#AprilTTRPGMaker 2018

Since I was traveling for a portion of April and needed daily posts to auto-post, I did the #AprilTTRPGMaker challenge on my Facebook professional page (which can schedule posts, unlike a personal FB page), which is probably my least-read social media venue but, what can you do?

So I figured I’d compile all of the answers into one big master post for the wrap up of the challenge for folks who missed it or for some reason don’t “like” my professional page (sob!). So, if you want all of my answers for #AprilTTRPGMaker 2018, here they are!

#AprilTTRPGMaker 1. Who are you?

I’m Steve Kenson, a tabletop game writer and designer since 1995. Folks who can’t wait until tomorrow to start finding out more about me can visit stevekenson.com to get started.

#AprilTTRPGMaker 2. Where ya at?

I live in Salem, New Hampshire, with my partners Adam and Christopher. The three of us have been together as a triad since 2005, while Christopher and I were together as a couple for ten years before that.

#AprilTTRPGMaker 3. How did you start creating TTRPGs?

I was a playtester for the second edition of Shadowrun on the GEnie Network (gods, I’m old…). I submitted a number of home-brewed mechanics with my playtest feedback and developer Tom Dowd liked and used some of them. He then asked me to contribute a short essay to the book, which I did, which led to some further opportunities to write for Shadowrun and FASA Corporation and, eventually, my first complete game book and novel.

#AprilTTRPGMaker 4. Describe your work.

I’ve been writing for TTRPGs for over 20 years now, so that’s a pretty broad question. I’ve honestly stopped counting how many books I’ve written or contributed to. These days, my TTRPG work primarily breaks down to: 1) Working as a staff writer and designer for Green Ronin Publishing on various projects (including The Expanse RPG right now). 2) Writing and publishing stuff for Icons Superpowered Roleplaying under my own imprint, Ad Infinitum Adventures. 3) Freelancing when I can on projects I want to do (most recently taking the lead designer role for a new edition of the Aberrant RPG from Onyx Path).

#AprilTTRPGMaker 5. Favorite game you’ve worked on.

I have a hard time with questions like these. Honestly, it tends to be whatever I’m working on now. I’m fond of most of the games I’ve worked on, but would be hard-pressed to choose a “favorite.”

#AprilTTRPGMaker 6. Favorite game mechanic?

Remember what I said about favorites? There are any number of game mechanics I find clever or interesting. I’m a fan of the now ubiquitous “bennies” (as Savage Worlds calls them): a resource players use to influence the narrative and overcome some of the whims of the dice for heroic and cinematic game-play. I like the Torg Drama Deck mechanics quite a bit, and enjoy their effects on game-play, with players swapping cards and building hands to carry out various plans and whatnot. I’m a fan of “power stunt” mechanics that allow for creativity and “pushing” abilities within the parameters of the system.

#AprilTTRPGMaker 7. Your workspace.

I’m fortunate enough to have a home office, which is a cozy space where I tend to spend a lot of time. I’ve recently been making an effort to make it more ergonomic, precisely because I spend so much time at my desk.

#AprilTTRPGMaker 8. Describe your routine.

In the morning, over coffee at my desk, I go through emails and other messages (Slack and whatnot), responding or prioritizing for later review. I look over my to-do list for the day and my calendar and plan things out. I tend to work during the day, dividing things up into chunks, sometimes using a timer to help me to either focus or to remember to take breaks. Depending on my partners’ schedules, we’ll either hit the gym together in the morning after breakfast and/or have dinner together in the evening. Some evenings I’ll work for another hour or two after dinner. Since I work at home, days are often somewhat fluid in terms of scheduling.

#AprilTTRPGMaker 9. Describe your process.

Depends on the project? Some I outline, some I don’t. Some I research a lot, some I don’t. Some I just open a blank document and start writing, others I need to start at the end and work my way back. That’s not even including processes dictated by my employer, or the nature of the project, if it’s a new edition of something existing, or based on a previous model, or whatnot. I guess it comes down to “Work on it until it’s done.”

#AprilTTRPGMaker 10. Favorite game to relax with.

Although I do play TTRPGs with friends for fun, I don’t specifically play games “to relax,” because games are work. I relax by doing something else, be it going for a bike ride, watching some television, reading, cooking, or going for a walk.

#AprilTTRPGMaker 11. What’s yer brand?

Quite inadvertently, I seem to have become “the superhero game guy.” That was not at all planned, I’m just a giant superhero nerd who likes games. Combine that with the fact that I’m not a “one true game (system)” guy and I’m a superhero nerd who likes various games, and therefore ended up designing two (Mutants & Masterminds and Icons Superpowered Roleplaying), writing for many others, and now working on yet another (Trinity Continuum: Aberrant).

In some circles, I’m probably also “the gay superhero game guy” just for being out in the industry for a fairly long time and a touch ranty when it comes to LGBTQ inclusivity and issues.

#AprilTTRPGMaker 12. How do you get your work out there?

Used to be going to conventions and seminars and talking to line developers and making contacts. These days, I’ve honestly got no lack of work, for the most part.

#AprilTTRPGMaker 13. Biggest Influence?

Some of my favorites include Greg Gorden (who taught me a lot about game design with his work on DC Heroes, Torg, and Earthdawn, in particular), Jeff Grubb (for Marvel Super-Heroes, particularly), William Connors for the SAGA System (and later Mike Selinker for the Marvel Adventure Game), Robin Laws (Feng Shui and others), and Rob Donoghue, Fred Hicks, Leonard Balsera, and the creative team behind FATE, to name only a few.

#AprilTTRPGMaker 14. What are yer Dreams & Plans

I’ve been truly blessed to work on a lot of my dream projects thus far. The plan, such as it is, is pretty much to continue working with Green Ronin Publishing, and to do stuff for Ad Infinitum Adventures and freelance on projects that interest me as my time allows.

#AprilTTRPGMaker 15. Do you design in public or private?

I’m very much a private person, not well suited for the modern world of steaming, blogging, crowd-funding, and live-whatever-ing. While I enjoy collaborating, I don’t like designing in a fishbowl. I like going off into my space and doing my work until it’s done, pretty much.

#AprilTTRPGMaker 16. Any design partners?

Not regularly, although I collaborate with my fellow Ronins pretty often, and with others on projects as needed. I’d say my closest collaborator these days is Dan Houser, who is the line-artist for Icons and has written at least as much stuff for the game as I have! Dan’s great at coming up with fun, off-the-wall adventures in the spirit of the game and nicely counter-balances my overly serious nature when it comes to keeping Icons light. Plus, he’s a terrific artist and a great guy to work with.

#AprilTTRPGMaker 17. Favorite form of feedback?

How do I put this…? I’m glad to get good, comprehensive feedback from playtests, developers, and editors that help me to improve my work, and I appreciate hearing from readers and players who have enjoyed my work, although I’m still a novice when it comes to accepting praise. To be honest, I’m not a big fan of unsolicited critical or “constructive” feedback outside of a working capacity. I suppose most people aren’t.

#AprilTTRPGMaker 18. Current Inspiration?

I’m quite enjoying brainstorming and outlining for the new edition of Aberrant for Onyx Path. Before that it was diving into The Expanse novels for the RPG from Green Ronin. I generally hope my current inspiration is “Whatever I’m working on right now” since if I’m not feeling inspired, then the project isn’t going as well as it could.

#AprilTTRPGMaker 19. Game that’s most essential to your design?

I think Mutants & Masterminds most represents my “gear-head” side, and is probably the most complex kind of design you’re likely to see out of me in terms of a whole system. The Hero Point system in M&M is probably the most quintessentially “me” element in terms of my own preferences. True20 closely follows that and reflects a lot of my design preferences in a medium-complexity system. Icons reflects my lighter side in terms of system design and the desire for simple, easily extendible, universal mechanics for a lot of things.

#AprilTTRPGMaker 20. Favorite Design Tools?

I don’t make use of a lot of tools beyond a word processor. Sometimes it’ll be tracking down a probability calculator to check out the math on certain dice mechanics but, otherwise, it’s Libre Office (which is MS Word compatible), Pages, and InDesign.

#AprilTTRPGMaker 21. How many playtests?

The simple answer is “as many as feasible.” In an ideal universe, games would undergo a lot of playtesting but the realities of publishing and deadlines rarely make that an option without adding to the already extensive development cycle of a game. Still, playtest feedback is valuable, especially blind-testing and situations where players have only what you have written to tell them how to play the game (adventure, etc.) since that’s all customers will have in the real world as well.

#AprilTTRPGMaker 22. How do you document ideas?

I both always have a notebook for jotting down notes and ideas and, in a pinch, I have the Notes app on my phone. I’m always leaving myself arcane notes of random ideas and try to give them enough context so that I’ll know what I was talking about later on when I read them again.

#AprilTTRPGMaker 23. People who’ve helped you?

SO many it would be hard to go into them all, but I’ll hit highlights: Tom Dowd for giving me my first freelance gig and convincing me I could do this. Friends and family for encouraging me. My partners Christopher and Adam for putting up with me, especially when I’m tunnel-visioned because I’m so focused on whatever project I’m working on. Editors like Sharon Turner-Mulvihill, Diane Piron-Gelman, Dave Gross, Jeremy Crawford, Kim Mohan, Jon Leitheusser, Steven Schend, Sue Weinlein and others, who all taught me and made me a better writer. The entire staff and family of Green Ronin Publishing, most especially Chris Pramas, Nicole Lindroos, and Hal Mangold, for giving me such a stable foundation in the industry for so very long even to this day, and such great opportunities. A great many of the industry professionals I’ve worked with, so many of whom have been so generous with their time and insights they have always inspired me to try and do the same.

#AprilTTRPGMaker 24. Most notable achievement?

Hopefully yet to come, but I’d say probably designing Mutants & Masterminds (which certainly has the most critical acclaim and recognition in the form of awards) or being involved in killing off Dunkelzahn in Shadowrun—I still hear about the “Portfolio of a Dragon” sourcebook that was the aftermath of that plotline even all these years later.

#AprilTTRPGMaker 25. Being a TTRPG designer means…

I don’t have get myself a “real” job! No, seriously, it’s the opportunity to do something that I love and that’s a rare and precious one in this life. Plus I really don’t think I could handle having to do a 9-to-5-er any more.

#AprilTTRPGMaker 26. Blogs, streams, podcasts?

Like I said, I’m not especially well-suited for the “live out loud” world of regular blogging, to say nothing of streaming or podcasting. I will guest on podcasts, but I’ve no interest in hosting one, and I’m camera-shy. I don’t regularly follow any blogs, apart from glancing in on ones I see making the rounds in my circles or that seem to be of interest. Favorite podcasts include the “BAMF!” podcast on superhero gaming and comics and “Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff” which is a fair simulation of sitting near Ken Hite and Robin Laws in a convention bar.

#AprilTTRPGMaker 27. Feature a TTRPG designer.

Gosh, again, SO many possibilities. I’m gonna go with Kate Baker, because I’ve had the pleasure of watching her go from eagerly taking notes in a seminar to going out there and doing the work in a very real way. If you’re not familiar with her, you should be.

#AprilTTRPGMaker 28. Favorite interview?

I’ll be honest, interviews (both print and podcast) have a tendency to blur together for me and self-promotion and talking about my own work is hard. That said, I’m grateful for all of the journalists, bloggers, podcasters, and others who bother to do interviews in the little niche that is tabletop gaming, giving creators a chance to spotlight their work and giving fans a “behind the scenes” look at things.

#AprilTTRPGMaker 29. Your community.

Communities, really, as there are different overlapping ones. I’m grateful to be part of the greater community of game creators: It’s nice on those occasions when I can relax with peers in a convention bar or the like and just chat or catch up with folks who have common experiences and insights. Green Ronin Publishing has grown from just a handful of friends to a “community” in its own right of past and present Ronins. I also really appreciate the growing “gaymer” community of LGBTQ geeks, remembering all too well the days when we kept to the shadows and who was “that way” was discussed only discretely on whisper-networks. Seeing a whole generation of out, proud queer gamers (and creators) makes me happy in ways that are difficult to describe to anyone who hasn’t known the inside of a closet.

#AprilTTRPGMaker 30. Top tips and advice.

This could go on at some length but, I’ll try and keep it brief:

1. If you’re looking to break into the industry or to publish your own work, don’t wait. Get started right now. You’ll never be “ready” from waiting, so go and do it.

2. Be a professional from the start: Communicate clearly and politely, get your work done well and on-time, and be discreet and keep your business to yourself.

3. Understand your own value: Even if you’re just starting out, don’t work for free unless it’s for yourself (and, even then, trying and find a way to pay yourself). Be willing to stand up for work you feel is important, and look at ways to own your own stuff, or at least balance that possibility against selling all of the right and make the decision with clear understanding.

4. Pay it forward: Be as kind and considerate as you can to your fans and readers without being a pushover. Extend a helping hand to fellow professionals and those looking to become fellow professionals. Be inclusive and welcoming and create the kinds of games and communities you wish you had and that you want for others.