Ben Peal, and stewardship.

Bindusara: what was your starting point with Vampire: the Eternal Struggle?

BP: I got into V:TES by way of Magic: the Gathering.  I played M:TG in college when it first came out.  When V:TES was released (as Jyhad, back then) my gaming buddies and I tried it out.  I liked it a lot, but I didn’t have much money for CCGs, so I stuck with Magic at the time. Eventually, I moved back home for a job in Boston and found a regular V:TES group at a local game shop.  I switched from Magic to V:TES from then on. I did play a session of Vampire: the Masquerade prior to playing V:TES, but I think it’s fair to say that Vampire: the Eternal Struggle was my real introduction to the World of Darkness.

B: So what was it that made you switch to Vampire – was the multiplayer aspect something that grabbed you, or was it the gameplay, table talk etc.?

BP: It was a bunch of things.  The multiplayer aspect for sure, and especially the predator-prey relationship in V:TES.  I was also very impressed with how resources are handled in V:TES as well as how you acquire cards.  V:TES doesn’t have the “mana screw” and “curve screw” problems that Magic and many other CCGs have.

B: Fast forwarding a few years, to White Wolf gaining the licence, and the release of Sabbat War and the many sets thereafter – how’d you find your relationship to the game change and develop during that time?

BP: My relationship to the game changed very radically when White Wolf brought the game back into print.  Sometime after I joined the playgroup in Boston, I became active in the online community for V:TES, particularly on the newsgroup  I also started traveling to visit other groups for events, such as Dragon*Con in Atlanta.  When White Wolf picked up the game, that involvement accelerated. I became the “Prince” of Boston (the local event organizer), wrote a newsletter for the Salubri clan, ran playtesting of new sets with my local group, and became very heavily involved in the national and international tournament scenes.  I found it – and still find it – very rewarding, both in terms of the hobby itself as well as the community. It’s a fantastic group of people.

B: Are there particular sets or aspects of how the game evolved during the White Wolf era that you particularly enjoyed as a player? Are they the same or different to what you appreciate about those sets now, looking back as the current designer?

BP: The two sets I think I liked the most are Ancient Hearts and Bloodlines.  I like Ancient Hearts solely for introducing the Followers of Set to the game.  They’re still my favorite clan in V:TES and one I’ve had a lot of fun building decks for.  Bloodlines was a huge injection of new clans, new disciplines, and new decks into the game.  It got me to think differently about V:TES and gave me a lot of exploration space to play in.

As much as I’m a designer for the game today, I also feel that in a way I’m also a steward of the game.  I very much appreciate the work the previous designers have done and my aim is to continue their work and build on it.  While I’ve come to enjoy the World of Darkness as a setting, that I was drawn to V:TES because of its mechanics instead of its setting says a lot about Richard Garfield as a game designer.  In the subsequent WotC sets, Shawn Carnes, Matt Burke, and Paul Peterson expanded the game and laid down the groundwork for its scope, tone, and themes.  I’d like to see them get more acknowledgement. As for the copious sets L. Scott Johnson designed, I’m envious of the design space he had to work with and in a lot of ways he made the game his own.  He gave the rules and card base a badly needed overhaul and then did a great job of expanding and developing the game into pretty much every area of the world of Vampire: the Masquerade. At Black Chantry Productions, it takes a team of people to do the work Scott did.

B: How’d you make that leap to design, yourself?

BP: My memories are a little foggy, but if I remember correctly, Oscar Garza (then in Marketing and Organized Play at CCP) sent me a message on AOL Instant Messenger asking if I had any deck ideas for Bloodlines clans.  Over the course of conversation, he mentioned that it was for an upcoming expansion and the idea of dual-clan decks came up. Somehow he got it in his head that I should design them and got me in contact with LSJ for the design specs.  So, the Heirs to the Blood starter decks was my first design project for V:TES.  I didn’t design any new cards, but rather used some of the new cards from Heirs and was given the keys to the candy store for reprints. Alas, the game was cancelled shortly after Heirs launched. Had I known it was coming, I would have chosen the reprinted cards a little differently.  Thankfully, I have the opportunity to make up for that now.

As for how I made the leap from player to designer, you’d have to ask Oscar and LSJ.  I don’t recall posting much, if anything, in the way of new card ideas on the Usenet forums.  If I had to speculate, I’m sure some of it had to do with establishing myself as a top-tier tournament player and deck builder, but perhaps some amount had to do with my creation of the Create-A-Clan rules.  It’s a set of rules for designing your own clan of vampires for use in unsanctioned events with other players who are also making their own clans. Creating those rules gave me a good sense of the underpinnings of vampire card design and I’ve carried some lessons learned from them forward into my design principles for the actual game.

B: I’d love to know more about the early days of V:EKN after CCP pulled the pin on the game. How did you approach design for those first sets – did you have a clear vision for what gaps needed to be filled, and how did you balance that aspect of stewardship with moving the game forward?  

BP: When the V:EKN Design Team started off, the big limiting factor was the amount of good-quality, volunteer artwork we could get.  Our artists have been truly great for us and it’s been heartening to see that the artists are behind the game just as much as the players are.  All the same, there’s a limit to the amount of work you can get like that. There was also a consensus among the player base that the first set should avoid introducing new concepts (such as the Research Area from Heirs)  but rather focus on areas of need. The Sabbat needed the most crypt help at the time – and probably still do – and it had been about five years since the most recent Sabbat expansion, so that was chosen as the theme for the first set, Danse Macabre.

From there, Mike and I figured that the focus should remain on areas of need, and Independent clans, Anarchs, and Bloodlines were next in line.  I don’t recall any particular preference for one over another, apart from wanting to be sufficiently inspired and motivated to work on a given group of clans, and determining which would be more difficult to design for.  Mike was particularly motivated and inspired towards Independents and they seemed the easiest of the three options, so we worked on those next in The Unaligned. Anarchs Unbound came afterward, as I got struck by the inspiration bug.  Bloodlines came last with Lost Kindred, which took a particularly long time to develop. This was partly due to the difficulties and design challenges inherent in designing for Bloodlines as well as new challenges and difficulties – though exciting ones – coming from the newly formed White Wolf Publishing in Stockholm as we crept closer to bring the game back in print.

B: Staying on the V:EKN era, is there anything you’d like to share about the efforts with Fantasy Flight to pick up V:TES as an LCG? I was speaking to a former FFG designer the other day, and he mentioned that he was really disappointed it never got picked up. He remembered walking in on a bunch of FFG staffers playing Vampire one day, presumably around the time the pitch was being made.

BP: I really don’t know any more than what’s out there on Reddit and Board Game Geek.  FFG stated that they looked into publishing V:TES but opted not to for reasons they didn’t specify.  Apparently Richard Garfield had been contacted by FFG about it, as well. To the best of my knowledge, none of the heads of the V:EKN nor anyone on the V:EKN Design Team had spoken with FFG about it.  The scuttlebutt was that it was more of an overall World of Darkness LCG, with vampires, werewolves, and mages as playable factions, rather than being V:TM-specific like V:TES. But again, this is all based on publicly-posted information – I have no inside dirt on any of it.

As for other efforts to get V:TES back in print, Steve Wieck of DriveThruRpg/DriveThruCards made a big push about six years ago or so. Mike Nudd and I developed a boxed set of Sabbat pre-constructed decks as part of the product pitch. A few of those decks were re-worked for the Sabbat decks published by Black Chantry.  Ultimately, those negotiations fell through, but Black Chantry makes their products available on DriveThruCards, so it all worked out well in the end.

B: You and the Black Chantry team have shared a roadmap around what you’re working on, and what releases we may expect in coming months. From the perspective of theme, mechanisms or general balance (as distinct from sects, clans, etc.), are there particular aspects of V:TES that you’re keen to focus on?

BP: The main goal of the upcoming Camarilla-themed pre-constructed decks is to provide a starting point for new players.  However, while that’s very much needed, I’d like to do more for the Camarilla than keep having them as the “base set” or “starting point” clans.  Dark Sovereigns helped give the Camarilla clans more depth and I’d like to do something similar for them again.

B: What inspires you, as a designer? Are there particular things you’d love to introduce to V:TES but haven’t done so because it wouldn’t be quite the right fit for the game?

BP: Creating new vampires is a lot of fun.  It’s a lot like being an adolescent again and sifting through RPG books and creating D&D characters and daydreaming and such.  In the past couple of years, I’ve been researching fashion designers, subcultures, and music from around the world, looking for ideas on what kinds of people I can turn into vampires and what they’d look like.  Rather than just giving raw stats and a quick idea for a portrait, I like putting more background and depth into the character, especially with trying to give the character some local flavor.

Related to that, something I’d like to do some day is give the Laibon clans a major overhaul in terms of look and feel.  Kindred of the Ebony Kingdom as an RPG sourcebook and the Laibon-related expansions for V:TES don’t do a good enough job, in my opinion, of portraying Africa and its Kindred in modern times.  Some of the usage of mythological elements don’t work very well, either. In particular, Aye and Orun are concepts exclusive to the Yoruba people in and near southwestern Nigeria. That should limit those concepts to the Shango (the Laibon Assamites) rather than have them be the paths of morality for the entirety of the Kindred in Africa.  However, I’m not sure when we’ll develop new material for the Laibon. It’ll likely be several years before we can get to it.

B: It’s great that you’re considering representation, whether that be in subcultures  or looking at how entire continents are portrayed. On that – it’s fair to say that, back in the 1990s, White Wolf made a number of misplaced design decisions around how some ethnicities were presented. How do you grapple with representation in V:TES while staying true to the game’s roots? Further to that, what sort of things have you and the Black Chantry team been doing to make the game more inclusive and welcoming?

BP: Diversity, inclusivity, and representation are very much part of my design principles, as it’s powerfully inspiring to see someone who looks like you doing the thing you want to do.  I don’t see a conflict between the game’s roots and pursuing these principles, as Vampire: the Masquerade did a lot for opening roleplay possibilities to more types of people. In the roleplaying game, and by extension the card game, Kindred who are women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ have representation in and equal access to ability, prominence, and positions of power.  There’s been a lot of growth and development with respect to this in V:TES and :VTM since the early 90’s. Some mistakes and missteps along the way have been apparent as they occurred and some have become apparent in retrospect and hindsight. It’s important to keep in mind that there’s no one perfect way to handle these subjects, both because different approaches could be needed for different situations and because we as a human society are still learning about them.

As for how I’m incorporating these concepts into my design work, first and foremost it involves asking people what they would like to see in V:TES and how they want people like themselves to be represented.  It is also important to research your subject matter, such as asking a native speaker how to write something in their language or asking a member of a given subculture what the do’s and don’ts are in their community.  A great resource for this is Writing the Other: A Practical Approach by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward. It’s a guide to writing about characters whose background isn’t your own.

At Black Chantry, we’ve applied this in a number of ways.  We pay attention to the demographics of the characters we create and try to keep it close to 50-50 with respect to gender, though it can’t possibly be exact due to such characteristics as non-unique, gender unknown/unspecified, non-gender-binary, etc.  Roughly half of our artists are women, as well. I endeavor to put the “world” in the “World of Darkness”, and I spend a lot of time researching everything from high fashion to hip hop artists in Northern Africa and Chile to dark subcultures in places other than North America and Europe.  We adopted singular “they” in our text templating as it’s both more inclusive and because we were encountering practical problems in writing card text for a game that doesn’t have gender as a mechanic. We have recently begun localization (translation) of the game into Portuguese, an effort that will be of great benefit to our Brazilian player community, which is large, fast-growing, and non-white.

Something we have coming up in the Camarilla-themed starter decks due later this year are some references in the artwork to awareness campaigns for depression, bipolar disorder, and suicide prevention.  A few V:TES players have lost their battles with these issues in the past year or so, and they’re dearly missed.

B: A few months back, I asked LSJ what he would have done if he’d been given the designer reins back in the mid-1990s and had the freedom to reinvent V:TES as he saw fit. If I granted you the same Temporis powers, what would you keep the same, and what would be different?

BP: There are a handful of things I’d consider re-working from the ground up.  The big one is the sheer number of counters involved. When designing an all-inclusive, playable out of the box product, I got to wondering whether the product I was making was a game or a terrarium starter kit given all the glass beads that would be in there.  Sure, you can change the material the counters are made of, but you’re still looking at a big sack of counters. When Jyhad was made, it was a different time for games. Game companies and gaming culture had a lot more of a do-it-yourself mindset. Things like counters and edge markers can readily found in an arts & crafts shop and your collection of knick-knacks.  These days, however, there’s much more of an expectation that everything you need to play should come in the box. On one hand, I love that games are more professionally published today, and that component quality and options for accessories are much greater than they were 20 to 30 years ago. On the other hand, I do miss the do-it-yourself mindset. Then again, with 3D printing and print on demand, that mindset is making a big resurgence.

Back to re-working the game itself, I’d be very curious about getting rid of the master phase entirely.  I’m not entirely certain why you’d want to have a phase of the game where you play cards without any interaction.  For instance, it seems to me that acquiring an asset like a hunting ground should require more effort than simply being granted one.  I’d also look at speeding up the influence phase, as we start every game of V:TES with a couple turns of not really doing anything. There’s an inherent advantage to lower-capacity vampires that comes with that, as well.  Replacing the uniqueness/contestation system with something less crotch-kicking would also be desireable.

As for what to keep, there are things about V:TES which I think work brilliantly and make the game what it is:  the circle-of-death format, replacing cards as you draw them, and your pool being both your life blood and your currency.  V:TES is one of the few CCGs out there which doesn’t suffer from things like “mana screw” or “curve screw”, and I think it greatly contributes to making the games enjoyable.

B: Finally – how does it feel, knowing that you’re now one of the folks holding the steering wheel for V:TES? What would the Jyhad-playing Ben Peal think about where you are now?

BP: I’m certainly proud of it, both from a sense of personal accomplishment as well as it being a huge success on the part of the V:TES community.  I went from not really knowing if I had the skills to be a designer for V:TES to feeling that I have a grasp on things and being able to deliver on projects for White Wolf.  I’m also really proud to be a part of a community that has embraced this game and rallied behind it. We didn’t give up on the game. Instead, we designed new cards, made new artwork, greatly expanded our online presence (particularly on Facebook), kept organizing events, and kept playing.  In the end, we were all rewarded for it.

The Jyhad-playing Ben Peal would be pleased as punch that he would finally start a game company, but he’d be upset at present-day Ben Peal for taking over two decades to do it!

2 thoughts on “Ben Peal, and stewardship.

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