Wednesday, May 5, 2021

What Really Happened To Vampire 5e, Chapter Two: Video Games, Bailey Jay, Kenneth Hite, New Orleans, Stockholm

Chapter One  - Chapter Two - Chapter Three -

 Chapter 3.5 - Chapter 4 - Chapter 5 - Chapter 6

 20,000 Words Worth Of Text Messages


So it’s summer 2016 and Paradox has commissioned two World of Darkness mobile games. I get the Vampire one. It’s been explained to me as “Basically a Choose-Your-Own Adventure, you can figure out the rest”.


It also has to be a "prelude "which—for non-Vampire fans—means it’s about a new vampire discovering their powers and their curse. Other than that my remit is pretty open and they let me write whatever I want and they could fix the lore in post if I made mistakes they didn’t want to canonize into the new WoD.


Faced with the puzzle of making a mobile game, I get the great/terrible idea to make it a game of text messages. My idea was: you, the actual player, during your normal real-life day, while you’re getting texts from real people and getting your Facebook notifications on your real phone, you’re also getting alerts from people in the game. That way, toward the end, when these characters are threatened, it feels like people you really know are in trouble.


Part of the reason this is a terrible idea is my contract said 20,000 words. 20,000 words is fine if you’re writing a game book with complete sentences and lush descriptions of dwarf cities and d100 tables (comparison: Frostbitten & Mutilated is 30,000 ish) but 20,000 words of plausibly realistic text messages is a lot, especially when you’re trying to figure out how, for example, to do action scenes in text messages. But I wanted to make a mobile game that would be plausibly something I would actually play and that was what I came up with.


So anyway, I’d given myself this horrible job, so in a search for material and trying to get the rhythm of actual text messages I turned to the text messages I was sending and getting in real life.




At the time, my closest friend who didn’t live in LA—and thus the friend I saw least and texted most—was trans porn actress Bailey Jay. Bailey was funny, good at texting, and liked horror movies...

Bailey pretending to be Elvira


...meaning she was both very much into-, and ripe for-, being turned into a character in a horror game. So with her blessing I went about making her a vampire.


Bailey was also really into giving her Uber drivers handjobs that summer--Bailey Jay texting is only a slightly less censored version of Bailey Jay tweeting:



This wasn’t her doing an extended internet gag—sometimes porn stars really do act like porn stars. She’d flirt with them, then say “Hey, I have a dick” and they’d be surprised but then be like…That’s cool. And that was Bailey’s real life. In the game I basically just added in that if they were transphobic she’d drink their blood because, well, it’s a vampire game, someone has to die, why not transphobic people?


Sample dialogue with the Bailey character:


“What are you having for lunch?”

“Mall goths”


I named her Avery Ailes because it kinda sounded like Bailey but not so much I’d accidentally type “Bailey” during the 20,000-words-of-text-messages-in-a-haze-of-branching-options fugue writing this kind of story brings on. Other characters were made from whole cloth but most of the friendly characters were based on amalgams of my friends, including another trans woman, the actress Morgana Ignis, whom millions of Deviant Art goths may know as the voice of Sallie Mae in Helluva Boss.


——


So midsummer I thought what you’re supposed to think around this point and I called up White Wolf and explained to them I had written myself into a place where there were important transgender characters in the game and could we hire someone trans on the project so that it’s not just white cis me benefitting from the story—I recommended up-and-coming horror comic artist Sarah Horrocks.


I was pleased and a little surprised to see they were all for it, so Sarah came on as co-author. She was fine with the Bailey character and she went to work writing and drawing a vampire monkey into the plot.


By the end of the summer we had a story full of sex and death and lgbt representation and mechanics we hadn’t tested yet—all was as it should be in the World of Darkness.





New Orleans


White Wolf’s annual Grand Masquerade happened in New Orleans, around Halloween. Highlights include me not meeting Tim Bradstreet (despite trying), not LARPing (despite the Swedes trying to make me), and lots of fried chicken and plastic swords.


Around this time the head Swedes began to discuss the plans for the new tabletop edition, V5. They explicitly said what they had theretofore only implied-- they wanted me to work on the new edition. In also-excellent news they wanted Kenneth Hite—fresh off doing The Dracula Dossier for his vampire-spy game Night’s Black Agents.

Kenneth was one of the first mainstream designers to notice my work, back when Vornheim came out and we liked each other, so this was shaping up to be interesting.


Head Swede’s idea for this edition was, if I haven't mentioned: New New New. They loved the old Masquerade but wanted to completely modernize it, make it work for the new century: new team, new ideas—push everything as far as possible, the sky’s the limit on big ideas and  they’re LARPers and so they’d leave the tabletop details to us. Plus Paradox is a video game company with video game money.



Stockholm


It begins: In winter we’re flown to Stockholm for a week of meetings about the direction of the new Vampire. The meetings take place in one of many very modern Nordic conference rooms at Paradox HQ with a wall-length white board on which, by the end of each day, was covered with a megadungeon of arrows connecting boxes like “Blood” and “Hunger” and “Cloves?”.


The American contingent is me, Kenneth Hite and New Art Director—remember I said I’d anonymize the innocent. At this point it’s being framed like we’ll be the main architects of the game and everyone else is just there to show us where the guardrails are (we can’t change “Toreador” to another name but we can give a dozen historical alternate names). Or else: they’ve already made several decisions about how to set up the sandbox and are now inviting us to play in it—either way, Ken, Art Director and I were given a lot of room.


The way it worked, by accident or design, was this:


Kenneth Hite had lots of ideas about tabletop game design and 100% up-front admitted he had no idea about visuals, Art Director was a woman who’d done a lot of impressive high-fashion shoots and music videos with fancy people and 100% admitted she had no idea about tabletop game design, and I was the guy who translated between them.


Art Director would say something like “Has there ever been a wedding in Vampire? I think that would be a great spread” (Because the art director is an art director). 


And I’d go “Oh yeah, you could have like two clans ally and it’s a threat to the others…” (Because I’m forever in the middle ages).


And Ken Hite would go “And that’s when the NSA finds them!” (Ken is always looking for ways to kill vampires).


Then Ken would talk to one of the Swedes about the possibility of pulpy space vampires and I’d talk to Art Director about actually having a party where everyone dressed like a real wedding, then photographing it, then doing paintings from the photos and using that to explain the metaplot. The team White Wolf had thrown together genuinely had chemistry—we played Maze of the Blue Medusa at Head Swede’s house, we went to the museum built to memorialize the Swedish ship that sunk as soon as it was launched. We had ideas, we had fun, things were alright.



Would This Version Have Actually Been Any Good?


Obviously just because we liked what we were doing doesn’t mean it would’ve worked out. All I can say is: this was what was intended at T-minus one year of the development cycle and it seemed to be working better than expected. Head Swede had this idea for the books—the Camarilla half of Vampire: The Masquerade would look like Vogue, the Anarch half would look like a zine but both would have OSR-style info-design, Indie-inspired creativity, it would be grounded in the real world and it would have a team with a completely new take. That was what we were for.


As you know, that isn’t quite what happened. In the next chapter I’ll start to explain why.


24 comments:

David Parkinson said...

It sucks that you couldn't meet Tim Bradstreet

Peter Rolf said...

Given that I know what is about to happen, reading about a happy-go-lucky Bailey Jay and an enthusiastic Sarah Horrocks makes what is coming even worse. I remember the bad-faith takes on rpg.net, the Bailey-character being accused of being a transphobic caricature, Horrocks being more or less drummed out of the industry, and then everyone on the forum claiming ignorance when someone pointed out that their actions to protect trans people ked to direct harm to a trans creator. That place is gross.

Gladwain said...

Thank you for posting this and other exposés on all the drama behind the scenes. I had no idea that the RPG industry was such a minefield fraught with so many unsavory characters. It's a fun hobby, but a seemingly-awful work environment for a creative person.

I've followed your struggle for a few months now, and I appreciate your efforts to give your side of the story. I kept seeing your name on reddit and people there seem to really hate you, but I admit, I didn't know anything about you. Drama is something I do my best to avoid, and social media brings out the worst in many folks.

Then, I got shadow-banned from the D&D Next subreddit for defending the word, "Oriental" (as in the lovingly-written, "Oriental Adventures".) I wrote an essay about the incident, likening it to the Satanic Panic (but worse, because this time the threat was coming from within), and I called out the moderator who publicly called me a racist despite not knowing anything about my "identity." I posted the essay to the subreddit, left the site, and never looked back.

It was a big blow because I had been an active member...posting free content, answering newbie questions, and just engaging with the "community." Apparently that didn't matter in an argument over a single word (which also revealed that the words "mystical" and "exotic" were racist dogwhistles.) I felt completely deflated and defeated (and angry). But bashing my head against a wall of ignorance didn't appeal to me in the slightest.

I'm not as confident as you that the haters can be successfully fought. You stated in an earlier reply that "The solution is easy to describe..." and that's definitely true; but your admonition to "...be as persistent and dedicated to telling the truth and making things better as they are at lying and making things worse," while great advice, seems unworkable to me.

It requires a deep level of psychopathology to commit yourself to telling lies in an effort to destroy someone or discredit their ideas. It is a degree of asymmetric intensity and dedication that the majority of non-haters can't possibly match. When you combine that pathology with corporate fear, I can't imagine a scenario in which WotC, or Disney, or ESPN, or any of the other media conglomerates will ignore the haters in favor of the non-haters.

Non-haters will generally either not engage, or will only engage when the situation crosses a high threshold or affects them personally. Haters, on the other hand, live to blow their trumpets, wave their flags, and shout their curses. Then, when they get what they want, they just move the goalposts and continue hating. It's all they seem to care about, because it gives them (a sense of) power they can't possibly achieve otherwise.

Where I do feel some optimism is in the sustainability of their performative virtue. As you have pointed out, many of your accusers failed to live up to their own impossibly-high standards. We are all humans, after all, and we all have baser instincts and desires that sometimes compel us to do dumb or offensive things. That shouldn't ruin us as people.

I don't know who's telling the truth in your various conflicts, but I always support someone having their say, and I become deeply suspicious of anyone who tries to shut someone's voice down. I am firmly on your side in that matter, and I will avoid any conclusions about you until the whole story is told.

I was deeply hurt by my deplatforming, but it was only my hobby. I can't imagine how it must feel when the hate threatens your livelihood. Good luck to you, Zak. You have in me a willing ear and an open mind.

Zak Sabbath said...

@Gladwain

Thanks

If you want things to be different, you have to act different and not give up.

You have to do the right thing even when it's unpopular.

Zak Sabbath said...

@Peter

I'm glad to see people understanding what happened.

Zak Sabbath said...

Also

@Gladwain

If everyone who said "I'd really like to do the right thing but it's unpopular" started talking to each other instead of just talking to me, they'd soon find there are way more of them then there are trolls.

Peter Rolf said...

@Zak

I'm happy you haven't gotten dispirited by the whole ordeal. What's baffling is the silence from people in the industry, indie creators, or rpg Twitter. After Francita's coming forward I think that apart from you, only one other person took Olivia and Young to task over manipulating her. It's as if people like Holden Shearer, Ettin or the "Sponsored by Nobody"-podcast don't have any principles.

Zak Sabbath said...

@Peter Rolf

Oh I am completely dispirited, but I have no other choice. I'm not going to do what the OSR people did and join Team Asshole just because the assholes won a few rounds.

Gladwain said...

@Zak

"If everyone who said "I'd really like to do the right thing but it's unpopular" started talking to each other instead of just talking to me, they'd soon find there are way more of them then there are trolls."

I agree...showing solidarity with your right to be heard is my first attempt at dipping a toe back in these waters after my baffling experience on reddit explaining the English language to nincompoops.

I want to fight them because they are horrible and destructive, and I am unafraid to confront them. As a creator, though, you (and, by proxy, me) have something to lose in that fight. The haters don't seem to have anything to lose, at least not until they fall afoul of their own standards (Adam Koebel being the most hilariously self-imploding example I'm aware of), or -- as you are endeavoring to make happen -- lose an expensive lawsuit.

I am taking inspiration from your fight, though, and hope that the forces of sanity and intellectualism can rally behind common cause.

That "common" cause, I believe, is the core obstacle the non-haters face in this struggle: Too often, our causes are individualistic; therefore, many. The haters can coalesce around attacking someone at the margins, and by the time the non-haters can rally, the haters are going off on someone else. It's classic guerilla warfare, and I fear we are insufficient to the task because we are not insane people with nothing to lose.

In our current climate, words like "racist," "abuser," and "bigot" are fetishes with real-world power. Facts don't seem to matter; truth certainly doesn't matter, once the label has been assigned. Sometimes it feels like the best we have is "Nuh-uh."

I do not mean to be defeatist, and I believe your cause to be heard is a just one. I look forward to this developing conversation and will do what I can to help it build steam.

Zak Sabbath said...

@gladwain

Step one is talk to someone other than me about. Not that I don't appreciate hearing from you, its just, as noted, I'm already in.

Y'all have to talk to each other and figure out real steps to take.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Zak,
I appreciate you posting this - all of this is info for which I had never even heard of it (I don't follow Vampire and am not on twitter, so miss a lot of these kinds of mob-like situations). As a relative "new-schooler" in the blogosphere (or whatever the kids call it now), whether the content is RPG or otherwise, it constantly astounds me how little "proof" people need to join a mob. Like @Gladwain, I think there is still room for more proof about a few things, but I believe you've done an exceptional job disputing many of the claims about you online, both regarding the accusations leveled at you in February '19, as well as much of the hyperbolic fear-mongering directed against you W/R/T your position within the RPG universe.

I absolutely abhor the cancelling and/or deplatforming of a person in such a way that it intentionally makes it impossible for the person to even defend themself. The fact that "reviews of Zak products in the OSR subreddit are prohibited and result in an instaban" (as an example) is quite frankly disgusting.

As an aside, if there are folks here who are interested in chatting outside this blog about ways in which we can be useful, effective, and just "decent," would it be reasonable to have a discord or private reddit? Not to be exclusive, and not to create the dreaded "SUpeR SEkREt groUP WheRE ZAk sIcS His DaWgS oN thE JusT!!11!!!," but for the sake of being able to easily tag each other, chat, etc in a place where the moderators aren't terrible people? Just a thought.

Zak Sabbath said...

@J Walkaway

I think it's a good idea to have a place like that, but it would also be good if the person who set it up wasn't me. I'm happy to help but the important thing is that people who realize the stakes here start to do things, and putting me in charge creates the idea that if nobody does anything it's on me rather than on the people involved.

When people organize themselves, they are putting skin in the game.

Anonymous said...

In your opinion, what is the best method to find the contacts of other people, when right now all we have is this blog? Is it reasonable for interested parties to put their emails here and let's start some form of contact that takes it to a next step? Or would it be best if someone here (I'm not saying me, but I'm not *NOT* saying me either) just created said subreddit/discord, and there was an invitation here for those willing to join (but would not require posting of email addresses, etc)?

Gladwain said...

@Zak

Heard...but you may as well face the fact that you are the most "common" cause any of us have at the moment because you are the most high-profile creator to be cancelled who is also fighting back.

You've already blazed part of a trail, and your fight continues. That's more than anyone else I know (in my admittedly limited view of this crazy environment), so commiserating with you is a way to draw strength for the bigger fight.

And therein lies the rub; I have no idea what my part of the fight would even look like beyond showing support. I'm someone of no consequence to the gaming industry.

I do hear you, though, and believe you are correct: This is not something you can, or should have to, change all by yourself. Maybe we need an OSR-R...

Benjamin Cusack said...

Count me in.

Zak Sabbath said...

@J Walkaway

In my opinion, you'd want to use every single method at your disposal.

Talk to people here and hope they'll answer, use the existing platforms, including mine, the LotFP pages on Facebook and Discords, twitter, and definitely use platforms which might not be sympathetic: better people will see the message before they delete it.

Use email if you have it, use private messages if you can. If you can think of a name: contact them.

An important thing is: don't act like a kid doing chores and just put in x amount of effort before going "Hell, I tried". Act like the person who needs the chore finished, and if that means go to the store for more windex, go to the store for more windex.

Zak Sabbath said...

@Gladwain

For the dozenth time:

These problems were created by anonymous people with very little power. They can be opposed the same way.

If you genuinely can't think of anything you can do, email me: zakzsmith AT hawtmayle.

But if I was you the first thing I'd do is exchange emails with J Walkaway and Peter Rolf.

Anonymous said...

Sorry Zak, I wasn't clear - I mean, in your opinion, for the purpose of creating a "safe place" group. It looks like you're already answered in your recent response to Gladwain, but my question was more about how would you recommend we start contacting each other to create a place (as in, I didn't know if you wanted us just posting email addresses here).

Folks, for anyone interested in continuing conversations, my email is "buffywalkaway" AT gmail. I have no specific course of action in mind at this exact moment, but my first thought is we should all have a discord where we feel safe talking about these things, BUT (and I think this is really important), it shouldn't JUST be about that - it should also just be about RPGs and all the elfgame nonsense we love, because that invites other people to join into the conversations who otherwise would not give a damn.

trentb said...

If said space becomes popular, the moderation burden would likely be significant - We'd need either an unusually dedicated person to take that job, or some better solution that diffuses the responsibility more evenly.

Zak Sabbath said...

@trentb

Moderating a space with "you have to tell the truth and answer questions" rules is really easy and not a "significant burden" in any way.

Trolls don't want to go there and if they do they get plinked very fast.

My discord was super-easy to moderate.

The myth of the "mod burden" comes from not having clear (ie fair) rules.

trent_b said...

Well... significant burden compared to the current burden I have which is nothing.

Like, I'm currently I'm under no obligation to read any posts, respond, etc... if I see nonsense I just keep scrolling. If I'm moderating I have to check every post that's made, fact-check, click stuff, post reasons for my decisions, review appeals, etc etc... right?

I've not done it, so I might be mistaken about the whole thing, but it seems significant to me. It certainly doesn't come naturally, at least.

It doesn't really matter right now though, I guess - we can just start something and solve problems as we go.

Zak Sabbath said...

@trentb

Yes, Trent, doing something is a greater burden than doing nothing.

But your description of a mod's life is not accurate:

You only have to respond to complaints or address things that you see a problem with. On an average day on my discord that was zero things.

If someone writes a post and nobody says theres anything wrong with it, you can feel free to leave it alone.

Zak Sabbath said...

@trentb

(and, of course, nobody's forcing you to be a moderator)

Trent B said...

Yeah cool. Dig. Cheers.