Interview with the Creator of Hot War, A Post-Apocalyptic RPG

Andozane, a long-time gaming buddy, turned me on to a post-apocalyptic game out of the United Kingdom set in the 1950s/1960s.  “Hot War ” has an unusual look to it and  so I downloaded the preview kit .  It impressed me enough to seek more information and I approached Malcom Craig, the game creator for an interview. Here is the transcript of that interview and a few samples of the game art.

I made a few edits to clean up spelling, but otherwise the interview is exactly as it was typed.

Trask: So lets start with the origins of the game. From where did  “Hot War” spring?

Malcolm Craig (MC): Well, my academic background is in Cold war history, so part of it comes from there. Another origin is from playing numerous deeply unsatisfying games of Twilight: 2000 when I was a lad! Most of the post-apocalypse games I played never really did it for me. Plus all the secret stuff scattered about the UK int he aftermath of the Cold War is kind of cool. Old bunkers, RAF bases, nuclear research stations and so forth.

It kind of fascinates me that we have all these concrete reminders of the Cold War just scattered all over the cities and countryside

So, in short: a combination of academic interest, wanting to write the kind of post-apoc game that I really wanted to play and a fascination with the Cold War landscape

Trask: Could you briefly describe the “feel” of the game? High action? Paranoid government conspiracies? All of the above?

MC: Hmmm. to me the feel of an individual game is very much up tot he group playing it. Part of the game creation process described in the book is to collaboratively decide on a ‘tone’ for the game, whether that be in the style of BBC drama, dark horror, traditional post-apoc or whatever.

But, in terms of how the book presents the setting, I’m really interested in using in-game artefacts such as posters to describe the world and the feel. So for me, there is a strong feel of a Britain descending into fascism, with themes reacting to racism and so forth

As always, I’m keen to see how people adapt and alter what is there for their own needs

What feel they manage to portray and so forth.

Trask: I  noticed in the preview PDF a certain “government document” style in the art and layout. Some of them look quite authentic. Did you use real government documents for inspiration?

MC: Yes, indeed. The phraseology and style of many of them were modeled on government/civil/propaganda documents and pieces of the time. And my artistic Partner Paul Bourne took inspiration from 50s/60s posters, documents, leaflets and so on

Plus he added a few little touches of his own to make them distinctive

We both really like the idea of portraying a world through in-game artefacts and suchlike

Trask: How would you characterize the game system? Is it a complex system with a lot of detail (ie 3.5 OGL) or is it more story oriented?

MC: The mechanics are certainly focused on allowing everyone round the table to collaboratively tell a satisfying story. So, there is a GM in the game, but their role in clearly defined in terms of what they can and cannot do. Likewise for players: it’s clear what their role in the game is. And from the outset, the point is made that this is a collaborative exercise. The game works best if everyone is on the same page from the very beginning, through collaborative game creation and character creation into actual play starting

I think there is certainly a moderate level of complexity inherent in the system, in terms of what everyone should be doing round the table, but not in terms of knowing the ideal combination of feats to defeat a given monster in a given situation (for example)

There’s lots of encouragement to pitch in with your ideas and contribute to making everyone round the table have fun.

Oh, and the mechanics aren’t focussed on individual ‘tasks’ (such as picking a lock or climbing a wall) but more on resolving what is going on in an entire scene or situation.

I think I could have said that more clearly in half the words!

Trask: Earlier you mentioned your disappointment with  “Twilight 2000” and similar post-apocalyptic games. What aspects of these games did you specifically try to avoid?

MC: There were a lot of 80s game that, for me, had a unpleasant air of gung-ho militarism, the taking of one political viewpoint for granted. T:2000 (and  I am not for one moment saying this is the experience or viewpoint of everyone who played it, purely my own) was, for me, gun-obssesed, macho swaggering.

So, I certainly wanted to avoid those themes and get down to the stuff that I wanted to deal with: people relationships with each other, the petty (and not so petty) power struggles and empire building that would come to the fore in a situation where society had (at least partially) fallen apart.

So, things to avoid were gung ho militarism, the obssession with weapons and military superiority and so on.

I guess I played games with people who liked guns a lot.

I guess teenage boys are probably the same everywhere.

Trask: Did you have any other influences in creating the game? Reading the preview, I had a “Day of the Triffids” flashback. I read the book as a child and it (Hot War) struck me as having the same tone.

MC : Yes! Absolutely

Day of the Triffids ” and the work of John Wyndham was a big influence

As were the writings of other authors such as J G Ballard

And then there are a lot of cinematic influences, going from things like ‘The War Game ‘ by Peter Watkins (not to be confused with War Games starring Matthew Broderick!) right up to recent movies such as ‘Children of Men’.
Both excellent pieces of work and key influences on the game.

I put a fair bit of work into doing what I think is a pretty good mediography in the back of the book, covering books (fiction and non-fiction), films, TV and games that all had an influence on Hot War.

I like to think that kind of thing might be useful for people.

Trask: I once heard this described as a “cozy catastrophe.” The world is falling apart, but not so badly that you cannot still have tea in the afternoon. You might just be eating rat instead of crackers.

MC: Yeah, that was coined by Brian Aldiss in ‘Billion Year Spree’
He had a bit of a thing about Wyndham and his very ‘English’ disaster tales.

I think its a bit unfair, as there is a certain horror to a lot of stuff labelled as ‘cosy catastrophe’, the juxtaposition of the very ordinary with the horrific.

‘The War Game’ film does that very well (perhaps the one key piece of cinema I would encourage anyone interested in Hot War to see). Images of ordinary British police officers being issued with guns and shooting badly injured civilians is pretty horrible.

Trask: There seems to be a fantasy component to the game, strange happenings without scientific explanation, but it is very subtle in the game. Intentional?

MC: Yeah, all the weird technology that is portrayed in the background of the game is deliberately vague. I’d like people to make up the explanations that fit their game, rather than be proscriptive.

Its the same principle that applies to the treatment of the war in the game. There’s no detail of what happens during the year between the war and when the game is set. That’s up to the play group to decide. Of course, there are documents in the game that give insight into what was going on, but no lists of dates, battles, movements, etc

To be honest, things like the strange happenings, like the Zone of Alienation, the Peninsula and so forth, I’d change them myself for different games, according to what kind of game we were playing.

Trask:   I noticed the “Cold City” supplement on your site. Do you have plans for additional books?

MC:  Well, Cold City was actually the game we produced before Hot War
It’s kind of thematically related

Trask: Sorry, I thought it was a supplement.

MC: No worries, easy mistake to make! Set in Berlin in 1950, the characters are hunting down strange technology and monsters from World War 2.

It uses some similar mechanics to Hot War (which in fairness, is a very evolved and changed version of those mechanics), but focuses a lot more heavily on trust, paranoia and the themes arising out of the early Cold War period: you have to work with Americans/Russians/French/British/German agents, but can you trust them? Do you really know what their agendas are, what they really want from this  situation?

Trask: So are the any plans for additional books for either game?

MC: At the moment, no. I’m about to start a post-graduate thesis that will take me about a year to research and write, so I’ll need to ease back from writing any substantial pieces. Not that there isn’t the possibility, but Hot War and Cold City both work very well as games in themselves. For Hot War, I’m keen to get input into the wiki we’ve set up. So, rather than bring out books, the wiki will be there for new ideas, additional material and so on. It also means everyone can contribute and not just have to put up with my stuff!

Trask: Excellent! Thank you for your time. Is there anything else you would like to add about “Hot War” that everyone should know?

MC:  Well, from a purely mercenary point of view, it’s available in print from our own online shop and from Indie Press Revolution ! In a non-mercenary way, people really should check out the preview stuff on our website if they are thinking about getting the game. That’ll give them a much better idea of whether or not they’ll like it. I’d much prefer that someone bought the book because they were really keen and knew what they were buying. I don’t like to think of people wasting their money!

But, as always, I’m open to people getting in touch with me. I’m always delighted to answer any queries and questions people might have, either by email or on our forums.

Trask: What is the link you would like to use for people to check out the game?

That concluded the interview.  I would like to thank Malcolm for taking the time to speak with me.

UPDATE: After speaking with Malcolm, I went out and purchased the PDF of this game. A review is pending in the very near future.

Trask, The Last Tyromancer



Trask is a long-time gamer, world traveler and history buff. He hopes that his scribblings will both inform and advance gaming as a hobby.