Writing the Hao Jin Cataclysm: reflections on RPGs, mental illness, and heroes

Gamer Life General Discussion

RPG Superstar 2014 Top 4, RPG Superstar 2013 Top 32

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Content/Spoiler Tags: anxiety and depression; teen suicide; mild spoilers (behind spoiler tag) for PFS #10-00: The Hao Jin Cataclysm; sentimentality; unedited, overwrought writing.

You are a hero. Allow me a moment of your time; I’ll gladly explain. Grab a drink. Stay awhile.

Some context. I am a freelance author for the Pathfinder RPG. My most recent published work was Pathfinder Society Scenario #10-00: The Hao Jin Cataclysm. I am also a high school teacher. I just finished my fifth year at what you might call an “alternative” urban school. “The sort of school where the screwups go,” I often hear, but it’s typically the school system that screwed up, not the student.

I digress.

If you do not know me, know this: I do not pretend to be the best at much of anything. But I know I am a decent husband and father; I am a good GM; I write decent, fun adventures; I am organized; and I can make coffee and pancakes with one hand while juggling a hungry toddler in the other. The one thing I’ve come to accept that I am truly quite good at is my job, teaching.

In November of 2017, on Black Friday, one of my students, a high school freshman, died of suicide. I found out on Sunday, after a family dinner. I was this student’s history teacher and advisor.

I still do not know how to write this part.

The utter devastation to my mental health was not instantaneous. It took a few months. Some of you know what I went through, and I am sorry for that. If not, you can take my word for it, or look up the symptoms of severe secondary traumatic stress, anxiety, and depression. Seasonal affective disorder also took its toll. Winters here are long and dark and damp. I started therapy a few months into 2018; by then I could barely talk about my student or enter my classroom without having an anxiety attack. The thing about depression is that it makes everything harder, you see, and when things are harder, you begin to ignore them, or give up. When you are a teacher, and you begin to ignore things that are hard, then things get worse. More difficult. And so on. I cannot even imagine what my student was going through, and what their family went through.

Let’s jump ahead a few months, when an e-mail lands in my inbox with a new freelance writing assignment. An interactive special for Pathfinder, to debut at GenCon 2018. “Sure, I’ll take on an assignment twice as large as anything else I’ve ever written while I’m in the middle of the worst mental health crisis of my life!” is not what I thought to myself. I was simply excited, and I accepted. When I learned that I’d be writing about the Hao Jin Tapestry and the Ruby Phoenix, my excitement increased. Such an awesome place for adventure! Such a cool story!

Also, my school’s mascot is a phoenix.

Fitting, right? Second chances. Rebirth. New beginnings.

The resonance of these themes to my personal journey were not immediately obvious to me. A small piece of the story was somewhat distracting.

[The following section contains mild SPOILERS for #3-21: The Temple of Empyreal Enlightenment and #10-00: The Hao Jin Cataclysm.]


In the Hao Jin Cataclysm, the PCs revisit a location from Scenario #3-21. The original scenario had some heavy themes, including suicide. My job was to revisit the location and strike a balance between revisiting those events and themes while avoiding getting too “heavy.” It’s an interactive convention game, after all.

This part of the scenario took a long time to write.

In the end, I wrote about somebody who had given up. The PCs get to save this person and “set them on a better path” through heroic deeds, luck, and a bit of demon-butt-kicking.

I do not intend to trivialize mental illness; you don’t get to beat up a few monsters and make it go away. Depression does not have a Challenge Rating. Still, something about writing this section helped me through my own struggle. It didn’t “fix” me. Treatment for mental illness is highly complex. Mine is ongoing. But, I realized this writing meant something to me.

The rest of the adventure suddenly felt bigger. More powerful.

So I breezed through it, right? Smooth sailing from here! Intense gratification! Accolades! Applause!

No. I still suffered anxiety’s sting, depression’s grasp, and the oppressive weight of constant stress. Often, my freelance work just made things worse. It is work, after all, and I have a full-time job and a family and little time or energy for friends. I do not recommend a 20,000 word writing assignment as treatment for mental illness. This tale is not about how I was gloriously reborn as a less depressed person by writing an adventure. I am not the phoenix.

Or maybe I am, a little bit. Maybe not every phoenix is the same. Maybe some of them just smolder for a while, suffer a bit, and make a few changes in their life. They don’t burn out completely. They sputter. Their flames change color. They heal up, but they keep their scars.

To me, the phoenix does not represent an ending, but a beginning. Who we are for the rest of our lives is more important than who we’ve been so far. I don’t know exactly what that means for me, but some things are clear. For the time being, I am stepping away from the classroom and into a different role in my school district. I am striving to place greater emphasis on relationships: my family, my friends, my freelancer community. It’s a work in progress.

I think I’ll always need treatment: therapy, medication, exercise, sunlight.

I see role-playing games, and those who play them, a little differently.

I had the honor of attending GenCon for the first time in 2018, as a volunteer for Paizo, and witnessed The Hao Jin Cataclysm in action. In a way, though my role in the adventure’s creation had been over for many weeks, that night I felt like a chapter in my life had closed. A friend or two remarked on my expression as the (super awesome) read-aloud text scrolled by on the big screens. I did not adequately explain what was behind that expression at the time. (To be fair, I’d just finished my fifth GM slot).

I think my primary emotion was gratitude. There are many who have played a role in my freelancing career: all of those who made RPG Superstar possible; my developers at Paizo and the rest of the Paizo team (especially Linda, my developer for #10-00, and John, my first developer); my freelancing friends; my spouse; my friends who play, and my friends who don’t play. Anyone who’s ever lent me dice. (Though, let’s be honest, it’s usually the other way around.)

I felt another, strange sort of gratitude. Something overwhelming. I could not describe it. I shall make a clumsy attempt to do so now.

I was grateful for people who play Pathfinder. Not just the people in the room for #10-00. The whole lot of you.

I began this story by calling you a hero, and I’ll leave you with this simple explanation: when you play this game, your tablemates are not alone. You are with them, telling stories together, cheering for crits together, lamenting at TPK’s together, puzzling out obtuse rules together, and talking about your characters together. Your characters are heroes, sure. But (and I say this with sincerity), you are the real heroes. Next time you sit down to play Pathfinder, don’t just thank your GM. Thank everyone at the table. Drop a note to a random person in the credits of your favorite rulebook. Thank the folks who hand-crafted your dice tower.

One of the most difficult aspects of my depression has been the insidious power of mental illness to make socialization less appealing, when human contact is a necessary part of my treatment. I have always known that tabletop games are important to me. Most of my friends (including my spouse) I’ve met through a game of some sort or other. But, in the past several months, as I’ve written this scenario and come through this struggle, I’ve started to see RPGs in a different light. They burn a little brighter now.

Go out of your way to get people gaming with you. They might just need it.

Paizo Employee Managing Developer

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This is beautiful, Mike. Thank you for sharing.

Paizo Employee Developer

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Thanks, Mike. It brings me joy to know that working on this adventure was helpful to you. Our community is an amazing thing, and you are not alone in drawing inspiration and motivation from them. And when it comes to #10-00, you really knocked it out of the park!

Liberty's Edge

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Thank you for sharing your story, Mike.

Silver Crusade

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Pathfinder Companion, Starfinder Adventure Path, Starfinder Roleplaying Game, Starfinder Society Subscriber; Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Superscriber

Thank you, Mike.

*offers hugs*

RPG Superstar 2014 Top 4, RPG Superstar 2013 Top 32

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Thank you all for your kind words and support!

Scarab Sages RPG Superstar 2015 Top 16

As others have said, thank you for sharing your insights Mike.


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Thanks, Mike. In my own struggles with depression it can be hard to remember that I'm not alone, and that I'm part of something greater than myself - your story is a powerful reminder of that.

Paizo Employee Developer

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Thanks for sharing this, Mike. Your interactive meant a lot to me, too.

I often have things I'd like to change in what I've written in the past. Errors could be removed or wrinkles smoothed out a bit. But there aren't a lot of things I regret. I'm not really wired that way. Still, I regret PFS3-21 Temple of Empyreal Enlightenment for being too cavalier with a very serious mental illness.

I had the pleasure of playing PFS#10-00 The Hao Jin Cataclysm with good friends at GenCon, and I was very pleased to see the way that issue was delicately and skillfully handled. I felt that the way redemption was handled in the adventure redeemed me a bit, too. Thank you for that.

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Pathfinder Starfinder Roleplaying Game Subscriber

First off, thank you very much for writing this.

I did not peek under the spoiler I'm playing this in the 7-8 at SKALCon this Saturday but even the 'outside the box' discussion REALLY helped me narrow down my character choices for playing I had three really good options, but there's one that this *FITS* for.

Thank you in advance for writing this, and your above commentary reminds me of a thing I usually link or refer folks to who are feeling a creative slump, but the lesson is just as strong if not more so for your post...

Neil Gaiman Keynote Address 2012 at The University of the Arts

YouTube Link

Silver Crusade

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An IC response:

A wizened old tengu grandmother clad in shining mithril plate armor crafted in a mithril style bows over her darkwood quarterstaff, held horizontally.

"The hardest thing is being a survivor. No one can ever tell you what you need to do, no one ever says 'this is what you do next' and understand your position perfectly. They can come blessed close, as I know I have with as many of my kin I've had to bury over the years.

But even in the darkest of times, there's still a smidgen of hope, a bit of light somewhere even if it's darn hard to find, and when we find it, it confuses us, because we're not ready for it, or even if we are, we're so busy in the darkness that we are afraid it's the light of a dragon's breath, and not the light of a new day dawning.

I'm not gonna preach at you. But if you need a shoulder, or you need a punching bag... or even just someone to talk to or even just sit here quietly... that's what someone did for me after the loss of my great-grandchild, and I'd be remiss if I didn't pay it forward like someone did for me."

She then finds a quiet spot to set up tea and provide solace as needed.

Update from player

I had a chance to play this on Saturday at SkalCon. I wasn't quite ready for it emotionally, so when it hit, and kept hitting it was a bit rough... but it HELPED.

Seriously, thank you for writing this!

Scarab Sages

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Pathfinder Starfinder Roleplaying Game Subscriber

I apologize for digging up an old thread, but I just found this and needed to comment.

I was at GenCon 2018 and played #10-00 in the 7-8 subtier. I still gush about how amazing the experience was. We had an amazing GM, a party of 3 Bards, and the entire time everyone at the table was laughing uproariously. It was a non-stop five-and-a-half hours of eight people having fun. I still wish I'd have gotten the names of some of them just because it was the most memorable PFS game I'd ever played. And we all commented on the special, too.

Everyone I've talked to about it says nothing but great things about 10-00. It was fun, creative, and ran smooth as butter. I had the privilege of running it for my local area and found it among the easiest multi-tables to run while still being a total powerhouse of a scenario; for the lore, combat, and evocative gameplay. The writing was tight, the formatting was excellent, and the combat was as visually flavorful as it was mechanically memorable. And I'll never forget the faces of everyone at the table I played with when we started the final fight in earnest. Hoo-boy.... Hoo-boy, it was a tense one.

But the point I'm trying to make isn't just that I enjoyed the scenario. The reason I wanted to comment here, not just leave a review, is that I needed to see this post today. Today, as I think about my future and hopes and dreams, only a few months before next GenCon, I learned that one of my favorite PFS specials was written during a time of immense suffering. That the scenario I've gushed about for a year now was borne during intense emotional struggling; like a light in a very, very dark place. By certain rights it shouldn't have shone at all, but it did. I needed to see that. I needed to express my gratitude to you for sharing your personal story, and the lesson you learned from it.

I wish depression could be beaten up and banished like an unwelcome demon. I wish it didn't decide to cast Summon Ally (anxiety) in most of the cases it appears. I wish it didn't interfere with the things I truly need to do, or the things I want to do. And for a very long time, it was hard to fight against it. Not just because it was as insidious as it was tiring, but because I thought I couldn't handle anything else until I was "better". That I would fail or let people down, as if depression was some personal flaw of character. Recently, in the past few months, I learned I was more capable than I thought. Today, with your story, I learned that I may be more capable than that, even.

I don't mean to be naive, of course. Depression, like all mental illnesses, is complex. It waxes and wanes and interacts in complex ways with your environment and other illnesses. I would never just say to someone, "You can do it if you believe it!" It's too tone-deaf to how insidious this illness is, and the physical complications that come with it. But for me, I needed to see people with depression and anxiety succeeding in spite of it. I needed to see creation and beauty break free from that darkness. It didn't stop you, though I'm sure it tried. I can only imagine how hard it must've been. But by god you did it. 10-00 is here. I'm so happy for you.

I got worried maybe now wasn't the right time. "I should wait to get better"; "I can't do much right now"; "I could be setting myself to fail". And then I got worried there would never be a right time. But your story was beautiful, as was the message I saw in it. You can work to get better while still be Good. You can create. You can write. You're allowed do things in spite of the darkness, even if that darkness is still there when you're done. As dumb as it is, it feels like I've been given permission to start living.

This is a very difficult feeling to articulate accurately, but I think it feels like hope. And kindness. I'd like to pocket it and take it with me. Thank you for sharing it.

RPG Superstar 2014 Top 4, RPG Superstar 2013 Top 32

Snowcats wrote:
I apologize for digging up an old thread, but I just found this and needed to comment...

I should have subscribed to this thread, because I would have seen this post earlier than today.

I'm having trouble forming an adequate response, and for now I will just say, thank you for your kind words, and the time it took to write this. I truly appreciate every word.

Grand Lodge

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Pathfinder Starfinder Maps Subscriber

This was a beautiful story, Mike!


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