My dear unknown friend,
Last May while reading OSR blogs I stumbled across a mention of James Mac George’s Black Sun Deathcrawl. Intrigued by the descriptions I purchased a copy of the PDF and as you can tell by my review, quickly fell in love. Right after that review was published I asked James if he would mind taking part in an interview for Lovecraft eZine sensing that the mind behind this creation would have marvelous insights to share. This interview spans the course of months as we exchanged emails out-of-band discussing books, music, art and other topics vitally important to living a good life. Around September I joined a group James belongs to playing the D&D retroclone Dungeon Crawl Classics, dragging myself out of bed at 7:30 am on Saturdays to laugh myself silly for a few hours. That is the problem with the people you meet in our online Lovecraftian communities, too many of them end up transforming into outstanding individuals and steadfast friends.
LE: James, thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview. I realize that being an indy game designer does not leave you a lot of spare time in your schedule. To start things off, what does the term “cosmic horror” mean to you?
JM: All our lives we, both as individuals and as a society, are told that we are special. That we matter. That there’s a plan.
Cosmic Horror is that moment of existential terror, the gaping realization that drives people to drugs or religion, when our eyes truly open for the first time and we see ourselves stripped of effect and self-deception – that we do not matter, and that the universe pays us no more mind than we might the struggles of ants in a hill, and our destruction can come with no more malice or intent than we might bring upon that hill should we step on it.
Lovecraft told his tales with beings from space, the ocean and other weird environments, but cosmic horror doesn’t need tentacled horrors from beyond time – it resonates with us because we see it all around us every day.
It’s the moment when the car leaves the bridge, the moment of falling before the impact.
It’s the click of the gun before it fires. It’s the rattling final breath of the person you can’t imagine living without.
It’s the moment when you realize there’s nothing and nobody out there. There’s nothing protecting you but chance, and one day, your luck will run out, and it’ll be over. Some will remember you, but eventually they’ll die. They might tell stories about you, but eventually those that heard those stories will die, and so on until the last vestige of you leaves this existence.
And the universe will keep on spinning, blind and ignorant of all of your self-importance and ego.
LE: When I first started reading Black Sun Death Crawl I loved how it took a Gnostic mythos and amplified it through a Liggotian lens. How did the idea for BSDC first come to you?
JM: I’m pretty sure it will likely come as no surprise to those who have read BSDC that I was going through, shall we say, a rough patch when I wrote it. I had moved across the country a few years previous to a state that I wasn’t really happy about living in, and while I had met my soon-to-be wife shortly after getting there, my social support apparatus was nowhere near what I was used to before the move. I was unhappy at my job, and was deriving little pleasure from things that had sustained me for ages – reading, writing, gaming. Rather than trying to pull out of the skid, I turned into it and started reading things that people in that position have no business reading – Ligotti’s Case Against the Human Race, Adam Parfrey’s Apocalypse Culture books, etc. I wasn’t shy about making my dissatisfaction with my gaming group known to the rest of the group, and my attitude contributed more than a little to the group calling it quits. Even my musical tastes flattened, and I found myself listening to a lot of drone and dark ambient stuff. While I was never actually suicidal, I was deeply depressed and the usual remedies were actually exacerbating my problems.
At the time, I had a blog where I dumped random RPG ideas, and sort of vomited out a sketchy, half-baked version of BSDC, but it was less a prospective game than a thought experiment. Why did people play games, and how much of that could you remove before people no longer found it fun? A couple of people mentioned they liked it, and that was that.
Fast forward a year or so, and there was a project underway to release a series of free zines with content by the Dungeon Crawl Classics community for Gencon, and I was invited to contribute by a friend. By this point, I had found another gaming group, but we had settled into a game whose central premise was that we were massively in debt, and spent each session trying to make enough money to pay off our creditors. This was just a bit too similar to my real life situation for my tastes, and I was reminded of that blog post. The two converged into a single idea of a game that wasn’t a game, but rather an antagonistic contest of wills between the GM and the players, taking everything people strove for in a game and stripping it down. All the promises and expectations that are built into RPGs dangled in front of them, then pulled back, like Charlie Brown and the football. Rather than characters that advance, a system that breaks them down the longer they play. Remove identity and meaning from the character creation, make them play ciphers. No victory conditions, no hope, no survival. The more I looked at it, the more I thought about it, the more I felt it should stand on its own, rather than as a component of a larger effort.
Gustave Dore’s art seemed like a natural companion, with its bleak, stark style, and it definitely help refine the tone of the game. I’d been a fan of his work since I got a copy of a Bible with his art as a gift from some well-meaning relative as a child. Rather than inspire me, I was fascinated/terrified by his bleak depictions of man laboring under the scrutinizing gaze of an all-powerful being – all of his characters just seemed so miserable. I found myself flipping through a well-worn copy of his art one morning, and it all just came together – the eschatological/cosmogonical aspects just seemed like a natural fit for the sort of thing I was working towards. I wanted to make people feel what I was feeling. I wanted them to understand it in a visceral way, Dore just nailed it, a hundred odd years before I even thought it.
But just as no battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy, no design goal ever survives contact with actual gamers. I still remember my shock the first time I play tested it, as these quiet, decent people absolutely reveled in the freedom the lack of morality BSDC provided them. Rather than being discouraged by the lack of reward, the game became a race to the bottom, each person committing acts more depraved than the last, laughing all the way. It was startling and eye-opening. Dwarves? Fuck them – they’re meat, and we’re hungry. To be clear – every single time I’ve run it, the party has slaughtered the Dwarves in the first encounter.
Every. Single. Time.
Rather than a Ligottian experience, showcasing the futility of life and consciousness, it’s been taken up as more of a Hobbesian ritual, where the players tasted the freedom of the savage. Which is great. I mean, I’m glad people are able to derive their own meaning from it, and I’m glad that it’s resonated with as many people as it has.
LE: It’s such a relief to hear that about the dwarves. I was dreading having to confess my own experience. I was envisioning a great heart-rending “Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now” experience and nope, exactly as described. It was a perfect example of the difference between reading gaming material and laying it on the table. Chicken or egg question, which came first, the literature or the gaming when it comes to Lovecraft/cosmic horror?
JM: For me, it was definitely the literature. My first Lovecraft was the 1982 anthology, The Best of H.P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre. I was at a B. Dalton or Waldenbooks, fresh off of a teenage devouring of Stephen King’s books, and looking for something new. One glimpse of Michael Whelan’s cover and I knew I had found what I was looking for. From there it was down the rabbit hole. I went to Brian Lumley’s Lovecraftian pastiches next but found it too muscular for my tastes and ended up talking to a librarian who suggested Clark Ashton Smith, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, on and on and on. I swallowed it whole.
One good confession deserves another – I’m not a fan of the Call of Cthulhu RPG. I’ve given it a couple of tries over the years, but it’s never grabbed me. My perceptions could definitely have been shaped more by the people I’ve played with than any deficiency of the game itself, but after several attempts, I’ve pretty much given up on it. I’ve thought about giving Delta Green or Yellow Dawn a try, but so far I haven’t found the right confluence of people and opportunity. But there might be hope for me yet!
Obviously, the cosmic horror influences my gaming style, and I find it worked into a lot of what I do. BSDC is probably the most explicit example of this, but most of my gaming ideas spring from that well, even if it’s usually more Robert E Howard than Lovecraft.
LE: CoC is a tricky one. By now it’s reputation precedes it so I find even those who have never played a session either by word of mouth or a quick Google search come into it with a “Oh we’re all going to go insane anyways” attitude you don’t find elsewhere which is why I’ve found it to be more rewarding to run something like Lamentations of the Flame Princess and follow Raggi’s advice to keep everything “normal” ie bandits instead of hobgoblins so when the weird creeps in it’s a “WTF is this?” moment.
What was it that drew you into the OSR movement?
JM: When I first made my aforementioned move, I came to a state where I knew exactly no one. Figuring gaming would be a good way to get to know people outside of my work-o-sphere, I answered an ad on Meetups.com from a guy looking to start-up a D&D 4E campaign. Knowing nothing of it (I had been running a long-standing Gamma World game before I moved, and was completely outside of D&D land since the 2E days), I figured what the hell. The GM was a blogger, and would do session recaps on his site and send the links to us before our games, sort of like a “Last week, on D&D!” kind of thing. I started poking around at some of the other blogs on his blog roll, and like many, was drawn to James Malisewski’s Grognardia, and the other formative blogs of that burgeoning scene. The GM was more of an OSR guy than I was at that point, but I was interested in what I was reading, so when the 4E campaign wrapped up and he suggested Labyrinth Lord, I was on board.
LE: How has the reception been to BSDC since its release?
JM: As cliché of a response as it is, it’s been overwhelming. When I was finalizing things, I figured my print run of 100 would probably last me forever, but it ended up selling out within a few weeks. Since then, I’ve had to go back to print twice, and the third print run is still going out to people, over a year later. Putting the PDF up as pay what you want was a crapshoot, but people have been incredibly generous in what they want. Seeing people pay $20 for a PDF of a an $8 book was just an incredible feeling (that feeling is guilt, by the way – my distributor and I are working on reaching out to people who paid more for the pdf than the book was worth and trying to get them to accept a book). I had a limited run of t-shirts sell out, and it’s always great to see folks walking through a convention wearing a Black Sun Deathcrawl t-shirt.
Beyond the sales, though, the best part of all of this is that it really seems to have resonated with people. I’ll typically run it once per convention I attend, and the quality of gamers that I get is humbling, to say the least. I had someone tell me at Garycon that of all the games they were scheduled to run and play, BSDC was what they were looking forward to the most. I mean, wow.
Beyond that, it seems to have inspired some people to do their own things. Steve Bean, who has written a few modules for Dungeon Crawl Classics, reached out to me shortly after the release to say how much he loved it, and would I mind if he did his own thing with it. He’s already released the fantastic Null Singularity , a riff on BSDC using the Thief class as it’s jumping off point and reimagining the scenario as a group of Voidants hurtling through space in a decaying spaceship. He’s currently working on another mutation, Rock God Deathfuge, which uses the Wizard’s spell battle rules from DCC to tell the tale of a doomed band on its final tour. They’re really fantastic, and I can’t recommend them enough.
Most surprisingly, I recently stumbled upon a band that has named itself Black Sun Death Crawl. I reached out to them, and sure enough, they were inspired by “how bleak and soul-crushing the premise of the story is.” They were kind enough to send along some instrumental demos for me to listen to, and I’ve got to say, I’m really looking forward to hearing the finished product.
LE: The enclosed adventure for BSDC, “The Curse,” does a wonderful job of expressing the tone of the game. I was impressed with this adventure because I feel for BSDC this was crucial. The setting is so bleak and crushing it could be very easy to feel overwhelmed and unsure as to where to take it. At what point in the design process did “The Curse” first start to take shape?
JM: If I remember correctly, it wasn’t there in the first draft. For a good long while, I didn’t really even think of this as something that would actually be played, it was more of a thought exercise. I showed it to a friend of mine who said it was great, but asked how someone would play in it, and I realized I had no idea! We talked it out a bit, and I think originally, there was just a single encounter, the one with the wizard, and it kind of grew from there, I ran my home group through it a couple of times and built it out from there. It was a good thing, because it helped me refine some of the ideas I’d introduced, and I believe some of the Truths didn’t come about until after it was actually played.
LE: James in closing I’d like to thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk to us and was wondering what projects you currently have in the pipeline.
JM: Thank you for the interest – the pleasure has definitely been mine! As far as what I’m working on, I suffer from the writer’s curse – I’m frequently working on things, finishing them less frequently.
The closest to completion is probably a post apocalyptic game whose title has gone through several changes, but is currently Ashes AD. I’ve been working on this, writing, commissioning art and rewriting for several years now, and I’m really excited to get it out into the world. I’m almost done with an RPGination of the Fear City Pamphlet off duty NYC cops put out in the 70’s, with new art from Jeremy Duncan, and I’ve started sketching out ideas to take weird, side-eyed versions of the World of Darkness games and plop them into DCC, with Wraith at the top of my list.
Lastly, I do have ideas for two more BSDC books sketched out, and have put some time into selecting art for the second one, and working out where it’s going to go. It’s going to be very different in tone, look and feel as compared to the first one, but it will be undeniably derived from the same DNA. Hopefully folks find it as intriguing as the first!
You may purchase Black Sun Deathcrawl here.
Main article photograph by lostknightkg. Check out their wonderful gallery here.
Interview conducted by Acep Hale.