Friday, October 30, 2020

Interview: Nils Hintze

Nils Hintze is the writer of several roleplaying games published in Sweden, most recently Vaesen: Nordic Horror Roleplaying, which I reviewed here. A professional psychologist by training, with experience writing for theater as well as RPGs, Mr Hintze kindly agreed to answer my questions about his work past and present.

1. How did you first become involved in the hobby of roleplaying?

In the '80s, when I was a kid, the most popular RPG in Sweden was Drakar och Demoner (Dragons and Demons). My older brother got a copy of it as a Christmas present from our grandfather, and since I still couldn’t read and my brother couldn’t really understand the game, our mother read it with a yellow highlighter, underlining every piece of rules in it. She was our first Gamemaster in a scenario at the kitchen table where I was a dwarf and my brother an elf with a bow. After that, we kept on playing, unfortunately without our mother. And I have pretty much played RPGs since then, and most of my friends from my childhood are RPG friends.

2. Do you have any favorite roleplaying games – not simply to play but ones whose rules design or setting you find particularly appealing?

I love Solar System by Eero Tuovinen, based on The Shadow of Yesterday by Clinton R. Nixon. We used to play it a lot, and I really like the mechanics with keys, and that the character transcends and leaves the story when she has gathered enough experience points. The rules focus the story on interaction among characters and emotional development.

Recently, I have become interested in a game called Odd Soot. It is a mix-up of Call of Cthulhu and Space: 1889, though it takes place in Europe during the '30’s in a fictional version of Earth. It is primarily the mood of the game that I like, with strange illustrations of creepy aliens and a lot of things in the backstory kept secret.

Then again, nothing beats a good old Call of Cthulhu campaign. It is something with the fact that the characters are at a constant disadvantage, under-equipped, and not even capable of understanding what takes place, that makes it fun to walk right into danger and be consumed by madness and death.

Also, I have an unreasonably love for Burning Wheel, even though the mechanics at times could steal too much of the group’s focus during play. It is so well constructed; every little rule is connected to the whole of the game. And at the same time as it is a mechanically complicated and technical game, it has a crystal clear theme that not only runs through all of the parts of it, the theme—to fight for what you believe in and pay the prize to get what you want—actually emerges at the center of the story, just by playing it according tot the rules.

3. When did you start writing for roleplaying games and what were some of your most notable designs?

I wrote other stuff, like scripts for theater, before I started to write for RPG. But in 2006 a game called Oktoberlandet (the Octoberland) was published and I fell in love with it and started to write free pdf-scenarios for it. The author, Christian Mehrstam (Whitehack, Suldokar’s Wake) helped me a lot in the process of learning to write for games, and since then we have become friends, and he still helps me with texts.

When Free League and Christian decided to publish a second edition of Oktoberlandet, I was asked to write scenarios and campaigns. In the process, I got a taste for writing RPG-materials, and I wrote an email to Tomas Härenstam at Free League, asking him if there where other things I could write. That led to me writing the RPG Tales from the Loop, based on the artbook by Simon Stålenhag. I then wrote the follow up: Things from the Flood, based on the second artbook by Simon Stålenhag.

My latest product is of course Vaesen, based on the artbook by Johan Egerkrans. But I have also written some other, smaller stuff, such as some of the content in Forbidden Lands and some texts to the upcoming Twillight 2000. Though I mostly write for Free League, I have done some stuff for other companies. In 2021, a campaign for the horror game Kult will be published. It takes place during the Lebanese civil war, and it is called Dome of Desolation.

4. Since most of my readers are English speakers, they're likely unfamiliar with the world of Swedish roleplaying games. How would you compare the Swedish and English language scenes? What are the similarities and differences between them, particularly when it comes to subject matter?

Dungeons & Dragons (and OSR games) is the biggest game in Sweden, but not in the overwhelming sense that is the case in the rest of the world. People play a lot of different games and many Swedish games. The Swedish RPG scene is extremely big, considering how many people live here. There are many people doing their own games, and it is really a creative and vigorous scene, with a lot of cooperation. A couple of years ago, many people were in to the Story Now scene, but nowadays OSR is very popular, just as in the international scene. 

The biggest RPG companies are Free League, Helmgast and maybe Riotminds. A common thing for them is that they sort of have two groups of customers, one Swedish and one international. Some games are only published in Swedish, while others are translated after they have sort of been tried out on the Swedish market. 

Concerning subject matter, I think most Swedish games are about the same things as the international games: murder hobos stealing gold, space ships, and horror monsters. I would say that the trend to do somewhat different games, for instance about characters who are kids and not heroes, or about more serious subjects such as racism or global warming, is not bigger or smaller in Sweden than in other places. Hopefully we see a more diversified scene all over.

5. How much of a free hand did you have in creating Vaesen? For example, was the decision to set the game in the 19th century yours or did it originate with someone else? I'm very curious about the process of taking the ideas present in the original art book by Johan Egerkrans and turning them into a roleplaying game.

The big picture of the game was already in place when I was contacted. For instance, that it was to be set in the 19th century. Some of these decisions were changed during the process such as where the base of the player characters should be located, and what parts of northern Europe would be described in the book as a part of “the North”.

But within that bigger frame, I took a lot of decisions about content while I wrote the text. After I wrote the first draft, we edited it several times, with input from Johan Egerkrans, and Nils Karlén and Mattias Johnsson from Free League. And then after the Kickstarter, some texts by Nils Karlén and Richard Antroia were added as a consequence of stretch goals, such as for instance the system for buying equipment and three of the Vaesen described in the book.

I was actually interview about this process recently.

6. Are there any aspects of the final game of which you're particularly proud? I'm interested in both rules and setting details for which you were responsible.

The chapter about how the Gamemaster should construct a mystery (scenario) is what I am most proud of. I think many game designers write too little about this – maybe they don’t know how to explain the process, or they want their audience to buy scenarios instead of writing their own, I don’t know.

I think the model that I present, with some locations that the characters may visit, some things that may happen at any time to escalate the situation, and some things creating mood (for instance nightmares or spells) build scenarios with a firm “backbone”, but also room for a lot of adaptation and creativity for both the Gamemaster and the players. I believe that it finds the middle ground between too structured scenarios with scenes that must be played out in a particular way and scenarios that are vague or lacking in focus, forcing the Gamemaster to put a lot of effort into fleshing them out and organizing them.

Maybe these ideas about how to structure scenarios is the reason so many people write their own scenarios for Tales from the Loop and Vaesen? I hope so. I am also quite proud of the short in-game texts at the start of every chapter, and also the texts to the archetypes. I think I managed to create a coherent mood in all of the in-game texts throughout the book. For some, I used real texts from the 19th century as a base, and the changed them, and some I wrote from scratch.

The short texts at the start of each description of the Vaesen, from the diary of the scientist Carl von Linné’s travels in northern Sweden, are actual texts I found in his diary from this trip. I changed some small wordings to make them be about Vaesen, but most of it is authentic. That was a fun thing to do, and I think that things like that give an overall impression of authenticity, even though the reader might not know that the texts are from the from the actual diary by Linné.

7. You wrote a scenario ("The Night Sow") in the first adventure anthology for Vaesen, Wicked Secrets. Is this based on any actual legends or folklore or is it entirely of your own creation.

The Vaesen part of the story is my own creation, but of course based on folklore stories about the creature that figures in the scenario. The backstory, “the sin in Mölle” and the conflict about the bathing hotel is more or less historically correct.

8. You mentioned you're involved in the upcoming new edition of Twilight:2000, which is a game I'm anxiously anticipating. What are you doing for the new edition and what can you share about its overall approach to the subject matter?

I have written three of the scenario sites to the game; places of conflict, from which stories may emerge. I have not had any part in creating the game or making any of the decisions about it. But to my understanding, the team that writes it puts a lot of effort into taking the best from the older versions while simultaneously using more “modern” RPG game design. I don’t think it will be a game of traditional scenarios, but rather a sandbox game where the group at the start of the campaign decides who they are and what they are trying to do. Then they will try to travel across Europe encountering problems and possibilities – and then it is up to them what to do about it.

For the scenario sites that I wrote, I tried to find a good balance between horrifying and hopeful content. As I work as a psychologist with traumatized refugees from warzones and torture, I have heard a lot of scary stories. My intention was to use some of these things, but to try to make it a little less bad than how it is in reality. I don’t think anyone would enjoy a “torture RPG,” not if it was done for real. But some of these themes are certainly part of the scenario sites I wrote.

9. Were you familiar with Twilight: 2000 beforehand? I know there was a Finnish translation of the game in the 1990s, but I don't believe there were any other translations into European languages.

I didn’t play Twilight 2000 when I grew up, but my brother did, and heard his stories about it. When I grew older, I collected some of the products, but I still didn’t play it. I think the game has been fairly big in Sweden. Most Swedish gamers play English games. A translation is more of a bonus, not a necessity.

10. What roleplaying games are you currently playing?

I play in a Burning Wheel campaign loosely based on Yoon-Suin, where my character is a revolutionary doctor who recently swore allegiance to a death God and now tries to poison the Intruders in the Yellow City with “the Black Plague." Very entertaining.

I also play a Call of Cthulhu homebrew campaign, where my character is an emotionally damaged nurse named Sally. She is also a mother to a five-year-old girl played by one of the other players. Sally is not a good mother.

A while ago, me and my wife started to play a superhero-campaign with our oldest son, who is four. Be he got scared when I, as a GM, changed my voice to portray the villain, and now he doesn’t want to play anymore. Traumatized for life…

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting interview James. That's really cool about the Carl von Linné diary entries!

    I wasn't aware Hintze & Mehrstam were friends (though I did know the later had published a Swedish-only RPG with Fria Ligan). Whitehack is one of my favorite OSR games, and I am anxiously awaiting the last two releases for Sudokar's Wake.