Monday, August 24, 2015

Ken and Zak Talk About Stuff

Kenneth Hite was the first person in the mainstream RPG scene to recognize what we were trying to do with Vornheim--or at least the first one to say anything about it. When I heard that, I decided he must be a pretty sharp guy. When he came over and ran Night's Black Agents at our house I realized he was probably one of the sharpest guys in history. And definitely one of the sharpest about history.

For fans, the man needs no introduction--but I hope this interview will offer a window into at least one or two things about Ken you didn't already know. Those new to Ken just need to know he's the idea-factory behind Trail of Cthulhu, the horrible wartorn survival magic-poisoned LotFP setting Qelong, the bold and bizarre Day After Ragnarok alt-history setting and dozens of other excursions into well-researched wrongness.

When and how did you start with role-playing games?

I started playing with D&D before I ever played D&D -- in junior high, my pal Steve loaned me his AD&D MONSTER MANUAL, which came out before the other two books did. So all that summer I built monsters using rules I made up based on the numbers in the book, which is the kind of on-the-nose detail rightly rejected in a novel.

Anyhow, my friends and I started playing D&D that fall, from a combination of that book, the Basic set, and then AD&D, eventually settling into an AD&D campaign with me as the DM. A little TRAVELLER in church youth group, because the youth pastor had the Little Black Books. Then TOP SECRET (which Santa brought us as a misguided "family game night" game), then my one true love CALL OF CTHULHU, from the moment it came out in 1981.

When and how did you start as a professional in the industry?

So I moved to Chicago for grad school, and that meant I could go to GenCon for about $20 by running games for Chaosium -- back then, they badged you in, piled you like cordwood in a hotel room, and bought pizza most nights, so my cost was train fare and liquor. At this same time, I was doing a kind of "free-jazz" improv alternate history game with two history majors I met at the University of Chicago SF Club, Craig Neumeier and Mike Schiffer, and running my Monday campaign for them and some other SF Club people. At one of those GenCons, I bought (or traded for) GURPS TIME TRAVEL by Steve Jackson and John M. Ford, which included the "Infinite Worlds" campaign frame. Mike and Craig and I noticed that Steve Jackson Games had very clear submission guidelines and an unsupported alternate-history setting, and we had all these settings just sitting there. So we wrote a sample alternate history and an outline and sent it in as a proposal. Which went nowhere, except because I had a Chaosium badge, Steve Jackson couldn't dodge me asking about it every GenCon.

One of my players in that long-running CALL OF CTHULHU campaign eventually got a job at Iron Crown, and he got a playtest copy of the NEPHILIM rules from Chaosium, thought "who do I know who should see a game of magical historical conspiracy" and sent them to me for comment. I wrote about 11,000 words of back-sass and sent them to him, and he sent them to Chaosium and right about the same time that Steve Jackson finally looked at our proposal (and accepted it immediately) I got an email from Greg Stafford His Own Self asking me if he could use my playtest feedback in the rulebook, and what was the next book I wanted to write for the line? So in almost the same month in 1994 I had two RPG writing gigs. The rest was just keeping at it; I wound up as Line Developer for NEPHILIM before Chaosium's first or second bankruptcy, and wrote a bunch of books for Steve, and then White Wolf, and then I got hired to design two STAR TREK games back to back and here we are today. In about 1997 I decided to do it full time (or rather my wife Sheila decided she'd rather be married to a happy game writer than a grouchy insurance company tech), and one or two really dodgy years aside, it's pretty much kept the lights on ever since.

What is it about RPG people and the insurance business?

Insurance work is like fast food for people with college degrees. They need a ton of drones to process their hellish oceans of data. Or they did in the 1990s, anyhow, it's probably all done with big data in Bangalore now.

You're known for setting work that's informed by a lot of research--both in history and
in the genre--can you tell us anything about the process of turning research into fiction?

All I can do, really, is quote someone much better than me at the same trick. Tim Powers says that at a certain point you stop researching a novel and start uncovering a secret history of the world. The human brain is hard-wired to pattern-match -- it's how we saw fruit in the trees when we were monkeys, and it's how we see the Virgin Mary in a grilled cheese sandwich now, and it's how Lovecraft or Powers or I build fiction out of suggestively shaped fact, except we're doing it on purpose. Start with the premise -- if DRACULA were a spy novel, what else would be true? and then start looking for weird little facts that fit the legend you're inventing. George Stoker being a sometime asset for the Foreign Office, for example; or a startling number of British Intelligence higher-ups dying suddenly the same year as a major earthquake in Romania; Bram Stoker cutting the final earthquake scene out of his novel literally just before it went to press. I knew the last of those three facts before I started, but when I looked for more they always seemed to appear, because my brain was seeing where unconnected facts -- about DRACULA, and earthquakes, and the history of British espionage -- could be connected.

Re: Pattern-matching: that's a lot how making a collage works. I have no idea if that's a question, just an observation. You get a certain density of ideas and some begin to rhyme and it makes a dream-logic.

Yeah, to some extent trying to explain any of this stuff in writing is like dancing about architecture, as Martin Mull put it. Once you've been doing sculptures long enough, you see the elephant emerge from the block of marble. I do especially like the metaphor of facts and fictions "rhyming," because that's very much what it feels like in the moment.

Last I knew you were playing Call of Cthulhu regularly at home--anything else?

I haven't actually been able to play CALL OF CTHULHU regularly for a while now -- one of my core players has a major Lovecraft allergy. We were playing NOBILIS at home, I think, when I ran NIGHT'S BLACK AGENTS for you; then I ran a CODA-system space game after building the setting with MICROSCOPE, and now I'm running UNKNOWN ARMIES set in the Old West. Each scenario occurs one year later than the last, so we get a good historical sweep out of it.

So do you set up your home campaign as a series of scenarios--almost like modules? Like Mission A then Mission B…?

My home campaign structures vary. Sometimes it's a fairly clear series of missions or modules; other times it's just sandboxing and I build (or co-build) emergent adventures around whatever trouble the players get into. In this campaign, it's kind of a hybrid of those two structures: I tell them which historical event that year their characters will realize contains UA weirdness and then build a sandbox inside it for them to play in.

How do you try out new stuff--with a home group or usually with designers?

It depends. Usually I'll play something with the designer or with some alpha GMs who I know from the convention circuit, but often I'll bring something back, like MICROSCOPE, and the home group will be interested in giving it a whirl. Metatopia is a game design convention, and I wind up alpha testing a lot of new games there as part of my Guest of Honor duties. My own new stuff is usually not a whole new system, but a subsystem -- when I was at Last Unicorn and Decipher we'd play parts of those games as we designed them. I ran a little 13TH AGE when I was developing the BESTIARY for it. I did run a full alpha playtest campaign of NIGHT'S BLACK AGENTS while I was designing it, just to make sure GUMSHOE could handle becoming a thriller game, and I think that worked pretty well. But mostly my home game is blowing off creative steam, not an extension of my work day.

Your schticks are history and horror: both of which have been controversial lately--at least on-line--it's been suggested that playing games where bad things happen is covertly a way to enjoy or encourage bad things happening to people in real life. What's your take on handling subjects in games people might consider difficult? 

I write games about what interests me, which includes, as you mention, history and horror and the broad overlap of the two. My general take is that people who worry about being influenced by horror or the past should avoid playing games about those things -- there are plenty of great fantasy or space games out there. Anyone who opens a game by me I expect to be interested in a game by me on the topic, so I write for them. I treat my audience as adults capable of differentiating between fiction and reality, and between villainy and self-help advice, and in 20-odd years of doing this, I can count the number of times I've been wrong on the fingers of one hand. One Norwegian guy on Usenet got way too interested in authoritarian early 20th century ideology because of my description of Wilhelmine Germany in GURPS ALTERNATE EARTHS, but I have to consider that a fringe case.

So you don't buy the significance of the "we're all unconsciously affected in subtle ways by bad ideas" thesis? Or do you just figure if you are it's your own fault?

"Unconsciously affected" is the kind of red flag phrase that just screams "no causal link" to me, especially with regard to putative grownups. So yeah, if you play a game I wrote set in the 1930s and come away more racist or sexist or Freudian or fascist or Stalinist, yes I think it's your fault, not mine or even Stalin's.

Can you run down what you've got that's out right now and what each thing is about?

I can hit some highlights, certainly. DAY AFTER RAGNAROK is my post-WWII post-apocalypse "submachine guns and sorcery" setting, currently available from Atomic Overmind for SAVAGE WORLDS, FATE, and HERO. Writing that involved destroying the world in 1945 except for the parts that looked like Conan and Professor Quatermass.

QELONG is my damp, horrible sandbox hexcrawl for our pal James Raggi at Lamentations of the Flame Princess. It's "fantasy fucking Cambodia," which if you know anything about the history is even worse than "fantasy fucking Vietnam," but I put enough spins on it (and invoked enough 20th century horror) to warrant keeping it in a secondary world, not just Solomon-Kane-ing it into the 17th century.

TRAIL OF CTHULHU is my adaptation of CALL OF CTHULHU to the GUMSHOE system; my most recent thing for that is the "Occult Paris" chapter of DREAMHOUNDS OF PARIS by Robin Laws.

I'm also writing a monthly PDF series for Pelgrane called KEN WRITES ABOUT STUFF. We're in the third series of KWAS now, and you can subscribe or buy the singles individually. I've done campaign frames like MOON DUST MEN about UFO crash recovery teams in 1978, and THE SCHOOL OF NIGHT in which you play Christopher Marlowe and his occult poet pals fighting demons and Spaniards in the 1590s, and TOMBHOUNDS OF EGYPT which is about crooked archaeologists in 1930s Egypt for TRAIL or any other GUMSHOE game. They might be GUMSHOE rules "Zooms" on historical magic like voodoo and goetia, or mind control or martial arts; or expansions for other GUMSHOE games like MUTANT CITY SPIES (my "S.H.I.E.L.D." expansion for MUTANT CITY BLUES) or XENO-ARCHAEOLOGY! for ASHEN STARS. Every other month so far has been a "Hideous Creature" from the Cthulhu Mythos, looked at from all different angles to let Keepers change up the too-familiar Deep Ones and such and put back the Lovecraftian mystery. And in some of them I just talk about stuff like the Nazi Bell project, or the Spear of Destiny, or Lilith.

On that same note, I'm doing a column (in English) for FENIX magazine in Sweden, usually either a setting, a campaign frame, or a mini-RPG. A bunch of those have been collected in three volumes of THE BEST OF FENIX (all in English), which should be available in PDF at least by now.

Hell, you can still buy my SUPPRESSED TRANSMISSION collections in PDF from Steve Jackson Games, which were me doing the same thing as KWAS, only much faster and younger and crazier. My Mekons era, not my Waco Brothers era.

You can also pick up most of my GURPS work from SJG, of which I most highly recommend GURPS HORROR 4th edition, which contains virtually all the good advice from my long-ago guide to running horror games, NIGHTMARES OF MINE, plus decades of good advice I've learned since or recycled from the earlier two editions of GURPS HORROR. Only about a quarter of it is GURPS rules or stats, and in the post-D20 age I don't want anyone saying GURPS stat blocks are too much work.

You know all about NIGHT'S BLACK AGENTS, of course, and the Big New Thing for that is THE DRACULA DOSSIER, which is a massive improvisational, collaborative campaign based on the premise I mentioned above -- that DRACULA isn't a novel, but the after-action report of a failed 1894 attempt to recruit Dracula as an asset for British Intelligence. It includes DRACULA UNREDACTED, which is Stoker's full first draft "unredacted" by me and by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, and annotated by three generations of MI6 analysts trying to figure out if "Operation Edom" really ended in 1894 and discovering that nope, it's still trying to run Dracula as an operative in the War on Terror. So all the weird stuff in Stoker plus those annotations leads to over 200 encounters -- NPCs and organizations that might be innocent or part of Edom or minions of Dracula, locations and objects that might be innocuous or deadly dangerous, all depending on how the players approach them and how the Director puts them into the game. The DIRECTOR'S HANDBOOK combines all those various versions, plus some possible Capstone climactic endings, plus some campaign frames to add Cthulhu or undead Nazis if you want, and the overarching blueprint to help you shape your campaign the way you and the players want it to go.

Ok, Bram Stoker's Dracula: I gotta ask you. The prose in that book just puts me to sleep every damn time, aside from one or two passages in the beginning when Dracula first shows up, it seems so deadened and attenuated. Aside from the invention of Dracula himself (who's a great villain, obviously) what are you seeing that I'm not?

It may just be a stylistic preference: I like 19th century prose better than many people (although I don't possess the Dickens appreciation gene, so it's not like my taste is bulletproof here). I genuinely enjoy the narrative elisions created by Stoker manipulating the epistolary form -- so much so that I've written a whole game about them, in fact. The structure of the novel is bloody brilliant -- I feel very bad about deforming it in DRACULA UNREDACTED. Dracula's appearance in London is also wonderfully suspenseful and terrifying, and the thematic and character contrasts between the hunters' Christianity and reason vs. Dracula's diabolical animalism in the novel keep paying off. Finally, of course, as a cultural window into the late Victorian mind it's just plain unsurpassed as a historical document.

Is it generally true that the more alt-history a setting is, the more you like it, or are you also into less-grounded things like Traveller or Toon or 40k?

I find it easier to buy mentally into settings connected to something real, usually history or legend or geography -- this preference holds in fiction, too. I prefer secret history to secondary world fantasy novels, for instance, and that holds for RPGs even moreso because the setting is so much more important there than in a novel. Even my homebrew D&D setting in high school was a heavily modded "fantasy fucking Byzantine Empire." That said, I like adding magic or myth or weird science or superpowers to the alt-history or secret-history setting -- even a straight history game is more fun for me with time travel in it. I liked the TRAVELLER setting well enough, though when I ran TRAVELLER I redesigned it for greater astropolitical plausibility (at least to me). I've never played WARHAMMER of any stripe because I didn't do it when I was thirteen (because it didn't exist then) so I missed the WH recruitment window. I can imagine playing one good afternoon's worth of TOON, but why?

What are you working on now?

We're still doing the rest of the stretch goals for THE DRACULA DOSSIER right now; I'm finishing my polish on THE EDOM FILES, which is a connection of adventures in Operation Edom's history from 1877 to the 21st century; Gar is finishing the EDOM FIELD MANUAL, which is a vampire-hunting manual disguised as a streamlined NBA starter kit or vice versa; then I get to watch 36 or so Dracula movies for THE THRILL OF DRACULA, a book about adopting and altering Dracula for your game using the movies as examples.

I'm also writing a big expansion for the MOON DUST MEN campaign frame that we're going to spread out over a couple of KWAS issues, and will probably involve writing some dogfighting rules I will need to playtest, and I'm getting started on the GUMSHOE adaptation of DELTA GREEN, called THE FALL OF DELTA GREEN. You play DELTA GREEN agents during its heyday as an authorized anti-Mythos operation: the 1960s. So it's back to Cambodia for me, then.

I had a lot of fun playing your Qelong setting for LotFP--especially fighting lotus monks--do you get to play all the things you write? If not--do you ever wish you did?

I don't have time to play all the things I write, and in fairness if I did, I'd probably squander a bunch of it hanging out with my wife and cat instead. Sometimes I'll write a scene or a mechanic and I'd like to run it or play it out, sure, but it's more fun to play stuff I haven't written yet. I get surprised more often, that way, anyhow.

It seems like setting stuff is mostly your thing--are you happy to let other people handle
the mechanics, or do you get ideas for fiddling with that end of things that you'd like
to publish?

I don't really consider myself a soup-to-nuts system guy, although I learned an awful lot about mechanics designing two back-to-back STAR TREK RPGs with different mechanics, and then reviewing games from all over the design spectrum for a decade for my column "Out of the Box." When I write for GURPS or SAVAGE WORLDS part of the fun is coming up with (or repurposing) mechanics to fit the setting or story, just like I did for NIGHT'S BLACK AGENTS or even QELONG. If I get a really good idea for a mechanic I can usually either put it in KWAS if it's GUMSHOE-able, write a mini-game around it for FENIX, or shop-talk it at Metatopia, so I keep the urge pretty much under control.

You consulted on D&D 5--was there anything that surprised you about that process?

I was most surprised to be asked, actually. Like you say, I'm better known -- and better -- as a setting guy, and they didn't ask about that. But I did cut my teeth on D&D, and I've played every edition except 2nd, so I had some notions. Everyone at Wizards was very nice and professional, as they have been ever since they laid me off back in 2001 after buying the box I came in.

Are there any developments in games outside your own sphere you're excited about?

I'm crazy excited about the new technologies in tabletop wargames. First, the card-driven rules that Mark Herman invented in 1994 have finally come into their own in the last decade, mostly from GMT. That really lowers complexity while keeping flavor and feel strong. GMT is also cracking the very tough nut of the counter-insurgency wargame, with Volko Ruhnke leading the way. If we can get a real breakthrough in tactical game design the way we have in strategic games, that segment will go nuts. We may have already gotten it; I get so few chances to play wargames that I mostly concentrate on strategic stuff.

What wargames do you like? Whats your history with that?

Right now I'm very excited about the GMT counter-insurgency series and the strategic-level card-driven games in general, like I said. FIRE IN THE LAKE and NO RETREAT! are two great examples of what I'm talking about. I still play WASHINGTON'S WAR (nee WE THE PEOPLE) and love it. I started playing hex-and-counter wargames before they had hexes -- my dad bought the first GETTYSBURG game from Avalon Hill back when the board had squares, and he taught me to play it so he'd have someone to play. I played GETTYSBURG and a lot of other old AH grand-tactical games and then got very into PANZERBLITZ and its sequels, which led me down the hyper-tactical rabbit-hole of SQUAD LEADER and ASL which wound up killing my wargame interest for a while (that and STAR FLEET BATTLES -- take four hours to play 1/32 of a second!). Later I found RUSSIAN CAMPAIGN which got me into the operational and strategic scale stuff and that has stuck with me ever since. (I played a lot of WAR AT SEA in college, too, but not before or since.)

If you could give one piece of advice to wannabe RPG writers, what would it be?

Make your name by producing good work for a system with a lot of players. In my day, you had to get hired to write for D&D or RUNEQUEST or the new hotness; now, virtually every system you care to name is either open or the license is ridiculously friendly. Write what you want to play now, don't bother to fix what you think is wrong with whatever system hurt you in 8th grade. Between PDFs, POD publishing, Kickstarter, and the whole indie-DIY ecology, you can be a real life RPG writer from the jump. Make sure you hire (or sweat-equity) a really good artist and layout person so your work doesn't look bad, and make sure you've read enough good writing that you can tell that your work isn't bad. People say to hire an editor, and although I never have, I got very lucky and was edited very well and brutally my first day out by Susan Pinsonneault. Since she's not in the game biz anymore, you should probably hire someone.

If you could give one piece of advice to the RPG industry as a whole--assuming they'd take it--what would it be?

They seem, mostly driven in good Marxist fashion by the changing means of production, to be finally taking my advice, which I've been offering since about 2005. Which is: stop thinking of games as insanely expensive, hard to sell magazines that have to keep going forever. Think of them as small press books, which in fact they are. Not every novel is a series; not every game needs splats and expansions. Most don't. Or if they do, the aforementioned crowd of DIY types will do it, and do it from a place of obsession, not a place of needing to fill a hole in the lineup. Maybe publish a game that can support a "trilogy." Maybe not. But don't push it. Publish what you would rather eat ramen than not publish, because you'll be eating ramen either way.

Damn, good point! Thank you for your time, Ken!

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spigot said...

"'s been suggested that playing games where bad things happen is covertly a way to enjoy or encourage bad things happening to people in real life."


Zak Sabbath said...


Douglas Cole said...

I can't say enough good things about Ken's GURPS Horror for Fourth Edition. That book is so packed with thematic goodness it's easy to get triple the purchase price in value out of it as setting information for any game - especially a narrative-focused one where it's more about theme than stats.

Its a fantastic GURPS book, too, and basically the unheralded GURPS Bestiary in its own way. But sitting there in those pages is stuff that anyone that wants to deal with scary stuff and monsters should read.