Interview: Kevin 'Piratecat' Kulp

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General QuestionsPlanewalker Network: First of all, tell us a bit about yourself. What do you do in the real world? Do you have any family? If so, please tell us a little bit about them. How long have you been gaming? Have you always "taken a shine" to psionics?

Kevin 'Piratecat' Kulp: Born in Africa to shipwrecked parents, I was only an infant when my true family died and the Great She-Ape Kala adopted me as her own . . . .

Oh, wait. That was Tarzan.

When I’m not doing game design, I’m an industrial fatigue and alertness consultant for companies working night shifts. In other words, I’m a sleep expert. If a company like a power plant or a widget manufacturer runs night shifts, I come in and tell them how to help the employees *not* fall asleep on the job at 3 am. I also do a lot of seminars on shiftwork, focusing on how to design shift schedules that are easier to work. No one ever believes me when I tell them I’m in the sleep business, but you better believe it comes in handy at gaming conventions! At GenCon, I’m always better rested than any of my friends. Strange side effect, but a useful one.

The first time I ever was exposed to D&D was back at Camp Susquehannock in 1979, when a friend tried desperately to explain the game to me. I didn’t try (or understand) it at the time, but I did read module B1-In Search of the Unknown, and I think my heart was captured. Tilting floors? Cool!

A year later as a Freshman in high school, my friend told me, "You have to come join this after-school AD&D club! Mr. Lincoln, the teacher/advisor, has a ring that causes diarrhea!' A ring that causes diarrhea? Oh yeah, I was hooked. My initial attempt as gaming were somewhat shaky – for the first month I inadvertently rolled a d12 to hit instead of a d20, and my poor monk never landed a single blow – but it was all uphill from there.

I’ve always loved psionics. Back in 1e they were usually used by my friends who wanted to run "power characters," and (with some heavy-handed house rules) they played a major part of my 2e campaigns. It’s been a pleasure to see that continue into 3e as well.

You originally did some work helping Bruce Cordell with The Psionics Handbook. What was that like?

I’m not too comfortable with the label "slobbering fan-boy", but I may qualify. Bruce Cordell has always been one of my two favorite TSR/WotC authors, and his work on The Illithiad (a 2e focus on mind flayers) and the mind flayer modules convinced me that he knew his stuff. My gaming group had been play-testers for the 3e core rules, and when we heard that the psionics book was being planned we specifically asked to play-test it. We got lucky.

The process was astonishingly collaborative. We would get sent the rules to play-test, and four or five members of our group would rip them apart, searching for loopholes and problems. We’d write up pages and pages of notes, which would then get sent back. Many play-tester suggestions were quickly implemented. When he had time, Bruce was even kind enough to reply directly, commenting on particular design choices and telling us why something was staying the same when we thought it should change. By the end of the process, we were helping find errors in the final edited version, refining certain descriptions that we thought were confusing or unclear.

Thanks to play-tester input (all the play-testers, not just our group) and WotC’s willingness to listen to feedback, the final book looks quite different from the first draft. For instance, one of my players found a loophole in a feat that could conceivably give a clever player thousands of power points at high levels. Psychic warriors, who originally had to be chaotic, had their alignment restriction axed. And although psionic powers originally scaled with level, I remember writing a frenzied email to Bruce after sitting on a plane and realizing that a high level psion using only the first level power "concussion" (1d6 per two levels) could inflict some 20 times more damage than a sorcerer of comparable level.

What is it like now, considering that you have become something of the default D20 "unofficial" psionics source among the D20 online community?

I’m not so sure that this is the case, although it sounds awfully flattering. There are a number of talented psionics designers out there. I actually try not to get directly involved in online debates with people who think 3e psionics are underpowered or "broken." Luckily, the errata and addendums that Bruce Cordell has posted on Monte Cook’s web site (and in If Thoughts Could Kill) do a very nice job of tweaking the balance for the psion class. I used to get hammered with emails asking me for secret psionics play-test information; that’s stopped, thank goodness, now that the book is published.

Also, what is it like having a product out in direct "competition", if you will, with the "official" psionics source, Bruce Cordell?

It’s flattering. Bruce Cordell is a friend; he was kind enough to write the introduction for my adventure Of Sound Mind, and you can bet I’m appreciative. Of Sound Mind will actually be the first d20 psionics products to hit stores in print form. OSM is designed for low-level adventurers, levels 1st through 3rd, and works nicely with some tweaking for up to 6th level. In comparison, Bruce Cordell’s excellent adventure is targeted for fairly high-level play. Each adventure is for groups at different stages of a campaign, so I don’t expect that they will especially cannibalize sales from each other.

Tell us a bit about your Story Hour over on the EN World message boards. How did it begin? How do you inspire such dedicated following in your players? Where in the world did the name "Piratecat" come from?

We have an atypical campaign. It’s been running for nine and a half years, characters rise in level about twice a year (once every 10-12 runs), and player turnover is remarkably slow. That’s combined to build a fairly detailed campaign world, rich player characters, and some amazingly fun game-play! The Story Hour campaign logs first began when we had just finished the best game in months; the PCs had just won a brilliant fight against a pirate ship full of sea-going minotaurs, and I was too excited to fall asleep. To get it out of my system, I posted the story on the message boards. I figured it was a one-time occurrence and that no one would give a damn, but my enthusiasm for the game must have carried over into the text.

That story is lost now, accidentally deleted from the boards a long time ago, but it inadvertently started the Story Hour forum. The number of truly inspired campaign stories posted there, from dozens of good GMs, continues to make me extremely proud. My own campaign story hour has a few things going for it; it shows high-level adventurers in an extremely political city, it showcased a psionic campaign at a time before the psionic rules were out, and it benefits from my extremely talented players. I’ve won the Pinnacle Award at GenCon for best fantasy or overall RPGA judge for two years running now, but any skill I have at DMing has largely come from gaming with so many good players and judges over the years. If any of the fun we have during the game gets communicated in the story hour, then hopefully I’m doing something right.

As for the name Piratecat, it stems from my three-legged pet now affectionately called "Tripod." A few years back he was hit by a car, and after months in a cast they had to amputate his foreleg. We promised him at the time that we’d get him a little kitty pegleg, maybe an eyepatch as well. It isn’t a total loss, though; not only does he do just fine on three legs, it’s given us a number of running jokes. For example, last time I took him to the vet, I pulled him out of the cat carrier. The nurse remarked, "Oh my goodness, he only has three legs!" "Hang on," I replied, looking back into the box. "The other one has to be in here somewhere."

Did frequenting the EN World message boards assist in landing you a paying job with Fiery Dragon? And if so, how?

I think it helped by giving me a modicum of name recognition amongst game publishers; when I started chatting with the wonderful guys from Fiery Dragon, they already knew who I was and had an idea of my capabilities in game design. Of course, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t feel a bit odd walking up to publishers and saying with a straight face, "Hi. I’m Piratecat." At times like those, I can only be appreciative that I didn’t pick a really goofy user name for EN World. Wait, did I say goofy? I meant distinctive. Yeah, distinctive.

I think the EN Boards are an ideal place to start for someone hoping to freelance. The vast majority of the d20 publishers frequent them, and the d20 Publisher’s Forum is almost unparalleled for asking questions to publishers or watch for publisher "open calls." In the past, this sort of direct communication would have been unthinkable. In fact, back in the early 80’s, I remember my friends and I daydreaming about meeting Gary Gyxax. Now, if I want to talk to him, all I have to do is post.

Do you like Planescape? Should we expect to see any planar references in the Of Sound Mind trilogy? If you do like Planescape - give us some stories!! (chuckle)

Do I like Planescape? Heh. You’d just have to look at my sagging, overfull bookcase to see. I anxiously awaited each Planescape product with bated breath, and a large portion of our campaign has taken place in planar locations! There have been memorable journeys: venturing into Ribcage to bid on the eye socket of a dead God up for auction, a desperate flight across Acheron to avoid clashing armies of petitioners, tromping across the gears of Mechanus while trying to avoid the Harmonium, a quiet battle of politics with a disgruntled erinyes, and (just recently) fighting degenerate and bestial Githyanki in their besieged Astral fortress, just to find and retrieve a lost Githyanki sculptor. Yeah, I like Planescape just fine.

Of Sound Mind doesn’t have many planar references, though. Nevertheless, it could easily be adapted to a small town on the Outlands with only a small amount of work.

Product-specific QuestionsWhat is it like freelancing at Fiery Dragon?

Great! When I was originally asking around about them, I had more than one person tell me that they’d rather work for Fiery Dragon with lower pay than for certain other publishers at higher pay. That initial report was completely justified; it’s a pleasure to work with competent, ethical, friendly, and damned imaginative publishers. Their products give a tremendous value for the dollar, and I’m proud to be associated with them. I have another three or four projects lined up right now – Of Sound Mind 2 and 3 (mid- and high-level psionics adventures), perhaps some contributions to Mike Mearls’ upcoming Psionics Toolkit, and a secret project that I can’t talk about just yet. You’ll like it, though, I suspect.

What other experience do you have in the freelancing arena?

I had written RPGA modules for years, including a number of Paranoia adventures. I have upcoming products from Chaosium, as well as possible products from several other publishers that haven’t been finalized yet.

Can you give us a general summary of the adventure, Of Sound Mind?

This is tricky to do without giving away too much of the adventure; the slowly dawning realization of exactly how much trouble the PCs are in, and how horrible an enemy they’re actually facing, is a good portion of the fun. There are some nasty twists and surprises, and I’d hate to ruin that inadvertently. If you play through this, I don’t think you’ll be forgetting the ending any time soon.

The PCs come to the small copper mining town of Bellhold. Decades ago, a despotic dragon supposedly ruled the town with an iron fist until it was killed by adventurers. Now Bellhold is a beautiful town well known for copper mining and church bell manufacturing, but people there are acting surly and irritable. Constant headaches and nightmares have plagued them for more than a week. More disturbingly, several village children are recently unaccounted for, animals are acting strangely, and the local adventuring group has gone missing.

No problem for a new adventuring group, right? And then things start going from bad to worse....

My writing style tends to be cinematic, giving DMs fun locations in which to adventure that vary from the standard 10’ wide dungeon corridor. I’ve written the adventure to be extremely portable; it contains adaptation notes for changing the adventure’s focus, for adapting it to a home game, for adapting it to different character levels, and even for using arcane magic instead of psionics. The adventure offers a mix of mystery, tough combat, cool dungeon-delving, and good old-fashioned horror. Some readers will also notice some throw-backs and references to some memorable 1st-edition images.

That being said, the adventure isn’t necessarily easy, and there’s a good chance that a careless 1st-level PC won’t survive. Some monsters might have to be outwitted instead of fought. I like that kind of game, though, and it’s always fun to keep adventurers on their toes!

Does it boast of any interesting psionic surprises within?

Depends what you mean. Assuming that there is a psionic menace at the root of the problem (ahem), I think the revelation of what that menace is, and what to do about it, is going to catch a lot of people by surprise. It isn’t new-rules-heavy like Bruce Cordell’s adventure, though. You’ll see some new psionic and arcane items, a few other rules additions, but no fundamental psionics changes. New powers and prestige classes are more likely to be featured in the sequels.

When you were writing Of Sound Mind, were you focusing more on putting out new D20 rules and setting a new standard therein, or just spinning one heck of a good yarn?

Definitely the latter, no question about it. Of Sound Mind isn’t a rules supplement, it’s an adventure, and a fun one at that!

How does Of Sound Mind stack up against Malhavoc’s If Thoughts Could Kill? Is there any overlap? Is there anything special that we might find in one that is not in the other?

There’s virtually no overlap. The excellent If Thoughts Could Kill is chock full of new psionics rules, and is written for a medium-to-high level campaign where psionics already exists. Of Sound Mind is designed to be the adventure that introduces psionics to a number of campaigns. Different focus, different power levels. OSM boasts beautiful full color cardstock monster counters for every monster encountered in the adventure (along with counters for PCs and NPCs), lots of player handouts, and a strong exciting story full of unusual encounters and memorable fights. Very memorable fights.

With Of Sound Mind being your first D20 product, do you feel any additional pressure in the fact that you have to write an entire trilogy?

No problems there. I have good plots already set for the two other adventures in the series. I tend to like adventures that involve thinking along with the bashing, and I don’t suspect that either of the two sequels will be a disappointment.

When did the folks at Fiery Dragon contact you about writing Of Sound Mind? What was your initial reaction? Have your players been able to play test Of Sound Mind? What have they thought, especially in relation to your "usual" stuff?

After some initial emails, I first met formally with Fiery Dragon at GenCon 2001. As I might have mentioned, I couldn’t have been more impressed. Well, I suppose I could have been, if they had brought me platters laden with dainty sweetmeats, along with a Lidda look-alike to peel grapes for me. Hey, they did buy me a beer, though, and that was enough to cement my loyalty.

Seriously, the d20 industry is in a shakeout, and Fiery Dragon is going to be one of the companies that will flourish. Good products, good editing, good management, free color counters in a number of adventures, and excellent distribution as part of White Wolf’s publishing group (along with such worthies as Sword & Sorcery and Necromancer Games.) My first impression was a good one, and it’s stuck.

Many of my players are current or former professional game designers themselves, so I valued their feedback in play-tests. The initial conclusion? "Great fun, but too deadly." One non-combat encounter which involved climbing down a simple rope had a 57% chance of having one of the first-level PCs, all of whom would have lousy climb skills, falling to their death! Now, I could have put in another two or three ropes and bumped the recommended level up to 6th, but instead I toned down the deadliness to a more reasonable level.

OSM is written to be the kind of module I’d want to actually play or run myself. As a result, it’s pretty close in feel to my normal campaign style.

What method or methods do you use when writing adventures? Are there any special tricks of the trade that you would care to share with us? Also, are there any differences between writing an adventure for someone like Fiery Dragon and writing one for your home campaign?

In my home campaign, I tend to run games from a single page of cryptic notes. That doesn’t work so well for a published adventure, so I had to change my fundamental design process quite a bit. The quality of the actual adventure doesn’t seem to have suffered as a result, though.

When writing adventures, the most important thing to do is write. I know that sounds stupid, but if you don’t actually put words down on a page, you have nothing to edit. Many freelancers strive for 3000 to 7000 words per day, and that’s a good guideline.

I design by first picturing the adventure’s most interesting sequences: exciting fight locations, nasty villains, unexpected twists, and fun encounters. I then string the plot together from there. As a result, it’s unusual to have boring encounters, because the whole adventure is built around an exciting core. This might not be a method that works for everyone, but it works pretty well for me.

How would you suggest the budding adventure or d20 product writer find a publisher?

Keep your eyes open for adventure writer "open calls" from companies like Mongoose Publishing, who have quite a few products planned. Prepare a sample adventure to showcase your work, making sure that it is the best you can do. Expect to do an adventure or two for less than you’d like in order to establish your writing credentials. And don’t expect to get rich! Almost no one writes RPG adventures as their main job, for good reason.

Do you think the "glut" of adventures for the d20 system is a good thing (showcasing creativity) or a bad thing (flooding the market with various levels of quality)?

It’s inevitable, but I think it’s a bad thing. The level of sales for any given adventure is probably a quarter of what it was a year ago. That means that good publishers have to carefully manage their expenses, or risk over-extending themselves. Gradually, we’ll see a consolidation as the less-wealthy and less-creative publishers drop out of sight. Until the competition lessens, though, I think it’ll be hard for individual publishers to have their products recognized to the degree that they probably deserve.

If it helps sell WotC’s products, such as the core rule books, it’ll all be worth it. WotC opened up the d20 license in order to encourage the growth of the industry. In many ways, we live in gaming’s "golden age", and I think a lot of people are having a whole lot of fun as a result.

Future Plans and ProjectionsShould we expect to see more D20 stuff from you in the future (either from Fiery Dragon or from elsewhere)?

You bet. I mentioned I’m writing a secret project for Fiery Dragon, along with two other members of the EN World message boards, and I expect to be writing adventures and rules for FDP for as long as they’ll have me. I have an upcoming (somewhat Cthulhu-esque) adventure called Straits of Chaos written for Chaosium’s Dragonlords of Melnibone’, and might be writing other d20 Call of Cthulhu material for them as well. I’m also in talks with a few other top-tier publishers, although nothing is written in stone just yet.

Do you have any new (non-D20) projects planned?

Not at the moment, although there are some systems I’d love to write for, such as White Wolf’s Adventure!. Plenty of time, though.

Can you give us some sneak peeks into Of Sound Mind 2 and Of Sound Mind 3?

Both of these adventures will be able to be played individually, or as part of a series.

OSM2 is a city-based adventure where the PCs get to juggle shifting allegiances, unknown enemies who may or may not be related, and psionic menaces that want the PCs dead before their secret is revealed to the world. Tying in nicely to Of Sound Mind, it explores the role of psionics in the world of city politics. And trust me, in this particular case politics are *not* boring...

OSM3 should prove to be one of the most unusual adventures yet published for 3e. Designed for high-level PCs, brute force won’t be enough to help them when they confront a psionic mastermind on his home turf! I can’t say too much about this yet without ruining some surprises; suffice to say, it looks to be quite interesting.

Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to sit down with us for an interview. We look forward to seeing much more from you in the future!

By: Brannon HollingsworthImported from a previous version of

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