Over the last decade, platforms like Twitch and YouTube have allowed creators to tell stories in some of the most exciting ways. The TTRPG community has found a home on these platforms. But a big part of the Twitch community is viewers interacting with the creators and feeling like they are a part of the experience which has been a struggle for the TTRPG community. I recently got the chance to chat with Zac Lim Eubank and Aabria Iyengar about their upcoming series KOLLOK and how they are challenging themselves to create an interactive experience for everyone.
This interview is edited for length and clarity.
Zac Lim Eubank and Aabria Iyengar
Julia Roth: Alright, let’s kick this off! Let’s do a little introduction of the two of you. What quests have you guys accomplished in your lives to bring you to where we’re at right now?
Zac Lim Eubank: I’m alive. Barely, we made it.
Aabria Iyengar: That’s most of it. Yes. Why don’t you start, Zac? This is your baby.
ZLE: Hi, I’m Zac. I am one of the co-founders of Hyper RPG. I started the Geek & Sundry live network and launched Critical Role, and then left to stupidly do my own thing and sign up for that kind of small business stress for years. But we’re now in our sixth year and still kicking strong. We’ve done everything from bringing Power Rangers officially licensed to Twitch, we helped bring Aq Inc to Twitch, we show ran D&D Live, we’ve worked with G4 and many others to bring interactive live play to the forefront of hopefully nerd culture and KOLLOK is our little mad experiment to see just how weird and wild we can get with it.
AI: Nice. Well, I’m Aabria Iyengar. I started playing TTRPGs because of shows like Critical Role and The Adventure Zone. So I fell into it at the time that G&S was coming up. So I do very, very much feel in a way raised by Zac’s loving attention. Well, the fact that we’re like not quite a year apart age-wise makes me feel very comfortable to be like, “You’re my dice dad, Zac.”
ZLE: By a year apart, you mean almost exactly a year and a day.
AI: Almost exactly. We even coordinated our outfits today just to be like loud pattern, button-down.
ZLE: You made an educated guess.
JR: A very good educated guess.
AI: There we go. I roll the dice and I was right. I’ve kind of come up in the last couple years playing a lot of RPGs all over the place, but KOLLOK was one of my first really big projects that I got to be a part of. I was a guest in season one as Andre’s character’s sister, and then I got to come on full-time in season two. And in the intervening years have done projects with Critical Role, The Adventure Zone, Dimension 20, The Guild and some other stuff.
ZLE: When everybody else was like, “Oh no, the world’s ending,” Aabria was like, “I will take over.”
JR: Let’s talk about KOLLOK. Give us a little bit of a background of the series, how it started, how it plays out.
ZLE: I know this isn’t going to sound as ‘ah’ as it should, but the series started because I was bored. I’d been making and producing this kind of content for a very long time and found myself really unsatisfied with my own achievements in it. Everyone sets their own standards, and I’m a really big believer in, like, if you’re proud of what you do, just be proud of it. I’m never proud of what I do and I’m constantly being like, “This could be better,” like, “Come on, you idiot, this has to be better.”
And just really, I remember it kind of came about, Malika (Lim Eubank) and I took a train ride up to Vancouver, and one of those very stereotypical sitting there sipping my coffee, looking out over the Bay of Seattle as I’m making my way north, and thinking about my love for David Lynch and how as I was moving back through the Pacific Northwest on that trip being like, “There’s a feeling that Lynch encapsulates in film that I haven’t been able to capture yet at a table,” and started wanting to break that down. What is that feeling, could it work, is it possible? Let’s try.
So that’s really it, it’s just like, “Let’s try, let’s see if we can create that feeling, that absurdist kind of surrealism at a table in a live improvisational format,” and then throw on top of that the idea that from a production standpoint, we were kind of also bored and wanting to figure out how to take everything we learned over the years and package it into one show and tell people, “Let’s keep pushing.”
JR: And that’s your love for the series. You want it to be the best that it can be. These platforms have allowed us to produce and create and KOLLOK looks fantastic. The interactive part is what really gets me because Twitch thrives on interaction. You never go into a successful Twitch stream, for the most part, and find them not interacting with the chat in some way or bringing them into the show.
ZLE: Which is a big barrier for TTRPGs, because if we’re doing a really good story, if we’re really locking you in, we’re not looking at the camera and being like, “Right?” So it’s tough and we have to find solutions to keep that feeling of interactivity and making you a part of the show without breaking the fourth wall and tearing apart the story.
AI: I just super appreciate how KOLLOK specifically, by virtue of its tone and timbre, is so good about being playful with how much the audience is a part of the story. Because again, there are lots of narratives where you’re like, “Oh, any sort of intrusion or interaction breaks the fourth wall and is damaging and damming to the sort of facade being built up as storytellers and you’re kind of just there watching.
But because this is intensely, inherently surrealist, it does feel good to say that there is something beyond what you understand that’s subtly influencing and changing and twisting in real-time while you’re also trying to deal with what’s happening within the fiction. So it feels like actually, it worked out really well, and that points to what Zac was able to build here, that it makes sense. It’s a feature, not a bug for being on Twitch.
ZLE: Yeah. We tried to, and thank you for that. We tried to think, knowing that it’s hard not to meta and we want to create a story that the players aren’t meta, the players are in world, but the world itself is a little bit meta to TTRPGs. The driver’s a little bit meta of the GM, the passengers is a meta of the audience that’s watching and how they’re participating, and making sure that we’re kind of playing with those expectations of you as a viewer or a player of a TTRPG have while still fitting within a strong narrative structure that allows you to kind of get on board and feel like you have some weight and some decision factors. And we’re going to lean into that, even more, this season in some unique ways and I’m excited for everybody to see that.
JR: Can you share those ways? Like if somebody wanted to be a part of this story, me, I want to be a part of the story, how would they go about it?
ZLE: So this season, which is kind of like a new… I wouldn’t even call it a season three, it’s like a new jumping-on point it’s KOLLOK. It’s not KOLLOK 1991, it’s just KOLLOK. As an audience member, you’ll be able to build a character who is a member of the ascendant, one of humanity’s last children. That means you were born on November 12th, 1991 and you are now 29 years old. During the course of the show, you’ll probably turn 30. I’m sure that birthday won’t be a big deal in the story at all. But you’re all the same age, and you have this forum that you’re connected with through Devina, which is a character that’s been around for a long time in world.
Viewers will be able to build their character, set up where you live on the map, start communicating on the Devina forum with all the other viewers, but then you have access to your little Sidekick screen. We built an app that looks like an old Nokia Sidekick screen and you’re able to access the character sheets, the contacts of other plays, you’ll be able to search for secrets in the world.
And we’ve set up one of the players in the ascended cast, Danielle Radford. Her character is in charge of the Devina forums so you can be hacking this app that we built to find secrets about the world that they’re currently inhabiting and then send them to her on the show through the forum so they can have access to some of this information that might help them in their journey.
JR: This is so new and exciting! This is something that brings people into the story and creates an exciting experience for them. Aabria, you’ve done tons of stuff on Twitch now, what is it like playing in this style of game?
AI: Oh. I think this is really fun and probably very cliche to say, like in an interview with Zac here, that KOLLOK does feel incredibly different compared to a lot of other games because of that interactivity. And the sort of foundational, not unsolvable, but just the sort of Gordian knot at the center of a mystery, that like for the story to work really well, it’s not necessarily about solve this puzzle and everything else falls into place.
It is just that the unknowable is at the heart of the story you’re trying to tell about people. I’m a huge fan of speculative fiction, and I love that idea of changing one thing about the world, usually a big swing. Like for Arrival, what if there are aliens that arrive on earth that can change the way you understand language and therefore understand time and your own relationship to your memory. What does that say about humanity?
And I think the fun thing about KOLLOK is that idea of what if there was something so deeply and profoundly different and wrong with the world that every time you find out more about it, you realize how big and how insurmountable it really is, and what does that tell you about growing up and figuring out who you are in the world?
JR: I’m a huge fan of the horror dystopian setting so KOLLOK is right up my alley. Zac, what was your reasoning for choosing to go that direction with KOLLOK? What it something you thought just worked well or was it something you wanted to talk about?
ZLE: Well, I think Aabria kind of hit the nail on the head when talking about by presenting it in a surrealist way, it gives us the ability to wink and nod without doing it the “Joss Whedon” way. You know what I mean? We get to do it in more of a story way instead of like, “Look how clever I am,” with a one-liner. It’s allowing us to acknowledge that we’re on a platform that’s the wild west, that has no rules to govern it, and if people are sitting here and watching it, they’re participating in something that’s wholly unique as an interactive platform and a form of entertainment.
And that comes with disadvantages and caveats, you know? It’s not a million-dollar production, it’s not going to have cuts, you’re not going to be able to exit a scene the second you realize that scene doesn’t work anymore. You’re going to have to find a way out of it.
And the viewer feels that they’re having to sit and watch something that’s not going to be perfectly polished all the time, and then still find something to love in it. So giving it those kind of surrealist boundaries and creating a character in the GM as well who’s an unreliable narrator on top of it all, gives us the freedom to kind of let the audience know some things might not be as they should and we’ll just all pretend together that that’s part of the story, right?
JR: Speaking of surreal horror, we’ve been spending the last, I don’t know, how many years in this pandemic. How has it been producing a show during this?
ZLE: Things have not eased up at all. We just spend more money. I mean, it’s taken a really long time to bring it back because of that. The way we built out this show and the way we go about it, I couldn’t do it over Zoom and we had to do it in a way that was safe. We had to rebuild our studio, rebuild our practices from the ground up as a company to survive the pandemic. We spend on average $2,500 an episode just on COVID protocols, so it’s not cheap. When people are constantly DMing being like, “Why hasn’t KOLLOK come back?” I’m like “I can’t pay for it. It’s too expensive.” So we had to find a partner in AMC to help us make it happen and front that bill.
AI: Just on top of that, I think there was also that sort of consideration of it’s fun to play in an essential horror space when you’re contemplating your own morality and you feel safe like fear plus security is thrilling. But as long as you know that everything else is affirming that you are fundamentally safe, you can lean into it in a way that’s good and fun. And I think that’s what the beauty of the first couple of seasons of KOLLOK were. The moment a whole Panda Express hits, the idea of playing a horror game, you’re like, “By why? My brains already here.”
JR: Zac, you mentioned working with AMC Networks. KOLLOK is going to air on their Twitch channel. How did this partnership come to be?
ZLE: Hyper has been producing Fear HQ for two years for AMC Network. A lot of people don’t know, you know… If they’ve heard of Hyper, it might be through D&D Live or Power Rangers or things like that. We actually keep the lights on primarily as a production company, and we work for a lot of other companies making the content that they put on.
So we’ve been making Fear HQ for a couple years, and it just happened to be one of those situations that you dream of as a creator where you’re working for a client for years, and you’re like, “Well, I’ve got this project, I wonder if they’ll believe in us because we’ve proven that we can accomplish something,” and they did. And they were like, “Yeah, let’s go for it, this sounds awesome.”
JR: Thats fantastic! We can’t wait for KOLLOK to kick off. Where can people find it and find you guys?
ZLE: The show will be live every Monday night, 6:00 PM Pacific time. We try to put it at 6:00, that way you east coast people, you’ve got your 9:00 PM go to bed show if you need it. I promise I’ll try not to give you nightmares before you go to sleep. It’s a lie. Twitch.tv/FearHQ make sure to check it out, and then you can just find me at Hyper_RPG pretty much everywhere.
AI: I will be part of that beautiful cast. And other than that, you can follow me on social media at Quiddie! I just want to end by saying, I think this is going to be very, very different, and it’s just so exciting in a space where I think we are reaching that sort of not a plateau, but there’s now been enough content in this space that people who are creative are trying to push the boundaries.