It isn’t always easy to play White Wolf’s RPGs well. Vampire: the Masquerade has the question of striking the right balance between humans as portable vending machines and how feeding is usually a solo activity that you can’t spend extended time roleplaying. I’m not sure anyone understood what was happening in Mage: the Ascension when it first came out (then we watched The Matrix and it all clicked). But Wraith: the Oblivion? That’s the real tough one. And it’s because of the Shadow. Having a player to handle two characters (to roleplay them, not just run two toons in combat) is a big ask. I expressed a bit of skepticism about it in Predation, and there the second character is just a cybernetically enhanced dinosaur pet. And Wraith doesn’t just ask the players to take on the role of a second character, but a second character that (usually) only exists in another character’s head, creating issues with side conversations and public v. private information.
Into this zone of difficulty steps the Shadow Player’s Guide. There’s advice on what exactly the Shadow is, tips for messing with the psyche (such as making it personal and customized, varying intensity, and not always giving bad advice), new shadow archetypes, the role of the Shadow in harrowings, and having the Shadow form independent relationships with other wraiths.
However, there are 100 pages of material in the Shadow Player’s Guide that don’t relate to these storytelling concerns, but instead focus on new mechanics and expanding the setting.
The biggest section of this is on the shadows of other Dark Kingdoms, which spans about 60 pages, covering the Yellow Springs (China), the Flayed Lands (Mesoamerica), the Bush of Ghosts (sub-Saharan Africa), the Mirrorlands (Creole), Swar (India), the Kingdom of Clay (Australia), and the Sea That Knows No Sun (Polynesia).
There’s also a potpourri of content on spectres and the Risen. I’m not sure if, between Dark Reflections: Spectres and Doomslayers: Into the Labyrinth, there’s anything to be mined out of the spectre-related content in the Shadow Player’s Guide. Although there is a book covering the Risen, the content in the Shadow Player’s Guide does specifically focus on playing the Shadow of one of the Risen (which is probably pretty miserable most of the time for the Shadow … not that it’s easy to muster any sympathy).
On the flip side, there is a chapter dedicated to the Eidolon and castigation. The most extensive content here is on Gleanings and Recognitions, glimpses or full-throated visions that the Eidolon can use to lend the wraith a bit of insight.
In addition, a brief portion of this is new Merits/Flaws. From a mechanical perspective, they are not a great assortment, with a few too many things like Merits that don’t really help much given their cost (typically because they do things like protect one aspect of the psyche at the expense of others) or Flaws that give points for little or nothing (for example, the Shadow really, really wants to destroy a particular fetter, which they kind of want to do anyway). The selection includes mechanics for Shadows/wraiths from Stygia and elsewhere. There’s even a new Arcanos (Connaissance) for Les Invisibles, almost exclusively used by the Loa of the Mirrorlands.
Ultimately, I left the Shadow Player’s Guide feeling underwhelmed. As noted above, I think that the Shadow is an incredible roleplaying challenge. While advice on how to roleplay tends to be hit or miss, this was a place where such advice would seem especially helpful. And there is a healthy amount of good advice – on the subject of how to better torment the psyche and personalize the Shadow. But there wasn’t so much of what I was hoping for, which was more of the basic logistics of the thing.
Additionally, the front cover bills the Shadow Player’s Guide as “A Mean, Vicious, and Nasty Sourcebook for Wraith.” And it isn’t joking about that. Of course, Shadows are inherently pretty mean, vicious, and nasty. But that’s a mean, vicious, and nasty thing in character. Reading the Shadow Player’s Guide, I got the feeling that for some of the writers, it was expected that the player would be enjoying the opportunity to be mean and nasty – and not in some higher “enjoying creating a unique roleplaying experience” sort of way (e.g., “This is where the fun starts – but be careful not to have too much fun. After all, the game has to come first. Good old sadistic, self-serving fun is merely a close second.”) Wraith is pretty much never going to be in the vicinity of happy-go-lucky, but even so that sort of having out-of-character fun at the expense of others is exactly the sort of thing that I like to strongly discourage in any roleplaying game.
Outside of the content I was most interested in – advice on being a better shadowguide – the material included was too niche for my tastes. As I noted above, I consider Wraith to be a difficult game at the best of times because of the inherent complexity of the psyche/shadow system. The lengthiest content of the Shadow Player’s Guide concerns non-Western dark kingdoms. Having a troupe take on living characters of a culture they (probably) aren’t terribly familiar with can be fraught. But Wraith ups the difficulty because of the way that the design of the various dark kingdoms weaves those cultural differences into the very fabric of reality. And while something like a couple of books on the Dark Kingdom of Jade might give enough of a primer to get over that, there just isn’t the space here for that kind of coverage. So, to my mind, this content layers difficulty on top of difficulty on top of difficulty, to the point that I can’t imagine actually trying to use it. Maybe I’m too limited as a roleplayer, but I’m not sure how many folks out there are up to this sort of thing.
So, maybe there’s an audience out there for the Shadow Player’s Guide, but apparently I am not in it.
P.S. If you go back to the first paragraph and click on the link about Mage: the Ascension and The Matrix, it will make my day, because I inordinately adore the Alas comic strip (from 2000) that it will take you to, and I would like you to enjoy it with me. Seriously, it’s my favorite part of this review.