Wednesday, May 5, 2021

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

 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 work in text messages. My idea was: during your normal day, while you’re getting texts from real people and getting your Facebook notifications, 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. 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...


...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, for some of that--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”. 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 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 she 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—we liked each other. This was shaping up to be interesting.


Head Swede’s idea for this edition was: 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


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—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, and they’d been planning it for nearly a year by that point.


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


Tuesday, May 4, 2021

What Really Happened To Vampire 5e, Chapter One: Olivia Hill



Note up top: A lot of people are asking about the case against Gen Con--the next step is we file a motion, then a notce within 30 days of that response, then it's in appellate court for a year, probably a year and a half. So: it'll be a loooong time before it's over.


Starting In The Middle

So this is the story of what happened on Vampire 5th edition behind the scenes. It'll be a series of posts, because it's complicated.

I'm going to screw up right from the start by putting two incidents from the middle of the story first, because they contain a moral of the story and I don't want that to get lost in all the details to come.

So:

  • First: sometime in the middle of all the trouble that Vampire: The Masquerade 5th Edition roll-out had, a bunch of Vampire fans did something that only haters had done before (or since): they organized. They put together and circulated a petition of support  (impressive and rare in the online RPG scene) that said that these haters were not making sense, that fans stood behind the designers, that this harassment would not be tolerated, that the new edition was exciting, all that good stuff. At least 2000 people signed it, which is far more than had liked, shared or encouraged the hatemob attacks on the game (600ish on the most popular hatepost I could find).
  • Second: sales of the game were...fine. There was no great wave of boycotting or backlash among actual consumers.

The net effect of these two facts on the parent company's upcoming decision to dump the game was: nothing. These things didn't help the game or the creators at all in any way, the game still got cut loose, people got fired, careers got torpedoed, etc.

The designers working on the project included Mark Rein-Hagen and Kenneth Hite, by no-means small fish as far as name-recognition goes. The designers who lead the charge to destroy the game--on the other hand--were folks who are visibly glowing on social media if they sell 500 copies of a game. I point this out just to establish that the power equation here isn't as simple as you might think: Mark Rein-Hagen and Kenneth Hite only have followers who buy things, whereas the haters have followers who do things. 

Are you sitting there thinking you're an anonymous disengaged nobody so what you do doesn't matter? Well, you're wrong--this story has names in it but is largely a story about what a bunch of anonymous people did. If name-recognition and a platform mattered, Mark Rein-Hagen and Kenneth Hite could've ended this in seconds--hell, Paradox--the video game company that owned White Wolf--could've ended it. But that's not how it works.

Going and buying a game and signing a petition full of positive platitudes are both things fans are comfortable doing.  Vampire fans did them and it didn't help at all. Haters are comfortable with doing way more: they name names, they go to the forums where narratives are being written and interrupt the story being told with their own story, they bring things up over and over and over, even when no-one asked, and most of all: they work together "When I do this, you do that" etc.. And normal people, even normal gamers if there is such a thing--people who just want to play a game--don't do any of that. They see drama and, at best, ignore it, or, worse, buy into the idea that all drama is equal and equally bad.

And remember the sales figures, games have gone on to be supported and become IP farms on far less--voting with your wallet alone doesn't work when the creators of what you're buying are told "You are risking trashing your Google results and professional reputation forever if you take on this new project" and the company itself doesn't want its reputation associated with that. Self-publishing doesn't solve this: The kinds of accusations made against Vampire authors don't just destroy someone's career or chance of being published but can (and in some cases has) harm literally every part of the lives of the people involved. If every time someone Googles you it says you committed crimes against humanity, it affects your entire life.

A petition or a statement from anyone which does not name the specific people responsible for the problems it is trying to overcome does nothing at all. 

If you ever want to hear any story about the RPG industry other than the one I'm about to tell: you, the fans, have to do something different than what you are doing now. You can easily fact-check haters without trolling, harassing or hurting anyone, but most of you can't do it while staying in your comfort zone. You have to be as persistent and dedicated to telling the truth and making things better as they are at lying and making things worse.

It's not that you're a terrible person if you don't--it just means the things you like aren't going to get made ever again.

Disclaimer 1


I am jumping the gun on this: I wanted to wait until later this year, when certain legal things would have had time to happen and I'd be able to provide even more evidence to back up what I'm saying. But Onyx Path authors Olivia Hill and Filamena Young being exposed as abusers (and not yet having suffered any real consequences I can see) has made it seem necessary that I do this early. If you still don't believe my story after reading all of it, come back around Christmas, see what I've got to say then, and feel free to rub my nose in this paragraph.



Disclaimer 2


It’s popular in these kinds of posts to disguise the writer’s intention under a layer of objective-sounding language—as if the author is just the Star Trek computer voice “The Alpha Quadrant is populated by a race of three-eyed tree bastards…” etc. I am not going to do that. This story is outright an attempt to persuade. Straight up. I am still under a non-disparagement clause with White Wolf (the company that makes Vampire: The Masquerade) and I plan to respect that, which is easy since this isn’t about them fucking up, this is about what some bad people did to White Wolf. When it matters, I have obscured the names of the innocent (and deadnames) but not the guilty.


I am also going to say something most reporters can't say: I am in the middle of suing people right now. If a single word of what I'm saying isn't accurate, I just volunteered, for free, to ruin my own case by writing this.



The Biggest Success In The History Of RPG Hatemobbing


It’s 2021, and there’s Critical Role and there’s Stranger Things and it’s been seven years since the 5th edition of D&D came out and, weirdly, no other RPG has managed to ride its coattails. There’s been no matching revival of Shadowrun, RIFTS, or Vampire, no new game or anything near close. 


There were two kinds of conventional wisdom on the 2018 5th edition of Vampire: one is that it committed a wide variety of terrible social justice crimes, the other—and the one, as far as I can see, that seems to have stuck around longer—is that it was solid in many ways, but it failed to generate any enthusiasm. It was...fine. It isn’t setting the world on fire, the company isn’t rushing to support, promote, or expand it. If you want to try playing Vampire again but with some tighter rules and the next generation of lore, well it’s there. People involved appear to have moved on to other things.


Did something happen? Yes.


This is the story of a group of bad internet people who, after many minor successes hurting innocent designers' careers, finally managed to take down a whole game. The biggest piece of RPG intellectual property of the 1990s was making a big push to get revived and got shot in the head, by people who are, by-and-large, now discredited and what’s more, had no idea they were even doing it.


And they and all their friends are still out there—and they keep doing the same stuff, and they will keep doing it to any game that isn’t too corporate to care or from a country so far away it hasn’t yet been swallowed by the toxic dynamics of the english-language RPG discourse.


This is the story of the biggest success in the history of online RPG hatemobbing. It's why, if nothing changes, games are basically fucked.