Interview with Erik Mona of Paizo

Friday, September 6, 2013

This last weekend at PAX we had an amazing opportunity to talk to Erik Mona, the publisher at Paizo. In addition to autographing our books, Erik took the time to sit down and and chat a bit with us about where Paizo and the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game have been, where they're going, and some insights into what they've been thinking along the way. So without further ado....

Somnam: Let's get this thing started! Thank you so much.

Erik Mona: You are most welcome.

Somnam:  Paizo has a lot of projects going on right now and you just announced the Advanced Class Guide coming up.

Mona: Yup

Somnam: You've had six announced so far, right? Six of the ten?

Mona: Oh boy, this is tricky; you could easily trick me into revealing another one. I am not sure which ones we've revealed. But yeah, there are ten and I think that we are holding on to a couple still that we haven't announced, quite a few.

Somnam: So, you know what all ten are though?

Mona: I know what all ten are...  Each class in the Advanced Class Guide is going to be a sort of amalgamation of two classes that already exist in the game. So in one way you could think of the Magus from the Ultimate Magic as the template for this. In that way it’s kind of like a Fighter and a Wizard. There's going to be classes in here that are different combinations as well. Instead of just taking all the powers from one class and all the powers from another class and smooshing them together. It’s kind of like a "Greatest Hits" of the different classes, and then each class has its own new sort of core mechanic as well.

So there is [going to be] something familiar and something new about all the classes. They are going to playtest shortly, but the current plan is that they're going to be considered alternate classes. So if it's a class that's made up of a Fighter and a Wizard, you wouldn't be able to take levels of Wizard or Fighter as well.

Somnam: Kind of in the same way that the Ninja and the Samurai are alternates of the Rogue and the Cavalier?

Mona: Yes!

Somnam: I am very active on the forums [Michael’s handle is Ssalarn] and I noticed that Jason Buhlman has been very careful talking about the stuff that is coming up. Recently James Jacobs jumped in with the fanboy squee's because he has been lobbying for the Swashbuckler for a while, which you [Paizo] announced in one of the recent blog posts. It’s going to be a Gunslinger and Fighter mashup I believe?

Mona: Oh has he? I believe that's the class […] I think it's Gunslinger/Fighter, so he'll have a pool of whatever, we might call it like Panache, or something, I am not sure what they are going to call it. It's going to have a similar mechanic to the Grit for the Gunslinger. So it's not the Swashbuckler with guns, so much as it's mechanically going to resemble a Gunslinger.

Somnam: You talked about doing the kind of hybridization like the Magus. The Magus had totally unique class feature all the way through. Are these new classes going to be totally unique? Or are we going to see  recognizable mechanics?

Mona: There will definitely be recognizable mechanics but what each class will have is a core mechanic that is totally unique and totally new. There will be other things in the book that allow existing classes to interact with some of those rules as well. So there might be a feat that gives you access to a Panache pool or some kind of limited dipping into those kind of rules for your character. […] We are going to put out a book with ten new classes; a lot of people are going to be really excited to pick out a new class. But there's going to be a lot of other people who are like, "Hey, I'm in the middle of a campaign. I’ve got my druid." [...] We'll give them some options to interact with the rules in that book as well.

Somnam: I know that some of the organized play guys and some of the purists worry about rules bloat. Do you think this is going to add quite a bit to the game, or do you think that these new classes are going to be pretty encapsulated within themselves? That they'll add themselves to the game but they won't necessarily override what’s there?

Mona: We're definitely not trying to make a better Fighter or make a better Wizard. So in terms power creep, that is something that we are very, very conscious of. […]That is also one of the reasons that we are doing a very extensive playtest with it. We want to hear from the community; how does this interact with some other classes? Or how does this work in an adventure? We'll keep adjusting it until we feel like we have got it right. […] The game came out in 2009 and this book will be coming out in 2014, so that's five years. We've obviously put out some other classes in the Advanced Player’s Guide and multiclassing is an option in Pathfinder [however] we put [a lot of] effort into making the classes worth sticking with for all twenty levels. There are concepts where [a] class has one foot in one class concept and one foot in another, what are we going to do about that? Well, we decided to just make new classes.

Somnam: Right.

Mona: For instance in […] a lot of people who judge Pathfinder Society are probably going to want to check out the book just so they’re not caught off guard when something new comes to the table. We also want to keep sure that when the people are playing for a long time that they have new options and new interesting things to try out. We only put out two or three rule books a year, one of which is almost always a monster book of some kind. So we are trying to make really deliberate choices with how we expand the system instead of just trying to fill up a slot every month in the release schedule or something like that.

Somnam: So the Adventure Paths are obviously the backbone of Paizo.  I think it's been stated before that they are the model that Paizo rests on.  It's almost like the system came about so that you guys could keep doing the APs, right?

Mona: That's literally true. We started with the Adventure Paths, which are monthly campaign installments, over the course of six months we will do an entire campaign. And that was how we started; we did four of those before it became clear that we weren't going to be able to continue publishing to support another company's game.  We decided to do our own game, and since we have done that, things have exploded even further. But we have always kept our commitment to the Adventure Paths, and story is a really important thing for us. The rules always exist to be used and they always exist to be put into practice, the Adventure Path has always been our steady way of showing the rules practice is very important.

Somnam: I think that it's been proven out that it was a very wise choice. Paizo has supplanted Dungeons & Dragons as the most popular RPG game in the world right now.

Mona: Yeah, I keep hearing that.

Somnam: So goes the rumor.

Mona: Yep, yep.

Somnam: It actually looks like Wizards of the Coast has been learning some lessons from Piazo. Their new system looks to be very story driven. There are some classes they’ve got that look to be as though they had a person spying on your forums to see specifically what people might have issues with, and then built something that addresses that... The Wizards guys say that everyone is really cool with the guys at Paizo, is that true you guys still have a really solid relationship?

Mona: Oh yeah. It’s a pretty tight knit community in Seattle of gaming nerds and we're all pretty much friends. I used to work there [Wizards of the Coast] in 1999, so a lot of the people that I worked with there are gone. But I know some of the newer guys. I know Mike Mearls, [a designer at WotC] […] it's friendly. You know, when we're together we don't really talk about work. It's kind of gauche, so we'll go play  Zombicide, or do something that has nothing to do with D&D. Though I did play in a 1st edition AD&D campaign over at Mike's house a couple years ago, that was really fun. We're all gaming guys; we all like the same things. So of course we're still buddies.

Somnam: Some big names that were really strongly associated with Wizards of the Coast have been wandering into your guys' playground; Ed Greenwood recently got to play in Golarion.

Mona: […] We love Ed Greenwood, he's a hilarious and fun writer. He has a dedicated fan group and he's been great. The latest thing that he has worked on for us is this big super dungeon called The Emerald Spire that we are putting out next year. That was to support the Pathfinder Online MMO Kickstarter that we did. We got a bunch of our big friends to write levels there. Ed Greenwood wrote one, Frank Mentzer (the guy that did the Red Box for D&D) wrote one, all kinds of people [contributed]. There are sixteen levels, I wrote one, and it’s kind of cool to be able to do a project with guys like that.

Somnam: Fantastic!
So, Wrath of the Righteous, your most recently released AP, a lot of firsts in there. I can’t recall if it was James or Jason who stated that Mythic was essentially built so that you guys could do this Adventure Path that has been in the running for a long time.

Mona: It’s sort of hand in hand. […] When we started doing Pathfinder as a rule set, one of the questions has always been, "Well, what books are we going to do?" As a publisher I have always been very adamant that we aren't just going to copy what other companies have done before. It's just not going to just be the monster book and the rule book and then the oriental adventure book, and then the outer planes book and then the epic book. You've got people who are really interested in that high-octane high-power level play. […] What we don't want to do is create a system that doesn't get to start until you have completely exhausted all the rules of the normal game and then we have to create new adventures and new everything just to support this new system. How about if we gave people the opportunity to play the crazy high power levels but woven with the standard first through twentieth level. And that was kind of the moment where we all said, “Oh, that is worth trying to do.” None of us are really big fans of the 3.0 and 3.5 epic rules; especially those of us that had to work on them officially and had to do 60th level stat blocks and things. It just wasn't fun. I did for a Gods book, as a freelancer I did a ton of work on these stat blocks, it took me four or five hours a piece to do and I was convinced that nobody would ever use them.

Somnam: Right.

Mona: That played into it a little bit too. We wanted to do Mythic as a way that anyone could play at any level. At the same time, James Jacobs who is kind of the evil genius behind the Adventure Path line has really been itching to do Demon Lords and stuff of that caliber. Kind of just above twentieth level tier […] I put him and Jason into a room basically and said, “Fight it out and figure out how to do this.” They, and the rest of the design team, came up with a really compelling set of rules that are pretty fun. They just came out and people seem to like them.

Somnam: We playtested them quite a bit going through. I was kind of camping on Jason's thread as he was saying "This is what we think we're going to do with this and how we're gonna change this." It has definitely been fun. When we playtested it we were doing two levels for one because we tend to not make it to twentieth.

Mona: Sure, sure.

Somnam: Unless we are running in Adventure Paths that take us there...

Mona: Right, 20th level, that's like two years!

Somnam: Right? It’s been fun to try them out and see how they interact with stuff. I understand that James had to be scaled back a bit. He was looking for some CR 35's and up;  then Mythic ended up giving him five levels, instead of the ten he was hoping for.

Mona: […] I think that James is an old-school guy. And I'm an old-school guy too, but James is a really old-school guy.  [he said] "I really want level thirty-two." Well, it's like OK. You'll get what the system tells you should get, and he’s got to make do.

Somnam: We saw that he played a little bit with Wrath of the Righteous; he threw in some bonuses and some extra powerful gear to get a couple extra APL out of it, which was cool. Do we think we're going to be seeing more Adventure Paths like that? Where we're going to have those higher CRs or is it going to depend on how Wrath is received?

Mona: I think it will depend a lot more on what the Adventure Path in question is. If there is an Adventure Path that has you fighting the Gods or Demon Lords or Angelic Lords or something like that, then I think the chances of us delving into that content is a lot higher. If it's a campaign that is more about scrapping your way through the worst part of the city and it's a big political campaign, I'm not sure that it needs to go in to the thirties and things like that. There are also some real space considerations to keep in mind. […] I think that under the standard approach, most of the Adventure Paths peter out at about fifteen to eighteenth level. Just the size of the stat blocks and the sheer mechanics of how many pages we put out every month can get in the way sometimes of getting [to a] super high level. We also just recently revised our modules line to be sixty-four page adventures now, that we are doing roughly quarterly. That gives us more opportunity to do higher level content in that format as well. With a thirty-two page adventure [if you] try throwing a few twentieth level stat blocks in there, all of a sudden you find that your story is thinning out significantly. But with sixty-four pages we have a lot more room to grow.

Somnam: That's excellent. I think that the Dragon's Demand was your most recent module?

Mona: Yeah, that's the first one.

Somnam: You followed that format and I definitely noticed that some of the other modules that we've run, like the Ruby Phoenix Tournament were a little thinner.  You know, a really great module if you know that you’re probably only going to get one or two nights out of it, but...

Mona: What we really just want to do is make them more like events, and make them the kind of things that everybody really wanted to play. The new format has a detachable poster inside of it. Usually one side is kind of an overland map and the other side is an actual tactical map for miniatures or pawns. They are all sanctioned for play in Pathfinder Society Organized Play as well. We have got more people paying attention to the module line now than we've ever had [before], which gives us the opportunities to do some really cool stuff.

Somnam: How are you guys [at Paizo] feeling about this new transition: D&D Next is coming out; Wizards has taken a lot of notes from Paizo. There are so many players who play Pathfinder who feel like they are directly affecting and adapting the game. Wizards is traditionally a lot more closed mouth, they did what they were going to do, and then put it out there. Now they've got their big nationwide playtest, a lesson I think they learned from Paizo.

Mona: […] Let’s say thirty-years from now, when you look back at the impact that Paizo has had, obviously it's had a big impact on players. There are a lot of people playing Pathfinder right now. I think that one of the things Paizo has had a huge impact on in terms of industry is that you're seeing companies like Wizards and Fantasy Flight putting out playtest versions of their games before they are actually released. That is something that you didn't actually see before. You would have very closed playtesting, but now you've got very open playtests. […] For Fantasy Flight, there is the Star Wars game and for Wizards D&D Next. They have actually put out printed books as well, they just had one with D&D at GenCon. And that is something that we did as well that hadn't really been done much before. I think that the open dialogue with fans is good for everybody; I think it's good for the games because I often say,  "I work with some of the smartest people that I have ever met in my whole life, but thirty smart people are no match for ten-thousand or  twenty-thousand or  fifty-thousand smart people." It’s really helpful to get that input and I think that that's something that we are definitely proud of. I think that we'll see how it goes and we'll see how these games do. I'm not so much concerned about what D&D is doing or what Star Wars is doing. I am really concerned with what Pathfinder is doing. If we keep putting out the quality stuff we're doing and listening to the fans, then giving them what they tell us that they want, I’m not terribly concerned. I think that we'll do fine.

Somnam: Wonderful. Your 3rd party publishers, you guys have a really robust community, they support you, you support them through the Paizo site, and they have started doing more and more open playtesting. Dreamscarred Press is probably one of the better known and wider used 3rd party publishers, they are doing Path of War right now and they're also using that open playtest format for their classes.

Mona: Yeah I saw that, that's cool!

Somnam: I think that they're smart in that they don't try to do stuff that you guys are going to.

Mona: Yeah, they have actually done a pretty cool job, dancing around stuff that we've either said we're not doing or whatever. And I'm thrilled with it. We’ve talked as a company a lot about the Psionic stuff for example, and Psionics is a tricky business proposition for us, for a number of reasons. Not the least of which being that no one at Paizo really likes the Psionics rules as they were implemented in 3rd edition. And so Dreamscarred Press, who real likes those rules, and there is a community that rabidly likes those rules, it's great that they can get the kind of rule support they want and it isn't totally predicated on the twenty of us at Paizo having an interest in it. I think that one of the things that I really like about Pathfinder as well, in that we learned from Wizards of the Coast and I hope that Wizards of the Coast re-learns this from us, is that engaging the whole community and helping to support the game and fill in some of those, I don't want to say niche interests. I know that there are a lot of people for instance that are into Psionics. But those interests that the mainline publishers are not able to get to, I think that's a huge deal. And I think that is what, in part what made 3rd edition D&D so successful, it it's certainly helped make Pathfinder successful.

Somnam: No plans in the near future to do Psionics then? Sean and James have both said on occasions that if you guys do ever step into that field it's not going to be the same...

Mona: Yeah, it will be very different. We've talked about it, I'm interested in a lot of the […] Psychics and New Age movement and weird magic, and all that kind of stuff just on my own. I am always kicking ideas over to the design team and there are other people that feel similarly. I think that you would see a very different mechanical, and honestly a very different thematic approach to that type of material if we were to do it. But it is something we tinker around with. I will get to it eventually.

Somnam: It's been on the list. Do you think that somewhere in the future of Pathfinder there is probably going to be some sort of Psionic product coming down?

Mona: There will definitely be a way to create more robustly modeled psychic characters and psychic phenomena. I'm not really using the word Psionic, just because I think there is a helpful delineation, sort of between what I am thinking of and what exists. I think that my impression… Well, I don't want to get too far into it. It’ll come out eventually.

Somnam:  [laughs]

Mona: And you can see what I'm intimating here, I just think there's a lot of different conceptual  groundwork that hasn't been actively engaged in the Psionics realm and I would want to change people’s existing expectations about Psionics just because I've got this weird whim to do something else.  But I DO have a weird whim to do something else. And I'm not alone in that. We will get to it, but not soon.

Somnam: Ok.

Mona: We want to make sure we do it right.

Somnam: Back in the 3 - 3.5 days there were things like the Dragon Compendium and the magazine lines where people, who up until the split, didn't even realize that it wasn't all coming from the same place. It worked together so well and people were freelancing for the magazine and for the books. There was such a fluid back and forth there that it wasn’t until the hammer came down and [WotC] started rolling out 4th that people even realized that it wasn't even the same company.

Mona: It was both a blessing and curse for us honestly. On the one hand people had trusted official content from us for quite some time. On the other hand a, significant amount of people, subscribers to the magazine would be like, "What's Paizo?" “We’re the guys who have been helping you out for three - four years.”, so yeah.

Somnam: There is the Advanced Class Guide rolling out, Paizo has announced six classes,  do you
know when the open playtesting is going to start?

Mona: I think it's in layout right now so, I think that'll be this next month, September sometime.

Somnam: Awesome!

Mona: That will go up for several months and we'll wrap it up and incorporate the feedback and then we'll have a bunch of new classes.

Somnam: And we're going to do this pretty much like Mythic, where it's a fairly robust PDF that’s openly available to everybody that hits the site.

Mona: Yep, free PDF yeah.

Somnam: Beautiful.

Mona: Yeah, that's been a hugely successful formula for all of us; we wouldn't change it for the world.

Somnam: Alright, well we are looking forward to it. Thank you so much for your time.