Most gamers agree that players are responsible for creating the characters in a role-playing game, but the GM’s responsibilities are more nebulous. Usually we say that the GM is responsible for the world, or stories, or both. In QAGS, I think we said the GM was responsible for “everything else,” which is definitely overstating things. I think a better description of the GM’s job is creating and dealing with the aftermath of conflict. Before I explain why I think that’s a good description of the GM’s core responsibility, let’s talk about why thinking of the GM as a worldbuilder or storyteller doesn’t quite work.
Those of you familiar with the Hex Games party line already know the obvious problem with this one is that every player should be involved in creating the world. Sure, the GM does a lot of the heavy lifting creative and usually makes the final call about what fits, but everyone contributes something. Even in the early days of gaming, when each game world was a bold, revolutionary slightly variant configuration of the same fantasy tropes designed solely by a single visionary GM, the players still contributed to the world in some way,even if it was just a few NPCs from their character backgrounds. Unless the game focuses purely on murderhobos wandering around in dungeons (in which case there’s no need to bother with build a world), the players can’t help but contribute something sooner or later.
Even (“especially” may be more accurate) if you’re in a game where the GM exercises very tight control over the world, there’s another, less obvious problem. When somebody puts a lot of creative energy into building something, they tend to get attached to it and don’t want someone coming along and messing it up. That’s fine for a novel or a painting, but not so good for a game world. If the GM is too attached to the world she’s created, she’s not going to want to see the characters mess it up, and will probably go to lengths that stretch story credibility in order to maintain the status quo. Since the characters can’t really change the world in any meaningful way, the players end up feeling like their characters are visitors to a museum rather than protagonists of a story. There are some interactive exhibits they can play with, but most of the place is covered in “Please Do Not Touch” signs. This can get even more frustrating when the status quo makes life harder for the characters. For example, think of the number of monster-hunting games where the characters are expected to go to extraordinary lengths to keep the existence of monsters a secret despite the fact that keeping monsters a secret is really only beneficial to the monsters.
This seems like an obvious statement, but technically it’s not really true. A story, by definition, has a beginning, middle, and end. Unless the GM plans to railroad the players mercilessly, the only part he’s fully responsible for is the beginning. Creating the story is what the game is about (even if it’s a very simple story about heavily-armed orphans killing things and taking their stuff), and is therefore a back-and-forth between the players and the GM. Don’t get me wrong, GMs usually go into a game with a pretty good idea of what the plot will be, and often the only difference between a railroading monster and a great GM is that the great GM is good at giving players the illusion of free will (making them think that doing exactly what she want them to is their idea), but even the best GM can’t always predict how the players will react to a situation. A GM who thinks of the story in linear terms will have a harder time reacting when players don’t do what she expects them to, will resist unexpected actions more forcefully, will be more heavy-handed in getting the players back on track, and will probably end up getting accused of railroading.
Conflict is so integral to storytelling that we don’t usually think about it, but it’s really at the heart of the GM’s job. If someone (who presumably has uncanny undefined power over you for some reason) tells you that you have to run a game right now with no preparation, you’re not going to start the game by trying to introduce world elements or set up a plot, you’re going to start that game by giving the PCs a problem to deal with and hope that the initial scene gives you an idea for what to throw at them next. If the first conflict doesn’t lead anywhere, you’ll keep throwing problems at them until you get something you can hang a story on.
I think most of the Hex crew consciously realized the importance of conflict the first time we sat down to playtest Hobomancer. By that point, we’d figured out quite a bit about Hobomancers and the world they live in--the “big picture” mission of maintaining the songlines to keep reality from falling apart, big chunks of mythology, specific hobo powers--but as we were making characters, somebody asked “So what do Hobomancers actually do during a game?” Nobody really knew. We were all kind of thinking that Hobomancers would do “hobo stuff” and “songline stuff” without actually realizing that starving and working crappy jobs and dying of exposure doesn’t make for a very exciting RPG, even when you add occasionally stopping to do some vaguely-defined magic ritual. We’d created a nice world, but it wasn’t a game setting yet. Luckily, the fact that we knew the game was set in the same world as M-Force gave us some monsters to fight to get things rolling and after actually playing a game we had a pretty idea of what kinds of things we needed to focus on.
Part of the reason we’d never really noticed the importance of conflict before is that for previous games, the conflict had been implicit in either the genre or the premise: M-Forcers fought monsters, Qerth characters wandered around in dungeons committing armed robbery, Fort High students tried to get laid and made bets about whether they could turn the weird girl into prom queen, etc. For hobos, on the other hand, the obvious conflicts weren’t as easily gamable, especially for people who (at that point) didn’t know a lot about hobos. Even now that I know more about hobos than anyone living in 2015 probably should, creating a game about “hobo stuff” and making both interesting and accessible to the typical gaming audience would still be a challenge.
The Hobomancer example is more about game design than GMing, but I’ve seen a lot of GMs who claim to have an idea for a game when really they’ve just got some setting ideas. For a game, you need some conflicts and at least some vague ideas about how PCs interact with those conflicts. If dealing with those conflicts don't make for an interesting gaming experience, you’ve got to either find a way to make them gamable or rethink your premise.
Setting up your game in terms of conflict rather than world or story forces you to put the different elements of game into context. In order to identify the conflict, you have to identify the motivations behind the conflict, which makes you think about the characters or factions involved and what they stand to gain or lose. That leads to a better understanding of the personalities involved and their relationship to one another and the setting. It can also give you insight into how the different factions operate, what resources they have at their disposal, and other potentially useful information that you might not have thought about if you were designing “Save The Princess Adventure #47A.”
The other nice thing about conflict-based plotting is that it feeds on itself. As each element gets contextualized within the world, it generates a whole web of related factions, characters, MacGuffins, and conflicts. Determining what one character is up to suggests what some other group is doing, which gives them a stake in another scheme that puts them into conflict with a completely unrelated faction, and so on and so on. Eventually, you’re going to run into at least an indirect connection between whatever random princess kidnapper you’re designing and something at least some of the characters care about. If you can find a way to exploit that connection, the story will resonate more because the characters will have a stake in the outcome that’s more meaningful than the treasure they get from looting corpses.
Is this all just semantics? Definitely, but the way we define things can have an impact on how we approach them, and sometimes the key to breaking a bad habit or getting out of a rut is to find a new way of thinking. I’ve found that thinking of games in terms of conflict rather than world or story can bring things into better focus and make GMing easier and players happier. It’s still world building and storytelling, but you’re building an active world where the stories have their own momentum. You end up with a events that the PCs can get caught up in, not set pieces and railroad tracks for the PCs to stumble across and wander around in or follow because they don’t have anything better to do.
Last week, I talked about the need (or lack thereof) of special rules for magic in settings with flash-bang magic. The tl;dr version is that if everyone has a good understanding of how magic works in the world and and what a particular type of wizard can do and there are no setting conventions that require special rules, you can probably use the same rules you use to determine how well a bard recites a poem. If the definitions of “magic” and “wizard” aren’t quite so clear, you might need some rules to help define the wizard’s role and keep the story from breaking down due to the fact that one of the characters has reality-altering powers. Fantasy authors have come up with numerous solutions to the problem, so let’s look at a few that are easily adapted to RPGs.
Specialization doesn’t require any special rules other than the stipulation that the wizard’s Job has to be more narrowly defined than “guy who uses magic.” The character has to be a Druid or a Fire Mage or a Necromancer or something. This provides a basic theme that helps define what sorts of spells are and are not appropriate for the character. Since most magical job titles are used differently in different stories, cultures, and traditions, it’s important that the player and GM have a mutual understanding about what a particular magical Job means. For example, does “Witch” mean the character has a familiar and makes deals with The Devil, wears a pointy hat and rides a broomstick, or collects crystals and owns a bunch of cats?
These aren’t Isaac Bonewits-style magical laws like sympathy and contagion, but basic fundamental rules about how magic works in the world. For example, “wish magica almost always has unintended consequences,” “magic always has a price,” or “magic doesn’t work on reptiles.” Some magic laws will be explained (or rationalized) by the mythology and magical traditions of the world (reptiles are the magic god’s spies), others will just be accepted, like the law of gravity (The Force has a Light Side and a Dark Side). Magical laws are by definition heavy-handed and arbitrary, so it’s best to reserve them for universal truths that describe the limitations and basic principles of magic in your game world.
I put “laws” in quotes here because they’re often taboos, superstitions, union rules, or cultural values that forbid or restrict certain spells or forms of magic rather than actual statutes of the legal code. A wizard can use forbidden magic, but there will be consequences--possibly very severe ones--if anyone finds out. He may be kicked out of his coven, forced to do some sort of penance, or just treated like a pariah by anyone who’s heard about what he did. The Unforgivable Curses in the Harry Potter series are a good example: Using them won’t cause a character’s face to melt off, but if the Ministry of Magic will ship him off to Azkaban the minute they find out about it.
The idea that some things are more difficult than others, even if they use the same skill set, is both a basic fact of life and a core gaming concept. It’s easier to cast a detection spell than raise the dead, just like it’s easier to spam somebody’s email account than to hack into the Pentagon’s computer system. In stories where magical training is formalized, spell difficulty is often combined with academic standards to keep powerful magic out of the hands of those who aren’t ready to use it yet. Spell difficulty can also be used to help enforce the magical laws of the world. For example, if turning lead into gold is considered a nearly impossible feat that only the greatest wizards can master, it will have a high difficulty. In D&D, spell difficulty is accomplished by arranging pre-defined spells into different levels. For QAGS, you can just use Difficulty Numbers.
Human Limitations: Spell Points
In some stories, there’s only so much magic a human being can channel, usually because the author realizes he needs an excuse for limit the wizard’s power during particular scenes. Sometimes the wizard is like a battery, and once his magical “juice” is used up, he has to recharge before he can cast more spells. In RPGs, this idea is usually modelled using a spell point system.
QAGS seems to have a built-in mechanic for spell-points in the form of Yum Yums. Just make wizards spend Yum Yums to cast spells; When they run out, the battery’s dead. This seems like a good idea on the surface, but quickly runs into problems. For one thing, you’re going to have to give the wizard Yum Yums for routine actions like sleeping or meditating or whatever restores magical energy in your world, which kind of runs counter to the entire idea of Yum Yums. On top of that, you’re making the wizard spend Yum Yums to use his Job, which would be like making a fighter spend a Yum Yum every time he swings his sword. In most cases, this kind of system will either lead to the wizard having so few Yum Yums he’s useless or so many Yum Yums that he potentially has vast control over the game reality without even casting any spells (since he can just spend part of his giant pool of Yum Yums to alter reality and augment rolls).
If you’re going to use the player’s Yum Yum pool as a magic pool, I suggest making most basic spells “freebies” and only making the character pay for especially impressive or difficult displays of magic (just like a fighter can pay Yum Yums to do crazy action movie combat stunts). The easiest solution is probably to base whether or not Yum Yum expenditure is necessary on Difficulty Number--maybe a spell with a DN of 10 or more costs a Yum Yum. Whether running out of Yum Yums shuts down the wizard’s magical ability or just places difficult spells off limits is a matter of what works best for the setting and group preferences. As for “recharging” the magic pool, the wizard should only get Yum Yums for things that would normally earn Yum Yums (which could include coming up with cool ways to regain magical energy). If you want to give the wizard “freebie” Yum Yums to keep him from going too long without the ability to cast spells, give them to everybody. The idea that everybody’s more effective after a good night’s rest, and therefore should get a Yum Yum when they wake up, kind of makes sense. Unless your players have a tendency to hoard their Yum Yums, it shouldn’t cause any problems.
If you want to keep spell points separate from Yum Yums, you’ll need to decide how spell points are calculated, how they’re recharged, and whether different kinds of spells have different costs. I’d probably set the magic pool equal to the wizard’s Job Number and base the cost of a spell its DN: 0 Spell Points for 5 or less, 1 for 6-10, 2 for 11-15, and 3 for 15+. For regaining spell points, you can either have a set “recharge” rate for certain activities or make the player roll Job to see how many points he gets back whenever he does something that would restore his magical power.
Human Limitations: Drain
In some stories, the human capacity for magic is more like alcohol tolerance. There’s a certain amount you can handle, and if you keep going after you’ve reached your limit you’ll regret it in the morning. In RPGs, this concept is usually called Drain.
Drain happens when a character uses too much magic. If you want to use drain, the first thing you’ll have to do is decide the consequences of magical hangover: does it exhaust the wizard? Make him fall into a coma? Manifest as physical damage? Based on the answer to this question, you’ll need to decide the game effects of drain. Exhaustion would probably manifest as a penalty to rolls and physical damage would result in HP loss, for example.
Once you know the effects of too much magic, you need to figure out how to measure how much magic is “too much” and how each spell counts toward that limit. For QAGS, I’d base it on spell DN. You’ll also need to a way to determine the specific details of drain, like how many HP the character loses or how long the coma lasts. Assuming the drain doesn’t render the character completely helpless, you’ll also need to decide whether he can still cast spells and how to handle additional drain.
Here’s a simple drain system for QAGS: Each wizard keeps a running tab, which we’ll call his Drain Rating, which starts at 0. Each time the character casts a spell, his Drain Rating increases by the spell’s DN. As long as the Drain Rating is less than the wizard’s Job Number, he doesn’t suffer any negative effects. When the Drain Rating exceeds the character’s Job Number, he must make a Job check. If the roll fails, the magic frazzles him, giving him a penalty to all rolls equal to his Failure Degree plus the difference between his Drain Rating and Job Number. If the character continues casting spells, he must make an additional Drain Check for each spell. The penalties for multiple failed drain checks are cumulative. If the character’s penalty ever exceeds his Job Number, he falls into a coma for 12 - (Body + Penalty) hours. Additionally, if the character ever rolls a Bad Break on a Drain Check, the damage manifests physically, causing HP loss equal to the penalty incurred.
Limits On Freeform Magic
So far, we’ve mostly been assuming that casting a spell is kind of like painting a picture: once you know the basic techniques, you can use it to paint whatever you want. That’s freeform magic. Many fictons treat magic more like music: just because you know how to sing doesn’t necessarily mean you know how to sing “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” If you want to do that, you’re going to have to figure out what the hell Kurt Cobain was saying, memorize it, and probably introduce some variations so it works better with your own voice. Sure, you could write your own original songs, but that’s a lot more work and most of the shitty bars you’ll be playing at only want cover bands anyway. We’ll call this formulaic magic. In a world with formulaic magic, wizards learn each spell just like cover bands have to learn each song. Presumably it is (or at least once was) possible for wizards to create original spells--the spells everybody uses had to come from somewhere--but it’s a lost art, it’s dangerous, it’s unreliable, it’s time-consuming or whatever. While you can definitely define the reason nobody creates original spells anymore in your game setting, and even create mechanics for it, you don’t have to. Many fictons with formulaic magic just assume all wizards stick to existing spells and never mention the possibility of creating original spells on the fly.
In a world where most magic is formulaic, spells become a commodity. While there will be certain spells everybody learns at wizard schools, there will also be gatekeepers who try to control which wizards have access to certain spells, spell trading and even collecting among wizards, profiteers who earn their living giving wizards access to new spells, and probably a few legendary spells that are presumed lost. The idea of spells as a commodity could lead to some interesting storylines in world with a modern legal system. Are spells subject to intellectual property laws, allowing the legal owner of the spell to sue people who use it without paying royalties? That kind of thing could be a lot of fun in a game like Shadowrun where evil corporations exist in a world with magic.
The implementation of a formulaic spell system really depends on how much control the GM wants over what kind of magic a wizard can perform. For tight control, make the player keep a list of the spells he knows how to cast, kind of like an equipment list for mystical powers. If the GM wants to give wizards a little more room for improvisation, he can let players make up typical (generally low-mid power) spells on the fly but make them seek out, find, or trade favors for more powerful magic during the game. Spell Difficulty is a handy metric for deciding which spells can be assumed. For example, maybe wizards don’t have to keep track of specific spells with a DN of 8 or less, but anything more powerful can only be used if the wizard has it on his spell list.
If you want to try something a little different, it might be fun to let the wizard player to come up with spells on the fly, but he has to give them a setting-appropriate name and maybe some history or other flavor, but no mechanics or other specific details of how the spell works. The GM then determines what the spell actually does based on the information the player provided. I’ve never tried this (because I just thought of it), but I plan to as soon as I get a chance.
The Price of Magic: Ritual Requirements
As Spike observed in Buffy The Vampire Slayer, magic always has a price. The simplest variation is to make the “price” of magic something that’s required or consumed when the spell is cast. There are a few variations on this theme:
- Magical Crutch: The wizard can only cast spells if he has the proper tools. If he doesn’t have access to them, he’s out of luck (or at least at a distinct disadvantage). Wands in the Harry Potter universe are a good example of this.
- Spell Components: I’m going to use Gygax’s term here because the only other phrase that works is “ritual requirements” and making it a subcategory of itself would just be weird. D&D has verbal (things you say), somatic (little dances you do), and material components (physical items/substances required by the spell). Since verbal and somatic components are only an issue when the wizard can’t talk or move freely, you’ll probably want to focus on material components if you’re more concerned with limiting the wizard’s power than instilling magic with some flavor. Basically, you’re keeping track of ammo. When the wizard runs out of bat poop, he can’t cast any more spells that require bat poop. If you’re doing a spell list, you can come up with specific components for each spell. If you’re doing more freeform magic, you can let the player name the component the first time he uses the spell and stick to it from there on out. Bigger (higher DN) spells will likely require more precious components and it’s best if components are somehow symbolic of the spell being attempted.
- Magic Fuel: This is basically a generic version of material components: in order to cast any spell, the caster has to power it with some kind of magic rock or drug or whatever. It’s kind of like the currency used in social media games that you can only get by annoying your friends or paying the creator money (but unless your players are used to playing certain miniatures games, charging them real money to use basic character abilities probably won’t be appreciated). If you’re also using spell difficulty, the amount of Arbitrarium it takes to cast a spell can be tied to the spell’s DN.
The Price of Magic: Backlash
This is similar to Drain, but every spell a wizard attempts to cast has a chance of bringing the pain. Whenever a wizard fails or rolls a Quirky Success for a spellcasting roll, he has to immediately make a Job roll against the spell’s DN. If the roll fails, he takes damage equal to the DN minus his roll (treat failed rolls as 0) from the magical current shooting through his body. If magic physically frying the character doesn’t fit the flavor of magic in your world, you can apply the damage directly to Brain or Nerve, depending on whether the backlash makes the character lose his mind or lose his shit. If a character gets a Bad Break on a backlash roll, the backlash leaves a permanent mark of some kind--a scar, his hair turns white, he grows horns, whatever.
The Price of Magic: Consequences
Spells have consequences. If you’re using formulaic magic, these consequences may be defined as part of a spell, like the way some spell age D&D Magic-Users. You can also make consequences more vague and tie them to specific magical traditions, like the idea that magic used to hurt others comes back on the caster threefold. Finally, you can go completely freeform with the consequences and base them on the situation. These sorts of consequences work kind of like conservation of energy or the laws of motion, but are usually more literary and symbolic. Basically, every spell has some kind of repercussion, but it’s usually so minor and removed from the caster that it isn’t even noticed. For example, maybe a wizard’s light spell causes one of the street lights in town to stop working. The bigger the spell, the more likely the repercussions are to be felt by the caster. Such repercussions don’t have to be predictable or as direct as “light created by a spell destroys light elsewhere,” but the potential trouble caused by them should be consistent with and symbolically related to the benefits gained from casting the spell. A spell that lets the caster pull a rabbit out of hat shouldn’t destroy an entire ecosystem because of some kind of butterfly effect caused by the rabbit not being there for a wolf to eat, but it might cause some Easter eggs to go bad. If you need a mechanic, make a d20 roll every time a wizard casts a spell and use the difference between it and the player’s roll (treat failures as zero) as a guide for how close to home the repercussions hit. With the exception of very powerful spells or very irresponsible uses of magic, most repercussions shouldn’t be clearly identifiable for what they are.
If you want Vancian magic, just play D&D or one of the hundreds of D&D clones. If there’s one magic-related thing that D&D does well, it’s turning the weird magic system from Dying Earth into game mechanics.
Conducted by Carter Newton
Jeffrey Johnson is a talented artist who has done a great deal of work for Hex Games. He may be best known for illustrating the cover of the ENnie Award-winning RPG Hobomancer and the Hobomancer Companion. Recently Jeffrey illustrated my novel Suicide Run: A Tale of the Hobomancers. I had some questions for him, and he was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to answer them.
Carter Newton: Jeffrey, you've worked on several Hex products, including Hobomancer, in the past. Was your process different for this project than it would have been for a gaming supplement?
Jeffrey Johnson: Usually on the game supplements, there is no particular story that needs to be told. Both covers and interiors simply need to evoke the feel of the game setting and hopefully entice people into looking at and ultimately buying the books. Generally I’ve been really lucky when working with the folks at Hex because the brief goes something like this: “We have this game, it’s about such and such, here’s a copy of the text, make something cool.” So I read as much of the content as I have time for, jot some notes down, work out some ideas in my sketchbook, and maybe look for bits and pieces of reference on the internet. Speaking of internet reference, one of my friends told me that they always try to guess what kind of project I’m working on based on what I pin on Pinterest. It’s not just for girls planning their weddings, you know.
The process for this project WAS a little bit different, though. First off, I couldn’t put the book down—even that first (or second) draft was amazing! So I read through the book and some of the characters jumped out at me from the beginning, so they immediately landed in the sketchbook. The second read through was chapter by chapter, talking with you and picking out key scenes that hopefully wouldn’t give anything away, but that also showed some of the terrific action and character in the text. The book is Bo Suicide’s story, so mostly I wanted to focus on him.
CN: You had extremely clear visions of several of the characters - better than even my own! What did you see in the story that gave you such a clear image of the characters? Were any of them clearer or stronger than others? Were you especially drawn to any of them?
JJ: Montana Handle was the first drawing I sent you. I think he was inspired by a mix of Sam Elliot and watching a lot of “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind” with my daughters. That’s become part of the pattern for drawing characters in the worlds Hex designs. The Who Would Play Them In The Movie? (WWPTITM?) mechanic of QAGS always gives a handy jumping off point. I always loved Montana Handle though, and he’s the most “out of my head” of all of the characters.
Bo Suicide didn’t really become a person to me until about two thirds of the way through the book. In the scene at the section house he gelled as a young Dick Van Dyke. Looking for scenes to illustrate and keeping that look in mind and the feeling I got from that initial illustration really helped make him a likable character for me. It’s really hard to do several drawings of someone you don’t like.
The general Store owner could’ve been any number of people I’ve known in small towns in Missouri, Alabama or West Virginia.
One of my friends posted a recent photo of Star Trek’s Lieutenant Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) and she was just so calm, and in command, and refined. She was George Porter, no doubt about it. Then later, talking to you about some trouble with the drawing, you said something like “less serene, more Bruce Lee,” which really fleshed out the idea a lot.
CN: Your image of the monsters in this story is gripping. I actually rewrote sections of the story to more closely reflect the picture you'd drawn because it totally gave me the creeps. Where did that come from?
JJ: There were a few iterations in my sketch book. At first I was thinking something more spidery with long spindly legs, like the war walkers from War of the Worlds. Those sketches gave way to something more like a horseshoe crab…Often as I’m sketching I tell myself stories about what things look like, how they’re connected to the world, and what purpose different parts serve.
Many of my monsters, especially the ones for the Hobomancer world, are based on fish. I guess part of that is a Lovecraft influence, but let’s be honest here…fish are terrifying. I remember thinking that it should definitely have little, beady eyes, and it should seem nearly unbeatable, all teeth and fire, grabbing arms and claws. Its only real purpose in the universe is to hunt and to eat.
Conducted by Leighton Connor
This is the conclusion of my interview with Carter Newton about his new novel Suicide’s Run: A Tale of the Hobomancers (on sale now!) In Part One, Carter and I talked about using the Hobomancer setting for a novel; in Part Two, we talked in more depth about the characters, and some of the challenges Carter faced in bringing them to life. In Part Three, we talk about Good Jungle, the human response to disasters, and the fascist plot to overthrow FDR.
Leighton Connor: Let’s talk about Good Jungle. Good Jungle, for those who haven’t read the book, is the massive and surprisingly developed hobo camp that the characters visit early in the story. You mentioned to me awhile back that your depiction of Good Jungle was inspired by your research into how people react in a disaster. I’m curious what you meant by that.
Carter Newton: There’s this idea in pop culture that when a disaster happens, the worst in humanity comes out, we go all Mad Max, and every man for himself, and only the preppers shall survive. It makes good movies, good comic books, and good TV. It’s also wrong. And not a little wrong. The trope of the lone wolf human with no connections is basically a fiction invented by Hollywood so that you can get away with a character with no back-story. It’s a crutch for writers who are on deadline and just need to get it done.
In the real world, people are social creatures, and thousands of years of living as social creatures has taught us to look after those around us. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina on the US Gulf Coast, in those first days the response was... let’s go with “uncoordinated at the federal, state, and municipal levels.” That conveys the message without adding value judgements the way that words like “shameful” or “ridiculous” or “ham-fisted” or “would be laughable if not for the fact that people were dying because of the gross ineptitude” do.
So, anyway, in the aftermath of this disaster, people started by checking on their neighbors. And then community leaders (or emerging community leaders) started setting up communal kitchens to feed those who didn’t have power or food, and then they started putting together medical clinics, for lack of a better term, for first aid or those who were sick or needed their medications. And then there would be a place for gathering, whether that was for worship or discussion of the situation, or just to sit someplace with someone who understands you and share a cup of coffee. And being New Orleans I suspect music broke out somewhere in there.
If you look at a refugee camp, or in the historical record at a Hooverville or Bonus Army camp, or more recently at an Occupy Wall Street camp, they all have basically those same elements. Also, they describe the perfect Hipster urban landscape, minus the disaster, but you know. So, when I started thinking about Good Jungle, I had this rich vein to draw from to help think about the layout and the character of the village. There are communal wash tubs for laundry and hygiene. There’s a communal kitchen which is basically continually making a batch of stone soup - everybody puts in what they can. But as you get deeper into the village, there’s a school, and a hospital tent, and merchants and craftsmen, a lending library, and a baseball field, and a garden for food crops. And it’s a little bit fantastic, but less than you might think.
Suicide has this image in his head that the camp would be full of lazy, indolent men, and he’s surprised first that it’s families with women and children. And then he’s surprised by the fact that there’s all this enterprise - a tailor who offers to make him a suit, a blacksmith who is equally comfortable making a wrought-iron decoration as tinkering a pot. And there’s commerce, essentially shops specializing in different wares like bags for travelling. And Suicide is stunned because it isn’t simply a place where people sit doing nothing, it’s a functioning city where they take in the victims of the rolling disaster that was the Great Depression.
The baseball field may have been pushing it. Well, maybe not. Soccer games break out in refugee camps all the time. Okay, I feel all right about the baseball field.
LC: I assumed you had just made up the whole thing. As I said before, I’m impressed by your commitment to doing research and working real history into your fantasy story. What really blew my mind, though, was when you told me that the Business Plot was real. Without too many spoilers, can you explain what that means?
CN: The Business Plot was, basically, an attempted fascist coup to overthrow FDR in 1933. It might have worked except for the fact that the plotters were stupendously dumb. The plotters attempted to install as the figurehead of their coup the most decorated Marine in the history of the United States Marine Corps, General Smedley “Old Gimlet-Eye” Butler. In addition to being the bestselling author of War is a Racket, a book which calls out industrialists who use undue influence on American foreign policy to use the military might of the US to achieve their business ends, he was also a personal friend of Franklin Roosevelt. So as the figurehead of a fascist coup, probably not the best guy.
Let this be a lesson to you. If you plan on a coup, Google the guy you plan on putting out there as the figurehead. The thing of it is, that’s the only boneheaded move they made. If they’d picked a different, politically ambitious man - of whom there are usually no shortage among the general staff - it probably would have worked. Butler was incredibly popular, and capable of delivering a stirring speech, and believed deeply in the Constitution.
The point is that the Business Plot was a coup attempt on FDR which was real, and serious, and dangerous. As a nation, we got very very close to losing our democratic republic.
LC: I don’t want to give away the details, but the Business Plot ends up being an important part of your story. How had you heard of this attempted coup in the first place? What about it made it seem right for a Hobomancer novel?
CN: I first heard about the Business Plot on the Tank Riot podcast. They did a profile of General Smedley Butler, the “Fighting Quaker.” One of the things they talked about was his involvement in this sort of apocryphal coup attempt led by a bunch of wealthy, powerful industrialists. Only, the thing of it was, the names of the wealthy, powerful industrialists weren’t recorded because there was no reason to trouble them with such allegations. So I was thinking that this conspiracy theory was a pretty good setting for telling a story of a man on the run. Suicide is the very definition of a low-level flunky who makes a good scapegoat.
Oh, by the way, author Sally Denton in her book about the coup, The Plots Against the President, used FOIA requests to get access to many of the actual investigation files. The FBI and congressional investigations determined that the threat was real and that the thing that stopped it was General Butler.
LC: Good job avoiding spoilers there. One more question, and we’ll wrap this up. I imagine that people who are familiar with Hobomancer will want to read this book, to see how you’ve brought the setting to life. But what about people who have never heard of Hobomancer, who--as hard as may be to imagine--have never even spent any time thinking about hobos? How would you describe the book to a person like that, and why should they read it?
CN: This is a book about train-hopping hobo wizards in 1930’s America. It’s a story of a man wrapped up in events beyond his reckoning. It’s an adventure to save the United States as we know them. It’s a fast paced race that will leave the smell of coal smoke in your nose and the sound of the whistle singing in your ears.
LC: Excellent. Thanks for your time, Carter, and for giving such thoughtful answers. And thanks for writing the book. I greatly enjoyed it, and I think other people will, too.
Conducted by Leighton Connor
This is the continuation of my interview with Carter Newton about his new novel Suicide’s Run: A Tale of the Hobomancers (on sale now!) In the first part, which you can read here, Carter and I talked about how Carter went about translating an RPG setting into a novel and turning character sheets into real characters. In Part Two we talk more about the characters, and the particular challenges Carter faced as a white male trying to write a convincing black female character.
Leighton Connor: One of the things I really enjoy about the book is the way you make the hobomancer characters so mysterious--since the book is from Suicide’s point of view, we only gradually learn about them as he gets to know them better, and we never learn all their secrets. Without getting into too much detail, which of the hobomancer characters was the most fun to write?
Carter Newton: That’s hard! You basically just asked me to pick my favorite child. All of the hobos were fun in different places and for different reasons. Nugget was fun, because there’s some real fun in writing a curmudgeon. Scoreboard has a couple of very subtle jokes that I hope somebody catches and says, “Hey, you know...” I think Montana Handle ended up being the most like how I envisioned in the beginning. His WWPHITM was Christian Kane in Leverage. With a dash of Aragorn.
Even the bad guys are fun to write. Particularly as they start posturing and jockeying for position.
Okay, fine, it’s George Porter. She’s my favorite.
LC: George Porter is an African American female, and you’re a white guy. When you were writing her, were you concerned that she would come across as . . . well, as a white guy’s flawed perspective on being a black woman in the 1930’s?
CN: Concerned? Are you kidding? I was terrified.
There’s a section in the Hobomancer rulebook that says, essentially, it was bad to be a hobo, it was worse to be a female hobo, it was even worse to be a hobo person of color, and to be a hobo woman of color was unspeakable. So in a moment of unbelievable hubris I said, “Okay, the leader of this crew of hobomancers is a woman of color.” And then I started writing, and after about ten pages or so, I realized what I’d done and that I needed to stop and read a lot to avoid some of the really bad traps in fiction.
LC: Like what?
CN: There’s a particular trope in fiction in which a person of color exists to do something magical for the main - usually white - character. Think Bagger Vance or Uncle Remus. And after I’d started re-reading what I’d done with George Porter, I realized that by definition I’d done exactly that. And then I kicked myself for about a week and a half.
And after that I realized that it was important to keep George Porter, but also to make sure she went beyond the trope. I spent a lot of time on explicitly feminist websites reading about modern feminist theory and intersectionality. And then I thought about it a lot. Like about five months a lot. I spent a lot of time with my mouth shut reading about the experiences of women in disenfranchised groups, and letting those stories inform how I approached George Porter. I owe writers and commenters at websites like Jezebel and Shakesville an enormous debt of gratitude.
Basically, what I had to do was to make sure that George Porter had her own story, and that it reflected both the reality and the possibilities of the time, and that it wasn’t about Suicide. There’s a professional interaction very early in the book that sort of sums up this sort of institutional underestimation of the capabilities of people of color. And it occurred to me that kind of day-in and day-out aggression by white people would lead to so much resentment, but if George Porter acts any of that resentment out...well, look at the statistics on lynching in America in the 20th century.
Let’s be clear, it was hard for me to face this history of racism and sexism and responses to them to write George Porter as well as she deserved to be written, but it’s nowhere near as hard as it is for disenfranchised people to actually live it. I hope I’ve represented the experiences of those who educated me in a way that makes them feel heard.
LC: Well, I thought you did a good job, but I’m another white dude, so I’m probably not the best person to ask. You mention that you did a lot of reading for your portrayal of George Porter. One thing that struck me, when I was reading the book, was how much you seemed to know about the 1930’s in general. I know that if I were writing a novel set in that time period I wouldn’t have been able to come up with nearly that level of detail. How much research did you do, and how much did you already know going in?
CN: Approximately one thousand years ago I got a BA in history, but the 1930s in America was neither my region or my time period! I still really enjoy history, and an uncomfortable amount of my pleasure reading seems to be about US history between, say, the end of the Civil War and World War II. You know, the really happy, uplifting parts. The first half of the 20th Century in American history I find really interesting, because it feels a lot like the country trying to figure out how to be a nation and taking these grudging half steps towards being better at fulfilling the promise that all men and women are treated equally before the law and have equal access to the tools to achieve their potentials. Something else we’ve totally got covered now.
The history of those faltering steps is largely a tale told against the backdrop of disaster and tragedy which sort of forces the hands of the powerful. John M. Barry’s book Rising Tide is one of those great books which takes the story of this natural event, the Great Flood of 1927 along the Mississippi River, and breaks down all of the economic impacts of the disaster, and what flood control means for the maturation of the Federal Government’s role in state issues, and the social implications for the people who live through it. I mean, you have this huge African-American diaspora from the Mississippi Delta to the industrial cities of the north, and from that you get things like Otis Spann, the piano blues player - without whom you’d have no Little Richard, and no Rock and Roll, and you have Detroit, which prospers partially because of this sudden influx of labor, and you also get Motown, without which you and I live in a very boring world!
Also Wikipedia. Everybody should give them five bucks, at least once a year. I can’t tell you how many bizarre questions I typed into Google only to discover that, why yes, someone has written an article on Wikipedia about urban planning in Hoovervilles in the industrial North East. Wikipedia is the modern Library of Alexandria. Go give them some money.
And, with that call to action, we draw to a close again. Be sure to check in tomorrow to see Carter and me talk about Good Jungle, the aftermath of disaster, and the real-life plot to overthrow FDR in a fascist coup.