One of the most hackneyed of interview cliches is to introduce someone as a “man that perhaps needs no introduction.” If you are reading this blog, though, my gut says you've already encountered Trey Causey and his blog From the Sorcerer's Scroll.
If you haven't, boogie over to that link above, poke around a bit and then come back here before you read the interview. My second hunch of the day tells me you are likely to have a similar experience to what I did when bumping into his blog more than a year ago.
At that first sitting, I read through blog posts for hours immediately developing a strong appreciation for its pulpy thematic unity; the quirky (and quite funny) setting write-ups; the achingly appropriate photos; and the underlying sense that fantasy is something truly weird and unbounded—something other than a stock genre.
At the tail end of last year, Trey finally made good on his threats to publish Weird Adventures, a setting sourcebook detailing the City and matching world his fantasy Pulp-era setting. I make no pretense at an objective review. I'm generally not much of a “buyer” or “joiner” when it comes to new rpg products, but seeing bound it together in a hardcover was exciting enough to make me want to play something riffing off it again.
Curious readers can find it here for themselves in PDF, softcover, and hardcover form.
So with no introduction, ahem...
Hill Cantons: Tell the readers a bit how you got into all this. What led you to make the leap from being just a gamer to someone creating content for gaming? Where did the vision for the City begin and how did it take off? What broke in your head?
Trey Causey: It’s the fault of my friend and sometimes collaborator, Jim Shelley. We’d email back and forth during the workday as time permitted about comics, movies, or whatever. At times, I’d want to discuss setting ideas and what not better suited for gaming than anything else. Jim wasn’t (at that time) a gamer. He suggested I start a blog, at least partially so he could get out of having to listen my gaming ideas! I had also started reading Grognardia, Monsters and Manuals, and some other blogs around the same time, so they were an inspiration, too.
The kernel of the idea that would become the City predates the blog. I don’t remember when it began to come together, but it was born of consideration of China Mieville’s comment about “lancing the boil” of Tolkien’s influence of on fantasy. What he may have meant in a more antagonistic way, I viewed as just the expression of the need to open things up a bit, to expand the boundaries. Still, setting-wise, Mieville’s solution was basically to move from the Medieval to the Victorian. I felt like Steampunk had been done, too.
I wanted a fantasy setting that was going to be based on distinctly American tropes, because that we haven’t seen much of. We’ve got our own legends and fairy tales: tall-tale characters, Oz, Forteana, superheroes. I wanted to go something with those sorts of ingredients. The two eras of American history most mythologized in pop culture are probably the Old West and the “Pulp Era”—the Great Depression, mainly. To my mind, it was this latter era that encompassed more of the elements I wanted to work with.
Anyway, this was just an idea that I didn’t do anything with for some time. After starting the blog, I gave some thought to the D&D influences on Mieville’s Perdido Street Station. There are some nice quotes about adventurers in it, which somehow I missed when I first read it. The idea of making use of D&D tropes collided with the older idea of a Pulp era fantasy in my brain, and the City was born.
The main aesthetic was to be the "mean streets" of the hard-boiled detective novel. If we ignore the Western (at least for a minute), Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, and their fellows, are the American equivalent to the Arthurian knights. Of course, the streets of the City aren’t just mean—they’re weird. Movies like Dark City and City of Lost Children had some of that feel. The fiction of Lovecraft, Leiber and Clark Ashton Smith played a part. So did Golden Age comics (particularly Captain Marvel and the Spirit) and more recent comics like The Goon, Sandman, and The Invisibles.
HC: What other literary/aesthetic/gaming influences went into the mix?
TC: There are a lot of influences as different parts are inspired by different things. The conception of God and the Heavens, and a bit of how the “planes beyond” work, is tonally informed by Cabell's Jurgen. The misshapen, bootlegging Ogres were born of “Faces of Meth” scare posters and "yokel horror" like The Hills Have Eyes and Wrong Turn. The City's tax collectors emerged from a stew composed of a Daffy Duck cartoon about a frighteningly persistent little man from the draft board, Brazil and the general British portrayal of civil servants, and the fact that the SRD had a monster called an "Inevitable" (as in “two things in life are..”) that they were misusing.
HC: Circling back to the blog, one of the most interesting and compelling things about Weird Adventures is that I feel like I have been watching it unfold one bit at a time over there for more than a year. Often you get content teasers from designers about what they are working on, your approach felt much more organic and engaging.
How did you get started down the road of using the blog in this manner? Did you have your eyes on doing it that way from the get go or did it just develop?
TC: When I started the blog there wasn’t any idea of Weird Adventures. The first four months or so of posts were devoted to my then-current setting, which was the latest iteration of my D&D world that had been constantly mutating since middle school. In April 2010, I wrote a post called “Toward A Hard-boiled Fantasy Sandbox,” and from there the idea grew a lot more quickly than I let on in the blog posts. Archeology of my Google docs show that, within a week of that post, I’d written a rough outline of what I was then calling “The City Guide.” Looking back at it, I’m surprised how many elements are already there that wouldn’t make it on to the blog for months to come.
As far as the content on the blog goes, I wasn’t trying to tease (at least, not primarily). At first, I wanted to drum up interest so that there would be a fanbase for a theoretical product. Later, I had the idea that blog content and book content would be mostly the same to cut down on the writing workload. A good idea, but it didn’t work out so well. There just wasn’t always a good blog post “angle” for a lot of the stuff the book needed. Plus, I wanted there to be enough original content so people felt like they got their money’s worth. Several of the sections in WA are mostly material that had appeared on the blog, but the vast majority of the City section was written expressly for the book (though a bit of it did appear on the blog before the book came out).
HC: Let's talk a little about the making of WA. How long were you expecting to get it over and one by? How long did it actually take? What was the most difficult thing you felt like you had to overcome?
TC: It took a lot longer than I thought! I’m afraid to look back at the blog; I know that--even though I tried to stay vague--I gave tentative release dates at various points that wound up being way off. Even though I had started planning it in April 2010, the oldest actual content files I have date from September. I don’t know what I was doing in the months in between. Still hoping just writing for the blog would do it, I guess. I did start commissioning artwork, though, which wound up being a bit of mistake. I think it’s hard to know what pieces of art you might need until you’ve got a good bit written.
The hardest thing was probably just doing all the damn writing. The City section went on forever! I was getting up on weekend days at 6am like they were week days and writing for an hour or so before doing anything else. It complicated dating as well, as I had a couple of distance relationships during the period I was working on it. It was sometimes tricky to explain how important it was to me to write this thing I wasn’t getting paid for about goblins and wizards. The fact that I tried might explain why I’m still single.
HC: What's next? Any plans for expanding WA? Moving on to other projects? And if so, what?
TC: I’m not sure yet. I think there are definitely more things in the City and the Strange New World left to explore. It doesn’t seem like any consensus has emerged yet as to what people would like to see more of, so crowdsourcing hasn’t really helped up to this point. The prospect of some sort of collaboration has been raised, so that might help me decide. That discussion is in the early stages, though, so it might not come to anything. I have some other projects that I’ve thought about (like my Pulp Space posts), but no firm plans yet. I’m open to suggestions.
For now, all I can say definitively is that I’m going to be continuing to explore the City’s world on the blog—and hopefully soon in games both in-person and online.
[Editor's Note: all the illustrations above are drawn from WA, with permission natch.]