Leaving Room to Breathe:
A Conversation with Steve Kenson
Steve Kenson is a geek—a professional geek. He’ll proudly tell you as much. Case in point: not only did he write three novels about his first Shadowrun character, he also named his company, Talon Studio, after him.
Kenson has worked on games and sourcebooks for White Wolf, Wizards of the Coast, and Steve Jackson Games, among others. He is perhaps best known for Mutants & Masterminds, a superheroes RPG he developed for Green Ronin Publishing.
“I met Steve in the middle 90s, when we were both coming up as freelance writers,” said Chris Pramas, president of Green Ronin Publishing. “Once Green Ronin got going and I needed more freelancers, I asked Steve if he wanted to pitch any projects to me. He sent me a proposal for the Shaman’s Handbook and it was hands down the best proposal I had ever received. It was clear, concise, and explained how the book would be cool and exactly how he intended to pull it off. I gave it the green light immediately and the book went on to be a great seller for us.
“Later Steve was bemoaning the fact that a superhero city he had designed for another company was never going to see the light of day. I told him I’d publish it if he designed a d20-based supers game for Green Ronin. That exchange led to Mutants & Masterminds, which remains our best selling game line to this day.”
In 2004, while working on the Blue Rose romantic fantasy RPG, Kenson developed Green Ronin’s True20 system, a simpler (and perhaps more elegant) refinement of Wizards of the Coast’s d20 system.
With the release of the new Mutants & Masterminds sourcebook, Warriors & Warlocks, I thought it was about time Kobold Quarterly tracked Kenson down for a little Kobold Diplomacy.
Jones: You’ve been writing in the game and game-related industry since 1995. Has the industry changed much in that time?
Kenson: Wow, yeah, it has changed a lot. All the companies I worked for back then are gone, although some of their game lines are still around.
When I started out, the industry was relatively stable, although on something of a down slope. Then along comes the third edition of D&D and the Open Game License, which changed everything. A lot of new companies came into being, including Green Ronin, and a lot of others either switched over to the d20 System or started up a d20-based line. Some did it well, others didn’t, but you saw a real explosion in RPG publishing for a while.
Then the d20/OGL bubble burst and you saw another die-off in the industry, followed by the announcement of D&D 4e, which pretty much finished off all but the real hard-core d20 System stuff.
The pendulum seems to be swinging back towards house systems and a diversity of game engines, although the Open Game License is still with us, and has forever changed how RPG publishing is done, and what fans expect from publishers.
Jones: You’ve worked freelance, as a full-time line developer, and done a combination. In what situation do you work the best?
Kenson: While I enjoyed my time as a developer with Green Ronin, and wouldn’t trade the experience, I think I’m better suited as a designer, creating and writing, rather than developing other people’s work.
I liked the variety of freelancing, working on lots of different projects, but the hustle of having to chase after work gets wearing after a while. Working as a designer for Green Ronin gives me some of the best of both worlds: I get to work on a variety of projects for GR’s different lines, but it’s steady and reliable work.
Jones: Do you have a favorite system to write in? To play in?
Kenson: I don’t really have “favorite” systems, just because I’ve never really believed in a “one system to rule them all” approach to either design or play. There are lots of systems that do a lot of different things well, and some systems that do almost everything to a degree, but no system that does everything better than any other.
That said, I’ve enjoyed the process of designing and writing for Mutants & Masterminds quite a lot, big comic book geek that I am. In fact, I like writing for superhero RPGs in general, and I worked on quite a lot of them before I designed M&M.
I like genre mash-up games and settings like Shadowrun, Torg, Deadlands, and the like. I also like RPG settings with detailed cosmologies, like Mage and Exalted, simply because they’re fun to play around with, extending different ideas and asking, “So, if this is the case, what does it imply about the larger world?”
Jones: What’s the best part about building a setting?
Kenson: I think realizing stories and characters based in that world, that is, really bringing the world to life and making it about something.
Jones: Where does building a setting begin?
Kenson: Generally, with a particular premise or idea: a way in which the world differs from our own, what kind of stories will be told there, or just a particular “hey, what if this were different?” kind of concept, played out to its logical conclusion, like in some of those mash-up settings.
Jones: How’d Mutants & Masterminds find its way to Green Ronin?
Kenson: With a setting, actually. Essentially, M&M started with Freedom City. I designed the core of the setting as a freelance project, but plans to publish it fell through, so the project reverted to me. I continued to work on it in my spare time, fleshing it out even further.
I happened to discuss the setting with Chris Pramas, saying it was a pity because, at the time, there were no superhero RPG publishers to whom I could pitch the setting. Chris asked to take a look at it and proposed the idea of a two-book deal: I would design a d20 superhero RPG for Green Ronin and they’d publish Freedom City as the companion setting book. So I designed Mutants & Masterminds and it was popular enough for Green Ronin to continue the line and later hire me on as developer full-time.
Jones: How has your understanding of world building changed over the years?
Kenson: I’ve come to realize the complexities involved in creating a fully realized world, but also learned that you don’t have to fill out and know every single detail of a world in order to use it as a setting for a story or a game. Often, all you need is just the suggestion of a fully-realized backdrop, or a focus on a particular area of the world to get you started, and the rest grows out of the stories you tell.
Jones: What for you is at the heart of a good world for you?
Kenson: A sense of action, of a living world where things are happening and going on all the time, rather than a static model that just sits there and doesn’t do anything.
Jones: What role does collaboration play in world building, and what position do you most often find yourself in within a collaboration?
Kenson: Collaboration often plays a large part in world building. As a developer, I most often worked to coordinate the efforts of other creators — writers, artists, editors — on a world, keeping things focused on the original vision and goals of the project. As a freelancer, I tend to work within existing collaborative or shared world projects, contributing to or detailing my little corner of them.
Jones: Do Is it hard to find time to you actually play the games you write for? Is it hard to play where you work, and vice versa?
Kenson: It can be. RPG author and novelist Aaron Allston once said, “If you want to stop playing RPGs, start writing them!” That can be true to a degree: turning a fun hobby into work can take the fun out of it, if you let it. I try not to let it as much as I can.
Still, that sometimes means I don’t feel like playing Mutants & Masterminds because I’ve been working on it all week and I’d rather unwind with my gaming buddies by playing D&D or Spirit of the Century or something else entirely. Conversely, I sometimes have to remind myself that stuff I’m preparing for my at-home games doesn’t have to be “publishable” in terms of either writing quality or decision-making. I can make it as personal and tailored to my game and my group as I want.
Jones: Are rules friend or foe?
Kenson: That’s kind of like a Daily Bugle headline: “RULES: THREAT OR MENACE?”
I don’t really think they are either, because; rules don’t have opinions or attitudes, although they sometimes reinforce certain opinions, attitudes, or behaviors (often unintentionally).
The job of the rules is to facilitate the process of the game. In places where they do that, then they are good rules. If they do not do that, halting or limiting the process of an enjoyable game, then they either need to be ignored ( in that specific situation) or, overhauled or even discarded.
Jones: What are you working on now?
Kenson: I’m finishing up the draft of a Mutants & Masterminds sourcebook called The Supervillain’s Handbook, which is a big guide to villains and villainy for the game. It’s a toolkit book, with advice on villain creation, lots of archetypes, pre-designed villain lairs, and evil schemes, along with advice on running villains and M&M adventures in general and even games where the players take the roles of the villains rather than the heroes. It’s the largest M&M project I’ve worked on since Ultimate Power, so it has been a lot of fun.
Jones: Villain creation, eh? Care to give a preview of what’s in the sourcebook?
Kenson: Some of it is mechanical game system advice: choosing a power level, assigning traits, what things work differently for villains as opposed to heroes. The rest is more in the form of creative advice, things to consider about what goes into a good villain, like the character’s role in the game, motivations, goals, style, and things like that.
The villain archetypes section goes into a lot of detail, about equal to the treatment of superhero archetypes in Instant Superheroes. So you get pages of classic villain types with different permutations, themes, and adventure hooks.
Jones: What is your favorite part about Blue Rose?
Kenson: The great job editor (and contributing author) Jeremy Crawford did on the cosmology and mythology and how that informs the cultures of the setting. It provides context for the romantic fantasy tropes, giving them a reason to exist in the world.
Jones: Can you tell me a little about how True20 grew out of Blue Rose, how it improves on d20, and where it has gone in recent revisions?
Kenson: We branded the Blue Rose game system as “True20” from front the start, so we could call it something other than “the Blue Rose game system”.
The design concept was to streamline a lot of the elements of the d20 rules while preserving the essential core mechanics and the class/ level system. So you have fewer, more customizable character roles, simpler advancement, a less tactical approach to combat, and so forth.
Early on, there was a lot of interest in the game system apart from the setting and the romantic fantasy genre, so we decided to supply the demand by offering True20 as a stand-alone rules-set. That led to the full-fledged True20 Adventure Roleplaying core book (and the later Revised Edition, which folded in material from the True20 Companion).
Jones: Any advice for the young bucks just starting out?
Kenson: Don’t quit your day job! No, seriously. It’s difficult to make a living working as a freelancer in the RPG industry. Not impossible, but difficult. So you’re better off writing part-time as a supplement to another, more dependable, job at least while you learn the ropes.
The other key thing to master in terms of being a successful freelancer is: learn your limitations and do your utmost to fulfill your agreements. A freelancer who can do a job well and on-time is worth far more to a publisher than an artiste who is occasionally brilliant, but can’t hit a deadline. If you want steady and reliable work, you need to be a steady and reliable resource.
Lastly—and this might sound obvious—learn all you can about how to write well. It’s a skill that will serve you in many areas for a long time to come.
Jones: That’s on the business side of things. How about creative advice?
Kenson: Do the kind of stuff you love. Write the books you wish you had. Chances are there are other folks who wish they had them, too. If there aren’t, well, at least you’ll have fun doing the work!
Don’t let “perfect” be the enemy of “good.”; don’t let obsession with detail keep you from finishing a project, be it a game system, adventure, or setting, and actually doing something with it. A design that’s never used for anything doesn’t have much of a purpose other than as a thought experiment.
In the same vein, be willing to let go of your work to some degree. Leave room for new developments and new directions. A game or setting where everything important has already happened or been resolved isn’t a particularly good place for creating exciting new stories. Give the folks who will play there room to breathe.
The Kobold Diplomats thank Mr. Kenson for his time and wisdom! Do you have a favorite designer you’d like to see interviewed? Let us know in comments!