(Please note: this review was written before the release of Shades of Grey; as such, it makes certain incorrect assumptions about the game that were clarified in the expansions)
You probably remember Wraith, right? Okay, maybe not TOO many of you. It was the one White Wolf killed, after all.
Wraith was the fourth in the Storyteller series of RPGs from White Wolf. It detailed the events in the afterlife of the World of Darkness, where spirits would linger, attached to the material world by their passions. It had a multitude of daring ideas and great mechanics, but didn't find its place in the hearts of gamers.
Now, from the ashes of Wraith has sprung Orpheus. This time, instead of detailing deathstyles in an alien world, the game takes a somewhat more mundane approach.
Well, as mundane as you can get detailing an organization that uses professional astral projectors.
The core concept of the game is that PCs will be in the employ of The Orpheus Group. All PCs possess the ability to interact with the spirit world. This can be from simply projecting their soul out of their body using meditation, being placed into cryogenic suspension, or actually being a ghost.
The game includes information on playing characters that don't work for Orpheus (there are a couple rival agencies described in the book), but it assumes PCs will be part of the agency.
The world of Orpheus is very different from that of Wraith. The Orpheus Group is a privately owned company that specializes in interacting with the dead. The Group's place in the world is a slightly confusing one. A book excerpt in the book indicates it is a "privately held company specializing in contact with the souls of the recently deceased".
Now, think about that for a while. How soon until some FTC investigator comes in and tries to nail them for fraud? Orpheus main precept requires a fair amount of suspension of disbelief. Believing there are Vampires, werewolves, or mages for a game is one thing, but believing that enough people will believe enough in ghosts that a company that claims to deal with them professionally won't be laughed out of the door is another matter.
The world info at the beginning of the book indicates that it's advertised on TV, but there's no indication what it's advertised as. Is it like Ghostbusters, a 'paranormal investigations and eliminations' agency? Professional sťance holders (that work)? I think a worthwhile addition to the book would have been public information on Orpheus. A pamphlet, commercial script, or newspaper feature excerpt would have helped in that regard.
The afterworld in which Orpheus works is a different one than Wraith's. At this time there are no know ghosts in the skinlands older than three years. There don't appear to be any of the organized necropolises or legions of the Wraith campaign, and the current organization of spectral society is a little ambiguous.
The game, as it's set now, is independent of any other WoD rpgs. There are no Hunters, Vampires, Werewolves or Mages lurking in Orpheus background.
Another of the interesting things about Orpheus is that it is a limited run series of six books, so it will flesh out the details of the setting as it progresses. The first supplement, Crusade of Ashes, sounds like it will have info about the dead on the other side of the shroud, and maybe will give some info on what's happened in the shadowlands for the past few years.
Character creation is handled as standard. The book, amusingly enough, says in the introductory chapter that it will eschew splats, and then provides two sets to use to construct PCs. Players must choose the type of ghost they are (ghost breeds are referred to as Shades), such as Banshees, Haunters, Poltergeists, Skinriders and Wisps (as in "Will o' the"), and their Lament (whether they're a projector or an actual spirit, each of which has two subdivisions).
One interesting change from Wraith (or not so much a change) is that it seems a character's Shadow is now a separate entity, unless their Spite trait (nee Angst) is higher than their vitality. But what happens when a character's Spite increases to a high enough level, and their heretofore-separate dark side is part of them? Does their shadow surreptitiously merge with them?
Another mystery comes with the correspondence of the various Natures characters can acquire with the various Shades; there are several natures that correspond to unknown shades. Doubtless, this is a mystery to be revealed in a later Orpheus sourcebook.
The powers of ghosts in Orpheus are different from the standard Storyteller abilities; instead of a 1-5 dot hierarchy, abilities vary in power depending on how much the character chooses to empower them with their vitality.
The book includes a fair amount of background for GMs, such as nemeses for Orpheus including various sinister dead people and a few competing corporations. The book concludes with an appendix that outlines a selection of assignments for Orpheus teams to undertake, ranging from surveillance to assassination.
That's really useful for a game, particularly one with as unique a mission as Orpheus. Missions are outlined in brief, but expanding them to a full evening mission should be fairly easy once the GM is familiar with the game and setting.
Layout is fairly standard; in character info is handled in standard layout and as printouts and clippings, and borders change from chapter to chapter. Art varies in quality, from good to not so, and while Christopher Shy's work is perfect for the afterworld, it continues to fail when it comes to drawing human characters.
Overall, Orpheus is a good game. The limited series presentation of the game is certainly an interesting one (and will hopefully mean that answers are provided for the game's "big questions"). It sets up both a good setting for games, as well as for future events to happen in the game world. For Wraith fans, it'll be a nice back to see what's happened in the past few years.