From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Game Interview: Erik Mona

Erik Mona has been involved with gaming since he was a grade schooler, but most most tabletop gamers first became aware of Mona through his work with Wizards of the Coast’s third edition of Dungeons & Dragons, and later during his tenure as publisher of both Dragon and Dungeon magazine. Now, as the publisher of Paizo Publishing, Erik has overseen the release of Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: a fantasy roleplaying game that picks up where Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 left off and propels it into the future. Erik recently spoke with Matt Staggs about Pathfinder and what the future holds for Paizo Publishing.

If I already have my 3.5 Players Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide, why should I pick up Pathfinder? Is this just a retread?

Pathfinder starts with the 3.5 rules, but benefits from a year and a half of open playtesting of the 3.5 system and a 10-year development cycle starting with third edition. Paizo’s editorial staff has been publishing adventures and game books using 3.5 for a decade. During that time we became very familiar with some of the system’s rough edges, and with the playtest feedback we’ve created a game that is true to the previous edition while offering lots of exciting streamlining of complicated rules like grappling and figuring out character skills. Toning down a little needless complexity left room for some new options, and nearly every character class has some new tricks up its sleeves. The game is familiar and new at the same time, which I suppose was the whole purpose of the exercise in the first place.

What do you think that will surprise people the most about Pathfinder?

I think gamers will be surprised by the sheer mass of the book, by how much we managed to fit into 576 pages. This thing is a TOME.

How much playtesting went into this product?

The open playtesting went about a year and a half, from the earliest Alpha test documents to the printed Beta playtest and testing of the final edition here in-house at Paizo. More than 55,000 individual gamers downloaded the free Pathfinder Beta Playtest, which makes this the most robust public playtest of a tabletop RPG in history.

Can you tell me about some of the changes to the core classes? Cleric? Magic User? Etc.?

All 11 standard base classes (bard, barbarian, cleric, druid, fighter, monk, paladin, ranger, rogue, sorcerer, wizard) received a thorough going-over. With the exception of the barbarian, who keeps his traditional d12 Hit Die, we standardized the Hit Dice for all the classes. Arcane casters like the sorcerer and wizard got a bump from d4 to d6, monks, rogues, and bards are at d8, and fighting classes remain at d10. This will give many characters a few more hit points to help them survive challenges. We also added several class abilities and refined others. The cleric’s always-confusing turn undead ability, for example, is now called channel energy, allowing the cleric to release what amounts to bursts of positive energy that do direct damage to undead foes. Because this is _positive_ energy, it also heals most normal characters, giving the cleric more options to pick interesting spells.

In 3.0, there was a suggestion that sorcerers received their arcane powers from hereditary influence, so we added the concept of bloodlines. You get to pick what makes your sorcerer special, from a too-long dalliance with arcane forces to demonic heritage to the blood of true dragons in his veins. Paladins have a new ability called mercies that allow them to remove conditions like disease, fear, or stunned. I could list off this sort of thing for every single class in the game. Everybody got some cool new power or ability.

Suppose that I’m a gamer, and the only edition of D&D that I’ve played is 4th edition and it isn’t to my liking: why should I try Pathfinder?

Sometimes it takes a little looking around to find the best system to match your personal play preference and style. You wouldn’t swear off all science fiction movies just because, say, you didn’t like “Independence Day,” so why swear off sword & sorcery roleplaying because you didn’t like the first system you tried? Pathfinder is very open ended. You come up with a character you’d like to play, and the rules will help you find a way to build it. It’s based on a game system that has been around and refined for more than 30 years, so you can be sure most of the changes and the bedrock of the system has been carefully considered, abused, slapped around, and adjusted appropriately.

What can you tell me about the Pathfinder license?

Pathfinder itself is built using the Open Game License released by Wizards of the Coast back in 2000, when Open Systems development was a major buzz-word and when the Internet and easy desktop publishing offered what seemed like a limitless vista of cooperation among a community of publishers. All of the rules content in all of Paizo’s products is released under this open development paradigm, allowing others to build on Pathfinder the same way we built upon the 3.5 system. In order to denote compatibility, we’ve set up a free Pathfinder Compatibility License that provides a “Pathfinder Compatible” logo other publishers can use to denote compatibility with our system. You can learn a lot more about the license by visiting paizo.com/pathfinderRPG/compatibility 
How much support will Paizo be bringing to Pathfinder?

All of Paizo’s existing product lines were switched over to support the Pathfinder RPG in August, which brings the following resources to bear:

  • Monthly Pathfinder Adventure Path adventure and campaign supplements.
  • Monthly Pathfinder Chronicles campaign setting support books.
  • Monthly “organized play” support in the form of 2-4 short scenarios geared toward convention or in-store play.
  • Bi-Monthly Pathfinder Companion player-focused sourcebooks.
  • Bi-Monthly Pathfinder Modules stand-alone adventures.

We also continue to produce several GameMastery gaming accessories (maps, Item Cards, etc.) on a monthly basis.

And next year we plan to launch Pathfinder fiction!

Are there other companies planning on making Pathfinder-compatible products?

At present more than 40 companies have signed on to produce Pathfinder Compatibile products. The first dozen or so of these are already available and selling well.

Will we be seeing Pathfinder demonstrations at conventions?

Yes! Paizo always attends the Gen Con Indy convention, and our Pathfinder Society Organized Play campaign (think of it as a Massively Multiplayer Analog Game) is played at dozens of conventions around the world. You can get a list of upcoming events in your area by visiting paizo.com/pathfindersociety

What if I’m a older gamer, and I haven’t played a fantasy roleplaying game since Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Is Pathfinder a good opportunity for me to get back into gaming?

Absolutely! You will be very comfortable with the Pathfinder rules, which after all have their origins in the earliest years of the hobby and are still, in many ways, based upon the same mechanical designs. Unlike back then, however, the rules actually handle things like whether you can hear a monster creeping up on you, how to jump across a ravine, or how to do any number of things that GMs formerly had to pull out of nowhere. Our design staff is HEAVILY influenced by the pulp fantasy writers who inspired the old game, so I am certain long-time players (even dormant ones!) will find much to appreciate in the new Pathfinder system and related support products.

I understand that there’s a campaign setting that’s available for Pathfinder. Can you tell me a little bit about it? What are some of the major inspirations that guided its development?

The Pathfinder Chronicles Campaign Setting starts with the idea that gamers enjoy lots of different types of campaign styles, so our world should be able to accommodate lots of different gamers. The result is a world in which there’s a place for traditional dungeon crawling, atmospheric horror play, intensely political urban campaigns, and just about anything else, up to and including weird fantasy/sci-fi fusion (thanks to a crashed space ship in the world of Golarion’s northern wastes). The trick, of course, was to provide all of these interesting backdrops without making the setting feel like a hodge-podge of disparate influences. The setting has been honored with the Best Campaign Setting Gen Con/ENnie award for two years running, so I guess we’re doing something right!

Will we be seeing anything like Pathfinder franchise novels and that sort of thing?

Yes. The first Pathfinder novel should appear in the late summer of 2010, very probably with a launch event at Gen con Indy.

Tell me a little bit about your own gaming history. How does Pathfinder fit into this? Is this the kind of game that you’d pick up and play in your own group? Why?

I started playing thanks to an after-school class in third grade, played obsessively through junior high, high school, and college, became a top-ranked RPGA player in the years after college and eventually moved to Seattle to join the editorial staff of Wizards of the Coast in 1999, during the birth period of third edition D&D. While at Wizards I was a player in Dungeon Master’s Guide author Monte Cook’s weekly Ptolus game for about 8 years, and in 2003 I moved with the Wizards periodicals department to a new spin-off company called Paizo. At Paizo I became the editor-in-chief of Dungeon magazine, then Dragon, and then became the publisher of the entire company. I still game regularly, and due to my long association with and love of the third edition rules, Pathfinder is now my system of choice.

What’s the “bottom line” on Pathfinder? What’s the absolute essential that readers need to know?

The bottom line is that Pathfinder supports the best-tested, most popular RPG rules set of all time, and that the rules are more fun and easier to understand now than they have been at any point in history. It’s a great game, and a great time to get in on the ground floor.