A Storytelling Game of Death and Damnation. —1st edition taglineA Storytelling Game of Passion and Horror. —2nd edition taglineA tabletop role-playing game in the Old World of Darkness, considered by many to be one of the most depressing of the lot. First of all, you start off dead. And we don't mean undead, we mean dead. You've failed to pass on to the true afterlife, and your soul has ended up in the Shadowlands, a decaying spiritual reflection of the real world. You're bound to this side of reality by your Fetters and Passions, emotional and physical ties to your old life. You have to negotiate the viper's nest of politics that's been set up in the Shadowlands — a three-way clusterfuck between the oppressive Hierarchy, the revolutionary Renegades, and the devout Heretics — while trying to protect and, eventually, resolve that which ties you to this life and move on to the true afterlife.It goes From Bad to Worse, since also parking its tuchus in the Shadowlands is a grand malevolent force known as Oblivion. Seeking to drag all existence down its sinkhole, Oblivion sends its soldiers, the Spectres, out to make the world a much worse place. One of those soldiers is parked in your head. It's called your Shadow, and it's constantly going to wheedle you, cajole you, taunt you, set you up, and make your life a living hell until you give it what it wants — that is, all control over you, making you a Spectre in full.Wraith was considered a tough concept to handle, even for the World of Darkness. The characters were constantly at war with themselves (and sometimes each other) while trying to find their place in both life and death. The concept required advanced troupe-style roleplay, with each player playing their own character, someone else's Shadow, and occasionally other characters. The first edition focused more on the personal struggles than the actual setting; it took the second edition to truly flesh out the Shadowlands. Wraith was the first and only gameline in the Old World of Darkness to be cancelled before The End of the World as We Know It.note There were a couple pages dedicated to it in the MET's Laws of Judgement, but nothing like the other books.The game later received an After the End sequel in the form of Orpheus (which dealt with humans and ghosts who dealt with troublesome spirits and investigated the wreckage of the Shadowlands). The New WoD gameline Geist: The Sin-Eaters is a Spiritual Successor, delving into the NWoD's Underworld, with the PCs basically being half-human spirit mediums who have merged with mostly beneficial — if unbalanced — ghost partners.A 20th anniversary edition was announced at GenCon 2013.
This role-playing game provides examples of:
Afterlife Express: The Midnight Express, which shepherds souls across the Shadowlands and serves as peaceful ground for all sorts of factions... including Oblivion.
And I Must Scream: Soulforging. That soulsteel sword you're holding, the kind of thing that makes mincemeat out of Spectres? Guess how fondly you'll look on it when you realize it's weeping. The building blocks of Wraith technology are forged from Wraiths themselves.
Evenworse when you learn that hell money can send just about anything you want to the other side.
Back from the Dead: In a way. It's possible to permanently yield some power to your Shadow in order to reenter your body and become one of the Risen until you take care of some unfinished business. Yup; you become The Crow.
Beethoven Was an Alien Spy: Imagine that nearly all the historical figures from the other gamelines that weren't secretly a supernatural end up in the Shadowlands eventually. On the actual "historical influence" level, it's revealed that Guy de Maupassant's nervous breakdown and death was the result of his pissed-off brother's wraith, who screwed with his dreams using Phantasm, and the reason all the other game lines thought they could count Rasputin among their ranks is because Rasputin's ghost used Puppetry to screw with them.
Black Bug Room: Harrowings. If your corpus is damaged past the point of coherency, you end up facing down your own worst nightmares, proudly fueled by Oblivion.
Cosmic Horror Story: You're stuck in a godless afterlife facing down the soldiers of Oblivion, one of which has a key position in the back of your mind. Have fun.
Played With — And yet, as many fans loved to point out, it was weirdly the most hopeful of the settings. Managing to resolve your fetters and passions, thus ascending out of the Shadowlands was a very attainable goal, putting it way ahead of the all but impossible existential goals from Vampire and Werewolf, the at-the-very-least highly unlikely goals of Mage, or the no-kidding-you're-screwed-no-way-out nihilism of Changeling.
Creepy Child: The Striplings, Spectres of those who died before they went past 10 years old. Form a society unto themselves, with their own Malfean. Even other Spectres (including the Malfeans) find them creepy.
Crossover example: the baby ghosts of dead werelizards! The procreative biology of werecreatures is such that when they "inbreed", the result is usually a creature whose Shapeshifter Default Form in which they're born isn't human or animal, but their race's war form. Turns out that when you create your own warform by dreaming it up like the lizards do, it's helpful to first have a standard form in which you can dream. The so-called Innocents are thus stillborn and their ghosts are not happy about it.
Deal with the Devil: The Shadow is capable of offering temporary rewards to its host if they give it a little bit of power.
The supplement, Risen, is basically a guide on how to turn your wraith into the Crow, but the most important step, after still having a corpse, is begging your Shadow to let you get back into your corpse.
Eldritch Abomination: The Neverborn are entities born directly of necrotic essence, intertwined with the power of Oblivion. They maintain the Hive Mind network that runs through all the Spectres and seek to devour reality. And then there's the Kraken, an enormous tentacled monstrosity that occasionally pokes bits of itself into the Shadowlands and is believed by many to be an Eldritch Abomination of some sort.
Enemy Within: The Shadow, which keeps trying to get you to make deals with it and give into its will. Ironically, Spectres also have an Enemy Within, the Psyche, that drives them to remember who they were in life and do good things.
Fate Worse than Death: Oh, are there ever. First of all, there's becoming a Spectre, which means your self is lost to eternity as you become a foot soldier for Oblivion. And then there's soulforging, wherein you are sentenced by the Hierarchy for crimes you have committed (or even ones you haven't) to have your corpus boiled into molten ore and forged into an object. Those who carry soulsteel swear they can hear it weeping at times.
Functional Magic: The Arcanoi, Inherent Gifts based on manipulation of life energy.
Humanoid Abomination: The Onceborn. As opposed to the Neverborn, they were human at one point, but they were such bastards that upon death, they plummeted right into becoming Spectres, and then ascended to the grand ranks of the Malfeans.
Humans Are Bastards and/or Tearjerker: Charnel Houses of Europe: The Shoah deals with Wraiths spawned from the Holocaust. There's no "Beethoven Was an Alien Spy" here; humans are perfectly capable of atrocities on their own. It is considered by some to be the single darkest sourcebook White Wolf has ever released. While many titles in the Black Dog line were simply Rated M for Money, this one truly is not for the faint of heart.
The Necrocracy: The Hierarchy, rulers and supporters of Stygia, the Dark Kingdom of Iron. There are several other Kingdoms in the Shadowlands, such as the Dark Kingdom of Jade (the Far East); some (such as the Dark Kingdom of Obsidian, the Mayincatec Shadowlands) were even wiped out by an expansionist Stygia.
Our Ghosts Are Different: They're either perfectly reasonable folks tied to this world by old bonds... or evil spirits bent on destruction.
Power of the Void: You saw the title, right? Same thing applies to all Oblivion's soldiers — the Neverborn, the Onceborn, and the Spectres alike.
Recycled IN DEATH!: Wraith: THE GREAT WAR! (one of the very few games of any medium based on World War One) and Dark Kingdom of Jade (Wraiths OF THE EAST!) There were actually several Dark Kingdoms based on different cultures, but Jade is the only one that got its own book; the rest of the non-North American/European kingdoms were detailed in the Wraith Player's Guide.
Averted in Charnel Houses of Europe: The Shoah, which was not Wraiths of the Holocaust, but instead a respectful look at the horrors of what transpired and its massively devastating effect on the Shadowlands.
In a more literal example, certain items that are destroyed will make their way into the Shadowlands, from guns to rigid airships.
Seers: The Oracles' Guild, practitioners of the Fatalism Arcanos.
Shapeshifting: The purview of the Masquers, who practice the Moliate Arcanos.
Video Game Cruelty Potential: In some editions, it was recommended that the players, not the Storyteller, provide the voices of another character's Shadow. That went over real well, I bet.
As a matter of fact, it did. It's not like they have any more motivation than the GM to screw you over with this - on the contrary, a shadow that is too active can actually doom the entire group, including the shadow's player's character.
The book in question actually gave percentages involved for just how cruel things could be - generally, about a limit of 25% of the game involving "Shadow play," as it was called, was considered reasonable. Beyond that runs into the tabletop version of this trope.
There's one more version of the game, with the Shadows having their own players - every character is then played by two people, one of which has completely no reason not to be active.