Introduction, or What The Hell Am I Reading This For?
A good question. I realised recently, that although I had good familiarity with most of the aspects of Werewolf: The Apocalypse, I was at best confused about the Umbra, Realms, and Spirits. I had no visual image of the umbra, and as a result, I was avoiding it entirely. Not liking this at all, I set out to work some stuff out about it. And then I wrote down what I’d learned and worked out.
Authority And Sources.
I’m basing this off five things. 1) The Werewolf Revised Rulebook 2) The Werewolf Revised Storytellers Guide 3) The White-Wolf published book “Umbra” (recommended) 4) The White-Wolf published book “Axis Mundi” 5) Talking to other players and the Wiz Staff. No RP game runs “by the book”, an RP game that has been transplanted from one medium (TableTop) to another (MUSH) even less so. Oh, and the News Files. (news umbra) This isn’t intended to be authoritative. It’s intended to be useful. You should look at A_Basic_Guide_To_The_Umbra too, especially the early parts.
The Umbra – My Head Hurts
The first thing to point out is that the Umbra is by its nature confusing. Particularly outside of the Penumbra (more later), it’s not guaranteed that anything will work the same way twice. This is good news for GMs, because it means you don’t have to concentrate very hard on consistency. However, it can make it confusing for players, so you should work hard to make your descriptions as clear as possible, and help the players out as much as you can. Do not get so caught up in describing the rise and fall of the folding landscape that you forget to mention the Nexus Crawler in front of them.
The Umbra – How Do We Get There?
Simply put, we get there via reaching. Or stepping sideways. Or crossing the gauntlet. The Gauntlet is the barrier that keeps the Penumbra from touching the normal human world. There is a Gauntlet rating (Elf needs food badly) from 2 to 9, usually, with 2 being the Wyldest and most powerful of Caerns and 9 being the most weavery place imaginable. My office springs to mind. It’s worth pointing out that low doesn’t necessarily equal good – at low gauntlet ratings, spirits find it easier to operate in the real world. All spirits. Even the bad spiky ones. So an artificially low gauntlet rating at, say, a polluting factory is bad news. It requires a reflective surface to attempt to reach – in either direction. The rules say “roll Gnosis versus a difficulty of the Gauntlet”, if you botch you’re stuck (and a sitting target for any nasty spirit that comes along and wants to have a go) until someone pulls you out. In non-stressful situations, it’s probably fine to assume you can manage it given a reasonable amount of time.
The Umbra – What Does It Look Like?
Aha! The key question. First, let’s talk about the Penumbra. The Penumbra is the area of the Umbra that has a (close to) one-to-one correspondence with the real world. It is the place you reach after stepping sideways. It’s what lies “just” on the other side of the Gauntlet. Although the Penumbra has a close to one-to-one relationship with the Realm, it is markedly different in appearance. The MUSH News files say that “Helios does not shine during the day”. This is a bit confusing, but basically, during the day, all the bad things come out. This presents the GM with an interesting and enjoyable opportunity (translation: Your character is in trouble). So, we’ll assume it’s night, and get poetical.
Luna always shines in the night time Penumbra. Never obscured by cloud, the spirits and pathways are illuminated by her light. The twilight world, silver and darkest blue.
Right. Enough of that. Basically, it looks like a more impressive version of what Hollywood movies do for night scenes.
Many things have a reflection in the Umbra. Everything has a spirit, though for the vast majority of things, that spirit is slumbering. This means that it will need to be Awoken (there’s a Rite for it) to be interacted with. Things like buildings take a while after building to appear in the Umbra – in general, the Umbra doesn’t react to transient changes, and is slow to react to anything non-cataclysmic.
Very Weaverish buildings (like my office) first appear as shells, woven out of spider-silk. This is because that’s what Pattern Spiders do. Lots of them. The more weavery a building is, the quicker it will appear, and the more definite and solid will be its structure.
Most people do NOT have a reflection in the Umbra. If they do, it’s not likely to be for good reasons. They may appear as a little dark patch if they are particularly wyrmy, with lots of nice wyrm spirits around them. Things like roads often end up with a slightly more abstract version of them appearing in the Penumbra – there can be trucks and cars going along them (weaver spirits, mostly) but there won’t necessarily be any relationship between spirit cars and real ones. Also, spirit cars are more likely to try to eat you.
Things in the umbra can lead to changes in the realm, and things that occur in the realm (the real world, if you like), can lead to changes in the Umbra. For example, an area of wasteground going to seed might start to attract wyld spirits. If it was all cut back and replaced with concrete, they’d go away and weaver spirits might come.
I think it’s worth having a romp around the Umbra on the grid, in an OOC moment, to get a feel for how the MUSH does things. It’s a bit difficult, as some of the descriptions are a bit lacking, but it gives an idea.
The Umbra – Going Deeper
There are paths in the umbra. They shine in Luna’s light (i.e. they look silver and glowy). Some of them are just paths. Some of them are mystical routes deeper into the Umbra: into the Near Umbra and its Umbral realms.
A Moonbridge is an Garou-controlled umbral path. They usually arc into the near umbra (from the Penumbra), and thus allow you to travel great distances (because there isn’t that 1-1 correlation).
Navigation along non-Moonbridge paths is difficult at best. There are some gifts that help, but the best way to get to where you’re intending to go is to have a spirit guide. Usually, this means doing a deal with an appropriate spirit to guide you. Be careful, because they can be tricksy (more later), and getting abandoned half way along a path is worrying. There’s no guarantee that turning around will help. Stepping off the path definitely presents a GM with another one of those interesting and enjoyable opportunities.
The Umbra – Deeper Still
What lies deeper than the Near Umbra and its realms? The Deep Umbra. There’s a hint in the name. This is a place of strangeness and magic beyond imagination. That means that it’s desperately unclear from the sourcebooks what this is, and that it probably presents a GM with – well, you’ve got the picture by now. It is, however, separated from the near umbra by something called the Membrane, which is apparently hard to break through. As the vast majority of plots aren’t going to get there, let’s just leave it at that.
The Umbra – Darker
The Dark Umbra is the place where the spirits of the dead go. It’s a place of mystery and strangeness and you know the drill about that by now.
Realms – What Are They?
Umbral realms can be best described as little pockets of umbra, found in the Near Umbra. They are distinct places, though they can be quite large, and often have very specific rules and natures, and they may be very different from the normal world, or from the penumbra.
All of the Garou tribe homelands are umbral realms, formed by the presence of the Incarna. There are numerous other realms, formed either from concepts or by the action of spirits. (Technically, realms created by the presence of a big spirit are called Domains)
Time and space can be almost anything here – it’s possible to spend a day in an umbral realm and come out and find that months have passed. Or vice versa.
I’d suggest reading the bit about Realms from the book Umbra. It’s one of the rare cases where Whitewolf actually settle down and give you useful information in a fairly solid form.
Realms – How Do We Get There?
Through the coats and out the back of the wardrobe.
More seriously – umbral paths. Or weird spirit effects. Or plot-foo. If you want to go to one – and there are lots of reasons to do so – the best way is to find a spirit to guide you. Some… you can get to without wanting to. Some positively welcome visitors. And are very reluctant to see them leave.
Realms – What Can We Do Now We Are There? Or, How Long Is This All Going To Take Anyway?
Almost anything the GM wants. Typically, for example, it’s possible to go to places to get something, or have something done. Sometimes Garou undertake an umbral quest as a form of punishment. Sometimes it’s for advice, or to find something that was lost. Or for information – the Battle Realm is an excellent place to find out the tactics needed to defeat a potent enemy. Or just to learn to fight better.
And as for how long it’s going to take… a quest to an umbral realm is not a thing undertaken lightly. It’s a pretty major thing, normally, so “several sessions”. They have taken months in the past, but that’s probably undesirable.
Spirits – My Head Hurts So Much I Think It Has Fallen Off
Spirits can be confusing. However, they are a crucial part of Werewolf : The Apocalypse, and ignoring them is like playing Vampire without considering Humanity – you’re only getting part of the game.
Spirits exist in the umbra. (Unless they manifest. This is an ability for spirits, and not all have it)
Most spirits in the umbra are Slumbering. This means that they are not active, but instead dormant. They can still be being moved around, but they may not necessarily be visible, or be particularly interesting. They can be Awoken by the rite “Rite of Spirit Awakening”. Sometimes this is more trouble than it’s worth.
Spirits break down into several categories :-
Ephemera - Not really spirits, more spirit. The primordial soup of the umbra, the warp and the weft of it. The materia from which it is made. Spirits without Gnosis drift into slumber and become ephemera.
Gafflings – Basic, small little spirits. Talking to them is often a complete waste of time, though GMs always seem very keen on running it. They can be sort-of-clever, but have no individuality.
Jagglings – Anything bigger than a Gaffling and smaller than an Incarna – i.e. most things that are actually interesting. Pack totems, most Banes worth hacking at, evil things that go bump in the night – all Jagglings.
Englings - Tasty snacks dispatched by Gaia to feed whoever slays them. Prey animals, often in the form of a Stag (in the wild, anyway - Urban Englings can be quite different).
Incarnae – Pegasus. Unicorn. The one, the only. Meeting an Incarna is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most Garou, and they usually need new trousers afterwards.
Celestines – Gaia (biggest), the Wyrm, the Weaver. You’re not going to get to meet these, in all likelihood, but the writers of WW books always like to include them, presumably because they were big fans of Babar the Elephant as children.
Emanations – In realms, there are many things that aren’t spirits – wolves in Wolfhome, soldiers in the Battle Realm. Things that are the stuff of nightmares in the Atrocity Realm, etc. These aren’t spirits, but emanations. They use normal sorts of stats, rather than spirit stats. (This is the kind of cop out I like!)
Spirits – How Do They Talk?
All spirits can speak, in some way. They are largely incomprehensible unless you use the gift “Spirit Speech”. The more intelligent a spirit is, the more likely this conversation is to actually have useful content. That may be an ant spirit you’re talking to, but its conception of the world is pretty much that of an ant. Work-work-work-get squashed. This is especially true of Gafflings and some smaller Jagglings.
Some spirits, generally larger, more intelligent ones, can understand and possibly speak Mother’s Tongue. Some may even manage homid speech. However, it’s straining their generosity (which is at best limited) to trot up and yell at them in your own language. I’m a Brit, we’ve been trying this for years, and all we’ve achieved is to annoy people. If you want something from a spirit, best to at least start by speaking its own language.
Spirits – What Do They Want?
This is a complex question. Spirits are parts of broods, which are essentially great big fan clubs of the Incarna. (Rabbit. Bison.). So, when you talk to, say, a Pegasus spirit, you aren’t talking directly to Pegasus, but to an intermediary. However, in general, they probably want something that will help them either to continue to exist, or in some way that matches their Incarna’s purpose. As a GM, you shouldn’t be fobbed off with “future favours”, it’s worth giving a specific chiminage, or demanding a particular cost. Be guided by the totem notes, but give a thought to what the spirit stands for. It’s OK to ban PCs for a certain amount of time as well – you may not eat meat for a month… you must only eat things you have killed… you must protect nine women…. Try and avoid drifting too much into bad side quests, this isn’t a JRPG . If the PCs have an ongoing relationship with a spirit (for example, their pack totem) do have the totem guide them towards doing things.
Spirits – What Can They Do?
Lots that is useful.
Spirits have their own abilities (called Charms) too numerous to list. They’re useful in a fight as well as numerous other circumstances. They have information – Spirits tend to be aware of things Garou aren’t. They can teach gifts and rites. They can guide the Garou around the Umbra. Give gnosis. Spirits are “powered” by Gnosis, it is their lifeforce. They might be willing to share. They can do lots of things in situational circumstances. (Read: When the GM needs them to)
These things are rarely given freely, and must be bargained for.
Spirits, Umbra, Realms – Fuck it all, I’m going back to RPing shopping trips.
Well, you can. But it’s a missed opportunity. And there are consequences – Garou who do not go into the Umbra for extended periods run severe risk of entering Harano.