Creative Colleagues: Steve Kenson

Steve Kenson

Steve Kenson

Every week or so, I’ll pester one of my creative colleagues with five questions about his or her work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.

Steve Kenson is one of the many talented designers I first “met” through his contributions to Dragon magazine. While we’ve bumped into each other at Gen Con now and then, most of our acquaintance has come through my admiration of his continuing contributions to roleplaying games, notably but not exclusively superhero RPGS.

1. Green Ronin has just released a new edition of Icons. What makes it a must-by for those who have earlier versions? And for those who haven’t played it, how does it stand apart from other supers RPGs?

The major value in the Assembled Edition of Icons is that of hindsight. It collects the good bits added to the game in various supplements since it was originally published and brings them all together under one cover, along with polishing and tightening up mechanics based on years of feedback and experience and providing those “I wish the game included…” things like longer and more detailed examples of play.

Icons started out as a design-experiment tinkering with the concept of named ranks (ala Marvel Super-Heroes) and the basic mechanics of the Fudge RPG by Steffan O’Sullivan (which also emphasized a use of words rather than numbers). It took off when I added a focus on randomly created characters, something I had a love/hate relationship with during my own gaming career, but have come to really enjoy again as a creative springboard. One of my favorite things about Icons is that you can throw together a character quickly, and players often say, “You know, this character is awesome, and I never would have come up with the idea just looking at a blank character sheet without the die rolls to guide it.”

2. We’re enjoying an embarrassment of riches in superhero movies these days. Which have been your favorites? What would you like to see some of these films do that none have so far?

I’m a big fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and its recent films, like both Captain America films, Avengers, Thor, Iron Man, etc. They have done a great job of embracing the source material and appealing to a new (and old) audience with the qualities that made the characters a success in the first place.

I’d love to see more superhero films with strong female leads: The lack of a Wonder Woman movie on par with Marvel’s Captain America is disappointing, and a Black Widow or Captain Marvel film from Marvel Studios would be great. I would be the first in-line to see a Young Avengers film that lived up to the production and casting standards of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and presented characters like Wiccan and Hulkling like they are in the comics: A committed romantic same-sex couple, self-described as “sickeningly cute.”

Icons Assembled

Cover by Dan Houser

3. I know at least one of your publishers calls an annual summit, but how important is the convention circuit to a freelance writer? Give us an idea of how much of a convention like Gen Con you spend looking for new work, discussing current projects with editors, and whatever other shenanigans you get up to.

I freelanced pretty much full-time for about ten years. I don’t do nearly as much freelance these days but, when I did, major conventions often provided me with well over half of my year’s work—if not in outright gigs acquired at the con, in jobs the resulted from contacts and conversations from there.

It’s still difficult to find a substitute for face-to-face interaction with peers and potential clients in the industry, and cold-mailing resumes and writing samples can only get you so far. Circulating at a convention like Gen Con or Origins provides a great opportunity to put your ear to the ground and get a sense of who’s hiring, and to at least introduce yourself to them and try and give them something positive to remember when you follow up with them a week or two later to say, “Hi, we met at the con. I’d still love to write for your company sometime.”

When I was in development, I always tried to give freelancers a few minutes of my time at conventions for just that reason, and do my best to point them in the right direction or arrange introductions with the right people now, if I can.

4. You represent at panels on gender and queer issues (with one of my favorite panel titles ever, “Queer as a Three-Sided Die”). A recent reference to such issues in the new D&D rules caused a little stir online. What’s your reaction?

It’s great to see the acknowledgement of diversity in gender and sexuality in the mainstream tabletop RPG product, particularly right in its core rules. It’s hard to explain the value of such inclusion to anyone who has sought it in vain elsewhere. It’s something that says, “You and your experiences are a part of this world and are welcome here.” Whether or not you think things could have been phrased better, or could have gone further, it’s still a significant step, and I appreciate Wizards of the Coast making a conscious effort to take it. There are plenty of games, creators, and publishers who helped to widen the trail to the point where we could get D&D down it, and that’s a great thing to see.

As for any kind of “stir” concerning such inclusion, that’s merely an indication that there is still work to be done regarding those issues. We’ve come a long way—further than I had expected in my lifetime, to be honest—but we still have a ways to go.

5. You’ve contributed to many of my favorite game settings, some of which have faded while others regenerate with new editions. If you could revive one dormant game, whether or not you’ve worked on it, which would you pick?

I got my start in tabletop gaming with the first edition of Gamma World (the grey boxed set) from TSR. In spite of GW going through seven editions between 1978 and 2010, I never managed to work on any of them—although I have been working in the industry for the production of at least three of them—but I own and have played all of them.

I’m not 100% sure it qualifies as “dormant”—the seventh edition is still on sale from Wizards—but I’d love to tinker with a revived version of Gamma World, particularly with some of the ethos of the most recent Wizards of the Coast edition, where the apocalypse was set off by a scientific accident rather than a nuclear holocaust, both updating the game and allowing for more of the wahoo “reality blender” approach.

Speaking of inclusive games, I’m also tempted to take another look at Blue Rose, the romantic fantasy RPG that was the precursor to the True20 iteration of the d20 System (and my first major development project for Green Ronin). It was such a different take on a fantasy setting for RPGs that I often think about how it could be re-worked for different systems, or modified in different ways.

Keep up with the latest events Kensonian at Steve’s website, including his Gen Con panel schedule.

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