Among the Ferrymen: Richard Dansky

By day, Richard Dansky is the Central Clancy Writer at Ubisoft, Manager of Design for Red Storm Entertainment in Morrisville, North Carolina, and a prolific writer of all things spooky, weird, and creepy by night. Contributing in one respect or another to over one hundred books during his tenure at White Wolf, Dansky learned the ropes of professional writing as a line developer for the White Wolf game Wraith: The Oblivion.

 

 

GDG: How did you become the line developer for Wraith?

RD: The short answer here is “nepotism”. Jennifer Hartshorn, who was the original developer for Wraith, and I had known each other at Wesleyan, and she was kind enough to give me the opportunity to freelance for her on books like Haunts and the Wraith Players’ Guide. When she moved over to replace Andrew Greenberg on Vampire, she recommended me for the same role on Wraith (OK, actually, Wraith plus Mind’s Eye Theatre, which together added up to a full slate of 8 books per year) and the rest, as they say, is history.

 

 

GDG: Where did you fit in the creation and management of Wraith: The Oblivion, as the line developer?

RD: Once I came on board, my job included mapping out every year’s releases. That meant putting together a schedule that took into account the need to vary up page count and book price, keeping the sub-lines like the Guildbooks going, making sure that all of the crossover events like Year of the Ally got covered, and making sure that the material was sufficiently diverse and interesting. From there, the next step (after the schedule was approved) was lining up writers and doing book outlines — literally deciding who was writing which chunk of what, how long they had to do it, and so forth.

I always tried to give my writers a lot of rope and the chance to collaborate without my looking directly over their shoulder — the reason I hired those folks was that I wanted to see what they would come up with on that basic framework I set up, and I had no interest in “trying to write through them”. The “I’m thinking of a book…no, that’s not it” shtick doesn’t work too well for anyone, I’ve found. And I was lucky in that I had a great group of writers who really got the material — Bruce Baugh, Geoff Grabowski, Jim Moore, Clayton Oliver and more — and who were more than happy to take what I gave them and push it to some really amazing places.

Once folks were writing, of course, I did have to be the final authority on content, rules, and continuity. There was a lot of great material that I had to say, “Uh, maybe not here” to, because it didn’t fit the needs of the book, or it contradicted something else that was coming down the pike, or we were tight up against word count. And there were times where I’d jump on a little throwaway aside and demand another thousand words on it, because it really caught fire. Bruce was the king of the awesome-out-of-left-field sidebar.

There was always plenty of interfacing with the other line developers when crossover elements came into play. Ultimately, being a developer on one of the World of Darkness games was a cross between being a show runner and a line editor, with more ten-sided dice in the mix.

Wraith was already about a half-dozen books in when I came on board, which meant that A) the basic rules were in place and B) some of the basic terrain, like the Tempest (Sea of Shadows) and the Hierarchy. That freed me up to cast my net a little wider, both in terms of geography and in terms of driving the Wraith metaplot to its explosive conclusion — which, to be fair, came a little sooner than I’d hoped. And of course there was second Edition, which was my baby, in both the good and the bad. That was where I could take the collected feedback from two or so years of players’ letting their feelings be known and try to adjust things to make for a smoother play experience. I didn’t want to just remake the game — obviously, there were a lot of things I loved about Wraith as it was, or I wouldn’t have been putting in all those late nights at the office hammering away at it — but I did want to get it to a place where more people would find it, play it, and enjoy it.

 

 

GDG: When you were working on Wraith, what did you want the game to convey in terms of tone and mood?

RD: This is where I get to sound like a total litweenie. What I was really going for was a sense of possibility. I wanted the afterlife that Wraith conveyed to be a great framework for storytelling, where the bones of the world were visible and concrete, but there was plenty of space in between for people to carve out their own stories and own hunks of the setting. And I wanted it to be scary – I don’t think there’s anything else in the World of Darkness with the sheer spine-freezing terror potential of a Harrowing — while at the same time offering the possibility of something more.

I suppose it makes no sense to say that I was going for a Hesiod-inspired formal underworld with Lovecraftian scope and “Our Town”-style emotional heft, except that it’s pretty much exactly the case. Hesiod’s Theogony formalized the relationships between the Greek gods and set up the cosmology they lived in, and I wanted a world that had that sense of grand myth, that had a structure on that sort of scale. As for Lovecraftian scope, the thing that’s most interesting to me about Lovecraft is that his cosmology is so big, that individual humans are a very, very small part of it and there’s a lot of scary stuff out there. Never mind the books and the critters with names with a lot of apostrophes, it’s the notion of the immense, mechanistic universe — with lots of room to explore, but lots of risks if you do so — that I wanted to seize onto. And then there’s the Wilder, the deeply human, emotional attachment that brings everything full circle. Wraith got a lot of flak for being “too depressing” and “the darkest of the WoD games”, but at the same time it was the one that offered a genuine sense of hope, and a feeling that there was a reason for doing what you were doing, more than just trying to stave off the inevitable.

All of which makes it sound, I suppose, like I had this very abstruse vision of things, but really, it was the exact opposite. I wanted to give players and GMs a big canvas to paint on, one that would allow them to take the core concepts of the game and launch themselves in any direction they wanted to while having the  setting support it. Lost cities filled with howling horrors? Check. Personal stories about trying to protect your loved ones from forces beyond their control? Check. Two-fisted monster-hunting goodness? Check. Political byplay and backstabbing, where the price of failure was getting turned into an ashtray? Check and check.

 

 

GDG: In what ways did working on Wraith shape your writing, if any?

RD: On the most basic level, working on Wraith turned me into a professional writer. I mean, I was working for a publishing company, on deadline, and dealing with a very invested and detail-oriented fan base that cast a microscopic eye on what I was doing. That’s being thrown into the deep end of the pool, right there, and I had to learn to swim pretty damn fast. (I also had to rewrite Guildbook: Artificers pretty much twice cover to cover, once before I became line developer and once after and I saw exactly how the sausage got made.) Honestly, I really appreciate my time at White Wolf, in large part for what it taught me about writing and being a professional. From building long story arcs to character design to the chance to interact with established horror writers like Janet Berliner and P.D. Cacek, it was a serious education.

As for the subject matter, the scope of Wraith really forced me to stretch my own writing, and to bust out of the creepy little Lovecraftian neighborhood where I’d mostly been hanging out, word-wise. I’d done my thesis at Wesleyan on Lovecraft and was pretty much locked into that sort of classic horror — Lovecraft, Blackwood, Machen – as my idea of how to write. Working on Wraith shook the bars of the cage and demanded that I get more versatile. Sure, there was still plenty of Lovecraft in the setting — the Neverborn are about as ardent a homage to Yog-Sothothery as you’re going to find — but a setting that includes stuff as varied as The Sea That Knows No Sun and as (hopefully) gritty and modern as the Renegades material, and so on and so forth, you sort of have to bust out of the safe little corner of Tillinghasts and Curwens. And once you do, there’s no going back.

 

 

GDG: Has your work as a line developer left any lasting effects on you or your career?

RD: In many ways, it’s responsible for my career. Learning game design working on Wraith and learning game writing was what led to my moving on to video games, and working in design/narrative design/game writing, which I’ve been doing for well over a decade now. There are significant differences between tabletop and video games, but some of the core skills are absolutely identical, and what I learned and polished working at White Wolf did a great job of preparing me for my work with Red Storm and Ubisoft.

GDG: What led to the creation of the Wraith book Charnel Houses of Europe: The Shoah?

RD: To be honest, I figured it was time we put our money where our mouths were. We — and by “we” I mean White Wolf — had made a big deal out of talking about how we were doing roleplaying for mature minds, and we’d set up the Black Dog imprint to handle “adult” material, and I thought that if we were serious about that, then we should damn well be serious about that. Besides, I was getting a little cranky with the whole “supernatural critters have written the secret history of the world and controlled everything that happened ever EXCEPT THIS ONE THING” vibe that was out there and I thought, well, if we really are roleplaying for mature minds, we should be able to do this – and we should do this.

A side note — around that time, my sister was working for the Shoah Foundation, collecting video testimony from survivors. I was also running a small mailing list for Jewish tabletop gamedevs with the unfortunate name of Moy-L. So I was sort of in that head space already, thinking about whether it was possible to justice to the material in a game setting. And ultimately, creative works like Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Yehuda Poliker’s album Ashes and Dust convinced me that it was worth trying. I actually got to talk to Spiegelman about the project for about thirty seconds — he was doing a reading in Atlanta, and I’m sure he was horrified when this very earnest gamer-type in, God help me, a trench coat, came up to him and told him about his plans to do an RPG supplement on the Holocaust. To his credit, he just looked at me and said, “Good luck.” I got a much more intense pep talk later from Harlan Ellison, but that’s a whole other story.

You also have to give plenty of credit to White Wolf for giving me the chance to do the book. The easy thing to say would have been to say, “No way, too controversial”, and killed it. But they let me (and Matt Milberger, who did the layout) run with it, and then things got interesting.

But it was scary, for a lot of reasons, every step of the way.

 

 

GDG: How did you get through the emotional challenges of working on Charnel Houses, particularly as people outside the company learned about the project?

RD: I got a lot of support from a lot of people both in-house and out, and I really believed in the project. There are still some stories about the development I can’t tell, but suffice to say that not everyone was happy with the concept of the project. And of course there was a lot of rumor and supposition out there — “White Wolf is making a game of the Holocaust! White Wolf can’t get their history straight and they’re going to screw it up!” — that had to be confronted and overcome. I mean, I don’t blame people for a certain amount of caution when it comes to a project like that, but at the same time, there were plenty of folks who had made up their minds based on everything but the book itself. I mean, it hadn’t even been written yet when someone who was apparently psychic started comparing it to Mein Kampf, and it took a lot of time and energy to engage with those folks to try to get them to see what we were trying to do.

At the same time, it was really important to engage with those folks. I spent a lot of time writing emails, offering to send out pieces of manuscript to folks who had concerns and so forth, and really trying to meet the concerns head-on so that the rumor and the innuendo could get a little sunshine on them. To be fair, a lot of the people who had raised concerns did take me up on the offer to look at the material, and a lot of those were gracious enough to say publicly that they were feeling better about the project and the approach. And then after it came out, I got a flood of emails and letters from people who said that they’d never known a lot of the material that was in the book, that they appreciated it being expressed in this format, that they’d learned from it. That, really, was all that I could have hoped for.

It certainly wasn’t an easy book to put together. There were a lot of times when I did ask myself if I was doing the right thing, if the book might do some harm. And there were times when it really just was overwhelming, either the public response or the responsibility to the material. There were a couple of late nights at the office — one was actually my birthday, and Janet Berliner’s introductory essay came in over the FAX, and I pulled it off, sat down on the floor, read it and started crying — where the light at the tunnel was pretty hard to see. But I was very fortunate in the folks I was working with, the writers and the artists and the folks inside White Wolf who made it happen. They were behind it 100%, and they did astonishing work. And every time I got too down, I thought about the work that my sister was doing, and the people she was talking to, and it put the whole thing in perspective. Compared to what those folks went through, some name-calling on alt.games.white-wolf, well, it wasn’t such a big deal.

Richard Dansky can be found on the web at his homepage, reviewing for Green Man, writing for  Storytellers Unplugged the 27th of every month, and @RDansky.

 

About l

L is a freelancer currently working as a writer, editor, journalist and game designer. She hauls a suitcase decorated in stickers as she blogs, travels, and tours. She makes her home in Washington, California, and wherever the tour stopped last night. You can follow L on twitter (@lilyorit )

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