The acclaimed game writer and designer Richard Dansky shared his thoughts on the representation of evil and its purpose in Wraith: The Oblivion and its bravely mature supplement: Charnel Houses of Europe.
Sometimes, a striking and fresh proposal emerges, enriching the notion of “game” and giving us the chance to delve into pretty serious (and real) problems from the inside. In the narrative tabletop role-playing game Wraith: The Oblivion, developed by Richard Dansky among others at White Wolf (currently owned by the publisher Onyx Path), you play as a restless soul. Someone who has died with unfulfilled desires, emotions and needs so powerful that they are stronger than death itself. Far from being superficial or cliché, the game takes you very deep into the psychological and social complexities of the dead. But it was through one of its supplements, Charnel Houses of Europe: the Shoah, that Wraith made clear the potential depth and serious values a game can offer; values that go well beyond fun. It is the chronicle of one of the darkest moments of the 20th century, the Holocaust, and its impact in the Underworld. But what can a game like this possibly teach us?
Ludarchy – Richard, Wraith was a very innovative game both in narrative and mechanics-wise. But the publishing of Charnel Houses of Europe was, in my opinion, something never seen to date in the role playing world. The fortunate proof that a game can mean much more than a mere means of entertainment. At first glance, one would think it was a very risky step, considering the audience that an outsider would expect an RPG to have. What was your personal motivation with this project, your purpose?
Richard Dansky – My personal motivations doing this project were varied. A big part of it was wanting to take advantage of the storytelling platform I had and use it for good. At White Wolf, we’d proudly worn the banner of “games for mature minds” and I wanted to make sure we lived up to that, that there was more to “mature” than nudity and gross-out. And at the time, my sister was working for the Shoah Foundation, recording testimonies of survivors and liberators of the camps, and so this was something that was very much on my mind.
L – Was there anything in particular you wanted to prove?
RD – Not in any particular sense of challenging people. I wanted to show that the medium I was working in could be used to tell serious stories as well as fun ones. I don’t want to say that I was trying to make art, because I wasn’t. But I was trying to take advantage of the unique powers and strengths of roleplaying to do something worth doing.
L – How was it received by the players? And by by non-players?
RD – There was an initial backlash to the project’s announcement. There were people who felt it was an inappropriate subject for the medium, and there were people who felt that White Wolf was the wrong company to be approaching it. I spent a lot of time online talking with people who had criticized the project sight unseen, trying to convince them that due diligence would be done and that my intentions were good. Once the book came out everything changed, and the response was overwhelmingly positive. The flood of email I got repeated the same themes over and over – I never knew, I never learned this. It didn’t make much of a splash outside of the RPG community to my knowledge, but at the same time, it’s been twenty-some-odd years and we’re still talking about it, so that’s something.
L – Would you say it helped raise awareness of the potential of games beyond entertainment and fun?
RD – I would say it definitely raised awareness within the industry, both about what our medium was capable of and what our responsibilities as creators could be.
L – Let’s go back to the core of Wraith: Oblivion. One of the main factions in the game is the Hierarchy, the political organization that holds power in Stygia (the underworld’s equivalent to most of the Western world) and that seeks to maintain the stability of the ghostly society at all costs to protect it against Oblivion (Oblivion is entropy itself, a constantly churning force of destruction and madness from which there is no return. The ultimate death for Wraiths). For some, the only organization with enough power to maintain peace and law in a sea of chaos. For others, a rigid and despotic government that only seeks to perpetuate itself at the expense of the weakest members of society. Correspondences with other political regimes in recent history are inevitable.
Among many other possibilities, in Wraith you can play as a member of the Hierarcy. This can lead to games that revolve around what philosopher Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil. A theme that is not always easy to deal with in a game, since it may end up exposing the player to ethical and emotional situations to which there is often no “heroic” solution. I would like to explore with you the potential of these types of playable narratives, which are far from the canons and expectations we are used to, and their repercussions on the psychology of the players.
What if, as a player, you end up finding out that you are not the hero, or that being one involves a very high risk or sacrifice? What if you end up realizing that you are part of a faulty system, and that you also are responsible for it? That “bad guys” are more normal than you may think, or that you too could become one of them under the right circumstances? Could this type of games lead to a transformative learning experience? Could this help the player face his or her reality from a more nuanced and critical outlook?
RD – The World of Darkness games were always hinged on moral dilemmas – “A Beast I am, lest a Beast I become” is the memorable example from Vampire: The Masquerade. There was always the question of the moral choice the player was making both individually and in the larger sense. In Wraith, that meant potentially participating in the Hierarchy, with its inhumane habit of hammering souls into inanimate objects (theoretically to keep weak souls from strengthening Oblivion, but that sort of logic turns to propaganda easily enough) in order to stave off the final triumph of Oblivion. Yes, it’s easy for a character to make the choice that the long term “good” is worth the short-term evil. And this in turn can bring the player face to face with their capability for accepting that banal evil in exchange for something else, wither it be a “greater good” or just personal comfort.
Ideally, Charnel Houses of Europe would never be a comfortable supplement for people to choose to campaign – note that I don’t use the word “play” – with. There are no opportunities for cheap heroics, no chances to “set things right.” It’s all about consequences, as indeed all of Wraith is, and dealing with those on a personal and societal level.