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Steve Kenson is a Pterosaur

Andrew Goenner
United States
St. Cloud
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Yup, changed the Avatar for self-promotion.
Go vote in the 24-Hour RPG Design Contest!
I've been roleplaying for 20 years now, and every so often I come across a game that I simply fall in love with. Recently I fell in love with one such game. Mutants & Masterminds (3rd Edition). After playing for some time in a PbF, I won the 2E books in the Chain of Generosity and started playing it with my F2F group. They fell in love as well, so I finally put up the cash to order 3E and DC Adventures Hero's Handbook for myself.

Then the RPG Geek newsteam was formed and I was chosen to be one of the contributors. Our stalwart editor-in-chief Hida Mann suggested doing interviews. Of course, with my new obsession in RPGs, #1 on my list was Steve Kenson, the mastermind (pardon the pun) behind Mutants & Masterminds.

The following is the result of that interview.

Q: What brought you to the roleplaying hobby in the first place?

A: I was a shy, brainy elementary school kid, fan of mythology, comic books, and science fiction and fantasy literature. In other words, I fit the profile perfectly. I discovered RPGs around the age of 12 and convinced some school friends to play with me. I’ve been a gamer ever since.

Q: What's the first RPG you ever played?

A: The first edition of Gamma World, also the first RPG I owned. I sort of “half-played” as I was also Gamemaster, but I ran my own character, too. Didn’t take us long to transition to Dungeons & Dragonsafter that.

Q: What's the most underrated system you've played or run?

A: Probably Torg from West End Games: the design by Greg Gorden has a lot of brilliant elements worked into it, from the interplay of the Drama Deck cards to die re-rolls, the logarithmic progression table, approved actions... there were a lot of cool game-play elements that made playing and running that game a lot of fun.

Q: What was the first game you designed (whether it was published or not), and what did you feel upon completion?

A: The first game I designed (as a game, not a sourcebook or supplement) was Mutants & Masterminds. Even there, “designed” would be overstating matters without a debt of thanks to the designers of the d20 System, which formed the core of the game, even if I changed a lot of it.

I was involved in the playtesting and design of other games prior to that, but M&M is the first game I designed largely myself and as lead-designer.

Q: What is your favorite roleplaying memory?

A: That’s impossible to pin down to just one thing but, if you spend more than an hour or so with my gaming group, chances are you’ll hear references to several of my favorite gaming memories: moments in old games that have entered our lexicon of in-jokes ranging from terrific roleplaying one-liners from Shadowrun games to Dumb Champions disadvantages like “Enraged When F—ed With”.

Q: Least favorite?

A: I guess the occasions when I’ve had to handle “break-up conversations” with gaming group members who just aren’t working out. (“It’s not you, it’s us... well, okay, it’s also sort of you.”) They’re awkward and they suck, just like most break-ups. The difficult side of the social aspect of gaming.

Q: You're best known for the creation of Mutants & Masterminds. When you decided to sit down and create a RPG what made you think "super hero?"

A: The fact that I’d been hired to design a superhero game.
Seriously, I had created the setting that would be published as Freedom City some time prior, but plans to publish it had fallen through. I’d worked on, and greatly expanded, the setting but there were no superhero RPGs in print at the time to pitch it; even the stalwart Champions was in legal limbo (post-Champions: the New Millennium but pre-Hero System, 5th Edition).

So I complained about the problem to some industry friends and Chris Pramas(President of Green Ronin Publishing) asked to take a look at it. This was in the heyday of the Open Game License and the d20 product boom, so Chris proposed that, if I was willing to design a d20-based superhero RPG, Green Ronin could do a two-book deal: the game book and Freedom Cityas the core setting, then we’d see how it did. Nearly ten years later, Mutants & Masterminds is in its third edition and has dozens of books behind it, so it seems to have done pretty well!

Q: Are you a DC or Marvel guy?

A: DC by a very small margin. The first two comics I ever bought were an issue of Action Comics and an issue of Fantastic Four, kind of the essential examples of both publishers. I was a big fan of both the ‘80s Teen Titans and the ‘80s X-Men, but overall I think I read more DC titles.

Q: You were one of the founders of Nashua Outright, a support group for GLBT youth in the area. Can you tell us a little about that initiative and what inspired you to be a part of it?

A: A friend and I were swapping war-stories (horrors stories, really) about being queer and in high school in the 1980s (the height of the Reagan-era) and how we’d wished there had been something, anything, for kids like us. The conversation ended with a realization that we could keep complaining or do something about it, so we did. We started a group for under-21s to come, hang out, meet other young people like themselves, and talk in a safe environment. We went from a two-person show to an organization with a board of directors and quite a few volunteers. After doing it for about ten years, I left the group, being pretty burned out on faciliating.

Q: If you were a dinosaur, what kind would you be and why? [

A: I’d like to think I’d be a cool kick-ass predator but I’d more likely be this placid herbivore, although maybe I could be a pterasaur and fly – that’d be cool.

Q: You've written some RPG tie-in novels as well. Which is more difficult for you, creating the game or the novel?

A: Two very different sorts of writing, in my experience. Although there’s overlap in terms of setting and character creation, RPGs often have a broader focus—having to encompass lots of characters and stories—whereas novels are about a particular story, the one you’re telling. It’s the difference between telling a story and creating the framework for a story, or within which others can tell stories.

Q: Are there any other gamers in your family?

A: No, I’m the only one. My family members politely nod and smile whenever I talk about work and pretend they have some idea of what it’s all about. They know that I write books and get my name on the covers of things, and that’s good enough for the most part.

Q: Another obvious question: If you could have ANY superpower (whether it's an effect in M&M or not), what would it be?

A: I’m a big fan of Green Lantern-style energy constructs, you can do so much with them! I suppose that says something about my personality, like the old “flight or invisibility?” question, probably that I like to create and tinker with things.

Q: Who is your favorite RPG designer and why?

A: Hard to choose just one. RPGs is a very creative field, and there’s so much talent in it. To name just a few: my fellow Ronins Chris Pramas, Will Hindmarch, Jon Leitheusser, and Joseph Carriker, as well as Robin D. Laws, Kenneth Hite, Jeff Grubb, Greg Gorden, Cam Banks, David L. Pulver, Robert J. Schwalb... I could go on for quite a while. I think that even if the RPG industry wasn’t a viable publishing business, most of us would still be producing games and support product to swap amongst ourselves.

Q: How did you come to be affiliated with Green Ronin Publishing?

A:I started out writing some freelance projects for Green Ronin like the Shaman’s Handbook and Witch’s Handbook, then undertook the dual project of Mutants & Masterminds and Freedom City. The success of M&M led to my coming on board full-time as developer. After a few years of that, I stepped back from the developer job to focus on writing and design and primarily do that for GR while also working on side-projects of my own.

Q: Of all the RPG projects you've worked on (be it system or supplement), which are you most proud of?

A: That’s a tough question, since it’s often like trying to choose your favorite child or the like. I’m certainly proud of how well Mutants & Masterminds has done and of the DC Adventures RPGfor capturing some of my favorite childhood characters. I’m proud of my overall body of work for Shadowrun, and the Seattle 2072 sourcebook (my last big project for the game) was a fun walk down memory lane in a lot of respects. Crystal Raiderswas my favorite Earthdawn project, and I’m glad to see it back in print with RedBrick. There have been a lot projects over the past sixteen years!

Q: What advice would you give to budding RPG designers?

Three things, primarily.

First, don’t quit your day job. Seriously. The number of people making a full-time living in the RPG business is tiny, and it’s a struggle at the best of times unless you’re drawing salary from a major publisher. If you’re a freelancer or hobbyist publisher, then you can’t plan on making more than a part-time living at best. You may be able to ramp up to enough income to go full-time, but it takes a lot of work and chances are you’ll want to supplement your income doing other things.

Second, there’s never been a better time to self-publish, with all of the options out there for free and open licensing, electronic publication and distribution, print-on-demand, and desktop design and publishing. Don’t wait around for a publisher to “notice” you or pick up your designs: get them out there yourself!

Third, whether you are your own publisher or working with business partners or other publishers, if you want to be treated as a professional (rather than just a hobbyist) then be professional: meet your deadlines and obligations, uphold your word and honor your contracts, and look out for your own interests. We all work on RPGs because we love them, but don’t confuse business and business relationships with your beloved hobby or friendships. If all goes well, you’ll find plenty of peers and friends in the industry, but you won’t make any by being unprofessional and you’ll hurt your career besides.

Q: And finally, are there any big projects you’re currently working on that you can tell us about?

“Working on currently” is a tough thing in publishing due to the lead-times for some projects, but here are a few things:

• I’m writing a new series of electronic products for M&M called Power Profiles, which will see release in 2012. They’re short looks at different types of powers in the game and how to put them together from effects and modifiers in the core rules. So a single Profile might look at Fire Powers or Mental Powers, for example, with lots of pre-fab powers (things like Fireball and Flame Aura, or Mind Control and Astral Projection) players and GMs can use to kick-start character design and expand their views on how to apply various game mechanics.

• Similarly, I recently wrapped-up design on Green Ronin’s Threat Report series for M&M and I’m working with developer Jon Leitheusser on the print compilation for the series.

• DC Heroes & Villains, Vol. II, which is currently in production, features some of my work, including write-ups of Martian Manhuner, Mister Mind, the Orange and Red Lanterns, Star Sapphire, Wonder Woman, Zatanna, and others.

• I wrote a substantial part of the upcoming Icons Team-Up sourcebook for the Icons Super-Powered Roleplaying game. It’s a lot of Game Master advice and options for “hacking” the game in different ways. I like those kinds of options (I’m a tinkerer) so hopefully they’ll appeal to fans of the game as well.

• I contributed some material to the new Dragon Empires setting gazetter just released for Pathfinder. It’s a fun new Asian-themed setting for Golarion (their default Pathfinder world).

And that's that, readers. I hope you enjoyed reading about Steve as I did writing about him. And remember: you may not be a super hero, but a hero sandwich is always super!
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