Owen K.C. Stephens has some impressive RPG writing and design credits to his name. From articles in Dragon Magazine (back when it was actually a magazine), co-designer of the Star Wars Saga system, a year at Wizards of the Coast, to his current position as Pathfinder-Compatible Product Developer for Super Genius Games, he’s been there and back again. Owen took the time out of a very busy schedule for this exclusive Robot Viking interview. In part one, he discusses the origins of SGG, the longevity of Pathfinder and 3rd edition D&D, and the overall health of the RPG industry.
Robot Viking: Let’s start with Super Genius Games. How did you get involved with the company…and did you have anything to do with the name?
Owen K.C. Stephens: Well, the name predates my involvement in the company. When Hyrum and Stan! were discussing the possibility of doing some rpg side-projects, they discussed how smart it would be to have their own line of pdfs adventures they could sell. Even if they only sold a few each month, they’d have a creative outlet and make ongoing money every month. If it worked, they reasoned, they would look like geniuses. Even better, they’d look like Super Genuses.
And a game company name was born. Since Hyrum already ran OtherWorld Creations, Super Genius Games (SGG) was made an imprint of OtherWorld.
I initially got involved in SGG through the line of licensed Call of Cthulhu adventures. Stan! knew I had a level of interest in CoC and was doing freelance work, and he was obviously familiar with me from our days at Wizards of the Coast. He asked if I’d be interested in writing an adventure for SGG, and I pitched some ideas and one of them grew into Midnight Harvest, the Halloween-themed adventure (and to date the only Call of Cthulhu adventure I’ve written).
However my current level of involvement came about shortly after Gen Con of last year. I saw an opportunity in July ‘09 to potentially write third party game material for the (then as yet unreleased) Pathfinder RPG, but knew I lacked the editing, layout, and marketing skills to do that on my own. I brought the idea to Super Genius Games, and Hyrum and Stan! really liked it. We got together at Gen Con, and planned a project. Amusingly that first project has yet to see the light of day (and since there are other game companies and contracts involved with it, I shouldn’t even discuss its name or content).
But we liked working together, and decided to make another run at a smaller idea. That became The Genius Guide to the Dragonrider. It sold like hotcakes, and we released another Genius Guide the next week. Those did well, so I become the Pathfinder-Compatible Product Developer for SGG, and oversaw production of a product every week—a schedule we’ve maintained since November 2009.
RV: SGG produces material for a number of systems, including Pathfinder/D20 OGL. What are some of the strengths of that system that earned it so much loyalty among fans?
OKCS: The Pathfinder Roleplaying Game had an unusual development, which is one factor that created the large number of loyal, passionate fans it enjoys. First, it’s an OGL continuation of the last iteration of the world’s most popular roleplaying game. When that rpg went to a 4th edition with a number of radical differences, a lot of fans felt left behind. Pathfinder is much closer to the style of game they already enjoyed, and many gamers preferred adopting it to making the bigger jump to 4th edition.
That higher-level of backwards compatibility can be a real strength both for players (who don’t need to learn as many new rules, and can use more of their old game books), and for me as a designer. I playtested 3rd edition D&D, and have written a lot of game material using the d20 engine for WotC and other companies over the past decade. I have a good idea what does and doesn’t work in most d20 games, and that allows me to leap into Pathfinder RPG design with confidence.
I personally find the core system to remain very robust and flexible. Some of the known rules issues that plagued previous versions of d20 fantasy have been eliminated by the Pathfinder RPG design team, while others are just well-known gremlins both designers and players can normally avoid. One element that’s new to Pathfinder is how flexible classes have become. Every class has more personalization choices than previous versions of the game engine, and players really respond to that. It also gives me more room as a designer to fit in new options. It’s easier to create new choices, by replacing some of a class’s secondary abilities with fun alternatives, or by creating whole new classes (feats, spells, races, and so on) that have a different primary focus but can use their own secondary abilities to fill in for more typical party roles.
RV: Are there any plans for SGG to publish some 4E materials in the future, under the GSL?
OKCS: Actually, we already did! The first edition of the Kobold Death Maze adventure is 4e compatible and was released under the GSL. Sales have not encouraged us to develop any further material under the GSL, but if market conditions changed we’d certainly take a look at going back.
RV: Among all the SGG supplements and adventures you’ve worked on, are there a few that stand out to you as especially memorable?
OKCS: Yes, there definitely are! I remain amazed how popular the godling books (and their four sub-classes) have become. I think the Genius Guide to the Godling and the Genius Guide to Mystic Godlings are our two most popular Pathfinder-compatible products to date. Their basic idea is to use base classes to represent characters who have divine bloodline, but are themselves mortal. We have four related sub-classes, the clever godling (who isn’t the strongest fighter, but can choose from a wide range of neat tricks), eldritch godling (who is so suffused with mystic power his mortal shell is near-to-bursting with it), mighty godling (a paragon of physical strength and power), and the mystic godling (who is a more balanced combination of some spell ability, and divine powers). While the idea clearly draws inspiration from stories of Greek demigods, we also discuss other types of godlings, from Avatars sent to accomplish a specific goal, to special mortal agents that have been made champions of a god through a gift of divine power.
I’m also very fond of the Genius Guide to Feats of Subterfuge and the Genius Guide to Dream Magic. Subterfuge is a book designed to create both in- and out-of-combat options for characters focused on deception and misdirection over thews. Not only do I like playing such characters myself, but I’ve received numerous comments from GMs saying they used the book to bring in new players, who felt they couldn’t build the sneaky characters they envisioned with the core rules. Dream Magic is a bit larger than most of our books, and it’s where I explored some ideas about a demiplane of dreams (which we call the Dreamscape), and how to incorporate ideas ranging from Lovecraft’s Kadath to undead killers with knives on their fingers.
RV: You mentioned the rapid-fire production time, with SGG releasing something every week. What are some of the challenges you face working with that kind of design cycle (aside from the obvious fact that you have to work rather quickly)?
OKCS: One of the biggest challenges is getting everything playtested, edited, and developed. Super Genius Games takes pride in what we do, and I have three groups of gamers I run campaigns for (with varying levels of frequency) to make sure most of my ideas get a real, in-game playtest. But that means I’m often playtesting random ideas weeks or months before I know where they are going to go, and pulling material together from those playtests takes a lot more bookkeeping than I expected. And I often turn things over to my development and editing team with a lot less time than they deserve to polish it and get it to layout.
Overall I’m very, very pleased with the end result, but sometimes things slip through. However, we find some of our biggest fans are more than happy to point out the occasional typo or badly written rule. We’re very active on the Paizo messageboards, and when a problem is found we fix it, and release a free update of the pdf product that had the mistake. Which is also a big help when we compile, revise and update the material from our pdfs for print books, such as the just-released Adventurer’s Handbook.
RV: Does SGG have any major releases coming up? Anything special planned for Gen Con?
OKCS: Did I mention the Adventurer’s Handbook? It’s our first Pathfinder-compatible print book, and it’s just getting into distribution now. It’s 96 pages, and crammed full of our best stuff, now made even better. We managed to get some to the Pathfinder-focused PaizoCon last month, but its first major unveiling to the public will be at Gen Con. And both Stan! and I happen to be Industry Insider Guests of Honor for Gen Con, so we’ll be doing panels and showing up for some events. You can see who all the Industry Insider Guests of Honor are, and look at their seminar schedules, at the Gen con website.
RV: How do you feel about the health of the RPG industry right now? What do you think would improve it?
OKCS: Honestly, I still doubt any group has enough information to have a good view of what the health of the industry really is. Attendance at the Origins Game Fair was up this year. Does that mean tabletop gaming is a popular hobby in a cash-strapped economy? Or does it mean people in Columbus, Ohio couldn’t afford to travel this summer, and randomly decided to stop by for a day? I have no idea.
I think the Pathfinder RPG has done better than a lot of people thought a d20 game could at this point. I know that SGG is very, very pleased with our success creating third-party products for that game, which as markets go is a niche of a niche of a niche. And I think the constant evolution of technology is going to keep creating new markets and opportunities, much as the pdf market has.
The most important thing for long-term health is to bring in new gamers, and that’s something any fan can do. Once a year I run a simple RPG at my (now 13-year-old) nephew’s birthday party. The kids seem to have a great time, and I’m told the miniatures I pass out inspire them to try new hobby game options. Organized Play programs are crucial for the same reason, and I’m thrilled by both the D&D Encounters project, and Paizo’s Pathfinder Society (not to mention Steve Jackson Game’s Men in Black).
Watch for part two next week, when we delve into the art of blending setting with rules design and the connection between Star Wars Saga and D&D 4E.