Meet the Publisher: Humza Kazmi
Today's interview subject is Humza Kazmi, a member of the acclaimed Hydra Cooperative. They have been putting out consistently excellent material for a number of years now: What Ho, Frog Demon, Fever Dreaming Marlinko, the Slumbering Ursine Dunes, and more. I wanted to talk to Humza for a couple of reasons; he's been releasing his own products recently and, as an editor, I thought his insights into the editing process would be of interest to readers. I've talked to a number of writers and artists so far, and thought it would be interesting to talk to an editor.
1. You've primarily been working with the Hydra Cooperative as an editor, which is one of the reasons I wanted to interview you. I've featured a lot of writers and artists, and thought it would be neat to talk to someone with a lot of experience with the editing aspect of publishing. There's a lot of people out there self-publishing their stuff, and a surprising number don't use an editor, and it can show. Can you talk a bit about your editing process? What do you like to see from writers, what your goals are, and so forth? I have come to realize that, much like translators, a good editor can bring their own vision to a product.
Hi Todd - thank you so much for inviting me onto this! My editing process for Hydra products varies depending on the individual author I'm working with and their style. One of the core goals behind the Hydra Cooperative's creation was supporting individual authors in creating passion products. We believe that the more personal and compelling a work is, the more it expresses the unique perspective and vision of the creator, the better it's likely to turn out.
We're usually operating in the classic games/retroclone space, but there's no need to restrict our design aesthetics or principles to retreads of TSR's greatest hits. Keep on the Borderlands has already been written (and re-written, and re-written...) so I'd rather see us presenting work that couldn't have been made by anyone else. It's work that's certainly building on the best principles of what's come before, but also trying to bring something special, personal, and new as well. The scope and nature of my editorial work varies from author to author, but I'm always trying to keep a balance between preserving their authorial voice and intent on one hand, and the practical usability of the work as a game tool on the other. Depending on the author, I am sometimes providing edits while a manuscript is being written, providing developmental guidance and ideas, but in other cases my work begins once the initial manuscript is completed, focusing on the polish and fine-tuning. Depending on people's schedule and resources, we may have multiple editors tackling a work, in which case the creative process can wind up bouncing back and forth between multiple parties as we all try to hammer out the best fit for the book. Once we editors have finished with the work, we'll pass it off to a layout specialist, then proofread (and potentially make some last-minute tweaks) before putting a project to bed. I certainly have ambitions of integrating the layout and editorial processes, to try and push the envelope regarding layout and information presentation, but I (and my other Hydra colleagues) are all doing this part-time, so it may be a while before that becomes a reality. 2. Can you talk a bit about the Hydra Cooperative as a whole? I think y'all were one of the first to popularize the concept of the "pointcrawl", and you did so in such a cool manner. A) The Hydra Coop originated from Chris Kutalik's "Hill Cantons" blog and campaign, and most of the initial members came out of the "Nefarious Nine," the playgroup that formed the campaign on G+. Our post-game "bull sessions" led to a lot of good theorizing about what worked and what didn't in RPG products and design, and that started to dovetail with Chris wanting to publish portions of the campaign that we had played through. Slumbering Ursine Dunes, our first product, was also the first implementation of the pointcrawl concept as Chris had described it on the blog back in 2012, but we had been using the pointcrawl system in the course of playing through the campaign. There's something special about being able to bring our campaign experiences (both GM- and player-side) into published products. The initial partners for the Coop were Chris, Robert Parker, Anthony Pastores, and Mike Davison. (Anthony and Mike have stepped back a bit these days, but they put a lot of work into the initial products.) Trey Causey and I joined at about the same time, and then Jason Sholtis joined us the year afterwards. We've also collaborated extensively with Luka Rejec, but haven't been able to formally partner with him because of international concerns. I have a great deal of pride and affection for my fellow partners at the Coop (the other 'hydra heads'), and they are all good friends of mine. But it's also not lost on me that the group composition is pretty darn white and pretty darn male. We've been in a bit of a holding pattern the last few years due to life changes among the various team members and a worldwide pandemic--but if we're able to get into a properly active zone again, I am going to be making creator diversity a major focal point regarding both new projects we take on and new folks who we might bring into the coop itself. Our cooperative is actually named for and inspired by The Many-Headed Hydra by Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, a book examining the growth of capitalist forces in the early modern Atlantic region -- and the resistance against entrenched power by the oppressed. That resistance was extremely intersectional in nature, cutting across lines of gender, social class, ethnicity, and nationality; it sets an example for us to follow. 3. I'd also like to hear about your experience writing Home is the Hangman, for the Haunted West system by Chris Spivey. I haven't had a chance to check out Haunted West, but it seems like a really cool, and veryyy comprehensive, system. It sounds like a fair amount of research went into the writing. [Editor's Note: Just before this interview was published I got The Haunted West corebook in stock. You can find if here, if you're interested.] Like me, Chris Spivey is also based in the DC metro area. We'd chatted a bit on Twitter after the release of Harlem Unbound 1e, and he was kind enough to invite me into his playgroup. My first outing with them was actually a horror Weird Western game - little did I realize it was setting the scene for what would come later! In October 2019, as the Haunted West Kickstarter was running, Chris asked me if I was interested in writing a "Bag of Nails," or prefabbed scenario, for the game. I leapt at the chance; not only was Chris a great friend, but Harlem Unbound was an incredible and exciting work...and this was a chance to work on the sequel! Unfortunately, my Civil War-era knowledge was pretty rusty; I had been fascinated by the time period as a kid, but hadn't kept up with my reading over the years. After a bit of frantic digging through reference material and seeking inspiration, I sent over a couple of pitches. My first one, inspired by an anecdote of extreme cruelty from a botched Union cavalry raid on Richmond, contained the genesis of what would become Home is the Hangman (title a tribute to Roger Zelazny's unrelated story of the same name). I scrambled to get in the right amount of background research -- both in terms of historical reference, and also in terms of scenario construction and design. Most of my work to this point had been with more open-ended scenario design, usually focusing on location-based play. Haunted West's scenario design draws on investigative setups, descending from things like Call of Cthulhu and the various GUMSHOE games. Despite having decades of gaming under my belt, I actually still have never played a classic Call of Cthulhu game, so I had a good bit of catch-up to do! Thankfully, I was able to tap into some excellent resources - both from Chris and other members of the Haunted West team, and from Robert Parker, a fellow Hydra Coop partner with lots of experience in investigatory scenario construction. I was juggling dayjob, research, and writing, but the scenario wasn't quite coming together. I received a bit of inspiration from an unexpected source, though. In either late 2019 or early 2020, before the pandemic hit, my then-girlfriend Carolyn brought me out for square dancing. (She's primarily into swing dance, but square dancing is certainly easier to pick up for newbies like myself.) The dance caller explained a new dance sequence, "Shooting the Owl," and my mind suddenly latched on tightly to the phrase and the sinister associations my mind conjured up. A few days later, I had one of the core scenes for Home is the Hangman, a square dance abruptly turning supernatural. The rest of the scenario fell into place shortly thereafter. Carolyn and I got married later in 2020, and it means a lot that my first RPG credit as primary author is connected to her interests and passions in such a way. You can check out Home is the Hangman here. 4. How has your work as an immigration lawyer influenced your game design? Especially since so much of old-school exploration-style gaming revolves around colonialist tropes. I keep actual case details separate from anything I might present for personal or hobby work -- but some of the darker and troubling cases I've worked on have certainly served as inspiration for how to convey elements of horror, and how to represent the effects of pain and trauma on individuals. My work has also provided me with lots of grist for presenting officious, capricious, and cruel bureaucracy (perfect if I ever return to work on Paranoia) -- and the occasional bit of surreal hilarity from improbable ridiculousness. (If you ever meet me in person, ask me about the "Red Horse Saga"...) Given the nature and scope of my work, I haven't really taken too much influence from my legal career when it comes to tackling colonialism and colonialist outlooks in exploration-style gaming. That said, I have put together a few thoughts regarding how to responsibly engage with and depict colonialism and other forms of structural oppression in games. 5. Finally, can you share a bit about what you're currently working on, if you can? Where can folks check out your work?
At time of writing this, I'm currently trying to push forward on two existing Hydra Coop projects -- finishing up the Operation Unfathomable kickstarter and organizing the omnibus collecting the four existing Hill Cantons books. Both of these have been dragging on for a while, but the finish line is finally in sight for both.
I've also been working on some personal material for Legacy of the Bieth, which I'm hoping to turn into a city supplement and an adventure module down the line. Legacy of the Bieth is my home campaign, inspired by Middle Eastern/North African history and folklore, spaghetti westerns, and horror science fiction like Roadside Picnic and Annihilation. I've been slowly moving forward on writing Legacy of the Bieth material for years; existing work commitments, other projects, and ADHD combine to make it very difficult to sustain personal creation sometimes! But I've finally got the structure and core material for what I think will be a good and punchy supplement; I just need to get through the writing and playtesting side of things. (Minor details, almost trivial in nature.)