White Wolf today is one of the top companies in the RPG industry, currently claiming a 25% share of the industry. Thus, its rise from very small beginnings is all the more amazing.
The Origins of White Wolf Magazine: 1986-1990
As described in the histories of Paizo Publishing and Pagan Publishing there's a tendency for RPG companies to get their start publishing a roleplaying magazine. This was the case with White Wolf, but what's perhaps more surprising is the magazine that got them their start. It was called Arcanum, and thirty copies of it were published in June of 1986.
Thirty copies is really the smallest of small press, but the response was sufficient for editor-in-chief Stewart Wieck to believe that there was a potential business in his fanzine. However, TSR's Unearthed Arcana (1985) had too similar of a name so Stewart decided an alternative title was required. He settled upon White Wolf, after the fantasy hero Elric of Melniboné.
The new White Wolf appeared in August of 1986. Like its predecessor it was a stapled and photocopied fanzine, not really the stuff of which a future top-tier RPG company is made. But Stewart (and his brother, Steve) persevered. Over the next couple of issues the print run jumped to 140, then 200. With issue #4 the magazine was professionally printed. With issue #5 a second color was added to the cover, and distributors--beginning with Glenwood Distribution, run by Bob Carty--began to order the magazine, resulting in a print run of 1120.
A big change came with issue #8 cover-dated December 1987. The cover went full-color glossy, the name was changed from White Wolf to White Wolf Magazine and most importantly 10,000 copies were printed. Many were given away at GenCon, getting out the word on the magazine in a big way.
Early issues of White Wolf were primarily about AD&D, but with issue #8 that changed too, and the magazine became more “indie". Over the next 16 issues, White Wolf would publish numerous articles about SkyRealms of Jorune (#8-16), Ars Magica (#11-24), and RuneQuest (#15-22), most by the authors of those games. As White Wolf increasingly pushed indie games it eclipsed Different Worlds (1979-1987) the former star in the category (which was just then ending its run).
In the December 1990 issue of White Wolf Magazine White Wolf had a surprise announcement: they were merging with Lion Rampant, the aforementioned publisher of Ars Magica. White Wolf's Stewart Wieck and Lion Rampant's Mark Rein*Hagen were to be the co-owners of a new company, the White Wolf Game Studio.
(See the Brief History of Lion Rampant for some of the reasons behind this merger.)
Enter Story Paths: 1990
White Wolf had already published some books of their own including a small-run Stewart Wieck adventure called The Curse Undying (1986) and a book of settings called The Campaign Book Volume One: Fantasy (1990), but the first product that really combined the resources of Lion Rampant and White Wolf was an unassuming gaming accessory called Story Path cards, which expanded on Lion Rampant's Whimsy Cards.
The Whimsy Cards had been an innovative pack of 43 cards which gave players the ability to slightly control the storyline of an RPG by playing cards with text like “bad tidings", then explaining how that card influenced the plot of the game. White Wolf released two decks of “Storypath" cards: The Path of Horror (1990) and The Path of Intrigue (1990). There were originally supposed to be six more of these 24-card decks--including Danger, Hope, Deception, Discovery, Whimsy, and Suspense--but they were never produced.
The Story Path line ended abruptly when they were traded to Dan Fox, who had previously invested in Lion Rampant. He'd later sell them to Three Guys Gaming, who released a new edition of 81 cards in 1996 then dropped off the face of the earth.
For White Wolf, there were much bigger things to come.
Enter the World of Darkness: 1991
Over at Lion Rampant, Mark Rein*Hagen was constantly juggling numerous ideas. His Ars Magica game had been successful at creating the definitive games of magicians, and now he wanted to do more.
His first idea was to create a series of linked games set in the middle ages, beginning with a knightly game called Shining Armor. Then he considered moving Ars Magica into the modern day as an urban fantasy. Inferno was another early idea; it would have been a game where players roleplayed in Purgatory, perhaps even taking on the roles of characters who had died in other campaigns. (A transformer explosion and the unlikely destruction of the sole manuscript led the team to decide that particular game was cursed.)
On the road to GenCon '90 with Stewart Wieck and Lisa Stevens, Mark Rein*Hagen hit upon a game that combined all of these concepts. It would be more dark and moody like Inferno, it would be an urban fantasy that inherited some history from Ars Magica, and it would be the first in a series of linked games.
He called the game Vampire: The Masquerade and it was Rein*Hagen's main project over the next year.
In early 1991 Vampire was reaching completion, and White Wolf pulled out all stops in a new marketing drive. They prepared a 16-page full-color glossy pamphlet which described their new game and sent thirty or forty thousand copies to distributors to give away. This got players, retailers, and distributors alike excited about the game, priming the industry for their new release.
The pamphlet nailed the intentions behind the game, as the following prose quote displays:
She passes me by with a quick glance into the alley. I break away from the shadows. An arm's-length away, I can hear her heart pumping.
I have become death, the destroyer of souls.
Gliding toward her, the smell of her life-plasm waifs over me, arousing me. She is only inches from my caressing touch. My mind screams with lust.
White Wolf was trying to evoke a very specific mood with their new game: a gothic feel that really hadn't been seen in role-playing games before, except in TSR's classic Ravenloft (1983).
This gothic mood began with the game's dramatic cover, which featured a single red rose and an ankh laid on green marble. It was a photograph that White Wolf took after their first cover, by Dan Frazier, came in looking too much like every other roleplaying game. The spontaneous photograph of that green marble instead produced a wonderful, unique, and iconic vision of the game.
However, it wasn't just the cover of Vampire that was startling. The entire game was different from anything seen before in the roleplaying community. In the best tradition of Anne Rice's Interview with a Vampire, White Wolf's new game revealed a world of politics, machinations, angst, and internal conflict. Though RPG games were already becoming more about plots and people--and less about dungeons and fighting--centering a whole game on these subjects was entirely new.
Rein*Hagen's former mechanics guy, Jonathan Tweet, had by then (temporarily) left the industry so Rein*Hagen turned to a new designer for his new game: Tom Dowd, the co-designer of Shadowrun (1989). As a result of Dowd's history, some Shadowrun mechanics inevitably seeped into Vampire, most notably “comparative" dice pools. This was a new method to roll dice that Shadowrun had innovated. Skill values determined the number of dice to roll, but the dice weren't added up (as in Champions, Tunnels & Trolls and other early games which featured “additive" dice pools). Instead each individual dice was compared to a target number, then the total number of successes was counted.
Dowd adapted the Shadowrun mechanic fairly exactly for Vampire, though the type of die changed (from a 6-sider to a 10-sider). The system offered both good and bad to the new RPG. On the downside, the probabilities of the system are confusing. It's a rare player who can quickly say what the odds are of “rolling 3 successes on 7 dice requiring a 7+ for success". However, this deficit for more serious gameplayers was offset by a benefit for more casual and first-time players: skill levels were low and so could be represented by filled-in dots on character sheets, making the game look much less intimidating than the number-heavy standard for RPGs.
Two other game design elements were notable in Vampire's success: disciplines and clans.
Disciplines--such as dominate and other vampiric powers--effectively made Vampire a dark super-hero game rather than a horror game. Horror games had always been a hard sell, with Call of Cthulhu a very rare standout. Conversely, superheroes were a proven winner in roleplaying.
Clans--which were the specific organizations that vampires were part of--made the game more accessible. Though Rein*Hagen's last game, Ars Magica had featured the similar Houses of Hermes, it was actually Chris McDonough who suggested clans for Vampire. It was late in the game design process, and playtesters were having troubles with character concepts. McDonough suggested that something like D&D's character classes was needed. The result was the Vampire clans, which depicted standard vampiric archetypes; they would be invaluable as Vampire reached out into new communities of players with its gothic styling.
White Wolf's marketing blitz was successful, and the game was sent back to the printers within a week of its initial release.
Five Years, Five Games (Plus One): 1991-1995
Following the ground-breaking release of Vampire: The Masquerade, White Wolf did something every bit as innovative and amazing: they put out a new roleplaying game--each set in Vampire's World of Darkness and each using Vampire's Storyteller rule system--every year. The next four games were: Werewolf: The Apocalypse (1992), Mage: The Ascension (1993), Wraith: The Oblivion (1994), and Changeling: The Dreaming (1995).
Each new core book featured an abstract, iconic cover. Some were attractive, but none as impressive as Vampire's green marble. There were also some missteps. Werewolf featured die-cut claw marks on its original cover which easily ripped. Wraith was called “noseroids" by some wags due to the game's nearly unreadable cover logo.
Inside the covers, each game built upon the core strengths of Vampire. They featured dark, dystopic visions of the world. They centered on super-powered peoples. They included character organizations to give players character concepts. Though each of these new lines inevitably harkened back to Vampire, they also were each unique.
Werewolf, with its magical protectors of Gaia, looked at the World of Darkness in a very different way, thus showing how one setting could support two very different viewpoints.
Mage was, to a certain extent, a game that Rein*Hagen had imagined way back in 1989 when he first talked about the possibility of a modern-day Ars Magica though now the Order of Hermes appeared as a single tradition among many. It was also the first World of Darkness game which Rein*Hagen was not explicitly involved with.
Wraith is often lauded as the most consistent and moody of the original White Wolf games. It also featured a roleplaying innovation, the “Shadow Guide", where each player acts as another character's evil side, trying to tempt and cajole him to the way of darkness. This returned to ideas of “troupe" roleplaying which Rein*Hagen had introduced at Lion Rampant.
Changeling was bright and beautiful, a real contrast to the other World of Darkness games. It was also one of the earlier full-color gamebooks. Changeling's original magic system, however, was controversial. It used “Cantrip Cards" which were sold in CCG-like collectible packs.
One of the problems with White Wolf's rapid expansion of game lines was that the first editions of the games were often flawed, to the considerable disgruntlement of fans. As a result additional editions were often quickly released. Between 1992 and 2000 the more successful lines of Vampire, Werewolf, and Mage received three editions each, while Wraith and Changeling each received two. Some games changed more than others. Mage, for example, included considerable thematic changes as each edition was released.
Another problem, as we'll see, is that not all game lines were equally successful. From Wraith onward, White Wolf would see diminishing returns.
Besides their five RPGs, White Wolf also expanded the World of Darkness in another direction--live action roleplaying games--starting with Mind's Eye Theatre: The Masquerade (1993). Rein*Hagen had been thinking about LARPs since Ars Magica, but this was the first time his ideas saw print.
The original iterations of Mind's Eye Theatre were somewhat rough. This was often the case with Rein*Hagen designs: he has a unique, creative touch for design, but not an editor's soul. As a result additional designers were brought in to help polish the game. One of these was Mike Tinney, who had been running LARPs of his own in the northeast. Tinney would become the Mind's Eye Theatre line manager and would later rise up much higher within White Wolf.
Although not as much of a commercial success as the tabletop RPGs, the Mind's Eye games remain influential. They are perhaps the only commercially successful LARP line, and they've likely brought numerous new people into the hobby, among them many women.
Five Years, Many Supplements: 1991-1995
Beyond the rule books, White Wolf also supported each of these new games with a full game line, meaning that by 1995 they were juggling five different World of Darkness games.
The support of so many game lines meant that a huge mob of people actually helped the World of Darkness to grow and evolve. Andrew Greenberg, the original Vampire line editor, and Bill Bridges, the original Werewolf line editor, were two of the most notable because they helped to define the look and feel of the entire World of Darkness. However, there were many more.
Each game line was clearly marked, using those iconic backgrounds from the core game books. You could recognize a Vampire book by its marbled background and a Wraith book by its black and white chains. This is a general marketing methodology that White Wolf has carried across all of its lines, from Ars Magica's tome covers to Exalted anime stylings. Product line branding is more common in the industry today but it was more notable in 1991.
There were campaign books and adventures among the early supplements, as you'd expect, but White Wolf also popularized a new sort of supplement: the splatbook. Splatbooks detail a specific race, class, or organization for a roleplaying game. They're generally player's books, and thus sell to the entire player base--which is usually much more profitable than selling to just gamemasters, as traditional adventures do.
Splatbooks had actually been around since almost the dawn of roleplaying. Chaosium's Cults of Prax (1979) was an early release and GDW quietly built much of their classic Traveller line around splatbooks, from Mercenary (1978) to Darrians (1987). Even Lion Rampant had put out a splat book, The Order of Hermes (1990).
However no one had ever put out splatbooks as consistently and in such volume as White Wolf did. Clanbook: Brujah (1992) was the first. It focused on a single vampiric clan, leaving room for another dozen splatbooks in the same line. White Wolf would go on to produce splatbooks for all of their initial lines except Wraith, and the term “splatbook" was eventually coined for White Wolf's releases. However, though White Wolf generally gets the credit for this innovation, it was really an industry trend. TSR introduced similar products around the same time, beginning with The Complete Fighter's Handbook (1989).
Two other innovations appeared in White Wolf's early supplements: metaplot and crossovers.
Metaplots have been around since Traveller started publishing its Traveller News Service in The Journal of the Travellers' Aid Society #2 (1979). The concept was simple: a gameworld slowly changed through a game's publications. The benefits of metaplot are that they can keep a setting dynamic and they can introduce real drama. The deficits are that they can railroad players and can write them out of the most dramatic changes in a setting. Their use is sometimes controversial.
The first World of Darkness rulebooks had briefly touched upon metaplot. Vampire mentioned an Armageddon-like “Gehenna" while Werewolf played up the idea of the “Apocalypse", even including it as part of the game's title. However it was in the supplements that these plots really began to grow--though slowly at first. For example the setting described in Chicago by Night (1991) was changed when Prince Lodin was killed in Under a Blood Red Moon (1993), which was reflected in the second edition of Chicago by Night (1993). The idea of metaplot would mature and largely take over the production of the World of Darkness games in the later 1990s and early 2000s.
Crossovers were a bit more innovative within the game industry, mainly because not too many company had settings that could be crossed over. TSR's Spelljammer (1989) had been one of the first, but White Wolf, with all of their lines set on the same world at the same time, would go after the idea much more aggressively.
Under a Blood Red Moon (1993) was one of the earliest crossovers, putting both vampires and werewolves into the same story. Unfortunately Under a Blood Red Moon would suffer from the same flaw as all later White Wolf crossovers that tried to put multiple supernatural entities into the same adventure: though five game lines had been intended from the start, they were each somewhat different, and the rules never meshed entirely well.
White Wolf would begin pushing crossovers much harder in 1995, with “The Year of the Hunter". Expanding upon the idea of Vampire's The Hunters Hunted (1992), White Wolf produced five sourcebooks, one for each of their games. Each detailed the background for a group hunting the game's title characters. It was a clever way to encourage collectors to look at all of White Wolf's lines and to encourage cross-fertilization from one game to another. It also avoided the problems of true crossovers, like Under a Blood Red Moon, because it was a theme crossing the game lines, rather than actual characters.
Many more yearly crossovers would follow, beginning in 1997. Some would be thematic like this one--presenting similar books for different lines--but many others would instead be largely plot-driven.
Licensing the World of Darkness: 1994-1995
As White Wolf approached their original five-game goal, two other notable World of Darkness products appeared, both licenses.
The first license was the inevitable CCG. After their 1993 release of Magic: The Gathering, Wizards of the Coast started gobbling up licenses to produce RPG-based CCGs. Vampire: The Masquerade was one of the few such licenses that they put to use.
The Vampire CCG was original called Jyhad (1994), but this name was very soon changed to Vampire: The Eternal Struggle due to concerns of offending Muslims. It was designed by Richard Garfield, the designer of Magic, and was an innovative CCG design that worked very well for multiple players--not just two. Vampire: The Eternal Struggle was published by Wizards of the Coast from 1994-1996.
It worth briefly noting that there would be a few other World of Darkness CCGs. White Wolf produced one Werewolf-based CCG called Rage (1995-1996) and Five Rings Publishing produced another (1998-1999). In addition White Wolf would later publish Vampire: The Eternal Struggle (2000-Present) on their own. However these CCGs lie largely outside this history of RPGs.
The second license had the potential to be even bigger than a CCG. White Wolf sold the rights to produce a World of Darkness television show to Aaron Spelling, the man behind Beverly Hills 90210. Kindred: The Embraced didn't make the fall 1995 schedule, but it would eventually run from April 2 to May 8, 1996. Like Spelling's other works, it mixed drama and soap opera.
The show was cancelled after just eight episodes. Many folks thought it was quite bad, but nonetheless it was quite a laurel for the industry. The Dungeons & Dragons (1983-1985) cartoon had marked roleplaying's one previous foray into television; Kindred was its first prime-time outing.
The interest that both Wizards of the Coast and Aaron Spelling showed in Vampire highlights White Wolf's position as a prime producer of intellectual property. In fact, more than that, they'd become a top-tier RPG company. TSR was then still #1, but in the few years since they'd exploded onto the scene White Wolf had gained considerable market share.
Only Palladium and FASA were really competing with them in sales, and White Wolf consistently put out more new top sellers. After a quick and meteoric rise, by 1995 White Wolf was the #2 publisher of RPGs in the industry.
The Merger Remnants: 1991-1995
Of course before there was ever a World of Darkness, Lion Rampant and White Wolf each had their own businesses: the Ars Magica RPG and White Wolf Magazine. As the World of Darkness evolved, these lines changed as well--and would each eventually disappear, neither being able to survive the comparison to White Wolf's star sellers.
With the release of Vampire, Ars Magica became a predecessor to the World of Darkness. The political Tremere of Ars Magica had become a vampiric clan, while Ars Magica's Order of Hermes was one of many groups of magi in the modern day. In turn the Ars Magica setting became darker--to the distaste of many fans.
White Wolf's biggest expansion to Ars Magica was a third edition of the rules (1992), generally polishing the rulebook. Like Vampire it was publicized with a color booklet made available to stores.
Beyond that White Wolf put out over twenty Ars Magica supplement from 1991-1994, some of them in series, much like their World of Darkness splatbooks. These included two “Tribunal" books--each of which detailed a portion of Mythic Europe --and three books describing the divine, infernal, and faerie realms of power. Both of these themed series continue to this day, highlighting White Wolf's successful methods for defining interesting supplements.
By early 1994 Ars Magica wasn't measuring up to White Wolf's three successful World of Darkness games. Also by this time Lisa Stevens, Lion Rampant and White Wolf founder, had moved over to another young gaming company, Wizards of the Coast. She offered to have Wizards pick up Ars Magica, and White Wolf agreed. Despite the shared history of the games, Ars Magica and The World of Darkness were now forever separated.
White Wolf Magazine was the other notable property arising from the White Wolf/Lion Rampant merger. Tasked with Stewart Wieck's original promise to “remain independent" it faced an ever-increasing problem as White Wolf published more games.
In 1992, with issue #31, White Wolf Magazine underwent a graphical redesign. Afterward it paid more attention to White Wolf's own games. It was by no means a house organ, but it always featured at least one White Wolf article thereafter.
In September of 1993 Stewart Wieck stepped down as President of White Wolf. He'd return to more creative pursuits, helping to edit the various White Wolf lines--to their benefits. He would also establish a new fiction line. To allow for this new creative work Stewart handed over the company reins to his brother, Steve. At the same time he named Ken Cliffe the new editor-in-chief of White Wolf Magazine. Under Cliffe the magazine went monthly starting with issue #39 (January 1994). Cliffe further began to envision a new, more “cutting edge" magazine.
In issue #50 (1995) White Wolf made a final metamorphopsis, changing its name to White Wolf: Inphobia. The magazine was far, far from its origins. It was now mostly full color, and most of the feature articles were about White Wolf games. (The magazines had abandoned its “independent roleplaying coverage" slogan with #47.) There was also an active attempt to expand the magazine into other media, including comics, music, books, and TV.
However none of the changes were enough keep Inphobia going. It was cancelled in 1995 with issue #59.
Between the transfer of Ars Magica and the death of White Wolf Magazine, White Wolf had come to a crossroads. The company was increasingly centered around a single product line, the World of Darkness. Worse, that line was no longer maintaining its upward momentum, between lower sales on later lines and the end of the original five-game vision. New directions were needed.
And that is where we'll pause, at the end of 1995. We've seen White Wolf's quick rise, and how by 1995 they'd put aside all of their pre-merger lines. Next time we'll see ups and downs, as White Wolf struggles through CCGs, book market crashes, and the emergence of d20.
Thanks to Frank Branham, Allan Grohe, James Lowder, Lisa Stevens, and Steve Wieck for comments on this article. Other information was drawn from White Wolf Magazine, the White Wolf Quarterly, and various interviews and press releases.
An extensive but incomplete list of White Wolf games can be found in the RPGnet Gaming Index.
Copyright © 2007 Shannon Appelcline, published by RPGnet under license