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For World of Darkness, the future of tabletop RPGs is increasingly digital

The early-’90s, in all of its grunge-soaked glory, saw vampires and werewolves roam the night while humanity became part of a herd to be culled and controlled. A World of Darkness had been born in shadow and masquerade. With the birth of the first editions of Vampire: The Masquerade and Werewolf: The Apocalypse tabletop role-playing games, White Wolf Publishing had crafted a gritty, cloistered realm where playing with monsters wasn’t just encouraged — it was the whole purpose.

Monsters need management, however. Throughout the early-aughts and into the 2010s, White Wolf was in dire need of restructuring and solvency. CCP Games stepped in for a time — there was even an MMO in the works — but the partnership ultimately faltered. In 2015, Paradox Interactive, which had started to branch out from its grand strategy PC gaming roots more and more by that point, acquired White Wolf Publishing from CCP Games.

For three years, White Wolf operated fairly independently. After Vampire: The Masquerade’s fifth edition source books were published, there were a number of callous and homophobic passages that forced Paradox to adroitly absorb White Wolf in both name and management.

With World of Darkness’ monstrous roots firmly managed, Paradox Interactive has had to rethink ways to analog storytelling with digital experiences in order to broaden its approach to tabletop roleplaying games. Part of that is ensuring that the analog source material and their digital counterparts are as seamlessly integrated as possible.

Paradox’s firm leadership coupled with the deep creative well at World of Darkness has required more blood, both new and familiar. Justin Achilli, a veteran writer (1995-2005) in the world of Vampire: The Masquerade, has rejoined the “vamily” as brand creative lead at World of Darkness. Martyna “Outstar” Zych, a popular Twitch streamer and indie game developer, has also joined the World of Darkness team as brand community developer.

Above: Martyna Zych

Image Credit: World of Darkness

We had an opportunity to chat with Achilli and Zych, with additional commentary from Jason Carl (Brand Marketing Manager at World of Darkness) and Sean Greaney (Brand Manager at World of Darkness), about World of Darkness’ approach to transmedia, the role of streaming and liveplay shows, and exploring World of Darkness’ properties as “platform agnostic.”

World of Darkness, but time to shine

Over the last two years, Paradox Interactive has made waves in both development and publishing, especially with an eye on World of Darkness. A 2018 $2 million investment in Hardsuit Labs for a 33{69439eabc38bbe67fb47fc503d1b0f790fcef507f9cafca8a4ef4fbfe163a7c5} minority stake coupled with full IP control over World of Darkness’ properties meant that a sequel to much beloved cult RPG, Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines, was finally possible.

Paradox has been playing with the interplay between analog and digital for a handful of years with its own IP as well, including tabletop adaptations of Crusader Kings (released in 2019) and Stellaris (due out in 2021).

Fully absorbing White Wolf into the Paradox brand meant that World of Darkness could shine on its own. Letting these shadowy analog and digital realities bleed together with ease has become far more of a focus than it had been when White Wolf was independent (despite Activision publishing Vampire: The Masquerade – Redemption in 2000) or even when CCP Games had acquired the company in the mid-aughts.

The word “transmedia” appears to be more of a buzzword than it is. At its root, transmedia refers to media that is explored across multiple mediums. So, in World of Darkness’ case, it means taking their properties from the page to the stage (live-action roleplay) and from analog to digital.

Above: Justin Achilli

Image Credit: World of Darkness

“The World of Darkness has been hugely influential to so many areas of entertainment, especially early on in the brand’s life,” Achilli told us. “I want to reinvigorate that and take this in an innovative new direction in every medium of entertainment that we can. It takes not only a good design intuition, but an understanding of how we want to welcome players and what we want them to take away. Making players feel like they belong, ensuring they have questions to answer and mysteries to unearth and discuss is some of my responsibility.”

Making a property like Vampire: The Masquerade or Werewolf: The Apocalypse accessible to audiences across platforms and mediums is essential in making sure players feel like they have a place in a World of Darkness. For some, that introduction may be with Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines 2. For others, it may be with World of Darkness’ “L.A. By Night” live-play show or through playing Vampire: The Masquerade as the TTRPG it was originally built as.

For Jason Carl, the future of World of Darkness’ products will be tied to streaming, from liveplay or “actual play” productions to news shows like Martyna Zych’s weekly show.

“Streaming is an increasingly important part of World of Darkness,” Carl said. “It lets us tell interesting stories, some that are incorporated into official canon like ‘L.A. By Night’, and interact with our fans in ways that just weren’t possible before. It also helps provide a very accessible example of how to enjoy our games, showing rather than telling how much fun it is to play TTRPGs with your friends. Incorporating streaming into products is new in the TTRPG space and luckily is something we had already started dipping our toes in with the live-play shows from By Night studios.”

“One important aspect of ongoing development is that people play games differently now than they did when the World of Darkness first emerged,” Achilli continued. “Streams, virtual tabletops, virtual and augmented reality, and a variety of new media formats give us a host of new ways to tell stories. Because, of course, it always comes back to storytelling — the World of Darkness thrives on players and audiences making, experiencing, and sharing stories in its secret world.”

Zych’s formidable presence on Twitch (20,000-plus followers) and newly minted role as brand community developer at World of Darkness means that she is tasked with developing a community built for transmedia experiences. Given the complexities of World of Darkness’ properties spanning digital and analog spaces, there are a number of challenges that Zych and her team will be facing.

“The main challenge is reaching the whole World of Darkness community with news, updates and the content that we’re cooking,” Zych said. “Our social media efforts, streams, videos and the work of our ambassadors help with that a lot. The second challenge is maintaining approachability and easy onboarding for new audiences, while at the same time keeping our core fans in mind. The way we interact with our community needs to reflect it.”

As we’d discussed in a previous interview with Carl, streaming the development of the next edition of Werewolf: The Apocalypse will be an integral piece of sharing the game with fans right from the start. Developing a ruleset that will embrace being “media-agnostic,” as Greaney puts it, isn’t a tacked on approach at World of Darkness, either. It’s an important starting point.

Above: Mark Meer (Commander in Shepherd in Mass Effect) plays Chaz Price, and Cynthia Marie (Sirens of the Realms) plays Nelli G in “L.A. by Night.”

Image Credit: World of Darkness

“When we start development on our franchises it’s from a media-agnostic perspective, because we’re a transmedia brand and we know the franchise will exist far beyond tabletop,” Greaney said. “Systems design and rulesets are about building foundations for the kinds of experiences we want fans to have with the franchises. TTRPGs are a great way of ‘opening the hood’ on those foundations for fans and partners alike, but [conceptualization] begins at a higher-level than a specific medium.

“This also requires building an ecology between the narrative and the rules and systems,” Achilli added. “The single largest difference between games and traditional media is that games are interactive. Players touch the systems and have an influence over what happens in a way they simply don’t with more traditional consumable media. That means the game systems need to reinforce the narrative; the themes of the stories are communicated significantly through the actions the player takes. For example, as a vampire, there’s a reason you choose individual victims when you feed, and there are consequences for feeding too much or exposing what you are.”

This ecology isn’t just relegated to developers and writers, or even to World of Darkness all by itself. Greaney describes World of Darkness as an expression of “living play culture.”

“That’s where we see the greatest opportunity to move between and across media, whether that be digital or analog media or linear or emergent stories,” Greaney noted. “This is a collaborative effort with our community, partners and Paradox game teams. And, so we definitely want your favorite vampire to show up to surprise and delight in many products, but more so we want to give you the tools to take them into your own stories. For example, the work our partner Vault Comics is doing to bring Winter’s Teeth characters to TTRPG. But what we’re most excited about … are platforms that enable the community to speak directly back into our story world.”

“Living play culture” also needs to ensure meeting players where they are when onboarding them into the World of Darkness as it exists today. Greaney specifically noted that there are two distinct player bases at the moment: fans that have been exploring World of Darkness since the ’90s and new players that are sinking their fangs into V5 (Vampire: The Masquerade fifth edition) and are anticipating Bloodlines 2. The former is looking for “continuity in experience,” namely with metaplot and characters. The latter is hungry for, well, more.

Vampires love Ferris wheels.

Above: Vampires love Ferris wheels.

Image Credit: Paradox Interactive

“So for those who’ve joined us through LA or Seattle By Night, Bloodlines 2 transmedia work like Tender or Vein Pursuit, or V5 Discord roleplaying servers,” Greaney said, “we work across the product portfolio, marketing and individual products to ensure there’s a fun experience of discovery and peeling back the layers of secrets in WoD and in that process of discovery a chance to join the World of Darkness community.

“And that’s what is ultimately important to us — that we can help customers become fans of our franchises rather than directing them to a specific medium. If you’ve watched Jason every season over the past few years or joined the Tender ARG (Alternate Reality Game) or played through Coteries of New York or spend time discussing WoD5 (World of Darkness fifth edition) lore online — but have never filled in a character sheet and sat down at a table for a chronicle, you’re just as much a Vampire: The Masquerade fan as anybody else and we have no strategic aim to make you experience the franchise in a specific way.”

Looking ahead, World of Darkness is dedicated to creating “more low barrier to entry video games” like Coteries of New York and other visual novel experiences. Additionally, we can expect more alternate reality games like Tender.

“Expect to be able to experience World of Darkness at the table, with a controller, in your earbuds and with your TV remote,” Greaney concluded. “We want to make discovery as seamless as possible, whether that is discovery of lore, fan content, products, or communities relevant to the experience the player is driving. So, whether you’re a new fan eager to discover the breadth of our story world or a long-time fan going deep, our aim is to enable that seamlessly without taking you out of your WoD experience.

“World of Darkness has rapidly evolved and adopted new ways to engage with our fans. Our live-play shows like ‘L.A. By Night’ and games like Bloodlines 2 are just some examples of how we are embracing the future and welcoming new players to our world. We have big plans to continue this expansion and drive discovery that we can’t wait to share with you when the time is right.”

World of Darkness’ approach to being “media-agnostic” is laudable, especially given White Wolf’s roots in print media and old school tabletop RPG culture. Paradox’s levelled leadership, both from CEO Ebba Ljungerud and from the team at World of Darkness, has rebirthed a World of Darkness that exists in all realities at once. We often talk about companies needing to “evolve or die” in the chaos of the game industry, but to find that evolution in death is the sweetest victory of all.

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