An interview with Ken Hite – the Night’s Black Top Agent

Night's Black Agents: Cover

Night’s Black Agents: Cover

Let’s face it – I am a fan of Ken Hites work. He did the great pulpy, post-apocalyptic The Day after Ragnarok for Savage Worlds and Hero RPG published by Atomic Overmind Press. For Pelgrane Press he designed the mythos game Trail of Cthulhu based on Robin D. Laws GUMSHOE system. His latest work Night’s Black Agents – spies like Jason Bourne mixed with really creepy vampires – is also based on the same game engine. If you like the idea of spy thrillers with vicious vampires – get Night’s Black Agents!

Enough chatter – here is the interview with the top agent Ken Hite. Hi, Kenneth Hite! Let us start with the usual introduction for new readers and fans. Please tell us about yourself and your gaming experiences?

Ken Hite

Ken Hite

Kenneth Hite: I’m a full-time freelance writer and game designer, and I’ve been gaming since I was ten or so — my dad played GETTYSBURG with me back when the hexes were still squares. I discovered D&D around 1978 or 1979, and I’ve played RPGs pretty much ever since, and I’ve been professionally writing them since the mid-90s. TRAIL OF CTHULHU and NIGHT’S BLACK AGENTS from Pelgrane Press are my most recent games, but people might know DAY AFTER RAGNAROK, GURPS HORROR, GURPS INFINITE WORLDS, or GURPS CABAL, or either of the STAR TREK RPGs I co-designed for Decipher and Last Unicorn. I had lots of bits and pieces of lots of other books, too, as you tend to do in the RPG freelance biz. What do you think about the market reception of Night’s Black Agents? You and your publisher are satisfied so far?
Kenneth Hite: I don’t know anything about the sales figures (part of the fun of being a writer instead of a publisher), but I am happy to say that all the reviews have been very positive. My publisher Simon Rogers seems pretty satisfied, if I can judge by the amount of new stuff for the line he wants me to write.

Night's Black Agents: Cover idea

Night’s Black Agents: Cover idea Imagine a potential new fan. How would you brief pitch Night’s Black Agents and what would you suggest to read, watch and/or play – first – to get in the right mood for your game? I watched the first two or three episodes of Ultraviolet (BBC), but though you give playing modes (Burn, Dust, etc.) like categories for spy stories, your game feels (to me) a bit more like a action-packed variant of the movies Ronin or the Bourne trilogy with drops of blood (instead of bread crumbs) to the elusive vampire lord.
Kenneth Hite: The elevator pitch for NIGHT’S BLACK AGENTS is: „The Bourne Trilogy, if Treadstone were vampires.“ In the Sources section of the corebook, I recommend the Bourne movies, Ronin, and Taken, the BBC series Ultraviolet, John Steakley’s novel Vampire$, and Tim Powers‘ novels Declare and The Stress of Her Regard. That gives sort of the baseline thriller mood of the game — then, you can tweak it by mode if you’d rather go in a Tinker, Tailor sort of direction or over into Alias or Nikita territory, or maybe something more like the Spielberg film Munich.

Night's Black Agents: Interior art (by Alessandro Alaia)

Night’s Black Agents: Interior art (by Alessandro Alaia) Why did you chose vampires as the ultimate nemesis of the Night’s Black Agents? In recent years the bloodsuckers got a lot of mainstream attention. Nice and somewhat ’silly‘ serials like True Blood, Twilight and Vampire Diaries etc. softened their image a lot. You go back and create – in my opinion – dark, bestial monsters in (nearly) human disguise – not sexy boys and girls with small faults? What about other nightmares like werewolves, demons, ghosts or even secret societies?
Kenneth Hite: I think I chose vampires specifically because of the shows and films you mention. I wanted to go back to the vampires as horrors, as sources of evil and corruption. It’s that original myth that Stephenie Meyer and the Sookie Stackhouse books are all strip-mining, so I think it’s always a good idea to pump some more blackness, blood, and fear into the well. Plus, vampires are a great symbol for conspiracies and the sorts of bad guys thriller heroes fight: they work in the shadows, they drain the vitality of the innocent, they derive pleasure from killing, that sort of thing.

As far as the other nightmares go, I basically get my secret societies snuck in there already with the vampire conspiracies in NIGHT’S BLACK AGENTS. I’ve already got other ideas for werewolves and ghosts, and I don’t think either works as top-dog Blofeld types anyhow. And demons? Vampires pretty much are demons, in Buffy and plenty of other sources — NIGHT’S BLACK AGENTS can be about demons with the flick of the Director’s pencil.

The Day After Ragnarok from Atomic Overmind Press

The Day After Ragnarok from Atomic Overmind Press Both games – The Day After Ragnarok and Night’s Black Agents – are heavily rooted in Europe (at least for me). Are you fascinated by the old world or do you have other reasons. I think the most popular vampire myth is still Dracula. He comes from eastern Europe. The Midgard snake is based on northern European mythology. For me as a German it feels a bit like the opposite of our Wild West fascination.
Kenneth Hite: Well, I guess DAY AFTER RAGNAROK is rooted in Europe since that’s where the Nazis and the Norse were, but I pretty much destroyed the continent in the book, so I imagine most of the game play happens in North America, or the Pacific, or the Middle East, or Africa. With NIGHT’S BLACK AGENTS, I picked Europe because it’s the source of our vampire myth (as you note) and because virtually all good spy thrillers are set there. I, personally, love Europe because I’m a history buff and you guys produced history by the shipload for a while there. But I’m also crazy about my home town of Chicago (which I just wrote up for the DEADLANDS NOIR COMPANION), I’m a giant Western fan (just like you Germans!), and my next big TRAIL OF CTHULHU book will be about China. You seem to be a man of vast reading. It looks like you read a lot and you are not limited to a specific genre, but with a strong enthusiasm for horror. In your own books I really like the chapters of your sources and inspirations. I read them first. Please tell us about your creative process and inspiration(s)? Do you talk to your fans, publishers and look for what they might like or to you follow your own interests?
Kenneth Hite: I do read a lot, or at least as much as I can in between writing gigs. I do love horror best, but I read history and alternate history, SF, spy thrillers, folklore, and occult or conspiracy type books. As far as creative process, if I’m writing something I try to read and watch as much material in that same field as I can: when I was writing BOOKHOUNDS OF LONDON I read a bunch of murder mysteries involving book dealers, for example, and a bunch of London history and mythography, and bibliophiles‘ memoirs, and fantasy novels set in London. Because of that, I try to get assignments that play to my strengths, or that play to stuff I’d like to read about. By now, my fans tend to be interested in things I’m interested in (which is probably my fans) and my publishers tend to hire me to write things I’m good at, which is pretty much the same deal.

Night's Black Agents: The Zalozhniy Quartet

Night’s Black Agents: The Zalozhniy Quartet The Zalozhniy Quartet, the first „campaign“ for Nights Black Agents, is written by Gareth Hanrahan and based on your story design. What did the development process look like? You wrote a pitch or an exposé, he wrote the adventures and fine?
Kenneth Hite: I basically wrote up an outline for each adventure (basically the equivalent of the „Spine“ section you see in GUMSHOE adventures), did a game stat writeup for the zalozhniy themselves, came up with the sort of over-arching plot and backstory for the campaign, and told Gareth the four adventures had to fit together in any order. He took that and ran with it to great effect — virtually every specific detail or encounter in the ZALOZHNIY QUARTET is 100% Gareth, and he added one very creepy and excellent detail to my zalozhniy as well. I think I may have seeded three or four scenes in the book in my outline, and then during editing I may have suggested one or two more.

Night's Black Agents stuff & Tim Powers Declare (just bought after this interview!)

Night’s Black Agents stuff & Tim Powers Declare (just bought after this interview!) Mabye I am wrong, but from afar it looks like you have a weak spot for the author Tim Powers. What makes this author special for you and what is his best book in your opinion? Will you ever do a game inspired by his works?
Kenneth Hite: As far as I’m concerned, with the possible exception of John Crowley, Tim Powers is America’s greatest living fantasy author. I’d actually put him up against anyone writing in English today. What makes him special for me, personally, I guess is that he writes very much like I think: allusively and obliquely presented, historically-minded, with a great love for prose and poetry and their special qualities, and a finely controlled paranoia. Or perhaps apophenia is better: the condition of finding nonexistent connections between things. He’s also just a terrific person in person, which is irrelevant to art, of course, but it does make me feel better about buying stuff in hardback. His best book, in my opinion, is probably Declare, although if I’ve just read Last Call or even Anubis Gates I sometimes change my mind. The Stress of Her Regard and Expiration Date both get better every time I re-read them, too. But he’s never written a bad book; even his very early stuff is only okay. Will I ever do a game inspired by his works? Maybe a better question is when will I ever do a game not inspired by his works? As far as a direct inspiration — DECLARE: THE RPG or GURPS ANUBIS GATES or something — I don’t imagine there’s enough money in either direction to make licensing worth it for either party. Besides, anyone who can’t already play On Stranger Tides with any RPG set you want to name shouldn’t be allowed near the dice, and UNKNOWN ARMIES is already pretty much „Tim Powers the RPG“ at least for the modern-day stuff. Please tell us about your current and future projects? There are at least three Night’s Black Agents supplements announced (Dracula Dossiers, Agent’s Companion and Dracula Unredacted). Do you plan a crossover of Night’s Black Agents and the Cthulhu mythos? Will you ever write a Day After Ragnarok novel or another supplement for this wonderful setting? Maybe you get involved in the 13th Age project, but to be honest, I expect a Kenneth Hite Kickstarter within the next few month.
Kenneth Hite: Right now, I’m in the planning and outline stages of my new stuff for Pelgrane. The „unredacted“ edition of Dracula is part of THE DRACULA DOSSIER, in that it’s the main clue handout — the version of Dracula before the Special Branch made Stoker take out all the „sources and methods“ detail, as annotated by three generations of MI6 specialists. The rest is an ARMITAGE FILES-style framework for improvisational campaigning around that handout. The AGENT’S COMPANION is just more, more, more: details on stuff to do with abilities, a gun list for all the people who wanted one, and some really interesting stuff some of which has already been in See Page XX and some of which will be new to the book. I’m also getting ready to tackle DEATHLESS CHINA for TRAIL OF CTHULHU. As far as a NBA-Mythos crossover, there’s already a „drift“ in the back of the NIGHT’S BLACK AGENTS corebook to set up a modern-day NBA agents vs. the Mythos game. I’m still trying to talk Simon into green-lighting SHADOWS AND FOG, which would be my 1930s espionage TRAIL OF CTHULHU book, and if that happened it would wind up with a lot of NBA style content in it as well.

The Day After Ragnarok: Post Serpentfall World Map

The Day After Ragnarok: Post Serpentfall World Map

I do plan to write a Memphis city book for DAY AFTER RAGNAROK this fall or winter, and from that point we’ll see. I don’t know about a novel, although if I had a few grand laying around I’d get Jim Lowder to work putting together an anthology of short stories set in the DAR world. Both Hal and I want to do more with the setting, and that may wind up being the Kickstarter you see in my future.

I’ve also got a book on THE NAZI OCCULT coming in June from the military history publishers Osprey Books, and if they aren’t sick to death of me after that, there’s more I’d like to do with those guys. I’ve been an Osprey fan and collector since forever, as anyone could probably have guessed without me saying so. What do you think about the current state of the role playing community and the future of hobby games distribution? Do you have the generational question in the US also? Currently, the RPG market over here in Germany is more or less stable, but there are only a few new and young role players as far as I can see it.
Kenneth Hite: I think the role playing community is strong, and will only get stronger as we get more depth and more broadband capability tying more people together. The roleplaying design field is still milking its second Golden Age right now, as a consequence of the technological barriers to entry having dropped for publishers, and that helps drive community as well. As far as hobby games distribution, I’m frankly a little surprised it has a present, much less a future. I suppose board games will keep the best of breed distributors afloat, but anything you can use from a PDF doesn’t need a third party warehouse soaking up 10 to 15 percent of the profits.

As far as generations, the distribution in the US is what you’d expect from a hobby that saw its biggest numbers in the late 1970s and early 1980s — the majority of people in it are in their 40s and 50s, with a bump in their 30s to represent the White Wolf boomlet. But there’s plenty of Generation Y gamers in America, and while today’s 12-year-olds can kill orcs far more satisfyingly on a computer than they could in my youth, I have to assume some portion of them will still want to build worlds and adventures with dice instead of waiting for someone else in California to build them out of pixels.

Trail of Cthulhu: Cover

Trail of Cthulhu: Cover Fun question 1: Follow the trail of Cthulhu, Dracula spy games or fighting over the mortal remains of the Midgard snake?
Kenneth Hite: I love them all, which is why I wrote them all, but my first and biggest love is always going to be Cthulhu in all his polymorphous forms. Fun question 2: GURPS or GUMSHOE?
Kenneth Hite: To play? It depends on what kind of game experience I want: For me, GURPS is better for grit and for anything relying on contact with the real world for its enjoyment; GUMSHOE is better for investigation and drama. To write? While I love GURPS, and I really love GURPS fans and players, writing GUMSHOE is roughly three times easier and faster for me, and I have a cat to feed and a mortgage to pay. Fun question 3: What is the meaning of your blog label Prince of Cairo?
Kenneth Hite: A friend of mine nicknamed me „the Prince of Cairo“ on her Livejournal because I enjoyed setting RPG adventures in Cairo — the CAIRO GUIDEBOOK for CALL OF CTHULHU is one of the great setting books in RPG history, and I own a Blue Guide to Cairo that has plenty of wonderful maps of the city and of various Egyptian ruins and tombs. Plus, Cairo is a great place to set adventures in pretty much any era. So when I got a Livejournal of my own, I picked princeofcairo as my handle. Finally, what is your favorite game product you have done so far? What is your first and favorite gaming product in general?
Kenneth Hite: Of the books I’ve done so far, it might be BOOKHOUNDS OF LONDON, or NIGHT’S BLACK AGENTS, or DAY AFTER RAGNAROK. I’m also very, very fond of my Last Unicorn original-series STAR TREK RPG corebook, and of GURPS HORROR.

My „first and favorite gaming product“ is always going to be Sandy Petersen’s CALL OF CTHULHU. I bought, as I like to say, the first copy sold in Oklahoma in 1981, and I have been playing it almost ever since — my current game group is a bunch of cowards, though. I’ve been reading Lovecraft since I was eleven or so; he has never stopped being terrifying. My TRAIL OF CTHULHU is a love-letter to Sandy’s design and Lovecraft’s world. Thank you, anything else you want to share with the fans?
Kenneth Hite: Thanks for inviting me on the site — to the fans, I’d say my cat appreciates you all very much, as do I.

Sources / links:
The Day after Ragnarok product page from Atomic Overmind Press
Night’s Black Agents product page from Pelgrane Press
Trail of Cthulhu product page from Pelgrane Press
Ken (Hite) and Robin (D. Laws) talk about stuff podcast
Ken Hites blog

(Asked Ken Hite, Atomic Overmind Press and Pelgrane Press for permission on 06 Dec 2012)
Night’s Black Agents and Trail of Cthulhu by Pelgrane Press
The Day after Ragnarok by Atomic Overmind Press
Ken Hite by Ken (Hite) and Robin (D. Laws) talk about stuff podcast
„Stuff“ image (private)

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