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Interview with Richard E. Dansky

Posted on May 18, 2004 by Flames

How did you get into gaming?

You can blame my parents for getting me into gaming in the first place. I was a D&D Blue Boxer, back in the days before they put dice in with the pamphlets. I got it in sixth grade and devoured it, and my mother was foolish enough to feed my habit after that. She kept on bringing home whatever game books she found, regardless of what they were, which meant that I got a very eclectic education of RuneQuest, Call of Cthulhu, Dungeons & Dragons, James Bond, and whatever else was prominently displayed. We actually didn’t play much D&D when I was growing up. The group I hung out and played with was more into the Chaosium games – CoC, Stormbringer, Hawkmoon – and Villains & Vigilantes. I guess all of that helped instill in me a love for really fast-paced resolution, which is something that I ultimately carried forward into my own game design work.

Professionally, I got my first break from Jennifer Hartshorn, whom I’d known at Wesleyan. She was the original Wraith developer, and she knew that I was A)a Lovecraft junkie and B)a frustrated writer, so she asked me to do a couple of pieces for Haunts, one of which was supposed to be an uber-spooky Lovecraftian locale. That worked out pretty well and it established my lifelong habit of drastically overwriting my allotted word count. From there, I got more assignments – an Inphobia article, the Wraith Players Guide, Changeling - and they liked my work well enough that when Jen moved over to Vampire and there was an opening in-house, White Wolf asked me to fill it.

Where do you get your inspiration? How do you keep your ideas fresh?

The inspiration for what I write comes from all over – daily life as well as things I’ve read. I’m a pretty omnivorous reader – my fiancee isn’t joking when she says our house isn’t big enough for all of our books – and there’s always something neat in pretty much anything I’m reading that sparks an idea. If you go back through my work for White Wolf, you’ll find nods to all sorts of things I thought were fascinating. I’d stumble across a line in a military history book about the use of mobile artillery in the Hussite Wars or whatever and say, “Hey, that’s neat, how can I use that?” A lot of Wraith, in particular, has that sort of twisted ancestry. At the same time, I’ve read a lot of folklore and mythology and of course horror fiction, so all of that comes together and combines with just day-to-day experience to turn into story ideas.

What advice do you have for hopeful authors trying to get into the RPG industry?

The knee-jerk reaction to this question from pretty much every game writer and developer I know is “keep the day job”, and there’s a certain truth to that. Being realistic and professional is very important – the odds that you’re going to sweep in and take the industry by storm are very, very low. Do your homework on what companies are looking for, pay attention to what has gone before and don’t either replicate or ignore it, and above all, recognize that this is as much craft as it is art. Setting out to create art or deathless prose or whatever is a sure recipe for disaster. If you get a writing gig, you’re being hired to write something for a specific purpose and a specific audience, and your job is to do that as well and as creatively as possible – not to reinvent the wheel or “fix what’s wrong with the game” or whatever. Accept constructive criticism – particularly from your editor – in the spirit in which it’s offered and listen to what other folks have to tell you. It’ll save you a lot of grief in the long run.

Oh, and while you’re doing all of that, try to have fun. None of this is worth it if you don’t look at what you’ve written and say to yourself, “Hey, that’s really cool!” If you’re not excited about your work, no one else will be, either.

What differences and/or challenges do you face when writing a novel vs a RPG supplement?

Novel writing is, in a lot of ways, easier. RPG writing is all about expanding possibilities – my rule was always “one story hook per paragraph, minimum” – so that people could tell their own stories. That meant accounting for every imaginable possibility, and a few possibilities that were frankly beyond the imagination. In a novel, on the other hand, it’s a linear plot and a single narrative that I as the author theoretically control. Of course, every writer I know has stories about characters hijacking plotlines and running off with them, but that’s part of the fun. If you’ve got characters strong enough to do that and make it believable – like Unforgiven Blossom did to me in the Exalted trilogy – then more power to them. Generally they’ve got a better idea of what they should be doing than you do, anyway.

What challenges did you face when writing and developing a historical setting such as Dark Ages?

There were two really big challenges with that material. The most important one was balancing factual accuracy with the demands of making a fun, interesting game. Let’s face it, the life of a medieval peasant was not necessarily a thrill-packed adventure, and no one wants to roleplay back-breaking manual labor, fertilizing the fields with cow dung, and random bouts of scrofula. On the other hand, there is plenty of cool stuff in that historical setting, otherwise you wouldn’t have bothered to set the game there, so the trick becomes making sure that you provided enough accuracy to serve as a baseline from which the authors could start riffing. Sometimes it was as simple as getting the dates right and figuring out whose army was where at the time. Other times, more detail was required, especially on a book like Jerusalem by Night.

The other issue was research versus public perception. For good or ill, lots of folks have an idea of what life was like in 1197 or whatever, and most of those ideas don’t necessarily jibe with the documented historical reality. What that means is that even if you do your research and document it, it’s going to feel wrong to people, and they’re going to tune out what you’re doing. It doesn’t matter what the history books say if a guy knows that everyone in the 12th century spoke Shakespearean English, wore plate mail and swung claymores. He’s got his idea of what the setting is like, and if your work doesn’t jibe with it, you’re going to lose every time. So walking the tightrope between historicity and common knowledge was also a tough thing to do on occasion.

What has been your most challenging work in the RPG industry?

Every book really is its own challenge, which sounds trite but is absolutely true. The people out there who really care about the game and who plunk down their hard-earned money to read the latest book don’t know or care that you were tired or cranky or broke up with your girlfriend or whatever else during development. All they know is that you’re the keeper of a world they care about, and so you can’t fall down on the job on any book regardless. Just for example, Buried Secrets, which you’d think would be pretty easy to put together, was an absolute nightmare to develop simply because I was so drained by doing Wraith 2nd Edition.

In terms of personal challenges, though, the toughest was Charnel Houses of Europe. The source material, the potential consequences of doing the book, the sheer delicacy of taking material like that and putting it into the game setting without pandering or trivializing it – all of that was extraordinarily difficult. I literally broke down and cried twice while working on it – once when the frontispiece by Andrew Ritchie came in, and a second time, when I was alone in the office in the middle of the night, working on the book, and the first draft of the introduction came in from Janet Berliner. Her support on the project, and the support of a lot of other folks, including my family, the authors, and Harlan Ellison, really made a difference in helping to get that book made.

What has been your most rewarding work in the RPG industry?

Seeing Charnel Houses in print was, I think, the most rewarding thing, but there’s a lot of work I’m proud of. Wraith 2nd, of course. Corax, which was an absolute blast to write. The fiction in Vampire Revised. Doomslayers and Ends of Empire and the whole Erik plot. Getting creepy with Sluagh and nasty with Redcaps. The response to Laws of the Night when it came out. And, of course, getting to work with great people like Bruce Baugh and Geoff Grabowski, Ethan and Justin and the whole White Wolf crew, and authors like P. D. Cacek and Jim Moore. It sounds cliched, I know, but there’s just a lot of things I can look back on and be genuinely proud of, and happy at the memory.

If you could have put one more Wraith book before Ends of Empire, what would it have been?

I managed to cram the best parts of the books I wanted to do into Ends of Empire itself, so at least some of the loose ends got tied up (in the Appendix, if nowhere else). That being said, there were a couple of books planned that I was really looking forward to. One was Memoirs of a Ferryman, which really was going to go back into the history of Stygia and some of the high strangeness that had ensued back in the day, and the other was going to be all about the Unlidded Eye. There were a lot of ideas in the hopper, though, that I was really hoping to get to do; books on the other Dark Kingdoms and a few Necropoli and quite a list of others. There was just so much interesting material in the Wraith setting that I was really hoping to get out there to people.

What can you tell us about your work on Orpheus?

My work on Orpheus consisted of providing Lucien with some of the Secret Hidden Wraith Files (old manuscripts, mostly) and writing the intro fiction. I was honored when Lucien asked me to do it, and had a lot of fun actually putting pen to paper on that one. There were a couple of false starts because the Orpheus mindset is very different from Wraith – Wraith’s all about the high Gothic, while Orpheus teeters on the edge of noir psychological horror – and I had to yank myself out of Wraith writing mode. In the end, though, I was very pleased with the story that emerged, and I’m glad that Lucien was pleased with it as well. It was always a real pleasure having Lucien write for me – Haunters had that incredible edge to it that really got under people’s skins – and it was nice being able to flip things around and work with him again.

You’ve written and developed for Mind’s Eye Theatre, what makes a good LARP?

The most important elements are, I think, organization, flexibility, a self-policing community, and a recognition on everyone’s part that you don’t “win” a LARP. Organization is important because that’s the best method of providing something for everyone to do. No one wants to sit around waiting for four hours for a Storyteller to get back to them on a plot because no one can find the appropriate piece of paper. Flexibility is important for Storytellers and players – if someone comes up with a good idea you weren’t expecting, roll with it. Storytellers shouldn’t try to force players onto single-track plots, because that defeats what’s most interesting about LARPing.

And players should be willing to take whatever gets thrown at them by the plot or other players and use it as a starting point for play, not a roadblock. The self-policing community matters because it really does only take one or two jerks to ruin everyone’s fun. If there is a community in the game – not just a bunch of players, but a real community of folks who like playing together, welcome newcomers and look out for each other to have fun – then your game can be really strong. Then you can spend less time worrying about logistics and more time having fun. Finally, there needs to be a recognition that everyone’s got the same goal, namely, having fun. Storytellers shouldn’t be trying to “win” because it’s an unfair contest. Players shouldn’t metagame to wreck plots. You’re building something together, and everyone involved needs to recognize that for the good of the game.

Oh, and try to avoid plotlines with Baali-Tremere crossbreed Mokole Abominations with Mage Spheres (TM). Very important, that one.

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

I’m going to cheat on this one and say that horror is a genre defined by a mood. I like the way Noel Carroll defines it in his book A Philosophy of Horror, namely, that horror is defined pretty much by the unstoppable nature of the monster. Once the monster is defined and killed, then you’ve moved from horror to terror, and that’s the difference between, say, Alien and Aliens. Wraith was, in a lot of ways, very much a horror game by this definition. Oblivion was out there, and you may have fought its minions, but there was no way you were going to fight it. That being said, making Transcendence a real option created this incredible contrast that made the horror that much more threatening, but in a lot of ways, I think, made Wraith the most hopeful of the World of Darkness games.

What makes for a good night of Horror gaming?

Good players and a good GM, most importantly. People willing to give themselves to the mood and not break it with “Am I drunk yet? Can I have a Mountain Dew?” Beyond that, the system is less important than you’d think, but given my druthers I’d still rather be running a Wraith game.

Get some good friends with strong characters in, start the game after sundown, set the mood right with the proper illumination and music – the soundtrack to The Serpent and the Rainbow is, for my money, the creepiest thing ever recorded – and just go until everyone’s exhausted. We had some sessions during the Wraith 2nd playtests that were pretty damn close to my ideal – we scared a couple of observers right out of the room, and had one player so turned around by the Harrowings that it took a couple of weeks of explanation before she realized what had actually happened.

What RPGs are you currently playing? if any?

Unfortunately, my schedule doesn’t currently permit me time to play in any RPGs. I miss playing terribly, and I keep on threatening to break out a Wraith game, but between work and my own writing – both of which require a fair bit of travel – I just can’t commit to a regular game. I do make sure to read as much as I can, though. There’s a lot of work out there by really good writers and developers – Bruce Baugh’s work with Gamma World, Geoff with Exalted, some of the stuff Hal Mangold is doing over at Green Ronin, Mike Lee’s work on Demon was very good – and it’s a pleasure to read that when I can.

What’s next for you?

I’m working in video games these days, so that’s keeping me busy at the day job. Outside of that, I’m writing a lot of fiction, spreading my wings a little bit outside of the World of Darkness. I just had a novella called Shadows in Green come out from Yard Dog Press which I’m very pleased with, and I’ve started selling short fiction pretty regularly. Hopefully this is just the beginning. But for whatever it’s worth, I still crack the old Wraith books open now and again. I’m still very proud of that work, and everything I do from here on out grows out of the work I did back in the day.

For more information on Richard E. Dansky, visit www.richarddansky.com.

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