An Interview With Evil Hat Productions

Nelly Steiner Mox Spotlight

Evil Hat Productions is our Mox Spotlight this month and we couldn’t be more excited to share this interview with Fred Hicks (President) and Sean Nittner (Director of Projects). Evil Hat products have been a staple at Mox for years, with titles like Fate and Blades in the Dark being some of the most popular indie RPGs on our shelves. These games have broadened the horizons of what RPGs can be. Keep reading to find out about the inner workings of Evil Hat Productions.

(Mox) How did Evil Hat Productions come to be?
[Fred Hicks] We started as a group of friends (who had met online during college years on an Amber-themed MUSH) running live-action Amber LARPs at AmberCon Northwest in the late 90s/early 00s. Then, about 20 years back, Rob Donoghue and Fred Hicks had a long car drive where they essentially designed the fundamentals of the Fate system, based around the free Fudge game system, with an eye on running a tabletop game of Amber but with dice (instead of the Amber Diceless RPG they were both familiar with & loved). That in turn led to them sharing the essentials of the system (sans Amber) online, first in the Fudge community, then as the Fate fans grew large enough to be their own thing, budding off into its own mailing list and more. The free PDF they circulated got noticed by the Indie RPG Awards where it won a few honors; the Fate community continued to grow. Meanwhile, Jim Butcher was talking with his agent about how he didn’t want people he didn’t know or trust to make an RPG based on his novel series, The Dresden Files, and his agent said “Don’t you know some award-winning game-designing friends? You could ask them!” Fred and Rob were those friends, having met Jim prior to his novel-writing career back on AmberMUSH in the earlier 90s. So in 2005 Fred got a call from Jim asking if he wanted to make an RPG based on the Dresden Files, which in turn led to Fred and Rob forming Evil Hat Productions as an actual company, publishing its first games in 2006 and the Fate-based Dresden Files RPG ultimately in 2010. Without the Dresden Files, Evil Hat never would’ve become an actual company!

(Mox) What is your mission statement?
[Fred] We don’t have a formal one, but this one is close: We believe passion makes the best games. If you’re not excited about what you’re making, there’s little point in making it. That lack of excitement will transmit through the game!

(Mox) Your Bits and Mortar Program (giving PDF copies of RPGs to customers who buy physical copies in game stores) is a great service for the industry. How did that come to be?
[Fred] While Evil Hat did design and originate Bits & Mortar, it happened because we were already doing the whole, “Buy the physical book, get the PDF for free” with our own catalog, on our webstore, and as a policy. Our “PDF Guarantee” pre-dated Bits & Mortar. A few other publishers saw the idea, liked it, and did it themselves (whether because they saw us do it, came to the same idea independently, or modeled after someone else). Then we and those publishers got to talking, saw the common ground, and put together the idea of Bits & Mortar as a way to popularize the idea, simplify access and utility for game stores, and specifically support brick & mortar game stores, who often have the odds stacked against them. It’s better to collaborate than compete, and this gave us a way to empower retailers to keep customers in-store while offering them some of the 21st-century benefits of electronic PDFs. Healthy game stores make for a healthy hobby/industry, when it comes down to it. So Fred Hicks coded the original version, which ran for many years, before Randy Oest (of the site) reimplemented the service for us about a year back, yielding the current form.

(Mox) What is it about the Dresden Files world that works so well with the Fate system?
[Fred] Well as noted above, the company that publishes Fate wouldn’t exist without the Dresden Files. But I’m not sure it working “so well with the Fate system” is particular to the Dresden Files per se. Fate is a fiction-first game; first consult the fiction, then determine what the system does to support it. To put it another way, Fate emulates fiction, not physics. So most well-built fictional worlds can mesh very well with Fate. But beyond that there are things that Fate codifies, like the effects of beliefs and relationships on a character’s effectiveness in a story, that work very well with the metaphysics of magic and other supernatural powers in the novels. End of the day they complement each other very well.

[Sean Nittner] There is an unspoken axiom in the Dresdenverse that power always comes at a cost. There is someone or something lending you that power and it will take from you something in return. Vampires need to drain life, Wizards have laws they must follow, and the Fae cannot lie. The interaction of these binding forces and rules for Aspects and Fate Points go hand in hand. If you are a “Wizard PI” that means many things. For one, you’re a wizard Harry (sorry I couldn’t resist), which means a character can justify casting a spell to overcome a challenge, but it also means that you can be compelled by that aspect to face situations a wizard would have to deal with. Because you’re a wizard, of course the Merlin knows your whereabouts, and he’s found you at just the wrong time. The Fate Point mechanic re-enforces this notion, as you expend more of your personal resources (spend fate points) you become more vulnerable to outside influences (being compelled). There is a lot more that was developed in Dresden Files Accelerated with Mantles, but at its core Fate is a game that does a great job of giving mechanical weight to fictional truths.

(Mox) How do you go about choosing what gets added to your catalog?
[Sean] We have two internal tracks. The first is commissioned works directed by Evil Hat. These are things like Fate of Cthulhu, Shadow of the Century, or the Fate Accessibility Toolkit, where we have an idea in mind and assemble a team to bring it to fruition. The direction for these games often comes from our internal brainstorming “wouldn’t it be cool if…”, a continuation of our existing setting, tools that we think would be useful for gamers, and works that we hope make the gaming table more accessible.

Our second track is co-published work like Blades in the Dark, Thirsty Sword Lesbians, and the upcoming Apocalypse Keys. We spend a lot of time both reviewing gaming submissions sent to us and scouting for new games in development. We’re looking for games that are mechanically innovative, laser focused on their subject matter, and have an evocative setting or genre that instantly springs to mind those “wouldn’t it be cool if…” moments.

In both tracks we work to support and promote marginalized creators, and we use the spotlight of our own brand as well as our more privileged creators to help bring attention and a greater audience to their games.

(Mox) How has the pandemic impacted how you interact with the community?
[Sean] Early in the pandemic both our printer and our warehouse shut down for several months. This meant that we could neither print nor ship books and so we had to close down our webstore and hope that the inventory already in stores would suffice until printing and shipping were safe again. We saw a small spike in digital sales, which was to be expected, however that wasn’t offering anything new to our audience.

Since we had already had some early successes on Roll20 with For the Queen and the Fate Starter Bundle, we realized that we had already taken the first few steps towards making the library of our content available in the Roll20 virtual tabletop (VTT) platform. We focused our energy on building out more offerings and improving our own VTT design skills. Fred Hicks, our president, made major upgrades to the existing Monster of the Week character sheet, as well as creating a new sheet for Fate Core and Thirsty Sword Lesbians. Meanwhile Sophie Lagacé and Sean Nittner (that’s me!) focused on designing modules to support play for various Fate Worlds, Fate of Cthulhu Timelines, Monster of the Week Mysteries, the Band of Blades march to Skydagger Keep, and support for other games. Our goals initially were to supplement our editing games with maps, tokens, playmats, clocks, handouts, macros, and other VTT assets to make the game experience online as simple and rewarding as possible.

Recently, we’ve ventured into compendiums, which do include full rulesets so literally every piece of the game can be available in Roll20. AGON and Blades in the Dark are available now. The Thirsty Sword Lesbians compendium will be coming out in June!

We’ve also started to stretch into supporting other VTTs as well including some releases on Fantasy Grounds and development (with releases to be announced) on Foundry VTT.

(Mox) Fate is an incredibly adaptable system. What is the most interesting use of the Fate system you’ve heard of from customers?
[Sean] There’s no way to pick the most interesting, but one very cool implementation I saw years ago at Origins was a GM using aspects as clues in a mystery game. When the players felt like they knew what was going on, the “clue” aspects were used to crack the case!

[Fred] For me it’s hard to point at a specific so much as at the phenomena of seeing many folks in the Fate community get into adapting either their favorite RPG setting or other media property to Fate, and all the different ways they then choose to do that (I’ve seen probably a dozen different runs at Star Wars in Fate over the years, including my own, no two exactly alike). It really underscores how well Fate flexes to the tastes of the folks running and playing it.

(Mox) What is your favorite food to eat while gaming?
[Sean] I’m a tea drinker, in copious amounts. If I can keep brewing, I can keep playing.

[Fred] Eating while gaming is a hazard! I try to limit my access to snacks (cool ranch Doritos and Oreos are dire threats I cannot resist) out of concern for my waistline, but don’t always succeed. If I know I’m going to be hungry during a game, I’d prefer to have/bring a meal. Gamer chili is one of my favorites for that.

(Mox) Thank you so much for all these insights! *sips tea*

Mox is offering 10% off all Evil Hat Productions product throughout the month of June. Stop by and pick up some new RPGs now that game nights are back, and don’t forget our knowledgeable staff is always there to answer any questions you may have. Limited in-store dining is now available in a few of our Mox locations, so enjoy a bite and/or cocktail while you play.

-See you at Mox!