Interview: Chris Kutalik Talks Hill Cantons, Hydra Cooperative, and More!

I’ve been away from interviews for too long! It wasn’t planned – I had that unexpected hiatus in the fall, and then the holidays happened. But here we are now and it’s gonna be back to normal, where I manage to trick or blackmail wonderful creators into talking to me for this blog on a regular basis. This is the first of the interviews I have planned for this Hill Cantons bonanza, and it’s a cool one: Chris Kutalik, founder of Hydra Cooperative, spared some of his time for me, which is super cool in my books. Let’s see what he has to say!

With most of the lovely guests who are kind enough to share their time with my little blog, I like to ask how they got started with D&D and RPGs in general. What about you?

Though it cuts against my considerable vanity and carefully calculated projection of youthful vigor and verve, my first experience of the game came 40 years ago in the tail end of 1979. It was a kind of bittersweet exploration at first. That year my parents divorced and my grandmother was found shot to death in her Louisiana home. My dad moved away to Los Angeles to try and make it as a screen writer. But here’s the silver lining part, I would stay the summers with him and the first summers were spent in the home of my dad’s best friend, a now retired B-movie horror director. The place was straight from central casting: a rickety decrepit three-story mansion built in 1902 right into the side of a mountain. It sat–perched really–on an acre of land all at a steep 30-degree angle to the road, which itself plunged precipitously down to the end of the canyon.

[I have a full write up of the experience here fill free to cut whatever but I felt like this will always be the best expression of this that I can write]

And what an acre! It was completely, outlandishly overgrown with dense bamboo groves, lemon trees, live oak, poison ivy, and chaparral higher up where the more native desert mountain environ encroached. In other words, it was paradise for a boy inclined to an overactive imagination.

The house was the same and more. It had a seemingly innumerable amount of rooms: rooms that opened onto big sweeping balconies, tight little nooks of rooms under staircases, mysterious locked basement rooms with dusted over windows.

Slightly creepy in the day, at night it became downright terrifying to that same kid with the overactive imagination. Between each of the floors of the house were crawl spaces and in those crawl spaces were all kinds of animals. Racoons? Possums? Rats? Never really knew, but it makes me shiver a little to think of it even now. I slept on a bunk bed on the top and would hear the patter all night. Couple that with all the creaky, spooky noises an old house perched on a slope can make when the wind is up and I would be so scared shitless I couldn’t sleep.

It felt like pure magic living there and it was there that I was exposed to playing Holmes D&D for the first time. I have an extremely vivid recollection of the first time I lifted the cover of that boxed set and flipped through the pages of the blue book. I had some whiffs of counter-cultural experiences growing up in the 70s through my parents but this felt like my own first and personal one. There was a kind of underground vibe to the semi-amateur art and the arcane throwaways in Gygax’s intro and this whole vibe of gonzo joy from Holmes’ prose. I was instantly smitten and played the game fanatically until piecemeal adopting AD&D in 1980. My second love was Traveller but we also played lots and lots of Gamma World and Top Secret before punk rock, underground zines, and girls made me drift out of gaming for decades.

How did you get involved in the OSR/DIY indie scene? How did you find out about this little corner of the world, and how did you decide to start doing it yourself?

I basically was completely gone from this type of gaming until Gary’s death in March 2008. I remember one of the assistant editors at the magazine I was running in Detroit running into my office to break it to me (me the resident nerd I suppose) and the Swiss disease, this instant feeling of a piece of my childhood and adolescence dying and extreme nostalgia just swept over me. That afternoon I found myself sliding down the internet rabbit hole. I naturally gravitated to the game I knew in the 80s and was surprised to find whole communities still playing the old games.

Dragonsfoot was my first stop but I found it at turns prissy and hilariously up in arms about minutiae of…well elf games (I still have this attitude a decade later, but fuck you let’s fight about five-fold alignment). I found the blogs more personal and diving more deeply into interesting explorations. David “Sham” Bowman’s and Jeff Rients’s blogs just blew me away in balancing interesting analysis and creative tinkering with sheer ludic joy with serious helpings of humor. Grognardia also was a huge influence in 2008 and reading about the West Marches sent me over the edge. By the end of 2008 I had launched the first West Marches-clone Hill Cantons campaign. The blog grew out of that as a play session report and place for house rules experimentation. Inexorably I got sucked into daily blogging myself. Wyrd bið ful aræd.

You’re a founding partner of the Hydra Cooperative. Can you tell me about the genesis of that company, and your goals for it?

Today’s Hydra Cooperative is actually the second Hydra Cooperative. The first was my hippy dippy idealist stab at doing a largescale publishing and distributing coop that would serve as a vehicle for the smaller OSR/DIY bloggers/game designers that lacked a lot of outlets in 2010. It melted down in the usual way that overly-idealistic, everybody-welcome big tent projects do: with me and a few choice others feasting on the fire-charred viscera of our fallen soft fellow coopers as we chanted “piggy, piggy, piggy” jabbing crude, flint-tipped spears in the air.

True story.

The second attempt came directly from necessity and then grew into something else. I was about to launch the Slumbering Ursine Dunes kickstarter and simply didn’t think I could do it alone. I was running the Hill Cantons once a month in person and weekly online and the player group was extremely tight. Some of the brightest, weirdest and most brain broke people—my people–I know coalesced in that play group. It was a natural to reach out to them to help start up Hydra. Robert Parker (one of the behind the scenes heroes of the project) and Anthony P were the first two partners and were fairly quickly joined by Humza K (the other way under recognized force in the company) and Mike Davison.

The Hill Cantons blog is really what launched a lot of public interest in your work, and of course several of Hydra’s most popular books are based on your setting. What’s the story of the Hill Cantons campaign?

Ten years ago, I tried very hard for the Hill Cantons to be the zero-plot, pure exploration, no-town radical return to roots of West Marches but my brain didn’t seem wired for keeping it there. I’ve written a lot blogside about the transition, the slow bottom-up morphing of that baseline by layers into the unholy, complicated mess of layers it is today so I won’t over-do it here.

But a lot of it evolved straight out of the weird little turns of my own life and eclectic reading tastes. The whitewashed, blacktrimmed melancholic villages and rugged hills of my teaching years in Slovakia and my ancestral homeland, Moravia, started the baseline inner vision of the relatively mundane parts of the setting. From there it was a blender of things I’ve read and loved: the picaresque journeys and needling of human absurdity of Jack Vance’s best work, the dry anti-authoritarian tradition of Czech humor of Hasek and many others, the anarchic borderlands epic of Henryk Sienkiewicz’s trilogy (With Fire and Sword, the Deluge, and Fire in the Steppe), the quirky but very real turns of actual existing history, and against it all the good old solid framework of Gygaxian D&D (I am more a groggy-ass traditionalist in a lot of ways than I may let off).

Also there is a huge amount of co-creation with the players and back and forth “dialectical creation”. They do something off the track (and this happens a lot with players this shifty and anarchy minded) and I have to scramble to make up whole areas, histories and people. I love that constant creation of layers that I never anticipated.

Recently, the Hill Cantons series was capped off with What Ho, Frog Demons, which you wrote and Luka Rejec illustrated. That partnership has appeared in a number of your works for the Hill Cantons, and it seems like a perfect match. What do you think makes that the case?

To give credit where credit is due in What Ho, Luka wrote significant chunks of the text (the pointcrawl around the Beet God Manor comes straight out of his own home game and the bucolic village generator from his own experiences in former Yugoslavia amongst other things).A few years back when I was teaching a creative writing and fantasy worldbuilding class to early teens I randomly encountered his magnificiently quirky (and highly detailed) Blue Pyramid illustration and used it as a visual aid in a lesson plan about visual presentation. We got talking on Google Plus and started collaborating.

Luka and I have had what I called a “dialectical relationship” or that we feed off each other in creative situations especially in Misty Isles of the Eld. What’s amazing about that work is that I never did any art orders or collaboration. He read the draft manuscript and just started drawing. Many of the pieces were uniquely his creation and I found myself instead of nixing them rewriting the manuscript to incorporate them directly. So you had whole NPCs and locales gelling as we went back and forth.

I’m incredibly excited about his upcoming projects. UVG in particular–which leaving aside my obvious bias–I think will be one of the best products our little scene will ever produce.

Hydra has attracted a number of creators of exceptional talent. You have worked with Jason Sholtis, Luka Rejec, Trey Causey, Humza Kazmi – all prolific bloggers, artists, writers, or editors. What contributed to this?

Our founding vision for Hydra II wasn’t just “shit we need to fulfill the SUD kickstarter now, don’t we” but let’s build a non-exploitative, ethical, creator-centered publishing platform that could be tighter and more coherent than the first Hydra. And by coherent I mean we wanted to pull around designers that were moving in the same direction as us, that we knew closely and shared a love for the kind of highly-personalized “auteur” games that were more about imagining and playing the shit out of things (we place a high primacy on not just play testing things but growing them out of actual table play). And so we added carefully and perhaps a little over-choosily working with and expanding the partnership with some of the most amazing people that I don’t hesitate to sincerely gush over: Trey Causey, Jason Sholtis, and Luka Rejec (though we had some legal hurdles adding him as a non-citizen of ‘Merika).

Which of the Hill Cantons products are you most proud of, and why? On the flip side of that, if you could go back and redo anything, what would it be?

While the publisher in me really should say the two later books, Misty Isles of the Eld and What Ho, Frog Demons, they both are big leaps forward in my mind of quality in presentation and aesthetics (thanks in large part to both the sharpening knives of the editors and the many talents/strengths of Luka), my personal darling is Fever-Dreaming Marlinko.

I feel like it’s the one product closest in feel to the actual Hill Cantons as it lives in my head (and yes I do go “full MAR Barker” with that kind of stuff as some friends tease me). Like it has the best expression of the little flourishes and details of characters and places of the campaign and it was the first time I fully let the “snowflake freak flag” fly. Before–even in SUD–I had this timidity publishing a lot about the campaign world thanks to a lot of (historically fair) sentiment in the early OSR against the excesses of 2e and latter setting overkill. Marlinko was me saying fuck it. Also it had a very specific singular design goal that I felt was more or less successfully met: make a city setting book that throws out the boring building by building descriptive approach of most products.

With the release of What Ho, Frog Demons, what’s next for the you and the Hill Cantons? Are you going to continue in the setting, or are you going to explore something else?

I am currently about 26 pages in to my first non-SUD kickstarter Hill Cantons project, a yet-unnamed book centered on Revoca Canton, a tiny, remote canton that harbored in the home campaign an even weirder nook of the Hill Cantons than Marlinko. It’s design goals have one foot in the very traditional—my own homage to the settlement-wilderness-dungeon classic mini-campaigns of D&D—and the cranked up even higher elements of the first four Slumbering Ursine Dunes book. It has one of my favorite “dungeon” the Great Aviary of Komius Otmar with its enormous glass domed upperworks and underworks (with lots of vertical space connections) and I had enormous fun with the local humor eccentricities of Revoca Town. And of course it features a pointcrawl through mythical wilderness.

There are a couple other irons in the fire, some wargame-related projects and a published form of a Traveller mini-campaign I called the “Coupbox.” But much less developed than Revoca.

What sort of secret projects are being cooked up behind the scenes at Hydra that you can reveal to all six people reading my blog?

Well as usual we have way more on the potential docket than we could ever seriously do. Trey has some big projects coming up such as the Armchair Planet Who’s Who is a two “issue” superhero supplement for the Icons rpg by Steve Kenson. It’s done in the style of the DC Comics Who’s Who guides of the 80s and features artists like Chris (The Formidables) Malgrain and Dean (Krampus!) Kotz.

We have started off the new year of interviews with a bang! My first interview of 2019 and we have Chris Kutalik offering clues to an in-development Hill Cantons book? Bonkers. I am, of course, super hype for that.

Many thanks to Chris for spending a couple days talking to me to get this done. When I set out with the goal of reviewing all four Hill Cantons books together, it only occurred to me about halfway through that I should interview somebody about them, since they’re sort of a big deal. Chris and I had never spoken before, but he was a super enthusiastic and kind interview victim. Big appreciation for his willingness to be on my little blog like this.

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