The Secret to Paizo’s Success, According to Sean K Reynolds
Welcome back for the second part of our SKR interview, in which we finally learn the secret of lobsteak and of Paizo’s success. Also, he explains how and when he’ll be playing 4E!
If you missed Part 1, it’s easy to catch up.
Jones: You have been involved in developing games both before and after the advent of MMORPGs. Where have tabletop RPGs influenced games like World of Warcraft (WOW) and, the reverse, how have games like WOW influenced newer RPGs like the Pathfinder game?
Reynolds: Well, obviously games like World of Warcraft, Everquest, and non-MMOs wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for D&D and other RPGs.
The idea of the balanced adventuring party and leveling up, that there’s a whole world out there and your PCs aren’t the only ones doing things in it—there are countless, countless examples of MMOs being influenced by tabletop gaming. And you see elements of MMOs appearing in tabletop games, even as far back as 3E D&D, though with mixed results. [More...]
Many people accused the 3E designers of “dumbing down” the game to make it easier to turn into computer games, but I’ve worked on computer games, and I can assure you that 3E has so many crazy exceptions built into it that it is still very unfriendly from a programming standpoint. If you were writing a rules set for a computer RPG, it would be much more universal with fewer weird exceptions. Not to say that it couldn’t be a very complex game (World of Warcraft is proof of this), you’d just have more universal rules and the exceptions would be more exceptional and probably the result of specific class or race abilities that you’d invoke, rather than triggering automatically. And some of these changes have to do with changing from a turn-based tabletop game to a real-time computer game.
I wrote an article on my site reviewing WOW and pointing out the neat ideas in its game mechanics, and I have a file on my home computer about “things Dungeons & Dragons could learn from WOW” (which is probably long out of date).
I think tabletop RPGs do some things better than MMOs and vice versa. Trying to make them too much like one another tends to fail. Sure, you can build a tabletop RPG so that every character has a dozen abilities that influence the state of the table every round, but without a computer to handle all of that number crunching, it can be a real headache. Likewise, some elements in tabletop RPGs work because of the assumptions of the tabletop rules, but these would make you angry if you saw them in an MMO.
Take the massive damage rule, for example. Tabletop players accept that hit points represent more than just the physical ability to absorb hits—they also represent luck, fatigue, supernatural influence, and so on. The massive damage rule is just there to show that sometimes, like when that colossal dragon bites you for 100 of your 200 hit points, you could die instantly even though you have many hit points left.
Now imagine playing a computer game where your health is simply your health. You’ve never been told that it represents anything other than resistance to physical damage (perhaps because the computer has other mechanics for blocks, dodges, and parries because it can quickly handle multiple invisible randomized rolls that would be very cumbersome in a tabletop RPG); if your character has 10,000 Health, and a monster hits you for 6,000, and you instantly died even though you had 4,000 Health left, you’d be mad!
It’s about knowing your audience and trying to write a game for that audience. Paizo understands its audience is much smaller than the number of people playing MMOs, and we cater our products to that known audience. Could we write products aimed at the 10,000,000 World of Warcraft players? Sure… but the real question is, could we write products that would appeal to those players, and could we make products appealing enough to get them to stop playing that game and start playing ours? It’s a gamble.
Personally, I think that the people who play WOW instead of tabletop RPGs are doing so because it is more appealing to them, and making a tabletop World of Warcraft RPG just isn’t going to cut it for them. If you’re a lobster restaurant and have customers who love your restaurant and love your lobster, but you’d like to attract steak-loving customers, you shouldn’t try to make your lobster taste more like steak, because your current customers want lobster, not lobsteak, and your steak fans probably don’t want lobsteak either.
I suppose I dodged your original question, but that’s too bad.
Jones: You’re one of the only guys at Paizo who has worked on the development of 3E D&D. How does that experience change your perspective on the PATHFINDER RPG system?
Reynolds: It means I get to sit on my high horse and tell Jason, “Well, Jonathan set it up that way because of X,” or “Monte wanted it this way because of Y,” or “Skip and I had a conversation about Z….” Not only was I there for the development of the 3E rules, but I was in Monte’s 2E campaign that turned into a 3E playtest campaign, so I was able to see the earliest parts of 3E come together as they worked out the rough edges.
Sometimes Jason bounces an idea off me just to get the “old school” perspective. He’s put a lot of thought into the system, so it’s not like he needs verification on the mathematics. He just wants to see if the idea resonates well with the spirit of the 3E game we were creating. Since most of the Pathfinder RPG changes are additive rather than subtractive, there haven’t been any major issues where he’s suggested something and I’ve had to point out how that violates a core 3E design philosophy.
Jones: What do you think of 4E?
Reynolds: My group in San Diego ran a session with the 4E preview rules, and a couple more with the 4E Player’s Handbook. The group was four professional game designers (all of whom had written material for d20 games) and one game fanatic who had also been a 3E playtester, so admittedly, we were pretty biased in favor of 3E. That said, it’s a fine game, but it just doesn’t feel like Dungeons & Dragons to me, at least not the sort of D&D I’ve been playing for the past 10-15 years.
I know there are people who absolutely love it and will never go back to 3E, and that’s fine. There’s room for both systems, but I don’t think I’ll ever play another 4E game unless something really unusual happens—like Scarlett Johansson wanting to run a 4E game for me, Natalie Portman, Thora Birch, and Laura Linney.
Jones: In the process of developing the PATHFINDER RPG, you continually look to earlier editions of D&D. How much do you look to 4E?
Reynolds: Very, very little. I don’t recall any discussion with Jason where either of us said “4E does it like this, and that’s a good solution to this problem; we should make the Pathfinder RPG work like that.” Our position was more “let’s fix this problem with 3E” than “let’s see how 4E fixed this problem.”
Jones: Okay, from your perspective, why is PATHFINDER RPG so darn much fun?
Reynolds: It’s everything you liked about 3E plus fixes to the few problems that 3E had. PCs and monsters can do more. You get more feats. Some skills are consolidated, so that means you have more skill points to spend. More options for melee characters. More neat stuff for cleric domains. More animal companion options. More for sorcerers and wizards.
I’m actually looking forward to making stat blocks for NPCs and monsters because of the neat options available.
Jones: Why has Paizo been so successful? What’s the secret to its continuing and growing success?
Reynolds: Paizo had the great idea of offering a subscription model for its books. After all, they’d been doing it for Dragon and Dungeon magazines for years, so it made sense to continue that idea for sourcebooks, stand-alone adventures, and other gaming tools like maps and item cards.
We’re a small company and don’t suffer from “corporate-itis,” meaning we realize that we’re people and our customers are people and that treating them like people (and fans!) is smarter than treating them as just customers or sales numbers. We talk to the fans about what they want to see in upcoming books and listen to what they have to say. It’s the idea of doing what the fans want, rather than telling your customers what they should want.
That, and we work really hard (and late hours more often than I’d care to admit) to make really kick-ass books that draw on classical gaming elements. And people dig that.
Jones: Lastly, what’s your favorite individual product from throughout your career?
Reynolds: The 3E Forgotten Realms campaign setting was a huge amount of work but was so worth it because it is a great product. Great art, great lore, great game design, a great in-depth overview of the setting, a great fixing of weird goofy problems that had crept into the world over the years—a real flagship product.
Of course, just about every book I’ve worked on has something I really enjoyed about the process or the final result, but the Forgotten Realms campaign setting was so big and everyone was so enthused about it that what we created was greater than the sum of everyone’s individual efforts.
I’ve had Greyhawk fans, fans who hated the Forgotten Realms for years, tell me that the 3E Forgotten Realms campaign setting actually made them want to play in the Forgotten Realms. That, to me, is a sign of how great that book is.
Want more SKR? He’s got his own site, so give him a shout, or leave a comment here if you’d like to see more interviews with Paizonians!