It was Twenty Years Ago Today (redux)
I already used this title for the entry on my first video game project, but what the heck – reduce, reuse, recycle, right? What prompted it this time was the announcement of a 20th Anniversary Edition of Vampire: the Masquerade. That brings back some memories.
1990-91 was a busy time for me, and in many ways my work on Vampire was what made it possible. Seeing that Games Workshop was de-emphasizing roleplaying games in favor of miniatures, I decided to jump ship. I ended up moving from Nottingham to Denver, getting married, writing a lot of material for Vampire and GURPS, and getting my start in video games.
By 1990 Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, the reason GW had hired me in the first place, had become the red-headed stepchild of the GW family. There had been some expectation among the upper management that it would increase miniatures sales: those of you who bought the earliest editions of The Enemy Within, Shadows Over Bogenhafen, and Death on the Reik may remember that they came with miniatures deals, just like the Warhammer battle packs had done. WFRP came out alongside the first edition of Warhammer 40,000, and comparisons were made. Miniatures were where the money was, and games were seen – at least by some – as merely a tool for selling them. Roleplaying products became less and less important over the four years I worked there, until in 1989 a roleplaying division, Flame Publications, was set up with a staff of three: me, artist Tony Ackland, and editor/manager Mike Brunton. Perhaps significantly, we were housed well outside the main studio.
I saw the writing on the wall, and started looking around for other opportunities to write roleplaying material. My friend Ken Rolston, the creator of the acclaimed WFRP adventure Something Rotten in Kislev, passed my name along to a new outfit called White Wolf, who were making a game where all the players were vampires. This was a radical concept at the time, and I was interested. I also knew, as Ken would say, way too much about vampires, having graduated from Hammer to Montague Summers to Augustin Calmet and every other source I could get my hands on over the course of a lifetime.
I remember talking to Vampire creator Mark Rein-Hagen by phone from my living room in Nottingham. He had sent me a draft of the game, which I had read and commented on, and we were discussing a prologue which would set the scene, convey the tone, and give some basic information. The idea of a letter came up: a letter from a vampire who was moved by conscience to spill the innermost secrets of vampire society and culture. Just offhand, I said, “Why not make the letter from Dracula?” and Mark paused for a moment. “That sounds awesome,” he said, “but you need to make sure it sounds right. Throw in words from lots of different languages, to show how old and experienced he is.” We talked for a little while longer, and I ended up writing the prologue that appeared in first edition Vampire. Looking back, I think I was a little too clever with it, but people seemed to like it. I’ve lost track of the number of places it was reprinted.
I moved to the States in October 1990, and worked on a steady stream of contracts for the new game as well as writing GURPS Vikings and GURPS Middle Ages 1. White Wolf invited me to GenCon as their guest: I had never been before, because Games Workshop didn’t send people and I could never afford to go to Milwaukee from Nottingham on my own dime. Someone would meet me at the airport, I was promised. No one did. It was a late-arriving flight, and I sat while Milwaukee airport closed down around me. It was a time before cell phones, so I had no way to reach anyone, and I asked for a general page to go out for anyone from White Wolf Publishing, but it never happened. Eventually I got a cab and found a hotel, where the only room available this convention weekend was a suite that cost a fortune, and then I made my way to the Mecca center the following morning.
Arriving at the White Wolf booth, the first person who spoke to me was Travis Williams. Anyone who has met Travis can tell you, he’s kind of – well, imposing would be a good word. “WHERE the HELL was YOU?” he asked, in the tones of someone who was seriously considering busting a cap in my white ass. He’s not what anyone thinks of when they hear the word “roleplayer.” That memory has stuck with me ever since.
Vampire was the hit of the show, although few people – except perhaps Mark Rein-Hagen – had any idea of how big it would become. I hung out at the White Wolf booth, pushing copies and generally having a good time. My relationship with White Wolf lasted for five years, from the early Vampire titles through Wraith (I wrote prologues for the first and second editions: the first was a letter from from Byron – I felt clever because I was sure everyone expected him to be a vampire – to Mary Shelley, and the second saw Byron having hooked up with Hemingway to publish an underground newspaper for the dead and bitch about each other’s writing styles) and Mummy (I co-wrote the second edition with my buddy James Estes, and lobbied unsuccessfully to turn it into a full World of Darkness line – which did actually happen years later, and they were good enough to give James and me a “based on” credit). But my day jobs in video games development gave me less time for writing, and like many tabletop RPG publishers White Wolf became slower and slower at cutting checks as the great pre-d20 shrinkage of the industry set in.
Still, Vampire was a great experience for me. Financially, it helped me get through my first few years as a full-time freelance writer, and creatively it let me contribute to the founding of not just a very good roleplaying game, but a powerful IP that has lasted down the years.
But twenty years? Sheesh. . . .