Anne Hunter's DIY & Dragons was one of my entry points into the blogosphere, and she has consistently been a compelling voice and community driver.
Max: So one thing I really appreciate about you, is that you more so than practically anyone else in the blogosphere, have put an emphasis on promoting the community- whether that's your recent work with Bones of Contention, promoting Nick Whelan's Blogs on Tape endeavor, or your Best of the Blogosphere feature. What inspired you to be such a community driver?
Anne: That's really kind of you to say, thank you! Um, so I think there are a couple answers to that. One is that I'm kind of fascinated by trends and patterns, and I want to point them out when I see them. So I think in rpg blogging, you sometimes get these kind of zeitgeist-y moments, where a lot of people are talking about the same thing. And sometimes it's because one influential person wrote a post and lot of others are responding. Sometimes it's something that originates in "the discourse" on social media, whether that's Google Plus or Twitter or now Discord, and lots of people want to respond to it on their blogs. Sometimes it's a more organic version of the first one, where someone will post, a few people will see it and respond, and then new people will see those responses and write their own, like a chain. And then occasionally you'll get something planned, where a few people coordinate to do something together, and the rest of us don't see any of the planning, we just see the results. So I like noticing when those micro-trends happen, and several of my posts about the community are posts about things like that. I have so many more posts like that that I've started and then not followed up on in enough time and the moment is lost.
And the other big reason is that I'm very aware that the rpg is very social, and the way that people notice things, usually, is that someone else they know is talking them up. I mean maybe some people are combing DriveThru and now Itch every few days looking to see what's new. And some publishers can afford to do a bit of advertising for their products. Plus things like ZineQuest act as sort of free advertising, because if you go looking for one thing, you automatically get exposed to a bunch of others. (Although I should note that I first learned about ZineQuest from Pandatheist over on Bone Box Chant!) So when I see something that I think is cool or interesting, but isn't really being talked about, I feel like I want to promote it. I want to maybe help those people get a few more eyeballs than they have so far, and hope that more people who'll be interested will find it that way.
Max: Those are really great motivations. The latter point, about wanting to spread the word about all the cool stuff out there, is a big motivator for me as well with regard to these interviews. And the former point appeals to me as well- seeing the ebb and flow of a living culture.
You also have some awesome worldbuilding ideas of your own. I'm thinking about posts such as the one where you recontextualize traditional fantasy via an evocative relationship between Forgotten Realms and Dark Sun, or integrating Science Fiction and Science Fantasy species into otherwise traditional fantasy. There was another post from a long while back, I hope I'm remembering correctly, where you discuss the idea of Setups, and I think you used Star Trek Deep Space Nine as an example of a really good Setup to use as the basis of a campaign.
Is there a specific approach you have to these kinds of worldbuilding posts? How do you think about worldbuilding within the context of games? Or is this a fair characterization of what you do in the first place?
Anne: I think things like these interviews are great for creating a sense of community within an otherwise kind of diffuse online scene. I also try to be pretty careful about who I'm boosting (although I don't claim to think my own judgment is perfect.) There have been times when a few people with big, and frankly toxic personalities have really dominated the OSR space, just by virtue of seemingly everybody talking about them. So when possible, trying to build up stronger connections to people who seem interesting, but who aren't just dominating the space is a really nice goal in its own right. Make the scene better by giving attention to people who are both making cool things, but also who aren't being jerks, or worse, to the people around them. Make the scene better by cutting your own ties to people who are acting in a way that degrades everyone else's quality of life.
Max: I think that level of conscientiousness about not just promoting people, but also who you're promoting, is also really valuable. I'm glad that the scene has, on the whole, seemingly gotten better at it, but I think it's a shame the things that had to happen for the community on the whole to live up to that level of accountability.
Anne: I appreciate your interest in my worldbuilding posts, because probably I don't write enough of them. I'm sure a lot of us have this problem, where we've got a lot of ideas, and it can be a challenge to put enough of them in one place to have a coherent post. I find it easy to do with links to other people's things. I'll have some embarrassingly huge number of drafts going that start out just as lists of links that are similar or connected in some way, and ideally I'll go back and actually write the post around those. I try to do the same thing with my worldbuilding, but I'm less successful at it.
Max: I know exactly what you mean, like you can have a brilliant idea, but like 20% of it is the idea, and then 80% is putting it altogether coherently and in a way that's actually interesting to someone who can't see the mental image in your brain
As much as I appreciate all your community work, I wanted to discuss your worldbuilding as well for this exact reason, I hope I can convince you to polish up some of those drafts!
Anne: In practical terms, I would say that my two biggest role models for world building are Jack Shear from Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque and Trey Causey from From the Sorcerer's Skull. Because they do so much of it. Jack has only a handful of campaign settings that he's developed (so far!) but he's put a lot into them. You know, he's got his not-Ravenloft in Krevborna, and his not-Eberron in Umberwell, but he's written locations, factions, NPCs, and he posts them pretty consistently. Trey takes a much broader approach. He's probably proposed dozens of campaign settings over the years. And what he'll do is write a series of posts playing with the idea, and then move on to something else. Except sometimes he'll also come back to older ideas from time to time and drop more in there.
Max: Here I am saying I want to hear more about you, and you still can't help but promote others ;)! No offense to them of course, they are also deserving of recognition.
Anne: I really can't help it! I think it's because I want to give context, but in a social scene like this, that context is always going to be other people.
Max: I was messing around a bit, but that's a very good point.
Anne: My point is that they are two people who do a lot of worldbuilding, who have kept at it, and who I kind of look to for inspiration. Jack's way of doing things is more project oriented I think. Trey's model looks more like the way I do things, and it's like, seeing someone do things that way feels like it gives me permission to do the same, you know?
I would say that probably a lot of what we all are doing when we're worldbuilding is really like reskinning. We're trying to find a new surface to lay on top of our preferred style of playing the game, either to keep it interesting, or just to make it more personal. And maybe by starting with a new appearance, you find that it takes you in a new direction that you might not have expected before. But most of us aren't trying to invent something really new. A few people are. But most of us are not out there inventing new perspectives on imagining fictional space or the passage of time or totally new non-dice based mechanics for deciding how things go. Most of us are putting a new coat of paint and dropping in our favorite pop cultural references into a game of exploration and fighting and "tell me what you do next" and rolling some kind of dice to decide.
I'm definitely drawn to science fiction and science fantasy more than pure fantasy, and I think that shows up in the kinds of worldbuilding posts that I write.
The post I wrote about set-ups is kind of interesting, because in a way it's not really worldbuilding in terms of content, it actually is me thinking about the underlying... mechanics is probably the wrong word here, but like, structure that lets you play the game. I don't even know how I learned it, but even as a kid I somehow knew that awful "you all meet at a bar, suddenly an old man in the corner starts telling a story" setup. Which is like, maybe the worst way I can think of to try to start a game, because it gives you nothing to work with. You'd be better off just being told "this is the adventure, go do it".
Anne: The one variation on that I'd like to try sometime would be like "you're in a bar and the band is singing about an adventure site, the site is within walking distance of the bar, you're all drunk, go adventure!" I would use the White Stripes song "Broken Bricks," which is about poking around an abandoned construction site after hours.
Max: See again! That's a clever way of taking this tired trope, and finding a way to make it interesting.
Anne: But really, how many set-ups are there in D&D land that we ever really think of? MAR Barker is kind of famous for having the players start off as recently arrived visitors from another country who know nothing of the local ways, to try to match up what the characters are doing and what the players are doing. And then there's the kind of "quest-giver" trope where you all are sort of undefined "heroes" who get approached to go solve someone else's problem for them. I mean, we can think of others, the Electric Bastionland thing where you're deeply in debt to some powerful faction that wants to squeeze the money out of you comes to mind immediately just for being novel.
But all of those tropes are silent about what kinds of factions might exist in the world and how they might relate to each other. I think when I wrote that thing about Deep Space Nine, Jack had just written about using Dune as a model for how to set up some starting factions in your game. And I had probably been watching Star Trek on Netflix recently. And so that inspired me to think about another example of a general way of arranging some starting factions into a situation where virtually any choices the players make will have consequences that favor one group over another and lead to larger domain-level changes in the environment.
Max: I actually am ashamed to admit, I had intended to use that post as the basis for a table of my own Setups, but I struggled to think of other good examples to use or how to effectively abstract them 😦. But principally I loved that idea.
Anne: I'm not sure I could come up with another one off the top of my head if you asked me to right now. It's probably a bit of an under-explored space. Maybe someone who studies literature would be aware of more?
Well, okay, saying that has made me lie about not being able to think of another one, because Romeo and Juliet comes to mind immediately as an example of a set-up where two factions are engaged in more or less open warfare that's starting to really heat up, and now here's this opportunity to try to either mend the conflict or make it much, much worse.
Max: Ooh that's a good one!
Anne: Still better than "you, a crew of 15th level demigods, are guarding a caravan like a crowd of 1 hit point stooges".
Max: Well that's a low bar lol, but Romeo & Juliet is a genuinely good idea.
Anne: Or, "the wizard, who is like unto a deity in his ability to bend reality as he sees fit, has asked you to go perform a menial task that is still difficult enough you wonder why he didn't do it himself".
What else would you like to talk about?
Max: I'm glad you asked, there actually was one more topic I wanted to make sure we saved time for. Talk to me about Bon Mots!
Anne: Okay, real talk, I probably post those because I don't have a Twitter account, and so witticisms that probably would (or should!) go there end up on my blog instead.
Max: I just noticed I'm the only person who commented on the first Bon Mots post lol.
The world would be a better place if more people did Bon Mots, you are doing it right, they are doing it wrong.
Anne: I think my first Bon Mots post ever was actually right after Google Plus went down, and I wanted to preserve a few things people had said that I really liked. And then I had a couple that were just silly juxtapositions I couldn't get out of my head, like the characters of Porchy and Pouchy on The Crown and Orphan Black. But I think the one's you're talking about the most recent two, right? Where I wrote little short stories about comic book characters.
Max: Ooh I didn't realize Bon Mots goes further back, I thought they were all the comic book character short stories. Can you briefly explain the concept of Bon Mots for readers who don't know what we're talking about?
Anne: I can try!
So, without looking at a dictionary, I would define a bon mot as something kind of witty and intelligent that someone says in conversation. Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest" is basically just an entire series of people talking in these witty one liners. I would say what I'm writing is more silly than smart, so I'm flattering myself a bit when I call them that.
Max: Not at all! At least the two comic book ones are pure genius!
Anne: Ah, thank you. Right, so the most recent ones are kind of ridiculous scenarios involving comic book characters. I don't think they even rise to the level of being called short stories. They're probably more like vignettes.
How I've written those has been that I've been chatting with some people on Discord, and someone will say something that inspires me to want to tell a little story. I actually can't remember how the one with Darkseid and Cinderblock came about, except that the idea of a mistaken identity misadventure came to me, and that seemed like the correct way for it to play out.
The one about Punisher avenging Ice Man was because of talking to some of the people I write Bones of Contention with about finding yourself, as a player, in a situation where you're sworn to get revenge on whoever mysteriously killed this poor goblin you found, and then meeting the ogre or whatever who did it, and the ogre immediately offers you a quest to go kill more goblins, and then doing that player character thing we all do, where you try to rationalize behavior that would be totally sociopathic in anything resembling real life, where you really just want to turn every situation to your advantage without caring about which fictional people get fictionally hurt.
Humphrey Bogart's character in "The Maltese Falcon" is a great example of player character behavior actually, because he just lies to everyone and tells them whatever they want to hear, all the while trying to pursue his own agenda that doesn't really line up with any of theirs.
So the Punisher story was my attempt to reframe the scenario into a slightly more realistic setting to illustrate my position, which was that even if the ogre was too strong for you to fight, your previous oath of vengeance should probably preclude you from actively going out and killing more goblins like the one you first felt sorry for. (The counter arguments to that are several, not least, who cares if you don't keep your fictional word to get fake revenge on the not actual murder of a non-existent being!)
I don't get the inspiration to write things like that super often, but it's fun, and you'll probably see more of them in the future.
Max: I hope so!
Ok, well I don't think we can top Bon Mots, but even if not, are there any final things you'd like to say or discuss before we wrap up?
I know I started off talking about your community contributions, but I'm glad we got to talk about your own inspirations and idea as well, and I hope we see more of them in the future.
Especially Bon Mots.
Anne: I think one of my goals for the year is to try to go back and either finish up some things that I've started, or at least add a bit more to them. If you were to go through the title list of my posts, you might notice that there are several part ones that never actually get a published follow up. I really need to finish my posts about Barbarian Prince. And I have a couple more ideas for science fantasy factions. And I'm excited about my adventure writing project, although somehow I've temporarily stalled on writing my post-mortem of my first attempt to create the thing.
The last couple years have been pretty rough for almost everyone I think, because of the ongoing pandemic that somehow keeps producing new bigger waves that dwarf the old ones, instead of new smaller waves that show us things are moving in the right direction, and they've been tough for me too.
In 2020, I found it very hard to read anything longer than a paragraph or two because of how overwhelmed by it all I felt. And then in 2021 I got myself able to read again, but it became very difficult for me to write anything.
I can't say that I think I've totally gotten over that hangup, but I do think I'm finding it easier to get things down in text again, and I want to, I'm looking forward to, increasing my blogging output over last year's rather dismal total.
Max: Ya... As you know, I'm actually still recovering from covid myself (fortunately a very mild case)*. I'm sorry that this ongoing moment has affected your ability to focus on reading and writing, but for whatever it's worth, I do really hope you're able to follow through on this goal.
* That was the case as of when the interview occurred, but I believe I am now operating at 100% again :)!
That's a rather somber note to end on, we should have ended with Bon Mots!
In all seriousness though, all the best, and thank you for this interview!
Anne: I appreciate your support, and I have to say, I'm glad that your case was mild and you're on the mend.
This is a slightly more somber conclusion that if we'd just stopped after talking about comic book hijinks, but I do feel somewhat hopeful, for right now at least, that we can do our best to make this year better than the last two. 2020 set a low bar. I have a glimmer of hope that 2022 won't limbo under it.