Gamers' Paradise: An interview with freelance gaming writer Steven Townshend

Steven Townshend

By Kristofer Poland
Steve Townshend is a freelance gaming writer. His stories and adventures have graced the pages of some of the biggest role-playing games publishers in the world. He spoke with us about some of his favorite works, his upcoming projects, plus some other games that have recently devoured his ever dwindling free time.
Ghettoblaster: You’ve penned a great adventure that will be featured in April’s Dungeon magazine. What can you say about that?
Steve Townshend: It’s called “Owlbear Run.” It’s kind of the brainchild of Christopher Perkins, who’s the producer and has been editor of the magazine. He’s DM to the stars over there and a great guy. I’ve worked with him before and love him. I sort of started out with the idea that it was an April humor adventure. I’d written sketch shows, but I’d never written a humor adventure for Dungeon. They tossed me a couple ideas of things that they needed done. I was excited to try that because I just hadn’t done it before. So I spent a month trying to figure out how to write a humorous adventure. Because what’s funny to me isn’t going to be funny to whoever’s running it. Probably not. You know what I mean? All you could do in that way is make a whole bunch of jokes in the text. The jokes probably aren’t going to communicate over to the players without being cheesy. 
GB: That had to be a challenge. History tells us that humor in games can be incredibly difficult to successfully pull off.
ST: That’s what I thought. Another thing that people always do is go meta and make in-game jokes. Like jokes about the genre or about the game. That’s another way that I think you’d immediately jump to. I realized that the only way that I could find to do it was to make an adventure where the situation was preposterous enough, but it was kind of just weird enough to be real. It was just a wild romp. At one point you have to take the owlbear from point A to point B and all the crazy adventures that happen when you’re there. A number of crazy stuff happens, and eventually you have to end up taking a detour through the Nine Hells with the owlbear. That’s not inherently silly, but the outrageousness of the fact that you have to be doing this is just going to give rise to finishing the adventure and saying, “Well, that happened.” (laughs) I pitched it, and they said no. It’s not inherently humorous. It’s more like just an interesting design where there’s a lot of random stuff. Chris especially wanted to focus a lot more on the actual ordeal of moving the owlbear from one place to another. The way I wrote it he might as well be a bag of golf clubs. It didn’t really factor into the gameplay. So what I’m doing now is a lot more mechanical design. I’m saying, “How does it work? How do these random elements interact with each other?” Today I was going through it, and I was like, “Well, what if you got to choose the owlbear? And there were five of them. And there were a number of variables that influenced your choice? What if all of them had the names of racehorses?” You’re thinking about it like a race, and all these racehorses have these weird names like Lucky Day and stuff. Today I was naming the owlbears. Terrible Tharizdun is one of them. There’s another one that’s Lucky Lady or something. I think there’s going to be a little bit of humor in that, but it’s not deliberately silly. It’s just kind of imitating the racehorse thing that we’ve got going on in the world. Right now I’m not really thinking a lot about really deep character motivations. I’m thinking about how to design this race to make it work and make it so that there are a lot of interesting, replayable variables. So that people can play this over and over and have a different experience and a lot of choice. Lots and lots of choice.
GB: What was the project that really got you going in the gaming industry?
ST: The first book I ever worked on for D&D was Monster Manual 3 for 4th Edition. I did a monster in there called the banderhobb that was a new monster that Mike Mearls said, “Hey! Design some new monsters for me.” I used something based on a monster in my personal gaming group’s campaign. It came from a childhood nightmare. I wrote it in a different way. I wrote it evocatively. That was Mike’s focus on Monster Manual 3. He didn’t want it to just be, “This is the monster. This is where the monster lives. The monster has five eggs in gestation.” He wanted it to be a story-based book. That was what I had always wanted to do with D&D, and when I wrote that I was the right person in the right place at the right time. Anything else I wouldn’t have done as well at or been as interested in, so that got me work on other books. I did Monster Vault: Threats to the Nentir Vale, which came out last year and got a ENnie Award for best monster product. Anyway, stuff like that I really like because the way that monsters have been written in the past few years in 4th Edition have been really story oriented. That’s from Monster Manual 3 on. That’s not the first two, which were a little like, “Here’s a picture of the monster. Here’s a bunch of stats.” It was a huge complaint about 4th Edition when it came out. I like stuff like that. In Heroes of the Feywild, which was a book about faeries and classes that you could play, I wrote a lot of Celtic mythology and short stories I put in the text for that. That’s the sort of stuff I like. I think my favorite stuff I’ve ever written for D&D has been these little fairy tales that I wrote for Heroes of the Feywild. They’re just 250 to 300 words, and they’re meant to be like Grimm’s fairy tales. That’s my favorite stuff because it makes you feel something.
GB: Let’s talk about some of the specifics regarding the other projects that you’re working on and that are currently being released. You have an article in the February issue of Dragon, right?
ST: Yes, I do. I have an article on the wee fey. It’s now called “Fey of the Wind and Wood.” It’s kind of based on Heroes of the Feywild. The assignment was to do 4th Edition stats for creatures that had not been covered in 4th Edition, like the grigs and the brownies and the sylphs and pixies. Pixies were an actual character class, but they didn’t have a monster entry. First, I said sylphs aren’t tiny fey. I gave them a shape changing power. They’re wind and air fey. Wind and air are malleable, so it made sense to me that they would be able to shift form. I really liked doing the fairy tales in Heroes of the Feywild. Because they’re trying to do a lot more branded stuff, they’re trying to not create a whole lot of new mechanics for for it. There’s already a glut of 4th Edition mechanics anyway. The focus was to do more story-based stuff. So I did stats for them, and I did entries for them that were really story-based. With each one I included another fairy tale in the style of a Grimm’s fairy tale. I loved those, so I’m really excited about those. After that “Owlbear Run” will come out. 
GB: What about the continuing ten week series with the War of Everlasting Darkness?
ST: James Wyatt, who’s somebody I respect deeply and love to work with, asked me if I’d do it. I was just like, “It’s Forgotten Realms, and I haven’t really been savvy on Forgotten Realms since I lived in Ohio in the early ‘90s. It’s drow-centered. There’s a lot of people that really know this stuff backwards and forwards and love it. So maybe you want to get somebody else to do that. Like Shawn Merwin because he’s a great adventure writer.” He’s written a ton of stuff for the living campaigns. They said, “Alright. How about you and Shawn?” So my attempt to avoid it was foiled. I worked with James and Shawn on it, and we had a blast. James said, “You don’t really need to know a lot about Forgotten Realms and drow. Here’s what we’re going to do.” I wrote four or five sessions for that. The last one I did was a siege. It’s definitely my favorite of the ones that I did. You have to organize a town for a siege. Those are really fun because they’re really different from dungeon and wilderness exploration.
GB: Was that the most exciting part of working on this series? 
ST: The siege happens midway through. You have to save a town. You come into a town, and the town has just been decimated by trolls. I wanted to set it up in a number of different ways. You have to run reconnaissance missions and find out what the trolls are up to. Then you find out that most of the infantry have been killed, so you have to recruit from the commoners. You have to train them and try to whip them into shape. You have to find a leader, but the guy who usually leads the town leaves the cavalry in disgrace. Nobody will follow him because of all the stuff he did. You have to find out about that. It becomes a question of, “Should I reject this guy, or should I make him leader?” 
GB: I’m picturing the training montage from Army of Darkness.
ST: Somebody posted something like that on the message boards! They said that if it doesn’t play the training montage music from Team America, they’re going to be really disappointed. It’s funny because I didn’t think about it that way. We have one encounter’s budget of experience to spend on this session, so you can’t have one big battle because that’s the whole session. How do you divide it up? That’s when I get excited about mechanical design: when I find out that I have parameters that I have to stick to. It’s the mental exercise of trying to figure out how to make it work. That’s when I get in my little lab and tinker and get excited about mechanics and stuff. “How do I convey this in a story sense mechanically?”
GB: Tell me about your contributions to Pathfinder.
ST: I got to work on Ultimate Campaign, which comes out in the spring. It’s the only Paizo book I’ve done, but I did a whole, big section on background. You can randomly determine your background, or you can select it. There’s a part in the background generator where you can determine your alignment and the problems and challenges that have faced you emotionally and given you vulnerabilities. I mean character vulnerabilities, not like being allergic to poison ivy. Weak points that may trigger you. I’m really hoping that that stays in and turns out well. When you’re playing a game if you have a character weakness, not a stat weakness, but something that will push your buttons, that’s where you really get into the deep role-playing.
GB: What can you tell me about your involvement with the Steamscapes system for Savage Worlds? That’s a fairly open system like GURPS, right?
ST: Yeah. It’s being licensed by Pinnacle. It’s a Savage Worlds game called Steamscapes North America, and it’s “hard steampunk.” I had to ask what that was. I guess you have some steampunk that has magic and Victorian fantasy and stuff. Hard steampunk is just the science of steampunk. You don’t have any mysticism or anything like that.
GB: It’s like hard sci-fi.
ST: Exactly. I know the guy who’s putting this together, and he first asked me a couple of years ago if I wanted to help work on the game. I said, “Look. I don’t really design whole mechanical systems. Plus, I like magic.” (laughs) A year later he said, “Tell you what. Will you write a story for the game? 5,000 words. I’ll pay you five cents a word. It can be about anything you want, and you can sell it to anybody else that you want as long as it doesn’t interfere with my ability to publish it.” I like Battlestar Galactica, so I wanted to write about robots. I wanted to write about an automaton. I found out that automatons existed in his Steamscapes world, so I was like, “Great! I just have to write about an automaton in America.” He gave me the maximum amount of leeway that anyone could possibly give me. So it was impossible for me to say no. I worked on this story and tore my hair out about it, and when I finally turned it in to him I think it was the best thing I’d written for anybody. It makes me sad because it’s not a big press thing, but it is probably so far the most polished thing I’ve done. I’m immensely proud of it. I’ve tried to sell it to the biggest markets and haven’t had any success there. But I’ve only tried twice, so I have a lot more to do. It’s called “Songs Without Words” which comes from some of the music that’s in it. I hope that people find it and play the game and read the story. I always do my best, but that’s probably the best I’ve done so far.
GB: In Ghettoblaster #34 you mentioned Fiasco as a great example of an unconventional role-playing game that has the potential to make us all better gamers. Any other examples of similar games?
ST: When I went to Gen Con I bought just a couple things last year. One of the things I bought was called Polaris (Chivalric Tragedy at Utmost North). It’s a role-playing game that’s a small paperback volume. It’s said to be a game of chivalric tragedy. The only things that happen in this game are eventually you die or you are corrupted and possessed by demons. The game is set up for four people. You’re playing your knight. The person sitting across from you is your antithesis and the NPCs that are against you. The person to your right is playing NPCs that have authority over you or minor male figures. The person to your left is playing is playing your emotional connections or minor female figures. When you’re done with your scene you rotate to the right, and the next player is playing their knight while you play their emotional connections. You’re doing this amazing group DMing game, and like Call of Cthulhu you know how it’s likely to end. You’re not trying to get powerful because you’ll either die or get corrupted by demons. They suggest you play it by candlelight. We did, and we played this for six weeks. It was like a campfire thing. I started thinking about D&D after that. We’re always so invested in making our characters awesome and powerful a lot of times. What’s so bad about failing and dying if you do it interestingly?
GB: Right. Any others?
ST: The other game I bought was called Microscope. In that game you create the history of a civilization. It could be galactic. It could be medieval. It could be whatever. You jump back and forth through time and focus in on scenes that happened. Then you zoom out and define an era. Then you zoom into the era and play key events. Just playing these different kinds of role-playing games opens you up to different ways to design games and to play them. I’ve been playing a lot of Euro games too. When we were designing Madness at Gardmore Abbey I thought what if I make each encounter a little separate mini-game in and of itself. I started taking one mechanic and throwing it into this encounter. So it’s not just a fight versus orcs. It just kind of spices things up. I guess that’s my advice on different mechanics. Try a bunch of different stuff and integrate it.
Be sure to pick up issue 34 of Ghettoblaster for more on Steve’s gaming roots, writing process and views on the gaming industry.