I wasn’t allowed to play Dungeons and Dragons growing up. Mom watched a lot of daytime TV and got caught up in the satanic panic of the 1980s and ‘90s that claimed Dungeons and Dragons was a tool of the devil, a game used to channel spirits and trick kids into joining cults. Because it got less mainstream outrage from conservative parents than D&D, I grew up playing Vampire: The Masquerade instead. It was love at first bite.
Vampire: The Masquerade is a foundational tabletop roleplaying game. First released in 1991, the game focuses on the stories of the damned as they tried to survive the modern world. Players are the bad guys: Vampires, the undead, the damned and the game explores the dark side of life and the moral gray areas presented in the world. It’s an absolute blast.
For decades, Vampire’s parent company White Wolf has bounced around from owner to owner. Now, after almost 20 years, the fifth edition of Vampire: The Masquerade is available digitally, with a print version to follow this fall.
But it’s been almost 20 years, and the world has changed. In the 1990s, small groups of weirdos and goths—of which I was one—gathered across the world to indulge dark fantasies through Vampire’s unique horror systems. In 2018, people are more empathetic toward fringe tastes, and the news fills our days with constant horror and dread. Is there still room for a game like Vampire: The Masquerade?
Jason Carl—now the head of White Wolf—discovered the game when it first came out. Like me, he fell in love the moment he saw the cover. “I was an avid Dungeons and Dragons player and love role playing games, a beautiful green cover with a red rose on the shelf,” he told me over a Skype call. “It looked like nothing else at the time. It was completely visually different. It looked like a little rock and roll album cover. And it had those beautiful black and white Tim Bradstreet illustrations of a real people.”
The art drew him in, but the ideas kept him playing. “We learned about things like what is the nature of evil?” he said. “How can you be a good person in a corrupt world? What are the lines of behavior and morals and ethics that we draw around ourselves as individuals and societies and cultures that we don’t want to cross? And what are the consequences that you pay when you do cross them, voluntarily or involuntarily?”
Carl thinks those themes still resonate today. “As we wake up and we find that institutions and organizations and ideas that we once thought were fairly stable, or even safe, maybe aren’t, and maybe are instable or unsafe, I think that a game like Vampire has an even greater purpose now, a greater role to play,” he said.
Vampire is a complicated game. You can play neo-Nazis, eco-terrorists, lonely homeless undead with mental health issues, rich and powerful tastemakers, and everything in between. But you’re always playing a monster. “I think now more than ever, we need experiences that help us think critically about the world as it is in our place in it, because it’s so complicated, and it’s so hard to feel like, we know what’s going on on a day to day basis,” Carl said. “And to be able to do that with our friends I find very ennobling and comforting. So I’m a big believer in Vampire’s mission of exploring darkness through role playing games and teaching us about it. And when you can identify with that evil is I think you’re better equipped to defeat it.”
White Wolf was already tackling the issue of how to modernize a game about the darkest impulses of humanity when a writer accused it of anti-semitism, marketing to Nazis, and promoting pedophila. In a blog post on the subject, a writer called The Dice Dog laid out the case against White Wolf, accusing the company of being “a bunch of Swedish edgelords.” Dice Dog pointed to the description of the Brujah, a clan of vampires (in Vampire, clans function the way a class does in a fantasy RPG.) Vampire: The Masquerade’s new edition describes Brujah as rebels who might be “the fraudster ripping off his own company, the lawyer representing to the poor pro bono, the neo-Nazi claiming to be ‘alt-right,’ and the basement-dweller downloading thousands of movies illegally for redistribution on streaming sites.”
All clans have weaknesses and, in an early draft of Vampire’s new edition, the writers called the Brujah’s biggest weakness—where they temporarily get so angry they lose control of themselves—as “triggered.” Later drafts changed that name. The Dice Dog also pointed to the game’s overall plot, in which the world’s intelligence agencies are cracking down on the undead, as being too similar to popular alt-right and anti-semitic conspiracy theories, and pointed out that one of the pre-generated characters was a pedophile.
“Do I think that new White Wolf is run by Nazis? No,” The Dice Dog wrote. “Do I think that they are trying to court controversy in a juvenile and pubescent manner by marketing their game to Nazis? Fucking yes.”
The accusations came as a shock to White Wolf. “We felt a little surprised because I don’t think it ever occurred to us that we might be accused of being fascists or crypto-fascists,’” Carl said. “At the same time, we felt that if our fans were worried about it…we owed them a response.”
“If you are a member of one of those groups or support those agendas we don’t want you in our community”
Carl and White Wolf immediately issued public statements about The Dice Dog’s article. They said that “triggered,” for example, was part of an early draft of the game but was long gone from the draft that was going to publication.
“We briefly mention the global rise of the far right a few places in V5, as a warning about these terrible ideologies and the damage they can do,” the company wrote. “Our intent with the World of Darkness is always to encourage critical thinking about the world today, and we use dark and sometimes difficult topics to accomplish this.”
Carl also hosted an AMA on Twitch on July 13. When the subject of The Dice Dog’s blog post and Nazis came up, he was unequivocal.
“We are a global company and that we have a global community and that everybody is welcome in that community,” Carl said during the AMA. “Unless you are a Nazi, or a neo-Nazi, or a member of any other hate group that uses these disgusting philosophies to advance your hateful agendas. If you are a member of one of those groups or support those agendas we don’t want you in our community. You aren’t welcome, and if we find you spreading your hate in our community you will be shown the door. We don’t want your money. You can keep it.”
Carl felt like he could do more. Vampire has always been a game about the dark side. It attracts a certain kind of player base and its themes can get intense. It’s important for storytellers— Vampire’s word for the dungeon master—and players to set boundaries for their play session. Even in a game about drinking blood, there’s limits to what is and isn’t acceptable at the table.
To do that, Carl asked freelance writer Jacqueline Bryk to craft a new introduction for the game and write a list of safety rules to help make players and storytellers comfortable. “It originally seemed credible, because [The Dice Dog’s article] was long and it cited a bunch of stuff,” Byrk told me on Skype. “But as I read through it again…it didn’t hold water. It was a very weird time. There were a lot of people accusing [White Wolf and its writers] of being Nazis.”
Following that blog post, people on both sides of the Vampire community harassed each other. Critics of White Wolf attacked its freelancers and writers online. Defenders did the same to the critics. People left Twitter because of the toxicity. The Dice Dog shut down their website and all social media accounts on July 11, citing death threats and legal pressures.
Carl told me he tried to reach out to The Dice Dog to no avail. “The blogger declined to engage with us, citing that [they] had received threats and felt intimidated or harassed,” he said. “The blogger also suggested that [they] had received threats of legal action from White Wolf. That’s simply untrue…we didn’t see the need to threaten anyone with anything.”
Instead, White Wolf focused on recontextualizing the game by employing Bryk to add a mature content warning at the top and a five page appendix at the back titled “Advice for Considerate Play.”
“People will sometimes excuse asshole behavior with ‘Well, that’s just what my character would do.'”
Byrk’s additions feature a discussion of what it means to play with fascism, the role of sexual violence in the world of Vampire: The Masquerade, a list of techniques to help gaming groups find the limits of what they’re comfortable with, and a reminder that people are more important than the game.
For Bryk, horror games such as Vampire are a way to explore these topics safely. ”Roleplaying games are a low consequence environment where you can explore different emotions,” she said. “And Vampire is one of those games that allows you to explore maybe some more toxic or poisonous emotions and explore that darkness without having to suffer through it. A lot of people misinterpret horror games as being ‘let’s see how much I can destroy my players. But it’s about being able to be vulnerable in this space…and once its finished, you can put those emotions in a box or debrief from them because it happened to someone who isn’t you.”
Vampire often allows players to create characters that behave badly on purpose. “Something that’s been a conversation in the [live action roleplaying] community recently is people will sometimes excuse asshole behavior with ‘Well, that’s just what my character would do,’” Bryk said.
Bryk said forcing these players to constantly justify the asshole actions of their character often works to deflate them. “What motivations cause your character to act that way?” She said. “What do they gain out of it? How were they hurt in the past, in order to act like that? What are you? What story are you trying to tell with this behavior? What do you want?”