The following article originally appeared on an earlier iteration of See Page XX in October 2007. 

An Interview with writer Kenneth Hite

Kenneth Hite is designing Trail of Cthulhu – a licensed version of Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu. Here, Ken answers questions posed by our redoubtable forum members.

1. How will sanity and madness be handled- especially as they relate to the fairly strong link in Lovecraft’s fiction between Finding Things Out and Going Crackers. Might sanity be treated as a resource that can be used up to help in an investigation? Or rather, less cynically, will there be some (perhaps dubious) advantage or beneficial side-effect in losing sanity?

In Trail of Cthulhu, Sanity is separate from the GUMSHOE trait Stability. Sanity measures your ability to believe in limited human reality; Stability is a mental health rating. (Dr. Armitage, from”Dunwich Horror,” has a very low Sanity, but a fairly high Stability,for example.) Using your Cthulhu Mythos skill helps with an investigation, but such “piecing together of dissociated knowledge”costs Sanity, and potentially Stability as well.

2. Will there be an introduction adventure included in the book as with the “Esoterrorists” and “GuH” book?

There will be an all-new introductory adventure in the Trail of Cthulhu core book.

3. Do you plan to include an default setting and background organization (a la Delta Green or Ordo Veritatis from Esoterrorists) or will it be a setting without background organization (like in CoC or GuH)?

My current plan is to include three separate narrative structures in the Trail of Cthulhu core book, and give some guidelines for constructing your own. Of course, Keepers and players will be welcome to follow the venerable Call of Cthulhu model of “you all meet at the reading of a will/museum opening/seance” if they like.

4. Will the book be written entirely from the viewpoint of those combating the unspeakable horrors or will there be focus on those who embrace the truth about Cthulhu & the mythos?

This book will be entirely about Investigators who discover, suffer from, and combat the horrors of the Mythos. Players who want to take the role of soulless inhuman monsters have a plenitude of other roleplaying choices in other roleplaying games.

5. Will the works of other Mythos writers such as Ramsey Campbell & August Derleth feature in or influence Trail of Cthulhu?

As with Call of Cthulhu , the entire Mythos will provide potential material for Trail of Cthulhu games. That said, the core ruleset will be primarily influenced by Lovecraft and Howard, with nods to otherwriters (I just wrote a fairly nice treatment of Campbell’s /Revelations of Glaaki/ if I do say so myself), including Derleth. The game is named after a Derleth story-cycle, after all, so it would be churlish to leave him out.

6. Do you think the Mythos has losts its power to inspire fear? Was the horror of the Mythos ever fully expressed in Call of Cthulhu?

The Mythos, like any other literary or artistic material, depends on the skill of its author and the acceptance of its audience for its power. This is true in roleplaying games as well as novels or short stories.The game Call of Cthulhu — SAN rewards, Elder Signs and all –expresses the maltheist, implacable core of the Mythos to a remarkable degree, and many of the published scenarios are quite terrifying to run or play. Assuming the Keeper is any good, and that the players aren’t being jerks, of course.

7. How much power do you think PCs should have over the Mythos? Will you present elder signs, for instance, as standard issue equipment or as arcane mysteries?

This is a Keeper call; the rules will support whichever flavor she wants for her game. We’re including special hard-core rules for Purists, and easier-going, more adventurous rules for Pulpier games. There will be Elder Signs in the game — they appear in Lovecraft, after all — but their narrative role and general availability is up to the Keeper.

8. You’ve said in the past that Call of Cthulhu is your favourite game. How will Trail of Cthulhu improve on CoC?

It won’t “improve on” Call of Cthulhu across the board; it will do some things more easily, and with a different feel or emphasis. The 1966 Shelby Mustang is my favorite car, but it’s not a particularly good SUV. Sashimi is my favorite food, but it’s not what I necessarily want for breakfast.

9. If I disagree with the central premise that Cthulhu (or investigation-centric) games have traditionally been stopped by a failed die roll, what else does GUMSHOE and Trail of Cthulhu offer me?

Trail of Cthulhu, specifically, offers you a number of interesting character filips, from core Drives (why are you in this ruined crypt,anyhow?) to personal Pillars of Sanity, as well as having my own delightful prose throughout. GUMSHOE, of course, offers an elegant, quick-to-learn ruleset focused for investigation and mystery narratives.

10. Are there any obscure corners of the Mythos you plan to give greating-than-usual attention (I hope)? If so, mind telling us which ones, or at least giving us a few hints to salivate over?

I think there’s plenty of interesting stuff we can do with some of the old standards yet, and hopefully my takes on Hastur, Nyarlathotep, andso forth will pique your saliva. That said, nobody ever seems to give Quachil Uttaus enough love.

11. Will this game have a grittier take on combat than Esoterrorists?

There will be a few new rules for combat in Trail of Cthulhu, covering Tommy guns, explosives, and other necessities of shoggoth-hunting, but in the main Esoterrorists combat system strikes me as admirably clean, staying out of my way while I’m trying to scare people half to death, so I’m sticking pretty closely to it.

12. Will Trail of Cthulhu give an overview of the Mythos, or will it be designed to focus on just a small slice?

The corebook will give an overview of the Mythos, although by now even focusing on Lovecraft’s creations is “just a small slice.”

13. Is Trail of Cthulhu designed to be a one-shot game or the first in a series of Cthulhu products?

All the plans I’m privy to indicate that Pelgrane intends to put out a series of products in the line, but Simon would be the person to ask about that.

[Ed: Ken, Robin Laws and others will be working on supplements for Trail of Cthulhu]

14. I’m partial to Robert E. Howard’s Cthulhu writings, so I was wondering if the game would be exclusive to Lovecraftian Cthulhu or if it would encompass parts of other writers as well?

A Cthulhu game without Robert E. Howard is like a day without sunshine.As I mentioned above, Trail of Cthulhu will have not just some of Howard’s monsters and tomes, but mechanical rules switches: flick them on to make the game feel more Pulpy and Howardian; leave them off for full-on tweedy collapse in Purist late-Lovecraft style.

14. Which period will this be set in? If you are thinking of Between the Wars, do you see a principal difference between 20’s and 30’s games? Will Gaslight or Modern be supported at all?

Trail of Cthulhu assumes a default setting of the 1930s, which was a darker, more desperate decade than the one before, what with the Depression, Hitler, Stalin, and so forth. Lovecraft’s stories begin to show the difference, and I’ll try to capture that difference in the setting material. I don’t know if Pelgrane intends to expand the line into other eras just yet, although adapting the ruleset to other decades should be fairly simple.

14. How does Gumshoe support period play? In other words, does Gumshoe allow modifications that can support different periods, or can Gumshoe be altered so that it actually enhances the period feel needed for a particular era?

Given the intentional compression of the GUMSHOE weapons table, the primary ways to alter setting feel mechanically are in the ability rules. In Trail of Cthulhu, the various abilities provide only period knowledge, of course. The Credit Rating ability can be used (if the Keeper so wishes) to enforce different social realities across decades. I think the biggest change is that Explosives has become a chancy General ability, not an automatic Investigative one. But really, the best way to support period feel is to write and run adventures dripping with it. That said, though, say good-bye to bulletproof vests!


Trail of Cthulhu is an award-winning 1930s horror roleplaying game by Kenneth Hite, produced under license from Chaosium. Whether you’re playing in two-fisted Pulp mode or sanity-shredding Purist mode, its GUMSHOE system enables taut, thrilling investigative adventures where the challenge is in interpreting clues, not finding them. Purchase Trail of Cthulhu, and its many supplements and adventures, in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

Two wider geek-media huzzahs for Pelgrane core games hit this week, and by some kind of odd coincidence, they both feature interviews with me.

Andrew Girdwood of Geek Native shares the news of how you can get Trail of Cthulhu for 55% off at DriveThruRPG if you haven’t bought it yet, and asks me all manner of questions including “What music goes well with Trail of Cthulhu?” You know I plugged James Semple’s amazing soundtracks, but click through to see what else I suggested.

Ed Grabianowski, meanwhile, gives Night’s Black Agents a very flattering review at io9.com (“Filled with innovative features that help create a unique gaming experience”) and asks me, among other things, about playtest highlights I didn’t mention in the “DVD Commentary” sections in the book. Find out where the giant stone vampire head was, here.

Twisted Tales interviews Kenneth Hite, author of Trail of Cthulhu and the forthcoming Night’s Black agents.

 

 

This issue of RPG Countdown has interviews with four Pelgrane writers

In at #7 Paula Dempsey with the Occult Guide

#4 Robin D Laws with the Dying Earth

#3 Graham Walmsley with Cthulhu Apocalypse: The Dead White World

and #1 Ken Hite with Bookhounds of London

Aldo Ghiozzi is a senior industry professional, who has weathered the ups and downs of the roleplaying games industry. He runs Impressions, a company which consilidates and fulfils orders for his publisher clients in the game hobby trade. Exceptionally, he promotes his clients games to distributors and retails through personal contact, email and trade shows. He has been performing fulfilment for Pelgrane Press since January 2003 and since last year ProFantasy Software, consistently and reliably providing up-to-date sales information, and paying on time, too. He has somehow managed to retain his original high level of enthusiasm. Simply put:

  1. He tells all the distributors about his publishers’ forthcoming releases.
  2. They ask their retailers to pre-order.
  3. On a weekly basis, he ships out any books the distributors have ordered, whether new releases or back orders
  4. He collects monies owed by the distributors.
  5. The following month he pays his publishers for anything for which he has collected money. (Bad debts fall on the publishers, although Aldo keeps tabs on the distributors creditworthiness)

Introduction

First, a potted biography would be good. I don’t know what a “potted” biography is, but how about a short one? :=) Prior to Impressions, I spent eight years on the marketing side of the computer and video game industry, which included the launch of the (recently defunct) magazine “PSM” and the launch of what is now IGN.com. I also had my own part-time hobby game company, Wingnut Games, which was mainly known for Battle Cattle and Og. Now, Impressions handles the distributor sales and shipping for about 40 game companies to over 30 distributors worldwide. We are also the former publishers of GameBuyer Magazine and organize Free RPG Day annually.

About Impressions

How did Impressions come about, when was it formed, and how quickly did it grow?

Impressions

I actually started Impressions as a side business while I was trying to make Wingnut Games a full time gig (that brilliant idea lasted like two months). At that time, Wizard’s Attic was handling my distributor shipping. Since the owner was local to me, I went over there a lot and talked to him a lot at local shows. Well, when things started to fall apart there, I worked a deal with him to take over some clients of theirs and over the holidays in 2001, I took over everyone and put them under the Impressions banner. That was a crazy month — I went from like 10 clients to 80 overnight. Eight years later and Impressions is the longest running fulfillment consolidator in the biz.

What role do you fill in the hobby market, who are your customers, and how do you charge? We’re really a middle man that works for hobby game publishers and sells to hobby game distributors as one combined entity. Instead of a distributor contacting, ordering and getting shipments from 40 different companies, they do that all with us in one fell swoop. Our main cost to publishers is a 18% commission on the product we sell plus $0.25 per unit handled/sold. In the end, we keep 10% that does not go back to shipping, and that makes us like any commissioned sales person. We have other fees possible as well, but that varies depending on the client.

About the market

What proportion of your sales would you say come from roleplaying games, and how has this varied historically? Surprisingly, it has not changed much over the years. RPGs are still doing anywhere from 40%-50% of our business. RPGs are easier to make so chances are there will always be more RPG publishers entering or already in the marketplace.

How many copies does the average RPG sell now? Huh…People are lucky to sell 150 copies of a new RPG through distribution these days. Because of this, I would say over 75% of the RPG products I get these days are POD [Ed: Print on Demand as opposed to Offset Litho Printing, which needs runs of 1000+. Pelgrane produces a mixture, depending on potential demand.]

How has the downturn affected you and your competitors? Have you continued to trade with customers going bust and the market declining? For me, we’re down 15% over last year, year-to-date, but that is not much at all…and it is still not a bad decline when 2008 was 5% down from our best year ever in 2007. Sadly though, one of our competitors, Key20, went away this year. Now, in terms of folks “going bust”, I don’t see that right now. Payments are nice and steady from North America, and last year I made it policy that all foreign distributors be on credit card or PayPal money prior to shipping. I definitely feel things when someone is having trouble though…they are good people…they tell me…they try to work it out. Unfortunately, we tried to work things out with Blackhawk Hobby and Centurion Hobby, but both went away.

Has the internet undermined retailer sales, and has this had an impact on your business? I think undermined is too devious of a word. I think the internet has just reduced their sales. But this is where retailers need to take what they have and shine…They are brick-and-mortar stores and their job is to bring an experience to their consumers…the internet retailers cannot have game days, tournaments, events, parties, weekly gatherings, et.al. (and we do not allow internet retailers to participate in Free RPG Day ). Has it impacted my business? Probably not. Internet retailers still buy from distributors so the decline I mentioned above is just due to the economy.

About your Clients

What do you look for in new clients? What are the minimum financial requirements for new clients? I look for commitment, communication and promises to promote themselves to be kept. There are no financial requirements on my end, but I tell clients they are not financially viable as a client without having 3 or 4 releases a year, or 2 really really good ones. I mean, yes, it is about the revenue they generate, and I figure that if they do not sell $18,000 in gross MSRP (about $7,320 at wholesale) a year, there is no profit on our end…that does not mean they cannot be a viable business, but just not for us.

What distinguishes your most successful clients, and who are they? Well, it took a long time, but Goodman Games has built a following with their Dungeon Crawl Classics line…and this is what I would want in every single client! [Ed. Pelgrane’s sister company Axe Initiative will be selling 4e material through Goodman Games] The other successes include Castles & Crusades from Troll Lord , The Order of the Stick books from Giant in the Playground , the Order of the Stick board game from APE Games and the Red Dragon Inn series from SlugFest Games . In the end though, no one knows what the consumer will grab onto and run with, but I do believe that the more you try, the more likely you will have a success possible…and when you do find that success, take it and run with it as long as you can.

Marketing

What major marketing do you undertake to promote your clients and the hobby industry? I categorically believe that my biggest undertaking for my clients is the contant contact I keep with the distributors. I am surprised when distributors tell me I am someone they hear from most often vs. other companies…even the big boys. I’m a huge believer in communciation, and I open those lines up with retailers as well. I answer a lot of retailers too because after so many years, they know they can call me with a Goodman Games or Troll Lord Games or whomever question where I will be able to give them the best answer out there. Beyond that, we used to have GameBuyer going out to stores every month, but that ended up being a very small percent focusing on clients…it became a general trade publication and actually took more time to do vs. the return. Don’t get me wrong, it was still profitable, but not to the point of the time to get it done. Now, we also go to conventions, but we do not sell at consumer shows. Again, communication…we use these shows to meet with distributors and retailers. We do go to the ACD and Alliance open houses (except last year) and again, these are great to see the retailers face-to-face.

What advice would you give to new publishers about creating games, marketing and increasing sales? It is kind of hard to give advice about creating games, but I can say that if a RPG publisher wants to have any decent amount of sales beyond distributor sales, they need to find every venue possible to make money: distribution, direct to retailers, online, PDFs, con sales and any place else they can think of!

The Future

How do you see the future of your business? Have you considered mail order, direct retail sales or PDFs? I have thought of doing all of those you listed above…but every time I start getting deep into any one of them, I categorically believe that the core of Impressions would suffer. I am a big believer in not being a Jack-of-all-trades…I would rather be the master of one. OK, so Impressions is not the master of distributor sales, but I think having a targeted focus gives me a better chance of survival and success in my specialization (another reason why GameBuyer was sold). Now, having Free RPG Day is outside that previous statement, but it was started because Joseph Goodman made me do it (!!!) and it breaks things up without disrupting the distribution side of things…and it is only once a year. Overall though, I think my future is the same for Impressions. When times are bad, companies want distribution help to increase sales, and when times are good, they want distribution help to handle the increased sales. That means I should be fine no matter what the economy…if I play things smart. And I would say I have because I have been through the D20 boom, the D20 bust, the CCG boom, the CCG bust, and now the economic bust…and I humbly say, I’m still here.