Interview with Author and “Hero System” Hero, Steven S. Long
GenCon 2015 is upon us and in celebration of this Gamers’ Pilgrimage I’ll be bringing you interviews from a few of my own industry heroes. This week, game designer, author, and early-20th Century map scholar, Steven S. Long Esquire. I met Steven in person during GenCon 2014 (after having chatted on social media for a few years) and I’m not too manly to admit I was nervous; Hero is my favorite system of all time and playing it had a huge influence on me as a designer and as a roleplayer. Steven’s intelligence, generosity, and enthusiasm for helping up-and-coming designers made meeting him one of the highlights of my first ever GenCon.
Before we get into more detail about what you’re doing now, let’s talk about where you’ve been. Who first got you into gaming? Which game turned you into a life-long fan?
I don’t remember any one person getting me into gaming. After I started reading Fantasy and Science Fiction, I heard about Dungeons & Dragons and was instantly intrigued. I learned that some of my friends in school were already playing or interested in learning to play. I got a copy of the Holmes “blue cover” edition of D&D (whether as a Christmas present or using my own carefully saved up money, I honestly can’t recall), and the rest, as they say, is history.
Early D&D itself could be credited for making me into a lifelong gamer in some respects — some aspects of it, as my first major RPG experience, will always be with me. But I think the real credit has to go to (surprise, surprise) Champions and the “HERO System” rules on which it’s based. That’s the game that showed me what the possibilities for RPGs were beyond class-and-level wargame-ism, that taught me intriguingly flawed characters were more interesting than “perfect” ones, and that gave me the tools that really unlocked my creativity as a gamer rather than forcing me to abide by how the game’s designer thought something should work. It was an awakening that I’m still reveling in over thirty years later.
Do you have a favorite genre to run? How about to play?
To run, it would either be Fantasy, or some iteration of Dark Champions (modern-day action-adventure, particularly of the “costumed vigilantes” type). Fantasy’s always been my first love in genre literature, and its potential for fun RPGing is practically infinite. Dark Champions appeals to me more in some ways, but the sort of “gritty” stories I like to run don’t sit well with some of the people I’ve gamed with over the years, so I rarely get to run it. The two best campaigns I think I’ve ever run, “Hudson City: The Urban Abyss” and “Special Violence Task Force,” were both Dark Champions games (though the former was deadly serious for the most part, and the latter very humorous).
To play — hmmm, it’s hard to pick a favorite. Really what I like is a great group of players, who all really “click” with their characters (and the characters with each other), combined with a compelling campaign. Genre doesn’t really matter. The “top five” or so campaigns I’ve played in during my gaming career include Superheroes, Fantasy (of several different varieties), Shadowrun, and Weird West.
The ironic thing is that I often write gaming books in the hope of affecting what I get to play, and it never works. I wrote the original Dark Champions for the express purpose of getting more people to run the sorts of Superhero games I most enjoy — and in over twenty years since then I’ve never gotten to play in a Dark Champions campaign. I spent two years writing awesome Star Trek RPG books — and I’ve never gotten to play a Star Trek campaign (aside from one PBEM game that sadly died an all too early death). Lather, rinse, repeat.
Do you tend to play a particular archetype of character? Is it the same across genres?
That’s hard to say, because I like so many of them, but if I had to pick one I’d probably say “warrior-mage.” By this I mean a character who combines physical fighting/weapons skills of some sort with the ability to cast spells (typically, but not necessarily, spells that enhance his weapons or fighting abilities). This is a fairly common type of character in Fantasy, and the concept easily transfers to just about any setting that features gaming-style magic (e.g., Shadowrun, Deadlands). It’s a little trickier in Supeheroes, but that genre offers pretty much infinite possibilities so you’re never at a loss for something to play. 😉
What is your all-time favorite RPG (system or setting)? Are there any recent games (past ~5 years) that have impressed you, by either their design or setting?
I’m going to leave the HERO System/Champions out of the equation just to make the answer interesting. I think HERO is hands-down the best RPG ever designed and that everything else is a distant second, so let’s look beyond to the best of the runners-up. 😉 Some of my “old favorites” include:
—D&D (primarily 1E and 3.x/Pathfinder, both of which I’ve played a lot of). The first is sometimes still the best, and in any event nostalgia compels me to include D&D1E.
—Shadowrun (esp. 2nd Edition). Love, love, love the setting; hate most of the rules. (Though to be fair to the designers: I tend to strongly dislike “dice pool” systems in general.) One of the great regrets of my RPG freelancing career is that I’ve never gotten to write a Shadowrun supplement.
—Deadlands. Love the setting, love the way the rules help to enhance the “feel” of the game.
In terms of “new stuff,” I confess I don’t pay as close attention to the overall industry as I used to, for a whole bunch of reasons. But I’m not completely out of the loop (yet!), and as part owner of Indie Press Revolution I get to see a lot of new and interesting games each year when I help run the company booth at Origins and GenCon. In recent years I’ve been particularly intrigued by Evil Hat’s FATE System, Jason Morningstar’s Fiasco, Robin Laws’s “DramaSystem” rules in Hillfolk, Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet’s take on the D20 rules in 13th Age, and the whole “Trail of Cthulhu” line from Pelgrane Press. (Disclosure: I am friends or professional colleagues with many of the people involved with these products, and have written for some of them. But they’re still awesome games!)
What did you do before going pro?
Prior to becoming a full-time game designer I was an attorney, and that prepared me for RPG work in two important ways. The first is the training in analyzing laws/rules, which comes in very handy when working with a relatively rules-heavy RPG like the HERO System or D&D.
The second, and far more important, is honing one’s writing skills. I was fortunate enough to work one summer with a law firm that understood something most don’t: a lawyer’s job, no matter what his specialty or practice, involves communicating clearly and persuasively in writing. So they made a point of working on writing skills with all their attorneys, even summer associates like me. The difference in my writing between the day I started there and the day I left was breathtaking.
What made you decide to crossover from casual gamer to professional designer?
An ad in Adventurer’s Club magazine, the Hero Games house organ back in the Eighties and Nineties. They solicited articles for an upcoming issue focused on martial arts. Inspired by a story in The Shadow Strikes! (DC’s awesome Shadow comic from the same period), I’d recently written up several fictional martial arts and their backgrounds for my own campaigns. I wrote ICE a letter pitching these as an article (this was some years before the advent of e-mail), and they responded positively.
And so the writing bug bit. I went from there to other articles, then contributions to a supplement, then to deciding I could write an entire book! It turned out I could, and I’ve been writing them ever since.
What projects have you worked on recently that have excited you? What can you tell us about what you’re working on now?
Over the past half year or so I’ve worked on several projects that I’ve really enjoyed. On the gaming front I was thrilled to participate in the creation of the Wraith 20th Anniversary Edition (though unfortunately health issues forced me to cut back on my involvement). On the fiction front I was equally thrilled to have stories accepted for (or be asked to contribute a story to) three anthologies filled with some top-notch literary talent (plus me, dragging down the curve 🙂 ). Unfortunately I’m not sure how much has been made public about them, so I can’t really say more at this time.
For 2015, my plan is to try not to take on so many outside assignments and instead focus on just a few big projects that hold particular importance for me. One is revising my novel, a chore I’m dreading a bit because “revising” in this case probably means “rewriting almost in its entirety.” (But that’s how one improves as a writer, I suppose. 😉 )
The second is Mythic Hero, an enormous book on world mythology for gaming that I’ve been writing (off and on) for over three years. It’s already 400,000 words long and I’m probably half done at best, but it’s the pure definition of a “labor of love,” so I intend to keep cranking away. I don’t even have any idea how I’ll get this book published, but by all the gods described in it I am going to finish it and make it available to the world somehow. 😉
Another, if I can succeed in Kickstarting it, is a rules-neutral book describing the Fantasy world created by the participants in the seven Worldbuilding panels I ran at GenCon last year. They came up with a fascinating world, and the idea is to release it under a Creative Commons license so anyone who wants to can use it for RPGs or fiction. If the Kickstarter raises enough money, I also want to write a guidebook to worldbuilding in general. None of the books that I’m aware of approach the subject the same way I do, and I think my methods and perspectives have a lot to offer gamers and writers. So I’m really hoping I’ll get to write that book. If the Kickstarter doesn’t work, maybe I’ll write it on spec and see if I can find a publisher. 😉
Beyond that I have several project ideas stewing around in my head, and I’m always open to a pitch from someone interested in hiring me to work on a cool book or game of some sort. 😉
Can you tell us a little about your heroes in the industry?
That’s a great question but a tough one to answer, since the RPG industry is filled with admirable people. Aside from the founders and early guiding lights of Hero Games, I’d say Shane Hensley, George Vasilakos, and Rich Dansky. I could go on and on about how awesome each of them is, but that would make them blush, so just take it from me.
Have you gotten to meet/work with them?
Yes, I’ve been fortunate enough to work with all three of them. Astonishingly, they all still talk to me.
You are one of the most prolific game writers I’ve ever seen. How many games/supplements have you written? How do you balance your time between work, family, friends, conventions, etc?
I haven’t counted a full list of my credits in a long time; these days I usually say that it’s “around 200 books.” In a decade or so maybe I’ll revise it to “around 225,” or something. 😉
Balancing work and other things isn’t too difficult for me because there really isn’t any balance. I have no wife or family. I have lots of friends, but most are introverts like me, so we’re content to get together on an infrequent basis (though I do have a weekly gaming group). Conventions I regard as an aspect of work, though in some respects they’re also a sort of “working vacation.”
So, in short, my life is mostly about “work.” But that’s OK, because I love what I do and am eternally grateful that I keep getting to do it.
Both technology and the gaming industry change every year. Is the jump from gamer to professional different today than it was for you? If so, how?
I think it is. When I got started in the early Nineties, making the jump meant convincing a company to take a chance on hiring you or paying you for your freelance efforts. Usually you started by writing magazine articles and worked your way up to books. These days there aren’t nearly as many RPG companies or opportunities to write for them. Instead, I think the typical way to break in today is to self-publish a product of sufficient quality that you attract readers who like your work.
Better? Worse? I dunno. But that’s the twenty-first century for ya. 😉
I didn’t know about your prose writing until I ran into you at the GenCon 2014 Writers’ Symposium. How long have you been writing prose professionally? Where can we get a list of your non-game-design published works? What do you think about the GenCon Writers’ Symposium as a support for prose and/or game design writing?
I started working on fiction three or four years ago. Prior to that I’d never thought about it much; I had plenty of writing work to do for people who were paying me, so writing fiction “on spec” didn’t hold much interest. But I finally decided I wanted to give it a shot. For me, at least, writing fiction is a lot more difficult than writing RPG material, and it uses different “writing muscles.” I wanted to stretch those muscles a bit and develop my skills.
It hasn’t been easy (though I have to admit I probably haven’t worked as hard at is as I could have). Trying to get fiction published meant going from an industry where my very first book was a best-seller and my work had been known and respected for twenty years to an industry where… well, let’s just say that track record of success didn’t repeat itself. 😉 I’ve gotten a lot of rejection letters and had to work hard at improving my skills and style, but I think it’s been worth it. I’ve reached the point where I’ve gotten about a dozen short stories published (or accepted for publication), and now editors I know are beginning to approach me about contributing to anthologies. There’s still a long way to go before I’m a “successful fiction writer” by my own standards, but I’ve definitely made progress.
You can find a list of my published fiction credits to date at http://www.stevenslong.com/fiction/ — I don’t update my website nearly as often as I probably should, but that’s one page of it that I do keep scrupulously up to date.
I think the GenCon Writers Symposium is a great resource for fiction and gaming writers, whether they’re relative newcomers (like myself) or established professionals. The breadth of its programming and the number of incredible authors involved mean it’s a fantastic place both to learn and to network. And if you sign up for the right seminars, you might even get to hear me talk a bit! 😉
Life and the Future
What are your plans (or hopes) for 2015 and beyond?
Aside from working on the “big projects” agenda I described above, I’d like to continue improving my fiction-writing skills and get more of my fiction published. It may be a futile quest, since the sort of fiction I prefer to write — good old-fashioned Swords and Sorcery and Epic Fantasy — doesn’t seem to be in much demand these days. But as long as I’m enjoying myself, I’ll keep at it; that’s what counts.
Outside of game design, what other hobbies and interests do you have?
Aside from what you might expect (I love to read; I enjoy watching movies and TV in my home theater), I collect several things that interest me. The first is fountain pens. I write a lot of my fiction in first draft longhand using a nice fountain pen on high-quality paper — the feel and pace of it really seems to feed my creativity. Typing it into the computer when I’m done amounts to the first editing pass, since I make changes and corrections as I go.
The second is maps, travel guides, exploration books, and related materials from the 1920s and 1930s. This is an interest that arose out of writing gaming material for “Pulp Era” RPGs. If you want to know where the police station was located on Gibraltar in 1934, or how the streets were laid out in Singapore during the Twenties, I can show you on an original map.
The third is tarot cards, whose artwork and symbolism have long fascinated me. One of these days I’d like to design an Urban Fantasy RPG that uses tarot cards as its task resolution system.
Last question. Some people say they can understand a person by the books they have on their shelves. I feel the same way about games. What are your Go-To games, or what are you playing now?
RPGs: HERO System, Pathfinder/D&D 3.x, homebrew systems
Board and card games: King of Tokyo, Eclipse, Small World, Citadels
Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us, Steven, and keep us up to date on all those incredible projects.