PART II: A SEATTLE SATYR IN THE WORLD OF DARKNESS COURT
(“Verbena,” from Mage: The Ascension 1st Edition; art by Michael William Kaluta.)
Q: What’s your involvement with White Wolf, Onyx Path, and the World of Darkness?
That short question has a very long and complicated answer. I’ll just give you the relatively simple version of events – it’ll still keep us busy for a while.
I’d been a professional writer for around two years when my college friend, roommate, and gaming buddy Bill Bridges went to work for White Wolf in 1992. At the time, as he left our home city of Richmond to take on the Werewolf: The Apocalypse Line Developer position, I asked him to keep me in mind when he began hiring writers for the line. He did, and my first projects were the Valkenburg Foundation sourcebook and the original Book of the Wyrm, both of which I began working on during the fall of ’92.
Between those first assignments and the summer of 1993, I became a regular author for the Werewolf line. I created the Bastet for the original Werewolf Players Guide, wrote two stories for Drums Around the Fire, did the Black Fury Caern for Book of Caerns, and accepted contracts for the Black Furies Tribebook and the planned sourcebook for the Technocracy, back while the original Mage rulebook was still being written.
At the time, my life was a mess. I’m not going into the details here, but I needed a major change. That summer, I got it. Returning, in May, from a soul-seeking trip with an old friend in San Francisco, I told Bill that I wanted the Mage Line Developer job. He tried to change my mind – Mage, at the time, was in a state of creative chaos – but I insisted. And so, as soon as the edited manuscript was completed, White Wolf sent me a copy of it, with instructions to give them my impressions – what I liked, what I didn’t like, what I planned to do with it if I got the Line Developer job. Having spent 10 years as an actor, I knew I was being auditioned for that job. And so, I took two days off from my work at “Virginia’s Largest Shoe Store” (a job that, incidentally, I loathed with every fiber of my being), read the text, wrote around 26 pages worth of material – which included a bunch of sourcebook proposals and an outline for Technocracy: Progenitors – sent it all in, and waited…
I got a call to come down and interview for the job at DragonCon 93. That was the first time I saw the original Stone Mountain offices, and the first time I met anyone from the company other than Bill and Andrew Greenberg, who I’d also known from college. I hit it off with pretty much everyone, had a blast, and left feeling like I’d scored the job.
(The original edition of Mage: The Ascension.)
So I waited…
By mid-August, I was certain that I had not gotten the job. GenCon 93 was coming up. Mage would be released at that convention, and three days from the con I was working at the shoe store, miserable, convinced that someone else had been hired instead. I would be trapped at that shitty job forever, stuck in a life I had hated so much that I was literally suicidal at the time.
And then I was paged: “Phil, call on Line 4. Phil, call for you on Line 4.”
It was Stewart Wieck, offering me the job. I was literally bouncing up and down, trying not to let my voice show just how existed I was. Within minutes, I was getting hugs from my soon-to-be-former co-workers, calling my dad to borrow money for the plane-flight, and making arrangements to leave the next day for Atlanta, from which we’d be leaving to go to GenCon.
That was a crazy time. My then-wife, Cathi, and I had already agreed to divorce; our roommate Jane Palmer would be taking over my part of the rent. Less than 24 hours after the phone-call, I was standing in Ken Cliffe’s office as he handed me the first copy of Mage: The Ascension – the advance proof of the finished book – and told me “It’s all yours. We don’t have the slightest idea what to do with it.” I rode up to GenCon with Kathy Ryan, and we talked, bonded, argued, brainstormed about Mage, and sang along with her tape collection all the way to Wisconsin.
(Mage 2nd Edition – my take on the series.)
The story of the next five years is far too long, complicated, and frankly off-the-record to discuss here. Put simply, it was joyously insane in every way you can imagine. That was one of the best times of my life, but also so intense that I felt burnt out by 1998. We worked hard, played hard, and were pretty hard on ourselves and on one other. In addition to roughly 10 books a year for Mage itself, plus a few more for Mage: The Sorcerers Crusade, I was freelancing on every other White Wolf line except for Trinity. (I’m not into SF, so that series did not appeal to me.) For a variety of reasons, I had begun working at home, coming into the office once or twice a week for meetings. My standards had risen so high by that time that I was writing almost everything myself, and rewriting pretty much everyone else I hired for Mage those last two years. As far as I’m concerned, those books – The Orphans Survival Guide, The Technomancer’s Toybox, Sorcerers Crusade, Bygone Bestiary, The Book of Mirrors, and many others – were among the best Mage books ever released. By mid-‘98, however, I was physically and emotionally exhausted from working on stuff that belonged to someone else.
In all honesty, I’d become hard to work with, and didn’t trust anyone else to handle Mage correctly. My career outside of White Wolf had stalled, and I wanted out even though I was terrified to leave. A layoff that September made things clear for everyone involved, and by mutual agreement I left the company’s full-time staff, staying on as a freelancer while helping Jesse Heinig finish up the Mage books I had in progress at that time. Mike Tinney opened the ArtHaus imprint, and I continued to lead the Sorcerers Crusade line as a freelance Line Developer and author. Jesse and I worked well together, and things looked good until mid-1999, when I got fed up with the World of Darkness and distanced myself from White Wolf in order to restart my career with projects of my own.
During a long period of creative recovery, I wrote music articles for Atlanta’s Creative Loafing magazine, tried hashing out a fantasy trilogy called The Chronicles of Coldhaven (it was terrible, and I abandoned it), and eventually formed Laughing Pan Productions in 2001. By that time, I had taken my nickname “Satyr” as my full-time name so I could have an identity beyond “that guy who used to do Mage.” Teaming up with my now-former business partners Matt Wood and Kevin DiVico, we merged LPP with Smoke, Mirror & Muse Productions, releasing the board game Goth or Gauche?, the card games Plunder and Horrific: Terror in the Cards, and the RPG Deliria: Faerie Tales for a New Millennium. That last project helped me find my creative stride again, and I also began writing for newWitch magazine in 2003, the year that Deliria appeared. That’s a whole saga in and of itself, and it took me on the road between 2003 and 2005 in what seemed like an endless crawl of conventions and festivals.
It was, as I recall it, a White Wolf party at GenCon or Origins, 2005, when a beer suddenly slid up to me as I was sitting at the bar. Rich Thomas was behind that beer, and we started talking. Both of us had done a lot of growing up since our wilder days at the Wolf, and we agreed that we wanted to work together again. By that time, I had also co-written the Revised Order of Hermes Tradition Book for Bill Bridges, and so my I considered the old wounds to be ancient history. Justin Achilli had gotten me some free copies of various New World of Darkness books, and I rather liked what I saw. In 2006, I developed and co-wrote World of Darkness: Changing Breeds, and considered coming back to White Wolf after all. I’d quit LPP by that time, and Deliria was in limbo. My career as a journalist and short-story author had picked back up but wasn’t paying many bills, and so the idea of doing World of Darkness stuff for a paycheck seemed like a really good idea.
When CCP purchased White Wolf in 2006, I essentially shrugged and went back to my own career. At one point, a TV producer offered to hire me to rip off Vampire: The Masquerade as a reality TV show. I declined. Forming a new company with my partner Sandra Damiana Buskirk, I took a Deliria sourcebook, Goblin Markets: The Glitter Trade out of limbo and released it along with a bunch of other projects like Ravens in the Library, the webcomic Arpeggio, and the forthcoming RPG Powerchords – Music, Magic & Urban Fantasy. That, too, is a very long story. Over those last few years, however, I began learning about the long-term effects of our work on Mage. When I created my Facebook profile around 2009, people all over the world wanted to be my virtual Friend. As I soon discovered, a bunch of folks had grown up on Mage, and had taken its themes into their real lives, which is yet another story. By the time Werewolf 20th Anniversary Edition rolled around in 2011, however, I knew that I had to be part of that project. Considering that I’d gotten my big professional break with the original Werewolf in ’92, how could I refuse?
We had already begun talking about a Mage 20th Anniversary Edition when CCP essentially dissolved the remnants of White Wolf at the end of 2011. Within a few months, Rich Thomas formed Onyx Path Productions, and the rest is obvious. He and I began laying groundwork for Mage 20 in late 2012, and I signed contracts and began working right at the cusp between 2012 and 2013. I formed a creative brain-trust and oversight committee, recruited some of my favorite collaborators from the old days, and got to work. That project wound up being a LOT bigger and complicated than we had expected it to be, but Rich has given me what I had back in the old days: near-total creative freedom. Now, after a year of hard work, we’ve got a finished draft, with revisions in progress and a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign. From the look of things right now, I’ll be heading Mage: The Ascension for quite a while more.
(Mage: The Awakening, from the New World of Darkness line. Created by Bill Bridges. I had nothing to do with this iteration of Mage, but think that Bill and his crew did a marvelous job with it.)
Q: The Classic WoD “concluded” in 2003, and a new WoD appeared in its place. Now, there are those who might say that the continuation of the Classic WoD is a cash-grab. But longtime fans would say that the “conversation” involved with the CWoD had not ended, and that the new efforts in that world are picking up that conversation where it left off. Would you say that the “conversation” has plenty of life left in it yet, and that both the old and new World of Darkness can exist at the same time, with equally valid artistic integrity?
Anyone who thinks we’re just soaking our old fans for cash can kiss my furry satyr ass. It’s really easy to look at what we do, from a distance, and then think that we’re just in it for the money. That view, however, is poorly informed at best and jealously malicious at worst. We all work hard at what we do, and the money ain’t that great. There are much easier ways to make a buck. Those of us who do this, do it because we love what we’re doing and cherish the people we do it for.
(For an in-depth look at the process involved in crafting an RPG, check out the links referred to below.)
As I said earlier, the World of Darkness is satirical fantasy aimed at opening eyes and minds. That’s not tied to any specific decade; if anything, we need such satire now more than ever before. Real life has become so damned bizarre that the oWoD seems polite in comparison. Twenty years ago, Pentex was satirical; now it’s a fucking business plan. And so, from an artistic standpoint, we need to reflect the world we have today, through the lens that appeared in the 1990s but which is, in reality, timeless.
In a way, the original World of Darkness was very much a ‘90s phenomenon. By the turn of the millennium, it really had started to look and feel dated. Although the issues we were addressing back then really are still important today, the whole angsty-teen apocalyptic vibe got tired. I was sick of it when I left White Wolf; Deliria, in many respects, was a counter-argument to that Gothic-Punk gloom. But yet, as you said, there really were a lot of “conversations” going on underneath the Sisters of Mercy façade. A big part of our creative mission has involved catching that Classic WoD vibe while updating its style for the second decade of the new millennium.
One of the many strokes of genius that Mark and Stewart brought to the World of Darkness involved timeless archetypes: the predatory Vampire, the raging primal Were-Beast, the arcane Magus, the yearning Ghost, the enigmatic Faerie, and so forth. Those archetypes speak to essential human realities; their fashions change, but their appeal remains intact. Hell, if anything, those archetypes have become more popular since the ‘90s – look at Harry Potter, Twilight, and their many imitators. Mainstream media is doing now what we did 20 years ago, and our influence on things like True Blood, Blade and Underworld is obvious. Through those archetypes, we continue to address what’s going on once the story ends. Old World of Darkness and New World of Darkness are essentially holding the same “conversations,” even when the “voices” they use have superficial differences.
Speaking personally, I like the nWoD. It’s much less cartoonish, more ominous, far more intimate than the sprawling and occasionally goofy excesses of the ‘90s WoD. And yet it lacks the mythic feel and cosmic resonance of the original WoD. It’s less subversive, more dedicated to personal terror than to socio-political commentary. In certain instances, I feel that’s more effective – I prefer Changeling: The Lost over Changeling: The Dreaming. The presentation of the newer books is more polished and professional too, and though I feel it lacks the anarchistic weirdness of the earlier material, it lacks the sloppiness too. For better and worse, the nWoD is crafted by skilled professionals, while the oWoD was banged out by hyercreative kids with passion to burn and Big Things to say while we burned it.
Can those two lines coexist? Of course they can. The trick for the oWoD people – myself included – involves keeping the passion of the earlier work while reflecting the current era at a higher level of quality than what we often achieved before. The nWoD folks, meanwhile, need to keep that slick intimacy alive while bringing more passion and imagination to their games. From what I’ve seen so far, it looks like everyone’s hitting those goals.
Q: Do you have any advice for new game designers?
Actually, yes. I have a series of articles on that subject, originally published in newWitch magazine several years ago, and now reposted on my blog. You can find them at:
(Part I of this series can be found here. Part III will appear tomorrow.)