Justin Achilli is a name that will be instantly recognisable to many fans of White Wolf and the World of Darkness. For fans of a certain era, Achilli’s name was synonymous with all things White Wolf. From his humble beginnings with the Rage collectable card game in 1995, Achilli came into his own as a line developer – first for the Vampire: the Dark Ages and Werewolf: the Wild West lines, followed by Vampire: the Masquerade. Achilli’s time on Vampire: the Masquerade coincided with the Revised Edition (1999-2004), which is perhaps the era of the roleplaying game best reflected in Vampire: the Eternal Struggle. Following the events of 2004’s Gehenna, Achilli then acted as developer for Vampire: the Requiem, and worked on a number of Chronicles of Darkness titles. Beyond the staggering number of titles he’s worked on as a developer, Achilli’s contributions have included co-designing the Exalted roleplaying game, author credits for dozens of books, and editing and conceptual design for many more.
Not long after leaving leaving White Wolf (then part of CCP) in 2011, Justin joined Red Storm Entertainment, where he performs the roles of Lead Social and Community Systems Designer, Game Director and Lead Designer. Red Storm’s credits include multiplayer VR titles such as Werewolves Within and Star Trek: Bridge Crew, as well as contributions to Ubisoft brands such as Assassin’s Creed, Starlink and other titles. Somehow, in all of that, he also finds time to blog at justinachilli.com.
B: You came into White Wolf at close to ground zero for the collectable card game boom, and I understand that one of your first works for White Wolf was the Rage Player’s Guide. What was it like working in CCGs during such a significant period for the then-new industry?
JA: I was a playtester on Rage, then I joined White Wolf just as Rage was being fulfilled. I had gotten into the hobby as a complement to my regular games’ group and what they were into. I played mostly World of Darkness games, but then Magic: the Gathering broke and everyone got into it. We picked up Vampire: the Eternal Struggle the day it hit shelves. Jyhad, as it was, scratched a lot of the itch that the tabletop game did, with its long-form scheming. For me, the cool part was playing as a potent elder, manipulating a host of lesser vampires, and nifty support mechanics like contesting vampires if you and another Methuselah were trying to command the same pawn.
When I started at White Wolf, it was after that first and second wave of CCGs, and there were a ton of them making their way to market. Rage was a different game, in that it was much less structured than many of the other CCGs, more about just throwing cards onto the table and talking trash with your friends than codified orders and phases. It wasn’t exceptionally friendly for competitive organized play, and we knew that going into it. We tried to hit the “collectible” aspect a little harder than other games, with the very high quality of cards and production value.
I briefly ran Garou Nation, which was a catch-all organisation that was more fan club than it was a competitor’s league. We did some really cool prizes for organized play, but we never really hit the critical mass of players that sustained other games. The orderly, sequential structure of Vampire was much better suited to that, and I think you see that in the game’s longevity and community strength. The Rage Player’s Guide was an attempt to build that organized play, but since hindsight is 20/ 20, it was probably the wrong approach. In those days, every CCG needed a strategy guide, but where Vampire made sense for deckbuilding, card lists, etc., Rage had less momentum in those areas.
Still, Rage makes for a lot of great stories. I remember one of our office playtests that had a player menace another player with “you aren’t going to live long enough for aggravated damage to matter.” Two decades later, I remember that bit of sass, and I like to think that sort of game-table bravado and memorable moments gave players sessions that they can still fondly recall.
B: Did you have much to do you on the Arcadia: the Wyld Hunt card game that came out around the same time? (Editor’s note: this was the third collectable card game based on or inspired by the World of Darkness; Arcadia drew inspiration from Changeling: the Dreaming.)
JA: I didn’t have any formal design on it, but the card department was a very small department in those days. At our biggest, we were five people, so everybody playtested everybody else’s work, offered in put, or helped get cards into players’ hands. Even later things like Racer Knights called upon the early lessons we learned with Rage and with rapid prototyping teams.
B: How did the disruption caused by the CCG boom affect the RPG industry from your experience? I understand that Magic: the Gathering’s rise shook TSR quite a bit, but White Wolf were the Young Turks of roleplaying at the time; from an outsider’s perspective, they seemed more immune to this unexpected competition.
JA: I wouldn’t say immune. Rage got us into mass-market venues beyond the hobby shops and bookstores, but that all comes with some business risk, because the big chains have terms that hobby distribution doesn’t. Selling into the chains meant returnability, and no one knew how many returns to expect, so we had this “gold rush” time of sales when people expected every game to sell like Magic, and few games did. So we got hit hard on the first run of Rage returns, which greatly affected print runs afterward. By the time White Wolf had acquired the rights to Vampire: the Eternal Struggle, we had a lot more data to draw on that made it safer to forecast how much would sell, and a much better understanding of the players, so there were fewer gambles. I think that’s helped VtES in the long run. With Rage, we were flying by the seat of our pants. With VtES, it was a much more sensible approach.
B: By the time White Wolf acquired the rights to VtES, you’d become the line developer for Vampire: the Masquerade. Revised Edition felt like a renaissance period for the game , and saw a tremendous amount of growth to the depth and complexity of the game world. With VtES existing as a younger, stranger cousin to the main gameline, were you involved in shooting ideas across to the CCG development team on what they could or should focus on?
JA: We developed the tabletop RPG as the core property, and then Vampire: the Eternal Struggle had full autonomy to take the parts that were best suited to their format and run with them. What’s “canon” in a card game that supposes a constantly realized struggle between Methuselahs that concludes at the end of the game is going to have to be different from the ongoing narrative meta of the TTRPG. So the way we looked at it, Vampire: the Eternal Struggle had free reign to use whatever was most useful from the TTRPG because they were telling different stories using some shared components.
B: Did you have any chance to play the game and see how story threads you’d developed for the RPG converted across to a different medium?
JA: I wasn’t a competitive player during this period, but I was abreast of what was going on the CCG. I’ve even got some card art in the Black Hand set (credited to a pseudonym).
B: Wait, what? Hmmm… Matrix Von Z?
JA: Not me!
B: J Frederick Y sounds sufficiently mysterious…
JA: That was one of our sales guys.
B: Okay, last guess. You’re either Ron Van Halen or I have no idea.
B: By the way, I love that a sales guy chipped in to help out with the art. There’s something charming about the gaming industry where people get to operate outside their lane. I remember a story that Larry Snelly used a guy from the warehouse as a model for an early VtES card.
JA: Yeah, Larry used a lot of models from around the office, actually. He used me, the Editor in Chief, one of the women from accounting, warehouse crew, etc. It was definitely a spirited, ‘get things done’ period in the company’s history. Different artists used different staff and players in different illustrations, as well, like Tim Bradstreet did with the V20-era clan illustrations.
B: So you’ve featured as a card?
JA: Twice – but neither time for Vampire. Larry used me for Dune, and I was a model for Ash Arnett for Rage. That’s how it was back then.
B: I’ll put images of those cards up… but am I okay to reveal your double life as Ron Van Halen, artist of Chronicle of the Lost Tribe?
JA: YOU GONNA OUT ME that’s fine.
3 thoughts on “Justin Achilli, humble beginnings, hindsight and a sixteen-year old secret.”
Lovely to hear some do these stories from the past!
Looking forward to finding out who else I can get to sign my cards!