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RPG Codex Interview: Rich Thomas, White Wolf's Creative Director, on World of Darkness & Art Design

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RPG Codex Interview: Rich Thomas, White Wolf's Creative Director, on World of Darkness & Art Design

Interview - posted by Grunker on Sun 10 June 2012, 14:52:05

Tags: PnP Interview; Rich Thomas; Vampire the Masquerade; Vampire the Masquerade - Redemption; Vampire the Requiem; Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines; White Wolf; World of Darkness; World of Darkness MMO

For the second interview in the Codex' mini-series on Pen & Paper role-playing games (you can find the first here), we reached out to Rich Thomas, creative director at White Wolf Publishing - the company behind Vampire the Masquerade and Vampire the Requiem, as well as a long list of other products set in the World of Darkness. From a cRPG perspective, White Wolf is responsible for Vampire the Masquerade: Redemption, Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines and the upcoming World of Darkness MMO. Due to the MMO being an upcoming title, there were some restrictions on Rich's ability to discuss cRPG specifics with us. Nevertheless, we asked him a few questions focusing on creative design for pen & paper games, the digital media in role-playing, and many related matters. Read on!

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your responsibilities at White Wolf Publishing as Creative Director? What project(s) are you currently involved with?

RT: Very briefly, I began working in 1986 (I know!) illustrating for White Wolf Magazine and within 6 years was in Atlanta Art Directing for the whole company including a little game called Vampire the Masquerade. About seven years ago I was asked to become the Creative Director, which combined my work in charge of all of WW's visuals with responsibilities for overseeing all the writing and editing as well. For the past seven years my tasks within the Creative Director umbrella have been many and varied, but the key responsibilities have been to evolve White Wolf into a company better capable of thriving in the changing publishing marketplace, and to sustain and surpass our long history of compelling worlds and great art. Specifically, right now, I'm art directing Werewolf the Apocalypse 20th Anniversary Edition, and the blood sorcery book for Vampire the Requiem, setting up the Kickstarters for W20, Mummy the Cursed, and Hunters Hunted2 for Vampire the Masquerade 20th Edition, and working with the Exalted and nWoD teams on the projects we're excited about into 2013.​

How did your decision to do art for pen and paper games come about, and what other games have you worked on apart from World of Darkness?

RT: I had a very classical art training and a love of comics, genre fiction, TV and film. And D&D. Roleplaying game art seemed a chance to combine all those interests as it allowed, no really demanded, incredibly imaginative illustrations. I've "worked on" every book WW ever published, but in terms of illustration I only did a couple of pieces a year for WW. I did more artwork when we published the d20 Sword and Sorcery books as it gave me a chance to jump back into high fantasy art. A lot of my artwork was behind the scenes, creating style guides and initial visual concepts for our worlds. I was fortunate enough to do a fair bit of collectable card game art for WW and others, including being one of the original Magic the Gathering artists.​

Who were the artists that initially influenced your own approach to art design? And are there any currently active in the industry whose work you admire?

RT: Like most of the illustrators who came up when I did, I was hugely influenced by Frazetta, the Brothers Hildebrandt, Michael Whelan. From comics I loved Steranko, Kirby, Paul Gulacy, Gene Colan, Mike Kaluta, and the inimitable John Buscema. These days I mostly enjoy seeing new work from artists I've had the pleasure of working with over the years: Brom, Tony DiTerlizzi, Christopher Shy, Michael Komark. But I'm always excited to see new talent pop up.​

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As far as the particulars of the creative process behind the World of Darkness games are concerned, how is the design and work flow organized at White Wolf Publishing? How many people are involved in writing and editing the game, and how do you coordinate your own work with them?

RT: Currently, we're following the same process, by and large, as we have for years, but with a lot more communication and input both between the folks who handle each phase of creation as well as with the fans. As CD, I work up a schedule based on previous successes, developer submissions, and community demands. Most times I'm already working with a developer- our term for the person who hires and coordinates the writers and editor and really "owns" the book - but sometimes I have to find one of our talented pool of developers who is both interested and can fit the project into their schedule. We talk, a lot, about the overall direction of the book, as well as the page count and stuff like that, and then they hire writers to bring our ideas together on the page. A lot of our developers have become used to putting text as its being worked on up on the WWBlogs for comment from the fans. We call this the Open Dev Process, and it allows the community to comment and actually catch inconsistencies or lapses in tone. It's really something I wish we could have done years ago.

Once that text is out to an editor, the developer and I go over their art notes and then the art director (who might be me or another talented freelancer) hires illustrators to create the imagery based on the notes. We have a pretty good idea of the amount of art needed for our books, as well as a budget I've determined when I set up the schedule. I'll hire a layout person - who is sometimes the Art Director - and when the edited text and the art are all in, they'll put together the book into the file formats we need for release in PDF and Print on Demand, and sometimes for traditional printing. We intend to soon also have various ePub formats available as well.​

To you, what are the most significant design principles and core values behind White Wolf's games, both in their role-playing mechanics and their lore and art direction?

RT: Great question. I think we've been most successful with our games when the game design and art have been appropriate to the setting subject matter. The Storyteller/Storytelling Systems were never designed to be mathematically rigorous, and so basically forced players to engage with the game on different levels than just the game rules (which is not a blast at more rules intensive systems, just what I consider part of what works for us). But that did allow us to really focus on the lore and the art and that focus also helped us with games like Exalted and the Trinity settings where the rules system was less appropriate to the expectations of the world as presented.​

Where do you look for inspiration when you design the imagery for a new book, and how do you balance innovation and continuity in art design?

RT: Again, appropriateness is the rule of the day. I think of each book design as a canvas that's telling a story. That story has to express the ideas contained in the text, to immerse the reader visually (and usually subconsciously) while they're diving into the text. It's a careful balance when you're trying to create new and exciting visuals for lines that have been around in one form or the other for years. Too different, too innovative, and you lose the current fans- but you have to try to fine-tune or even totally change certain elements in order to get energized about a project- and that energy usually transmits itself to the reader. We made some specific design choices when doing nWoD to create a very new but slightly familiar feel, and now I've turned right around and put a new spin on the old designs with the classic WoD books we're now doing. The idea in my head when creating the look of V20 was to try and get into the visual mind-set I had back then, and then apply the tools we have now to create that look.​

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What is currently your favorite World of Darkness RPG and why?

RT: To be honest, it's the one we're conceptualizing for 2013! Of our existing lines, it's like trying to pick your favorite child - they all have things you love about them, and things that aren't quite how you'd like them to be. I just came off of a V20 chronicle run by Eddy Webb that I really enjoyed, and I'm very proud of the way Changeling the Lost was a tight combination of concept, text, and visuals.​

The new World of Darkness game introduced many significant changes. Could you name some of the improvements NWoD made from your perspective? Looking back, do you think something should have been done differently about the new edition?

RT: Although they can get cheesy, especially if overused, I like the idea of things like Bloodlines - the offshoots of the larger groups that are a lot of fun to create for the Storyteller, and to personalize for the players. The biggest thing I liked was the tone shifted to the idea that even for these ancient supernaturals there were still unknown and unclassified dangers out there. I think we dropped the ball on providing a rich backstory - we really needed something with more secrets and layers of lore than cWoD. But our plan was to rely on giving that depth in fiction books, and then we discovered we didn't have the bandwidth to create those books. So I think our community, who was used to the depth of content of cWoD, was left unsatisfied. We created a toolkit approach to NWoD, but we never gave enough examples of how that toolkit should be used.​

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There is a heated discussion about the quality of NWoD vs. OWoD among the fans. Do you think it's fair to compare the two worlds and evaluate them against each other?

RT: I'm not sure an evaluation can be made really. They are two very different animals in approach to delivering the world. CWoD was almost driven by literary conventions - we were telling one long story, and there were some rules as a skeleton for that story. NWoD presents rules that can be used as you wish in order to tell your stories. There's an important shift in emphasis there. This is why we've been trying to suggest to our community that there's no need to hate either type of game or those who enjoy them - there are different ways to be part of WoD.​

What kind of character(s) do you personally like to play in Vampire: The Requiem?

RT: Loner Gangrels - although I always wanted to try a Mekhet but never got a chance.​

Given that sales for the electronic version of pen and paper systems in .pdf form are going up, do you think the future of pen and paper is tied to the computer? Does a shift to the digital medium imply a different kind of role-playing experience or a different set of design priorities?

RT: Currently, I think it's just a different delivery method of the same sort of experience - screen vs page. But the potential for a core game line app is incredibly exciting AND I think where P&P needs to evolve towards. Part of the beauty of the tabletop experience is the feel of the dice as you roll them, or the familiar pages of a well-used gamebook. Those tactile moments are certainly something that players will feel is part of the experience, but the bookkeeping and interconnectivity could be so much easier with game book apps. Add in, let's say, the ability to enjoy video clips as well as still illustrations, interactive maps, and mood music designed to immerse the players in the setting, and share those elements around the table and I'd say there's still a lot of room to innovate in paper RPGs.​

What do you think of the art direction in the two computer role-playing games based on World of Darkness, Vampire the Masquerade: Redemption and Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines? To what extent do you think they nailed the look and feel of the pen and paper game?

RT: I think they did a great job considering the level of tech available at the time. There was a real effort to evoke our look and feel despite those limitations and some of those set pieces, like the Asylum or Haunted House, really worked amazingly well in evoking really frightening moments.​

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Were you involved with Redemption and Bloodlines, and if you were, or if you have any knowledge of the process, how did you or White Wolf make sure Nihilistic Software and Troika Games adhered to the guidelines of the World of Darkness and did not deviate too much from the lore, rules, and looks of the pen and paper game?

RT: We were all interested and in communication with our point man on the games, Chris McDonough, who worked really hard on keeping our WoD feel.​

Are you involved with the World of Darkness MMO currently in development? If you are, what is your role on the game?

RT: Not currently, although I was Lead Game Designer and then Content Director for about three years of pre-production. Those were years of learning all I could about how MMOs are created, and really opened my eyes as to what hugely involved projects they are. The advent of the Vampire the Masquerade 20th Anniversary Edition project rekindled my enjoyment and love of paper RPGs at the same time that I was looking to make a change, so I happily returned to tabletop games.​

What are the main ways video game art influences pen and paper art today, and vice versa? How would you describe this process?

RT: In general terms, because if I go to specific here it may suggest a direction for the WoD MMO that isn't true, I think all illustration is influenced by other media that exists either at the same time or as influences on the artists. What we have now is an entire generation of illustrators who are exposed to so much more in the way of visuals that ever was possible before, and who grew up on visual input from computer gaming. On the plus side, this means there's an incredible richness there, and on the downside there may be too many artists working now who really haven't fully studied their craft on a technical level. But a great illustrator is going to shine no matter what, so I think the amazing range of beautiful art we're seeing now wins out.​

How do you envisage the future of the World of Darkness? What do you feel are some of the directions the system and world could further evolve in?

RT: For the nWoD, I know we're heading into a renewed focus on the lines and bigger and better books than we've seen for a few years. Those will be available via PDF and PoD from DriveThruRPG, like all of WW's vast backstock library, and then some special books will have editions available through Kickstarter. I think we're able to look at the many options we've offered folks in nWoD's toolkit and combine those that work and minimize, alter, or discard those which don't (Predator's Taint, I'm looking at you!). I'd like to create a few products that present the results of almost a decade of options into a coherent set of books that really present them as an example of how nWoD can be constructed. And as I mentioned before, evolving just what we get electronically when we buy a game "book" is of great interest to me.

Similarly, both Exalted and cWoD will have much more robust schedules of books coming than we've seen recently (particularly in the case of classic WoD) although tailored towards the interests and expectations of their fans.​

To conclude this interview, what are the common mistakes people make when designing and doing art for a role-playing game? What questions would you recommend they pose to themselves and the game they are developing?

RT: The one thing I still tell prospective illustrators, and I think this goes for the people creating the books as well, is to tell me a story with the piece, don't just present a character. What are they doing? Why are they doing it? This will engage the imagination of the viewer. If your pieces are only depicting things already described in the text then there has to be something there that goes beyond that to really get the viewer to keep thinking about the world presented in the piece after they turn the page.

For questions, I'd suggest: Is this artist's style appropriate for this setting? If so, where's the best place in the book to put their work? We read game books like regular books, from front to back, but also we hunt and peck through them looking for information- a table here, a bit of lore there. Having distinctive pieces of art near these elements helps keep us in the world while we're doing a very out of the world thing.

And on behalf of the artists, I'd also suggest hiring them and giving them the freedom to put as much of themselves into the pieces as possible. You can tell when a piece of art has been so worked over by an art director that the life goes out of it- and that staleness communicates to the viewer and impacts their feeling for the setting and the game.​

Many thanks to Mr. Rich Thomas for his time! A special thanks to kindred @Crooked Bee for assisting with the questions!

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