Bill Bridges is one of the big names in tabletop gaming. He’s known for his work with White Wolf on Werewolf: The Apocalypse and Mage: The Ascension, not to mention other contributions to the World of Darkness. He’s also worked with Viacom on the computer game Dracula Unleashed and Interplay on Star Trek: Starfleet Academy. It’s fair to say he knows the business.
Hey Bill, thanks for taking the time to talk to Parallel Worlds. We appreciate that you’re really busy at the moment with Fading Suns: Pax Alexius coming to fruition.
Can you tell as little about where you were raised and what shaped you into the person you are?
I was raised outside of Washington DC. Typical American suburban life. I was obsessed with comics as a kid and wanted to be a comic book artist when I grew up. Even got so far as art school but wound up going down other paths in college.
Gaming, and writing for games, has been your career. How did you get your first break?
My college crowd was heavily into tabletop roleplaying as an art form. This was the ‘80s. Many of them went on to work at gaming companies — mainly Chaosium. I pitched an adventure for Pendragon and it got published. That led to getting hired to write something for this fledgling game White Wolf had just published called Vampire: the Masquerade, which led to a full-time gig as the Werewolf developer. (Great title. “Yes, I develop werewolves.”)
What made you want to develop Werewolf: The Apocalypse? And where did you get your inspirations from?
I came into Werewolf later than most people think. Much of it was already there, thanks to Sam Chupp, Rob Hatch, and Mark Rein•Hagen, although conveniently in line with my personal interest in shamanism and animism (partly inspired by Greg Stafford) and ‘depth ecology’, typified by radical organisations such as Earth First!.
You then went on to develop the third game in the line: Mage: The Ascension. You redefined what magic could be. Did you know where you were going with the game from the very beginning and how did you break out of the established ‘fantasy’ frame of what magic was?
I was involved with the first edition of Mage: the Ascension — many of us at White Wolf were pulled into it — but I didn’t develop the line until I returned full-time to White Wolf in the early oughts. Phil Brucato took our fragmented rulebook and honed it into the philosophical and inspiring game we all love. Of course, it all began with Stewart Wieck and his vision for magic that wasn’t just wizards tossing fireballs at each other. We all helped to build a rules frame around Stew’s ideas, and to flesh out the forces that opposed our idealistic mages.
You teamed up with Andrew Greenberg, also of White Wolf fame, and you created Fading Suns together. What made you want to move from the ‘personal horror’ genre to science fiction?
I had known Andrew from before I began writing roleplaying games (RPGs), and he was the one who brought me into Vampire. We’ve always worked well together and shared the same group of gaming friends, all college-age crusaders for the idea that roleplaying could be an art form. When he left to create Holistic Design (HDI) with some other partners, the plan was that I would eventually join them; but I hesitated for a while, because I really loved Werewolf. In the end, the chance to own my own work and be part of a computer gaming company, right when computer gaming was really growing into its own, was too good to pass up. And White Wolf was having growing pains at the time with a rather acrimonious environment that just wasn’t as fun anymore.
When I came into HDI we already had a contract for a gothic space computer strategy game: Emperor of the Fading Suns (now available again on GOG: https:// www.gog.com/game/emperor_of_the_ fading_suns); we just needed the world to build around it, so we fleshed it out as an RPG. I’d always been an eclectic reader of the fantastic arts: science fiction, fantasy, horror — anything with a fantastic element. Growing up as I did during the paperback boom of the ’70s there was always so much to choose from, including reprints of many sci-fi classics. All that became ingredients for the Fading Suns stew.
You also worked on both the Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine RPGs for Last Unicorn games. What was it like to work on such a big, well-known commercial franchise?
The Last Unicorn project was fun. They had landed the license but had to get a book out almost immediately, to take full advantage of it. They brought in me and Andrew to help a crew of great writers build an RPG from next to nothing in mere weeks. So much talent in that room! I had, of course, been a Star Trek fan, so that made it easy.
For many people the idea of working on computer games is a dream come true. You worked with both Interplay and Viacom; can you tell us what that experience was like for you?
My work with those companies’ games was mainly for scripting and dialogue, back when cut scenes were everywhere. That’s pretty much like screenwriting in snippets. It’s not the same as when you’re writing quests and the like, which is what a lot of RPG computer game writing involves. But I did enjoy it at the time.
You have in a sense come full circle: you returned to White Wolf to develop a new round of projects for the New World of Darkness, and in so doing won several awards for your work. What was it like to come back to the World of Darkness and recreate it from the ground up?
I had returned to White Wolf full-time to handle the Mage line, but it was clear pretty soon that we had to do something groundbreaking with the World of Darkness. Sales were slowing and it was getting hard to bring in new gamers. The “wall of green marble” — the shelf of Vampire books — was daunting newcomers rather than enticing them. The metaplot, beloved by existing fans, was too thick for newbies. So, we decided to live up to the promise of Gehenna and the Apocalypse and end it all, and then create something new from the ashes. At first, we stuck perhaps too much to the old formula, but as we got deeper into it, we were emboldened to move farther away into new territory — such as finally doing a Frankenstein game with Promethean: the Created.
You are now back working on Fading Suns: Pax Alexius. This is the 4th edition of the game, and looks to have some fundamental revisions. Can you tell us about the changes you made and why you choose to make them?
The approach to the new edition was to both make it familiar to old editions and to also fix the frankly deficient core game mechanic, where it was too easy to fail rolls. Much is still the same: add a skill to a characteristic to get a number you must roll or less on a d20, and the result gives you victory points — but it’s now far more free-form, in that you get more victory points and you can now choose how to apply them (spend them to increase damage on your next roll or save them for later). More controversial, it appears, was the decision to switch from a ‘point buy’ system to using levels for character
advancement. The fact is, there are a lot of gamers who don’t want to sit down with a calculator between sessions; they just want to know what cool new stuff they can choose, without weighting costs. And since the actual gameplay now involved an economy of victory points (gaining, spending, saving), I felt that doing the same out-of-game with experience points was just too much of a headache.
The background of the game hasn’t remained static either: the timeline has updated to 5020, so 20 years on from the 1st edition, and ten from the 2nd edition. You make quite a few brave changes to the setting; could you elaborate on those?
I’ve tried to keep the Fading Suns metaplot at a high enough level that it gives player troupes more options rather than complicating things too much. In the new game, the Emperor has finally married and produced an heir, but he surprised everyone by stepping outside of the Known Worlds and choosing a ‘barbarian’. This has moved a lot of the action and political scheming to the frontier world of Hargard, the newest planet under the imperial banner — a good place for player-character schemes and intrigues. Since all eyes turn to the Vuldrok Star Nations, the Kurgans felt like a distraction and so they’ve suffered one of the fates common in the past, when the Republic fell: one of their jumpgates has shut down and nobody knows when it will open again. They’re still there, but it’s now a very long journey to reach them.
On to real life for a moment. How do you think that the pandemic has changed things for gamers and games developers?
Some games are better suited than others for virtual gaming. The new Fading Suns edition was aimed squarely at the tabletop, where players could handle tokens, and we’re still catching up with providing better virtual ways to simulate this. Of course, all you really need is a webcam for everyone and you can play as we always have.
Are there gaming worlds or settings that you find particularly inspiring?
I’ve always been a huge fan of Glorantha, the fantasy world originally created for Runequest but which has been featured in different systems since. And M.A.R. Barker’s Tékumel has always been fascinating to read, although I’ve never actually played in that world.
Do you have any advice for other prospective game designers?
Play games — lots of different games, old and new — and think about them: what worked, what didn’t, and why? Be aware of your own biases and know the difference between your opinion (“I didn’t like that”) and a more objective stance (“That rule is broken because…”). Gamers have so many different styles of play and objectives, and RPGs often bring together a clash of styles. Your design should help a gamemaster manage that clash.
Do you play games by other designers?
Sure, although this pandemic year hasn’t allowed for a lot. I’ve played Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) 5e — I mean, hasn’t everyone by now? It’s astonishing how many new players it’s bringing into the hobby. I enjoy it more than previous editions (and I go back to 1st edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, but never touched 2nd edition). Before the pandemic I liked the Cypher System games, like Numenera. I’m sure some of its point pools influenced the new Fading Suns edition. I played in a 13th Age game, which is a fun take on the D&D system. I like the new Call of Cthulhu edition, which I ran at a convention; it’s a nice, long-awaited update to the Basic Roleplaying System.
What are you reading at the moment?
For fiction, it’s the Library of America edition of Ursula Le Guin’s Annals of the Western Shore, a series of young-adult books she wrote a while back. But I’m also dipping in and out of The Flame Imperishable: Tolkien, St. Thomas, and the Metaphysics of Faërie by Jonathan S. McIntosh — fantasy metaphysics! I’ve also got Stephen King’s new Hard Case Crime book, Later, but I’m only one chapter in.
What about video games? Do you have any favourites?
Noble Armada, of course! It’s just been released on the Nintendo Switch!
We really appreciate you taking the time to talk to Parallel Worlds. We intend to give the new Fading Suns: Pax Alexius a test drive on our Parallel Roles podcast as soon as we get our hands on a copy!