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A Better Play Experience: a Conversation with Jason Bulmahn

A Better Play Experience: a Conversation with Jason Bulmahn

As the lead designer for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game (PFRPG), Jason Bulmahn has one job: produce a game that is true to the feel of 3.5e, but that offers “a better play experience.” And the word among the members of his design team is that Bulmahn has outdone himself.

“Jason’s been working 24–7 on the Pathfinder RPG rules,” said James Jacobs, the Pathfinder Editor-in-Chief. “I’ve only recently started doing development and editing passes on the rules he’s been toiling over for months and months, and I’ve also started a new campaign at the office using them, but I have to say that I’m blown away by what he’s been up to over those months.

“That Jason’s managed to rebuild the game and address its flaws while keeping it so compatible with the previous edition is incredible. Right now, the hardest part of the process is resisting the urge to talk about the final game in public, to be honest, but I don’t want to give away any spoilers. Lately, I can’t promise that what Jason’s got to say below will be entirely spoiler-free, though!”

Bulmahn was also the coordinator of the world’s largest organized D&D campaign, Living Greyhawk, until 2004 when he joined the Paizo team as the Managing Editor of Dragon magazine. He’s also designed such RPG products as Dungeonscape, Elder Evils, Expedition to the Ruins of Greyhawk, and Secrets of Xendrik, earning one Origins Award and nine ENnie Awards in the process.

“The first time I worked with Jason was on a little adventure he wrote called Mad God’s Key,” said Jacobs. “The adventure was quite refreshing to develop and edit since not only were the rules used in the adventure incredibly solid and the encounters imaginative, but the maps he turned over for it were among the best I’d seen from a designer. He still hasn’t forgiven me for taking out that deadly brown mold encounter out of Mad God’s Key, but it was just a bit too evil for print, alas. He’s had his revenge, though—since then, he’s killed off no less than three of my characters.”

Jones: What drew you to RGPs in the first place?
I first got into gaming when I was in middle school, back in Wisconsin. A friend of mine got me into playing and I have been hooked ever since. I always enjoyed fantasy and scifi, so gaming was a natural extension of that. It really helped growing up in a city with GenCon, giving me something to look forward too each summer before I went back to school. I have attended every one for the past 20 years.

As I went through college, I got hooked on CCGs and dropped out of the hobby for a bit, but I got pulled back in when the RPGA announced the Living Greyhawk campaign. I had been playing in the RPGA for a while and saw an opportunity to get in on the ground floor. I applied for a position and ended up working for the Wisconsin Triad (local administrator). Over the next three years, I moved up to join the circle (senior campaign admin). At the time, I had graduated from college and was working in an architectural firm in Milwaukee.

While it was a good job, I found myself devoting more and more time to gaming (which had been my hobby for years). In 2004, I applied for a job at Wizards, but came in second. The results of some of those hirings left an opening at Paizo. I was offered a job soon after and started full-time in the gaming industry in October 2004 and I have never looked back.

Jones: What grabbed you about Living Greyhawk?
I had always been a big fan of Greyhawk, having played a number of the adventures when I was a kid. In addition, I had been involved with the RPGA as a player for some time when this new campaign was announced, so I saw this as a chance to get involved. I saw it as a chance to help shape the world that I grew up playing, which was too good an opportunity to pass up. Over a span of about 5 years I got to help launch the campaign and helped design some really great stories. It was a lot of work, but ultimately, it was definitely worth it.

Jones: What do you enjoy most about game design?
I really enjoy putting together engaging stories with interesting rules to make up fun encounters and scenarios. I have always been a rules tinkerer, changing this or that to suit the needs of my campaign.

When I first started, I don’t think I fully realized how interconnected the rules are, both with themselves and with the game play itself. That sounds obvious, but it goes a bit deeper than that.

The smallest changes can have a huge impact on other rules and the game world at large. Changing the item creation rules not only impacts the items a character has access to, but it also impacts the world at large and what role magic items play in it. Some of these influences can be very subtle and navigating them can be quite a challenge.

Now that I am working on the Pathfinder RPG, I have the chance to make the game work the way that I think that it should, which has been a real pleasure. I do kinda miss designing adventures, background, and plots right now, but the rules work has kept me so busy that there is not much time to think about it.

Jones: Do you have a designer’s credo?
Make the game more fun.

Jones: What type of design leader are you?
As the Lead Designer, I make all of the big rules decisions when it comes to the Pathfinder RPG. To get this right I spend an awful lot of time on our messageboards, reading and responding to the design forums. I also spend a great deal of time talking and plotting with the other designers here at Paizo, working out problems and getting feedback. I would like to think I am a fair leader when it comes to the RPG. I am really interested in different points of view and I try to see things from different angles.

As long as it makes for a better game, I am interested.

Jones: Do you prefer games with extensive rules or games that are looser?
I think it depends on the game. I think in most RPGs the role of the rules is to facilitate play and adjudicate conflict, but beyond that, they should float in the background. Generally this means they should be intuitive and easy to remember, but concise when needed.

I remember hearing Monte Cook speak a few years back when they were designing 3rd Edition D&D, and he said (roughly), “We are going to make rules to let you eat rocks, if you want to,” meaning that you can make the character you want to play. It might be hard, and it might not be the best choice, but you can still do it. I think there is a value to that. Sometimes the struggle is what makes a game fun. Guiding a character through challenges, both external and internal.

Personally, I prefer games that run somewhere in the middle between extensive and loose. I want them to have the necessary guides to help flesh out the world and deal with conflict, but I do not want a straight-jacket that prevents me from doing the things that I need to do to tell my story (either as a GM or a player).

Jones: You mentioned being into CCGs in college. What do cards add to an RPG?
The GameMastery Item Cards were one of the first projects I ever pitched to Paizo after we started the GameMastery line. For the first two years I was the project lead on these cards, creating the set lists, ordering art, and writing descriptions for the backs of the cards.

For those not in the know, these cards depict a magic item on the front and give a space on the back where you can fill out the item’s function and history. The thought here is that when it comes time to hand out treasure, you simply hand out the cards. Each one also has a space on the bottom for a code that the GM can reference in his notes if there is information about the item that he does not want to share with the PCs just yet.

In other words, the cards let you easily organize and manage the treasure in your game.

Jones: The Pathfinder team has spiced up character classes. What’re some of the changes you all have made?
Most of the changes to the rules were made with ample feedback from the rest of the team and the playtesters. Nearly all of the classes have been revised in some way. Of all the classes, though, I would have to say that the changes to the monk, paladin, ranger, and sorcerer are some of the most dramatic. While each one of these classes maintains the abilities it had in 3.5, each one receives a number of new abilities to bring it up to par with some of the other classes.

Take the paladin for example. There are a number of changes to their smite evil, to make it a more useful option in the game (when you smite evil, you pick a target and the smite lasts until that target is defeated). In addition, paladins get a new ability called Mercy. Each mercy adds an effect to the paladin’s Lay on Hands ability, allowing the paladin to remove conditions and other ailments.

Personally, I have always enjoyed playing paladins and arcane casters. I am currently playing a sorcerer in a campaign with the rest of the design team. I am having a lot of fun playing around with the powers of his Infernal bloodline.

Jones: How have you gone about expanding compatibility?
With the alpha and beta playtest versions of the rules, we tried to push the boundaries, to see how far we could stray from the 3.5 rules while still maintaining compatibility.

Now that the game is taking on its final form, some of these changes have reverted to something a bit more similar to its 3.5 counterpart, while other aspects have remained unchanged.

Domains are one example of this. The version of domains in the beta went a bit too far, making clerics a little less compatible that we (and many of the playtesters) liked. In the end, we went back to something a bit more similar to 3.5, but we kept a lot of the new powers and abilities that made the beta version of the domains popular. I think you will find examples like this all over the rules. Using the Pathfinder RPG with 3.5 material and adventures is actually pretty simple. There are some changes to skills and feats to take into account, and a few extra statistics to calculate, but on the whole, the core mechanics of the game are unchanged.

Jones: So you’ve simplified the rules?
In many cases, we looked at some of the more complicated parts of the rules, such as grapple and turn undead and made changes that allow them to be used much more easily. Generally this meant reducing the number of rolls you need to make to resolve a particular action.

Take dispel magic for example. In 3.5 you often had to make a number of caster level checks to resolve this one spell. This caused play, especially in the middle of combat, to grind to a halt. In the new system, the spell requires only one roll to adjudicate.

Jones: What stuff have you added?
Most of the work we have done is with the existing rules, modifying them to smooth out some of the rough edges in the game. We added a number of new abilities to a number of the core classes, there are nearly twice as many feats as in the 3.5 rules, and there are a host of new spells. There are a fair number of new mechanics spread throughout the book, but most of these are replacements for older mechanics.

Jones: What makes PFRPG more balanced (or at least differently balanced) that 3.5 and 4e?
We worked really hard to bring all of the classes in balance with one another. The 3.5 version of the rules had a few classes that were a bit more powerful than the rest. So, while we reduced the power of a few of the classes, we brought some of the others up to the same level.

In addition, we are working in a number of new balancing factors in on the GMs side of the screen. This primarily focuses on monsters and building encounters in such a way as to challenge the PCs, while minimizing overly deadly combats (unless you want that sort of thing… which I sometimes do.)

Jones: How’s all the playtesting going?
It’s been a long playtest process, full of surprises. Just a few weeks ago, for example, we realized that there were no rules for stairs in the game and had to quickly add some to the book. The playtesters have been invaluable in their work to test these rules. The first big shift brought on by the playtesters was to the skill system. The first iteration was not very popular, leading me back to the drawing board more than once.

Jones: Lastly, in all this work, what’s the ultimate goal?
I just want to put out a game that is true to the spirit of the 3.5 rules system, while at the same time evolving it into a better play experience. I think we’ve managed to do that and I hope the fans agree.

Is there an interview you’d like to see from the Kobold Diplomats? Let us know in comments!

18 thoughts on “A Better Play Experience: a Conversation with Jason Bulmahn”

  1. Ditto! A great interview, gives me more of a feel of what to expect. Didn’t expect as many big changes from the beta for example!

  2. Glad you like it!

    Kobold will be supporting Pathfinder (we’ve accepted the PF RPG compatability license), and you can expect a few more scoops before the game is relased.

  3. Jeremy L. C. Jones

    Thanks for the kind words on the interview! There’s more Pathfinder talk coming soon… mixed in with some other goodies. We’re also eager for suggestions for future interviews.


  4. Varianor (Bill Collins)

    I was already sold, but the little Dispel Magic spoiler solidified my already considerable resolve. Nice!

  5. This guy got the ball rolling on my addiction to those cards? Well done, sir, everything I have seen for PFRPG has been exceptional. And I do love those item cards. Just don’t go back to the randomized packs please. The current model of like a poker deck of art cards is brilliant. I really do like the option of buying full sets of these wonderful innovations.

  6. For me the Pathfinder RPG is the best bet if you like better the 3.5ish flavor, I truly can’t wait to see the final product. My congratulations and thanks to Jason Bulmahn, all of his team and all the playtesters for taking on the task of improving an already good system.

  7. Interesting interview. Now, personally, I’ve always thought the classes that received the most dramatic change was the Barbarian, Fighter, Sorcerer, and Wizard. The rest were pretty close to what they were originally, with some new stuff added in.

    I’ve always found the Paladin, Ranger, and Monk to be among the top of the Super Powerful (ignoring Cleric and Wizard) classes, I was surprised to see they added more than they changed to those three classes.

  8. I have been biting at the bit for this! I Know I will have the utmost fun with the PFRPG. the beta play test has been great enjoyment as it is!!.

  9. kunger00 (Keith Unger)

    Excellent interview! I would like to hear more about what is changing from Beta to final release as my group has been playing Beta edition for the last… well, year basically. I’d like to hear more about what we will need to conscider changing.

  10. congratz for a great interview… still it sadens me that the cleric’s domains reverted to 3.5… still I want to see the final version… but the domain powers and bonuses spells they give in Pathfinder have saves my cleric’s life in many ocasions… so yes it really sadens me this lose.

    Not everyone can be happy, right?

  11. I also thought this was a great interview. I hope to read more of this. Made me both happy that I already pre-ordered the game, and want to buy KQ! Good job!

    Can’t wait to play this!
    Perhaps an interview with Monte Cook next? I’d love to see how he contributed to Pathfinder, what his opinion is on the evolution from the game he created (I mean 3.0), the differences with his variant rules (Arcana Evolved, book of experimental might)
    Could be cool to have Mike Mearls comment on it as well as it is a different path than 4e (Iron Heroes).

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