When we speak of the giants of the roleplaying industry, we often talk of the people who heralded its creation. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, who created the D&D game. J. Eric Holmes, who developed the first introductory RPG with the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set (1977). Tom Moldvay, Zeb Cook, and Frank Mentzer, who revamped D&D.
But, there are also giants from other eras, who recast the roleplaying industry, who reimagined what it meant to be a gamer and a roleplayer. There is no doubt that for the ’90s, one of those giants was Stewart Wieck.
White Wolf Magazine: 1986-1995
Stewart joined the industry in the ’80s through White Wolf (1986-1995), the magazine that he created with help from his brother, Steve. The earliest issues of White Wolf were just copied and stapled, not even saddle-stitched. The single-column pages look like they came right off of a classic phototypesetter. Column titles were hand-lettered, ads hand-pasted in. But issue by issue the quality of the production improved. Saddle-stitching appeared with issue #4 (1986), a second color on the cover with issue #5 (1987). Then issue #8 (1987) appeared as White Wolf Magazine with a full-color glossy cover; it was printed in 10,000 copies. This was the White Wolf Magazine that filled game shops in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and it was where many first saw Stewart’s work.
The magazine came at a great time, just as Different Worlds was ending, just as Dragon was becoming a house organ, and just as Space Gamer was leaving Steve Jackson Games behind. The roleplaying industry needed a new meeting place, in those days before the commercial internet. It needed a new forum for reviews and news, a new home.
White Wolf Magazine was that place.
The growth of White Wolf Magazine in just a few years from fanzine to the most influential magazine in the industry is amazing. But it’s equally amazing that Stewart and Steve started their work on the magazine through a little-known predecessor called Arcanum when they were still in high school. When the shiny new magazine started to appear in gaming shops in the late ’80s, few readers realized that it was created by someone that was no older than them. The difference was that Stewart had the determination, the drive, and the chutzpah to actually get his work out there, to improve it month by month, and to do that all at an age when his contemporaries were interviewing for their first jobs, not building their first businesses.
White Wolf Game Studio: 1990-2010
Any gaming luminary would be proud of being the driving force behind one of the most notable and important magazines in the roleplaying industry, but Stewart didn’t rest on that laurel.
In White Wolf Magazine #11 (1988), Stewart wrote a very positive review of a little-known fantasy roleplaying game published by Lion Rampant called Ars Magica (1987). It was a review that would change the gaming industry. It led to Lion Rampant regularly writing articles for White Wolf Magazine, creating a relationship between the companies. Lion Rampant would later write this of White Wolf: “Thanks for all the support over the last three years, the friendship you’ve shown, and the encouragement through both thick and thin. With friends like you guys, success is only a matter of time.” Little did they know. Just a few months later, Lion Rampant ended up one state over from the Wiecks, in Georgia, and in some financial straits. Stewart Wieck and Lion Rampant principal Mark Rein•Hagen thus decided to merge, forming a new company — also called White Wolf — which would soon become the White Wolf Game Studio.
On the road to Gen Con ’90, White Wolf dreamt up its magnum opus. Mark Rein•Hagen, Stewart Wieck, and Lisa Stevens came up with an idea for a new game, Vampire: The Masquerade (1991). It and the later World of Darkness games absolutely revolutionized the industry. They let players take on the roles of monsters in serious and thoughtful ways. They introduced a new style of gameplay, focused on politics and personal interactions. They presented a new style of characterization, centered on deep introspection and moral challenges. They explored important real-world topics, bringing a new maturity to gaming. In many ways, White Wolf’s games were just as different from the classic dungeon delves of D&D as the D&D game was from the wargames that preceded it. Certainly, the World of Darkness games were part of a tradition of narrative-focused RPG design that includes King Arthur Pendragon (1985), Ars Magica (1987), and Amber Diceless Role-Playing (1991), but it was the World of Darkness games that re-innovated and popularized the form, that brought RPGs to the attention of a new generation of gamers.
During these early years at White Wolf, Stewart was focused on running the company, something that he’d continue doing until 1993, when Steve reentered the fold with two years of business training under his belt. For several critical years, though, Stewart was the one who made sure the books got published and distributed, who ensured that they got marketed and sold, who kept the company running and growing so that White Wolf could manage the amazing feat of publishing a new World of Darkness game every year. Mark Rein•Hagen gets the attention as the main creator of the World of Darkness, but it was Stewart who made sure that anyone ever saw and played those games.
That’s not to discount Stewart’s early creative work. His very first industry credit was for writing The Secret in the Swamp (1986), an adventure for Villains & Vigilantes. It’s what encouraged him to produce White Wolf Magazine. The early issues of White Wolf were also filled with his writing, because he wasn’t just the magazine’s editor-in-chief, but also a regular contributor. He wrote The Tempest (1990) for Ars Magica shortly before the merger with Lion Rampant. Then, when Vampire came along, he contributed the mythology of Cain and wrote one of the first adventures, Ashes to Ashes (1991). He even created the first World of Darkness: Mummy (1992) game.
Stewart’s most important creative work was certainly his design of Mage: The Ascension (1993), the third World of Darkness game. When the White Wolf crew divided up the World of Darkness RPGs, Stewart eagerly claimed the topic, and his design would reflect that enthusiasm. It would also once more innovate roleplaying. That’s in large part because he imagined mages as “agents of change”, to use Phil Brucato’s term. Their magic wasn’t about fireballs and magic missiles, but was “an extension of an enlightened individual as that person literally reworks reality itself”. Instead of writing about dungeon delving or political machinating, Stewart imagined changing the world.
Other priorities eclipsed design work during Stewart’s later years at White Wolf, but Wizard of the Coast’s d20 license brought him back. Stewart contributed to various Sword & Sorcery releases and was one of the architects of White Wolf’s Scarred Lands setting. He also continued to work behind the scenes, such as when he brought Greg Stafford’s King Arthur Pendragon to White Wolf, to be published in a new edition (2005). Stewart acted as managing editor for both the new rulebook and The Great Pendragon Campaign (2006), a 429-page campaign book that had been twenty years in the making and which remains one of the most impressively comprehensive campaign resources in existence.
As it happens, Pendragon would also be quite important to Stewart’s future after White Wolf.
White Wolf Fiction: 1993-2012
One of the priorities that eclipsed Stewart’s roleplaying design in his later years at White Wolf was a focus on fiction. Stewart’s enthusiasm for fiction was obvious back to the early days of White Wolf Magazine, which featured an “Author Spotlight” column. Stewart himself wrote about Michael Moorcock for White Wolf #3 (1986) and Stephen King for White Wolf #4 (1986). After Steve took over as CEO of White Wolf in 1993, Stewart returned to the form, reshaping the company once more by creating a fiction line.
White Wolf’s roleplaying fiction debuted with Drums Around the Fire (1993), an anthology of Werewolf: The Apocalypse stories. From there, Stewart quickly expanded the frontiers of the form. Beginning with the Dark Destiny (1994) anthology, he brought in well-known professional authors to write roleplaying stories. He was able to do so in part thanks to his progressive view of creator rights: for books like Dark Destiny, he left the copyright with the authors. This also allowed Stewart to publish books like Nancy Collins’ Midnight Blue: The Sonja Blue Collection (1995) and Neil Gaiman’s The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish (1997), both by notable authors who were up-and-coming at the time.
The Collins and Gaiman books were part of Stewart’s newest brainstorm: White Wolf’s “Borealis” line (1994-2000), which published science-fiction and fantasy stories unrelated to RPGs. Stewart soon expanded the line even further with “Borealis Legends”, which reprinted classic genre books. At the time, genre greats such as Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion series and Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd & Gray Mouser stories were shockingly out-of-print, so Stewart brought them back in handsome new hardcover anthologies that even today remain some of the best-quality editions of the stories available. A similar series of Harlan Ellison collections sadly ended after just four books.
Though the Borealis line only lasted through the ’90s, White Wolf’s roleplaying fiction continued into the ’00s, and Stewart continuously returned to the form throughout his years at White Wolf. And, he wasn’t just focused on classic works and established authors. Stewart was frequently encouraging to newcomers in the business; toward the end of his time with White Wolf, he ran a $10,000 novel-writing contest. The two winning books, both by first-time authors, were some of Stewart’s last works for White Wolf: Strangeness in the Proportion (2011), a World of Darkness novel by Joshua Alan Doetsch, and Silent Knife (2012), a Vampire: The Requiem novel by David Nurenberg.
Not all of Stewart’s fiction was as financially successful as the roleplaying games that White Wolf was founded upon, but it was critically successful. It got acclaim and attention in the genre mainstream, with some roleplaying stories even being mentioned in the Year’s Best collections, something that is almost unknown for roleplaying fiction.
Nocturnal Media: 2010-2017
Stewart Wieck stayed with White Wolf all the way through its sale to CCP in 2006 and remained on the CCP board for a few years afterward. But in 2010 he finally went his own way, taking with him the rights to Greg Stafford’s King Arthur Pendragon. He would use that game as the basis of his next company, Nocturnal Media.
White Wolf was fundamentally a company focused on pushing the roleplaying industry into the future, about innovating styles of play and creating new sorts of games. But Stewart’s work with the Borealis Legends line showed that he was just as interested in remembering the best of what had come before and offering it to a new audience. This more nostalgic view would define his new publishing company.
At Nocturnal Media, Stewart partnered with many of the best designers of the industry to revisit their greatest games. He worked directly with Greg Stafford to support King Arthur Pendragon and also Kickstarted a new edition of Stafford’s classic storytelling game, Prince Valiant (1989). He joined with Steve Sechi to Kickstart a new edition of Talislanta (1987). He purchased the remnants of West End Games to acquire the rights to the d6 system. He even worked with Richard Thomas of Onyx Path Publishing on a revival of the Scarred Lands setting.
But, Stewart wasn’t just focused on classic releases and established authors. He opened his company to other creators, new and old, offering to do the hard work of publishing for them. In the spring of 2017 he finalized deals to publish Ragnarok Publishing’s Shotguns & Sorcery game and to provide funding and distribution for a variety of small publishers. Nocturnal Media was well on its way to becoming a top publisher of the best in the roleplaying field, producing its books through the new millennium’s new methodologies of Kickstarters and POD and PDF releases.
Unfortunately, Stewart Wieck passed away on Thursday, June 22, 2017 at the age of 49. He had just completed a fencing workout. He literally died with a sword in his hand.
A Life: 1968-2017
In his life, Stewart Wieck created one of the liveliest forums for roleplaying in the 20th century, then he helped reshape the whole industry. He co-founded one of just two publishers ever to match and perhaps exceed the sales of the publisher of D&D. He brought many classic books back into print, and was now doing so for classic games as well. Simultaneously, he also encouraged newcomers. His life was full of triumphs that continue to cast light across the world. But beyond that, he was respected by the people that he worked with as a kind and generous person who was always reaching out a hand to others.
Stewart was a giant of the industry and a giant in life. We are lesser for his loss.
My condolences to his wife, his children, his brother, his other family, and his friends.
Personally, I’ve loved Stewart’s work since I picked up the early issues of White Wolf Magazine at Games of Berkeley. I still have a run of about 50 of the issues, from #2-57. Those magazines remain a constant reference for me when I’m writing about gaming in the ’90s. The Michael Moorcock and Fritz Leiber books that he produced still hold places of honor on my bookshelves. I remember well scrounging together the dollars to afford those magnificent hardcovers when he published them in the ’90s. I’ve reread some of them as recently as last year. I was honored when Stewart approached me to write an episode for his reprint of Prince Valiant. I am shocked and grieved to find him gone.
Thanks to James Lowder for extensive information on book publishing and for kind editing on an earlier draft of this article (meaning that if there are editorial problems, they probably appeared afterward). And thanks to Phil Brucato, who focused on Stewart’s work on Mage in his excellent blog post, which was a reference for this article.
This article was originally published as Advanced Designers & Dragons #14 on RPGnet. It followed the publication of the four-volume Designers & Dragons (2014) from Evil Hat, and was meant to complement those books.