Posted on October 12, 2011 by Flames
Our next Vampire Retrospective Essay comes from Steve Wieck, former CEO of White Wolf and current head of DriveThruRPG. Steve tells us about some of the early days when White Wolf was dealing with printers, distributors and retail stores.
White Wolf in the early days of Vampire
“Ok,” I said with some trepidation.
“Josh did the art piece for the back cover, and well, it’s probably going to be seen as a little inappropriate by some distributors and retailers.”
“We did have the audacity to put the word “fuck” in the Brujah clan book for which we received no end of grief, so if you’re telling me Josh’s piece turned out a little risqué, then, yeah, we’ll probably have more problems with the Greenfield distributors of the world. Is this risqué like the barely shown nipple on the Ars Magica Faeries cover [that also created no end of grief]?” I asked, thoughts of listening yet again to the moralizing from some of the hobby distributors and retailers already swimming in my head.
“I wouldn’t say this is quite like the faerie nipplage, no.” Rich answered. “I’m not really sure what Josh was thinking when he drew it.”
“What did he draw then?” I asked.
“It’s the face of a Tzimisce with a flesh-crafted mouth that has lots of fangs and is turned vertical on the face.”
“Sounds suitably gruesome,” I said, “so what’s the problem?”
“The way Josh drew it; it looks a lot like a vagina.”
“Josh drew a fanged vagina to go on the back cover of the book?” I said, wishing I was more surprised than I was.
“Pretty much, yep. So we’re thinking that we can put the issue in a clear bag that just has a black square over that art on the back cover, and…”
And so it was another day in the office at White Wolf in the early days of Vampire.
People who have come into the storytelling hobby in the last decade can’t appreciate just how G and PG rated the hobby was. Many of the wholesalers and retailers who were early adopters of roleplaying game products like D&D were not dedicated hobby stores as we know them today. They weren’t even comic shops. More often they were craft and model hobby shops. The rpgs got stocked with the yarn balls and the model trains. None of the model airplanes they carried contained R rated material.
It was therefore little surprise (especially with Gygax gone) that AD&D 1st edition with naked succubi pictures and discussions of orc armies raping and pillaging became a tame and vanilla 2nd edition. No more demons, no more assassins, and all that rot. There was a lot of push back from retailers and distributors to not upset the parents going into the model hobby shops. In that time, if White Wolf titles had not been as popular, several important hobby distributors would have dropped the Vampire line. Fortunately, they couldn’t afford to drop the line, all they could do was try to sabotage it in other ways.
For us it was so obvious. We grew up playing games like D&D, but we weren’t thirteen any longer. We wanted a more meaningful storytelling experience, something more literary and mature. The hobby wasn’t really supplying it, so we went and created it for ourselves. That other people liked it too turned out to be a bonus and a business.
Now it’s easy to think nothing of having a character in an rpg book use the word “fuck” instead of “frag”, or to depict scenes as visceral as movies and comics and other mediums offer. At the time it made a lot of people angry with us for publishing such stuff in rpgs.
There were times when I was interviewed by reporters fishing for something to print about how the Vampire game makes people do evil things. “’Does this ‘A beast I am, lest a beast I become’ mean that people who play your game are forced to do evil things?”
After the tragic 1996 Florida murders by Rod Ferrell, the interviews hit a fever-pitch. In one day we had every news station in Atlanta come out to the White Wolf office. One reporter wanted to play the game with us.
Knowing that the most violent thing that happened in the ensuing game session would be the clip aired on tv, all of us gathered away from the tv crew before the session and agreed not to have any combat in the session. No sense giving them grist for the mill.
Ironically, it was the reporter herself who went nuts in the game. In the middle of a dialogue with unknown thugs, she says “I run up there and kick him in the shin.” We all exchanged glances around the table while she continued “I kick him and then slam something down on his head”. To this day, I’m convinced she wasn’t doing it to bait the game into violence for a good clip. She was a first-time roleplayer who got into the moment and was letting it all hang out.
Still, the question about the theme of the game haunted me. Many people saw the surface of Vampire and saw it as an evil thing. It was tempting kids into a goth lifestyle and into a moral grey zone where life no longer had clear rights and wrongs.
I have always believed that Vampire was nobler by far. It’s sanctimonious to sit back and moralize on behavior from a distance. It’s easy to say “thou shalt not steal” when you’re knee-deep in consumerist society’s output. It’s a lot harder to live by that if you’re on the horn of Africa and there’s one sack of rice, two hundred starving people and your kids are dying. How do we really know our own morality until it is tested in fire?
Vampire through the storytelling art form gives us a window to that test. Will you kill so you can stay alive? In a corrupt world, will you hold to any moral compass?
There’s no convenient Lawful Good and Chaotic Evil in Vampire, which is precisely why it’s always been a game that says far more meaningful things about good and evil. And, apparently, about fanged vagina mouths as well.
Steve Wieck – 2011
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