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Klint and I have only met recently, but I've appreciated our conversations over our shared interests such as Buddhism, the Tech Industry, and Weird Worldbuilding.
Sewer Mutant: The indie comics blog.
Klintron: The itch.io page.
Max: When we first met, we were discussing my game Maximum Recursion Depth, and specifically the Buddhist elements of the setting. It became apparent that you are much more so involved with Buddhism than I am, so I'd be interested to learn more about your relationship with it, when and why you became interested in it, and how you feel about it.
Klint: My current relationship with it is that I'm active with the local Shingon Buddhist temple here in Portland, Oregon. By active, I mean my wife and I attend the weekly Dharma talks (on Zoom for the time being) and meditate or chant mantras every day. We also attend the livestreamed Goma ritual as often as possible, which the Seattle temple hosts each month. And of course I do my best to follow the Precepts and the Eightfold Path.
It's hard to say exactly how I first got interested in Buddhism in general. It's something I've been interested in, off and on, for quite a while. I started a practice of meditating almost every day back in 2012. Though I was interested in Buddhism I wasn't ready to sign on the dotted line so to speak.
A major turning point for me was visiting Cambodia and Thailand in the fall of 2019, two majority Buddhist countries. It's hard to explain but I was left with a particular feeling upon leaving.
I didn't really act on that feeling though until early 2021 when I did a bunch of "temple hopping" on Zoom. I attended online sessions with several different local sanghas. I really felt the strongest connection with the teacher at the Shingon temple and my wife felt the same. So it was actually less a feeling of affinity with that particular sect and more of choosing him as a teacher. I think he brings the right balance of modernity and tradition to his Dharma talks.
I was raised Episcapalian, but not particularly strictly. I stopped going to church when I was a teenager. I went through several years where I was really interested in occultism and mystism, from around 2000 until something like 2007 (ironically, around the time I stopped being interested in it was when I was heavily involved in organizing a local esotericism conference). So I guess it's fitting I ended up with an "esoteric" form of Buddhism.
Max: It makes sense to me that you would lose interest in occultism around the time you tried organizing an event around it haha.
Klint: Yeah I have a habit of losing interest in things once I become too heavily involved with them. The other thing was that while organizing that it was increasingly clear that a lot of people who claimed to be powerful magickians weren't able to scrounge up the money to get a bus ticket to Portland, so that gave me a more dim view of their practices.
Max: Did you start to burn out on Grant Morrison and Alan Moore* around that time, or are those unrelated events?
* Grant Morrison and Alan Moore are both highly influential comic book writers who both identify with occultism.
Klint: Those were unrelated events. My initial interest in occultism was very motivated by Alan Moore and the industrial musician Genesis P. Orridge. I found Invisibles* just about the same time I was first starting to practice chaos magic, so one ended up reinforcing the other.
* Invisibles is a work by Grant Morrison and arguably the inspiration for The Matrix
My burning out on them later had more to do with reading too much of those particular authors to the exclusion of most other comics creators. And I suppose increased annoyance at the public personas.
Max: That makes perfect sense to me.
Klint: With Buddhism, I think a big part of it is that for some reason I was ready to be a part of an organized religion with a long tradition of practice. I can't say exactly why, but I suppose it was partially me getting older and partially the troubling state of the world.
Buddhism provides some tools for coping with one's own dissatisfaction and anxieties and so forth. I think of it as a religion, in the sense that you have to have faith that the practice actually works, that it is possible to reduce your own suffering and dissatisfaction. But it's not a faith in the existence of external beings and so forth. There are supernatural elements in the Buddha’s teaching and though I don’t want to say they’re unimportant, they don’t have to be true for the practice to be valuable. You can test the things you are supposed to have faith in through the practice. So in that sense, despite being quite old, it's a religion with a very modern sensibility.
Max: So we haven't gone into all this yet, but you're a tech journalist, practicing Buddhist, indie tabletop RPG creator and blogger, and indie comics blogger and podcaster, and also a former occultist. That's a rather eclectic set of interests. Do you see these varying interests as being related, or at least, do you see some common underpinning in why you're drawn to these things?
Klint: I'm not sure there's a single underlying current but I suppose there are connections between the nodes there. I don't necessarily see those as all that eclectic. Tech, RPGs, and comic books are kind of a common suite of geek interests.
Max: Actually, anecdotally, I've noticed a lot of tech skepticism or outright anti-tech sentiment among some indie RPG creators. In fact, I think people like you and I may be in the minority in this regard. Perhaps you disagree with this notion in the first place, but I'm wondering if you have any thoughts or insights on the matter?
Klint: I don't know. I wouldn't necessarily think of myself as "pro-tech" or anything like that. And part of what drew me to get back into RPGs as an adult, after a large time away, was wanting a creative, in-person social activity that was also analog.
I spend a lot of time on the computer and my phone so it's always nice to do things that don't involve screens. Though playing RPGs tends to lead to creating RPGs, which leads to screen time, so it sort of backfired.
Max: Pro/Anti-Tech may be an overly reductive way of framing things, but I'm thinking about, for instance, some of the conversations around Kickstarter announcing they will be using blockchain technology. I realize talking about blockchain and NFTs are a whole can of worms and we don't need to get into the nitty gritty on it, but especially within the context of your game Mission Driven and Destiny City (and as a tech journalist!), I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on these things.
Klint: Yeah, the backlash against Kickstarter over that was sort of a surprise to me. It did seem a little knee-jerk, since we don't know what Kickstarter is going to do or how they'll use the technology—if they even use it.
That said, I'm pretty skeptical of blockchain stuff. It's something I've been looking at for a long time. I wrote my first story on Bitcoin in 2010. At first blockchains seemed really cool and promising. But I haven't really seen a lot of really compelling use cases for blockchains that can't be addressed more simply in other ways.
And there's a lot more centralization in blockchain technologies than people acknowledge. These projects have centralized development teams that make the decisions that go into the design of these things and as we saw with the DAO heist way back in 2016, it's possible to "undo" transactions on a blockchain if the developers decide to. Users can revolt and fork a blockchain, which we've seen some of, but that just creates a new centralized project.
One of the big problems that blockchain-based technologies try to solve is the problem of having only one person or organization controlling something. But that's a problem that's already solved through things like foundations with multiple member organizations. It's a non-technical fix that arguably works much better than a technical fix.
I think a lot of what it comes down to is people wanting technical fixes to non-technical problems, and the fact that the original Bitcoin blockchain was a really clever piece of technology and people really want to find uses for it. But it's fundamentally a solution in search of a problem. Maybe someday someone will figure it out, and there could be use cases I'm not familiar with, but it largely seems like the equivalent of trying to use Rube Goldberg devices to do things just because they're cool, even if it's an incredibly inefficient way of doing things.
Max: As a software engineer, I am familiar with the "solution in search of a problem" phenomenon!
I'm perhaps somewhat more optimistic about its potential, but I don't necessarily disagree with anything you said. The decentralization angle is often over-stated, and whatever form it takes, if it does stick, I'm inclined to think will be something non-linear.
I had mentioned previously Mission Driven, the "Cyberpunk Adventure Game Set in the Modern World", and the companion book "A Pocket Guide to Destiny City".
Where so many scifi cyberpunk settings feel derivative and devoid of anything fantastical, you've created a game set in the real world, with explicitly nothing science fictional or fantastical per se, and yet it so elegantly portrays the Weirdness and fantasticalness of the world today, for better and worse.
What are your intentions for Mission Driven? What are you trying to do with it?
Klint: It dates back to 2010. Around that time I read a couple different articles about how we were now basically living in a cyberpunk dystopia. One was an Onion article, the other was written by a friend. There's the argument that we've been living in a cyberpunk dystopia for a long time. There's a saying that science fiction isn't about the future, it's about the present. Cyberpunk was largely a response to what was happening during the Reagan/Thatcher-era. The Soviet Union was in decline and it seemed evident that capitalism won. Corporations seemed more powerful than ever. There was a growing awareness of environmental degradation. Labor's power was on the decline. Etc.
But at the same time, I was sort of captivated by the idea of telling cyberpunk stories set in the modern world. Around this same time I read William Gibson's Zero History, which was set in the the then-present day. But it still read like a cyberpunk novel, which makes sense since Gibson helped create the genre.
So I thought I would create a game that would be to Gibson's present-day trilogy (known as the "Blue Ant" trilogy) what Cyberpunk 2020 and Shadowrun were to Gibson's first trilogy (the Sprawl trilogy).
Originally I thought I would do that by creating a setting for a generic RPG system. I started with Mini-Six in mind, then Fate. I worked on it in fits and starts over a few years. Then I discovered Apocalypse World in 2016. I never quite felt comfortable with Fate, so I decided to shift gears and do a Powered by the Apocalypse game instead. But that involved a really different approach, one where setting was less important and classes and mechanics were more important. So the setting and the game diverged a lot.
I've reached a point now where "cyberpunk in the real world" feels a lot less clever and fun than it did in 2010. Maybe it's me just getting disenchanted with it, but it also just feels like, especially in the pandemic era, the world is just too bleak so I'm not sure how much further I will develop Mission Driven. There's a bit of a catch 22 right now where I'm not all that enthused to continue working on it because it hasn't generated much interest, but I suspect part of why it hasn't generated much interest is because I'm not that enthused about it.
So I don't know what the future holds. I'm pretty proud of parts of it. I released it under a Creative Commons license in hopes that people will find parts to scavenge for other games.
Like your mecha game for example.*
* I have been considering adding elements of Mission Driven / Destiny City into Get into the Machine, Shinji! or whatever that project becomes. If nothing else, I have found it a source of inspiration.
Max: That idea that science fiction is about the present rather than future, and specifically that we're already in the cyberpunk dystopia, is something I generally agree with and I think is part of what makes Mission Driven so interesting.
I am actually not a huge Gibson fan, but now you've got me potentially interested in the Blue Ant trilogy.
I hear you on that point about it feeling less clever and fun than it did in 2010, but at the same time, I almost feel like in a way, that's what makes something like Mission Driven even more powerful.
There is something to be said for, even in acknowledging this kind of awful reality we've wound up with, that there is still Wonder in it. And I do think that's nontrivial- like I don't mean to make light of all the suffering that occurs as a result of the way things are, but at the same time, I honestly sometimes worry about a reaction that is just as bad or worse than what we have now, and one that could be avoided, with the right perspective- which isn't to say I think I have that perspective, but if we aren't all trying to think about these things, how can we expect to create something better?
Klint: I agree, I just think there might be better avenues for imagining solutions and so forth than Mission Driven 🙂. Destiny City on the other hand I think might have a future as a setting or implied for scenarios for different games, ones with more fantastic elements to them like urban fantasy or superheroes.
Max: I am by no means opposed to adding fantastical or superheroic elements to Mission Driven / Destiny City, but I think that's still consistent with the general idea, of trying to recognize and analyze the world for what it is. I actually was not aware that that was how you felt about Mission Driven, but for what it's worth, while I understand and respect what you're saying, I hope I can change your mind.
Klint: I hope I change my mind about Mission Driven too. I worked hard on it. We'll see. I've thought about doing versions set in the more recent past: cyberpunk adventures in the 70s or 80s, where phone phreaking, pirate broadcasts, radio jamming, etc. would be priorities.
Max: That could be interesting as well, and could provide room for not just examining where we are, but how we got here
Klint: Yeah, I'd like to find other ways to do some of what I was trying to do with Mission Driven, but in ways that people, including me, will find more fun.
Max: You have three other adventures, Logomancy, Trypophobia, and Be the Media. Trypophobia is clever and very clearly commentary in its own right, and Be the Media, in particular, is a really cool, non-violent conflict-based scenario. They feel like they could be part of Mission Driven, or achieve similar goals.
Am I correct in my thinking abut these scenarios? Do you have any other thoughts you'd like to share about them?
Klint: Be the Media is sort of a micro-game version of Mission Driven. It's like a one page game based around the Watchdogs crewbook. It was sort of an experiment in trying to break pieces of Mission Driven off into bite sized chunks. It doesn't feel like a successful experiment.
Trypophobia and Logomancy were scenarios I came up with for a Delta Green campaign I ran in 2018. I thought they were pretty interesting so I wrote them up as system-neutral scenarios. I also tested Trypophobia out in Cthulhu Dark.
Max: Well again, for what it's worth, I actually felt very inspired by Be The Media, I thought it was a cool idea for how to design a non-violent conflict-based scenario.
Trypophobia, I don't want to spoil it, but I think it has a really cool conceit where, from the players' perspective, it may look like one situation, but then there's a nice twist. And I appreciate the subtext of it as well.
Klint: Trypophobia and Logomancy are similar to Mission Driven and Be the Media in that they were both meant to explore timely topics through RPGs. But they do have fantastical elements. Logomancy more so than Trypophobia.
The high concept in Logomancy is that there's a role playing game that is driving people "mad" (to use the problematic Lovecraftian term), much like the fictional play the King in Yellow does. It includes a game within a game that the PCs can play.
Max: On an unrelated note, we haven't yet talked about Sewer Mutant, your indie comics blog and podcast. How did that all start?
Klint: A few years ago I started revisiting a lot of 90s comics stuff that I grew up with but also grew out of. Stuff like Rob Liefeld and the other early Image creators' work.
A lot of that stuff is bad in a lot of different ways, but I was realizing how important that stuff was to me growing up. Weirdly, I think Liefeld's erratic linework influenced my handwriting, as an odd example.
So my nostalgic interest in that stuff lead me to this YouTube channel called Cartoonist Kayfabe, where they do a lot of flip-throughs and discussions of different comics, a lot of it the same 90s stuff the hosts and I both grew up on. They did an episode on what they called "Outlaw Comics," which are these super dark, black and white, heavily inked (some might say over-inked) comics like Faust, The Crow, and Razor. I liked a lot of that stuff when I was 13 or 14, especially The Crow which had a profound effect on me. I never read Faust back then because I couldn't find it.
All that Outlaw stuff was sort of mysterious to me and I found myself thinking a lot about the context in which it was produced: the era of tabloid television like Hard Copy, near-peak crime rates in the US, etc.
And how that paralleled with the present click-bait hyperpartisan media and increased anxiety over crime even though at the time crime was at historic lows (though that's changed since the pandemic).
So I started digging out a lot of my old comics and buying up stuff I wanted as a kid but never had access to. I grew up in a small town in Wyoming, so it was hard to get indie comics.
I posted pics to Instagram with various thoughts and research notes and people seemed to dig it.
And I also started posting stuff related to the Amateur Creators Union, which was a group that existed for a couple of years in the mid-90s to publish work by, well, amateur comics creators.
They published a newsletter, lots of ashcans, and one anthology. A few members, like Ale Garza, went on to bigger things.
It was utterly forgotten, there was no record on the internet of the Amateur Creators Union ever existing.
So I started posting about that as well.
I got laid off from Wired magazine early in the pandemic, so I had some time on my hands and decided to write some articles about all this stuff I'd been posting to Instagram. I tracked down people and did some interviews, and started pitching the story to various comics and pop culture publications. No one was interested, which is understandable. This stuff is niche and those sites are pretty dependent on covering stuff that has mass appeal. I didn't want to write about the Fantastic Four or whatever though, and I knew there were people who wanted to read the articles I had in mind.
So I started Sewer Mutant to publish them. I really didn't want to start a new publication since there are a million comics and pop culture sites out there already, but it was the only way I could get these articles out there in the form I wanted.
Which actually seems fitting because they're largely stories about people self-publishing stuff.
Max: It's funny you say all of this, as I think I have a very similar relationship with the post-9/11 era of superhero comics; stuff like The Ultimates, The Boys, The Authority, and Punisher Max (even though all but the latter of these I did not read until later, actually...).
Also, I don't mean to derail things too much but I do think it's important to clarify, my understanding is that that's actually not entirely true about the violent crime relapse during the pandemic. It has increased relative to where it's been since basically the mid to late 90's, but it's nowhere near what it was previously. The violent crime wave of the 20th century and it's relationship with comics is something I'm also very much interested in though! Also, while I'm no longer as inclined to agree with the theory, the book Freakonomics has an interesting take on it, although there's a more recent theory that I'm not more inclined to believe (although it's likely an interaction of several things and not just one).
I'm sorry to hear about Wired. I used to work for Condé Nast as well actually.
The struggle with niche interests is so real, and so frustrating. A big part of why I give these interviews is to try to give a platform, however small, for other people out there who I think are doing interesting and unique things, that don't necessarily have that kind of mainstream resonance.
Klint: Yes that's right about the crime rates, though it varies by city. I just mean that we're not really at historically low rates anymore. My point is that it’s about the perception, the anxiety that people feel regardless of the actual threat. Arguably, people were disproportionately worried about crime even in the 80s and 90s which is part of why we ended up with over-incarceration problems, but obviously, it’s all a bit complicated.
Max: That's a whole other conversation, but in any case, I think I'm developing a deeper understanding of your comics sensibilities, and it's really interesting!
Klint: I don't even know what my comics sensibilities are anymore because I've spent a lot of the past two years revisiting all that old stuff, much of which is frankly not very good. My favorite stuff though does overlap with Outlaw Comics though: Grendal, Alack Sinner, Stray Bullets. I'm really into crime fiction and horror, basically. But my tastes vary a lot. Upgrade Soul and Blue is the Warmest color are also all-time favorites of mine.
Max: I actually have not read Grendal but I know of it, nor have I even heard of those others. To be honest, a lot of comics written before like the 80's, like even a lot of the really renowned stuff, I can appreciate it for what it is, but much of it I would not necessarily call "good" haha, but it still was the source of inspiration for all of these other amazing things, and I do find inspiration in some of those comics as well. I think it's ok for something to be not good or to fail, if it fails in interesting ways.
Max: I've really enjoyed this conversation and there are several things we've discussed which I'd like to follow up with you on later, but we should probably wrap up since I know you need to get going! Thank you for your time though. Do you have any last things you'd like to say before we wrap up?
Klint: I can't think of anything else. Thanks for the invite, it's always interesting to be on the other side of the interview table.