This author’s note is in no way endorsed or approved by White Wolf Publishing and is in no way “official.” This is self-involved stuff, but you can scroll to the end if you want behind-the-scenes trivia. Go to the official Vampire forums if you want to discuss the book with White Wolf staff.
I was unsure whether or not to post this. It’s a very personal bit of writing, this note. But smarter people than I reminded me that writing is about honesty, and about reporting what you see. So here you go.
My last Vampire book is here.
Even though I wrote the design document for it and what I think is safe to call the vast majority of the actual text, this is a confounding book for me. This is a heavy book for me, too, full of messy feelings. The copy you’re going to get is going to be gorgeous because it’s simply a gorgeous book, but mine will always be some mysterious thing, warped and funny-smelling, like it was someone else’s waterlogged magazine.
For one, it was transmuted from manuscript to book after I left White Wolf Game Studio in October of 2007. For another, everything that I didn’t write was written after my material, without my help or input. Not that it would matter.
The time I spent writing my share of the book is fuzzy and distorted, lost on the other side of a chemical haze like a foreign skyline in the rain. I wrote 70,000 words of this book over a short stretch of 2007—something like two weeks, not counting research—but I don’t remember most of 2007. So the whole book feels like someone else wrote it. Reading it is like looking back at photographs taken at the outermost edge of my recollection. I remember doing a lot of the planning and the research (lots and lots of that), but the book itself exists as disjointed snapshots in my memory. I was holding my breath for a year in a tank of poison secreted by my brain, so clouded and dark that if you came by and tapped on the glass, most days I couldn’t tell.
It’s not lost on me that this book is no great accomplishment of writing. It’s not literature. It’s a silly bit of escapist entertainment, part of a game, a toy.
But you never would’ve gotten me to believe that back when I was writing it. I thought my life depended on it. Maybe it did.
In his terrific book (and superb audiobook), On Writing, Stephen King revealed how his personal kind of fuckedupedness surrounds one of his books:
“[T]here’s one novel, Cujo, that I barely remember writing at all. I don’t say that with pride or shame, only with a vague sense of sorrow and loss. I like that book. I wish I could remember enjoying the good parts as I put them down on the page.”
— Stephen King, On Writing
King’s situation was the result of addiction, mine of something else, but this is pretty much what Lords Over the Damned is like for me, even just seven months later.
Not long after I moved to Atlanta, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and put on what I now know to be a choice of medication so ill-advised that even Wikipedia knows better. Things leveled off. Things got worse. By the time I was seeking serious help, I was in pretty bad shape. A year after that, we were still trying to find the right mix of pharmaceutical bullets to shoot at my head. I was on meds, I was off meds. Let’s say my cognizance was poor. A lot of 2007 is a blur. I have pretty much no recollection of that spring. That fall is a shitty photo montage with humiliating sound bites (but a pretty good soundtrack).
My particular chemical cocktail—a criminally expensive collection of various blue pills—wasn’t finally refined until earlier this year. So, when I was writing Lords Over the Damned I was, in a very real sense, out of my mind. To think that some people pay good money for that kind of depersonalization and I got a free hit that lasted thirteen months. Good times.
I put a lot of weight on the words I was writing. In the case of this book, I seemed to think that when I finished, I could wring out the manuscript and some new confidence would fall out, like sweat from a used towel. (Since I can’t remember much of the time surrounding the period when I finished the manuscript, I have to assume it didn’t work.) In truth, I probably told myself that finishing the book would make me feel better and then mocked myself for being such a needy schmuck. Reading the book now, and finding it pretty good, feels like some kind of dramatic irony. If you had told me, when I was writing this, that any of it was even readable, I would’ve mocked you to your face. Finding out that I like it is somehow sort of embarrassing, considering how vehemently I was against anything I wrote at the time.
Forgetting exactly what you wrote after a year, while a book’s in production, isn’t so unusual. It’s part of the fun of getting your first copies in and pawing through them. The hope is that you’ll find something you wrote and, as a reader, like it. (There are a few lines like that in this book. One of them is about hypocrisy.) The fear, of course, is that the other thing will happen.
Some of the material in here, when I read it, I was only pretty sure that I’d written it. Some of it I recognize when I see it, but had otherwise forgotten completely. I’ve had to check some of the text against my original files to see how much has been changed (not much) and to double-check before I go taking credit for the work of the sterling Chuck Wendig, the masterful Joe Carriker, or the exuberant Russell Bailey.
Going off of my research notes (which I recall considerably better than I do any actual writing I did for this book), and using the finished book as a lantern to light up some memories, I’ve found some behind-the-scenes junk that you might find amusing if you’ve read the book. So, that’s what this is from here on out.
If you have specific questions about specific parts of the book, you can drop them in the comments or, even better, take them over to the official White Wolf forums, where I’ll be checking in to answer questions all week. Some of the material in here has already come up over on those forums, but is included here for the sake of completeness.
Spoiler: You Need the Book
An author’s note loses something if you haven’t read the book. While I won’t spoil the book outright in here, I am going to reference the text directly, so you’ll want to have the thing when you read this. To get it, either click the Amazon button above, or click here to buy the book direct from White Wolf.
Also, a fair amount of material I wrote for the book was later cut and put into two of three free PDF teasers of bonus material released by White Wolf over the past several weeks to tease the book. To be clear, the material in these folios is free and exclusive to them—none of it’s in the printed book. I wrote all of the articles in the first teaser, except for the cover letter and “The Encircled Kings.” In the second teaser, I wrote the Las Vegas vignette, “The Sharp,” and the final letter, “I have more to say…”
I can’t tell you who wrote any of the third teaser’s articles, but they’re good.
The History of the Book
Back in the day, I did the master outline that would set the tone for all the new clan books—establishing the idea that each book was about a fictional report put together by one party for consumption by another, and that each book would be written by a single real-world author. I assigned myself the first clan book, so I could get things rolling. By the time I was doing the actual writing of the actual book, I was no longer the Vampire developer, and by the time the book came out, I was no longer with White Wolf.
New Vampire developer, Joseph Carriker, Jr., took my manuscript and put it together with additional material written by Chuck Wendig and Russell Bailey. So all I did was outline this first book, and write most of it. The clan book’s are really Carriker’s babies, and rightly so. He’s a great developer.
When you look at the inside credits of a book that’s as beautiful as Lords Over the Damned, you probably seek out the illustrator names. That’s fine. But a book like this isn’t handsome just because it’s colorful. It has to be designed—its whole visual character conceived and refined. It’s not as simple as just putting a picture next to the right text, and this book really shows that. It’s got a character and attitude that’s larger than any one piece of art, and that’s because Craig Grant is good at his job. That “Book Design” credit isn’t low on the list, it’s set next to the illustrators’ names because book designers are artists.
Go and look up the word allusion, even if you know it. Read the definition again. Allusions are essential to clandestine communication. A secret culture, like that of the World of Darkness’s vampires, couldn’t survive without allusion. Allusion hides meaning so that you’ll only “get it” if you’re already in on it.
I was big on this idea when I was outlining the clan books back whenever. What was so exciting about the idea, to me, was how full of possibility allusions become in the World of Darkness, where the presence of the supernatural makes it difficult to separate poetic license from literal testimony in mythic works. When the Ventrue of old wrote about their roles in the ancient world, were they being literal or figurative? The exciting mystery lies in not being able to reliably differentiate between the possible and the impossible. The exciting possibility is that, in the World of Darkness, you might yet be able to learn the truth by meeting a vampire of the age and… asking her.
So. Allusion. It’s a theme in the fictional work put together by “VT” for “WH” and it’s a theme in the real-world work put together for you, the real-world reader. The Internet has changed the way we allude to things. We can allude with hyperlinks now, for one. More subtly, though, we can allude to things with the confidence that a reader can just Google a word while reading and transform the text from an allusion to an outright reference—your relationship to the material can change so fast it can be difficult to appreciate.
Hopefully, while reading Lords Over the Damned, you’ll shift back and forth many times from the perspective of a fictional reader—an imaginary inhabitant of the World of Darkness reading a clandestine report on a hidden clan of ancient vampires—to that of a real-world reader looking for more ideas to further inspire his own characters and stories.
I designed my parts of Lords Over the Damned (and a lot of Damnation City, for that matter), to reward some curious Googleing.
Why do the Ventrue book first?
Primarily, because I thought they were being the most misrepresented among the fans as “unchanged since Masquerade” and I wanted to end that misconception as early as possible. Secondly, because I thought that misconception—that you already “knew everything about the Ventrue”—would keep some people from really wanting the book. I wanted to counteract that with the allure of it being the first of the reimagined clan books, and also by setting up a mystery in the Rome books that would be answered (in part) in this book.
In other words, it was to make the Ventrue book more surprising and more valuable to people who had already made up their minds about the clan.
(Not for nothing, but there’s a formula of sorts to the names cooked up for the clan books: Each one tries to pair one capitalized word from the game with that clan’s nickname. All but one of the titles succeeds in doing that.)
The History of the Ventrue
All those quotes from The Aeneid and The Iliad, Plutarch and Ovid? Those are genuine, drawn from a variety of public-domain translations of the texts. Except for the quote that opens “The Saga of the Ventrue,” on p. 16. That’s one of mine.
Translations of those works differ, of course, but you could do a lot worse than to read the John Dryden translation of The Aeneid at Wikisource.
The bullet points on page 31 are, largely, accurate. I did not make up the stuff about the root ven, for example, or its supposed connections to anax and both Venus and the Vanir. I just stirred the Ventrue into the mix. (It turned out to be almost suspiciously easy to do.) This etymological retrofitting inspired the Ventrue’s origins; it was not the other way around. The notion of just how the Ventrue name is derived from a French expression of one’s epic ancestry is bullshit, but I think it’s pretty good bullshit for a college drop-out.
In the book, we’re told that one of the elder sources of the compiler’s Ventrue legendry is an ancient Kindred called Carlyle (named for a city on the western edge of Hadrian’s Wall, by the way). Originally, I had material written for two different accounts of the Ventrue saga, meant to be arguing with each other through the whole telling. It would’ve been suitably dynamic, but it also would’ve been messy as hell. Rather than messy, I wanted something mythic and grand, so I cut the competing voices out and did it, instead, with the “Sing, Muse” style you get in the finished book.
Though this book was produced after the Roman duology of Requiem for Rome and Fall of the Camarilla, the legendary origins of the Ventrue were inspired through research I’d done something like a year earlier. So, I knew what I wanted to do with the Ventrue when I wrote them out of the design documents for Requiem for Rome and replaced them with the Julii. I did very little characterization for the Julii, though. I left that to the stellar writers working on the Roman-era books, in no small part because I wanted the Julii to feel distinctive from the Ventrue I would write for the clan’s book later on, but also because some disparity between the “truths” of the Julii and the “truths” of the Ventrue would give Storytellers wiggle room when defining what was fact in their own chronicles. You tell me if it works out that way or not.
This had nothing to do with them being written out of Pre-Columbian history in Shadows of Mexico. That book’s revised role for the Ventrue was designed to hint at something I expected to reveal later about the origins of the clans, which may be moot now that someone else is at the wheel of Vampire. But it was also because I thought the arrival of European vampires to the New World should bring something strange and foreign to the ranks of the undead, not just the living, and that something would have a lot more impact if it had since become commonplace and impossible to ignore. What’s more ubiquitous to a Vampire chronicle than the clans, right?
Ventrue Customs and Characters
First, the glossary. I love writing those things. (Probably I went too far with the one in Damnation City, but I couldn’t help myself.) To me, these kind of living lexicons are great tools for revealing vampire culture while serving the immediate needs of roleplayers. Jargon might not be essential to the success of a secret society, but it’s vital to feeling like you’re a part of one, in my opinion, so this kind of specialized terminology serves a real purpose in Vampire products. These glossary entries are also, I think, the only things I wrote with LARPers immediately in mind; I vetted other material for LARP purposes, but I’ve always been a table-top player foremost, and it’s what I have in mind when I write.
Some of the material I wrote, beyond the history section, sticks out to me when I read it again. This isn’t all I wrote, but these are the characters that stuck out enough to see through the smoke.
“The Lord of Paradise Lake” is the first thing I wrote for this book, besides outlines and the like. For a long time, I’ve been telling people that some Ventrue might just be lords of trailer parks, but they’re always lords of something. I don’t remember much else about it, except that I didn’t have to write it so much as watch it go by.
“King Rat” is another intentional contrast to the well-tailored stereotype of the Ventrue. He’s also a way of showing that the lines between the clans are not always so sharp than you can tell a vampire’s clan by looking at him. Is King Rat an example of the Lords or their words? You tell me.
“Witch of the Weeds” was written about a character I had lurking in the background of my own chronicle, set in Atlanta, who I’d created to show how Animalism is a trait well-suited to Lords. Also, she was designed to show off a very American style of Acolytes, while tapping into something that I found so strangely compelling about Atlanta: the greenery. Almost everywhere that Atlanta starts to resemble the World of Darkness, it doesn’t become dead, but wild and overgrown. The archetypal dystopian cityscape of asphalt and glass without a weed or tree in sight is hard to find here. The other thing is this: The version of this story varies from my notes in one key regard; I think I toned down the ending to keep the Witch from seeming undignified or downright gross. Suffice it to say, you probably wouldn’t eat the tomatoes from the first draft.
One other thing, here:
Look everywhere for examples of Dominate in use. I put in lots of examples of vampires using Dominate powers without ever waving their hands in the air or declaring, “I’m ur heads Dominating ur thotz!” Look around for examples of Lords instructing people and being obeyed—they’re all over. (My favorite might be in the subtext of “The Sharp”, in the second teaser download, but the one with Carlyle caught me by surprise when I read it, since I’d forgotten it.)
The Meanings of Names
Names are little containers for holding subtext. Just drop it right in. Especially with Google being what it is—meaning, everywhere—I worked hard during the research phase of this book to load this book with names that would reveal additional, inspirational ideas if you dropped those names into a search engine or ran them through Wikipedia. Some names just have meaning to me, but others (like Sycorax) lead to things that should unfold and double the inspirational sources hinted at in the book.
So, every name is a potential allusion.
Here, though, is some nonsense about some of the names that appear in the book. I think this all qualifies as trivia, but isn’t that true for this whole document?
WH and VT are my homage back to Vampire: The Masquerade, 2nd Edition, which was my introduction to Vampire. (But not the World of Darkness—that came with the original A World of Darkness, which I bought on a whim, and which led me like a lurid song to Vampire: The Masquerade.) There are a few bits in the letters from VT to WH that are taken directly from that letter at the beginning of Masquerade, 2nd Edition, in fact.
These first few names from from Pages 38–39:
- Anastasio is named for Albert Anastasia (aka Umberto Anastasio), who, like Murder, Inc., was real. I started reading up on them after hearing him mentioned on The West Wing.
- Zehtner comes either from a friend of mine from high school, whose name isn’t the same, but close; or it comes from Nora Zehetner, who was in the absolutely stellar movie, Brick. I don’t know which.
- Del Amarr is, of course, a reference to the Amarr of EVE Online.
- Gough is a name I use at least once in every campaign or chronicle.
- Page 4: Edgar. I think I’ve put the names Edgar and Douglas into 90% of the game products I’ve written, beginning with Victorian Age: Vampire. Why? No reason. I just find those names amusing. It’s possible, though, that I left Douglas out of this book. I honestly don’t remember. (Edit: Found him.)
- Page 5: Oscar is a reference to Vampire: The Eternal Struggle guy, Oscar Garza, who must always be gyrating.
- Page 49: Hilmarssons are named for the president of CCP, Hilmar, whose sons, according to the naming conventions of the Icelanders, have the last name Hilmarsson. His name is used in this hyperactive, ludicrous bit of copy-shop propaganda for now particular reason. Hilmar himself is a downright jolly dude known for Utilikilts and genuinely hilarious PowerPoint presentations. I just like to name-drop.
- Grigori Malkav gets his first name, naturally, from Rasputin. I love that guy.
- Nicodemus (another name I use a bunch) is taken from a really spectacular schoolteacher I had back in the day. I love that name.
Never have I been a fan of the Malkavians, before this book. I thought compartmentalizing madness into a group that could be summarily identified and rejected really took the fear out of their insanity. “Oh, those crazy Malks,” is what they ended up being like, when it should’ve been, “Oh, shit, I think that dude’s a Malkavian! Don’t look, don’t look!” How scary is insanity, really, when you know empirically that it’s just something that can happen to other people?
Offering the clan as a zany escape hatch from the serious issues at the heart of the game was no good, either. It made them, in my experience, into a refuge for people who agreed to play Vampire, but really wished they were playing something else. (Paranoia, maybe.)
So, when I was told to bring back the Malkavians in a new way, because a lot of people really missed them, I looked for a way to make them mysterious and scary, difficult or uncomfortable to categorize, and able to integrate into an ongoing chronicle. The fertile notion of visionary madmen, already wrapped up in the Malkavian meme, is more interesting to me if there’s a chicken-and-egg relationship between their madness and their power. Are they crazy ’cause they see things or do they see things ’cause they’re crazy? So I tried to put that in there, too.
This turned out to be easy to do. First of all, Requiem made derangements ubiquitous in a way that made it easy to define the Malkavian curse and connect it to the Ventrue—who risk absolute corruption, after all. Second, I’d recently been doing a lot of reading on the history of mental illness and its treatment, both for my personal (morbid) curiosity and also while writing the design document for World of Darkness: Asylum (which just so happened to be developed by Joe Carriker, too). Two things kept coming up in the reading I was doing, and I wanted to incorporate them into the new Malkavian history: migration and imprisonment. Ships of fools and houses of bedlam. One is scary, in part, because it might come here. The other is scary because you might go there. There’s a fearful symmetry there that is, simply, right for the World of Darkness.
I think the new Malkavians are a pretty transparent, pretty honest, creation. You look at them, and the inspirations are clear. Certainly they scare me because I wrote about them when I was genuinely afraid of the inside of my own head, and that’s tough to shake.
I hope that, for other readers, they are, if not scary, at least complex enough in their character to facilitate the kind of narrative questions that drama depends on. Malkavia is specifically designed to reflect both mental illness and visionary madness, because vampires are so old that they don’t necessarily see the world the way modern medicine does. As long as Kindred are around to perpetuate the old ways, the old ways are not completely dead. (I guess they’re undead ideas, which I think is intriguing in its own right.)
To those who think that Malkavia belittles or makes light of mental illness, I can only say this: I’m mentally ill and I’m not offended. There’s a degree of honesty in Malkavia such that it has some subjective truth to it. Drama isn’t necessarily the place for objectivity anyway.
Reading the book now, I see all sorts of ideas that echo what was going on with me at the time. (A couple of the derangements I designed seem like dramatizations of stuff I was going through that year.) I’m not sure how much of that I put in there on purpose, and how much of it is just a result of real fears seeping into the work. The fact remains that the sympathetic connections are there, and thus somehow real, whether I meant for them to be or not. The text is talking about one thing directly, but hinting at something else.
Again with the allusions.