Monday, March 30, 2009

Interview With Pathfinder Publisher Erik Mona

Our series of interviews with the good people at Paizo Publishing continues, and today I'm pleased to feature a Q&A with Paizo Publisher Erik Mona. In this interview, Erik discusses a bit of the business strategy behind the Pathfinder RPG, the whys of keeping Vancian magic, Pathfinder supplements we might see, a bit on Pathfinder Barbarians, and even a little bit about Greyhawk. Let's get to it!

-What does your job as Publisher at Paizo entail?

I manage the art and editorial staff, set the production schedule (decide what products to do), coordinate publication budgets, run numerous staff meetings, handle most of the company's marketing, and crack skulls that need to be cracked (occasionally including my own).

-With all the magazine issues of Dungeon and Dragon that Paizo published, is there an article or series of articles that stands out as a favorite?

Over the course of my career I wrote almost exactly 100 editorials about Dungeons & Dragons, from childhood memories to issue overviews to articles about readers in prison or the vast vocabulary shared by those who play the game. After the first two dozen gaming anecdotes it becomes a challenge to say something worthwhile about the same subject. At one time I was writing monthly editorials for both Dragon and Dungeon magazine, which meant I had to come up with 600-word essays every other week. I think I managed a few really good ones along the way (especially one about "explosion dogs" that inspired a Tony Moseley cartoon). As a series I think the editorials are my favorites.

As far as individual accomplishments go, I'd have to say Dungeon #112, the mega-opus of "Maure Castle" that allowed me to put together what amounts to a dream team to do an adventure in celebration of the 30th anniversary of Dungeons & Dragons. James Jacobs and I reimagined the original levels of the 1984 AD&D module "Mordenkainen's Fantastic Adventure" for third edition, with editorial contributions from Gary Gygax and a completely new level of the dungeon by the adventure's original author, Robert J. Kuntz. Wayne Reynolds provided the cover, and James Ryman did many of the interior illustrations. My great friend and frequent collaborator Sean Glenn did the art direction, which heavily informed the Dungeon redesign that came two issues later. To top it off, the magazine featured the very first design work by Sarah Robinson, the art director who makes the Pathfinder product line look as good as it does today.

Maure Castle is the greatest single Dungeons & Dragons design project I've been involved with. As an editorial feat I almost can't believe we were able to pull it off.

Then there's the Age of Worms campaign in general, the Dungeon re-launch, my adventure "The Whispering Cairn," Gary Holian's death knights and Fred Weining's Vault of the Drow in Dragon, putting a modron on the cover, Jonathan Tweet's Omega World, Dungeon's 30 Greatest Adventures of All Time...

I have many, many favorites.

-Let's turn to the Pathfinder RPG now. You wrote for the 3e/3.5 rules. As a continuation of the OGL, do you see Pathfinder being easier, more difficult, or about the same for writers to work with, and why?

I'd say about the same in the short term, but easier in the long term. The changes are easy to memorize, the way the skills have been consolidated makes the toughest part of stat block grind easier. Because there are new options available to character classes it's got the feel of a brand new game, which infuses some extra energy into your creativity. At the same time, the engine is based on 3.5, so the rules remain flexible to handle any kind of play.

-Was there ever any thought of turning Pathfinder into an online magazine as we've seen happen with Dungeon and Dragon?

No. While Paizo offers PDF versions of all our Pathfinder products, we are primarily a print publisher.

-How important is retail-chain saturation to the success of Pathfinder? Will we be able to find it readily at Borders, Books-A-Million, or Barnes & Noble?

All of those chains have picked up Pathfinder Adventure Path volumes at one time or another since the product's launch, but the swift turn-around of monthly releases makes it somewhat difficult for chain stores to keep an entire series in stock. The bigger stores tend to focus on larger releases like core rulebooks. The Pathfinder Chronicles Campaign Setting and broadly focused Pathfinder Chronicles books like Classic Monsters Revisited are very popular at chain stores. But chain stores carry the risk of returns, which is not the case with direct sales or sales to the game and comic book shops, which buy your product outright.

We need all three: Direct sales, hobby retail sales, and mass market sales in order to continue to produce products with the high production values Paizo's customers have come to expect.

Interest in the upcoming Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook is phenomenal in all tiers of the distribution system, so I imagine you will be able to find the main book and Bestiary at least in numerous locations.

-Now that the Open Playtest Alpha and Beta are both officially closed, can you look back and see anything you'd have done differently? I know Paizo ended up with far more downloads of the playtest versions of Pathfinder than many thought there'd be--what was the reaction like at Paizo as it became clear there was a pretty high level of interest running out there?

I wish that we had not let our trust that 4th edition would have a reasonable Open Game License in a reasonable amount of time delay our decision of what to do with our core line for as long as it did. I am 100% confident that sticking with 3.5 was the right decision for our company and our customers, but the months of what turned out to be pointless waiting could have gone into the playtest. That said, I'm pleased with what turned out to be the largest open playtest in the history of tabletop roleplaying games. We are thrilled with the level of interest in the Pathfinder RPG, so it's difficult to look at what we've done with an overly critical eye.

-I know you've asked for feedback for fans on what sort of supplements they'd like to see, but what add-on supplements do you think would be fun to do with Pathfinder?

I don't want to get too far ahead of myself, but I think it would be fun to see the Pathfinder RPG rules applied in a science fictional context. This could range from something relatively simple, such as an exploration of the Red and Green Planets of Golarion's star with rules to place a "sword & planet" lens over a standard Pathfinder campaign to something full-on ambitious like a complete science fiction rules engine with tons of laser guns and stuff.

There are a few "boilerplate" books that people will want us to do and that we should probably do, such as an Asian fantasy book or some sort of psionics book or an epic level book. None of those ideas make me supernova with excitement both because they've been done numerous times before and because I haven't had much use for them in my own games. I'm not saying those are bad ideas for books, but the stuff that gets my blood pumping is more in line with the core rules themselves than built alongside them and stuck on awkwardly with sovereign glue.

For example, I'd be far less interested in an epic level book than I would be in a book that tightly focused on a level band (say 10-15), with lots of rules appropriate for campaigns at that level. Lots of info about hirelings and achieving fame and influence and nobility and hideouts and stuff. I also think such a book might include easy quick-start rules that explain how to build a high-level character in as simple terms as possible. Material that expands my use of the core rules garners my favor much more easily than quirky sub-systems, new forms of magic, and turning into gods and stuff.

-Will we ever see a "Pathfinder Basic" or Boxed Set as an introductory or special product?

If the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook sells very well, something like this might be in the offing. I would love a "basic" version of the game I wouldn't be embarrassed to ask my girlfriend or other not-so-heavily-invested-nerdfriend to read and roll up a character. As awesome as I think the Pathfinder RPG is, there's no question it's a daunting prospect for someone who has never before played an RPG.

-I read recently on the Paizo boards that you had rolled up a Barbarian character, one of the classes that is looking at some fairly considerable change for the final edition of the game. How's the class in play, and if we ask very nicely, can you maybe give a hint on something new we'll see with the Barbarian?

Well, your timing is unfortunately just a little bit off, as we've only gathered once to create characters and I haven't actually played him yet. I've actually never played a barbarian before in any serious capacity in any edition of the game, so all of the powers are quite new to me at the moment. I do have access starting at 2nd level to a huge number of "rage powers" that include things like getting low-light vision while I'm raging, a great one that gives me a bite attack, and a few really cool tactical abilities. A lot of these kick in only at higher level, and I can tell I'm going to enjoy thinking about which ones to use and when to use them. I can say that with my two first-level feat choices of Endurance and Die Hard I can go to -19 hit points when raging without losing consciousness and I automatically stabilize when below 0 hit points. That's why I'm calling my barbarian Ostog the Unslain.

But I'm easy to impress. I'm still excited that I have a d12 Hit Die!

-What do you see as the pros and cons in keeping Vancian magic a part of the game?

It anchors the game to the pulp fantasy traditions that inspired it in the first place. After three decades of presenting magic in this way, it seems ludicrous to all of a sudden say that it no longer exists. You can build other systems of arcane jiggery-pokery without sacrificing this core fantastic element of the game, so why bother?

The more you cut the ties the game has to the pulp fantasy traditions that inspired it, the less it begins to resemble itself. It's part of the lingua franca of the game, and it has been since the very beginning. It is a feature, not a flaw.

Getting rid of Vancian spellcasting for the Pathfinder RPG was never on the table. It would be as preposterous as scrapping the alignment system. It was Not Going to Happen.

-Golarion (the default setting of Pathfinder) sounds like it was a project that got most everyone around the Paizo offices involved. What's your favorite aspect or region of the world, and why would folks want to base a campaign there?

My favorite aspect of the world actually makes this question difficult to answer. When we sat down to create Golarion, we started by thinking about all the types of campaigns people like to run. Some GMs love pure dungeon crawl megadungeons, so the campaign had to accommodate that. Others would want a "hot" war, so we made sure to include some areas of active conflict. Want a heavily political game? Try the courts of decadent Taldor, or the diabolical empire of Cheliax. Want to explore the wilderness? The Mwangi Expanse awaits. Pyramids? Vikings? Something more cutting edge? Something ghoulish? Golarion was designed to accommodate all of those campaigns styles and more.

But if you ask me, one of the best nations is Numeria, which was my tribute to "Expedition to the Barrier Peaks" by way of Thundarr the Barbarian.

-I know, like myself, you're a fan of Greyhawk (not to mention one of its most accomplished contributors). In a perfect world, if Erik Mona somehow ended up with the rights to Greyhawk, what would you like to publish for it? Which time frame would you use?

I'm much more interested in Golarion and the Pathfinder RPG than I am in Greyhawk or the current iteration of Dungeons & Dragons these days. I was able to coordinate the Living Greyhawk Gazetteer, co-launch Living Greyhawk, edit dozens and dozens of articles about Greyhawk, and even had a chance to participate in designing a version of Castle Greyhawk itself. Frankly, there's not a whole lot I need to do with the setting that I haven't done already. I'm content to let someone else have a turn.

That said, I think what's most needed is a serious 128-page overview of the Domain of Greyhawk loaded with adventure sites that could be spun off as stand-alone adventures. People need to be reintroduced to the setting, and that's enough of a taste for people to get the gist of what the world is all about. Personally, I'd favor a timeline that incorporated the design I'd already contributed to the setting, so I'd most likely go with the current year a la the Living Greyhawk campaign, which would be 599, I believe. There's something sexy about a YEAR 600 logo.

-Why do you think Greyhawk endures as the favorite setting of so many, despite its often rocky history with TSR and WotC?

Its spirit is intertwined with first edition AD&D because both came from the same creator. That game was the common touchstone for players at the absolute height of D&D's popularity in the early 80s, so it's the iconic setting for the most iconic version of the game, a version of the author's very first home campaign. Add to that the fact that many of D&D's current biggest fans discovered the game while they were kids or young adults, and you've got the glow of nostalgia, which never hurts. But Greyhawk gained a lot of popularity in the last decade as the setting of the world's largest tabletop organized play RPG campaign, Living Greyhawk, so nostalgia alone does not account for its modern popularity.

For fans new and old alike, one thing that sets Greyhawk apart is that it is a setting associated primarily with ADVENTURES and not novels or big books of history and continuity. I think most people love Greyhawk because it's where they ventured into the Temple of Elemental Evil or fought Against the Giants or Descended into the Depths of the Earth. Memories of the setting become entwined with memories of the game experience itself, which strengthens the bond.

-You've written or contributed to a solid stack of gaming books over the years. Which one is your personal favorite and why?

I'd say it's probably a tie between the Pathfinder Chronicles Gazetteer which first set the blueprint for Golarion into stone and the Mutants & Masterminds hardcover CROOKS!, which was designed and written from the ground up by myself and my best friends Sean Glenn and Kyle Hunter. Both books won ENnies, which is a nice confirmation of my impeccable taste.

Thanks, Erik! Erik's most recent adventure, "Howl of the Carrion King", is now available here. Make sure to check it out!


Mad Brew said...

Nice. It was interesting to learn which components of D&D Erik considered core (like Vancian magic and alignments), gives some insight on the point of view taken with Pathfinder RPG development.

I can't wait until August when the final version is published!

Anonymous said...

Tremendous! I get the feeling Mr. Mona is very close to my design philosophies, especially in regards to Vancian magic. Well done!


Questing GM said...

Great interview as always!

Who's next? Lisa?

Zachary The First said...

Very possibly! I guess I need to ask. :)

Anonymous said...

A very nice interview - thanks for delivering again!

Ron Perkins said...

Nice job, Zach! Erik is an entertaining read.

Getting even more amped for PF!

mortellan said...

Great interview. Keep it up!

Gabriel said...

"That said, I think what's most needed is a serious 128-page overview of the Domain of Greyhawk loaded with adventure sites that could be spun off as stand-alone adventures."

Ah, a light at the end of the tunnel. Drool... :)_