Steve Townshend is a freelance writer (both for D&D and his own fiction) and actor living in Chicago. We recently had the chance to interview Steve over email about the release of the new D&D Demonomicon book, of which his name shares the cover with Mike Mearls and Brian R. James. We also asked him about story in D&D games, a subject with which he has a lot to say.
How did you first get into D&D or RPGs in general?
I started playing D&D around 1982. I was about seven years old and we were living in Michigan, taking a trip to our grandparents’ house. When we arrived, my cousins David and Anne were jumping up and down, saying, “Steven! Steven! Aunt Kim has this great new game called Dungeons and Dragons. You wanna play?”
They dragged me down to the basement where my aunt had set up her game (the blue box basic set). We rolled up our characters. I was a fighter named (who else?) Luke Skywalker. A spell was cast over all of us that day as we listened to the rumors surrounding the Keep on the Borderlands, chilling rumors like “Beware the eater of man.” We drew our weapons and went down into the Caves of Chaos.
As we fought our way through the dungeon, our aunt illustrated how the ability scores worked in the game. She’d say, “Well we can’t give the key to David because he’s too clumsy and he’d drop it. We can’t give the key to Steven because he’s too dumb and he’d give it to the monsters, so we’ll have to give the key to Annie.” I was thrilled to play a game where you could theoretically do anything you wanted. It was heaven.
When my parents found out the game was for ages 10 and up they said I couldn’t play D&D (or own it), but I couldn’t help myself so I played it away from home. I played in on the back of the bus, on the playground, at friends’ houses, and most of all with my cousin Dave, the most diabolical DM I’ve ever known. When I finally turned ten, my grandma on the other side of the family gave me the Elmore red box set for Christmas. My contract with my parents went something like, “As long as you can separate fantasy from reality, you can play this game.” Worked for me.
Before my grandma Townshend passed away last October I went up to Wisconsin to visit her. I told her I was writing D&D books, something that had begun with her giving me my first set. I think that made her proud, and I’m glad I was able to share that with her before she passed.
What was your start into D&D freelancing?
The first time I was published in a D&D publication was in the mid-90’s when I was submitting contest entries to Polyhedron, the RPGA publication. I placed in a couple—one was for designing a sword, another was for designing an NPC sidekick. For that one I was supposed to have received a copy of Polyhedron #1. I’m still waiting for my copy to arrive…
I submitted fiction to Dragon Magazine before that, but none of it was published and for this I’m thankful. It was some pretty terrible teen angst prose. All my stories were like that then.
It took me until 2000 to get back to submitting articles for Dragon. Acting was my primary vocation and my one true love and it occupied the whole of my life. I still wrote buckets of words, but it was all for my own purposes. One of the players in my game, Michael T. Kuciak, had written a few articles for Dragon, and actually knowing someone who had done it gave me the motivation to give it another shot. In 2001, between theater gigs, I submitted an idea for an article based on death monsters. Dave Gross, the editor of Dragon at the time, asked for something more grounded in real world mythology. I went in the direction Dave asked and published an article on the death gods of India, China, Persia, and Vodou that appeared in Dragon #288. I think that was my first foot in the door.
Right around when I turned thirty I grew tired of touring shows and wanted to write more. I turned my attention to fiction and did less and less professional theater. That’s when I began submitting things for the Wizards of the Coast site (like a miniatures scenario for Steve Winter and blogging for the Wizards Community at Gen Con). In 2007, there was an opportunity for a game design job on the D&D site and I applied. I imagine my previous published stuff garnered me a design test, which I passed, and ended up in the final pool of applicants. I had a phone interview with Andy Collins and Bill Slavicsek. One thing Bill remarked to me in that interview was that my strongest interests seemed to be with ‘story.’ Though I thought it would cost me points I didn’t refute it. How could I? It was absolutely true. The application process was fun and I went far, however that job went to my friend Peter Lee, God of Miniatures.
The following year, another design job was posted and Andy Collins let me know about it since I’d applied for a similar position the previous year. I applied, got a design test, passed, and had a screening interview, but I’m not sure anyone was ever hired for the position. Instead, I received a wonderful e-mail from James Wyatt offering me freelance work on Monster Manual 3 under the direction of my D&D design idol, Mike Mearls. I said yes, of course.
What was your role in the Demonomicon – just monster creation, or did you help shape the intertwining backstories and demonic wars?
Demonomicon was hands down the most collaborative book I’ve worked on in D&D. Mike Mearls floated a number of ideas to myself and Brian R. James and we discussed them at length. In the beginning, however, I think my primary role was “dunce.”
Mike is extremely oldschool, and knows the 1st Edition stuff backward and forward. Brian is like a walking encyclopedia of all things D&D—he knows his abyssal history to the finest detail. And though I think I’ve been playing D&D about as long as those guys, I told Mike that the Abyss and its demon lords always felt like a club I hadn’t been invited to. I knew who all the major players were, sure—but I didn’t know about all of their intrigues and battles published across all the different sources spanning four editions. I’m a homebrew guy to the core.
It seemed to me that a kind of demonic soap opera was frequently emphasized in books and articles that covered the Abyss, and as a result those materials were always lost on me. I wanted Demonomicon to begin with a solid introduction to the Abyss, where all of that information was summarized concisely in one place so that outsiders, newcomers, and longtime players like myself could find the rest of the book accessible. Otherwise, we’re only writing for a small minority of longtime fans (who already know it). So I was the guy on the project who said, “Huh?” whenever something especially referential came through.
Perhaps Mike planned to clarify those details all along, but I like to feel like I got to be the acid test of ignorance. If you could explain it to Steve, it might just make sense. Looking at Demonomicon today, I see the book begins by telling you what demons are and then takes three pages to concisely detail the history of the Abyss—a perfect general overview for anyone who wants to dive in.
WotC has already covered your creation of the Incubus, and the new Demon Queen Oublivae. However, they didn’t cover the most important 4e conversion to date: the Ixitxachitl. How hard was it to convert the legendary vampire manta ray?
It was as hard as pulling out the monster manuals from each edition and reading Ed Greenwood’s old Dragon ecology on the creatures. Since the previous versions didn’t have many abilities at all, it was just a matter of giving them some 4e traits and attacks. In a move that may or may not prove to be controversial, I gave them fly 5 (hover) alongside their swim 8. I wanted them to be usable around water as well as within it. Like, you’re in a dungeon and there’s a pool; you want to put some ixitxachitl in it, but the PCs spot them first and now they don’t enter the pool and try to eliminate the ixitxachitl from range. They’re useful in the rare aquatic adventure, I guess, but shouldn’t the primary priests of Demogorgon have a presence in all adventures concerning the Sibilant Beast (or at least more of them)? Giving them a fly speed means they can actually leave the water to attack intruders.
Story it how you will—maybe they can’t be out of water for more than a minute, or maybe they can fly overland—at least they can appear as threats in more adventures concerning Demogorgon now, and that was my goal. If you think flying ixitxachitl are dumb, then in your game they can’t fly. Fixed!
It was Brian who pushed for the ixitxachitl to be included in the book.
For obvious reasons, a good portion of the Demonomicon focuses on the locations of the Abyss, including a few Abyssal cities. What advice can you give to a DM who wants to take his party into the Abyss for a few adventures, or even most of a campaign?
Tough question. To me, the Abyss is the worst, most evil, corrupting place in the cosmos. If I were using it as part of a campaign, I’d want to enforce that feeling, so I’d set up a series of adventures focused on a single objective within the Abyss and then get the PCs out of there—slay a demon lord, rescue a lost soul, discover a forgotten secret, destroy an evil artifact at its source, etc. I’d plan a few stops within this inhospitable domain, places the PCs could take a moment to catch their breath before diving back into the horror. Maybe they meet a fellow traveler, or ally temporarily with an extra-planar creature who’s stranded in the Abyss and shows them a place they can take shelter—a creature they wouldn’t normally trust, but under the circumstances they have little choice.
What I wouldn’t do is provide many (any?) places where the PCs feel comfortable. It’s a tough balancing act, letting them rest a minute before plunging them back into danger, but I think once the heroes accept that there’s a refuge within the Abyss, it loses its horror. They don’t need to be fighting all the time—endless combat wouldn’t be interesting, and all stories need alternating highs and lows—but the heroes need to always be at risk. They need to feel that this environment is out to kill them and the many mysteries within it are to be gained only at great cost to body, mind, and soul. I’d constantly search for ways to taint the characters and drive them darker and darker.
If I were running a campaign in the Abyss, I’d start it in the Barrens, which were designed partially with that purpose in mind. While adventures in the Barrens might take the PCs to the ruins of every city that has ever stood, a campaign in the Abyss might begin in one of the small civilizations upon the surface of the Barrens. These civilizations can be as large or small as you like, but have the feel of a dark version of a regular campaign world and the people there are unaware they dwell in the Abyss. The demon-haunted wilderness around these places seems to shift and change at various rates over the years because these civilized centers gradually drift; the immediate surroundings stay the same—the “bubble” is that big—but the larger environment changes. It’s easy to become lost there.
Even if the campaign begins in a civilized town here, the feeling of hopelessness and the constant threat of annihilation by hordes of demons, undead, lyncanthropes, wasting plagues, or mutant alien monstrosities should be pretty pervasive. Life is a sad veil of tears for the people of the Barrens who, in the end, are only a crop Oublivae cultivates to slake her appetite for destruction once they grow to size.
At any rate, I’d offer a little respite in the Barrens if the campaign were set in the Abyss. Once the characters had risen high enough in level, they could escape the Barrens and access the rest of the Abyss. In that kind of campaign, I’d present the Abyss as the vortex it appears to be—things come in, but nothing gets out. Getting out of the Abyss might be the whole goal of the campaign. Maybe they can make deals with demon lords as they become powerful, serve as soldiers in demon armies against the devils—maybe make deals with devils in order to escape…
In such a campaign, I’d avoid making the city of Morglon-Daar, Azzagrat, or any settlement in Thanatos (or anywhere else) too hospitable, unless the characters end up working for one of the demon lords that rules the layer. Again, I feel that if the Abyss becomes a place where the heroes can happily relax, it loses its teeth.
Tell us about your home campaign- are they sick of fighting demons and the other monsters you’ve designed? Did they even survive the playtesting process?
My home campaign is set in a medieval town where the heroes are all human constables trying to keep order amongst angry laborer guilds, influential religious organizations, merchants, and the upper class. They hold the middle ground between the commoners and the privileged, and they answer to a reeve that never hesitates to tell them how worthless they are (all the while promoting them and putting greater resources at their disposal). While they struggle to maintain the town, fey beings work in secret to undermine its order and bring it down from within. Elves, eladrin, gnomes—they’re all considered evil (and have thus far proven to be so).
It’s a very medieval setting. Low magic. Low effects. I use the 4e game mechanics as written but flavor down anything too spectacular. It’s a return to a style of play we were fond of in 2e. When magic and monsters do appear, they’re all the more magical or monstrous. My whole heart is in that campaign, and the four amazing players who participate. I love having a four-player group. Everybody gets a chance to shine and there are fewer schedule problems. They’re a tight unit and each player brings a lot to the game.
Besides the banderhobbs, which were inspired by a creature from my homebrew setting, I’ve thus far only used two of my creations in home games—an autumn nymph, and an evanissu demon design different from the one in Demonomicon. In the campaign I described above, nymphs would fit well, and so would the catoblepas and the kraken (one of the characters is a gypsy sea rat whose culture reveres/fears them). But I have no plans for demons right now, unless I get my hands on Gamma World. Then I’ll have to run a campaign amongst the Barrens’ ruined cities of time, scattering mutants, technology, and nuclear wasteland and mixing it in with my favorite D&D baddies!
Here’s a list of ten things that I tend to think about.
- Interview each player about his or her character. Find out everything about them—parents, lovers, shames, yearnings, vulnerability. This material will fuel half the adventures in your campaign.
- Character hooks. When creating an adventure, start with the idea that inspired it, and write a lot about that. Then, and equally important, figure out which one or two PCs’ story this is and customize the adventure toward those characters’ wants, fears, hopes. This focuses the adventure and makes it run like a television episode or a comic book. On the next adventure, focus on one or two different characters so everyone gets spotlight time. The other characters support.
- Three things happen. In an adventure, about three things happen and these three events or encounters form the backbone of the “episode” or session. This kind of three act structure makes it easy to come up with an adventure quickly (like over a lunch hour). Sometimes I plan too much, or develop in the wrong direction. Coming up with three basic plot points for a single session takes a lot of the pressure off. I find that if an adventure session has that kind of internal logic, I feel better improvising around it, and also letting things go where they will, since I have a road map with all the major routes marked. Those three significant events usually work themselves out into beginning, middle, and end. The gaps between them are often filled by the players, with exploration and role-play.
- NPCs. Create LOTS of NPCS. Sketch them out in a few lines. Include bare bones information and always include a character flaw or vulnerability/need/want. An abundance of NPCs lying around will always save a game that’s spiraling out of control. When NPCs appear onstage, story happens. Think of The Big Lebowski. What’s the plot? It doesn’t matter. The movie gets all its mileage from the characters, and every bizarre character that walks onscreen has something interesting to offer.
- Narrative. Michael T. Kuciak used to change his narrative style every time he described something from a different PC’s point of view. It’s a lot like the effect of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones. As the DM, you want to understand every character as best you can. When you’re describing a scene to the gypsy sea rat, describe it in his terms. When you’re describing a scene to the religious fanatic farmer, point out the details he notices. When you’re describing the scene to the captain of the guard, describe the details she notices. This takes practice, but not only is it well worth it for the value of immersion, but the players feel like you really care about their stories and choices and they will invest in the game.
- Mood. When building encounters think about mood. Again, you’re trying to affect the players and their characters emotionally. So your descriptions of scenes, creatures, the weather… everything in the scene should contribute toward the mood you’re trying to set. Describe in sensory terms. In a horror scene, think of the best ghost story you ever heard anyone tell and try to evoke that mood and storytelling style for the players. In a forest glade inhabited by a unicorn, you’re going to try to create an entirely different mood. The old Ravenloft boxed set had a fantastic section on this topic.
- Dice schmice. Take a look at the character sheets and the PCs’ ability scores. Then look at the challenges for the adventure. If a character wants to do something and their ability is sufficient, it happens. Let’s not dicker around with stuff that doesn’t matter, or withhold information you actually want to give to the PCs but they failed a roll and now you’re struggling figuring out how to get the game moving. Let the story take over. Let the characters’ good decisions win them auto successes even when their scores suck. Use that rule in the DMG2 that awards experience for every 15 minutes of solid role-play. Think of the time outside of combat as a second game consisting of character choices, almost like an advanced Choose Your Own Adventure book (or Endless Quest book, for those who remember). This “story game” requires a different kind of strategy, and interesting choices are rewarded with interesting developments in the story.
- Group storytelling. Speaking of which, read that whole group storytelling chapter in DMG2. Let the players describe stuff you don’t know or care about. Let them paint the world and its people so that they inspire you with newer and better ideas that you DO care about. Practice saying yes and practice honoring your friends’ ideas and making them look good. If you can, study long form improvisation. Long form improv will show you how story moves are game moves and how to make them (A word of caution: if your group takes up long form improv, players like Shad—aka Navarious, level 11 elven ranger—will start doing bits while you’re trying to DM).
- Steal everything shamelessly. Nothing is original. If something inspires you, grab it, tweak it for your own purposes, and then put it in the game. By the time you’ve worked that element into the circumstances of your plot, it will have changed so much it will have become your own idea, unrecognizable as what it was. My friend and longest-running player, Lowell Kempf, is a phenomenal writer who plays his characters to the hilt. Lowell’s original character Balon Chezek is an old gravelly-voiced, foulmouthed, chain-smoking caravan guide who compares everything wicked and ugly in the world to his estranged ex-wife and adopts a fatherly stance over many of his companions. This guy was by far the most unique character in the party. I asked Lowell where he came up with the idea for Balon. He said, “Oh, he’s just Red Green mixed with a story from an episode of M.A.S.H.” Now, I’ve since seen the Red Green show and Balon is absolutely nothing like him. Balon has evolved as his own character.
- Don’t panic. I’ve been DMing for twenty years. I’ve acted before audiences of thousands across the U.S. and Canada. And yet, every time I stand in front of my players—my best friends and one whom I’m married to—I get anxious, I worry, I stress out. What if it falls apart? What if they go in a crazy direction? What if? What if? What if? Everybody stresses. Let it go and learn to enjoy being surprised by the events that take place in your campaign, even if unexpected turns stress you out when they occur. Loosen your grip on the plot and let the characters play. The best adventures I’ve run have been the ones that went horribly wrong, including the one that spawned the 4e yeti. Learn to love the thrill of the moment and take every surprise as a gift from the players, telling you an interesting story about your world.
Any tips on breaking into the world of D&D/RPG freelancing?
My advice is to try to write for DDI or for another RPG publisher. Read, write, and study writing in order to get better. Play RPGs and try a lot of different games—board games, card games, miniatures games, video games, and improv games. Be kind and courteous to everyone and try to understand and sympathize with opposing views in regard to the games you love.
Explore your other interests and see how you can bring that specified knowledge into D&D writing. I was a professional actor specializing in classical theater and improvisation; improvising and dramatizing story is what I carry over from that experience. When Peter Lee was hired by Wizards of the Coast, he came in with masterful miniature painting and modeling skills, and now he’s in charge of the line. I recently worked on projects with two former seminarians at Wizards of the Coast, with Matt James, a combat veteran, with Sterling Hershey, an architect, and with Dave Chalker, an editor, publisher, and son of a renowned sf author! All of those experiences contribute a unique point of view to the writer’s/designer’s style, I think. Don’t be afraid to use what you know.
Perhaps the best advice I’ve seen on working in the industry has been summarized by one of my former teachers, Mick Napier, on his web site. Go there and click “improvisation,” then click the link “how to not get hired at Second City.” In the Flash video that follows, replace the words “Second City” with “RPG publishers” and “improv” with “RPGs.”
Finally, other than Oublivae, who’s your favorite badass D&D demon?
I think my true favorite appears as a reference in the Dreaming Gulf (Demonomicon, page 85). On that page there’s mention of horrific demons that enter dreams, forcing the dreamer to create a focus object in waking hours that, once completed, opens a portal to the Abyss. Then the demons haul your screaming soul through the portal and your body vanishes. This demon didn’t make the book, but I fervently hope they eventually appear in another source someday.
I’m also quite pleased that my Ray Harryhausen-inspired “guardian demon” appears on the back cover of the Demonomicon. With the banderhobb on the back of MM3, I’m 2 for 2 on art orders I’ve written that received back cover designation. Sweet.
But all things considered, I think my favorite might have to be the balor. I wrote the art order for this huge 1.5 page chapter intro just because I wanted there to be a balor in the book. I couldn’t resist including one in the Mouth of Demogorgon delve as the main adversary. Last summer, when the huge balor mini was released at Gen Con, I lurked at the Wizards of the Coast booth until they’d sell me one. The balor is the definition of badass.
Thanks to Steve for taking the time to answer our questions. For more about his D&D work, including extensive write-ups on the monsters he worked on for Monster Manual 3, be sure to check out his Gamer Blog. Demonomicon is out now at Wizards Premier Stores, and enters wider distribution next week.