For Reckoning of the Dead’s first ever interview, I sat down two weeks ago with Chris Spivey, of Darker Hue Studios, via Google Hangouts. One of Chris’s latest publications, Harlem Unbound, went out to Kickstarter backers this past December, and has been making splashes around the internet, with reviews here, here, and yes, even here. Chris has also done work on Cthulhu Confidential, writing the adventures of Langston Wright. And now, notably, Chris has launched a Patreon, where you can support him with small donations each month.
We had a great chat, talking about everything from Kickstarter logistics to diversity in gaming. I really enjoyed the interview, and now I’ll quit blathering on so you can, too. Here’s part 1 of our conversation, check in next week for part 2.
(The interview has been edited for clarity and organization.)
Noah Lloyd: Hi Chris, how are you doing today?
Chris Spivey: Good, how about yourself?
NL: Doing well. You said before we started recording that you were sitting down with a nice bourbon. What bourbon is that?
CS: Today it’s just an Angel’s Envy. Everyone that knows me from the cons knows that I like to buy the first round, so I feel that if we’re going to come here together I should at least have a round.
NL: Are you gonna be at GenCon?
CS: Yes, GenCon’s my con.
NL: Awesome, well make sure to let me know what bar you’ll be at so I can take you up on that.
Your website says, “My love of gaming and geekery started when I was five-years-old and has grown exponentially since then.” What happened when you were five? How did your love for this hobby get started?
CS: I could tell you a great story or I could tell you the truth. I actually stumbled over The Hobbit animated movie, and after seeing The Hobbit, it sort of opened the door to fantasy. After that my friend Jay and I bought the red D&D boxed set. We sat down and started playing that and there were elves and dwarves, but there wasn’t anyone who looked like us. So I got into gaming like that, and I wanted to change gaming to be more representative of people like myself.
NL: So let me ask you what that arc looks like. When you sat down to play the red box, and didn’t see representation of people like yourself, did you instantly think “I’m going to change this when I grow up,” or was there a progression to this?
CS: Well at first, the stories that we told were from our perspective, and our player characters resembled us.
NL: And how did you get into writing for RPGs?
CS: Writing itself or writing specifically for RPGs?
NL: Um, both. Which came first?
CS: Writing itself. I actually started writing around 8 or 9, when I started my own fantasy novel, which filled up 600 pages of notebook paper, that I still have tucked away in a box somewhere. So that made me lean toward becoming an English major, but I got a minor in Literature instead and followed another passion. A few years ago at GenCon, I met Robin D. Laws and told him about this crazy idea I had, wanting to increase diversity in gaming, and he nodded and listened. Then he introduced me to Simon [Rogers] and Cat [Tobin], and they let me write a scenario for Out of the Woods.
NL: Let’s jump into what everyone’s been talking about lately, which dropped in December, Harlem Unbound, which I’ve read and adored, and there’s a review of it up on the website for anyone who wants to go read it.
How did Harlem Unbound come about? It’s a brilliant setting, because it takes place in the 1920s, which is the canonical setting for Call of Cthulhu and right before the canonical period (the 1930s) for Trail of Cthulhu, and it seems to be a corner of the world which has gone, sadly, unexplored in roleplaying games. What brought you to it?
CS: That is a massive, multi-pronged question. A number of reasons brought me to Harlem but let’s start with the most important one to me personally: Zora Neale Hurston is my cousin. So I’ve grown up reading her work, learning about the Harlem Renaissance and researching the 1920s.
For Call of Cthulhu, I remember running the scenario “Dead Man Stomp” for the first time and how it gave only the faintest glimpse of what Harlem was in the 1920s. That stayed with me, it’s in the fifth or sixth edition Call of Cthulhu book. The scenario’s really important to me, because of what someone tried to do–and I actually got a chance to meet Mark Morrison [author of “Dead Man Stomp”] at GenCon, and geek out with him for an hour or two, which was incredible. And with that in mind, I started pitching my idea for Harlem Unbound probably in 2014 or 2015, to some different people, and I got lukewarm responses, and in the end I decided that the only way to do it, how I wanted it done, and to do it right, was to do it myself.
NL: Tell me a little about the process of working on Harlem Unbound. I noticed in the credits that you worked with a lot of contributors. I’m obviously really interested in the social aspects of the project, but as someone getting started in this industry I’m also interested in the logistics. Can you give us a look behind the curtain?
CS: My day job is as a project manager; managing teams, assigning tasks and monitoring deadlines is in my blood. I’m also an analyst, which has given me a lot of different research skills, which is how I managed to cobble it all together, and put a certain perspective on it, but the collaborators I worked with were all incredible.
When I signed up for Metatopia, Brennen Reece reached out to me. He saw my name on a list of people going to Metatopia and he said, “Hey, are you the guy that went to Auburn High School?” And I was like, “Yes, random internet stranger, I am the guy that went to Auburn.” And so when we met at Metatopia, over drinks we realized that we actually knew a lot of the same people, we bonded, and I told him about Harlem Unbound. And he was incredibly interested. He’s a musician, he has a love of Harlem himself, and we teamed up, Washington and Hamilton. His experience in the industry, his incredible layout skills, and artistry dovetailed with my vision.
I reached out to some different writers about working on the project but being an unknown, people were not really crazy about the idea. I was fortunate enough to have met Neall [Raemonn Price] at Metatopia, and to work with Ruth [Tillman]. So, both of them liked me, the type of work I do, and eagerly jumped on board. And Ruth introduced me to Sarah [Hood], which was also fortunate. I knew the editors already, because I had been writing for a while and had made a lot of solid inroads.
NL: And what was the process of running the Kickstarter like? Did that go swimmingly? Was it terribly stressful?
CS: It was incredibly stressful. It was the first Kickstarter I’d ever done–it’s a lot of work, worrying about everything and learning as you go along. It raised nearly 800% more than I asked, enabling me to make the book even better and add a number of stretch goals to the book.
NL: Wow, ambitious! If you haven’t read or seen this yet, dear reader, this is a big, full setting book. That’s a lot to take on for your first Kickstarter project.
CS: I had to do it right, so it had to be that size.
When I was researching Kickstarters online, a lot of people that have done them put out information about their fifth or eighth Kickstarter–not super useful for someone doing their first, trying to figure out postage, trying to figure out the proper things to put out for backers, how to respond. It was a lot of learning. And fortunately a lot of the gaming community was very nice, and very understanding.
NL: I’m also maybe sadistically interested in the hiccups that happen in Kickstarter. Did you happen to have any big setbacks, either before it closed or during fulfillment or anything like that?
CS: Not really.
NL: Oh good.
CS: Uh… no. Shipping is something that I am still learning about, and figuring out the best way to do. One of the biggest banes of Kickstarting has been international shipping, as there doesn’t seem to be a way to get a good solid shipping price overseas, unless you’re already embedded or a big company.
NL: Harlem Unbound has a political edge to it, intentionally and importantly. And I think that games can do more than just be fun. They are fun, you’re telling stories, but if we know anything about stories it’s that they have the power to change the world around them, and I think that games are a medium that have been largely ignored in that sense. And like I said, when I started reading Harlem Unbound I was like, “This is the kind of thing I want to do.”
And I think a lot of people would say that games, whether talking about video games, board games, or tabletop roleplaying games, aren’t really meant to be political. What would you say to those people, who say, “Oh, I don’t want politics in my games.”
CS: Then they don’t have to play games with politics in them, and they can certainly find people to play those games with them, but that’s not the type of game that I make. If you’re reading something I have written, there’s probably going to be a little something of my politics in there somewhere. That’s not necessarily going to be the main point of what I’m writing, but it will show my inclination in politics as it dovetails into the work. I want to empower change and trying to make the world a better place with gaming. That means talking about tough issues and not sweeping them under the carpet.
I support them [who don’t want politics in their games]. And if you’re going to play something outside your experience, write from someone else’s perspective, you need to collaborate with someone from that background, be it race, gender, sexuality, whatever it is, and properly credit and pay them for their help on whatever your project is.
NL: A large part of the book is informed by the experience of African American soldiers returning from World War I–the Harlem Hellfighters. How does your own military experience inform the way you encounter and then represent their experience?
CS: It has made telling the stories of African American soldiers that much more important to me. History has erased, ignored, undervalued, and given credit for their achievements to others.
NL: So because it is a political book, and especially because of the political environment we are in today, did you get any backlash from some of the bold, and accurate, statements you make in Harlem Unbound, particularly about racism in the United States then and now?
CS: For me, most reviews I’ve read are positive about the book. There are likely less positive ones lurking around the internet. (knocks on wood) But, I wasn’t going to let that stop me from putting out the book. That will happen eventually, but the book is too important to me. It needed to get out, and the message in it was too long in the coming to get to the point where we are. The current political climate made it even more important to me to get Harlem Unbound out.
NL: We’ve mentioned how you talk explicitly about racism in the book, and it’s a feature of the scenarios that are there (and I’ll let the reader know that there is a whole chapter about this in the book), but if we met at GenCon, and I asked, what should I, as a white man, do to get ready to play one of these scenarios? What would be your advice for me?
CS: First, I’d want to know if it’s your normal group that you’re playing with or if you’ll be running it as a one-shot, randomly at GenCon for a bunch of strangers you’ve never met. The most important thing is that you should take a couple of minutes and talk to your players about the type of game and the level of intensity you want to have. The deal is that you don’t want to trigger anyone in a negative fashion, and if people understand where you’re coming from, they can prepare themselves or they can go, “Hey, this isn’t for me, I’m gonna pass this time.” And that talk’s equally important if that’s your local group or a group of people that you just met.
Going back to the feedback question, in my Cthulhu Confidential work, I wrote Langston Wright, he’s a black veteran in war-time D.C., and some people have commented to me about how they really enjoy the character and the idea of it, but they find that in the one-to-one setting it’s almost too intense with the level of realism that can be applied to it.
NL: What’s your response to this comment about intensity level?
CS: I respect them for coming forward and saying that to me, instead of just putting it aside, if I had the chance to engage with them and talk about it. But, at the end of the day, as long as it’s not negatively impacting them, there’s no reason they have to do it. For me, as a black man in America, that level of realism isn’t something I just get to turn off. And part of the way that, in my opinion, that I can help change the world, is by trying to shine a light on what that is like on a daily basis in some small fashion.
NL: So where did Darker Hue Studios come along in the [Harlem Unbound] process? Is this something you started as a way to work on the book, or did the book grow out of Darker Hue Studios as something you already had?
CS: Darker Hue Studios came first. When my wife and I had our daughter, I really wanted to get her into gaming, but I didn’t want her to have to go through what I went through to get into it, so I formed the company. I decided to try to start changing gaming before she would get there. And how it worked out, Harlem Unbound became the first project of Darker Hue Studios, so I picked up the ball and I ran with it.
NL: Wow, I love that. What better reason to start a company than to change the world for your daughter?
CS: I should also mention that her name is Zora…
Thanks for tuning in, folks. There’s more where this came from! Check back next week, when we talk with Chris more about his work on Cthulhu Confidential and diversity in gaming.
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