We are starting this series with one of the most prominent supporters of RPG Superstar since his win in 2009. We first chatted with him shortly after he won the title, and caught up with him at last PaizoCon. The humble and talented, Mr Neil Spicer!
Live Freelance or Die is a twice monthly series on the often overlooked people whose work and writing for Paizo on the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game have probably made it to your table.
PC: You won RPG Superstar in 2009, when the competition was still new, and Paizo and Pathfinder were still making their mark in the industry. What was the competition like that year?
I think the 2009 competition was pretty fierce and the competition felt very much like a roller coaster to me. A few of us (i.e., me, Trevor Gulliver, etc.) seemed to jump out to a bit of an early lead based on the voter reaction to our wondrous items and villains. But then a lot of other competitors (e.g., Eric Bailey, Kevin Carter, Matthew Stinson, and Randy Dorman) really raised their game in the later rounds. By the end, I very much felt like I was in a close race with Eric’s adventure proposal.
PC: Before entering, how much design and writing experience did you have?
I had more than I think most people realized, but none of it was high profile enough to garner much attention (or disqualify me from participating). There was one softcover book I had in print (i.e., the Future Player’s Companion for The Game Mechanics released through Green Ronin) where I shared a cover credit with three other authors. And, aside from that, I did a handful of PDF products with Louis Porter Jr. and Xpeditious Retreat Press. Before writing for pay, I also spent a couple of years contributing to a nonprofit fanzine called Action Check which supported the Alternity game system and campaign settings.
Above all that, however, I think the most important ace up my sleeve in terms of preparing for RPG Superstar resulted from doing a lot of research on what freelancing in the RPG industry entailed. I went to many “Writing For…” seminars at every gaming convention I attended, including Paizo’s “Writing For Dungeon Magazine.” I visited Sean K. Reynolds’ gaming website and read through all of his advice about breaking into the industry, as well as similar sites from other established professionals in gaming. And I made sure to pitch for Paizo’s open calls on Flight of the Red Raven and Pathfinder Society scenarios. All of those experiences prepared me for going the distance in RPG Superstar, and I think future competitors would be wise to get out there and educate themselves on the game design industry, as well. Don’t just sit back and wait for a silver bullet like RPG Superstar to launch your freelancing career. You’ve got to go find it and amass as many experiences as you can to build your confidence and capabilities.
PC: What did you find most challenging about RPG Superstar?
No doubt about it…the turnaround time. In my year, the contest only gave competitors 3 days in which to absorb the next round’s rules and put together a compelling submission to keep advancing. My year was also the first time Paizo introduced a “curve ball” to keep competitors from anticipating what the next round’s assignment would be. When you’ve assumed you’re on tap for designing your own villain’s lair and then you’re told to design a lair for someone else’s villain…all in 3 days…that’s a pretty big challenge to absorb. And it was by far the round where I most felt I might fall out of the competition.
PC: The reward for winning RPG Superstar was seeing your module, Realm of the Fellnight Queen, in print. How did that feel?
Really awesome. I’d seen my name on a print product before, but never as the standalone author. And never with the production values Paizo (and Sarah Robinson) so consistently bring to bear. My adventure module wound up receiving some really amazing cover art. To this day, I have it as the background on my computer. So, every time I fire up my laptop, I get to see the Fellnight Queen in all her glory staring back at me. That image helps serve as a reminder of what’s possible if I work hard and apply myself to any task.
PC: Speaking of telling stories, not long after being declared RPG Superstar 2009, you won Pathfinder Chronicler’s inaugural Fiction contest. What plans do you have for novelized fiction?
Alas, I only have dreams and aspirations right now. Very few plans. I’m certainly…maybe even, ambitiously…interested in writing novelized fiction someday. And, I’ve tipped my toes in the water a time or two with short fiction articles in Wayfinder, the Pathfinder Chronicler contest, and even a for-pay contribution to Rite Publishing’s “Anthology of Dreams” collection of short stories for their Coliseum Morpheuon campaign setting. From time to time, and even while rooming with Dave Gross at GenCon last year, I picked his brain a bit on the possibilities and various gateways for breaking into the fiction world. But the truth is that I have so many demands on my time…i.e., family, work, and RPG freelancing…that it’s hard to clear another portion of my schedule to give a serious go at becoming a published fiction author right now. I’ve certainly inquired about doing something for Paizo’s Pathfinder Tales someday…even something small to start out with, like their web fiction or the six-part novellas which appear in the Adventure Paths. But, like many jobs, you need to establish some experience doing a particular line of work before you can convince an employer to take you on as an unproven commodity. And, believe me, RPG writing and fiction writing are two very different things. So, it’s not like I can solely lean on my credits in the RPG world as anything indicative of what I can do with short stories, novellas, or full-length novels. To truly pursue it, I may have to take a sabbatical from RPG writing for awhile. Or…maybe invest in cloning technology.
PC: Are you more of a GM or a player, and how do you think that influences your design work?
I’m much more of a GM than a player and I think that seriously influences my designs. In fact, I think it’s pretty imperative that you spend a fair amount of time behind the GM screen to better prepare yourself for game design. Part of being a good designer is knowing how the game runs…and why it runs the way it does. Also, where it breaks or slows down…and how to guard against that in your designs. It also helps you know what’s appealing to the players, which can help your design choices and make them more popular and accepted.
PC: Where are some of the areas you believe the game breaks down for which, if you were in charge of all things Pathfinder, you have the solution?
In typical fashion, I’ll give you a long-winded answer that may just wind up exploring a bunch of gaming philosophy as opposed to providing any kind of lasting or pie-in-the-sky solutions. In my experience, I think certain keystone powers and abilities are the most common areas gamers and GMs cite when talking about where the game breaks down. Spells like “fly,” “teleport,” “raise dead,” and eventually “wish” carry a lot of weight when they appear in the game. That’s because they automatically defuse and defeat certain scenarios from being a challenge anymore. So, as a designer, you have to anticipate and accommodate that rise in capability…not by nullifying or negating it…but rather, in planning for ways where it can be featured and enjoyed. Then, by allowing it to run its course (i.e., be expended as a limited resource), you’re free to set up yet another situation where those kinds of abilities would have been useful, but are no longer available, because they’ve already been used before the next challenge/threat arrives. Hence, those types of situations can still present a significant challenge even to those who would ordinarily breeze through them. You just need to hone your design skills to anticipate where the game (and certain plot elements) will break and plan for ways to keep those situations fresh and interesting while maintaining the challenge.
In addition, I’d cite some of the more recent developments in the Pathfinder RPG as potential areas where the game can break down. New classes like the summoner (with an eidolon), the alchemist (with the escalating bomb damage), the gunslinger (with the extreme nature of guns and their critical damage), and even the reimagining of the paladin/antipaladin (with the usefulness and potency of the smite ability) can all threaten the balance of the game in certain ways. I think most of those elements are still undergoing their field tests, so to speak, as they’re all basically the equivalent of “first edition” Pathfinder. I’m not advocating for a second edition anytime soon, but I do think at least a couple of those classes and their abilities could use a slight tweak here or there. Some GMs may have already homeruled certain things affecting them. And that’s a time honored tradition all its own. For me, I have a tendency to stray away from gunpowder in my games. And I’ll carefully weigh what eidolon-enhancing options I’ll permit anyone playing a summoner in order to rein things back a bit. Meanwhile, I’m an advocate for reducing the alchemist’s bomb output by changing up the dice and maybe even capping it at some point. Paladins and antipaladins are a bit more challenging. Mechanically, I generally leave them as-is, but then focus on varying the encounter setups so the smite ability can’t be brought to bear all the time on every opposing NPC or monster.
Finally, I’ll circle back and examine one other issue which I kind of alluded to with the comment about various spell effects and class abilities escalating to a point where they threaten the game and limit the kinds of stories you can tell. I’m talking about high-level play. I’ve always had this tendency to veer away from letting my games go to super-high levels. I like having them cap out somewhere between 13th and 15th level so I don’t have to worry about too many runaway abilities or over-the-top encounter setups just to keep challenging the PCs. When you enter into that realm of gaming, I always liken it to trying to plan and anticipate storylines and challenges for superheroes. And that’s because many of the abilities and resources available to PCs of that level are on par with Superman, Spiderman, Iron Man, Wonder Woman, etc. To me, the game starts to go off the rails a bit in how it plays at the table when you’ve got major titans like that slugging it out. To offset some of those concerns, I really like where Paizo is headed with their mythic rules. The playtesting should be wrapping up (if it hasn’t already) and I’m excited for what those rules will enable in terms of storytelling and game design for the upper echelons of play. And, one of the things I like best about the development of those rules is how they can enhance lower level play, as well.
PC: How did you balance your home life, day job, and gaming group with the RPG Superstar competition, and the resulting RPG
During the competition, it wasn’t too difficult. My wife didn’t completely understand what I was doing (i.e., she’s not a gamer at all), but she knew it had to do with writing and supported me as best as she could. Our children were still fairly young at the time and she helped keep them from being a distraction. Additionally, my boss (and co-workers) were amazingly supportive. When I told my manager about making it into the competition and that I had just 3 days to turnaround my submission for the next round, her first words to me were, “Well, what are you doing here?! Go home and write!” I actually did take a vacation day during a couple of the rounds to ensure I had enough time to put together my longer submissions (i.e., the stat-block round and villain’s lair). And I think that helped a lot. As for my gaming group, they became big supporters, as well. At least a couple of them lobbied for others in their social networks to vote for me. And, one long-time gamer friend also provided a lot of encouragement while serving as a willing sounding board for my design ideas.
Regarding RPG Superstardom, I’m not sure I’ve ever handled that in any kind of natural way. I tend to be a wallflower in most social situations (except online, of course, where it’s easier to maintain your distance). So, it’s a lot harder to put myself out there and open up with people in larger settings. Lisa Stevens (Paizo’s CEO) gave me a bit of a pep-talk at PaizoCon the year I won and encouraged me to seize the moment and make the most of it. She was absolutely right about that. The “stardom” of RPG Superstar really only lasts that one year until the competition comes back around again. For a lasting effect, you have to transition away from RPG Superstardom and work that much harder to establish a more wide-reaching street cred as an industry freelancer. I say it quite often, but it’s not really about what you do during RPG Superstar that matters all that much. It’s what you do afterward with all the opportunities which come your way. I’m still navigating those waters even now. And I’m just pleased that the boat hasn’t sunk yet. I may have to bail water every now and then to keep it floating, but that’s to be expected given all the challenges of juggling family, work, and hobby.
PC: What are assumptions about RPG Superstar people constantly get wrong?
I’ve had the privilege of serving on the other side of the competition as a judge a couple of times now. So, a lot of the assumptions I think people get wrong about RPG Superstar involve that first barrier to entry: the wondrous item submission. We see so many different bad item stereotypes and design decisions year after year, despite repeated item critiques, feedback, seminar panels, and discussions on game design. A lot of people seem to look only at what they deem to be cool or interesting to them, rather than what’s cool, interesting, and balanced for the game as a whole. Unfortunately, they haven’t yet widened their thinking far enough to instinctively recognize what’s good game design, and it holds them back year after year.
Additionally, I think a lot of people consistently fail to do their homework for RPG Superstar. Many just submit for the novelty of it…or the experience and the fun of the competition…not quite imagining they’ll be selected for it or how they’ll approach the later rounds if they are. I think many also fail to do their homework on the RPG industry as a whole and what becoming a freelancer entails, including all the little things a publisher requires of you. I think that information and those lessons are applicable to how you should approach the competition.
PC: You’re associated with RPG Superstar more than any other past winner. Why have you stayed so involved in the competition?
For multiple reasons. One, as Lisa Stevens suggested to me, it’s important to put yourself out there and use your RPG Superstar “celebrity” however you can. Staying involved with the competition and encouraging others is one way I feel comfortable doing that. It’s both familiar and fun. Additionally, I’m a fan of the competition like everyone else. I believe it’s one of the best vehicles for fostering continued support and interest in the RPG hobby…not just for me, but for new generations of gamers. Why wouldn’t I want be involved in that effort? Lastly…and maybe even more importantly…I feel like I owe it to everyone. The fans of Paizo represent those who voted me through so I’d have the opportunity RPG Superstar ultimately provided. I know many of them are also reaching for that same brass ring. So, I feel a responsibility to encourage and support them. I feel the same way about Paizo. They’re the ones who continue to give me opportunities as a result of “discovering” me through RPG Superstar. So, as long as they want or allow me to be involved…and, as long as I don’t have competing interests or responsibilities here on the homefront…I’ll be happy to keep contributing to Paizo and RPG Superstar’s success however I can.
PC: What is it like being famous within the Pathfinder community?
To be honest, I really don’t feel like I’m all that famous. Maybe that’s a cliche answer, but I don’t think you should ever get comfortable with the “fame” RPG Superstar or writing for the game industry provides. As soon as you get comfortable with wrapping yourself in that security blanket, you either lose your edge or you become a pompous, sanctimonious jerk. I’m really glad Paizo and their developers treat me no differently than any other freelancer in their stable. Meanwhile, the Paizo fan community has always had its favorite designers like any other industry. I’m not sure how far up that chain I’ve climbed so far. Guys like Greg Vaughan, Richard Pett, Tim Hitchcock, Jason Nelson, and even Nicholas Logue (despite his lengthy sabbatical) are far more prolific and tenured among Paizo’s stable of freelancers. So, I’m still very much following in their footsteps and finding my own way one assignment at a time. That said, as anyone who writes in the industry will tell you, it’s still really awesome meeting people at PaizoCon or GenCon and hearing they’ve enjoyed my work. That never gets old. And I hope it never does.
PC: What are some of the opportunities being an RPG Superstar has afforded you?
The obvious answer is continued work with Paizo. From Realm of the Fellnight Queen, I was especially pleased to make enough of an impression on Paizo’s developers that they trusted me to write for their flagship product line: the Adventure Paths. I’ve always enjoyed storytelling via collaborative gaming products like adventures. So, writing for the Adventure Paths and their level-spanning campaigns has always been my goal and I’m really happy to have penned several issues for them now.
Beyond that, I think the greatest opportunity actually comes in the form of something that isn’t necessarily work-specific. RPG Superstar opens a door which allows social contact with full-time gaming professionals on a semi-frequent basis. And, the relationships, friendships, and camaraderie which develops as a result of that is just as precious as the opportunities for work as a freelancer. In fact, I’d say that’s really the most valuable opportunity the contest provides.
PC: What advice do you wish you had the year you won?
I think it’s the advice Sean Reynolds actually gave me towards the end of the competition in 2009, which could have served me well in the earlier rounds. Before my final adventure proposal, he described my performance up to that point as a runner in a long-distance race. And yet, I kept purposefully making things harder and harder on myself by choosing more difficult challenges in the hopes of scoring higher on the “degree of difficulty” with the voters and judges. Sean described it as if I’d loaded myself down with a backpack full of rocks. Granted, I was keeping up with the pack, but I wasn’t the frontrunner going into that last leg. My reason for making things more difficult on myself was because I wanted to hedge my bets in case I couldn’t win the whole thing. I had hoped to at least reach the Top 4. And, by taking on the most difficult design choices, I hoped to impress Paizo’s developers enough to still give me opportunities as a freelancer even if I didn’t take the final prize. In reality, I was just holding myself back because I lacked full confidence in my ability to go the distance. So, the advice Sean gave me is (in many ways) what helped me pick up the pace and find my self-confidence. I stopped weighing myself down with more difficult design challenges. I summoned all the courage afforded me by my earlier experiences (both before and during the contest), and I said to myself, “Why not me?” The potential Top 32 Superstars should ask themselves that same question. Don’t be afraid to do something great. Don’t second-guess or outsmart yourself. Find what feels right in your next design and be awesome with it for its own sake.
PC: How do you find RPG Superstar has changed since you won, and how has it changed you?
Obviously, the contest has grown quite a bit. More and more competitors submit every year. I think Paizo has done an amazing job accommodating that growth, while tweaking and refining the contest to make it even better. The designers are afforded more time to really work on their submissions and grow their skills in each round. And it’s paid off. RPG Superstar is consistently restocking Paizo’s pool of available freelancers. And a lot of competitors have gone on to do some really amazing stuff for them.
For me, I think RPG Superstar has given me confidence. I now have a platform from which I feel empowered, both in my writing and my interactions with other gamers and gaming professionals. Oddly enough, I also have a voice in the industry now, no matter how small or influential it might be. But, through my work as a freelancer and Superstar judge/supporter, I’ve been able to give something back to the hobby I’ve enjoyed for so many years. I also think one of the things I appreciate most about RPG Superstar and the opportunities it afforded me, is that I’ve been able to contribute to Paizo and Pathfinder’s rise as the world’s most popular roleplaying game. There was a point where I really feared the RPG I grew up playing would disappear or become a pale shadow of what I knew it to be. And yet, Paizo and Pathfinder have preserved the soul of what gaming has always meant for me and many others. That’s why I’m so pleased I got to write a few things for them during the time when the torch passed to them as the industry leader.
So, it’s not just about how RPG Superstar has changed or how it’s changed me. I think the larger question is how Paizo has changed during that same period. I think of RPG Superstar as the ultimate embrace of the Paizo community. It helps identify and empower a whole new generation of designers, gamers, and fans. And, as such, I think it’s yet another example of Paizo’s foresight, wisdom, and stewardship of the hobby.