HOME ON THE STRANGE
Updated: Jan 27
Samantha Nelson Talks To Ennie Award-Winning Games Designer Chris Spivey About His New Weird West Rpg - Haunted West - And Excorcising The Ghosts Of America's Troubled Past...
When Darker Hue Studios founder and CEO Chris Spivey was growing up in Alabama, he watched a lot of Westerns with his grandmother. While he appreciated the genre as an American tale, he was struck by how he didn’t see any Black characters unless they were a slave or the butt of a joke.
‘When I got older, I actually discovered this vast array of inclusion that was the West that was just totally whitewashed,’ Spivey said. ‘One of the projects I really wanted to do was a Western simply to address that issue.’
That project is Haunted West, a Kickstarter-funded Weird Western RPG available for preorder now. The game features an alternate history where John Wilkes Booth assassinated both Abraham Lincoln and Vice President Andrew Johnson, as he had intended. That would have put Connecticut senator Lafayette S. Foster in the White House, who Spivey imagines would have continued Reconstruction rather than quickly allowing former Confederates back into government as Johnson, a former slave owner himself, did.
‘Reconstruction was one of the great moments in the American narrative that was destroyed by a mix of racism and political corruption,’ Spivey said. ‘If Reconstruction had worked, it would have changed the entire course of the world.’
That alternate history empowers marginalised people, who Spivey wanted to represent through incorporating real historic figures like Bass Reeves, the Black deputy U.S. marshal recently spotlighted in HBO’s Watchmen, and Mary Fields, aka Stagecoach Mary, the first African American woman to work for the U.S. Postal Service.
‘We have at least 10 people that I’m fairly certain few will have ever heard of before.’
Finding those people and telling their stories took ‘massive amounts of research,’ according to Spivey, who edited down hundreds of thousands of words to produce the book.
‘We tell the entire real history of the West,’ he said. ‘It’s really inclusive with the indigenous peoples, all the different immigrants, the actual black people, and all their contributions.’
Spivey worked with a diverse team of people from different backgrounds to ensure everything in the book was culturally sensitive and appropriate, while also shining a spotlight on the mythologies, ideologies, and political beliefs of many different groups.
‘It’s impossible for us to delve into the complete nitty gritty of every single one, but we’re trying to give people hooks where they can go in and start researching themselves and learn more about things,’ he said.
When conducting research for his games, Spivey said he often starts by browsing Wikipedia for ideas and then goes to the sources listed to get reliable information.
‘Once you have a few solid nuggets, if you reach out to any of the museums and the smaller historic societies, they are excited to talk to writers or anyone interested in research,’ he said.
Adding jetpacks and dinosaurs to the history might change it a bit, but Spivey hopes that his research will help educate players drawn in by the weirdness.
‘If people want to read it, they’ll remember it, they’ll talk about it, and then you have more people researching and learning actual history,’ he said.
Spivey said he loves teaching people new things through his work. ‘I still have people coming to me today telling me things that they didn’t know,’ he said.
“THIS IS HISTORY. THIS IS OUR HISTORY, AND WE HAVE TO TAKE IT BACK”
‘I was talking to someone the other night and they were telling me that their Jewish grandmother didn’t know that there was a Black Jewish community in Harlem that their family lived across the street from. For Haunted West, I had one of the writers tell me that they didn’t know that there were Black cowboys. This is history. This is our history, and we have to take it back since there’s such an amazing effort that’s gone into hiding it or stealing our stories and turning them into white narratives.’
Haunted West includes a timeline of both the actual history of the West, the alternate Reconstruction timeline, and Weird West events, providing game runners with all the resources they need to put together a story that fits their preferred tone and genre.
‘I wanted to do the work for people so they could have a straight up normal this is the old West, you die of dysentery before you would being shot or anything else, or you can go full on Weird Western where you’re fighting clockwork gunmen in the streets,’ Spivey said. ‘On top of that, if you wanted to go really pulp Weird West, you could have temporal rifts where you’re fighting dinosaurs in the Lost Valley with gadgeteers.’
Along with different tones, the Haunted West book also provides rules for different levels of mechanical complexity going from a tactical miniatures game, to a narrative system, to a hybrid that mixes storytelling and dice rolling.
Spivey first got into tabletop gaming when he was seven through playing Dungeons & Dragons, and he wanted some of that traditional crunch while also incorporating the stronger focus on narrative found in modern indie games. Regardless of what rules you’re using, Spivey emphasises that the players should be ‘the centre of the universe.’
‘Their actions change everything around them,’ Spivey said. ‘For me, the world is static. I gave you this great timeline. This is what I think. But the second your players hit the game, it changes and becomes your universe. If they want to go and shoot the new president, they can shoot the new president, but then you have repercussions that ripple out after that.'
Haunted West will also feature ways to integrate aspects of H.P. Lovecraft’s Mythos into the setting. Spivey first discovered Lovecraft’s work at an estate sale when he was 12 and found his views of otherness compelling as a perpetual outsider.
He’s since written numerous roleplaying books based on Lovecraft’s work, including the award winning Harlem Unbound, which incorporates cosmic horror into the Harlem Renaissance and directly addresses the racism at the core of much of Lovecraft’s writing.
‘What we can do is take those ideas, destroy that house, and take the foundation and rebuild it into something more inclusive for all of us,’ Spivey said. ‘We cannot, and I can’t stress this enough, deny the truth of who Lovecraft was. If you deny it, and don’t address it, (fans) assume that you’re OK with it and you’re complacent in their racism.’
“WE CANNOT, AND I CAN’T STRESS THIS ENOUGH, DENY THE TRUTH OF WHO LOVECRAFT WAS”
Harlem Unbound includes advice for how to address race in games, suggesting that the game runner and players sit down before their first session for an honest dialogue on what they’re comfortable with. Spivey stresses that you should make sure not all the burden is being placed on marginalised people who might feel like they’re being put on the spot.
Spivey said he often sees that same problem in game publishing, an issue recently publicised by designer Orion D. Black, who quit working at Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeons & Dragons department and alleged that the company paid only lip service to diversity.
‘If you have a project of 10 people, and you only bring in one diverse voice, that’s not going to be enough to really try to influence a room that much and then there’s a lot of pressure being the only person there,’ Spivey said. ‘You’re supposed to represent an entire diverse community, which is impossible to do and unwarranted for anyone to ask you to do that.’
“YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO REPRESENT AN ENTIRE DIVERSE COMMUNITY, WHICH IS IMPOSSIBLE TO DO”
While he would like to see the biggest tabletop publishers put diverse people in leadership positions and pay them just as much as their white counterparts, he finds the current state of the industry ‘disheartening.’
‘Given the amount of resources, money, and access they have, it would be a very easy thing for a lot of them to correct course, but a number of them are run by older white males that have an ideology that’s from the ‘50s that they’re not willing to let go of,’ he said. That lack of support makes it harder for truly diverse gaming books to be published. Spivey shopped Harlem Unbound around for years before just deciding to start Darker Hue Studios and fund the project through Kickstarter.
‘If you can’t find anyone that will do it with you or for you, you have to do it yourself,’ he said. ‘Then it becomes a matter of if it’s important enough for you that you want to do all that hard work and deal with the fans, good and bad, for what you’re generating.’
Spivey calls Harlem Unbound his ‘opening salvo’ in improving representation in tabletop gaming, but still he’s frustrated it hasn’t helped more.
‘People say “It’s essential reading. Every GM should read it” and then those exact same people say “I will never run this game because I’m uncomfortable having to address these issues at my table,”’ Spivey said. ‘No one really seems to want to take an active step to move that bar. They’re acknowledging, but not engaging with it and moving it forward. Which is why the Second Edition (of Harlem Unbound) specifically addresses that and says it doesn’t help inclusion or creating safety for people at your table if you’re not doing the actual work.’
“NO ONE REALLY SEEMS TO WANT TO TAKE AN ACTIVE STEP TO MOVE THAT BAR”
Spivey says the support he gets from fans keeps him going, though the work has gotten infinitely more difficult since March.
‘Most creatives can tell you that it takes energy and you have to be in a certain mindset to create good material,’ Spivey said. ‘With the constant pandemic going on and 45’s administration doing what they’re doing to Black and marginalised peoples, it is hard to create.’
Luckily it’s relatively easy for people to support marginalised creative people. He suggests sharing or retweeting messages from at least five marginalised people and also buying their work. ‘Social media has changed the landscape, but most people are only tweeting about the same larger companies over and over, which drowns everyone out,’ he said. ‘If you go and you find these marginalised folks, some of them with like 50 followers, that one retweet you’re doing helps them significantly more than someone else with 20,000 or 30,000 followers.’
All of the artwork for Haunted West is already in house and Spivey and his team are currently working on finishing up the text. ‘I want to make sure it’s as clean and precise as it can be and to make sure we don’t have any archaic or offensive words that might have been missed,’ he said.
Once Haunted West is finished, he’ll be working on a book for the Call of Cthulhu - Delta Green setting. Also on his to-do list is Kadimah, an original science fiction setting combining African and Jewish elements inspired by Spivey’s wife and her family. The game was originally going to be published by Chaosium, but Spivey got the rights back in March and will keep working on it under Darker Hue.
‘I’ve had a chance to really embrace some of the culture and I’ve learned a lot,’ he said. ‘It’s given me a different perspective on things,. The idea sort of cemented itself when I was standing in Israel and reading a book about Afrofuturism as we were on the tour bus going around the country.’
Spivey said he’s determined to keep working to make tabletop gaming more diverse in the hopes that it will help other writers and gamers.
‘It makes it easier for the next person, even if it’s just a little bit easier,’ he said. ‘I’m in a position where I’m able to go and have these fights. I have a very small minuscule name. If you blink, you missed it. But someone has to do it so it’s easier for other people.’
Harlem Unbound is out now, Pre-order Haunted West at darkerhuestudios.com
This feature originally appeared in Wyrd Science Vol.1, Issue 1