I recently had a chance to interview Jason Bulmahn, Lead Designer on
Pathfinder RPG. We cover a wide variety of topics, from Jason's inspirations to which of
his bosses he likes best. Unfortunately, he would not answer that last question, but he
did answer the the rest of them.
ST: Can you give us a little bit of background about yourself? How long have you been working in the industry and what are some of the titles you have had a hand in developing?
JB: I have been working in the RPG industry for about 8 years now. I got my start as a part-time campaign coordinator for the RPGA's Living Greyhawk Campaign. In the span of four years (through late 2004), I moved up from a Triad member for Wisconsin's Highfolk region to become one of the regional directors, known as the Circle. As a Circle member, I sanctioned modules and events for Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Texas, Oklahoma, and all of Australia. In 2004, I left my full time job of Architecture behind and moved to Seattle to become the Managing Editor of Dragon magazine, starting with issue 327 and proceeding through the end, with issue 359. Throughout this time period, I also worked on the newly formed GameMastery line of Paizo products. These were some of our first forays in the OGL market and I had a hand in a number of these early projects (including the Item Cards, Critical Hit Deck, Campaign Workbook, Critical Fumble Deck, and Map Packs). As the magazines came to an end, managing these projects, along with our newly launched line of modules and licensed
products, like the flip mats, became my primary responsibility under the title of GameMastery Brand Manager. All of that changed in late 2007, when my full time responsibilities changed to work on the
Pathfinder RPG, a project I had been working on privately for a number of months. Since then, I have been named Lead Designer, and the Pathfinder RPG is really my only primary responsibility.
ST: Where would you say you draw most of your inspiration? Classic fantasy works, or more contemporary pieces?
JB: I would say that a lot of my inspiration comes from some of the same sources that inspired D&D, primarily Vance, Moorcock, Leiber, Tolkien, and a few others. That said, I am also interested in a number of contemporary authors, such as Martin, Weis, Salvatore, and Jordan. I draw some of my ideas from recent sci-fi and fiction authors as well, such as Dick, Vonnegut, and Mieville. While many of these authors inspire my work, I think some of the biggest influences come from the early authors of D&D. The Temple of Elemental Evil and Tomb of Horrors made for some of the most memorable moments in my teenage years and they certainly helped form my ideas of what a fun roleplaying game can be.
ST: Can you tell us what your goals were when you started the Pathfinder RPG project? Have those goals changed any during the development process? Ultimately, how will you determine the success of the Pathfinder RPG?
JB: When the Pathfinder RPG first started coming together, I had three primary goals. The first was to make sure the game was compatible with the 3.5 rules set. I think we recognized pretty early on that there are plenty of gamers out there with bookshelves full of 3.5 books that they had not gotten a chance to use and we wanted to make sure that they got a system that would support that library. Second, we wanted to improve the game by smoothing over some of the rough parts in the system. Grapple, turning, and polymorph all shot to the top of that list as rules that could use some simplification and improvement. After playing 3.0 and 3.5 for 8 years, I believe that it has become apparent that there are some areas that could use improvement and we have been trying to tackle those one at a time. Finally, we wanted to add some fresh options for players and GMs to use. A number of the base classes have become a bit stale over the years and many of them were only of use for about 4 or 5 levels, when the lure of multiclassing or prestige classes becomes too great to resist. As someone who played 1st edition, I wanted to strengthen some of the core classes to make them viable across 20 levels and not just 5. To this end, I worked to make sure that every class got at least a little something at every level. As the design has progressed, I do not think that the goals have changed, but the order of them certainly has. When we first started, compatability was the most important aspect, but as time went on, improving it became a little more important. Much of this, though, depends on the part of the rules I am working on at the time and the feedback of the playtesters. As for success, if we end up with a game that our fans enjoy and are interested in playing, I will be quite
ST: Can you give us some insight into what are some of the "cool" and "unique" things to look forward to in the Pathfinder RPG? What are some of features that will set it apart from other RPG systems?
JB: Well, the Pathfinder RPG tries to streamline a number of the clunky or suboptimal mechanics of 3.5. So while the game should feel the same, it should play a bit smoother. Bull Rush, Trip, Grapple, Overrun, Sunder, and Disarm all now work off one unified mechanic without an opposed roll, making them much easier to adjudicate. Turning has been changed into channel energy, allowing clerics and paladins to both harm undead and heal the living at the same time. This allows them to actually cast spells for their desired effect instead of just converting them to healing. Classes like the fighter, barbarian, monk, and sorcerer all received a host of new options to make them more interesting to play across 20 levels. Clerics and Wizards both have options that give them unlimited use of some spell-like abilities and cantrips, allowing them to last quite a bit longer before needing to rest. Ultimately, we are trying to create a game that allows you to tell the stories that you want to tell, using the rules to help define the world and excite the players.
ST: Paizo has taken a rather unusual turn and released alpha and beta versions of the Pathfinder RPG to the general public. Can you explain a little bit about the goals and reasons for taking what is generally a private and secretive process and making it more accessible?
JB: Unlike most other roleplaying games, the Pathfinder RPG is already familiar to most as the 3.5 rules set. As such, we could think of no better way of revising these rules than by asking 25,000 experienced players and GMs to give us some advice. By bringing everyone into the process, we are able to keep folks interested and playing while we work to get the rules where we want them. Ultimately, these rules are based off the Open Game License (or OGL) and are a sort of living, community property. As such, we felt it was vital to the success of this project to get all of the shareholders involved.
ST: Have you been surprised by the response (in terms of downloads) to the alpha release?
JB: Yes, absolutely. I think our first metric of success was getting 5,000 downloads. We surpassed that in two days after release of the first Alpha. I think I had a smile on my face for about a week after that. Since then, we have had over 25,000 downloads of the Alpha. The Beta, which just released at GenCon, is being downloaded at an even faster pace. We sold out of the print copies we brought to GenCon in just over 9 hours, a new record for us. Suffice to say, every time I set an expectation for this project, it gets met and exceeded. It continues to amaze me.
ST: Has there been anything discovered during alpha playtesting that made you slap your forehead and wonder "just what was I thinking?"
JB: Having an open playtest has left me with a red forehead from just that experience. The first big one though, was skills. The first alpha release had a completely revised skill system that was almost universally rejected. There were a number of reasons, but the biggest one was that the new rules did not allow characters enough customization. In my desire to make things simple, I had just gone too far. After about two weeks of intense discussion with the playtesters, we came up with a system that was quite a bit simple, but still allowed for a good measure of customization, and that
system has endured up and through the Beta.
ST: If you had to pick one, which class would be your favorite? Which monster? Which Author? Musician or Band? James Jacobs or Erik Mona... oh, you don't have to answer that last one.
JB: As for class, it is a pretty even tie for me between wizard and paladin. I like the wizard for the power you can attain and the challenge in making yourself useful in any situation, but I like the Paladin for roleplaying reasons, the dilemmas that moral code causes. As for author, I have always been a fan of Kurt Vonnegut, as he was one of the first authors I read fervently when I was a teenager. As for music, I got hooked on Nine Inch Nails when I was a teenager playing Vampire and I am not sure that has ever left me. As for that last question... I am just going to leave that one alone.
ST: I'm sure there were a lot of late nights in the run up to releasing the beta version to the printer. Do you have an estimate of the amount of coffee/energy drinks that you consumed during this period?
JB: I think that last week, before the Beta went to the printer, I only slept a grand total of about 20 hours and I worked nearly 100. Suffice to say, living in Seattle means that coffee is the drink of choice. Luckily there are a pair of Starbucks just down the street from us (in the same strip mall no less). They got a lot of my money that week.
ST: Staying on the topic of consuming stuff, Paizo fans are famous for sending pizza to your office. What's the wierdest topping you've ever seen on a pizza sent by a fan? Have you ever received anything from a fan that rivals the wierdness of the Goose Cake?
JB: Fortunately, our fans have stuck to the safe toppings when it comes to pizza, which is a good thing. I've gotten a lot of strange art and food in the mail over the past few years, but that goose "takes the cake"... sorry. I just had to take the easy route on that one.
ST: Okay, enough with the food and drink questions, it's almost lunch time and I'm making myself hungry. I read on your blog you are a big fan of the Spore Creature Creator and greatly anticipating the release of Spore itself. What other upcoming games/movies/etc releases have you got your eyes on?
JB: Wow, this list could get really long. As for games, I am currently addicted to Warhammer 40k, so any new release on that front is something that goes "on the list". In addition to that, I am a huge boardgame fan, and am looking forward to getting my hands on the new Battlestar Galactica boardgame (it was sold out at GenCon before I could get one). I still want to grab some Monsterpocalypse (from Privateer) because the concept of a giant monster minis game seems way to awesome to pass up. I have a stack of Xbox 360 games waiting to be played right now, so I am holding off on more purchases on that front (although Lego Batman and Fallout 3 might just find there way
into my greedy hands). I finally got to see Batman and Hellboy recently, but that still leaves a host of good movies I am looking forward to this year, like Quantum of Solace, The Day the Earth Stood
Still, The Road, and City of Ember (which strangely reminds me of Bioshock, which was a great game). All in all, its going to be a busy year.
And that concludes our interview with Jason.