Creator One-on-One: Olivia Hill

Yesterday I reviewed the #iHunt RPG by Olivia Hill and Filamena Young, and made my love of the game quite clear. I had an opportunity to talk with Olivia Hill about #iHunt, true heroism, and the state of the TTRPG industry and hobby, and I’m excited to share it with all of you. This was copied and pasted from our Discord chat, so any transcription errors are mine. Enjoy!

Brent Jans: Thanks for talking with me today, Olivia! For any of our readers who might be new to your work, could you please introduce yourself and tell me a little about your history in the RPG industry?

Olivia Hill: Hi everyone! I’m Olivia Hill. I’ve been making games for over a decade now, all over the place. Most of my better-known work is on the White Wolf World of Darkness games, where I was a writer, developer, and editor for a number of years. I’ve also written for other games like Leverage, Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, Dragon Age, Pathfinder, Eclipse Phase, and Mistborn. I’m also an author, and I’ve got over a half dozen urban fantasy horror novels out there. In the time between, I work with my partner Filamena Young on our own games, the most recent of which being #iHunt, based on my novel series of the same name.

Brent: As you said, the #iHunt RPG is based on your series of novels, but what inspired the stories and characters behind the novels? How much of #iHunt draws from your own experiences with the gig economy?

Olivia: It’s full of anecdotes of my own and friends’, spun through the lens of a world full of monsters. With a few office-attached exceptions, I’ve more or less been a freelancer for the past thirteen years. Before my independent work started taking off on its own, I had to do whatever I had to do to make ends meet. Graphic design work on Fiverr, selling plasma, app driving, non-speaking extra work in films, temp jobs, anything to fill those holes in my schedule. At a certain point, I realized that pursuing this constant churn of work, work, work was a job unto itself. My most recent gig, and the one that sort of broke the proverbial camel’s back, was teaching kids English in wealthy suburban homes for a few hours here or there as the dispatch company found openings.

Brent: The game is pretty clear that the characters in an #iHunt game are the marginalized, the folx living precariously inside capitalism. Why is it important to tell their stories, and not just the stories of “Chosen Ones” and traditional heroes?

Olivia: It’s really a few things when it all comes down to it. The first is, I wanted to do something different. I’ve seen enough of that. Even when you do get cool stories about marginalized people winning, it’s often tempered by things like fate and prophecy, superpowers or some other stuff outside their control. 

The second is, I haven’t seen my own experiences much in games. I’m always told that I can explore those things if I want, because imagination is the limit or whatever, but games rarely actually support that in any meaningful way. Why yes, you can play a purple dinosaur in Vampire: The Masquerade if you want. But you have to bring the depth and content to the table—it’s not a supported style of play the designers gave any real consideration to.

The third is, I look at the things the working poor do to get by. I look at the hustle. The hard work. The ability to survive in the face of an utterly ridiculous system. I see it, and I’m impressed. I’m in awe. It’s easy to focus on how bad it is, and it’s really damn bad, but I think we don’t give enough credit to just how amazing some of these people are. There’s a bit in the book I think expresses this well. “In #iHunt, heroes don’t wear capes. They wear aprons. They wear overalls. They wear shitty nametags on worn-out uniforms. They clock out after two hours’ overtime when covering for a sick coworker.”

Brent: Beautifully said. Obviously those types of stories might be harder on the players telling them. Unlike many games on the market, you’ve built safety tools right into the game to help with that, and included other things like a clear “no nazis” stance. Is this something you hope to see other systems integrate? What do you say to companies who don’t feel it’s their place to regulate play at the table in that fashion?

Olivia: I wish every game on the market instituted a no fascists allowed rule. Of course, with this kind of game that’s largely unenforceable. If someone who is fascist picks it up, there’s nothing stopping them any more than there’s anything stopping them from ignoring any other rule. But I think it’s important that anti-fascist art be explicit in its messaging so as to guarantee it’s not unintentionally seen as a safe place for fascists. We see a lot of that in mass media. Stuff like Star Wars, which is very much a story about rebellion overcoming fascism and oppression, fascists eat it up and think it’s theirs. They identify with it. They are passionate about it. It’s because while the story is obviously that on its surface, it’s sufficiently watered-down so as to be a “universal experience” and doesn’t alienate the people it’s supposed to be calling to task. 

I think genre fiction can absolutely be explicit and unapologetic in its opposition to oppressive forces. It might not be viable on the scale of billion dollar movies, but we see it in brilliant and financially successful genre works like Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You

It’s very popular to say your art is “apolitical.” There’s nothing apolitical. Something that’s “apolitical” supports the status quo. And in a time of rising fascism, rising income inequality, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and a million other problems, “apolitical” is tacit—if unintended—support for those things. If you’re not challenging the status quo, you’re comforting it.

Brent: #iHunt uses Fate Core as its base; why is Fate Core a good fit for #iHunt? Did you consider creating a custom rules set for the game?

Olivia: I did! In fact, I had three versions of the game prior. Two with custom systems, one with an Apocalypse World (or Blades in the Dark, sort of) variant. They didn’t do what I needed them to do. Ultimately, I went with Fate Core because it was familiar and easy to adapt. 

The basic answer is, while I don’t like Fate Core for horror, and #iHunt is definitely a horror game, Fate Core actually works very well for the specific type of horror we’re doing in #iHunt. The monster stuff is pulpy action. The horror comes down to tough choices, which a simple modular add-on to Fate handles very well. I wrote about it at length here

Brent: Excellent! Everyone go check that out. You talk about the collaboration behind #iHunt, could you tell me about your team and why collaboration was so important?

Olivia: Well, for #iHunt, the team is me and my partner Filamena Young. For a big book like this, my experience has always been fairly massive teams. But for #iHunt, I wanted the experience to be very personal and intimate. Usually with a book this big, you have ten or more distinct voices. But for #iHunt, we really wanted it to be like a conversation with a single author. So we wrote the whole thing together. We read the whole thing aloud to each other, and rephrased and reworked bits to make it more cohesive. A lot of times, we worked together live. I would structure the layout for a section, and be working on the art while she was filling in the text. This way, there was no line between the visuals and the text presentation. I’ve been on books where the only communication between the writers and the artists were single-sentence, vague art notes translated through multiple languages, and the process of writing happened two years before the art. To me, that makes an incoherent, often dissonant book. A picture says a thousand words, but if those words contradict the ones the writer is saying, then that’s bad game design.

Brent: That cohesion definitely shows. I imagine that must have made the playtesting period smoother, working that closely together.

Olivia: Hugely smoother. And since it’s primarily Fate Core, testing went very smooth. We knew exactly where the forks were, and it was easy to see where they’d come into play. So we could try out scenarios to feel out their viability without having to commit to full, extended play. Fate‘s beautiful because its strength is in conversation and language. The real “granularity” of aspects—Fate’s most identifiable element—is purely in phrasing and textual presentation. We wanted to carry that forward into our design.

Brent: In the rules you tease the opportunity to play as monsters in future releases, and recently you announced a forthcoming series of zine supplements. How are the two related and what can we expect moving forward?

Olivia: We’re very excited to play monsters. They’re hugely important to the source fiction. The first book set in this world is a vampire novel, a “Southern California Gothic.” In #iHunt, the main character’s primary girlfriend is a vampire. So that’s something on our minds. 

We’re really expanding the world and game line in two ways. The first is through “zine supplements.” These are monthly, short supplements that are funded by our Patreon. The success of the Patreon determines how long they are. Right now, they’re about 20-24 pages each, which makes for a pretty robust take on a single, very narrow topic. Our first was about stuff like promotion, advancement, and class mobility in #iHunt. The second was our first playable supernatural character type, called “The Returned.” They’re people so passionate, so driven, that not even death can keep them from finishing their stories. Think “The Crow.” We’ve got a ton of these planned already, and if the Patreon does well, we’ll be able to make them bigger. Then, every six months or so, we’ll compile these into a “season book,” which is a print on demand style compendium with some additional content. 

The other way will be through full games. Like, we don’t want to do vampires as a 20 page zine. We have WAY too much to say about them. They’ll get their own full game book, like the #iHunt book. We don’t have a set schedule for these because they’re massive undertakings.

Brent: What do you like about the zine format for supplements? Is this a possible way in for folks wanting to create 3rd party #iHunt material?

Olivia: The best thing is, I have a fairly short attention span. Doing massive books and writing 50,000 words on a single topic bores the shit out of me after a while. It also leads to padded word counts. And, frankly, I hate looking at 300 pages that all look the same. If you look at #iHunt, there’s not a dozen pages that go by which look the same as the last. The zine format means that every month I’m talking about something new, experimenting with the way it looks, and if I don’t enjoy the topic I know I can just move on to the next one soon. That’s huge for me. 

I also fully support people making third party #iHunt material. There’s some stuff I just know I won’t be able to do for a while. So, if you want to play fully fleshed-out werewolves in #iHunt, it’s gonna be a while. Or… you could throw together a zine. 

Part of what informed this design style was the move of game design discourse from broader places like Google Plus to more personal spaces like Discord. Our own San Jenaro Discord has some really great discussions on game design, and watching people putting together new ideas has been hugely inspiring. It’s made us step up our game. We have all this experience in publishing games, it’s been great to be able to share that with fresh minds in game spaces. It’s all about the beauty of art and creation, without all the baggage.

Brent: Turning to the TTRPG industry as a whole, we’ve seen the industry start to sporadically call out bad actors in the hobby, and the player base finally seems to be moving toward safety and inclusion. Do you think we’re moving fast enough, and what do you think are the obstacles to getting our hobby and the TTRPG industry safe for the traditionally marginalized?

Olivia: I definitely don’t think we’re moving fast enough. I know so many people of color, so many LGBT people, so many women who have walked away from gaming, or worse, been terrorized away from gaming forever by these people. Some of my favorite game designers have had to delete their entire social media presences to avoid abuse and harassment by some people who were defended by the industry for a decade of credible accusations. People hurt every day over this travesty. There’s art that will never exist because these bad actors fought so hard to keep these voices down. I personally ducked out for some time over it, and I’m still seeing consequences for speaking out years ago—real social, professional, and mental consequences. I’ve lost work in the past year over these issues; I don’t think we’ll ever fully move past these issues or heal from them.

I think the biggest obstacle is the culture itself. There’s an old essay out there called “geek social fallacies” which calls out geeky communities for a few of their biggest problems with bad actors. The single first and most important is “ostracisers are evil.” Geek communities hate when you rock the boat. It might be considered bad to be an abuser, but it’s far worse to be the one who upsets the community by speaking out against an abuser. It’s constant, and often well-intentioned.

Brent: Are there any companies close to getting it right when it comes to safety, accessability, and inclusion?

Olivia: Oh absolutely. And I should caveat—I think “doing it right” should have affordance for fuck-ups, learning, and evolution. We all have to start somewhere and nobody’s perfect. I think that right now it’s very easy to use a patina of inclusion and safety as a marketing tactic, without making any real, meaningful strides. That’s hip, even. But people willing to take the harder road because it’s the right road, that’s what I look for personally. I’ve seen Evil Hat do that time and again. The Evil Hat team are proactive in their efforts to improve socially, even when it’s not necessarily the best business choice. I think Monte Cook games has shown that they’re invested in doing the right things. 

But those are also companies helmed by (or named after) white cis men. I’d be remiss if I didn’t consider the people outside those hegemonic identities who not only are doing the work, but they’re doing the work because the alternative actively hurts them. R. Talsorian Games is an old name in the industry who is fighting the good fight, for example. The thing is, a lot of “companies,” in the proper sense, aren’t helmed by marginalized people, and that’s part of the problem. I look at amazing games by non-white people, by LGBTQ folks, by indigenous artists, by anything that isn’t a hegemonic voice, and I don’t see “companies.” I see independent artists. For example, there’s a brilliant game out there called Feathers by the designer Remi Permann. It’s a solo project. I look at the brilliant games Takuma Okada has been releasing. I’ve been following the development of the beautiful Swordsfall

These things have one major thing in common—they’re independent. If you want to support safety, accessibility, and inclusion, BUY INDIE ART. I can’t stress this enough.

Brent: That leads nicely into my next question. #iHunt has you pretty busy, but what TTRPGs are you playing now, or at least reading if you can’t find the time to play?

Olivia: I haven’t had a chance to play much these past few months with the rush of finishing this book. But I just finished reading a really cool sci-fi Blades in the Dark hack called Moth-Light, by Justin Ford. It encourages stuff like diplomatic play, which I am extremely here for in sci-fi. I also edited a game that I’ve been geeking out hardcore over. If I wasn’t hired to edit it, I would have been its biggest fan anyway. It’s called Nibiru and it’s an extremely imaginative, extremely unique game in so many ways. You’re playing people on mysterious space station colonies who are trying to recover their memories from before being locked in time. A huge part of play is exploring flashbacks and developing who your character was all these years ago, live in collaborative play. I’ve also been reading a game called Eldritch Care Unit which is a game where you’re playing the secret medical unit of a hospital, dealing with the supernatural weirdness that comes through.(edited)

Brent: Those all sound amazing, I’ll have to go check them out. Okay, last question: Olivia Hill finds herself in the #iHunt universe. Does she hunt, and if so, what is her kink?

Olivia: Absolutely. Part of the paradox of #iHunt is that a) the world sucks in a much more obvious way than our own; monster hunters are risking their lives to get by in more obvious ways than Uber drivers, but b) in the world of #iHunt, you get to stab your problems. I can’t put a stake through the heart of the company whose owner embezzled funds so when it came time to pay the freelancers, I was shit out of luck and lost my home. But I can put a stake through the heart of a vampire causing shit in my neighborhood. So, yes, Olivia Hill would hunt. 

As far as her kink goes (kinks are like character classes in #iHunt for the uninitiated—it’s a way for hunters to talk publicly and get people to be too embarrassed to listen in too closely), she’d be a Phooey. Phooeys fight with information. That aligns with a lot of the political campaign volunteering I’ve done, and a lot of the lessons learned when LGBTQ friends have been doxed and harassed online. I imagine that’s the kind of skill that would transfer well to digging up dirt on an ancient evil in a power suit.

Brent: Thanks again for taking the time to talk with me, Olivia! 

If you want more information about #iHunt in all its forms, check out the website. And you can find more information on all of Olivia’s and Filamena’s projects on the Machine Age Production website.

This is the first in what I am hoping will be a series of one on one interviews with creators in the TTRPG industry. If you have suggestions on who I should talk to in the future, feel free to drop them in comments on our Facebook Page, or shoot me a message on Twitter. [or on The Rat Hole’s Twitter. -dc]