The mic on my earbuds died only hours before Dan Tharp, Paizo’s Marketing Manager, called Troy and me to tell us that Paizo has been working in secret for nearly two years on the new Pathfinder. “I’ve got big news for you guys,” he said as I pressed the receiver of my cell phone into my ear. The freezing January wind coming off the Hudson River was making my hand numb, but the news was too exciting for me to worry about something trivial as frostbite. “Jason Bulmahn and Erik Mona want to come to your studio and run you guys through a recorded demo of the new Pathfinder Playtest,” Dan continued, “and we wanted to see what you guys need from us to make that happen.”
I was introduced to Pathfinder by a game designer named Chris Merwin, back when he was working on his own campaign setting. We’ve mentioned him many times on the Glass Cannon Podcast and especially on Cannon Fodder, but rarely by name. He’s the wizard behind the curtain, the mysterious GM that ran the first game Troy, Skid, and I played in together. He elevated the game well beyond anything we played when we were kids, and I think it’s safe to say that without Chris Merwin there never would have been a Glass Cannon Network. Chris is the one that bought Troy Lavallee the Pathfinder Core Rulebook and put it in his hands! Before that fateful day, though, I remember asking Chris why he played a game called Pathfinder instead of Dungeons & Dragons. “Paizo is much more supportive of amateur game designers,” he explained. Chris was able to use Paizo’s Community Use Policy to give his world a rules system that was easily recognizable to gamers everywhere, and he didn’t have to pay Paizo anything to do so. This sort of community-focused thinking has always been at the core of Paizo’s philosophies and so it should not have come as such a shock when Paizo’s Marketing Manager called my friends and me to ask us to try out their new game months before the beta test would start. But it did.
My giddy excitement at Dan’s announcement was quickly suppressed behind a facade of professional curiosity and logistical planning. Years of working in the entertainment industry will do that to a person. Be cool, I thought, act like you get offered the opportunity to demo a new game by Paizo on a weekly basis. But the truth was that this was very new territory for me; for all of us at the Glass Cannon Network. We were about to sit with one of the people behind the design of Pathfinder and get a first look at the newest iteration of the game. How do you prepare for that?
Luckily, Erik and Jason made it easy on us. “Let’s meet at a bar and start talking over some of the big changes before we actually sit down to record,” Jason suggested. He was speaking the language of GCP Nation. We always meet in bars! On the Friday night before we recorded, Troy, Skid, Matthew, Grant, Jason and I grabbed a table in a dark corner of a midtown sports bar. Jason, casually looking over his shoulder to make sure no nerds were within earshot, launched into a point-by-point journey through the major changes in rules of Pathfinder, all while making it evident that the essence of the game experience would not change at all. “The game you all know and love is not changing beyond recognition,” Jason assured us, “you will still, in every sense, be playing Pathfinder. Don’t panic.” And then he laughed. Jason has an infectious, hearty laugh that makes you feel like all’s right with the world.
As he walked us through the changes, I could not help but take note of his raw, unfiltered excitement. The man was finally getting this chance to reveal the work on which he and his team had been toiling in secret for the better part of two years. Though, it wasn’t simply relief or the rush of the dam breaking, it was the genuine love he has for his work that poured through every twist and turn of his explanation of the new game. He would look at us slyly, with a knowing smirk, and declare, “What do you think happens when you fall now?” (Pause for effect.) “Get ready for this…” and his eyes would light up. The energy was infectious and we hung on his every word; throwing out clarification questions, complimenting the reasoning on changes, and periodically bursting out in raucous laughter that seemed to irritate a nearby couple who had come to watch figure skating. Who goes to a bar to watch figure skating? Then again, who gets together with their adult friends and makes believe they are a half-orc? I probably shouldn’t judge.
Erik Mona, Paizo’s Publisher and Chief Creative Officer, arrived as we were finishing the first pass on rule changes. We were roughly three hours in and we had barely made a dent in Jason’s several-hundred-page m
As the night ended and we went our separate ways, I was left thinking about how much Pathfinder has meant to me over the last several years. It has opened up a world of creativity to me that is, sadly, so often stymied in New York City. Ironic, I know, but with literally millions of creative people, all competing for their voices to be heard, there is a lot of noise. And the price to cut through that noise can be steep. It wasn’t something that I could ever afford, and while I never had designs to be a professional performer, I was nonetheless frustrated that I couldn’t even do it for the sake of the art. I spent most of my twenties frustrated and disillusioned with the writers and performers I met in New York. Then I met Skid, and Troy, and Chris Merwin. And within the year we were all playing Pathfinder. That was the kiln in which what would become the Glass Cannon Network was born. We pushed each other every session to create better stories. It was the most inspiring and rewarding creative experience I had in New York City up until that time. Without the game; without the work that writers and designers like Erik Mona and Jason Bulmahn and their teams put in over the years, that experience wouldn’t have been possible.
Personally, though, Pathfinder brought me closer than I could have imagined to Troy and Skid. I never would have had the pleasure of Grant’s friendship at all if it wasn’t for Pathfinder, and Matthew would only have known Troy or Skid from the occasional birthday party for my daughter if he hadn’t put together a level one fighter for a PFS scenario in my apartment one day (the last fighter level he ever took, incidentally). None of us could have known when we first bullied Troy into GMing Jade Regent, or asked Grant if he wanted to join a new AP called Giantslayer, that Pathfinder would lead us into an adventure together in our real lives more interesting, hilarious, fun, and unpredictable than even anything in the pages of the adventure. Well, maybe not anything.
We all arrived at the Attic on Sunday afternoon with a renewed vigor. The changes we had learned about on Friday were so exciting and real and engaging that the room was electric with anticipation for the fresh new adventure to come. As Grant was wiring Jason up with a body mic and Erik was practicing his best Terry Gross impression during sound check, the mood was light. A new group playing a new game for the first time. There’s nothing quite like it.
Eventually, we hit record and the tape was rolling, so to speak, on the first public demo of the next edition of Pathfinder. As I settled in next to Erik Mona and across from Jason Bulmahn for the game, I couldn’t help but think of Chris Merwin. I should text him, I thought. Chris had long since moved to Europe and then back to Atlanta and we hadn’t spoken in a long time. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him. Plus, he wouldn’t believe this! But he probably would. He knew all those years ago what I’ve just come to understand: that Paizo walks side by side with the players that love their game and they’ll never stop including them, every step of the way.
-Joe O’Brien, The Glass Cannon Network