Geek Native Patrons voted Steve Bean Games into the spotlight for April. Here we are, near the end of the month, and this article is only now going live.
Why? COVID-19 and its disruptive influence in our daily lives. It got in the way. It’s also a subject we return to later as Steve Bean, of Steve Bean Games, has kindly made some time to talk to Geek Native and I asked what he thought the long term impact of the lockdown might be.
Steve’s an interesting publisher to talk to. He’s a veteran of good causes; of not-for-profit education and I would wager that gives him an intriguing and intelligent insight into the hobby.
Ultimately, we end up discovering Wizard Realms, but first thing, first. Let’s start with some of the basics;
Who are Steve Bean Games?
How the company come about?
Steve Bean Games is a “boutique” tabletop gaming publishing business I started in 2011. I had taken a self-funded sabbatical from my now 30+ year career in non-profit education. I was burned out on non-profit work and was in a “what am I doing with my life”-style mid-life crisis. So I left my job, moved to a sort of farm-“commune” called Emerald Earth where some friends lived in Mendicino County, CA and tried to find my next direction.
My friends are organic farmers so I tried my hand at that, thinking “everyone needs healthy food” but found that I am too much in my head for farming. I ALWAYS loved hobby niche gaming of all types – RPGs, board games, war games, minis games – and had been intensively writing scenarios for the Axis & Allies Miniatures WWII skirmish game and “publishing” them in that game’s community content channels (that community is an AWESOME group of guys, btw).
Could it be that there’s just one guy who does all the work?
SBG has a staff of one – me; its owner/designer/publisher. But several people have made contributions SO important to what I’ve tried to do that I would say they’re fully “staff” of SBG.
George Feldman is co-designer and chief developer at SBG. George is the perfect person to act as developer – he’s always willing to playtest (and recruit others to playtest) and he’s a tactical genius so he makes for the perfect tester – if there’s a way to break your game, George will find it. He loves games more than anyone I know, and that’s saying a lot in this circle, so he’s the best marketer I know – he’s never selling anything, he just genuinely wants to invite anyone who wants to play a game into his social circle. He’s was co-developer on AUTO-DESTRUCT-O-RAMA! our fast-play, beer-and-pretzels, post-apocalyptic miniatures car combat game. (A game I’ve VERY proud of, btw; sadly we published it right before Osprey put out Gaslands and we couldn’t compete with their brand recognition and marketing and distribution channels).
At the beginning I had an idea for a digital social game (I’d been running tech ed programs teaching Latina middle school girls how to create simple computer games to try and get them interested in careers in computing) and my dear friend Robyn Wyrick put a bunch of “sweat equity” into trying to code it. It never got off the ground (we produced a glitchy alpha version) but he has been a huge inspiration for me in trying and failtering and picking yourself up and trying again.
Terry Olson and I were acquaintances in grad school and reconnected when we both “came up” as DCC “staff writers” at the same time. Terry is my “friendly competitor,” who, quite honestly always seems to be a half- or full-step ahead of me in everything, which motivates me to “up my game;” and he’s SUCH a great guy that I often envy him but never resent any of his success.
Brandon Raasch of BARD Games has been a mentor for me in how to get serious about running a small, independent game publishing business (even though I never HAVE gotten serious…)
What are you most well known for, and what do you think you should be better known for?
To the broader gaming “public” I’m probably known for being a “staff writer” for Goodman Games. As an independent publisher I’m probably best known for NULL SINGULARITY, an existential space-horror one-shot module for DCC that was inspired by James MacGeorge’s BRILLIANT Black Sun Death Crawl.
NULL was one of those things that writers often describe as having “written itself” – seeming to flow magically and effortlessly out of my fingers and into product form. Honestly, if I never write anything again I will be totally happy, having written and self-published NULL.
In the California Bay Area convention scene I’m known for AUTO-DESTRUCT-O-RAMA! which drew big numbers at Kublacon and Pacificon for the five years before I dropped out of that scene. Honestly I wish George and I were known more for developing that game. We developed it from Owen Cooper’s home-brewed Axels & Alloys: Dork Future game, and it is literally my favorite minis game I’ve ever played (and I’m a BIG minis gamer). Unfortunately, as I said, it got completely overshadowed by Osprey’s publication of Gaslands, which was also developed from Owen Cooper’s rule set.
Looking into the future, SBG is going to be known for offerings for narrativist RPG rulesets than what I’ve written before: Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) and Forged in the Dark. (FitD) These kinds of games are, for me, the absolute apex of RPG design so far and I’m going to see what I can do to contribute to pushing the envelop on the quality-of-experience of these kinds of games and growing their popularity and player base.
I just released a free beta-version adventure for Dungeon World on Drive Thru RPG called In the Shadow of the Ruby Tri-Septicon. “Ruby Tri-Septicon” is a tribute to Rush Lyricist and drummer Neil Peart. Mr. Peart’s work was a great influence on me in my adolescence and I continue to listen to that music today, so his passing last year really affected me. I wanted to do something to honor him so I wrote my first-ever piece for DW as a tribute based on some of his best-known lyrics. The adventure opens with the PCs discovery of a hidden underground monastery-city where deformed mutants live an enlightened existence under the guidance of an order of angelic priests. The city’s social order is threatened from both within and without and the PCs’ choices and actions will determine its future.
What’s important to Steve Bean Games?
My “day job” career is focused on designing and implementing educational and social programs intended to solve social problems; my semi-realized passion is visual art. I think SBG is defined by the intersection of the core elements of both of those other “callings.” To be honest, SBG is less of a game publishing business and more of a mad scientist’s laboratory/workshop I use to tackle design questions around gaming that I get intrigued with (okay, obsessed with).
I’m one of those people who plays a game, even a game I love, and ALWAYS thinks “I can make this MORE of a game I like to play.” In the beginning SBG was SO focused on my own personal interests in game design that it pretty much failed as a game publishing enterprise and a business on a lot of levels. But this failure was is was a GREAT “null result” or “research finding” from my early days.
What I realized is that I was so busy making the games and game products that I wanted to play, and writing them to please MYSELF, that I hadn’t bothered to identify or cultivate a particular audience or a market. This realization has pointed me towards an additional point-of-view in my work leading me to ask: “Is there a market for this game/module/product?” “Who is the market for this game/module/product?” and “How could I tweak this game/module/product to appeal to more gamers?” These became interesting design challenges themselves on the business and communications side.
If I hadn’t gotten interested in these questions as design challenges, I think I would have gone on blindly making games for ME and wondering why I had no audience.
A last thing that’s important to SBG is that I love to connect with other designers and play in each others’ proverbial “sandboxes.” A lot of my products: NULL SINGULARITY, Shade Hunter (for Julian Bernick’s Nowhere City Nights DCC setting), In the Shadow of the Ruby Tri-Septicon, AUTO-DESTRUCT-O-RAMA! and Slave Drones of the Fantas-ti-plex (for Reid San Filippo’s Umerica DCC setting) came out of being inspired by other people’s work and RPG “universes.” I think this is very natural for creatives – to draw inspiration from others.
Dungeon Crawl Classics
While researching this article, this blogger came across Steve’s name and Dungeon Crawl Classics often. There’s a loyal fanbase around Dungeon Crawl Classics, with lots of people sharing content and opinions, so the range is clearly getting something right.
Why do you think Dungeon Crawl Classics have proven to be so popular?
The Dungeon Crawl Classics product line is the CONSUMMATE example of DOING EVERYTHING RIGHT in independent RPG publishing. Joseph Goodman is, all at the same time, a dyed-in-the-wool RPGer, a fanboy of old school RPGs and the “silver age” of the industry, a lover of books and publishing and a businessman extraordinaire.
The DCC product line and gaming experience is produced by AMAZING talent: Harley Stroh, Michael Curtis, Doug Kovacs, Peter Mullen, Stefan Poeg, Terry Olson, Stephen Newton, Tim Callahan, “Taco” Jon Hershberger, Dak Ultimak, Jen Brinkman, Jeff Goad, Julian Bernick, Brad McDevitt, William McAusland, Mark Bruner, Daniel J. Bishop, David Baity, Bob Brinkman, Jim Wampler, Dieter Zimmerman, Jon Marr and probably two dozen other people I could name. The combination of Joseph’s passion, skill and acumen, the talent of Goodman Games’ staff and core-creatives and the close-knit and welcoming community that the staff and DCC’s fans have built around the game has made it a very special thing.
The game itself hits all the right notes: OSR but with some modern and innovative mechanics, “clever bits” like the 0-level funnel; it offers tons of nostalgia for its over-40 core market . The product content is EXCELLENT – the concepts, writing and art are top-notch and as a book-lover, Joseph makes sure that the physical product quality is platinum standard.
Joseph has a clear vision for the success of the game and keeps strictly to that vision, but he and his core creative team also keep up on new innovations in the publishing and RPG industries and try out lots of creative approaches so the product line NEVER gets stale – in fact I think the fans have come to expect unexpected and exciting things from Goodman Games EVERY year and so far the company has not only never failed to deliver, it seems to keep raising the bar.
Joseph is committed to the success of brick-and-mortar FLGSes as the bedrock of our hobby. The Goodman Games staff and the early DCC community coalesced around a deeply ingrained value of welcoming people into the hobby – I have seen DCC become the entry point into the hobby for SO MANY gamers because they were led by the hand into it by a friendly DCCer. I have seen SO MANY DCC players become first-time GMs because of the support and encouragement of Goodman Games staff and the DCC community. THIS is the heart of Goodman Games and DCC and a BIG part of why the game has become popular.
Alongside Dungeon Crawl Classics, I also dug up an unusual story about Steve. I had to ask…
It’s totally true.
When I was 12, (1980) my mother married my stepfather and we moved 30 minutes northeast to Stanfordville, NY – this was also the year my parents gave me the (newly-published) D&D Blue Box for Christmas. After we moved I started 7th grade at Stissing Mountain Junior-Senior High School in Pine Plains, NY, nine miles north of Stanfordville.
There I met Matt Abrams, who was in the same grade as me, and his brother Mike, who was two years older. Mike and Matt were D&D enthusiasts and Mike was a GREAT DM (he used to make player handout maps that looked like parchment by baking them in the oven). They really, REALLY got me into the hobby. Their dad was much more of a historical miniatures wargamer and his actual day job was running the US factory for the UK company Miniature Figurines Ltd!
Minifigs Ltd. was best known for their historical minis, especially Napoleonics, but when I became friends with the Abrams, the company had just scored a contract to produce an official line of D&D minis (which was either paralleled or replaced by the official line by Grenadier Miniatures).
The factory that Matt and Mike’s dad ran occupied a long, low, one-story building with a loading dock behind the Abrams’ house. In a town best known for its high school football team and Future Farmers of America chapter, I often wonder how many Pine Plains residents even knew they were hosting one of the centers of the gamer geek industry in the US!
Anyway, I was also good friends and RPGed with a guy named Seamus McQuade. Seamus somehow found out that the factory threw out the molds for the minis in a dumpster right outside the building so one night we went over and dumpster dived a whole bunch of molds.
They were two-piece rubber discs – IIRC the same size or a little smaller than a record album and around an inch thick when the two halves were sandwiched together. There was a hole in the top of one half into which the heated, liquid lead-pewter was poured. You could see the vent lines where the liquid metal would flow from one fig to the next to cast multiple figures from one mold.
So Seamus and I melted down some old figures we didn’t want anymore to see if we could make new ones. They came out horrible! We later learned that these were centrifugal molds – at the factory they spun them to make the liquid metal flow to all parts of the mold – and that they only threw them away after they were worn out; so we never would have gotten good-quality casts no matter what we did!
The future of Steve Bean Games
It’s often interesting talking to publishers (or mad scientists) about what they think is coming around the corner and towards the hobby. Right now, though, with lockdowns in force around the world, it seems an even more pertinent time to ask.
How do you think the tabletop industry will cope with COVID-19 and the aftermath?
“The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” I can’t remember where this quote comes from but I think it applies. This pandemic IS a big deal, and a weird-and-disruptive experience for sure, but I think its potential long-term impacts are being sensationalized by a media industry that does that with everything.
With all due respect and sympathy to anyone who has, or will, lose a loved one to COVID-19, in the US it’s going to barely beat out the seasonal flu in terms of mortality rate and it won’t come anywhere near heart disease. Five weeks into sheltering-in-place in California and I can still go to the local store and buy Twinkees, so the manufacturing an supply chain for non-essential goods appears alive-and-well.
What I’ve seen of the industry from (playing at) having a business in it is that there are a few “big players” – who might even be seeing an uptick in sales from us all sheltering-in-place – then a lot of “little players” who are struggling to make it, probably because of the even larger number of “hobby businesses” like mine that operate permanently in the red.
I HOPE that if the “big players” are seeing better sales because gamers have more free time sheltering-in-place, that the “little players” are too. Otherwise my fear is that COVID-19 will drive the “little players” out of business, which would be a shame because I see the ‘little players’ as the industry’s innovators. .
“Globally” I don’t think we’d notice the difference because “hobby businesses” that are growing in success would probably “level up” and fill the void, but we might be looking at losing some great people in the industry and some great games as a result and the worst part is the financial distress. that those people – our friends and colleagues – will be in as a result.
I think the industry overall – putting aside specific companies – will weather the COVID “storm” relatively well.
The popularity of the hobby has been increasing in a BIG way over the last decade and it’s core consumer base is HARD CORE. The problem for many industries post-COVID will be that consumers who lost their jobs will be tight on money, but hobby-gaming is one of the best individual – and family entertainment values around on a dollar-for-dollar basis, so I don’t think it’ll take as hard a hit as movie theaters or restaurants. Streaming services are starting to overtake it in terms of dollar-for-dollar value but I think after COVID people are going to be really effing sick of screen time and want to hold physical things in their hands (like books and dice) and be face-to-face; that could be VERY good for the hobby.
In terms of what’s important to Steve Bean Games – design challenges, inspiration and most recently playability – I’m interested to see what the cultural impact of COVID has on the creative direction of gaming in general and RPGing in particular.
Will there be more direct references to plagues in story lines? Probably, but there will be more subtle influences on story lines as well and I’m curious to see what they are.
This has made me want to dig out one of my old notebooks and get back to work on a DCC module I sketched out where the party gets magically transported into the body of a king, Fantastic Voyage-style, in an effort to determine the cause of an illness that has incapacitated him and try to heal him where all other efforts have failed. I originally outlined that adventure when I was sick in bed with Montezuma’s Revenge on a vacation in Belize in 2017. I pitched it to Joseph Goodman when I got home and he passed on it, but maybe now would be a good time to re-pitch? (I hope that’s not too much like “ambulance chasing…?”)
What are you working on next?
I’m VERY excited about my current project. It’s a new RPG called Wizard Realms. The mechanics are a hybrid of what I think are all the parts of from PbtA and FitD selected to support the concept and gaming experience, which I think people will be enthusiastic about.
Like every SBG project, this was driven by my “paired imperatives”: a gaming design challenge standing in the way of the existence of game that I want to play. My design goals for Wizard Realms are: a game that centered on wizards and wizardry where magic is flexible, powerful and epic.
If you’re like me you grew up always wanting to play a wizard. It took real commitment to do that with the RPGs of the 80s – poor armor, low hit points and one or two spells were the order of the day. Cast at the right moment, your PC’s spells were usually the difference between party success and failure, but it meant that your PC had one or maybe two moments in the spotlight and spent the rest of the session hiding behind a fighter, throwing daggers – something you can’t imagine Gandalf, John Constantine or Harry Potter being relegated to doing.
Later games like 4E equalized the playing field in terms of PC power, but at the cost of offering magic systems that didn’t feel “magical” because everything was combat focused and the combat systems were more like minis skirmish games than RPGs. The creative use of spells that were the hallmark of a great RPGer playing a wizard in the early days had been sacrificed.
I intend for Wizard Realms is play like the way a Dr. Strange comic book reads. The magic system is going to be distinctly NOT Vancinan and completely open (think Ars Magica with narrativist mechanics replacing the “crunch”) – as a tool to face the challenges in the story, your wizard’s magic will have will be potent and flexible.
The setting is going to be completely cross-genre:techno wizards with laser gun “wands” will adventure alongside alien psions and Elminster clones alike. Every PC wizard will be the archmage of her own realm and in that realm her power level is epic – I mean mountain-exploding- , rain-of-fire-level epic.
In her own realm, a wizard PC will be more powerful than the other PCs, giving her the spotlight. When the action moves to another PC’s realm the spotlight will swing to that PC and when the PCs, who are all members of a “regional” wizards council, venture into the “meta-realms” they will share the spotlight equally, forced to cooperate to defeat opponents powerful enough to threaten one or more of their realms.
The realms will provide opportunities for domain management and domain play and I’m borrowing the PC-NPC-PC triangle story driver from Apocalypse World and adapting it into a PC/Realm-Demigod Patron-PC/Realm triangle thing to create some competing interests between the PCs to create some narrative tension with their roles as co-members of a wizards’ council with a duty to protect all the realms in their region.
Steve Bean Games
- Steve Bean Games’ website.
- Steve Bean Games on Facebook.
- Steve Bean Games on Twitter.
- Steve Bean Games on DriveThruRPG.
Latest Steve Bean Games products
Over at DriveThruRPG and Goodman Games, we can see what Steve Bean Games’ most recent publications are.
- 1st March, 2020: In the Shadow of the Ruby Tri-Septicon: A Free Dungeon World Tribute to Rush Lyricist & Drummer Neil Peart.
- 23rd October, 2018: Slave-Drones of the Fantas-Ti-Plex (DCC).
- On Goodman Games: Shade Hunter: A 2nd Level Adventure for Nowhere City Nights.
- On Goodman Games: Dungeon Crawl Classics: The Black Heart of Thakulon the Undying (2018 Gen Con Program Guide) .
- On Goodman Games: Dungeon Crawl Classics #91.2: Lairs of Lost Agharta
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