Umbra (World of Darkness)
The Umbra is the spirit world, a shadow or reflection of the real world, in the World of Darkness role-playing game setting. It is inhabited by spirits, gods, ghosts, and various other supernatural beings. The Umbra can broadly be thought of as all realms that exist beyond the mundane terrestrial existence of Earth. Rather than existing as a single universe, the Umbra embraces many versions of reality, forming a multiverse of realms that operate by their own laws. Mages and werewolves refer to this multiverse as the Tellurian, and are the two populations most likely to travel to the Umbra. Other beings, such as wraiths, are permanent inhabitants and have considerable difficulty interacting with the day-to-day reality of Earth (hereafter simply referred to as 'reality' for brevity's sake).
- 1 Cosmology
- 1.1 Videre
- 1.2 The Realm
- 1.3 Periphery
- 1.4 Gauntlet
- 1.5 Penumbra
- 1.6 Near Umbra
- 1.7 Horizon
- 1.8 Deep Umbra
- 1.9 The zones
- 1.10 The Shenti
- 1.11 The Bygone Umbra
- 2 Perspectives
- 3 References
There are three Umbra or Spirit Realms in the World of darkness. The Dark Umbra or land of the Dead, the Dream Umbra or Dreaming and the Spirit Umbra or true Umbra. When people say Umbra they usually mean the Spirit Umbra. This Umbra (in fact all three Umbra) is structured according to nearness or closeness to mundane Earth. However, this is more a matter of resemblance to Consensus reality than physical distance. The exception is Technological Videre where there is direct link between changing laws of surrounding conditions and distance from Earth surface.
Because the Umbra is especially mutable, beings with different outlooks experience radically different Umbrae. This disjunction was first identified by mages (who have the most diverse outlooks on the nature of reality), and they termed it videre. Importantly, videre is not simply a matter of perception. Rather it seems that different worldview and mental states bring people to different areas of Spirit Lands. Some videres are entirely incompatible with certain realms or regions of the Umbra. Few beings in the World of Darkness can visit every nook and cranny of the Umbra - most are locked out of at least part by their own preconceptions.
This is mundane reality as common man perceives it. While it is contrasted with Umbra the Spirit World, it is not completely devoid of spiritual energies. Rather the advancement of rational paradigm (groomed by Technocracy) significantly reduced its amount while hardening the Gauntlet at the same time. However, Mystics fear that further successes of Technocracy will completely separate Tellurian into mundane Earth and inaccessible Umbra.
The terminology here is similar to that of "the Moon" that denotes the moon of Earth among several other moons. Similarly, some mystics theorize that the Realm of mundane Earth is just one of many realms of similar status. The others claim that the Realm is special as it is root of Tellurian from which all the worlds spring as its emanations.
The Periphery is a state in which Umbra seems to seep through the Gauntlet into otherwise mundane reality. At certain times and places the spirit world intermingles with the mundane one to form reality as it was at the beginning of time (as some mystics claim). There are clear signs of the Periphery, observable to even the common man: the world seems more vibrant and alive, and the spiritual side or (true nature) manifests. Also, where the Gauntlet is weakest, it is much easier to get from one to the other side of reality.
Peripheries exist primarily in places of great spiritual power: mages' Nodes, werewolves' Caerns, wraiths' Haunts, changelings' Freeholds, also Kuei-Jin Dragon nests. Invariably there is strong feel of spiritual power, even though Videre may be different. Other Peripheries are passing phenomena that occur at places of mediation between mundane and spiritual.
The barrier preventing the Umbra from interacting on a regular basis with reality is known as the Gauntlet, though it goes by other names as well (wraiths call it the Shroud, Kuei-jin call it the Wall, and Technocrats call it the Horizon). It is a sort of mystical barrier of strength depending on spiritual power of given area. The Gauntlet manifests as a sort of force or plastic wrap causing difficulty for those passing through.
The permeability of the Gauntlet is directly linked to how technological the area surrounding it is - in the wilderness it is loosely woven, and easier to traverse, whereas in a city, the weave is much finer, and it becomes increasingly difficult to cross, becoming almost impossible in areas of high technology (such as a science lab, or an automated production line).
The exact form and influence of the Gauntlet varies depending on the passing entity. Generally, spirits face great difficulty reaching physical reality and vice versa: physical entities have trouble getting to the spiritual side. The difficulty of the passing of a physical object depends on the strength of the Gauntlet in that particular area, as well as the object's innate spiritual strength. Garou for instance can penetrate the Gauntlet at will, though an individual Garou without a high Gnosis rating will find it a very difficult feat to attempt. Most mundane things are fixed in the physical world for good, requiring very special circumstances to be carried into the spirit realms.
Immediately across the Gauntlet from reality is a domain that mirrors reality closely, called the Penumbra. It is possible to "see" physical reality from the Penumbra with some effort—Garou in particular possess the ability to do so naturally (an ability called "peeking"). Major landmarks such as large buildings, old trees, or topographic features have visible variants in the Penumbra. Each videre has its own version of the Penumbra, but these versions have some passing interaction due to their proximity to one another. Wraiths and Demons call the Penumbra the Shadowlands, while Kuei-jin call it the Mirror Lands. These Penumbrae are the starting points of the Four Worlds, the four aspects of the terrestrial Umbra.
Broadly, the Near Umbra (the Umbra relatively close to Earth) can be divided into four subtypes, along lines roughly defined by the four videres:
- The High Umbra or Astral Umbra corresponds to the astral plane, and is defined by abstract ideas.
- The Middle Umbra is more akin to a shamanistic spirit world, and is dominated by primordial forces.
- The Low Umbra is essentially the underworld and is the realm many (but not all) humans go to when they die.
- The Near Universe is essentially deep space, and is home to various locations seemingly drawn from science fiction.
Not to be confused with the Technocracy's term for the Gauntlet, most beings in the World of Darkness use the term Horizon to describe a nearly-impermeable barrier that separates the Near Umbra from the Deep Umbra. It is sort of immune defence the Earth-rooted reality denizens project to protect it from (depending on videre) alien beings, spirits or memes.
This barrier requires considerable supernatural power and skill to breach and it is the anchorhead for a wide variety of realms known as Horizon Realms or Horizon Constructs. Recent events, including the formation of the Avatar Storm, have left many of these realms isolated or in ruins.
Strictly speaking, the Deep Umbra is the in-between that spans the space between planets. Difficult to survive in and home to beings entirely alien to human conception, this region is largely devoid of noteworthy locales. A few noteworthy locales are listed below:
- Charybdis (see Shenti below)
- Copernicus Research Center (also called the Cop)
- Paradox Realms
Each planet seems tied to a particular aspect of reality, and manifests this association through a Shard Realm, an incomprehensible realm composed of a single aspect of reality (for example, The Shard Realm of Time, associated with the planet Saturn, is composed entirely of time). These create the almost-survivable Shade Realms along the Horizon, which are diluted forms the Shard Realms that can be survived with considerable skill and luck. Though spacially within the Near Umbra, the Shard Realms of the Sun, Mercury, Venus, and Mars remain beyond the Horizon.
In addition to the cosmology describe above, certain realms or regions defy conventional Umbral topology. They are called Zones and are unique, operating under their own rules.
The Shenti are regions representative of the three resonances (Dynamism, Stasis, and Entropy) and are arguably the homes of the Triat (the Wyld, the Weaver, and the Wyrm). The true hearts of the Shenti appear not to exist in any particular place, instead existing apart from the rest of the Tellurian and reaching out to touch many places.
A realm of constant creation and raw power, Flux appears to exist in many places at once. Its reflection in the Spiritual Umbra (also called Flux, as well as The Radiance) pulses with the energies of the Wyld. Pangaea is said to be touched by Flux, accounting for the realm's uncontrollable nature. Charybdis, a swirling vortex in the Deep Umbra, is said to absorb the detritus of the universe and 'recycle' it back into Flux. Given the Wyld's inconstant nature, however, concrete locations associated with Flux are few; more commonly, the energies of Flux pass over an area, causing rapid change and general chaos, then move on.
The home (some say prison) of the Wyrm is a realm assembled from the tatters of fallen bits of the Umbra, woven into a patchwork that defies both attempts to map and to tame it. Home to Nephandi, servitors of the Wyrm, and other noxious beings, Malfeas is a realm whose constant growth is the only way to overcome its constant internal disintegration. Malfeas is said to be related closely to the Labyrinth of the Tempest (some say they are one and the same), and the Wasteland is an extension of Malfeas that reaches into the Near Umbra. Malfeas also touches innumerable small blights and cesspools through the Umbra and many of the more unpleasant regions of the Astral Umbra, spreading discord and decay in its wake.
The Pattern Web and the Great Machine
The ubiquitous sign of the Weaver's influence, the Pattern Web refers to an apparently infinite network of threads composed of raw spirit-stuff and controlled by the Weaver. According to some, these webs are the scaffolding of reality, though their absence in some areas of the Umbra suggests that reality can exist without them. More likely, these webs are the Weaver's presence, defining and clarifying the Tellurian. Though primarily found in the Middle Umbra, the Pattern web appears to touch most parts of the Tellurian (including the Digital Web) as well as lead to some unknown central mass, believed to be the Weaver itself. Many theorize that this logical heart of the Pattern Web is the Shenti of Stasis, but this has never been proven as no mortal being has successfully reached the Web's center.
The Shenti of Stasis also manifests a powerful presence in the form of the Great Machine (called Autocthonia by the Technocracy), a massive technological structure that is in a constant state of self-improvement. While it seems unlikely that Autocthonia is the Weaver, it may be one of the Weaver's "Incarna" or avatars. Ironically, one of the Technocracy's most important Constructs may be inadvertently built into the hide of one of the fastest-growing spiritual beings known to exist.
The Bygone Umbra
Some realms and aspects of the Umbra no longer exist, or are no longer accessible in the same ways. The Gauntlet has historically grown stronger and thicker as civilization has developed into its modern form, and this has led to the Umbra being increasingly isolated from Earth. At the same time, parts of the Umbra have withdrawn into themselves, and can no longer be found. Whether this process occurs through artificial exclusion or natural withdrawal is unclear. Finally, some aspects of the Umbra, built artificially in the past, simply have not stood the test of time.
Changelings say that their home country is a place called Arcadia, a now unreachable place of pure dream deep within the Dreaming (Dream Umbra). Faeries, they assert, are the dreams of humanity made manifest, and Arcadia is the heart of those dreams. The facts, however, are difficult to determine (a) because changelings, by definition, are not 'true' faeries, but a sort of faerie/human hybrid adapted to dealing with the mortal world and (b) because Arcadia itself has been impossible to reach or even detect for a very long time (fae scholars mark the Black Plague as the first moments of the Shattering, the process by which Arcadia broke away from Earth's Dreaming).
Mount Qaf and the Web of Faith
Considered by many mages to be the key to winning the Ascension War, Mount Qaf was the so-called Correspondence Point allowing access to all parts of the Tellurian, the perfect junction point for the flow of information, travellers, and power. The Ahl-i-batin are credited with discovering it, and used it as the architectural keystone for the Web of Faith, a network through which information was transmitted at enormous speed during a period spanning the eighth century to the thirteenth century. The Web of Faith itself collapsed as a result of infighting, crusades, and the weakening of magical places of power, but its foundations remained, discovered by the Difference Engineers in the 1950s, thanks to whom it became the Digital Web. Access to Mount Qaf itself was lost at roughly the same time, but the Digital Web appears to continue to take advantage of its unique properties.
The Paths of the Wyck
For thousands of years, spiritual travel wore trails through the Periphery. This so-called Paths of the Wyck behaved in a manner similar to the trods still found in the Dreaming, but allowed even mundane humans to "walk" into the Umbra, sometimes by accident. Such paths figure prominently in mythology (examples including Orpheus' trip into the Underworld and Rip van Winkle's apparent stroll into a fae celebration). These paths began to fold in on themselves, either due to the reinforcement of the Gauntlet or the spread of banality, the force of disbelief that also harms changelings. Today, while a small number of other paths that lead into the Umbra remain open, the Paths of the Wyck themselves are gone forever.
The Dark Umbra
The dark or Low Umbra is the land of the Dead and is constructed in much the same way as the Spirit Umbra. It has the Shadowlands (the location closest to our world where things are almost seen as we see them, except with a veneer of entropy), the Tempest (a sea through which navigation is dangerous and under which can be found the Labyrinth and the kingdoms of Oblivion) and the Far dark Umbra where the Dark Kingdoms reside, where the far shores are and where Wraiths with no fetter or connection to earth are stuck.
The Dark Kingdom of Obsidian
In ages past, when mankind as a whole did not journey to other continents, each region of the world had an associated domain in the Tempest. The Americas, particularly South America, had an underworld as rich and complex as that of the living. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, this empire seemed in ascendance as its ranks were flooded with the angry dead, prey to disease and war brought from Europe. The "Third Maelstrom," which had just come to a close, left the Shadowlands relatively free from obstruction, and European renegades revolting against Stygia fled en masse to the Dark Kingdom of Obsidian, only to discover that its afterlife was as enraged as its living counterpart was decimated. The resulting war saw great atrocities, the most significant of which involved causing the enemy capital city to be swallowed by a massive Nihil, drawing into the Labyrinth. Though scattered pockets of the Obsidian Empire remain, the bulk of that wraithly race was destroyed, leaving the territory vulnerable to invasion by Stygia.
While the Umbra plays a role in nearly every setting within the World of Darkness, most settings only engage with a very limited slice of it. This colors not only their impressions of the Umbra and its role, but often defines the extent of the Umbra that they know exists.
Vampire: The Masquerade
Vampires, in general, know little or nothing about the Umbra. Many vampires believe in spirits or the afterlife, but for most this is a matter of faith and hearsay rather than experience. Two notable exceptions exist: the Tremere clan and the Giovanni clan. Having their roots among mages, the Tremere are aware of the spirit world (if only loosely), but still interact with it quite infrequently. The Giovanni interact exclusively with the Shadowlands, but know a great deal about wraiths and the Shadowlands, as well as having some inkling of the Tempest as well. These clans experience the Umbra either through the astral videre or the mortific videre, respectively. Even these informed few virtually never travel to the Umbra, and are unaware of its apparently endless diversity.
Werewolf: The Apocalypse
Werewolves and other shapeshifters have had the richest history of interaction with the Umbra of any terrestrial beings in the World of Darkness (due to their spiritual nature and their alliances with the forces of the spirit world), but their interactions are almost exclusively limited to the Spiritual Umbra and the Shenti. While generally only vaguely aware of the Astral Umbra, the Tempest, and the Deep Umbra (and totally ignorant of the Near Universe), shapeshifters know the Spiritual Umbra better than anyone else, and many treat it like a second home. A tribe of werewolves called Glass Walkers are aware of the Digital Web, another tribe called the Fianna are familiar with the Dreaming, and the Ananasi werespiders are quite familiar with the Pattern Web. Other tribes such as the Silent Striders and breeds such as the Nuwisha (werecoyotes) travel widely in the Umbra, but are not known to specialize in their attentions. Shapeshifters not only experience the Spiritual videre, they virtually define its nature. Nuwishas in particular travel to the deep umbra looking for a new Earth.
Mage: The Ascension
Mages have the most diverse views on the Umbra, due to having all four videres represented among their ranks. Whether an individual mage associates with the Umbra depends on what avenues of magic are pursued or (barring that) with whom the mage is aligned. Most mages of some experience have at least visited the Umbra (possibly with a guide capable of the appropriate magic). Quite a few mages are born and die in the Umbra, living in or among its realms. Overall, mages usually experience the Umbra through a mild astral videre. Some with shamanistic paradigms experience the spiritual videre, while Technocrats and other technomancers often are restricted to the technological videre. The Euthanatos are the most likely to have a mortific videre, as are Nephandi. A mage's experience of the Umbra is defined primarily by their videre, as a mage's ability to shape reality makes videre especially potent.
Wraith: The Oblivion
Wraiths are the masters, citizens, and victims of the Tempest. Their familiarity with its workings exceeds even the shapeshifter mastery of the spiritual Umbra. Unlike shapeshifters, the mortific videre of wraiths is so powerful that they are unlikely to even be able to leave the Low Umbra. For wraiths, everything boils down to a simple dichotomy: alive or dead. The very idea of a limitless spiritual tapestry is beyond the average wraith's worldview. Only, the Sandmen are able to normally visit the Dream (middle umbra).
Changeling: The Dreaming
As the name of their game line suggests, Changelings know more about the Dreaming than the rest of the World of Darkness does. This actually doesn't mean a whole lot, however, as Arcadia is now long gone. In truth, while the fae have a better handle on the Dreaming than anyone else, they still only have a passing understanding of the place (unsurprisingly, given the speed at which it changes). They are entirely unaware of the more traditional Umbra.
Hunter: The Reckoning
There is no indication in any of the rule books that the Hunters are aware of the existence of the Umbra.
Kindred of the East
As former wraiths with their feet grounded in reality, Kindred of the East have a solid understanding of the basics of the Umbra. Though many simply chose not to interact with the spirit world, no Kuei-jin can forget their experiences in Yomi, and most must acquaint themselves with their spiritual natures as part of their hard path to enlightenment.
Demon: The Fallen
It appears that most Demons are unaware or only vaguely aware of the Umbra's existence in its current state. Information provided in the Players Guide points to the possibility that the Demons actually created what would become the Dark Umbra, but there are no indications that the Demons have knowledge of the Umbra in its current state. The possible exception to this are the Slayers. The Slayers have the capacity to enter the Shadowlands, and are also able to create gateways that allow others to pass into or out of the Shadowlands with ease. It is unknown how, or even if, the Demons' prison (Hell) is connected to the Umbra. However, even the most insane of beings to wander the Umbra would not WANT to visit Hell.
For those interested in using the Umbra as a setting, it can be frustrating that no single sourcebook exists to describe it. Just as each branch of the World of Darkness has its own take on the Umbra, each branch also provides material suited to its purposes. Below is a list, sorted by game line (and sorted by product ID within a game line), of sourcebooks that provide substantive material on the Umbra or some subsection of it. In cases where basic rules for the Umbra are listed in the core sourcebook of each game, that book's product ID will also be listed
- Mage: The Ascension (WW4600)
- The Book of Chantries (WW4003)
- Digital Web (WW4004) and Digital Web 2.0 (WW4016)
- Beyond the Barriers: The Book of Worlds (WW4407)
- Guide to the Technocracy (WW4014)
- Masters of the Art (WW4017)
- Technocracy: Void Engineers (WW4204)
- The Book of Madness (WW4251)
- The Infinite Tapestry (WW4632)
- Werewolf: The Apocalypse (WW3801)
- Hengeyokai (WW3063)
- Rage Across the Heavens (WW3110)
- Book of the Wyld (WW3113)
- Book of the Wyrm (WW3200) and Book of the Wyrm, Second Edition (WW3109)
- Book of the Weaver (WW3209)
- Umbra: The Velvet Shadow (WW3204) and Umbra, Revised Edition (WW3111)
- Wraith: The Oblivion (WW6000)
- The Sea of Shadows (WW6006)
- Dark Kingdom of Jade (WW6010)
- Dark Kingdom of Jade Adventures (WW6012)
- Dark Reflections: Spectres (WW6902)
- Changeling: The Dreaming (WW7300)
- Dreams and Nightmares (WW7303)
- Land of Eight Million Dreams (WW7308)
- Kindred of the East (WW2900)
- The Thousand Hells (WW2902)