Interview with James Jacobs
James Jacobs is the editor-in-chief of Paizo Publishing’s Pathfinder line. Over the years, he has worked as the associate and later the managing editor of Dungeon magazine. He’s been the developer, lead designer, the guy who adds material here and there, and even the cartographer on projects for Bastion Press, Green Ronin Publishing, Wizards of the Coast and, of course, Paizo Publishing.
As the Pathfinder line becomes increasingly more popular and Jacobs becomes more prolific, he has not lost the old spark and still clearly loves his job. In game writing, he advocates a strong theme and leaving room to expand.
In the weeks before GenCon 2008, Jacobs and I talked about world-building and [more]writing Pathfinder adventures.
Jones: What’s the best part about building a world?
Jacobs: That’s a hard thing to nail down. There’s a lot of great things about world-building, but I suppose my favorite part of it is that it’s essentially mythmaking.
It’s one thing to write a story about a person, but to also be able to shape the world that person lives in to enhance the story is incredibly liberating. It’s a fanatically organic process, and what you envision for your world when you begin is never where you end up, since every “rule” you create for your world (like “magic exists,” or “there are giant spiders,” or “there’s a permanent hurricane off one of the coastlines,” or “normal folk can become gods”) introduces countless corollary rules into the world.
Figuring out how these rules and the implied rules they bring up interact is really fun, and when you involve other people in the process (be they other designers or players who are playing roles in the world you design), the ideas they bring to the world make it even more organic and unpredictable.
Jones: Where does building a world begin for you?
Jacobs: The first mental step is to decide what kind of world you want, and what scale you want. Do you want to build what is essentially a single nation, an entire continent, a planet, or even a universe? It’s best to start small, usually—and by small, I mean a single nation. You can really detail that nation, and those details will start to imply what may or may not exist beyond the borders of your world.
The actual, physical act of generating a world, though, begins with a map. I have a really hard time designing nations or locations without a physical blueprint to build off of, and often, the simple act of drawing a map can inspire you to add things to your world you would never have thought of without it.
Jones: What position do you most often find yourself in within a collaboration?
Jacobs: Collaboration brings things to your world you never would have thought of, simply because other people bring different interests and knowledge and philosophies to the process.
Typically, if you’re asked to write fiction or design a game set in an established world, you have to play by the established rules. There are certain things you might like to do (say, put in giant robots or a legion of snake-headed demons) that might already exist in the world, or that are specifically not in the world. In this type of collaboration, you’re basically adding decorations and flourishes to an existing world. Collaboration can be frustrating but also quite fun, since it can be like solving a puzzle to add something to an established world that enhances rather than detracts from its themes.
At the other end of things, working with other people to create a world (such as the world of Golarion, the setting for the Pathfinder Chronicles) brings with it a new set of problems—you have to settle on a world that all the collaborators want. There’s a fair amount of give-and-take in this situation, where you might have to cede some ideas you have and focus on the ideas you really like, while allowing others to run with their own ideas. You have to be willing to let your ego go, realize that not all your ideas are great, and be willing to work with others as equals.
Up until we started working on Golarion, I found myself in two roles most often; as the sole designer of my home-brew world, and as a designer for established worlds for Wizards of the Coast. Now that Paizo’s building up Golarion, I’m in a combination of those roles; the world we designed has a lot of elements from my home-brew world, but I’m certainly not the only architect of it now.
Working with the other designers here at Paizo has been great, and the resulting world is much more interesting and dynamic than something one person could ever have built, simply because there’s so much more variety. Everyone has their blind spots, and getting multiple people on the project has really helped to shore up everyone’s blind spots. I, for example, am not a huge fan of dwarves, but there’s a lot of great dwarf stuff in Golarion, since other folks who worked on the setting are big dwarf fans.
Jones: How has your understanding of world-building changed over the years?
Jacobs: The big thing is the realization that not everyone thinks what I think is cool is cool. When you design a world for your own entertainment, be it for a home-brew game or a novel or whatever, it’s easy to fall into the trap of ignoring elements of a world that don’t interest you. But when you design a world that’s intended to be used by thousands or tens of thousands of others, you don’t have that luxury of egotism.
As much as it pains me to admit, not everyone loves dinosaurs, demons, halflings, and bards. It’s important to not exclude elements from a large, shared world simply because you don’t have as much interest in them. This is a place where working with collaborators really helps, especially if their interests are different than your own.
Beyond that, just a lot of little things, like how you should avoid having rivers flow apart (water wants to flow together), you can’t just drop deserts into the world at any location, and certain types of government bring with them certain types of expectations on how a nation interacts with its neighbors. Too many discoveries to list, really.
Jones: What’s at the heart of Golarion?
Jacobs: A good world has a strong theme. For Golarion, that theme is that a recent event (the death of a god) has thrown things off the rails, that prophecies can no longer be trusted, the world is hurtling into an unknown future, and many nations are starting to feel strains and pressures and are on the verge of disaster. It’s a world balanced on the brink of a huge disaster, only no one knows what that disaster might be.
But beyond having a strong theme, a world needs to be inclusive, not exclusive. It needs to have places where it can expand. It needs to have blank areas on the map so that it can grow. Don’t say something like, “There are no talking plants in my world,” because some day you might want talking plants. Instead, say something like “Talking plants are legends among some of the southern nations,” or simply don’t bring up the subject at all.
Jones: What distinguishes Pathfinder from other adventures?
Jacobs: Recently, there’s been a lot of movement toward a more “modernization” of fantasy. It seems to me that most recent fantasy properties like Harry Potter, Final Fantasy, the works of China Miéville, Eberron, and World of Warcraft are going for a higher-fantasy feel, where magic and the unusual are everyday facets of life. Often, technology and magic exist side by side in these settings, or you see magic replacing technology (particularly in Harry Potter or Eberron).
While there are certainly elements of this in Pathfinder adventures, for the most part we’re taking our inspiration from an earlier era. Just as the original version of Dungeons & Dragons drew from stories by writers like H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock, Jack Vance, and Tolkein, Pathfinder adventures generally try to present things that are a bit grittier, less whimsical, and more mature in content. It’s a pretty serious world, and even in cases where we use humor (such as in the goblins of the first Pathfinder adventure, “Burnt Offerings”) the humor is pretty dark.
Also, the world of Golarion is very humanocentric. We have nearly 50 nations in the world so far, and the vast majority of those nations are inhabited by humans. We still have dwarves and elves and orcs and the like in the world, but they’re more often relegated to the roles of monsters or exotic characters than they are commonplace characters.
There’s a certain feeling, I think, that these elements are “old, tired, and cliche,” but I disagree. If they were old and tired, the authors listed above would have faded into obscurity. They wouldn’t be featured in blockbuster movies, popular video games, and bookstores across the world if their stories were old and tired.
Pathfinder adventures aren’t afraid to present familiar and classic (and some would say cliched) story-lines (slay the dragon, fight the army of giants, or stand against the dark elves), since I’m confident that our authors can make those stories fresh and new and exciting. So far, they haven’t let me down!
Jones: As editor, what do you look for in a Pathfinder adventure?
Jacobs: There are a number of things that go into making a good Pathfinder adventure, but five things are more important than all the rest.
- 1) Interesting NPCs: the major people and monsters the PCs are going to encounter in the adventure need to have memorable personalities, appearances, goals, and histories; this doesn’t mean crazy combinations of classes, races, and templates, but actual flavor. In fact, loading up an NPC with lots of bizarre templates and prestige classes is generally a no-go; to me, that’s a lazy way to make something interesting. After all, once the fight starts, a typical NPC is “on stage” for only a half dozen or so rounds, and that’s really the only point his stat block comes into play. But out of combat, interactions with an NPC can last for hours, and even beyond that, his personality can drive an entire adventure’s plot.
- 2) Interesting Locations: This doesn’t just mean placing your adventures in neat locations; it means creating interesting maps for those locations. Writing an adventure is different than writing a novel; it’s harder, since in order to create a great adventure, you need not only to craft great prose, but great maps. They don’t have to be artistic (we hire professional cartographers to take care of that) but they do need to be interesting and clear.
- 3) Fit the World Theme: A lot of authors, it seems, tend to drift into the overkill zone on exotic stuff. Golarion’s not the cantina from Star Wars, or the Troll Market from Hellboy 2. While there certainly are places that have such an overwhelming amount of exotic and strange characters crammed into one spot, they’re the exceptions to the rule. When we put a location like that into an adventure, we want it to seem exotic and unusual, after all. For most adventures, that means that we aren’t interested in gnoll pirates or orc bakers. As a general rule, if a character can be a human, he should be a human. Beyond this, a writer should be familiar with the region his adventure is set in. He should research the gazetteer and (once it releases in August 2008) the hardcover Campaign Setting, and should read previous adventures that took place there. Use those words as guidelines.
- 4) Organization: Pathfinder adventures follow a specific organization. Adventures that drift away from the order in which the information is presented in the standard Pathfinder adventure make me a sad editor, since that means I have to spend time reorganizing things. Encounters should all have read-aloud text, for example, and every adventure needs an adventure summary. Hitting the correct word count is a critical part of this, of course.
- 5) Don’t Assume Player Actions: A good adventure presents its information in a way that doesn’t assume a party of adventurers will take one specific route through the adventure. It makes sure to address as many possibilities as it can, and takes into account the possibility of what a party can do, not the probability. If you’re doing a 5th level adventure, for example, it’s possible that at least one of the PCs can fly. Hiding a vital clue on a high ledge might stymie some groups, but not all of them, therefore you shouldn’t build your adventure around a long dungeon crawl up through a series of rooms that wind up inside that cliff to lead to that clue.
Jones: What makes for an exciting encounter?
Jacobs: Location, for one. An empty room or abandoned street corner or boring forest clearing isn’t a fun place to fight. Encounters should have places where the PCs or the monsters can interact with the environment to gain advantages. This means, of course, that every fight in an adventure should have a map to correspond to it; this isn’t always feasible, of course, but if you want to include a fight that doesn’t have a map, you should think long and hard about whether or not it’s worth including in the first place.
Another thing that makes for exciting encounters is to give monsters memorable tactics. This doesn’t necessarily have to be super potent combat moves or number-crunched killing blows. It can be suboptimal choices as well. Now and then, it’s cool to have encounters with NPCs or monsters that make poor choices, either because they’re stupid, overly confident in their abilities, or just make a mistake.
Jones: In what ways is your work on Pathfinder typical or atypical of your RPG work in general?
Jacobs: I’ve been working on adventures for RPGs for a long, long time. My first published RPG work was an adventure that appeared way back in issue #12 of Dungeon magazine. I’ve been one of the chief architects of the Dungeon adventure paths pretty much from the start, along with working on all the other adventures that were published therein. Since Paizo publishes a lot of adventures, working on them is pretty typical for me, especially since it’s a monthly product that’s basically the same contents each month (1 adventure, a few support articles, a bunch of new monsters), so there’s really not much atypical about the job lately.
Although I suppose getting to approve licensed products like miniatures and other upcoming Pathfinder-related merchandise is pretty unusual right now… but it’s looking like that’s not going to stay atypical for long!
Jones: World-building 101: Whatever you do don’t…
Jacobs: …try to detail everything at once. For everything you nail down, try to leave at least two (preferably more) areas where you can expand. It’s okay to name a forest something like “Venomwood” and then never say anything about it for years, and then when you do go to Venomwood, make sure that you leave some locations in there vague. Similar to how lumberjacks plant a few trees for everyone they cut down, you should seed future expansions to your world whenever you can.
Jones: Whatever you do, be sure to…
Jacobs: …take criticisms and observations of your world to heart. If you make an error or come up with a silly name or just do something that players or readers react poorly to, let your ego go. Unless you’re designing the world just for you, these people are your audience. If they don’t like something, chances are good that something needs fixing. Listen to their comments and don’t simply dismiss them as crackpot theories.