LSJ. Three letters that mean so much, to so many VtES players. Arguably, L. Scott Johnson’s contribution to Vampire: the Eternal Struggle is rivalled onlyby Richard Garfield himself. For more than a decade, LSJ was VtES. His card design (or co-design), his rules, his rulings. Johnson retired from the game with the release of 2010’s Heirs to the Blood, the final set of the game’s White Wolf / CCP era. Nine years on, it’s time to get him back to reflect on his time with the game.
B: When was your entry into collectable card games, and how did you discover Jyhad?
LSJ: I hopped on Magic: The Gathering around the time of ‘The Dark’, which was shortly before Vampire: The Eternal Struggle came out, thanks in part to a freebie card handout at Dragon*Con around that time (up until then I was trying not to get involved in the game). Once I was in, it became a regular habit among my small circle of gaming friends. I remember being very excited to hear that Vampire (under the old Jyhad name) was coming out; I knew of Vampire: The Masquerade, although I hadn’t played it except for a one-shot with GURPS rules. I was more sold on the fact that Garfield was helming it and the general theme rather than the specific IP. Anyway, I bought a starter deck and four boosters at my Friendly Local Game Store as soon as it hit the shelves.
B: How did you move into your role as unofficial ‘rulesmonger’ of Jyhad ‘s newsgroup?
LSJ: When Tom Wylie (the net.rep for V:TES) had his first sabbatical away from the newsgroup, the chatter on the group soon settled down to find six of us on the group – Curt Adams, Joe Cochran, Alan Kwan, James Mclure Jr, Shane Travis, and myself – who had taken to answering rules questions that came up and discussing game theory. That included the directability of (D) bleeds, use of Master-Out-of-Turn, etc. It was the Internet, though, so there was never any consensus, but I began to keep track of the various arguments and rulings for personal reference at that time. I later began collecting the various alternatives ((D)-bleed as defined in the rulebook as opposed to the Rules Team’s over-stretched grasp) in a house-rules list, open for contribution.
When the six of us were answering questions, we’d sometimes argue amongst ourselves about what rulings the net.rep had already made and what they meant. In those days, there was no archive of such things — no google groups, no dejanews, no nothing. You just had your USENET server and whatever retention policy it had. That’s really what led me to my fate: when the net.rep did eventually return, I immediately began saving everything he posted in a text file so that I could search (and cite) it later if and when he disappeared again. So on his next protracted absence, I was able to back up my answers with chapter and verse from the net.rep’s posts.
B: I’ve heard there were a couple of competing rules organisations floating around the internet at that time. Do you have any particular reflections on that rather malleable era in rulemongering?
LSJ: There was only the one “competing” rules organization: The Michigan Jyhad League, which eventually grew into the National Jyhad League. But more on that in a second. The first contentious dust up came on the very first post of the Collected House Rules in early 1995. As it was, that post contained only my house rules (I seeded it with the house rules my local group used for examples, and I asked for anyone who wanted to add to it to email me). As I was already at that time serving as the de facto net.rep as far as answering rules questions when the official net.rep was absent, some newsgroup readers mistook the house rules list as an attempt to lay down my personal house rules as the new law of the land. Once that got clarified, the list really took off, with many people (including those that would later found the Michigan Jyhad League) adding to it. Someone else (Adrian Sullivan) also compiled the “Sensible Players Tournament Rules” to address some other things. That set of rules included some of the more popular (or more sensible) house rules.
It all went along amicably, if frustratingly due to the fact that unanswered questions were building and there was no one to officially answer them. Even when I became the official net.rep, I still could only parrot the previously-given rulings. Any extrapolating I did was always “subject to review by the Rule Team”, and I couldn’t make new rulings or issue errata, of course.
Eventually that changed. When I was allowed to set the rules, I started with a small dusting of corner-tidying cases (RTR 23-JUN-98) and followed that up with the big one, one that incorporated much of the Sensible Player’s Tournament Rules: the 7/7 Rulings (RTR 07-JUL-98). That one set, and in particular the errata restricting vote pushing, the elimination of the errata granting the (D) symbol its omnidirectability power, and the errata returning aggravated damage to its original power level caused enough friction that Noal McDonald, Bernie Bresnahan, and David McCarty (and probably others who I am forgetting) formed the Michigan Jyhad League (MJL) specifically to run tournaments under the old rules (with a few less extreme changes). The earliest mention I can find of the MJL is in November of 1998 — they certainly weren’t going off half-cocked; it was a studied, rationally-presented opposition to the 7/7 environment. That was the only serious fork in the arrangement. The MJL eventually grew and changed the name to the National Jyhad League (NJL) to reflect their greater geographic footprint. More RTRs followed, and the MJL/NJL also issued their own changes as time went on. Eventually they rejoined the main trunk.
B: How did you go from being an “overly-critical control freak with too much time on his hands” (as you once described yourself) to leading development when White Wolf took over publication?
LSJ: Wizards of the Coast originally licensed the World of Darkness from White Wolf to make V:TES. It wasn’t profitable enough, though, and that became even more true when Hasbro bought Wizards, so V:TES was shelved. That led to White Wolf and Wizards coming to an agreement to reverse the license (White Wolf now licensing the Deckmaster/V:TES mechanics from Wizards). The only problem was that White Wolf had no real V:TES experience in house. Many of their crew had played the game casually, but that’s about it. One of White Wolf’s distributors recommended they contact me, and voila. Well, maybe not so simple, but that was the gist of it. I had no prior design experience (unless you count the 7/7 errata), but I was eager to learn.
B: What sort of approach did White Wolf have to the design and thrust of the game, and what sort of boundaries did you need to work within to shape the game’s direction?
LSJ: My point of contact in White Wolf, Steve Wieck, left the design entirely in my hands, for which I will ever be humbled. Whatever problems were in those sets, they’re mine, not due to any restrictions imposed on my designs by White Wolf. Timeframe pressure, sure, but no meddling. White Wolf would pick/suggest the theme of the set (e.g., Sabbat War) and we’d work out a target number of cards (new and reprint) and the nature of any starter decks and that sort of thing. Then I was off to design, develop, organize playtesters for a month or two, submit art notes, run another month or so of playtest while the art came in, finalize designs, and eventually: new set in print. Then we’d start on the next one. On later sets, Robert Goudie joined me in the design and developing as well.
B: I find V:TES to have an incremental approach to card effects, at least in comparison to other games that aim for a faster, potentially flashier finish to a match. V:TES‘ powerplays seem to be more likely to have a buildup rather than being based on a 2-3 card combo repeated a few times until victory occurs. Did that inform how you created and balanced cards?
LSJ: I don’t think I’ve ever heard that distinction made. Govern, Conditioning, Parity Shift, Misdirection, etc. seem to me as fast and flashy as cards of the same era from Magic. The shifting of deck construction restraints from external card limits to internal limits (no intercept/stealth unless needed, action modifiers/reactions limited by name to one per minion per action, and so on) would balance out the combo repeatability, perhaps even leaving the combo repeatability higher with V:TES than with Magic. The pacing difference, to me, comes from the difference in minion defense (tracked with blood rather than creature defense values that effectively mean creatures insta-heal after every battle) and the conflating of energy (land/mana vs. blood and disciplines) with creatures. And more subtly by the granularity of the creature activity (acting individually rather than grouping to make one attack) and the combats. The multi-player nature naturally has a proportional (or perhaps larger) effect on game length, as well.
But to the question: no, I never felt weighed down by the WotC sets. Indeed, the power level of Govern and the rest was a high limit. It would take quite a few sets to get comfortable approaching those (for me and for the playtesters).
B: Your time at the helm saw the game grow at a rapid pace, in terms of strategic depth, complexity and the size of the card pool. Were there particular aspects of the game that you introduced which you’re most proud of?
LSJ: Probably the infernal mechanic for the Baali. It encapsulated the theme, and transferred that into play in a direct and non-fiddly way.
B: Were there particular aspects of the Vampire: the Masquerade line that you feel disappointed never made it into one of your expansions (e.g., True Black Hand, other factions/bloodlines), or overall were you pretty happy with what you managed to cover?
LSJ: Kindred of the East, for sure. I really liked the RPG’s take on that and would have loved to get a full conversion of that to V:TES. As for the rest of the material, I think we covered it pretty well. Could’ve used a higher card count for Nights of Reckoning, but at least the ground was covered. I’d’ve liked to have been able to do more with Advancements, but I think that would have to have been part of the original design to really do properly. The avenues for introducing it later (when we did) meant it faces a bit of friction.
B: What was the conversation with White Wolf like around the time of the Gehenna / RPG line reboot? Was there ever any doubt around V:TES continuing?
LSJ: Never a doubt, no. The conversations went in the usual form: “Here’s what we’re coming out with / what we’re doing in the World of Darkness, let’s try to get this into V:TES as well.” It was suitably different/disruptive enough to lead to conversations about the nature of storyline arc and how it is fundamentally different in the card game versus the roleplaying game (the timeline basically resets at the start of every card game), but once that was laid out, it was business as usual.
B: What was it like stepping away from the game in the 2010’s, after having had a formal role for well over a decade? Do you still get a chance to play?
LSJ: It wasn’t a big disruption. My design role started suddenly and ended suddenly. I’m not much for idle time, though, so I slid pretty quickly into photography. So I still go to a lot of conventions, but I seldom play games at them, V:TES or otherwise. The last time I played V:TES was in 2010.
B: I’ve saved the big hypothetical to the end. Let’s say you were given the keys to the kingdom at some point back in the mid-1990s, and had the freedom to reinvent aspects of V:TES as you saw fit. Would there be particular things you’d want to introduce at theground floor? What aspects of the game are so fundamental to Vampire’s essence that you wouldn’t touch
LSJ: That’s deep. The VPs-for-prey mechanic is core. Politics is done well in the original rules, although it might have been interesting to make voting a multi-round affair like combat. That would be another card drain, so maybe in exchange combat could become a single-round affair. I think that would better reflect the background, with Methuselah interactions being more influence and politics and cold war efforts than open combat.
I’ve often thought about what the game would look like if cards didn’t replace automatically, like Magic: The Gathering. Draws could then occur as part of vampire abilities or card effects. That’s ultimately a mechanic change, though, with no theme rationale one way or another. But, it could be a way to make weenie decks feel more frail.
Grouping is a kludge. It’s necessary only by the nature of the small caps game. You either have grouping or you stop printing vamps below a certain capacity to avoid the build-a-vamp laboratory/assembly line. I would have really liked to have a different way of restricting that and bake it into the original design, but I haven’t any ideas for how to do it better.