#RPGaDay: Best-Looking RPG Product

23. Best Looking RPG Product. So hard to pick just one! Lately Paizo has produced the most consistently beautiful books for its Pathfinder line, although Wizards of the Coast continues to give them a run for their money. And Monte Cook Games has showed with Numenera (and, I expect, also with The Strange, my copy of which should arrive any day now) that even a smaller company can produce a gorgeous game book.

But in an attempt to play by the rules, I’ll pick one product: the Al-Qadim boxed set. By today’s standards of full-color artwork, it might seem quaint. But the graphic design and material quality throughout the line stood head and shoulders above its contemporaries. And, I admit, I particularly like the setting, so having it in a deluxe format was icing on the cake.

Creative Colleagues: Lisa Stevens

Lisa Stevens

Lisa Stevens

Every week or so, I’ll pester one of my creative colleagues with five questions about his or her work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.

I first attended Gen Con a couple of years before I went to work for TSR. Then I missed almost the entire first decade of this century until I returned thanks to Paizo and my association with Pathfinder Tales. Since I’ll miss that glorious convention for the first time since 2010, it seems only right to experience it vicariously through a few friends and colleagues who’ll be there this year.

It’s entirely possible that Lisa Stevens and I first met at a convention, either through the Role-Playing Gamers’ Association (RPGA) or in the exhibit hall. But only after I moved out to Seattle did I see her very often. Usually she was talking Greyhawk or wrangling a team for brand management meetings. I saw even more of her when I moved from Dragon Magazine to Star Wars Insider, since she and her partner Vic Wertz are superfans. Then when Lisa, Vic, and Johnny Wilson formed a new company, our team went with them as part of the original Paizo Publishing.

Lisa and Vic have a country estate I like to call “Wayne Manor,” but really it’s more of a Star Wars museum with one of the best home theaters I’ve ever seen. They invested some of their Hasbro buyout money to hire Doug Chiang to design it for them, and a fairly easy Google search should net you a few photos of the amazing setup.

Parties (and the Indiana Jones pinball machine) at Vic and Lisa’s are one of the things I most miss since leaving the Seattle area, but for the past few years I’ve been able to see them once or twice a year at conventions. Not this year, alas, but I did manage to ask Lisa a few questions about those conventions and her long history with Gen Con.

1. What’s your earliest Gen Con memory?

My first Gen Con was the last year it was at UW Parkside in Kenosha. My friend Rich and I drove all day from Minneapolis and arrived at the campground near the convention in the dark. Back in those days, most of the attendees stayed at the campground because of the lack of hotels in the area. Rich and I proceeded to set up our tent by the lights of our car, only to find we had forgotten the tent poles and the stakes. We scavenged a somewhat straight and sturdy stick from the campground and found a few screwdrivers in the car, and ended up with a wobbly tee-pee for our lodging that first year. Of course, we didn’t plan to spend hardly any time there, so it didn’t really matter. And when you are exhausted after a day of gaming, you hardly noticed. Thank god it didn’t rain that weekend! Gen Con was amazing! I got to have my first character, Erwyle Antella, drawn by Clyde Caldwell, and discovered the RPGA, where I had the chance to watch Rich play in the finale of a tournament with Harold Johnson DMing. The highlight for me though was the dealer’s hall. I had never seen such a huge selection of gaming stuff under one roof. I spent many hours going from booth to booth and spending way too much money. The only let down of the con was the various games we had registered for. They all kind of stunk except for the RPGA one, so Rich and I became card carrying RPGA members and never played a game at Gen Con after that which wasn’t run by the RPGA.

2. Looking back on all the years you’ve attended, about how much of Gen Con was “just for fun” and how much was for business? These days, do you get to blend the two?

It is pretty funny that you ask this. I went from all out, nothing but solid RPGA gaming from the moment I got up until late into the evening, until 1987, when I went for the first time with my company, Lion Rampant. That year, I didn’t game at all. Just worked the booth and started getting to know folks in the industry. Since 1987, I really haven’t done much gaming. Gen Con has become almost entirely a business convention for me. I hope to change that this year with the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game. We do marathon games of it at the various conventions, which is very conducive for me to jump into a game between meetings. You can’t do that with a long RPG game that might take 4 hours. At PaizoCon this year, I was able to play the ACG quite a bit and it was a blast! Save Ranzak for me!

Erwyle Antella by Clyde Caldwell

Erwyle Antella by Clyde Caldwell

3. What were the high points at Gen Con for each of the several companies you’ve been associated with?

Lion Rampant: The first year we went as a company, we just had Whimsey Cards. And Dave Arneson came up to our booth, talked to us and bought a pack. We were all just standing there with our jaws on the floor. Holy crap! That was DAVE ARNESON! The next year, we won the RPGA’s Gamer’s Choice award for best new RPG for Ars Magica and it catapulted us into the industry, with new distributors coming out of the woodwork and translation opportunities appearing from nowhere.

Wizards of the Coast: Our first year with a full booth at Gen Con was very cool. Jesper Myfors created a life-sized castle based on our first logo design. We also shared the booth with a small tech start-up called America Online. Of course, the high point for WotC was the release of Magic: The Gathering in 1993. We almost didn’t have the game at the show because of delays in airplane flights, but by the time it arrived on the Saturday of the convention, we sold it as fast as we could take someone’s money and write receipts. Everywhere I went in the convention center that year, you saw folks playing Magic. It was crazy!

Paizo: It would have to be the year we launched the Pathfinder RPG. We had no clue what the reception was going to be for the game, and to have that wave of humanity descend on the booth and to sell out of the stacks and stacks of Core Rulebooks we brought was exhilarating!

4. Tim Nightengale founded Paizo Con, impressing you so much the first year that you had the company take it over from him. How does the Paizo Con experience differ from Gen Con?

PaizoCon is much more intimate. Every year, I get to see a lot of the same folks over and over again. There is a lot of camaraderie and friendships made amongst the attendees. PaizoCon is also a great show for the whole Paizo staff to take some time and talk to our customers. Gen Con is just so much go, go, go, go! It is a whirlwind where I rarely get time to just sit back and enjoy the show. PaizoCon has many more chances to do that.

5. What is your greatest convention gaming memory?

That is a super tough one for me. So many memories over the years! Having dinner with Gary Gygax one evening and talking about Greyhawk for hours! Working in the TSR Castle the year WotC bought TSR. Seeing the line for Magic: The Gathering stretch all the way around the dealer’s hall in 1994. The big nerf gun fight at the TSR Castle in 1989. The crazy White Wolf parties we threw in our rooms during 1989 and 1990. I could go on! Gen Con is one of my favorite moments on the year. I get to see old friends and make new memories.


Question of the Week: Tabletop Roleplaying

While I’ve finally caught up on outstanding writing obligations (with revisions and one very short story on the horizon), I haven’t quite managed to shake the virus that’s shaken me for the past couple of weeks. I’m not sure whether bugs are simply getting more virulent or, more likely, I’m just less resistant in my advancing decrepitude. In any event, I look forward to a summer full of concerts, yard work, a new writing project, and finally some regular tabletop gaming.

Despite writing for some of the heavy-hitters among the tabletop RPG industry, I’m petty indifferent to the edition wars/brand rivalry that fuels a certain segment of the audience. I like using miniatures, and I like combat as part of the game, and generally a system of medium complexity is my sweet spot. But what really makes a difference to me is that there are good published adventures available. Thus, Call of Cthulhu and Pathfinder often win out over other systems, because I have a vast library of their adventures. Various iterations of D&D are a close third.

With the imminent arrival of the new D&D, I’ve vacillated between excitement and ambivalence. Having owned, read, and played all previous editions-—not to mention having worked at TSR, Wizards, and Paizo during two and a half of them—you’d think picking up the newest rules would be a no-brainer. On the other hand, I have to consider the volume of storage space taken up with all the books I’ve hoarded over the past 37 years and whether it makes sense to add to them.

Sales have long indicated that Wizards (and other big RPG houses) make their money off hardcover rules. For a while, adventures were considered a necessary evil. Wizards relegated theirs to the Dungeon portion of their website. Around the same time, Paizo turned their experience with the print version of Dungeon Adventures into a $20 monthly Adventure Path series, not only saving their business but proving there’s not only a market for adventures but that a big market depends on a steady flow of new ones. Now I’m sure the hardcovers still outsell the APs by a bunch, but I don’t think they could reach the sales heights they have without steady tending of the audience through Pathfinder’s APs.

Today’s news that Wolfgang Baur and Steve Winter are the writers of two large adventures for the new D&D tips me back toward excited. I’ll certain pick up The Hoard of the Dragon Queen. If that’s as good as I expect, Wizards will have hooked me back—not with a new system, but with the promise of new adventure. That’s why I play.

What draws you to a particular tabletop RPG? As I’ve said, for me it’s adventures, with some pull from the availability of miniatures, especially pre-painted plastic. I also love Paizo’s flip-maps and other tangible accessories. Are you more interested in the rules design? The setting? The authors? The art? Is there some other element that appeals most to you?

Creative Colleagues: F. Wesley Schneider

Wes Schneider

Wes Schneider

Each week, I’ll pester one of my creative colleagues with five questions about his or her work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years. This week’s subject is Wes Schneider, author, game designer, and Editor-in-Chief at Paizo Publishing.

When they first joined Paizo Publishing, I didn’t get to know the new guys working on Dragon & Dungeon magazines for a long time. I was too busy with Star Wars Insider and Gamer, and I’d recently gotten a taste for having a life outside the office, so I didn’t linger at the end of the day. Several months after their arrival, I realized I didn’t know anything about the unit I thought of us “Mike-and-Wes” or simply “the new guys.” Finally I asked them out to lunch to get some idea of who they were as individuals. They couldn’t have been more different. While I ended up hanging out with Mike McArtor too, it was Wes Schneider who I discovered shared my love of cocktails and good food, not to mention a good horror movie—but not A Living Hell, for which they still blame me.

I migrated north before Paizo created Pathfinder, but upon my return as a freelancer, I bumped into Wes again when I set Prince of Wolves in Ustalav, his baby among the litter of Golarion nations. It was Wes who sent copies of the book to the Carrion Crown designers, most of whom slipped references to the novel into the Adventure Path. Since then, Wes has joined the Pathfinder Tales authors with his own Ustalav-based serial, “Guilty Blood,” and his web fiction “Shattered Steel.”

1. You’ve developed a certain reputation as the creepy developer over at Paizo, which is quite an accomplishment in a crowd that collectively reveres Lovecraft. What is it that appeals to you about the gothic supernatural?

I don’t read fantasy and afterwards believe in dragons. I don’t read sci-fi and believe it’s what the future is going to be. But when I read good horror, I do believe. I objectively understand that there aren’t shadowy things watching me from the closet… but nevertheless, it’s going be a while before I’m going in there. Regardless of whether you call that overactive imagination or garden-variety cowardice, I’ve always enjoyed being scared, being able to indulge in a story and have it continue to affect me even after I’ve put it down. There’s something special, something enviable about an artist creating something that takes an hour to enjoy, but that influences the audience even after they step away. Maybe that’s the definition of trauma, but it’s a sort of consensual trauma that’s addictive to many creatives and their willing audiences. Mindful of that, I love the attention gothic horror and great ghost stories pay to crafting ambiance, to building tension, to manipulating emotions toward a particular response—that’s horror that’s not just going for the momentary scare, that’s horror trying to traumatize. If someone tells me something I wrote made them want to flip on a light switch, well that’s about the highest compliment I can get.

2. You’ve also become one of the prominent voices addressing issues of gender and orientation in gaming. What do authors writing “the other” need to keep in mind when, for example, a man writes a female protagonist (as you do) or a straight person writes gay characters?

Avoid stereotypes like the plague. That might be obvious, but it can be more challenging than it seems, especially if you’re not a member of a group and aren’t adept at identifying associated clichés. Recognize your own experience and inexperience. If it turns out that you’re not sure if your “other” feels like a realistic representation, don’t be afraid to ask for feedback from a person from that culture, with those experiences, or with success writing similar characters—preferably another author or creative. If you do ask for notes, though, remember that you’re only getting one individual’s feedback, not the consent or endorsement of an entire group. Tokenism is a real thing, and you’ll never be able to defend instances of insensitivity by saying you got person X’s okay. As writers we should all be striving to get into the heads of our characters, but that’s not something we have to do alone. Talk to your friends, ask if you can have a candid conversation about someone else’s life or challenges, read the accounts of those who speak on related topics, and let yourself be surprised by the experiences and goals of those walking different paths. It won’t make you an honorary member of a social group, but a little direction can set you on a course you might have never previously thought to explore.

Cover by Alex Aparin

Cover by Alex Aparin

3. Fantasy writers often get a reputation for lingering over descriptions of food. Now I know you’re a bit of a foodie, but I haven’t seen this habit in your writing (yet). How do you resist it? Why do you think so many other fantasy writers make food such a prominent aspect of their stories?

Ha! You’re right. My usual characters might be a bit malnourished. I’ll have to look into that. But it’s definitely something I’ve seen in my time on Dragon and Pathfinder’s lines. Just as fiction writers indulge sensory descriptions so do adventure writers and world builders. I’ve seen some writers spend paragraphs on an inn’s menu only to practically overlook the murderous cook or the tarry horror lurking in the inn’s basement. Writers write what they know and readers are most affected by what they can empathize with, but I’d encourage all writers to remember their goal and genre. A little description can be a powerful thing, but if you’re having to cut plots or encounters to fully detail every course of the mid-story feast, then maybe you’re not doing your work that much of a favor.

4. You’re kind of the lord of Ustalav, and you run an annual Bastardhall adventure. It’s an open secret that you’re writing a novel set in this land of mists and shadows. What can you (and other authors) add to a gothic setting that hasn’t been done a thousand times before? Or, how can we approach favorite tropes without letting them feel clichéd?

Well I guess it’s an open secret now! I’m not going to say too much yet about my Ustalav-based Pathfinder Tales novel, though. That’ll have to wait a couple more months until it’s actually done!

Many writers and game designers get themselves into trouble when they try to reinvent the tent poles of a classic genre. In trying to reinvigorate something they end up poisoning it. Readers who like stylish vampires, haunted castles, and curse-spewing witches like those things for what they are and for what they’ve been, not for what they aren’t. There’s strength in drawing upon the pedigree of classic literature and mythology. At the same time, though, if an author pitches me an adventure or story that’s a complete rip off of Dracula or Frankenstein, I’m going to pass. Ultimately, it’s all about new contexts and new situations. I don’t want to see a new take on the lordly vampire or the tortured ghost, I want to see how those classic characters handle situations they’ve never been in before. Like in King’s ’Salem’s Lot, Barlow isn’t a new type of vampire, he’s a classic vampire in a setting we’ve never seen one in before. This leads to a host of new possibilities and terrifying situations. That’s what I’ve tried to do in Ustalav—my gothic-horror-themed corner of the Pathfinder campaign setting—dropping recognizable terror-tropes into a world of heroes and dragons and watching to see how they fare. It’s been a fascinating experiment and even after numerous setting guides, the Carrion Crown Adventure Path, and visits by novelists of exceptional taste, it remains one of the most popular—and certainly my favorite—part of the wider Pathfinder world.

5. You had a lot of game developing experience under your belt before your short fiction began appearing at paizo.com. How did it prepare you for prose fiction? And how is it a different task?

As a game designer, I cut my teeth working on Dragon and Dungeon magazines, first as a freelancer and later as a staff member. If nothing else, writing for periodicals teaches you two things: the inviolability of deadlines and to always be planning what’s next. The magazines created a fantastically stressful environment, but you either learned how to be creative on a schedule or you cracked.

I’ve tried to retain those lessons even in my fiction writing, meaning that I’m a pretty fanatical outliner and scheduler. I’m already pretty dismissive of writer’s block as a concept, but when you’re on a deadline you need to know what you’ve written and where you’re going. So I tend to create ridiculously thorough outlines, which I regularly elaborate on even after I get working. Also, for me keeping to any schedule is about momentum. Aside from forcing myself to write every day, I record how many words I write at every sitting. Not only is it encouraging seeing how even those 500- and 600-word sessions add up, there is nothing more shameful than a day with a big zero staring back at you.

Writing fiction is a wildly different world from writing rules and campaign setting descriptions, though. In fiction, the watch words are “show, don’t tell,” but game design is all about “telling.” World building in campaign setting guides and adventures gives you the freedom to spill all of your ideas to the reader, as ultimately they’ll be the ones telling your story. In fiction, there’s not an RPG’s Game Master serving as a middleman. While fiction might not give you the chance to detail every facet of a place or character like you might in a game setting’s analysis, you get to focus more on what’s important, how it’s presented, and how the world works from the inside. Both are a fantastic amount of fun and even though I’ve been angling more toward fiction recently, I certainly won’t be leaving the world of RPG design any time soon.

Read more about Wes at his website.

Creative Colleagues: Eric Belisle

Eric Belisle

Eric Belisle

Each week, I’ll pester one of my creative colleagues with five questions about his or her work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.

When an editor or art director asks me for a character description for an artist, I’m always torn between hope and fear. In most cases, the result is a good illustration that doesn’t much resemble the character you saw through your mind’s eye. When I first saw the illustration of Varian Jeggare for “The Lost Pathfinder,” my first reaction was, “That’s not at all how I imagined him.” Two seconds later, I realized, “This is exactly how I should have imagined him. He’s perfect.”

Thus, I counted myself supremely fortunate that Eric agreed to illustrate the green man image that graces this website and my business cards. There are actually four illustrations, and as soon as I learn how to update the heading, I’ll rotate in the other three, each representing a different season.

1. One of the things that first caught my eye about your biography is that you moved from Montreal to Tokyo. How do you find the artistic community differs in those two cities? Do you imagine a different audience now, or is visual art truly international?

From my experience, Japanese mainstream society is still mostly interested by the manga style of art and the traditional Japanese crafts (origami, kirigami, ikebana). My wife constantly tells me that Japan is a stoic and quiet island culture, meaning that the society is mainly hermetic, protectionist and resistant to change and innovation. For almost five years, I refused to see it that way. But I have to admit she might be right. I don’t think it is a bad thing: for anybody interested in visiting Japan, it makes it a very genuine and different experience. But for an outsider like me, wanting to work as a commercial artist in Tokyo means adapting my style to what is expected, which I failed at spectacularly, explaining why my main source of revenue is still from contract work from the US and Canada. However, the fine art and underground art scene is where all the crazy (sometimes very, very crazy) stuff happens, as a reaction to the stern social normality I suppose.

Count Varian Jeggare

2. You have an interest in Japanese folktales and legends, and you’ve told me of one in particular you’d like to turn into a comic. Can you tell us a bit about Momotarō (Peach Boy) and how you’d like to bring his story to a modern setting?

Momotaro is an old tale that everybody knows here. It is the story of a minuscule boy found in peach floating in a river by an elderly couple. Later, the boy hears that an oni (demon) terrorizes the nearest village. Armed with a sewing nail and three kimidango (round-shaped rice cakes), he decides to go kick the monsters’ ass. On his way, the boy meets a dog, a pheasant and a monkey, and secure their friendship by giving them each a rice cake. They then manage to beat up the demon together. I think it is a tale about social responsibility, kindness and teamwork… and beating up demons. I imagine it could be interesting to translate this story into modern day Japan as a graphic novel. Here is the pitch : a college student, who suddenly starts to see old folk monsters roaming the streets of Tokyo, makes friends with a big stray dog, a crow, and a tech monkey, to end the reign of a demon crime lord in his neighborhood. I thought I could add some yakuza drug lords and a bunch of cyber ninjas in the mix for the fun of it. Why the boy can see monsters is still debatable : maybe he has a brain tumor that triggers his new sense, or maybe it’s the side effect of a new drug? Or maybe it’s just bad food poisoning that makes him hallucinate the whole thing.

3. While I’m biased because you’ve illustrated three of my Pathfinder Tales characters, I feel you have an astonishing knack for imbuing your illustrations with personality. I suspect you don’t always have the luxury of reading the story first, so from where do you draw that inspiration?

I rarely have time to read about the characters I am commissioned to draw, which is a shame. However, the art directors usually send me a nice description of the characters that summarizes their main characteristics, clothing, gear and general attitude. Once I have done a couple of sketches, the developers have a look at them to see if they translate their visions accurately. If adjustments are needed, the art director will let me know. But the secret to make a character truly interesting and different from what we usually see in fantasy art is to put an expression in their face. Most of what we see in fantasy/sci-fi printed media in terms of emotion is the standard blank face. Costume design, lighting, composition and rendering technique can all be amazing, but nothing captures the attention of the viewer and tells more about a character than his/her expression.

Oparal of Iomedae

4. Apart from “I know it when I see it,” I have a hard time explaining the difference between commercial and fine art. Can you help out us non-visual-artists?

Yeah, I too find it hard to differentiate commercial and fine art. I’d say that commercial art is used to help sell a product, either it be a movie, a video-game, a book, and so on. Because of today’s market, time constraints and visual trends, commercial artists tend to use digital tools to create their work. Fine art would be a work of love, using traditional medium, where the goal of the artist is to express himself, at his own pace.

5. You say you have a hard time adapting your visual style to the needs of commercial art, but surely your work has evolved since you began. Outside of the demands of art directors, what influences your style? Is it more the lure of outside influences or something internal trying to get out?

I have a hard time adapting my style to the needs of Japanese commercial art (the manga style) but I feel comfortable in the video game and RPG books market. I’d say that my main influence is all the other artists that pump out more and more amazing work all the time. Sometimes it feels like a race to awesomeness, and I constantly learn new principles and try new techniques to stay in the race.

You can peruse a gallery of Eric’s art at his website.

Also, don’t forget to enter the multi-author Crossing the Streams contest.

Creative Colleagues: James Jacobs

James Jacobs

James Jacobs

Each week, I’ll pester one of my creative colleagues with five questions about his or her work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.

For a while, as far as I knew him, James Jacobs was “the new guy” who worked on the far side of the cube farm in the first Paizo office. (They’re now in their third.) He’d come aboard to work on Dungeon after I’d migrated to a galaxy far, far away. It took a while for us to realize we had a shared interest in horror and Asian cinema. It’s taken him and Wes Schneider even longer to forgive me for inviting them to see what turned out to be one of the less coherent examples of both forms.

Even though I’ve long since departed the Paizo offices for the northern prairie, Pathfinder Tales and the Seattle International Film Festival bring us back together now and then. And while I forgive James and Wes for refusing to let me choose the movies, I rely on them to introduce me to the best breakfast joints that have sprung up in Seattle since I left.

1. You’re best known as a designer of RPG adventures, and H.P. Lovecraft is an obvious influence on your choice of subject matter. Who are some other authors or filmmakers who have influenced your game writing?

Lovecraft is hands down the biggest influence on my writing, but not the only one. His pulp companions Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith are important as well (Clark Ashton Smith’s Xothique stories having been a huge inspiration for the necromancer empire in my home-brew setting that would eventually itself inspire and inform the nation of Thassilon on Golarion), along with modern writers like Clive Barker, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and Ramsey Campbell.

Horror, for the most part, is what inspires me, and that carries over into film, with the works of directors like John Carpenter, Guillarmo del Toro, and Akira Kurosawa being very inspiring (yeah, I know Kurosawa’s not a horror director, but he’s awesome!). George R.R. Martin is my favorite fantasy author of the moment. For some more obscure writers and film directors, I’d have to give call outs to T.E.D. Kline, Tim Lebbon, Thomas Ligotti, and most recently Joseph Payne Brennan have been huge influences on the writer side of things. As for more obscure film directors, I’d call out Ti West, Xavier Gens, Pascal Laugier, Gareth Edwards, and Mike Flanagan as having delivered some truly unforgettable and inspiring movies.

2. I once watched in awe as you began a Call of Cthulhu session at PaizoCon. Not only were you great, but you had three or four great players at your table. What struck me is that none of you were performing in the sense of improv actors, but the talk was so fluid and conversational compared with the awkwardness we often see at convention gaming tables. How do you do that? Is that how all your games go, or was that an anomaly? If it’s always that way, how do you do that?

Well, thanks! You’re making me blush! I suppose it’s no real secret that having great players at a table really helps to make a game overall much better, and when I’ve got great players at my table, they inspire me to do better. At the very least, they’re constantly giving me new things to go on and to expand upon.

I’m not afraid to throw out parts of the adventure’s plan if, for example, a player comes up with a much more interesting interpretation of a clue or whatever; not only does that make the game more fun, but it gives the players the feeling that they figured things out. In any event, being good at improv is, I think, an essential skill for a GM. You have your script (in the form of an adventure), but the players are really good at going off script. Being a voracious reader and watcher of films helps here—you build up a lot of material in your head when you immerse yourself in stories like that, and it also certainly helps to have spent some time acting as well—I was pretty active in the drama club in High School, and dabbled a little more in college with a few acting classes as well. In any event, that’s more or less how I run all of my games. I’m not afraid to let the dice get set aside once the players and I start getting into playing out conversations and the like with NPCs. I run very few convention games, in any event, so all of that comes from my home games I’ve run over the past three decades.

The Midnight Isles, fourth installment of the Wrath of the Righteous Adventure Path.

3. The world of Golarion is vast and varied, yet it seems certain areas (notably Varisia) are much more popular among players than some of those that depart from the European paradigm. With the Jade Regent Adventure Path, you seemed to have a strategy to ease Euro-centric players into Tian Xia. How well did that strategy succeed? And how would you apply it in bringing players to areas like Osirion (soon), Qadira, or Vudra?

I think that the strategy worked pretty well. I do kinda wish we’d gotten to Tian Xia at least one adventure sooner, but the way in which that Adventure Path “eased” players into playing a game steeped in Asian mythology and inspiration was always the intent.

For an adventure set in Osirion, Qadira, or Vudra, we can kinda cheat—there are nations in the Inner Sea region that are already all about those cultures—they’re right there on the map, bordering (or near bordering) other more European-themed nations. As such, it’s much easier I think to do adventures there, since you can allow the players who prefer more European tropes in their games to simply play “next door neighbors” visiting the area.

For the upcoming Mummy’s Mask Adventure Path, we’re starting in Osirion and staying there the entire time—we’ve done enough with that nation already that I think folks are familiar enough with the ideas there already that we don’t need to ease anyone in. It certainly helps that we’ve done a few adventures set there already, and that one of the factions for the Pathfinder Society organized play campaign is Osirion!

4. I’ve heard that you’d like to write fiction but just can’t find the time. How much of the fiction itch does writing game adventures already scratch, and what additional or different satisfaction do you anticipate when you do write that first novel?

Writing adventures is certainly fun, but for me, at least, it only intensifies the itch to write fiction.

The main difference between writing fiction and writing adventures is that when you write an adventure you’re missing out on the chance to write the best part of the story—the protagonist’s role. In an adventure, those roles are played by the player characters, and you have to be comfortable with that if you’re writing an adventure. Comfortable with the fact that, no matter how much work you put in on what you write, those NPCs are often just gonna end up being reduced to numbers and things to loot in the end. Comfortable with the fact that in a typical group, only the GM gets to actually read what you wrote—what the others at the table get to experience is more the GM’s creation than yours.

It’s weird, for example, seeing a bad review of an adventure you wrote and reading it and realizing that all the things the writer was complaining about are bad ideas introduced (unknown to the reviewer) by the bad GM. Or likewise, seeing a great review of an adventure you felt was terrible, because the GM was brilliant and turned a poor adventure into a masterpiece.

I’ve written a fair amount of short fiction, and have plenty of ideas for novels in my head, what I’m really looking forward to there is the ability to spend time with characters I have full control over, rather than spending time on the surrounding characters whose fates I have no control over… and to seeing more people check out my writing, I suppose.

5. Like some of your Paizo colleagues, you have a reputation for liking the dark and scary stuff. Yet I have a feeling you have some big, bad phobias knocking around in your imagination. What is your worst one?

I hope this doesn’t backfire, but the worst one is, hands down, clowns. I’m not a fan of crowds (and as such conventions tend to be high-stress for me), and tsunami are the most often-repeated themes in my actual nightmares, but clowns are the thing that distress me the most. Ugh.

Keep up with James’ latest hijinks at Bigfoot Country.

And if you missed yesterday’s Crossing the Streams book giveaway, check it out.