Critical Intel

Critical Intel
How White Wolf's "Murderer's Row" Carved Its Mark on Genre Fiction

Robert Rath | 7 Aug 2014 12:00
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"Character conflict comes out of two sources," says Dansky. "Characters wanting different things, or multiple characters wanting the same thing in a way that not all of them can have it. But, lots of people aren't necessarily great at admitting what they want, or at verbalizing it once they've admitted it to themselves." That's where the rules stepped in, he says, giving players a map to guide their actions and reactions. "Mechanics like these that formalize what characters want ... do a wonderful job of giving players tools to handle the elements that create character conflict." The result was a game where characters felt more flawed and layered than other systems.

This emphasis on story didn't stop with the first dice roll, either. Though it had rules for combat, supernatural abilities and actions like any other game, the mechanics themselves placed the burden on narrative rather than dice. It was, appropriately enough, called the Storyteller (later Storytelling) system.

"Storytelling allowed for very creative gameplay and flexible rules," says Mur Lafferty. Now a novelist with five books published, she started as a fledgling writer working on Exalted and Dark Ages: Mage. "I've written for both [D&D] 3.5 rules and the storytelling system, so I can compare the two. One involves a lot more algebra, let's just say that. I found storytelling more challenging, and that's good challenging, not algebra-challenging."

"The great thing about Storyteller was that it was simple," says Dansky. "Gameplay didn't grind to a halt while everyone thumbed through a bunch of books looking for the right chart. What you were being asked to roll was understandable, the results were quick, and you could get back to the storytelling."

Storyteller kept the game's pace up, keeping everyone engaged. Often what you said was more important than what you rolled. That meant White Wolf's writers and freelancers had to be on the ball when it came to party dynamics and guessing what players might do. "With fewer rigid rules, you're forced to be more creative and be one step ahead of the storytellers and two steps ahead of the most talented players," says Lafferty. "If that doesn't turn out some battle-ready writers, I don't know what will."

But despite all the learning potential in its rules, White Wolf was a company, not a writer's retreat. Schedules could be brutal, and working for White Wolf often meant quick turnarounds. Dansky, who started as a freelancer and moved to a full-time position with what he calls "the Wolf," recalls the extreme stress that sometimes caused. "Long nights, impossible hours, insane deadlines, stumbling home at 5 a.m. to feed the cat and catch a few hours' sleep, chair-kicking arguments, you name it," he says. He jokes that he nearly set his desk on fire while working on Kithbook: Sluagh. But the trial by fire taught lessons of its own.

"I freelanced with White Wolf for over a decade, and it helped me sharpen my writing while also teaching me the fundamental need to stick your landing and hit your deadlines," says Wendig.

Lafferty agrees, saying the experience taught her that the "freelancing triangle" is made of good writing, punctuality and being easy to work with. It also instilled a certain mercenary attitude writers need to have with their work. "White Wolf helped me learn about ... how not to fall in love - selfish, proprietary love - with everything I write, and to understand that I can write it and then the editor can do whatever they want with it." The toughening up, she says, helps her deal with readers and editors today.

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