit differently here.

And then there's the special stats for magic. Manipulation is your Magic skill. Since every Wraeththu has some form of magical aptitude, it is listed here in the magic stats section instead of being lumped with the rest of the skills. Your base Manipulation is equal to your Int modifier plus your Will modifier plus a roll of d6. Your Resistance to enemy magic is the average of your Stamina and Willpower mods. Your starting Agmara (magic points) is equal to your weight in kilograms divided by 2. That's right! The heavier you are the more spell points you get! Your maximum Agmara is normally equal to 10 times your starting amount. Later in the magic section we'll learn that by the mystical act of aruna (flower penis sex) you can temporarily double your maximum. Each new PC begins with a couple of points of aptitude in any two of the eight lesser magical forces (Air, Earth, Fire, Water, Spirit, Kinetic, Attraction, and Plasmatic) and three points split up between Chaos and Order. Hopefully this paragraph will make sense when we get down to the magic section.

The basic skill system is pretty standard stuff, really. You buy skills with a pool of 2d6+45 points, modified by your Perception modifier and double your Intelligence modifier. I don't know why that particular formula makes anymore sense than some alternative involving Stamina and/or Willpower, but it'll do. You then buy skill levels on a 1:1 basis, again not going over 15 points in any one skill. The skill list is long enough to put Savage Worlds fans like me to sleep, but probably not long enough if you're used to the skill lists in Rolemaster or Palladium products. Most of the skills are completely standard things like Climbing, Forgery, Diplomacy, etc. Some more interesting skills include Grace and Panache. Hypnotism and Occult also look like a neato way of tricking out a spooky freak of a Wraeththu, even though Occult (the magickal lore of pre-Wraeththu humanity) is basically left undefined. The skills are organized by the primary stat governing them, which ought to be a complete nuisance when trying to look up specific skill rules during actual play. Each of the non-combat skills has a primary and secondary statistic and the stat modifier for the skill is actually the average of both stats' modifiers. I seem to recall something like this in Rolemaster, and it always made it a bit of a pain in the ass when one of the stats went up or down. Somewhere in or around the skill system I discovered the core mechanic: d20 roll under, lower is more successful.

Combat skills are a whole nother ball of wax. First you need a specific weapon skill, such as Sword (Katana) or Pistol (Desert Eagle). The general type of weapon (Sword and Pistol in the previous instances) dictates which weapon skill chart you use. These remind me strongly of Palladium style weapon or martial art skills. At skill levels 3, 5, 10, 15, and 20 you get particular bonuses with your chosen weapon. Someone with level 3 in their chosen Pistol gets a lousy "+2 Repair" bonus. It isn't until level 5 that you get "+1 Aim". Meanwhile a level 3 swordsman gets +2 to Repair and +1 to both Block and Aim. To my don't-know-dick-about-real-world-combat eyes these charts look totally overdone. I'd hate to be the guy who had to justify why level 10 in Blunt Weapon (Black Jack) gives someone +1 Leap. There are other little things that seem wacky, such as the decison to put ordinary shotguns in the Rifle category, but automatic shotguns are treated as Support Weapons, the same category as mortars and flamethrowers.

Melee fighters aren't done with just weapons skills; you also need at least one Combat Style. The basic Combat Styles are Fencing, 1-Handed Fighting, 2-Handed Fighting, Two Weapon Fighting, and Pole Arm Fighting. The styles act as limiters on your Weapon Skills. So if you have Two Weapon Fighting at Level 10 (for example), you can only use your weapon skills up to level ten when fighting two-fisted, even if you are using a pair of nunchucks you have rated at Level 15 in their appropriate weapon skill. The styles I've listed are called the basic styles. Rules for constructing advanced styles are given later in the book, as well as one example of an advanced style. Since advanced styles can be loaded with bonuses and special rules (by ST approval), this looks like the perfect place to insert some Kung Fu craziness into your game. I don't know if there's a lot of martial arts mayhem in the Wraeththu novels, but I certainly can dig on it in my games. Since the advanced style charts look so much like Palladium's similar mechanic, I'd probably look at plundering Ninjas & Superspies for inspiration. That being said, I don't really see what the basic styles (1-hand, 2-hand, 2-weapon, etc) add to the game. They give you no bonuses, so their only mechanical function is make it harder to become kickass with your chosen implements of death. Unless I'm missing something, the basic styles seem to be part of an ongoing theme of unnecessary complication. The whole thing leaves a bad taste in my mouth similar to the one I got when I encountered the general skill/specific skill mechanic in RoleMaster Standard System.

I guess this is as good a place as any to talk about the Merits & Flaws system. (I'm putting off tackling the combat and magic rules. Can you tell?) I believe I first encountered the term Merits & Flaws in the Lion Rampart edition of Ars Magica, so I'm going to go ahead and assume the concept as used in Wraeththu is lifted from Vampire: the Masquerade. Please correct me if I'm wrong. Flaws are each worth points, from the 1 point for being Lame (the bad leg kind of Lame) to 5 points for having No Eyes. Some flaws are designated human-only, because there are no Overwieght (3 points) Wraeththu, as we discovered in the opening fiction when Mikey magically shed all his excess fat during his transformation. (I wonder how many people would be willing to live with a raging sea anemone in their pants just for the sudden, permanent weight loss? Personally, I'd keep my fat ass and small johnson. Maybe I'm not in the target demographic for this game.) The book instruct you not to take human-only flaws if you plan on your PC joining the Wraeththu early in the game, but no specific mention is made of how to handle it if your overweight human PC is incepted during session 50 of a campaign. I checked the Experience section and I couldn't find any rules for buying off Flaws with XPs. You'll never be able to escape that horrid Destiny and PCs will never be able to overcome their Addicitons or even Shyness. (Being Shy is worth twice as many points as being an Addict, by the way.)

You can take up to ten points of Flaws, which can then be used to purchase stat pushes, extra skill points, magical aptitude (can be very expensive), Fate points (Meta-game dice tweaks like Action points, Bennies, Hero points, etc.), Resource ranks (5 ranks makes you rich), or Merits. (Most items on the list cost 5 points a pop. I should mention that you also get 2d6+20 freebie points to buy all this stuff with as a well.) The Merits are pretty much the sort of little tricks you'd expect from most any Feat/Edge/Talent system. We're talking things like Photographic Memeory, Psychic, and Absolute Composure (+3 to your Composure Stat). There are also two dual purpose Merits/Flaws. Destiny can be taken for 1 to 5 points of Merit (i.e. a good destiny) or a 1 to 5 point Flaw for living under an impending doom. Somewhat weirder is the fact that you can choose to be hampered or helped by Synaesthesia, the state of your senses being confused or mingled. I totally want to run a Wraeththu with 3 points in the Synaesthesia merit. That way my PC could smell sounds and hear colors and be totally awesome because of this ability.

Before moving on, I've got to mention Blind Fighting. This Merit is exactly what it sounds like, the ability to put the smack down on people despite being unable to see them. It only works in melee combat and has no mechanical effect other than to offset the normal penalties for not being able to see. Somehow this rather mundane advantage is held to be worth a whopping 25 points. That means a by-the-book character with the maximum of ten points of Flaws can't even afford this Merit. The Storyteller literally has to bend the rules to put this Merit into play. The huge point cost isn't worth it anyway. Having No Eyes is a 5-point flaw, but the 25 points you'll spend on Blind Fighting only offsets the penalties for blindness under certain circumstances. It's like whoever wrote the Blind Fighting merit was totally crushing on Daredevil or Zatoichi or maybe Rutger Hauer's character in Blind Fury, but then forgot to put any whoop-ass into the game mechanics. Of course this whole nonsense leads me to question whether ultra-powerful Blind Fighting would help the system support the setting. Is there some sort of wicked cool blind warrior in one of the Wraeththu novels? If not, why is this special case cluttering up the official Wraeththu rpg?

Okay, enough stalling. Let's talk about the freakin' combat rules. As I said before, the basic system is d20 roll-under. For contested actions you go with whoever has the larger value of skill rating minus the actual roll. A natural 1 is a critical success and a natural 20 is a blunder. Although roll-under systems are super easy to teach to people, I can't say I'm totally a fan of them simply because in my experience players like to roll high numbers. They want that twenty they just rolled to be a good thing, not a crushing defeat. I couldn't tell you whether this is normal human psychology or the fallout of D&D's roll-high system, but either way it's true. The only roll-under system I really like is Call of Cthulhu, but playing that game is like watching a demolition derby: everyone's waiting eagerly for the whole thing to devolve into an orgy of destruction and chaos.

We've no made it all the way to page 245. We're past the halfway point, folks! It's all downhill from here. (No, seriously.) Pages 245 and 246 are the Universal Modifers Table, a bigass chart just as friendly and inviting as Rolemaster's Moving Maneuvers chart. For those of you who enjoy knowing the difference between 20% cover and 40% cover, this table is right up your alley. Personally, I'm glad to find a game that finally tells me the penalty for when the temperature is "a little too hot/cold" (-4) as opposed to the penalty for being "slightly too warm/cold" (which is only -2). By the way, the modifier for being "Clueless" is -10, so I guess I'm -10 at figuring out why the character- and plot- oriented game in the first half of this book needs hair-splitting modifiers like this stuff. 'Cause I ain't got a friggin' clue why I would ever want to stop in the middle of a fight to look this crap up unless I'm playing a game that is all about kicking ass and taking names. Even then I'd probably go nuts using a chart like this for my regular D&D game.

A combat turn (called a Phase for no particular reason) lasts 5 seconds and is broken down into 5 one-second Action Slices. Why every RPG I've ever read has to come up with new terms for Turns and Rounds has always baffled me. At least by renaming the Gamemaster to something like the Storyteller or the Keeper or the Hollyhock God you can say something interesting about the role of the GM or the GM's relationship to the players. But does it really make any sort of useful statement to call a turn a Phase? Feng Shui's Sequence/Shots schema was about the only time that I learned something about a game from its crappy labels for combat time.

I'm not done ranting about Slices and Phases just yet. We're given a chart listing some examples of actions and how long they take under this sytem. Bending down to pick an item off the floor takes 2 Slices. First item on the frickin' chart and they've already lost me. If I have to use more than 2 actions to pick up the car keyes I just dropped then the system segments combat time way too finely for my taste. I've known some grognards who feel differently about this issue, but do you really think the Greybeard Brigade is going to trade in their HERO Systems and Phoenix Commands for Wraeththu? The second item on the sample chart is no better. Opening a door, stepping through, and closing it behind you costs you a total of five Slices. Too bad nowhere are we told how much each of these actions costs separately. "De-holstering" a weapon costs a single Slice. But wait! De-holstering a weapon and aiming it "properly" costs 3 Slices! Okay, so a fast draw costs one Slice, but doing a proper job of drawing and shooting costs 3 Slices. That's not terrible, I guess.

Initiative is rolled once per Phase, using a d20. On the first Phase of a fight this is an unmodified roll. You can burn extra actions/attacks (The text uses the phrase "actions/attacks" like the author gets royalites off of it. RPGnetter unka josh suggested contracting that to "attactions" but the last thing this game needs is another new word for one of the three Lexicons.) to get +3 on the next Initiative roll. So if you get 8 actions/attacks and only use 6 of them in this Phase, you can add +6 to your initiative roll next Phase. I kinda like that idea. Despite this rather cool initiative system, there's some malarkey in this section about combat being considered Simultaneous within each Phase. I guess that means that if I kill your ass on Slice 2, you can still kill me back if you can get the jorb done before the end of the Phase. As a DM I love these sort of mutual annihilation scenarios, but I know very few players who would enjoy being killed by somebody who was already dead.

Actions/attacks seem to work a lot like they do in the Palladium system. You can use them offensively to whack on the bad guys or you can use them defensively to ward off attacks. If you have more than 5 attacks/actions per round you can actually do both at the same time. If you run out of actions you lose the ability to use active defenses. If you have less than 5 attacks/actions you don't get to use every Action Slice. There's a little chart akin to the HERO System Speed Chart. If you have 1 attack you can only go on Slice 3, if you get two attacks they fall on Slices 2 and 4, etc. I get the impression that any serious ass-kicker needs to have way more than 5 attacks/actions.

We then get a breakdown of some Close Combat and Ranged Combat Actions. This section seems rather ineptly assembled to me, as some items listed (such as Damage, Speed, and Repair) aren't actually attacks or actions but modifiers to other actions. Meanwhile, the basic attacks ("whack guy with weapon" or "shoot the bastard) don't even appear here, but in a later sections. Still, there's some good stuff to be found here, like rules for locking blades with your opponent and engaging in a Strength contest as you push each other back and forth. Another nifty trick is to use the Leap maneuver to add +5 damage by putting more oomph behind your strike. There's also a little rule for leaping and firing your gun in mid-air, which I quite like. Some more rules on two weapon fighting (a.k.a. "duel [sic] weapon fighting") are found in this section. In my opinion these rules ought to be located with the two weapon rules in the skills section, but see later in this document for my general comments on organization within this book. (Hint: While preparing for this article I've used no less than three different bookmarks simultaneously.) The rules for blasting foes with two pistols at once look unduly harsh to me, but I'm a big fan of high-octane shoot-outs. (And now that I think about it, there's a lot of sublimated homosexuality in some of my favorite Hong Kong actions films. If I were to actually run this game, I might be able to mine them for plot ideas. That's probably at least as good as my first idea for a Wraeththu campaign: Rocky Horror meets the Road Warrior. You probably think I'm joking.)

A basic to-hit is an opposed conflict. Both parties try to roll low on their appropriate weapons skills. If the attacker beats the defender, some sort of wound is inflicted. Blunt Weapons always do Minor Wounds, but if you use an edged weapon or a gun and beat the opponents success level by at least five then you have scored a Major Wound. If you take 10 points of Minor Wounds or more from a single hit they convert to Major Wounds at a 10:1 basis. Major Wounds use a damage track. Humans can take 10 Major Wounds total and hit the death spiral right away. Their first Major Wound puts them at -5 to all actions and their 6th puts them at -10. Wraeththu are more resistant to damage. They can withstand 15 Major Wounds before succumbing and don't get penalized until they hit the 6th and 11th Major Wounds. Characters who run out of Minor Wounds go unconscious. The total number of Minor Wounds you can take is another one of those annoying formulas, by the way. Wraeththu can take 30 +d6+ Strength mod + Stamina mod. Humans can take ten less than that. Characters who run out of Minor Wounds go unconscious, while marking off all your Major Wounds leaves you dead. None of this namby-pamby death's door stuff. An optional rule forces characters with Major Wounds to make a Stamina roll every time they take an action. If the roll fails they go unconscious. This rule looks like it would be absolutely critical to use, as otherwise (without using the aimed headshots rules) Major Wounds can only kill you, they can never knock your ass out. There's also an optional hit location chart that looks kooky to me. Head and neck are separate hit locations, but lower arm and hand are squeezed into one slot. Flower penis does not appear on the chart.

Now if I'm reading these rules right, an attack roll with a success level of at least 5 can inflict a single Major Wound (assuming use of a blade or gun) or you roll damage and apply it to Minor Wounds. Weapons do Minor Wound damage in die ranges similar to D&D. A katana does 2d4, nunchucks do d6+1, etc. I'll have to look up what a silepe and a venmuroo are. They're listed under the axe category on the weapons chart. I can't find any explanatory text for either the melee weapons or the guns, so someone who isn't a weapon fetishist is left to their own devices to discover what a bardiche looks like. The weapons chart has some glaring omissions. Broken bottle and chair leg are listed as improvised weapons, but you won't find any of the following items: meat cleaver, crowbar, switchblade, butcher knife, Rambo-style survival knife, chainsaw, fondue fork, pitchfork, baseball bat (the author's a Brit, IIRC, so I'd settle for cricket bat), 2x4, length of heavy chain, etc, etc, etc. The setting is post-apocalyptic (or arguably apocalyptic) so I expect these items to be pretty common weapons. Similarly, the ranged weapon charts lacks entries for sawed-off shotguns, zipguns, or blackpowder weapons of any sort. Muskets have been appearing in post-apocalyptic games at least since Gamma World's 2nd edition. (That game was released in the Year of Our Lord Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Three.) Another gem is that the pistol list manages to include only one revolver: the .44 Magnum of Dirty Harry fame. Also missing in action are the 50 calibre incarnation of the Desert Eagle (the only version that gamers care about) and the frickin' Colt 1911, the pistol Uncle Sam himself uses to blow away commies. But if you want to talk gross oversights, I'd have to say the blue ribbon goes to the omission of the M-16. I could let it slide if the weapons list included some sort of near-future replacement for this standard weapon of the U.S. Armed Forces, but as it stands the gun list is just terribly, terribly inadequate. Frankly, I'd be happier if the authors had went with a generic Pistol, Submachine Gun, Rifle, and Assault Rifle.

In addition to a damage range, each implement of death is rated for Armor Penetration and Speed. Clearly the designer of these charts is a weapons expert of Gygaxian genius, because otherwise it would be the height of silliness to try to convince me that a halberd has an Armor Penetration of 8, while a voulge has an Armor Penetration of 15. This means if you happen to be wearing steel plate armor (Armor Value 10) and you see a guy with a voulge you better try to parlay. But if he has a halberd you can probably punk him, because he can only do Minor Wounds to you. If your armor is rated double the penetration of a weapon, then you can essentially ignore the attack. These leads you to the situation first pointed out by RPGnetter Belphanior, IIRC, where chainmail (AV 8) provides immunity to flamethrowers (AP 3).

Weapon Speed is usually a fractional number between 0 and 4, the lower the better. Those of us who sometimes miss the weapon speed rules from earlier incarnations of AD&D might be lured into thinking this is a good thing. You'll probably have second thoughts when you encounter the table that allows you to calculate your total attack actions based upon Weapon Speed, Base Actions, and your (deep breath) Weapon Skill Speed Combat Action Modifier. The upshot of all this is the lower the Speed number the more actions/attacks you'll get in combat, which is a good thing if you don't mind all the hoops you have to jump through to get to this point. Finally, the weasely guy with the daggers get more attacks than the oaf with the sledgehammer. Too bad I have to wrangle this crappy chart to make that dream come true.

Guns capable of autofire are given separate Speed ratings for single shots, three round bursts, and fully automatic fire. If you use a three round burst your Speed roughly doubles, but you get to make a single to-hit roll that does triple damage. Fully automatic fire can only be done 5 times per turn, once each Slice. If you have more than 5 actions you have to use the rest of them for other actions. Damage is equal to the normal damage for one shot, plus the 'A' (for automatic) rating in the Speed column. You can then split the burst among multiple opponents by splitting the damage evenly. Example: My PCs fires an Uzi on full auto at a trio of mere humans. If my attack success level beats any of the mundanes by 5 or more they take a major wound (and now are at -5 to all actions, poor unevolved saps that they are), if the success level difference is 1-4 then they take one third of my d8+10 roll as Minor Wounds. If anyone's defenses beat the success level of my rolls, the shot misses them but might still hit the others.

I think I've covered all the basics you need to know for your transexual posthuman to go postal on the security guards in the lobby. The rest of the combat section covers miscellany such as healing rules (suddenly, your guy who has taken 15 Major Wounds has a chance to live), the charts for lifting, jumping, and running, and rules for dangerous stuff like drowning and falling. If you fall more than 11 meters you take extra damage based upon your own body weight. Good thing your Wraeththu is no longer Overweight. Finally, we hit Lexicon 2, which is a glossary of combat rules treminology. Unlike the first glossary, this one is in alphabetical order. Yay for that.

Now we've come to the money shot, er, I mean the magic section. There's an awful lot of expository text at the front of this that I just can't bring myself to read right now. In fact, I'm off to pour myself a gin and tonic just to steel myself for a discussion of the mechanics.


Ah, Bombay Saphhire. My only friend in this self-inflicted hell. I'll always love you. You'll be the last against the wall when the revolution comes. (So you think I'm not making any damn sense now, do you? Well, my gin-induced fantasies have nothing on the Wraeththu magic system. The following five paragraphs distill down 60 pages of the most unnecessarily verbose magic system I have ever encountered, and I've read actual Victorian-era Golden Dawn initiation ceremonies.)

Skipping a bunch of crap, we find that according to the section entitled "How Does Magic Work?" there are twelve forces of magic divided into following subgroups: the twins Chaos & Order, the four classical elements (Earth, Air, Fire, & Water), four energies (Spirit, Kinetic, Attraction, and Plasmatic) and the grab-bag of ultra-powerful forces: Temporal, Phase, Conversion and Destruction. You might be saying to yourself "But Jeff, that's fourteen forces. You said there were twelve total." I don't get it either. Frankly, I feel totally lost as I try to navigate the magic rules. There's a whole lot of words, but in many passages I'm picking up more noise than signal.

There seems to be two types of magical methodology: Magari, the art of casting spells on the fly, and ritual magic, known as Majhahn. These methods can produce two different types of effects, Subtle and Vulgar. Even I know that was swiped from Mage: the Whatever. Everytime you use Vulgar Magic (that is, every time a witness can tell you're screwing with the universe) you pick up a point of Probability. Each point of Probability is a coupon for the GM good for slapping a penalty onto your next critical dice roll. At low levels the penalty is -10 to the roll. At Probability 4 the penalty becomes -15. At Prob level 7 the penalty becomes -20 and the GM is authorized to generally pimp you over as the universe punks you for screwing with it. Each roll that is futzed with eliminates one of your accumulated points of Probability. Getting a tenth point of Probability costs you 25 points in skills and other stats. The world really is a vampire.

So how do I cast a spell? First you figure out exactly what you want to do. Then you negotiate with the Storyteller over what forces you need to use to achieve the effect desired. If I want to light a campfire, then no doubt I would need at least one rank in the Fire magic. If I wanted to throw a fireball then I would also need at least one rank in Kinetic energy as well. If I wanted to throw a fireball to prevent Lincoln from being assassinated, then I'd also need at least one rank in Temporal to send my attack back in time. The Storyteller insists that sending a fireball all the way back to 1865 will require at least Temporal 4. Each rank of Fire only buys 1d6 damage and I really want to fry John Wilkes Booth, so I'll up that to Fire 5. Assuming my PC has at least one rank in Kinetic, four ranks in Temporal, and 5 ranks in Fire, then I should be able to cast this spell. I then need to get with the GM and decide if the spell is a Chaos or Order spell. We can debate the political ramifications of Lincoln serving the rest of his term as well as the morality of crosstemporally incinerating assassins, but the real issue is probably that setting people on fire tends to increase the Chaos in a system. Since the highest attribute of our spell is 5, that means we would need Chaos 5 to cast the spell in the most efficient manner possible. If our magical counterassassin has less than 5 ranks of Chaos, the casting time of the spell spell increases. I can't make up my mind whether or not I like this Chaos/Order stuff. On one hand it makes for an interesting way to make some spells require longer casting times, on the other hand this looks like an unnecessary game mechanic that has no function but to piss off players (c.f. weapon fighting styles). There's a chart for how much Agmara (spell points) a spell costs. Looking at that chart I see that an effect with three forces ranked 1,4, and 5 costs a total of 41 points of mojo. Fireballing people is definitely against Hoyle, so the spellcaster would pick up a point of Probability for his trouble as well.

I really ought to spend a sentence or two ragging on the section entitled "The Units of Elements, Forces, and Changing States". It's here that magic and science collide, forming an utter trainwreck. We are told crazy things like a point of Fire magic produces a cubic meter of fire, while a point of Plasmatic energy produces one kilojoule of "power". Meanwhile, a single point of Kinetic magic is good for moving 1 kilogram at 1 kilometer/hour. Does this make any fucking sense? I'd sure like answers to questions like "How hot is that Fire?" and "Why is Kinetic magic so much lamer than Plasmatic?" I honestly don't understand why these standards are set as they are. More importantly, I don't understand why they were set at all! What we really need is a little chart that says practical things like "Water 1 = a bucketful, Water 2 = a bathtub, Water 3 = swimming pool". I don't want to estimate how many liters of liquid are in something before working out a Water spell. (By the way, Temporal magic is measured in days, so my John Wilkes Booth Fireball is right out.)

If you run short on Agmara there are some nifty rules for ruining your body to power spells by transforming wounds to power points. Also, friends can contribute Agmara to an operation. You can steal power points from people too, but they find out about it if you take more than half their ju-ju. The universe hates Agmara thieves, so taking the stuff without permission also earns you a point of Probability. Majhahn (ritual magic) works pretty much as described above, except that you need all the normal magickal stuff and a place to work. The nice thing about ritual magic is that you can do all the probability-shattering stuff without penalty. There's other stuff in here, like using lunar phases to your advantage and summoning spirits, but most of it is too sketchily defined for my tastes. The magic section ends with some sample spells (None of which are particularly earth-shattering. I've seen some Call of Cthulhu PCs with more useful spells.) and Lexicon 3.

Finally, after the magic section are five Appendices. The first two are the equipment lists, including the weapons charts I griped about when I was droning on about the combat system. Appendix three is all about running your own game, including a mini-scenario. There's some reasonably good practical advice here, but the scenario looks like a lesson in railroading. There's a nifty little chart for following the five scenes in the mini-adventure, kinda like what you would see in the modules Mayfair used to churn out for DC Heroes. Unfortunately, the idea that there are many alternative ways for the PCs to negoatiate this adventure is a total sham. The main portion of the flowchart looks like this:

Scene 1-->Scene 2-->Scene 3-->Scene 4-->Scene 5
According to the chart there is absolutely no way to get from Scene One to Scene Five without going through the other scenes in numerical order. All the various "side quests" and what-not merely serve as fillers between Scene X and Scene X+1. Another thing that annoyed me is that the Storyteller advice here tells you to start "In media res: This means in the middle of the action" but then the first scene of the sample adventure has no action whatsoever! In fact, the whole 'adventure' is nothing more than an overstuffed adventure hook. I could sum up the action of the whole thing in one sentence and then build a real adventure starting with Scene 5. After the crummy adventure are some notes on running Wraeththu diceless. We run into the same problem here as with Victorian Age Vampire: someone can't distinguish between 'diceless' and 'freeform'. Appendix 3 ends with a page and half of anemic adventure ideas and 8 sample PCs, one of whom is a totally rad blind-fighter.

Appendix 4 contains even more GM advice. At this point I'd gladly trade half the GM advice in the book for a decent example of play. The article here "Aruna and the Single Gamer" is not without merit, though, as it contains guidance on how to not squick out players with all the flowertentacle sex. Apendix 5 is a how-to guide for filling out a character sheet, followed by a 2-page char sheet, a couple maps, and the index.

Whew! We did it! We made it all the way through! Before moving on the my conclusions, I need to address three global aspects of the game. First, most of the interior art by Bruce Wells is really good. The Wraeththu as he depicts them are all evocative of mysterious power and allure. Some of the other line art isn't quite so good, like the full page pieces between the chapters. I was surprised by the numerous realistic gun illos peppering the book. They seem reasonably well-drawn to me, but their presence conflicted with my expectations that this isn't just another game about blowing shit up.

Another global issue is the way the book is organized. Maybe the arrangements make sense to somebody else, but to me I felt like was reading the Choose Your Own Adventure of Doom. "For three more paragraphs on this subject, turn to page 123. For the information you actually need, go to page 234." Also I find it counterintuitive that the weapons chart is in an appendix rather than in the combat section. And some things should be listed alphabetically that aren't such as Lexicon One and the skills list. This issue hardly makes or breaks the game, but anyone wanting to play this puppy will probably spend an inordinate amount of time flipping through the book. The index and table of contents are useful enough to help when that happens. So kudos for that.

Finally, I should mention the crazy quotes. The outside margin on each page (the one opposite the spine) is pretty large. In this huge white space (Lampooned in Andy Kitowski's Spulturatorah! rpg, in case you didn't follow my first link.) are sprinkled a variety of quotes attributed to Wraeththu characters. Almost every page has at least one of these quotes and often the quote has abso-fucking-lutely nothing to do with the main text it sits next too. I suppose these quotes are meant to evoke the mood and themes of the setting, but the whole thing comes off to me like the short bus version of the excellent marginal nanoficition found in Rebecca Borgstrom's Nobilis. Here, I'll lay on y'all a trio of honest-to-Grodd selected-at-random quotes:

"Who's this? Another poor sap who did the bleeding for you? Well, I have had enough. It's your turn to do some bleeding." --Skipper Hansmet, Smalt, Phylarch of Picaroon Phyle. [This quote is next to the rules for learning new skills.]

"One day I will be a Hienama, walk the streets of Immanion and maybe even have a tribe of my own!" --Young Unneah, dreaming, as he picks through the rubbish field on the outskirts of Carmine. [Found next to a section talking about rivalry between the Wraeththu tribes.]

"I am not here to argue who is right or wrong. I am here to slap some sense into you both for being too like each other." --Yull Manarr, Unneah [Located next to the section delineating what plusses members of the Unneah tribe receive.]

I could find more inane or irrelevant quotes with just a little searching. Overall, this constant stream of nonsense makes me feel like I'm accidentally eavesdropping on a bunch of ficitional characters who are trying to have a horribly hip conversation and failing to be the least bit cool. I've participated in tragically uncool confabs like that before, but that don't mean I want to overhear someone else similarly humiliating themselves.

or Please Make The Hurting Stop

So does Wraeththu: From Enchantment to Fufilment deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the Unholy Trinity of FATAL, Racial Holy War, and Hybrid? In a word, no. It does not. In my opinion Wraeththu doesn't come close. It lacks the moral degenerecy of FATAL, the grotesque and moronic racism of RaHoWa, or the sheer insanity of Hybrid. Unlike any of these games, I can and would play Wraeththu and probably get some enjoyment out the experience.

Wraeththu doesn't even quite belongs on the second tier of truly bad games, products such as World of Synnibarr and SenZar. These games are a mixed bag rules-wise (SenZar, in particular, has a lot going for it in mechanical terms) but are generally reviled for two key issues: inept settings and author hubris. I think Wraeththu's setting is superior to either SenZar or Synnibarr, though it must be acknowledged that not everyone is going to want to play in the world of the Wraeththu. All three games take a lot of crap because at one time their respective authors couldn't keep their stupid mouths shut. As much as I enjoy a good internet bitch-slapping, I feel like I can't condemn this game just because Gabby couldn't play well with others in a couple of threads on RPGnet.

Really, if Gabby had behaved himself, the only stand-out things about this game are the unusual gender and sex issues. And seeing as how this is a licensed game of a somewhat popular IP, I just can't take the game to task for remaining true to its strange source. Mechanics-wise Wraeththu is merely a mediocre collection of stuff we've all seen before from White Wolf or TSR or Palladium, sprinkled with a smattering of unrelated house rules. I've seen worse. I've played worse. There are some rules ideas I actually liked. (But I have some favorite mechanics from World of Synnibarr, too.) I think RPGnetter Destriarch hits the nail firmly on the head, writing in response to a thread started by a newbie looking for help with the Wraeththu rpg:

My advice would be to get a universal system and adapt it. The new World of Darkness stuff might be suitable given that the plots in Wraeththu are largely romantic or political with less action to worry about. I might also suggest trying to adapt Nobilis (if you can stomach diceless systems) or if you can get your hands on an old copy of Everway which would probably be perfect for this style of thing. Honestly though, if you're new to the hobby you will almost certainly have trouble with Wraeththu: fEtF. I can't understand half of the systems described in the book, and I've been RP'ing in many different systems for more than fifteen years now.
Another perfectly viable tactic would be to adopt the Wraeththu to your game. Drow not cutting the mustard as bad guys in your D&D campaign? Send in these folks. Want to really make your Feng Shui players wince? Have the next critical shift eliminate the Buro timeline and instead make the world of 2056 into the Juncture of the Wraeththu. Your monster hunter PC may wake up already pre-incepted! I'm sure folks running Nobilis, Exalted, or Call of Cthulhu can find uses for the Wraeththu as well. I think the possibilities are tremendous.

Miscellaneous Links
or Get Me The Hell Away From This Long-Ass Review

The Official Wraeththu: From Enchantment to Fufilment website


My article on Enochian Chess (Previously the longest thing I every wrote for teh intarweb.)

Update: RPGnetter Belphanior now has a review over at RPGnet.

If anyone knows of any other Wraeththu reviews online, please pass the link on to me so that I can post it here.