The World of Darkness and Vampire: the Masquerade is one of the most influential and prolific intellectual properties in recent history. Drawing influence from vampiric tales throughout history across folklore, film, literature and television. It revolutionized the role-playing game industry and, itself, became an influencer. From television's Kindred: the Embraced to the Underworld films and hundreds of popular creations in between, the World of Darkness is a pop culture juggernaut. The IP has persevered through five editions, an in-game ending, a tangental spinoff universe (Chronicles of Darkness), three different owners (the founders, CCP and Paradox), collectible card games, a highly-publicized failed MMO and three different companies currently producing content (White Wolf, The Onyx Path and By Night Studios).
The 20th Anniversary Edition of Vampire signaled a resurgence in interest to the IP, spawning other 20th Anniversary Editions of subsequent World of Darkness lines, the launch of updated LARP rules from By Night Studios, high-production value international LARP events, community-driven content in the Storyteller’s Vault and culminating in the release of V5. A gorgeous book, V5 offered fresh mechanics and an updated, unique take on the classic IP while maintaining much of the original history, lore and fanbase, distributed by RPG giant Modiphius Entertainment.
With so much success, how is it that every few months, this unstoppable behemoth becomes mired in controversy? The problems always seem to begin with a decision by White Wolf or their affiliates – hiring alleged problematic individuals such as Zak Sabbath, booking a LARP convention at a nightclub with a fascist reputation, printing 1488 in a rules preview, using “triggered” as a Brujah Discipline, suggesting neo-Nazi character ideas in the V5 core book, fighting a heated internet feud with a blogger and now re-skinning the homosexual persecution in Chechnya as a vampiric agenda.
Why does this seem to happen over and over again?
Edginess is Passé
White Wolf’s current product is pursuing the goal of becoming a transmedia entertainment brand featuring game lines in which participants play the monster in a darker interpretation of the real world. The Christopher Nolan Batman films have secured the idea of making things dark as an accepted and popular approach to pop culture. Subdued colors, gritty characters and dimly lit violence are a quick way to declare that your work is not meant for kids. Taking that a step further – adding gratuitous sex, extreme violence, shocking behaviors and sexual crimes – is seen as a way to take dark and make it edgy.
Game developers at White Wolf are embracing a perspective they have stated is “edgy.” However, making something dark doesn’t mean it has to be edgy. They are not the same thing, but more importantly, edginess isn’t what it was in the 1990s when the World of Darkness originated.
Today, “edgy” is seen as simplistic and requiring little thought. There’s no extra energy needed to make a topic edgy, and this hollow addition just feels cheap, lazy and juvenile in ways that don’t actually add any depth to the material. It’s not dissimilar to the way a 13-year old will use a curse word because they think using adult language somehow makes them more adult but instead, it only reveals their immaturity.
Edginess is not required to take on mature themes in intelligent and thought-provoking ways. In fact, in current culture, provocative approaches to subject manner are actually most effective when avoiding edgy tactics. House of Cards, Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad are all fantastic examples of television’s use of dark, adult themes that deeply affect the viewer without exploiting edgy subject matter simply as a way to prove the shows are meant for adults.
Community is Fragmented
The fandom of White Wolf has become toxic and fractured. When each of these controversies happened, White Wolf’s online statements have garnered extensive responses from fans on Facebook and Twitter. A distinct pattern is seen in these conversation threads, wherein a majority of the fan responses defend the company and aggressively berate, attack and insult the fans who are expressing they have concerns or issues with White Wolf’s decisions. These defensive fans spit hateful venom at anyone who even hints that perhaps White Wolf shouldn’t have made the decisions that they made. They wage war on “social justice warriors” and ”evil snowflake liberals” who are “ruining the World of Darkness” by being offended by the edgy nature of the product. The inane defense, “it’s the World of DARKness,” rings paramount in these comments.
The remaining minority spends their time trying to forcefully explain why they are offended, or fervently attacking the fans who are in favor of edgy decisions by declaring they must be stupid, evil, fascist or even Nazis.
This fracture is a two-sided problem. Firstly, White Wolf manages these outbursts and flame wars with ineptitude, likely founded in their lack of a communications or public relations officer in their leadership team. They often ignore these battles for long periods, letting everyone attack one another. Other times, White Wolf will cut and paste a weak, canned statement about being nice to one another that includes a link to their community behavior guidelines. This canned statement and link seems to be the closest they come to actual enforcement of said guidelines, however, as no one I’ve spoken with recalls seeing someone actually banned or have their access removed. Yet other times, White Wolf’s posts simply defend their decision, obliviously deny the possibility of wrongdoing or outright ignore the problem altogether.
The other side of the issue is that there are two clear fandom groups emerging: a group that prefers the sometimes offensive “edgy” World of Darkness, and a group that prefers the dark but socially justifiable World of Darkness of the past. These two groups are contrary demographics. In the 1990s, White Wolf understood this, and developed the Black Dog Games line of product to separate the “edgy” from the dark. Today, White Wolf is inexplicably trying to court both at the same time with the same product – a task that is tearing the fanbase asunder and resulting in a product many like but few can love. At some point, White Wolf must decide who they are targeting with V5 and clearly make that announcement before actively directing and marketing their product with greater focus.
Leadership is Benighted
There are some who believe that all of this is a conspiracy by White Wolf to secretly market the new V5 to the alt-right. I don’t believe this is true. Evil individuals have found many ways to insert themselves and their views into every edition of Vampire. It is my belief these are simply poor decisions that are repeated because there is no one at White Wolf preventing them from being made in the first place.
Inserting 1488 into the playtest is an easy mistake – most people don’t know the significance of those numbers and it’s quite realistic to accept that it was a terrible coincidence. Nearly all of the other problems, however, could and should have easily been avoided.
Don’t hire someone with a negative reputation from Gamer Gate. Even if they are completely innocent, there are plenty of other writers who don’t have baggage that can damage your company. Don’t book a nightclub without doing a simple Google search to see what it’s reputation is. There are plenty of other nightclubs without baggage that can damage your company.
Don’t mock American social justice warriors by using “triggered” as the name of a Discipline. Even if you don’t like current American culture, there are plenty of other names that don’t have baggage that can damage your company. Don’t use neo-Nazi as a possible player character type in your book. There are plenty of other types of dark concepts that don’t have baggage that can damage your company.
And of course, the most recent event should have been the easiest to avoid because White Wolf knows from these previous problems that their fanbase is watching them. The homosexual genocide in Chechnya is so horrific in reality that giving it a vampiric justification actually lessens the horror and turns it into a cheap fictionalization just for shock value. It is “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” at its worst.
It seems there was no one at White Wolf who recognized that leaving this passage out would not affect the book in any meaningful way whatsoever – no one running a game at their kitchen table is having their gaming group’s characters travel to Chechnya to explore the persecution of homosexuals during their Friday night game, and if they are, they must be intelligent enough individuals to do so without White Wolf’s published words. Leaving it out affects nothing. Leaving it in affects the company’s reputation.
One of the writers/developers of V5 posted on their Facebook, “What is the whole controversy about the Camarilla book having an anti-gay section about anyway?” and “How is it the writer’s fault…?” I believe this person was honestly asking, and when people responded, he noted it was an evil NPC saying those things to demonstrate that the NPC was an evil monster – an excuse that means little in a game line whose main selling point is that EVERYONE is playing a monster, even the PCs. It is this seeming lack of awareness in pursuing “edgy” that permeates the new White Wolf staff.
While ignorance and lack of judgement is a problem, some of the issue is also caused by the cultural differences between Sweden (where White Wolf is now headquartered) and the United States (where we are all up in arms about these decisions). Either there is no one at White Wolf who is expressing these differences, or no one at White Wolf cares. Both are a problem that needs a course correction.
Conclusions to these incidents have nearly always been accompanied by promises that things were going to change, that greater sensitivity and responsibility were coming and that White Wolf would be refocusing on their fan communities. After most of these incidents, nothing really changed. In the few instances where changes were visible, the followthrough on these promises have proven to be unsuccessful.
Following the issues with the V5 core book, White Wolf had their V5 producer, Jason Carl, do a fantastic live Q&A online. He took questions from the fanbase on air and made no effort to avoid difficult questions. His answers were straightforward, well-spoken and in nearly all instances, quite satisfying. He offered heartfelt apologies and sincere hope for the future, including a promise to engage with their fandom in a more positive and full manor.
No meaningful changes were made, however. Carl, the very producer behind the beleaguered publications that featured these problems, was title-shuffled and named executive vice president of community development. Matthew Dawkins, a gaming writer and YouTube celebrity from England, was named senior community director, with the intention of relaunching his YouTube channel about Vampire. Neither of them are public relations or communications professionals with experience in community management or crisis communication, and Dawkins served in the position just two months.
Now these problems have happened again in the Camarilla book with the Chechnyan passage, and the cycle is beginning again.
None of us want to see White Wolf go through this again. We love the World of Darkness – if we weren’t so passionate about it, these incidents would not be reacted to with such volume. A lesser IP would be out of business and forgotten by now. But the World of Darkness is rich with history and blessed with a dedicated fandom.
Fandoms are a reflection of those in control of what they are fans of. Gaming companies bear responsibility for their gaming communities. How gamers are behaving when discussing the game, and how they actually play it, are fundamentally influenced by, and based in how, the company interacts with their fans when presenting their product.
Normally, I would express that if a company is unhappy with how their fandom is responding to other fans and to their product, the company needs to adjust their approach to their fan community to inspire the behaviors they wish to see. But White Wolf doesn’t seem to know which fans they want, let alone what they want from them, dooming the company to keep repeating this cycle. They will never be able to course correct anything without making these key decisions and equipping themselves with the people, wisdom and skills to then properly follow through.
The World of Darkness and Vampire: the Masquerade is still one of the most influential and prolific intellectual properties. I hope changes can save it before it becomes history.