The finest thing a person can do in this life, I believe, is to leave this world a better place thanks to your presence in it. Stewart Wieck, who left this life yesterday at age 49, succeeded magnificently in that regard.
Somewhere between 1985 and ’86, a pair of geekily industrious teenager brothers founded what has since become an institution of sorts: White Wolf magazine. Named for Elric, the White Wolf of Melnibone, landmark antihero of Michel Moorcock’s psychotropic fantasy series, the magazine originated as a home-made fanzine for gaming culture. Stewart and his brother Steve, however, had a lot more on their minds. While most (though not, in fairness, all) gaming magazines of that era focused on mathematical trivia in imaginary worlds, White Wolf magazine dared to approach real-life topics like racism, gender, addiction and politics, not merely in the games but in the culture that embraced them. Ferociously intelligent and possessed of a formidable work-ethic, Stew and Steve turned their high-school fanzine into a major periodical within that industry… and then into something far more.
Combining their magazine with a gaming company called Lion Rampant, the Wieck brothers joined forces with a visionary malcontent named Mark Rein-Hagen. By that time, both sides of that partnership had gathered a driven team of hungry young creators: Richard Thomas, Nicole Lindroos, Joshua Gabriel Timbrook, and more. Founded in 1990, White Wolf Game Studio took the roleplaying game medium from a controversial niche pastime to a major (if often uncredited) influence on popular media.
More importantly, however, Stewart, Steve and Mark helped the hobby grow up.
White Wolf has been criticized as pretentious. That accusation’s not always wrong, but it misses an important point: a truly pretentious party doesn’t have the goods. White Wolf – in large part thanks to Stewart – often did. For better and worse, the company and its people addressed taboo topics with sardonic clarity and relentless intellect. History, politics, gender, bigotry, pollution, addiction, morality, metaphysics, conspiracy… the creators of this World of Darkness tossed big ideas at their audience the way they sometimes tossed rubber balls and Nerf arrows at one another in the office. In the 1990s, most staff offices in the White Wolf building had three things in common: a sound system, an impressive library, and some young workaholic or two pounding away at their computers.
Stewart’s library didn’t fit in his office; it took up several shelves in the hallway, too. I know, because I was one of those people pounding on computers back then.
Which brings me to my point:
Mage: The Ascension.
One of the many brilliant ideas Stewart, Mark, Steve and their crew had early on involved creating a shared world built around five monstrous archetypes: the vampire, the werewolf, the magus, the ghost, and the faerie. Each archetype would become a metaphor for real-life issues, and the games and rules for each archetype would emphasize thematic elements far richer than “I waste him with my crossbow.” RPGs had addressed serious topics before, notably in games like Paranoia, RuneQuest, Dark Champions, and Nephilim. But the idea of playing the monster, as opposed to killing it, and doing so in a sarcastic parody of the world (as seen by American college kids in the early 1990s, anyway) – that was new. Other RPGs had occasionally strayed into monster-character territory (notably the vampiric game Nightlife), but lacked the thematic heft and sheer attitude brought to the World of Darkness. When the partners divided up the archetypes, deciding who would helm which project, Stewart said, “I want the mages.”
Up until then, mages in RPGs (and, to be honest, in most modern fantasy media) were dotty fireball-slingers in Gandolfian drag. Stewart had bigger plans for them.
Inspired primarily by philosopher Robert M. Pirsig (who himself died earlier this year), Stew envisioned the magus as an embodiment of change. Some mages moved the world forward, others tried to lock it into place, and still others tried to drag it to oblivion. Instead of spells based on calculations of size and damage, Stew’s vision of magic… or, as he preferred, the Crowleyian magick… became an extension of an enlightened individual as that person literally reworks reality itself. At the core of that metaphor, Stewart Wieck told Mage players, “You can and will change the world.” And that, especially for kids growing up on fantasy media in the 1990s, was huge.
On some levels, the concept was too big. Mage became like Stewart’s Great White Whale, and suffered some growing pains before the game finally appeared at GenCon 1993. Even then – and even now, almost 25 years, four editions, four different incarnations, and over a hundred books later – Mage remains an infuriating puzzle for most gamers, and a life-changing discovery for the folks who understand it.
That’s where Stewart’s legacy truly shines.
Stew created many things: the magazine, the company, the World of Darkness and a rather visionary (if ultimately unprofitable) fiction division for White Wolf, and other things besides. The Cain-based mythos behind Vampire: The Masquerade was Stewart’s conception, and Stew brought a new generation of readers to the works of Michael Moorcock, Harlan Ellison, Fritz Leiber, and more. White Wolf transformed a medium, but it has been Mage, more than anything else, which has – as Stewart intended – transformed this world and many people in it.
One of those people was me.
In the spring of 1993, I was broke, suicidal, stuck in a decaying marriage, and trapped by circumstances in a job I loathed. Though I had been writing professionally since 1989, and writing for White Wolf since ’92, my writing income was nowhere close to paying our bills. Desperate, I applied early that summer for the position of Mage line developer. That job literally saved my life, changed my approach to life, and became a sort of sacred calling I still pursue almost a quarter-century on.
I had applied for that job in June, wrote a prospectus for it in July, and worked with the company at DragonCon later that same month. By August, though, I hadn’t heard a word from them. Convinced they’d hired someone else, I crashed into a deep, frightening depression. And then – while at my job in the stock room of “Virginia’s Largest Shoe Store” – I got the call: “Phil, this is Stewart Wieck calling from White Wolf, and we’d like to offer you the job of the Mage line developer if you’re still interested.”
That was one of the greatest days of my life.
Only moments earlier, I had been core-dumping in the stock room to my friend Lynne. Once I’d heard Stew offer me the job, I began bouncing up and down, struggling to keep my voice steady while I did. Lynne mouthed, Did you get it? I nodded, and she hugged me hard. By the time I got off the phone, a mob of co-workers had gathered to congratulate me. I don’t think I ever told Stew that story, but now I really wish I had.
What’s a line developer? Another of Stewart’s best ideas.
Most gaming and comic-book studios have a group of people – often freelance contractors – writing and drawing the material in question. Although there might be a head editor for a given series, game or character, creative decisions tend to be made by committee, often with a fair (or large) amount of executive “input.” I’m not sure who initiated the idea, but Stewart and Mark decided that each White Wolf game line should have a single creative director whose word was more or less law with regards to that game. The founders of the company, and their teams, would craft each original rulebook; once that book was done, however, another person would be hired to govern the subsequent series… and for the first few of us in that position, they gave us near-limitless creative freedom, so long as we didn’t crash and burn the line. As a result, the World of Darkness games had a degree of personality that few, if any, previous RPGs displayed. They weren’t just “product”; they were labors of love.
Thank you, Stewart, Mark and Steve, for that. I appreciate it more than words can say.
That decision was a brave and crazy thing to do. We line developers are a passionate, outspoken, often-tactless bunch who could be (and often were) breathtakingly territorial about our projects. We pushed the medium, our fans, our collaborators and ourselves as far as we could go back then, and then pushed further for good measure. The results ranged from classic to catastrophic, but that raw energy made White Wolf memorable even at its worst.
White Wolf in those days was not an easy place to be. We worked hard, we played hard, and occasionally we fought hard with one another, too. Tempers ran high, and unfortunate things were said and done. I said and did a few of those unfortunate things, and I have been sorry for them ever since. Even when things got bad, however, I never – NEV-ER – saw Stewart Wieck get nasty, vindictive or crude. Angry at times, more often sad; it’s hard to be a business owner under even the best conditions, and when you’re running a pack of hypercreative misfit toys in an uncertain marketplace during a boom-and-bust period, it’s even harder. Yet always, Stewart displayed graciousness, kindness, dry humor, and a godlike degree of patience. If he ever lost that patience, it was way behind closed doors, which was a damn sight better than the rest of us – myself included – did back then.
I helmed Mage in both its Ascension and Sorcerers Crusade iterations between mid-1993 and late-1999. Burning out, I left the staff at the end of ’98, and freelanced again until around 2000. For a while, I distanced myself from Mage and our World of Darkness. Mage, though, never distanced itself from me.
Stewart Wieck’s brainchild transforms lives. I know this probably better than anyone else on earth. Since 1993, everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve been meeting people from literally all over the world for whom Mage became a gospel. I’ve met fans with terminal illnesses, health conditions, debilitating diseases and soul-crushing circumstances who tell me, “I am who I am”… sometimes even, “I’m still alive”… “because of Mage.” The Afterwords of Mage: The Ascension 20th Anniversary Edition (for which I returned to Mage in 2012) feature dozens of heartfelt testimonials, including two from Stewart and from me. Many of those people inspired by that theme of empowered transformation are now parents, artists, writers, game designers. Some are cops, activists, reformers, counselors and politicians. I know of one who’s a judge, several who are teachers and medical professionals, at least one who’s an emergency first-responder, and no less than two who have founded movie studios (small ones, but hey – it’s still impressive). A few years back, some fans in Greece flew me and my wife Sandi out to Athens, and became some of our dearest friends. One of them – who now teaches English in Greece – continues to use World of Darkness games (Mage in particular) as not only entertainment but as a tool for social healing in a country going through hell. I’ll gladly take my share of credit for all that, but without Stewart Wieck, there would have been no Mage, no White Wolf, and very probably no me.
After our return from Greece, I contacted Stewart, Steve, Mark, and most of the core Mage collaboration group. “We did good,” I told them. “Mage made a bigger difference than we ever thought was possible.”
For the foreseeable future, it still will.
That’s a pretty descent legacy for some silly RPG.
Stewart, old friend, you helped to change the world.
For Mage, for White Wolf, for your courage and vision and insight and trust, for the love you gave your projects, and the respect you gave to us, I thank you, Stewart, now and always.
You helped us to Awaken, and never will we forget you.