A Word in Edgewise… with Josh Burnett from Hex Games

with Josh Burnett from Hex Games
By Aaron T. Huss

The following interview originally took place at Gen Con 2012 and is being transcribed here for publication. Roleplayers Chronicle editor-in-chief Aaron T. Huss, shown below with the prefix RPC, is speaking with Josh Burnett of Hex Games, shown below with the prefix JB.

RPC: Tell us a little bit about QAGS.
JB: QAGS is by Hex Games, it stands for the Quick-Ass Game System. It’s a simple, generic system you can use for any setting. It’s rules-lite, it’s designed to more facilitate play, emulate the ways that stories work, and movies, more than fiddly number crunching. It uses candy as a mechanic, they call them Yum Yums, and they work a lot like how Bennies and Fate Points work – it’s your legal cheat. With the benefit that if you can’t do anything with them, you can eat them. The reward for making the game interesting is that you can spend them to bribe the GM and have narrative edits and the universal re-roll. It’s a concept I came up with a few years ago and weaseled my way into the company since then, and have done a lot with [Hex Games]. We’ve developed a lot of interesting settings. We try to avoid genres and settings that have been done to the point where we’ve made-up genres we’re pretty sure don’t exist.
RPC: I’ve noticed that, and that’s good.
JB: It’s good, and we call it our niche.
RPC: You’re presenting something a little more fun, and a little less standard, there’s more out there than plain old…
JB: Some may call it absurd or ludicrous, but it’s not necessarily a comedy game. Although a lot of it is absurd in the artistic sense is probably accurate in some parts. We’ve got Leopard Women of Venus, which me and Leighton Connor co-wrote a year ago, which is based off of a crazy, Golden Age cartoonist name Fletcher Hanks. He’s kind of the Ed Wood of cartoonists where his imagination far-outstripped his talent. And by all accounts he just a horrible person on top of everything else. But it’s this bizarre sci-fi pulp setting of crazy, weird women warriors on Venus who ride flying lizard mounts and serve the sinister science robots. You play one of them and fight monsters and try to determine what your place is in the universe, or just fight monsters. And the newest one we’ve got, we’ve just published it a couple weeks ago and we just got the print copies yesterday, called Hobomancer. Which is a game about magical hobos.

RPC: Before we get into that, let’s talk a little more about the mechanics of QAGS. What is the dice base?
JB: It’s a single d20, it’s not d20-based. Basically you’ve got three main stats and a couple of words. You’ve got your body, brain, and nerve, and then you’ve got your job, which is basically your role in the world. Your gimmick, which is something you can do that most people can’t, and depending on the genre that could be something fairly mundane like good luck, or you can hold your liquor, to in another genre it could be fantastical fire powers or cosmic awareness. And then your weakness, which is the opposite of that, your tragic Shakespearean flaw. And then some skills that modify that. Those all have numbers listed on them usually from six to sixteen, and whenever you’ve got to do something, where something interesting might happen or there’s a chance of failure, you decide which number and word you’re going to use, you roll a d20 and you want to get as high as you can without going over the number.
RPC: So it’s a roll under system…
JB: Roll under, but roll high. It’s compared a lot to The Price is Right, I like to compare it to second edition psionics, from D&D, because I’m the only one that liked them. Roll as high as you can without going over the number; in a contest, the highest successful number wins, then the difference in those numbers determining the degrees of success, damage, or whatever. And that’s it, and then Yum Yums can be spent to modify the rolls, or re-roll, and that sort of thing.
RPC: You just have the five…?
JB: Five words, a couple of skills, and then some flavor text. The thing that caught me and attracted me to the game, when I first found it, it’s WWPHITM, which is pronounced whup-i-tum, which stands for Who Would Play Him (or her) In The Movie, and you get to choose an actor that would play that character. I came from a long-time of role-playing online, so looking for an actor to play my character was something I was used to. The fact that was codified impressed me or amused me. Really, that’s it. There’s a point-buy system you can use for it where you’re given a pool and you can spread them to buy those numbers. There’s also random roll, quick start system you can use, or if you’re like me, if you’re with people you can trust or are showing up for a convention game, you just eye-ball it. Character generation takes anywhere from five to fifteen minutes.
RPC: It doesn’t sound like it would take very long.
JB: You can fit the stats on an index card. A big purple book, purple because no one else is, smiling green, happy d20, and it’s a fun read too. I bought it and read before I got with the company, and it’s an entertaining read. The core book, and it’s fifteen bucks, the actual rules section is only a few pages, the rest of [the book] is practical GM advice. The rest is GM advice, storytelling advice, a breakdown of the Joseph Campbell Quest, and there’s a section of little, mini-campaigns – if you want to do an historical campaign, a horror campaign, or Shakespearean drama…
RPC: [The mini-campaign section] is a nice addition to a universal system, that you actually include information to do different types of genres.
JB: It talks about the genre, adventure ideas, little special rules for players, and then a breakdown of the type of archetypes. And they’ve got a breakdown of the Joseph Campbell Quest, but instead of using Star Wars like everyone does, they use Hudson Hawk. And there’s also a lot of actual play [content].

RPC: Let’s talk about Hobomancer.
JB: Hobomancer… A few years ago, some of the guys, at another convention, certainly sleep-deprived, possibly drunk, thought it might be fun to do a game about magical hobos, riding trains. It started off as kind of a World of Darkness parody, it even had a colon, adjective after it. [It] quickly developed and in the cold light of day, the next morning, they decided that game still sounds really cool. It quickly developed from what was just going to be a goofy parody of World of Darkness to a serious, meaningful, fun game. We batted around the ideas for several months and then, it was about two years ago when Nashville had the big flood, a friend of ours lives in Nashville, and we were all at his house gaming. We were flooded in, so we got to game more, because we could not leave his house. We ran the first proof of concept game of Hobomancer where we were a group of hobomancers. There’s [sic] lines of energy that bind the universe together, some cultures call them ley lines, some call them dragon lines, some call them songlines, they’re the energy from the universal song that created the universe, it binds the multiverse together. Sometimes those lines get sick, or they corrupt and go wrong, and monsters come through and the world breaks down. In America, the songlines run concurrent with the railroads; either the railroads just happen to lie across them due to subtle influence or the railroads bent the songlines as we tamed America. Hobomancers are shamanistic hobos who ride the rails and keep them clean to protect the soul of America from monsters and extra-dimensional evils, and mundane evils. They magically protect the country, riding the rails, keeping them strong, telling stories, singing songs, and preserving freedom.
RPC: It’s like the ultimate Woodstock campaign.
JB: It’s kind of Woodstock, it’s heavily influenced by American gods – by Neil Gaiman, a little bit of Tim Powers, I didn’t realize until I reread it, probably a fair amount of The Invisibles by Grant Morrison. It started off as a goofy concept, as the more we wrote it, the more we realized there was actually this heart rendering story, because the hobomancers are trying to preserve the traditional heart of America where it’s community, and working, and giving everyone a fair deal, going your own way without concern about what other people think of you. Small-town American values, while meanwhile there are outside forces trying to corrupt America and the tragedy being the hobomancers ultimately lost and that’s now why we have big banks ruining the economy, we’ve got Wal-Marts on every corner, and small-town businesses are falling apart, and kind of this homogeny of culture, because sadly, the hobomancers lost their battle. It’s a game about hope, and freedom, and fighting the good fight. It’s also about playing kind of cartoonish, silly clownish, hobos in the Great Depression eating beans and not shaving, singing songs on rubber-band banjos.
RPC: It all takes place in the 30s?
JB: It generally takes place in the Great Depression. There’s a discussion on how you can extrapolate it to modern days or do it before, because the hobo culture kind of died out when diesel engines came through, because trains didn’t stop and they couldn’t jump on them anymore. The core game is in the Great Depression/prohibition era, but there’s discussion on how you can put it earlier and a bit later, but it’s generally still 30s. And mostly the Appalachians to the Great Plains out west, so mostly the center [of] America.

RPC: From the creature standpoint, is it supposed to be more fantasy-like or more horror-like, or is it over-the-top mythology?
JB: It’s not really a horror game, although it can certainly run that way… It can be run as a horror game and some of the monsters, I wrote a good chunk of the monster section and some of them I tried to make creepy and monstrous, there’s a tradition, especially out in the Pacific Northwest, lumberjack and coaling areas, what are called fantastic beasts, where local folklore and legends talk about “that monster,” Bigfoot is an example or the Thunderbird or the Hodag, up in Wisconsin, or the Ozark Howler in the Ozarks – tall tales basically.
RPC: So it’s more folklore.
JB: We tried to tap into as much [folklore] as we could. We all like folklore, on the team; we scoured a lot of folklore and tried to make those into viable monsters and threats. We didn’t want to rehash this is a goblin and this is a unicorn. We thought about putting Sasquatch in there, but they’re friendly, so we didn’t want to put them in much. We put in jackalopes…
RPC: I think the theme of the hobo fits a lot better with folklore, than it would with a more fantasy side.
JB: It’s more folklore than fantasy and a bit of Tim Powers and Grant Morrison weirdness. Especially cause there’s two groups of monsters; there’s the what-nots which are kind of terrestrial – they’re monsters, but they’re from around here; you’ve got the so-and-sos, which they’re monsters, but they’re from someplace else, and those ones get a little weirder where you get your pure spirits as well as just your demons and mosters. You’ve got the traveling sales demon…

RPC: Since you focus pretty heavily on that era, and on the trains, do you have a lot of circus freak influence into the game, or could you?
JB: Actually, yeah, a little bit in the core book, but I’m currently writing the Hobomancer Companion, that’s the working title of the book, and will probably be the actual title, and expands on it. Hobomancers, they’re shamans and they can all do certain things; they can do basic ritual magic, they can divine, they can do glyphs by using the hobo signs, which are markings.
RPC: Like runes?
JB: Actual, real-life hobo culture had a series of sigils, kind of like street tags that would say like “A mean dog lives here” or “A sucker lives here,” “Talk about religion and get a free meal.”
RPC: It’s like shorthand then.
JB: Yeah it’s like shorthand. Actually Hunter: The Reckoning, White Wolf also used that for their hunter game, but hobos can use that to cast runic magic. Those are the types of things that all hobomancers can do, but then each hobomancer will have a focused area of expertise, and some of them are based off of circus freaks. You have the human dynamo who can absorb and redirect electricity. You’ve got the swammy, he can lie on a bed of nails and can contort himself and stretch his limbs. You’ve got the firebreather, and that sort of thing. So there is a little bit of a circus freak in there. Not much I want to say, but that part of the 30s culture just blended in. It drifted in, but it wasn’t an actual thing.

There’s a good section of the book talking about the culture of the 30s. It talks about the Depression a bit, there’s a section on race and gender in the 30s and how to address that in the game. There’s a big, long list of inspirational music to listen to. As well as things like here’s what the popular radio shows were at the time, here’s what movies were big in the 30s. If you’re not familiar with the time area or the culture, you will be by the time you’re done reading it. It’s probably one of the most researched books we did. It’s fun research cause you don’t often get to read about hobos, it’s not dry reading. It’s got a listing of the hobo code, which is a real document written-up by the tourist union, is what they called it, where basically it’s a code of ethics hobos should follow. And it basically boils down to don’t ruin things for everyone else. We’re all in this together, let’s not spoil it. It was really fun to write, the parts I wrote, it’s really fun to read the parts other people wrote. It was fun to illustrate. I did illustrations but we got some great illustrators; Juan Navarro, who worked for us for QWERTH, a fantasy satire game, he did some really cool stuff especially he did a picture of the Lord of Steam, is the igniting power of steam powers and trains and it’s just this big, looks like a humanoid train with this literal stove pipe hat of steam, and it covers the entire sky with a little, tiny hobo in the foreground. Jeffrey Johnson did a lot of wonderful art, and did a beautiful cover of a magical hobo casting a spell and just staring at you from the cover.

That’s it for this interview. I’d like to thank Josh Burnett for taking some time to speak about QAGS and giving us all a deeper look at Hobomancer.

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