Ah yes, the vampire, the queerest of monsters. A purely sensuous slate to enact your darkest fantasies against. From virginal shame tales to totally no-homo male on male obsessions with a rich history of complex female friendship, vampires are complicated monsters with a plethora of nuance. They appear in many games, but none so notorious as tabletop RPG Vampire: The Masquerade.
Publisher White Wolf, current owner of the wildly successful franchise Vampire: The Masquerade, was the target of lengthy and comprehensive criticism detailing the content and touching on the marketing of its upcoming 5th edition release. The criticism, currently archived after the writer was chased off twitter and shut down their website amid death threats and alleged threats of legal action, is archived. The major takeaway: White Wolf‘s newest release allegedly appeals to the rising trend of Neo-Nazism, and it’s on purpose.
The larger portion of the criticism of The Dice Dog’s coverage seems to come from people enjoying the game and being excited for the new edition. The details of the coverage itself are almost entirely being ignored in the conversation. In everyone’s rush to defend a thing they enjoy, they’ve failed to critically explore what content that thing includes and the implications of that content. Who’s it for?
Being the villain in the game isn’t a good enough excuse. Presenting players with a playground to do evil that mirrors what we’re seeing every day does not make it immune to criticism. There is a great deal to criticize in the format itself, but beyond that, publishers are absolutely responsible for their content and who it appeals to.
White Wolf has since responded, saying Nazis are not welcome in their gaming community. But is offering the suggestion in-game that players portray a Neo Nazi, then saying real life ones aren’t welcome supportive of that message?
Missing from the coverage of White Wolf vs. nameless blogger is the fallout that happens when a post goes viral within a niche community. Reviewer Anna Kreider cogently pointed out holes in Dog with Dice’s coverage in a series of emails with them. The Dice Dog responded indirectly by naming them in a follow up to their White Wolf criticism as “vitiolic,” a criticism of critics that rings classically misogynistic.
Kreider initially reached out to The Dice Dog to discuss the threats sent to female-identifying creators after readers of the original criticism conflated White Wolf with Nazis. Following the comment on The Dice Dog’s blog, Kreider was under attack.
This fallout has created a large number of victims, ones White Wolf has apparently done nothing to protect. On top of this, based on early reviews, quoted by Holden Shearer on Twitter most candidly, there is little to defend in the most recent edition itself.
A major review site recently announced that they would be removing “politics” from their coverage. The history of “games coverage should be about games” is a long-held tactic by a variety of self-proclaimed movements that came together to cause maximum harm in the industry and fandom. It’s also never resulted in the inclusion of minority creators or a decrease of death and rape threats to marginalized folk. It also cuts down on necessary call-outs when games publishers hire known abusers, allowing them to claim ignorance or claims independent investigations that seemingly have no basis.
That being said, let’s play like the boys club for a minute and ignore those problems. Keeping the conversation about the game itself, I offer John Farrell’s artful opening to their 5th edition review:
There is much in earlier Vampire iterations and this current one to object to. The content, horrifying to the highest degree, and intimately so in the way only a shared RolePlaying experience can be, has come with much more fodder than thoughtful discussion. An argument could easily be made that if you’re not uncomfortable at some level playing the monsters as they’re designed in The World of Darkness universe as a whole, there is something wrong.
As RPGs strive to cover more and more view points, renewed effort has been made in many publications to discuss culture and safety at the table. In a horror game as comprehensive as Vampire, these types of discussions should be forefront in their design. It should be easy to provide a “stop button” and to confirm consent in the base game. Instead, White Wolf has monetized it.
In Charlie Hall’s coverage of a play-through with producer Jason Carl, they explored in-person the connection of devouring blood and sexuality, or sexual assault as the case may be. While there is part of one page in V5 that deals with player comfort at the table, tools for bringing that into play will be sold as a separate module.
“We saw it as a separate product, as a separate SKU,” Carl said. “I think the timing is inconvenient because we wanted to have it ready for Gen Con [when V5 will first be available for purchase] and I don’t know that it will be ready for Gen Con.”
Rushing to get a product ready for a major industry convention without putting work into how that product’s more difficult content will play is incredibly tone-deaf and likely points to a lack of consideration for the overall feel of the game itself.
The stories of RPGs and the culture surrounding them are stories of failure. Failure of publishers to hire minority creators. Failure of conventions to protect and shield their guests. Failure to stop rehashing the same tired content. Failure of games companies to stop hiring assholes. Failure of review sites to give the power of exposure to consumers who aren’t misogynistic, homophobic, or racist. Failure of consumers to stop giving their money to companies who do not care about them or what they want from RPG content. It’s time for that story to change.