Monday, March 9, 2009

Interview With Pathfinder Editor-In-Chief James Jacobs

We were fortunate enough to have the Editor-In-Chief of Pathfinder, James Jacobs, agree to an interview with us. He took the time to discuss the development and design of Pathfinder, office life at Paizo, gaming company rivalries, the term "backwards-compatible", and other interesting topics. Read on for for the full text of the interview:

-First, what's your background with D&D?

I first started playing D&D back in 5th grade in, I guess, about 1981, using the old "Blue Book" version of the rules. My 5th-grade teacher was my DM—he split my 5th grade class up into 5 groups of 5 or so and had us all make up characters and ran each group through a dungeon of his own design during lunch recess. We'd do one encounter area per session, and the deal was that our group couldn't move on to the next encounter until someone in the group wrote up that session's encounter as a short story. And since all five of the groups were adventuring simultaneously in the same dungeon, and we were all looking for the same sword (the Power Sword!), it was sort of a race between groups so it was a good thing to get your session written up as soon as possible. My group was lucky, I guess—I loved writing and always wrote up the adventures fast. In any event, I've been playing the game ever since.

-So how did you end up with this gig at Paizo?

When Dungeon first came out, I immediately started sending in adventure proposals. I got my first adventure published back in Dungeon #12 at the age of 14—getting paid to write something pretty much locked in my career at that point. After I finished college as an English major at UC Davis, I moved up to Seattle in 1995 with the vague idea of getting a job at Wizards of the Coast. A few years after I moved up here, WotC bought TSR. A year or so after that, I was working as a temp at WotC helping to do all sorts of odd jobs—I was working in the sales department in order fulfillment when Pokemon hit and WotC hired me (along with thousands of other folks) full time once it became apparent that Pokemon was going to be pretty big news, requiring pretty big numbers of employees.

Once I was working at WotC, I just sort of insinuated myself into games and discussions on the company intranet and all that. I was already gaming in Jim Butler's weekend campaign, and when the playtesting for 3rd edition started I got to be part of that from the start as well. Periodically, an opening in R&D would open up and I'd apply for a job, but I never got the job. I was pretty good at getting into the final round of interviews, though! In between those job postings, I continued to write articles for Dragon and Dungeon, and the combination of hitting deadlines, being able to write, and actually being an employee that the magazine editors could come talk with culminated in me being offered my first book job by Mike Selinker—I ended up writing about 50,000 words or so for what was going to be the official World of Warcraft D&D hardcover. But after some disappointing numbers from their Diablo and Starcraft RPG games, WotC decided to avoid the licensed game route and the D&D Warcraft book got cancelled. It was a bit weird to write that much for a book only to have it cancelled while it was in editing, but the R&D guys told me that happens to everyone and that I was lucky to get my first cancelled book out of the way so soon.

Anyway, even though that book was canceled (it later ended up being published by White Wolf's Sword & Sorcery Press, though), the R&D guys apparently remembered my work and were impressed enough by it that I started getting other job offers. Races of Faerun, Fiend Folio, Frostburn, and so on. All of those books made it to print, which is cool.

But even so, and even though I kept applying for jobs in the magazine department and in R&D, I kept missing out by one or two people. Often, it was a close friend of mine that got hired for the job instead, which was weirdly frustrating (I was disappointed to not get the job but happy my friend got the job). At about the time the magazines were let go and Paizo was founded to pick them up, I got laid off by WotC and then re-hired as a contractor 3 months later to do my same job (but now without benefits, yay!), at which point I was starting to get pretty frustrated. I applied to another R&D position but the job went to someone else (again, a friend—Jesse Decker). But this time, there was a vacancy left—the day after Jesse accepted the job, then-publisher Johnny Wilson at Paizo called me and offered me a job as an editor on Dungeon. I accepted the job on the spot, and two weeks later was working on my favorite magazine, first as associate editor and eventually as editor in chief. The magazines went back to WotC a few years ago, but I stayed on to help head up Pathfinder, and here we are!

-For the uninitiated, can you briefly state an overview of the main design goals for Pathfinder?

When Wizards of the Coast switched to 4th edition, the previous edition of the game went out of print. The core rulebooks would still be available in stores, but not forever; they would eventually sell out and be gone. And at that point, even though the rules were still totally viable (and indeed, readily available online for free as the SRD), you can't maintain a line of RPGs without having a core rulebook in print. And we couldn't just reprint the SRD, because two vital pieces of the puzzle (how to generate ability scores for your character and how to level up your character) were not open content. So instead, we decided to take a stab at doing an OGL evolution of the rules, something that builds off of the core SRD mechanics but different. This way, we could not only keep a core rulebook in print, but we could also address a lot of the parts of the 3.5 rules that either needed to be fixed, strengthened, clarified, or expanded upon. In so doing, we also hope to keep the rules compatible with previous editions of the game—you can use all the 3rd edition products you already have with pretty minimal fuss with the Pathfinder RPG.

-What might someone notice as the differences between Pathfinder and D&D 3.5?

I guess the biggest thing is that there are more options. We really tried to limit the changes to ones that were "additive" rather than taking things away. So now, if you play a sorcerer or a ranger or a bard or a fighter, there's just more choices to pick from. Characters are slightly more powerful as well—especially at lower levels, where we increased the power a bit to keep folks from being accidentally killed by random damage, to give characters a bit more survivability. This also had the happy side-effect of making the ECL +1 races like tieflings and orcs easier to introduce into a game, since the base races had been upped a little bit in power so that they weren't so underpowered anymore compared to these races. As you get higher level, though, the power levels start to drift more towards what most folk are used to in 3.5.

Another big change is the consolidation of combat maneuvers. In 3.5, all these different tricks (grapple, trip, overrun, bull rush, etc.) had different rules and mechanics. Jason Bulmahn, the lead designer for the Pathfinder RPG, came up with the "Combat Maneuver Bonus," or "CMB." With CMB, all of these combat stunts work the same, and all of a sudden you only need to know ONE rule in order to grab someone, trip someone, break someone's weapon, run someone over, disarm someone, or do anything else crazy in combat.

There's a lot of smaller changes too; like a more elegant method for clerics to blast or command undead that doesn't just make them run away (and therefore makes them harder to track down and defeat), additional options for classes, a bunch of minor tweaks and balances to spells, consolidation of some skills (Spot and Listen are now "Perception," and Move Silently and Hide are now "Stealth," for example, which lets skill points go a lot farther), a lot of new feats, and so on.

But the game should still look VERY familiar to someone who plays 3.5. Jason's done a GREAT job keeping the spirit of the game intact while making it easier or more interesting to play.

-Was there any point where you felt like 3.5 had "jumped the shark" or needed a redesign?

Not really... although there was certainly a point where I felt that the rules bloat made 3.5 so unwieldy that it needed a trim. Rather than redesigning the rules, I think it basically just needed to go on a diet—there were too many options and there was too much power creep going on, and things were getting just out of hand. This is a natural result of constantly producing new rules books, I guess—after a while, you cover everything that really needs to be said and in order to keep producing books, you have to grow increasingly eccentric and obscure with the new offerings. I suppose the point at which the new rulesbooks finally started to be "too much" for my own taste was with "Magic of Incarnum." It's an interesting idea, but it didn't feel "D&D" to me.

-What revisions or new rules in Pathfinder are you most excited about or proud of?

The bard, hands down. Bard's been my favorite class in 3.5 for a long time (replacing cleric and druid from 3.0). The new things bards can do in the PF RPG are a lot more in line with some of the stuff I give bards in my home brew, and it works pretty well. That's the only class I really helped Jason design... and that's mostly because he knew I'd cry for weeks if he didn't let me help him with the bard.

-How much would you say you've gleaned from the Open Beta in terms of changes you'll likely be making to the finished product? How much discussion did the playtest boards generate around the office?

That's impossible to say. We had close to 50,000 folks download the Beta rules, and the playtest boards have over 110,000 different posts. The playtest is now over, but the feedback we got from it is INCREDIBLE. A lot of it is helping us refine the Beta into the final rules, and those boards have generated an amazing amount of buzz around the office over the past several months. It's been a pretty hectic time at Paizo lately!

-Pathfinder will include all the races and classes from the 3.5 PHB, albeit in a retooled form. Are there any other 3.5 classes (OGL or otherwise) you'd like to eventually see get the Pathfinder treatment?

Well... the ones in the SRD are the only ones we can really give the "treatment" to. I'd like to see a samurai and a ninja eventually, of course, along with some sort of swashbuckler and some sort of witch. We've used Green Ronin's thaumaturge and unholy warrior classes (from the Book of Fiends) a few times in Pathfinder too, so it'd be cool to do something with them since they're both open content. A full-blown 20-level anti-paladin class would be fun.

-We should see a GM's screen for Pathfinder by year's end, right?. Any hints out there as to what other Pathfinder supplements you may have up your sleeve in the near future?

I hope so! A GM's screen would be pretty cool! We haven't announced one yet, but hopefully we'll be able to do something along those lines by the end of the year. We DID just announce a lot more products for the end of the year at, including a 64-page "Cities of Golarion" book, "Classic Horrors Revisited," and a regional handbook to the River Kingdoms. Those should be fun!

-What's the nicest compliment you've received regarding Pathfinder Beta?

We've had a lot of compliments from customers and fans who, like us here at Paizo, didn't think that 3.5 was dead. So it's not really any one compliment, but the fact that there's SO MANY other gamers out there who are interested in what we're doing that's really cool. When we first did the open Beta, I was expecting to see 3,000 or 4,000 downloads. As I said above, we got over ten times that amount. It's pretty incredible.

-On the opposite side of that, any really good zingers that stand out?

None that I can remember! I try to focus on the positive side of things, but there have certainly been a lot of negative things said about the game. None of them stand out, though... again, I try not to let them bug me.

-What's the office atmosphere like at Paizo?

It's a strange mix of laid-back and super stressful. Getting all these monthly products out each month is grueling, and the Pathfinder RPG is causing all sorts of crazy panic attacks. It's not unusual for me to put in a 70 hour week now and then. That said, the fact that we can pretty much set our own hours is really nice—I generally work from 11:00 AM to 8:00 PM. The editorial pit's pretty well decorated with all sorts of strange posters, toys, Nerf guns, a stuffed Ithaqua hanging from the ceiling, a rubber chicken dangling from a window curtain cord, Godzilla toys, transformers, stuffed dice, goofy Photoshop pranks on each other, Final Fantasy toys, Lovecraft stuff... it's definitely NOT like working in the stereotyped office.

-What are some of the specific challenges in designing an RPG that's backwards-compatible with an existing system?

The big challenge is to avoid over-designing. It's really tempting at times to get carried away and try to make something like, say, the rules for falling objects more complex and more "realistic." The 3rd edition rules are pretty graceful and strong as is, though, and in a lot of cases, we change things and realize that the original method was better all along. The Beta is a lot less backwards compatable than the final game will be as a result.

And actually, I prefer just saying "Compatible with 3.5." I don't really like implying that one version of the rules is "backwards" to the other; the vast majority of the products we'll be producing are going to not be rules products; they'll be built using the PF RPG, but they'll be compatible with 3.5. Just sounds nicer without saying "backwards." That could just be me though. :-)

-Can you give us a little background on the Pathfinder Society and Organized Play? How's been the growth on that, and how what can players wanting to give it a try expect?

It's coming along quite well. We're edging up on the end of the first season, which we're calling "Season Zero." It's sort of a "playtest" of the organized play system, so that we can work all the bugs out and get things rolling. Season One starts at Gen Con 2009, and will transition over to the Pathfinder RPG rules at that time. It's pretty exciting, especially for the new author looking to break in to the industry—writing a Pathfinder Society scenario's probably the best way for an unpublished author to attract our attention.

-How is easy is it going to be for 3rd party publishers to support Pathfinder? Between the OGL and GSL, where would you say the Pathfinder-specific license for 3rd party publishers is going to come down in terms of openness/complexity?

It's going to be very easy for 3rd party publishers to support Pathfinder. We'll have a logo for them to use and a relatively simple license, probably even more open than the d20 license was, for folks who want to build things using the PF RPG. The whole book's going to be open content, in any case, with the exception of 20 deity names. Between the OGL and the GSL... the openness is going to be VERY close to the OGL. We want folks to continue the open gaming movement, after all, since that's what basically let Paizo keep being a successful game company after WotC took back the magazines.

-Is there any sense of competition (friendly or otherwise) between you guys and other gaming companies?

We have a pretty friendly relationship with companies like Necromancer, Green Ronin, Open Design, and Malhavoc; we're all doing essentially the same stuff, and supporting each other is pretty much what the Open Game movement is all about. There's not much in the way of competition there, I don't think.

I can't say the same about WotC though. While I have several friends that work at WotC, and I still hang out with them now and then... it HAS been pretty awkward at times "talking shop" with them. Certainly, I feel a sense of competition from WotC now... especially in how long it took us at Paizo to hear about 4th edition (most of our regular freelancers were playtesters but couldn't tell us anything about it, and at one point we were considering having them write 4th edition stuff unseen by us to be published by us... that route was full of madness!), and certainly in how my own personal freelance opportunities with WotC more or less instantly dried up once the switch was imminent. Not that I have time these days to do much freelance, of course...

But competition is good, I say! It helps keep a company on its toes and striving to do its best when there's a feeling that another company is trying to out do you, yeah?

James, thanks for the interview, and best of luck to you and Paizo with Pathfinder!


Ron Perkins said...

GREAT interview! That's awesome that you managed to score that. Nice blog-fu. :)

FWIW, I agree with him on Magic of Incarnum. Nifty, but didn't fit into my D&D.

Questing GM said...

Wow, amazing!

Did you email him the questions? Or did you arrange an interview with him?

Mad Brew said...

Thanks for starting my day off right. Makes me want to hunt down some of my favorite designers and interview them!

Anonymous said...

Awesome work, Zach!

Anonymous said...

WOW. Eye opening to say the lice. I can imagine it must also be said to have said rivalry. And, yeah, I'd be more than a little schizo if freelancers were testing a project they could tell me about but I'd like to publish supps for.

Thanks for the great work, Zach.


Roc said...

I wasn't a regular reader, but you just got one.

I downloaded the Beta rules a bit late--about two weeks ago, and I'm still catching up, but so far I like what I see. Thanks for the good work in picking Mr. Jacobs' brain.

Johnn Four said...

Great interview! Nice job.

Zachary The First said...

Thanks, guys! The feedback for this was really positive! I have another Paizo interview brewing in the near future.

Matthew said...

Every time James tells that story about his teacher I wish I'd had that teacher growing up! Probably wouldn't have taken me until 7th grade to get interested in writing and reading.

Anonymous said...

An excellent interview and James Jacobs is a great designer whose design philosophy generally matches my gaming preferences. :)

disa said...