|Owen K. C. Stephens|
This week the Encounter Table is thrilled to be joined for an interview by the new lead developer of Paizo's Pathfinder Module line, Owen K. C. Stephens! Owen talks with us about getting into the RPG industry, offers up advice to prospective freelance writers, talks about the future of Super Genius Games, and teases a Starstone Cathedral megadungeon.
Read on to find out more!
Robert Brookes: First off, Owen, let me congratulate you on joining the Paizo family as lead developer of the Pathfinder Modules team. You're a natural fit for the role, and I'm excited to see where your journey takes the modules line in the future. That said, I'm sure there's a lot of readers out there who are wondering who you are and what you're going to bring to the table. Why don't you take a moment to introduce yourself and tell us a bit about what you've done before coming to work for Paizo?
Owen K.C. Stephens: Let me take a moment to say thanks for the congratulations! I’m very excited to have become part of the Paizo staff.
As for what I have done before this, it’s mostly more RPG design and development. I have been a freelance game designer most of my adult life, from my first publication in Dragon Magazine #251. I worked on-staff at Wizards of the Coast briefly from 2000 to 2001, which included the launches of both D&D 3rd edition and the d20 Star Wars RPG. I got laid off, moved back to my hometown of Norman, OK, and freelanced my way through the d20 Boom, and subsequent bust. I wrote a lot for Green Ronin, Wizards of the Coast, White Wolf (though the Swords & Sorcery imprint) and, a bit later, Paizo.
I also ended up becoming the lead designer for Super Genius Games starting in late 2009. I wrote or oversaw the creation of a PDF product a week, every week, for four years with SGG. In 2013 I left SGG and started my own small publishing company, Rogue Genius Games. I also became the Pathfinder Developer for Green Ronin in 2013, beginning with shepherding Freeport: The City of Adventure for Pathfinder and the new Advanced Bestiary.
While I've been a lot more quiet on those fronts since being offered the Paizo job, I plan to remain active with both Green Ronin and RGG.
RB: Getting that article published in Dragon Magazine in 1998 was the beginning of your career. Looking back on that experience, 16 years later, how do you feel?
OKCS: A little shocked. I’d had a few projects before that which never got published (and was even paid for a few), but getting into Dragon was clearly my first sign that I had the talent and skills to make a run at RPG design. Originally, I just wanted to make enough money to pay for my D&D book and miniatures habit. So it’s a bit surprising to realize I've made a living as a game designer and developer for a decade-and-a-half.
RB: Back in November of 2013 you and two other members of Super Genius Games—Stephen (Stan!) Brown and Christine Stiles—split off to form Rogue Genius Games. In November the Examiner ran an article discussing the split and quoted you as saying the arrangement with Super Genius Games had "ceased being a good fit" and that discussing the split was "tricky." Now that some time has passed and perspective has been put on the division, can you tell us a little bit more about the split and the considerations leading up to it?
OKCS: One of the reasons such discussions are tricky is that it’s not appropriate to discuss decisions made in private as a company, and the departure of Stan! And myself as owners from SGG (Christina was a trusted developer, but not an owner) was a mutually-agreed upon business decision.
Part of the issue was that I wanted to do more different things, and starting my own company was looking like the best way to do that. But obviously there were also disagreements between how I wanted to proceed with SGG and how Hyrum Savage wanted to, and we couldn't find a happy compromise. SGG existed before I came along, and was built in large part on Hyrum’s previous game company, OtherWorld Creations (OWC). So it made the most sense for SGG to buy out me and Stan!, and go back to being Hyrum’s show.
The creation of RGG wasn't discussed before Stan! and I left (beyond my getting the rights to use “Genius Games” as part of a game company name if I did start one someday – we agreed since my buyout was largely the rights to the Pathfinder PDFs I had written or developed, it made sense to maintain that as any new company name for continuity and recognition of our customers). But since I did suddenly own more than 200 PDFs I was moved to create a company pretty quickly, and asked Stan! If he wanted to be an owner, and Christina if she wanted to be my senior developer.
Of course I got offered the job as Pathfinder Developer for Green Ronin as this was happening, and the job as Pathfinder Modules Developer (which necessitated a cross-continent move) less than six months later, so things have been in flux as I try to find a new balance.
RB: Now that you're working full time with Paizo, what does that mean for Rogue Genius Games' future?
OKCS: There is a lot of RGG material already in various stages of production, and sadly I have become a bottleneck for them. Now that I am settling in, I expect to have more time for approvals. Christina Stiles is stepping up in a big way and I have some exciting announcements coming soon. I will be writing much less material for RGG personally, but my plan is for it to remain an ongoing company bring material I an excited about to the market.
RB: Going back in time a bit, what was your introduction to tabletop gaming?
OKCS: I was first introduced to D&D in the summer of 1982. I was staying at my uncle’s house in Tennessee, the year of the Knoxville World’s Fair, while my parents took a trip to Europe. My uncle had a library at least as vast as my parents’ (and mostly with different books), and among them was the 1979 1st edition AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide. I was enrapt.
But that’s all the D&D he had, and he’d never played. I wanted to play, and he was willing to run a game, but he wanted me to “figure out how to play” so he could run it for me. There were lots of clues how D&D was supposed to work, but without a Player’s Handbook or Monster Manual, I saw there was a lot of information I needed to fill in before we could try anything.
So, I set to work creating my own notes for classes, and weapons (which, as I remember, included light sabers, space axes from the Lensman books, and the kligat throwing weapon from the Star Trek episode Friday’s Child). I have no idea how good the rules I cobbled together were – no copies survived leaving my uncle’s house that summer –but they were good enough for us to get a few games in. It is thus literally true that I was writing rules for RPGs before I had ever played one.
RB: Did you face any adversity from your peers because of your hobby?
OKCS: I was a bookish fat kid growing up (and have become a bookish fat adult), so many of my peers sought to bully me without ever bothering to discover my hobbies. Instead, the fact that I had a social activity that let me find friends and interact through a medium that overcame my naturally introverted behavior was a huge help. Playing D&D, Champions, Gamma World, Traveller, Space Opera, Tunnels & Trolls, and dozens of other rpgs gave me and my friends something that was ours, that we could use as the focus of our activities and kept us away from the events where more narrow-minded kids and teens went to taunt and abuse those they considered different.
Most of my current best friends, including my wife, I met through gaming in high school. Without the existence of these games, I might never have known most of them. I took my game books to school to read them and have something to do when avoiding larger social gatherings. As a result, other kids into D&D (and Star Fleet Battles, and Car Wars, and a slew of other games that were blossoming) would see me with my books, and ask if I played. I was socially awkward and shy. Having some flag I could fly that made other kids come to me? Having a subject we could immediately discuss? Those were miracles that changed me. Roleplaying was my gang, and D&D were our colors.
RB: When did you know you wanted to make this your career? Was there a specific moment when you knew the goal of just "getting published" had turned into something more?
OKCS: It happened shortly after I sold the article which would become my first publication, in Dragon 251, but before that issue actually came out. I had a number of other articles under consideration, I was working on some freelance projects (that never saw the light of day), and I kept realizing that having to go to work at my day job was slowing down how much writing I could get done. But I wasn't sure if I had the chops to make it full-time as an RPG writer.
So, I took some vacation time and went to the 1997 TSR Writer’s Workshop, held by WotC in Seattle. It was a week long as I recall, and included tips from (and thus contact with) some of the best rpg designers in the field. I was totally enrapt and loved every second of it, despite my introverted nature. When I got home, my wife and I sat down and began planning how to switch from an office job to full-time freelancing.
RB: What advice would you give to aspiring designers and writers looking to get into the industry?
OKCS: Write. Submit. Repeat.
Yes, in time you’ll need to think about whether a given word count is worth your time, and what kind of writing you are best at (or enjoy most, or can be paid the most for, or can best advance your career). But if you don’t have anything published by someone else yet, you need to start by making sure you are writing every day (at least a little, even if it’s just for yourself) and submitting to everything you can find.
If you want to write for any d20-based rules system, you should read everything there is on Paizo's RPG Superstar forums. The advice the judges have given and examples of what does and doesn't get voted on by the public is the best teaching tool for Pathfinder rules in existence. Some of that is applicable to any RPG product, some is d20-specific, and some is Pathfinder-specific, but it’s still all worth reading and represents a better library of knowledge than anything I ever had access to short of the actual TSR Writer’s Workshop (which was awesome, but no longer exists).
That’s not to say I think you should allow publishers to take advantage of you. Even if you can only get a percentage royalty or a pay scale of fractions of cent a word, make sure if someone publishes your work money flows to you somehow. As you get better and get more interest in your work, you can start to strive for better recompense, but I found working for scraps worthwhile when I started. I wrote reviews for free for the WotC website before my paid publications just for the exposure and experience. I've never regretted that decision, but I also would never encourage anyone else to work for free. I absolutely will say don’t work for free for long, regardless. If it’s good exposure, it should lead to better things.
Once you have broken into the industry, and you’re getting regular work but not the quantity or quality of assignments you want, your concerns become different. This is the point when if you want to become a full-time freelancer you need to seriously consider what that means, and what it’ll take.
Being a full-time RPG freelancer is difficult, stressful, and very rare. While I can’t confirm this, I have been told there are more professional astronauts than full-time RPG freelancers. I manged it for most of the past 16 years, but I’m also really glad to not have to maintain that struggle now that Paizo has picked me up. But if you really want to try to do it, there are some things you should consider.
First, live someplace cheap. Being a full-time freelancer in the more expensive cities is much harder. Don’t try it until you've already managed a steady flow of freelance income.
Always look at what you have done, and compare it to what you want people to pay you for. One of the reasons I wrote for the “Heart of the Razor” book was that I realized I hadn't had an adventure published in a few years – but a lot of paid freelancing work is adventure writing. Why would anyone think of me as their go-to adventure writer when it had been a while since I’d written one? So I took that opportunity when it came, despite the inconvenience, to remind publishers I could do it. Later that year I was hired as a developer for Green Ronin, and now I am an adventure developer for Paizo. I can’t prove that one lead to the other, but the perception of what you can do is going to be heavily influenced by what you have done.
Ask for raises. Not all the time, maybe not even often. But if someone is offering you a 25% royalty, or half a cent a word, and you’re on your sixth project with them, ask if you can get more. And if the answer is no, but someone else will give you that, it’s time to think about moving on. People will pay you as little as they can, and often just never think about your increased value as you do more and more things for them. Often it’ll be up to you to suggest you deserve more money.
If there is someone you want to work for, find out if they have open calls, or take pitches. Then, follow that process. If you want to write Pathfinder, enter RPG Superstar. Winning is great, but the top runners-up also draw some attention.
Try to book assignments a few months in advance, but don’t overbook. Leave yourself some wiggle room. You’ll get sick. You’ll want days off. Friends will get married and want you to help with the wedding. New and unexpected opportunities will pop up. You need flexibility to deal with those. If you end up with free time, write something no one wants yet, then try to sell it. Or, publish it yourself.
I think in most cases freelancers are better off working with a small press publisher or developer rather than starting their own companies, but if you can manage the paperwork, marketing, layout, art direction, development, and writing either on your own or with cheap, trusted options it can clearly pay off to publish those yourself. Especially with PDF products, the start-up costs can be quite low. However, the payoff is also often quite low, so think carefully before you spend money on something like this.
RB: During your time with Wizards of the Coast you worked extensively with the Star Wars RPG franchise. How do you feel about Disney's choice to excise the expanded universe content from Star Wars canon, and what opportunities do you feel that presents for the future of the Star Wars RPG franchise?
OKCS: To me, the main takeaway from Disney’s canon announcement is “All Star Wars we produce, in any form, is canon.” So the new animated show Rebels, the upcoming movies, any comics, novels, or games they release. All treated as absolute canon.
To do that, you have to be willing to toss out some of the old expanded universe. A lot of it is pretty bad (and people often disagree about which parts), some of it is contradictory, and it exists as a massive constraint on any new stories Disney wants to tell in that space. By saying all the old EU is non-canon, but may be brought in if Disney wants it to be, Disney can provide a unified universe going forward and only use what they see as the best parts of Star Wars mythology.
RB: Two of my personal favorite books you've worked on are d20 Cyberscape and d20 Apocalypse. Would you be interested in bringing a campaign setting along those themes to Pathfinder? How do you feel the "Modern" setting would translate with Paizo's update to the 3.X rules?
OKCS: There are a lot of potential problems tackling modern and sci-fi settings and characters with any iteration of the d20 rules. I've taken one run at that idea with the Anachronistic Adventurer classes I released through Super Genius and then Rogue Genius Games. And of course Paizo is releasing the Technology Guide for Pathfinder later this year, which is going to be a must-have book for anyone considering technologically advanced Pathfinder games.
I think the idea has a lot of potential, and I’d like to give it more of my thought and time… eventually.
RB: Of all the products you've worked on over the years, what are you most proud of?
OKCS: Of everything I have ever done, I am most proud of Hutt Battle Armor from the adventure Tempest Feud. It was picked up when my co-author of that adventure Jeff Grubb used it as the framework for his Star wars novel “Scourge.”
Which is now non-canon, of course. (laughs)
RB: Looking ahead to the future, what sort of legacy would you like to leave with the Pathfinder Modules line?
OKCS: I’d like people to get as excited about Pathfinder Modules as many of them already are by Adventure Paths. There are lots of reasons that’s not likely, from length and scope of the adventures to our release schedule, but it’s still a goal I’d like to shoot for. And since we have some special projects in the Pathfinder Modules, ranging from the Emerald Spire Superdungeon (and its tie-in with 16 dungeon levels worth of levels of flip-maps), to Peril & Plunder (and its ties to the Adventure Card game) and the next RPG Superstar module, I think that goal is more realistic now that it might have been in previous years.
RB: Now that you're in charge of their development, will you have any control over the types of stories told or does that still fall to the creative director?
OKCS: Naturally there are a lot of projects in the works that were decided on before I was hired, so in those cases I’ll have some impact on details, but the core plot has been decided. Eventually we’ll get to brand-new projects that no planning has gone into yet, and I’ll have input on what those are. But that’s “input,” not “tyrannical control.” Most projects at Paizo have a lot of discussion before they are decided on, and as much as possible nothing is planned in a vacuum. When planning a Pathfinder Module we want to consider what AP will be running when it comes out, what flip-maps are still in print, what hardbacks have been published, which have had support, what is Pathfinder Society doing this year, and so on. None of that creates a veto or absolute requirement, but we want to be aware of what is going to happen in the months before and after a schedule Module publication, as well as what ships the same month.
RB: Is there a particular direction you'd like to go in?
OKCS: There are a lot of things I want to talk to folks about doing that I think haven’t been done before, but those conversations are just starting. And I’m still learning the ins and outs of my job and the resources and limits of Paizo. The view is obviously a little different from insider the company, and I want to have a firmer grasp of why things are done the way they are before I suggest any noteworthy changes.
So yes… but I’m not ready to talk about those ideas publicly yet.
RB: Victoria Jaczko's upcoming Daughters of Fury, the winning module from the last RPG Superstar competition, will be the first RPG Superstar module published under your leadership. RPG Superstar is a rallying point for the Paizo community and an important talent-drawing process. Are you looking forward to the next RPG Superstar coming this fall, and do you have ideas to develop the competition for the future?
OKCS: I hope I’ll be able to serve as a judge for at least some rounds for the next Superstar. I think since the prize is a module I’ll be developing, it would be beneficial for both the contest and myself for me to be giving feedback and having direct contact with the contestants early in the process.
RB: What would be your dream project?
OKCS: That varies from year to year, and sometimes from month to month. Right now it’d be a Starstone Cathedral megadungeon adventure, where the PCs start at 16th level and have a chance to ascend to godhood.
RB: I think I just heard a large portion of Pathfinder's fanbase shriek in delight at that answer.
RB: What do you feel is the greatest challenge you face joining Paizo to take charge of the Pathfinder Modules line?
OKCS: Did I mention I haven’t had to go into an office or keep regular business hours in 13 years? (laughs)
More seriously, Paizo maintains a very high standard of quality, and they have a vast amount of institutional knowledge they earned the hard way over more than a decade of publishing. In many cases I don’t even know what it is I don’t know. That’s something we’re all working on, but for a while I am likely to make mistakes a more seasoned Paizo developer wouldn't, and that makes it difficult to try to see how to improve things over the already high standard.
On the other hand I am the first developer who has had Pathfinder Modules as the vast majority of my responsibility – up til now the line has never had a dedicated shepherd for any length of time. I hope that’ll allow me to focus on it enough to find new ideas no one else has had time to consider while they did modules and some other crucial product.
RB: Lastly, Owen, what's been your favorite experience of joining the Paizo team thus far?
OKCS: On my first day, Erik Mona offered me a French chocolate. I know that kind of thing isn’t going to be standard, but it was a great way to start my return to an office environment.
RB: Thank you again for joining the Encounter Table, Owen, we wish you the best of luck with your new family at Paizo Inc. Owen K. C. Stephens is a regular commenter on the Paizo message boards, and if you'd like to ask him a question or discuss the Pathfinder Modules product line, please visit! The Encounter Table would also like to thank Paizo's Jenny Bendel for helping arrange this interview.