DM: How did you come to write tabletop horror roleplaying games professionally?
KH: I like to believe that I bought the first copy of the horror RPG Call of Cthulhu sold in Oklahoma, the month it came out - that was August of 1981. I ran Call of Cthulhu pretty much continuously for the next seven years, and among my players was a guy named Donald Dennis. He eventually went to work for the game publisher Iron Crown Enterprises, and wound up with a playtest copy of Chaosium’s licensed occult RPG Nephilim. He figured I’d know more about that than he did, so he sent it to me - I sent about 10,000 words of back-sass to Chaosium, most of which saw print in the final version of the game. Greg Stafford, legendary RPG designer and Chaosium’s publisher at the time, offered me a book of my own to write, and I was off to the races.
DM: What do you think is essential to creating a strong horror game?
KH: There are two essentials to creating a strong horror experience in any medium: a truly horrifying message and an audience willing to be scared. In roleplaying games, the advantage for the players is that by creating their own stories and characters, they have a head start on both halves of the equation: they can tell stories that truly horrify them, and they have an incentive to cooperate in the exercise of fear to support their own experience. As a game designer, it’s my job to point out or create what I think are the scariest parts of the setting, and to give the players all the tools, permission, and hard shoves in the back they need to cooperate with each other to enjoy a scary experience.
DM: With Call of Cthulhu dominating much of the horror RPG market, why did you decide to launch a new Lovecraftian system with Trail of Cthulhu?
KH: Even if Call of Cthulhu lost mindshare to other horror games (like Ravenloft, Vampire and its kindred, and Deadlands) in the 1990s, it remains the nonpareil example of horror roleplaying, and by far the single best evocation of Lovecraftian horror in any other medium. That said, Call of Cthulhu attempts a number of tasks simultaneously: pulp adventure, psychological horror, and investigative roleplaying among them. When Robin Laws developed a more focused, streamlined engine for investigative roleplaying games, the GUMSHOE system, his publisher Simon Rogers of Pelgrane Press felt that it would be worth adapting Call of Cthulhu to run on GUMSHOE rather than the original Basic Role-Playing engine. Fortunately, Chaosium granted Pelgrane the license to do so, and even more fortunately, Simon asked me if I wanted to write the resulting game. I think Trail of Cthulhu allows a closer, more direct exploration of investigative horror, or horror-mystery, or whatever you want to call the genre of game it is. For the “Lovecraftian” portion of the equation, my only design goal was to stick as closely to Sandy Petersen’s original draft for Call of Cthulhu as I possibly could, which was quite closely indeed.
DM: One of the scenarios in Bookhounds of London, ‘Whitechapel Blackletter’, seems to mix fact and fiction, wedding London's occult sites with the Jack the Ripper murders. It is a deep and rich scenario, with lots of juicy information and dark secrets. It is also hard to tell what is real in it and what is made up. How did you go about writing it?
KH: With “Whitechapel Blackletter” I actually came up with the title first, then realized that with a title like that it would pretty much have to be about finding Jack the Ripper’s “black-letter” grimoire (a “black-letter” is a book printed in a specific set of German typefaces during the 15th-17th centuries). So that set me to looking for the links between black magic and Jack the Ripper. Fortunately, for any crazy theory you might have about the Ripper, someone has already written a book about it: in this case, I lifted Ivor Edwards’s Jack the Ripper’s Black Magic Rituals, combined it with Alan Moore’s brilliant exercise in psychogeography in From Hell and Fritz Leiber’s “megapolisomancy” from Our Lady of Darkness, and the rest was just figuring out how to get the characters into the mix. As I mention in the scenario, almost nothing in it is made up except for the Cthulhu Mythos angle - every fact about the murders, or London, that I mention comes right out of my (or Ivor Edwards’s) research.
DM: What are you currently working on and what projects do you have planned for the coming year?
KH: Right now, I'm finishing up another GUMSHOE game for Pelgrane Press, called Night's Black Agents. This one is a vampire-hunting spy thriller game: imagine the Bourne trilogy, if Treadstone were vampires. I'm pretty excited to take the GUMSHOE model into the thriller mode, and everybody loves killing vampires. At some point, I'll finish up This Scepter'd Isle, a sourcebook for Call of Cthulhu in the Elizabethan era, and I'm co-writing Horror Hero for Hero Games with Jason Walters and Darren Watts, and Cthulhu Hero with Steve Long. I think those are my big-ticket items coming up, anyhow.