Forging Our Own Path
Thursday, August 30, 2012
This blog entry is the seventh in a series of blogs commemorating Paizo's 10th anniversary.
Click here to read the first installment.
As the cold and stormy start of 2008 settled on the Paizo offices, there was a palpable sense of tension. We were well past the point where we normally assigned freelance writing for our Gen Con releases. Wizards of the Coast was set to release Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition at that show, and we were already planning out Second Darkness, the Pathfinder Adventure Path launching at the same time. If we were going to switch it to 4E, we needed to do it soon. But we knew little more about 4E in January than we did at the previous year's Gen Con. Early in the month, Wizards held a conference call with a host of third-party publishers telling us that they were working on a new third-party license and that we would probably have early access to the rules soon, but the lack of a firm commitment or any kind of schedule from Wizards was stretching our patience—and our deadlines.
We were going to have to start writing Second Darkness for 3.5. If Wizards came through quickly, we thought, there was a slim chance that we might still be able to rework it for 4th Edition... but the more we thought about the logistics of learning a new game system, bringing our freelancers up to speed on that system, and then having to develop adventures for a system we'd never even played, it soon became obvious that even if Wizards started to open up the lines of communication immediately, doing Second Darkness as a 4E product was a fool's errand. So as we turned to February, we made the difficult decision to commit to 3.5 for Second Darkness. Our flagship product line would be incompatible with the then-current edition of D&D for at least 6 months.
But that didn't yet mean that 4th Edition was out of the running for the Adventure Path after that one. The continued lack of information of any sort was driving us nuts, and having just had our whole company turned upside down due to Wizards' decision to end the magazine licenses, we were beginning to think that forging our own path forward might be a valid choice. With no license from Wizards in hand, it was unclear whether there actually was any other choice. Nevertheless, we dutifully sent Jason Bulmahn to Wizards' D&D Experience in Fort Wayne, Indiana that February. Jason's mission was to learn as much as he could about 4th Edition, play it as much as he could, and report back with his findings. From that, we would ultimately make a decision that could make or break us. The tension was agonizing. I could barely sleep at night as my mind wrestled with the options. If we made the wrong decision, it could very well mean the end of Paizo.
When Jason returned from D&D Experience, he laid out all the information that he had gleaned. From the moment that 4th Edition had been announced, we had trepidations about many of the changes we were hearing about. Jason's report confirmed our fears—4th Edition didn't look like the system we wanted to make products for. Whether a license for 4E was forthcoming or not, we were going to create our own game system based on the 3.5 SRD: The Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. And we were already WAY behind schedule.
Thankfully, Jason had started to experiment with an alternative 3.5 rules system in Fall 2007. It was initially a lark that Jason was hoping he might be able to sell as a PDF somewhere down the road to the inevitable fans of the 3.5 ruleset that weren't going to 4E. He had dubbed the project Mon Mothma. Early in 2008, Jason had presented this document to us, a revision that added a variety of new options to a ruleset we already had experience and comfort with. Knowing the future was uncertain, we encouraged him to start turning his ideas into a complete, coherent rules set.
When Jason brought in his refined version of Mon Mothma, we liked what we saw. We knew that we needed to let our customers know about our decision as soon as possible, but it would take at least a year to wrangle a new game system into place, even one using existing rules as its basis. But we needed our customers to stick around for that year, so we came up with a cunning plan: if we could get people playtesting our new system, perhaps they would stick with us through the interim. And, of course, all that playtesting would certainly improve the finished product! It was a bold plan that seemed almost impossible as we started planning in late February. Jason felt that it would take him at least three months to wrangle a playtest document into shape, but we couldn't wait until May or June to make our announcement. So we decided to break our Alpha playtest into three different documents that we would release one per month starting in March. The first section of the playtest was pretty much ready to go, so we picked a date of March 18 to spill the beans.
On the appointed morning, we took the website down and put up a graphic of a bunch of goblins running amok with torches. The caption beneath the picture read, "Goblins have taken over Paizo and are forcing a decision. Stay tuned." Meanwhile, behind the scenes, we were putting up blogs, adding Pathfinder RPG announcements and FAQs, readying the first Alpha playtest download, and building new messageboard forums to discuss it all. When the website went live, we all held our breath to see what folks would say. Of course, a number of people called it a stupid decision and predicted our demise, but a large majority of our customers seemed very happy with our decision.
The Alpha playtest was well received, and over the next couple months, we made good on our promise to release the next two parts of the playtest document. And while Jason read through thousands upon thousands of playtest comments, he was also on deadline to create the Beta playtest. To say that he looked a little harried during this time is an understatement.
The Alpha playtests were relatively small, but the Beta was shaping up to be about 400 pages. We realized that people would be paying a lot to print that many pages out, so we came up with another crazy idea—what if we printed the Pathfinder RPG Beta as a softcover book and sold it at Gen Con and on paizo.com? To the best of our knowledge, nobody had ever done that before, but since we were swinging for the fences anyways, we figured, why not? Of course, that meant we had about a month to put together a 400-page book so it could be printed and shipped to Gen Con. Now THAT was crazy.
In May, we announced that Monte Cook would be joining the Pathfinder RPG design team as a consultant. Since Monte had been a part of the D&D Third Edition design team, we thought it would be great for Jason to bounce ideas off him and to have him explain what the designers were thinking when they wrote certain rules. It also didn't hurt to have somebody of Monte's stature signed on to the project.
We released the Pathfinder RPG Beta at Gen Con, and the flood of people buying it was amazing. People bought stacks of copies for their entire gaming group. We sold out in the middle of the show. Over the next several months, more than 50,000 people joined the playtest, mostly by way of the free PDF. The open playtest proved to be invaluable, letting us avoid some bad design choices and implementing some good ideas into the final product. It was so successful that we've done one for every Pathfinder RPG release that has a significant section of new rules.
As if we didn't have enough crazy in our lives, we decided that we need to take our Pathfinder campaign setting to the next level. We released the Pathfinder Chronicles Gazetteer early in the year as a player-friendly 64-page introduction to the setting, but to truly cover the entire Inner Sea region, we'd need a much heftier tome. So we put the Pathfinder Chronicles Campaign Setting hardcover on the schedule for Gen Con. In order to get it out on time, editor Mike McArtor had to wrangle 28 different authors, each of whom was given a country or two to flesh out. Because of the variety of authors and the speed with which the book was made, a number of things snuck into the early campaign setting that we later needed to adjust, but all in all, the book ended up being great, and it sold out upon release at Gen Con.
Our Adventure Path line stayed in Varisia for all of 2008, through the Curse of the Crimson Throne and Second Darkness adventure paths. Partly, this was because Varisia is the part of our setting that's closest to the baseline fantasy assumptions, and that's where we needed to stand as we built our brand and tried to keep customers from fleeing to a new edition. Also, since the campaign setting hardcover wasn't coming out until the middle of the year, we hadn't fleshed out the rest of Golarion yet.
In 2008, we also launched a new bimonthly product line, the Pathfinder Companion. To pull this off, we adjusted our Module line to bimonthly as well, alternating with Companions. The genesis of the Companion line was a wish to provide players with regular material that they could use for their game—something that Dragon magazine used to do. Our first product in this line was the Second Darkness Player Companion, and before the year was done, we added Companions for Elves of Golarion and Osirion, Land of Pharaohs.
Tim Nightingale presents James Jacobs, Jason Bulmahn, and Mike "He-Looks-JUST-Like-His-Avatar" McArtor with a Fan Appreciation Award at the inaugural PaizoCon!
2008 wasn't just a year for new books. In February, we crowned the first RPG Superstar champion. German Christine Schneider took home the win with her proposal for Clash of the Kingslayers, beating out hundreds of novice designers, many of whom ended up writing for Paizo, or even getting hired onto our staff! In addition to Christine, future Pathfinder stalwarts Clinton Boomer, Rob McCreary and Jason Nelson were also in the top 4, with contender Russ Taylor also becoming a valuable contributor and Ross Byers later winding up on Paizo's web team! All in all, it was a great start for our quest to find new talent for Paizo.
In the early part of the summer, another Paizo tradition was started: PaizoCon! Local customer and friend of the company Tim Nightingale decided to bring Paizo fans together at a hotel in Bellevue to play games and talk about Paizo and Pathfinder. He dubbed the get-together PaizoCon, and about 50 attendees turned up. Paizo staffers showed up on the Saturday of the con to hold a couple of seminars and run a few celebrity games. We adopted PaizoCon from Tim the following year, and it's now one of our most important conventions each year. From humble beginnings rises greatness!
Another milestone for summer 2008 was the launch of Pathfinder Society organized play at Gen Con. We dubbed the first year Season Zero because we wanted to use it like an open playtest, working with players and GMs to refine the system, with a formal Season One planned to launch alongside our new RPG in 2009. The Pathfinder Society room at Gen Con was packed, with four scenarios offered for play. Over the weekend, 400 characters were made and 600 registration cards were handed out for new players and GMs. Today, many thousands of GMs and players make Pathfinder Society a large part of their gaming lives.
At the ENnie Awards, Paizo won 7 golds and a silver. The awards received were:
- Best Art, Cover: Gold Medal for Pathfinder #1: Burnt Offerings
- Best Art, Interior: Silver Medal for Pathfinder #1: Burnt Offerings
- Best Adventure: Gold Medal for Pathfinder #1: Burnt Offerings
- Best Monster/Adversary: Gold Medal for Pathfinder Chronicles: Classic Monsters Revisited
- Best Setting: Gold Medal for Pathfinder Chronicles Gazetteer
- Best Aid or Accessory: Gold Medal for Pathfinder Chronicles: Harrow Deck
- Best Free Product: Gold Medal for Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Alpha
- Best Publisher: Gold Medal
As the year came to an end, it felt for the first time in our history like we were finally in charge of our own destiny. The Pathfinder RPG playtest had been going phenomenally, and our product lines were being received well around the world. There was still a lot of hard work to be done to launch the RPG at Gen Con, but for once, everything was in our control. We were masters of our own fate.
Employees who started in 2008 (in order of hiring date):
Jacob Burgess, Online Retail Coordinator
Nick Logue, Organized Play Coordinator
Christopher Carey, Copy Editor
Sean K Reynolds, Developer/Designer
Brock Mitchel-Slentz, Warehouse Worker
Alison McKenzie, Customer Service Representative
Employees who left in 2008 (in order of their end date):
Corey J. Young
By 2008, my path in the gaming industry had taken an odd turn. I had time at TSR, Wizards of the Coast, Interplay, and Upper Deck under my belt. I already had a working relationship with Wes Schneider and James Jacobs from writing Greyhawk god articles for Dragon, an occasional adventure for Dungeon, and Golarion god articles for the Adventure Paths. I knew Erik from his dedicated involvement with Greyhawk (and from when he was one of my TSR online volunteers), and Lisa was my first boss in Wizards of the Coast RPG R&D for Team Greyhawk. So when I found myself unemployed after Upper Deck's most popular card game had a poor quarter, I emailed Erik to let him know I'd be available for more freelance. Erik countered by offering me a full-time job at Paizo. Developer Mike McArtor was leaving, and Erik needed someone to take over that role. (Mike was also one of my TSR volunteers from years before, and had asked to use me as a reference when he applied for the developer job at Paizo). I had never officially done any development before, but Erik assured me that I could do this job, so I accepted.
My move from San Diego back to Seattle was delayed for three weeks by my sister's wedding, but right after that I shipped my books, gave away my not-worth-moving furniture, and loaded up the car with my four cats and the rest of my belongings for a mad, three-day drive through a heat wave and northern California wildfires to reach my beloved Emerald City. In many ways, that period of my life was a significant reboot—work, home, relationships, finances, and motivations all changed radically in a span of about six weeks, in many ways very reminiscent of my decision 13 years earlier to leave California and move to Wisconsin to work for TSR.
I started at Paizo the day after I arrived in Seattle. The team was great. The energy was great. The company was still struggling financially, but I could see everyone's heart was in the work, and they were proud of what they were doing. I had my own cubicle in the editorial pit, with most of my desk obscured with rulebooks and minis, and felt right at home with the toys, posters, and dinosaurs decorating the other cubes. I wrangled freelancers, developed manuscripts, wrote art orders, and learned how to fiddle with text in layout. As a developer, I was able to influence more projects than I ever would have time to write myself. As it turns out, I had missed working on RPGs, and actually missed having real deadlines—even if we were behind on some of them. I went to Gen Con with Paizo and saw the Pathfinder RPG Beta sell out—a sign that the gaming community felt we were doing the right thing. It felt really good to be a part of Paizo. It reminded me of the best times at TSR and Wizards of the Coast. It was good to have that feeling again. As someone who has witnessed many of the highs and lows of the modern gaming industry, I'm glad to be at Paizo, and I wouldn't choose anywhere else.
Sean K Reynolds
From the Editor's Desk
My road to Paizo was, I think, a bit unique. I first heard of Paizo not from its array of gaming products but rather from its revival of the old pulp Planet Stories banner in 2007. I was curious. Not only was someone bringing back into print the sword-and-planet classics of Leigh Brackett, C. L. Moore, and Michael Moorcock, but that someone also happened to be based only a few miles away from me. After determining that the Paizo folks made up the same team who'd up until recently published Amazing Stories, I filed away the info and continued to work on my labor of love, a historical fantasy novel called The Song of Kwasin, coauthored with science-fiction luminary Philip José Farmer.
By spring 2008, I'd completed the novel and was looking for both a publisher and a job. As the pulpsters of old might say, Fate struck when I was perusing the Norwescon schedule and noticed that Erik Mona, Paizo's Publisher, was going to be speaking on a number of panels. A week or so later, I was at the con meeting Erik and pitching him my book, an adventure tale that fit right in with the rip-roaring spirit of the Planet Stories line. Erik was immediately interested, and we stood outside in the hallway chatting it up about the pulps for a good 25 minutes before I mentioned I'd applied for the recently listed editor position at Paizo. The Song of Kwasin ended up selling to another publishing house, but I'll always be thankful for the novel having broken the ice. A few short weeks later, I was called in for an interview and an editing test, and a week after that I was working furiously at my new desk at the Paizo offices.
And I do mean working furiously. You see, I came aboard right before both the Pathfinder RPG Beta and Pathfinder Chronicles Campaign Setting hardcover were due to go to the printer. Printouts from both books were flying in a feverish blur from one editor to the next as I was trying my best to raise my voice above the tumult working to get everyone on the same page that Chelaxian was a noun and Chelish was an adjective. It was a crazy time to board the good ship Paizo, but I knew the trial by fire was worth it when I saw just how well both the Beta and the Campaign Setting were received. And now, more than four years later, it's even more worth it knowing how far Paizo and Pathfinder have come... and how much farther we can go.
The Birth of a Roleplaying Game
This is an early version of the Pathfinder RPG that Jason dubbed "Mon Mothma" after the character from Return of the Jedi.
To tell the truth, this story actually starts in October 2007. With the announcement of 4th Edition, most of my freelance work for Wizards quickly began to dry up. I was not on the list to get an early look at the rules, and there were few remaining 3.5 hardcover books that needed work. With a bunch of idle time on my hands, I was looking for something to keep myself occupied. It occurred to me that there might be a fair number of people who would stick with the 3.5 rules and that maybe I could put together an easy PDF document with some rules revisions, just for fun. My first document had the title "3.75 Rules Set" in the margin.
As the months rolled by, my little rules document began to grow. At first, it was just a list of ideas with things like "fix grapple" and "do something about turning." As those issues got tackled, the document got larger and larger. Eventually, it came to include alterations to the core classes and a significant revision to combat and monster design. By the end of 2007, the "3.75 Rules Set" document was about 20 pages long.
Early in 2008, it was becoming apparent that Paizo was in a bind. We still had not seen 4th Edition (or what would become the GSL) and we were starting to run into the part of the year where we were supposed to be working on products for Gen Con. Realizing that we were running out of time, Lisa called a summit at her house to discuss our options. We struggled most of that day to come up with a viable plan. I kept thinking back to my rules document, even though it was little more than a mishmash of rules ideas and notes. Late in the afternoon, I brought it up to the folks in attendance. It took some convincing, and a whole lot of reassurances on my part, but I left that meeting as the Lead Designer of "Mon Mothma," the code name we gave to the Pathfinder RPG.
The next few weeks went by in a blur. We knew that we wanted to do a public playtest of the rules, and to put out the Beta by Gen Con, so I had very little time to get the first documents put together. The timeline gave me about a month to turn my rough rules document into the first of the Alpha playtest PDFs. Not only that, but I needed to make significant progress on the next two Alpha documents as well, because I would need to roll right into the Beta design as soon as the Alpha documents were released. I also went to D&D Experience during this time to check out 4th Edition; after playing the game, and talking to many of the fans at the show, it became clear to me that we were doing the right thing for our fans, our world, and the company.
I had so little time during this design period that I actually worked from home just to save me the travel time getting to the office, giving me an extra hour or so each day. On the days I came in, I was expected to update everyone on my progress and show off the current design, to get feedback and answer questions. There were a lot of insane ideas thrown around back then, some of which eventually got changed drastically before finding a home in the Beta and the final version of the game. There was once an insanely difficult "new" system for determining cover, which in retrospect, was a terrible idea. Fighters used to get a number of "combat tricks" at every level, many of which went on to become feats in the final version of the game. But for every misstep, there were dozens of great changes that were brought into the rules, like sorcerer bloodlines, combat maneuvers, and channel energy. It was a crazy few weeks, and probably some of the most creative of my career.
Finally, after months of tinkering and a few frantic weeks of work, the day had finally arrived: March 18, 2008. The Paizo website came down and I spent most of the day pacing the office like an expectant father. We ordered pizza. We monitored the unofficial Paizo chat room. We waited and waited for the site to come back up with the Pathfinder RPG announcement and the Alpha document for all to see. My nerves were a complete wreck. At 3:01 p.m. Pacific Time, the site came back up and the Alpha playtest of the Pathfinder RPG went live. I spent the next few days and nights glued to my computer, scanning every gaming website I could find for feedback, thoughts, and general reaction to the announcement. Some called doom, some rejoiced, some simply shrugged, but it quickly became clear that from the outpouring support from our messageboards that we had one thing going for us.
You were behind us from the moment the goblins forced our decision. You were behind us through the entire playtest process, which stretched out almost a year in total. You stood in that insane line to get the Beta print version and the Core Rulebook the following year. And you are still with us today. You make it all worth it.