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‘All our RPGs start with the people’: Chris Spivey on Harlem Unbound, Haunted West and what comes next

The multi-ENnie-winning designer on mixing horror with history, uncovering untold stories and his highly ambitious weird west game.

Chris Spivey’s breakthrough RPG, the Call of Cthulhu and GUMSHOE-compatible Harlem Unbound, threw a spotlight on the cultural revolution of early 20th-century New York music, art and literature. The game also turned the racism of Cthulhu creator HP Lovecraft on its head by focusing on African-American characters thrown into confrontation with supernatural horrors - as well as decidedly more human monsters.

After a successful Kickstarter in late 2016 and release the following year, the book was widely acclaimed, earning a nomination for the Diana Jones Award for Excellence in Gaming and scooping top prizes for its writing, setting and artwork at the ENnie Awards - along with further nominations for Best Rules and Product of the Year. A second edition followed in 2020, expanding the RPG with new scenarios, monsters and more.

The second major release from Spivey’s Darker Hue Studios was this year’s Haunted West, a horror-western inspired by the designer’s childhood experience of Wild West movies. Combining real-life figures from the period with Spivey’s love of cosmic horror and an alternate-history vision of America where post-Civil War Reconstruction thrived, the result is a whopping 800-plus-page tome that spans from prehistoric times to the vast vestiges of the 19th century in order to tell the stories of those too often overlooked by history.

The highly ambitious passion project earned Spivey further acclaim, including his second nomination for the Diana Jones Award and the silver prize for Best Rules at this year’s ENnies.

When we meet in an RPG demo room at Gen Con 2022, Spivey is fresh from his latest haul of accolades, wearing medals collected the previous night for Haunted West’s ENnie win and his work on Dune: Adventures in the Imperium’s gold-winning Best Writing.

Chris Spivey plays Harlem Unbound with Quinn Murphy, Matthew Mercer, Jennifer Kretchmer, Ariel Celeste and Misha BWatch on YouTube

Haunted West is a new system, it's a new setting, but it still has what feels like a lot of your interests in terms of cosmic horror, of telling stories not often seen in RPGs, and so on. So it feels in some ways a spiritual successor to Harlem Unbound, or at least very much in the vein of Darker Hue Studios and yourself.

It is what my company is known for. I guess we'll start with the history aspects of it. My grandmother raised me, because that's who I grew up with as a kid. And we were vastly different in ages. And one of the things that we learned to bond over were westerns on Saturday mornings. Because growing up, I'd be watching cartoons and she'd come in and she would take over the one TV in the house - and it'd be westerns. As a little kid, I was upset by it. But then as time went on, it sort of became our ritual that we would do together.

Watching the westerns always felt wrong in some way. And I couldn't really put my finger on it until I got older and realised I never got to see people to look like me. And the people I did see that looked like me were either enslaved or the butt of people's jokes, and other marginalised people were treated worse or the same. And they constantly made Confederates their heroes in a lot of different shows, which even then felt wrong. But now I have a lot more context. As I grew up, I read more into it, and I learned.

Watching westerns always felt wrong in some way. I couldn't really put my finger on it until I got older and realised I never got to see people to look like me.

Haunted West was something I had in mind, since about halfway through Harlem Unbound. Because, like every creative, I get a dozen ideas a day. And it's the problem of trying to focus just on one. It's like, “No, I'm just gonna work on this.” And I did that. All the other ideas I could sort of put away. But Haunted West kept coming back every time. I'd put maybe a couple more words on it, and then I'd go back to Harlem Unbound. So that's why I knew the next project I needed to do needed to be Haunted West.

I couldn't have made Haunted West if I hadn't made Harlem Unbound. I couldn't have made Harlem Unbound if I hadn't worked on Cthulhu Confidential. Because while I'm a researcher and an analyst, working on those helped me fine-tune my writing style, and enabled me to cut not excess, but to streamline it. For instance, Haunted West: I cut maybe 30, 40% out of the book. So it's a tight 800 pages of easy-lifting joy. [laughs]

Haunted West, exclusive artwork.
Horror-western RPG Haunted West spans the history of the Old West, envisioning the United States had Reconstruction thrived. Image: Darker Hue Studios

Call of Cthulhu and Cthulhu Confidential are largely set in the 1920s and 1930s. Harlem Unbound also focuses on the 1920s. And then you jump back to Haunted West, which is predominantly the late 1800s. How did you find moving between those settings and delving into the historical aspect of the time periods? It really comes through in your games; they are really grounded in the real people and realities of the time.

For me, the baseline isn't the horror - be it the weird western, be it the [Cthulhu] Mythos. The people in our stories are the baseline for all of my books. And we start at that fundamental level.

From there, as we're focused on marginalised tales, we have to dig deeper and do more research because those stories are either stolen or erased, or actively ignored. And to be able to present those in a compelling manner, we need to have as much context as possible and then we need to be able to support that context with all the different reference sources. Because there'll be some people that will try to come and say, "That's not true." And one of the best defences against that is to have solid empirical research and evidence stated. And if they want to argue with it, they can go read that by themselves in a corner. And so that was always important to me for anything I do. And for Haunted West, quadruply so.

That's why I pulled in like this amazing team of creatives from all sorts of different diverse backgrounds. Because one of the things in the book is that you can have appreciation and not appropriation of people's cultures, but you need to understand where that line is. And that isn't necessarily on me to decide, but for all of us from different backgrounds that we're trying to present to come in and have a voice at the very start of the project, not at the back end. And we work together to make something beautiful.

The Kickstarter trailer for Haunted WestWatch on YouTube

With Haunted West, you created a brand new gameplay system, whereas Harlem Unbound was a supplement for GUMSHOE and Call of Cthulhu. Was that always the plan?

From the very beginning, there were two concepts I had for the book. I wanted to have an accurate historical telling of the Old West because there are no other RPGs that have done that. And I wanted to have its own unique system because what I was trying to do is create something that each individual playgroup can tailor to their style.

The entire principle of the book is a layered approach. You have the history of the weird, you have everything that lays on top of it. The Ouroboros system does something similar; you have a narrative version that you can use, you have a more standard version that has all the skill checks and chase mechanics, and there's a miniatures combat version also. You can easily use one of them for your entire campaign, or you can switch between them even during sessions.

It needed to have horror, it needed to be pulpy, but it needed to also be gritty and real at the same time. And no other system that I was engaging with could do that. As a fan of d100, I made it d100 because d100 is, in my opinion, one of the easiest things to learn. So that starts with a very easy concept and I can add complexity onto it. You can read through the book as you go picking up every bit of it until it becomes this heavy, complex system or this agile, light near-narrative system - whichever one you want.

One of the things in Haunted West is that you can have appreciation and not appropriation of people's cultures, but you need to understand where that line is.

As you ramped up the scope and scale of the games you've worked on, how have you found that process in terms of being able to lead those projects and really bring your passions and interests to the foreground?

The first project I was the lead on was Harlem Unbound first edition. I shopped it around, but I was constantly told: “No-one will want to read this, no-one wants to engage with this subject matter.” That's when I just decided to make it. I just went in, hell bent for leather, and hoped for the best.

I got lucky enough that Brennen Reese reached out to me. We met at [game design festival] Metatopia. We had some scotches. I told him this idea that I had and he told me about all this great design experience. And it just sort of gelled together.

The two of us helped shape the book, because I would give these ideas and Brennen would go, "Alright! So, from an industry standard, this is something that we should consider." And I would go, "Alright! I will take about 70% of that, but I think this is where the other 30% should be." Because any project, in my opinion, if it's going to be worthwhile, is going to be compromised. No one person's vision is ever going to be the way you should go. It takes cobbling together to make something as a community.

Spivey's award-winning Harlem Unbound was a supplement for Call of Cthulhu and GUMSHOE. Image: Darker Hue Studios

You've mentioned that Haunted West wouldn't exist without Harlem Unbound. As you were coming to this game, did you feel you'd already laid the necessary foundation to some degree? Haunted West is a very ambitious book, it's very big. If you'd come out with this big 800-page book as Darker Hue’s debut, it would’ve been a lot. But Harlem Unbound was acclaimed, and really showed what Darker Hue Studios is about.

I remember when I first pitched it to parts of the team. And there was a lot of silence and laughter and asking, "Are you sure about this?" "Like, I am 100%, somewhat positive, this is gonna work." And that's when I started assembling the team.

It was a hard sell because it is an immense amount of work. Harlem Unbound took a lot of research. Haunted West magnified all that by a hundredfold. In Harlem Unbound, we focused on the history of Harlem. It covers that one little swathe in that one place. It's primarily focused on 1919 to about 1933. Haunted West covers almost from the beginning of time to the end of what is considered the Old West, with a primary focus from around 1840 to 1916, which is the last stagecoach robbery. So that is this much more time and not in one location, but the entire west. Technically, all of the United States because we started over on the East Coast and worked our way to the West Coast. We also touch on Canada, Mexico and a lot of other places and what they were doing around that time, and what some of their relationships were like with the US. So we had to include all of that also.

Harlem Unbound took a lot of research. Haunted West magnified all that by a hundredfold.

In addition to that, Haunted West also has my Haunted West Reconstruction timeline, because it focuses on what would have happened if the Reconstruction hadn't been killed by racists. The Reconstruction was this great thing that was coming along where, after the Civil War, the enslaved people were given full rights and everything else. They were counted as full citizens. I took that and expanded out that the Reconstruction was multiple layers and tried to - as realistically as possible - predict different congresspeople that would come in. We replace the president because some people were assassinated. These are actual historical figures, based on their personalities and what they were going to do. For instance, the president in ours, Lafayette Foster, was a radical of radicals. He was nearly voted in, but he was so radical, they wouldn't let it happen. By shifting like one person out, he would've become president. He was for immigration, for immigrants coming to the country. He was for equal rights for indigenous people, for women, for everybody.

So you have an entire alternate timeline for about five years of that beginning struggle that's written like it's actual history, in addition to a massive history section. Then on top of that, I layered the weird - with the weird ranging from folk stories and legends brought from immigrants from other countries and indigenous nations to weird fiction that we made up as a team. All of that helped form the pot that is America. And it touches on the history of pre-America before it was even called America.

Fan of spooky roleplaying? Here are some more great horror RPGsWatch on YouTube

Do you think in the future you would explore a fully historical RPG?

No. I love the idea of it - and there may be 20 people that would want to play that game with me - but to make a book for those 20 people where they would then die of dysentery a week in would lose some of the joy.

You had a sci-fi project in the works with Chaosium, which Darker Hue took over the rights for in early 2020. What the status of that?

It is on my radar. But I have a lot of projects in mind and that one is a slower burn because it has to be done right. Much like how Haunted West had to be done right. I don't want to talk about it too much until I'm ready to go with it.

You mentioned the miniatures combat element of Haunted West. Could you see Darker Hue going outside of RPGs? We've seen a lot of RPGs spin off into card games, board games, miniatures… Everything seems to be a shared universe now - and you have such incredible settings already there.

I've been looking at board games, but as I don't know enough about board games yet, I would need to find the right person that would want to partner with me to make that happen. Because one of the things I learned is that you can go in by yourself and hope for the best, but there's death and fire there. Compared to if you get a team of people that you can trust and support each other: there's greatness there.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Haunted West is out now via Darker Hue Studios.

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Harlem Unbound

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Haunted West

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About the Author
Matt Jarvis avatar

Matt Jarvis


After starting his career writing about music, films and video games for various places, Matt spent many years as a technology, PC and video game journalist before writing about tabletop games as the editor of Tabletop Gaming magazine. He joined Dicebreaker as editor-in-chief in 2019, and has been trying to convince the rest of the team to play Diplomacy since.