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#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 (https://carloscabrera.carrd.co/).

(#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! (http://somethingclevergames.com)

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 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.

  1. THE WORK WON’T COME TO YOU
    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.
  2. PUBLISHERS ARE BUSY PEOPLE
    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.
  3. YOU AREN’T THAT SPECIAL
    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.”
  4. KNOW THE RULES
    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.
  5. WHAT YOU WRITE ISN’T WHAT WILL BE PUBLISHED
    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 (https://dmnes.org/names) – This is just what is says on the tin. The list is long, and hyperlinked to definitions, origins, and atributions.

Dyson Logos’ Commercial Maps (https://dysonlogos.blog/maps/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 (http://jessnevins.com/pulp/introduction.html) – 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 (https://www.onelook.com/) – 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. 🙂

A Sucking Maw of Pain and Anxiety (A WFH/Recent Game Industry Trends Retrspective)

Working from home isn’t for everyone, but prior to the pandemic, it was great for me. The problem now is that *everything* is remote. No conventions or casual get-togethers. By the time I do every meeting I *have* to have on zoom, I am too burned out to do remote brainstorming.

There are also problems some people attribute to wfh that, at least for me, aren’t about that. Before when I would do wfh, no one expected me to reply to chats and emails in a quick timeframe. Now, if 15 minutes go past, they wonder where I am. If 7 people ping me at once They aren’t all 7 going to get me attention in 15 minutes. If one of those things is an emergency, the others have to wait. But no one is putting reply expectations in writing. They appear to just seethe, wondering if I am *really* working.

(Note that most of my wfh is contract and freelance, but I have heard it’s even worse for people doing wfh for a single company, most of which seem to have 3 to 4 different ways to communicate remotely, and no system for keeping the volume managable.)

And current work conditions are hampered by things well beyond wfh. For example, more of my friends and colleagues are depressed and in real, dangerous pain than ever before. (So am I.) That mostly isn’t about lack of socialization or in-person meetings. Instead, it’s a response to grief, loss of both actual beloved people and lifestyle options that have ended. It’s a side-effect of loss of faith in humanity overall. And it’s stress dealing with endless uncertainty.

In the tabletop RPG industry in the US, no one feels particularly secure. Small and mid-tier companies could go under with one more shipment being delayed, even when shipping within the US. At bigger companies, layoffs are an ever-present specter.

I’ve had people say “Look, I understand *some* delay, but why is project XX two years late?! Does working from home not work?”

Well, no. It’s because being creative has been a sucking maw of pain and anxiety for more than two years.

“Can’t you just ignore other people’s pain and suffering and calls for help to spend more time working on the game product I want?”

No. I can’t.

And I don’t think I want to work with anyone who can.

And even if I could bring myself to try, the resulting depression that would hit me for abandoning people who crush any protectivity the extra hours were supposed to produce.

No writer, no editor, no publisher, no customer service representative in gaming (or any creative endeavor) is at full capacity atm. I presume the same is true of lots of other fields, but this is the one where people come to me for help and advice.

And the reduced ability in quantity, quality, and responsiveness has fuck-all to do with if they are in an office or not. And if the pandemic totally ended today, it’d be a year or more before they all recovered. And most of them can’t say this, for fear of losing customers.

From Publishers to Assistant Word Miners, from ttRPGs to novels, retail, delivery, medicine — people need to be cut some slack. It sucks, and it cannot and will not be fixed quickly, and it’s not because anyone is malingering.

Thanks for reading to the bottom of my long-ass post.

Support Some Folks!

Normally, this is where I post links to my Ko-Fi and Patreon, and talk about how helpful it is to back them.

But not today.
Today, I am highlighting other people and groups. Because if you want gaming to survive, you need to give what support you can. That might be financial. Or it might be boosting the reach of these means of supporting others.

Mutants & Masterminds Patreon
“Every week, you’ll receive an updated Hero Lab and PDF of a fan-favorite M&M character!” You can also support Green Ronin by buying things at the Green Ronin Store.

Know Direction Patreon
“The award-winning Know Direction Network has news, reviews, and interviews. We have provided over 500 hours of original podcast content, over 300 hours of convention coverage, and over 800 articles from a decorated team of bloggers, including prolific Pathfinder freelancers, a hugely successful third party publisher, and an RPG Superstar winner.

We want to do more. We have plans for additional audio, video, and blog content. We want to get more staff to more conventions. And we want to coat everything we release with a more professional varnish. However, we pay for most of our material out of pocket, and it’s hard to find the funds for these projects. “

Open Gaming Network
“The Open Gaming Network is a family of wiki-like rules reference websites for various Open Gaming Licensed game systems, or similarly-licensed RPG systems.” They have a Patreon. Also, you can support the OGN, and a lot of companies, by shopping at the Open Gaming Store!

Isabelle Thorne (aka Kindalara) is a writer, editor, and creator. I’ve worked with her many times, and am a big fan of her creativity and skill. She has a Ko-Fi, and a Patreon as “Thorny Rose Gaming.” She absolutely deserves your support.

Steve Kenson is creating Icons Superpowered Roleplaying Content.

Joshua Hennington is an up-and-coming freelance writer of tabletop role-playing game content; he’s written for several accredited publishing companies, from Paizo Publishing to Rogue Genius Games, Everyman Gaming, Rite Publishing and more!

Chesley Oxendine is an RPG creator who could use help with medial expenses.

Game writer Ruvaid Virk’s heater went out. In Michigan. In the winter.

Steven Hammond is a freelance ttrpg writer and designer, best known for writing kooky stuff for Pathfinder 2e.

Everybody Games is creating the Eversaga Roleplaying Game… but it’s slow, tough work that takes money.

Ashton is creating illustrations, fiction, and roleplaying game tokens. Also has a Ko-Fi.

Shanwolf is a new streamer, who is also trying to write “Iron Stars, Burning Hearts.”

Ivis K. Flanagan is a Freelance RPG Writer, Gamer, Teacher, Dreamer, and life long Disney Disnerd. She has a Ko-Fi.

Andrew D. Geels is @PinBarbarian on Twitter. He streams at twitch.tv/pinstripedbarbarian. His website is pinstripedbarbarian@gmail.com. He has a Ko-Fi.

Dustin Knight is on Facebook, Twitter, and Know Direction, as well as his own Blog. He has a Ko-Fi, which helps fund his 3pp review stream.

Sen.H.H.S. has been a ttRPG freelancer since 2020. She has an Itch.io store, and a Ko-Fi.

Joseph Blomquist has a freelancer contact card for writing, game design, and illustration work, and a Ko-Fi.

Allie Bustion is creating tabletop games, supplements, and hacks!
Twitter: @madpierrot
ko-fi: http://ko-fi.com/madpierrot
patreon: http://patreon.com/madpierrot
itch.io: http://madpierrot.itch.io/

Shay is an Indigenous tabletop writer, editor, and playtester. They have a Ko-fi.

Minty Belmont has a Ko-fi.

Luis Loza is creating Pathfinder 2E and other RPG content on Patreon.

Isis Woz has a Ko-Fi.

The amazing Eleanor Ferron has an Itch.io Comic and a Ko-Fi.

Liz Courts has an online Portfolio, and a Patreon.

Jacob Blackmon has a Patreon for his art, and another for his Masters of the Universe Action Figure Webcomic.

Sasha Laranoa Harving is a veteran freelancer. She has works for sale on Pathfinder Infinite, and has a Ko-Fi.

Jessica Redekop is a Canadian illustrator and game designer who is starting to get into costuming by way of LARP. She has a Ko-Fi.

The amazing, talented, veteran creator Stan! has a patreon (www.patreon.com/stannex) and an ongoing Kickstarter right now (www.NewStanProject.com)

Mike Bramnik is a Gamer, geologist, geek, and relatively new TTRPG freelance author writing for established settings and crafting soundtracks for RPG sessions. He has a Ko-Fi.



An Open Reply to Erik Mona

Editorial note From Owen: Earlier this week I posted An Open Letter to Erik Mona, written by a freelancer I know who had asked me to post it. Erik replied almost immediately, outlining steps he was taking, and you can see his response as a comment to the original open letter. The open letter’s author asked that this response to Erik’s reply also be publicly posted, which I am doing now. If you haven’t already read the open letter and Erik’s swift reply, doing so before reading this will give needed context.

“I appreciate the swift response in addressing the raised concerns. I believe that removal of slavery from Golarion is an excellent step towards creating a welcoming and inclusive game. I hope that Paizo will work closely with African American writers and sensitivity consultants as they move forward with this change and beyond. I look forward to seeing what we can create.”

From a Freelancer: An Open Letter to Erik Mona

Editorial Note from Owen: As someone established in the industry, one of the things I have done before and expect I will do again is to post messages written by other people who, for whatever reason, aren’t in a position to make such posts themselves. This is one of those times. This letter was sent to me by a freelancer I know, and I am posting it for them, at their request.

A Letter to Erik Mona and Paizo

Pathfinder has a slavery problem. That is not something that I thought I would be writing at the close of 2021, but here we are. The fixation on slavery as an institution, as a “plot hook,” as a fixture in the world of Pathfinder is at times baffling and at times infuriating. Even as Black fans, players and writers express our outrage and discomfort over and over again, certain writers at Paizo continue to ignore us and use an awful source of pain as fodder for their entertainment. And while I would typically choose to call out the company as a whole rather than any particular individual, in this case I feel I have no choice.

In recent Pathfinder release, Lost Omens: Absalom, Erik Mona as credited as both the Development Lead and Editing Lead. It is a matter of public record that the long delay in the release Absalom was due to Mona’s extended time making changes that would take the book from its initial estimated 240 pages to a final page count of 402. In nearly every way that mattered, Erik Mona had creative control over what the final product would look like, and so he is the person I have to hold responsible.

Before I get into the specifics of the book, I do feel the need to provide some additional information so that everyone can understand why it feels like such a betrayal. And to do that I have to talk about the Pathfinder Society Organized Play program that allows players to jump into public, pre-organized games, often with people they may not know very well. Not to bury the lede, until recently, players in these publicly organized games were allowed to buy slaves.

If you’re wondering how that happened, it’s pretty straightforward. Somewhere, in some Pathfinder book, there were rules options that detailed the cost to purchase a slave – a perfectly legal practice in the fictional city of Absalom. Certain Paizo employees decide which books are allowed for Society, and the book with this option was one of the ones allowed. So, any player with access to that rule could then have their character buy another human being, and because there was no rule to disallow it, the gamemaster and other players at the table had no way to stop them.

You see, participating in Society play means that you agree to play by their rules. If you don’t like it, your only recourse by and large is to get up and leave the table. The only alternative is to get everyone to agree that the rule is wrong, and either collectively ignore it, or force Paizo’s hand to get them to change it. A group of players, mostly led by black voices, chose the latter. The official response? If players wanted slavery banned in Organized Play, then there had to be an in-game event that justified the abolition of slavery.

What a fucking hoop to jump through, right?

But it happened. Pathfinder Society Scenario #9-00: Assault on Absalom. An in-game event, requested by players, that led to the abolition of slavery. In one city. By conscripting the enslaved people to fight in a war and then giving freedom to the survivors. Way to trip forward over a very low bar.

And since then, other content has been published with a clear anti-colonialist, abolitionist agenda. Former colonies went through revolutions to free the colonized people and grant them independence. Other influential figures in the world are working to purge slavery from their own regions. Most freelancers and developers so desperately want to move forward and leave this awful shit behind. We want this to be a game that everyone can enjoy, that doesn’t trivialize Black pain or rely on shock value.

Then there’s Erik Mona and Absalom. There are 126 references to slaves and slavery in the 402 pages of Absalom. Some of them are just recounting history. Some of them are references to abolition and aiding free people. Several of them are graphic descriptions of “illegal” slavery, human trafficking, prison abuse, organized crime and all the various ways that Absalom tries to have it both ways. What a fucking slap in the face.

Things like this have happened too many times. At this point, I don’t think an apology is enough. I don’t think editing the book to remove the offending content is enough. My relationship with Paizo was already on shaky ground, and it continues to get shakier by the week. I don’t know what that will mean for my career, but it certainly means that my trust in the company, and any faith I might have had in Erik Mona are gone.

The Limits of My Advice

People often seem to value my advice. From game design to life as a ttRPG freelancer to gmae buisness to destigmatizing mental health issues to being an ally, I am often asked to give my opion, offer context, brainstorm options and solutions. It seems weird to me, but people I trust tell me the advice is often useful, so I believe them. I am even so arrogant as to charge a (to my mind, extremely high) amount of money for a solid hour of professional advice.

But, there are significant limits to the value of my advice, and I would not want to present it in a way that suggests otherwise.

Firstly, all of my advice is born of my experiences, and as a hetero cis white man there are a lot of things I haven’t personally experienced. I do listen to people who are marginalized by the industry as much as I can, and tried to learn from what I see happen to them and what they tell me, but that’s still different than knowing from direct experience of what living through and dealing with those events are like. I have to guess how they may make people with different backgrounds and circumstances, and that’s always going to color how my advice applies to them.

I make an effort to be aware of this in various ways. First, there are numerous issues about which I know it’s more important for me to listen than to talk. Booting the voices of those directly affected is often appropriate in ways that given my own experience isn’t. And a big part of that is that I may not understand what the real issue is. If a woman is talking about having her name as author not be put on the front cover of a book, and I might feel it’s could be helpful to talk about times in which I fought to put my name on the front cover as author, and failed. But, due to context, there’s every chance it’s not the same. I’m on the front cover of tons of books, and there’s no systemic negative reaction to me being presented as a noteworthy game designer. I’ve seen co-workers, with the same job title I have, who don’t happen to be hetero cis white man, get announced as guests at game conventions only for multiple people to being casting aspersions that they’re only there as “woke virtue-signaling” or “diversity hires.”

That’s never happened to me. Not when i was first a guest at Gen Con, in 2000, with no solo book credits to my name. Not when I was a guest multiple times at SoonerCon, with nothing but magazine credits. Not when I was a guest at Comicpalooza in 2014 and being treated to the same level of green room care as James Marsters and Tricia Helfer. Anytime I am presented as an expert or noteworthy, people who have never heard of my before simply nod and accept it must be true. I have witnessed that absolutely not be the way people react when people of different backgrounds are presented as folks worth listening to and treating with respect.

Put another way, if I ask someone not to put something on the top shelf and they do, I can still reach it. If someone 5’2″ tall asks people not to put things on the top shelf and they do, they are NOT having the same experience I did.

Secondly (yeah, firstly was a long one), my advice tends to assume everyone you are dealing with is acting in good faith. Often when I talk about being kind, helping others, trying to build networks of allies, fans, and colleagues, someone will comment with a note “But also protect yourself!”

And they’re right.

I rarely have to protect myself from bad-faith actors trying to take advantage of me. It happens, but a lot of it is so obvious I easily sidestep it, and a lot of the ways it used to happen when I was less well-established just isn’t an issue anymore (due to changing technologies, changing industry norms, and so on). I’m more than 20 years into my career, and generally consider myself bulletproof in regards to reputation and recognition. That is NOT the case for everyone, and I’ve pretty well proven that if I am not explicitly discussing how to deal with bad actors, I’ll forget it can be critical context to add.

Thirdly… am more than 20 years into my careers. I am fairly well known in the small pool I wallow in. My advice may not be the best, most current look at how to get started, get better known, make contacts, build a following from the ground up, get paid more, and so on. I am often extended benefit-of-the-doubt, friends-and-family options, and professional courtesies other people aren’t. And I may not even know when that’s the case, causing my to blithely overlook how hard certain kinds of accommodations might be to get.

Fourthly, I tend to approach all industry-related questions from the point of view of a designer, developer, and publisher. I have much less experience as an artist, or editor, or sensitivity of cultural consultant. I also tend to focus on a specific kind of ttRPG game–much more d20 and Green Ronin’s AGE than Dread or Blades in the Dark, and even further from miniatures games, boardgames, cardgames, and even FURTHER from video games and novels. If you want to get the kind of work I do, I may have valuable suggestions and insights. If you want to become a big Hollywood movie script writer, I recommend finding more-closely-linked-in advisors. 🙂

Same thing applies to residence. My advise is U.S.A. focused.

There are, I am sure, other blind spots in my advice that I am, well, blind to. So, please, take anything I say with a grain of salt. Listen to people who come at these questions from different places in time and origin. Be aware that the game industry is a constantly-changing knot of interconnected companies, events, business needs, cultural trends, and changing best practices. I try hard to not be a dinosaur… but even if I know a giant comet is a risk, I’m often going to miss how non-dinosaur concerns could color the utility of my advice.

Patreon

Having taken ALL that space to warn you that I should never be more than one voice of many you listen to, I’m going to take the bold step of suggesting that if you DO want to keep hearing what i have to say, it may be worthwhile to drop $3/month into my Patreon, so I can afford to keep taking the time to say it.