Interview: Humza Kazmi Talks Hydra Cooperative, Legacy of the Bieth, and More!

The third interview from my series with Hydra Cooperative members who worked on the Hill Cantons books is Humza Kazmi, the writer behind the Legacy of the Bieth blog and one of the often underappreciated minds who helps make Hydra’s books come to life with attention to detail and countless hours.

*A content warning: Though the majority of this interview was done a week ago, in light of the devastating allegations of abuse raised by Mandy Morbid this week, Humza has chosen to address the concerns in the text below with an addendum. Though this article does not contain graphic details of the accusations, it does carry some discussion of this event and a link to Mandy’s post. If you are sensitive to discussion of that topic, please take care of yourself and proceed with caution; your mental well-being is paramount. Thank you, and have a good day.*

Usually I like to welcome industry pros to the blog by diving into their personal history, so let’s not change what’s working so far: What’s your history with D&D and other RPGs like? What got you started, and what has your strange trip through this hobby been like?

My first exposure to D&D was the Rose Estes book Return to Brookmere, a choose-your-own-adventure (pardon me, “Endless Quest”) gamebook that TSR had released. Having just been exposed to Norse mythology a few months before, the badass fantasy pump had been well primed. I was enthralled by Return to Brookmre in a way that other CYOA gamebooks hadn’t grabbed me — and I’m not ashamed to note that Return to Brookmere inculcated a lifelong draw towards playing elven fighters. I had been exposed to D&D en passant in other ways before that – the occasional ad in a magazine or comic (I remember being scared, as a ~5-year-old, by the vampire on a Ravenloft ad) and so forth, but Return to Brookmere was definitely my starting point.

After that, I windowshopped D&D materials for ages at Borders (RIP) and turned recess games of let’s pretend into elaborate D&D campaigns, but only got my first D&D gamebooks in at the tail end of middle school. This was right on the cusp of the release of 3e, which at once made all my game materials out of date and meant that 2e material was sold off at bargain prices. I was heavily into 2e D&D through middle and high school, but started expanding my interest to other RPGs (Vampire, Shadowrun, Star Wars d6, etc.) in high school. The one that really caught my eye, via old Dragon Magazine ads/articles, was Paranoia. And just in time, too – just as I started checking into it online, Mongoose Publishing was gearing up to release a new edition of the game, and there was a renaissance of discussion and exploration around it, particularly on the now defunct (RIP, PLN).

It was through being a volunteer mod at Paranoia-Live that I met Allen Varney, who readers may know as the current operator of the Bundle of Holding. Allen was the lead on Mongoose’s reboot, and organized a group of freelancers (the Traitor Recycling Studio) through active contributors on Paranoia-Live. He was gracious enough to invite me, a flaky highschooler/undergraduate, on board – my first exposure to professional game development. (Alas, the one supplement that I took a significant role in writing, Brave New Complex, wound up getting canned. I still have the notes for my Paranoia take on Star Trek, Redshirts, around…) I owe Allen a major debt for being a mentor and guide to the RPG industry, and putting up with a very wet-behind-the-ears neophyte.

After binging on Paranoia for a few years, I started to get burned out on the game and began drifting back to D&D – this was just around the time the OSR was picking up, in 2009-10. I wasn’t a member of the online discussion around at the time, but was reading the material and trying to use it in my own games.

How did you come to be a part of the Hydra Collective? What attracted you to Kutalik’s band of merry weirdos?

I joined Chris Kutalik’s G+ games in late 2011 or early 2012 – first a Stormbringer domain game, and then the weekly Hill Cantons campaign. At first, the Hill Cantons was one game among many (during the glory days of FLAILSNAILS) but I quickly grew to be good friends with Chris and the other regulars (soon dubbed “the Nefarious Nine”) and it became my dedicated D&D campaign. Tuesday nights at 9:30 PM was always the Hill Cantons.

When Chris, Robert Parker, and Anthony P formed the Hydra Cooperative to publish Slumbering Ursine Dunes, I was seeing dear friends publishing material I had played through — the Golden Barge of SUD had been the white whale of the Nefarious Nine for several real-life years, ever since our first sessions. I joined the Cooperative after SUD had released – I began showing up as a volunteer and friend, kibitzing on production, then taking on editorial tasks…and in 2016, I formally joined as a Hydra Coop partner.

What goes into the editing process? What does your role entail as producer of a book? How do you leave your mark on a project?

There is an initial read-through to get a sense of the text, where I add in notes as I go (“this doesn’t make sense, elaborate, unclear, HAH! Nicely done,” etc.). The writer then responds to my comments or edits, and I go through again. Of course, there are often other editors taking a look at the text as well! Particular shoutouts to Robert Parker, one of the Hydra plank owners, and a damn good editor who’s pushed several of our books to be the best possible. He’s very much led the way in setting the tone and outlook for the Hydra Coop editing process.

The manuscript can undergo multiple cycles of writing, editing, and revision as multiple editors hammer out the best way to make the book both maximally evocative and table-use-friendly. At some point the book is “locked down” on content edits – we then start hitting the stat blocks and copyediting. This takes approximately forever. Once we are done we turn things over for layout, and anxiously wait two forevers for layout to be completed, before being prima donna editors and tweaking this and that. Finally, we get a book together, curse at ourselves for mission creep, order print copies, and prepare to do the entire thing all over again.

My work as editor has been ensuring there is a balance of components. Each Hydra author has a very strong authorial voice (it’s one of the things that unites us as a group). As editors, we’ve got to figure out the right zone between authorial voice (setting tone and timbre of the module) and dry direct statements (providing clarity and immediate information). We’ve got to balance the author’s original conception of the setting (and capacity to write) against the desire to expand upon all potential details. And occasionally we’ve got to pinch-hit in writing up additional components that the module needs, but that the author may not have time or bandwidth to take on.

There’s also assessing whether the module plays well as written and presented. Do potential encounters and interactions have the right scaffolding and information for GMs to use these effectively? Are these monsters exerting a throw weight that’s what we want it to be? (There’s definitely a strong skepticism in our side of the gaming community regarding ‘the tyranny of balance’ and designing around that, but at the same time it’s entirely legitimate to assess whether potential threats are roughly matching what you have envisioned their capabilities to be.)

What lessons have you learned in your time with Hydra?

I studied Clausewitz in undergrad, and relate a lot of my internal analogies back to his work. His discussion of friction in warfare comes to mind: “Everything is very simple in war, but the simplest thing is difficult. These difficulties accumulate and produce a friction…So in war, through the influence of an infinity of petty circumstances, which cannot properly be described on paper, things disappoint us, and we fall short of the mark.” Friction is obviously not restricted to warfare, and I’ve become well acquainted with it on the production end!

The old cliche about the last 10% of the project taking another 90% of the time has been reinforced for me. There have been lots of lessons in how to better manage and facilitate projects, what you should have going into a Kickstarter, how to avoid mission creep, when to announce new projects and when to hold off…

I’ve also learned that I have some excellent and amazingly talented friends and business partners, and that I’ve been exceedingly lucky and privileged to get a chance to work with them.

Do you have a favorite project so far – either for the experience of working on it or the final product?

It’s hard for me to pin down a favorite existing project. If pressed, I’d perhaps say Misty Isles of the Eld, as the first Hydra product that I was involved in from the beginning. I’m also really hopeful about Hydrazine, our forthcoming irregularly released zine. This stalled for a while due entirely to my own anxiety and real-life workload, and I’m finally in a position to start pushing forward

Creatively, you’ve been involved behind the scenes on a number of projects. When do you think you’ll take center stage?

I’ve been prioritizing my dayjob and my extant responsibilities before taking on writing lead, but I do have one module underway, and notes for three other SF adventures. I’m hoping to have a playtestable version of my module (current working title: “Zonecrawl”) done later this year. I’m also starting to get the wind into my sails again for editing and organizing Hydrazine again.

Your own ongoing project is the Legacy of the Bieth. What is that, for the uninitiated?

My elevator pitch for Legacy of the Bieth is “Abbasid North Africa meets Roadside Picnic, as filmed by Sergio Leone.” It’s centered around the lands of the Asbari Caliphate, a polity drawing inspiration from the medieval Islamic world, and from the myth and folklore of North Africa and the Middle East. Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s “Roadside Picnic” (and several of the associated media spawned from it, like the computer game STALKER Shadow of Chernobyl) provide a strong inspiration in terms of the tone of the setting and some of the campaign drivers (reality-warping artifacts to be extracted from a magical wasteland).

LotB takes inspiration from, y’know, a massive group of cultures occupying a huge swath of the rest of the world that classic D&D simply didn’t touch. It was decades (besides the… troubled… Oriental Adventures) before TSR made an attempt to look beyond western myth and put out settings and books on other cultures – with mixed results. What do you hope to bring to the broader D&D community with LotB?

When “Islamic fantasy” comes up, the usual go-to is the 1001 Nights (and specifically Westernized takes on the 1001 Nights) – in a way that tends to dominate and override any other possibilities. I’m trying to push back against that by looking to both history and to the myths and legends of North Africa and the Middle East that get overshadowed.

Now, I was born and raised in the US; I can’t read Arabic, Swahili, Tuareg, Tamazight, Persian, Kabyle, or Hebrew. I’m not able to read primary sources without translation (and I don’t have the time, bandwidth, or budget to start changing that). There is a certain amount of unavoidable Westernization that’s going to take place in my work. But what I can do is to take my responsibilities of engaging with, respecting, and adapting this material seriously, and take on the challenge of bringing this material to people for the first time.

I’m hoping to bring the broader RPG community a setting/campaign framework/ruleset (potentially??) that I have a personal connection with, that takes the idea and principle of non-Western fantasy seriously. I’m extremely lucky to be operating in an environment where there are other creators taking on the same challenge (Zedeck Siew and Mun Kao’s Thousand Thousand Islands zines, Balogun Ojetade and Milton Davis’s Ki Khanga, Jerry Grayson’s Bastion, New Agenda Publishing’s Orun, Mariam Ahmad’s Sarzameen, Edgar Clement and Miguel Espinoza’s Nahual…).

Recently, thanks to the DIY/OSR indie scene we’ve seen a lot of incredible international authors with unique voices in the limelight, lending some of their cultures to the collective fantasy we share. What role do you see yourself having in that diversity going forward? How do you think you and other authors will influence the mainstream in the future?

That’s a broad question.I think that the broadening of collective fantasy that we’re seeing is not restricted to the DIY/OSR scene (see above for example – Clement and Espinoza’s Nahual is a PbtA engine game for example!) I’d like to keep creating and pushing the boundaries of what we think of in terms of fantasy – and the sources of our inspirations. Right now, fantasy concepts like “the Unseelie Court”, “Baba Yaga”, or even just “paladin” are part of the standard vocabulary within the broad genre of fantasy. They’re all things that generally elicit a strong understanding and association within the genre, and often see a remixing in other formats and contexts. I’d like to be part of the conversation regarding how those borders of fantasy broaden and expand outwards.

In your day-to-day, you work with immigration law very close to the seat of US power. Do you feel that your experiences there have had an impact on your gaming, such as perhaps impacting the conceits of your fantasy worlds?

I keep specific case information out of gaming, obviously, but certainly some of the darker and more awful cases I’ve tackled have served as inspiration for writing about dark and awful things, about conveying horror and trauma and pain. (And on a lighter note, some of the more absurd and farcical components of my job have served to inspire character interactions.)

 I’m still developing the day-to-day setting of Legacy of the Bieth, but another inspiration is certainly noir and hardboiled fiction, emphasizing a cynical and corrupt justice system where the strong tyrannize the weak and justice is rarely served. I’ve seen a lot of that in immigration court, certainly.

Who or what is inspiring you right now?

Addendum: Along with the people I mention below, I’d like to recognize Mandy Morbid.
Zak Smith (or Zak Sabbath) is a game designer who has been a major voice in the OSR for several years — and, during that time, has also been systematically organizing online harassment campaigns against people he disagreed with for one reason or another. 
Mandy is Zak’s former partner. This past Sunday, she and two other women publicly released a harrowing statement discussing Zak’s systematic and ongoing practices of abuse and assault towards her and others. This is a courageous action that exposes Mandy to a great deal of risk of harassment from her former partner, at a time when she is already facing extremely difficult health concerns. She and her co-authors are definitely people inspiring me right now.

In addition to the rest of my Hydra Coop crew and the people I mentioned at length above, I’d like to give a shoutout to Chris Spivey and Darker Hue Studios, and the Bluebeard’s Bride team (Whitney Beltrán, Marissa Kelly, and Sarah Richardson). Their takes on horror have been really compelling for me recently.

Harlem Unbound engages with Lovecraft’s cosmic horror and pushing back against his racism — not just cautiously sidestepping it, but actively grappling with it. Harlem Unbound does a great job of bringing the era alive for players and GMs. You’re grappling with both cosmic horrors from beyond space and time, and the very real horrors of racism and xenophobia…but you’re also seeing triumphs and successes against both. Black and immigrant characters in Harlem Unbound aren’t props to show “oh, how sad a time this was” — they are people with their own agency, and they fight back.

The Bluebeard’s Bride team did a great job at creating a horror game focusing on a type of framing and type of horror that we don’t see represented much in RPGs – feminine horror. They’ve done a great job at presenting a game that not only engages with this sort of horror on its own as a text, but also presents a pathway for players to engage with it meaningfully as well.

Both Harlem Unbound and Bluebeard’s Bride focus on a question that’s front-and-center for OSR design and gameplay – the nature and scope of player agency. OSR games are often in the realm of power fantasies — perhaps not in the same vein as other editions of D&D where player survival through the levels is expected, but power fantasies nonetheless. It’s less by the badass sword +99 or cool daily power, but the concept that one can outthink and outmaneuver any challenge is very much a core component of the OSR aesthetic. HU and BB push back against this by giving us areas where player agency is fundamentally foreclosed, where some paths aren’t within the scope of change. They present structural oppression in a way that defines (and confines) the scope of the game and make it something that players must seriously reckon with, while keeping the areas that are within player agency remain meaningful and interesting.

I greatly appreciate you coming this far in the questions. At the end of this elfgame question and answer period I am always interested to see what different creators are interested in shining a light on. Are there any projects on your radar that you’d like to plug or bring awareness to?

Well both Chris and Luka have Patreons, and you should support them! I’d also urge folks to check out the oodles of creators I’ve mentioned in passing so far – and to hit two more: GMDK and Cave Girl Games.

GMDK is a new studio focusing on inclusivity, diversity, and representation; I’m really excited to see what they do. They’ve got a Kickstarter currently running, the Demon Collective, that’s a production entirely by trans and NB folks (including Fiona Geist, who has put some solid editing in on Hydra projects).

Cave Girl Games is Emmy Allen’s work. She’s put together some great work like The Gardens of Ynn, the Dolorous Stroke, and Wolf-Packs and Winter Snow. She should damn well get more attention in our scene because there’s some great work there.

Getting back into the swing of things with creator interviews is really easy when you’re talking to someone like Humza Kazmi. He did all the heavy lifting with today’s interview and I have to say, his responses fascinated me. He even went and got his own links for this post, so I didn’t have to. What a superhero. My sincerest thanks to Humza for donating his time to answer nerd questions when he could undoubtedly be doing something better and cooler.

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