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Jeff's Gameblog
Friday, 18 June 2004
The Next Big Thing? Prolly not.
Topic: RPGs
Coming soon to a friendly local gaming store near you: Wraeththu, the game of psychic swordfighting posthuman hermaphrodites stuggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic world!

I shit you not.

The setting, if a bit on the weird side (even for an RPG), has literary credibility. The Wraeththu RPG is apparently based upon a trio of dark fantasy novels written by Storm Constantine. Ms. Constantine's works are highly regarded in some circles and it was apparently a bit of a coup when White Wolf was able to get her to write the intro fiction for Mage: The Sorcerer's Crusade. (Ms. Constantine's Pen&Paper entry has a nifty photo of her. In addition to her writing talents, she ain't hard on the eyes.)

The Wraeththu rpg itself, however, seems to have gone through all the growth pains that one sees when folks who aren't RPG industry-saavy try to step up to the plate. The initial Wraeththu PR machine was sloppy even by RPG industry standards. Here are the two RPG.net threads that clued me into Wraeththu's existance:

Most Pretentious and Artsy RPG Ever Created?: Wraeththu

Wraeththu: Bring On the Clowns

Those are both monster huge threads with large swaths of only-barely-on-topic material. I'll try to summarize the key points, split into three departments.

The "Your PR Sucks" Department: The overhype of the Wraeththu rivals the things I've heard from the bad old days of SenZar, Synnibarr, and Multiverser. "Wraeththu is going to take the RPG world by storm, no one will play [your fave game]anymore, playing Wraeththu cures cancer, etc., etc." Also, despite hoping that White Wolf players would buy their products, both gabby and the official site spend time knocking the World of Darkness. I can't see how alienating the fanbase is going to make sales. Furthermore, the frontman for the operation, 'gabby2600', seemed to pull the old gag of posting under multiple identities so that he could agree with himself. Finally, claims were made that look like just plain lies. The big one was that Storm Constantine is acknowledged as an influence in the 1st edition Vampire core book. No such acknowledgement seems to exist in the real world.

The "This is an innovative system?" department: Yet again the new kid on the block is claiming to have an utterly revolutionary system. (Here's a hint folks: Is your name Jared Sorensen or Robin Laws? No? Then you system probably ain't revolutionizing jack squat. And if you've never heard of Messrs. Sorensen or Laws, then you have no goddamn business claiming your system is revolutionary to begin with.) Turns out the innovative system is nothing more than yet another fantasy heartbreaker, i.e. mostly stuff we've seen before. More disappointingly, the system was written in '92 and was not created with the Wraeththu setting in mind. Now, there were certainly good rpgs written in or before 1992, but the odds are long that a designer could break new ground today if they are ignorant of Sorcerer and the Pool and Dying Earth and Universalis and Adventure! AND Rune AND Inspectres AND HeroQuest AND EVEN FRICKIN' D&D 3rd edition. I mean, come on.

What do I actually know about the system? Not a whole lot. You have 6 or 8 stats, rated 3-18 or 1-20 or something like that. You roll a d20 to do stuff. There's some sort of enigmatic weapon creation subsystem combined with an emphasis on swordplay. The psychic/magic/psionic rules use a freeform system reminiscent of Ars Magica. No hint of hardcore social or psychological mechanics, despite some folks claiming those would suit the novels to a 'T'. In fact, such rules seem to better fit the spirit of the Wraeththu Mythos more than the swords and swordfighting, which are downplayed or even nonexistant in the novels.

The "I'm playing WHAT?" department: RPG.net hasn't seen any gabby antics in a long time. The website has mostly cleaned up its act. I haven't actually seen the mechanics, they could work just fine. Heck, the 'Storm system' mentioned on the current incarnation of the website may be a totally different set of rules than gabby2600's musty old homebrew. Assuming all these issues are under control, that still doesn't address the main hurdle for this game to be a success: all the PCs are members of a race of gay posthuman hermaphrodites. I know "gay hermaphrodite" sounds like a contradiction. It's not. The 'hara' race is composed of male humans who have mutated into hermaphodites. (I'm not going to get into their strange "flower penis" biology here, you'll have to follow the RPGnet threads above for the lowdown on that.) According to reports, some of the characters in the novels were homosexual prior to their transformation. Either way, the result is that hara sexual intercourse is between two posthuman entities who previously were both human males. Apparently the characters in the novels all use male pronouns as well. In short, and to simplify greatly, the novels might be called "gay science fantasy" if you felt the need to pigeonhole it. (Some would disagree with that assessment, which is fine. Mischaracterizing a trilogy I've never read isn't the worst thing I've ever been accused of. Like, today.)

The "gay thing", to use a lame turn of phrase, ought to be enough to doom Wraeththu's chances of being a mainstream commercial rpg hit. Too many RPGers will be squicked with the idea of playing mutant homos. It's that simple. With a little luck and a lot of post-"RPGnet fiasco" work Wraeththu might make it as a good niche game. If the game gabby2600 was pushing gets published as described, the best it could hope for is a spot in Middle Finger Evolution's hall of shame.

(I supposed this would be as good a place as any to insert the usual disclaimer: I'm het, but I'm not a hater. If you think I've written any homophobia into this piece, go ahead and call me on it.)

All in all, Wraeththu is lined up to be the next rpg that everyone loves to hate. Heck, they've already got a great head start over at RPG.net. And yet, I can't help but think that the game has serious promise, even if it sticks to the tacked-on '92 homebrew system. The few details I've heard about the system do seem to contain kernels of good ideas. There's a lot to be said for an elaborate weapon construction system that is well-integrated into kickass sworddueling combat rules. Team the sword rules up with an effective magic-on-the-fly mechanic and you've got the basis for some great fightery. I see visions of glittering futuregoth prettyboys dancing about the battlefield, swinging intricately bejewelled razorwhips and katanachuks, dodging each others' luminescent multi-hued psychic emanations. It could rock. These rules might not have much to do with the world of the Storm Constantine novels, but what do I care? I've never read them. (Though I have put the 3-volumes-in-1 omnibus edition on my Amazon wishlist but no one in my family ever uses the damn thing come gifty time. It's not that I end up with crappy birthday and Xmas gifts, it's just that I maintain the wishlist to make it easier on them. Why no one uses it is still a mystery. Anyway, I guess I should try my local used books emporia. I have no idea what section of the store to go to find them. Sci-fi? Queer fiction? I dunno.)

And as to the whole "hermaphodites with flower-anemone shaped penisvaginas" angle, I can't say I'm completely annoyed with the idea of playing one. I play too many characters who are obviously expressions of my own Freudian anxieties. You know the type, guys with big guns or swords. Right now I'm going through a phase in which all my PCs wield large knobbby quarterstaffs. And of course all these guys are straight. Being forced to play a gay hermaphrodite could very well afford some insight into these overcompensating tendencies. Or maybe it'll just creep me out. Won't know unless I try.

Then there's the whole posthuman angle to the hara. Most games that deal with this sort of stuff posit posthumanity as either a fairly clearcut but interesting set of technological extrapolations (I'm thinking of Transhuman Space here) or else as Nietzschean overmen, taking the form of spandex-and-cape clad Olympian gods. Wraeththu goes with the idea that the next step in human evolution will be unexpected and pretty damn weird. I gotta give props for that. After all, if you were to thaw out a neanderthal and expose him to modern America, I think he would be pretty freaked out. It rings true to me that homo sapiens would have the same reaction to the beings that come after us in the chain of evolution.

All in all, I have to give credit to the people behind the Wraeththu rpg for trying to bring something truly different to the table. I really hope their game gets into print and finds its way onto the shelves of friendly local game stores everywhere. I'd love to flip through a copy and I might even buy it. Of course, they might not end up publishing my ideal version of Wraeththu, in which mutant girlymen spend all their time engaging in Jedi duel style combat using their personalized battleblades.

Either way, best of luck to them and theirs.

Posted by jrients at 2:45 PM CDT
Updated: Friday, 18 June 2004 9:31 PM CDT

Tuesday, 22 March 2005 - 9:54 AM CST

Name: jrients

I would like to withdraw the accusation of Gabby using sockpuppets. In hindsight what really happened was that another member of the Wraeththu team leapt to Gabby's defense.

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