Discover more from Split/Party
Orpheus Protocol (Part 2)
Lo-fi lyrical games to survive the apocalypse to
This is the conclusion of the critical analysis of Orpheus Protocol. You can find the first part here.
5. Disassemble Engine
Games have a flow, which, when you hit, the game pretty much runs itself. It is extremely satisfying. After examining the interactions of game elements, we single out the most important - the one that sets the pace of sessions, or even campaigns. We focus on how that engine works, how it makes the game move along, and what to do to make it do what you want to do - and how to keep it running clean.
Orpheus Protocol is one rather odd duck. The game is a very ambitious, gamey game; the most game of any game we have tackled here — even more than even Era of Silence. Making such complex TTRPGs has kinda fallen out of favor, especially for tiny indie collectives. It is an intensive endeavor that is all too easy to mess-up.
It is a pleasant surprise to see that Orpheus Protocol accomplished that goal, but it still feels an oddly disconnected project, that is both very aware and in dialogue with almost every artistic movements in the last thirty years of TTRPGs and yet seemed to have stuck to do its guns at every level, adamant in doing its own things and keeping a safe distance from trends. The end result is a game that seems to have deviated from mainstream indie design ten years ago, rejected any assumptions, rejected what mechanics and trends it could benefit from: out of time, doing its own thing, aware of everything that has happened. It is a dream for any designer doing some serious mechanical study and looking for a challenging but fulfilling subject.
The engine of Orpheus Protocol is energy pool management. The most infamous example of these is Cypher, the most used touchstone is Fate, but no game has managed to implement the idea of balancing different pools of resources in such a dynamic, satisfying, self-driven manner as Orpheus Protocol.
Every character option provides additional resources, recovers resources for pools, or helps you get more from the same amount of energy drawn from a pool. The game avoids the trap of making everything seem the same by avoiding symmetry: everything is unique and feels very bound to an archetype; this makes the balancing act more impressive while helping each character play in a unique way even in supposed similar builds.
It is nested energy pools all the way down; macro-level play is set by Humanity, and by a lesser degree, Wounds. Humanity paces your ability to do super-hero/super-spy stuff, takes a toll in dramatic actions, gives a natural end-point to missions and/or arcs, and takes a weight upon acquisition of new powers and the rate of their use in a more organic way than “X times per Y” so common as a restriction in pop TTRPGs.
During scene-by-scene, per-session play, Strain is the driving engine. Strain is three different energy pools spent to succeed at individual checks and to get the most from your successes. It is a constant check on what you and your character consider important, signalling to the GM how to use their levers, pace the game and respond accordingly. It can take a while — specially when one is not responding such consistent, immediate inputs, — but the game really shines once it becomes a vessel of constant communication.
Finally, combat is all about a specific energy pool: Initiative and, to a lesser degree, Tactics. Initiative is generated every combat round, and Tactics as a result of certain actions. Combat is kept fast and dramatic, with Initiative pushing forward the most dramatic events front and center, bundling bonuses and penalties together, and getting a natural flow. It is one of the best ways to organize combat I have ever seen. It is impressive and not only merges into other components of the engine, is a dependable engine on its own.
If you interested into energy management as a tool of systemic signalling and engine-building, and are disappointed by how little this seems to have been explored in the last years, Orpheus Protocol is going to be very rewarding for you.
In part one I made a simple claim, saying that I thought that despite the layout, it was worth the read. Here is one of the shining points of Orpheus Protocol, one of the most absolutely gamey combat systems I have ever played. I love it, unabashedly and unashamedly, Lu’s breakdown of it above is flawless, and once you have it under control you will have a great time with an easy set of levers for a GM to fine-tune their encounters.
6. Essentials For Session One
So, you got this game, you going to play it, but you don’t have the time to read everything. Or even worse, your have read it and now it is all jumbled together. Here we break down the things that you absolutely want to try to get right and/or hit during your first session, so you get the felling of what makes this game stand out from similar art.
Well, this is gonna be a messy one.
I don’t think one hour prep flipping through the book is going to get you there. The system is pretty complex; the layout and organization of the book and rules density make it so that you also need to navigate interacting with the book as much of an obstacle as getting the intricate rules.
However, the same system that is so complex is also extremely sturdy. We often celebrate “playing the game wrong”, but Orpheus Protocol is one of the most enjoyable games to get wrong. The way its mechanics work, even if you do something consistently wrong for sessions, the game will still work well enough — and impress you even more once you get that right, specially when you notice how easy it is to course-correct.
The game is intimidating and can be a struggle, but my recommendation for Orpheus Protocol is to dive right in. It is well worth banging your head. Make characters together, try to use the mechanics as they come up, maybe avoid combat the first session. Don’t be afraid to keep breaking the game; you cannot kill it in any way that is meaningful.
Still, you can only benefit from checking these before a game:
Core dice and pools mechanics (pg. 14-19)
Character creation, especially the intricacies of Skills (pg. 29-38)
Horror checks (pg. 42)
A brief overview of Archetypes (pg. 98-99)
If you know people are interested on certain archetypes, it will be useful to know how Status effects they may inflict work (Starting on pg 61)
Another thing you may consider checking is the GM chapter. Orpheus Protocol has a high learning curve and skill ceiling, but how friendly it is to experimentation and a very well-planned GM chapter. It gives you the tools that let you acquire the necessary skills; this cannot be understated: equally promising dense, customizable tactical skirmishing games such as Tidebreaker had been rendered effectively unplayable by demanding both high system mastery and giving no means to acquire it. Don’t sleep on the GM section, even if you may find out Orpheus Protocol is not for you; there is much food for thought there, which is refreshing considering the Dungeon Master Guide has been reprinted unchanged for twenty years now, and PbtA has “copy, paste and find and replace” the same afterthought GM section for over a decade. GMing is better when this player is armed with levers, and Orpheus Protocol knows that.
Now, for what may require a bit of work: coming up with a scenario. The book includes a scenario — Communion In Glass, but it is far from the easiest to run: not what I advocate with someone going into the game with minimum investment. My advice would be to use The Castle’s adventure seed as your first scenario, using stats from Communion in Glass NPCs re-flavored as needed. A big clunky, but to me still the best low-investment first game.
GMs, build one character yourself, with no assistance, and no intention of using them in a game, just drag yourself through it. You will be grateful for that experience when it comes time to help the players build their characters. My other big recommendation is to keep a live note sheet, whenever you run into a problem, make a ruling and a note, and then go through and answer the question at a convenient time, I promise that all the answers are in the rulebook, but the issue will be to find them.
As you go, focus on mastering the gradual adjustments that will make Orpheus Protocol sing, and I do mean gradual, and get comfortable with what a normal foe can do and you will be shocked by what you can do with a couple of adjustments (full disclosure, had a much harder encounter with a group with what I thought were a series of minor adjustments.)
7. Playing The Game Wrong
Games are played wrong. Rules will be misunderstood, interactions will be confused, the importance of certain tech disregarded; etc. This is good, and it is good to acknowledge for: you cannot have the designer at your time, and even if they were, they would be just another player - and entitled to play it wrong. After identifying stress points of the game, things that don’t connect that well, we think of the things that are more likely to be (our have been) “played wrong”. What happens when you forget a line in page 273 clearly saying this is impossible?
As a gamey game, with almost 400 pages of rules, complex subsystems all feeding into each other and so many character options, Orpheus Protocol has quite a few stress points that may need your attention during play.
Flaws are a way of characters getting additional strain refresh at the expense of a penalty. They feel lackluster compared to Motivations and Memento Mori, two subsystems that feed flawlessly (hehe) into each other and multiple engine pools, and to not really seem to be worth the trouble. I would advocate you be careful with Flaws in your first games, specially on the way they interact with the all-important Strain pacing and refresh.
Speaking of Strain, learning the web and flow of all resource levers is one of the most important levers GMs need to master and which players benefit the most by internalizing and reading. Learning how to use Strain to pace stories and game, and may be the one thing that the GM section may not do the best job at teaching; caution and trial-and-error approach are advised.
A corollary to the importance of GMs learning to use the resources lever, is the danger of resource decay spirals. Players have to negotiate failure and success: both consume resources, but success can just be as costly. As such, you cannot succeed at everything — you have to accept what you will not spend resources fighting and will accept as failure. It is important for a group to learn their own pace, and to avoid death spirals; when recognizing those, plan your stories adequately, adjusting the pace and/or Strain refreshes. Do not be afraid; the game rewards experimentation with these rather than tear at the seams the moment you start pushing the system.
Wariness and Vigilance work in a manner counter-intuitive to contemporary trends and assumptions of TTRPG play. These are Passive attributes that define what you notice in each given scene, and determine the difficulty of those trying to pull a fast one on you. While you will never roll them, that does not mean you don’t use them to interact with other characters: you can spend Strain to increase your passive Wariness and Vigilance in any moment, and those benefits last for an entire scene. This makes spending Strain for boosting these two passive attributes an important tool for players; make sure everyone at the table is familiar with it. A group benefits from playing through series with different Wariness/Vigilance and get a feeling for the impact of the difference.
The Initiative system has many quirks that hamper combat if not understood. The participant in combat with more Initiative gets to take an action, which costs Initiative. Now, what is important to keep in mind is:
Initiative can be used “out-of-turn”, by spending it on defensive actions.
Clashes drastically influence the flow of the rounds in which they happen (pg. 56).
There is a special type of initiative, Interrupt Initiative (pg. 59). This also goes around normal rules for spending initiative.
If you take multiple actions because you have high Initiative, you get a condition giving you a heavy penalty, making going first and/or multiple times not as good as it may seem at first.
Tactics is a massive Initiative sink with high-risk, high-reward outcomes.
Surprise happens outside of Initiative.
If you get dice-fucked, Desperation gives you an Initiative boost (pg. 55).
And finally, you can overbuy Initiative! If you don’t have the required Initiative for an action, you can just do it and pay it back next turn (pg. 54).
Combat is quite fun because of all the different options these uses of Initiative allow, but it is quite easy to overlook one and other and think you have fewer options at your disposal.
Memento Mori is a meta currency that really does not work without a lot of agreement beforehand and does not really serve the horror element it tries to do, hilariously, it serves the more pulpy, super-spy elements vs Encounter Strain, which actually works. It is awkward to use, with unnecessary book-keeping. Its twin mechanic — Courting Death, — works much betterm even if it is very much bound to Memento Mori. Discuss Memento Mori, and consider adapting its flow of play and even homebrewing them for your group.
Follow Lu’s advice, it is very solid, and be sure to go over all abilities your players take with them. This game is a mechanical juggernaut, and so it can be just as important that both of you understand what the hell the new trick in the toolbox is, and as always take a very, very good set of notes.
8. What to Steal
Experiencing good art is the most important step in making good art. We look back at the things that worked and did not work about this game, see what we learned for design work, interesting tech and just a general overview of things that we will take from this game and bring into others. Or more honestly: since many of us may not play this game and we have it in our library, this way we can get some use out of it.
Orpheus Protocol is a treasure in a battered, ugly chest. It seems to be easily available under Creative Commons, so you can do a lot with it. And damn, there is so much potential there. Its base system — The Blood & Breath system — will at some point in the future be available as a stand-alone, making future design easier.
Out of hand, the Social Influence mechanics are just inspired, and easily the best way someone has managed to do a type of mechanics with a very fraught history. The games Archetype system can be easily enhanced by additional Archetypes, or be made into a different game altogether with different sums of Archetypes; furthermore, one could even imagine an Archetype-less version of the game.
Combat is fun, frenetic and intense. Anyone wishing to get deep into combat without drawing from the wargaming lineages could get much from Orpheus Protocol.
The basic dice system, skills and resource handling are very interesting for many that kinda like Fate and Cypher but are disappointed by the dynamics of play they create. I could go into further details, but only, there is no lack of things to go “oooh!” at as if you have any appreciation for the art of TTRPG game design.
A definitive must-read, if for not just to see that games this gamey can exist outside of corporations… and why there is a reason why we don’t see these so often. Still, it is somehow here, and we gain a lot by appreciating this feat of game design.
Orpheus Protocol has fascinating social mechanics, and a very solid mystery-solving system, it has a wonderfully complex combat system that makes every firefight feel dangerous and fun. You could learn a lot from these angles, but as much as I praised some of the resource management, in other areas Orpheus Protocol has a lot of room to grow in a second edition I genuinely hope we get one day.
Now, if you are a fan of Operators Vs Monsters, read this game, it will not necessarily replace your favorite one, but by god, it has a lot going for it with a very flexible setting that could easily be cut and drawn to be close to any of the others you love so deeply.