Richard E. Hughes Speaks!October 20, 2010
My next interviewee is a little outside my normal boundaries. He’s not a writer for Exalted, he’s not an Exalted artist, and he’s not a producer or developer. In fact, he’s not officially affiliated with White Wolf in any way. And yet, he’s a luminary in the Exalted community, active on the forums and active with the game. More importantly, he’s a fan, and while the writers are the ones that create the game, the players and the Storytellers are the ones who actually make the game. Without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, I would like to introduce Richard E. Hughes, better known to the forum-going crowd as “Kukla.”
Octopoid: Would you be kind enough to introduce yourself for our audience?
Richard E. Hughes: My name is Richard E. Hughes. I’m a software developer for an energy trading house based in Boston. I’m a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where I picked up a Major in Computer Science, a Minor in Comparative Media Studies, and a deep-set enthusiasm for Exalted as a setting. I joined the ExaltedMUSH after a few abortive games run by friends of mine, where I gradually insinuated my way deeper in to positions of authority with my venomed daggers of sincerity and understanding. I ran the place for about two years before burning out after graduating from college and losing the lion’s share of my free time, but it got me in to the community in an extremely active way.
O: What contributions would YOU claim you have made to Exalted, both as a game and as a community?
REH: I think the best contribution I seriously gave to the game was my tenure as head administrator at the Exalted MUSH. It’s small, but I helped provide a place to wallow in the game for twenty or thirty people who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to participate, and wouldn’t have any reason to buy the books, participate in the forums, and argue on the internet. I moved it from an oWoD, meta-plot oriented framework to a strongly player-driven game, where the ‘feature’ characters who became the iconic faces of the game were not the canonical examples given by White Wolf, but the creations of the players.
This wasn’t a perfect change – there were log-jams of conflicting player intent, and player-versus-player plot conflict is always hard to resolve without hurting feelings – but I feel that I succeeded better than was reasonable to expect, given the nature of the game.
More recently, I like to think I’ve been a useful guide to the fan base in their writing, providing feedback and advice on how to keep things thematically guided and coherent. I use the same design protocols in fan work that I use in designing software – consistency checks are foundational.
O: Do you work on custom material for the game? If so, where could one find this material?
REH: I constantly work on little pet projects, most all of which can be found on the wiki. I like helping others put work together, so if you have any fixer-up projects you need assistance with, toss me a line on the forums.
Early on in my career, I was strongly focused on charms to try and repair what I saw as flaws in the game – but frankly, people more professional than I are involved in that now, so these days I spend my time filling out what I see as interesting artifacts and spells that are more infrastructural than combative. I’m in love with the power of the Exalted to build a better, more beautiful world, but combat and the power to defend that world always gets more attention than the ability to make it in the first place. My work is focused on the products of that better world and the tools that forge it.
O: I understand you are currently running an Exalted game, the Shadow of the Penitent. What can you tell me about that game?
REH: Shadow of the Penitent was sparked by the most mercenary of ambitions. Hatewheel and Holden noted they were interested in joining a play-by-post game, and it had been a while since I’d run a game at all. Being a craven creature eager for the approval and association of those whom I admire, I immediately leapt to action to try and produce a game worthy of them and lure them in to my lair. That’s more or less what happened, but unfortunately I scared Hatewheel off with pacing issues, and Holden was simply too busy with classes and his responsibilities as Hamster Monkey. That said, it’s been a blast.
Shadow of the Penitent is an exploration of the themes of Exalted that I find most satisfying: the dream of creating the beautiful world, and the nightmare of sacrifice and compromise that one endures to create it. It revolves around the thousand-mile trade route through the mountains between the Lap and the city of Gem (which has not been destroyed nor will it) and the half-ruined infrastructure from the first age that make the route through such harsh terrain possible – a ten mile long bridge across a canyon of fire and ash, a five mile tunnel bored through a vast crag, and ancient manses which draw an oasis of water from the underworld in the middle of the desert. The players struggle to reclaim these things and control over them, so that they can leverage those secrets into the tools necessary to build an empire suitable for wresting the world from the hated Realm.
While the Realm has a lot going for it from a lot of perspectives, in this game I’m strongly embracing the original vision of Grabowski, in which the Realm is an uncompromising symbol with which to lambast the structures of Legalism. From the center of the world, the Scarlet Empress has held Creation by the throat for seven hundred years, and the world groaned beneath her yoke. Now her grip has faltered, and the walking revolutions who upset the great chain of being have come around again to put the world to the transforming fire of the people of the sun.
The game began at the aforementioned bridge across the canyon of fire, and from there the characters began dominating the local political structures and infiltrating the native cultures of the aboriginal people who dwell in the area. Presently they’re preparing for a military push north, but after a close scare with Terrestrial investigators, they know that their time is running short, and the Dragon of the empire will begin to turn its gaze to them.
Oh, speaking of mercenary ambitions, Neall Raemonn Price is in my game. Ostensibly. I don’t think he’s moved in, like, months.
O: Were you too fast or too slow for Hatewheel?
REH: I was much too fast. Originally I was trying to do one IC month every OOC week. We didn’t have time to get to know each other. It’s been closer to an IC month every two OOC months, once I stopped artificially accelerating things.
O: The pacing is very different.
REH: Yes, as is the tone. It might have worked at the original pace under other circumstances, with more prep work, but frankly I don’t think I laid enough ground work for it, nor were the players ready for that sort of madness. I was a little disappointed; I’d love to have a game last IC years or decades.
O: What inspirations do you draw on when you run a game? What different methods and styles do you find necessary in an online game vs. a table top game?
REH: I draw on my scanty knowledge of epic myth and wuxia novels, with a touch of crime novels and whatever knowledge I can gather of aboriginal peoples and the ancient world from the internet. (Did you know that Achilles actually uses Mob-Dispersing Rebuke in the Iliad? It’s true. He flares his anima and everything.)
Any roleplaying game is about sustaining the illusion. Roleplaying games are fundamentally distractions, trivialities which we indulge in – they are mirrors, thin as razors, deep as worlds. You must maintain the sense of the presence of the world behind the mirror – be it as a world in which to live, an arena in which to be victorious, or a stage in which to see a wondrous thing – as something that exists, and matters. As long as you can maintain interest and a cohesive vision of what the game is among the players, the game survives. The game doesn’t exist on the internet, it doesn’t exist on the table. It exists in the interest and desire of the players. Provide hooks in to the world, elements of it that fascinate and embroil, and give the players every opportunity to ensnare themselves in in those hooks. Let them ensnare you in turn with their contributions, so that you too are drawn to care.
Roleplaying games are cup shaping combat.
O: Who would you say are your favorite authors or writers in the gaming field? What about your favorite artists or designers?
REH: First off, I’m a huge fan of the honorable Doctor Jenna Moran, not always necessarily for her work (which, while consistently brilliant, is also frequently encrypted) but for her design philosophy that the game should be designed such that ‘normal play’ by a group of average, not particularly ambitious players should produce exciting and memorable stories. This rejection of elitism – the idea that the great narratives of our game are as much a responsibility of the designer to enable as the players to produce – is the foundation of my design methodology and central to my rejection of what Jon Chung refers to as the Rule Zero Fallacy.
Secondly, the art produced by Kiyo and Melissa Uran is some of the most foundational to my conception of Exalted – Kiyo for producing a world that is beautiful, sordid, sensual, and violent, full of vivid energy and terrible seductive grisliness, Melissa Uran for producing a world of hard edges, old and weathered wounds, sharp and judgemental eyes, gleaming steel, and clattering, sparkling, acrobatic violence.
Thirdly, once an Exalted writer but no longer, Lea Sheppard’s focus on the little things – the small details, the way they fit together, and the mortal’s eye view on life in the fallen Age of Sorrows – is what turns the setting away from mere escaping, and towards the wrenching fantasy realpolitik that I so love, where your power can offer you no easy answers, no casual escape from the burden of your choices.
O: What is your favorite creature in Exalted? Your favorite Exalt type?
REH: This is a bit of a cop-out, but my favorite Exalt type is whomever I’m playing at the time. Who gets to win? I get to win. Me. Meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.
As for favorite creature, I’m gonna have to go with the Kukla. I’ve always visualized the Kukla as simultaneously a top-tier a technomagical battleplatform, in may ways the inspiration for much first age tech, and wholly a kaiju. I visualize it bellowing, and every single scale on it’s body detaches, falls away, and then jets out in a roar of essence as a subsidiary attack-elemental. I conceive of it having point defenses of marmorial cannons lining the entirety of it’s spine, and it’s underbelly scales folding back to reveal a limitless forest of GAU-8 heavy gatling cannons. I imagine its eyes, bigger than houses, are as immune to harm as diamonds – I visualize daiklaves skating off it’s pupil without leaving a mark. I see it opening it’s mouth and shadowing a half dozen city blocks with it’s gaping maw. I imagine that the sound of it moving, hundreds of miles away, creates a deep, resonant bass hum that drives animals mad and makes children weep. I imagine it simultaneously deploying an aircraft carrier worth of firepower and subsidiary attack platforms and a single hot plume of fire and a razor sharp fang and claw, like the sky itself coming down honed to a razor’s edge.
The Kukla is a sparkling weapon, fractal in it’s delicacy and solidity, pure and wrathful, the end of the world made manifest and unrelenting. The word ‘apocalypse’ means ‘the unveiling, to reveal’. It is that which pulls back the curtain.
O: My roommate is going to love that description of the Kukla. What message would you most like to give to your fellow Exalted players, especially your forum-going peers?
REH: My interpretation of the Kukla is wildly non-canonical, but it inspires me, and it is a vision that drives me. Find your vision and illustrate it with your work. Where it conflicts with canon, simply note that it does, and be at peace with that. Where it conflicts with good play and fun, destroy it and revise it without mercy. Know well what drives you forward and what holds you back.
Oh. And play Alpha Centauri, that’s fabulous inspiration for Exalted.