Nativity in Black: The Rise and Fall of White Wolf Games

An earlier version of this story appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of Soda Killers. As such, it specifically and intentionally doesn’t cover the fifth edition of Vampire: The Masquerade and the many controversies that have followed that game since it launched. 

With the benefit of a decade or two of perspective, I can say that I was a pretty stereotypical hashtag 90s kid.

A stereotypical nerdy 90s kid who would brag to his friends about how many library books he borrowed, who stayed up late to watch Jackie Chan’s the Canton Kid and Lady Rose, who read “grown up” “mature readers” graphic novels like Watchmen, From Hell and Sandman, who spent many long hours and late nights pretending to be an uber-cool trench coat wearing sunglasses after dark Vampire.

This story is the story of the last of those things and the company which made it possible. Well at least it’s part of that story, the first half I guess. This is the story of meteoric rise and spectacular fall of White Wolf Games. It’s the story of a World of Darkness and the laughably moody RPGs that filled that world. Games like Vampire: The Masquerade, Werewolf: the Apocalypse and Hunter: the Reckoning. This is part memoir, part history of that decade or so when White Wolf Games burned like a black star in the cold, uncaring Heavens.

For me it all started with a guy named Josh Seidel. He was the first person to thrust the hardcover of Vampire: The Masquerade, complete with its iconic marbled green cover, into my hands. This would’ve been 1993 or 1994 but the White Wolf story starts a few years before this, at the beginning of the 1990s.

Vampire the Masquerade was spawned in 1991 by Stewart Wieck, Lisa Stevens and Mark Rein-Hagen. Rein-Hagen was already something of a veteran of tabletop game design having already created the Ars Magica game system in 1987.

Ars Magica, which was initially self-published through Rampant Lion Games, took many of the traditional, romantic and Tolkien inspired high fantasy tropes and trappings of “traditional” role playing games like Dungeons & Dragons and Rolemaster and replaced with them a medieval European setting that was more akin to the gory worlds of Game of Thrones or Vikings than the Dio/Manowar album cover world of the Dragonlance Saga.

Ars Magica was something of an instant success for Rein-Hagen with more “mature” fans looking for something more in line with their “sophisticated” adult tastes.

Rein-Hagen must have known he was onto something. He quickly realized that there was a generation of players which had grown up as kids playing Dungeons & Dragons and Villains and Vigilantes in their school libraries and parents’ basements but were now moody teens. An untapped audience, flush with disposable income, who wanted to leave the trappings of “heroic” fantasy behind and dive head first into something that explored their growing angst about what might be lurking around the corner in those final years of the 20th Century.

Lion Rampant merged with White Wolf Magazine birthing White Wolf Game Studio and the idea for Vampire: The Masquerade was born.

Taking it’s narrative cues from the novels of Anne Rice and Nancy A. Collins and movies like Fright Night, The Lost Boys and The Hunger, Vampire: The Masquerade (often shortened to VtM) inverted the traditional heroic fantasy of roleplaying games by positioning players as morally ambiguous, existentially tormented bloodsucking vampires.

It took its stylistic queues from the aggressive nihilism of the punk, hardcore and metal sub cultures and dressed it up with a visual sensibility of the Goth Scene of the 80s and 90s to create a look, feel and sensibility which White Wolf called “Gothic Punk”.

Here’s how the creators described the “Gothic Punk” (™) ethos in their own words:

The term ‘Gothic Punk’ best describes the decadent ambiance of the World of Darkness. Violence blends elegantly with elegance as wealth and privilege mix with the panoply of fear and cultural conflict…The Gothic image of looming architecture is everywhere, chased with gold and silver as it watches over the dispossessed…Punk Nihilism echoes in the overpowered despair of dreams destroyed…The world careens down a fast track to self-destruction and everybody wants an escape”

The millennial tension is so thick you could almost cut it with a knife. The World of Darkness, which was the setting for VtM and the many games that followed, was the world of Roy Batty crying in the rain at the end of Blade Runner.

It was the world of amphetamine thin, milk white vampire gods, of Peter Murphy’s androgyny, Iggy Pop’s wiry musculature, Al Jourgensen’s drug fueled self destruction, Connor McLeod’s long coat, Andrew Eldritch’s sunglasses and Siouxsie Sioux’s eye makeup. Vampire: The Masquerade created nothing less than a seismic shift in the tabletop gaming industry as it dragged it into the dying light of the 20th Century. It was the “Psalm 69” to Dungeons & Dragons’ “Holy Diver,” the Highlander to D&D’s Conan, The Watchmen to D&D’s Justice League. So of course 15-year-old me ravenously devoured it. And I wasn’t the only one.

Vampire: The Masquerade and the World of Darkness franchise which it spawned was nothing short of a revolution for an industry which was struggling to redefine itself in the wake of the Satanic Panic of the 70s and 80s and the geek stereotypes that came with it. By the time the game found its way into my hands in 1994, it had already birthed a revised Second Edition in 1992, won the Origin Award for “Best Roleplaying Rules of 1991 and spawned a highly a high successfully live action roleplaying community under the banner of Mind’s Eye Theatre.

Live action roleplaying, commonly abbreviated as LARP, is dress-up for grownups. It had previously involving a bunch of folks, typically men, dressing up as wizards and warriors and going out to the woods to act out their sword and sorcery fantasies complete with ornate costumes and prop weapons.

The World of Darkness, under the banner of Mind’s Eye Theatre, transformed all that into Lost Boys inspired packs of youths, dressed in crushed velvet capes, leather trench coats and sunglasses, roving sodium-lit city streets, acting out their naughty vampire god fantasies. And in its defense that’s something that would’ve fit the description of a Top Night Out for many 90s goth kids, myself included, back in the day. It was high successfully in entrenching World of Darkness in the gaming community. It also brought scores of new players, especially girls and women, into the fold of what had typically been seen as a super stinky super secret boys club for basements and backrooms at comic book shops.

Rein-Hagen, Wieck and co knew they had a hit on their hands. So what they do? They did what any sensible entertainment company world do and decided to expand the World of Darkness franchise under their audacious “five games in five years” strategy.

Each game would take a classic horror or fantasy myth or monster and reinvent and update it for the trappings and tropes of the pre-millennial wasteland of the 1990s. The World of Darkness Games, also known as the Storyteller system, dismissed the heroic fantasy of Dungeons & Dragons as juvenile or simplistic, replacing instead with something that was, at least in concept, more nuanced, profound and reflective of the human experience.

Each game would focus on a core conflict or theme which was supposed to be the heart of the emotional and actual conflict which drove stories forward. With VtM, this was the vampire not only as the tragic, Byronic, gothic hero; it was also political allegory. The battle between the “good” vampire society of the Camarilla and the chaos and decadence of the “evil” Sabbat was symbolic of the conflict between ruling elites and working classes, while also speaking to questions of value of the established societal structures of contemporary Western society. The hierarchical structure of vampire society, with it’s strict rules of deference to age and peerage, anticipated the conflict between Boomers and Millennials at least a decade before this narrative entered mainstream society.

The second game, 1992’s Werewolf: The Apocalypse was as 90s an eco-fable as you’re going to get, a sort of ultra-violent Captain Planet for grownups. Werewolves served as defenders of nature, wilderness and the wild acting as Mother Nature’s shock troops in the war on pollution, urbanization and environmental degradation.

Mage: The Ascension followed in 1993, taking its cues from other peak 90s texts such as the writings of Grant Morrison and Terence McKenna. A theoretical successor to Rein-Hagen’s Ars Magica, Mage brought Magic(k) forward into the modern day as commentary on the nature of truth and the battle for personal freedom in a technocratic world of constant surveillance and Illuminati/New World Order conspiracy.

Debuting in 1994, Wraith: The Oblivion (originally solicited as Ghost) looked at the glam nihilism of Nine Inch Nails and dared to ask Trent to hold his beer. It was all about being a super serious ghost type so transfixed and tortured by the struggle to reconcile the self destructive aspects of its personality that it is unable to transcend to whatever ultimate fate awaits it.

The last of the original wave of five games was Changeling: The Dreaming (originally solicited as Faerie) appearing on bookstore shelves in the summer of 1995. Players took on the roles of Faeries struggling to foster creativity, emotion and imagination in this fallen, foul and failing Gothic Punk World.

But it didn’t stop there. There was the Vampire: The Eternal Struggle, the collectible card game. This was, believe it or not, a surprisingly new and novel idea in a world that had yet to be completed dominated by school age children getting into playground fights over Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh cards.

Perhaps the crown jewel of it all was the short lived TV Series, Kindred: The Embraced, which was on our TVs for a hot minute in the spring of 1996 before being canned after only eight episodes. It could’ve fit into the dawn of the premium TV era alongside shows like Oz and the Sopranos. Sadly (?) it was a neutered and muted Aaron Spelling produced affair which had more in common with the fanged trash TV of True Blood than the amphetamine-fueled art goth angst of The Hunger and The Crow.

The failure of Kindred: The Embraced was an omen of troubled times ahead as the wheels began to fall off the World of Darkness wagon before the end of 1996. After the initial success of Vampire, Werewolf and Mage, subsequent games had struggled to find a market and attract an audience. Wraith was roundly criticized for having a rules systems which was downright hostile to players to the point where it was largely unplayable, despite being a very pretty book to look at. Changeling enjoyed slightly better initial success but it was clear that it would not be home run after home run like the company’s first three games.

Rein-Hagen and the team went back to the well, whacking a historical veneer of the greatest hits to trot out spins offs such as Vampire: The Dark Ages, the harrowing Wraith: The Great War and the weird western silliness of Werewolf: Wild West. Success remained elusive: none of the historical games did great business. A tertiary wave of games such as Hunter: The Reckoning and Mummy: The Resurrection were trotted out to an increasingly indifferent and fatigued fanbase. The whole line began to swell, bloat and buckle. Even revenue streams of the more profitable games in the line began to dry up as fans grew sick of the need to continually drop dollars on a seemingly endless list of expansions, handbooks and supplemental rules which were often pointless at best and contradictory at worst.

Add to that the whole tabletop gaming industry had come to a shuddering halt, teetering on the brink of collapse, in the second half of the 1990s. The bust of the comic book speculator bubble pushed many of the retailers that had traditionally stocked White Wolf Games out of business. The rise of the PlayStation generation brought with it more complex, longform console RPGs, such as Final Fantasy VII. This, combined with the rapid explosion in the popularity of collectable card games like Magic: The Gathering and Pokémon, saw many current and prospective gamers turn away from the industry.

Even Dungeons & Dragons, the founding father of the whole industry was in a death spiral from 1996 onward, as it struggled to adapt to the changing times. It was snapped up by Magic publishers Wizards of the Coast in 1997, which in turn was bought lock, stock and barrel by Hasbro in 1999.

Back at White Wolf, the rot had well and truly begun to set in. Disagreements about company finances and the creative direction of a proposed new Science Fiction game, tentatively titled Exile, led to founder Mark Rein-Hagen leaving the company in 1996. He would retain a financial stake in the business until its ultimate demise around a decade later but it would be 20 years before he worked under the White Wolf banner again. White Wolf Games would limp through the remaining years of the millennium trying to recapture the energy and success it had enjoyed in the first half of the decade. Success was, however, limited at best. Most of the games in the line were rebooted or updated to new second and third editions in an effort to get players to spend big on a new fancy set of deluxe hardcover editions of the rules.

Wraith was the first official casualty, with the ax falling in 1999. It’s probably too pessimistic to say that this was the beginning of the end but the company’s mixed fortunes certainly continued into the new century. White Wolf enjoyed some success with its attempt to diversify into the videogame industry with Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines and three games based Hunter: The Reckoning.

The company also launched a new game in 2001, Exalted, which was co-created by World of Darkness co-founder Stephan Wieck. It used the same rule system as the World of Darkness games but was an Eastern Fantasy inspired heroic fantasy game. It drew from anime, cartoons and Asian myths and legends as opposed to the traditional Germanic/Anglo/Celtic origins of Dungeons & Dragons.

Exalted’s success was perhaps symbolic of the changing zeitgeist of the turn of the century. The phantom menace of Y2K and the end of the millennium had passed with barely a blip. The existential tension and pre-millennial angst that had so informed the 90s goth movement in general, and the World of Darkness specifically, evaporated almost overnight. All of sudden, it seemed just a little bit naff to be spending your Friday nights pretending to be an immortal undead brooding bloodsucker.

A line-wide event in 2004 named Time of Judgment resolved the main in-game meta stories for each of the remaining World of Darkness games. It also marked the end for Changeling: The Dreaming, as well as the Mind’s Eye Theatre LARP setting. Opinions varied on the success of the resolution provided by Time of Judgment, with some devotees being unhappy with ambiguous nature of many of the resolutions. The remaining three games; Vampire, Werewolf and Mage were consolidated and rebooted in the wake of the event into a new game, simply called World of Darkness.

The revamped line achieved some critical success and was praised for consolidating and streamlining many of the best-loved elements of the “classic” games into one concise set of core rules. Many saw this as a refreshing change, as the company had a well deserved reputation for rushing unfinished, unrefined style over substance books out into the market (especially at the height of the “five games in five years” period)..

Despite this, the company’s fortunes continued to be at best mixed and in 2006 it merged with Icelandic online game developer CCP Games. The newly formed entity announced plans to bring the World of Darkness to the cutting edge of the gaming community by launching a multiplayer online game. The fact that CCP was already the publishers of the highly successful EVE Online should’ve made this something of a foregone conclusion but in reality the exact opposite was true. CCP struggled to make any headway in the development of the World of Darkness online multiplayer game. Almost a quarter of the White Wolf staff were sacked in October 2011 and the World of Darkness that had been so successful for the better part of 20 years effectively ceased to be.

White Wolf Game, or at least the World of Darkness universe, has gone through multiple hands and owners in the half a dozen years since. Former White Wolf creative director Rich Thomas owned the associated IP, ideas and assets from 2012 through 2015, before the good ship World of Darkness found a new flag to fly under after its acquisition by Paradox Interactive. All plans for the World of Darkness online multiplayer game were scrapped with Paradox focusing on using the newly emergent crowdfunding sector to produce a variety of high end anniversary editions of many of the classic World of Darkness games.

So what is the legacy of White Wolf Games and the World of Darkness after those initial fateful conversations between Wieck, Rein-Hagen and company back in the summer of 1991?

Each of those three founders would go on to be influential, if not always successful, figures in the gaming industry. Rein-Hagen was arguably the least prominent. He relocated to the former Soviet Republic of Georgia around 2008 and remained in the fringes of the game design community before making a “triumphant” return in the last few years to work on the latest edition of Vampire: The Masquerade.

Lisa Stevens left White Wolf for Wizards of the Coast as it began to expand rapidly in 1993. Stevens went on to oversee Greyhawk and D20 Star Wars for Wizards, before becoming one of the founders of Paizo in 2002 where she remains CEO 15 years later.

The Wieck brothers, Stewart and Steve, would remain with White Wolf until it was acquired by CCP, when they opted to take up directorships in the new parent company. They revolutionized the industry again in 2004 with the founding of Drive Thru RPG.

As for the games themselves, it’s no big stretch to say that White Wolf Games and the World of Darkness literally changed the tabletop gaming industry. Even though self applied “Gothic Punk” label may have been as much of a poser statement as anything, there was definitely a punk rock spirit that shook up the way we play games and the people who played them in three key ways.

First, style over substance. White Wolf/World of Darkness changed the way gaming books were written and designed. The bright colored feature pages by artists like Larry Elmore, Jeff Easley and Clyde Caldwell were replaced by a stark black and white pictures and designs by people like Tim Bradstreet and Tony Harris. The signature art style of the early World of Darkness books could just have easily been an album sleeve for a goth, industrial or death metal band. The World of Darkness books were talking points, they looked different; they looked amazing.

Second, new settings, new stories. There had been horror games into the past, most famously the various editions of Call of Cthulhu, but there had been nothing like the bleeding edge modernity of Vampire and the World of Darkness before. White Wolf changed the style of stories that could be told through tabletop gaming and shattered the stereotypes of the people who played them.

Third, games for grownups. Dungeons & Dragons is a distinctly PG game and this tone extended to most of the rest of the industry by default. Men were real men, women were real women and strange skeletal dragon monster things were real strange skeletal dragon things. The violence is epic and heroic with more “adult” ideas of sex, decadence and moral ambiguity at best hidden away in subtext. White Wolf and the World of Darkness games dared to suggest that tabletop gaming could tackle more complex ideas for a more complex audience.

Sometimes I can’t help but look back and laugh remembering long cold nights in my parent’s garage, pretending to be a naughty vampire or a wild werewolf. It seems very much a matter of right person, right time right place, but it’s clear I wasn’t the only one. I was part of something bigger, somewhere between a community and a revolution and that’s something I don’t think I will ever forget.

Michael Francis is a child of the red box era and has been playing, writing and running RPGs almost non-stop since then. He’s written extensively for The Atomic Elbow, Soda Killers and Slash Dance Magazine. He’s also the driving force behind TPK Zine and the upcoming game Glam Metal Monster Hunter. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram @tpkzine.

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