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An interview with Steve Johnson and Leighton Connor, conducted by Jeffrey Johnson
I remember back in the olden times when if you wanted behind the scenes information about movies or games you had to settle for the little snippets in Starlog, or on E! entertainment TV and piece the whole story together bit by bit. Every now and again, you’d get really lucky and there’d be an interview with George Lucas or Dan Aykroyd or something. These days, we have to settle for the 2+ hours of behind-the-scenes extras plus commentary from the cast and crew on the DVD. Where’s the adventure?
While I feel some entitlement to moan about how much easier kids have it these days, the fact of the matter is I love DVD extras. It’s awesome hearing about how the guys from Pixar went on a road trip and hammered out the stories for their first four major movies. It’s inspiring to see the development of the sets and artwork for The Lord of the Rings. It’s hilarious to hear Mr. Lucas claim that he always had a plan for the Star Wars prequels. So, if the movies can do it, why not games? Games are about story and visual development. Even better, by talking about how they are developed, why some decisions were made, who inspired them, and what it’s all about, maybe it’ll make it easier to add your story to the experience.
The making of Hobomancer, a game about a secret society of magical hobos, was the
result of a lot of late night talks at conventions, during car rides, and over e-mail. A labor of love years in the making, it was finally released in 2012, and stands as one of the biggest books that Hex has produced.
Hobomancer‘s nomination in July 2013 for an ENnie Award for Best Electronic Book (you can vote for the ENnies here) seemed like a good opportunity to reflect on how it all started, and about how it grew into something more than expected.
1. Why Hobos?
Leighton Connor: Because hobos are the new pirates. If you want a romanticized historical character type who symbolizes personal freedom, hobos are perfect, and they’re not glorified murdering thieves like pirates. To be honest, though, we have to give credit to John Hodgman. He wrote a book called The Areas of My Expertise, which is like an almanac filled with fake information. There’s a long section on hobos. In his book hobos are evil, so that’s very different–we are strongly pro-hobo–but it was because several of us had read the book that we were thinking about hobos in the first place.
Steve Johnson: Hodgman was definitely responsible for planting the idea of hobos in our heads, but once the idea of a game called Hobomancer was (half-jokingly) suggested and we started thinking about it, the question quickly became “Why not hobos?” As Leighton touched on, they have a lot in common with pirates, cowboys, ninjas, and many other character types that show up in nearly every RPG, so a game about hobos really isn’t as strange as it sounds at first.
2. You’ve said before that as a group you make the games that you would want to play. After having the initial idea for Hobomancer, what came next? Did you jump right into story ideas? Research the setting and culture of 1930’s America?
LC: Steve, Carter Newton, and I came up with the idea for Hobomancer during a late night discussion, so the first step was to get some sleep and see if we still thought it was a good idea in the morning. When any of us get together and talk late into the night, we always have ideas. Most of them, when revisited in the harsh light of day, are dumb. This one we still liked the next day, and the more we talked about it, the more we liked it. As for historical research, I did very little, but I think Steve started researching pretty early on.
SJ: Our first step was to figure out exactly what we were going to do with the game. When we first came up with the idea, we were thinking it would have a comedic tone and even considered parodying the original World of Darkness games with it (Hobomancer: The Unbecoming). As we started talking through the ideas and coming up with details, we quickly figured out that there was a lot more we could do with it. Once we realized how well the idea would fit with themes we’d been exploring with the American Artifacts series, it went from being a quick, goofy game about hobos to something bigger that sort of tied together a lot of our collective influences and ideas.
For research, I started out just reading everything I could find about hobos and, by association, the history of the railroads in America. Once we realized that we needed to have a “default” time period for the game and chose the 1930s, I started putting together a timeline and reading up on the big things that were going on in America around the same time so we’d have some historical context as we worked on the rest of the game. After that, I didn’t really come back to the history until I wrote the 1930s chapter towards the end of the whole process.
LC: If you want to hear when everything really clicked, listen to the first-ever game of Hobomancer. You can come up with ideas all you want but it’s not until you sit down and play that you know whether your game is going to work or not. Fortunately, it worked.
3. Can you tell us about the themes behind Hobomancer? Are you pushing a socialist agenda?
LC: Hobomancer is an all-American game. It is unashamedly patriotic, and focused on the virtues that make this nation great. You could even call it conservative, in that it expounds old-fashioned American ideals. However, old-fashioned American ideals can seem radical to some.
SJ: In today’s political climate, with the “moderate” position somewhere slightly to the left of Ayn Rand, it might seem so, but at heart the themes in Hobomancer aren’t so much economic as cultural. I think the two big themes in the game are a rejection of rampant consumer culture and the mediocrity that comes with it (as represented by the Combine/Dream Snatchers) and a sense of responsibility to others. If there’s a central theme to the real-life Hobo Code, it’s “We’re all in this together. Help others whenever possible and don’t do anything that will make life harder for the hobos who come through town later.” I wouldn’t call it “socialism” so much as “basic human decency.”
4. Where did you draw inspiration to flesh out your ideas?
SJ: The core idea of hobos as wizards really kind of fleshed itself out once we started doing research. Real-life hobos live outside of mainstream society, have their own secret language (hobo signs), take on “craft names,” live according to a code–when you think about it, the only real difference between hobos and shamen or wizards is that (most) hobos don’t claim to be able to work magic. I think Carter and I both encountered the sort of “geography of narrative” idea of songlines (as opposed to the Australian Aboriginal concept) in Jimmy Buffett’s autobiography, A Pirate Looks At Fifty. Several of the monsters–especially the really weird ones–came directly from folklore, particularly an old book by William Thomas Cox called Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods. The Combine was something we sort of backtracked to from the idea that the modern world was one where the hobomancers ultimately failed at their mission, but the name comes from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.
As far as actually putting the different elements together, the “feel” we were going for is very much inspired by people like Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Tim Powers, Terry Gilliam, Grant Morrison, and all the others mentioned in book. It’s hard to really explain, but it’s a combination of juxtaposing mundane reality with fantastical elements and tying things together with mystical connections and patterns that don’t really exist. A lot of the writing, at least on my part, was actually done with the music from the “Inspirational Materials” section playing in the background.
LC: I second everything Steve said, but I’ll also throw in O Brother Where Art Thou? as an inspiration for a mythical version of 1930s America, and Manly Wade Wellman’s short story collection Who Fears the Devil? as general inspiration for American magic. We had already started work on Hobomancer before we discovered Who Fears the Devil?, and we felt like we had some exciting new ideas, and then we discovered that Wellman had covered a lot of the same ground back in 1963. It’s a great book; I highly recommend it. I don’t know that we took anything specific from the book, but the tone of it influenced the short fiction pieces in Hobomancer.
Not all the inspiration was positive, though. Steve mentioned the Combine, who are the villains in the game. It took us awhile to pin them down. For awhile there, I found myself looking around at my surroundings, and on the news and in the media, and every time I saw something I thought was wrong in our culture, I would try to figure out how to fit it into the Combine concept. I started seeing the Combine everywhere. Which is not the healthiest way to be, since the Combine is imaginary. I’m happy with how that section of the book came together, though, so it all turned out well in the end.
5. Many of us are used to physically weak, nerdy wizards who level up in order to perform incredibly powerful, destructive magic. Is the type of thing we can expect from the hobomancers?
LC: Hobomancers can be big, burly guys if you want, and they can start the game with pretty powerful magic. We’re not big fans of the “level up so that your character can eventually become playable” school of RPG design. I know there are benefits to that style of play, but I’d rather start the game with a character who is already capable of doing interesting things.
6. Magic is obviously a big aspect of a game about hobo wizards. In past expansions such as the American Artifacts books Hex has started developing the idea that magic is different in America than in Europe. Can you tell us a little bit about how these ideas were expanded on in Hobomancer?
SJ: I think the core idea we’re playing with in books like American Artifacts and Hobomancer is that the rules of magic are the same, but it looks different because it’s been adapted to the tools and cultural touchstones of America. For Hobomancer, a lot of the “conversion” involved taking a standard idea from “old world” magic and thinking about how hobos would change it around. One of the best examples of this kind of thing (which actually came from a convention player) is the idea of divining the future by looking at the bottom of a bean can instead of a tea cup. Hobos don’t have the luxury of tea time, but they’ve always got beans.
LC: I should mention that Neil Gaiman’s American Gods was an influence on the idea of uniquely American magic. It’s not something we set out to copy, but we’ve all read the book, so it was probably in the back of our heads. And, of course, there really are American magical traditions, like Louisiana voodoo, and uniquely American types of folklore and superstition, so it’s not as if American magic is a new idea.
7. Since none of you live in the same city, how do you share ideas and develop them as a team? Do you ever meet up and work?
SJ: At the risk of using a buzzword, Hex’s main office is somewhere in “the cloud.” With everyone so spread out, we use things like Google Docs and Dropbox for doing actual work and an email list for the organization and planning. Even though we’ve adapted pretty well, a lot of the best collaboration happens when we see each other face to face, mostly at cons. We occasionally get together specifically to work on something, but most of the time when we get together outside of a convention, we do it to hang out and play games together without a convention going on around us. We do get some work done on those occasions, but it’s usually secondary to having a good time.
LC: We do most of our collaborating electronically but, as Steve said, sometimes you need the face to face conversation. When we got together at Archon a few years ago we knew we needed to hammer out the details of the Combine/Dream Snatchers. They were supposed to be the villains of the Hobomancer world, and we hadn’t figured out how they were going to work. If you read the description of the Combine in the book it seems very simple and straightforward, but at the time we had a lot of contradictory ideas and couldn’t seem to agree on anything. So Steve, Carter, and I sat at our booth and brainstormed, discussed, and argued for hours. At the end of the day we had the Combine figured out and were all satisfied. We couldn’t have gotten the same results if we hadn’t been together.
8. This is your first really big book since M-Force, right? How have the game mechanics as well as the in-game universe changed over time?
SJ: Qerth was between those two, but it’s kind of a completely different animal, so working on it didn’t have a lot in common with the other two. M-Force came out before the second edition of QAGS, but for the most part it’s the 2E system. The main difference was that M-Force had a lot of crunch, which we added in an attempt to appeal more to mainstream gamers. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but since then we’ve realized that QAGS just isn’t a game for people who want crunch. We still introduce new rules all the time, but only when they add something to the game we’re writing.
As far as the Hex Ficton setting, the struggle is always to make sure that the world is consistent without letting continuity interfere with a particular game. Fortunately, in a lot of cases inconsistencies can be written off as misperception or bad information. For example, the Pope Lick Monster in Hobomancer isn’t the same creature as the Pope Lick Monster that will appear in M-Force 2E, but that can be easily explained as two completely different creatures prowling the same area (and therefore being lumped together under the same name) at different points in history.
LC: Most players probably don’t think of Hobomancer as taking place in the same world as M-Force and Weird Times at Charles Fort High, and that’s fine. Each game should stand on its own. We like to fit the pieces together so that there’s a larger setting, but it’s really just an added bonus that’s available to those who are interested, and not something that should make any of the games less accessible. For example, from our point of view there are undercover Martians and Venusians running around in the America of Hobomancer, but we don’t mention them in the book, and if you’re not interested in them, you don’t need to worry about them.
9. The idea of the songlines following the railroad is a great one, and adds an American mythos to one we’re used to hearing from the European ley lines. In playtesting, were there any pitfalls to having the PCs essentially tied to where there were trains?
LC: To give credit where it’s due, I think that the songlines following the rails was originally Carter’s idea. It was one of the first ideas we had, and is probably what pushed us over the edge from “let’s make a funny game about magical hobos” to “let’s devote years of our life to this.” Later we all contributed, but Steve did the bulk of figuring out how the songlines work. He put a lot of time into getting the details right, since the songlines are the heart of the game. And the first chapter of the book.
And no, we didn’t have any problems in playtesting. Hobomancers ride the rails, but they also get off the trains pretty frequently. I’ve never done it, but I’d say you could keep your PC party off the rails for multiple sessions in a row and it wouldn’t harm the feel of the game.
SJ: The way we’ve got it set up, it’s not like hobomancers are powerless when they’re away from the Songlines. The magic of the songlines permeates all of reality, it’s just stronger along paths where great stories have taken place–which also means that, unlike Ley Lines, Songlines can shift over time as the energy flows toward more resonant stories. While a Hobomancer game can definitely include all sorts of interesting encounters along the railroad tracks, in most of the games I’ve seen the railroads to some extent function as a home base for the party. The trains are sort of like the tavern in the stereotypical fantasy game, except in this case the tavern can drop you off at the next adventure. Also, there were around 250,000 miles of railroad track in America during the 30s, so there weren’t a lot of settled places where the trains didn’t run.
10. The idea of Hobomancer seems to be one that’s easy for people to get excited about. I’ve seen it at the last few cons I’ve attended as well as when I talk to people about it. During game development, what considerations needed to be made to create a setting that was accessible to the average gamer? How do you draw players into a world that they’re not familiar with, and that can easily be derailed by that unfamiliarity?
LC: I haven’t really seen that as a big problem. Once you say “1930s America,” most people have a pretty clear picture in their heads. The key is not to expect your players to have a lot of detailed in-depth knowledge. The game is set in a mythical version of the 30s, so it’s okay to get some of the history wrong as long as the feel is right.
SJ: In most cases, the only historical inaccuracies that are going to sidetrack the game are the ones everyone’s going to notice. If a character decides to “borrow” a particular make or model of car, it doesn’t matter if that particular car didn’t actually exist then as long as it’s not something jarringly anachronistic like a DeLorean. As long as everyone’s picturing running boards and gigantic fenders, it’s all good. The only exception is if you’re building a plot around historical events, in which case the GM needs to make sure that the players understand the historical context of the story. For example, if you introduce John Dillinger into your game, the players need to know whether or not he’s a household name yet.
Thanks for your time guys!
LC: You are welcome.
SJ: Thank you for the great questions.