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.




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