Interview With Steve Kenson

with Steve Kenson

Steve Kenson is a contributing author of over two hundred RPG publications, starting with being a contributor to Torg's Creatures of Orrosh (West End Games, 1992), and most famously as co-author of Silver Age Sentinels (Guardians of Order, 2002), and author of Mutants and Masterminds (Green Ronin, 2002), and co-author of Blue Rose (Green Ronin, 2005). In addition Steve has written material for A Song of Ice and Fire, Changeling, Earthdawn, Exalted, GURPS, Icons, In Nomine, Mage, Pathfinder, Shadowrun, and Vampire. In addition he is an author of several RPG-related noves, including for Shadowrun and Mechwarrior.

Hi Steve, welcome to RPG Review.

Thanks, a pleasure to talk to you.

Let us start with a common question, how did become involved in roleplaying games? What were the first games you played and what did you think of them? What are you playing now? How has your gaming groups changed over the

I got started when I discovered the 1st edition gray box of Gamma World when I was in middle school and begged my parents to buy it for me. I talked a couple of friends into rolling up characters and we romped around ruins fighting mutants and such. When we exhausted the available Gamma World adventures, we dimension-gated our characters into Greyhawk and played through Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan with our blaster-wielding mutants! A shift to playing more Dungeons & Dragons followed, along with trying out nearly every game in the TSR catalog, along with quite a few others. I kicked-off a Marvel Super-Heroes game in high school that lasted through college and some time thereafter, although it transitioned to become a Champions game (our “college experimentation,” as it were).

In fact, my high school and college gaming group remains partially intact: two members of my current group have been gaming together since high school, four of us since college, with two members added in the years since. Of course, now we’re middle-aged, some with kids, and a good deal busier than we were in our teens and 20s, so our gaming transitioned to monthly quite some time ago when weekly get-togethers stopped being an option. After finishing up a D&D playtest game (for Out of the Abyss) and an Icons superhero game, we’re currently playing Tianxia from Vigilance Press, by my Green Ronin colleague Jack Norris. It’s been a blast!

Mutants and Masterminds is a game which revolutionised superhero RPGs, winning an extraordinary collection of awards, includung the ENnie Best Game Award in 2006. It continues to have enduring popularity. What do you think are the features that made Mutants and Masterminds so popular?

I’m not so sure M&M “revolutionized” superhero RPGs so much as brought together a lot of the things I liked in superhero RPGs, a lot of my experience in running and playing (and writing for) them, and combined them with some of the core, recognizable elements of the d20 System, which was quickly becoming the “common ingredient” in the hobby and industry at the time. From the feedback I’ve received, fans enjoy the combination of flexible, yet reasonably detailed, hero creation options combined with quick-playing mechanics for running the game. It certainly didn’t hurt that Green Ronin’s products were also top-notch in terms of their visual presentation, with great color artwork and layout, since I think superheroes kind of demand that sort of treatment.

You have a quite a range of author credits, ranging across different genres, systems, and publishers. Have you encountered any difficulties in working with such a range, or do have a consistent thread throughout?

I’m a bit less of an RPG polymath than I used to be. I eagerly devoured new game systems in my teens and 20s but, as time has gone on, I find new games and products have to work harder to gain my attention and space on my groaning bookshelves, which I imagine is the case for a lot of gamers of my generation. Still, I like a broad variety of genres and styles of RPGs, so I don’t usually have any problems working with different ones. It can make a nice change of pace from time to time. The tricky part can be deciding whether or not to invest the time to get sufficiently “fluent”
in a new system to work on it professionally, if it is likely to only be a small project or contribution.

What do you rate among your material as among your best? Conversely, are there any publications and contributions that you're less than happy with?

Honestly, I try not to rate my work, rest on my laurels, or beat myself up for my mistakes (of which I’ve made my share). I’m always looking forward to the next project or idea to work on rather than looking back on the things that I’ve done. I think my work speaks for itself and I know of instances where some project I’ve loathed has been someone’s favorite and conversely some things I’ve written that I’m quite proud of that some people hate. That’s how it is with creative work of any kind, really.

I’m certainly quite fond of my work on Freedom City for Mutants & Masterminds, and everything that became the seeds for what is now the Earth-Prime Universe, with Emerald City, the Atlas of Earth-Prime, and all of the space and dimensional stuff from Cosmic Handbook. I also look back quite fondly on my work for Shadowrun, as I was (and remain) a big fan of the Sixth World setting.

Income through freelance or even in-house game design is not exactly known for being a path to riches. What's your day job, if any?

I don’t have “a” day job. I work for Green Ronin Publishing as a staff designer, run Ad Infinitum Adventures (my own imprint, which publishes Icons Superpowered Roleplaying), am the managing partner of Copper Cauldron Publishing—a New Age and metaphysical imprint I co-founded—and I still do some freelance work from time to time as well. From all of that, I have something resembling an income.

Superhero games can deal with a wide range of capabilities and provide an adaptable 'toolbox' for gamers to build things. These are features that make supers games good generic games able to handle multiple genres. Are there any plans to release other games built around MnM 3e for other genres?

Games? Probably not (at least, no plans at present) but something we’ve discussed is the potential for other settings for M&M that are different from the largely four-color superheroics of Earth-Prime, which would use the M&M rules to define characters of a different world, facing different challenges. The beauty of it is that, given the multiversal nature of superhero settings, that world—and many others—could well be “out there” and crossovers between settings would be possible, especially if they all use the same core rules-set to describe game play.

What are you working on these days? Where do you see the industry going?

Right now I’m finishing up with the new edition of Blue Rose for the Adventure Game Engine (AGE) System, which is a substantial product, as well as work for the Atlas of Earth-Prime and a new edition of the Freedom City sourcebook that updates its timeline and characters to the present day and the third edition of Mutants & Masterminds. I just released the Adversaries sourcebook for Icons, a collection of 80+ villains, and have another adventure or two in the works there. Various plans for things further out, but still in the vague planning stages.

The hobby game industry is growing an increasingly long tail from continued improvements in small press publishing and distribution, especially print-on-demand and electronic products, which allow many people—including me—to essentially run their own publishing businesses. Seems likely we’ll see small presses continue to proliferate, and hopefully innovate, while the holders of the big RPG properties like D&D and Pathfinder continue to produce product for the core of the market. I’ve no idea whether or not the tabletop games market has reached a “floor” or not in
terms of its reach or popularity but, for now at least, the range of new publishing options seems to have led to a new wave of games and products. It’s a fairly golden time to be a gamer, in many regards.

You are also well known for founding and acting as volunteer facilitator for Nashua Outright, a social and support group for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and questioning youth. What connections do you draw, if any, between your game designs and settings and being 'out and proud'? Have you experienced negative reactions from people in the industry or from fans? How do you think the hobby as a whole stands on this issue? What needs to change?

Ah, somebody has been reading my Wikipedia entry! Although my involvement with Outright was many years ago, I remain passionate about LGBTQ rights and visibility and related issues like gender and racial equality and representation. I don’t know that I draw a direct line between my experiences working with youth or advocating for civil rights and game design, but it certainly has made me more aware of the importance of inclusivity in the imaginative products we as designers produce. I recall how desperately I clung to any sort of positive or realistic portrayal of people like myself in the products of the hobby I loved and I think now of a new generation of gamers who naturally want to see themselves reflected in those imaginary worlds. So I try to make an effort to continue to educate myself, peel away my own biases, and remain dedicated to creating worlds where everyone gets their chance to be a hero and tell their story how they want.

Thanks Steve for your time!

My pleasure, thanks for the invitation!