White Wolf: The Dirge
Chuck already said this better than most – and certainly better than I’m about to – but it’s a big deal in my crackly-crunchy brainjunk and I wanted to get some words onto a screen about it before it’s just a memory. I’ve not worked for White Wolf for a long time, but it still feels bizarrely personal. I found myself starting and stopping posts about it yesterday, and essentially getting nowhere. Now, I want to take Chuck’s words on all of this and use them to help frame my context for it all, because we’re coming from the same place.
As you may have heard, CCP axed the World of Darkness MMO.
Take it away, Chuck:
“I don’t know what this means for the larger WOD brand, or what happens to the ragged tatters of the company that has been frayed and shredded over the years since the EVE Online developer bought the pen-and-paper company. I know it means layoffs, so, fuck. I also know that, at present, Onyx Path continues to roll out its gleaming obsidian walkway of horror-fantasy gaming delights, acting as the spiritual and also literal successor to the White Wolf voodoo — and according to Rich at Onyx Path, everything shall continue apace.“
From the outside looking in, those are some important points to clarify first and foremost. Onyx Path is still releasing the RPGs on its own terms, and there’s little effect on the customer in terms of tabletop gaming – at least from what’s in the public eye. And I see no reason to believe otherwise.
Acquaintances and former colleagues have been given the chop, and that sucks. No way around that. I hear that CCP is usually very generous and helpful in terms of severance, so there’s that. But it still sucks.
“It’s worth taking a moment, maybe, to note that White Wolf is part of my DNA. I grew up reading D&D, but I grew up playing White Wolf games. My first Vampire: the Masquerade character was a pre-made Nosferatu named “Sewer Billy.” (I still have his character sheet around somewhere.)”
Sewer Billy. He called his first V:tM character Sewer Billy.
That name is the most Chuck Wendig-style name (a Wendiggian monicker, if you will) in the history of absolutely fucking forever.
My first character… I can barely even summon the strength to devote thoughtspace to my first V:tM character, let alone actually type it out, because it was such unbearably self-conscious wish fulfilment. He was a horror novelist who also happened to be amazing with a Greek shortsword (because… reasons?) and was in love with a beautiful nurse, and wore trenchcoats, and had the Animalism discipline so he could ride the horses he owned, and Jesus fucking Christ just shoot me now. Even my 17-year-old brain conjured up something beyond my ambitions (which, at the time, were to be a fantasy novelist and a paramedic) and took it all the way to 11. Even my teenage thought processes realised my dreams somehow weren’t metal enough – weren’t stupid enough – and glazed them in a thick layer of raw, dripping pretension.
I remember even at the time thinking “This is a pretty stupid character…”, and that’s from the mind that at age 9 brought the world Shandaric Darkspell von Shadowblade, Level 11 Elf Ranger.
“I loved those games so much that I knew as I got older if I was going to continue playing them while maintaining the illusion of being an adult, I had to monetize that experience, which I did by writing for the company.”
I did that, too.
I loved White Wolf’s games. They didn’t fill any void in my awkward teenage soul, or help me become a complete person, or any of that desperate solace stuff you often find in commentaries and author intros. But they called to me all the same – as great games with intuitive, smooth systems, and beautifully-written books. I loved the Gothic-Punk vibe and the way the books detailed the richness of that theme in terms of a real world atmosphere. I loved the clans, the histories, the tribes, the possibilities.
I’m not ashamed to say (and I doubt I’m alone in this) that I often enjoyed the books more than playing the game itself. Depending on the group I was with, of course.
White Wolf was, for want of a better term, cool. It took itself seriously without being too self-conscious or too preening. It didn’t hide and apologise a la D&D often felt like it did, and it never relied on the (incorrect) fallback stereotype of losers wanting to feel empowered. I loved that. Even when I was making the most stupid character when first learning the character creation rules, I still loved it, even if I was useless at realising it until I made my second character.
Also, now that I think about it, I think my first V:tM character was also a bodyguard for Madonna in the 80s. I never even thought Madonna was that hot. What kind of weird wish fulfilment was this? Whose wishes were getting fulfilled!?
I joined White Wolf as a freelancer very late in the show. The end of the World of Darkness was already a murmur behind the scenes, and although I got involved with the very tail end of the classic game lines, I spent most of my time on the new ones. Werewolf: the Forsaken rather than Werewolf: the Apocalypse, and so on. I thought the new lines had a lot going for them. They were brilliantly written in terms of accessibility and player use, and made for great Storyteller toolkits. But I don’t think that’s what people (at least not the people around me) wanted. They wanted to belong to the World of Darkness, not make their own version of it.
So I liked the new games, and loved the old ones.
My first ever writing gigs were for White Wolf, and there were plenty of them. I reached the point a lot of authors reach where – in some indefinable moment – you stop owning absolutely everything with your name on it. The feverish need to Have It All To Show People At Some Point finally eases off, and you stop worrying about it quite so much. It’s enough that you’ve done it, and you reckon you could get hold of it. It’s no longer a disaster if you don’t have it on hand to show at the drop of a hat.
I also reached a point of turning projects down if they didn’t appeal to me, rather than accepting everything blindly because Oh God, I’m Getting Published and Oh God, This Is My Dream.
Two distinct writing career stages, all before I even wrote a novel. That’s some scary perspective.
“The games always amazed me and as I worked more and more with them in a freelance capacity, I got to see exactly why they amazed me — because some truly amazing people were making these goddamn games. Fellow freelancers and developers: Ken Cliffe, Justin Achilli, Ethan Skemp, Aileen Miles, Aaron Dembski-Bowden, Eddy Webb, Mur Lafferty, Will Hindmarch, Matt McFarland, Jess Hartley, Rose Bailey, Mike Lee, Patrick O’Duffy, Travis Stout, David, Filamena Young, scads more. So many of folks I count as friends even still.”
I know a lot of those people.
One of those names is mine. It looks weird. And too long.
“I learned to write better during my time freelancing. I learned discipline with deadlines. I found out what appealed to me about games, story, character, and horror. Really fundamental stuff.”
More wisdom. Except I also started failing to hit deadlines with White Wolf, so let’s consider that a third (and unwanted) stage in the career.
“When they got bought by CCP I was hopeful, you know — more money for them, plus hey, who didn’t dream about a World of Darkness MMO? Turns out, it wasn’t to be. I don’t know why, really. From the outside, it’s easy to suggest that it was fumbled and mishandled — and, actually, even from my limited glimpses inside it looked that way, at times. But I also know that not everything works out and sometimes, shit happens, so who knows? What I know is it’s sad to see good people let go, and sad that the dream of a WOD game is now shriveled up and going dusty like a sun-cooked vampire. Eve was never a game I could really understand, but I loved how player-driven it was, and hoped to see the same here.”
Here’s where I start to sigh, just a little. I realise MMOs are a very, very, very tricky area to get into, let alone to enter and sustain yourself while clad in the illustrious monthly riches that developers use to buy fast cars and tiny dogs. I also recognise that, at this stage of my existence, I’d probably not have played it at all. I think a lot of people would, and I think it’d have been a haven for a lot of folks’ online fantasies, for better or worse. I can’t imagine, given the way pop culture is sliced around vampires and werewolves these days, that it’d have had a small user base. But what do I know? I’m just some guy.
The soreness comes from the fact that, from the outside looking in, White Wolf itself sort of… died for this. There was a huge shift from tabletop RPGs to the MMO, and then seven years of silence, rumour, and fuck-all else. It felt like every year or so, there’d be another round of layoffs announced at CCP, and more resources pulled from the WoD MMO, with yet more talk about focusing on EVE. And between the reality of the situation, deep in those nasty cracks, was the tumorous feeling of “So it was all for nothing. Whether White Wolf was sustainable or not in the RPG market, it’s dying by inches for what we can plainly see is vapourware.”
I’m not saying White Wolf was sustainable in the RPG market, of course. And CCP hardly bought the license just to let it lie untouched. There were a lot of smart, creative people on that project, and it’s an injustice to say we all knew it was vapourware, when we didn’t really know shit. But the uncomfortable feeling remains. White Wolf is no more, and this was a truly shitty ending.
“What I will say is, White Wolf has left an enduring legacy behind — the last couple days I was up in Erie, at Penn State, where students read my book, Blackbirds as part of a women’s studies / female superheroes unit (whee!). And while there, I had people still want to talk to me about gaming. I had one professor show me his first edition copy of Wraith. I had one student — college-age! — want me to sign several White Wolf books for her gaming group. Exciting stuff, and makes me proud to have been a part of all that.
*pours a cup of d10s on the curb for the World of Darkness MMO and White Wolf in general*
To those gone: best of luck to you going forward.
To those who still play the games: fuck yes.
To Onyx Path: keep on kicking ass.”