If you were a fan of White Wolf’s Storyteller System, you probably had a copy of Vampire: the Masquerade on your shelf. It was by far the most popular of all its World of Darkness titles, spawning not just a CCG but also two video games and an ill-fated TV series, Kindred: the Embraced. Vampire was one of White Wolf’s big three, the other two being Mage: the Ascension and Werewolf: the Apocalypse, but if you wanted something a little more unusual you could try being a Changeling from the faerie realms, a long-dead Mummy, a patchwork man a la Frankenstein’s Monster, a Hunter dedicated to tracking down and eliminating threats from all of the above, or you could try something really different.
You could try being dead. As in bereft of life. Ceased to be. Joined the choir invisible.
You could be a Wraith.
Having died, you awaken to discover that the afterlife isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. There’s no sign of Heaven, Hell, or any other kind of eternal reward or condemnation. There’s just you, and everyone else who’s ever died, ever. Everyone seems to have some kind of unfinished business that needs dealing with, including you, and the only way you get to stay here is by being Remembered by the living. You don’t know how you came to be here, but you do know – or think you know – that here is all there is, and if you want to keep on keeping on, you’d better be careful.
Some of the people who got here before you have set up a kind of society, the Hierarchy, which almost sort of not really works to keep you all safe; and if you believe that, I have a copy of 1984 to sell you. Others among the previously deceased are rebelling against that Hierarchy, and some of those Renegades are selling salvation. They think they know how to get to the promised land, and if you believe that, I have a subscription to Skeptic magazine to sell you.
But whether Renegade or Hierarchy, they all have something resembling your best interests at heart, because they – and you – have a much more dangerous enemy to worry about. Some of the previously deceased didn’t make it to the other side with their souls or sanity intact. Some of them serve the darkest powers, the great bubbling pit of mayhem and destruction that the dead call the Tempest, with its shattering Nihils belching forth every kind of nightmare you ever had, and more besides.
Oh, and by the way, that little voice in the back of your head? The one that’s getting stronger every day? The one that keeps telling you you’re worthless, you’re nothing, you’re just another parasite, you’ll never please your daddy, you’ll never find what you’re looking for, so just give up now? That little voice is your darkest side, your Shadow, and it will never stop talking. Not ever.
Wraith tackled pretty much any kind of story you can think of, in almost any kind of setting you care to name, but for me Wraith will always be my favorite for two reasons. One is its Great War sourcebook, a fascinating look at the horrors of the First World War from the perspective of the dead, desperately trying to survive under constant assault from the Tempest. The other is Charnel Houses of Europe: The Shoah, a truly terrifying glimpse inside World War Two’s Holocaust. Thereseinstadt, the Warsaw Ghetto, Ukraine’s Baba Yar, Auschwitz … these were subjects you never saw games tackle, yet Wraith took them on, and in the process made something unforgettable.
Richard Dansky is one of Wraith‘s founding fathers. He first started writing for White Wolf back in 1994 as a freelancer, eventually joining the company and becoming one of its most prolific writers and developers. He has developer and writer credits for The Shoah; without him, it would never have been written. These days he’s better known for his work with Ubisoft, particularly its Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell franchise, but one of the projects he’s working on is the 20th Anniversary edition of Wraith: the Oblivion. I was fortunate enough to be able to talk with him about being dead, and all the baggage that comes with it.
Adam Gauntlett: I’m going to start with a quote from Wraith first edition, which I don’t think you had a hand in …
Rich Dansky: The extent of my involvement in first edition was that I knew Jennifer Hartshorn [writer, developer and design credits, 1st edition Wraith: the Oblivion] in college. She asked me a couple questions about horror, because I’d done my thesis on H.P. Lovecraft.
Gauntlett: The quote seems appropriate, and I wanted to ask your opinion. It’s from Mark Rein-Hagen’s Afterword, and it’s as follows: ‘Wraith is cursed. There’s no other way to say it. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. I’ve never seen anything like it. Contracts got screwed up, schedules got mangled, writers and artists disagreed and everyone involved argued and fought endlessly. Everything good about this project came about only with agonizing effort …’
Dansky: I think the Wraith curse is a wonderful story, that self-perpetuates. Every project like this that has so many moving parts and so many people involved, in so many different places, is going to have things go wrong. You build a legend like the Wraith curse, and you start looking for confirmation bias. It’s like the Bermuda Triangle; no more ships are lost there any given year than anywhere else, but because the legend exists, every ship that’s lost there, becomes a part of that legend.
Gauntlett: I did notice one mention in your biography about your office desk catching fire …
Dansky: Oh God, that! That was while I was writing Kithbook: Sluagh [Changeling: The Dreaming]. I would stay late at the office and work, and I am one of those pretentious writer types who needs a certain ambience while I’m writing which occasionally includes having candles at the desk to get the mood right. I had a rather large pillar candle on my desk, and I got called away to talk to somebody at the other side of the building. While I was there, apparently the side of the candle sort of collapsed, and all the molten wax streamed out onto the desk, leaving several inches of the wick exposed, which blazed up. There was a lovely call over the P.A.: ‘Richard Dansky, please return to your office. Your desk is on fire. Repeat, your desk is on fire.’ Why they went to the P.A., rather than getting some water … that would have been my first reaction!
Gauntlett: I’m sure they were doing the best they could, under the circumstances.
Dansky: The carpet was non-flammable, so I think they felt they were safe!
Gauntlett: That’s all right really, as long as the carpet survives! Going back to Wraith, I was re-reading the main book, and it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen anything like it in a long time. No mention of any game mechanics whatsoever until Chapter 4, p 96; no mention of Combat until p 218. The Storyteller System games were like that, as I recall, but Wraith spent an awful lot of time world-building.
Dansky: You’re going to see more of that in the 20th Anniversary Edition actually. There will be some basic rules material up front, but Wraith is thoroughly character-driven as a game. The player character and its Shadow are the most important aspects to develop; the rules for how to have a firefight, drive a car, the things you’ll do moment to moment, yes, those are important, but to a certain extent those are almost endemic to roleplaying. The stuff that’s really important to Wraith is who the characters are, and who that voice in the back of their head is, so it makes a lot more sense developing the world and the Restless Dead who are wandering around in it.
Gauntlett: You wrote so many of the Wraith books; what attracted you to the system in the first place?
Dansky: I’ve always been sort of ghoulish, shall we say … I’ve always loved horror, I did my undergraduate thesis on the works of H.P. Lovecraft, I collect old horror novels, and I love ghost stories. So the subject material was a perfect fit for me! On a more philosophical level, the notion that wraiths are people with unfinished business really struck a chord. It was really interesting storytelling material for me, and to take that world with these people who, okay they’ve died, but they still had something to do that was so important they can’t let go, that opens all sorts of doors in terms of the world they inhabit, what they could be doing … it’s an incredibly rich vein of material.
Gauntlett: I think your first Wraith sale was Haunts, back in 1994.
Dansky: I had two chapters in that, the Tillinghast Mansion, and the Hanging Gardens Casino. I wrote both of those in the basement of a church in suburban Boston while I was proctoring fake SAT exams to teenagers, and sitting in furniture designed for third graders.
Gauntlett: That must have been comfortable!
Dansky: It was inspiring! There was also no air conditioning in that church, so it was really a race against the clock, for the test I was proctoring, and also against heat prostration!
Gauntlett: Was that your first commercial sale?
Dansky: That was my first commercial writing. The first official, published writing I did was a couple academic papers in Lovecraft studies and studies in weird fiction.
Gauntlett: How did that first sale feel?
Dansky: It was incredible. There is really nothing like it, holding the book in your hand, and of course, finding the first typo … I was living in a house in south Boston at that time, and my apartment was at the top of this incredibly narrow flight of stairs, in the dark. I got the envelope from White Wolf, ripped it open, and there was that first copy of Haunts. I was so excited I ran up the stairs, went smack into my door, and nearly fell back down again! Most people would have chalked that up to the curse …
Gauntlett: It does seem fairly curse-like, you have to admit.
Dansky: Yes. Well, it was an old house, and there were noises in the walls, but those were largely due to squirrels!
Gauntlett: Those sinful squirrels. I’ve heard it said – in fact, I believe it was you saying it – that Wraith was out in the boonies as far as public opinion was concerned. Why was that?
Dansky: I think Wraith, for a lack of a better way of putting it, was the Deep Space Nine of the World of Darkness, in that the material is not quite as accessible, in some ways, as Vampire or Werewolf. I mean, in Vampire you’re a dude, and you’re a vampire living in the modern world, living in the city, which means 98% of the trappings are the things you’re familiar with, and see every day. The same thing goes, to a certain extent, with Werewolf. These are very easy steps away from who you are, into your character. With Mage you’re taking bigger steps, and with Wraith there was this whole other way of being. I guess you could call it two steps removed, as opposed to one step from your normal life, because you had the Shadow, because you had the Underworld, because you had the Tempest, the Labyrinth, and all these portions of the cosmology that were so integral to the setting, but which were so far removed from your day-to-day. You couldn’t fall back into your day-to-day patterns in the way that you could with the other games. On the one hand that made it a little harder to get into, but on the other hand it gave us a tremendous breadth of material to explore. I don’t want it to sound like I’m knocking any of the other games, because obviously I love those other games, I wrote for those other games, I played all those other games, I still have groaning bookshelves of all the books from those other games! I just think Wraith was the one that took two steps outside of reality as opposed to one, and that second step made a big difference.
Gauntlett: There are two books in particular that Wraith is remembered for, The Shoah, and The Great War. I was re-reading The Great War and I noticed a dedication at the front to ‘Rich ‘Freak of Nature’ Dansky, without whom this book would not exist.’ I know these dedications are in-jokes among friends, but I have to ask: what on earth did you do to earn the title Freak of Nature?
Dansky: Ed Hall did a marvelous, marvelous job with The Great War, and working with him was an absolute education, in the best way possible! He’s a brilliant editor, and it was a pleasure to hand off the line, at that point, to him. The image that sold Great War to the management at White Wolf was the notion of ghostly Fokker Triplanes dueling with Camels. That was the one that captured everyone’s imagination. From there we could dig into the meatier stuff. Freak of Nature … let’s just say that I didn’t get a lot of sleep in those days! I’d come into work, I’d do my development work, I’d go home, have dinner, get chased around my apartment by my cat – the notorious Ember – then I’d go into work and write for another eight hours. If you look at the credits for those days, there’s a lot of books I had credit for, there’s a lot of books that I have writing credits on, because, really, that is what I did. I Energizer Bunny’d it to keep going, and going, and going. There were palisades of Diet Coke cans on my desk. Unfortunately I hate the taste of coffee so I could never bring myself to drink it, but for a good long while you could probably deflect lasers from orbit with just the gleam of the Diet Coke cans on my desk. At least until I gathered up a double armful and put them all in the recycling bin!
Gauntlett: Those two topics – the Great War and the Shoah – must have been tough sells. How did that come about?
Dansky: The thing that really captured the imagination about The Great War was the biplanes – such a glorious, exciting image – that’s something you want to do, as a player, and that was the initial momentum that led to the rest of the book. With Shoah, I think that looks back to the ‘in the boonies’ aspect a little, in that we weren’t Vampire, we weren’t the powerhouse pulling the World of Darkness along, which gave us freedom to experiment a little. At the time my sister was working for Stephen Spielberg on the Shoah Foundation and recording the testimony of Holocaust survivors, while we were working on the Black Dog line and making a very big deal of the fact that we were making games for mature minds and not shying away from mature material. This was also right when Art Spiegelman’s Maus was ascending to its mega-popularity – obviously justified – and I thought to myself, ‘well, if we’re doing games for mature minds, if we’re serious about this, and this is the game of dead people with unfinished business, well, this is the right and proper thing to do: to take the medium I’m working in and go there.’
There were a few jaws that bounced off the floor when I proposed the book, but I will give White Wolf management a lot of credit for giving me my head, and supporting me to do that. Wraith had a slightly truncated release schedule in those days, so there’d be six Wraith books a year and two Minds-Eye Theatre books, rather than the eight books that Vampire or Mage were getting, and those six Wraith books were what I was in charge of. To be willing to devote one of those slots to what was essentially a settings book on a controversial topic; that was a big decision. Again, it was something I really felt we should be doing, to uphold the standards that we set for ourselves; the people doing mature material, taking advantage of it to tell mature stories.
That was an absolutely brutal project to work on. The writers on it did a magnificent job. Janet Berliner was tremendously supportive, writing the introduction – she’d co-authored the Madagascar Manifesto for the fiction edition – and she had personal ties to the material. She became a wonderful friend to me, as I talked through the project with her, saying ‘please help me do this.’ She was kind enough to write the introduction, and she was also the one who suggested I call Harlan Ellison when the controversy started to swirl around the project a little bit. She suggested I ask Mr Ellison what he’d done when he’d faced a similar firestorm over the I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream videogame. That’s how I ended up getting a call from Harlan Ellison that melted the phone in my hand and temporarily deafened me in my right ear, but was a blisteringly sincere outpouring of support for the project and what I was trying to accomplish.
Janet suggested I contact him, so I spent a week composing a letter to him – I wanted this to be exactly right – and I sent him the letter, and a copy of the manuscript and art we had so far, and sent that off. Didn’t hear, didn’t hear, and I figured this was something that wasn’t going to pop up on his radar, that’s fine, I’ll keep going.
One day my phone rings, and I pick it up. I hear, ‘Dansky!’ ‘Yes?’ ‘This is Ellison.’ I hear this incredibly profane rant of support that was incredibly touching and also extraordinarily loud. This was a story that needed to be told, in every medium, and to keep telling it, and to do the right thing. He wound down, as the plastic of the phone bent from the ferocity, and he said, ‘Got that?’ ‘Yes sir!’ ‘Good!’ That’s my encounter with Mr Ellison over that book.
But yeah, there were a lot of people who were, I think, justifiably concerned, about the possibility of trivializing the material, that we would not give it the research that the material demanded, that the book would not be everything it absolutely needed to be. I spent a lot of time engaging with the folks who were raising those concerns, on the internet, sending folks chapters, telling them, ‘Here’s what we’re intending to do. Here’s how we will approach the material. Here’s how we’re separating the actual material from the game material, so nobody can confuse the two.’ Hopefully I demonstrated our good intentions, and the seriousness of our intentions. The folks who worked on that book worked their butts off to make sure that everything was right. I have nothing but gratitude to them for that.
When the book came out there were a lot of people who wrote to me personally, saying ‘Thank you for doing this, I never knew about this material, I learned from this.’ If you look at Janet’s introduction, the gist of it is, ‘Teach them in the way they will learn.’ This was a way to reach people who perhaps wouldn’t have approached the material in another medium, or format.
Gauntlett: That’s an idea that goes through the entire Wraith line. One of the sections in The Great War that always struck home with me says, ‘The ghosts in this game aren’t really re-fighting the war. They’re dealing with its tremendous consequences, and to some extent, they’re fighting to be remembered.’
Dansky: Very much so. The point of Wraith is that it’s unfinished business, the aftermath; it’s what do you do now. In my opinion, it’s one of the most hopeful worlds in the World of Darkness, because you are doing something. You have a goal. You have something to take care of. It would be pointless if the afterlife was just a repeat of life. It’s a new situation, a new place, there are new rules, there are new enemies, and it was important that the setting not just be a re-run of the Western Front, as it were. It couldn’t be a replay of what actually happened, but rather dealing with those consequences, asking the question ‘What now?’ Making sure that what was done, was not done in vain.
Gauntlett: The Great War came out at about the same time – the same year, in fact – that the Wraith line ended, which was slightly earlier than anticipated. Did you get to tell all the stories that you wanted to tell?
Dansky: In a somewhat abbreviated fashion, we hit all the high points! I know I’m constantly using the plural first person pronoun here, but really, nobody does this by themselves. There’s the writers, the editors, the artists, so when I say, we didn’t get to tell all the stories we needed to tell, I’m not trying to use the imperial We here; it’s very much that it was everybody’s creativity going into it. I look at it sort of like the fourth season of Bablyon 5, if I can make a thoroughly dated geek reference here! They have the five season arc, and they thought they were going to end at four, so suspended the time table, eliminated a few of the elements, combined a couple characters, but they got to where they needed to go. They told the story they needed to tell, and the big elements, the big beats were all there. While I would have loved to have had more time, more space, more books, the things that made Wraith Wraith, the shape of the arc stayed the same.
Gauntlett: Last but not least, to end on a fun note, let’s say for the sake of argument that you got drafted in to do one more Wraith supplement, but the publishers want you to focus on ghost documentary reality TV shows – and yes, I have read your Rant 8. What’s your approach?
Dansky: Heh! Well, after the maniacal cackling dies down, and bearing in mind I am working on the 20th Anniversary edition of Wraith – so we’ve gone past supplement stage to ‘Oh my God this is devouring my life, but in a good and welcoming way’ – if I were to do a Wraith book dealing with the paranormal investigator types and their mandatory green screens, I would use Lucien Soulbans’ work on Haunters as a starting point and essentially do the guide to messing with those guys. If you look at them in the context of Wraith, they are a wonderful source of Pathos, of emotional energy. Hundreds of thousands of people are watching them, they’re amplifying their emotions all over TV, overacting impressively, and at the same time they’re oversimplifying what ghosts are, all of which makes them an incredibly valuable resource to ghosts. So the book would be how to mess with them, how to use them for your own advantage, how to interact with them, and how to keep them on the air!
Gauntlett: It would explain so much!
Dansky: It would! I do enjoy watching people blunder around various locations in the dark, with their night vision goggles, reassuring us that they’re alone in there, except for the camera and sound crews that are following them. I grew up in Philadelphia, so every one of these shows needs to make the pilgrimage to the Eastern State Penitentiary; a little jolt of nostalgia for an old Philadelphia boy!