Last week I posted the first part of my interview with Chris Spivey, author of Harlem Unbound, writer on Cthulhu Confidential, and founder of Darker Hue Studios. Check out that post to hear about the Kickstarter, how Chris got started in RPGs, and the formation of Darker Hue. Here, Chris talks about working with other publishers, writing for Cthulhu Confidential, and more.
Don’t forget that Chris now also has a Patreon page! If you like the kind of work he’s doing, well, support your (local?) RPG writers.
(The interview has been edited for clarity and organization.)
Noah Lloyd: Your website lists projects you’re currently involved with. We haven’t mentioned Cthulhu Confidential yet, but you’re working on that system, something for Vampire, Cthulhu Dark, Call of Cthulhu and Trail of Cthulhu. And you have a day job as a project manager and as an analyst, and you have a wife and child. How do you sleep?
Chris Spivey: Well, I never really slept a lot, and I joined the army, and the army helped reinforce that sleeping is a “waste” of time, and so I’ve just run with that since then. Or, it also means that I just wake up an extra hour or two earlier in the morning to make sure that I have time to write.
I have a very timed, precise schedule of things that I need to accomplish.
NL: What does that look like?
CS: I figure out, in my week, what I need to accomplish. I have a weekly word count goal, I have chunks of time blocked off specifically so I can do family things, to make sure that part of my life doesn’t atrophy at all while I’m trying to do this other thing, and then I have time set aside for additional job and work research, and then there’s the actual day job itself. It’s all about time management.
NL: Let’s talk about Cthulhu Confidential, since it’s been brought up a couple of times now. Harlem Unbound is kind of your “big” release, but another Langston Wright adventure came out just a couple of weeks ago, right?
CS: Yes, it’s the third of four that I’m writing.
What’s the difference between working on something that’s really and truly yours, Harlem Unbound, versus working on something like Cthulhu Confidential, which is for a bigger publisher, you presumably have your own project manager in that instance, and I know you were involved in the rulebook itself…
They set all the deadlines, and have a vision for the project. Because when you’re writing for yourself it’s your own project, you know what you want, and you can try to do that. When you’re writing for someone else, you might give them something that you think is the best, the bee’s knees, if you will, and you’ll give it to them, and they’ll go, “This is brilliant! Except for this, this… this, uh, this is really cool but I’m not a fan of that word, vibe or setting.”
Then you’re taking your baby, you’re reshaping it, and giving it back to them. So it’s still really important to you, and it’s vital, and you’re part of it, but it’s not wholly yours. It’s fun, because I’ve learned a lot of different things from Chaosium, Cat and Simon [at Pelgrane Press], and from the Onyx Path crew, and from the 7th Sea people, and I can now take those lessons and apply them myself to my own books and everything else.
Also, it’s fun brainstorming with other people and not working in a silo.
NL: Tell me about Langston Wright.
CS: In a sense, I would say that Langston is a historically idealized version of myself. Because a lot of Langston’s roots, and the story itself, overlap with my own story, which anyone that reads it and knows me would deduce: he’s a vet, he’s inclined towards more intellectual pursuits than just being a P.I. hoofing on the street, and the stories that I write are somewhat more personal. The last one that I’m writing right now highlights a lot of what it was for me as a kid in Alabama, around when I was fifteen or sixteen, and I’m bringing a lot of those elements. So it’s fun to get those stories out there.
NL: So, you work a lot, like we talked about already. How often do you still get to play?
CS: I run a Star Wars game once a month, Edge of the Empire, it’s set during the Dark Times, which means it’s set about 2 years after Order 66, or Episode 3 of the movies. I used to play Pathfinder, but with Harlem Unbound that has caused a year-long lapse in my attendance. I don’t play as much as I’d like to and am debating doing more online gaming with Fantasy Grounds.
NL: I think we’re starting to wind down, but something I noticed as I was doing my modicum of research for this was that you’ve written for a bunch of different systems, and that a lot of them have been horror-focused. What is it that keeps bringing you back to horror? You said when you were five you discovered the animated Hobbit, which got you into fantasy, but you didn’t see yourself there. So what pulled you into horror and kept you there?
CS: Horror has a closeness to realism that fantasy doesn’t for me. And it’s a fact that it’s fun to compare the concepts of human horror to cosmic horror, which is one of the reasons I enjoy Lovecraft so much. The Mythos is this great unknown, uncaring, malevolent force that does its own thing, and it’s interesting to compare the human horror that people do to each other against that as a backdrop, because at no point in time will the Mythos ever work hand-in-hand with humans; it might use humans for its own purpose, and the true evil in some of my stories, if you read them, isn’t the Mythos, it’s not the color from outer space, it’s not Yithians, it’s this guy who wants that job and will do anything he can to make sure he gets it. And there’s a level of evil there that’s frequently overlooked that no one cares about, and that is everyday horror that’s around the corner, it’s your next-door neighbor. As Sherlock would say, “That happens in the countryside.”
NL: The hardboiled detective genre comes along with these misogynistic and often xenophobic tropes, and I’m wondering how you mentally combat those when you sit down to write a scenario, whether you’re doing it consciously or if you’re just saying, well, the characters I’m dealing with are different, or acting in opposition.
CS: It would be impossible to sit down and not address [these tropes], as, you may have noticed, there are not a lot of black noir characters in movies. So that, in and of itself, forces me to look at them, figure out how I think a character would act compared to what the standard tropes are. And I’m looking at the tropes through a modern lens, so I incorporate the ones that I really like and don’t show up as much, or else they’re highlighted in a fashion where they will appear. But people get to see those tropes for what they really are.
NL: I guess with my next question, what I’m trying to hit on is your attitude toward the medium. I’m almost uncomfortable with the term “political,” but I don’t know what other term we would use. What’s special about roleplaying games as a political medium? Why write Harlem Unbound, or Cthulhu Confidential, instead of a novel that takes place during the Harlem Renaissance?
CS: Roleplaying games themselves are intrinsically about imagining a different reality. And that is a medium I want to work in, because you’re already taking that first step to envision something different, something else about the world. Be it that everyone’s equal, be it that there’s a Deep One snacking on your grandmother in the basement. You’re already putting together that there’s something else in the world that can be. And so with that amount of sheer creativity–and, you’re not doing it yourself, you’re doing it with a group of people–you’re involved with this, and then those people will go out and they’ll talk about the game with their buddies, they might write a blog post about it, and you’re pushing out that creative influence. And if that creative influence can be used for something good, in addition to being entertaining, all the better.
NL: So would you say that it’s the community that makes roleplaying games different from something like a novel or a film?
CS: The interactive portion of the roleplaying game makes it different from anything else. Even if you’re reading a novel, and you take it, and you go and you have your book club, you talk about it for a couple of hours and then that’s it. You go your separate ways and you pick up another novel that you’ll read next week about something else.
For the roleplaying game, you pick up this book, you read it, you have someone run a game that ranges anywhere from two to, back when I was in college, 18 hours; it’s not just one iteration, but multiple iterations of that [game]. Even if it’s random one-shots, it recurs, it’s sort of refueling the fire of itself.
I could make some sort of weird allusion to the phoenix rising from ashes, but…
NL: This is another purely selfish question, but what advice do you have for someone who’s starting out in the RPG industry? Who, let’s say, has a blog, and releases some free scenarios, that kind of thing.
CS: You should go to cons, meet people and should shake hands, but that’s not the thing. That’s one part and it’s great to meet people whose work you love. If you want to put something out yourself, and no one’s giving you the opportunity to do it–do it. I waited, I think, longer for Harlem Unbound than I should have, just trying to find someone to help me do it.
At the end of the day, the most important thing is that whatever your vision or voice is, you need to get it out. And try to put it in front of everyone you can once it’s out so they can see it, but it’s just important that you try, cause if you don’t try you’re always going to regret never having tried to do it. It may be the best thing ever or it may not, but each time you do it, you learn something and the next thing is a bit better.
But hey I’m just a guy that no one ever heard of, that Kickstarted a book.
NL: That’s excellent advice, Chris, thank you. Anything you want to plug as we wind down?
CS: I’m going to be on Patreon, next month. [Noah here: actually, it’s already launched. Back Chris here.] If you want to see more of my work, if you want to help me help other people with their own voice get out into the world, come back me.
Keep an eye out for a Darker Hue project, [REDACTED], that may be coming late 2018, but we’ll see what we see.
CS: Oh, and as of yesterday I am officially on the Indie Press Revolution! I am a happy member of them, they’re gonna carry the digital, the hardback, they’re gonna do con support,
You will hopefully see one of those guys, with my book and keeper screens. Go up to and talk to them, even if you don’t buy the book.
NL: That’s great, congratulations on everything.
CS: Thank you. Have a good day, everyone.
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