I have written a few pieces about the history of roleplaying games and the books that are attempting to piece it all together. In some of these reviews I complain about the writers’ reluctance to take even a centimetre’s critical distance from official corporate narratives, in others I bemoan the obsession not just with Dungeons & Dragons but with the period of the game’s history for which it was under the creative control of E. Gary Gygax.
My complaints are rooted in the fact that there are a number of historic moments that would really benefit from sustained critical scrutiny. Books could be written about the early years of Games Workshop, the boom in collectible card games, the weird bubble that surrounded the launch of the D20 open gaming license, the first disastrous attempt to shift the hobby closer to MMORPGs that resulted in D&D becoming second fiddle to its own licensee, and that’s without mentioning the fascinating social histories that might come from thinking and talking about non-Anglophonic gaming scenes. However, as instructive as these various moments may be, none has greater potential to disrupt existing cultural narratives than the history of the games making up the World of Darkness. While we may not yet have a book about the creators of Vampire: The Masquerade, we do now have a film written by Kevin Lee and directed by Giles Alderson.
World of Darkness starts where most RPG histories tend to end, namely with images of ugly nerds sitting in basements guiding tin soldiers across card tables whilst pretending to kill dragons. It’s not exactly glamorous and even the most charitable of news reporters struggle to hide their obvious contempt. At one point, a period voice-over says of D&D that it is no longer to preserve of obsessed elites as it is now played by millions of obsessive fans. The narrative and tone of voice may speak of a new hobby spreading joy everywhere it goes but the word “obsessive” speaks to there now being millions of terminally unfuckable dorks where once there were only a few.
The film’s opening scenes do a really good job of replicating the ambivalent tone of the TV news reporters: On the one hand, it’s great that RPGs were a thing and that people were playing them but, on the other hand, ugly maladjusted man-children playing with tin soldiers in their parents’ basements is not exactly the Sex Pistols playing the Manchester Free Trade Hall. In other words, while the commercial success of D&D meant that RPGs had arrived as an art form, the form they arrived in had been shaped by the needs and expectations of a demographic that was not only incredibly narrow but also disastrously uncool. Though never fully articulated, the World of Darkness documentary is animated by a tension between a vision of roleplaying as a cutting edge art form and the fact that said art form had been invented by a bunch of fucking dorks.
The story begins with a meeting between Mark Rein-Hagen and the brothers Steve and Stewart Wieck. At the time, Rein-Hagen was doing a lap of honour as one of the designers of the then-revolutionary and critically acclaimed RPG Ars Magica. While Ars Mag was widely seen as a classic game that moved the art form forward on a number of different fronts, it did not exactly turn its designers into millionaires. Still young and struggling to make their business work, Rein-Hagen and his business partner Jonathan Tweet met the Wieck brothers who were trying to gain some traction in the industry by publishing a magazine called White Wolf.
How exactly the partnership came about is not made clear in the film but Rein-Hagen suggests that while he had loads of ideas and no way of turning them into a viable business, the Wieck brothers were a pair of responsible business types. The group soon decided to go into business together and so Lion Rampant merged with White Wolf to produce White Wolf Studios.
The World of Darkness documentary is a work that is torn between two broad cultural narratives. On the one hand, we have the idea (pushed by Rein-Hagen) that White Wolf Studios were born of an alchemical wedding between responsible suits and irresponsible artists. Given that White Wolf would eventually force Rein-Hagen out of the company and sell themselves to a video game publisher who never did anything with the IP, you can see how the history of White Wolf might be seen as consistent with Venkatesh Rao’s Gervais Principle. The problem is that while the artists vs. suits dialectic definitely seems to apply to White Wolf, there’s also another narrative at work in this documentary that cuts straight across its path.
Watching the film, the first thing that leapt out at me was the very different physical energies exuded by the company’s founding fathers: The Wieck brothers are interviewed side-by-side, they have fashionable haircuts and wear elegant dark and neutral tones. They have ready, laid-back smiles and speak with the ease and confidence of people well used to the public eye. They could just as easily be tech entrepreneurs as veterans of some now-celebrated 90s industrial band. They look, for want of a better word, “Cool”. On the other hand, we have Mark Rein-Hagen with his walrus moustache, Hawaiian shirts and tendency to bounce up and down in his chair when he gets over-excited. He looks like someone who makes ends meet by hiring himself out to fetish parties as a Gene Wolfe impersonator. Add thirty years to the unfuckable dorks of the documentary’s opening scenes and you have Mark Rein-Hagen. It isn’t just that the Wiecks seem very different to Rein-Hagen, it’s that they seem to come from an entirely different world and therein lies one of the tensions at the heart of both this documentary and White Wolf Studios.
This sense of culture clash is further expanded by the revelation that White Wolf used to have its offices in one of coolest counter-cultural neighbourhoods in Atlanta, Georgia. The Wieck brothers may well have been the ‘suits’ at White Wolf but they were also the cool kids and that coolness was manifest in the pages of White Wolf magazine where you were far more likely to find references to underground bands and art house films than you were reviews of the latest supplement for Advanced Squad Leader.
The story of how Vampire: the Masquerade came to be written is arguably the cinematic highpoint of the entire documentary as the film talks about how, in order to get to GenCon, the employees of White Wolf had to drive through the rust-belt town of Gary, Indiana. Gary has a special place in the heart of Vampire players as it was the default setting for the first edition. While Gary would ultimately come to be overshadowed by nearby Chicago, it set the tone by asking players to assume the roles of powerful-yet-conflicted supernatural predators trying to stay alive in a world where everything was stuck in a state of perpetual decline.
Though the film suggests that the ideas behind Vampire were all Rein-Hagen’s, it is somewhat more evasive when it comes to explaining the game’s success. In one interview, Rein-Hagen literally bounces up and down in his chair talking about how the game would be all about clans that were kind of like character classes but also social groups. The way Rein-Hagen talks about the creation process makes it clear that he was a gamer who was riffing on ideas that were already present in RPG culture. However, once the film starts discussing the game’s success, all mentions of other RPGs immediately cease.
The film explains the success of Vampire: The Masquerade by placing it in the broader cultural context of early 1990s culture. This, according to the film, was not a game that drew on the success of other forms of geek culture. Instead, it succeeded by reaching beyond geek culture to the world of bands, films, and nightclubs. This, according to the documentary, is where the core audience for the games happened to come from.
World of Darkness is full of images from LARPs and White Wolf-specific conventions and the one thing that leaps off the screen is the fact that the people who played White Wolf games looked very different to the people who played Dungeons & Dragons. D&D, according to the film’s opening scenes, was played by tubby white men in poorly-cut jeans. Vampire: the Masquerade, on the other hand, was equally popular with both genders and played by people who looked cool and dressed really well. The guy who wrote Vampire: The Masquerade might be an egg in a Hawaiian shirt but his fans were all glamorous women and dudes who look like they played in metal bands. Vampire: the Masquerade was successful because it pushed back the boundaries on who was considered a gamer, and it did this literally decades before the industry started to wring its hands and fret about inclusivity and representation. Vampire sold millions of copies by getting new people to join the hobby and while Mark Rein-Hagen may well have designed the game and created the rules I cannot help but suspect that the game’s success owed more to the Wiecks’ counter-cultural sensitivities than it did to the game’s actual mechanics.
Having now read quite a bit about the history of Dungeons & Dragons, it is fascinating to note that the creator of Vampire and the creator of D&D had almost identical career trajectories. In Gygax’s case, the enormous success of Dungeons & Dragons resulted in a lot of interest from Hollywood and so Gygax left Wisconsin and headed to Hollywood in order to manage the brand’s interests in film and TV. This resulted in the foundation of TSR West that wound up costing the business far more money that it ever brought in resulting in Gygax being forced out of the company. It transpires that almost exactly the same thing happened to White Wolf as the game’s success resulted in a lot of interest from Hollywood, prompting Rein-Hagen to move to Hollywood in order to run White Wolf West, which wound up costing the business far more money than it ever brought in resulting in Rein-Hagen being forced out of the company. Having been forced out of the companies that made their names, both men spent a number of years trying to get other games off the ground before eventually settling into a the kind of totemic cultural role pioneered by Stan Lee as the man who created loads of famous super heroes only to then lose control of his own intellectual property.
Having failed to manage a successful transition to film and TV, the popularity of White Wolf games started to plateau. Painfully aware that the hundreds of supplements they had produced had made the setting too convoluted for newcomers, the management decided to produce a series of supplements that would bring the original World of Darkness to a dramatic close. This is another area in which the company’s unstable alchemical wedding becomes manifest but, as with the fact that the game’s counter-cultural credentials came more obviously from its suits than from its writers, the tensions do not manifest themselves in the way that you would expect.
I must admit that while I have owned at least one edition of every original World of Darkness title, I have only ever played them a couple of times. As someone who spent the 1990s dressing in black and listening to Industrial whilst rolling my eyes at nerds playing with tin soldiers, you would expect me to be a natural White Wold constituent but while I definitely read the magazine, I never really played the games. This was mostly due to the fact that I could never quite make sense of how it was you were supposed to make them work in play:
Firstly, I was always annoyed by the way that the core books would harp on and on about the importance of story-telling and how narratives mattered more than rules but while the ideas the game articulated were radically different to what had come before, the rules themselves were not really all that different to any other RPG on the market. The books would talk about story but ‘story’ somehow always boiled down to rolling buckets of dice and applying modifiers to combat rules.
Secondly, while the games would often invoke these quite lofty and philosophical themes, the adventures that White Wolf published would often boil down to modern-day superhero games in which all of the characters wore trench coats. Vampire in particular would go on at great lengths about the cut-throat world in which vampires operated but all that ever boiled down to was that every adventure involved you getting hired to do a job by a more powerful vampire who would inevitably betray you come the end of the adventure.
There’s a lovely moment in the World of Darkness documentary where a fan enthuses about the fact that rules didn’t matter in White Wolf RPGs but that simply reflects the fact that there were two broad audiences for the game: On the one hand, you had people who would read the core books, get inspired by a combination of the tone, the imagery, the patter, and Tim Bradstreet’s art. They would then go off and do their own thing. I went to a few White Wolf LARPS in my 20s and the people there were way more interested in hooking up than they were in having adventures. On the other hand, you had people who interacted with World of Darkness games in much the same way as they did any other game meaning that they dutifully purchased all of the supplements, all the adventures, and took the rules incredibly seriously indeed.
White Wolf were the first table-top RPG company to produce a set of LARP rules for their core games and I think those LARP rules were the connective tissue between White Wolf and the broader counter-culture of goths and arty kids who looked good, dressed well, and attended conventions in elaborate costume. The problem was that while White Wolf revelled in the idea that these people were the game’s core demographic, they tended to produce books that pandered to a far more narrow and traditional gaming audience. This tension became really obvious when, having blown up the original World of Darkness, White Wolf produced a new suite of games that were far more obviously targeted at gamers than they were counter-cultural types who just happened to game. With trends evolving and White Wolf barely trying to look beyond the limits of their industry, the new books crashed and burned. Intriguingly, the film does not mention either the Scion or the Exalted game lines but when you combine them with undertakings such as the D20-exclusive Sword and Sorcery Studios you definitely get the image of a company that started off cool and stylish only to get progressively more obsessed with the provision of tactically-complex rulesets.
The World of Darkness documentary ends by considering what happened after White Wolf failed to relaunch. According to the documentary, White Wolf believed that conventional publishing in general and RPGs in particular were on their way out and so they started looking for a digital escape hatch. Sitting on a mountain of lore and some amount of good will, they joined forces with the creators of the hyper-capitalist science fiction MMORPG Eve Online only for the new bosses to sit on the IP for years, fail to produce a single game, and eventually shit-can everyone at White Wolf once Eve Online subscriptions started to decline. Since then, the World of Darkness properties have been licensed and sold on to a variety of different companies (including one that outsourced a chunk of the production to people who filled the game with references to paedophilia and anti-gay purges). The World of Darkness lives on, but at this point it is barely distinguishable from fan-fiction in so far as anyone can put their own World of Darkness game under a license.
I would argue that this is starting to emerge as the default trajectory for all once-successful RPGs: You put out a game that everyone loves, then you tinker with it until it starts to implode, then you do a disastrous re-launch that demonstrates a complete failure to understand what caused the original success, and then you sit on the IP and allow a load of small companies to sharecrop your old ideas until there’s nobody who is willing to pay the up-front licensing costs, at which point you publish an open gaming license and take a cut whenever someone sells their own home-brewed rules and setting materials over the internet. Where once there was vision and discernment in pursuit of a compelling sensibility, now there are only landlords wetting their beaks.
World of Darkness is a really interesting film that manages to capture a lot of the nuance of an important period in the history of RPGs but dear god is it fucking bleak…