Category Archives: Musings
I’m not doing #ATTRPGMaker, but a lot of people I know are, and they all hit “What’s Your Brand?” today. And suddenly, I feel like answering.
My brand? My brand is Owen K.C. Stephens.
I love the fact that so many people are willing to employ me in one capacity or another (and honor me with the trust to all do so at once), but with 20 years of this under my belt, I know that I can’t depend on any game, trademark, or company to necessarily be around for as long as I want my career to last.
But, obviously, *I* will be here as long as I am here.
So yes, Paizo, and Green Ronin, and Rogue Genius Games, and Rite Publishing are all things I strongly promote. Starfinder, and Really Wild West, and Pathfinder, and Pathways are all lines I have staked a lot of time and effort in being part of.
But that’s all part of defining my one core brand, which is me.
My name. My professionalism. My reputation.
Hopefully, both industry folks and customers have some idea what adding me to a project means. Obviously lots of people have never heard of me, but my focus on myself as a brand is to try to make sure that when they DO hear of me, they do so in the context of the image I want to project.
And, hopefully, that makes adding me to other brands a benefit to those, as well.
The one thing you get to take with your wherever you go is your name. Things might change so the rights to games I work on get restricted, or companies that pay me might be struck by asteroids. And I think it’s *very* important I give my very best effort to everyone who hires me. I never “save something back” to promote my own brand at the expense of another.
But by making sure I do the best I can for everyone who hires me, I make THAT part of my brand.
I try to do the same in social media, on forums, and even in public. And by doing my best for everyone who hires me, and being professional in all game-related dealings with the public, I can build my brand at the same time I do my best to promote the other brands I am paid to work with.
Speaking of my brand:
I have a Patreon! Feel free to back it!
“So, do you think all red dragons are evil?”
“What are you naming as ‘red’ dragons? I care not what color a dragon is, nor the color of its breath unless it is directed at me. The blazing dragons of the suns are creatures of rigid law, not evil, though crimson in color. The infernal hellfire dragons of the lower regions are no less ordered and no less flame-hued, but certainly do have the save supernatural infusion of evil as is common to their fiendish neighbors…”
“No, I mean regular red dragons. Chromatic dragons. ‘Normal” red.”
“Ah, the Ascandeth, the fire-blooded tyrants of ash and unforgiving mien. There is no doubt that their numbers are filled with those who crave power and wealth, and do not care what means must be used to gain it. Dragons, you must understand, are only barely mortal. They are descended directly from the blood of gods, and the blood of the Ascandeth is fiery and harsh.
“They are hatched already speaking two languages, filled with the cunning and knowledge nearly that of an adult human, with all the drive to meet their core needs of an infant, yet the power to fly, burn, and make demands directly. Every Ascandeth is born with all the urges to be murderous and uncaring, and the power to enforce such desires immediately.
“Does every Ascaneth then take steps down that path within hours of cracking from a shell and never varies from that increasingly-well-worn route? Surely not. They are creatures of free will, and some must—by accident, or intervention, or through the sheer internal moral fiber to sense that the rights of other creatures have value—have avoided becoming agents of pure evil.”
“But I have never met one.”
Sigils and Sorcery
And entirely random campaign setting idea.
In the Age of Achievements, the Empress of the Bhan created the Sigilbhan, a massive, complex rune that granted her and her agents the power to detect and quarantine evil outsiders and undead, so that no matter how powerful they were, they would be locked away rather than return to the outer planes and reform as new horrors.
Sadly one of the Empress’s son, Drau, believed that as a loyal agent of the empress he deserved rewards and power for working to promote good and overcome evil, and asked to be given the power she used the Sigilbhan to lock away. When she refused, telling him that the reward for doing good was a word with more good in it, and his actions did not prove true virtue if he performed them only to receive worldly rewards, Drau secretly swore to take the power by force.
Drau created his own rune, the Feldrau, which could infect the spirit of those it touched, and used it to turn many of the people of the world into drau-versions of themselves.
It is unclear if the people were once all one, but as the feldrau tainted those it touched, the became the drau-elves, drau-dwarves, drau-gnomes, dra-orcs, and drau-folk humans.
Drau lead an army against the Empress, drawing on the power of the Sigilbhan to grant his drau-forces powerful sorcerous abilities, shadowed versions of the true magic of the sigil.
He believed the Empress could not defeat Drau without shattering the Sigilbhan, which held vast planar evil within it which would be unleashed. The Empress tried to leach more power into the minor sigils of her agents, but when that did not stop Drau, she shattered he Sigilbhan, destroying or altering all Bhan and driving Drau and his most powerful agents mad with the sigilshock. Then, before the dark powers within the Siiglbhan could escape, she healed the Sigilbhan with her own soul energy—ceasing to exist in any form. The Sigilbhan now has no mistress, and it’s form is imperfect, leaking fel sorcerous power into the world.
The Bhan Empire fell. Darkness, both supernatural and just that born of fear, greed, hunger, and jealously, tore the empire apart. Lesser evils that had hidden in the edges of wastelands of the Bhan Empire rose and spread, causing wyverns, and giants, and aberrations to overrun much of the world. And brigands, tyrants, and thief kings did much the same.
But the Sigilbhan, sigils, and sorcery continued. Nearly two centuries have passed, and scores of small kingdoms, city-states, and warlords have arisen.
The sigilbearers have inherited minor sigils, those given to agents and nobles who rules under the Empress, though such power is inherited, and while sigls have great power of light, such power *can* be used for evil.
The imperial church worships the person of the Empress in the form of the Sigilbhan–they know her sacrifice destroyed her intellect and consciousness, but believe the remaining sigilbhan, which mostly just fuels the sigls and slowly leaks the dark powers used for sorcery, is a deity and if enough belief and good will is focused into it, it shall be reborn into a true deity.
Sorcerers take the fell planar power leaking from the Sigilbhan and use it to create powerful magics. Though the source of their power is vile, the sigilshock destroyed the most powerful feldrau sorcerers, leaving Imperial agents who had studied drau as the most powerful source of sorcerous study. Most sorcerers claim they *must* convert the power of darkness leaking from the sigilbhan into other magics, or it will turn into native demons and haunts… though the imperial church generally disagrees, and sorcerers are sometimes tainted, and become drau.
Where there were once a single people, the bhan, there are now many groups—though most humanoids acknowledge they are ethnicities of a single people, and can generally interbreed. And of course, some are the drau, who appear no different than their non-drau brethren until they ingest so much fel energy their eyes, hair, or both are bleached to a uniform white. Most towns fear the drau, but it is hard to say who is and isn’t until a drau has vast powers.
My post on a d6 each worth of species-based insults and exclamations for androids, shirren, humans, and ysoki from yesterday was much more popular than I expected (I picked up three new backers for my Patreon in one day).
So, even though no one asked for them, let’s round out the Starfinder Roleplaying Game core races with kasatha, lashunta, and vesk!
1. Faceless coward
4. Hipless freak
2. Bug-elf (or) Dwarf-beetle
1. Heatless lump lizard
3. Deathmongering war-worshipper
4. Walking suitcase
6. Cloac-er (Short for cloaca-frudder)
Species Specific Exclamations
3. By the long journey
6. Waster (or) Waste of Space (or) Useless Waste
5. Meritless (or) Unwarranted
6. It’s a Gift of Nothingness, and You Took It.
1. Loser (or) Coward
2. Weaponless Wonder
3. Timid Teeth
4. By the Three Blades!
5. Backstabber (or) Traitor (or) Backstab!
6. Cloac-er (Still short for cloaca-frudder)
Even more directly than most, this post is brought to you by the backers of my Patreon! Especially Copper Frog Games, a new Sponsor! You can find them or on Facebook at facebook.com/copperfroggames, and appearing at PAX East in the Indie Megabooth with “Pigment”, and “Chiseled” (Kickstarting this summer!).
In a podcast I was doing, someone claimed they’d throw Patreon money my way if I’d post 1d6 (each) curse words for Androids, Ysoki, Shirren, and Humans. Not one to pass up a writing challenge that involves making money, I here I am doing that.
I’ve talked about fictional cursewords before and, while I wish it went without saying, it seems prudent to mention that there are pales fictional swearing shouldn’t go. Yes, people cuss. Yes, that can be a useful and interesting part of roleplaying. But especially when looking at species-based cussing, never bring gender, real-world ethnicity, socio-political position, religion, or anything else rooted in reality into it. We should be roleplaying to have fun, and that needs to stay away from language that uses real differences between us as insults or stand-ins for bad language.
No one should be so attached to fictional deity Klono that explaining Holy—Klono’s—Iridium—Intestines!” is going to upset anybody. But as soon as you use any real-world (or even thinly veiled from real world) elements in your cussing, you are risking other people’s feelings in the name of a drop of color for a not-real person, and that’s not cool.
With that said, here’s four d6 lists of:
1. Piece of Synth
3. Custom-built slave labor
*Assuming the android leaks white goo like the ones from Aline/Aliens do. This doesn’t have to be true, just a common cultural opinion.
**Based on dislike of the android renewal process
1. Boneless wonder*
3. Hiveless drone
*Assuming they have eskeletons
**A suggestion that the shirren is food, and belongs on a buffet.
1. Mindblind lashunta
4. Sweat factory
And then four 1d6 lists of:
4. Glitching (or) Son-of-Glich
6. Sagging (or) Wrinkled*
*Since androids don’t show signs of age.
1. Swarming (or) Swarmed (or) Swarm-mind
2. Repetitive (or) Predictable (or) just Reps!
5. Compound Stupid*
6. Webbing! (or) Webhole (or) Webtastic
*As in, stupid seen through a hundred compound eyes
3. Lose it! (or) Lost!
5. Twist (or) Twist You (or) This is twisted!
3. Itches (or) Itch-laden (or) Son-of-an-Itch!
Even more directly than most, this post is brought to you by the backers of my Patreon! Why not join us?
I haven’t referred to the Really Wild West setting as “steampunk,” because to me it’s a distinct Fantasy Weird West genre, rather than a “true” steampunk setting. Of course, steampunk is as much an aesthetic as a literary genre (certainly true now, regardless of its origins), and part of my issue with calling RWW steampunk is that I am going much more for a western aesthetic than a steampunk one. I’d also want to parse out the distinctions between steampunk, gearpunk, cogpunk, diselpunk, pulp, weird west, fantasy, and a bunch of other things related to speculative fiction settings of the late 1800s before I was comfortable referring to (or marketing) my setting as “steampunk.”
But, there certainly is going to be significant overlap between people who are interested in Really Wild West, weird west, and those who are interested in steampunk. And, ultimately, I suspect the weird west, pulp, and steampunk genres are very much like La Belle Époque, the Gilded Age and the Victorian Era—they aren’t the same, and it’s hard to pin down exactly what is unique to each and what is shared, but there’s certainly a lot of intersection.
Classically, one element of steampunk is that steam-engine level technology is capable of much more advanced devices than in the real world, allowing more modern devices to exist in larger, bulkier, brass-rivet covered steam versions. I’m not depending much on steam as the main technology of Really Wild West, because my setting advances electricity and magic as much as it makes steam more efficient. There are some things common to steampunk stories in RWW, such as Babbages (or “difference engines”) that are gear-driven computers (that can communicate over the Babbage-Bell Grid, creating a kind of primitive internet), and massive airships acting as floating cruisers and battleships, but in most cases those are using an imaginary technology developed from the inclusion of a form of advanced theosophy (magic) in the setting, or reverse-engineered from Martian tech after the War of the Worlds, rather than super-efficient steam. Steam engines exist, but RWW isn’t the steam age anymore. Aetheric engines are more important than steam turbines.
On the other hand, the “punk” elements of steampunk, as a social movement, make sense for my Really Weird West setting. Not all steampunk settings borrow the “punk” part of cyberpunk, but I think it’s worth remembering as a spine of the body that includes so many related and overlapping ideas. Much of the “punk” part of cyberpunk is about wanting to live free of mainstream society’s constraints and refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of social expectations. That certainly borrows from the punk musical and cultural movements of the real world 1970s and 1980s, but in cyberpunk, that rejection is often frames in terms of the collapse of the benefits of society and, with cybernetics and AIs commonplace, asking what it even means to be human.
Some steampunk settings have their own versions of this punk-ness, while others just focus on the dashing heroes of society, whether they are the champions of wealth and aristocracy you’d expect to be promoted by society itself, or plucky underdogs of low station who rise to fame and power… and then generally become not only accepted parts of mainstream society but also proof that anyone of sufficient quality can succeed by bootstrapping, and thus a backhanded claim that the rules of society should be respected because they include opportunity to improve yourself if you are properly deserving. I find this to be especially true of steampunk set in or based on the 1800s US.
However, the imaginary 1891 of Really Wild West is a time of rapid societal change, whether that’s the impact of Reconstruction and the Progressive Era of the United States, the turn toward science and rationality of the Porfiriate of Mexico, or the removal of Otto Von Bismark from power in Germany. On top of those real-world social pressures, the setting of Really Weird West is dealing with the cognitive impact of magic being codified as real by the Theosophic Society over the past generation and proof of alien life (and both its technological superiority and desire to kill us) in the War of the Worlds just a year earlier. While polite society in major urban centers is trying to pretend nothing has changed, in their hearts people know better. Literature, science, music, poetry, and acceptable social behavior have all changed, and many people are actively rejecting its rules which, to be fair, are based on those of the real world at the time and thus include a lot of objectively terrible racism, sexism, classism, and bigotry.
In the frontier lands, that change is even more pronounced. Where lawlessness is more common, society has less power to enforce both its good and its bad dictates. Sure, lawless lands often include a lot of robbery, fraud, assault, and murder, but they also have weaker social codes insisting everyone fall in line with societal expectations. Not no social codes of course—each town, business, cattle barony, and gang can have its own society requirements no less strict and merciless than those of “Back East.” But while that means people can’t automatically be free of bigotry and racism, it also means they don’t have to go as far to get away from it. Given how dangerous it is to live outside of town that might be a short trip into a shallow grave, but the option exists.
That very danger also means that people who refuse to follow the norms of society, but who have a particular set of skills, can find more than one place that will accept them at least as long as there’s a problem they can fix. It’s no coincidence that this sounds like the plot of numerous classic Westerns, but it’s also the plot of numerous cyberpunk stories. In many ways the gunslinger is the original “punk” character concept… and before that the samurai, and local hero highwayman, and some Greek heroes. Punk heroes, as independent experts who thrive outside the system, can exist in the largest numbers in campaign settings where society has a weakened grip. In cyberpunk this is often because corporations have grown to be so powerful that they can challenge the government-controlled legally defined societies, and virtual reality is competing with meatspace, and the gaps between those factors are shadowy realms where expertise is more important than adherence to societal standards. In a Western, Really Wild West included, there’s a similar conflict between the expansive, technocratic societies and the less mechanized and more sparsely-spaced aboriginal societies as well as the rapid expansion of new forms of transformation and communication into areas with vast untamed stretch of exploitable natural resources. RWW, of course, adds magic, an alien invasion, and weird science to the mix to create even more instability, and larger shadows where the punk character concept comfortably fits.
If Really Wild West promotes the idea that exceptional people can rise above their stations and become heroes, it must acknowledge that doing so often means bucking the systemic oppression directed at numerous minorities. Certainly, if a group would rather not deal with such real-world issues, and the players would have more fun playing whatever they want without considering how people from a world based on the heavily-flawed real world of 1891 would react to them, they can do that. But asking a group to all agree not to take the expected real-world biases and bigotry too far may be more than everyone can handle, so there are also explicit notes within the campaign where any character background is explicitly appropriate. Specifically, even in the small amount of material written so far, the Dread Templars and Science Agents are both groups that accept anyone with the skills of a player character, and both are respected and established part of the campaign world. Being a punk who is part of a group may be a tad counter-intuitive, but it’s not really any different than imagining a cyberpunk hacker as part of a real-world collective like Anonymous.
All that said, I’m not likely to begin calling Really Wild West “steampunk,” but I won’t tell anyone else who does that they’re wrong. 😊
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Here’s a picture of my new desk, at the office.
Upon seeing that picture, Alex Augunas noted he wanted to hear the story about the boomerang.
And, weirdly, there is one.
My father was a professor of economics at the University of Oklahoma.
He was sometimes hired to teach short courses elsewhere in the world.
At one point, when I was a child, this included Australia.
When asked if there was anything I would like him to bring back, I said a boomerang.
So he did.
I learned to throw it (not well, and I beaned myself dead between the eyes the first time because I did it wrong, and I haven’t thrown one in more than 25 years).
So I kept it with me. When I was hired by WotC in 2000, I hung that boomerang as a decoration, because I thought it was cool to have a weapon at my desk.
Then I got laid off. And had to move back to Oklahoma.
I promised myself I’d come back to Seattle someday. And that promise got embodied in my boomerang I had kept at WotC.
It sat over my desk, wherever I was, for 14 years.
And now… I’m back. And so it the boomerang.
(Want to keep sharing my short life stories? Then support my Patreon!)
Today is my 27th wedding anniversary. For those who saw me talk about this being my 20th year as an RPG writer, it’s easy to do the math—It took my wife Lj 6 years to convince me to try to get my home campaign ideas published in Dragon Magazine. Most of our marriage, I have tried to make a living my making things up and giving my made-up ramblings rules. For a lot of that, I was a full time freelancer, so she and I had to learn to manage on a very irregular income. But she also has always believed in me and my writing ability, and supported me when I wasn’t strong enough to support myself. I’d have given up long ago if not for my wife’s encouragement and ability to talk me through my options, and help me find the one that makes the most sense not just as a career choice, but as a life path. It is not overstating things to say that without my wife, I wouldn’t have a game writing career, but it also simplifies the issue way too much.
My wife is very different from me. She’s a bigger geek than I am. When I was still hiding game manuals for fear of being mocked, Lj was launching a gaming club in the public library. When I was convinced my ideas were mundane and unmarketable, she saw potential for a career. When I doubt myself, she is always prepared to give me an honest assessment, which is much more valuable than empty praise. Lj has made me a better man, but she’s also made me a better gamer.
It is humbling for me to think about all the way in which my wife has provided me with guidance and good examples, but that’s a few of the things spouses are supposed to do for each other. I tend to view my entire life through the lens of games. Since games are how I met nearly all my friends, and how I met the woman who is now my life, I think that’s actually pretty reasonable of me. But early in my gaming hobby, I was convinced I gamed the *right* way, and everyone else hadn’t reach my level of enlightenment yet. I saw things not in terms of what people liked, and what met their needs, but as what was good (because I enjoyed it) and what was bad (because I didn’t, and everyone else who didn’t was wrong, dumb, or both).
Long before she was my wife, Lj was the first person who enjoyed radically different aspects of gaming than I did, and was clearly smarter than me, as experiences as I was, and geekier than I was. I can’t overstate how important that realization was in slowly putting me on a path difference from Comic Book Guy on the Simpsons. And just as it opened me up to seeing games differently, watching how my wife interacted with other people opened me up to seeing the world differently. It was only in realizing I was limiting my opinion of what was good to what I personally liked best that I was able to begin to contextualize things like empathy, which saved me from being an emotional monster.
That paid huge dividends for me as a human being. Flawed though I am, I still try to live up to an ideal Lj taught me to understand. But it also paid huge dividends in my development as a game designer and later developer. I learned that people could enjoy things I didn’t, and that it was possible to study what they did and didn’t enjoy and why. You can’t always please everyone, but sometimes you can make something more people will enjoy without weakening its appeal to the core audience you want. And, once you know there is no one true way to game, you can explore your own preferences and attitudes, and examine why you like and why you like it. Even if you don’t come to appreciate a broader scope of styles and elements (and I certainly have), just the examination of what you enjoy about your favorite things can be useful in finding the best versions of those things.
Twenty years of game design. Twenty-seven years of marriage. Two long, linked journeys. Neither is complete. Both have only been possible with the love, help, guidance, and support of my wife. And that support has only been possible because of a community of family, friends, co-workers, and gamers.
Happy anniversary, sweetie.
Speaking of things I have learned:
So, in all earnestness, I hate following up something that heartfelt with something as base as asking for money. But part of the support the community gives me is the ability to take some time to write things like this, and one of the things I have learned is you have to ask for that kind of support.
So if you want to see more of these essays, follow this link to my Pateon, and pledge a couple of bucks a month. 🙂