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Interview with Justin Achilli

Posted on November 22, 2004 by Flames

How did you get into gaming?

Totally accidentally. Some jocks and preps and I were wandering the halls of our high school, looking for less popular kids to oppress. We found some nerds in the hallway, squatting on the floor and playing D&D. We kicked their asses, and they left their books behind when they ran away. I picked up one of the books to rip the pages out and some of the text caught my eye, so I took the books home and read them instead of destroying them. From that moment on, a golden age of factional harmony overtook the school. I even put “DUNGEONMASTER” on my football jersey.

What do you feel is the biggest issue facing the gaming community today?

Stagnation. Stagnation due to insularity. Too many people let gaming become a lifestyle instead of a hobby or pastime. These people can’t see a movie without vocally discussing what clans the wookiees were or how many levels of Zarguss the main character had. They can’t put it aside when interacting with the rest of the world and as a result, people outside their immediate circle of friends (all gamers) regard them as weird, withdrawn and over involved in their own strange activities.

It’s impossible to become a gamer without already being a gamer, as odd as that sounds. Gamers have acknowledged the “outsider” status they had in high school and adopted it as a badge of honor long after it ceases to apply. Some gamers are even haughty about it (have you ever heard that old bullshit about gamers being “smarter and more creative than normal people”? Where’s the evidence to back that up?) Once you’re out of school, nobody cares what “social clique” you belong to — they relate person-to-person. If gamers can’t relate because their realms of experience are too focused, they can’t interact with other people, and that lack of interaction turns into withdrawal.

It’s weird, but the best thing for gaming would be for people to actually quit gaming a little bit. Go out to a bar or a gallery opening. See a live band. Take up another hobby and use it to meet new people. Then, after some new relationships have formed, ask those new people if they want to come hang out and play Vampire for a few hours. Shit, it’s cheaper than watching a movie.

What makes it even worse is that gamers factionalize internally, too. So and so will never play a game from Publisher X while someone else thinks everyone who plays Game Y is an idiot. Histrionics and grandstanding ensue, while the sensible people stand aside, thinking “It’s only a game, for fuck’s sake.”

So, long story short, people not already fully immersed in the hobby rarely want to get involved with this hostile, resentful knot of freaks who pretend that they’re elves and wizards. People in the hobby often care more for the partisan politics than the actual pursuit of play.

Obviously, not everyone’s like that. It’s just the big picture. I even ask potential interns and new hires that question. If the answer to “What are your interests besides gaming?” is “Nothing, really. Gaming is my life,” they get the thumbs-down from me.

Where/how do you find your authors and/or artists for your projects?

For authors, all over the place, really. I’ve hired several based on ideas they’ve put forth online, such as in our forums. Other people send me submissions and I hire them based on that. (I was pleasantly surprised when I semi-updated the writer’s guidelines. Out of the first five submissions I received, two of them were _really_ good. That’s an unprecedented success rate! I haven’t hired them yet, but we’ll see what comes up….) Some people have prior publishing experience and we’ll put something together at a convention or other meeting. Sometimes I grab them seemingly out of the blue, like when I hired my old roommate (a Peace Corps alumnus) to write for the Kindred of the Ebony Kingdom book.

As to artists, I don’t do that. That’s all done by my Art Director. I recommend artists every now and then, but all the actual decisions are made by the AD.

What has been the most challenging work you’ve done in the RPG industry?

Hands down, designing and developing Requiem. Hard work, unceasing work, and very challenging. In fact, that ties into your next question.

What has been your most rewarding work you’ve done in the RPG industry?

I have three answers for this one.

First, I like it when I’m not the boss. I’ve done some work for other developers at White Wolf — Ethan, Ken, Rob Hatch, Rich Dansky, Cynthia Summers — and a handful of people outside White Wolf (Atlas Games, Shadis Magazine when it was still publishing, etc.). One of the rewarding aspects is getting back a redline and correcting it. In a vacuum, when I’m my own developer, I know what I want and that’s what I put together. Working under another developer forces me to think outside my usual parameters, which is good for the brain. When a draft comes back to me and it says, “Fix this idea but make it _work_ this time, jackass,” it’s refreshing. Creativity is like a muscle in that when you flex it and challenge it, it grows all the stronger.

Second, redesigning Vampire has been extremely rewarding, to say the least. Not that it hasn’t been insanely hard work. It’s just that I’m so happy with how the end result came out… well, I’ll let players decide that for themselves when it hits stores. I had the luxury of taking an already successful game and “fine-tuning” it even more to my liking without having to worry about specific things that had gone before. Vampire: The Masquerade enjoyed an amazing 13-year run, and the work everyone before me did on it was great, but it did have a few portions that didn’t quite click. Having the chance to drop those parts and install what I thought the game truly needed from the ground up was an opportunity I’m indescribably thankful for.

Finally, there’s the intangible. When a player comes to the booth at a show and says, “I really enjoy Vampire” or sends me an e-mail to that effect, I can’t help but groove on it. I don’t mean a big long dissertation on “My character did this” or all sorts of intrinsic details, I just mean a simple word communicating enjoyment. I’m not out to change people’s lives with games or revolutionize the world, I just enjoy when what I do gives someone a bit of happiness in their day.

Is Ravnos really dead? Just Kidding…what have been some of the most “interesting” moments as Developer of Vampire: the Masquerade?

Meeting people. This is an odd business, and its quirky subject matter and by-the-seat-of-the-pants professional protocols draw some weird dudes into its ranks. Gaming has all sorts of seedy things going on and bizarre people up to God knows what. People come by the booth and show off a logo tattoo while holding hungry kids in their arms and dudes none too far removed from Charles Manson ask for Black Dog stuff. Promiscuous girls and biohazardous guys. People with “conditions” and that guy who got mad at us for making fun of Kip Winger.

Then again, in some cases, _I’m_ that seedy and weird element. I remember being at Origins a few years back and making it to the booth really late after a night of carousing. Some dudes came by the booth and were all, “Were you guys walking down the street at five in the morning, carrying Justin?”

And Shane and Chad had to reply, “Uh, yeah.” Apparently I had consumed just a bit too much, got out of line and had to be fireman’s carried home. I tried to kill Conrad twice. Chad insists that I tried to throw him out of a hotel window in Germany, but my side of the story is that he _jumped_ out of the window and it was up to me to save him. There’s even some shit I’m downright scared to talk about for fear that I was too “outside myself” to remember the details and someone who was actually there will offer some ugly truths. I guess I’m a self-destructive person at core and I sometimes drag other people into it.

On the other hand, I’ve met some great people in this business, too, so “interesting” doesn’t have to have the harrowing connotations I ascribe to it above. John and Michelle Nephew of Atlas Games, the crew over at Fantasy Flight Games, the guys at Guardians of Order. I’d fight wild dogs for Peter Adkison and John Kovalic is probably the nicest person you’d ever hope to meet. Matt Forbeck gave me some very personal advice last year that left me kicking myself for how simple and earnest it was, but that I just wouldn’t consider for whatever reason. With a few exceptions, all of the White Wolf people have been significant in my life (for better or for worse), even the freelancers.

Players are among this second group, too. I’ve met some very down-to-earth and cool individuals at games and shows, and they’re a blast to hang out with. I like it when there’s no pretense, when they just realize that I’m a gamer, too, and we go have a drink or bullshit about this year’s pro football prospects or why Fischerspooner is great live. I don’t want to be some game rock star, I’m just a guy who makes games. I don’t want to be “on” all the time, and I really appreciate people who treat me like just another friend.

Hell, maybe I should write a book about it. “Memoirs of a Gaming Dumbass.” Little retellings of events that have transpired since I started on the job.

What is the difference between a Developer and an IP Manager?

In practice, a fat lot of nothing. I took the title change instead of a pay raise a while back. Really, the IP Manager is a more accurate description of what I do, but it’s all semantic. My argument was that I’m not just putting together a game, I’m working in all different sorts of media: film treatments, comic-book scripts, action figure approvals, video game level commentary, legal consultation, etc. “IP Manager” is a broader term and it reflects the nature of our business in that we’re really growing ideas here, not just making games. Also, it looks cooler on a business card.

If you could have released one more Vampire: the Masquerade book before the Time of Judgment, what would it have been?

It didn’t need it, to be honest. If I _had_ to put another book on the schedule, I would have pitched another historical setting. What I really would have liked is another 12 weeks with Gehenna. I’m really happy with how the book turned out, but as a good friend once told me, “A piece of writing is never truly done.”

Can you tell us who the authors of the upcoming Vampire: the Requiem are?

Contributing to the core book are Dean Shomshak, Ari Marmell and C.A. Suleiman. It’s funny — the book has undergone such a transformation since their drafts arrived that I don’t even know if they’ll be able to recognize their own writing in it! Not that they did a poor job; quite the contrary. We really put it under the microscope and tweaked, twisted and adjusted every last piece until we arrived where we wanted with it.

What can you tell us about Frostholm?

I hesitate to say anything, knowing it may change. As it stands, we’re reevaluating doing it as d20. That market’s in a fairly volatile state and I don’t want to release “Oh, another d20 game” into a market that doesn’t necessarily care about it.

That’s just system, though. The setting is locked down and ready to go. We’ve pulled it from the schedule (it was originally going to be a 2005 release), but we’ll definitely be finding a home for it soon.

Do you consider Horror a genre or a mood? Why?

I consider it a genre. Certain moods are inherent to that genre, but the emotional response is a hallmark of a greater structural format. You can be scared, but that’s not necessarily horror — maybe it’s terror, maybe it’s suspense, maybe it’s the moment before splatter.

On the other hand, I think it’s a tremendously misapplied and over generalized genre label. Horror is almost impossible to game in. Vampire is like Call of Cthulhu in that it works better when the Storyteller has an appreciable amount more knowledge than the players. So many players immerse themselves in all of the details of the World of Darkness that it’s impossible to spring much on them without significantly altering the background material, but many players feel cheated when a Storyteller does that. Not that I agree with that — by all means, when I’m in your horror game, turn what I think I know on its ear! — but one of the facts of the World of Darkness is that people have invested an amazing sense of ownership in it. It’s not my World of Darkness; it’s not even my Vampire. It’s all of ours by its participatory nature, and part of that is a bit of comfort in a certain degree of expectation.

Of course, that comfort is antithetical to the purpose of horror as a genre. To that end, I’d long since given up regarding Vampire: The Masquerade as a horror property. I considered it more of a pop-culture environment that made brief interludes of horror (or terror, or the alien) its stock in trade. It simply couldn’t do horror well if you played it “by the book” because so many of its aspects were known quantities.

What RPG(s) are you currently playing?

I’m running a game of Warcraft right now, I have a Call of Cthulhu one-shot in the works and a Spycraft short arc on the boil. Once the book comes back from the printer, I’ll start a new Vampire chronicle, but in the interim I’m part of the Werewolf playtest in-house and Mage will be coming up soon, too. I’m playing in Jeff Holt’s homebrew D&D campaign and picking up the odd one-shots that surface here and there. Oh, and any time Settlers of Catan shows up, I’m there.

What keeps you busy when you’re not gaming?

Oh, a handful of hobbies. I really enjoy cooking. I haven’t been doing that much recently, however, because health and fitness are another interest of mine, and I’m trying to put on eight pounds so I’m eating pretty simple fare right now. I DJ at nightclubs once or twice a week and music in general is a big interest for me. I have two novels in the works, one game-related and one not, that have been neglected since Requiem went into development. I’m fooling with the notion of doing movie treatments for Vampire and Frostholm, but I think that counts as gaming-related. I’m a car nerd so I try to make it to the auto shows and I love clothes so I read a variety of style magazines here and there. I dig Scorsese movies, histories and historical fiction, drinking, fighting and cursing. I’m hoping to see the office softball team back on its feet — we had a problem a while back because we couldn’t field enough women to meet the requirements of the league, but since we bought the bar, that’ll hopefully change. I’m submitting an application for next season’s Survivor, too.

It’s largely a bunch of random shit that’s caught my attention for one reason or another.

What’s next for you?

Well, tonight I’m headed to the 10 High for Metal-Some Monday. It’s metal and hard-rock karaoke backed by a live band. I’ll be singing some Danzig.

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