Interview: Richard Thomas (Onyx Path Publishing)

Since 1986, when he began illustrating and art directing for White Wolf Magazine, Rich has been responsible for the look and feel of every White Wolf product ever created. He is also regarded as a classic Magic: The Gathering artist for his creation of the ‘Stuffy Doll’, which first appeared on the original Black Vise artwork. In 2012, he founded Onyx Path Publishing and continues to expand and supplement those famous settings that have been his passion for the better part of the last three decades.

1. What is Onyx Path Publishing and how did it get started?

RT: Onyx Path Publishing was founded in 2012 with the intention of creating and developing rich and fascinating settings that could be enjoyed in a variety of ways: tabletop RPGs, fiction, comics, etc.

Onyx Path really grew out of my efforts on creating what was intended to be a single book celebrating 20 years of Vampire: the Masquerade. Working on V20, as we call it, brought out so much excitement from our community that it reminded me of why I had started with tabletop RPGs to begin with – and I wanted to do more.

At the same time, CCP, the owner of the White Wolf intellectual properties, realized that they could not publish tabletop RPGs and at the same time develop and maintain MMOs, which is their main purpose as the creators of EVE Online, the space MMO. After much discussion, I left CCP and founded Onyx Path, with a license from CCP to publish tabletop RPGs of the WW game lines.

Our first big challenge was in rejuvenating both World of Darknesses and Exalted, which we did by continuing the 20th Anniversary lines for all of the classic World of Darkness games like VtM, Werewolf: the Apocalypse, Mage: the Ascension, etc. We also have been publishing 2nd Editions of the new World of Darkness game lines such as Vampire: the Requiem, or Changeling: the Lost, and a 3rd Edition of the epic fantasy game Exalted.

Next, we straight-up purchased the Scion and Trinity game lines from CCP (also previously created by White Wolf), as well as a partnership with Stew Wieck at Nocturnal Media to bring back the Scarred Lands fantasy genre game line. All three of these intellectual properties are being worked on right now for their rebirths in the next couple of years.

And our third initiative is to partner with creators who have awesome ideas for games but want to work with us so we can help their games reach their true potential. We currently are working with Rose Bailey on her Cavaliers of Mars swashbuckling on the red planet setting, and with Eddy Webb on Pugmire, his fantasy game of uplifted dogs exploring a world after man.

Lots on our plate so far, but we’re having fun and just getting started!

2. Who are you and what do you do at Onyx Path?

RT: My name is Rich Thomas and I’m the founder and Creative Director at Onyx Path Publishing. I was White Wolf’s Art Director, and later Creative Director, pretty much throughout its time as a company. At Onyx, I try and balance handling those dry publishing concerns of budgets and approvals, with fun times working with our writers, developers, artists, art directors, and marketing folks setting the direction of the company and the individual settings and how we can best present them.

Sometimes I still get to do an illustration or a set of symbols in the midst of all that, too.

3. What first inspired you into this line of work?

RT: Like many teenagers, I was inspired by fantasy novels, comic books – really any media that featured imagination. I was really fortunate to go to a high school (Central HS in Philadelphia) that had an outstanding art program as well as an afternoon gaming club. The combination of those two activities set the stage for my love of creating worlds for gaming.

4. Onyx Path has been working on the World of Darkness for some time. What about the setting appeals to you personally?

RT: The World of Darkness, in both incarnations, confirms our worst fears about what our world is really like. There IS a monster under the bed and a lurker in that shadowed alley in WoD, and that makes the stories have an impact that a lot of settings do not.

5. When it comes to the mass of creatures and beings in the World of Darkness, where do your allegiances lie? Vampires, werewolves, mages, etc.

RT: Always a fun, yet no-win, question. Every character option in the World of Darkness has a different sort of appeal for me. I’m like a character-holic, I love to play different ones and explore the different sections of the World of Darkness that they are a part of.

6. What are the plans after Mage and Vampire?

RT: We are still working on the writing of Wraith: the Oblivion 20th Anniversary Edition, and we’ll be doing a 20th for Changeling: the Dreaming. At Gen Con this year we “soft announced” that we are working on a 4th Edition for Vampire: the Masquerade that takes a different approach than V20. Where V20 tried to encapsulate everything folks loved about the first three editions of VtM but didn’t really change or update the rules or setting very much at all, the 4th Edition will be a true new edition.

7. Would you describe your first roleplaying experience to us?

RT: Back at that high school gaming club I mentioned, the Strategy and Tactics Society, I had been attending and playing classic wargames like “Squad Leader” and “Wooden Ships and Iron Men” when a small group in the corner flipping through these small brown pamphlets caught my eye. They seemed to be having fun with a hand-drawn graph paper map board, and rolling dice while describing what they were doing. This was new and interesting!

So I joined in as a Halfling thief modeled on the hobbits in LotR, and found out about this new kind of game called D&D. The rest is, as they say, history.

8. What’s the fondest memory you have of one of your characters?

RT: I have a billion of them. Here’s an early one that still stands out: I was in one of the very first LARPs for Ars Magica, the game Lion Rampant had before they essentially merged with White Wolf before everybody started working on Vampire. This was at a con in Atlanta, and I was assigned this character that was a fiery inquisitor sort who was attending an important magus meeting and was looking for a secret diabolist.

Now just because he was an assigned character, I didn’t hold back in playing him to the hilt and was yelling and accusing and trying to scare the other players into confessing. At one climactic point in this tense and intense deliberation of council members, I was nose to nose with another player accusing him of knowing who the diabolist was. He was yelling, I was yelling, spittle was flying, our faces were beet red and insults were flying – and the diabolist, one of the LR gang if I recall correctly, snapped and tried to flee the room. They were so shaken by the intensity of the scene and the threats I was making.

Unfortunately, while I was enjoying the make-believe and loving the intensity of the role playing, the other guy in the confrontation couldn’t let go from the scene and refused to shake hands after the adventure was over. That really opened my thinking on how different players had different things they need from gaming. Which is something I try to keep in mind with our games. I like to provide a spectrum of experiences rather than just a single gaming style that a single creator might be interested in.

9. Everyone’s had a character die on them. What was the coolest or most memorable way you’ve ever had a character go out?

RT: Actually, I haven’t had that many die on me. Usually the campaigns or chronicles ended before the characters. Not cool, but certainly memorable was my first character, the Halfling thief. Only his third session, and he was swallowed whole by a giant frog. Boom. Just like that! The legendary deadliness of classic D&D. But I’d like to think that his replacement, Fred the Magic User, is still adventuring and selling beer to pay the rent somewhere in the multiverse.

10. Have you ever considered expanding outward into board or card games?

RT: Absolutely. The thing is that while they seem like natural and easy extensions of making roleplaying game books, and some aspects of them do share the same skill-sets, you have to think of really moving into those kinds of games as creating a new company. At least in terms of those being different audiences, with different expectations of how the audiences judge quality. Sales venues are different as well, and you have to be able to have folks free to explore those different venues and audiences. We’re really busy with our crew making sure our tabletop RPGs are awesome and revitalizing the WoDs and Exalted, so moving into other ventures is something still on the horizon.

But yes, someday!

11. Can you talk a little about Onyx Path’s philosophy on gaming and it’s fans?

RT: With all of our games and game worlds, it’s my hope that players take what we’ve given and make the world their own. That’s the unique and magical thing about tabletop RPGs, in my opinion: the nature of roleplaying requires and rewards adding in the creativity and ideas of the players. I don’t think any other entertainment medium is based on the idea that the “consumers” are actually creating their version of the world. Only recently, maybe, are we seeing that kind of play in computer games like Minecraft or some MMOs, and they are still limited by the user interface. Nothing limits one of our players from any level of creativity except the OK of the other players around the table. I see our job as providing the richest start to that experience that we can possibly make.

Onyx Path’s whole philosophy of transparency and involving our community flows from that kind of thinking. We like to have our backers get involved in the evolution of whichever project is being Kickstarted, we use an Open Development Process that gets us early feedback from those folks who want to give it as a project is being created, and we provide either backer or advance PDFs so that our community can engage with a project right at the end of its creation. All of these may be used on a single project or only some, but they are all there so that we can give our community of fans a chance to further be involved in the world we are creating beyond the buyer/seller relationship that we’ve always enjoyed.

From my point of view, tabletop RPGs are an art form; to a large extent because of that transformative connection of the players interpreting and evolving their game to match their own needs and ideas. Because it’s not just the players transforming the game. Once this creative transformation begins, the players are also transformed by the process. I have heard so many anecdotes about how roleplaying has changed a gamer’s life for the better. Taught them how to deal with life issues, or provided a safe harbor for ideas they could not express in their regular lives. It certainly makes me proud to have been able to provide the start for so many moments of clarity and transformation, and it’s my intention and pleasure that Onyx Path will continue to do that very thing for years to come.

I want more!

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