Saturday, July 12, 2014

Impressions of PaizoCon 2014

On Thursday, July 3rd, I ventured up the West Coast of the United States to attend my fourth PaizoCon in Seattle, Washington. My friend Theodric has invited me to share my experiences and thoughts about the events and announcements from the convention, which is dedicated to fans of Paizo Publishing, maker of Pathfinder, the current best-selling tabletop roleplaying game in the world, and the Pathfinder Campaign Setting supported by the game rules.

Being a freelance writer for Paizo and other third party publishers and the assistant editor-in-chief for Wayfinder magazine, I’d have a hard time convincing anyone that I’m not a huge fan of Paizo. Fortunately, I’m not ashamed to admit my fan status. That doesn’t mean that I think everything Paizo does is perfect, but in general I like the way they do things and hope to be a part of their creations, both as a writer and a customer, for a long time.

Theo is giving me the opportunity here to share my thoughts and experiences with you, especially for those who weren’t able to make it PaizoCon 2014. I thought it would be good to talk about the con in general and then give my own impressions of the announcements that were made during the PaizoCon Preview Banquet.

For me, PaizoCon 2014 was really more about people, this year. As I said, I’ve been to four of these conventions, and each one was a little different. For the first two I was more focused on learning how to navigate a convention, soaking up lessons about writing and getting published, and getting information about all the cool stuff that would be coming out in the following year. I was also still awestruck by the ability to hang out and talk with Paizo people and folks from other publishers. I didn’t know many people by face or even name, in some cases. It was all new to me.

Last year, I had already worked on a few paid writing projects, but the convention was in a new place (the Seattle Airport Marriott), and it had a bit of an unfamiliar feel. I was still learning who folks were, but events like the Meet & Eat—an amazing event coordinated by “Big Kyle” Elliott, Paizo’s Volunteer of the Year for 2013—and the games I ran to showcase products from Clockwork Gnome Publishing gave me the chance to interact with people in a new way.

PaizoCon 2014, however, felt different. I didn’t attend as many seminars, although I participated in the Wayfinder seminar as a panelist. I ran a couple of scenarios from Wayfinder #9 and #10, to show off the support the fanzine offers for the Pathfinder Beginner Box rules. I attended the preview banquet, of course—more on that later—but this con was really more about seeing people I’d met in 2013 and hanging out with people I was really getting to know for the first time. I replaced seminars and frantic note-scribbling with casual conversations over drinks in the hotel lounge or at AFK Elixirs & Eatery.

On Thursday evening, the Wayfinder staff held a small gathering at the Claim Jumper restaurant with our contributing writers, artists, and volunteer editors who attended the convention. I had a great meal, sitting between Tim Nightengale and Clinton Boomer and across from Neil Spicer. We are so lucky to have such talented and fun people contributing to the magazine. Boomer is every bit as…unpredictable…as his reputation would indicate, and it was a pleasure to talk to him. Neil Spicer is an utter gentleman and just enjoyable to be around.

Our evening continued with a brief stop at the AFK for the 2014 Meet & Eat gathering, but the place was incredibly busy and people were so scattered around the restaurant that it didn’t have the intimate feel of previous events. Still, it was fun hanging out with my Wayfinder friends. We called it an evening fairly early and headed back to the hotel to rest and get ready for registration in the morning. The next few days were a whirlwind of seminars, chats with Wes Schneider, Venus de Coy (aka Lady Ophelia), Dawn Fischer, Mark Moreland, Owen Stephens, James Jacobs, and Rob McCreary. I entered the preview banquet without any dinner companions, but managed to find a single seat next to Wayfinder contributors and volunteer editors Kalyna Conrad and Eric Hindley. Our “Paizo person” at the table was none other than James Sutter, Paizo’s Fiction Editor. Also at the table were Wolfgang and Shelly Baur, who are absolutely wonderful people, and my good friend Darran Caldemeyer, a talented artist who has contributed work to Wayfinder, and credits in products from Adventure-a-Week and other third party publishers.

But you probably want to know what Paizo had to tell us about the coming year for Pathfinder. Well, I listened carefully and posted announcements on my Facebook page even as the Paizo presenters were making them. Here’s what I learned…

Most everyone knows that the Advanced Class Guide is coming out in August. The book takes a look at some classes that are actually hybrids of classes that already exist. The warpriest is a fighter/cleric, the arcanist is a sorcerer/wizard, and the shaman is a witch/oracle. I think the best term that I’ve heard anyone use to describe these classes is that they really are “metal.” As Jason Bulmahn put it, "The bloodrager [the barbarian/sorcerer hybrid] deserves to be painted on the side of a van."

In the late October, Paizo will release the Monster Codex. Paizo hinted at this book last year, and I wasn’t really sure what to make of it then, but the images they showed, along with the descriptions they gave, brought things into clearer focus. This book takes a look at “20 of the game’s most iconic monsters, including the boggard, bugbear, drow, duergar, fire giant, frost giant, ghoul, gnoll, goblin, hobgoblin, kobold, lizardfolk, ogre, orc, ratfolk, sahuagin, serpentfolk, troglodyte, troll, and vampire.” It discusses ecology, society, abilities, and other aspects of the each creature’s role in the game, and then provides 8 or 10 pages of stat blocks for different types of NPC/monster characters you can use in your own games. The images of the king and queen of the fire giants were truly impressive.

Another book that Paizo mentioned during the 2013 preview banquet was the Strategy Guide. As with the Monster Codex, there was much speculation about what the Strategy Guide was going to be. In 2014, we learned that this book is designed to help the new player at your table. It is laid out in a fashion similar to the Beginner Box and was described as a “Guidebook to the Core Rulebook,” helping new players create their characters and get started with playing by the core rules without having to have someone sit next to them and look over their shoulder. I still recommend the “friendly advice” approach, but I’ll definitely be picking up one of these books for suggestions on how to provide that advice.

After reviewing the books we already knew were coming out, Jason Bulmahn revealed the next new rule book, Pathfinder Unchained. As Jason described it, this 256-page book is where the design team gets to say, "What would we do with the game if we could do whatever we want, backwards compatibility be damned." The product page tells you most of what Paizo revealed that night. The book will contained redesigned versions of different classes (monk, rogue, barbarian, and summoner) and rule subsets that offer a playground full of optional rules for magic items, monsters, classes, and other aspects of the rules. I think this will be an interesting book, hearkening back to the old Unearthed Arcana from the days of AD&D. Some are speculating that this book might be a way to gauge the community’s appetite for a new version of Pathfinder. While I won’t say that’s impossible, I think it’s unlikely for the time being. The amount of material Paizo is still producing with the current version, and the fact that the Strategy Guide is specifically designed to help new players learn this version, tells me that they think the game still has staying power. I firmly believe that there will be a new version of Pathfinder someday, but I don’t think it will be in the near future. Of course, I have no special insight into the company’s decision-making, and I’ve been wrong before.

After Jason finished his presentation, Mike Selinker, creator of the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game, gave us the news about the future of that product. As most everyone knows, now, the next base set is Skull & Shackles. Based on the popular, pirate-themed adventure path, the new set has lots of cool elements that make pirates fun to play. This release will introduce “ship cards,” which are a new element of the game called "support cards." Ship cards allow you to do new things in the game, but come with the drawback that they must be defended and maintained. A hole in your ship will cost you rounds of actions to repair it. And, of course, the set will also include guns…with all of their instability.

Mike also told us that Paizo will be continuing its partnership with Ultra-Pro to produce more accessories for the game, like play mats, plus character play mats and card sleeves. I got an opportunity to see the play mat and other products in the Paizo store at the convention, and they are very nice.

Mike’s last big announcement was that the third base set to be released will be based on the Wrath of the Righteous adventure path. This set, which is still in development…it hasn’t even entered playtesting…will introduce something called a “Mythic card.” I am more curious about this set than I am about Skull & Shackles. I purchased all of the expansions for the Rise of the Runelords set, but haven’t played all the way through it, yet. Perhaps I will finish it by the time they release the Wrath set.

Mike stepped aside to allow one of the other Pathfinder Adventure Card Game folks to tell us about the other new thing for the game: the Pathfinder Society Adventure Card Guild. The guild is an organized play system for the adventure card game. As described in Paizo’s news release, the guild involves a class deck, required for play. New scenarios will be released to game stores each week, specifically for the organized play at local venues, then authorized for purchase/home play about a month later. I think this is a new and interesting way to introduce the Pathfinder setting and its stories to players who may not be as interested in Pathfinder Society or the tabletop RPG, in general  (although rewards may be available that apply to your Pathfinder Society Organize Play characters). I also like the fact that this is not based on randomized card decks that would drive a frenzied secondary market for rare and powerful cards. The guild debuts at GenCon this year, and I hope it is fun and successful.

After the PACG presentation, Erik Mona resumed his place on the stage and gave us a glimpse at the next Pathfinder Adventure Path, Iron Gods. Beginning with Neil Spicer’s adventure, “Fires of Creation,” the adventure path takes player characters into Numeria, the Land of Fallen Stars, where a massive alien ship crashed long ago, leaving remnants of a technologically advanced civilization scattered across a rough and wild wasteland. This location in the Pathfinder setting has its fair share of both adherents and detractors. The cries of mixing fantasy peanut butter and sci-fi chocolate (or vice versa) are fairly common. I am not in the camp that has a huge problem with this. In my mind, while Numeria is certainly a nod to Thundarr the Barbarian and heavy metal-inspired settings, I also think that there is a bit of influence from sources like Borrough’s John Carter and Moorcock’s Michael Kane of Mars and anyone who has read Hugh Cook’s The Walrus and the Warwolf will find some wonderful similarities. I’m very much looking forward to see what happens when James Jacobs finally gets to indulge his craving for “Laser Guns!” in an adventure path. And for those of you who are still concerned about the sci-fi elements, Erik and James have both assured us that there are enough fantasy elements here to let you love it, too.

Erik went on to introduce the title of the next adventure path: Giantslayer. However, aside from the fact that it will be set in the Hold of Belkzen, stronghold of Golarion’s orcs, and it does, in fact, involve killing giants, we didn’t get much information about the story, itself. As a result, the announcement fell kind of flat with me. Initially, I thought the problem was that they didn’t share as much about this adventure path as they did for APs at previous banquets. On further consideration, I’ve concluded that they shared about the same amount of information, but the title and subject matter of stories like Skull & Shackles and Wrath of the Righteous were much clearer. They didn’t need much explanation for me to form ideas and get excited. For Giantslayer, I need to know more about the premise before I can say whether or not this adventure path will be another hit for Paizo.

The banquet announcements wrapped up with comments about additional products, like an expansion for the Munchkin Pathfinder set and a nice Sihedron Medallion accessory produced by Campaign Coins. They also talked briefly about Syrinscape’s officially licensed sound sets for the Rise of the Runelords adventure path. Syrinscape is an audio application that generates sound effects and music for use in roleplaying games. There are versions available for computers and tablets and there are dozens of soundsets available. I had already purchased the Rise of the Runelords set and used it in home games. If you haven’t tried it you should definitely check it out.

Erik Mona talked about a few other Pathfinder-licensed  products, as well. Things like Pathfinder Minimates will be coming out in October 2014, with a promotional set to be released at this year’s GencCon and available for purchase on the store after GenCon. These toys don’t really excite me, but if it’s a way for more people to identify with the brand, and doesn’t draw the company’s attention away from telling great stories, I think they’re a decent idea.

And lastly, Erik announced the new Pathfinder Battles miniatures set: The Lost Coast, which refers to the last of western Varisia, “stretching from the city of Magnimar to the Fogscar Mountains.” This set is filled with straight-up fantasy goodness. Minis will include the giant frilled lizard and a large green dragon, as well as familiar NPCs, like Justice Ironbriar and Lord Mayor Grobaras. We got a glimpse of a new ogre character, Malagus Creed, as well as a new troll figure which corrects a discrepancy in the size and description of trolls from the first Pathfinder Battles set. While I’m not buying the Pathfinder Battles Minis the way I used to, I have to say that I’m incredibly excited about the giant case incentive mini that Paizo will be offering…the shemhazian's MASSIVE! Erik described the shemhazian demon as the biggest figure they’ve ever had done, and given the fact that the Bestiary 2 describes these as gargantuan creatures, I’m looking forward to seeing how this beast turns out.

After the product announcements ended, Pathfinder Society Organized Play Coordinator Mike Brock took the stage to announce that the Pathfinder Society is recognizing Rob Silk and Dave Harrison as co-recipients of the 2014 Volunteer of the Year award. They received amazing praise for their work in Pathfinder Society and founding of PaizoCon UK.

By the time the presentations drew to a close and preparations for the annual trivia contest began, the excitement in the room was present, but subdued. The evening had been pleasant, as was the convention overall, but the people I was with were the real highlights. The announcements from Paizo were entertaining, and I look forward to getting my hands on the upcoming products the conversations and laughs I had with the folks at my table were what made the evening great. Similarly, the time I spent with the Paizo fan community and the people who make the company run were what really made the whole convention special. I’m looking forward to PaizoCon 2015—a 4-day event on Memorial Day weekend. Who knows? Maybe I’ll see some of you there. If you see me, please say hello and help me make more memories of another awesome convention.

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