What strategy can a new third party publisher use to market their new Pathfinder RPG content? If you ask Gary McBride of Fire Mountain Games, the answer is “evil”.
Third Party People is a twice monthly series on the people behind the third party publishers that innovate new options for the Pathfinder Roleplaying game, and provide hungry young freelancers a venue for their creations.
PC: Pathfinder players, including Paizo staff, have started referencing Way of the Wicked without preamble or explanation, like everyone should know to what they are referencing. How did Way of the Wicked, and by way of it Fire Mountain Games, become so established so quickly?
Gary: Before I published the first book of “Way of the Wicked” I discussed it with several writers and gamers I respect. This was the almost universal response I got: “don’t do it.” Evil campaigns, I was assured, will never sell and in fact don’t really work. But inevitably, as I discussed the matter with them further, they gleefully described their own evil campaign. This was what I found intriguing. Everyone told me how evil campaigns, in general, don’t work. And then they explained to me how much fun they had in their specific villainous undertakings.
That is when I formulated the core idea behind “Way of the Wicked” – evil campaigns don’t have to suck.
What has become clear to me over the last year is that many people share the sentiment. Evil campaigns can suck. They can degenerate into brutal murder-fests or pointless out-of-character bickering about who betrayed who. But if you give your villains a reason to work together and something interesting to destroy – villainous campaigns can succeed and be immense amounts of fun.
And I think that’s the key to Way of the Wicked’s success. It’s fun to be the bad guy. I feel fortunate that I’ve been the one who could capitalize on this simple truth amongst the Pathfinder community.
PC: When asked why Paizo does not hire one writer to work on an entire adventure path, James Jacobs described it as too much work for one mortal. How does it feel to have accomplished such a herculean task?
Gary: Hah! Honestly, it wasn’t that bad. I wrote “Way of the Wicked” over the course of a year and I feel it was a year well spent. It feels great to have it done. But truly, it wasn’t that grueling. I enjoy writing adventures and designing games. I would be doing it, even if I wasn’t being paid for it.
If I have one complaint about Fire Mountain Games, it is how little time I spend actually writing. The business of being a game company eats up far more time than I wish it did.
PC: What is your gaming background, and how did you come to be so invested in the Pathfinder RPG?
Gary: I got into RPGs in 1980 as a spry young lad lured by the Moldvay basic D&D box set with the Erol Otus cover art. My mom, an English professor, bought it for me having little idea what it was. I think she was simply glad that her son was asking for books for a change instead of yet more Star Wars action figures.
When my pre-teen band of accomplices started playing the game, we got everything wrong. It was years before we realized that you needed a Game Master. We all wrote up characters. The adventures were numbered and so that was obviously the order the encounters were supposed to go in. And room by room, we killed everything we met. That was the game, right? Killing monsters and getting treasure.
In 1984, Origins (which moved around the country at that point) came to Dallas, Texas. I don’t remember exactly what I said to my mom, but it caused her to drop off her twelve year old son for the day at that con unattended. I got my badge and walked into the dealer’s room like a wide-eyed pilgrim arriving at last in the promised land.
Before the day was through, I played in a Champions demo. I played in an AD&D game run by an actual DM who knew what he was doing. I played Car Wars for the first time. I was introduced to miniature gaming. It was one geeky gaming revelation after another. I came back from the con like a prophet coming off the mountain. I had seen gaming heaven and I returned to the people with the good news. I have never recovered from that glorious day of parental abandonment. I have been locked onto the way of the gaming geek ever since.
Pathfinder, I arrived at because I love adventures. I read RPG adventures simply for pleasure. Even ones that I know I’m never going to run, I love to read if they’re well put together and full of great ideas. And in recent years, Paizo and Pathfinder have been where the adventure design action is at. And that’s what led me here.
PC: Could you tell the story of how you coaxed Jason Bulmahn into freelancing for Fire Mountain Games?
Gary: I met Jason Bulmahn at PaizoCon a few years ago. We got introduced over whiskey as I hosted a scotch tasting in my room. Later, we were on some panels together at Gamestorm (a local gaming convention here in the Portland area). And again, I hosted a scotch tasting.
You see, I happen to be something of a scotch enthusiast. I collect single malt whiskeys – terrible habit really. Anyways, as I mentioned, we did a few tastings together. And by tastings, what I really mean are long, after-hours sessions of boozing, braggadocio and bombastic barley-based self-abuse.
During all this, I mentioned I’d love to have him freelance for us. I told him that I’d pay him in fine single malt scotch whiskey. He said yes. He proved to be honorable enough of a fellow to keep his word even though the initial acceptance was made deep in his cups.
He seemed pleased by the payment – he received at least one bottle from every distinct scotch producing region of Scotland and an American little charmer to highlight what I consider the state of the domestic art.
The moral? “Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.” ― Mark Twain
PC: What are the greatest challenges you face as a third party publisher of the Pathfinder RPG?
Gary: The greatest challenge is of course the same challenge any small business faces – money and recognition. There is also a stigma to being a third party publisher in some people’s eyes. But honestly, this is all counterbalanced by the amazingly enthusiastic and supportive community that Paizo has built for their game.
Another challenge is that amidst so many talented and spectacular fellow third party publishers, it can be very difficult to make a product that stands out. And that is a challenge I relish.
PC: Fire Mountain Games’ next big project is The Throne of Night, currently on Kickstarter. What can you tell us about it?
Gary: “Throne of Night” is our second adventure path. It is a level 1-20 Pathfinder compatible adventure path set entirely in the underdark. It is actually two parallel campaigns in one. You can play noble dwarven explorers venturing into the underworld to reclaim lost glories, but you can also play wicked drow overlords subjugating their sunless empire.Much more than “Way of the Wicked” this is a sandbox. We are going to map out an immense area of underground terrain and give you the barest outline of a story and countless adventure hooks. By the time we’re done, you will have an entire region of the underdark fully mapped and described. The Azathyr will be ready for countless hours of adventuring excitement and exploration. In this alien landscape, you can build a kingdom unlike any other. You can conquer the strange realms below and build for yourself a Throne of Night.
The Kickstarter is going on right now! Check it out. We are already funded, but with your support we can hit multiple levels of stretch goals and make Throne of Night into something truly amazing. Also, the price will never be cheaper than during our kickstarter.
Further, as a kickstarter exclusive we will also have a stretch goal to fund “Way of the Wicked Book VII: Tales of Talingarde”. This optional book allows you to expand your “Way of the Wicked” campaign with new side quests, new player handouts, new maps and art and more. Check out the kickstarter for more details.
PC: What does Kickstarter mean to you?
Gary: Kickstarter is a way to really build up this project and see it funded as a line without having to desperately wait for every monthly check. Kickstarter is a way to real print runs and get into stores. Kickstarter is a way to push Fire Mountain Games further ahead faster than would have otherwise been possible.
Kickstarter is no substitute for hard work and good writing. But it is a valuable tool that can help us have the resources to make our next projects even better. And for those who choose to support us, we thank you. Know that we are very grateful.
PC: How has being a third party publisher impacted your home game and other design work?
Gary: Thanks to my company facebook page and reputation in the industry, it is slightly easier to recruit new players.
More seriously, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I often take material from my home game and put it in my published material. There are several in-jokes in “Way of the Wicked” that come from my home game. For example in Knot of Thorns pg. 16 you can discover a pile of so-called “penny dreadfuls”. The description of those tawdry pulp novels is ripped straight from a long running 7th Sea campaign where a PC turned in all his journals as penny dreadfuls that over-emphasized his deeds of derring-do and his liaisons with the opposite sex.
And visa versa, I also will sometimes use my players as guinea pigs to try out an idea I hope is worthy of being published. If it plays well with the home team, it might be an idea worth further developing.
PC: How often do you run or play in games, and how have your products impacted your games?
Gary: I am involved in three campaigns currently. I play RPGs every Thursday and Friday night with two largely different groups of gamers. Thursday is my own Pathfinder “Way of the Wicked” campaign – we’re currently in the dead middle of Book II. Friday is my weird science fantasy Dungeon Crawl Classic Campaign – “The Isle of the Tarrasque”.
I also run a bi-weekly game for autistic kids every other Saturday. I truly recommend that every experienced game master do this. It has been an endlessly rewarding experience. This campaign is one I always look forward to. The kids are just excited and after years of playing with your typical jaded gamer, playing with ones who aren’t – well, it is damned refreshing.
More than my products impacting my games, it is more that my games impact my products. I believe I wouldn’t be half the game writer I am if it weren’t for all the years and years of actual play experience I have under my belt. There is no replacement for the experience of actual play.
PC: How did you come to roleplay with kids with Autism?
Gary: It happened strictly by accident. A gaming group of autistic kids was having their game master move on them. He asked me if I’d be willing to take over. I, with great trepidation, said yes. And since have come to regard it as a highlight of my gaming schedule.
PC: I teach teenagers with Autism, and although they have amazing imaginations and ability to immerse themselves into other worlds like Spongebob and Disney, roleplaying has been a concept with which they struggle. What techniques do you use when playing with this group?
Gary: I have no formal educational training or anything like that. Mostly I try to truly challenge them. No softballs. No kit gloves. I think that’s one of the features they enjoy the most. They are very competitive, actually.
I run a campaign called “Dragon Isle”. They are trapped on a demiplane created by the consorts of the great dragon queen Tiamat. They lead a ragtag team of cross-planar refugees trying to escape and learn the secret of this otherworldly place. The plot is at once very simple (Escape! Kill dragons!) and yet has enough complexity to keep them interested and engage their imaginations. I don’t know if this would work for everyone, but it definitely works for my players. This campaign has been going for over two years now.
PC: What comes first: an idea or a mechanic?
Gary: Idea. Definitely idea. When designing adventures, I always start with an outline that tries to congeal all these messy unfocused ideas into a coherent whole. And only then, once that outline is hammered out do the mechanics come.
This isn’t to say mechanics aren’t important. These are games we’re writing after all. Games must have rules. Mechanics should be the engine of fun game play, not an end to themselves.
PC: How do you ensure the highest quality possible for your products, from game balance to the writing itself?
Gary: Hours and hours of work. Seriously, there is no short cut and no silver bullet that spares you the intense amount of labor required to produce a book.
I also have an amazing resource for game design. I am fortunate enough to be married to a gamer. I always run ideas past her and she has proven remarkably perspicacious in critiquing my ideas.
PC: What lessons have your experiences taught you about publishing and about Pathfinder?
Gary: Pathfinder has a stalwartly loyal and enthusiastic gaming community. Tapping into that community makes so much possible. Listening to that community makes your products better.
PC: What do you look for in a freelancer, and where have you found your strongest freelancers?
Gary: Fire Mountain Games has only ever used one paid freelancer and I found him via whiskey (as described above), so I suppose the answer is I look for an appreciation of fine whiskey and I find my freelancer at scotch tastings.
More seriously, with the success of our current kickstarter it is likely that in 2013 we will be expanding our line even further. As a freelancer myself, I look for those who are punctual and enthusiastic. Great ideas and a reasonable command of the English language are also essential tools.
PC: If you could change one thing about Pathfinder, what would it be?
Gary: Paizo and the Pathfinder community have been so good to me, it’s hard to have any complaints.
I suppose that if I must register one complaint it is that (just having finished writing a 20th level adventure), I wish high level stat blocks could be made a little smaller and high level play could be simpler overall. I hope that is something that gets worked on extensively if there is ever a Pathfinder 2nd edition.
PC: What is a highlight of your experience as a third party publisher?
Gary: The unquestionable highlight has been witnessing people actually playing my games. Whether via online games or reports of actual play, seeing what people are doing with “Way of the Wicked” continues to be gratifying.
PC: One day you wake up and all your goals for Fire Mountain Games have been met. What does that day look like, and where do you go from there?
Gary: My hope is that Fire Mountain Games could someday become a real concern with its own office that isn’t in my house. But even if that day arrives, I will still be making games. Writing and designing games is my calling. It’s what I do professionally and at the end of the day, it’s all I truly want to do.
Somewhere deep inside, I’m still that kid coming back from Origins in 1984. I’m ready for another great game.