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Paizo’s Jason Bulmahn explains how a D&D mod became Pathfinder (and why it succeeds)

Paizo’s Jason Bulmahn explains how a D&D mod became Pathfinder (and why it succeeds)

Jason Bulmahn’s job is to make sure you have a good time around the roleplaying table. He’s the lead designer at Paizo Publishing, responsible for management of the core rulebooks for the Pathfinder tabletop RPG. Pathfinder was the most popular tabletop game of last summer, as reported by ICv2, beating out even its inspirational precursor, Dungeons & Dragons. The game and Paizo have been steadily growing since the franchise’s inception four years ago, largely due to the care exhibited by Bulmahn. It makes sense; Bulmahn created the game, after all. The Penny Arcade Report had a chance to catch up with Bulmahn recently - this is what he had to say about the series’ origins, the challenges it’s faced, and the future.

Sophie Prell: So how did you come to be involved in Paizo? What was your career track?

Jason Bulmahn: Prior to 2004, I was an architect living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Technically an architectural assistant, but I was working in the field of architecture and I had been involved with the RPGA, the Roleplaying Gamers Association for Wizards of the Coast for a number of years as one of their campaign coordinators for one of their Living Greyhawk campaigns, and over the years I had started to do some freelance work here and there and had gotten to know a number of people in the industry quite well. In 2004 I applied for a job at Wizards of the Coast, but I didn’t get it. I got second place in that particular contest.

During that same hiring phase, they hired an employee here at Paizo, who went to work for Wizards. That left an opening, and because Paizo and Wizards were on very good terms, they’d been chatting about who they didn’t hire, and my name came up, so Paizo contacted me knowing that I wanted to get into the game industry and offered me the job that was vacated.

So I came out here in 2004 to work as the managing editor of Dragon Magazine, which I did until the magazine went back to Wizards of the Coast. I did that for a number of years before I… when we transitioned over and I started working on the Pathfinder adventure paths, I was left working on the module line and a number of our other side products before we came to the point where Wizards had announced 4th edition and we didn’t know what we were doing.

I in my spare time had been working on a ruleset, a kind of modification of the 3.5 version of Dungeons & Dragons, hoping to just kind of put together a PDF for people to play with because I figured some people would stick with 3.5 instead of converting over. When we had to make a decision about which way to go and we hadn’t seen 4th edition yet, I pitched it to Paizo as what we could do next. They agreed, and that’s how the Pathfinder roleplaying game came about and that’s how I got my current position.

So Pathfinder was something you figured could be for the people who wanted to stick with 3.5 instead of transitioning?

Well that’s how the Pathfinder ruleset started. It started out as just a number of alterations to the 3.5 rules, fixing up parts of the game that I didn’t think worked very well, and when Paizo needed a rule system to go with, our options were to wait for 4th edition, which we hadn’t seen, or do something else. We were running out of time because of the way publishing works; you have to send things to the printer six to eight months before they come out. We were running out of time to be able to have products on the store shelf that would be compatible with 4th edition once 4th edition was released. So we were really left with no other option.

They took a look at my rules, they thought they were great, and we decided to go with that. So Pathfinder was kind of born out of 3.5, and since then, it’s grown into its own system. It started out as a re-presentation along with a lot of rules and changes, but a lot of those were pretty minor. The game was relatively compatible with 3.5. We’ve since moved a bit further away from that, but not terribly. Our game system is designed to be—to offer the same play experience that players of 3.5 were accustomed to.

So what’s your relationship been with Wizards? Is that something that’s made things more difficult and competitive?

I can’t speak to what they think exactly. We’re all in a pretty small industry. I’m friends with a number of folks down at Wizards. We’re not enemies, we don’t break out knife fights whenever we see each other, as much as many of the fans think that we should.

We don’t talk, our business is now a different business and they’ve moved on, did 4th edition and now they’re working on a new edition of the game. We kind of have a firm belief that healthy game companies are better for our industry as a whole, so I think both of us just kind of live and let live with each other and understand that we are serving two very different needs.

What were some of the rules – you mentioned some of the rules you didn’t agree with – or specifics that maybe presented challenges to you?

There were a lot of rules in the game that, generally speaking, whenever they came up at the table, people had to go and look up. If you had to do that every time, I considered that a rule that needed to be changed, because the rule was generally too complicated or too counter-intuitive to be easily used at the game table.

Things like how grapple worked in the game were so overly complicated that whenever it would come up – and it would come up quite often, because there were a number of monsters that could do it easily – you always had to open up the book and figure out exactly how it worked, because you just couldn’t remember it. It was too complicated.

Things like how turn undead worked; whenever somebody used turn undead you had to open up and find that turn undead chart, because no one could remember it. It wasn’t a very straightforward, or intuitive rule system. But in addition to rules tweaks like that, we looked at the game from kind of a more holistic standpoint and said ‘What do we want this to be?’ That led us to make some changes to a lot of the core classes.

One of our big problems with the game was that, the core classes, you could stick with them for a few levels, but then there came a point where there really wasn’t much of a point to stick with a class beyond that. You might as well multi-class or pick up a prestige class, and we saw that as kind of a missed opportunity. We went back to the drawing board on some of the classes and re-did a number of components on the classes to make them more interesting all the way up to 20th level, and also to give them a little bit more variety.

Sorcerers, for example: Sorcerers in 3.5, every sorcerer was basically the same, the only difference was what spells they chose. We saw that as an opportunity, so we gave sorcerers a bloodline, and the bloodline makes you different. Does it come from dragons? Does it come from demons? Does it come from fey? You now have that as a decision and it feeds you different powers and abilities to kind of set you apart from other sorcerers. We made a lot of similar decisions like that throughout the game, just to add more depth and more choice to a lot of what the players get to experience the most, which is their own characters.

So how did others join you and contribute their ideas? If you were the one who created the beginning steps, how did you get other employees onboard?

For me and my team, when the Pathfinder roleplaying game started, my team was just me. It quickly became apparent that it was just too much work for one person to be able to tackle. Putting out three hardcover rulebooks every year that are 256 pages or larger is just too much work for one person to manage. So shortly thereafter, about a year after we launched, and I was slowly going insane trying to put together rulebooks, we decided to bring Sean K Reynolds onboard.

He was a veteran – still is a veteran – of the game industry and had a lot of experience with various game publishers and was very knowledgeable about 3.5, so getting him up to speed was pretty easy. We brought him onboard to work on my rules team, and then just over a year ago we hired Stephen Radney-MacFarland, who was an employee at Wizards and helped work on both 3.5 and 4th edition. He was available, and I’d known him a long time, so we brought him onboard to assist with the rules team as well, and that’s kind of how the rules team came into being. We feel like we have a good mix right now.

As for the other departments, James Jacobs, our creative director, and Wesley Schneider, our editor-in-chief have been a part of Paizo since our Dragon and Dungeon days. Wes worked with me on Dragon and James was the editor-in-chief of Dungeon. The group of us really formed the nucleus of the teams here, with Eric Mona being our publisher. We picked up a lot of employees over the years and we keep growing. We put out a lot of books in our various lines and it always seems we need more people to give us a hand. We just hired two new employees in the past month and a half, so we’re growing steadily, but not by gigantic leaps.

What kind of resume does a person even show to get involved in Paizo?

The game industry as a whole is a varied mix of people. Because there is no game designer degree – at least not having anything to do with the pen-and-paper roleplaying industry – most of the employees here have an English degree in one form or another, or they have some sort of math or science degree – there’s a lot of that floating around.

I personally have a degree in architecture, Sean has a degree in, I believe, chemistry, and Stephen has a degree, I believe, in philosophy. There’s a lot of different, mixed degrees floating around here at Paizo but there are an awful lot of English degrees because ultimately, what we do is the written word. All our editors have English degrees.

Most of the resumes we see will not focus on their college education. They tend to focus instead on either what they’ve done in the industry – what they’ve had published in the past, either by us or other companies –  or they’ll go on at length about their own personal game experience; how long they’ve been playing, what games they play, what’s their thoughts and philosophies on those things. Almost every employee here at Paizo is a gamer.

It’s something we really believe in, we think everybody who works on these should understand what they are, how they work, how they play. I think from customer service right on to the president and CEO of the company, we all play games. I think that helps us better understand what it is we’re trying to do as a company, and provide what people want to play.

It seems like you’ve got a lot of the basic stuff out of the way; there’s the Advanced Race Guide, the Advanced Player’s Guide, Ultimate Magic, Ultimate Combat, and Ultimate Equipment just came out recently. How do you guys keep figuring out what’s next to publish?

That’s the $64 million question. We spend a great deal of time about what our game needs, and what is the next thing we should put out to expand the rules and expand the kind of stories people want to tell, and generally provide tools to make the DM’s life easier.

So here in just a few weeks we’ve got the NPC Codex coming out; that is a book crammed with over 300 NPC stat blocks for DMs to use. It’ll make prepping games a lot easier, it’ll make ad-hoc’ing and maing up NPCs on the fly very simple. That book comes out here in just a few weeks, and includes stat blocks for all the core classes, 1-20. So we’re really excited about that. And that was one of those books that was just like, ‘Yeah, one of the things that can be a pain sometimes is making a bunch of NPC stat blocks, so why don’t we provide you with some simple, easy tools to do that?’

One of the other things we’ve got coming out early next year is Ultimate Campaign. Ultimate Campaign is a book really designed to help both players and DMs flesh out their games. On the player side, we’ve got a background generator to help you generate the history and background of your character, and we’ve got a downtime system, to determine what your character is doing between adventures. Is he running a tavern, is he managing a thieves’ guild, is he creating magic items; all these sorts of things that players do, but we’ve never really had any rules for up to this point. It’s always been up to the DM to hand-wave. So now we’ve got a nice, clean system that’s easy to use that DMs and players will utilize.

On the DM side we’ve got rules for kingdom-building, we’ve got rules for war, we’ve got rules for relationships, and honor, and family, and all these sorts of things – little subsystems that the DM can pick up and put into the game if they’re important to the story. And if they’re not, he can just leave them out, it doesn’t impact the game as a whole. So Ultimate Campaign is the book we’re working on right now, and that book will be coming out in April.

But the big one we’re excited about is Mythic Adventures. Mythic Adventures will be coming out next year at GenCon. This one is a real departure for us, it’s a different kind of book. The design of Mythic Adventures is to allow you to tell a story where the players are more than mortal. They are almost like superheroes. They are incredibly powerful, but we give them that power not just by giving them bigger numbers. Anybody can do that.

Mythic characters are allowed to kind of break and bend certain rules of the game, and the thing we’re really excited about is that it’s a system you can start using as early as first level, it’s not like you have to be 20th level to use it. A lot of people never play in games that high of level. So Mythic really allows you to experience some of the more high-octane adventure ideas we couldn’t normally do. Think of it more like adventuring with Hercules and Achilles and King Arthur and those sorts of characters than about adventuring with gods or anything like that; they’ve powerful, but they’re not super-powerful. They’re capable of taking on more legendary dangers and tasks, but they’re not necessarily so overpowered that they can’t just slay a whole horde of orcs.

So Mythic is set to come out at next year’s GenCon in August, but we’re releasing a playtest in just a few weeks. It’ll be open to the public, you’ll be able to download it from Paizo.com and play around with the rules and tell us what you think.

That sounds really interesting. I usually just get the hardcover books because I’m usually the type to build my own custom worlds, so that sounds, yeah, really interesting!

Yeah, and next year’s adventure path that comes out at the same time will be Mythic.

Can you talk more about it?

I can’t spill too many beans about it, because it’s not my project, but the adventure path next year will be dealing with the Worldwound, a demon-infested blight in the world of Golarion.

Sounds suitably epic.

Yeah, you’ll need some Mythic powers to deal with what that thing’s gonna throw at you.

It sounds crazy. Are there any classes, rules, races, or anything you’ve brainstormed but haven’t been able to place into the game? Because of balance, or craziness, or whatever?

Generally speaking, we as a rules team are pretty nimble about that kind of stuff. When we come up with an idea, we can generally find a way to make it work. There are always some outliers, but we’ve found ways to make most of our crazy ideas work, and those we haven’t found a way to work, we’ve put in a sort of file to save for the future.

We’ve done a lot of things people didn’t think we could do.  The Gunslinger class was tricky and not the easiest to craft, but it’s worked out okay. We played around with how you cast spells with words of power, and the system requires some careful DM hand-holding, but generally it works out. We’re pretty good about that. Mythic is that in an entire book.

The Gunslinger is an interesting one. Can you go into that and why that was tricky?

To put it out there in front, guns have always been a very contentious issue in fantasy gaming. Some people love ‘em, some people hate ‘em, some people are kind of ambivalent about ‘em. There’s a lot of partisan bickering on that front, so when we decided to do a class that made its focus firearms, that was really tricky for us. We put it off for a bit and spent a fair amount of time thinking about it. It probably sat for six months to a year before we finally decided to go ahead and ‘pull the trigger’ on it.

It went to a public playtest because we were really concerned; it used rules we’d never used before, it introduced some brand-new concepts, and it introduced guns to the game. That’s a really contentious issue for some DMs and we knew some people were just gonna go ‘No, I don’t have guns in my game so obviously I don’t have Gunslingers.’

That was a challenge, and we really worked hard to come up with different levels of how guns could exist in your game world, from guns don’t exist at all to guns are rare and almost like artifacts, there’s only a couple of them and maybe they aren’t even from this world, all the way up to guns are mass-manufactured and they’re more reliable and less expensive. We provide a lot of different options for that because we knew that, for some folks, guns were going to be a real dangerous, tricky issue for them to include into their games.

We made sure to include plenty of options on how to incorporate them that would allow them to work how you need them to work in your game and not just how we tell you they work. It was a lengthy process, it took longer than most of the things we usually do just because we wanted to make sure we got it right.

One of the criticisms of 3.5 is that, towards the end, it was getting pretty bloated. Later books were filled with prestige classes that were wildly unfair; I played a Warshaper, and as soon as I took that class, I didn’t need a party anymore. How does Pathfinder make sure that, as you keep adding these books and new things, that they stay balanced?

Well, that’s a very tricky part of our job. We spend a great deal of time with any new rules element we add to the game, trying to think of how it interacts with everything that comes before. So as we add more and more, that becomes a more difficult job. Part of it is we keep a very close eye on what classes we put into the game. We try not to introduce a ton of new classes into the game, because invariably one is going to be better at doing a certain thing than another one that’s also trying to do that thing.

We solved that by adding archetypes to the game. This was a concept that appeared in the Advanced Player’s Guide and has since shown up in a lot of our core rulebooks. The archetypes allow us to change out a couple features from a class without completely re-writing the class. That means that it allows for us to explore a concept without having to reinvent the wheel on how something works.

So we’ve got a Rogue archetype that allows you to be a swashbuckler instead of just an ordinary Rogue. It works pretty much like a regular Rogue, but we’ve changed out half a dozen special abilities, and that way it works a little differently. It’s still the same class. The key there is that allows us to play with various concepts because ultimately, we give you the Rogue, the Swashbuckler, the Roofwalker, and Trapmaster and all these other different Rogue-type classes, and if we were to build an entirely new class each time, invariably one of those is going to be better than the other. It might be a marginal improvement, but it’s enough for people to notice and go, ‘That’s the better class.’ Given enough time, that becomes a serious problem.

And that’s not to say we don’t have it, but it’s mitigated by the fact we’re not presenting entirely new options, we’re just swapping out a couple for X, Y, or Z. Because of that, you can never cross-pollinate; once you take one archetype you generally can’t take another archetype from that class, so it kind of locks you into one path, which allows us to control the power level a bit more carefully.

In addition, we’re just very careful in terms of what we put out in terms of magic items, feats, and spells, making sure we don’t break the game by releasing a bunch of stuff that’s clearly better than what’s come before. It’s a fine line to walk, because you also don’t want to put out rules that are clearly inferior to what’s come before. It’s a tricky process, it’s a fine line to walk, and sometimes we don’t get it right but we’re more than willing to go back in and fix things that aren’t working up to expectations.

You mentioned before that sometimes the community seems to be a bit more aggressive than you are against other publishers. What’s one of the biggest communications you wish you could say to the community?

It’s funny, because a lot of people assume that there’s this kind of silent war between the game publishers, but nothing could be further from the truth. We’re way too small of an industry for there to be any in-fighting, and it’s really unfortunate when we see fans in-fighting about what game they want to play.

I find that most groups change games quite frequently, or change DMs or decide to do different things, and that’s fine. We don’t think you have to be playing our game every minute of the day for us to be successful. We want to put out a good game, we want to put out a game you want to play, but ultimately you should play the game that you’re having fun playing. If we’re doing our job, that will be our game quite frequently, but it doesn’t always have to be.

I think a lot of people have kind of turned this into a red team, blue team kind of thing and I think that’s pointless. We’re all gamers, and we’re too small an industry to fight amongst ourselves. I think people should just let off of it and play the games they’re playing. Don’t sweat the details.

On the opposite side, what’s one of the better stories you’ve seen? What’s a more inspiring example of the community?

We recently released the Beginner Box for Pathfinder. It’s a box set that comes with basic ruleset that only goes up to 5th level, only has four classes, only has three races, and is really designed for people who don’t know anything about roleplaying games, Pathfinder or otherwise, to get them into the game.

We decided that we needed to put this together because our core rulebook is a monstrously thick 576-page behemoth. That’s intimidating for a new player to take and absorb, so the Beginner Box was really there for us to say, ‘Oh you’re brand-new to gaming? Here’s a box that teaches you all the basics: it teaches you what a roleplaying game is, it gives you the funny, weird dice we have.’ It really is there to give you the basics. We released that and it’s been great.

As a result, we get stories from parents or from teachers, or from boy scouts, telling about how this game taught them how to play. When you get a photo from a fan sent in that’s teaching his 8-year old daughter how to play, and she really loves killing goblins, that’s really something special. I learned to play when I was a similar age with a similar box set, and to be able to bring the game that I love, that I grew up playing, to so many people is really something. We get a lot of great stories like that and we’re always happy to hear them.

I just recently created my own custom class, so I think that what you’re saying is true. Games like this can teach people a ruleset, and that can push them to be creative themselves.

Yeah, I mean that’s a big thing with roleplaying games. I can’t imagine what kind of person I’d be had I not learned how to play roleplaying games. It taught me how to interact with people better, it taught me how to cooperate better, it taught me how to do math better, it made me interested in math, science, and strange words I didn’t understand. For me, it really helped me develop in my early teen years into a better person.

So what’s the end goal? What’s the point in all of this?

It offers you something you just can’t get anywhere else. It offers you community, it offers you friendship, it offers you an outlet for creativity, frustration, and all the other things. I think it’s really important. I wish more people would play.