The Lovecraftian mythos is a massively popular sandbox for board and tabletop games, and it's been particularly fruitful for Badger McInnes of Squamous Studios.
Dark Tower Games (DTG): First of all, tell me a little bit about yourself and your history with gaming. How did you get started? How did you get into game creation?
Badger McInnes (Badger): Unlike a lot of gamers, Dungeons and Dragons wasn’t my first RPG. My father was a big fan of Traveller (and even wrote a number of articles and books for GDW back in the day), and growing up, I would watch him play it. I had already become a fan of Star Trek at this point, so when he told me he was playing a science fiction game, I jumped at the chance to roll up a character (who, of course, had to be an analogue of Captain Kirk), even though I had no idea what I was doing. I was in a campaign that he ran for a few years, and then I got introduced to D&D by some friends in elementary school. Fast forward a bit, and I discovered Justice Inc., Hero Games’ 1930s pulp RPG, which turned me into a huge, huge fan of the pulp genre. So years later, when someone else had told me about Call of Cthulhu, and asked me to join his campaign, I was primed and ready. It was amazing; he had the lights turned off and everything lit by candles, some creepy music in the background, and he was a great Keeper. You couldn’t have asked for a better experience.
As far as getting involved in the gaming industry, back in the early 2000s, I had a friend of mine who worked for Chaosium as their Shipping Shoggoth, and he let me know that they were looking for interns to do layout work for them. I had dabbled in that sort of thing somewhat in college, and by this time I was a huge CoC and Lovecraft fan, so I jumped at the chance. After working for Charlie and Lynn for several years, I began to branch out, doing book design for other Call of Cthulhu-related companies such as Miskatonic River Press, Stygian Fox, Golden Goblin Press, Pagan Publishing, and, most recently, Pelgrane Press.
DTG: You just finished a project for Pelgrane Press. Can you tell us a little about Looking Glass: Hong Kong?
Badger: Sure! Looking Glass: Hong Kong is part of Pelgrane’s continuing supplement series of city settings for use with their various GUMSHOE games, including Esoterrorists, Fear Itself, Trail of Cthulhu, and Night’s Black Agents. It’s a very tightly-compacted write up of modern-day Hong Kong, with various locales and places of interest detailed, factions you might run into, adventure seeds, and even a complete vampire conspyramid for Night’s Black Agents.
DTG: You've also done some work for Stygian Fox: a sourcebook and an organization guide for Cthulhu by Gaslight. What drew you to these projects? What was your favorite part of the work?
Badger: Ah, you would be referring to Hudson & Brand, the first in our Safe House series of sourcebooks. Hudson & Brand, presents players with a home base to work out of (and maybe escape to, if things get to hairy), recuperate, and conduct research in. The book will contain an extensive write up of the history of the organization, background on London of the 1890s, adventure seeds, NPCs, maps, and much more.
It’s hard for me to say what the favorite part of my book is, to be honest. I’m keen on the whole project in general. I think it’s tough sometimes, as both a Keeper of Arcane Lore or as a group of players, to come up with a sensible way of getting and keeping a diverse cast of investigators together. Delta Green did that really really well, but if you’re not playing in the Delta Green universe, that doesn’t help that much. The Safe House series aims to rectify that. It reminds me a bit of Aaron Allston’s “ The Empire Club”, if anyone happens to remember the series of articles he wrote a long time ago for Hero Games’ Adventurer’s Club magazine.
As for what drew me to it initially, it’s definitely due to the era itself. I’ve been a bit of a fan of the Victorian era, but after doing the book design for the latest edition of Cthulhu by Gaslight, I really got hooked. It’s a fabulous setting that’s perfect for Call of Cthulhu adventures, and I really wish there was more material to help supplement it. There was a book of Gaslight adventures I put together for Chaosium a couple of years ago; I hope it will eventually see the light of day. At any rate, Hudson & Brand is one way we hope to breathe some new life into the Gaslight era for Call of Cthulhu.
DTG: The Cthulhu Mythos seems like a favorite of yours. What is it about the mythos that appeals to you? Why has such a niche fandom become one of the biggest ones in gaming? And can you tell us a little about your Feed the Shoggoth game?
Hmm. Well, I think there are several factors for me. As I mentioned before, Pulp Era games really struck a chord with me; Classic Era Call of Cthulhu takes place during the Jazz Age, so that scratches that particular itch. In addition, I’ve been a general horror fan since I was in junior high, and I’ve also loved mystery and detective novels. All of that, combined with HP Lovecraft’s writings, just make Call of Cthulhu pretty much the perfect role-playing game for me. In regards to the Cthulhu Mythos in general, I’ll have to go back to the stories of Lovecraft. His themes of cosmic horror, the supernatural, body horror, and nihilism, were something the literary world had never seen; one can easily trace his influences (like Poe, Dunsany, and Machen, just to name three), but he was the first to really put all of those themes together, along with some actual world-building on top of much of it. The whole…otherness of his fiction was such a divergent path from what was so popular in horror circles at the time.
As for why it’s become one of the biggest fandoms in gaming…man. I think a large majority of it is due to the absolutely incredible number of writers and artists that have been involved with Cthulhu gaming since Chaosium gave birth to Call of Cthulhu back in 1981. We’ve had such luminaries as Sandy Petersen, Lynn Willis, Larry DiTillio, Keith “Doc” Herber, Kevin Ross, Scott David Aniolowski, Brian Sammons, Adam Scott Glancy, Chaz and Janyce Engan, Oscar Rios, Dennis Detwiller, Penelope Love, Mark Morrison, Paul Fricker, Mike Mason, Kenneth Hite, John Tynes, Monte Cook, Stuart Boon, Gareth Hanrahan, Blair Reynolds, Lee Gibbons, Paul Carrick, Jason Eckhardt, Tom Sullivan, Francois Launet…I’m know I’m missing a ton of other people who deserve to be mentioned. But…just look at that list. What other genre of role playing game (i’m referring not just to CoC, but others such as Delta Green, Trail of Cthulhu, and so on) can boast such a roster of contributors over its many decades of existence? It’s due to their passion and talent that it’s survived and thrived after all this time.
Feed the Shoggoth is a light and fast Lovecraftian-themed card game for 3-6 players. Each player takes control of an evil cult (The Esoteric Order of Dagon, The Chapel of Contemplation, New World Inc, and so on); in order to earn points and win the game, players must sacrifice their cult minions to the angry and hungry shoggoth that slithers around the table. The other players can attempt to stop the sacrifice by deviously casting spells and other tricks. But if you can’t sacrifice a minion to the shoggoth on your turn, it eats you, and you’re out of the game!
DTG: Finally, if you could give any advice to someone just starting out in the game industry, what would it be?
Badger: That’s a tough one. I think… you need to find your passion in the industry, and discover what you want to do for it. And, whether it’s something creative, like writing or art or book design or editing or game design, go do it. And then do it some more. And keep doing it. You won’t learn how to write unless you sit down and write. You won’t learn what makes good layout good and bad layout bad until you try to do some yourself. Then ask for feedback, as much as you can find. When you get that feedback, remember that any criticisms about it are not an attack on you personally, but only about your work; you have to be able to place some distance between yourself and your creations. Take that feedback, good and bad, apply it, and do it all over again. Imagine yourself as a blacksmith’s apprentice, and you have this solid but malleable piece of metal that you want to make into something. Every once in a while, the master blacksmith is going to come in with a critical eye and point out what you’re doing right and doing wrong. Not because he or she wants you to fail, but to succeed. You need to have that sort of attitude.
Fortunately, between the indie press industry, sites like DeviantArt, and crowd-funding places like Kickstarter, it’s much, much easier to self-produce your own product, or get the possible attention of other companies to work for. The trick is to keep producing, even when it looks like it’s impossible to make anything happen. Sometimes, you’re going to have to do a bunch of boring, mind-numbing work that feels never ending and makes you want to toss yourself into a pit of poisoned spikes or into the maw of a shoggoth, but you have to stick with it.
Lastly, you have to get out there and be seen (and heard), whether in person, or online. If you’re writing scenarios, run them at local gaming conventions or stores, or perhaps online. Talk to as many people working in the industry as you can find (again, conventions are great for this). Way more often than not, people working in the gaming industry are very friendly and helpful.
Thanks to Badger McInnes of Squamous Studios for taking the time to talk about their recent projects! You can find Squamous Studios at their website and on Twitter. (Cover image is by Jon Gibbons, for Hudson & Brand.)