Steven D. Russell: A Player of Games
Steven D. Russell has written for E. N. Publishing, Bastion Press and Expeditious Press, among others. He’s worked on Monsters Evolved, Verrik Evolved and The Rituals of Choice Adventure Path. These days he focuses on being the Lord Protector of Rite Publishing.
Like many designers, Russell is first and foremost a player of games.
“I really enjoy the social aspect of gaming, of sharing experiences with friends and family,” said Russell. “I love just sitting around talking about old campaigns, of all the fun we had, and wondering what the next encounter will be that we talk about for years. What I hope we accomplish is to create the potential for that type of experience. ‘Fun’ is the only credo I will ever need, when it stops being fun it is time to put the dice down.”
Russell’s love of collaboration is reflected in Rite Publishing’s patronage system (modeled on the Open Design system), which gives patrons the opportunity to be deeply involved in the creative process.
Jones: A living airship? Too cool! You a steampunk fan?
Russell: While I am a big steampunk fan and it will play a small role in The Rituals of Choice adventure path, I can‘t take the credit for The Living Airship. This stand alone adventure is the creation of Soren K. Thustrup (Vault of the Iron Overlord, Circle of Rites). The PCs must rescue the ship’s crew from a group of fleshcrafters before they make the crew part of the ship, overcoming blade trolls, unique flesh golems, fleshcrafted creatures, and vallorians (a race that first appeared in Monte Cook’s Legacy of the Dragons monster supplement).
Also this adventure has an evocative locale — an “Airwolf” style mountain interior open to the sky, with the PCs racing to reach the airship docked at the top.
Jones: According to the Rite Publishing website, you are a self professed “rabid fan” of Monte Cook’s Arcana Evolved. What is about Arcana Evolved that inspires such… rabidity?
Russell: The setting and game craft spoke to me; I also could see the strong influences of “The Land” from Stephen R. Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. Thomas Covenant may be the most despicable anti-hero ever created, but “The Land” was always a wondrous setting. Monte, with his gift for elegant game design, emulated this and so much more. His choice of themes and their use in design made it a place where I wanted to run my homebrew game. Fortuitous circumstance eventually led me to the opportunity to produce products for the game I love.
Jones: And what about Arcana would you change if you could?
Russell: I wish Monte was still producing products for it.
Seriously though, I would have liked a single region detailed to the extent of Ptolus, or the Dalelands of the Forgotten Realms. The Lands of the Diamond Throne serve as a wonderful framework for DMs to build on, but I would have liked one area for the DM who just does not have the time to add in the details. It would also serve as an example of what can be achieved within the setting.
When I dug deep into the tropes and themes that are inherent in Arcana Evolved, it made me really appreciate the game’s depth. I had to make sure those themes and tropes were as inherent in A Witch’s Choice, e.g., oaths, ceremonies, choice, contrast, opposition, complex races and classes, evolution, DM empowerment, and customized characters).
One of the process changes I am making to the next part of A Witch’s Choice is to make it easier for patrons to have greater input. In A Witch’s Choice, a senior patron Jesse Butler wrote and replaced an entire encounter with one of his own design. A few patrons added magical items to the rewards and all the patrons have been adding suggestions to what should be included over the course of the adventure.
I wanted to see more of that, so henceforth Gold level patrons have access to the entire outline of the adventure path and can submit the changes they want to see. I have also changed the method of how the adventure is presented to patrons, rather than a finished manuscript they now get raw encounters daily (reviewed by our editor so a patron is not frustrated by my lapses in grammar).
Jones: The start date for To Kill or Not To Kill was April 20th. Are things off to a good start? Any surprises yet?
Russell: A very good start — as of this writing we are at 162% of our threshold goal, as I had a surprising increase in Silver and higher level patronage.
Our first surprise was Jonathan Roberts writing the first design article which was a how to guide on commissioning a map from a professional cartographer.
Jones: Who’s responsible for creating the village of Far-rough?
Russell: I am the one responsible; it’s something that has been in development for a long time and serves as a great backdrop. Regardless, it is fully open to patron influences and changes. The background traits that show up in the Player’s Guide come from patron suggestions.
The design philosophy here is to make it modular so that it is detailed enough for a time-constrained DM but malleable enough that creative DMs can make it their own. The real challenge is creating something that is modular without being generic; the key here was really simple: embrace the themes and tropes of the setting.
Jones: What spin have you put on the patronage system?
Russell: What was surprising to me was the number of freebies created that patrons received beyond just the adventure, such as the high-resolution maps (both labeled and unlabeled, which makes a big difference for those using Maptool or TTop). And for grognards like me who like print, we have free full color (or printer-friendly grayscale) to-scale map packs that could be printed out. I chose to get the laminated battlemaps from Gamer-Printshop.com.
The lower $10 patronage fee allows us to remain competitive with, say, an $8.99 PDF module from Paizo. It also lets people try it out and determine if they really want a higher level of patronage.
Patronage has allowed us to create a very high quality, full-color product. It also takes the financial risks off my back and allows us to pay our freelancers on time every time because we have already covered all expenses. It works perfectly for what Rite Publishing is attempting to do, and gives us a chance to make products that would not be financially feasible under a standard retail business model.
Plus you don’t lose 20-35% of the gross sales to vendor fees. Even with a Jade Oath subscription payment I lose less than 5% to this kind of overhead.
Jones: With a few projects under your belt and more soon, has the Rite Publishing business model changed much?
Russell: I now budget for one extra map and one extra piece of artwork more than the original outline calls for, so that when a patron comes up with great idea we can turn it into the best possible encounter. Our newest project, a racebook on litorians, will have the option of increasing the wordcount based on the number of patrons we achieve by June 15th.
Jones: What’s the setting for Heroes of the Jade Oath? It looks outrageously cool.
Russell: Heroes of the Jade Oath is the work of Frank Carr, and is the result of a thread he started on Monte Cook’s message board. It’s a huge project; the sheer density of information is daunting — I am estimating 300 pages. My favorite element is the focus on wuxia rather than the samurai drama of, say, Legend of the Five Rings. We have our Japanese elements but wuxia dominates.
If you’re looking for a specific element, I would have to say the Shenxue: a new race that represents the rare union of mortal and a spirit or “shen.” The shen aspects presented in Heroes of the Jade Oath are Bamboo, Cloud, Crane, Dog, Fire, Fox, Hare, Mountain, Panda, River, Snow and Sword.
Jones: Rite Publishing seems to build a lot of flexibility into projects.
Russell: At my very first Gencon seminar when I was maybe 15, Ed Greenwood spoke on how the Realms were richer for the roads taken by other authors. He would not have taken the same paths they chose, but those choices made it a much more dynamic world that appealed to a diverse group of gamers. There is a reason the Forgotten Realms is the one D&D campaign setting that never went out of production. You have to have a certain level of ego to stand up to criticism, but you also have to be smart enough to recognize when someone else has an idea that is just as valid or better.
To use a gamer analogy, you treat each project like a character-driven improv campaign. You have an outline, you have some modular encounters, and some NPCs and/or monsters you are prepared to use. You know where you’re starting and you know where you’re headed, but just because your patrons may decide to go right when you wanted to go left, that does not mean the road taken cannot lead you to the same destination. Like a DM, I am just a developer with a lot of co-designers; the ultimate goal is to make the project entertaining and fun.
Jones: How is the project on Litorians being conducted differently?
Russell: This project is really wide open and has multiple designers but patrons will be able to make pitches to include their material as well. I have also based the word count on the number of patrons we received by June 15th. This project is the most collaborative project Rite Publishing has ever done and I look forward to herding cats.
Jones: What goodies can we expect from the final project?
Russell: I expect a lot of surprises on this one, we have some really talented folks lined up, the previously mentioned Soren K. Thustrup along with Clay Fleischer (Six Arabian Nights), Bill Collins (Tell it To My Axe, Akashic Nodes), Robert Emerson (Esoteric Library), and Hans Cummings (Hala’s Tale). On the artistic front, we have Hugo Solis as our interior artist (Kobold Quarterly and Halls of the Mountain King). Jonathan Roberts has agreed to help us out if the patrons need some cartography. I won’t know what goodies we will have till the designers and patrons create them.
Jones: And why Litorians? What about the race grabs you? Foresee any problems?
Russell: We ran a poll on Monte Cook’s Message board and litorians won hands down. For me it’s the “honor before reason,” proud warrior race character tropes. It’s an aboriginal culture that chooses to live a simpler life dedicated to their principles; I think many of us in the complex modern age wistfully dream of that simpler life.
Problems? Well there is already a hot debate amongst fans of AE and Ptolus having a problem with the litorian racial -2 Wisdom penalty; it will be interesting to see what that debate creates.
Jones: Have you ever encountered litorians in your home game?
Russell: Yes; in my current homebrew, which has been running for two years, one player has been playing the same litorian character since day one. He has an apprentice, who he is training to follow in his footsteps as a tracker and seeker. It has been a great exploration of litorian family and other social ties, and a testament to the role-playing skill of that player.
Jones: Lastly, monster creation… what makes for a truly hellacious and challenging monster?
Russell: Tragedy! What could have been, and how a monster falls from grace, or ends up in a situation where it was previously your ally and is now your enemy through the simple innocent or not–so-innocent follies of the PCs.
You have to be able to convey this to PCs and DMs so monster descriptions are written whenever possible from the monster’s point of view, so the DM can better convey the information to the PCs (and it’s more fun to read than the VCR instructions that many monster stat blocks have become).
On the mechanics side, I like abilities that flow from themes of the monster but bring something new and unique to the game. No more improved grab!
The monster on the cover of Monsters of Verdune is called the Talinet Ur-Wrathi (Spirit of First Wrath). I love the idea that these formally carefree spirits of elemental power were corrupted by experimentation and torture becoming nothing more than avatars of destruction. They now possess the very air, earth, fire, or water around you imbuing them with the power of The Dark (negative energy).
Jones: Which of the monsters you’ve created would you most (or, I guess, least) like to encounter?
Russell: The Taurian from Mythical Monstrosities; it was my take on a playable Minotaur race that was rooted in the original Greek origin story. To me, they are the essence of classical tragedy. I think the whole race would kill me for what I wrote about them.
Enjoy our interviews? Check out the early history of the Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance in our interview with D&D, Marvel Super Heroes, and Guild Wars designer Jeff Grubb in Kobold Quarterly #10.