Sunday, April 26, 2015

Interview: Steven Helt of the Four Horsemen

This time I interviewed Steven Helt, a.k.a. RPG Superstar 2013 and Famine of the Four Horsemen. Steve was also one of my fellow judges on RPG Superstar this year. He discusses freelancing, Pathfinder Modules, products designed by the Four Horsemen, PaizoCon, RPG Superstar, and more!

Welcome, Steve! Could you tell us a little bit about yourself? 

Thanks, Mikko! I'm from Tulsa, Oklahoma. I'm married to my high school sweetheart and we have four gorgeous daughters with warped humor. I've played tons of different RPGs, miniature games, and card games, but Pathfinder is absolutely my favorite. Outside of gaming, I'm a big fan of sports and progressive rock music.

In my day job I'm a field sales trainer for a large insurance firm focused on estate planning and the senior market.

How did you get into RPG design and what kind of projects have you worked on in the past? What have been your best experiences? 

I first played the world's oldest role-playing game in 5th grade. I was massacred but it was so much fun I stuck with it. Over time, I became a GM, spent a little time running a local game store, and ultimately got connected to some really great design talent. I competed in the Iron GM World Championship at Gen Con several years and learned so much in the company of guys like Nick Logue that I developed a hunger for writing and design. I hosted several big events at Gen Con over the years and then won Paizo's RPG Superstar competition in 2013. Since then I've been working hard building a schedule of products to keep working and building my presence in the industry.

In your opinion, what makes a good Pathfinder RPG compatible product? 

I'll just tell on myself a little. I used to be a real snob when it came to publishing companies and third-party publishers. Obviously the open license was a real game changer and the quality of 3PP products over the last few years has really improved. Some of it is the growth of freelancers into their own products, and some is just the focus on finding new talent in the business. I think a great Pathfinder-compatible product follows the model of these better 3PPs. They present their content in a format Pathfinder players expect to see from a Paizo product and they use freelance designers who love and help develop the game to build on that growth. It's a really exciting time for 3PP and gaming in general, and I hope we can all work together to build the hobby and attract new players from every walk of life.

Your list of credits includes two Pathfinder Modules, Tears at Bitter Manor and Plunder and Peril. How would you describe your experience of writing these adventures? What are your personal favorite parts of the adventures? What were the biggest challenges in writing them? 

Bitter Manor was my Superstar pitch, and it was a real challenge. In addition to being the largest product I'd ever written, a lot of personal things in my life conspired to make the adventure a tough project. I got through it and learned so much. I'm very proud of the adventure, and I know people who played it have really enjoyed it.

Plunder and Peril was a different sort of challenge. It was on an even shorter deadline and required close collaboration with designers in multiple time zones (including Australia!). We didn't have a designated leader among the project designers, but we definitely had leaders on the team and we worked well together. I'm very proud of the adventure's creepy conclusion and I felt I could see a lot of growth, particularly in my NPCs.

I'm grateful for Paizo for the contest and these opportunities. Hopefully I've used that opportunity to build a growing career and attract fans for future projects!

When and how did the Four Horsemen get started? Who are the other three Horsemen? 

When I won Superstar, I wanted to be really aggressive in soliciting work from several companies. I know it's more fun to work with other designers, and easier to market a group of writers than to just go pimping yourself out individually, so I gathered a group of friends I knew to be great GMs and designers and we started working on a project. I started referring to us as the Four Horsemen as a sort of joke, but it's no secret that I'm a fan of the old school yugoloths and Paizo's daemons. So it stuck and before long I was pitching work for the Four Horsemen instead of for me and my designer friends.

At this time, there are only three member of the Four Horsemen. I'm Famine. Stephen Rowe is Pestilence and Dan Dillon is Death. I'd like to find a fourth Horsemen, and we certainly have more than enough work. But we have very high standards and War will have to bring something to the table that makes us a more complete team. Something like being a boss on .pdf and layout, or being our primary cartographer. Until then, we all complement one another very well, and we can pound out a lot of good work very fast, so we've been making our mark with various ambitious 3PP products.

If I've understood correctly, the Four Horsemen isn't a traditional 3PP–instead, you design Pathfinder-compatible products and 3PPs publish them, correct? Can you tell more about that? 

You're right, Mikko. We pitch things to different 3PP, and in the last year we have had a few publishers come to us to tackle projects. We want a reputation as fast designers who can clean up a product when other designers bailed on you, or who can tackle that very ambitious project you need in a short time, or who you can trust with a very complicated concept.

I've discovered that I have a gift for creative direction and for connecting talented people. I'm learning the ropes of development and managing other designers for different projects. For now, I am happy to connect the Four Horsemen and other designers to the best publishers for some really exciting ideas.

What can you tell about the products the Four Horsemen have designed? 

We set a goal of working four releases in our first full publishing year and increasing from there. We saw the release of the Genius Guide to Gruesome Giant Templates, Four Flesh Golems, and the Genius Guide to Gruesome Dragons from Rogue Genius Games. We've also written for the Advanced Races line for Kobold Press and signed on as a backer goal for Kobold Press' Southlands kickstarter. So our contribution to Southlands and Advanced Races: Lizardfolk makes for four releases. Earlier this year, Rogue Genius released our largest book yet, the Construct Companion. It's available on .pdf and print on demand, and we are super proud of it. I think it's one of the best 3PP books out there. Best part is how it sets up future projects we want to tie into it.

Even more exciting is the stuff we are working on right now. We have very ambitious pitches into a pair of our favorite publishers, and we are almost finished with a book for Rogue Genius called the Talented Bestiary.

Owen's "Talented" series re-imagines Pathfinder classes and their features. He challenges basic assumptions about the class and offers a variety of options to customize your own brand of barbarian or fighter. He asked us to create a new system for creature design that does the same thing. That was no easy task, but Stephen Rowe took a month away from other design to just break down the creature design and abilities in Pathfinder.

What we're finishing up is a bestiary that not only teaches a new system for designing creatures based on their function inside encounters, but then also offers new looks at almost every monster in the Pathfinder Bestiary, using our system to build them from the ground up. So often, folks will reach out on Facebook or to their gaming group and entertain the idea of a dragon without a breath weapon or a fallen angel with different abilities. The Talented Bestiary will allow anyone—GM or player—to quickly design creatures from the ground up and get exactly what they want from them.

In your opinion, what does it take to be a successful freelancer? What are the most important skills for a freelancer to have? 

Maybe humility. RPG design and publishing is a business and you have to emulate the practices of successful business people. The most common qualities among successful businessfolk are humility, integrity, learning from mistakes, and vision. My approach as a designer, developer, and publisher is to be willing to learn from something even if I don't fully appreciate it. I've learned from GMs I didn't personally like much, but they did something better or different from me. Successful people also know how to promote other successful people and so I've tried to make a lot of connections so I can bond designers, editors, illustrators, and publishers together so everyone involved is a success.

I also dream big. It's hard to be a full-time game designer. So hard that the usual advice for those trying is "don't bother. design part-time and don't risk your family". But I want to get to that point that I am publishing, hiring designers, developing new designers, and ultimately writing fiction while developing games for my own company. Like any endeavor in life: success will require me to work hard, make great contacts, learn from mistakes, and have a vision.

What advice would you give to aspiring freelancers? 

Be realistic. Not everyone can be a designer, but anyone can be if you put your mind to it and are a professional. Those comments about hard work and humility apply for sure. Finally, I have learned that success in anything gets harder over time, not easier. This is true raising kids, selling insurance, maintaining your marriage. Building the Four Horsemen is constant work and a constant learning experience. It could not be easier because of Stephen and Dan. But it is so hard wrangling guest designers, compromising visions from creative people, and keeping pace with the ideas we have. It's fun, but it is work. If it isn't both of those things, you are doing it wrong.

The most practical advice I can give is this: read every word of every thread of the RPG Superstar forums at Learn from mistakes you haven't made yet. Understand the pressures and challenges of freelance life. That is a very encouraging and positive community and veteran designers could learn a lot from that contest.

I noticed you are running a number of events at PaizoCon 2015. What are these events like and who would you recommend them to? 

Most of my events are being run for Wolfgang Baur and Kobold Press. Basically I am running a pair of adventures that should appeal to Pathfinder players everywhere. KP is one of the larger organizations running events at PaizoCon every year, and Wolfgang has a great experienced staff. Probably those events will mostly appeal to fans of his Midgard setting, which I have been doing some writing and developing for lately. I really dig Midgard and think everyone should check it out.

The other event is one I'm running for Legendary Games. I really admire what Neil Spicer and Jason Nelson have created with LG and I encourage everyone at PaizoCon to consider the event. Rumor has it they are kicking off Something Huge and it would be neat to get in on the ground floor with a publisher like them.

The thing I am actually most excited about at PaizoCon is a panel I am doing with Wolfgang. Kobold Press is working hard developing a series of Advanced Races books that offer background and mechanics for players who want to dabble in a nonstandard race. The Four Horsemen have worked on several of these books and I have also signed on as developer for several more. I am really proud of these, and there are some really fantastic ideas. If you want to play a dinosaur-riding cavalier who attacks from any square in his mount's space, or a gnoll sycophant who controls the tribe from behind the throne there are really neat mechanics in these books, including archetype, feats, magic items, and spells. And I'll be in a panel talking about them all with one of the greatest names in game design. Come see us!

You were on the judging panel for RPG Superstar this year. What did you enjoy the most about it and what was the toughest part of it? 

Let me just say, I love the RPG Superstar contest. In many ways I feel the most recent one was the toughest competition yet, with the map round and with a lot of parity across the Top 32. I basically wore out Owen until he made me a part of the contest and I think I comported myself well. Superstar is something the RPG industry badly needed and I think Lisa Stevens is a genius to launch it. It's a blast to give back to my favorite publisher and help encourage and develop young new talent. My favorite round is the encounter round, so I was blessed to judge it. I'd like an even bigger role in future Superstar years, and I'll do whatever I have to to earn that place.

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