The Gauntlett
Wraith: The Oblivion is One Game You Have to Play to Believe

Adam Gauntlett | 4 Dec 2014 12:00
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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!

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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.'

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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.

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