Thursday, February 9, 2012

Beyond the Weird: an Interview with Trey Causey

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.]


  1. Great surprise. This made my day. I'd love to play in a PbB if that's how it's going to be done, and I'm starting a queue right here if there isn't already one running round the block.

    1. Could be, but likely a slow-paced one given my stack of projects. I am seeing double-propped sea planes departing the City for places exotic in my mind's eye already though.

  2. Love it.

    I just wish your interviews were longer!

    1. You didn't think the one with Rob Kuntz was long enough? Ha.

      Seriously though, a good interview always makes me think a long while afterwards. I'm still having a conversation in my head about this one. I suspect you may seem some riffing especially about the nature of fantasy.

      And I suspect if you ask nicely Trey may pop in here and answer a few of your own questions.

    2. Ask, and ye shall receive. :)

    3. Question for you Trey. Is Weird Adventures system dependent, does it have its own rules or use something else to power it?

    4. It's pretty rules indepedent, but it utilizes the OGL. For monster stats are D&D-ish but minimalist. Spells and similar abilities reference the SRD. It was meant to able to be dropped into any system, though.

    5. @Ckutalik: Well played, sir.

      @Trey: OK.

      (1) If someone wanted to utilize real historical Earth history material from any place or time to reach Alexis levels of campaign detail for a campaign based in the City, what would your top three place/time recommendations be?

      (2) There are numerous formats that the City could lend itself to: computer games (PS:Torment style adventure would be incredible), interactive electronic format, graphic novels, etc. If you had unlimited financial backing and creative freedom, what would your dream formats/presentation be?

      (3) From reading your blog's entries that range from mysterious humour all the way to freakishly scary, one gets the impression that the City isn't all there is - that the world is still very much 'open' and limitless beyond that. Do you feel that quality is a product of the pulp/mystery threads within it or some other quality?

      (4) If you had 24 hours and a time machine, where/when would you go and what would you do?

      (5) What's the most inspirational toy you ever possessed?

    6. @Scottsz: Damn! ;) Alright, here goes:

      1) If based in the City, I would say New York City in the 1930s is the central place and era. Stuff on London would be useful (I'm thinking of Peter Ackroyd's biography of the city, primarily). Social histories of America in the early to mid-20th Century are good, too: particularly one's on esoteric topics like Freeland's Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville and Long's Spiritual Merchants.

      2)I'd sort of like to see a film or animation set in the City--perhaps centered around the Boardwalk War between the fortune-telling machines. A computer game would be interesting, too, though I don't play those. :D

      3)I would say the tone is more a product of melding the various influences and trying to make them weird, yet strangely matter of fact. It's been said that humor and horror are similar in that they're both reactions to things contrary to expectation. The tension of the weirdness and the mundanity of the setting leads to one or the other approach as a way to make it "work," I think.

      4)Ha. Probably something more personal that I'll say here. But other than that, I'd want to see some dinosaurs, man!

      5)That's tough to say. The most versatile may have been the Mego Mr. Spock, who could be not only the Enterprise's first officer, but Sub-Mariner, and the elf from Hawk the Slayer.

    7. 1) Very nice!
      2) A compilation of animations/video from different artists (like Animatrix)!
      3) Well put.
      4) Ha!
      5) The Doll of Many Faces... Someday I hope to reacquire the little blue phaser.

      Many thanks for taking the time!

  3. Trey, though I get the central role of Americana in WA, a world with "double-propped sea planes" and tramp steamers will have made a few initial steps towards globalization. You also drop some hints about The Old World. Do you have any plans to show us more of the rest of the world?

    1. Definitely. WA gives an overview of the entire Western world. Some places (like San Zancudo) have gotten a little more coverage on the blog. There has been some stuff on Gran Lludd and Staark in the Old World (Ealderde) and Thrangbek and Yian in the Far East on the blog, as well.

      If just scratched the surface of the Old World though--more to come. Maybe when I've got more, I'll collect them into a pdf.

    2. The collaboration thing sounds exciting. Have you been gaming in The City yet? Any plans to expand it into other media (stories, comics even)?

      I'm a huge fan BTW.

    3. Thanks, Richard.

      I haven't yet, but there's a long delayed game finalizing start-dates (sometimes getting that crew together is like hearding cats) and an online game in the planning stages for which I think I'll use the GUMSHOE/Pathfinder mashup Lorefinder (though that's not 100% final yet).

      A few people have been after me for some fiction in the world, but no specific plans as yet. I would like to but together a "Hardluck Hooligans" web comic strip about a kid gang in the City's Hardluck slum, but I've got to find an artist.

  4. Great interview. Trey has done some absolutely incredible stuff with Weird Adventures. More please!

  5. Thanks Chris and Trey for the interview! My hardcover of Weird Adventures hardcover arrived this week. Gorgeous and cool! The creativity that has gone into The City through this book and Trey's blog remind me a LOT of the creativity that happened online in the early days of Mage, 1st edition - particularly on Anders Sandberg's website. That is good company to keep!

  6. @Tallgeese - I remember Anders Mage Pages well. That's quite a compliment!