I know a lot of interesting people. Some I’ve worked with, some I’ve met while traveling the world, some just owe me money. My name may be on the website, but it seems kind of boring if I’m the only person whose voice is heard here. So I’m bringing some of my friends to the site, as time permits. I’m not a podcasty kind of guy, so I’m keeping things simple: one guest, six questions.
KENNETH HITE is a man of many talents, and a keeper of secrets no one should know. You may have played one of his many games, read one of his books, or listened to him and Robin D. Laws talk about stuff. If not, you should do all of these things, right now. Here’s the man himself…
You’ve been creating games for over thirty years. How did you fall into the dragon-eat-dungeon world of RPG design? What do you consider to be your finest piece of work?
I started out creating games, as you note, for my own game group: D&D and then CALL OF CTHULHU, which became my One True Love. I ran lots of other stuff, too, but those were the bigs. One of my old CALL OF CTHULHU players, Don Dennis, eventually got a gig at Iron Crown, which got him a playtest copy of the first draft of Chaosium’s magical-conspiracy NEPHILIM RPG. He thought to himself: “You know who should see this? Mister Magical Conspiracy CALL OF CTHULHU Doofus.” and sent it to me. I sent Chaosium around 10,000 words of back-sass and got the response: “Is it okay to include your comments in the next draft? And what’s the next book you want to write for us?” That response, by the way, was from Greg Stafford His Own Damn Self.
So that started me off. Right around then, Steve Jackson bought the proposal for GURPS ALTERNATE EARTHS that I’d been badgering him about at GenCon for the last four years or so, and suddenly I was a twice-published author with two hungry game lines to feed.
My finest piece of work? They’re all beautiful and I love them all very much, of course, but I certainly hope my finest piece of work is my most recent one: NIGHT’S BLACK AGENTS, my vampire spy thriller RPG from Pelgrane Press. That said, the original-series STAR TREK RPG from Last Unicorn was my own perfect nine-toed baby. It looked like it fell through a thirty-year time warp from 1968. Oh, now see what you’ve done. You’ve made DAY AFTER RAGNAROK cry. There, there, little setting book. I won’t let the bad man in the hat hurt you.
Your Cthulhu 101 is an excellent introduction to the Cthulhu mythos. Where The Deep Ones Are and The Antarctic Express introduce children to cosmic horror. Trail of Cthulhu is an award-winning roleplaying game that draws players into the world of H.P. Lovecraft. What draws you to Lovecraft’s work?
First and foremost, he’s just an amazingly good writer. The power of his mythology, and the sure-footedness with which he constructs his stories, get me every time. But I think Lovecraft enjoyed, and I enjoy, seeing the world in the same way: as pieces and fragments of a larger story, one by turns terrifying and wondrous. Lovecraft called this feeling “adventurous expectancy,” and I get that same feeling from both Lovecraft and from things he enjoyed like astrophysics, or travel, or urban life, or research. I feel a great sort of sympathy to Lovecraft, in terms of how his brain determined story and fantasy to work, and on other levels as well. We both love architecture, and both feel stark terror at the modernist sublime. We’re both autodidacts, and share our tribe’s love of the weird fact that confounds and reveals in equal measure. Obviously, we have our differences, too — he didn’t drink and he had weird dirigiste politics, for example — but as writers and readers of the weird I think we’re simpatico.
Lovecraft said that the strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. Unlike Lovecraft’s typical protagonists, the people who play Lovecraftian RPGs are often well-versed in the Mythos… and they are expecting frightening things to happen. What advice do you have for GMs trying to bring real suspense to their horror campaign?
I should send you to a page ref in GURPS HORROR for this, if I really wanted to move product. (Roughly pp. 131-134.) But to put it another, less four-pages-long way, the key to suspense is, precisely, that your audience expects frightening things to happen. Hitchcock used the example of a bomb going off after ten minutes of talk about baseball. You’re watching a movie, the guys are talking baseball, a bomb goes off — that’s shock. Same exact movie, but you add a minute of footage ahead of time showing a bomb being planted under the table — now, it’s suspense. Your audience — in this case, your players — need to know something horrible is happening in order to sense the horror either in the uncanny events around them OR in the absence of such events. With completely unfamiliar horrors, you’re a little bit lost; this is why HPL stories have such long, detailed buildups so that you can get completely into the head of the protagonist. With a very familiar horror, it can lose some of its strength (although even a vampire can still be terrifying — LET THE RIGHT ONE IN demonstrates that) but that same familiarity can allow the players to sense the horror’s approach. The Mythos, right now, is at the perfect point: just familiar enough that you can spook the players with familiar spoor, but just unknown enough that really, almost anything might be inside that abandoned barn.
You have seven thousand books in your personal library. What are a few books you think every gamer should read?
Every gamer? Regardless of genre or style of play? I’d say they should read Thucydides’ PELOPONNESIAN WAR, to get a sense of how history, politics, and war work, and how to turn them into a compelling story. They should read Northrop Frye’s ANATOMY OF CRITICISM, to get a sense of how to break down stories and symbols, core elements of RPGs. And they should read Jane Austen’s PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, because everyone should read it, it being the best novel in English. Also, it illuminates characters, dialogue, social engagement, and how to depict killing-free crises.
All that said, Charles Nicoll’s THE RECKONING, about the murder of playwright-spy-occultist Christopher Marlowe, is the greatest-ever RPG sourcebook that doesn’t actually happen to be an RPG sourcebook, so check that out, too.
Tell me about Night’s Black Agents. What makes an evening of Night’s Black Agents different from playing in the World of Darkness or Delta Green?
In NIGHT’S BLACK AGENTS, you play burned spies in today’s shadow world who discover a vampire conspiracy — and worse, it discovers that you’ve discovered it. So it’s hunt or be hunted, kill or be killed, as you use your training and tradecraft to find, hunt, and destroy the vampires while running from their own pawns, Renfields, and monsters. The elevator pitch I use is “It’s the Bourne trilogy if Treadstone were vampires.”
The difference between NIGHT’S BLACK AGENTS and the World of Darkness is that you don’t play the monster, you play the good guys. Also, while the stereotypical WoD game is about maneuvering for position inside a shadow world of monsters, the standard NIGHT’S BLACK AGENTS game is about maneuvering to destroy a shadow world of monsters. I except, of course, HUNTER: THE VIGIL, which differs from NIGHT’S BLACK AGENTS primarily in not assuming that the main heroes are really, really badass.
As far as DELTA GREEN goes, its primary difference with NIGHT’S BLACK AGENTS is the difference between Lovecraft and Howard: doom versus daring. There are also surface differences: DG agents are usually still government operatives, while the default NBA game assumes the agents are freelancers. But given that NIGHT’S BLACK AGENTS, like TRAIL OF CTHULHU, is a GUMSHOE game, you could certainly play a DELTA GREEN game with the NIGHT’S BLACK AGENTS rules and use TRAIL OF CTHULHU for the Mythos component. (There’s a drift in the back of the NBA corebook designed to let you play spies vs. Mythos games, in fact.)
The phone rings. A producer with $100 million and the connections to get any actors you want is ready to make a movie based on Night’s Black Agents, but you have to lay out the story in the next five minutes. What’s the plot, and who are your stars?
Mossad sniper Natalie Portman and her hacker/sidekick have an operation in the Syrian desert go very wrong when the guy she’s supposed to shoot doesn’t die and suddenly Mossad isn’t taking her calls and someone who knows the Mossad recognition codes tries to kill her and does kill her sidekick by biting his throat out. So she has to recruit help from other sources: an intuitive-eidetic MI5 analyst (Benedict Cumberbatch), a versatile techie thief (Clive Owen), and a badass fighter (Priyanka Chopra), each of whom she assists in defeating vampires in a thrilling set-piece. From clues gathered at each set-piece, the analyst figures out that the vampires are all working for “The Old Man,” a legend in the former KGB, his old archnemesis during the last bit of the Cold War. So they mount a big operation to take down “The Old Man,” who is of course a vampire lord (Max von Sydow) living in obscene luxury somewhere in Eastern Europe. After killing like a million of his army of Renfields, and losing Clive and Priyanka in the fight, Natalie puts a Clive-designed vampire-killing round through the Old Man — only to be betrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch at the last. He, of course, was the Old Man’s rival vampire — his analytical skills come from centuries of practice. Natalie somehow survives (dives into a big tank of blood, masking her scent) and the last scene is her, racking another anti-vampire round into her rifle, sighted in on Benedict Cumberbatch.