The Saving Throw
James Jacobs Interview June 8, 2007
Saving Throw got a moment to set down with James Jacobs and talk about a variety of things...

featured on June 11, 2007 Martin Drury
Saving Throw Writer

ST: When did you begin playing pen and paper RPGs? What was the first adventure you played?
JJ: I started playing RPGs back in 5th grade; my teacher was actually my first DM. The class had about 25 or so kids in it and he split it into four groups of five and ran us all separately through a dungeon of his own design during lunch recess. Once a room was finished, the session was over and one of us had to write up that encounter as a short story before the group could play the next room. It was actually a pretty ingenious way to trick a bunch of 5th-graders into writing. He used the old blue book to run the adventure; my character was a dwarf magic user named Semaj. Heh.

For the next several years, I was usually the DM, so I didn't get to be a player much. The first published adventure I ran was, of course, Keep on the Borderlands. Which confused me at the time, cause I didn't understand contour lines and couldn't figure out how all those caves connected up.

ST: How long have you been working in the industry? What was the first published product you worked on?
JJ: I started working at Wizards of the Coast back in 1999 as an order processing guy to help with the Pokémon craze, and before long was involved in the playtest of 3rd Edition and regularly writing stuff for the magazines. I was hired on at Paizo in June 2003; my first Dungeon as an editor was #103.

My first published Dungeons & Dragons material, though, was back in Dungeon #12 with the solo adventure "Scepter of the Underworld". I was 14 at the time...I'm sure I'm not the youngest adventure writer Dungeon's published, but I've gotta be in the running! My first book for the game was Bastion Press' Villains, a collection of some really demented and creepy bad guys. I helped work on the first incarnation of the d20 World of Warcraft RPG, but that license ended up moving to another company, so the first actual WotC book that had my name on the cover was Races of Faerun.

ST: What product was your favorite?
JJ: Wow. Tough question. I think, though, I have to say that the best ever Dungeons & Dragons product was GDQ 17: Queen of the Spiders. I've run that adventure I'm not sure how many times, and each time I had a blast. Great stuff, and a great example of how a group of seven separate adventures, bundled together with a cool framing story, can really end up being greater than the sum of its parts. Close seconds to favorite product are Expedition to the Barrier Peaks and Mordenkainen's Fantastic Adventure.

ST: What monster is your favorite? Which class or prestige class is your favorite?
JJ: The Froghemoth. Because it's like a dinosaur frog with tentacles. Best Monster Ever. Demogorgon's a close second, with the rest of the classic demons, drow, mind flayers, and aboleths rounding out the top 10.

My favorite class is the bard, partially because I enjoy the challenge of playing classes that are commonly underestimated, and partially because I enjoy the role-playing opportunities afforded by playing a bard. They're fun! As for my favorite prestige class? Hmmm... that kind of changes every several months, it seems, but currently? The champion of Gwynharwyf from Book of Exalted Deeds. Powerhouse spellcasting barbarian for the win!

ST: What about weapons (or weapon enhancements) and spells, any particular favorites there?
JJ: Favorite weapon is probably the bastard sword; favorite weapon enchantment is probably speed. Favorite spell? As a player, my favorite spell is probably heroes' feast or quench (heroes' feast because it shuts down so many monster attacks, and quench because the DM is NEVER prepared for it), but as an adventure writer? Binding, hands down, since it's a great way to explain why a monster's been lurking in a room for the past 400 years or so.

ST: As a GM, what is your favorite type of trap to spring on your players?
JJ: Any trap that's more than just a simple single cause and effect. Complex traps that have multiple layers and threats are the best. One of my favorites is actually from Dragon Mountain, which involved a pit that shrank you when you fell in; the floor cinches down to a narrow tube and then down the tube is an antimagic zone so you suddenly go back to normal size and get squished. If, somehow, you fall all the way through? You land in a big cave filled with stalagmites.

ST: How many times per day to you cackle with fiendish glee?
JJ: Five.

ST: What authors, either in the industry or outside of the industry, have influenced your own work with RPGs?
JJ: Robert Kuntz and Gary Gygax are the two biggest influences inside the industry on me. Once second edition came along, add Bruce Cordell to that list. And recently, add Erik Mona to the list; working with him over the past several years has probably taught me more about the actual mechanics of working in this industry than anything else.

ST: Have you ever read a supplement or adventure by another author and saw a new feat, item, or other game mechanic that you wished you had thought of first? Can you give an example?
JJ: All the time! A lot of them are authors who write for Dungeon, in fact. I suppose the three biggest examples that pop to mind are Malcanthet (created by Robert Kuntz) and the Styes (created by Richard Pett) and the Kingdom of the Ghouls (created by Wolfgang Baur). Nick Logue's upcoming ogre game of "Man Dueling" is pretty awesome too, but you'll have to wait a few more months to check that one out...

ST: What part, in your opinion, is the hardest with writing an adventure?
JJ: Keeping the adventure to the necessary word count. Every time I write an adventure, it seems that I end up missing the deadline because I overwrite.

ST: With Pathfinder, the "unofficial" replacement for the Dragon and Dungeon magazines, Paizo has more freedom to design new game mechanics. What can you tell us about some of these new features, such as Sin Magic, the Runelords and new monsters that you have in the works?
JJ: Well, the primary philosophy is that any new mechanics we introduce need to be kept streamlined and simple and should service the adventure first, rather than being something we come up with that we then come up with an adventure for. They'll be integral parts of the story, in other words. Sin magic, for example, isn't going to be a drastic reworking of the wizard specialist system; it's basically nothing more than some flavor text and a more regimented system of what prohibited schools you end up with, and then from there we can build more feats, prestige classes, and spells to support the flavor on a piece-by-piece basis as needed. But since everything's still based on the core rules, anyone can take any part of it and use it on its own. In the start, I suppose you can expect our attempts at "innovation" to be more firmly rooted in the flavor part of the game rather than the crunch. Doesn't mean that somewhere down the line we won't branch out into crazy stuff, but in the first several months we'll be more focused on establishing a world that anyone who's familiar with the core rules can easily jump into and play.

Although all that said... the Critical Hit Deck is a pretty awesome new game mechanic!

ST: What's up with those crazy Kobolds and goblins anyhow?
JJ: They're just tired of being ignored, of being relegated to "throwaway" roles in the first adventure in a campaign. They want to be remembered, and if cutting up a few dogs or horses or singing some crazy songs or kidnapping a bunch of kids is what it takes to get noticed... so be it!

ST: What ways can the average gamer help or contribute to Pathfinder?
JJ: The best way a gamer can help is just by spreading the word. Check out Pathfinder when it comes out, and if you like what you see (and I hope you do!), post something about it on a messageboard, talk about it with your friends, ask your FLGS to carry it in stock. Dragon and Dungeon had incredible visibility in the market, and that's something that Pathfinder doesn't have yet. It can't be a success if no one knows about it!

ST: Some of have complained that the increased cost of Pathfinder over the combined cost of subscriptions to Dragon and Dungeon magazines make it less appetizing to those on a budget. What steps has Paizo taken to ensure that the extra cost is worth it? Are there any plans to release a compiled adventure path after each volume is completed?
JJ: I do understand that; Pathfinder's not cheap when compared to the magazines. Which is why we've been taking steps to ensure that what you get in Pathfinder isn't cheap. It's a book, not a magazine. It'll feel solid in your hands; the pages won't be as flimsy or as poor quality as the magazines, there'll be no adds, and you'll be getting MUCH more content in each Pathfinder than you did with a single issue of Dungeon. The adventure installments of each Adventure Path will be about 150% the size of Dungeon's. Each Pathfinder also contains support articles similar in style to Core Believes, City Backdrops, Monster Ecologies, and the like, along with at least six new monsters per volume. It's like getting a free sourcebook with each adventure, so that once the adventure is over, you'll still have continuing use for the book. And if you subscribe to Pathfinder, you get a full PDF of each one for free as well.

Our goal with Pathfinder is to make each Adventure Path "right" the first time around; we have no plans to recompile them into big hardcover products. Since they're books (and not magazines); they stay on store shelves for a lot longer, and if they go out of print we can reprint. So the worry that one adventure in a series might go away before the rest isn't a concern like it was for the magazines.

We ARE looking into bundling each Adventure Path into slipcases after they complete, though; the content's remain the same but it'll be an easy way to pick up the entire run at once. If we do this, we'll of course offer the slipcases as well to readers who bought the adventure path as it came out. I'd love to give something like a slipcase away to all our subscribers each time an Adventure Path wraps up, but that's not all up to me. We'll see what develops!

ST: Finally, one last question. Do you look at console and PC (MMO)RPGs as the biggest threat to the pen and paper RPG industry, or do you believe the two can co-exist and thrive?
JJ: Absolutely not. It's a threat, sure, but not the biggest threat. The biggest threat to the pen and paper RPG industry is its own jealousy; just because something else comes along and makes a big splash in the market (be it a MMORPG, a collectable card game, or whatever) and makes more money than RPGs doesn't mean the hobby is going to go away. Sure, it's nice to make big piles of money, but as long as the passion and love of creating pen & paper games stays alive, it'll keep going. And as long as readers and players of the game keep playing, we'll still be here to build new games!

I really enjoy PC (MMO)RPGs, but they scratch a different itch, I think, than does pen-and-paper RPG stuff. An MMORPG gives you instant gratification, music, awesome visuals, and a never-ending adventure. Pen and paper games, though, give you face-to-face interactions with your friends, infinite flexibility, and the capacity to make your OWN world and story rather than to just play around in someone else's. Personally, I play in two campaigns and run two campaigns, and I also play a lot of World of Warcraft. There's time for both!

Back to archive
© 1998-2017 RPGamer All Rights Reserved
Privacy Policy