Matthew McFarland aka Black Hat Matt is a busy Dark Ages developer for White Wolf. He maintains his own website BlackHatMatt.com where he posts essays and FAQs whenever there’s time. GameWyrd’s questions appear in strange blue and Matt’s answers are in typical black.
Why White Wolf? Was there any ever question that you wanted to write for them and if not, why not?
I had never really considered writing for an RPG company of any kind; I guess I had this notion in my head that the people who did it were a special breed of gamer, hand-picked from on high (ha). White Wolf had an all-call on their web site; I responded with six pages of a novella in which the protagonist was a vampire. The novella had nothing to do with White Wolf at all — but they’re the ones who hired me.
I have to say that of the games that I’ve played and enjoyed, White Wolf would probably have been my first choice to write. Chill (originally from Pacesetter, although I played with the Mayfair system) would have been a close second.
2) How do you think White Wolf has effected the RPG hobby?
I think we’ve made it accessible for folks who enjoyed various horror genres but who don’t know gaming in and of itself. I know I’ve “converted” a lot of non-gamers over the years, and people seem to glom onto White Wolf’s games pretty easily. Also, like it or hate it, we’ve also brought out the “Storytelling” aspect of role-playing a lot more than any game before us.
3) How much do you think you and your writing has effected the World of Darkness?
I really have no way to gauge that. I’d like to think that I’ve been able to take some iffy notions of the World of Darkness — like the Rokea — and make them cool and playable.
4) Many people credit White Wolf with doing extremely well by encouraging people away from rolling dice to kill another dozen orcs and towards the art of roleplaying, characterisation, intrigue and I suppose you could say a more mature side of the hobby. “Storytelling” rather than “Rollplaying”. Then, on the other hand, White Wolf is also accused of producing a series of “bigger gun” books with boast more powerful character abilities, stranger secrets and weirder clans and tribes. What’s your take on this? Is the company doomed to produce this style of supplements just to stay commercially viable?
White Wolf, like any company, goes through phases. It’s important to realize that different people have helmed the different game lines (look at Dark Ages; five developers in five years?!) and that with every new developer — and even with every new author, in a lot of cases — comes a new take on the game. Yes, we’ve tried to preserve a sense of mystery and horror in our games, but as times goes by, we’ve had to up the ante. Some of the ways in which we’ve done that have not been great decisions, and I’m quite sure that I’ll make my share of questionable calls as Dark Ages developer.
I guess if there’s anything to take away from White Wolf’s past, it’s “small steps.” No need to bring out new clans every other month when a new sect occasionally will do. Finding the right mix of drastic change and subtle change to a setting is difficult, and depends very much on the game and the audience (I’ve got different dilemmas than, say, Geoff does with Exalted because his is a fantasy setting and mine is a historical setting).
In answer the last bit of the question, I’d say “no.” It’s never too late to change style and put out something new and cool that shakes things up. That said, there will always be people who look everything you do in the mouth. I can handle that, because the majority of the gamers “get it.”
5) Providing you accept the idea that White Wolf does struggle with the “bigger gun” supplement problem do you see the initial Dark Ages line as an attempt to counter the problem, as a commercial decision or as a genuine and heart felt offering to the community?
By initial Dark Ages line, I assume you mean the 1996 Vampire: The Dark Ages release. While that was before my time, I’ll venture a guess and say that it was an attempt to present a historical period in which the concerns that our fictional vampires had were very different, yet just as compelling, as the ones portrayed in Vampire: The Masquerade.
6) How do you see the Dark Ages line now? Has it changed noticeably since its inception?
Absolutely. Dark Ages has, just for a start, changed from being a largely vampire-o-centric game line to being a setting encompassing several different types of character. The new setting is more active and dynamic, and we’re drifting away from being the little brother of the modern World of Darkness little by little. I find that trying to hew completely to the modern game lines is a) impossible, because there’s 12 years of backstory to worry about and b) annoying to the fans, because it hamstrings them and their characters. Dark Ages is breaking out, and there’s more of that in the future.
7) What kind of period research do you have to do?
Not enough, evidently. :) Seriously, when I’m doing a book that draws heavily on real-world history, I skim websites and research the events and regions that I’m working with in that particular book. Trying to learn “about the 13th century” is a daunting task, and I find I need to have something specific to work with. I also try to run anything with historical assertions through several people who are more knowledgeable than I about the period (my focus, after all, is writing, not history). Sometimes, mistakes still get through. That is why I’d rather present information about our fictional characters and constructs than try to take real-world history and “treat” it for our game line; we can’t be hurt by something we didn’t say. And besides, any individual Storyteller can do library research; we should be presenting game world material, not writing historical essays.
8) I asked a friend what he would ask a Dark Ages developer and he suggested that I ask you “Why?” and then keep asking “Why? Why? Why? Why?” – I’m not sure you can answer that but do you ever get the feeling that the Dark Age line always has and always will have a fight on its hands?
No, I have the feeling that gamers are opinionated. With all due respect, there’s not really a good response to that kind of thing — your friend obviously has some problem with Dark Ages. Ranting about it won’t address the problem. Telling me a book “sucks” won’t address the problem. I’m always happy to listen to constructive criticism. I’m happy to have knowledgeable historians sign Non-Disclosure Agreements so I can get their feedback on my books before they go to press, allowing me to correct any glaring errors (though how the whole “Oxford in London” in Dark Ages: Mage slipped by everybody is a mystery to me). But there will always be folks that can’t express their opinions in any other way but being hostile.
Heck, I understand it. I was hostile about D&D for years. I saw it as a hack-n-slash game in which you beat people up and took their stuff…and that was it. I saw it as a Tolkien rip-off, designed by wargamers rather than role-players, and therefore not worth my time. It wasn’t until recently when I actually played the game that I saw how versatile and downright fun it was.
I comfort myself with the fact that the flak I get is nothing compared to what Justin gets for Vampire.
9) Where would you like to see the World of Darkness go next? Where would you like to see White Wolf go next?
White Wolf is actually going in the direction I’d like them to. Can’t tell you any more about that.
Actually, I will say that White Wolf has put out some rather cool new stuff in the past few years. The Aeonverse games, Exalted, Mummy, and now Demon are all new steps for us (well, Mummy is kind of a re-visit of stuff we’ve done, but I think it went off really nicely). And, of course, the Dark Ages re-launch has brought some new things to the table.
10) What sort of RPGs would you like to see people playing more of?
Heck, I’d just like it if more people played RPGs in general. I’ve gamed with literally hundreds of different people over the years, and I honestly feel that this hobby has something for everybody. I don’t like the “nerd” perception that gamers get (even those of us who deserve it); I’ve found that if you present an RPG as a game, inexperienced folk glom on to it a little more easily.
I’m a big fan of the horror genre, for what it’s worth. I’ve never really gotten into sci-fi (but then, I’ve not had the opportunity) and I’ve only recently warmed up to D&D. But I’m all for whatever will get people into the hobby and supporting what we do — it’s active entertainment, rather than passive, and I think that’s good for the soul.
(GameWyrd notes – We’re in the Out of the Box section now. A couple of unusual questions for which we expect unusual answers!)
11) You’ve been given a suitcase full of small white d6. The challenge is to use them in such a way that gets you into the news – the more coverage the better – what do you try first?
Could drop them off a highway overpass, I guess…probably not politic, that. Ooh, here’s one. I could stand outside Congress and hand each congressman a die, saying “Here, an honest way to make a decision.” That’s bitterer than I usually am. White Wolf must be having an effect. :)
12) Rather than finding a healthy mug of coffee waiting for you when you wake up in the morning you discover a glowing portal. Do you step through it? If so, why?
Hmmm. On the one hand, what’s on the other side of the portal? Adventure? Power? Magic?
On the other, I’ve got a job I love, a wife I love even more, and a life I’m pretty satisfied with. What’s on the other side? Death? Danger?
I suppose it would depend on the day. I’d actually be more likely to jump through it at night, after a game of Exalted, when I’m all pumped up with the notion of being able to wield the power of a demigod. (Talk about a decision I’d regret in the morning…).