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Orpheus Protocol (Part 1)
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Orpheus Protocol is a game published by Rob Stith. Game material and content is reproduced here for review purposes and is owned by Vârcolac Press. Orpheus Protocol benefited of investment through crowdsourcing.
1. Every Individual Component Is The Best
In our analysis, we consider every individual artistic element of a game the best; we do not find bad or good useful. So, the Split/Party framework assumes it is the best art, best layout, best writing, best design. This is an acknowledgement that nobody makes “bad” art on purpose; any given element is the best art that could have been produced at that point, restricted by its material conditions and constraints of time and effort. This is also because saying something is good/bad art is the most useless criticism that can be given. In practical term, this section is for things we will not touch on the review but merit acknowledgement. )
This is a pretty hard to conclude because of the opposing principles at play for the framework in this section.
Cards on the table: Orpheus Protocol has major flaws as a game book. Layout is messy and busy, its impressive art effect lessened. It lacks an easy to navigate index or Table of Contents; it is full of awkward decisions for accessibility and/or approachability.
Yet, it is also a miracle that you can get this book and play this game. Even with these flaws, it is perhaps the best book anyone could aspire on its conditions: how do you appraise the effort and sacrifice, the labor, demanded of an almost decade-long project that still happened after being scammed of their crowdfunding and past half a dozen of cost-exploding once-in-a-generation crises?
Orpheus Protocol comes to us as a survivor. It may be too much of a strain for many seeking to use it as a tool, but it has more than earned a consideration at my table.
Addressing the paradox that breaks the framework for me, Orpheus Protocol stands out with its remarkably powerful and impactful approach to safety and comfort. Because of its genres — horror and thriller — it front-loads a talk about the themes, safety and comfort. Of all the games I have played or studied, nobody goes to the lengths that Orpheus Protocol goes to this. It does not just lists safety tools, or expected concerns, or even drop their own tools. No, it understands that tools need to be used; its focus is on creating a culture of safety and lays down many ways to help you maintain at the table. Not only that, check-ups and safety-nets for likely stress points, briefs and debriefs are made an integral part of the experience of playing Orpheus Protocol.
It is impossible for me to continue in the framework without addressing early on that Orpheus Protocol’s layout may be the single biggest enemy you will face in bringing it to life. The book’s layout is challenging, and the text struggles with clarity and it is so noticeable it could harm your ability to enjoy other elements, but I think you should press on.
Orpheus Protocol’s art direction is solid, the individual art pieces all feel like they fit together into a cohesive whole. The game has an incredible focus on bringing elements of safety into a genre that has frequently struggles in it and I will always appreciate that.
2. Meet The Game At The Level It Is At
Each game comes with certain expectations and tone. To properly breakdown, we have to meet the game at the level it is: not lament its choice of premise and wish it was something else, nor resent for not conforming with our politics, not letting “missed opportunities” stand in our way of applying the critical framework relentlessly. It also includes not working with the game as marketed or how it exists in our desires, but as it is.
As mentioned before, Orpheus Protocol is a game of spies of monsters, swinging between horror and conspiracy thriller. The process of getting a game together is pretty clear at laying down what is expected from a GM, from their player, and what expectations may need to be negotiated — the inherent violence of the genre, the lines to cross in horror, the type of horror and terror going from, what humanity represents as connections to others, etc.
Horror and humanity are two key elements of Orpheus Protocol. Just saying those words together has raised hairs on the back of the neck of anyone remotely aware of the historical output of the art-form of TTRPGs.
Horror actually managed to have a nuanced system — horror damages different stresses, can be acclimatized and faced head on, is more significant when you are an active participant, and rather than infamous “sanity checks” and other disgusting ideas, failing to horror forces one into fight, flight or freeze.
Humanity equally evokes awful, conservative, bigoted ideas: as you slap more cybernetics or learn more magic or descend into some monstrous state, you become less human, which, by the way, we can score using dice phrenology. That is not how Orpheus Protocol uses it. Humanity represents on how in touch you are with your personhood and have it reaffirmed by the connections to others; it is a stress bar at the campaign-level, all algedonic signal marking the pacing at which you lose yourself more and more into the life of horror-facing super-spy. The more you do super-spy stuff, the more you become better at super-spy stuff — supernatural or not, — you start to disconnect from yourself from yourself and others. You need to recenter yourself, take breaks, and get your head off your ass and do things for others or you are going to quickly become a threat to be contained or terminated rather than an asset.
We touched before on the idea of debriefing procedures being integrated with mechanics. Characters regain resources depending on how they played attempts to reconnect to people or acted selfish, and players give each other accolades, checking what worked and what did not for mechanical benefits. This works very well at developing the ground for a culture of safety and comfort to be grown; while not always perfect, it is an idea that I would love to see more games thinking about.
Orpheus Protocol is a game of superspy monster hunting and wears that openly on its sleeve, it uses page count to make sure that you as a gamemaster and you as a player understand and work out exactly what the most difficult elements of this genre mean to you and your group, what horror is allowed? What violence? What does humanity actually mean?
Let’s hone in on that briefly and talk about Humanity, which (as mentioned by my partner) has undoubtedly filled you with dread. The humanity system is a very solid modern entry into the genre staple, with the option to trade humanity to resist fear and dread, and being used primarily to fuel your magical powers, it also very explicitly here represents your ability to connect to others, and can in fact be restored by spending time with your human connections.
Horror checks are the other way of attacking humanity as a stat, seeing the supernatural or even very natural human ugliness drains the humanity from you, but is very well done and has a solid set of thresholds to indicate when humanity should be taken, and avoids some of the grosser pitfalls of the genre, by making spending humanity fall more into the player choices.
3. Identify What The Game Says It Is About
Games are about things. Usually. Mostly. That is often the same thing they market themselves as. This often means to establish the relationship of the game with systems, mechanical frameworks, genre, etc. This is how games establish exceptions about the nature of play and creates a common space for creation.
Orpheus Protocol is a game about super-spy espionage and horror. If Night Black Agents is about Jason Bourne vs Dracula, Orpheus Protocol is Jason Bourne Werewolf Bar-Mitzvah vs Biblically Accurate MechaJason Bourne. It is of the lineage of Delta Greens, Unknown Armies, SCPs, Triangle Agencies, Control, etc. It is all about eldritch horrors and supernatural espionage, mercenaries and paramilitary agencies, tangling with the fascism of “having to crack eggs” to protect “the normal world” and being people that are made into warmarchines of a secret world war.
You play agents, represented by a background before they got drafted and archetypes. Archetypes are things like Witch, Werewolf, Vampire (Thrall), Medium, etc. You can have up to two supernatural archetypes, plus additional “mundane” archetypes; in the core book, those are Soldier and Cyborg.
So, it is pretty easy to play, say, an operator that does operating by using alchemy to both have a drone homunculus and turn themselves into a weretiger. Or perhaps a cybernetic witch necromancer. Maybe a Excalibur wielding xenomorph hybrid. Or just a living gun?
It is a genre that I am not as familiar with as my partner, but one I know that people want/need a proper replacement for current market offerings. Passing the torch to Brad early for this one.
I’m going to come straight out and say it, as a fan of the genre, there is a huge market for large organizations hunting monsters, from Stalking The Night Fantastic, to Delta Green, to The Laundry, this genre is inherently difficult to do well, easily sliding into ugly political ideologies about how dangerous minorities are, how hardworking do-gooders would be able to do so much more good with more money, fewer rules, and more violence.
There is a much longer and more important discussion about this genre, about how some of the problematic themes are a result of ill intent by writers, ill intent by fans, or by simple people missing the point, but I don’t have the time or space to do it here, and I think it is important to remember that I actually do enjoy this genre, one of my first experiences with tabletop role-playing games was the above-mentioned Stalking The Night Fantastic.
The genre is defined by a handful of easy elements, thematically defined with unwinnable battles against unbeatable foes, elite human forces fighting foes who are so powerful that they are out of their depths, the slow drain of the job sucking their lives away, and usually some sort of detective/spy work. Mechanically, you can expect Sanity/Humanity systems, long gear lists, and lethal combat systems.
Orpheus Protocol hits the best parts of the genre, focusing on delivering stories of sacrifice, of a job that protects people but will wear you down to a nub if you aren’t careful.
4. Uncover What The Game Is REALLY About
What the game says it is about is not always what the game is about. This is where we look at all the weird interactions, examining the system that game creates, how the way mechanics interact with the text and art, how it exists on a given context, how well parts flow together or get in the way. This creates a much richer environment that the original design could ever imagine once a game hits the table.
Orpheus Protocol is about fighting terrifying eldritch terrors with dwindling resources in a dying Earth as capitalism keeps overwhelming any supernatural threats as the real threats. Orpheus Protocol ends up coming off as much more similar to something like Red Markets than expected, where late stage capitalism is the true eldritch elder god that has won — one is a game about economic horror, the other is a game about the horror due to the way our production is organized.
While the game is not quite as married to the premise as it seems by the way it presents itself — this game can do World of Darkness or Monster of the Week style of games as easily as Delta Green, — the premise is less about super spies but about telling grim tales of our age. Characters are made outsiders of the “normal world” and pushed to the supernatural fringe, and who is there? Paramilitary fasces of the governmental or private sector variety; you join or be killed. Of course, you still have to deal with the threats, so you need to move in the same circles; you are despairing for human ties, personhood and finding others like you while dodging super-browncoats and being the only ones with any chance of stopping things worse than the apocalypse.
And that is just the tip. The real horror comes that no matter what you do, things grow more strange as capitalism speeds up its collapse. A consequence of its long development time, is that all the horror seems oddly quaint: way more terrifying things have been done in the name of Line Go Up ever since then. Unintentionally, Orpheus Protocol is always how the true horror is that you are fighting to preserve one humanity that is already under the grasp of the Elder God Mammon.
Orpheus Protocol is about making sacrifices to save a world that hates you. You will spend your precious self to save the world, you will become more monstrous to save the world, and if you are unlucky? You will die having preserved one more day for these ungrateful bastards who don’t consider you a person.
This doesn’t mean the game is always bleak, you can win moments of time with people who love you, who accept you in spite of your problems, who give a shit about you, but those are high on the downward spiraling rollercoaster.