Monday, March 16, 2009

Interview With Pathfinder Lead Designer Jason Bulmahn

In what's turning out to be a series of interviews with Paizo employees involved in the creation of the Pathfinder RPG, I was able to get Lead Designer for Pathfinder, Jason Bulmahn, to answer a few questions. Read on, as he tackles the origins of the Pathfinder RPG, a peek at the Pathfinder Bestiary, design philosophies, changes from 3.5, keeping up enthusiasm until August, life at Paizo after the magazines licenses were pulled, and more!

-How did you end up at Paizo?

I started out as an architect, working as a volunteer for the RPGA at the start of the Living Greyhawk campaign. Over a couple of years I moved up to become one of the campaign coordinators. In 2004 I applied for a job with Wizards, but came in second. At the same time, Matt Sernett left Paizo to work for Wizards, leaving a vacancy. I was good friends with Erik Mona at the time, since he had hired me on to work on the Living Greyhawk campaign. He had since moved over to Paizo and was looking to fill Matt's position. As I was available and really pretty excited to get into the industry full time, I was a natural fit. I started working at Paizo three weeks later.

-What was the atmosphere like around the Paizo offices after Wizards of the Coast pulled the Dungeon and Dragon magazine licenses?

As you might expect, it was a real uncertain time for us. The future suddenly became very uncertain. We all knew that we had a job with Paizo, we just did not know what we were going to be doing. There were a lot of meetings to discuss the future of Paizo, and naturally we went with the system that we knew, and came up with the idea for the Pathfinder Adventure Path.

-How did the idea/pitch to do the Pathfinder RPG come about?

We were told about the upcoming 4th edition at GenCon 2007. At that time, we were pretty enthusiastic really and we were looking forward to digging into the new rules system. On the side, I started musing about doing a bit of pdf publishing, giving those who wanted to stick with 3.5 some rules support. My first documents were just some simple rules patches to cover up some of the problems with the 3.5 system. As time went by, it became clear to us that we were not going to see the rules early. With publishing schedules being what they are, by the end of 2007, we were running out of time. Authors for our first Adventure Path using the new system needed to start writing soon. At that time we had a big meeting to discuss the future. We really did not know what was going on with 4E at that time, so I pitched my side project as a possible replacement. The Pathfinder RPG started out that day, and I have been working on it full time ever since.

-What would you identify as your core design philosophies as lead designer on Pathfinder?

When it comes to my RPG design philosophies, I am always trying to strike a balance between ease of play and realism. I believe that a shared fantasy game needs to work of certain baseline ideas about what the world is and what can be expected. That said, this is a game we are talking about which means that at times, the rules might need to be streamlined to make for simple and fun play. When it comes to Pathfinder, I had a few additional goals as well. It had to be compatible with the 3.5 rules set. For us, there is no point in updating the rules if all of your old material suddenly becomes obsolete. At the same time, I wanted to make sure that we added some new options to explore. There have been a mountain of prestige classes and feats for 3.5, so I wanted to breath some life back into the mechanics by opening up some new avenues of exploration, such as bloodlines, rage powers, and rogue talents. Finally, I wanted to bring the rules set up to an even footing with current 3.5 products. Over the past four years, a number of the core classes have fallen seriously behind the curve or exposed as having pretty terrible flaws. I really wanted to make sure that we corrected some of those issues, as best we could, while still maintaining compatibility.

-What's a "normal" day at the office for you like?

Well, things are a bit in flux right now, but when I was still running the playtest, my day would start out at about 9:30 with two to three hours of combing through the playtest messageboards. I would try to read all the posts from the previous 24 hours, making notes where needed about things that should be addressed and posting comments where necessary to keep the discussion moving. My afternoons are generally filled with meetings about my current progress, chat with the rest of the team about various rules issues, and time spent working on the rules documents. Of course, I would occasionally get distracted by a cool movie trailer, discussion about Lost, or the infrequent nerf war.

-What are some of the innovations/changes in Pathfinder you're most proud of?

Two of the rules that bothered me the most with the 3.5 rules set were the rules for turning undead and the complicated system for grappling/bull rushing/tripping, etc. These were among my first changes when the rules were coming together and I am still very pleased by the result. Turn undead has been renamed as Channel Energy and it allows you to deal damage to undead or to heal living creatures within a burst. This is much simpler to adjudicate at the table. Grapple, Bull Rush, and the rest have all been placed into one unified system for resolving combat maneuvers. Making one of these work now only requires a single d20 roll and you really do not need to check the rules at all in most cases, once you are familiar with them. I have found that these two changes alone tends to speed up combat quite a bit.

-In your opinion, which classes have changed the most significantly from 3.5 to Pathfinder?

As the final rules have come together, there have been a lot of changes. The paladin and the monk are very different than their 3.5 counterparts, but not so much that you would not recognize them. These classes suffered heavily at higher levels from a lack of options and I have worked hard to correct that. Most of the other classes are pretty similar, but with some added abilities. Barbarians get a suite of fun rage powers, rogues can select from a wide variety of rogue talents, sorcerers now belong to one of ten different bloodlines, and wizards get arcane schools which function like domains. All of these changes give us plenty of room to explore new rules ideas in the future as well, which is a big plus.

-Pathfinder will be released at Gen Con Indy in August. How do you and the rest of your team plan to keep up fan enthusiasm and interest between now and then?

The first look at the system is in June, with the Free RPG Day product, the Pathfinder Bonus Bestiary, which looks at some monsters that have been converted to the new rules. This is followed up by my Pathfinder Module "Crypt of the Everflame" which is designed to be an intro game for the new rules. Between now and then, we are also going to be giving a host of sneak peaks at the new rules through our blog on These blogs will focus on the changes to the 3.5 rules as well as changes between the Beta Playtest version and the final rules.

-How much GM advice will Pathfinder include? Do you plan to have a GM's-only section?

The second half of the book is mostly for GMs. There is a chapter on being the GM which contains quite a bit of advice and info on how to run a successful game. We have some plans in the future to expand this information, but the core rulebook will certainly give you the basics.

-ECLs and Challenge Ratings were one of the most frustrating aspects of 3.5 D&D for a large number of players. Are there plans to simplify these for easier usage in Pathfinder?

ECLs are being handled differently, as you will find out in the Bestiary, but these rules are still coming together, so I don't want to give away too much just yet. The CR system in Pathfinder is a bit simpler to use now. Instead of having to do complex math to get an encounter to the correct EL, now you can deal with it solely from the XP side of the equation, using the monster's XP value to work out the appropriate challenge for an encounter. It is simple to use and allows for quite bit more variety. At the end of a game, you simple add up the XP total for all the monsters, traps, and story awards and divide the total by the number of players. No more charts and no more calculating XP based on each character's level individually.

-If you could see any setting out there (aside from Golarion) converted to Pathfinder, which would it be?

I have, and always will be, a huge fan of Greyhawk. Although it can never be, I would love to see some Greyhawk Pathfinder RPG products. I think that the rules we have set up would be a really good fit for the world as a whole. I think the clerics of Iuz would finally be happy with their choice of domains...

-Golarion is the implied setting for Pathfinder. How did the development of Golarion come about, and what were the design goals for it?

Golarion has been a huge group effort by everybody working at Paizo. It started out with a number of meetings where we came with ideas for the types of countries that we wanted to see in the world. Shortly thereafter, the Pathfinder Adventure Path team starting working on Varisia, fleshing it out into a vibrant and exciting place to play. At this point, the world beyond was represented by little more than a sketchy map and a host of notes about each kingdom. The Pathfinder Modules (called the Gamemastery modules at that time) started hoping around the world, exploring some of these new kingdoms, but in a very limited fashion. The world itself did not truly solidify until Erik Mona and I began work on the Pathfinder Gazetteer. We really wanted a world that host just about any type of fantasy game. If you wanted a game set in a frosty kingdom ruled by a wicked queen, look to Irrisen, if you wanted to fight for freedom against dark forces, look to Lastwall, if you wanted a desert adventure with pyramids, check out Osirion. We wanted to make sure that our world had room to play, and would be suitable to a host of different play styles and adventure types. The Gazetteer was our first shot at this. This product took at look at the two primary continents of our world, Avistan and Garund, and spent about a page exploring each one in depth. Erik and I split the nations up in two to work on this book, but we had very frequent meetings to hash out the details and get the various kingdoms to connect. In the end, just about everyone had a hand in it, with each one of us picking a pet nation to watch over.

-What was your favorite d20 or OGL sourcebook, and why? What made it such a good product?

I really enjoyed the Vault of Larin Karr, by Necromancer Games. This adventure was a really solid "sandbox style" game where you could wander this immense valley and work to make it a better place. Outside of adventures, I really was inspired by Monte's Book of Experimental Might. These rules, along with a lot of Monte's other work, showed me what you could do with the rules, while still maintaining the same feel and pace of the system.

-For someone who is just getting into gaming or has no 3.5e or 4e D&D experience, what would be your pitch to them for trying out Pathfinder?

I would advise them to check out our rules and see where their imagination takes them. Pathfinder is a game that allows you to play the game that you want to play.

-Aside from the Paizo message boards, are there any other forums or sites you regularly check for entertainment or to get a feel for what gamers are saying?

I tend to check out a number of gaming blogs (such as this one) as well as a number of gaming message boards, such as ENworld and Gaming Report. I also get a fair amount of feedback through my own personal blog and a near constant stream of emails.

-Talk about the Bestiary for a moment, if you would. What can prospective buyers expect from this book? Is there a monster or monster you're most excited about featuring?

The Bestiary takes a lot of the 3.5 monsters, adds in a dash of Open Content monsters, and updates all of them to the Pathfinder rules. We have used the same philosophy here that we have with our core rulebook, to make things a bit easier to use and to breath some life back into some stale concepts. So while some monsters from the 3.5 rules did not make the cut (sorry Tojinida), other classics have found a home in our Bestiary (hello Cyclops). This book will be over 300 pages of monster goodness, fully updated and compatible with the new rules system. Personally, I can't wait until folks take a look at some of the old classics. I have always been a big fan of cool skeletons... that is all I am saying.

-All the dragons (chromatic, metallic) we need are going to be in the Pathfinder Bestiary, right?

Yes, yes they are. All the giants too.

-EXTRA CREDIT: Whether you know it or not, you have a pretty sizable Hoosier (for the uninitiated: someone from Indiana) fan base. Do you have anything pleasant to say about our fair state and its denizens? :)

Funny enough... I am a Hoosier. I was born in Ft Wayne and most of my relatives still live there. I used to spend a few weeks each summer with them on a lake. Those were good times. Although I only lived there for a few years, I still look forward to my return trip every August.

Thanks very much for the interview, Jason (and nice job on the extra credit)! Again, best of luck, and we'll continue to follow all the developments up to the release of the final version of the game!
For those folks that have enjoyed these interviews with the folks from Paizo, please feel free to continue to send in comments and emails--and if you have a request for whom we should try to get at Paizo for a next interview, let me know!


Mad Brew said...

Indiana FTW!

Another excellent interview, Zachary. It is really cool to see "behind the screen" at how things are working at Paizo.

They immediately won me over when they were the keepers of Dragon & Dungeon magazines and I am glad to see they adapted and overcame the obstacle of loosing those magazines.

Hell, loosing those magazines may have been the best thing that could have happened, cause now we have the Pathfinder RPG!

Boris the Bagger said...

Yes, great interview Zachary. You've got my interest in the new Pathfinder RPG and will now make sure I pick up a sample on free RPG day.

Jason, much luck to Pathfinder this year. I will definately be looking for your new products.

Questing GM said...

Great interview! Now I wonder who is next on the line. Let me guess, Erik Mona?

Zachary The First said...

@Questing: I can ask, if you'd like! Worst he can say is no. :)

@Boris, Mad Brew: Thanks!

Bonemaster said...

Good job landing this interview.

@Boris - Although, I'm not sure of the change that will happen in the final product, you can look at the Beta Rules for free still.

Ken Newquist said...

My biggest question regarding Pathfinder (and that of my group) is ... what about the problems with high level play?

My understanding is that Paizo basically punted on this in 2008 saying "we're working on it" but I haven't seen anything that addresses that.

iuztheevil said...

We have actually taken a number of steps to solve the high level play issue, but most of the are small fixes designed to nudge the system in the right direction. Since we could not change the core math itself, we instead focused on streamlining play, simplifying some of the things that made combat drag, and modifying monsters to match some of these new assumptions.

Alas, that is about all I can say right now without spilling a lot about the final game. Look to our previews in the coming months to address this issue specifically.

Jason Bulmahn
Lead Designer

blogquarentaedois said...


I have a brazilian RPG Blog and i'm very interested in translate this interview to portuguese.

Can I do that? Or are there somo problem?


Zachary The First said...

@my Brazilian friend: No, no problems at all, at least on my side! Just link back to the original! Thanks for asking and visiting the site! :)

iuztheevil said...

I have no issues with a translation either.

Jason Bulmahn
Lead Designer

Zachary The First said...

Sounds like you're good to go, then!

Ron Perkins said...

Keep up the great work Zach! I keep getting more and more excited about August!

blogquarentaedois said...


Oh Guy! Tks a lot for this! The brazilians are so excitated with the Pathfinder!!
The D20 games are the most playing here, and with the end of D20 License, all brazilian games get worry, because we dont have a 4e translation yet.

When the interview translation finish I tell for you.

Tks again!!!


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