In the second half of our extended interview with ICONS and Mutants & Masterminds game designer Steve Kenson (catch up with part one here), we discuss more about character design as it pertains to campaign design, his thoughts on the fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons, the upcoming D&D Next, and working in the DC Universe:
Tobias Ellis: We have a podcast, a weekly show, and we had my brother-in-law on. He’s a big gamer, and we talked about the differences between starting out with something like the old West End Games’ Star Wars D6 system templates, where you have the Smuggler or the Brash Pilot or the Minor Jedi, and players end up, basically, with variations on the same character. He maintained the best way to started with a character is with random generation, like you mentioned, to get the ball rolling creatively. Especially if you’re looking at doing something fun and easy, random character generation – all that rolling of dice – can be a little intimidating. Do you feel there’s any benefit to “template”-based versus a random-based systems for getting people into the hobby?
Steve Kenson: I think that the advantage of a class- or template- or archetype-based system is familiarity, if you’re dealing with a really well known genre. And certainly, superheroes lend themselves to archetypes pretty well, as Mutants & Masterminds demonstrates. We use archetypes in all the different incarnations of that game, to provide sample characters for players who are looking to jump right into the game with those “pre-fab” options that say, basically, “If you want to play a character like this, here you go. You’re all set.” I think that does provide a certain level of accessibility.
I think the difficulty can sometimes arise, in terms of archetypes, with potential conflicts between player expectation and archetype design. The thing I always remembered about the early iterations of the West End Star Wars game – which was a terrific example of an introductory RPG – was that the Jedi characters, for example, were not particularly good Jedi. You always started out with one or two Force [attribute] dice and you were, at best, a really novice Jedi, like Luke Skywalker at the very beginning of The Empire Strikes Back. And that could sometimes throw players who’re not experienced with RPGs and the idea of character advancement and development and all of that, who came into the game, you know, “I want to play a Jedi who can do all the Jedi stuff,” and you have to nicely explain, as the gamemaster, “Well. You can’t [laughs] because the game isn’t designed that way.” Starting characters aren’t going to have that level of Force ability.
Similarly, I think you run into that same conflict in other games that emulate particular kinds of fiction. [It's] the same thing with trying to introduce a new player to a low level spellcaster in a fantasy game: “I want to play a powerful wizard.” “Well. Not right away” [laughs]. It’s similar to anyone who comes into a superhero game expecting to play Superman right out of the gate, and some games do allow you to do that, but you have to be aware of the idea that, although archetypes are useful shorthand, they can sometimes lead to a certain amount of confusion in terms of expectations.
TE: There seems to be a great deal of controversy concerning the fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons being geared toward players, perhaps, more used to playing more powerful characters from the get-go …
SK: There’s certainly, in my experience, a greater sense that first level characters in [the Dungeons & Dragons fourth edition] are more competent right out the gate, or more “powerful,” or “capable,” whatever you want to call it. They certainly have a greater range of options; they’re a little more robust. I imagine there was probably some intention to address the idea that playing first level characters seems kind of lame.
TE: Part of you, as a designer, might have a certain attitude toward this, but as a player also, or gamemaster or Dungeon Master: Do you feel, personally, that a campaign should begin with a DM writing a story or players creating their characters? What do you think makes the best starting point?
SK: That really depends a great deal; in my experience, campaigns are collaborative efforts and that’s true both before play begins as well as once it [begins]. So, it greatly depends on whether the gamemaster is designing a campaign for a group of characters, if the players are designing a group of players for a particular campaign. You know, in my own games, it’s usually a certain amount of negotiation to, at least, get the basic “high concept” of the campaign in mind before we go to the character creation phase. “We’re going to do a high fantasy campaign about pirates,” for example; there, at the very least, we’ve established some parameters. The players certainly have a lot of latitude, as far as that goes. That might be my pitch to the players as gamemaster, and some of the players might say, “Ugh. We’re sick of pirates. We don’t want to do pirates.” Not really, because my players actually love that sort of thing [laughs], but there’s a certain amount of back-and-forth to it. Likewise, I might pitch a superhero game, and we might have some initial discussion about how four-color and “comic book-y” it’s going to be, as far as giving the players some ideas of where their boundaries are for character creation. Then, usually, it’s a matter of players coming up with characters, and then working the high concept of the campaign with the individual [character arcs] to bring it all together, to make a story out of it.
It also depends how much you’re working with an already existent campaign versus creating something out of whole cloth. If I’m looking to run something like one of the Pathfinder Adventure Paths, which are very clearly written-out campaigns, then it’s a matter of having [more] of a sense of what the high concept is to tell the players beforehand, and to get a sense of how well that’ll work – or not – and how much I have to mess around with it to make it work.
TE: With the economic downturn, there seems to be an increase in consumers finding the value investing in role-playing games. Paying $50 or $60 to purchase a rulebook, where they can tell several different stories, versus paying the same amount for a video game; just one story. Have you found that to be true?
SK: I certainly think there’s a lot of value in role-playing games as a form of entertainment. When you compare the cost of, you know, a core rulebook and maybe an adventure supplement or campaign supplement as compared to a night out at the movies or a new video game or DVD boxed set, you’re getting a fair amount of value in terms of “hours of entertainment” for your money. A good RPG can be played for years, quite easily, with very little additional investment. I think that a lot of players are probably finding some value in that.
TE: Do have a genre that is your particular favorite, if not superheroes? Is there a genre you haven’t written for?
SK: I like a pretty eclectic range of genres, myself. I’m pretty much the same way in my gaming. I don’t write a lot of horror, because I’m not particularly good at it. I may just be too much of an optimist [laughs] to be good at writing horror. I think I feel too much sympathy for my potential victims to do horror very well. I’ve done some; I’ve written some World of Darkness stuff. I’ve done some various projects for White Wolf. I’ve gotten pretty well known for doing superhero stuff because of Mutants & Masterminds and ICONS, but I actually got my start freelancing writing stuff for Shadowrun, which was a fairly unheroic genre [laughs]. I’ve written quite a bit of fantasy, as anyone who works in the industry for any amount of time will. So, I’ve written stuff for Earthdawn, and Pathfinder, some things for Dragon Age for Green Ronin, as well as, just a lot of D20 [Open Gaming License] stuff.
TE: How has the DC Comics license been working out for Green Ronin?
SK: DC’s good. DC’s been an excellent product, and people have responded to it really well. The thing with DC that… You know, it’s funny; it’s the issue of archetypes and expectations, sort of. The “archetype” of a game line that people expect. When Green Ronin originally negotiated the DC license, it was for four products: A core rulebook, two character books, and a setting book. And that’s the length of the license, those four books. The fourth book – DC Universe – is in production right now, and it will be another substantial, 200-page plus hardcover like the first three have been. The set of all four books will make for a very complete game, like we were talking about before in terms of overall value. If you have the four DC Adventures books, you’ve got a core game, like 500 characters [laughs], a complete setting; you’ve got enough DC material to run campaigns for years. [And] every character is a collection of examples how to build a character. So, when you’re playing a game like [DC Adventures], or even if you’re just playing Mutants & Masterminds, and you have a player who says, “I want to play a character like (insert DC character name here),” you can just go, “OK!” and flip open the Heroes & Villains books, look at out how that character is put together, and say, “OK. It looks like you need to do this, this, this and this,” and you’ll have a pretty good approximation. It may need a certain amount of adjustment based on the Power Point budget the player’s working with, but otherwise, you’ll have excellent examples to work from.
TE: Can you say whether the setting book is going to be pre-New 52 or New 52?
SK: The approach in DC Universe is more in the range of post-Crisis on Infinite Earths, pre-New 52 DC Universe. I think if we were talking to DC about extending the license, it might be a different matter, but since DC Universe wraps it up, I don’t think it’s that much of a concern, on either side.
Our goal since we started design on DC Adventures was to do the most, sort of, timeless iconic versions we could within the realm of still providing an adequate amount of detail. We tried, as much as possible, to avoid getting into a lot of what I refer to as the “he said, she said” elements of the character backgrounds. Fortunately, the space limitations we’re working with actually made that easier. When you only have four pages to describe Batman, including his game stats, you really can’t go into Batman’s entire comic book history. You need to hit the high points, and talk about things like, “This is how Bruce Wayne became Batman” [laughs]. Likewise, when we’re talking about Superman, you have to hit [the universal things] about Superman – doomed planet, sole survivor – and not get into the complete history of Superman in exacting detail. So, the DC Universe book takes that approach as much as possible as well.
On the upside of it, the material we were working with was pretty close to complete, as opposed to… The difficulty with the New 52 setting is they’re a lot of unknowns, and DC is very understandably leery about having anybody but their writers define things about their setting. When we don’t know specific things, it’s difficult to reference them in a setting book. The good thing about DC Adventures and the New 52 is that, because we took that iconic approach to things – from a game system perspective – things are still relatively the same. Although a lot of the details may have changed – Superman wears a mandarin collar now, and doesn’t wear his underwear outside of his pants – he’s still Superman. His DC game stats are probably still, basically, the same. He still has the same powers; he still does the same stuff.