Creative Colleagues: Owen K.C. Stephens

Owen Stephens

Owen Stephens with his mom, Claire McMurray, because he’s just that adorable

Every now and then, I pester my creative colleagues with five questions about their work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.

Owen K.C. Stephens (or “Kansas City” as I envision him as a Pulp-era grafter) is one of my oldest freelancer colleagues. We first met via the slush pile at Dragon Magazine. We met up again at a pre-convention party at Gen Con a few years ago, and now he’s joined forces with my former comrades at Paizo.

As you can see from my first question, which I asked shortly after he joined Paizo as a developer, Owen was not his usual prompt self in answering. Little wonder, considering how much he’s been doing this past year.

1. Exciting news! You’re now working at Paizo while continuing to freelance and run your own publishing concern. How do you balance all that?

I stopped sleeping.

That’s only mostly a joke. I do suffer from insomnia, and sometimes that means I’m going to be awake anyway, so I might as well get some writing done. Some of the freelance work is fairly easy to schedule, like being the Pathfinder-compatible developer at Green Ronin. I know how much work that’s going to take on average, so I can schedule some for each night after I get home from the Paizo office, and some for the weekend.

In other cases, I have to delegate. I am the publisher for Rogue Genius Games, but we don’t have as full a slate of products as we used to, and more of it is written and edited by freelancers these days. And while I do still have freelance projects I do for other companies besides all that, I’m not taking nearly as many of those as I did when I was freelancing full time.

It’s also important that I love RPGs, and this is also how I spend my leisure time on the rare occasion I don’t have work filling every hour. I still remember when I was working at Wizards of the Coast, and you brought me a series of pictures of starships that Jeff Carlisle had drawn, and you asked if I wanted to write backstories and game stats for them to run in Star Wars Gamer. And I did, I really did want to do that. I was honestly surprised when you mentioned that I’d get a freelance contract and be paid for that extra writing. You had me at “Star Wars starship backstories.”

2. I remember the story from my end, but tell me what you remember of your first Dragon articles both before and after we worked together.

In the mid-to-late 1990s, I was trying to get paid for the game writing I was doing in my spare time anyway. I had an idea for a “Dwarven Name Generator” article for Dragon that would provide Nordic-sounding prefixes and suffixes with definition that could be combined to form dwarven names with some idea of what they meant. This was in the era when Dragon handled everything by email, so I typed up that proposal (along with several others – “kits” for 2nd edition AD&D paladins that let them be more like Tarzan or the Three Musketeers, a system for herbalism, and at least one more) and mailed them off.

This being stamped mail in an envelope, I then waited several weeks.

The reply I got back from you dismissed most of the ideas (thought the herbalism stuff I would get to do eventually, for a Ravenloft article) but mentioned the dwarven name generators were interesting to you as an idea. Unfortunately, you had just put the dwarf-themed issue for the year to bed. But, you noted, if I could do an elven name generator within a month, you could use that.

Appling a principle that I used for most of my freelance career—if someone offers you money to write something, give them what they want—I spent three weeks creating a whole new system (with more complex options) for an elven name generator. It ran in Dragon 251. It was also the first of a number of name articles I did for Dragon (and even one similar article “Call Signs,” for Star Wars Gamer). They were a solid hit, and many have been turned into online resources for people to get quick character names.
It was the sort of thing that would take me two days now, but at the time it was nearly a month’s work.

Heroes of the Wild

Cover by Ralph Horsley

3. Much of your work has been on player-friendly supplements. How important are products aimed specifically at the player rather than the GM? And just how much can you offer a player in terms of new rules and abilities before making the GM’s head explode?

In any game system where NPCs use the same rules as PCs, any player-friendly supplement is also a major-NPC friendly supplement, so GMs can use anything players can. But I do think it’s important to keep in mind how much a GM needs to keep track of, and often some of that has to do with what kind of options you offer players. If an option is a character choice that replaces some other choice the PC would have, it doesn’t increase the total number of things a GM has to know at a given game. The GM might not as easily apply knowledge of past games to a current set of PCs, but ultimately if a character gets seven spells the GM has to know how to handle seven spells regardless of which seven they are. If you create an option that is only accessed if the GM allows it, such as rare equipment or benefits for joining a specific guild, then the GM decides how many of those things to use in a campaign.

That’s different from creating new options a player can always access. For example, if you create a new combat maneuver for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, you are creating something that any player can at least attempt all the time, adding to the total number of things a GM must track. If you create a unique magic weapon that gives you a benefit when performing an existing  combat maneuver, not only is that a specific thing that likely replaces some other magic item the GM would have to deals with, it’s only going to matter if the GM gives the players access to that specific item.

Ultimately, a game group (especially the GM) have to decide what is too much for them. Some people love having new options all the time, as do some GMs. Those groups can enjoy new material that is produced, while others can stick with just the core rulebook if they prefer. A GM should never allow a player’s desire to use some new game-mechanical toy impact the GM being able to have fun. Like any RPG there’s a social contract that’s needed for the game to work, and that contract should decide how much material is in the game, not a game designer’s production of new rules.

4. As a Rogue Genius, you’ve not only had to be a designer but also a manager, delegating and organizing workflow. How much of that is a creative challenge? Is any part of it as satisfying as the design work?

It turns out that even if you’re terrible at running projects, it’s a skill you can pick up with time – at least to some degree. Thankfully my wife Lj is a professional project manager, as well as a trained layout artist, an editor, and a bad-ass gamer in her own right. I lean on her heavily for the organizational abilities I’m rough with, as well as to bring her own brilliance to every project. Our company also includes Stan!, who is amazingly talented and experienced, and one of the smartest people I know. Stan! often saves me from myself by giving me a realistic assessment of what a project will require when I get caught up in the excitement of a new idea. He’s also an amazing game designer and cartoonist, and the genius behind the edible board game Gingerbread Kaiju (one of our most popular, and most unusual, products).

The challenge from my point of view is to keep up with those two, and force myself to listen to their input when my instinct is to do something else.

The only parts of the “managing” end of being a publisher I find as satisfying as game design are being able to make projects happen that I want to see, and watching people working with us grow in their own skills and contacts. Rogue Genius Games is a tiny little company, with tiny little budgets and tiny little product runs. But the advantage of that is that I can work with first-time creatives, and help them gain some experience and insight into the game creation process. Several people we worked with early on have awesome blossoming careers, and that’s cool to see happen.

5. How much of a creative role does a developer play before, during, and after the design of a Pathfinder product?

Our Editor-In-Chief, F. Wesley Schneider, has described the role of a Paizo developer to being akin to that of a movie’s director. Before a project is written, it’s our job to conceptualize it including its theme, name, and general content. We consider what products have already run in a line, what else will be coming out around the same time, and the needs of the game itself as it matures. Once that concept is approved we write an outline that often breaks down what’s going on each two-page spread of the final book. For an adventure we don’t write out every encounter, but we do hit the highlights of where it begins and what the major beats of the storyline will be.

Once an outline is ready, we assign it to freelance writers. Some projects are written by a single author, while others get assigned to numerous different freelancers. We assist the freelancer if needed, answering questions about style and intent, and vetting ideas the freelancers propose to fill specific sections. If something is particularly tricky, we might write that section ourselves.

Once the text comes back, we write an art order to send to the art department. It’s our job as shepherds of the project to know what needs to be illustrated, while the art department does the actual art direction and hard work of getting the illustrations and making sure they match our very high standards.

Then we “develop” the text, which is a rewriting process where we take the good material our freelancers give us, and make it better. We look for clarity, good word choice, rules balance, and having a consistent voice throughout a product so it doesn’t feel like a patchwork of ideas. The truism is “another set of eyes never hurt,” and we are Paizo’s professional “other set of eyes.”

Once we feel the text is clear, balanced, and awesome, we send it on to the editing team for them to start the hard work of making us look good. (I am not an editor. I am not close to an editor. I love my editors.) If they have any questions about the text, we are their first line of information. The developer is also the expert in any book they develop, so if the product needs a blog post, a panel at a convention, or patron questions answered, we’re the most logical choice for that kind of work.

It’s a fascinating process I didn’t understand as well as I thought I did before I came to Paizo. Learning new parts of the industry is one reason I decided to move halfway across the country for this job, and I am still learning new things from the amazing development team, and the whole Paizo staff.

Track Owen’s movements at his website.




Radovan & the Count Reread: King of Chaos

Cover by Tyler Walpole.

Cover by Tyler Walpole.

Even before finishing Queen of Thorns, I knew where the boys were headed next. I’d even set up one of their adversaries in the web story “Killing Time,” although I knew he wouldn’t be their ultimate adversary. What I did know was that they’d journey to the Worldwound, where they’d be a part of the campaign to drive back the demon horde after the events of the Wrath of the Righteous Adventure Path.

One of the continuing struggles in writing tie-in fiction for a game line is to appeal to readers who don’t play the game while simultaneously satisfying those who do. Making connections to the Adventure Paths is an obvious way to do that, but there are some challenges. You can’t have characters in the novels usurping the position of players in the game. After all, the players’ characters are the heroes of the setting. On the other hand, the novel characters are heroes, too, and it’s not very exciting to feature protagonists who serve little more than to set up the story for the real heroes.

Thus, the first outline challenge was to come up with a sufficiently big story that intersected with the Adventure Path without usurping the players. Of course, that same story would have to introduce non-gaming readers to the Worldwound, or as I preferred to think of it, the land of Sarkoris.

The Pathfinder RPG Campaign books Lost Cities and Lost Kingdoms provided the foundation of my research material. Especially in the latter, I was able to loot the map for ideas. As with Prince of Wolves (to a lesser degree) and Queen of Thorns (to a greater one), a lot of the challenges the boys face came straight from the campaign material. Many of the characters in the novel come straight from the game.

You might think that would be limiting, since game characters have plot immunity, right? Not so! Mostly due to the generosity of Wes Schneider, I had permission to kill some of them. When it was more interesting to the story, I did just that.

One of the things I don’t especially like about writing in a game setting is the existence of resurrection magic. It’s convenient to pretend it doesn’t exist, but that’s not true to the world. At risk of spoilers, I’ll mention that reincarnation rather than raise dead makes the problem much more interesting, especially when the one casting the spell isn’t your friend.

Because King of Chaos is at its heart a war story, there’s a pretty big cast of secondary characters. Characters die in wars, and I wanted each death to matter more than ticking off numbers on an index card, so that meant giving the Kellid warriors and the Crusaders names and at least a little personality. The downside is that it was much harder for me to watch some of them die, because I get attached. The upside is that, by the time I finished the novel, I had a dozen story ideas for the survivors.

Another big difference between King of Chaos and the previous books is that there’s a third main character. While Arnisant had half as many POV chapters as Radovan or the Count in Master of Devils, Oparal is an equal third partner. I wanted to show her from the inside as a contrast to the way the boys saw her from the outside in Queen of Thorns. Also, I wasn’t done messing with the idea of a unicorn as a paladin’s steed, and Sarkoris was just the right place to take them for spoiler reasons.

After King of Chaos, the boys and I needed a little break. I had expected it to be longer, but when Paizo was ready to join forces with Tor to publish Pathfinder Tales, it was too good an opportunity to resist.

I like to keep the chronology of the Radovan & the Count novels lined up with real years. Thus, a book published in 2013 takes place about three years after the events of one published in 2010. Also, Varian has good cause to stay away from home (because of the events of “Hell’s Pawns”), and Radovan sticks close to the boss.

Thus, Lord of Runes picks up two years after the end of King of Chaos. In that time, Radovan, the Count, Arnisant, and the Red Carriage have traveled from Sarkoris, across the lands of the Hold of Belkzen, through Shoanti territory, past the dwarven stronghold of Janderhoff, and finally to the city of Korvosa in Varisia. There, Varian visits the famous Academae to demand answers about the magical disability he has only recently learned to overcome.


Creative Colleagues: Josh Vogt

Josh Vogt

Josh Vogt

Every now and then, I pester my creative colleagues with five questions about their work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.

Josh Vogt and I met in San Antonio, Texas, at a Worldcon room party. He’d already written “The Weeping Blade” for Paizo’s web fiction, and I had a hunch it wouldn’t be the last we saw of him in Golarion. Sure enough, he soon after published “Hunter’s Folley” and was hard at work outlining Forge of Ashes, the latest of the Pathfinder Tales novels. As if we didn’t have enough in common, I learned he’s also written for roleplaying games and was soon contributing to Privateer Press’s Skull Island eXpeditions.

Once we connected online, I was impressed to see how closely Josh keeps tabs on freelance opportunities, both those that look promising and those about which Admiral Ackbar would warn, “It’s a trap!” Josh is also passionate about fitness, especially encouraging his fellow writers to push away from the desk and stretch our legs now and then.

I loved the outline and the few chapters I was able to read while buried under my own deadline, but I’m excited to see the final version of Josh’s Pathfinder Tales novel, Forge of Ashes, available now.

1. Whether it’s a robot or a dark elf, a protagonist ends up being essentially human or else we can’t really sympathize with her. That said, in what ways do you make your dwarf heroine different from human? How about your other non-human characters?

With Akina, there are certainly going to be some “surface level” qualities that set her apart at first glance. Her dwarven strength and heritage, longer lifespan, a sensitivity to the earth itself and ability to see in the dark…all of those sorts of attributes. The dwarves of Golarion also have a fascinating history of how they came to the surface (and what happened to those left behind) and I enjoyed taking Akina through both a physical and inner journey as she discovers just how much that ancient history remains relevant to her. Her reason for fighting is more than mere survival or glory. It’s in her blood.

Ondorum, Akina’s oread companion, was also a delight to create. As an oread, with earth elemental ancestry, he has this inhuman patience that has been further honed by his martial studies. Even though they’re from different races—and possess extremely different temperaments—Akina and Ondorum actually relate to one another in deeper ways with their shared passions and protectiveness of those they truly care for. Some might view Ondorum as naive because of how he tries to treat everyone and everything as possessing of inherent value. It’s a bit of an odd perspective in a world where there are many divisive lines, be it through war, claimed territories, faith, simple banditry, or feuds that go back centuries.

2. You keep an eye on markets and job opportunities for writers, and sometimes I wonder just how much of your time that consumes. How do you balance hustling for work with writing for yourself as well as keeping up with contract gigs?

Actually, in the years I’ve been freelancing, I’ve gotten my gig-hunting process down to be rather streamlined. And I don’t have to be doing it constantly, as I now have past clients who keep bringing work to me. Those times that I do search for new contracts, if I put in a couple solid hours for a few days, I will often pull together enough work to keep me busy for at least a week or two, meaning I can scale back the job hunt again for a while.

With my personal writing, my fiction and all, I will often work to get freelance projects checked off and then give myself a couple days of just focusing on my stories. It lets me be more immersed in the process rather than constantly hopping all around. So it’s less like juggling and more just shifting into one mode for a stretch at a time. Obviously, my hope over the years to come is that I can start focusing more exclusively on my novels and other stories, but freelancing continues to pay the bills!

Cover by Eric Belisle.

Cover by Eric Belisle.

3. Likewise, you’ve a keen interest in fitness for writers. Apart from the obvious, that is the sedentary nature of the job of writing, how is fitness useful to the craft of writing?

Walking and being physically active in general helps me think. Sometimes when I’m trying to untangle a complicated plot issue, going on a run or hitting the gym can get more blood flowing to the brain. It also takes a little of my direct focus off the issue, so my subconscious might start processing it more and a solution will eventually emerge. I also think doing activities like obstacle course races, martial arts, or crossfit classes are excellent for introducing one’s self to new challenges and learn how to train and persevere—critical qualities for any career writer.

4. How much research do you do when writing for a setting like Pathfinder, which has thousands of pages of setting and rules material? That is, how much is enough without being too much? And how much did you absorb as a gamer before writing a Pathfinder Tales novel?

I’ve gamed much of my life and have been decently familiar with a wide variety of settings from when I was younger. I hadn’t done much since after college, so I did need a refresher. I read through every manual I could get my hand on, focusing first on locations, lore, and creatures relevant to the novel’s specific plot. Then I did some more general research so I could bring in details or mention things a bit further afield from the main action. The fun thing was, a number of items, like city layouts, hadn’t been nailed down in official canon yet, so I was able to develop those details along the way. I also read all the other Pathfinder Tales novels so I had a good idea what what other authors had explored and could see just how in-depth they’d gone. As I wrote, my editor, James, was invaluable and could easily answer any question I had or offer suggestions for particular scenes.

5. How much, if any, does writing for a shared-world setting inspire your original work? Do you ever find yourself reserving ideas for yourself rather than committing them to a project you don’t own or control? Or do you find yourself borrowing or slightly altering your own ideas for both original and work-for-hire projects?

It goes both ways. I always believe the story I’m telling, whether it’s an original setting or shared world, deserves my best effort. So if I have a big inspiration while drafting a tie-in story, I won’t hoard that by any means. There are always more ideas to be had. Honestly, sometimes I can’t use an idea simply because it doesn’t work within that specific world or isn’t allowed by the underlying nature of the game. But in original work, I make the rules!

Check out Josh’s latest news and advice at his website.