Wraith: The Great War by Bruce Baugh

It was the rainy last day of March 2010 when I began writing this. I am told the winter was “hard” and “cruel,” with altogether more snow than is normal, and though I missed much of that, I got a taste this month.

Hard. Cruel. These words draw laughter from the ghosts of the past, which haunt our modern world, whether or not we realize it. “Hard and cruel?” they ask, snickering as they glimpse at my dry, warm apartment, the bucket of beer-in-the-making fermenting on the kitchen table, the shelves full of books, the fridge stocked with food. “You don’t know anything about hard and cruel.”

And not to minimize anyone’s struggles–yours, mine, the person next door’s–they’re right, those ghosts. At least, not those of you living in the developed world, in places where gamebooks and polyhedral dice can be found, or even afforded. At least, most of us haven’t even the faintest clue just how immensely those words can echo.

The pages of Wraith: The Great War teem with evidence of this: days of battle in which more people were killed than in the whole of the war up till that day. Immense graveyards filled during a struggle over a pointless stretch of 50 meters of ruined earth. Whole neighborhoods of men sent to certain death because, well, that’s how wars were fought in the old days, before mustard gas and insane guns and the rest of it. And then, once the fighting ends, there’s the Spanish flu…

For a game of modern horror, I’m surprised it took White Wolf until 1999 to turn their attention to The Great War, which is what we call World War I. Of course, it’s not. The Great War is something else entirely, in this book: it is the conflict that embroils the souls of those who end up as ghosts in Europe after the end of World War I.

At one point, the author recommends Patricia Anthony’s novel Flanders, a story that brings together the horrors of war and alcoholism, with a protagonist who speaks with the dead through dreams. (I have this novel in my shelves, but have not yet read it, although it now moves to the top of my pile.) It is in this sensibility: the intersection of personal horror, the horror of the character, and the mass historical horror, that this game setting seems to offer the most promise.

This is why I think traditional pen-and-paper RPG game settings and game systems can be useful, interesting, or instructive for writers to look at. When I was at Clarion West, we talked about a “fractal” nature to narrative: the way that themes and patterns optimally are integral to a story, so that–for example–an opening scene contains within it the fractal of the conflict, tension, problem, or dynamic that spans the whole tale.

In an RPG game, of course, this may or may not work out on a narrative level. Character actions are beyond the control of the GM, and storytelling is collective. One cannot simply impose a narrative on the players. That’s counter to the whole enterprise of an RPG game, and it makes micro/macro-resonance of themes difficult to manage sometimes.

But the structure of characters, the structure of game mechanics: in a well-designed game–which I happen to think the original White Wolf Storyteller games were, but feel free to draw on your own examples if you know better ones–suggests something inherent not just to the structure of narrative, but to the structure of a certain kind of narrative. The number and type of character traits a game system incorporates dictates what kind of characters you’ll have–for example, in Wraith undead characters have Passion and Angst points, which relate to how they are doing in terms of maintaining a connection to their innermost drives and desires in the face of death, and how they’re dealing with the pain and disappointment of ending up just another bodiless shade.

But as for this as a gamebook, which is probably what others would be curious about, I have to say it’s an odd book. It”s certainly packaged like a stand-alone setting–comparable to Vampire: The Dark Ages, or Werewolf: The Wild West–but unfortunatelty it feels like it cannot just stand alone. Another 30 or 40 pages, maybe, would have rendered all those “see this other book” or “use this thing from that other book” references unnecessary. Yet at the same time, there are things in this book which I’m sure are adequately covered in the main rules books for Wraith, like the section on the basics of character generation. It’s a weird in-between sort of book, is what I’m saying. I feel like I’d want to have the main Wraith book by my side, at the least, as well as the Spectres book, the Doomslayers book, maybe the book on the Tempest, the various guild books, though I suppose I could live without those… yeah, altogether too many other books, to be honest. One could do without, of course, but it’d mean a lot of work making up stuff, for what is already a nicely filled-out setting.

Hmm. But then, you know, I’ve long thought that Vampire: The Victorian Age was a mistake in thinking: I’ve always thought the perfect setting for a game of Werewolf: The Apocalypse was the Victorian era. All those spurned lovers, tea parties gone wrong, and other things that would drive any closeted werewolf into Rage frenzies–though of course, such would be unthinkable–it seems a natural fit.

But The Great War? That’s so perfectly a natural fit to Wraith that I was a bit in awe. It’s not the perfect game book, but it’s one of the best of the White Wolf books I’ve ever seen, and even has me rethinking my treatment of HG Wells and others of the time in a piece of fiction I’m working on.

I think, though, the next RPG books I’ll be looking at, once I have time, will be those Orpheus books. Who knows whether I’ll ever run a game, but I think they’re interesting-looking books anyway.

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