Andrew Greenberg, and a fresh outlook.

No game is the work of a single person. Richard Garfield’s name is on the front cover of the original Jyhad rulebook for good reason, but a host of other names are included for their additional design and development. Chief amongst those is Andrew Greenberg, who acted as the liaison between Wizards of the Coast and White Wolf. Greenberg had been with White Wolf from the beginning and was a key contributor to the first edition of Vampire: the Masquerade. It was Greenberg who set the tone and format of early White Wolf, co-authoring and developing the early years of Vampire. Along with Bill Bridges – the initial developer of Vampire’s sister line, Werewolf: the Apocalypse – Greenberg also developed the compelling and distinctive Fading Suns for Holistic Design.

Greenberg remains involved in gaming, albeit assuming very different roles now than in the 1990s. He’s the executive director of the Georgia Game Developers Association and SIEGE (the Southern Interactive Entertainment and Games Expo), served on the Georgia Film, Music and Digital Entertainment Commission and led the Georgia Esports League. Greenberg also chairs the DeKalb Entertainment Commission that helps businesses in Georgia’s entertainment industry.

B: Let’s start at the beginning – how’d you make your start in roleplaying games? What was your experience of the industry – for example, did it feel any more or less monolithic than now? 

AG: I was a reporter writing about lawyers, and I started writing about vampires instead. The skills I developed as a reporter – working under deadlines, researching a wide variety of topics, interviewing interesting people – proved invaluable as a game developer. The ability to meet deadlines was definitely in short supply then.

I joined the RPG industry at a fortuitous time. Gaming stores were still fairly common, and the spread of desktop publishing meant a small start-up like ours could deliver quality products. The industry was also close-knit enough that when the line I was developing proved popular, veteran developers like Greg Stafford, Frank Chadwick and others were happy to offer advice. I am glad that it is even easier now for RPGs to find a market, but I miss the era when it was easy to get to know all of one’s peers.

You were a mainstay of White Wolf during a period of incredible growth, writing and then developing Vampire: the Masquerade during its most iconic and popular era. What was it like to be at the helm of one of the only games that’s come close to knocking D&D off its perch as RPG category owner? Were you conscious that you were at a pivot point in the industry’s history?

All of us who worked on Vampire before it launched were well aware of previous games that had pushed the roleplaying or storytelling aspect. We certainly felt we were part of that tradition. Much of what we did built on games that had come before, like Call of Cthulhu, Runequest, Shadowrun and so on. Some people feel they can pretend to be creative by hiding their sources, but we do better to honor them instead.

The reaction to Vampire at launch did confirm that we had created what we strove for – a game that provided mature players the chance to explore mature themes. The success of Chicago by Night and the releases that followed proved that we were building on what had come before to create an even richer setting and more evocative play experience.

Perhaps most rewarding was the level of ownership players felt in the game.  As a gamer I always cared about my characters and settings, but Vampire players took that to new levels. The mix of tabletop and live-action really helped make it more meaningful, and the impact in-game events could have on players was dramatic. In the end, it is this level of impact that made Vampire a storytelling game. Nothing is more demonstrative of a great story than how its audience reacts.

And then the collectable card game phenomenon came out of left field. Did that feel like a significant change, or were you playing in a different corner of the zeitgeist?

We were close with Wizards of the Coast when it launched Magic: the Gathering. Lisa Stevens, one of its leads, was instrumental in Vampire getting published. When Magic: the Gathering launched, they sent all of us lots of the first edition cards, and we were as captivated by the game as anyone (and, yes, we always played for ante). I never felt that CCGs, their fans or developers were at all divorced from what we were doing. Indeed, it immediately felt like an appropriate way to further develop our setting.

CCGs always felt like a natural extension of the RPG community. The art, characters and flavor text that made the cards so collectible served much the same role as they did in RPGs – sparking the imagination of players. We all thought the CCG format could be perfect for the Vampire IP, and a few of us mocked up prototypes before we worked on Jyhad. Working with Garfield and Wizards of the Coast not only gave us access to his talents, but also to their printing and distribution contacts.

Pre-Jyhad in-house prototypes for a Vampire card game? It makes perfect sense – you were all, after all, game designers with a love for both the World of Darkness and CCGs. Do you have any memories of those pre-historic designs? 

I did not make any myself, but some people at White Wolf did use Magic cards to mock up Vampire CCGs. For the most part they were very derivative of Magic, and primarily revolved around two vampires beating each other up.

So, onto Jyhad then. What do you recall of the opening conversations between yourself and Wizards of the Coast? How did you find the relationship with Richard Garfield and Wizards of the Coast, and the process of interpreting the still-new, but already complex World of Darkness into a card game?

The preexisting relationship with WOTC made this a smoother process than it otherwise would have been. In addition, working with Richard Garfield was always a pleasure. In addition to understanding CCG design better than anyone, he quickly identified those elements of Vampire that would best translate to the new format – the power struggle of the Jyhad, the ways blood could be used, the role of politics and so on. The initial White Wolf design was neither reflective of Vampire nor fun to play, but Richard’s guidance quickly created something that was both.

The WOTC art team was also a strong part of the process. They enjoyed working on Jyhad, and their professionalism made the process go much smoother than it otherwise would have. 

Was there something about the essence of Vampire that you felt you had to make clear to Richard Garfield and the broader team, or did you find them quite switched onto the IP? Was there anything on or off the table for you, in terms of how you felt the game should cover themes or concepts?

They clearly understood the setting, and having Lisa at WOTC proved advantageous. However, as we iterated new versions of Jyhad, their immersion in Vampire grew and grew. Richard and the team certainly understood that things like politics, the Disciplines, manipulation and so on were part of the game, but the more we worked the more they saw how integral these were to Vampire. I never wanted the game to just be two vampires slugging away, and Richard agreed. CCGs like Ultimate Combat are already coming out, and while they were fun, they were not the direction I wanted for Jyhad.

We also wanted a game that could reward a wide variety of strategies and not just see a few paths to victory. Raw power had its place, but so did sneakiness, manipulation, resource conservation and more. Players who could implement a smart strategy but pivot as events and cards dictated saw the most success.

I’ve read your and Richard’s essays in the Jyhad Players Guide and understand it was a somewhat iterative process within a relatively constrained time window. How did you find that collaborative experience?

Richard was always a delight with whom to work, quickly synthesizing new ideas into playable formats. He never got too tied to any one idea and was willing to jettison ideas with which he came up in order to make a better game. In addition, he was glad to work with anyone. He sought input from our team, WOTC coworkers, fans, playtesters and anyone else who would comment.

He and I talked quite a bit during the design process, and each iteration of the game proved both more fun to play and closer to the feel we all wanted. Making it multiplayer was something we both agreed on, which also felt pretty risky. However, this really allowed the political dimension to blossom, which he and I felt was key to the game. We also loved that a “defeated” player could still win the game – something very true to the RPG setting.

I considered the final version almost as much of a storytelling game as the RPG. Our in-house games always involved an evolving tale of deception and betrayal, with context proving as important as cards to a fun experience. In fact, a few times we played it as a way to define an RPG, with the card game providing the meta story that would guide a chronicle.

The success of this collaboration had much to do with how Richard Garfield worked – taking in lots of ideas and distilling them into new versions that could then be tested for what worked and what did not. However, there was also a great deal of respect on each side of the equation. We respected him as a designer and he respected the setting and the work we had put into it. That respect shows through in the final version of the game.

The multiplayer dynamic of Jyhad is, I think, often considered one of its greatest strengths as well as a commercial Achilles Heel. If you and Richard had your time again, do you think you would have stuck to the multiplayer aspect? Or, was it too critical to the game’s central conceit? (For what it’s worth, I think the decision to embed that multiplayer dynamic has been critical to the game’s longevity – whilst it’s been cancelled a couple of times, it always comes back from the dead. Jyhad’s requirement to have 4-5 players spending hours on negotiation and deal-making means that you need to have a certain approach to building and maintaining a community that may not be present if it was a head-to-head two-player game.) 

One of the great things about working with Richard was that he felt no need to recreate Magic. We could focus on creating a good game that really fit the World of Darkness rather than just an MtG knockoff.

Richard and others had come up with multiplayer variants for MtG, but none of those fit Vampire. Making that mechanic work effectively was probably the hardest part of the design process. We certainly tried two-player versions of Jyhad but they lacked much of what made Vampire special. Ever since we implemented the coterie charts in Chicago by Night, those group dynamics, alliances and power struggles became key to the game.

There may be ways to streamline Jyhad’s gameplay, but I found its multiplayer nature one of the most satisfying parts of the game (second only to making sound effects while playing a chainsaw). I really enjoy the player interaction that brought to Jyhad. Effectively dealing with multiple players has to be part of your strategy, just as we have to do in life.

The world of Vampire: the Masquerade expanded incredibly during your time at the helm. Would there have been certain aspects of the game, or the World of Darkness more broadly, that you would have enjoyed seeing make it across to the card game?

One of the aspects I hoped to include was campaign play, where both the vampires and the story would develop over time. There would be more ways to gain victory points. In addition, it would be set up in such a way to inform a chronicle, and storytellers could use it to create the metastory.

During your time with Vampire, some major inroads were made into developing the property across multiple media (Jyhad being one, Kindred: the Embraced another). Do you have any recollections of what it was like to find new formats for the IP? Did you find potential partners quickly understood the heart and soul of what you were putting out in the RPG?

IP issues were always a problem with White Wolf. In the time I was there, the WOTC partnership was easily the best licensing arrangement we had. While part of the problem was that some licensors had little understanding of the depth of material or the community that had grown around it, White Wolf’s leadership failed miserably at creating any strategy around developing our IP.

In addition, leadership was amazingly inept in communicating with licensors and potential licensors. That Vampire and the World of Darkness, with its wonderfully rich setting, deep characters and amazing fan base, did not develop more effectively across other media.

White Wolf was fortunate to have later licensors who understood the setting, as with the computer games. Otherwise, its lack of IP success really speaks to issues within White Wolf itself. The failure of the White Wolf owners to implement an IP strategy was one of the main reasons I resigned.

The decision to re-name the game from Jyhad to Vampire: the Eternal Struggle came when you were still at White Wolf. Was that something you remember fighting for, or against (if White Wolf indeed even had a say)? Peter Adkinson, for the record, mentioned in a 2004 interview that he thought that the game should never have been called Jyhad in the first place – but, once millions of cards were already in print, the name should not have been changed.

I liked the Jyhad name, but I also came up with the replacement name. I understand their reason for the name change, and I personally could have gone either way. I would’ve preferred to stick with Jyhad as I feel it is more evocative. I have to admit that part of the new name was an in-joke about how long some of the games took to play.

Did your relationship with Wizards of the Coast continue to be fruitful past Jyhad’s initial release? I’m thinking here that the period it managed the game (1994-1996) coincided with the era that you left. Judging from your comments around the lack of an IP strategy at White Wolf, were Wizards given much of a vision as to how the game should evolve and expand?

The Eternal Struggle team at WOTC had a strong affinity for Vampire, and I know they were disappointed when WOTC stopped publishing it. The team had a vision, and the first few White Wolf releases reflected the older WOTC vision.

By my math, there’s perhaps only three or four CCGs that survived the mid-1990s. Does it come as a surprise that V:TES has continued on to this day? 

That V:TES has survived and prospered is much more of a testament to the fan base than to any of the developers. The players have kept it alive even during those times when it got far less company attention than it deserved. The multiplayer aspect certainly added to that.

The game encourages social interaction and attracts players who want that more than just the competition. As much as I enjoy single-player games, I much prefer the fun that comes with several people having fun. Even in fierce competitions, I hear more laughter from V:TES games than from other CCGs.

Have you stayed connected at all with V:TES over the years?

I have stayed in touch with a number of the people involved in it, but after I quit White Wolf I had little involvement with it.

I have very fond memories of the Fading Suns setting, created by you and Bill Bridges following your move to Holistic Designs in 1996. But that was also a year of massive contraction in the CCG industry, which didn’t see sustained growth again for several years. Would you have ever envisioned a Fading Suns CCG, if that industry had righted itself sooner?

Fading Suns was designed so it could be explored through a variety of media. The PC game explored the epic story of the Emperor Wars on a grand macro scale, with players controlling the most powerful groups in the Known Worlds. The RPG went micro, with the players exploring the postwar empire. The LARP was an intermediate game, with the players usually taking on the role of influential figures, but not the most powerful.

A CCG would’ve allowed us to highlight yet another perspective. Ideas included competing religions battling for dominance (sort of like what Chaosium did with Credo), gaining political influence over lost worlds (similar to our Noble Armada: Lost Worlds PC game), or battling bizarre alien races as they mutated due to Symbiot spores.

The great thing about an expansive IP is the variety of ways it can be explored. A good licensor can bring a fresh outlook as well. Settings like Walking Dead do this very well. Each new form stays true to the original while adding new content. This allows the IP to incorporate more themes, explore even more interesting stories and develop even more fully. 

Your work with White Wolf made them one of the biggest companies around. Your first design work on a CCG – a gaming medium that’s filled with flash-in-the-pan titles – leads to a fan-favourite classic that’s going strong 25 years after its initial release. You’ve got credits on a multitude of computer games, written or developed scores of books, and have been teaching game design for over a decade. My point is, you clearly know your stuff. Are there any closing words you wish to share around good game design, and what you think makes a game stick around?

Very few games are the work of a single individual, and working with other good people is key to success. White Wolf was fortunate to have some very good people involved in its early days – Nicole Lindroos, now with Green Ronin; Lisa Stevens with WOTC and now Paizo; Bill Bridges, now with HDI; Travis Williams, now with Lightstorm Entertainment; Phil Brucato with Silver Satyr; and more. They all did their best work after leaving White Wolf, but all the World of Darkness games are a testament to what a good team can accomplish.  

Andrew Greenberg is on Facebook and on Twitter as @hdiandrew. For more information about Andrew’s work, see www.andrewgreenberg.com, www.siegecon.net, www.ggda.org and www.holistic-design.com.

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