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Wraith is not science fiction

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A Brief Dissertation on Materials in Wraith Edit

Wraith: The Oblivion is a complex and rewarding game, arguably the most original contribution that White Wolf has made to the roleplaying genre. Most uniquely, Wraith develops an entire world with its own distinctive metaphysic and environment. The Underworld is a distinctly alien environment and one that requires some experience with (both as a player and as a character) to understand. With that in mind, it seems appropriate to contribute some kilobytes on the materials of the Underworld and how not to think of them.

The Basics Edit

Why Wraith Is Not Science Fiction Edit

The point of this essay is to provide an overview of what the Underworld is built of and what Wraiths have on hand. However, the entire economy of the Underworld collapses if you think too hard about it. As an example, consider a single brick - let's assume Stygian masonry is big: a brick is 1 foot wide, 3 feet long and sufficiently deep. Furthermore assume that you need to build a road between Pittsburgh and Washington D.C. Going by the 1 brick = 1 soul rule, a 20 foot wide road would require about 34,000 souls per mile, or about 8.5 million souls to pave the D.C./Pittsburgh Road. Assuming that approximately 1 soul out of 100 crosses the Shroud, that means that you need approximately 3 times the population of the United States to pave that one road.

The point of this exercise is not to say that it's not possible - the metaphysics of the underworld are pretty weird, and its completely possible that in the Skinlands, the D.C./Pittsburgh road is actually fairly short - maybe the Underworld skips over distances that aren't particularly interesting. However, as a rule of thumb, the Underworld is best approached metaphorically, and trying to apply too much of a hard SF approach will mostly result in heartburn. As a rule of thumb, the Underworld should be close enough to the living world to understand, but alien enough to confuse - it is, more than anything else, a mirror of our perception of the world, rather than the world itself.

What this means is that the Underworld has no real physical (or economic) law outside of what Wraiths themselves decide to impose on it. The Underworld has lightning, it does not necessarily have electricity - everyone understands lightning, but the consequent physical law may not exist because it isn't part of how people perceive the world. This is particularly relevant when walking outside of Stygia and the Yellow Springs. The Bush of Ghosts is radically different, with far more animals than anywhere else in the Underworld - the Yellow Springs makes animals through Moliate and sadism, but the Underworld's Africa has herds because that's what African Wraiths expect.

The Stuff Edit

The Underworld possesses five broad classes of material mentioned in the source texts, these are:

  • Souls. This comprises anything loosely composed of plasm: Wraiths, Plasmics, Drones and the like. Souls are subject to soulforging and Moliate.
  • Memories, comprising both relics and the majority of the architecture of the Shadowlands.
  • Materials. This category covers anything which does not have a direct correspondence to the living world: Soulfire, liquid Pathos, powdered Angst and the scrapings off the Veinous Stair.
  • Living Things: There are a few non-plasmic living creatures mentioned. These include the reeds used to make Ferrymen's boats and Stygian paper, as well as the horses used by the Deathlords.
  • Aberration: in a few circumstances, living beings have crossed the Shroud with their own equipment. They may be Benandanti, Euthanatos or just people who are truly unlucky, but they bring stuff.

That's it. Everything in Wraith's environment falls into one of those five categories

Souls Edit

Wraiths are very good at denial, and this is especially true when they consider what the Underworld is composed of. Wraiths are not supposed to spend a long time in the Underworld - they're supposed to Transcend. The basic mechanisms might be rusty due to Oblivion's taint, but the purpose is still there. The fact that they're in the Underworld in the first place is a sign that they've got things to solve and problems to fix - people who led happy and fulfilled lives don't have fetters.

With that in mind, the pursuit of possessions is an attempt to deny the fact that you're dead and possessions don't matter. A wraith who slaves in the hierarchy for his weekly obolus is consciously trying to replicate something familiar and not move on. The upshot of this is that mass production of goods in the Underworld requires a level of brutality that should make anyone with a shred of conscience blanch.

Storytellers should keep this in mind when deciding how to seed their underworld with stuff. Any Wraith past the enfant stage is going to have to come to terms with the fact that most of their shiny toys are made through the enslavement and destruction of sentient beings. They either shrug it off, deny it in some fashion, or make the conscious choice to minimize that suffering.

The primary example of the former is Yu Huang; Yu Huang's goal in the Underworld is to live forever in comfort as its monarch. To do so he requires vast numbers of goods, and to get those he has built a system of institutionalized racial oppression and tax farming to acquire what he needs. Yu Huang has absolutely no sentimental attachment to the Chinese of the underworld, he just doesn't want to have to deal with constant revolts - if he could figure out a way to get away with moliating them as well, he would.

The middle category is best exemplified by Nhudri. The Grand High Artificer is never portrayed as anything but a good man in a bad job, and he explicitly believes that what he does is for the best. Nhudri (and this position is adapted by many artificers of conscience) believes that he is obliterating the consciousness of souls that would otherwise fall to Oblivion. The fact that soulsteel decays over time is taken as evidence that these souls do move on somewhere else.

It's worth noting that Charon used similar arguments for many of his decisions, and that many of these decisions (like the tithe of the dead) came back to ...ahem... haunt him.

The third category is best demonstrated by Ferrymen and their artificers, particularly ferrymen like Bowen. Ferrymen know more about Oblivion than anyone not shadow-eaten, and they tend to eschew anything but spectres for their soulforging and don't soulforge that much. Bowen, the example noted there, has a complete Ferryman's panoply made out of scavenged relics - clothing made out of snatches of relic cloth for example.

As a rule of thumb, soulforging is least objectionable with plasmics, then with spectres, then drones, then full wraiths. Theoretically, there are a lot of drones around, but the numbers are never really specified.

Memories Edit

The bulk of the Underworld is composed of memories in the form of relics. These relics exist as long as they are, in some fashion, remembered in the living world and they are somewhat connected to the memory of their existence in the living world.

There are, in fact, far more relics than most wraiths are aware of, but the majority of them are floating around in the Tempest, which is effectively an inchoate bag of uncategorized stuff. Access to the Tempest-Weaving Dark Arcanos allows a wraith or spectre to pluck random relics from the Tempest - this is used by spectres to set the stage for Harrowings. Wraiths are aware of this arcanos and are somewhat aware of just how much stuff is in the tempest. During Great Maelstroms, teams of wraiths will harvest in the wake of a maelstrom for whatever relics they can find. This is not, however, an industrial practice - the tempest drops random stuff and there's no guarantee that it will be useful at all.

Relics are connected to their living memories; informally, a relic lasts as long as it is remembered. Consequently, the Library of Alexandria is still around, while Joe's Crab Shack #431 probably won't last long past its wrecking in the living world. Damaging a relic in the underworld can affect its memory in the skinlands. This makes relic manufacture tricky: manipulating a relic is going to change its structure and make it less likely to be remembered in the living world. As a result, most relics are best left whole - wraiths will manipulate them by patching them together whole, rather than smelting them for raw materials.

As an example, consider the relic of the 2 million E.T. Cartridges. These pieces of plastic are remembered vaguely by a small subset of the population, but its a common enough legend that they likely stick around, and an enterprising wraith could find the landfill, dig up the relic cartridges and then use them as bricks - they are small and easily manipulable. Perhaps there are entire buildings in the Shadowlands of the Southwest U.S. patched up with E.T. cartridges. He could not, however, break them down for plastic components - if he did, then the memory of the cartridges themselves would become more obscure, and the cartridge relics would eventually fade from memory. Items made out of relics are going to have a very patchwork feel to them.

Materials Edit

There are a small number of materials which are unique to the underworld. The most commonly available of these materials are pathos and angst, followed by death ore and then the plasm of the Sunless Sea.

As a rule of thumb, these items are largely flavor text or an energy source. The Veinous Stair is mined, but it is mined for soulsteel additives. There are no mineral veins in the Underworld.

Living Things Edit

The rarest category in the Underworld are living creatures and items. The most common are the reeds on the shore of the river of death, everything else is rare enough to be nameably unique.

In general, killing any animal that did appear in the underworld would get the killer in indescribable trouble; consequently, we don't have an industry in Stygian horses. It is not entirely clear if these animals breed (though it's known that they don't eat).

Plants are an open question - as a rule, husbandry of any type is not possible in the underworld, but presumably there is some kind of grass in the shadowlands. The reeds and the rest are best treated as largely independent entities - they're there, but don't try farming them.

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