Gaming Ballistic’s Firing Squad: Interview with Kenneth Hite

This week, +Kenneth Hite generously accepted my invitation to sit down with me and chat about a limited part of his body of work.

I’ll admit to no small amount of trepidation at the opportunity. Ken’s knowledge is so encyclopedic that I wanted to make sure that I’d done my homework – so I purchased some books of his that I’d not had a chance to read yet, and tried to study. I’m 42 – it’s been a long time since I studied.

In any case, not only did we sit down, but he spent over two hours with me. Because the video is just shy of 120 minutes of pure awesome, I’m posting it before the transcript is ready (though it’s in my mailbox already, thanks to +Christopher R. Rice‘s diligent efforts), so you guys will get the weekend to listen to it, and then hopefully I’ll be able to put up the transcript late in the weekend or early next week.

Unlike previous Firing Squad interviews, this one is somewhat heavily edited. I cut nothing of Ken talking – but if you notice that here or there I seem . . . choppier than usual, it’s because I felt that it was best to have less of me and more of him.

In any case: ladies and gentlemen, I give you Ken Hite.

Text Transcript


Note to readers: This is a long interview, and an equally long transcript. I’ll go back over time and edit in links and fix any errors in spelling or transcription – feel free to point them out where they exist. The transcript is 19,750 words long, or basically a 24-page GURPS e23 supplement. So please enjoy it. Or even contribute to the Gaming Ballistic Interview Fund if you want to see more of such. OK, plug over. I give you Ken Hite.

Douglas Cole
(Gaming Ballistic):
Good evening and welcome to Gaming Ballistic’s Firing
Squad. I have the pleasure to be talking with Ken Hite. The prolific writer of
many books including Night’s Black Agents and GURPS Horror, which we will be
talking about tonight.
As well as the imagination-inspiring Day After Ragnorok.
Which I will admit that I have not read in any great detail, but was so cool
and Leonard Balsara when I talked to him, mentioned it, which I want to talk to
you about eventually.
But just to get going I wanted to welcome you and thank
you for joining me on the interview. And really start off the questions with
Trail of Cthulhu.
It’s a game in Cthulhu Mythos featuring the GUMSHOE
system. I played it briefly, but before I get into the mechanics, it seems like
you have long been a fan of the Cthulhu Mythos.
What draws you to it, inspires you about it, and urges
you to write a fairly complete roleplaying book about it.
Kenneth Hite
(Master of Horror):
First of all, thanks for having me own the Gaming
Ballistic vidcast or whatever you call it, Doug. I appreciate the invitation.
As far as the Cthulhu Mythos, I think there is a combination
of things I enjoy about it. The first is that it is everything that I enjoy and
it’s all in one pile. It’s secret history, it’s conspiracy theory, it’s magic,
it’s occultism, it’s horror, it’s philosophy, it’s hard science fiction, and
it’s all piled up into one place.
So that just is a powerful body of concepts to tool
around in.
Also it expands across all time and space, which is handy
if you are trying to tell stories and it’s exponent is probably one of the two
or three most influential creators of pop culture in the 20th
century. And the 2nd greatest horror writer in American history, so
just the sheer quality of material (at least at the top end of it). It beats
any other fictional universe you want to name. I don’t think anyone else is out
there trying to expand Yak’to’pa’fah county or something. Although I’m prepared
to be wrong on that [Doug laughs].
There is not a lot of Hamlet fanfic is what I’m trying to
say. The Shakespeare verse is fairly hived off, whereas the Cthulhu Mythos is
part of our nerd-universe and is growing ever greater.
So I guess those are the sort of reasons to go after it
on that level.
And then, why Trail of Cthulhu, it was just the moment at
which Simon got the license for Call of Cthulhu from Chaosium. He thought,
“Well, I’d like to get a known Cthulhu guy to do my game.” And asked me to do
it.
And of course I’m a freelance writer and Simon is a
tremendously . . . well he’s a good publisher, but he’s got a reputation for
probity and treating writer’s right and doing a good job with a book and
producing a proper book with good illustrations when he’s supposed to.
So for all those other reasons, anyone in their right
mind would have signed on to do a game for Simon certainly.

Douglas Cole
Yeah, I will definitely admit that the book itself is wonderful to read and
that is one thing I’ve enjoyed on both Trail of Cthulhu and Night’s Black
Agents that the books themselves make great reading, which is always fun.
Kenneth Hite
It’s sort of my job as a writer, is to make sure people want to read the thing.
It doesn’t matter how good your game design is, or how good your ideas are if
no one wants to read them. So that’s sort of step one: Write prose that people
want to keep reading.
Douglas Cole
That’s a great point. I think that’s one thing that I’ve been dinged for a
little bit on the grappling book that I wrote for GURPS: It’s dry. It is 50
pages of rules from front to back.
Kenneth Hite
In fairness, once you’ve opened a book for GURPS called “Technical Grappling”
you should know the line of country that you’ve entered. It’s not like [flails
arms] “Oh my God, where is the love interest?!” No, it’s pretty much all going
to be “+2 to grab the neck,” that’s what it’s going to be for 50 pages. [grins]
Douglas Cole
Right. And if you were looking for a love interest in that concept, well there
is grappling involved…
Kenneth Hite
Yes [grin widens, Joker-eqsue].
Douglas Cole
Yes, but this is a family show.
Kenneth Hite
Again, the rules have not been written, thank God.
Douglas Cole Indeed
. . .[gets a mischievous look in his eyes] Uhhh, you know what, even if they
have been, my brain will not wrap around that.
Two things actually, you’ve got your Cthulhu Mythos and
Shakespeare. I think one of the interesting things, is that Shakespeare tells
great stories, but there is a beginning, a middle, and end to the story.
The nice thing about Cthulhu is it is sort of beyond time
and space, and including the Venn Diagram, it is both expansive and
non-Euclidian. And it’s spun off some really interesting tales: Hellboy is sort
of, or effectively a Cthulhu tale. At least, the movie borrowed significantly
from, what seemed to me to be the Old Tentacle Horror imagery.
Kenneth Hite
Well certainly, when you look at the way the Mignola draws the Ogdru-Jihad and
some of the Hellboy beasties. And Mignola has made no bones about the fact that
he is a huge Lovecraft fan and thanks Lovecraft is vitally important.
Part of it is that one of the things that Lovecraft did
was that he made the tentacle the signifier of horror in a way that it wasn’t
before he wrote.
If you look at people writing horror before him, the
signifier for otherworldly horror or horror from outside of our conventional
space was a hoof. Even as recently as William Hope Hodgeson, his horrors were porcine.
They were pigs.
That of course is a call back to the good ole imagery of
the Devil. That he’s an animalistic creature with hooves, whether they be pig
hooves, deer hooves, or whatever kind – but they aren’t tentacles.
Pretty much the only guy writing before Lovecraft that
does that same thing, M. R. James does it a little bit in Count Magnus, but he
doesn’t do it as consistently, I guess, as Lovecraft does. James’ horrors are
all over the map, whereas Lovecraft is really hitting that terror of the
seafood imagery.
Douglas Cole
Do you think he was allergic to shellfish or something? What brought that
about?
Kenneth Hite Oh,
he definitely thought he was allergic to fish. Whether he was or wasn’t
obviously at that level of psychosomatic problem, he’s not fond of seafood and
had a very strong physical reaction to smelling it. And when you live in a
seaport town the way that he did, he must have been sort of confronted with
that frailty, or that danger, every time he walked outside possibly.
Douglas Cole
It’s interesting because a rap that I’ve heard on Peter Jackson’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings is that “We get that you’re afraid of falling,
can we have some other challenge.” And Lovecraft of course, being Lovecraft,
managed to take that and do it in a lot of ways and it’s always scary, whereas at least the visual from the Hobbit stuff
seemed to get a little . . . over-the-top and intense without inspiring the
same fear that it must inspire in Mr. Jackson.
Kenneth Hite
Well if anyone had ever died from falling, then it might have inspired the
fear, but when the dwarves are falling 80 stories and bouncing, then it’s hard
to maintain any tension in the scene. We’ve now established, in canon
apparently, that the only thing that can die from falling in Middle-Earth is
the Balrog…which seems odd, but what do I know?
Douglas Cole
Even that didn’t kill ‘em it – it was the standard sword in the chest that did
it. Which mostly does it for most things.
Kenneth Hite
It’s a widespread weakness [Doug laughs].
Douglas Cole
I’m going to turn briefly to a couple of questions on the mechanics. Did you
write the game mechanics for Trail of Cthulhu?
Kenneth Hite
The game mechanics are from Robin Laws’ GUMSHOE engine.
So Robin’s GUMSHOE engine debuted in Esoterrorists, and I
adapted Esoterrorists and Fear Itself which had come out by then to Trail of
Cthulhu.
So sort of trying to recreate as much as I could Sandy
Peterson’s original 0th edition of Call of Cthulhu and that became
what I called the “Purist Mode” in Trail. And then the slightly more run and
gun Choasium-Indiana Jones-Robert E. Howard style mode of Call of Cthulhu is
what I call the “Pulp Mode.” The book contains sort of two sets of dials you
can use to tune your game for exactly what you want to do with it.
Douglas Cole
Yeah, I remember back in high school, that was 1987-88, I think we Ran Call of
Cthulhu back then. We played effectively in both modes, because we played a
game that was sort of “Pulp Mode” and we went insane and I had to kill a fellow
character because he was going nuts and I froze and crushed him and watched him
thaw and went gibbering insane after that and that was good fun. And we also
played I think it was called . . . Cthulhu 20th Century…
Kenneth Hite
Cthulhu Now was the name.
Douglas Cole
And it was basically you know, the interesting thing was, and I think we’ll get
into this a bit with Night’s Black Agents, is if you give people a machine gun
that works and all of sudden horror is a little less scary.
Kenneth Hite
It depends on the horror.
Douglas Cole
It does.
Kenneth Hite
You can have all the machine guns that work you want that work in something
like say, Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hell House” and it’s going to be
even scarier because now there is mentally disturbed people with machine guns.
Douglas Cole
Oh, on the…[laughs] Oh. They’re shooting at you…oh
[laughs] That works too.
So I guess the two questions I sort of had, one is about
mechanics and if you’re not into the mechanics or whatever, that’s cool.
But I love the concept of the investigative skills: I
think that anything I’m going to walk away with GUMSHOE that’s the one. Because
“it’s not the clues, it’s what you do with them” makes a ton of sense.
Kenneth Hite
That’s the sort of core insight of GUMSHOE, one splitting things into skills in
which failure makes the game boring, and skills in which failure makes the game
interesting. If the only chance you have for failure is the second half you’ve
already made your game 50% less boring . . . which is a victory.
Douglas Cole
Agreed. The thing that struck, and again I’m not a rules expert in terms of
GUMSHOE. But it’s – at least I think the way the general skills work – if I’m a
doctor and I’ve got Night’s Black Agents and I think it’s Medic . . . though I
think the resolution mechanic in Night’s Black Agents seems slightly different
to me than Trail of Cthulhu. So if I had 8 points or whatever in Medic I was
kind of 50/50 for anything I’d want to try for that adventure.
Or is that a misinterpretation of how it works?
Kenneth Hite
Well Medic is a special case because there is a special iteration of it in
which you spend points of Medic to heal people’s injuries as a First aid type
ability.
Douglas Cole
So Medic was in Night’s Black Agent’s – was Medic also in Trail of Cthulhu…
Kenneth Hite
First Aid was in Trail of Cthulhu. But the differences between Trail of Cthulhu
and Night’s Black Agent’s we’ve gotten feedback from people who’ve said we
really not being able to heal people anymore.
So that’s why if you look in Night’s Black Agents, you
can still heal once you’ve gone done to zero – it’s just less effective. But
the general notion is that a more normal general skill, like say shooting, if
you spend points on a roll you have a better chance of success, right?
Douglas Cole
Right.
Kenneth Hite
And that’s true across both. The difference being that in say in Call of
Cthulhu if you have 75% Pistol, you always have that same 75% which means you
always have a 25% chance of failing your shot, right?
Douglas Cole
Right.
Kenneth Hite
But if you have, in GUMSHOE, you have 8 shooting points, you like you say, you
begin usually with a 50/50 chance of hitting, because most things have a target
number of 4 on a d6.
If you spend three points of your right you are
guaranteed to hit, and if you spend 1 point you have a better chance to hit,
and then if you spend no points you are still at as you say 50/50.
So what’s happening in GUMSHOE is its rewarding narrative
decision so you decide when you get that hit and when you don’t. Whereas in
Call of Cthulhu game you might wind up hitting the exact same number of times,
but they are randomized. In GUMSHOE you’ve picked where you are going to shoot,
which follows the narrative model of GUMSHOW, whereas Call of Cthulhu has a
strong simulationist quality that comes out of Steve Parens reaction to DnD,
ultimately, because it comes out of RuneQuest.
Douglas Cole
Yeah, Fair enough. I think when I was playing Trail of Cthulhu with the GUMSHOE
system, the thing that struck me in general about that particular skills
mechanic – and nothing that I’m going to say applies to the Investigative
Skills mechanic which I understand, I agree with, and I love – But the general
skills stuff – if you’re a great doctor or whatever – wait, forget the doctor
because that’s a special case.
In Night’s Black Agent’s and maybe it’s there and maybe I
just glossed over it in Trail of Cthulhu, but Night’s Black Agents had very
clear refresh rules. Has very clear refresh rules.
So if you chill out in a safe house for 24 hours of game
time, you can be a awesome shooter again.
Kenneth Hite
Trail has similar refresh rules, but it has less opportunity to refresh than
Night’s Black Agents, because in Night’s Black Agents you’re playing Jason
Bourne, that’s sort of your default guy and you have to be really awesome.
So one of the goals in Night’s Black Agents is to feed
that economy of general ability points, giving you lots of ways to get them
back and lots of opportunities.
Whereas in Trail, you’re Randolph Carter at best, you
should always be wondering “Is this my last chance? Am I going into this crypt
and that’s going to be it for me?”
So the feel of Night’s Black Agents is different from the
feel of Trail of Cthulhu, and then in Night’s Black Agents game, obviously the
GM can adjust or sort of change up the horrors in a way, and get the horror
back if that’s their goal. But the fundamental nature of your character should
be ultra competence in Night’s Black Agents and not so much in Trail of
Cthulhu.”
Douglas Cole
Yeah. And I think that it’s funny. I think that I would have an easier time
going back to Trail of Cthulhu having read and understood the drama-forward
that was articulated in a better way in Night’s Black Agents. Maybe it was
because it was easier to read or I enjoyed the material.
Kenneth Hite
It’s also because the game came out four years later.
We had four years of not just playtesting, of playing,
playing Trail of Cthulhu. Giving us feedback. Reading people on blogs. Reading
people on forums. RPGnet. Yog-Soth-Thoth.com. Or whatever.
Finding out from the users what they thought worked, and
what they didn’t think worked. What they missed in the rulebook. There are
rules that are right there in the Trail and they never noticed them until we
pointed out and said “Hey, man, check this: Page 69, guy!” Or whatever.
It’s questions of organization. It’s questions of
clarity. It’s question of Robin and I taking turns rewriting basically the same
material over and over and over again. Robin’s really good, and I’m no slouch.
Just us.
We’ve basically been polishing the draft of how to play
GUMSHOE for five year now. It’s not surprising it got better. Regardless of the
difference between NBA vs. Trail as a game.
Douglas Cole Sure.
Something that has been talked about and some of the other interviews and just
as a topic. How do you make and sell and make a living making roleplaying games?
It’s sort of a niche of niche. Roleplaying games is a
niche of overall gaming and every individual genre. Night’s Black Agents book
and the other pieces, are complete games. It’s not: here’s a Basic book and a
genre expansion, say the way GURPS is and I know GURPS is going to try that
with the Discworld Game.
Kenneth Hite
Well they did it with Transhuman Space and they did it with World War II also.
They’ve done it every now and again.
Douglas Cole
They have. Is there any thought to taking a step backwards . . . or maybe it
already exsists. Is there a GUMSHOE core, and then you can expand it.
Kenneth Hite
No. There is a GUMESHOE SRD because the system is now open. But that is not a
play a game from this document document unless you are a game designer or a
gearhead – a guy who really wants to get under the hood on stuff.
Our thought has always been, like I said, that we always
want narrative-forward, narrative-first.
GUMSHOE games are all about emulating a genre or style of
story. So Trail of Cthulhu is all about emulating Lovecraftian Horror
Adventure, or Mythos Horror adventure. Horror mystery. Night’s Black Agents is
vampire spy thriller.
If we ever come up with a game that requires us to alter
or twist or bend out of shape some of the core GUMSHOE rules what we don’t want
to do is say “Go back to this other book and ignore part of it.”
Douglas Cole
Right.
Kenneth Hite
What we want to do is present a core ruleset, and then let people look at the
game as a organic whole.
Doing a GUMSHOE corebook would irrationally prejudice the
status of GUMSHOE the moment that Robin and I put that book together. Whereas
what should be given credence is what it says in the actual rule book you’re playing
with. Because Robin has looked at it and said “Do this really feel like Jack
Vance Space adventure?” Or I’ve looked at it and said “How do I make this look
like the four minutes in the middle of the second Bourne movie that I’m really
trying to emulate?” Right?
Douglas Cole
Right. That makes a lot of sense and I think one of the hard things, and I’m
running into this even in my meager thing. People are like “What about this
rule?”
And I turn it around and I’m like “What do you want it to
be?” And I get “That’s not the answer I’m looking for!” And I’m like “Well
look, if you’re doing something that is really gritty realistic and you want
someone wrestling around to take one-hundred and twenty turns of GURPS time,
because you have a two-minute round and everything’s going on there, then you
are going to want to do it this way.
And if you want this to be like Black Widow from Iron Man
2 flipping around twelve guys while Happy the Happy Puncher beats somebody to
death, or gets beaten to death in the background, then you are going to want to
use these set of cinematic rules and you have to pick.”
And the one thing, one of the many things that I do like
about the Night’s Black Agents and Trail of Cthulhu are presented, is that it
is a complete game and some of the work is taken out.
And as I get older I really
appreciate pruning. As a GURPS author, I offer a toolkit for people to choose
from because that’s the way the system is. As a player and a GM, it’s nice to
have things done to help you.
Kenneth Hite
Both Trail and Night’s Black Agents have like I said, dials that allow you to
pick and choose.
So you can play a Night’s Black Agents games that’s more
like Natasha Romanov and less like Happy, or you can play a game where people
are more…low key spies. They’re more like George Smiley or Paul Christopher in
terms of being a desk guy and not a super solider.
And so those are dials that exist within the game, but
the game has a very strong default assumption. Part of my job as a writer was
to make the reader aware of this default and to make everything feel like “If
you don’t do anything, you’re going to be playing this kind of game” and that
kind of game that you’re going to be playing is, like I said, Jason Bourne vs.
Dracula.
Douglas Cole
Right. Which is all kinds of awesome.
So one question I do have – or one comment – is one of
the things that strikes me about GUMSHOE as a broad set of rules, is that with
the drama forward and with your ability to spend investigative points to sort
of promote . . . You can spend points and make a NPC that was kind of an also
ran, if the players are so inclined and the GM agrees, you can sort of say “I’m
going to spend two points in this” and all of sudden the person of which you
are asking a question can be promoted to a major NPC.
And as I was playing Trail of Cthulhu, it struck me as:
This could be a hard game to run. It’s, on the one hand story-forward, but you
really have to be on your toes when you are running it.
I don’t know if that’s unique to this style of narrative
gaming, or if it’s just GMing a good story is always difficult, and when you
are focusing on story you are not just…”Here’s 12 orcs and you have to kill
them and where am I on the hex map (or square map if you’re playing Pathfinder
or something like that)”
So maybe it’s just a harder thing to do, because writing
is hard and storytelling is hard than it seems.
So do you have any comments on whether this is an easy
game to run or a hard game to run or what modes are approachable versus something
where it’s going to leave people scratching their head or frustrated?
Kenneth Hite
Well, I think that there . . . obviously our goal, I think everyone’s goal as a
game designer is to make a game that is easy to run or at least fun to run.
And what’ hard for you to run is going to vary from
player to player and GM to GM.
I found 3rd edition Dungeons and Dragons
relatively hard to run because there was so much rules mastery to climb. And if
I ran this sort of what you were talking about 120 rounds of fist furious
action GURPS, I would find that hard to run.
When I run GURPS I run it much more rules lite. I pull it
way back. If I’m going to go deep into the tactical woods somewhere, it’s
because there is some sort of monster that rewards that sort of tactical game
play, and it’s going to be more fun for the players to see them get eviscerated
one round at a time, as opposed to run a GURPS game but not with the vary
technical sort of rules sets.
And I think that every GameMaster is maybe different. There
are people obviously, thousands, tens of thousands of people who have no
problem running DnD 3rd edition or Pathfinder because they are doing
it right now.
It’s just a matter of what you are willing to get mastery
over.
I think as a writer
it pays me more dividends for me to get mastery over story-creation, so I find
Trail of Cthulhu or Night’s Black Agents easier to run because they reward that
story creating habit.
If you are in the habit of looking at story and saying
“What do we need for a story to happen,” Running a GUMSHOE game is like falling
off a log because it’s just that simple. You make a story, you figure out where
the players get into it, you find out, you figure out how they get from A to B
and you put guys with guns along the path. And that’s a session. You’re done.
I think that there are mechanics that you can use to make
running GUMSHOE easier for people who think that way, and that’s why I tried to
put things in like the Vampymrid and Conspyramid to give people a roadmap
through.
And that’s why we’ve introduced, we’ve blown out the
spine to give that standard structure for the adventure like there is in the
back of Trail and the back of Night’s Black Agents.
If you just keep in mind that every gamemaster is going
to be different, and every gamemaster is going to need different things, the
trick is to write a game that sort of, at the very least supports all styles of
gamemastering, and ideally provides more support for the area where the game
itself shows off.
In GURPS, the game really shows off when everyone knows
the fiddly +2’s, so writing a supplement that’s GURPS Technical Grappling is a
great thing.
In GUMSHOE really shows off when the story seems rich and
vibrant and forward moving and that’s why when I wrote Night’s Black Agents,
there needs to be a mechanic so the bad guys can do stuff and I need to do it
so the people who haven’t been spending 20 years of having Nyarlathotep slap
people around come  up with something. So
that’s what I did.
Douglas Cole
Yeah just to give a visual that will be fuzzy enough for people can see it
[holds up book to camera] so that is the VamPyramid. There is a couple other
great little mnemonic devices. There’s the conspyramid, which was really a fun
piece, where you say here are all the different levels.
The Association Map seemed to me to be a wonderful thing
to tell a deeply layered story.
Kenneth Hite
Yeah.
Douglas Cole .
. . and . . . Go ahead.
Kenneth Hite
That comes from…if you look at like the Wire, you look at any show at which
people are trying to find a bad guy there is always that bulletin board in the
corner with the pictures and the string.
I think that is a great element of those kind of stories
and I wanted to reward players for having that kind of element. My players in
the Alpha playtest refused to do it because they thought it was too much work.
That’s why there are mechanics in there that bribe players who do it.
So if you put the bad guy into the Adversary Map    you get rewarded depending on how many
connections you’ve found between him and the other pieces of the universe.
So that I think was…it’s put of my goal for making things
feel like the source material in a way.
It also turns out to be a really great way to generate
story ideas because players that have been using Adversary Maps the GMs come
back to me or they go online and say “I really don’t have to write a game at
all because the players are just following their own leads now.”
As a director of Night’s Black Agents, or any kind of GM,
that’s like gold to you because you can spend all the time coming up with
atmosphere, thinking of special powers of the mind, monsters, or doing
something else to make the story interesting because the players have already
feed themselves the hook.
Douglas Cole I
like the . . . Black Ops, S. John Ross’s Black Ops. I thought that was tons of
fun.
Kenneth Hite
Yes. One of my three favorite GURPS books of all time.
Douglas Cole I
like Jason Levine’s Monster Hunters, which is just really Black Ops in 4th
edition. Or you could easily fit Black Ops into Monster Hunters. I love the
Buffy the Vampire Slayer stories, and Angel, and that kind of blending of
modern day and the supernatural because it’s not boring run-of-the-mill. And
you’re not going to have to worry about the terrorist of the week and I don’t
need to…
I can live in that world and I’ve done tactical gaming
with the GURPS and whatever and for me at least it’s greatly enjoyable. But
sometimes it’s fun to be stalked by zombies or attacked by werewolves or yeah
you can shoot all you want but you’re shooting at your own shadow.
And the nice thing about the Adversary Map and the
ConsPyramid is it’s a great way to just sit down and say “I’m gonna draw a
couple of levels here and this is how things work out.”
And here is a deeply layered story and in any one
adventure the odds of people – the players – leaping three things and finding
you effectively in a mental hex crawl, where you are totally unpopulated, and
you’ve got this black sheet of people and they’re looking at you and the pizza’s
getting cold and the beers getting warm – unless you are in England is not a
good thing. And you just left with nothing to do and the nice thing about this
is it doesn’t really take much. “Here are these”…a couple of relationships, pick
out two or three relationships per box and it expands geometrically and you’ve
got a year and a half of storytelling, plus the stuff the players do to
themselves because like “Oh man wouldn’t it be awful if…”
Kenneth Hite
Mmmhmm. Yeah that’s I think I mention in either Double-Tap or Night’s Black
Agents that if the players have decided the super-tanker is full of blood, then
the super-tanker is full of blood, and it’s up to you to figure out why that
happened. Because it’s just too cool if that’s what happened.
Douglas Cole
Yeah. There is a blog that I follow. He’s a new guy. I call him Mr. Insidious –
but I think he calls it Insidious GURPS planning. He’s basically running a
GURPS espionage game that has all these layers.
And it was impressive to have a story that was so deep.
It felt like a episode of a Bourne Movie or a episode of Alias, which sometimes
it gets so deep it’s like “Oh, Dear God,” and sometimes it’s not, and you’re
like “Oh! I didn’t see that one coming” And it’s an awful lot of fun.
Kenneth Hite
That’s one of the differences with the ConsPyramid, again, the narrative first
model implies an end.
That there is a end to the story. There is a point at
which Bourne has gotten everyone in Treadstone, there is a point at which
you’ve staked the last vampire.
And as opposed to Alias which is just literally flailing
around till they get canceled or the X-Files or Lost or these other serial TV
that don’t have any notion of where they are going after they run out of ideas.
With Night’s Black Agents you know that there is an end
point, and the players know that there is a end point. So what might seem
pointless, they know that that ConsPyramid is narrowing to a point up here – so
this point up here is Dracula or Elizabeth Bathory or immortal Joseph Stalin or
something that is gonna be drinking people’s blood, and they are going to
finally take that out or die trying.
That’s a different – I think that is a different kind of
feel of either terrorist of the week or mummy of the week if it’s not a part of
the story.
Picaresque storytelling is great and there is nothing
wrong with it. But for a thriller you lose pacing and you lose momentum if
there isn’t a place you are going to I find. I certainly find when I’m watching
it.
Douglas Cole
Right. Let’s see, so I’m gonna ask you – I’m probably gonna leave GUMSHOE and
Night’s Black Agents for a little bit. I wanna do GURPS last. I do wanna ask
since we are talking about storytelling and awesomeness and all that.
I have to ask: What led you – what inspired you to take
the peanut butter that is World War II and the Asgardian legends that is the
chocolate, and mix them together into Day After Ragnorok?
Kenneth Hite I
think the main thing that inspired me was the deadline.
That began as a Suppressed Transmission called “Reality
Ortha: The Day After Ragnorok” and it was one of those deals where Steven . . .
Steven Marsh is the most long suffering and patient of
people. I feel really proud of just lifting him up into Buddhist Heaven. [Doug
laughs] He is not going to come back around the wheel again, just for having to
edit me for the majority of a decade.
But he would have – he would send me a email and he’d go
“Is this going to be a week we are gonna get a Surppressed Transmission?” and
I’d say “Sure. Yeah. Absolutely, not problem!” and  . . . I forget when the deadline was. It was
like Wednesday night, but I’ll say it was Wednesday night was the deadline. I
know because it bounced on Friday, right? It used to drop on Fridays. I guess
in theory it was Wednesday night, but in reality it was Thursday night [Doug
echoes: “In reality it was Friday morning!”].
I would sit there, and watch the clock tick, and I would
think “Oh man, if I don’t have something…he’s going to be not sad, but just
hurt.”
I would desperately try and think of anything to get the
ball rolling. For me, the Suppressed Transmissions would always begin with those
quotes.
If you look at my things I really enjoy that quality of
the old White Wolf games, where they were just full of the evocative quote
material, and I thought that was a fun way to sort of kickstart everyone to go
into the right direction was to use that sort of opener quote.
So I began as I would read blogs or read anything, and I
would save really juicy quotes in a quote file so that if I found myself dry, I
could take one of them and say “Alright you’re going to be a Suppressed
Transmission for the day”
And the one I would up finding…let’s see if I can…
[rummages through nearby books]. Where are you? There you are. [Holds up a Day
After Ragnorok] it’s right there in Day After Ragnorok.
Douglas Cole
Okay, yeah.
Kenneth Hite
It winds up opening the inspiration section at the thing. Or no, it’s in
the…yeah it’s in the opening of the Serpent Fall.
This is from a U.S. War Department Counterintelligence
Assessment that was written in February of 1945. So they’re trying to get
inside Hitler’s head and figure out if he’s going to surrender, or what he’s
got planned and this is right after the Bulge. The V-weapons are going crazy.
So they don’t know what’s going on. This is their
Counterintelligence Assessment “The Nazi myth which is important to men like
Hitler requires a Gotterdammerung.” 
Right? That’s the quote, the US Army wrote that.
So if you take that literally, what that means is Hitler
has to be planning for the Gotterdammerung, for the end of the world, right?
That’s something that he’s gotta have in his backpocket.
If you’re doing the end of the world for the Nazis it has
to be the Teutonic/Norse mythology end of the world. Ragnorok.
From there it was just one little step to “Okay, Hitler’s
plan is to bring about Ragnorok” and this is not something original necessarily
to me. David Brin did it in Thor meets Captain America and other stuff, but I
think I’m the person that pushed it all the way to the end where he actually
does try to end the world.
And to mention David Brin again, the secret message is: “the
Nazis were shcmucks,” [Doug laughs] so obviously something goes wrong with the
End of the World. What defeats the End of the World before it gets started?
That makes me think, okay “The Midgard Serpent shows up.
That’s the opening of the End of the World. He rises up out of the sea. Thor,
in the original myth, smites him and is killed dead by poison.” What’s going to
kill the Midgard Serpent? “
So I thought “Okay, the atom bomb will kill the Midgard
Serpent. They’ll fly a B-29 right into the Midgard Serpent’s eye and detonate
the atom bomb and burn his brain out.”
And that image then, I’m thinking, okay. Once you’ve done
that you’ve still got the Midgard Serpent’s body, this is not really solving the problem.
So when the serpent falls across Europe and destroys and
kills millions of people and you got a trillion ton snake suddenly lying across
Europe and Africa. That’s where the story begins for me.
Because that’s send of wonder. That’s high concept sense
of wonder. That’s worth doing something about.
Once I had that image of the dead serpent lying across
the world I began to think “OK, that I can write. I can get 2200 words out of a
dead Midgard Serpent lying across Europe.” As you can tell, eventually I got
considerably more than that.
As I was writing it I kept thinking “What’s the core
story?” Thor, when he destroys the Midgard Serpent has to be defeated. So what
destroys the United States? So when the Midgard Serpent falls it creates a
super-tsunami, right?”
Douglas Cole
Eastern Seaboard.
Kenneth Hite
Then there is also a rain of radioactive serpent venom out of the sky, as the
atomized head of the serpent…the rain of the serpent flows in an anomalous
polar-eastery and rains down across North America.
So now the entire continent is springing up with
monsters. So in North America, you have a new Hyborian Age, you have Conan the
Barbarian 1948. Submachine guns and Sorcery.
On the other side of the equation, what happens to the
rest of the world? Well, Stalin grabs everything he can, and then I had to
think why isn’t Stalin now freezing to death in the world’s worst drought?
So I said we need a secret weapon for Stalin, and that
was the Frost Giants obviously. The Jotunn will be on Stalin’s side. So they’re
keeping the Soviet Union from freezing to death, for their own purposes. In
writing it I ran across a myth of the Sarcarssian peoples of the Caucasus
Mountains, which are called the Narts, these are sort of heroic giant figures,
which someone else has believed to became the origin of the Knights of the
Round Table (which is nonsense), but I came across the Narts reading that book.
And so I thought if there is a Narts connection to the
Jotunn then I can do that. Sure enough online I found a guy named . . . what’s
his name?  Carlorusso’s “Prometheus among
the Sarcassians” he’s drawing a parallel between Prometheus and the Narts. Since
Prometheus is dead in the Caucasus Mountains it’s the same sort of story.
I’m able to get my apocalyptic material of the giants
against the gods there.
What happened to the colonies of the British? Australia
and India are what’s left. Where is the British royal family on midsummer’s
1945? Well, Prince Henry – or the Duke of Gloucester – Henry Duke of Gloucester
is in Australia. He’s the only survived member of the royal family and he
becomes King, so now we’re rebuilding the British empire in Australia? Now we
have James Bond and Quartermass, and that ‘Britain is the only important
country after the end of the world’ feel.
And all of this is going on trying to get to 2,200 words
or 2,500 words so I can send it to Steven so he will be able to dump it into
the proper format and put it up.
And that’s where that came from. That sort of desperate
urgency. The reason that there is so much stuff in that world is because first
of all I’ve sort of trained myself to create worlds in that way. To take the
central concept and build out, but also I needed to fill it with sexy goodness
to make Steven not mad at me.
Douglas Cole
Well that’s a lot of sexy goodness for 2,200 words.
The interesting thing to me as a…we’ve talked a little
bit about the ConsPyramid and the Adversary Map, and what you’ve just sort of
mapped out is just sort of these concentric rings in a way, or spokes in a
wheel. You start with this central concept and you say “Okay, here is
something. What does that imply? And here is one or two other things and you
proceed somewhere between linearly or geometrically.” And go and go and go.
And you’ve got that spoke and you’ve got however many
things and that’s kinda cool and you’ve got a lot of plot seeds there and you
just go around the wheel, so to speak.
And all of sudden you’ve got this awesome game world that
supports multiple play styles within this world and because you started from a
core concept its self-consistent.
I’ve certainly learned something just from listening to
how you did that about how to create a interesting game world and story.
[Laughs]
I’ll be darn well sure that that’s the next time I plot
out a game world, that’s what I’m gonna do. Start with a core concept and say
“What does that imply?”
I think it has a lot in common with the sort of
science-fiction-y: “If you change one thing. What one thing. Faster than Light
travel or often Faster Than Light travel and X.” What happens?
Kenneth Hite
[grunts affirmatively] But even with those, they have to decide what core story
they are telling.
Douglas Cole
True.
Kenneth Hite I
could have done… the one thing is Ragnarok half-happens. But if I don’t know
that in North America I’m doing Conan – I get, I don’t say I get. One can get
design paralysis.
Because I don’t know what happens in North America but
it’s like nope, I know what I want. I want this to look like the Hyborian Age.
I want there to be a bunch of little tiny city-states. I want there to be no
government. I want there to be snake-monsters everywhere. I want wandering mercenaries
to be in a sellers market. I want those things to be in a Hyberoan Age, and how
do I make that happen to the eastern two-thirds of the United States, and then every
decision I make that’s world-building feeds that play and play-style.
I want Britain to be sort of like it is in those 1940s
and 1950s stories, that thin red line against Soviet Communism, that thin red
line against the Japanese Empire. I want a British spy to be an important
person in this world. I want Professor Quatermass to be a important person in
this world. Though I had to call him Professor Childermass because he’s not
public domain [Douglas laughs].
But the notion is that you have to decide what kind of
story you are telling, and then make plausible decisions that reinforce that
story, because that’s half of it.
Certainly making a plausible decision is crucial and it’s
why I always start with Earth when making a game world, because I know how the
Earth words, I live there. It’s documented. It’s the best documented game world
in existence. Even the maps are better [Douglas laughs].
But I find that you have to both have a sense of how the
Earth’s things react in normal circumstances, and also a sense of what story
you want to tell so that the parts that you put into the book reinforce that
story.
Douglas Cole
Although it is interesting to think when that goes pretty well. And I’m going
to offer my own opinions on that. Well, I think, is Babylon 5 where you had a
beginning, Straczynski had an end, and you got there with only a couple of
network interferences, where he had to compress all of season four and five
into season four and then say holy crap what stories do I want to tell in
season five.
I thought it was one of the best pieces of continual
science fiction, and too your point you, you got to the end of the ConsPyramid,
you got to the top. You were kinda sorta done. He had some extensions, but it
was good.
Where things went array and I think this is either where
poor decisions were made or whatever. Battlestar Galatica. Season one was
awesome, maybe the second season the first half was great but after that it
lost its way, it felt a little bit like all 172 books of the Robert Jordan
Wheel of Time series. Where Jordan had the end, he knew what that last scene
was going to be and he knew what that beginning was going to be and then he
just kind of . . . went places. And it wasn’t always directed.
Like what you described was fairly directed. Here’s my
core concept, here’s the Hyborian Age [Ken grunts affirmatively] and such and
such between them. As opposed to were going to kind of go around here [mimes a
winding path with hands]. It was interesting to see what could go well and what
could go poorly.
Kenneth Hite
Well, if I was being paid as much as Robert Jordan was, I would have taken a
lot longer to get there too [both laugh].
Douglas Cole But
it killed him.
Kenneth Hite My
market rewards concision, not aimless drift. Trust me; if someone wants to pay
me for aimless drift, they’ll see I’m more than capable of it. I just don’t
think it’s something the audience wants.
Douglas Cole
Do you have an eidetic memory or anything like that? Because you seem to make
all these wonderful connections, and you pull them out of the air. And
obviously this is your life and what you do, and its good to be good at what
you do [Ken chuckles]. It’s how you get there in a way, is that a skill that
you have built upon or a little bit of both.
Kenneth Hite I
have a trick memory. When I was younger, and before I was drinking, I was
probably eidetic. My mom used to claim I knew where on the page something was,
which is a sign of a photographic memory.
I can’t take any credit for it any more than I can take
credit for green eyes. It’s just a genetic quirk. I think that I have, natively
one of those brains that does well on the SATs – the Templars are to the Madam
Morris Murder Cult as the Space Shuttle is to blank. One of those type things
[Douglas laughs] and then…
Douglas Cole
Because there has to be a question on the SATs that no one can answer.
Kenneth Hite
But it’s that kind of analogic thinking I guess. Or analytic thinking to a
extent, it’s more analogic, but I think my brain just does that well because I
scored really – and again literally this means nothing except for getting into
undemanding colleges – I scored well on the SAT. That’s how my brain works.
Because like you say this is my job and  it’s also my hobby, I’ve sort of tried to
train myself to think like that, and so when I look at a piece of source
material, or a piece of geek fun, or a comic book, or a story, or whatever.
Part of my brain is now analyzing it and is now looking for both for how it
does or doesn’t build as a structure, and what sort of universal joints are in
there that could be pulled out given a half spin and plugged back in.
So when I looked at Star Wars in 1,000 A.D. in a
Suppressed Transmission, that’s just a matter of knowing enough about 1,000
A.D. to fit Star Wars. And that was tied in because Christopher Lee talked
about owning the sword of Charlemagne or something like that. I was like “Well,
there we go. Now I have a connection.”
And again, it’s just that matter – you know, I think
actually the Star Wars thing was a different one. I think I did Lord of the
Rings in 1,000 A.D. which I called Ring of the Lords now that I think about it.
[Douglas laughs]
But yeah, it’s just a matter of keeping a eye out for
things that can give you enough of a
connection that you can connect them to other things, or stories that or rich
or nubbly enough that you can lay them out and fill them with other stuff that
people can still recognize it. That’s why, for all of its flaws, Star Wars  really works for that. But it’s all generally
going in the same direction as the Jedi order or something. People say “Oh,
that’s the Jedi. That’s so cool.”
Douglas Cole
Right. Right. As your looking through source material, as you’re reading these
blogs, is there a particular turn of phrase or – keywords is the wrong word – or
you know…I’m analogic thinker as well, unfortunately I have a tendency towards
tangency because even at work, at my day job, which is all science and rigor
and all that stuff. Ooo! Wine [gets handed glass from off screen].
Kenneth Hite
Oh, you get a beverage.
Douglas Cole I
have a great wife.
Kenneth Hite
Hey!
[Chuckles]
Douglas Cole
Out of curiosity, vaguely globally, where are you right now?
Kenneth Hite
I’m in Chicago. The greatest city in the world.
Douglas Cole I
went to grad school there – or close by.
Kenneth Hite
So, not at UFC then? At Evanston?
Douglas Cole
Yep. I was at Northwestern.
So are there turns of phrase that you are looking for as
you’re reading some of the source material. Where you are like “Oh, that sets
me off in a tangent” or “Oh, that’s something I’m going to be able to connect
as something else.” Or is it really just having a prodigious background in
oddities and you’re like “Oh, this reminds me of this either because of a turn
of phrase, or picture, or temporal event” – how does that work, when you
connect this dots like that?
Kenneth Hite
Well, some of it works just on a thematic level.
You are looking and if you got two guys who are fighting
over who gets to be king – that’s a pretty common story. You can see it in the
wars of the Roses, you can see it in every presidential election, but it’s also
in King Arthur. Right?
Douglas Cole
Sure.
Kenneth Hite
Now you’re okay. Once you’ve identified as some kind of squib as the story of
King Arthur, you can keep a eye out for it. Then sure enough you’ll see it a
lot.
Or a love triangle. You can tie any love triangle into
King Arthur. You can tie any father/son conflict into . . . most of British
history, but also into Star Wars.
You’ve got these super common, Polokav-level common plot
elements that once you – if you want to read reality as fiction, you can
recognize them plenty plenty of times. In reality we’d be saying “If this were
a movie we’d be saying: Come on, a second
World War? Also against Germany? And
the guy still has a mustache? What
the hell?!” [Douglas laughs]. “Oh yeah, of course Germany’s much bigger this time, even though they
got beaten. They’ll probably have
some super-weapon, oh look at that.”
You’d look at that and say this is tiresome unrealistic
fiction, but that’s because fiction comes out of our limited experience of the
world.
So I think if you start recognizing those historical
patterns, you start seeing them everywhere. And a lot of that is just reading
history that is at a sort of at a high-enough (the camera is high enough) that
you are not reading down to individual quotidian lives, you’re looking at the
larger movements of the story. And it may still be an individual quotidian life,
it’s just Napoleon’s life or Queen Elizabeth’s life, so you just have to follow
along with that.
Then another part of it is that some people or some
concepts have a habit of being good and sticky – so the Templers can be fit
into virtually anything. Anything you’re reading along with you can mention the
Templars and [you’ll be like] “I can now tie that somewhere if I need too.”
Sometimes people do you the favor of deliberately living
their lives along mythic lines. Alexander the Great tried to pattern his
existence after Achilles, and after Hercules. You’re really really helped out
when you’re trying to do anything weird with Alexander the Great.
Napoleon tried to pattern his life after Alexander the
Great, there you go, you have a lovely second order of thing. Himmler thought
he was a reincarnated Henry the Fowler, so you’ve got a connection there if you
want to make it.
It’s just a matter of being aware of things that are
going to recur a lot. The Ulmecs are really really interesting, but they don’t
show up in a lot of stuff that isn’t about Mesoamerican history. Queen
Elizabeth and Shakespeare and John Dee show up in all kinds of things that have
nothing to do with Tudor England.
So you just have to have sort of a eye out for what shows
up a lot. Then read widely. Don’t just read in the area you’re interested in
because then you’re only going to read stuff you are interested in. Read
science fiction, and horror, and fantasy, read comics, watch movies.
Be a broad consumer and not a narrow consumer and you’ll wind up seeing that
more things are beginning to pattern match – especially when you start looking for them – because we’re as a
species genetically programmed to pattern match. That’s how we feed ourselves
for three million years.
Douglas Cole
Right. You know one of the best and worst things that ever happened to me was a
brief one-hour seminar on film at Rice University by the master of Hanszen
College at the time, Professor Dennis Houston. He loves westerns.
Kenneth Hite
As he should.
Douglas Cole
As he should. He was like, let me show you this . . . he had this great voice
[mimes his old Professor] “Let me show you this! Watch what the camera does. It
moves . . . and you see the badge . . . and you see the ring and you see this .
. . and this all happens. Nothing that you see on the screen is there
accidently. Everything that you’re watching was put there by the director. It
all has meaning. There are no random cut scenes in movies. They’re edited.”
And I was like “Oh my, God.” I can’t…I’m so rarely surprised anymore by film and TV, that
when it happens it’s a wonderful thing. But, it’s like “Oh, crap. They just
flashed to this guy when they were talking about the secret conspiracy. Well
now we know who the betrayer is.” To your point about…
Kenneth Hite
There are ways to do that better or worse. I don’t know if you’ve seen American
Hustle – I don’t wanna do any spoilers – but if you are in the habit of
watching things for that, at the end of American Hustle you will very possibly
have one of those moments where it’s like “Oh, they warned me, but I thought it
was one thing, but now I realize, that they actually warned me.”
Or in Brick, The great Dashiell Hammet in a high school
Brick, very early in the movie there is a line that gives away the entire
mystery. But again, anyone who has read Dashiell Hammet the mystery was
pre-given away because Dashiell Hammet only had two endings but it used one of
them.
But because the movie is the way the movie is, you don’t
parse that as the solution until it’s revealing itself to you at the same time
it’s revealing itself to the director.
So what I’m saying is a good editor, or good director –
first there are plenty of bad editors or bad directors, and there is all kinds
of stuff in there accidently.
Douglas Cole I
suppose so, yeah.
Kenneth Hite
But also a good editor and good director will feed you the solution in such a
way that you miss it and when it comes back you kick yourself.
I think that’s the whole message of House of Games. I’m
going to tell you what I’m going to tell you, and you’re still not going to
understand it until it’s too late. Black Swan is the same way. The Darien
Aronasky film. He’s literally telling the same story five different ways, and
every time he tells – when he tells you the last one – because you are so
invested in the story, you are in the moment and you are surprised even, if you
are not actually surprised.
But again, if you watch a movie of Othello, you’re not
like “I hope that nice Desdemona gets away.” You know that’s not going to
happen, right? The difference between a good version of Othello, and a bad
version of Othello is that in a good version of Othello you still care. In a bad version you’re like “Ah,
whatever.”
People say oh, you can’t give away the ending. Any time
you watch a Shakespeare play or any time you watch a movie from a book you’ve
read the ending is given away because you knew it, right? When we watch the
Lord of the Rings “I know he’s gonna get his finger bitten off and Gollum is
gonna go into the volcano, I know how that’s going to end, there’s no point
watching.”
No! The point to watching is how is it gonna be sold to
you. How are you gonna be feed? What are the music cues gonna be? What is the
performance gonna be like? How is Frodo gonna react? How is Elijah Wood gonna
play it? Those are the mysteries that you are watching the movie to see, and if
it’s a good movie you’re gonna want to see it over and over again.
In theory you know how it ends, right? But you don’t,
because you want to see it develop.
Douglas Cole
You know, that’s a good…I have a whole wall of movies (not behind me), that are
basically popcorn movies. I am inordinately
fond of Thor – I’ve written on it on my blog.
It’s partly, you know, I can watch it. Watching Anthony
Hopkins as Odin (or Odin as Anthony Hopkins) depending on how you put it [Ken
laughs] is a wonderful thing and he did it very well.
And I can watch it over and over and over again, whereas
if I look at a movie like Black Hawk Down – I read the book, I knew how it was
going to end – I think I’ve seen it once or twice. And the same thing,
honestly, with Saving Private Ryan – it was such a intense movie that I didn’t
feel like going back to revisit. Not because it was a bad story. They were wonderful stories, but the impact was so
high the first time I didn’t need to re-experience it. Where watching Avengers
for the 764th time, I can just enjoy the candy of it.
Kenneth Hite
it’s the difference between a pleasurable impact and a painful impact. I’m not
going to say one is superior and one is inferior. In general, you don’t go back
to the things that made you uncomfortable. And the question is to what extant
is great art supposed to make you uncomfortable?
I, conversely, have watched Black Hawk Down a lot because
I think it’s a fantastic piece of filmmaking, and also because it’s a riveting
story and a great war movie. My wife for example won’t watch Chinatown a second
time.
Douglas Cole
Okay.
Kenneth Hite
Again, it’s a great movie, and phenomenal story. Robert Town did a great job,
but it’s a very emotionally harrowing thing to watch. So, yeah, I haven’t
watched Chinatown a lot of times either myself.
Douglas Cole I
think the thing that really got me about Black Hawk Down, is I can handle
pretty much everything except for the injured solider, because I have this
thing about veins. And that didn’t…yes, I still get squicky when I have to
think about that scene.
Kenneth Hite
And that’s a different question entirely. It’s just a squick factor, you know.
As great a movie as Groundhog Day is I can’t watch it all the time, because it
has Andie McDowell in it. It’s the same thing. Open vein . . . Andie McDowell.
[Douglas laughs].
Douglas Cole
My wife was the same way for a long time, until we watched the movie Sliding
Doors – she would not watch Gwyneth Paltrow in anything.
Kenneth Hite
That’s a different question… Gwyneth is…well – we’re not really doing a film
blog maybe that’s a issue for another…
Douglas Cole
One of the things I do on my blog, is periodically I have the Apropos of
Nothing. Role-Playing and media entertainment is just different kinds of having
fun, so you know the concept of taking a film and doing as a roleplaying game.
The question I was actually going to ask, because you
queued it in my mind, is what kind of things make great stories, and what kind
of things make good stories for roleplaying games?
Do you distinguish in your mind “Oh, this is a great
story that I can tell” versus “Oh, this is a great world in which I can tell
stories?”
Kenneth Hite
The key thing for what I think I a world in which you can tell stories is that
the characters haven’t already been written for you.
In 99% of roleplaying games, maybe 90% now, but in the
vast majority of roleplaying games, you can’t assume the players are going to
play the 5 iconic guys from the show.
If you’re making a Star Trek game – as I’ve made two of –
you can’t assume people are going to be Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Ohura, and Sulu.
You don’t know that they are going to do that. Even if they were doing original
series Star Trek, they might be doing Scotty, Chekov, Mr. Leslie, and Chief
Officer Kyle or something. You have no idea what they are going to be doing.
And you certainly shouldn’t be doing that in a world of
your own creation, because it’s just very very narrow. It’s limiting.
Most writers, for perfectly understandable reasons, make
their characters really central and really interesting and really memorable. So
when you’re looking at something like Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan is
fascinating and interesting and powerful and neat, but his Africa is kind of a
blank slate. There is sort of jungle, and some natives, and every now and again
a lost Roman city. But there is nothing about Tarzan’s Africa that isn’t true
about anyone else’s Africa or H. Rider Hager’s Africa.
Barsoom is a factor of John Carter, not really a factor
of Barsoom. The Hyberian Age without Conan you could write stories set in the Hyborian
Age, but nine times out of ten you’re just writing Conan fanfic because your
barbarian is “His name is Nonac and he’s a whole different guy and he’s from
the East, not the North.”
But it’s the same thing. But the great thing about
Lovecraft – to take this back around to the Mythos – is he’s the guy who
literally thought that the characters should
be meaningless. Because that was the point. Humanity meaningless. His cipher characters make the game universe . . . pop!
The background really comes alive for Lovecraft, in a way
that even for Tolkien, who was one of the best background guys in the business
– There is really only one story and that’s the story of the Fellowship and
Frodo destroying the Ring. If you’re playing in that Third Age, and you’re not
destroying that ring you know you’re like a B-role story, that meanwhile a
bunch of guys in Angmar were doing something. It’s like whatever.
That is the problem with that, and while Middle-Earth is
a great world to adventure in, I think it’s harder to pull out what you do if
you’re not destroying the ring.
Where the Star Trek Federation is a fine world to
adventure in, it’s harder to pull out the what if you’re not the one starship that
gets to break about the rules all the time and meet godlike aliens and have all
this stuff happen to it.
So I think that a world that is a good place for gaming
is a good place for other stories to happen.
If you look at say Harry Potter, and you can imagine
stories that are happening and are good and compelling and as interesting as
the story of the Boy Who Lived defeating the worst wizard ever, you can tell
stories in it.
Or of course you can think about deliberately dropping
your gaze or telling stories that are not epic world-beater stories.
World War II: you’re doing a game set in World War II,
you’re not going to be the guy who kills Hitler, because spoiler: That’s Hitler.
You know you’re not going to be the most important guy in World War II, because
there is no important guy in World
War II and that will let you think of a individual story for your setting.
But a bad setting for games, even if it’s a great setting
for stories, is one where the stories in the world are so intertwined around
one set of characters that it is difficult to impossible to figure out how to
separate them. You can’t game in Anna Karenna  – the world while it’s the Russian
aristocracy, the story is just about one woman making an idiot choice and
suffering for it.
Douglas Cole
So I think to sort of steer – not steer – but to bring to the last topic. I do
a lot of writing about GURPS, and it’s from where I do.
I want to talk about GURPS Horror and Madness Dossier if
there is anything you can say about it. There is also a question that a friend
of mine asked which is “What part of the original Scott Harring 2nd
edition manuscript did you adopt or co-opt, what did you do yourself and how
did you get from 2nd edition to 3rd edition in the Horror
book?”
Kenneth Hite
With GURPS Horror – first of all, a little unfair to J.M. Caparulla, because he
of course did the second edition, Scott did the first edition.
I think that what I did at the time, I took my book,
Nightmares of Mine, which had just reverted to me after Iron Crown went
bankrupt.
The goal was to take all of the horror advice in that,
and turn it into GURPS Horror using GURPS Horror which of course I based much
of the horror advice in Nightmares on because it’s a really great book.
To take what we took out I believe was mostly just the
settings. We took out the 1920s setting. We took out the Victorian setting.
Because the notion was that those would have their own GURPS books.
There has been a GURPS…there was a GURPS Cliffhangers
coming out at the same time and GURPS Steampunk was in development when I was
doing Horror 3rd. The notion was we didn’t need those settings
anymore.
Pretty much, most of the meat, and a lot of the words
from 2nd edition, and a lot of the words Scott wrote, and certainly
some of the pieces of advice I merely really restated in Nightmares of Mine, I
left in their original GURPS version.
What I did was I took that little tiny thin book…Steve
told me to take out a third of it already, and I replaced it with the larger 128
page 3rd edition book. And when it came time to do 4th
edition it was just a matter of build onto that and add more stuff.
Basically as far as I’m concerned…like I say in the
introduction to 4th edition, the heart of that book is Scott’s first
edition book, and it’s still beating in the 4th edition book. I’m
pretty sure if you went over it with a highlighter you can find paragraphs that
have moved from 1st to 4th unchanged.
Douglas Cole
Sure. Sure. Just looking over it…unfortunately I can’t flash up my 4th
edition hardback because it’s in the mail. I am scrolling through the uhh…
Kenneth Hite
What?! [rummages through books].
Douglas Cole I
am scrolling through the PDF file, I really will admit it’s clear from what you
just said that it’s a great horrors about fear and…yeah. There you go [Ken
holds up GURPS Horror 4th edition]. Awesome. Good.
Kenneth Hite
That is…
Douglas Cole
It is pretty. It is pretty.
Anyways Chapter Two: Things That Go Bump In The Night is
pick a monster . . . and then Fear of Taint, Fear of Nature, Fear of Madness,
Fear of Mutilation, Fear of Starvation, Fear of the Universe, Fear of the
Unnatural.
Everyone of these reflections, and there are a half dozen
more, every one of these reflections on fear, panic, death, scare . . .the
things that populate a horror episode are gone through, and the thing that’s
wonderful about this is its got a mini-bestiary and there are stats . . . for
zombies (p. 90) since Sean just wrote a entire book on them. Yup, zombie, -111
points, so there are templates.
Kenneth Hite
There are a bunch of templates.
Douglas Cole
There are character templates as well as monster templates.
Kenneth Hite
Yeah.
Douglas Cole
One of the knocks that GURPS gets, and somewhat unfairly, is that because they
are not collected in one place its “Oh, GURPS doesn’t have a bestiary.”
Kenneth Hite
GURPS has three bestiaries.
Douglas Cole
Well, 4th edition does not have a formal bestiary. But what it has is Dungeon Fantasy Monsters 1 and
a crap ton of stuff that get put in
appropriate genre books that you can extract.
Kenneth Hite
In the zombie part, there are the zombie as well as lenses for fast and slow
zombies under zombie. Then b-movie zombies, which are the non-fantasy version
your good ole living dead. Voodoo zombies which are both a undead voodoo zombie
and a zombified human template. And so of the zombies there are…depending on
how you count lenses there are three or seven different kinds of zombies. So I
think that’s pretty good.
And Fear of Death also contains the Mummy and the Lilitu
which was a new monster for 4th edition, I think. And the Lilitu
contains under it templates for the Ardat-Lili,
the Cihuateteo, which is the Azetec version of the aerial vampire spirit of a
weeping woman, the Classical Lamia from Greek myth, the Lamashtu which is a
specific demon, and the good ole Strix.
So yeah, there is a lot of stuff (and that’s just under
Fear of Death). Yeah, there’s a ton of monsters in GURPS Horror, and that was
part of the remit because yeah, you’re running horror so you want to have that.
Douglas Cole
Yeah, I think that it’s a great plug for both your book, and a great source of
. . . I guess representational piece.
What is it for? Is an orc…what does a orc represent the
fear of? Is it fear of madness? Is it fear of barbarian? Is it fear of the
other? Is it fear of lack of civilization? Is it fear of random violence? So
you say okay this is my monster and it’s going to represent fear of blah and
you pick up the book and you say “Okay, am I talking about a fear that has been
identified here?” and you haven’t missed much, and you can’t take something
directly, then certainly you can improvise.
Kenneth Hite A
lot of these monsters can be cast as different kinds of fear. The werewolf can
be the fear of nature, or the fear of sex, or the fear of madness, and it just
depends on how you want to play it, and how you want to spin it. I just had to
put them somewhere. And even that came out of 2nd edition, which may
have come out of 1st edition, I don’t have my copy of 1st
right nearby where I can double check.
But there is a bit in there where it talks about what
does the vampire really represent?
Douglas Cole
Yes. That was definitely in 2nd edition. Yup.
Kenneth Hite
If you’re doing a civil war vampire, maybe he’s being followed by pigs instead
of rats, and if he’s a nuclear holocaust vampire, maybe he’s being followed by
glowing cockroaches or something.
So I thought, that’s a kind of neat concept, how do I
really blow that up and play with it in 3rd edition. Well since he’s
said this once kind of off-hand for the vampire, why don’t I say it really
loud, but not just for the vampire but for all the sort of standard monsters?
Find all the fears.
When I expanded 3rd into 4th I was
able to add more fears again when people said, “Where is the fear of hunger,
that’s a pretty big fear, starving to death.” It was more than I would come up
with, like the fear of the state, I wanted to have the men in black in there as
a monster, because by that time I had suspected that GURPS Conspiracies was not
going to come around any time too soon, so I wanted to make sure my Men in
Black got in there.”
Douglas Cole
Yeah, then there is of course the…in a horror game like Trail of Cthulhu, or
whether you’re doing it in GURPS or anything . . . A horror story is hard to
tell without certain willing conspiracy from the players.
The advice that’s given in there is…What’s your favorite
piece that you put in there to take a campaign and make it horrific . . . or
even an episode. That’s the nice thing about horror, is it doesn’t always have
to be all horror all the time. You could even say that the second Aliens movie
could…the first Aliens movie was a horror flick. The second movie was
Action/Horror, but easy to tweak out.
Kenneth Hite
Yeah. I think that my favorite piece of advice, is the one that you call up
because it’s the more important piece of advice. Horror is different from other
kinds of games. Everyone has to want it to happen or else it doesn’t happen.
You’re tapping into . . . not just a emotion, but a
emotion that is so much more powerful when shared. And so that notion that
horror is a collaboration not a contest is the fundamental insight to run good
horror games. If you don’t have that, it’s very hard to run horror no matter
how much other advice you follow. And if you do have it it’s very hard not to
be able to run horror no matter how much other advice you don’t follow.
That’s why I made it front and center in Nightmares of
Mine, which I think is the reason everyone really liked Nightmares of Mine. And
then when I turned that into GURPS Horror 3rd edition I made it
front and center in GURPS Horror for 3rd , and I’m fairly sure I got
pieces out of that in GURPS Horror, and pieces out of that in Chill, and
talking to John Hines, and to everyone else who’s tried to run horror. It’s
really elementary. It’s fundamental foundational stuff and if you don’t have
that you’re just not going to be able to run a horror game.
Douglas Cole
You know that’s the other thing that is true not all groups – not just the
players – but the characters; and Peter Dell’Orto just did a interesting blog
post about the difference between player and character and when writers of
games started to really make that distinction. Because that was blended in the first
iterations of DnD . . . but you can have a group of characters and say you got
six players and whatever, each of them have a character.
Four of them have recognizable fears, and two of them are
either not played that way or just don’t have any hooks on the character sheet.
You’d almost have to seek out the players and say “Look, what is your character
afraid of?”
Kenneth Hite
Those players may be signaling they’re just not the type that want to be part
of the story. They like playing sidekicks, they liking playing hangers-back,
they like playing people or being at the game because it’s cheaper than a movie
because they just want to watch the story unfold or maybe they are someone’s
boyfriend and are just along to keep their inamorata happy. I think as long as
you’ve got four out of six players with hooks – that’ll fill any reasonable
campaign as long as the other people are willing to be scared and aren’t going
to be on their phone or making Monty Python references or whatever kids make
now that Monty Python has been gone 20 years. Whatever kind of useless
reference people are making nowadays. As long as they are going to be involved
in the emotional content of the story, its less than important there be a hook
about them.
Douglas Cole I
agree, agree and I guess…
Kenneth Hite
As the game goes forward they’ll feel more confident, or accidently take part
in the story such that you make them the hook. “Oh remember that time you touched the amulet? Well guess
what…”
Douglas Cole I
guess the last question – you’ve been very generous with your time for which I
thank you – Madness Dossier, rumors and playtest . . . is there anything you
can tell us about that.
Kenneth Hite
Madness Dossier right now is in the magical production hands of Nikki – whoever
does production…
Douglas Cole
Nikki…
Kenneth Hite
They’ve got it. I did my bit where I picked the quotes to go in the quote box,
and I have done my final final final edits based on typos, and space filling,
and things like that. So I think my part is done and it’s up to Steve Jackson
gristmill to grind it fine as they decide they want to.
I guess in terms of content I have no real problem
teasing stuff, if you have more specific questions. But basically it’s the
Madness Dossier campaign back from the old 3rd edition [GURPS
Horror], and instead of being just three pages or whatever it was, it’s now
expanded too I think 48, but I’m pulling up the PDF, and I’ll tell you in two
shakes as soon as preview decides it wants to pay attention.
Oh no, look at that. It’s 64 pages! So it’s a 64 page PDF,
and it’s a GURPS book – you know what those look like – it sort of follows what
they called for in the GURPS Organizations model.
There is the standard stuff about an organization in
GURPS. There is different stuff for the kinds of templates, people who are put
in charge of…that a part of Project: Sandman. I guess I should hit the high
concept for people who haven’t seen GURPS [Horror] 3rd [edition].
Douglas Cole
Yeah! Please do! I have GURPS…this. For some reason because this was for 3rd
edition I thought this was Horror 3rd edition and I have 4th
and I have 2nd and I was looking around on my… Madness Dossier,
Madness Dossier . . . not finding it! It’s all over the internet and I can find
references to it and how awesome it is, but the edition I missed. [Ken laughs]
Kenneth Hite [Gently
mocking] If Douglas Cole doesn’t have it [Douglas laughs] it is not available
to everyone.
I guess the basic concept is that around World War II,
the US and British governments operating independently discovered that their
world was a previous universe. And that previous universe had been edited out
of existence when our universe replaced it about 535 A.D. in what I call the
Ontoclysm. In a big reality quake, and if you look at GURPS 4th , Dave
Pulver took reality quakes out of Horror and made them a part of GURPs 4th
physics, and then I took them again out of GURPS 4th and put them
into Infinite Worlds for people to follow along.
A reality quake is like a earthquake in which you have
one history, and then the earthquake comes along and shifts all the ground
around. But since it’s a reality quake, your history is changed retroactively. So the bronze age and the
past, and everything we know happened since 535, before 535 A.D. has only been
true since 535 A.D. and it’s a concept I took from Mary Gentle’s novel Ash, but
it’s also obviously from Boris Hauses Plon Ukbar Orbis Tertius, and I think the
most fan accessible version of that is Dream of a Thousand Cats,
in Sandman –
where if a Thousand Cats all dream that they are the dominant
species on the planet, it will have always been true. But what happened was
that a thousand humans dreamed that they were and humans being dominant has
always been true.
And so that’s sort of the notion of a reality quake. So
this reality quake in the previous version of history – the true version of
history – there are these monstrous entities known as the Anunnaku (which is a
Sumerian term) who ruled the world. They ruled humanity and programmed us to
obey them by programming our language to contain the core of own subjugation.
The Language Sumerian is a perfect control system for human brains, or it
contains a perfect control system for human brains.
So after the reality quake happened, our languages still have
these control surfaces in it – until these irrupters, these beings from History
B – began seeping into our universe and trying to control us so they would be
able to bring about a reverse of the Ontoclysm and snap History B back into
existence in place of our history, which is called History A.
So the – like I say around World War II the British and
American governments figured this out and set up a secret, joint-task force
called Project: Sandman whose job it is to keep the Red King asleep – to keep
the Anunnaku asleep, and not in our reality.
And so what they do, is go around and they find people
who’ve begun believing in the old history, and they change their minds or they
kill them. They find irrupters and kill them and cover up any evidence that
they were ever there. They use memetics, they use neurolingustic programming,
they use subliminal messages, they use the Anunnaku’s own control system
against their foes which is perilous on both moral and practical levels, and
they’ve begun to develop wetware hacking where they hack your brain with a
computer to change the way you think.
So it’s basically a heroic conspiracy of people who are
using the worst kind of mind control and subversion, but in a fight against a
truly cosmic world-ending evil. It’s the same old standard Western narrative,
right? You have to pick up the gun, and be a barbarian, in order to keep the
civilization safe, but done in a sort of William S. Burroughs/George Louis
Wariz metis and that’s what it is. It’s a mind-space techno thriller I suppose.
Douglas Cole
Did this appear in…did David do something with this…I remember this plot
outline. I remember the term irrupters. I remember a lot of this stuff and I’m
trying to remember where I read it.
Kenneth Hite
It gets mentioned in 4th edition very briefly and then it’s more
mentioned in Infinite Worlds, but it’s not laid out even to the degree that it
was in Horror 3rd.
Douglas Cole
Okay. Okay I’m trying to remember if maybe there was a Pyramid article on that.
Kenneth Hite I
don’t think Dave has done a Pyramid article on that…
Douglas Cole
It would have been Eidetic Memory column, or something like that.
Anyway, because the concepts are familiar to me. And the Anunnaku
and irrupters and all those phrases, and I know that I’ve heard this stuff, and
to have that expanded into a 64 page campaign book is really neat. Can’t wait
for it. I’m a bit of a collector so I’ll be…
Kenneth Hite Well,
what kind of collector can you be if you don’t have Horror 3rd? I
mean come on.
Douglas Cole I
somehow missed it. That might have been from a time that I was doing enough
playtesting that I was getting a lot of books for free. Hard to say how that
works. It may have been that I wasn’t doing edition pieces. I’m more of a
collector now that I have more money. So “one last question:” Night’s Black
Agents.
Kenneth Hite
Here’s Horror 3rd… [holds up book to camera].
Douglas Cole
Excuse me?
Kenneth Hite
You’ll recognize it when you see it. This is 3rd edition Horror…
Douglas Cole
Yep.
Kenneth Hite
Night’s Black Agents. Right.
Douglas Cole Night’s
Black Agents, in my mind, would make a great GURPS campaign. It’s got all the
tactical crunch, it’s high-powered. It would make either subgenre of Monster
Hunters or as a standalone and you could even pull in Sean’s Impulse Buys to do
some of the Investigator skill stuff. Would there be any ever possibility of
making a spinoff or are you doing most of your creation in GUMSHOE world so
you’re a freelance writer so you write where there is interest.
Kenneth Hite
Well, I mean, first of all Night’s Black Agents is, I don’t own it. I wrote it
for hire. Pelegraine owns that property so Simon would have to license it to
Steve, and Steve I’m fairly sure has been turned off to licenses to other
peoples games…
Douglas Cole Yes..
Kenneth Hite
Pretty comprehensively, so that would be the first problem with it. The second
is as you note, there is a lot of GURPS in it. In my Designers Notes, I list
probably a dozen GURPS books. A lot of GURPS books.
Douglas Cole
Okay. That’ll teach me to fail to read the bibliography.
Kenneth Hite I
dug through and shout out to Gun Fu, Tactical Shooting, High-Tech, Covert Ops,
Special Ops, SWAT, Action, Undead, Monster Hunters, Blood Types, and Horror all
of which I went and dug into very thoroughly to make sure that my game
contained everything you could do in those games, or at least enough of a grit
that you could feel like you were doing everything you could in those games.
I think if you are a GURPS player who absolutely doesn’t
want to play any other game, you can buy your copy of Night’s Black Agents and
then run it in Monster Hunters.
You take Monster Hunters, you take Horror, you take Blood
Types or whatever, if you look at the way I build up the vampires as modular
collections of powers, obviously that’s how GURPS builds everything.
Douglas Cole
Yeah, as I was reading through it. I sort of read through the book twice, and
the first time I read through it I was like “Okay, what are these investigative
skills, and what would they be” and then there were some of the pieces, this
would be a reputation, and this is going to be an advantage, and this is going
to be something else. It’s a easy convert if you want to spend the time to do
it, I agree.
So that’s…I have to ask because I had a great time as
lead playtester on Tactical Shooting. Did you enjoy that? Do you enjoy the
crunch parts of the book, or all you read is story elements.
Kenneth Hite I
always love reading them because by
and large they are good examples of how to do game design.
I think the core GURPS engine is a great engine, and I
love it and I’ve always loved it. When I see people try and mod things with it,
it’s usually worth my time as a game designer to see how they’ve modded it.
Now if it’s on a topic I’m really interested in, like
shooting, I read GURPS Tactical Shooting and I think that’s a terrific idea,
but I don’t think I’d run it because
it would slow down a gunfight to a miserable crawl.
If you’re having to do all that calculation in your head
and apply all those modifiers all the time its just going to…you know, the
gunfight at the OK Corral should last as long as the gunfight at the OK Corral.
Or maximally it should last five times as long as the gunfight at the OK
Corral.
If you’ve spent more than 15 minutes having a gunfight,
you’ve done a gunfight wrong. Because it no longer feels like a gunfight
anymore – you might as well play a war game now because that’s what you are
doing.
So in my own personal gaming style, I don’t have a need
for those rules, but I like reading how they’re done. But that’s because I’m a
designer, not because I think that level of detail is necessary, because
otherwise we can’t have a gunfight! We don’t how to adjust for windage! Because
that’s ridiculous if it’s so windy that it’s really gonna do it add a general
+1 and keep going on with your life.
But I think that I have to know that material and then
when I’m reading something…obviously Hans-Christian is God’s gift to guns from
Germany. So anything he says about guns is going to be worth reading just on
its own whether there are GURPS rules or not so there are sort of two or three
reasons to read something like that. And then a lot of them are just pretty fun
reads, and everything Sean [“Dr. Kromm” Punch] writes is certainly well written
and interesting, and clever, and so I just like reading Sean’s prose. I’m not
sure I’d want to read any papers he publishes as a physicist, but I’m pretty
sure I’m going to read everything he writes for how to shoot people in the
face.
Douglas Cole
[laughs] Yeah, that is one of the nice things that he’s done. In an interview
with him, he talks about it very deliberately which is… He’s done, although I
wrote a very technical grappling book and we’ve got Tactical Shooting and there
is all kinds of crunch that exists. He writes a lot of stuff that is sort of
story, and for a game that gets a bad rap for the core simulation he’s really
tried to build up a “You can just tell fun freewheeling stories at any point
level using this system.” I don’t think people give it a lot of credibility.
Kenneth Hite
Yeah. You can and I certainly have. Every time I’ve run GURPS I run it. I love
running GURPS, and every time I run GURPS, I run it at exactly the level of
detail that I want and I deliberately ignore the level of detail that I don’t.
If it’s something you have to – like Vehicle building – I usually have a friend
who is a bigger nerd than me and I say “You are the lucky winner get to build a
spaceship so off with you, go build it then come back and show it to me.”
Douglas Cole
That’s one of the things that I enjoyed very much – It’s surprised me how much
I enjoyed it, but again as I got older and got less time . . . There is a surprising
amount of fun in David [Pulver]’s Spaceships. You know, pick 20 segments of
mass. Just pick’em . . . and get on with it.
Kenneth Hite
That’s the old Traveller way – bulk units or whatever they called it back in
the day.
Douglas Cole
Okay. I played a very limited game of Traveller and honestly I don’t even think
we played because my character died in
creation
, and my friend and I went and played a videogame. On the Atari
2600 or whatever it was, maybe a Commodore 64.
Kenneth Hite
Spaceships is like the next logical iteration after the vehicle construction
stuff in GURPS World War II. It’s kind of like that but, since it was
constrained to follow some real world performance there was still some sort of
jiggly-pokely best if you do it in a spreadsheet that I like in my vehicle
construction rules.
Douglas Cole That’s
actually there’s a whole . . . any . . .
Kenneth Hite I
don’t like them.
Douglas Cole
That’s actually gotten me in a little bit of trouble, in that I almost always
design when I think about rules I pull out the Excel. When I read a book, I
pull out the Excel. If I’m going to drink nutrition shake, I pull up Excel,
because I just need it.
But that’s one of the things that occasionally gets me in
trouble. I have this mathematical stuff. “Okay, if I do it this way it actually
works out and scales right” and then I put that into a sheet …this actually
happened to me in Technical Grappling…if you do this, and round normally it’s
all good. Peter, unfortunately – far to late – “Why didn’t you just do it by fives?” and I’m like “Aw, hell.” [face
palms]
If I would have had this round from ‘you get to 15,’ and
then change and then you get to nineteen and you’re still the same, and then
you get to twenty and you change and you can wing it and go.
Whereas the way I’ve technically done it in the text the
bracket around 15 goes around 13 or 17 or something like that, and that’s just mean to a gamemaster or a player
for that matter.
Last piece, and then I’ll sort of give you the last word
and then go. In Night’s Black Agents there is a whole box text about grappling,
and it tied into something I thought was fun, which was, and obviously I’m
biased, the TV Tropes section on grappling: “Most grappling rules suck because
most grappling is really hard to do and is different in other combatant.”
I actually riffed off that in my Designers Notes “It’s
really not.” But I wanted to offer up in future, how would I do grappling in
Night’s Black Agents, and what I would do is some kind of attack where if you
succeed you temporarily lower the other guys Athletics pool, since that’s sort
of a proxy for [GURPS] ST and DX.
Kenneth Hite
If you’re lowering their Athletics pool, it has almost no impact on the actual
course of the game, or the course of the fight, because you’re not spending
from Athletics.
Douglas Cole
You’re right – you’d have to lower Hand-To-Hand and/or Athletics. So ST/DX…that
would make more sense, you’re right.
Kenneth Hite
Yeah. In so you’re either lowering Hand-To-Hand and Athletics or Hand-To-Hand
and hit Threshold. I suppose you could do that if you wanted there to be a
special… Let’s turn this around on its head.
Douglas Cole
Sure.
Kenneth Hite
Let’s say I was doing a GUMSHOE game based on Gerard Kirsch’s phenomenal book Night
and the City which is about the wrestling scene in sordid Post-War London.
You’d want to have more of a differential between grappling and other kinds of
fighting, because there are going to be more wrestlers involved in your game,
right?
Douglas Cole
Sure.
Kenneth Hite
Or maybe a GUMSHOE Luche book, then that sort of differentiation might become
important, because you’d have three stages of a fight.
In normal roleplaying fight or a normal GUMSHOE fight at
least there is: either You can still fight, or you are out of the fight. The
Health clock is not a measure of how many liters of blood left in your body or
whatever. It’s a clock of how long you can stay in the fight.
So being grappled moves you towards the getting out of
the fight…[Douglas speaks simultaneously with Ken]. So that’s why I say in the
grappling box which you are nice enough to call out. An armlock is the same as
punching someone in the head. Both have the same chance of taking someone out
of the fight and if you’re really really good at either, you’ll do it.
Douglas Cole
The whole point, to your point, if I’m trying to restrain you I win when you
can no longer fight back.
You’re not unconscious and your health pool refreshes as
soon as I let you go. And that just becomes a dramatic device. Say I’m
grappling this guy but I’m not damaging him not breaking his limbs, I’m
literally tying him up till he can’t resist. I’m tying him up or capturing him,
so I can interrogate him later.
So what happens is you get to negative thing, he’s out of
the fight he’s pinned or helpless or whatever and then you let go and he’s
health pool instantly refreshes, or whatever pool instantly refreshes, and he
could run away but he’s morally beaten and so he’s not going to.
Kenneth Hite
Right.
Douglas Cole
As you say this stuff, you’re like “Look…” and the same thing as I was looking
at this, and the same deal as I’m like…getting hit by a .50 BMG, which is
13,000 Joules is really only one point better than getting hit by a 9mm pistol,
and the guy who wrote the old article in 2004 
about converting real world stats to GURPS ballistics and all that stuff
. . . cringes a little bit. But then I’m like the important part is “Are you
still in the fight?”
You know if you’re doing fisticuffs with someone and you
roll 1d6 for damage and it’s -1…-2 for fists. Yeah, the damage potential of
poking someone in the nose and shooting them with a .50 BMG overlaps. Nobody
cares, and if you care then what you
need to do is find the cool narrative thing that makes it cool, rather than
makes you pink mist.
Kenneth Hite
If your goal in the game, and everyone agrees that you should have a
anti-material rifle that is a instant kill if you hit, that’s easily enough
done in GUMSHOE instead of roll health you are instantly killed.
But the trouble is most players are smart enough to know
that we don’t have the only anti-material rifle in the world. In fact, if you
run the numbers almost all
anti-material rifles are in other hands, and we don’t want there to be a
instant kill device in the game that takes us out of having fun. And it never
happens to Jason Bourne more importantly, as he’s parkouring around Paris,
there is a guy a quarter of a mile away that’s like “Okay, whatever. Boom.”
He’s knocked off the ridge line and he’s dead.
That never
happens! There are compilations of clips on YouTube where it’s like the number
of places where a cellphone wrecks the story? You could do a much longer list
of places where a sniper wrecks the story.
Douglas Cole
Right. Absolutely.
Kenneth Hite
Actually bulletproof heroes in popular fiction is not that high, and the number
of component snipers in the real world is really very high. I don’t think one
is unrealistic and one is not unrealistic really serves anything, because there
aren’t going to be snipers that kill you form a mile away in a normal game that
is attempting to emulate thrillers anymore then there are snipers a mile away
killing Jason Bourne.
Douglas Cole
You bring up a great point. Which is why you’re a pro at this and I’m
interviewing you.
You bring up a great point which is . . . the reciprocity
of it. If you want something where you can reach out 1500 meters and instantly
touch someone [snaps fingers] and they are gone, that’s great and you know what
. . . that works on mooks.
But the reciprocity of it if you can reach out 1500
meters and do that someone can do it to you. And it’s the old “rocks fall,
everyone dies,” or even worse “rocks fall, and this one guy dies,” and he gets
to go for pizza or beer because he’s done for the day.
Kenneth Hite
Yeah.
Douglas Cole Not conducive to a social environment
where you are getting together with friends.
Kenneth Hite
And not conducive to story, because what you want for a story to happen, you
want players to take a active hand, and move forward into the world, and they
have the perfectly rational expectation that if we set foot outside our bunker,
someone will shoot us in the head from 1500 meters, they aren’t going to move
outside the bunker. They’ll say “Nope. We’re going to sit inside our bunker and
order in pizza and we’re never going to leave, and we don’t care how many
vampires are out there, because we’re going to get a lot of garlic on the pizza
so we will be safe.” [Laughs]
Douglas Cole
The places in like George R. R. Martin’s books where the trope is subverted.
You’re going through one of the books – almost all of the books – I haven’t
read the whole thing because I was still in the middle of a Wheel of Time when
he was…I can’t do this to myself twice.
So my wife has read all of them, and I was reading the
first one, The Game of Thrones, and I’m getting into the thing and I was like
“Oh yeah, this Ed Stark guy is a great character and blah blah blah…WHAT?! I
didn’t see that one coming!” Where’s the hero, where’s the whatever. Oh. OK. Ow!
And interesting, and he does it over and over again. And
the only time you can do that is effectively as a writer you have a ensemble
cast of a hundred and it doesn’t matter. Especially when apparently you get to
see these guys again anyways, but unless you’ve got a list of characters you
can just pick off, “Yeah, you stepped outside, and you walked into vampires and
his throat was torn out. I hope that your platoon mate can replace him.” It
makes a good story but it has to be done well. You have to have the backup
character.
Kenneth Hite
You can certainly make a bloody killfest in Night’s Black Agents but it should
be a fun bloody kill fest.
Douglas Cole
Right.
Kenneth Hite
Having your throat torn out by a vampire is way sexier than being shoot by a
vampire you haven’t heard much less saw.
In my playtest I..we had pregen characters that were
Serbian thugs, basically, Serbian mafia. We ran a fight between those guys and one vampire to demonstrate to my players
what one vampire could do. And of course he wiped the floor with them.
In the fiction, this was something that happened in a
closed circuit camera. They’re player characters had previously bugged that
Venetian Palotza because they wanted to see what happened to it. So they get to
watch as their pregens are torn to pieces by a vampire and they’re like “Oh,
okay. That was very serious and very big.”
But it’s different, because they know that the whole game
now is find out when vampires are near and how we kill them first, and how we can be the guy 1500 meters away.
Because you’ve established a unimaginable horror, but the
game is to constrain it now.
Whereas being shot in the head, we know what that is. We
live in Chicago. We hear people get shot in the head who never even did
anything. But it’s a different kind of a story, if you know the bad guys just
hired a sniper. That’s not fun. That’s not interesting, and it doesn’t reward
play.
Douglas Cole
Right. Okay. One quick question. Does Suppressed Transmission exist in any form
right now? Do you fire that kind of thing off any more, or is that not where
your energy is channeled these days.
Kenneth Hite
The closest thing to a Suppressed Transmission that’s happening now is Ken Writes About Stuff which is my monthly
thing from Pelgraine Press. It’s about twice as long or three times as long as
a Suppressed Transmission and half of the Ken Writes About Stuff every other
month is a examination of a Lovecrasftian creature from all possible angles.
So there are Deep Ones, Ghouls, Hounds of Tindalos,
Shoggoths, and Mi-Go that have been done so far. I’ll be doing Star Vampires
next, and so that is half of it.
The other half is either GUMSHOE sort of rules
examinations, where and I take a topic and provide a edge. To help your little
GURPS heart there, Douglas, I’ve done a GUMSHOE zoom on Martial Arts, a general
way to put Martial Arts in any GUMSHOE game. And then mind control to put mind
control into any GUMSHOE game.
Douglas Cole
I’ll have to admit I saw the something, the note about the GUMSHOE martial arts
and I’ll admit I haven’t read it, but I’ll admit I was fascinated about it, and
I had a minimal amount of time with Trail of Cthulhu and I’m like “I have no
idea how you do martial arts with a system…detailed martial arts system.” The
kind of detail I was used to with GURPS Martial Arts. How, or even why, would
you reflect that in a system like GUMSHOE?
Kenneth Hite
And you would do it because you’re doing it in a story space that is a martial
arts story. Like the Bourne stories where the escrima fight is a real important
part of the movie, so you want to reflect that so you want escrima to feel that
when you’re doing a standard beat down.
 You doing a
martial arts game maybe you’re doing one of those wuxia stories where everyone
is a Shaolin kung fu master wandering around, or you’re doing it in a… In Trail
of Cthulhu if your characters have gone to Japan or China, and suddenly martial
arts is part of the universe…any time you want to tell a martial arts story, as
well as whatever other story you want tell you can bring that out.
It doesn’t add a lot more complexity, it does add a
little more obviously, but it’s not GURPS Martial Arts even though I went to
GURPS Martial Arts and mined it heavily, like I did Ninja Hero and mined that
heavily for it.
But it’s not that complex. It’s an attempt to help
everyone bring martial arts flavor into a GUMSHOE fight. It basically gives you
free refreshes for saying awesome martial arts things, at its most basic, and
that’s really the core. What people want to do is not calculate how many action
points they have left, and can I get in a jumping kick. You want to be able to
say “I do a jumping kick and kick that guy in the head.” And that’s what that
rewards.
Yeah, that’s GUMSHOE martial arts zoom right there.
There is also a sort of Suppressed Transmission style
looks at Deglocka, the Bell Project, the Nazi bell. Which is the anti-Grail
myth of the 21st century. And a campaign frame Moondust Men where
you are playing UFO investigators in the 1970s attached to the Air Forces top
secret project Moondust.
It’s that kind of…and a look at the city of Mumbai, which
is not really a Night’s Black Agents…not really a Suppressed Transmission thing
a sort of broader look at something as opposed to a narrow cast thing.
I think the closest thing you can get right now to
Suppressed Transmission is Ken Writes About Stuff from Pelegraine and that may
get a little more Suppressed Transmission-y 
or maybe it’ll stay about as Suppressed Transmission-y as it is now.
Douglas Cole
Okay. Excellent. As always I like to give my guest the last word. First a
preemptive thank you and I’ll do it again after you’re done. Do you have
anything to add or say or what’s coming next or what you like or where the
industry needs to go. Wax lyrical about stuff! [Ken chuckles]
Kenneth Hite
Well I mean, waxing lyrical as people can tell, is sort of my default state.
I’ve plugged Ken Writes About Stuff, which is what I wanted to plug and I’ll
mention that I’m still writing stuff for Pelegraine if you want to follow me,
most of my stuff is coming out from Pelegraine and you should take a look at
those games and take a look at any of the Pelegrain games that pique your
interest, and hopefully I’ve written something that will feed that.
I’ll be a guest of honor at the H.P. Lovecraft Film
Festival and CthulhuCon in Portland, Oregon in April and if you’re watching
this before then you might want to go to their Kickstarter and throw them a
couple of bucks there are kinds of hoodies and chotskies and stuff if you’re
not in Portland or you can pay to make your Portland experience a better one if
you plan to go. So that’s a worthy cause.
Let’s see what else is associated with me. I’ve written
my fourth mini-mythos book for Atlas games and that should be coming out, not
super soon, but probably this year so if you enjoyed “Where the Deep Ones are”
and “Antarctic Express” and “Clifford the Big Red God” and “Good Night Azothoth
is On Its Way.”
Douglas Cole
[laughs loudly and with obvious mirth at Clifford the Big Red God] Sorry, I
have a four-year old.
Kenneth Hite
Yeah. An ideal book for your four-year certainly.
Douglas Cole I
do have…I’m blanking. There is a zombie book that is like “Mommy has festering
eyes. Do you have festering eyes?” and it’s a great little parody of a classic,
and I got it on my desk at work ‘cause I don’t have it here.
Kenneth Hite
The fourth in my series of Lovecraftian Children’s Books is coming out from
Atlas Games fairly soon.
I can’t immediately think of anything else I can super-easily
plug. You already plugged Madness Dossier quite nicely.
Key Long, my OSR Trade Fantasy Sandbox from Flame
Princess if you’re OSR player. Lamentations of the Flame Princess player. If
you’re ever dreamed of recreating Vahalla Rising in a Fantasy analogue of
Cambodia then this is your chance to do that.
What else? Where the industry needs to go? It needs to go
faster where it’s going already, which is to say distributed distribution so
you get as close to individual creators connecting with customers, and you
start cutting distributors out of it. I think a good retail store is absolutely
a part of that connection, though, because they make customers you didn’t know
you had yet.
A game store like EndGame or The Source or really top end
game store is always going to be part of the mix, and any creator worth there
salt is going to try and keep them in the mix as much as possible.
It would be nice if the new DnD brought more people into
the game stores to buy stuff and we’ll just have to hope that Mike has done a
good job at that.
I think the faster that we can get to the place that all
the rest of media is going, then the happier we’ll be when we get there.
Because that’s going to be the only stable ground, I think, for the foreseeable
future.
Douglas Cole
That could easily kick off to another hour long conversation about the fusion
of tabletop gaming and computers.
Kenneth Hite
That’s a whole different question.
Douglas Cole It
is an entirely different question. Gaming aids where there is a way to replace
the face-to-face gaming or supplement it. I can’t have a face-to-face group, I
want one, but I can’t.
Right now it’s easy for me to come home, do my work
stuff, so the virtual tabletop replaces that. But there is all kinds of great
things where you can take advantage of the medium. But that is a entirely
different conversation. We won’t go there we’ve been talking for a generous two
hours of your time for which I would like to thank you.
Kenneth Hite
Although if you are interested in tabletop and computer interface, you can also
go to Storyscape, the Kickstarter that my buddy Robin Laws is doing for
Slabtown games, which is a tablet-based game, that will have all the fiddly
math in the tablet so no one has to remember it, not even a GURPS player. And
will make it possible (eventually) to build out a broadly universal game
experience from tablet play and their Kickstarter could use some love and maybe
you could do a interview with Robin, maybe not a two hour video interview, but
maybe something.
That gets Robin to talk about Storyscape because I know
he’s really excited about that and I know that anything that comes out from
Robin will be pretty terrific. So that might be something.
Douglas Cole I
would be HAPPY to do so actually. It’s one of these things where it’s funny
because on the one hand I know that creators love to talk about their stuff (as
well they should) and for me, as someone who is somewhat new to the blogging
thing, I’ve been doing it for a year. It’s – Gee, is Ken Hite gonna spend an
hour of his time, or two in this case, which was awesome, with some random guy
just talking about stuff, and what I’ve found is that yes, they will.
Kenneth Hite
You’re not some random guy, like I said I recognize your name from GURPS
contributing and tactical wrestling and the rest of that it wasn’t completely
average, but yeah that’s what I’m here for.
Part of that future of direct connection between creator
and audience is to you know, let people see the creator, and hear what they
have to say. That’s where I thank you for bring me on and giving me a place
where I can talk for two hours uninterrupted to your readers, and that’s part
of the fun as well.
While I’m plugging people’s Kickstarters, not yet, but in
the very near future, the Swedish game magazine Fenix, where I write a column
every two months, and I guess that’s the other place you could see a Suppressed
Transmission thing from me, is that every two months I do a column for Fenix which
is quite often a setting, a full setting. It’s 4,000 words of a setting, and
that has a sort of Suppressed Transmission-y feel to it although there are
fewer darling quotes because I didn’t want to keep reinventing that particular
wheel – there are still some.
They are doing an Indiegogo to do a best of Fenix
magazine in English, my stuff is already in English, but they’ll be translating
a lot of the other great Fenix content from Sweden, and they do a great job. It’s
one of the best general gaming magazines around, it’s just in a language that
only 9 million people can read, so they’re trying to expand their remit a bit.
So if you are looking at this in Feburary the Indiegogo campaign is probably up
in running or you are a Swede or someone who reads Swedish or just someone that
thinks 4,000 words of my prose is worth subscribing to a magazine you can’t
read, you live in Europe then I recommend Fenix. The people who run it, Tovin
Anders are really great people and are total Alpha gamers in Sweden.
Douglas Cole
Excellent. So again, I want to thank you for your time and I guess that wraps
up a really fun two hours.

One thought on “Gaming Ballistic’s Firing Squad: Interview with Kenneth Hite

  1. Virgil's player pointed out to be that you gave my blog/campaign a shoutout and I just about died from the potential fallout that would go down if you had accidentally revealed anything juicy during the interview- but thankfully that wasn't the case.

    Thanks for being supportive Doug! Great interview.

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