10: Heckna, Ashley Warren

The carnival horror campaign setting by Hit Point Press introduces us to Heckna himself, the post-human clown king of the Revelia. Lead writer Ashley Warren explores the history of the scary clown and what Heckna tells us about safety and liminal spaces.

Art by Julia Metzger, courtesy Hit Point Press

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A Day in the Domain of Heckna

Ashley Warren: Before you as a wondrous vibrant carnival. Sweethearts stroll hand in hand munching on delectable treats. A glittering Ferris wheel rotates nearby. Strangely-dressed clowns roam through the crowds.

There are many tents, most emblazoned with colorful signage and the distance. A huge castle looms over the carnival, large letters spell out “Heckna’s Funhouse” over the facade of a clown space. His face is painted in an enthusiastic expression, eyes wide and mouth open. Although painted the clown’s eyes seem to follow you everywhere.

And as you look into the crowd, the very same figure whose face you just saw and plays it on the front of this building or approaches you. Hecka himself is coming through the crowd of the Revelia. And what you see is a tall figure, bedecked in very festive, ornate garb. He wears a version of a jester’s hat with these kinds of colorful, appendage-like pieces of fabric protruding out and his face is not a normal humanoid face with normal skin and normal features. What you said you see is a very mask like face and through this mask, he is still able to convey expressions and the expression and that he conveys to you is one of joy and a little bit of mischief.

Lucas: Hello and welcome to Making a Monster, the weekly podcast where game designers show us a monster of their choice and we discover how it works, why it works, and what it means. I’m Lucas Zellers.

I have to apologize for the audio quality on this week’s episode – I’m moving this month and recording in some different places – but I won’t apologize for the monster we’re covering.

A lot of D&D supplements are launched through Kickstarter, and some of the most polished have come from Hit Point Press, including the Deck of Many, the Humblewood Academy campaign setting, and most recently, the Heckna carnival horror campaign setting. This week my guest is a lead writer on that project.

Ashley Warren: My name is Ashley Warren, and I’m a writer, narrative designer, educator. I’ve worked on lots of projects and the tabletop RPG industry. Most notably the Uncaged Anthology and Rime of the Frostmaiden, the recent Wizards of the Coast hardcover release, and Heckna, which is what we’ll be talking about today,

Lucas: When I conceived the show,  your name was at the top of my list, because I’ve been on the DM’s Guild since 2018.  That top-selling bar has had “Uncaged” smack in the middle of the top 10 for ages.

The Uncaged Anthology

Ashley Warren: The uncaged anthology is a series of adventure anthologies, all for Dungeons and Dragons Fifth edition. Each adventure subverts the tropes surrounding a female creature from mythology or folklore and the anthology was created by more than a hundred artists and writers from around the world all of whom have a passion for monsters. So I feel like this is, this podcast is a good fit for me as someone who loves monsters.

I didn’t pick something Uncaged-related for our topic today.  What I thought would be best is to talk about Heckna from the recent, Heckna Kickstarter,

Lucas: Oh, I had no idea. You were involved with that.

Ashley Warren: Yeah. So I’m technically, my title is lead writer, I’ve been working on that for pretty much the whole year. So I thought it would be fun to talk about the titular character Heckna because he is his own monster and has his own monster design that we’ve put a lot of thought into.  the one thing I can’t probably do yet since the book isn’t out is to talk too much about the specific stats, but I can talk a little bit about the features that he has as a monster and things like that.

Heckna Campaign Setting for D&D

Art by Julia Metzger, courtesy of Hit Point Press. Click to download the wallpaper!

Ashley Warren: Heckna is in many ways your typical evil clown, but there’s a lot that makes them different. I mean, it’s different than an NPC, which Heckna also is, but yeah, Heckna is a full creature. He’s the villain of the book. So the goal is that characters encounter him and potentially defeat him,  Characters can encounter him at any point. It’s very similar to Curse of Strahd, where you can encounter Strahd fairly early in the campaign, and a lot of people do. With Heckna it’s kind of the same scenario, he’s very much present at the Revelia which is the setting of the book.

The Revelia is his own creation. So he’s inextricably tied to this dark carnival setting. It’s something that he’s created, that he’s been building for years, and he is so closely linked to the Revelia. It can’t really exist without him and he can’t exist without it.

So he is very much he’s ever present in this locale. His face is on everything, including,  posters and the rides and things like that. So it is very much Heckna his own domain.

In many ways Heckna and the Revelia setting are classic clown, classic carnival settings. We did definitely wanted to hone in on the familiarity of those environments because there’s something that’s just so fun about a carnival setting, but what’s fun about a carnival setting is also that you can make it really dark and kind of. messed up or, you know, you can really like put a lot of, of your own spin on that. So in that sense, Heckna is very much an evil clown similar to Pennywise. Although I will say that my influence for henna is a little bit more, Tim-Burton-esque. I am a huge Tim Burton fan. I’m trying to think of a good word to describe it, just to kind of general air that both  Heckna and Jack Skellington give off. There are these  people that, lots of others look to as leaders. they are able to amass followers who believe in their vision for something.

So for Jack Skellington, it was like his version of Christmas and for Heckna it’s his version of the Revelia. And so I really enjoyed that part of Jack Skellington, his character, how he’s able to really get people to, follow his creative vision , as wild as it gets. And so for Heckna it’s that, but ramped up to like 11, it’s not like has no limits on things.

And so he’ll do anything to tell  a good joke, even though sometimes what he considers to be a good joke. No one else considers to be a good joke, which. I think it’s fun for a dungeon master to embody that about heck numb.

and then also I think having that really represents kind of the classic court jester and especially in appearance, a lot of his actual, costuming and, and design was inspired by it Venetian carnival masks and kind of classic Renaissance-era gestures that you would see across Europe in different courts.

And I think that that aesthetic is really fun and, and kind of different from. The clowns that we see portrayed in a lot of pop culture.  the Heckna aesthetic is a mix of this like classic carnival circus, sideshow-era-type aesthetic mixed with campy horror flicks. So there’s a lot of like anachronisms in the story as well, which is really fun.

Writing a Scary Clown

Lucas: How are they embodied or changed or remixed in the person of Heckna himself as you’ve presented him?

Ashley Warren: He’s been very particular about how he chooses to present himself, which I find really interesting. And at one point he was a person. Who he is now is the result of a lot of this twisted magic that he’s kind of sacrificed over the years to make the rebel.

Yeah. So he’s, he’s kind of transcended just normal humanity, but I find that kind of an interesting part of his. His character. So I will say that Heckna is certainly driven by nefarious motivations. It’s I think in a way that he reminds me a lot of people on social media who were always just trying to make a joke, even when it’s not the appropriate time to make a joke.

And that’s like, always so incredibly frustrating is when people don’t like. Really take into account, like the tone of something and that’s totally a hack now. He just doesn’t really care and he’ll just make a joke no matter what. And that’s what makes him both amusing, but also just dangerous is that nothing really seems to, he doesn’t react to things the way that a lot of normal people would expect to react to things like grotesque situations.

And so I think as a villain, that’s what makes him interesting too, to go up against is that it’s not just this cut and dry situation of, Oh, well, just dispatch the villain and that’s it. Like, he he’s like roped in all of these people to be a part of his world. And so when you remove Heckna from the world there’s impact there.

I think that a lot of the motivations that players may experience when they’re at the rebellion to confront Heckna is just seeing how he’s built the Revelia and kind of the cost that. That has required from the people who are part of the rebellion. So there’s a group of party goers who are called the revelers and they, you know, are found throughout the Revelia, but to really become a true Reveler, you have to basically give up your identity and you, you just started agreeing to get lost in the Revelia for eternity potentially. And also there’s the creatures that Heckna has created are not always very pleasant. And so there’s just kind of, even though there’s, there’s fun to be had. The Revelia is a dark place. It’s, it’s a place where. There is, you can kind of do whatever you want, but you also lack a lot of free will you can’t just leave once you’re there.

And so I think that just the fight to escape or to find a way out or to help others find a way out is kind of the central. one of the central themes, of course, like every group may interpret that differently, but it’s very much similar to Curse of Strahd and Ravenloft. Once you get sucked into a domain, a lot of your motivation becomes a how to get out of that domain.

there’s a lot of reasons to want to confront Heckna and just kind of witnessing what you do at the rebellious kind of reason itself. That’s not to say that it’s all, it’s all awful, but it’s not the wondrous place that it pretends to be like beneath that wonder is a lot of kind of grim activity.

Comedy and Horror in TTRPGs

Lucas:  This is also like a master’s thesis waiting to happen. so you can limit the scope of it by talking about just Heckna or just the Revelia: what do you think is the relationship between comedy and horror?

Ashley Warren: I think that there’s a huge link between comedy and horror because I think both are very subjective. And I think that sometimes comedy taken to extreme limits can be someone else’s horror. And I think the things that we find funny. Sometimes that’s, you know, at someone else’s expense. And so I think that it’s, it’s a complicated relationship, but I, I personally really enjoy whore that has bits of comedy.

Cause I think it alleviates some of the darker themes and horror, and I like comedy that, you know, brings in a bit of work because it really makes it. Not necessarily more powerful, but I think they kind of elevate each other as genres.  that’s also why I enjoy fairytales because they kind of hone in on similar aspects of that, where they have these moments , of levity mixed with these really dark and grim moments.

what makes Heckna fun is that he’s genuinely funny. I want people to laugh at the table and just be like, wow, like that was. That was like a bad pun or something like that. And kind of have those like fun, but cringey moments.

Because I do think that when a villain makes you laugh, that makes them dangerous too, because they kind of can manipulate your emotions toward them. Cause I think that comedy can be. Like the great unifier, like I think when we find things that everyone can find funny or joyful, that’s really powerful. So when people can manipulate that, that’s when things get really scary.

Lucas: what does Heckna and the Revelia tell us about the world we live in now?

Ashley Warren: I so many things, honestly, I think that we, especially this year, during a global pandemic and a lot of complicated things happening in the world. A lot of us are looking for ways to escape into our favorite, favorite stories and favorite media. we want to remember what it’s like to be kids and just have fun and just fully immerse ourselves in a fun environment. But I think it’s also that there’s a price to pay for full escapism because we can’t necessarily bury our heads in the sand and ignore important things in the world.

So I think like at this time, And in our lives, a lot of us are trying to find the balance between how do we, you know, stay informed and connected to what’s happening in the real world while also protecting our mental health and, and finding fun and joy where we can, so not to get like too high level with it.

But I think in a lot of ways, that’s kind of what’s embodied. And the rebellion is people who wanted to escape, but they kind of went too far and now they’re lost. And so I think that getting lost in and things that we. We kind of depend on in terms of like the art and stories that we love is kind of a thing that all creatives go through.

Like how, how much of myself to put into this, you know, fictional story without totally losing myself. So I think in that way, it’s, it’s very relatable. And,  I think that when you looked at someone like Hackney, who really doesn’t care about anyone about himself, about what he has created and will continue to create, no matter how much it hurts other people, like I think that’s, that’s kind of like somebody, a good lesson for all creators to keep in mind is.

Is our, is our success and creativity ever like at the expense of someone else. . I guess that’s, that’s a long way of saying that. I think there’s a lot of relevancy, but it’s also, it’s just another option for people to have,  a fun time at their table. And sometimes that’s all a game needs to be.

Playing a Horror Game Shouldn’t Lead to an RPG Horror Story

Lucas: Is there anything that we’ve missed? Anything that you want to make sure we mentioned or cover?

Ashley Warren: I think that the main thing would be that despite talking about,  horror and, the manipulation that Heckna might inflict on characters playing through this game. I do really want to emphasize how important it is to have safety tools at your table. I think with a character like Heckna, those things are more important than ever because it should still be a fun experience for everyone at the table, including the dungeon master.

And so when you’re playing a character like Heckna, who really doesn’t have limits or it doesn’t really adhere to, you know, the polite society that you make sure that you establish what those lines are for your table to make it fun, because it should be fun. It should be funny. You should make lasting memories, but it  shouldn’t be a campaign that is hurting anyone’s feelings.

So that’s really not the point of it. Even with the, wily villain like Heckna, even Heckna doesn’t necessarily want that as, as evil as he is. He does. He still wants you to have fun playing this game.

Lucas: Ashley Warren, thank you so much for being on the show this is really exciting. I haven’t done an evil clown yet. I knew I was going to, at some point, I’m glad had this one.

Ashley Warren: Well, I’m, I’m glad to have introduced evil clowns to your podcast catalog. So thank you for having me.

Where to find Ashley Warren online:


Learn more about the Heckna carnival horror campaign setting:


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Next Episode: Revisiting Dagon

Lucas, Alex, and James revisit Dagon, Lovecraft’s first eldritch horror, to discover how some monsters have origin stories stretching back to the beginning of time itself.

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