Category Archives: Business of Games

My (Current) Thoughts on AI Images

There are numerous AI (“artificially intelligent”) programs designed to allow someone to use text prompts and maybe a few simple other buttons to generate images that have never existed before. People have been playing with them for years, and the fact they were improving has been clear for a long time, but in my opinion they have taken a major leap forward suddenly and recently. As with any disruptive technology, this opens a number of cans of worms, and some of those worms seem likely to crawl into the game industry sooner, rather than later.

This broke open for me last month, when I used prompts to produce the following image using Midjourney — an AI image creation program, that allows you to enter text prompts and style notes, ask it to create variants of options it presents, and eventually upscale a thumbnail to a higher-res image. I pay for access to Midjourney, and for the rights to use the images it creates with my prompts in commercial products.

(Prompt and variation choices by me, using Midjourney, and who to credit here is one of the fundamental questions of AI art)

I was blown away that my effort to use prompts to have Midjourney return an image of a dungeon entrance, such as was of the right quality and style I could use it in a professional ttRPG adventure, was successful. I had been sharing images I created on social media that were much less successful, so I shared this one as well, with the comment “So, this is the first MidJourney AI image I’ve prompted that I believe I can use as-is for a ttRPG product. It’d make a great cover, even.”

It would have been more accurate to say it was the first image I thought I *could* use, since I had no immediate plans to do so, but I said what I said. While the response has evolved as more people replied, the early pushback referred to my suggesting I would put that image in a product as “anti-art,” “unethical,” and “gross.”

I wanted to dig into those responses, so I tried to ask leading and clarifying questions. I likely should have waiting longer before replying, because my knee-jerk responses to being called gross can be more confrontational than I prefer to make my professional communications. having taken more time, and having had a number of conversations with different people in a number of different places, I thought compiling my current thoughts and positions in one place would be a good move.

As a starting point, I recommend anyone interested in the question of the history, legality, and morality of AI art read the recent Engadget article by Daniel Cooper ” The article doesn’t try to definitely settle any issues, but it’s a good rundown of what some of the big questions are.

Speaking of big questions, I was asked a lot of them when I publicly declared I had AI art I can put in a product. I don’t want to call out anyone specifically in a venue where they can’t reply (and I absolutely do not want to encourage anyone to engage in people I disagree with online in anything other than a polite and professional manner, so please don’t), so I have tried to summarize my position on big questions below. Given there are public links to this article, it’s fair game for anyone who wants to debate or disagree with any of my thoughts or statement.

We should all acknowledge there are unsettled legal and ethical questions about AI-generated images. For example, AIs are trained by looking at images online, almost always without compensating the owner of those images, or asking permission. However, the AI do not just remix existing visual elements, nor copy them into a database and go back to grab pieces of them. They look at existing art as references, to learn from them. I do not see an ethical difference between that and a living artist doing the same thing, which is commonplace and well-accepted.

Another common concern is that art generated by an AI may take jobs from existing traditional artists. Such concerns have been raised by new technologies before, including photography and Photoshop. Pragmatically, I note that as of time of writing this, my art budget has not been reduced at all by my use of Midjourney (and this article is the only “professional” product I have such images in atm, and only because it is crucial to understanding why I am even discussing this). I pay several artists, to the tune of several thousand dollars a year, and do not foresee that going down at all. Midjourney can do many amazing things, but at least in my hands it can’t produce something like a recognizable band of adventurers, especially not reproducing them in multiple different illustrations.

However, that pragmatic note aside, I do not accept the argument that my using an AI to create my own art is an ethical or moral failing on my part. The system requires input and decisions from me to generate art I can use, and I do consider the images in question to be “art,” even if a machine was substantially used in its creation. All the mechanical aspects of fixing an image with a camera are machine labor, and it is accepted as art. If I created an image with a spin art machine, or a spiralgraph, that is accepted as art. Nor is the claim that I am unethically avoiding paying artists convincing to me. I can and have used public domain images in commercial products, and that neither puts money in any artist’s hands, nor inspires anyone to claim I am being immoral.
I absolutely understand the concerns of professional artists that this new technology may make their careers more difficult, or even impossible. I have seen the same AI-driven changes begin to influence how professional text is generated and sold. The program Grammerly is used by at least one company I am aware of to replace one human editing pass, and I have been told other places use it in place of any paid editor. Things like resumes and ad copy have AIs dedicated to producing them, and that trend is only going to grow.

In my opinion the answer to those challenges is to work for a world where creators don’t have to depend on companies paying them to create what those companies want, and constantly working to do so as cheaply as possible (as opposed to claiming that finding a cheaper way to obtain images is immoral, which would also apply to using stock art for example, which I do all the time). I suspect this problem is going to spread, farther and faster than expected, and no effort to convince the world to not use it is going to be enough to save creators that can be replaced by it. Those answers may include seeking direct patronage from fans (such as through Patreon and Ko-Fi), a Universal Basic Income, or some other answer no one thinks of using every truck driver, warehouse worker, delivery and transportation job, and basic manufacturing employment begins to be eliminated due to Ais doing it cheaper.

But this technology is not going away, and I suspect it will always have things it does not do as well as living artists. At the moment, I am exploring what it can and can’t do, and I am continuing to research, consider, and come to my own conclusions. There are risks involved in adopting any technology early, and I am weighing them. For example, without paying a much higher subscription fee, my Midjourney art can be seen and used by others with the license, so I have no exclusivity. Further, if the courts decide these images are being created by a machine, rather than being created by humans using machines, there’s a good chance that legally they will be impossible to copyright, adding another layer of complication for using it commercially.
On a personal level, I am enjoying many of the images I created as things to look at. I enjoy creating art this way, and am growing to appreciate the skill it takes to do so. Like silkscreen, quilting, coil pottery, or tie-dye it’s a very different kind of skill, but that’s not on its own enough to say it isn’t art.

So, on AI art I know what camp I’m in but, obviously, not everyone is going to agree. This tech is happening, so it’s worth learning and thinking about. I don’t currently have any plans to actually put AI art into commercial products, but I’m, absolutely using it for my own entertainment and in social media posts. I’m still considering how to proceed in cases where AI art looks like it may be a good match for a product’s needs, and may use it as the basis for human artist efforts, or as underpainting for more traditional art, or as-is, or as-is but paying an artist extra money for each AI piece I use in a form of patronage just to keep the human artist industry vibrant, both out of love of art and (pragmatically) because I believe a healthy visual creative field is necessary to make the best possible game products, even with access to AI-generated images.

Speaking of Being a Patron to Maintain a Healthy Industry of Creatives…
I have a Patreon. It helps me carve out the time needed to create these blog posts, and is a great way to let me know what kind of content you enjoy. If you’d like to see more essays on industry issues, or Pathfinder 1st or 2nd edition, 5e, or Starfinder content (or more rules for other game systems, fiction, storytime posts, game design articles, worldbuilding tips, whatever!), try joining for just a few bucks and month and letting me know!

If you prefer, you can drop a cup of support in my Ko-Fi. It’s like buying me a cup of coffee, but more convenient!

The Minimum Percentage of Jerks Rarely Changes

When an influencer has more than 150% more reach than anyone involved in a fandom (even its creator/publisher), badmouthing everything related to that fandom can end up being punching down.

Sure, if the fandom as a whole is toxic, or the IP fascist, that’s one thing.

But if the fandom is genuinely related to things you have identified as part of your interests (such as any ttRPG, if you declare yourself to be a ttRPG writer), and its fans enthusiastically promote it to you, that doesn’t rise to the level of toxic or abusive.

Of course part of the problem is, the minimum percentage of jerks in any group rarely changes, and social media algorithms are literally trained to seek things you’ll engage with. That means if something is worded to annoy you, since most people are more likely to engage with things that annoy or anger them, that version is most likely to be shown to you.

If the minimum percentage of jerks in a group is 5%, and you have a reach that gets you 10 replies from that group, half the time none of them are from jerks. If your reach means you’ll get 100 replies, 5 of them are from jerks. If your reach means you’ll get 1,000 replies, not only are 50 of them from jerks, but there’s a decent change you’ll be exposed to a higher percentage of them by AIs designed to get you to reply… even if that reply is angry annoyance.

And even you ask people on social media not to reply like that? Absolutely no guarantee anyone replying to your posts the next day saw that request.

If you have a lot of reach online, and are dealing with fandoms and groups and opinions, remember Sturgeon’s Revelation when judging them. “90% of everything is crap.”

Yes, by all means protect yourself and your mental well being. And if that means finding a way to use online tools to block certain phrases, by all means do that. Need to block some folks who leap into your mentions too often. heck yes. But the bigger you are, the more careful you should be venting your annoyance in a way that makes an entire fandom look bad to your followers, because the bigger you are the more harm you can do to a whole group by lashing out and decrying them as an entirety. Make sure they deserve that before doing so, especially if you reach is bigger than any of them, or even all of them.

If you enjoy any of my various thoughts, ideas, and posts, please consider adding a drop of support through my Patreon campaign!, or dropping a cup of coffee worth of support at my Ko-Fi (which is also filled with pics of my roommate’s cat).

#OwenOnTheCouch, Part 5:Jason Eric Nelson and Joseph Blomquist

Origins Game Fair is this weekend, and sadly I won’t be there. Interstate travel and big in-person gatherings just aren’t on my docket for the foreseeable future. So, I’m going to keep posting #OwenOnTheCouch content to try to do some good by remote, since I can’t sit with folks in person.

This time, let’s talk to Jason Eric Nelson, of Legendary Games (@LegendaryGamesJ on Twitter), and prolific freelance creator Joseph Blomquist (@DoctorMono on Twitter).

Owen: So, Jason: how do freelancers get work from Legendary? What’s the process?

Jason: Usually it’s a recommendation from someone who’s already worked with us, often from another collaboration they’ve done or being an active commenter on a playtest on one of our books. Sometimes it’s a recommendation from someone at Paizo or Wayfinder or Freelance Forge, etc. Having something to point to in the past to show your work or to talk about working with you.

Usually we start on one of our many collaborative books, doing a chunk of something working together with one or more other authors so we each get a feel for working with the other. If everything feels like a fit, we keep going from there. I’ll throw out project ideas or send things to jump on, and freelancers pitch things they’d like to do, and if it sounds like something that’s right for Legendary, we’ll roll with it and you might end up the lead or even some author on a book once you’ve shown your reliability.

Owen: Okay Jospeh, I know you’ve done game writing, reviews, art, and graphic design work; but if we’re just focusing on tabletop game design, what are some credits people might know you from?

Jospeh: I have a list, but just hitting some highlights I have credits for Margaret Weis Productions (Smallvile Roleplaying Game, Marvel Heroic Roleplaying: Civil War – X-men and Annihilation), Paizo (several Pathfinder Society and Starfinder Society scenarios, including #2-10: Corporate Interests; and the Pathfinder 2e Bestiary 2 entries for the Blink Dog, Hippogriff, and Sandpoint Devil) (PF2), Saturday Morning Games (Dime Stories Roleplaying Game Rulebook, Easy Money- a 10 Cent Tale, and Among the Living- a 10 Cent Tale), Slugfest Games (Red Dragon Inn — Adventures Series: Appetizer and The Guide to Inns and Taverns).

Owen: So, lots of stuff for Pathfinder, Starfinder, Cortex, and Dime Stories! What other game systems are you comfortable writing for?

Joseph: I’ve done a bunch of writing in the industry, but any incarnation of the venerable d20 system- especially Pathfinder 2e, Starfinder, and 5e are all easy choices. I cut my teeth writing for Cortex and have a lot of familiarity with Modiphius’ 2D20 system (especially Star Trek Adventures), Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and FATE systems. And of course, most of my early conversion work was in classic systems like DnD 2nd edition, Marvel FASERIP, West End Games’ D6 system, and Shadowrun. All of those systems are well within my wheelhouse.

Pathfinder Society Scenario #3-04: The Devil-Wrought Disappearance (PF2)

Starfinder Society Scenario #4-13: Hard Reset (Starfinder)

Pathfinder Society Scenario #4-02: Return to the Grave (PF2)

Paizo Fans United

Wayfinder # 20 (The Boomrock Run) (Starfinder)

Wayfinder #21 (Knights of Everstand, Knighthaunt) (PF2)

Saturday Morning Games

(Dime Stories Roleplaying Game Rulebook, Easy Money- a 10 Cent Tale, and Among the Living- a 10 Cent Tale)

Slugfest Games

Red Dragon Inn—Adventure Series: Appetizer (PF1)

Red Dragon Inn: The Guide to Inns and Taverns (PF1)

What other systems are you comfortable writing for?

I’ve done a bunch of writing in the industry, but any incarnation of the venerable d20 system- especially Pathfinder 2e, Starfinder, and 5e are all easy choices. I cut my teeth writing for Cortex and have a lot of familiarity with Modiphius’ 2D20 system (especially Star Trek Adventures), Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and FATE systems. And of course, most of my early conversion work was in classic systems like DnD 2nd edition, Marvel FASERIP, West End Games’ D6 system, and Shadowrun. All of those systems are well within my wheelhouse.

Owen: With such a broad range of experience, have you discovered you prefer one kind of writing assignment over another?

Joseph: I think my interests here are mostly common fare. I love writing background, giving a world or setting life. I love the challenge of coming up with a neat mechanic to act as an interesting sub system in a game. I love to challenge my players and my GMs. After three decades of GMming multiple systems, I am pretty proud of my abilities in that role. I try to be characterful and dive deep into my NPCs and the general feeling of the world I’m trying to lose my players into. That comes out in my writing where I try to incorporate mood pieces to help GMS set the scene and memorable characters that chew scenery.

Most recently, I seem to have found a niche I did not expect- one of an adventure designer. I guess I was always good at telling a tale, but most of my work – for Paizo especially – has been writing adventures. And let me tell you – I love it. It lets me do all the things I enjoy in setting a scene, writing characters, and challenging players. But it lets me do one thing else, help to create the kind of stories play groups still talk about years later.

Owen: What has the journey from gamer to game writer been like for you? How did you start?

Joseph: I’ve been gaming for 38 years or so, starting with the Mentzer Red Box one day, and TSR’s Marvel Super Heroes the next. By age 10, I was the regular GM for my friends- usually in Marvel Superheroes, but eventually introducing my closest friends to AD&D, Shadowrun, FASA’s Star Trek, GURPS, Mekton, and the World of Darkness games as the 90s came with a vengeance.

By the time I was 12, I was the ambassador of role-playing games for my group of friends- not all of which were prepared for the crunchy, rules heavy games of the late ‘80s. My answer was simple- make a game. I made a simple percentile system and wrote a 20-page rpg in my notebook with the amazingly clever name that was in no way derivative of Dungeons and Dragons, Sword and the Hand. This game was the intro for RPGs for our group of friends for years, until we dove headlong into Star Wars in the heyday of WEG’s license. At this point, I put my effort more into writing my own adventures, and plotting them out ahead of time for my players to enjoy in the systems we loved.

Eventually, I became a part owner in a local game store on Long Island, running games of MnM, Shadowrun, and D20 Star Wars in the back room nonstop with my prewritten adventures, to the delight of my players. But not knowing how to get my toe into the industry though I’d been freelancing for various video game, board game, and science fiction periodicals at this point, I did the next best thing – I wrote up my own superhero game. At the time, I conceived Superhuman as a skirmish level miniatures game (though the current incarnation coming to kickstarter soon-ish is a hybrid RPG/miniatures game) and I brought a mostly professional demo version of it with me to Origins in 2006 to show off to game designers I liked to ask for feedback. Luckily, one of the places I dropped a copy, Margaret Weis Productions, got me more than feedback – Cam Banks hired me a few weeks after the con to write super powers for Smallville. And a new leg of my career was born.

Owen: I’m always fascinated how people move into the tabletop writing industry. You mentioned not knowing how to get your toe in the industry: what other learning and experience prepared you for a game writing career once you found yourself in one?

Jospeh: So purely from an educational standpoint, my degree was in psychology and my minor was history. Most of my historical studies were centered around post-roman Britain through to the end of the Danelaw. One of my greatest passions is Arthurian legends, so diving into the deep end of the history and socio-political intricacies of the years Arthur would have lived as well as the years, centuries later, that his legend was truly born was more than just a passing interest. I suppose at some point I’ll seek out graduate studies on the subject or just do what most Arthurphiles do and write my own Arthurian novel.

I played in a touring metal band through my early 20s, and I try to bring my musical acumen into my work wherever possible. That being said, I was a piss poor songwriter- so don’t expect me to write you a jingle worth remembering. I could probably sing it though. Mixing that with the acting I did in college, I’ve increased my voice work to include not only A-list GMming, but voice overs for games and an audiobook on the horizon.

 Comics has been one of the few passions I have that rivals my love of gaming and all things Arthur. My vast comic collection has pushed my interest in games, writing, and allowed me to have a greatly informed perspective on the cycles, elements, successes, and failures of our most modern of mythologies. I’m a fan of B characters (Marv Wolfman’s Nova and Nightwing topping my list) and work well in every aspect of that medium- especially when it comes to games around the subject.

Owen: What’s the most recent project people can check out that you can talk about? 

Joseph: My most recent credit is Starfinder Society Scenario #4-13: Hard Reset. However, my next adventure will be released at Gencon, Pathfinder Society Scenario #4-02: Return to the Grave. Like all freelancers, my best work is under NDA, so I’ll just say – the best is yet to come.

Owen: Where can people find you if they want to reach out? 

Joseph: I can be found @DoctorMono on twitter, on kofi at, or in my rarely updated blog

Want to Support the Couch?!
A great way to help me be able to make connections, post advice, and make #OwenOnTheCouch useful is to send me your thoughts, questions, contact info to be publicly shared, and anything else you think might advance the conversation or help people connect. I’m happy to host publisher throughs on what they are looking for, veteran’s advice, and even post common questions people have about how to break in, move up, and manage common issues. Or, you can just throw money at me! Easiest done through Patron, and Ko-Fi.

#OwenOnTheCouch, Part 4: Michael Sayre and Carlos Cabrera

Continuing with the #OwenOnTheCouch theme, let’s talk to Senior Designer at Paizo Michael Sayre (@MichaelJSayre1 on Twitter), and freelance Game Designer and Voice Actor Carlos Cabrera (

(#OwenontheCouch 2015)

Owen: Hey Michael Sayre, if someone wanted to write for the Pathfinder Rules Team, what’s their best bet for getting started? By the time they dare to reach out to you, want do you want to see them have done already?

Michael: So, the things I look for are-

A) An established portfolio of published work. Show me you’ve done the thing you’re looking to do for me at a professional level.

B) A professional online presence. Big rulebooks are a collaborative effort and I need people who can be respectful and work well with others.

C) Passion for and experience playing the game you’re looking to write for. I can almost always tell the difference between someone who’s just churning the formula and templates and someone who’s really finding under-supported pieces of the game that can be embellished to enhance the play experience.

D) Some evidence that you know how to read and follow an outline or similar kind of professional collaborative project instructions. With the kind of publishing we do, I already know what kinds of pieces I need and where I need them to make my book happen, so it’s critical that freelancers read and follow their assignment e-mail, outline, and milestone feedback.

Owen: Thanks, that’s a great response!

Would you recommend people doing their own projects, or working for other publishers, before they approach you? Is having a lot of smaller Paizo credits good? A few bigger 3pp or self-published projects? Both?

Michael: A diverse portfolio with a broader array of experiences is probably more appealing to me, personally, than having your entire portfolio exist within a single bucket (whether that be self-publishing, writing for a specific 3pp, etc.)

I think the broader your perspective is coming in the quicker you’ll be able to master “entry level” tasks and get entrusted with some larger or weightier pieces of content. Learning the industry through a few different vectors can help you avoid some of the more common stumbling blocks I see, especially when it comes to learning the best habits for good contract work and avoiding inheriting someone else’s bad habits.

That being said, everyone’s paths to improvement are different, and there’s nothing wrong with essentially “apprenticing” yourself to e.g. a 3pp while you learn the ropes, and as long as you’re still coming in with an open mind and a willingness to broaden your perspective and learn, having experience with one publisher instead of five or the like isn’t a deal-breaker and can have its own advantages.

Owen: Thanks, Mike! And here comes Carlos Cabrera! Heya Carlos. Lemme ask since you are here: I know you do freelance game writing and vice work. What published credits do you have, and for what game systems?

Carlos: I have worked on Pathfinder for both 1st and 2nd editions. My 1st edition work with 3PP is in Pathways #78, the Aethera Field Guide, the Mythic Character Codex, and the upcoming Kingmaker Anniversary Edition. For both systems and with Paizo directly I have worked on Borne by the Sun’s Grace, Lost Omens: Legends, the 2nd edition Advanced Player’s Guide, Pathfinder Society Quest #11: A Parchment Tree, and Ruins of the Radiant Siege. I have also done voicework in Starr Mazer DSP on Steam, Ashasar in the Pathfinder Society Special #3-99: Fate of the Future, and my likeness was used as a playable zombie survivor in State of Decay 2.

Owen: Neat! I’ve never gotten to be a zombie! What other systems are you comfortable writing for?

Carlos: If you’re listening @FFGames I would love to write something for your Star Wars RPG or Imperial Assault! I have already designed content for a home game of IA so I’m familiar with your incredible new dice system. I also have two different board game projects in development and one of them has been picked up by a publisher!

Owen: When you have your druthers, what kind of game content do you prefer to create?

Carlos: I like designing rules that can really expand the worldbuilding of a setting. Adventures or scenarios in new locations, NPCs and player options that can interact with the world in new and interesting ways, deities and the planes… really lore-defining things. In board games you generally have to keep it brief, but all of that is really up to you.

Owen: So, how did you get into games? And then into game writing?

My father got my two closest brothers and I into games at an early age with video games. I had an Intellivision system, one of my brothers a Colecovision, the other a Vectrex. After I had graduated to the NES and then the Sega Genesis, the game that made me want to be a designer at the impressionable age of 10 was Flashback: The Quest for Identity (womp womp). It was a birthday gift from my mother, so both my parents really had a hand in my chosen career.

Even though I wanted to get into video games, I broke into the industry first with writing for tabletop RPGs. I loved playing them and my imagination just didn’t stop after making characters. It took me a good 5 years of networking before my first freelance assignment. I filed Something Clever Games an LLC in 2015 and started work in 2017, so I was trying to break into the industry even before then. I haven’t given up on video games though. When I’m between assignments, I pivot back to a turn-based mobile RPG that I’ve been working on for a while.

Owen: You’ve obviously put a lot of thought and effort into your career. What expertise and study have you undertaken as part of that? 

Carlos: I made the decision to get a degree in multimedia/graphic design instead of using my mechanical drawing and architecture skills to go that route (there were also no video game schools until about halfway through). This has served me well in making maps for encounters and running campaigns, and I still enjoy making art and accessories like custom card sleeves for my games.

Owen: So, if someone is wanting to look at your work, what’s the most recent project people can check out?

Carlos: You still have a reliable couple of months to hear my voice in Pathfinder Society Special #3-99 before season 4 launches at GenCon this year. I will also be a recurring cast member for a Pathfinder 2e podcast this summer, so for that and any future announcements be sure to check out my website! (

Want to Support the Couch?!
A great way to help me be able to make connections, post advice, and make #OwenOnTheCouch useful is to send me your thoughts, questions, contact info to be publicly shared, and anything else you think might advance the conversation or help people connect. I’m happy to host publisher throughs on what they are looking for, veteran’s advice, and even post common questions people have about how to break in, move up, and manage common issues.

Or, you can just throw money at me! Easiest done through Patron, and Ko-Fi.

#OwenOnTheCouch, Part 3: Jason Keeley and Mark Seifter

Continuing this week’s #OwenOnTheCouchTheme, let’s talk to Development Manager of Starfinder at Paizo Jason Keeley (@herzwesten on Twitter), and BattleZoo Director of Games Mark Seifter (@MarkSeifter on Twitter). This is a great chance to listen and learn from industry pros!

(#OwenontheCouch, 2013)

Jason Keeley

Owen: So, Jason, if someone wants to write Starfinder content for you at @Paizo, how do they get your attention? What are you looking for in a freelancer?

Jason: *is walking by* Oh hi there! Well, for adventures, I’m generally looking for someone who has proven they can handle larger assignments (ie, being timely and the ability to inject a bit of their own ideas into a sometimes rigid outline) or has done something equally impressive.

I’m willing to try out newer freelancers for smaller assignments, though! It all depends on what the particular project needs.

Mark Seifter

Owen: Hey Mark, if someone wanted to get your attention as Director of Game Design, and maybe get work from you, what’s their best option?

Mark: So, find the Arcane Mark Discord server, join, then you can PM me on discord and I’ll add you to the list. We’re small so I don’t have a lot of opportunities at any given time, but I love to hear from freelancers.

Plus, now we have this!

Want to Support the Couch?!
A great way to help me be able to make connections, post advice, and make #OwenOnTheCouch useful is to send me your thoughts, questions, contact info to be publicly shared, and anything else you think might advance the conversation or help people connect. I’m happy to host publisher throughs on what they are looking for, veteran’s advice, and even post common questions people have about how to break in, move up, and manage common issues.

Or, you can just throw money at me! Easiest done through Patron, and Ko-Fi.

#OwenOnTheCouch, Part 2: Andrew Geels

Continuing this week’s #OwenOnTheCouchTheme, let’s talk to a freelancer, Andrew Geels (@PinBarbarian on twitter). Pretend I’m on the Couch, introducing Andrew to you, and suggesting you give him/them work. Come say hi. Ask him questions.

(Insert picture of me here)

Owen: So, @PinBarbarian, what kinds of things do you like working on the most?

@PinBarbarian: Hey Owen, thanks for asking! I love working in all sorts of gaming spaces, but I think my favorite is designing character options like feats, spells, etc. Monsters and items are fun to make, but it feels amazing when someone chooses your work to use for their whole career.

Owen: I very much made a career of doing those kinds of things from about 2001 to 2012. 🙂 What game systems are you published in? Which ones would you like to work on?

@PinBarbarian: I have published work in Pathfinder first and second edition, and there’s some Starfinder stuff that hasn’t been announced yet (though it might be this weekend!) I’ve written for. I also have lots of d&d stuff from all the way back in college, but that’s not published.

I personally really like anything fantasy, sci-fi, and steampunk/cyberpunk related. Pathfinder 2e is definitely my current favorite system, but I enjoy thinking up stuff for all sorts of games, from 5e to Iron Kingdoms to Savage Worlds!

I’m very much a crunchy-gamer, so systems with deep rulesets (e.g. Pathfinder) fit my brainspace best.


If anyone wants to get in touch with Andrew Geels, or ask him more questions, you can get hold of him on Twitter, or drop me a line (, and I’ll put you in contact.

Want to Support the Couch?!
A great way to help me be able to make connections, post advice, and make #OwenOnTheCouch useful is to send me your thoughts, questions, contact info to be publicly shared, and anything else you think might advance the conversation or help people connect. I’m happy to host publisher throughs on what they are looking for, veteran’s advice, and even post common questions people have about how to break in, move up, and manage common issues.

Or, you can just throw money at me! Easiest done through Patron, and Ko-Fi.

#OwenOnTheCouch, Part 1: J Gray

This past weekend was PaizoCon, an event I attended in person from 2014-2019, and would very much like to go to again someday in the future. For a long time it was the kickoff of Convention Season for me, and missing one held in-person whole hearing how much fun other folks were having was bittersweet.

One of the things I commonly did at conventions was sit on a couch in a hotel lobby and talk to folks. A lot of these were fans, friends, co-workers, and colleagues, of course… but a big chunk were less-experienced or just-breaking-in freelancers, and (though they were often also friends or co-workers) work-giving publishers, editors, and developers.

A lot of people told me this year both that they miss that opportunity in general, and the chance to network in particular. So, I’m going to see if I can create a virtual version of #OwenontheCouch in social media, posting results on my blog and perhaps even holding a virtual event sometime during Origins and/or Gen Con. This week will mostly be Couch content, as I am still recovering from the flu.

The lobby couch I traditionally used during PaizoCon has apparently been removed during the pandemic, and my pals at Legendary Games were kind enough to create this memorial at the site of the original couch.

So please welcome J Gray to the couch! He wrote these observations back in 2016, and since has gone on to work for R. Talsorian Games. A number of industry professionals have noted how accurate these observations are, and I consider them well worth reading.

Five Things I’ve Learned As a 3pp Freelancer
I’ve been a freelance RPG professional, almost entirely for 3pp Pathfinder products, for over a year now. I’ve had the chance to work with several different companies and have written, developed, edited, beta read, or done layout on several books (some out for sale, some not yet out). While I haven’t been at this gig for as long as most of the folk I admire in the field, I think I’ve got enough experience under my belt to have learned a thing or five.

    While there are exceptions, if you’ve got few credits to your name and no real relationships with publishers no one is going to come to you and ask you to write Ultimate Splatfinder Adventures 5. You need to go out there and find the work. Enter the Paizo Superstar Contest for practice. Send articles to Wayfinder to build up a resume. Pay attention to the forums where publishers advertise for writers (such as the Paizo 3pp forum). And don’t be afraid to send in a query or a pitch to a publisher if you think you’ve got an idea that will work for them. You need to find your work. The work won’t find you.
    Most 3pp publishers run their company as a hobby or a second job. They’ve already got a 9-5 of some kind. Those who are doing the gaming gig full time are probably running herd on a dozen projects (if not more!) at once for their own company AND working on something for other companies as well. Add to that family, friends, and the occasional social activity and they are probably sleep-deprived and busy as hell. If a publisher isn’t getting back to you right away, chances are it is because that person is busy not because they are rude. Have patience. If you haven’t gotten a response, wait a week or maybe even two and then send a polite follow-up email asking if they got your previous email. Don’t spam the hell out of them.
    Or, put another way, use your freaking manners people! Here’s the truth. There are many, many 3pp writers out there and unless your name is Monte Cooke or Owen KC Stephens, chances are your desire to make RPG material is greater than a publisher’s need to have YOU, in specific, make RPG material. Confidence is awesome! You should totally have it but the best way to approach any publisher is to mind your Ps and Qs, say please and thank you, and follow any confidence cocktail with a nice chaser of humility. Go in thinking you’re the cat’s meow or believing that you can follow your rules instead of the publisher’s rules and chances are all you’ll get is a “No, thank you, we’re not interested in working with you.”
    I don’t mean the game rules here. Obviously, any RPG writer should know the rules for the system being written for. Instead, I mean know the rules for writing for a publisher or system. Many publishers have guidelines that they will happily share with their writers. Read them. Follow them. Many publishers have specific workflow procedures. Ask about them. Follow them. I CANNOT STRESS HOW IMPORTANT THIS IS! If the publisher uses Google Docs on projects YOU use Google Docs on projects. You conform to the publisher’s guidelines and workflow and not the other way around. Respect their process. Also, know “system standard”. Fans of an RPG system get used to things being written in a certain way and when those things aren’t written in a certain way, it breaks their flow of reading and devalues their appreciation of a book. For example, if a system’s standard format is “Each character should make a Difficulty 20 Bagpipe skill check.” don’t write “Each character should make a bagpipe skill roll, DC 20.” Capitalize the terms that should be capitalized and use the right terms.
    Based on my experience, here’s how workflow tends to go in RPG writing. First, you brainstorm the idea. Second, you write what you’re going to write using whatever process you use until it is done and submitted to the publisher. Third, the editor (or editors) edits and might ask you to make changes or just might make the changes themselves based on their experience, knowledge, and preference. Fourth, your work will be beta/playtested and further changes might be suggested. Fifth, the editor (or editors) might make further changes based on feedback from the previous stage. Sixth, there’s layout and production and all that jazz. So, let me reiterate here. WHAT YOU WRITE ISN’T WHAT WILL BE PUBLISHED. This means fluff will be changed. This means crunch will be changed. It might only be a few words that change or it might seem like the item was entirely rewritten. Why? Because no one’s work is perfect. Because the editor’s job is to see the big picture and make sure your work fits into that big picture. Because the beta readers found a flaw or a loophole that needs to be closed. Because your cool magic doodad is too close to someone else’s magic doodad. Because they freaking felt like it and that’s their job and you need to live with it. If your first instinct upon finding out someone edited your precious baby is a burning sensation in your gut and the desire to post on Facebook about how much it sucks? Learn to check your damn ego or consider getting out of the business. Because that’s how it works.

Want to Support the Couch?!
A great way to help me be able to make connections, post advice, and make #OwenOnTheCouch useful is to send me your thoughts, questions, contact info to be publicly shared, and anything else you think might advance the conversation or help people connect. I’m happy to host publisher throughs on what they are looking for, veteran’s advice, and even post common questions people have about how to break in, move up, and manage common issues.

Or, you can just throw money at me! Easiest done through Patron, and Ko-Fi.

Creative Resources Online

Today, I’m just listing some online resources I find useful, and other gamers. GMs, and creators might as well. I may expand this list as time goes on, in which case I’ll link back to it when it gets updates.

As always, I am not a lawyer. This is not legal advice. Read terms and conditions of any resource you sue for commercial products.

Gold Standard
These are the very best of their kind. The gold standard of usefulness, in my opinion.

Dictionary of Medieval Names from European Sources ( – This is just what is says on the tin. The list is long, and hyperlinked to definitions, origins, and atributions.

Dyson Logos’ Commercial Maps ( – A huge, amazing repository of excellent maps by Dyson Logos that have free, commercial licenses attached to them. Read the license and understand it before use (i am not a lawyer, this is not legal advice), but if you need a city, tavern, dungeon, castle, and much, much more either for your game tomorrow night, or your product you want to sell without incurring cartography costs, this is an amazing place to start.

The Encyclopedia of Pulp Heroes: The Online Edition, by Jess Nevins ( – Jess Nevins is a true scholar of entire forms of fiction I adore, including Victoriana, Pulp Stories, and more. This is an amazing list of pulp fiction characters, as well as important introductions, descriptions of archetypes, cross-referencing, and so on. For inspiration or a better understanding of the genre, this is an invaluable resource. (His Encyclopedia of Golden Age Heroes is nearly as good, and a valuable companion piece, but is not as finished as the pulp encyclopedia. And , of course, he has numerous published books as well, and a range of similar subjects, most of which are in my cloud reader and a few of which are on my physical bookshelves.

OneLook Dictionary Search ( – I don’t care about the definitions section of this. What’s amazing is the ability to enter a word and click the “related” button. That provides a list of words that are, somehow, related to the search term. Not synonyms (necessarily), but words that share some kind of link to your search word. Searching for words related to “death” gets you executioner, tomb, slaughterhouse, and so on. The utility for when I want words tied to a theme for spells, hero names, groups, magic items, archetypes, and so on is huge.

Almost as useful is the * before or after searches (such as death*), which give you words and phrases that start with or end with your search term. death*, for example gets you death’s head, death throes, and more. And, you can click through the examples to find out what they mean and/or where they come from.

There are tons of search options and ways to organize and sort the results, so spend some time reading the site and trying out options.

My Patreon and Ko-Fi

Speaking of resources, the tons of material I have on this site is supported by the members of my Patreon, and cups of donation to my Ko-Fi. So, if any of the links above open a new world of options for you, please consider supporting my current and future efforts to bring you more!

An Essay From Matt Daley

A Foreword:

One of the things I do is offer my platform to other gamers and creatives as a place they can have their words hosted and, potentially, given broader exposure. Matt Daley asked me if I would post this for him, and after talking with him a bit I agreed.

I’m not hosting it because I agree with or endorse everything Matt has to say here. But I absolutely see his point, and I consider it well-reasoned and supported. It’s not a context through which I have ever looked at any RPG setting, and that itself is enough for me to want to take it seriously and give it due weight. It’s easy for worldbuilders and game writers to only consider the impact of their choices through the context of their own experiences. From my point of view, Matt’s most important point in this is that creating a fictional cosmology that reinforces the ideas behind some real-world manipulative behavior can have consequences the creators likely never considered.

And that’s worth thinking about.

-Owen K.C. Stephens

Abusive Christianity Tropes in Tabletop RPGs

Content Warning: discussion of afterlife, absolute morality, and gods as they pertain to abusive practices. Those who are struggle with these issues are advised to use discretion about this article and to take care of themselves as they feel necessary.

I am somebody who has found great solace in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game over the last decade of my life. I have played with friends on the weekly for years, pored over the rulebooks and lore for countless hours, and even written a number of rules supplements for the game. I love the game, the community, and my fellow game authors, and I write this in the interest of improving the game and fixing several longstanding issues which have alienated myself and others from the inclusive environment which I know that many Pathfinder developers are actively working to foster. This piece is not meant as a takedown or smear against Paizo, Pathfinder, or any particular author. My ultimate intent is to reveal and explain the issues within the text so that they can be amended. While my concerns are not exclusive to this game or company, I have chosen Pathfinder as the subject of this exploration because it is the game with which I am most familiar and where these concerns have become the most prominent in my mind.

I come from a conservative Catholic background, one which stressed service and obedience as the highest virtues and was generally indiscriminate about belittlement, bigotry, and physical/mental abuse. I remember how quickly my school, family or church would point to scripture or tradition to justify cruelty, manipulation, or disdain. I don’t owe anyone my life story, nor do I think that it’s of particular interest to any of you, but I will say that I led a life where I believed violence or misfortune could be inflicted on me with divine mandate the moment I let my defenses slip. I garbed myself in the same hostile and judgemental “righteousness” which I believed that my family and my god wanted from me. 

My deconstruction of these beliefs has been a long and painful process, and tabletop RPGs have been a solace throughout this experience. My Pathfinder groups gave me a community which I could safely confide in and a place where I could be emphatic and vulnerable without feeling broken, humiliated, or sinful. This wasn’t to say that I didn’t feel trepidation at times (I was scared to open the Monster Manual to any page on devils whenever a cross was mounted on the wall), but I do believe that gaming helped me build the emotional health necessary for my deconstruction. 

This experience has made me rather vigilant to a particular trend in gaming lore, that being the unironic and unexamined repetition of conservative Christianity’s more toxic elements within the mythology of Golarion. When digging into the latest Pathfinder book, it is common to see my trauma responses re-ignite when certain hostilities from my youth are not only repeated, but explicitly coded as objective elements within good- or neutral-aligned faiths. I have decided to catalog the most egregious and noteworthy of these trends across Pathfinder’s recent publications in the interest of bringing these concerns to light and showing how they could be written with a more empathetic inclination in the future. 

Throughout this piece, I’ll be using the term “deconstructor” to refer broadly to those who have left Christianity. This category covers atheists, agnostics, and those who have moved on to a new faith or spiritual practice. Despite divergent theological and philosophical views, these groups share many experiences in leaving Christianity and are often categorized together in Christian conversation.

For the sake of fairness, I’ll be covering only books which have been released within the last few years of Pathfinder’s publication. The culture of gaming has changed a great deal in recent years, and while a number of concerning elements can be found in older books I believe that it would be fairer and more valuable to analyze recent releases. Similarly, I will not be calling out specific authors in this post, as I feel that to do so would create undue pressure which would inhibit the change I want to see in the game. The books I will be referencing are as follows:

Pathfinder Campaign Setting: Concordance of Rivals © 2019

Bestiary 3 © 2021

Pathfinder Lost Omens: Gods and Magic © 2021

Pathfinder Lost Omens World Guide © 2020

Pathfinder Adventure Path #136: Temple of the Peacock Spirit © 2018

Section 1: Deconstruction as Malicious Conspiracy

One of the first parallels between Pathfinder’s lore and conservative Christianity is the notion of deconstruction or atheism as being the product of evil machinations. Questioning one’s faith is not viewed as a natural line of questioning but rather as a sabotage attempt by a secular conspirator or even a demon/devil of some sort. Pathfinder has designed several creatures which are designed specifically to fulfill this role: The Asura and the Deimavigga from Second Edition’s Bestiary 3 (a conversion from several other older books). The Deimavigga is described as using lies and mental magic to sow doubt in the minds of believers, a refrain which I have seen used by preachers on numerous occasions. Although the Deimavigga’s reasons are not spelled out in its lore, the intention behind their actions seems to be built on an unspoken assumption that those who deconstruct their faith are somehow more inclined towards thoughts and acts which the setting deems to be objectively evil (although the nature of alignment is an issue which I will explore in another section). The Asura, meanwhile, are written as explicitly interested in destroying religious faiths, using their appearance-altering abilities to pose as questioning children or dissenting religious scholars. Satanic involvement has long been an excuse for Christians to castigate or threaten congregation members, and the Asura’s existence presents such abuse as a legitimate and necessary defense of the faith. 

Doubly concerning is that these lapses in faith seem to justify acts of force from higher powers, as if the process of questioning one’s faith invalidates the free will which the gods of Golarion seem inclined to protect. Page 8 of Gods and Magic describes how PCs experiencing a crisis of faith will often be visited by emissaries of various gods who will attempt to convert them, an environment which paints Golarion’s deities as mimicking evangelists who take advantage of those in need to win converts. Later on, the same book discusses how service to a deity is seemingly required for one to continue existence in any sort of afterlife (which, incidentally, contradicts statements made in Temple of the Peacock Spirit about heretics being turned into Asura). The demigod Ceyannan from Concordance of Rivals carries a weapon which is described as “capable of dragging out the faith any mortal soul holds for a god”, a description which seems to give cosmic approval to the act of browbeating deconstructors until they return to the fold. Phlegyas, meanwhile, is a demigod described as the “Consoler of Atheists” who was seemingly brought into Pharasma’s service against her will and now works to transform “godless souls” into servants of the goddess of death. These trappings of the Golarion setting, presented as factual within the world of the book, replicate the harshest sentiments of conservative preachers: that deconstruction and doubt are the products of evil manipulators and that the proper recourse for “redeeming” those who question their faith involves bludgeoning, aweing, or otherwise intimidating them until they slink back into the fold. The higher powers of Golarion, at the behest of the authors who write them, affirm practices of real-life religious abuse as a necessity for protecting the cosmos from the supposed dangers of deconstruction. 

Compounding upon all of this is victim-blaming lore of Bestiary 3’s Abandoned Zealots, undead horrors who are created from devout souls who spent their life worshiping a nonexistent god or who worshiped in a manner their god does not approve of (the latter, as the book points out, tends to come from the direct involvement of a Deimavigga). The Abandoned Zealot’s offensive abilities (Rend Faith and Crisis of Faith) are based on inhibiting the divine magic of other creatures, while its primary weakness (Anathematic Aversion) is to respond as if traumatized when it encounters a holy symbol. Although the terminology of the Abandoned Zealot is specific to Golarion, the premise of punishing non-Christians or “impure” followers is mirrored in conservative Christian circles. The elements of enviously destroying divine magic and recoiling from holy symbols also link Abandoned Zealots to Christian perceptions of those who have been abused or traumatized by the church (viewing us as trying to ruin the faith for others and believing that we can be “defeated” by religious invocation because we still ultimately belong to the church). 

On a macro scale, these are all worrisome pieces of worldbuilding, elements which (intentionally or not) encode conservative Christian ideology in what is purported to be a pantheistic fantasy world. The affirmations and fears of conservative Christianity are written into Golarion as fact, creating an environment where many deconstructors see the tools of their religious abusers justified. When these elements are made universal to the setting and a part of the fundamental process of Golarion’s background, enjoying the fantasy experience becomes a much more difficult task than it should be. Paizo’s depictions of deconstructors themselves is unfortunately no better.

Section 2: Uncharitable and Misinformed Depictions of Deconstructors

The Golarion setting includes a number of characters who are critical of religion, but their approach in representing them appears misguided. Rather than working to dispel the implications established in the previous section, the descriptions within the Lost Omens World Guild and Lost Omens: Gods & Magic seem to fortify several stereotypes from conservative Christianity about deconstructors. Namely, those who leave a faith behind are socially isolated and question their faith due to pressures from an outside world. Gods and Magic has a section on “Atheists and Free Agents” which discusses such people within Golarion, but is quick to bring up that they are only common in harsh authoritarian regimes with widespread bans on religion. Other Free Agent organizations mentioned include the Prophets of Kalistrade (a Ferengi-esque culture which is seemingly written to be the butt of jokes) and the Green Faith (which is described elsewhere in the book as a form of nature worship). The book then goes on to describe these groups as exceptions, stating that “most free agents on Golarion are loners”. The section goes on to make several points which are reasonable and charitable, such as stating the Free Agents may find gods unworthy of worship or may find meaning and belonging through themselves and their fellow mortals. However, the same section applies common misconceptions from Christian apologetics, such as the notion that Free Agents refuse to worship out of anger towards the gods and the recreation of The Brothers Karamazov’s famous line “If there is no god, then everything is permitted”. Furthermore, the section works to cage statements of “free agents aren’t amoral” and “free agents genuinely don’t possess faith in a god” as being matters of opinion, leaving open the viability of more common and toxic Christian apologetics within Golarion.

Rahadoum is a nation within Golarion which is immensely cynical about divine intervention due to its history of holy wars. The country’s opposition to divine servitude is enshrined in a legal code known as The Laws of Mortality. While the existence of such a nation holds promise for compelling commentary, Rahadoum’s lore falls comically flat in execution. Across Lost Omens World Guide and Gods and Magic, the country has a disproportionate wordcount dedicated to violence or intrusion against the faithful, a trend which is scarcely paralleled with other countries or belief systems in Golarion. A nation known for its universities is described as having “dockside propagandists” pushing passerby into leaving their faith, a description which seems to come right out of conservative scare tactics regarding higher education. Where this characterization pushes into genuine absurdity is the Pure Legion, a police force which is dedicated to destroying every religious item or scripture which people bring into the nation. The Laws of Mortality even list “expose and eradicate hidden worship” as a fundamental edict, presenting this ridiculous action as an end unto itself within the philosophy. Granted, while religious persecution has occurred throughout history and has been carried out by avowedly atheist nations, the descriptions of Rahadoum and the Pure Legion mirror the persecution complexes of many conservative Christians, who fabricate threats of secular enemies seeking to actively destroy their worship. The mentions of Rahadoumi people refusing magical healing from divine spells and their futile “proselytizing” towards theists (a word which is used only once more in the book, when it is explained as something which is not done) seem to draw more heavily from insults made by Christians towards deconstructors than from any activity by actual people. To expand these concerns further, Temple of the Peacock Spirit mentions that Rahadoum is being propped up by an aforementioned Asura, 

Section 3: The Euthyphro Dilemma: Morality Dictated by Divinity

The matter of morality’s source has been a contested topic in real life and gaming alike for as long as people could exchange ideas. D&D’s Planescape setting in particular had developed and nuanced takes on how even the icons of good and evil could be reshaped through the power of belief. Pathfinder, within the context of it’s setting, gives a clear answer to the Euthyphro Dilemma on page 16 of Concordance of Rivals, which describes deities as “beings whose existence defines morality.” In this context, virtue and vice are defined by the gods and any mortal theorization is irrelevant. Acts are considered good on Golarion because they are in accordance with the will of good-aligned gods (or, more specifically, those gods that Pharasma labels as good-aligned) and are considered evil because they are proscribed by those same gods. All moral matters are reduced to a yes or no answer from a deity who need not provide any justification for their explanation. Having stated this, the authors of Paizo must now choose between the impossible task of creating a perfect system of morality and designing a world where virtue is dictated by beings by those too strong to be questioned. The fact that the gods have such an extensive list of edicts means that Paizo, like many conservative churches, has decided to create a universe where morals are dictated by unimpeachable force and the interests of those who bear it. For somebody who grew up in one such Christian environment, a fantasy world which explicitly operates by power-based morals brings about memories of extensive abuse: parents, teachers, and church leaders who justify callous acts as righteous because their targets lack the capacity to retaliate. This dogmatic approach to virtue is also used in real life to vindicate extremists, assuring them that the words of their holy book or minister are capable of justifying any means for their ends. 

There are beings who question the morality of the gods in various Paizo books, but these beings are almost invariably portrayed as being evil. Temple of the Peacock Spirit provides a sample conversation with Zurea, an evil cleric who justifies her faith by stating her (verifiably incorrect) theory that good and evil were created by mortals. Immediately afterwards, Zurea changes the subject by pressuring the PCs to join her faith, a conversation which is intended to end with the PCs killing her (she is described as fighting to the death in her tactics section). The same adventure provides extensive detail on the aforementioned Asura, elaborating on their origins by explaining how each type of Asura originated from a mistake, accident, or betrayal perpetrated by some manner of god. There are times when the article seems to sympathize with the Asura, discussing their origins as “impossible standards,” “punishment that exceeded its crime”, and “experiences of abuse”. The majority of the article, however, seems dedicated to depicting the Asura as obsessive, hateful, and outraged beings with ruinous ambitions and a need for “redemption”. The stories of the Asura pose legitimate grievances with the acts of gods, but at no point does the article question the supreme moral authority of the gods. The Asura, by the virtue of challenging the legitimacy of divinely-ordained morals, are depicted as invariably evil creatures who should be fought and stopped wherever they emerge. Like a number of church congregations, the gods of Pathfinder seem to view even legitimate grievances as threats which must be stomped out.

This vision of absolute and unquestionable morality is periodically juxtaposed with materials derived from the works of H.P. Lovecraft, an author who was openly critical of religion and human understandings of morality. Powerful entities from the stories of Lovecraft and his contemporaries are presented as alternatives to other deities in Gods and Magic, the book describing how reverence to these beings displays a certainty in the universe’s meaninglessness. The authors display such worshippers as inevitably debauched, stating that “because life has no meaning or purpose, self-indulgence and nihilism are the only rational responses.” While the existence of powerful entities outside the purview of the gods creates somewhat of an antithesis to their authoritarian morality, the setting presents this dichotomy as having an objectively correct answer. Reverence of the Great Old Ones or Outer Gods is presented as inevitably leading to a worthless and empty existence, an option that no sensible person would take. As this is the only alternative presented to the system of alignment enshrined by divinity, Paizo seems to follow the lead of Christian leaders who affirm that their teachings are the only path to meaning and fulfillment.

Section 4: Fixing These Issues

The concerns I have discussed here should not be interpreted as a mean-spirited takedown of Paizo or Pathfinder. As I have mentioned previously, playing Pathfinder helped me to work through my difficult deconstruction process. That said, the numerous parallels between the faith I am working to escape from and the fantasy world which I periodically escape into had made my forays into Golarion rather disquieting and unpleasant. I wholeheartedly support a more inclusive and socially conscious gaming scene, and I believe that Paizo and its game designers share my interests in this goal. My hope with this essay is that it will expose the conservative Christian elements which have (intentionally or not) come to shape the world of Golarion, explain the experiences of abuse such elements elicit, and offer alternatives to make the material more welcoming to people like me who are working to heal from Christianity-induced religious trauma. Hence, presented below are a number of suggestions which could be implemented in future releases or GMs’ personal campaigns to resolve these concerns.

Total Removal of Alignment

A number of games and tables have worked to remove alignment as a factor, and doing so could alleviate the anxiety folks like me experience regarding absolute, authority-based morality. Gods could be recontextualized as each doing what they think is proper for the universe without Pharasma or the authors trying to entrap characters in a binary of good and evil. Gods in this context are no longer sources or barometers of morality, simply powerful beings with desires they wish to fulfill. This setup gives recourse for characters to question the rules of deities and oppose the roles they fill in the universe without being immediately devalued as “evil”. It also opens up more compelling opportunities for interfaith conflict and debate while also leaving room for each deity and faith to be criticized. Maybe gods and their followers even recognize that those outside their own congregation could have a point, adapting their positions in light of cultural shifts. 

This solution would require some mechanical changes to the game, mainly through reworking the Champion and Cleric classes. Alignment-related options would have to be reworked or replaced, but I feel that these changes would be for the better. Such adjustment would expand the potential options of friend and foe within any given adventure, opening up many new opportunities for stories. It would also force players and GMs to give legitimate reasons behind their support or hostility rather than simply stating “this faction is good/evil”.

Virtue Shaped By Mortals

If removing alignment completely isn’t to one’s liking, another option would be to emulate the fluid and belief-based morality of D&D’s Planescape books. In this setting, gods are not good because their existence defines good, but rather because their behaviors and tenets coincide with beliefs of virtue (such as selflessness, compassion, and redemption) that are held by mortals. The nature of a deity can thus be shifted by the methods of how they are revered, as opposed to deities turning “incorrect” worshippers into undead monsters. In this context, ideas of good and evil exist independent of the deities and are not something that the gods are capable of overriding or asserting dominance over. One could argue that the Pathfinder deities operate like this already within the context of the game, with Erastil, Sarenrae, and Groetus all having their dogmas and roles quietly changed by writers as new books were released. Recontextualizing gods as striving for some manner of good rather than imposing the structures of good could go a long way towards distancing their presence in the game from the experienced abuse of deconstructors. Having gods fail at their pursuit of morality and acknowledge when mortals know their own needs better than a deity would be even better. If a deity steps out of line by trying to overrule mortalkind, maybe that deity would be weakened as the god’s exposed objectives diverge from the works and values of their following.

More importantly, it would be wonderful to see examples of people and cultures finding fulfillment and good outside of the scope of the gods. Paizo could show characters who view godly morality as pointless but still live positive and fulfilled lives. Social clubs and charity organizations could be run independent of the purview of any deity. Cities could be built without churches and populated by Free Agents who are confident enough in their knowledge of their surroundings to provide for themselves. Acknowledgement that there are people who truly have no faith in the gods and are happy and helpful because of their freedom rather than despite it. Moreover, design these characters and groups so that they aren’t anomalies or wonders, just normal and accepted parts of the world.

Asura Rewrites

The mythology of Asura in Pathfinder seems explicitly designed to validate conservative Christian paranoia and legitimize the abuses they perform out of fear. In addition to that, their condemnation as innately evil for having suffered the abuses of the gods is an insult to those who have endured religious abuse in some form. Opening the game up to deconstructors would demand drastic changes to these creatures and their stories. 

If one wishes to keep Asura as villains, then perhaps their fiendish goals and methods could be redesigned. The Asura in the games I’ve run are written as clinging to dead stories and ideologies, seeking to resurrect notions of heroism and virtue which the world has moved on from. They embody classical aspirations and morals which modernity understands to be cruel or ineffectual, and thus they work to re-establish faulty ancient traditions by murdering and silencing those who they view as representing modern values. In this context, their acts of meditation, hunger for violence, and appreciation for ruins remain, but their villainy is no longer directed at innocents.

Alternatively, the Asura could be legitimized within Golarion, covering every alignment in their mission to expose the hypocrisies and tyrannies of the gods. There are plenty of reasons to question the merits of even the most good-aligned gods, and Asura could become patrons of such opposition. Imagine a neutral good Asura who organize therapy sessions or planar safehouses for those harmed by deities and their followers, a lawful good Asura who protects a community targeted by a church, or a chaotic good Asura who pursues clerics and outsiders who mistreat their followers. Asura Ranas could grant spells not to worshippers, but rather allies who are fighting the good fight against oppressive deities. With those sorts of planar allies, deconstructors could find a place for their experiences within the Golarion setting.

Deimaviggas should likewise be rewritten, but could perhaps serve as more compelling allies of the gods rather than enemies. The Deimavigga could use lies and manipulations to keep people trapped within a toxic congregation, repeating mantras of damnation and helplessness in order to convince people that they need the god or church which is hurting them. This would certainly fit with Asmodeus’ ideology and with the point Mark Twain originally intended when authoring “The Mysterious Stranger” (which seemingly inspired these devils’ design).

Rewriting Rahadoum and Free Agents

When the most prominent culture with religious criticism in a setting is written as an irrationally fanatical state who seeks and destroys all holy texts, it is difficult for deconstructors to view the authors as anything but hostile. As mentioned before, Rahadoum has the potential to be a compelling and commentary-filled nation, but establishing such nuance would require adjustment of existing lore in addition to establishment of new pieces. Elements such as Rahadoumi being afraid of healing magic and exiling people for possession of holy texts can be removed, as these aspects are seemingly intended to make the nation and philosophy look absurd (not to mention contradicting the statement from Lost Omens World Guide that private worship is permitted within Rahadoum). Similarly, “dockside propagandists” who press people into rejecting their gods on soapboxes can be thrown out as a premise. The Pure Legion can be kept, but they should be given something to fight against rather than being used as a random and deadly hazard for brutalizing religious PCs. The Laws of Mortality were shaped by a holy war between Nethys, Norgorber, and Sarenrae, so perhaps each of these faiths is serving as a powerful and dangerous element within Rahadoum (Nethys and Sarenrae in particular have ties to the nation’s former conquerors, so it would make sense to see them pressing for the re-integration or invasion of governments the Rahadoumi would sooner avoid). Rahadoum is apparently known for their philosophers, so maybe the Pure Legion also serves to protect traveling scholars when they go to speak outside the country (after all, a number of churches would be very upset about a foreigner telling their congregation that there are other paths to fulfillment). Maybe the churches of Sarenrae, Asmodeus, and Nethys have deliberately spread lies about the Pure Legion and the Rahadoumi people, coming up with concerning aspects of the lore in order to limit Rahadoum’s influence or justify military action. As for the Rahadoumi people themselves, it would be interesting to see their practical reasons for adhering to the Laws of Mortality. Maybe these people see no need for churches because government welfare programs and strong social networks provide for them without demanding tithes or loyalty pledges. Perhaps the gods could be vocal about hating the Laws of Mortality, but they know that simply smiting Rahadoum would only prove the populace correct.

Expanding the scope to a cosmic level, perhaps places could be established for Free Agents in the Outer Planes. Those who oppose the gods will likely still have convictions they wish to fight for as exemplars, so giving groups such people their own domains in each of the aligned planes would solidify them as equal and valid players in the great cosmic game. Authors could go one step further and allow people to actually choose their own afterlife rather than having their fates be decided by Pharasma. The lower planes would still be filled by those who believe that a cruel environment would make them stronger or wiser or whose self-loathing drives them seek out misery (in addition to characters who were pulled down by Faustian bargains), but allowing mortals to decide for themselves what faction they wish to join in the afterlife would force each god to make more compelling arguments for why their ideals should be followed. Such a choice would also support the alleged dedication to free will which deities are described as having in Gods and Magic.

Divinity as Grand Manipulators

My last idea for freeing Golarion from conservative Christian ideology has been used in my own games and doesn’t involve changing anything in the existing lore. The gods still wield unquestionable moral authority, shape the cosmos, and target questioners and deconstructors with various abuses and indignities. In this conception, however, the gods are not presented as fundamental forces but rather as powerful adversaries, akin to the True Fae in Changeling: The Lost. Adventuring in such a setting is a gnostic exercise in finding value outside of material existence, discovering meaning and preserving what you love as you are threatened on all sides by malicious and nigh-omnipotent entities who view you as a plaything or tool of validation. Maybe the gods don’t occupy all of existence and there exist beings who are attempting to subvert their rule by rescuing the mortals imprisoned within their influence, or perhaps the gods are desperately clinging to their power and work to conceal the ease with which they could be overthrown. Such a setup creates a very different fantasy environment from Pathfinder’s themes and is thus the least likely to be implemented in any official capacity, but could be a very functional solution for one’s table.

Section 5: Conclusion

I hope this piece of writing has been revealing, informative, or possibly therapeutic to readers. Should any of Paizo’s authors read this piece, I hope that the ideas, concerns, and changes discussed herein can be implemented in future Pathfinder materials. I want to see the game and the TTRPG industry improve in acknowledging and accommodating the experiences of people who have left Christianity and those who are still trying to leave, and I believe that spreading awareness of the concerns and triggers which have made their way into Pathfinder is an important step in realizing that goal. 

-Matt Daley

This post is an editorial, and it not included in the content of this blog released under the Open Gaming License

Retrospective, The Past (Nearly) Decade

Roughly nine years ago, I began working with Green Ronin on-staff rather than as a freelancer. They very quickly became some of the people I trust most and love most fiercely in this industry. I’ve been a Ronin, on and off, ever since. I have learned more from them than I can ever explain, and if you enjoy anything I’ve made since 2013, no matter who published it, the Ronins get some of the credit.

Exactly eight years ago (to the hour), Lj and I packed up our household and moved to the Pacific Northwest, so I could work at Paizo Inc. I wanted to spend time with yet more of the greatest creatives in the world, and I have no regrets in that department. I wish I had handled some things differently, and that housing costs hadn’t grown at a rate I didn’t conceive of, but the people I got to know, friends and family-of-choice I made, and the projects I got to be part of are among my greatest joys even today.

Roughly three years ago, we left for Indiana, for a lower-stress, lower-cost-of-living career move. That didn’t go as planned, but given the friends I made, I can’t find it in me to regret it.

Roughly two years ago, during the pandemic, we moved back home to Oklahoma. That was never the plan, and in many ways it felt like total failure on my part. But it’s also where my family and the friends I’ve known for 40 years and more live, and being home as the world churns has helped keep me sane.

I don’t know what the next chapters will be. They won’t be anything I imagined 8 years ago. I’d love to find a full-time steady remote game industry job with benefits… but I’m not counting on unicorns.

If you’d like to help me make ends meet as I try to keep making games and helping people, you can join my Patreon, drop a cup of support in my Ko-Fi, or both. 🙂