Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Master of the Hill Cantons: An Interview with Chris Kutalik

When I first joined Google+, everybody over there seemed to be talking about how cool Chris Kutalik's Hill Cantons campaign was. Haven't heard of it? Well, here's a quick primer on what you've been missing out on. Over the years, Chris has not only kept up with his blog, he's also put out quality gaming materials such as By This Axe, Slumbering Ursine Dunes, and Fever-Dreaming Marlinko -- he's truly a model of self-publishing efficiency without any of the crowd-funding goldrush flim-flam.

Q: The Hill Cantons is one of the best-regarded and long-running campaigns to come out of the old-school blog scene. One thing I've always wondered about the setting: how to you balance the folkloric inspirations in it (Slavic myth) with the more humorous aspects (pantsless barbarians, Church of the Blood Jesus, etc.)?

It's funny and a bit sad, I suppose. When I launched the Hill Cantons campaign in 2008 it was like just most any leisure thing you do as an adult: something I thought this would be fun distraction for a few months as I get through some big life changes. The blog started as something totally modest, a player-info clearinghouse for house rules, play reports and the like.

I don't think I had any pretensions other than I want the game to be a radically-plotless West Marches-like sandbox and the setting background to be a fantasy mirror of Bohemia during the insanity of the Hussite Wars mixed in with heavy dollops of Jack Vance absurdity and tone, Moorcock Eternal Champion-era fever dreaminess and J. Eric Holmes's anarchic gonzo. Which of course is a totally pretentious and contradictory, unsustainable trainwreck of an idea.

The West Marches “no town adventures and no overarching plots” was the first casualty to actual play and years of playing just starting growing more and more layers over the tiny 30-by-30 mile sandbox that was the starting core. One of the first of those layers was adding pre-Christian Slavic mythic elements (which filled in a lot more as the play groups hit mythic wilderness areas like the Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Feral Shore). It just hits some satisfying nerve in me.

Leaving aside the balls-out gonzo, elfgame elements, much of the comedy comes straight out of the two strands in Czech humor/culture that are lodged some deep, cracked place in my own psyche: a dark, dry gallows humor (the kind of culture that produces one-liners like “an optimist is someone who thinks things can't get worse”) and the slightly absurd and satirical school that produced such things as Hasek's Good Corporal Svejk or Capek's War with the Newts. (Not that I claim to be doing anything like their work when running or writing about D&D ferchrissakes, just nodding at their influence.)

Q: In what ways has the Hill Cantons setting changed over the course of the campaign due to the players' actions? Is there any advice you'd give to a fellow DM about how to make their world responsive to the characters over the long haul?

It was completely transformed by their actions as I kind of hint at above.

As a kid or teen I just played with the people around me: my brother, close friends and camp mates. These days I have been super lucky (and intentional) about getting players into the game who are pretty dynamic and thoughtful people. It's a waste to not try and build an environment that gives them free rein.

At one point the players decided to just up and leave the campaign area in the Hill Cantons proper and really never came back. They moved their center of activity to a half-ruined city a couple hundred miles away and I had to scramble to build almost build a whole other campaign--and they did another big move to a colony-building effort in the Feral Shore two years back. I love that kind of player-driven surprise and challenge.

That last part is a big question and I have to admit that I am kind of stumped for a concise answer. One of the pillars to a long-running campaign with high player buy-in is being very deliberate and regular in soliciting honest feedback (and actively listening to that feedback). A second I believe is finding a sweet spot in between having enough material fleshed out to give players options but not so much detail that you waste material. Practice just-in-time production.

Also learn to let go of your own precious ideas, NPCs, sites whatever that just don't get picked up by the players. While I think it's more than fine to recycle/reskin unused material, don't oversweat it if something doesn't stick. Like say a big underwater ruined city, cough, cough. Not that I am bitter.

Q: Aside from Hill Cantons, I think of you as a guy who makes time for the occasional game of Traveller. Is there something about Traveller that scratches a gaming itch that your usual D&D can't reach, aside from the obvious change of genre?

Traveller has always been my “second game.” Technically, it's the first rpg product I ever picked up. I remember buying a model kit for a tank around 1979 and reading through 1001 Characters which is just this collection of hexametric numbers for character stats, strange skill notations and military rank. It seemed so esoteric, so otherworldly. I played an ungodly amount of it starting a few months after playing rpgs (good old Holmes Basic).

It's funny sticking with it now as an adult because most of the Campbellian hard-SF buzzcut books that influenced it I am just not a big fan of. I do however still love the shit out of the lifepath character generation, tramp steamer/heist mode of play and the softer, aesthetic overtones of say the Terran Trade Authority books and other 1970s SF art which filled in the gaps of those art-free little black books back in the day. So it stays in my rotation. 

Q: One thing you're known for is asking your Google+ circles what they've been reading lately, and if it is good. Turnabout is fair play: what have you been reading lately, and is it good?

I am mostly fishing for new things to read. Right now I am reading Bathhouse at Midnight by W.F. Ryan which is really not about half-ogre handjobs but a thorough (and credible) exploration of folk magic in Russia. Holy shit is it good.

One of may favorite chapters is about zagovory (“false prayers”) which are these lyrical invocations. Take this actual Russian 17th century folk magic spell against erectile dysfunction; "I, servant of God N. shall arise, blessing myself and I shall go crossing myself into the open field under the beautiful sun, under the bright moon, under the crowding stars, past the grave of the bones of the giants, and just as the bones of the giants do not bend or break so may my member not bend or break against woman's flesh and parts and memorial bones. And I servant of God N. shall take my red elm stick and go into the open field, tossing up its head and looking into the sky and moon and Great Bear...and strike the three-year-old bull on its horn.”

Predictably I have been trying to figure out ways to shoehorn that beautiful, unintentionally hilarious weirdness into gameable form for the campaign.

Q: What is the Hydra Cooperative and what is the benefit of producing game materials as part of a group as opposed to working as an auteur?

I am hesitant to universalize the experience. There are any number of highly creative people—most of whom are putting out all of their work free or at-cost—with intensely personal visions about how to design games or adventures who just work better as one-man operations. And there are any number more of people in hobby publishing who just plain don't play well with others.

I come out of a couple of decades (journalism, labor organizing) of working with small, tight-knit groups of intense, passionate people focused on common projects. Personally I thrive in that kind of work environment and tend to find cross-inspiration working alongside creative or driven people. I know you are required to politely say things like I really love working with folks like Trey Causey, Robert Parker, Anthony Picaro, Mike Davison, Humza K, Luka Rejec, Jeremy Duncan, David Lewis Johnson and Jason Sholtis. But I really do. It's like a dream team of my DIY gaming soul. 

Q: I consider the Kickstarter you did for Slumbering Ursine Dunes to be a mega-success in that it funded, people love the gaming content that came out of it, and you managed to deliver the product without squandering the backers' money. What tips would you give a new game publisher about to embark on their first foray into crowd-funding?

I was fairly critical as a hobby blogger of the first wave of gaming Kickstarters. It seemed a bit too close to the unchecked insanity of the pre-crisis financial industry of last decade where you had too much easy money floating around with little to no consumer accountability. No wonder it produced so many trainwrecks.

But inside of all that you had people like Kevin Crawford creating great, responsible and ethical counter-examples. The lessons as I see them are first and foremost to treat backers not as wallet-things or pre-order buyers, but as people who are taking a risk and supporting you. Secondly to have something written and ideally ready to go when the Kickstarter ends (expecting the reward first and then the writing to follow is really kind of foolish). And the third is work like hell and don't quit. (A big hats off to Robert Parker who faced some real world grief and who still pushed through to not just edit but to add sections of his own to Marlinko.)

Well we are still a year later working on the stretch goal adventures, but we are intentionally over-fulfiling them, having turned them from was supposed to be sketchy “further adventures” outlines of 15-20 pages each to fully-realized products (Fever-Dreaming Marlinko was 6,000 words longer than the Dunes even). I feel pretty proud of how we handled the Kickstarter, in the main getting the main adventure out right before the December 2014 deadline as we promised.

Q: What's next for Chris Kutalik?

I am going to drink a lot and stay up all night!

Seriously though, I see a full docket ahead. We have Jason Sholtis's Operation Unfathomable coming down the line and I look forward to switching out of writer/designer hotseat mode. We also may have a Big Fucking Surprise coming down the pike in early 2016. And of course there's still all kinds of things I want to write or design from undercities to microgames.