Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Pasiphae to End All Pasiphae (Or a Look into my Storytelling Design Process)

So a few days ago I ran across the above tweet while quietly stalking our beloved Wraith DeadGuy on Twitter.  It got me thinking about my last Wraith campaign, so I figured it would be an engaging exercise to do a writeup on the setting, primary antagonist, and where my inspiration for this story came from.  I was particularly happy with what I created for this chronicle, though at some point I'd really like to run the setting again with a different group of players.  In a lot of ways I got in over my head and I think I could tell this story much more elegantly now.  Before I dive into the rest of the story, let me just say I take some themes that are hinted at in the canon to their extremes to make this story work, but what is Wraith if not a game of extremes.  I am very proud of the groundwork I laid for this narrative, but I'm positive not everyone views Stygian society through this lens.  That variety is both expected and part of what makes the World of Darkness so fantastic.  One final note before I begin, I know it's over a decade late but spoiler alert?

The chronicle was set in Dundee, Scotland, with the majority of the action centering around a haunt on the north end of the city.  This particular haunt looks quite attractive in the Skinlands, but in the Shadowlands it is dark and twisted, with a deep corruption beyond the normal decay that permeates everything else in the Shadowlands.  The walls are covered with fragments of soulforged steel.  None of the fragments seem to serve any particular purpose, but they are bound onto nearly every surface in the house.  The steel looks significantly different from any other Stygian steel the players have ever encountered in that all of it is rusted and warped in some manner.  If the players have awareness they may also detect a faint whisper coming from the steel.  The fragments are forged not from wraiths, or thralls, but from spectres.  Unlike normal Stygian steel made from the corpus of wraiths who have been drained of their pathos and vitality, this steel was forged from spectres at the height of their darkest passions, as a way to preserve that corruption and prevent its consumption by the void.

This was meant to capture an atrocity which plays on a narrative thread that is woven into most of the Wraith lore about Oblivion.  All things which are touched by Oblivion are ultimately destroyed by Oblivion.  It is what keeps spectres from completely taking over the Shadowlands.  The largest influx of new spectres are Mortwights which, lacking fetters or strong passions aside from those associated with their grisly deaths, burn themselves out in short order.  What if they could be preserved though?  What if a great and powerful spectre were to learn the art of soulforging?  A casual inspection of soulforging would make one think that no spectre could ever bring themselves to practice this art, because soul forged spirits are bound against the power of oblivion, and even a wraith with no fetters at all may remain in the Shadowlands eternally with no fetter to keep them.  In fact any wraith which has been soulforged loses all their passions and fetters in the draining of essence that occurs at the beginning of the soulforging process.  So what purpose would such soulforging serve?

Therein lies the rub though; that draining of passion, thought, and psychic being that occurs at the beginning of the soulforging process in Stygia is optional.  There are stories about artifacts in Stygia where the process was rushed or, in the case of the soulforging of particularly atrocious criminals, is skipped intentionally.  (I think we would all like to imagine a certain ashtray wailing in frustration into an endless Stygian night.)  So then what if spectres that would have fallen to the pit in short order anyway were soulforged en masse, thereby preserving otherwise "lost resources" in the fight for Oblivion.   How would such a dramatic shift in paradigm (to borrow a Mage term) affect the war between Stygia and the hordes of spectres waiting to burst forth from the deepest recesses of the Labyrinth?

This question was how I began my chronicle planning.  The next question was what benefit would this provide to the hordes that serve the void at the base of the Veinous Stair?  So I imagined a haunt where this Labyrinth steel was built into the core structure of the haunt and the impact it would have on the other side of the shroud.  The long hum of corruption this would fill the haunt with would be deeply corruptive on both sides of the shroud.  It is possible that there could even be low level use of Dark Arcanoi seeping through the shroud, and there would be little to nothing that the psyche trapped in the corrupt steel could do to mitigate the horrors being enacted by their now eternally preserved shadows.

I have been fascinated by corrupted, haunted places in the world - places that no amount of purification can render pure.  Haunted places associated with true atrocity are something that has been largely overlooked in Wraith because most spectres move outside of wraithly society, and they can't afford to stay in one place long enough to establish such a horror house.  So then I wondered what would allow a spectre to preserve itself long enough to create such horror while staying hidden from the Hierarchy, and overcoming the primal forces which have kept spectres from using soulforging for the centuries since the art was brought up from the heart of the Labyrinth by Nudri?

First, let's get the obvious out of the way.  Spectres absolutely know how to soulforge.  You cannot convince me that no Artificer working the forges has ever become a Doppelganger.  Even if somehow every Artificer that has ever fallen to their shadow was caught and killed before they could escape to the Labyrinth, despite the forge's proximity to the pit their secrets would eventually escape.  Every Artificer who ever forged a soul lives and shares all they know with their shadow, and over the centuries at least a few of those traitors within would have unquestionably revealed their Psyche's secrets through the seeping tethers of the Hive Mind.  Why then has no spectre ever founded forges deep within the Labyrinth to leverage their abominable power?  Quite simply, the nature of soulforging is anathema to spectres.  As much as a rational actor would quickly recognize the power of preserving those tainted by Oblivion in the lands above the tempest, spectres are in no way rational actors.

If we take a step back and look at how spectres are not rational actors, we also run into a cosmological dynamic within the armies of Oblivion that is often ignored.  Oblivion is the last functional arm of the Triadic Wyrm.  Now, for all you literalists, let me back up a second and state that you can read that as an expression of an abstract cosmological concept if you don't want to read it as literal because you don't want your Werewolf getting its sticky claw marks all over your not-so-shiny rotting shadowlands.  If you still recoil at the connection, I urge you to hear me out.  The Triad is at the conceptual core of pretty much the entire WoD narrative aside from Vampire.  It's clearly central to Werewolf, in Mage the struggle between the Technocracy and Traditions is fundamentally the struggle between the Weaver and Wyld, and the Technocracy's success has very much the same effect on the world as the Weaver's in Werewolf, leaving the representatives of the Wyrm (the Nephandi) long corrupt and beyond any sort of reasonable function in the system.  In Changeling the themes are less obvious, but the primary actor's relationship with order, raw creativity, and specifically the phenomenon of the Dauntain highlights very similar themes, even if the correlations are a bit messier.

In Wraith, I honestly think these themes are perhaps more directly dealt with than in any other game, while also being shockingly easy to miss.  If you look at the text that was recently leaked by Onyx Path on Harrowings, it is made clear that Harrowings used to be a productive part of the path to Transcendence.  This concept was also included in the text on Harrowings from Wraith Second Edition.  This text's prominent place in both editions makes it very clear that it is an important part of Wraith cosmology.  Yet Harrowings are run by spectres, and as far as anyone can tell they have always been run by spectres.  So if spectres once ran Harrowings that were brutal, but ultimately productive for the psyche why did they change?  More importantly why do the the spectres who exist only in the Labyrinth, doing nothing but acting out the strange psychodrama of wraithly Harrowings continue to fulfill their task according to the strict set of rules they began with, even if they abuse the intent Harrowings originally represented?

There are several ways to answer the questions above about Harrowings and spectres, but the easiest explanation to my mind is that Oblivion was meant to be a purifying force in the world, much like the original Wyrm, but humanity's resistance to its influence has driven it to desperation at least, and insanity at worst.  When you look through the lens of the Triadic myth it's easy to miss the more core psychology of what would be happening in this situation.  Throughout mythology you see several manifestations of the purpose of temptation and trials.  In the Kabbalah, Gevurah is seen in Hebrew study to represent the ability to repress the innate desire to offer compassion and assistance to those who are unworthy and likely to misuse your support.  In western Hermetic traditions, it is seen as a purifying fire which destroys that which is unworthy of divine perfection before it can ascend any higher up the Tree of Life, leaving behind only that refined spiritual energy which is meant to reunite with the Divine One.  There are interpretations of the Gospels that talk about the many times Jesus was tempted - in the desert, at Gethsemane, and at other points during his life that demonstrate how important such trials are.  Even the son of God had to be tempted, and only once he was forged by the trial of having resisted those temptations could he fulfill his purpose.  Similar themes appear in older pre-Abrahamic myths, and certainly within many eastern teachings.

Once we frame the history and mythos of Stygia against this interpretation of Oblivion we have to ask, why did it go wrong?  The simple answer is Stygia.  Charon's whole purpose upon entering the Shadowlands has been to stave off Oblivion.  Soulforging and the creation of thralls was motivated primarily as a way to prevent souls from descending to Oblivion.  Initially Charon's motivations seem honorable, necessary, and well-intentioned.  Well, the road to hell is paved with cobbles forged from well-intentioned souls. 

By creating a society that prevents souls that lack the grace to transcend or the will to survive the horrors of the shadowlands from being "cleaned out of the system", Charon created a horror show unlike any other.  It is not unreasonable to think of Oblivion and the legions of spectres as primordial forces acting as avatars of a deeply frightening, but fundamentally necessary aspect of existence.  Seen through that lens, they would be built with some drive to push them to perform their role in the cosmic order.  So they hunger for souls, and when properly sated are terrifying but ultimately productive predators who like any predator are naturally drawn to the “weak and the wounded” (to quote Session 9).

After centuries of starving Oblivion, centuries of the empty, passionless souls, Oblivion should have been feeding on being sheltered from the void in the form of thralls and furniture in the lands of the dead, Oblivion grew . . . shall we say hangry.  So Harrowings become more twisted, legions of spectres lay siege to Necropoli far and wide, and more and more spectres begin to reach across the shroud, and sink their Moliated flesh hooks into the corpus and psyches of otherwise resilient wraiths.  The agents of the void no longer seek out only the souls of those who are already touched by Oblivion.  They seek to consume everything around them out of a deep starvation, but ultimately because they cannot feast, stagnation and corruption becomes inevitable.  Even at Oblivion's worst, in the modern canon, there is a compelling and unsettling argument to be made for its productive place in the cosmic order.

So if we look at the above inspection of what it means to be a spectre, then the idea of soulforging would be beyond compare the most abominable thing imaginable to them.  All things must be drawn to the pit.  All things must feed the great hunger.  The ability to see the potential of soulforging to further the corruption of the world would be missed by the denizens of the Hive Mind, because they are ultimately a primordial expression of the darkest manifestations of our Freudian Id imaginable.

After stopping to think about all the influences that make the manifestation of Labyrinth Steel both seem impossible, and so profoundly horrific, we are left with the final question in this thought experiment:  What horror could possibly cross this line?  With all of the context above I couldn't just throw Labyrinth Steel into the story without doing some serious work to make it seem believable, because to do otherwise would just feel like a thematic version of cheap gore porn.  This question brings me to a strange loophole in the Ends of Empire metastory.

In the Ends of Empire book we discover that the Mnemoi, most vile of the forbidden guilds are actually the unsung heroes of Stygia.  After spending an entire line of books being painted as responsible for the greatest betrayal Stygia has ever known, and for wielding an Arcanos that inherently leads to temptation and corruption, we learn that not only is that narrative propaganda to keep Stygian wraiths from a secret they must not know, but that the Mnemoi inflicted this fate on themselves, with the very art they would come to be hated for.  (It's honestly my favorite plot twist in all of the WoD canon).

The Mnemoi gathered and each took a portion of Charon's memories into themselves before Charon went out to face the Malfean Gorool, and send him back into the Labyrinthine pit he crawled out of.  In the process of this battle Charon transcended and was reincarnated into the skinlands.  The reason the Mnemoi took charge of his memories, and re-wrote the collective memory of all of Stygia to demonize themselves is because they knew Charon would eventually return to Stygia, and he needed to remember what had come before so he could play his proper role in final days of the empire.  The Mnemoi had to be pushed far from Stygian society because otherwise Charon feared that the Deathlords would discover what he had done, and attempt to claim his memories for themselves.  Given how untrustworthy the deathlords had proven to be, Charon had to prevent this from ever happening.  So the Mnemoi rewrote the memories of all of the wraiths in the Dark Kingdom of Iron so they will be forced beyond the edges of Stygian society and hunker down while they wait for Charon's return.  This may be the only instance of true selflessness in the entire Wraith canon.

Now we move forward to the portion of Ends of Empire when Charon returns.  A fascinating thing happens upon Charon's returns to the shadowlands.  He doesn't have a shadow.  He doesn't have a shadow because he transcended, and truthfully never would have returned to the shadowlands if the players in the adventure module that opens the book hadn't killed and reaped him so carefully.  There it is though, the greatest wraith in all of Stygian society existing with no shadow.  Before I go into why this is significant, I have to tell what may seem like an unrelated story, that also comes from the Ends of Empire book.  The tale of the Ferrymen and the Pasiphae.

The Ferrymen were founded by Charon in the early days before the Stygian empire.   Then they developed the Ritual of Severance, where a Ferryman's shadow is broken off from their psyche and given its own corporeal body in the underworld.  These dark and powerful entities are the Pasiphae, who had a long and mysterious history before Ends of Empire was released.  When the Ferrymen came to Charon and asked him to go through the Ritual of Severance he refused, and not delicately.  This is another moment where on the surface it would be easy to write off Charon having become corrupted by his political power.  This is how the Ferrymen view him at this point and honestly for the rest of his reign as emperor.  The problem with this interpretation is it ignores the most core aspect of a wraith's existence, and one that is particularly problematic for Charon: The Shadow.

Charon is a phenomenally powerful wraith.  Not only in terms of supernatural power, but also as a person of unparalleled political and social acumen.  A point which is made regularly in a variety of Wraith sourcebooks is that playing the power game in Wraith is profoundly counter productive.  Every new power you purchase is a another tool for your shadow to abuse when your character experiences catharsis.  If we presume that Charon has in fact NOT gone mad with power then no other wraith in the history of Stygia would understand this dynamic more intimately than Charon.  He had the will to remake all of the underworld, and as the wraith who saved Nudhri the great smith from the labyrinth, Charon unquestionably holds the secrets to soul forging, as well as all the darkest secrets of of the empire.  If he took part in the ritual of severance his then independent shadow would be free to abuse all of his power and knowledge unchecked.  The Ferrymen, who have held the empire in nothing but contempt for its entire history, unsurprisingly do not appreciate the scope of how terrifying Charon's pasiphae would be if it were ever unleashed.  Charon however, fully understands the scope of this horror.  If we put ourselves inside Charon's experience it becomes clear that he not only appreciates how terrible that would be, but he has experienced it in the form of countless catharses during his centuries long existence in the underworld.

Charon's catharses are not theoretical.  In the chapter of The Road of Steel and Souls that prefaces the Pardoner's guild book we are taken through the experience of Charon's personal Pardoner, including a retelling of the first time he saw Charon after the breaking of the guilds.  Charon wasn't proud, he wasn't angry, he wasn't still filled with the rage that caused him to break the guilds.  He was already filled with regret and his words to his Pardoner were "I needed you".  That moment, more than any other moment in the Wraith canon stayed with me, and speaks volumes to what Charon must have felt when the Ferrymen asked him to give his own shadow independent agency and corporeal form.

This bring us back to a the question "What servant of Oblivion could possibly leverage the power of soulforging?".  The answer is Charon's pasiphae; the same one that he abjectly refused to unleash on the underworld.  You will remember earlier that Charon returns to the Shadowlands with no shadow, and the implication is that is because of his Transcendence.  The problem is his memories were collected before his transcendence, when his shadow still existed.  Now, it would presumably be very weak at this point because the path to transcendence is a long one, and it’s fair to assume that Charon had a seriously compromised shadow by the time Gorool rose from the pit.  However, Charon’s memories were being transferred to wraiths with full potent shadows, and all of his secrets with them.

At this point we have Charon’s memories spread amongst a series of Mnemoi, and Ends of Empire makes it very clear that Charon’s memories cannot be copied.  When a Mnemoi transfers them to another wraith they loose them, which is unlike any other memories.  So the memories are spread among several wraiths over the next several years.  After all, you don’t want to have all your eggs in one basket.  In the adventure chapter of Ends of Empire the Lady of Fate is very disappointed when the Mnemoi return Charon’s memories to him, because in her words there are “Pitifully Few” of them.  This implies that some were lost.  This is where things get fun.

Where would these Mnemoi be lost?  You don’t just disappear in the shadowlands.  When you lose all your corpus you are thrown into a Harrowing.  Even if you totally and completely botch a normal Harrowing you are thrown back out into the shadowlands or the tempest down a permanent corpus, but fundamentally ok.  It is only if you enter a destruction Harrowing that you risk being undone.  These events are not common, but let’s say a few Mnemoi were lost to this fate.  What happened to the rest?  It’s not exactly a leap to assume a few of them joined the ranks of the shadow eaten.  Doppelgangers with a handful of  Charon’s memories and mastery of the Mnemosynis Arcanos.  Tell me that isn’t terrifying.

So imagine a few of these spectres end up wandering the Shadowlands, and through the Hive Mind they come to find each other.  They are capable of gathering their memories together, and it is not unreasonable to think that each of these wraiths could have a dark passion tied to rebirthing Charon’s dark self.  It is in fact not unreasonable to imagine a scenario where upon Charon discovering the secret of the Ritual of Severance, his shadow became obsessed with finding a way to push Charon into taking part in the ritual.  Now, only partially realized in these Doppelganger forms, that becomes a possibility.

So we have to take the thought experiment one step further. Charon was the first Ferryman, and I imagine that when the Ferrymen approached him about completing the Ritual of Severance they were willing to do anything to convince him reinitiate to The Boatmen’s Society.  The ritual was developed in collaboration with Anubis or Anpu from the Egyptian underworld.  If Charon wanted to know the details of the ritual the Ferrymen would likely have shared them in as much detail as Charon demanded.  Once he realized exactly what was going on, and that the ramifications of the ritual would be he recoiled, but at that point the damage was already done.  His shadow knew the basic mechanics of the working.  Alternatively, these Doppelgangers could have approached one of the many Pasiphae already wandering the underworld to learn the pertinent details of how they were created.

In the end all that matters at this point is that some sliver of Charon’s shadow was now active within one of the shadow eaten, with the knowledge necessary to sever itself from its psyche.  Then it began hunting Mnemoi, and collecting their memories.  Some of them may have already fallen to their shadows, but most were still wraiths.  Once Charon’s growing Pasiphae took the memories it needed, it had to keep the ravaged corpus holding the fragments of Charon’s psyche active, for the same reason a normal Pasiphae cannot kill the Ferryman who birthed it.  Once it collected enough of Charon’s memories and power into one vessel few wraiths even among the Mnemoi could stand against it.

This is the prime villain I created for my chronicle.  A spectre with no psyche, that eventually will collect enough of Charon’s memories to discover the secrets of soulforging, and who unlike every other spectre in existence has had to sit and watch the horrible Oblivion abating power Charon forged Stygia into for centuries.  Through Charon’s own will he created a shadow who was forged in the fires of endurance and longevity.  Unlike every other servant of Oblivion, this shadow understood the power of crafting something to endure, because his now shattered psyche had spent 500 years teaching that lesson in every action it took building the empire of Stygia.  To use a Werewolf analogy, this servant of the Wrym has been captured and corrupted completely by the Weaver.

Now with the appropriate power, no Psyche to keep him in check, and an iron will, this Pasiphae begins to build the corrupted Haunt I described at the beginning of this post.  I had him craft a miniature labyrinthe underneath the haunt with his extensive knowledge of Tempest Weaving, and the first spectres he’d crafted into Labyrinth steel.  He has turned this labyrinthe into a mockery of the memory palace described in Ends of Empire.  It is a winding twisting horrorshow filled with memories of Charon’s shadow, no the memories of his psyche depicted in Ends of Empire.  These moments depict Charon’s greatest failures and vulnerabilities on brutal display for anyone close enough to see.  The players of my chronicle experienced several of what I imagined were Charon’s weakest moments.  The moments when his shadow drove him to the actions that would ultimately turn Stygia into the atrocity we know in the modern setting.

I could keep going, but this has turned into a marathon of the blog post.  I want to do a followup post that discusses what went well with this chronicle, and honestly what I would do differently if I had it all to do over again.  I can’t lie, this was the only meaty Wraith chronicle I have been able to run.  I shoved all the story related to this into 6 months, which I did because I was also running a Vampire chronicle and was seriously burning out around the 5 month point, but I refused to not complete this story.  I honestly think this chronicle probably needed another 3-4 months to really do properly, but I didn’t have it in me at the time.  I hope to have some more details for you all soon.