Peeling back the curtain on progressive game development [LONG]

[ETA: The name of the forum poster who assisted Steffie de Vaan with the Laibon is Jacob Middleton.]

Coincidentally, The Ruined Empire (62% funded with 11 days to go!) isn’t the only thing that I’ve written currently on KickStarter. I was also part of the team that wrote for V20 Dark Ages – the new edition of Dark Ages: Vampire. V20DA is totally killing it on KickStarter, which makes me happy because it’s seriously one of the most social justice-oriented game projects I’ve seen come out of the game world in the last few years.

Seriously, look at this art. LOOK AT IT.

Image taken from the V20:DA KickStarter.

Look at this! Look at it! Look at all those awesome ladies and people of color! That’s doing it right folks! Take that, people who hate SJWs making games!


So because I want to talk about something that’s not totally depressing, I wanted to peel back the curtain a bit and demonstrate what real progressive game development looks like. To that end, I asked some people on the people on the very large and very awesome team of writers to comment on they approached the work. (I’ll be chipping in my two cents with them as well.) The things I asked them to address were:

  • What section(s) they wrote
  • Their thoughts on how the previous edition did re: the section(s) they wrote
  • Their thoughts going into the writing process, as well as reasons behind changes they made to lore/tone in their sections from the previous edition

This post got a bit long because I couldn’t bear to cut down any of the stuff that was sent to me! It’s all so good! So I’ve formatted this for clarity as best as I can.

Neall Raemonn Price on the Malkavians and mental illness

* What section(s) you wrote
I wrote the section on Derangements and Dementation, the Malkavian signature Discipline. David Hill did Malkavians. (I also wrote Baali, Salubri, and their respective Disciplines, but that’s not really germane to the topic)
* Your thoughts on how the previous edition did re: the section(s) you wrote
Malkavians have a very long and tortured history in Masquerade, especially in the LARP community. Because their clan flaw involves an automatic and severe Derangement, that sort of subsumes their character concept, no matter what it is. Everyone’s heard about the fishmalk – the Malkavian who carries around a fish, or hits the prince with the fish, or thinks the fish is Caine, or whatever. Vampire was originally conceived as a horror game, so each vampire clan sort of embodies a particular fearful image – and mental illness is frightening. The vast majority of mentally ill folks aren’t violent, yet there’s this incredible stigma and lack of understanding and acceptance. With that comes the fear of violence, and Malkavians, for good or ill, tap into that fear.
The previous Dark Ages raised the idea that if you were visibly mentally ill in the High Middle Ages – meaning schizophrenic, because both the modern and Dark Ages lines generally portrayed Malkavians as either schizophrenic or somewhere deep on the autistic spectrum – you were probably possessed by demons, which wasn’t a truism everywhere.
Adding to that, Derangements were never precisely fun to play around with. Not that mental illness should exactly be fun, but if you’re trying to portray characters with struggles in their lives, grappling with those elements should be part of the game.
* Your thoughts going into writing your stuff and reasons behind changes of lore/tone/whatevs from previous edition.
In a lot of the media I consume, mental illness is either frightening or it’s a punching bag for mockery. Early on in the writing process, we decided that we wanted to break from the classic portrayal of Malkavians and Derangements. We decided this for a lot of reasons: firstly, because we wanted to move away from the fishmalk in the direction that Revised and V20 started. Secondly, it was always jarring to see the list of Dark Ages Derangements and see stuff like Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Schizophrenia, Fugue…
People in the Dark Ages didn’t have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. They had what we’d now characterize as those tendencies, but medical science at the time had zero context whatsoever for that behavior, and we felt that it introduced an unnecessarily modern angle into a period game. Even when you’re talking about a time and a place, you have to approach things from a modern angle, because players (and writers) don’t always have the necessary scholarship to view things from a medieval mindset. Nor do we really want to. We’re talking about eight hundred years of change, and even for a vampire, that’s a long time.
So we went at Derangements from a medieval mindset, but with an eye towards being respectful, and making them play at the game table. Derangements – and fundamentally, mental illness – can be something your character has and deals with, but only rarely should be the whole of that character, even for Malkavians. Because of the global focus of DA:V20, I went with a sort of “greatest hits” of medieval causes for illness. Demonic possession, angelic communion, blessed by the gods, cursed by the gods, humour imbalance. They don’t map to modern illnesses or conditions – they instead reflect what was the best guess of scholars and doctors and priests at the time.
Dementation was a slightly different case, built around inflicting “madness” to victims. I tried, instead, to rebuild the Discipline around the Derangements themselves, and around being a Malkavian at higher levels – since realistically, that’s who’d have the Discipline.

Steffie de Vaan on not writing the Laibon (African vampires) as a monolith

When David asked me to write the Laibon for V20 Dark Ages, we knew from the start that we wanted to split them into two or three bloodlines. After all, ‘Laibon’ is the name for African vampires as a whole, so having a ‘bloodline: Laibon’ is the same as ‘bloodline: Cainite’ – it lumps a lot of different people in under the same (mis)nomer. Plus Africa is a preeeetty big place and we felt it warranted more than one kind of vampire. So I picked up my copy of Kindred of the Ebony Kingdom (KotEK) to find three legacies in there and translate them to bloodlines. KotEK comes with its own setting and system though, and there was simply no way to do that justice in the space we had. So I re-shelved the book and started from scratch.

The first decision I made for the Dark Ages Laibon is that I did not want them to be Cainite bloodlines. I wanted them to be indigenous African vampires, distinct from the European and Middle-Eastern Cainites. I racked my brain for information on Africa and discovered that my European education had been sorely lacking in that department. Which threw me for a loop, because how was I going to find a voice for the Laibon if I didn’t know anything about their home? That’s when I realized that I was searching in the wrong place. I didn’t have to look for *my* voice – I needed to listen to African voices. I began researching African vampire myths and found three that looked like they’d make great vampire archetypes (actually, I found more than three, but that was the extent of the room we had). Then I worked backwards, in a way, thinking: “what kind of creature would have inspired mortals to tell this particular story.”  I used online resources to get the right setting for them too, though googling i.e. ‘Ghana in 1242’ didn’t yield much. I particularly made sure to stay as true to the original myth as possible, and give the Laibon strong voices and unique origin stories.

When the Ramanga, Impundulu and Bonsam were finished, we posted them on the open development blog. There were a lot of responses, but the ones that stood out most were from Jacob Middleton, a poster who said we painted Africa as one homogeneous continent without doing justice to African culture. That hurt, because doing justice to African culture had been a main focus in writing the new Laibon. I’d worked hard on that and I was still accused of ignorance. I put that feeling aside though, and asked the poster to help me make the Laibon better. That’s what you do when people confront you with your own ignorance. First you try to educate yourself (start with google) and if that doesn’t work, you ask someone to teach you. Fortunately he was really patient and knowledgeable, and offered more information about medieval Africa than I could ever fit into three Laibon (though if we ever do a Laibon stretch goal or supplement, I’m ready to go!). The Laibon are better for it, too. Not only did we use African myth to inspire the Laibon, we used a (more) accurate depiction of medieval Africa to place them in. Sometimes it pays to shut up and listen to voices other than your own.

I’m happy with the new Laibon. We worked hard on them and I think we did a great job in the time we had. Still, I’m hoping that in a few years from now, people will read them and go “man, I can’t believe she fell into that trope.” Because if they do, that might hurt my pride a little, but it also means that as a whole we’ve become more inclusive and more sensitive. That’s a good thing.

[Editor’s note: Yesterday’s update was actually David talking about his take on the development of the Laibon. You can read that update here.]

Renee Knipe on trans inclusiveness and the Tzimisce

So I got to write a bunch of fun stuff for V20: Dark Ages. Most prominently, the Tzimisce, but also the Gargoyles and Anda, associated Disciplines, some Roads, and a bunch of the setting material.

The Tzimisce were special because it was an opportunity to approach something I have a real issue with in gaming (and pop culture in general): The treatment and portrayal of transgender people. We’ve seem some decent depictions of late, particularly from the likes of Paizo, but with only one or two exceptions, trans* folks – when they’re represented at all – are often depicted in a way familiar and convenient to cis people. A way that’s extremely othering to trans* people. Usually it involves trotting out birth names, blatant misgendering, subtle but troublesome understandings of sex and gender, lazy stereotyping, and so on.
Heck, you can see some of this if you Google “Sascha Vykos” right now. Sascha is arguably the most famous Tzimisce in all of Vampire, and the first line on whitewolfwikia trots out their former name. Maybe this was necessary, given that Sascha was known by both names at different points in canon, but it’s nonetheless reminiscent of the way media and popular culture likes to think about trans* people. A manner which exemplifies the banal dehumanization of trans* people we’ve accepted into our general way of thinking. It doesn’t help that Sascha is pretty much the monster of monsters in Vampire lore…their aren’t many who can top them for sheer grotesqueness and psychopathy. That, as it turns out, is another trope…going back to at least Psycho, and familiar to anyone who’s seen Sleepaway Camp, Silence of the Lambs, pretty much any television police procedural (NCIS probably has the grossest depiction I can think of), any film “based” on Ed Gein, and countless, countless others. In a pop culture nutshell, trans* people are either monsters, victims, or both. And to be frank, the vast majority of this is reserved for trans* women (because in any social calculus, women always come out “less than”, though to what degree this is true simply because people refuse to acknowledge the existence of non-binary people, I couldn’t say). That’s something I wanted to address, and thanks to mighty, mighty Vicissitude, I had a perfect opportunity.
Most of what I wrote regarding Caltuna and her journey doesn’t end up in the book. I wasn’t working on the fiction, but I did write up a couple thousand words as a sort of guide for those who were handling the fiction. You can see it here, actually:
My guidelines were simple:
– Never refer to her as anything but “she” and “her”, even when discussing the pre-transition part of her life (which is most of what I wrote).
– Never refer to her by anything but her chosen name.
– Ensure sure she is neither psychopath nor victim (while still being tough and good vampire material).
– Give her an authentic point of view.
It’s a rough piece of writing; it was never intended to be polished, or even seen outside the development team. But there it is, and I think it stands well as an example of how to write trans* characters respectfully. It wasn’t easy, even for me…there was a lot of language I couldn’t use due to it being a period piece, but it was totally worth the effort and I hope others can see it and take heed. In truth, there are a lot of good ways to write trans* characters, and not all of them will always be able to follow the rules I set for myself (nor should they). But if you’re going to fall back on misgendering or using their “old name”, make them a murderer or a murder victim or a prostitute, there should be a good reason for it. The lazy tropes we’ve been condition to accept, when used in an unconsidered manner, only allow us to see trans* people as objects or monsters – a narrative we’ve been all too willing to accept thus far, despite its complete lack of credibility.

My thoughts on Lasombra, Setites, and the whitewashing of Europe

One of the things that excited me most about being part of this project was the chance to portray medieval Europe as the fantastically diverse place that it actually was, instead of the whitewashed white-Christians-only version that is the vision that most people have today when they think of Europe in medieval times. So my choices of what to write were very much informed by that, as well as the fact that I had a chance to fix some specific things that had irked me.

With the Lasombra, I wanted to make the Muslim Kindred much more front-and-center because while much of Europe was in the “Dark Ages”, the Islamic kingdoms of Spain were still very much a power. Scholars from all over the world came to take part in the flowering of art and academics that took place there, and at the point that the book is set at, the final elimination of Muslims from Iberia wouldn’t take place for more than 250 years. If anything, I felt they deserved top billing over their Christian clanmates from comparatively backward parts of Europe!

I also took on the Setites, because there were honestly so many things that bothered me about them. Setites are evil hedonists who want to destroy civilization because mumble mumble evil! And they worship Set, but their Clan Discipline is all about snakes even though Set was totally not about snakes because I honestly have no idea. Christian symbolism? All of which, really bothered me. Because there are a lot of really great, totally historically accurate reasons why Setites would totally hate European civilization and try to knock that shit down.
Like the fact that Set totally wasn’t an evil god… until the Ptolemies took over Egypt and made him that way. And then destroyed the native Egyptian religion completely by about the 5th century. Yep. And then Egypt kept getting invaded by other European powers. That’s bound to make you pretty bitter.
Serpentis was also a totally easy fix with only a modicum of reading about Egyptian mythology. Before the Ptolemaic influence on the Set cult, one of Set’s primary functions was to protect Ra as he sailed through the Underworld each night by fighting off Apep, the serpent of Chaos. Boom! There’s the snake connection right there! A totally easy fix that turned the Setites from a totally boring collection of cartoonishly evil stereotypes to a group of antagonist with rich history and compelling motives.
Lastly, I jumped at the chance to re-write the Road of Heaven for much the same reasons as I wanted to work on the Lasombra and Setites. I mean, This sort of whitewashing makes even less sense when you are writing about Vampires, because you’re going to have a ton of anachronistic vampires who definitely are not Christian, and who would see Christianity as the new kid on the block, thanks.
So now the new Road of Heaven includes Christianity and Islam and Judaism (remember them? they were totally there!), as well as differing strains of paganism. As I cracked in an email to David, medieval Europe wasn’t some wacky sitcom called Everybody Loves Abraham.

David Hill on picking teams, revising nostalgic properties, and SJW-friendliness

On Team: 
Whenever I do an all-call, and whenever I’ve been part of an all-call in the past for a roleplaying game project, I tend to see significantly less diversity than we end up seeing in final products. And let’s be honest: we could all use a little more diversity in final products.
The problem I run into the most is, if a designer isn’t the stereotype (straight, white, cis male), they’re very likely to send a pitch that self-deprecates, apologizes, points out a lack of experience, or otherwise downplays its viability. And we’re all human. So if a writer sends me a submission and says, “I’m a really terrible writer, but I’d like you to consider my work,” I’m not likely to spend my valuable time on it. After all, I don’t want to hire terrible writers, right? But this becomes a problem that perpetuates itself.
In hard numbers, I usually see about 5 women to every 95 men in a standard all-call. That’s just one metric, but that doesn’t bode well. So, with V20 Dark Ages, I explicitly made all calls looking for groups I don’t often see. I just flat-out said, “I’m looking for women writers” among other things. I also explained what I was looking for, and the kinds of things I don’t really want to see (like the aforementioned self-deprecation). This time, I got about 150 women’s submissions (and about twenty guys who didn’t read the submission guidelines or just flat-out disregarded them).
This let me bring in a lot of new talent in the field, as well as bringing in some people who had only worked in independent circles in the past. I think the book is significantly better for it.
Re: Nostalgia
I think it’s important to stick with what’s best for the product. But there’s the rub, you have to understand what you want out of the product, and your priorities. Diversity in V20 Dark Ages is less a social justice issue for me, and more just a flat-out intellectual honesty thing. I’m so tired of seeing white-washed, romanticized, Victorian concepts of the Middle Ages in games and fiction. Some people dig that. I don’t. So, I wanted to present something that right to me. There was a lot of fascinating diversity in that time period, so I wanted to touch on it.
Most of the changes we made were little design experiments, like fussing with Koldunic Sorcery. This was stuff I field tested by sharing with the public (as the whole document is currently available for free on the Kickstarter page). We also did a couple of logical changes. For example, the “Giovanni” clan has always had a bit of a controversial name with anyone familiar with the Italian language and culture. One of our writers, the wonderful Giulia Barbano, proposed we change it to Giovani, which actually has a really cool etymology now and makes sense within that cultural context.
As far as nostalgia goes, nostalgia is a feeling. So I made design choices that weren’t necessarily identical to the originals everywhere, but I did focus on trying to evoke the same feelings. That’s always important to me.
Listen. Listen. Listen. I hired diverse voices for their diverse views and backgrounds. I could have very easily shouted over them and not paid attention to the things they had to say and the choices they wanted to make. But even when I disagreed with a choice, I listened and took it to heart. I tried to put together why they thought that way. And if I couldn’t understand, I just asked. The fact is, if you’re trying to hire diversity, that’s part of the inherent value in your team. So from both business and artistic standpoints, it’s important to grab onto that value and not throw it away.
There’s a weird thing with leadership and credibility from a place of privilege. I’m a straight white cis dude, basically. Throw in my blonde hair and you basically have a cultural winning lottery ticket, right? I mean, contextually that’s not always true. Sure, I grew up absurdly poor. Sure, I grew up around mental illness all my life. But the thing is, people are always going to take me a little more seriously and give me a little more inherent credibility than most other people in the world. And like Uncle Ben said, with great power comes great responsibility. So instead of just ignoring that fact or denying it, I try to be mindful of when it can hurt people both on my team and off, and I try to use my privilege for the change I want. I have the privilege of making hiring decisions. So I use that privilege to be that change. I have the privilege of a pulpit people pay attention to. So I try to present my values in a way that people will be excited to engage with.

Lastly, why diverse development teams matter from Tristan Tarwater

It was a pleasure watching and reading as the developers picked over history and etymology as they tried to reconstruct a darker but more genuine version of the Dark Ages. People went in with the intent to research and willing to learn, and were genuinely exited to read about the actual borders of countries, trade routes that connected regions, cultures and religions. As a person of color and a woman, I was proud to be able to talk about Dark Ages at conventions to gamers of all backgrounds and see their eyes light up as we said yes, finally, the truth. PLUS VAMPIRES. HA!
[Thanks for sticking with me if you made it this far, and thanks to David Hill for allowing me to solicit content for this post. And if what you read here interests you, consider backing my KickStarter for the Ruined Empire, which is also social-justice-oriented?]

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