The Independents: The ORPHEUS Protocol

I duck behind a car for a moment, trying to catch my breath. Silencing the voices in my head is no easy feat, but I need a clear mind if I’m going to make it out of this alive. Check my pistol, three shots left. Check my shoulder, clean exit wound. We expected armed guards, we just didn’t expect them to be lead by a rampaging arch-demon. How did these mercenaries even manage to summon that thing?

Welcome to The ORPHEUS Protocol, a game of cult infiltration, mind-numbing monsters, and spy-thriller action. Have the urge to play a coven of monster-exterminating witches? How about a traveling exorcist and his werewolf companion? Maybe a militant team of cyborgs who are also ghost hunters? Buckle your seatbelts eldritch fans, things are about to get weird.

The ORPHEUS Protocol is a horror-espionage RPG written by Rob Stith of Vârcolac Press. After nearly five years of development, including a couple years of beta testing and actual play podcasting, ORPHEUS is coming to life. The game is angling to be the premier supernatural spy game chock full of tactical combat, characters with wild and exciting powers, and an emphasis on dwindling resources in the face of great danger. This RPG is going to be essential for the library of anyone interested in supernatural horror, or even just fans of games with interesting character powers and magic systems. The Kickstarter for the game launched earlier this week, and jumped past its funding goal in just over an hour.

Note that the following thoughts are based off of a combination of the past two years of the game’s beta testing, the Kickstarter playtest document, and the long running podcast. I have been following the game for quite a while, and while I have absorbed a lot, there are still changes liable to be made for the final release of the game.

 

 

Setting

There is a high pitched scream as Lilith flicks a blood curse at an enemy. The chatter of gunfire is everywhere. I’m safe behind this car, but not for long. I look to my left, and see the body of one of the soldiers sprawl on the pavement. Two bullet wounds bloom on his chest, obviously fatal. Levi is a good shot, for a vampire. Now it’s time for what I do best.

The world of The ORPHEUS Protocol is both sinister and sublime. On the surface it is our world, full of the same mundane life, loss, and joy—but beneath our world lurks something else. Some might call it magic, others would say unholy power, but both are too narrow a label to apply to the myths and monsters that sit in the dark spaces. The world of ORPHEUS is one in which every story told to scare children—every ancient tale of beast, and boogey, and bugbear—is rooted in truth. The universe is arranged such that the mere runoff of malevolent gods and the outer realms is enough to tear apart your soul by proximity alone. And in the face of this bleak situation, there stands one group that wishes to hold back the tide: ORPHEUS.

This is where you come in. Players take on the role of agents within the ORPHEUS organization—people both mundane and mystical who have been enlightened to the true nature of the universe, and for one reason or another have chosen resistance over madness. You become a part of a covert paramilitary organization with a simple goal: Assess, Contain, Employ. The ORPHEUS Protocol is reminiscent of other supernatural-bureaucratic fiction; it calls back to the privacy-obsessed secret agents of Men in Black, the mind-bending creatures and artifacts of the SCP Foundation, and the shady government conspiracies of Delta Green. It’s a modern take on the themes of the Cthulhu mythos without the general awfulness of HP Lovecraft himself.

As a setting, The ORPHEUS Protocol focuses on the stories of individuals stemming the flow of eldritch insanity invading the world. By default its missions lean heavily on paramilitary efforts to stop unknowable monstrosities. This can range from a game of cult-busting, sleeper-agent mayhem, to a game of monster hunting in a rural wasteland. It tracks closely with the ethos of Monster of the Week in some ways, and Call of Cthulhu in others. The storyline that got me hooked on the system is one of the cult-busting variety—The ORPHEUS Protocol Podcast opens with a team of supernatural agents infiltrating a cult living on the property of a wealthy filmmaker, hoping to steal and dispose of any legitimate eldritch artifacts that they may have. What proceeds is a gruesome, haunting conflagration of misplaced faith, unrelenting violence, and misunderstood power. It’s very worth listening to if you would like a better idea of what kind of tone ORPHEUS sets, even if it represents an early version of the game.

 

Mechanics

I point a finger at the soldier’s corpse. Green wisps of spiritfire twine their way up from the ground, surrounding the dead lump of flesh. The whispers in my mind grow louder, and my head feels like it’s splitting open. The angry spirits of the battlefield nearly overwhelm me, but I bite my tongue, taste iron, and bear down. They serve me. I force one of the spirits into the dead body, and it rises to its feet. A bullet sponge. A distraction. Just the thing I need to escape.

At its core, The ORPHEUS Protocol is a fudge-dice system with tactical combat and deep resource management rules. Fudge dice (sometimes called FATE dice) are six-sided dice with two sides representing +1, two sides representing 0, and two sides representing -1. The standard roll in the system is (3dFudge + Attributes + Strain) compared against either a difficulty value or an opposed roll made by the GM. Attributes work the same as stats in most systems, adding directly to rolls, but Strain is a mechanic that is unique to ORPHEUS. When players want to try hard on a specific challenge they can spend Strain from a pool to enhance their roll. This is the first tier of resource management, and represents a character’s ability to push their body and mind to the limit and stay standing despite incoming threats. Characters who have special training in a specific Skill such as gunfighting, first aid, or driving can use their Skills to spend more Strain on a single roll, or even gain free Strain for actions within the skill. The second tier of resources is the player’s health, which has separate tracks for mental, physical, and spiritual damage. Getting stabbed may hurt your body, but looking into the face of a gibbering demon hurts your soul. Taking damage to your health tracks is dangerous, and has a chance of weakening you, reducing your results on future rolls for that stat. The final tier of resource management is Humanity, a stat that starts at 100 and ticks down as you use your inhuman abilities or perform particularly heartless actions. Keep careful track of your humanity: if it hits 0, you become one of the things you committed to stopping, and permanently lose control of your character.

Combat in The ORPHEUS Protocol is incredibly tactical, but it avoids slow finicky hex maps or complex stat calculations. Initiative is rolled each round of combat, but it does more than just establish turn order: initiative is a resource used to perform all the actions you take in combat, similar to Feng Shui’s Shot Counter. Whoever has the highest initiative is the current turn owner until they drop below another character. Want to shoot somebody? That will cost you 2 points of Initiative. Want to aim first and give yourself a bonus to your attack? Each tick of aim will cost you an Initiative, but you better hope no one attacks you and breaks your concentration. Sprint across a hallway? Depending on your speed, it might take you a while to close the distance—possibly long enough for the rogue cultist to finish casting their spell. It’s a system that mixes uncertainty and calculation, a tightly balanced risk-reward loop. The GM side of a combat encounter is simplified nicely also; only the most threatening adversaries will be drawn up like an actual character. Most enemies or opposing groups can be simplified to an aggregated pool of strain, a few health bars, and a list of things they are particularly good or bad at for roll bonuses. Overall the feel of combat is both satisfying and desperate at the same time, a result of the tension between powerful characters and dwindling resources. You know that your character is always at risk of severe injury at the hand of a single bullet if you don’t tread carefully, but the real threat is that you will spend all your Strain early and wind up defenseless and at the mercy of your enemies before your mission is up.

The highlight of the character creation and advancement system is its violent and varied cast of classes, called Archetypes in the rules. Archetypes define the different power sets your character has access to, ranging from the mysterious Witch laden with curses for your enemies and boons for your companions, to the staunch Werewolf who can rip and tear enemies to shreds while shrugging off injuries that would kill a mundane human, to the enigmatic Occultist who can manipulate time and space by slipping around the edges of some great unknowable force. Each archetype gives you access to a spread of useful and dangerous abilities, including some of the most interesting and flavorful powers I have ever seen in an RPG. This isn’t a game where only one class is interesting to play (I’m looking at you, D&D magic users), and no Archetype messes about with boring abilities. Mediums have the ability to speak to the dead, a useful power that becomes even more terrifying when you can command angry spirits to attack your enemies. Telekinetics wield their minds like weapons to manipulate gravity and spark fires. True Faith adherents can use their devotion to call upon otherworldly beings for aid, and drive out evil spirits. As you advance in level, you can gain new abilities, add useful modifiers to your known abilities, and choose powers that can be overcharged. Be careful though, in ORPHEUS you run the serious risk of losing your soul in a feeble attempt to preserve your body.

Conclusion

All the games of The ORPHEUS Protocol that I have played have been spectacular. I’ve escaped from a corrupt corporation’s black site research facility and I’ve hunted a murderer through the streets of Prohibition-era Washington DC. I ran players through a zombie-filled wasteland and threw a different set of players at a folk-Catholic goddess of death. I’ve played as a knock-off speedster superhero and as a sullen hard-boiled detective who couldn’t die no matter how hard he tried. The mechanics of ORPHEUS align perfectly with stories of desperate action against myth, magic, or legend. I really appreciate that the system is relatively death-averse—it’s the first eldritch horror game I’ve played where you don’t expect your character to go mad or die every other session. There is definitely risk involved in playing ORPHEUS, but the risk never feels arbitrary or out of your control. It’s a game designed for long-term narrative play rather than short bursts of bloody chaos.

There is one thing I have only briefly mentioned in this review, but want to touch on: The ORPHEUS Protocol Podcast. The podcast is, without exaggeration, the highest-quality actual play podcast on the market. Stith’s full time job over the past two years has been recording, editing, and producing a podcast that has been a public playtest of ORPHEUS as it has been in development. It tells the story of a cell of agents in a struggle to save all of existence, and it interweaves a great cast of podcasters, game designers, and other creatives in an as-of-now 122 episode audio epic. This is a great jumping off point if you are interested in learning more in-depth information on how the system works and has changed. Even if you aren’t interested in the book, the podcast is well worth consuming just to witness the lengths Stith has gone to to put out high-quality edited audio.

Overall, I think The ORPHEUS Protocol is a very worthwhile purchase for anyone who enjoys the supernatural and can handle at least mid-level crunch and tactical combat. It has some of the cleanest and most evocative horror mechanics outside of Dread, and comes packed with some of the best character classes I have ever seen. The art looks great, and I know for a fact Stith is incredibly talented in narrative design, and has brought his years of film-writing experience to the book.

You can currently back The ORPHEUS Protocol on Kickstarter until June 6. A pdf of the game will run you $25, while a combo hard cover and pdf costs $60. It’s a stunningly-produced book looking at a whopping size of 300-400 pages, so your pledge will be well worthwhile. If you want a sneak-peek at the rules, a nice playtest document is available for free through DriveThruRPG. Rob Stith can be found on Twitter @LordOfTheStith, and the podcast can be found @ORPHEUSprotocol. If the podcast wasn’t enough, Seraph Films is making an ORPHEUS webseries, with the first episode already available on Youtube. If you want to discuss the game with others, or find an online group to play, there is a thriving official Discord server (come talk to me there!)

Happy hunting agents.


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