Interview with Ken Hite

RetroPunk, our Portuguese translators, interviewed Trail of Cthulhu author Kenneth Hite and allowed us to publish the untranslated version here.

How long have you been into RPGs?

I’ve been playing (and mostly GMing) RPGs since 1979; I got into it with Basic Set D&D and then right into AD&D; from there, it was an explosion of games: little-black-books Traveller, Top Secret, some Gamma World. Then in August of 1981 I bought the first copy of Call of Cthulhu sold in Oklahoma, and it was love at first sight. I haven’t stopped gaming since then, although I haven’t played Call of Cthulhu in far too long. Gosh, it’s been five years, maybe longer.

Do you keep up a group of regular play? What are you playing right now?

I’ve been running RPGs on Monday nights ever since I moved to Chicago in 1988. One of the players in my current game was in that first game; although he moved out of town for a while, we got him back. Right now, we’re playing R. Sean Borgstrom’s Nobilis; the next game coming up looks like it might be some sort of world-hopping, parallel-Earths Savage Worlds campaign, unless everyone changes their mind between now and then.

In your opinion, which would be the best systems and scenarios, exclusing GUMSHOE.

Hands down, the greatest RPG ever designed is Sandy Petersen’s Call of Cthulhu. No other game even comes close. The best campaign frames and scenarios for CoC are a little bit more of a judgment call, but Delta Green, “Raid on Innsmouth,” and Masks of Nyarlathotep have to be in anyone’s top five. Outside Cthulhu, I’d give John Tynes and Greg Stolze’s Unknown Armies, Greg Stafford’s Pendragon, Vincent Baker’s Dogs in the Vineyard, and Jonathan Tweet’s Over the Edge as the next four, but you can make principled arguments for six or seven others as absolutely A-list. Stafford’s The Great Pendragon Campaign, for the most recent version of Pendragon, is probably the best single campaign book ever written, although again you can get some worthwhile arguments for other adventures or campaigns.

How was your first contact with the RPG “industry”?

When I moved to Chicago, I started going to GenCon: it was a $20 train ride up to Milwaukee, and if you volunteered to run events Chaosium would badge you in and put you up in a hotel. So my introduction to the industry was as a con volunteer for Chaosium, running Call of Cthulhu scenarios and eating company pizza. A couple of years later, I and two friends submitted a proposal to Steve Jackson Games for what eventually became GURPS Alternate Earths; after several years of me “reminding” him about it at GenCon, he finally read my proposal and hired us to write the book. At almost the same time that Steve was getting around to reading my submission, a friend of mine, Don Dennis, sent me the playtest draft of Chaosium’s version of Nephilim. Don had been in my Call of Cthulhu campaigns in Oklahoma City, and at the time worked for Iron Crown, so he was already an insider; he remembered my game (heavy on the occultism and black magic) and thought Nephilim would be better if I looked at it first. So I read it and emailed Chaosium about 10,000 words of comments and back-sass, and then Greg Stafford — The. Greg. Stafford. — replied and asked if they could publish my comments in the book, and what Nephilim book did I want to write next? After I picked myself up off the floor, I called dibs on the Secret Societies book, and it and GURPS Alternate Earths came out at almost the same time. Suddenly, I was in the “industry,” and could afford a better brand of pizza at GenCon.

How do you see the RPG industry today?

There’s an increasingly stark divide between the states of the industry and the art form of the RPG. I don’t think it’s any secret that sales, player numbers, and any other metrics you want to use show that the RPG “industry” is a shadow of its former self. The CCG boom shoved RPG books out of their previous privileged position in distribution, and the collapse of the d20 bubble destroyed any pretense of strength left in the RPG segment of the hobby. That said, the art form of the RPG is in a fairly robust Golden Age of design: Vincent Baker, Jared Sorensen, Luke Crane, Jason Morningstar, Ron Edwards, Paul Czege, and Emily Care Boss (to name just a few) have been breaking new ground in design; Shane Hensley’s Savage Worlds, the Evil Hat team’s work on FATE, and yes, Robin’s creation of GUMSHOE, have proven that “traditional” RPGs can still be innovative and successful; D&D 4e and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3e are folding new systems and techniques into RPGs from the best-of-breed boardgame designs. In terms of choice, accessibility, and sheer quality available, here’s never been a better time to be a dice-and-pencils tabletop roleplayer.

There is an amazing portfolio developed by you. What motivates you to create more?

Being paid to create them motivates me, first and foremost. My wife is very patient, but my cats aren’t, and they’ve gotta eat. I’m very fortunate, in that I’ve mostly been paid to create games about things I’m already interested in, from occult conspiracies to Star Trek to Lovecraftian horror. And once I’ve created them, I’m always delighted when I see other people playing with things I’ve built: if money gets me going, the fact that I’m actively making other people’s lives more fun (if occasionally more surreal or scary) keeps me going. At this stage of my career, I like the fact that I can sell something to somebody based mostly on what I want to do next: I wanted to do a vampire-hunting spy thriller, and Simon was willing to buy one from me. And with the rise of the PDF direct market, I don’t even have to wait for a publisher’s okay to start writing.

After the play testing phase and official publication of the book, do you play in any table, whether as GM or player? How do you view this experience? Does it makes you take notes of what could be improved, corrected, etc.?

I occasionally play games using systems I’m writing for, because it really helps bring out what kind of feel you need to work toward in the design process. But I don’t usually go back and play my own stuff again, not least because my players are usually all sick to death of hearing about it every week while I’m writing it, or playtesting it afterward. That said, I did run a GURPS Cabal game a year or two after it got published, which mostly made me wish I hadn’t had to write it for the basic GURPS magic system. GURPS has a lot of magic systems that would have fit the setting better, but I was kind of locked into one from the get-go. Sometimes, I run games I’ve written at conventions, but convention play is so wildly different from normal gaming that I’m not sure how much useful feedback I could get out of that noise.

How have you know the “dark” writings of Lovecraft? How did you feel?

I’ve been a Lovecraft fan since I was eleven years old. I first read “The Colour Out of Space” in an otherwise entirely non-scary anthology of science fiction stories, and it terrified the living spit out of me. Two years later, I discovered a whole paperback full of Lovecraft stories in the garage, and the memory of that stark terror made reading the new tales maddeningly wonderful. I rationed them to myself over the next year or so, just to make sure they’d last. And so they have.

What was your biggest motivation to do a game based on the Mythos? I mean, the work of Lovecraft is canonized by fans, how was leaving it with a new “tone” for the purpose of this game?

Simon provided the motivation when he asked if I’d be interested in adapting Call of Cthulhu to Robin’s excellent and exciting GUMSHOE engine. I think I may have waited forty or even fifty seconds before hitting Reply, just so Simon wouldn’t think I was easy. I have two great “first nerd loves” in my life, the original Star Trek and H.P. Lovecraft, and now I’ve gotten to make both of them into games. (If Sherlock Holmes counts as nerd love, I have three … and I have hopes for Holmes, too.) As far as tone goes, I don’t think I brought anything new to the Mythos that Lovecraft and his better disciples didn’t already place there. I put Trail of Cthulhu in the Thirties, but Lovecraft wrote six or seven stories set in that decade; I added wildly variant visions of the gods and titans of the Mythos, but Lovecraft beat me to it with his many versions of Nyarlathotep as mindless beast, dark prophet, mocking villain, and alien deity. I see my job as opening up the box a little wider; maybe as saying to fans, “you’ve canonized this ten percent for a while now, let’s look at some of the rest of it.”

Writing about the Mythos requires a good deal of knowledge about the work of Lovecraft. How have you conducted and prepare your research to write about this universe?

Well, a lot of my “research” into the Mythos consists of stories and novels and books and compendia and fanzines and games that I’ve been reading since I was eleven years old. I’ve been marinating my brain in Lovecraft for three decades now. When Simon hired me to design and write Trail of Cthulhu, I consciously set out to re-read all of Lovecraft’s fiction just so I wouldn’t overlook anything. That reading project turned into Tour de Lovecraft: The Tales, my volume of Lovecraftian literary criticism, and also into the various essays on Lovecraftian magic, horror imagery, and so forth that I’ve put into game books since. But it also informed my decisions throughout the game; things like the various Drives, and which monsters to include, and some of the gaming advice. Alongside all that, I’ve intentionally developed the habit over the years of reading almost everything as possible grist for the Mythos: this probably came out of running Call of Cthulhu for eight years straight and always needing more scenario ideas and weird coincidental stuff to put into the game.

In your view, how was the reception to the Trail? I mean, the CoC is on the road for a long time now and it has a loyal audience, how was presenting Trail to its fans?

By and large, Trail of Cthulhu has had a pretty great reception. It’s still a strong seller, which is not business as usual at this stage in the RPG industry. I see people playing it at conventions, and I read online discussions of the game by active players. It got almost uniformly good reviews, was nominated for an Origins Award, and won two silver ENnie Awards, which is about as good as any non-d20 product does at the ENnies. Even hardcore Call of Cthulhu fans who still prefer the original game mostly find some good things to say about Trail — usually Jerome’s amazing art, but sometimes some of the things I put in the mix.

Did you even fear that your work was compared to other RPGs, especially the CoC?

The liberating thing about designing a licensed adaptation of Sandy Petersen’s Call of Cthulhu is that nothing you do will match the original. Someone on the Internet says “Kenneth Hite is no Sandy Petersen” and I respond, “You said it, friend!” In the introduction to Trail of Cthulhu, I compare adapting Petersen’s game to making a samurai movie out of King Lear. Now, you may wind up making the best samurai movie ever (and Kurosawa’s Ran comes pretty darn close to that) but you’re never going to touch King Lear. It just won’t happen. So you’re freed up to really think about adapting the game to the new system without any pressure to equal perfection.

In your opinion, what is the best point of the setting? Would it be an innovative element in reading the Mythos?

I think the best point of the Trail of Cthulhu setting is that it encourages a second look at Lovecraft. Just moving things out of the bright lights of the Jazz Age into the Dirty Thirties changes the tone of the game considerably. I don’t think it’s particularly innovative per se — Keith Herber was presenting the Mythos against increasingly bleak human backgrounds in Return to Dunwich, among other works — but it’s a change from the received wisdom, switching the default setting from thriller to noir, if you will.

When writing Trail, you allow yourself a certain amount of freedom to create situations under a different point of view of Lovecraft, but have you, at some point, though: “No that would work better this way than the original form designed by Lovecraft”?

Well, as I try to emphasize in Trail of Cthulhu, Lovecraft always put the needs of the story ahead of the continuity of his imaginary mythology. So changing some detail to work better for your game is the original form designed by Lovecraft. I can certainly imagine running a game in which Cthulhu is the sort of mindless extra-dimensional force battering at the walls of reality that August Derleth painted him as, kind of a cross between the shoggoths and Yog-Sothoth, rather than the mere alien invader dead at the bottom of the Pacific that Lovecraft reduced him to in Mountains of Madness. And in Trail, I tried to let the Keeper decide as much as possible about the universe, and about the rules styles: if you want to play Robert E. Howard’s “desperate struggle” instead of Lovecraft’s “doomed destruction,” you can. But as far as the basic core of the Mythos goes, I think Lovecraft built something of supreme power and effectiveness in those dozen or so stories: why change it? If you don’t want to tell Lovecraftian stories, in broad strokes at least, there are plenty of other horror games to try.

There are two styles of play in Trail, which one do you recommend for players who never have contact with the Mythos before? What tips do you can give to novice keepers?

For players who have never encountered the Mythos before … I envy you. You get to run into the Mythos fresh, which is something I can never do again. Of the two styles of play in Trail of Cthulhu, I suspect the Pulp style will work best for gamers who haven’t run into Lovecraftian horror before. It’s a little more survivable, and a little more cushioned; it makes a smoother transition from a conventional fantasy RPG environment. My own first Call of Cthulhu campaign was pretty heavy on the pulp action, as I recall. As far as advice to novice Keepers goes, in addition to the advice in the corebook, I’d say two things. First, don’t be afraid to keep it simple at the beginning. One monster in a ruin somewhere, one haunted house, one murderer with a cursed artifact, is enough for the first story. Concentrate on the scares, and on mastering the art of investigative horror gaming. And second, don’t be afraid of clichés. They’re overused for a reason: they work, and they work reliably. Things always look stranger from the inside; the players may not recognize the cliché you’re using, and if they do, they may lean on it, which will increase their comfort level with the game. Time enough to switch things up when everyone knows how clue spends work, and can guess what a Deep One might be.

The Brazilian market for RPGs is quite restricted. D&D and White Wolf share the spotlight. What would you say to convince the Brazilian players, who know nothing about Lovecraft, to give a chance to Trail?

I’d say that no matter how good vanilla and chocolate are, I shouldn’t have to convince Brazilians of all people, the inventors of feijoada and caipirinhas, that there are more than two good flavors out there. I’d say that Trail of Cthulhu combines player power and character danger better than either D&D or Vampire, and that H.P. Lovecraft kicks elves and vampires to the curb. (Though both elves and vampires are in Trail of Cthulhu. Sort of.) I’d say that knowing about Lovecraft makes you cooler than your friends. I’d say that nothing beats a shotgun down at the old Whateley Place at midnight, and absolutely nothing beats knowing that the shotgun won’t kill the Thing, but going down there anyhow.

How do you see the publishing of the Trail into Portuguese?

I’m excited and hopeful: if my game can introduce Brazilians to Lovecraft, it will justify itself by that alone. I’m interested to see what Brazilian fans make of the Mythos; how they interpret its grand terrors in their own games. I want to see what variations Brazilians ring on the gods and titans of Lovecraftian legendry. And also, I want to go to an RPG convention in Brazil. Especially one held during a Chicago winter. Hint hint.

What should we expect from Trail, written by you, after publishing Bookhounds of London?

I’m not actually sure. I may let Simon pick the next one; I think I’ve gotten to pick the last two or three projects. It might be fun to do a “Project Covenant” book about the U.S. Navy’s increasingly terrified and over-matched secret monster-hunting unit, or a setting book for European espionage in the Thirties with a Mythos flavor (think Alan Furst meets HPL), or another themed adventure anthology with Robin.

The Pelgrane already started publicizing its new scenario for Gumshoe, Night’s Black Agents. What awaits us in this scenario?

Vampires need to be hunted and killed, and not enough games let you do that. Who’s good at hunting and killing things? Jason Bourne. So Night’s Black Agents is my “vampire spy thriller” game. Think of the Bourne trilogy, or the movie Ronin: now add vampires. The heroes are spies and special ops on the run, simultaneously hunters and hunted; all they know is that vampires exist, and that nobody living is supposed to know that. The GM will be able to custom-build her own vampires to suit her individual game; no two campaigns will be alike. I’ll be building high-powered, thriller-style mechanics into the system, along with guidelines for turning any city into a vampire haven. Anywhere might be the center of the vampire conspiracy in any campaign; it’s my shot at opening out the “multiple choice” stuff people liked so much in Trail of Cthulhu even wider. Plus, did I mention hunting and killing vampires?

What do you hope for the future of the GUMSHOE? What can we expect from GUMSHOE next?

I hope GUMSHOE gets even more popular than it is now; I’d like to see another GUMSHOE game — either Night’s Black Agents or Robin’s new SF game Ashen Stars or maybe Will Hindmarch’s post-apocalyptic game Razed — have the success that Trail of Cthulhu has, so that more gamers in more genres can see how well the system works. I’d like to see ten or a dozen solid GUMSHOE games, and I’d like to write about half of them. If Night’s Black Agents does well, I already know what the werewolf game is like. As for what’s coming next, I’m not sure: Simon and Robin and I have kicked around a lot of good ideas. If we wind up doing a third of those, we’ll be beating the average.

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