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Tabletop Game / Wraith: The Oblivion

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Death was just the beginning.
A Storytelling Game of Death and Damnation. —1st edition tagline

A Storytelling Game of Passion and Horror. —2nd edition tagline

A 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; for a group that wasn't experienced with this (i.e., players of nearly any other tabletop RPG), this placed a heavy burden on GMs/Storytellers. 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  However, its passing was not quite the ending it seemed, as the circumstances that shut down the setting tied directly into the backstory for both Demon: The Fallen and Mummy: The Resurrection, and to a lesser extent, Hunter: The Reckoning.

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. A Kickstarter for the game went live on December 2, 2014, and was fully funded within hours. The book went on sale to the public in 2018.

Wraith: The Oblivion - Afterlife, a VR game by Fast Travel Games, was released on April 22, 2021, for release on all major VR platforms.

The Orpheus Device, a free interactive audio story for voice-enabled devices, was released in October 2020.

This role-playing game provides examples of:

  • Afterlife Antechamber: The Underworld is ultimately this. It takes a very specific balance of hope and despair, attachment to life and angst, to turn someone into a Wraith. Most people never get there (they either move straight on to whatever lies beyond, or they're instantly consumed by Oblivion) and Wraiths who Transcend move on to someplace else. Whatever it is other than Oblivion that can be Transcended to (or into) isn't elaborated on but is generally accepted to be an unquestionable "good end".
  • 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. Since physical objects can't cross the Shroud (outside of hell money or relics), Stygia makes most of its goods and technology by forging Wraiths into them. Officially, the consciousness should be destroyed by the process, but "haphazard work" by some early Artificers resulted in paving stones that screamed and there are high-level Arcanoi that allow you to draw knowledge from forged souls. Notably, Soulsteel may lack a mouth, but that rarely prevents it from screaming.
    • 20th Edition states that most soulforging involves Drones, ghosts who do not have the sentience of wraiths, or Plasmics, creatures of the Shadowlands that often don't have sapience. Sadly, they can't be used for the really effective artifacts, and the Hierarchy is more than corrupt enough to look for excuses to soulforge enemies or slaves.
    • 20th also offers another soulforging alternative with the Alchemists' relicforging, which makes use of relics, the 'ghosts' of inanimate objects. Why isn't it a significant alternative to soulforging? Because a group in the Artificers saw it as a threat, and they had powerful friends...
  • Artificial Afterlife: Within the actual afterlife. A number of wraiths, from the powerful Ferrymen to the determined Fishers, weren't happy with the state of the Shadowlands and went to go make versions of mortal afterlifes off on the Far Shores. Some were started with noble ideas, with the Ferrymen trying to make the theme park version of the afterlife so that the souls who arrived there would eventually realize the artifice and pursue Transcendence. Others, however, decided to make a Hell out of Heaven.
  • 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, a deceased Red Sox player with a grudge was responsible for the Curse of the Bambino, and the Haunters played a part in the rise of Spiritualism.
    • Averted with extreme prejudice when it comes to Charnel Houses of Europe which makes it explicitly clear that The Holocaust was NOT the result of supernatural shenanigans, that it really was solely down to Hitler and the Nazis' genocidal megalomania. Even as Darker and Edgier as Black Dog was, Everybody Has Standards was fully in play given that using one of the greatest mass-murders in history as the backdrop to game lore could be a Berserk Button of epic proportions.
  • 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.
  • Broad Strokes: Wraith 20th keeps the major setting points - Hierarchy, Renegades and Heretics, eight Legions, sixteen Guilds and five Maelstroms - but takes the opportunity to rewrite some of the details from the original sourcebooks.
  • But Now I Must Go: Charon Transcends after beating back the Spectre hordes during Ends of Empire, leaving the Underworld for good. Unlike most examples of the trope, this wasn't done voluntarily - it was the result of his plans going massively off the rails.
  • Celestial Bureaucracy: The Emerald Legion, who even pride themselves on customer service.
  • 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.
  • The Corruption: Angst, the amount of influence a Shadow has on their wraith. Spectres invert this, with Pathos being a measure of how close the Psyche is to purifying them back into a normal wraith.
  • Crapsack World:
    • Not only is this the World of Darkness, but you're "living" in the darkest, grimmest, most hopeless place in it! The Shadowlands are an anarchic hellhole full of corrupted Wraiths and nightmarish creatures, Stygia is a corrupt empire that regularly enslaves and Soulforges new Wraiths when its leaders aren't backstabbing each other, and the closest alternative to either (the Yellow Springs) is even more corrupt and totalitarian. Oh, and Oblivion is constantly trying to encroach on the Underworld with the ultimate aim of eating it entirely.
    • Played With — And yet, as many fans love to point out, it's weirdly the most hopeful of the settings. Managing to resolve your fetters and passions, thus ascending out of the Shadowlands is 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.
  • Create Your Own Villain: Charon's instigation of the Tithe of the Dead[[note]]A system under which every Wraith had to pay a toll (such as two coins) upon arriving in the Underworld in the early days of Stygian history was a key cause of the First Great Maelstrom. The Wraiths left mutilated under this system sought Oblivion's aid, resulting in them becoming Spectres that attacked Stygia during the Maelstrom.
  • 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 war form 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.
  • Crossover:
  • Dead All Along: The premise of the game, though some Storytellers run a brief mortal campaign first.
  • Deader than Dead:
    • Soulforging is often considered a form of this. The process of Soulforging is irreversible and it (supposedly) destroys the consciousness of the victim in the process, so there's no way for them to be resurrected.
    • Falling into Oblivion will do this to anything.
  • 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.
  • Despite the Plan: In the final book, Ends of Empire, the Dark Kingdom of Jade finally invades Stygian territory with a massive force of highly-trained, well-equipped soldiers, using back doors and stealth routes to take them past all of Stygia's defenses. However, the artifacts they used to open these routes were made with inferior-quality White Jade, and fully half of them detonate and kill the invaders attempting to use them. Thus, their lightning invasion plan quickly runs into trouble when half their troops die before entering the battlefield.
  • Dream Weaver: The Sandmen, masters of the Phantasm Arcanos.
  • 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.
  • Electromagnetic Ghosts: Artificers, wraiths who learn the Inhabit Arcanos, can possess machines and even travel along communication networks.
  • The Empire: Stygia, as embodied by the Hierarchy.
  • 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.
  • Epiphanic Prison: Transcendence can be achieved by fusing the Shadow and the Eidolon, essentially accepting that though your life had both its good sides and bad sides, it was worth living, and no matter how much it hurt first, the time has come to move on. You may have not been able to achieve every last thing you wanted, but no person ever can. But you did enough - you felt enough, loved enough, and made enough, and what matters is that to you, it's really enough. So you sprout great wings of light, and soar towards Heaven.
  • Equivalent Exchange: The books note that one of the things that makes soulforging suck is how much it averts this. While some Artificers make tokens from bits of their Corpus as part of initiation, these are cheap, flimsy things. To make something that has weight in the Shadowlands, an entire soul has to go into its making. That's why you can't just break down one wraith's Corpus into constituent parts and make a revolver; you have to use one soul for the chamber, one for the barrel, one for the hammer, etc. This is why Stygia typically uses soulforging for things with no moving parts, like swords or armor.
  • Escaped from Hell: Characters can under certain circumstances claw their way back into the lands of the living as Risen. Even though they just reek of The Crow, the white face paint is not obligatory.
  • Evil Is Easy: One book eventually revealed that Spectres have an Enemy Within, the Psyche, that was able to cause a Heel–Face Turn. Of course, the odds of that happening were much lower than a Shadow causing a Wraith to undergo a Face–Heel Turn. The trope is also subverted with the fact that Spectres, unlike wraiths, generally have an expiration date; it's not that the Psyche is inherently any less cunning or beguiling as the Shadow, it's that it has less time to break Spectres free before Oblivion consumes them.
  • 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.
  • The Ferryman: Maybe the closest the game has to a Big Good. The Ferrymen can still be driven by purely human spite and anger, but they've completely divorced themselves from their Shadows (which split off into the form of an Evil Twin called a Pasiphae) and dedicate themselves to making sure wraiths can continue to pursue Transcendence unmolested. When the dead of the Holocaust flooded into Stygia, the Deathlords finally took notice of them as potential slaves or forge fodder... until the Ferrymen showed up and made clear they would dismantle Stygia brick by brick if these souls weren't left at peace.
  • Functional Magic: The Arcanoi, Inherent Gifts based on manipulation of life energy.
  • Gone Horribly Right: The Mnemoi's persecution by the Hierarchy was actually part of a grand plan by Charon, in collusion with the Guild - they would use their powers to extract and store his memories, powers, and experiences while he was reborn, then return them to him when Charon came back to clean house. Unfortunately, it went too well; despite their best efforts large amounts of Charon's history was lost in their persecution, causing his involuntary Transcendence in Ends of Empire.
  • Haunted House / Castle:
    • There are Arcanoi devoted to hijinks you can use on people who mess with your former home.
    • Likewise, wraiths often seek out Haunts as places to rest up and take shelter from Maelstroms. They can be as small as closets or as big as the Winchester Mystery House, but they do provide some measure of comfort.
  • The Heartless: Shadows and Spectres.
  • Hopeless War: Stygia's war against the Dark Kingdom of Jade, which pits the ghosts of the Western world against the even bleaker tyranny of the first and greatest of the Chinese emperors, who now rules all the dead of East Asia in death as he ruled the living in life.
    • On a greater scale, the war against Oblivion. Most of the depraved, dystopian shit that Stygia does is to maintain war footing against an enemy that is inside everyone's heads and cannot possibly be conclusively defeated because it's a natural part of the cycle of death... just one that's turned cancerous. The only real way to escape Oblivion is to pursue Transcendence, which a, has been dismissed as superstitious hokum by most of the Hierarchy; b, doesn't look that different from getting swallowed by Oblivion from an outside perspective, only with different colored lights; and c, requires such personal investment and introspection that it distracts from the aforementioned war effort.
  • 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. Some of them meet a very liberal definition of "humanoid," like Mulhecturous the Filth Goddess (best described as a gigantic crab that is constantly rotting and regenerating), but they have a sense of human perspective that the Neverborn lack, now matter how corroded it may be.
  • Humans Are Bastards: 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.
  • I See Dead People: Mediums, or anyone if the wraith has Embody.
  • Magical Society: The Guilds, organisations specializing in a particular Arcanos, who each fill a particular role in wraith society:
    • Artificers, masters of Inhabit, the ability to possess and control inanimate objects.
    • Chanteurs, masters of Keening, the ability to evoke emotion through song.
    • Harbringers, masters of Argos, the ability to traverse the Tempest.
    • Haunters, masters of Pandemonium, able to create strange and unnatural effects in the Skinlands.
    • Masquers, masters of Moliate, the ability to reshape the wraithly corpus.
    • Monitors, masters of Lifeweb, manipulating the connections between wraiths and their Fetters.
    • Oracles, masters of Fatalism, the art of seeing the past and future.
    • Pardoners, masters of Castigate, the ability to protect against the Shadow and Oblivion.
    • Proctors, masters of Embody, the ability to physically manifest in the Skinlands.
    • Puppeteers, masters of Puppetry, the art of possessing the bodies of the living.
    • Sandmen, masters of Phantasm, the art of dream-shaping.
    • Spooks, masters of Outrage, the art of wraithly telekinesis.
    • Usurers, masters of Usury, the transfer of Pathos and Corpus.
    • There are also three Forbidden Guilds, banned for the abuse of their talents:
      • Alchemists, masters of Flux, the ability to strengthen or erode inanimate objects.
      • Mnemoi, masters of Mnemosynis, the art of memory exploration and manipulation.
      • Solicitors, masters of Intimation, the ability to create and remove desire.
  • Light Is Not Good: The sect known as the Fishers once used the promise of passage to the Christian heaven, only to turn the souls in their care into lobotomized plasmic slaves that enforce their masters draconian vision of purity on the miserable realm known as The Paradise of the Fishers in the Far Shores. The revelation of the depths of their betrayal was what finally broke Charon's belief in the possibility of Transcendence.
  • Mana: Pathos, emotional energy that wraiths gather by feasting on examples of their guiding Passions.
  • Mark of the Supernatural: Practice of the Arcanoi leaves an identifying mark on a wraith, from the black eyes of Argos to the odd mannerisms of Pandemonium.
  • Meat Puppet: Made possible with the Puppetry Arcanos.
  • Memory Jar: We get the Mnemoi and their Arcanos, Mnemosynis, the sole purpose of which is to transfer and manipulate memories. In a place where memories are important for maintaining one's existence, the Mnemoi are far from welcome, and are therefore one of the three Forbidden Guilds. In actuality, the Mnemoi are using their talents to store the memories of Charon for his return, and the whole persecuted thing is a ruse. One that, sadly, works a bit too well in the end.
  • 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.
  • Only Electric Sheep Are Cheap: Material goods of any kind are scarce in the Underworld, and what few materials exist are either fading Relic memories of real things or fabricated via horrific amounts of Human Resources. Genuinely living things or "real" objects that aren't caused by one of those two origins are incredibly rare status symbols that are hoarded by powerful entities like the Deathlords.
    • One specific example are barghests, hound-like hunters used by some of the Legions. Unlike the spectral horses of the Equitaes, there aren’t many hound-like Plasmics that are easy to train… so barghests are condemned wraiths, contorted and lobotomized via Moliate into a feral state.
  • 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.
    • Looking at it even drives gods and the things that made those gods insane. You don't want to know what it will do to you.
  • Recycled IN DEATH!:
    • Wraith: THE GREAT WAR! (one of the very few games of any medium based on World War I) and Dark Kingdom of Jade (Wraiths OF THE EAST!) There are actually several Dark Kingdoms based on different cultures, but Jade is the only one that got its own book; most of the other non-North American/European kingdoms were detailed in the Wraith Player's Guide, aside from the First Nations of North America, who were covered in Mediums: Speakers with the Dead.
    • 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, and the Hiroshima Bomb.
  • Seers: The Oracles' Guild, practitioners of the Fatalism Arcanos.
  • Shapeshifting: The purview of the Masquers, who practice the Moliate Arcanos.
  • Religious Horror: When the Fishers arrived in the Underworld, they found no paradise or damnation to separate the wicked from the righteous. So of course, they decided to make them themselves.
  • Shout-Out:
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: The game's occupation of an extremely interesting point along it is often brought up as one of its main points of appeal. On the one hand, on the surface, it appears to be by far the most depressing of the World of Darkness games: it opens with the characters being not only dead, but spiritually unfulfilled and on the verge of succumbing to the cosmic force of nihilism. The corebooks are filled with extremely depressing imagery, and the setting is established on suffering and despair. At the same time, it's the only World of Darkness game in which "victory" is not just a theoretical, distant possibility (like Golconda or Ascension), but a realistic (albeit extremely hard to achieve) goal. Being a wraith in the Underworld might be an incredibly horrible existence, but if you're brave, wise and compassionate enough, you can attain Transcendence and Move On into the true afterlife, leaving all suffering behind you.
  • Snap Back: Wraith 20th walks back the Sixth Great Maelstrom and the fiction building up to it, with there being no major developments during the years the game was cancelled... although the Orpheus Group have been venturing into the Shadowlands for a while now.
    • The Dark Kingdoms of indigenous America have also gotten a reprieve. Before, the Flayed Lands were completely destroyed, and the Islands of Flint and the Lands of Gold (indigenous North and South America), if they still existed, were now possibly hiding deep in the Tempest to avoid Stygia. As of 20th Anniversary, the Flayed Lands have started making a comeback, with survivors of the Third Great Maelstrom creating their own houses that lurk in the background of Mexico's current Stygian outposts; the Islands of Flint just withdrew into the Tempest the second Hierarchy ships showed up in New Amsterdam, fearing another Maelstrom was afoot, thus cementing the Hierarchy's understanding that they were mostly wiped out; and the Lands of Gold survived as a puppet kingdom ruled by the traitor who helped spell their doom and collaborated with the Hierarchy, while a surviving emperor builds up a resistance effort in the Tempest. Further, other indigenous outcroppings exist, but they either lurk in the Tempest and hold a firm grip on who gets access to their Byways (like the Salish in Seattle) or they've learned to blend into the background using shapeshifting Arcanoi (like the Taino in Puerto Rico).
  • Spirit Advisor: Played straight with a Spectre's Psyche, subverted with a Wraith's Shadow.
  • Steven Ulysses Perhero: Inverted when an extremely important wraith is reborn as a mortal: Charon is reborn as Charles Anderson.
  • The Unblinking: The Monitors, and users of Lifeweb in general. Since the Monitors got rich manipulating and destroying the Fetters of others during the Guild Revolts, they are considered extremely untrustworthy and low among the Criminal Guilds. Any wraith noticed not blinking is going to get grilled on why and better be able to provide a good answer for it.
    • In first and second edition, the Mnemoi have a similar mark from use of their Arcanos, which is why a number of them have hidden out in the Monitors (the 20th anniversary edition changes the mark).
  • Unfinished Business: Represented mechanically by Passions and Fetters.
  • Video Game Cruelty Potential: In some editions, it's recommended that the players, not the Storyteller, provide the voices of another character's Shadow. 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 can be - generally, about a limit of 25% of the game involving "Shadow play," as it's 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.
  • Weirdness Censor: The Fog. Because it's strongly implied that the Shadowlands started going to shit around the time humanity started viewing death as something to reject, fear, and generally not consider part of life, any exposure to a wraith doing clearly ghostly things (e.g., walking through a wall, using their powers) will result in most mortals experiencing pants-shitting terror and then writing it all off as a bad dream.
  • World-Wrecking Wave: Six of them. Five of the Great Maelstroms were caused by historical events that thrust large numbers of the dead into the Underworld: the fall of Rome, the Black Plague, the Conquest of the Americas, World War I and The Spanish Flu, and the World War II-Holocaust-Atom bomb triple whammy. The relic of one of said atom bombs caused the Sixth and final Great Maelstrom when it was accidentally set off near the mouth of Oblivion.