Saturday, February 1, 2014

Interview - Jim Groves

The Mummy's Mask, Book I: The Half-Dead City.
It's been a busy week for me, as you've probably been able to tell by the absence of Encounter Table updates. Paizo Publishing's RPG Superstar 2014 is in full-swing, and I've been devoting my full attention to the competition. This year has been a fantastic experience, and I'm proud to be competing alongside some amazingly talented writers. If you get a chance, head on over to Paizo's RPG Superstar site and see what it's all about.

Today, the Encounter Table brings together something really special. I've had the opportunity to sit down with freelance writer Jim Groves, author of The Shackled Hut and The Demon's Heresy, and many more 3rd-party publications. Jim was kind enough to share some of his time to discuss the upcoming 1st book in the Mummy's Mask adventure path, The Half-Dead City as well as his experiences growing up as a roleplayer and much more. So sit back and enjoy the Encounter Table's first ever interview with author Jim Groves!

Robert Brookes: Jim, I'd like to thank you for being able to talk today. I'm really excited to dig in to your work on the Mummy's Mask. But, before we get into discussing the Half-Dead City, tell us a little about yourself for readers who might not be familiar with you and your work.

Jim Groves: Well, let me give me my age as a bit of perspective—I’m 46 now and will turn 47 at the end of this August. That doesn’t make me the oldest freelancer I’m sure, but it does date me a little bit. For example, I got my basic D&D box set was when I was in 7th grade, in 1980, with my first Players Handbook, DMG, and Monster Manual in 1981. I recall when Champions was first published and I owned the original Call of Cthulhu Boxed Set and supplements.

 Over the years, I have enjoyed many diverse roleplaying games, such as Amber, Runequest, Shadowrun, although I did have about a 7 year “dry” period where my roleplaying was most confined to PBeM [play by email]. It is sort of ironic, but I missed a lot of the 3.5 era of D&D and only returned to D&D in mid 2007—just after Paizo’s loss of Dungeon and Dragon magazines and the onset of their Pathfinder Campaign Setting.

 After I got my sea legs with 3.5, I was dabbling with design and development work with Wolfgang Baur and friends with Open Design, with his Pre-Kickstarter Patronage Projects. I even wrote an early adventure for the first City of Zobeck Anthology, though I did require some help with it. I got in over my head because I didn't actually know how to write an adventure! (It is not necessarily intuitive!) I suffered a little loss of confidence from that experience. Wolfgang was super however, about not wanting to see me (or any author) crushed by a first experience that went a little south. Time has a way of healing all wounds, so in 2010, RPG Superstar was entering its third year and I decided to take a chance and enter.

 I took Sean K Reynold’s advice to heart and I looked for a rare bit of rule mechanics and played with them. Clark Peterson took a shine to my item and I was Golden Ticketed in the Top 32. From there I hung on from round to round, until my worthy competitor Matt Goodall won 1st place that year. My adventure idea was bold, but unfortunately my lack of understanding of how an adventure is comprised caught up with me again. My proposal was likened to an entire adventure path (versus a 32 page module) and so I was not recommended for the top spot. That’s okay! That’s the wonderful thing about RPG Superstar. You don’t have to win the top spot to open doors to a very successful freelance career.

 A few months after the contest, I received a trial invitation from Sean K Reynolds to work on Ultimate Combat. He was not backwards about being forwards in regards to it being a test to see if I and a handful of other gentlemen (Team Gruntwork) might be fit for writing duties. So, what was my first freelancing assignment? Feats and Spells. I did okay, because he asked me to do some more feats and spells and then some more feats and spells. There’s a lesson in there, folks. Once you’re doing paid contract work, you have a foundation to build upon. Never be embarrassed by your first projects. Then I got an email from Mark Moreland asking if I would like to write a PFS Scenario.

 From there, everything just took off. Now I have written for over 20 different Pathfinder products (that I can remember and I certainly have some 3PP credits I am not counting), including 4 PFS Scenarios, a 32 page module, 4 adventure paths, and numerous contributions to the Pathfinder Campaign and Companion books.

 I better shut up and let you get another question in!

RB: How did you get into tabletop gaming?

JG: I’m really not sure, except to say that games had been part of my life as early as I could remember. I have four siblings and they were easily 10 years older than I was growing up. They had board games, like Parcheesi, Mile Bornes, Monopoly, and Yahtzee. I was a bit of an outsider because there was never any one around to play with who was my own age, so gaming was the social bridge I had to connect with other people.

 This is something of an embarrassing admission but when I was enrolled in elementary school, I was diagnosed as having a learning disability. I don’t want to critique my parents but I think it might be more accurate to say that I was enrolled in school as early as was allowed and truthfully I was bit immature for my grade. I had difficulty learning to read and write and performing basic mathematics, so I was placed in a Special Education program. There I was taught reading and math fundamentals through interesting and fun games, and I was rewarded for excellent progress with BubbleYum! Games were the educational tools that were able to “reach me” and carry me forward through school. This was reinforced by the fact that my only peer relationship I had with my family was through games. Games were how I connected with people right from the beginning and they were powerful motivator and means to get my attention. My self-esteem mandates that I also mention I was kicked out of the Special Education program during the fourth grade because my reading and math skills had caught up (or exceeded) those of my classmates. I like to joke that I ceased to be “special.” Although, I think it says a lot about the use of games as a tool in education.

Sometime during 1979, I actually remember James Dallas Egbert III’s disappearance. I lived in Michigan and he attended Michigan State University. So his story was in all the local newspapers and it brought the D&D brand name to my attention. My parent were too clueless to be concerned about D&D having a negative effect (nor was there any reason to be concerned about D&D, as we all really know) and I was intrigued by the idea of this mysterious game. Somewhere I came across an ad for the D&D Basic Set and sent a money order to TSR in Lake Geneva. By 1980, I was a roleplayer.

RB: It’s interesting that you mentioned the Egbert disappearance in ‘79. For readers not familiar with that story, it was headline news at the time where the media latched on to—and propagated—the idea that playing Dungeons & Dragons was responsible for Egbert's initial disappearance from his college dorm and later, tragic suicide in steam tunnels below Michigan State University. For many years following that event, D&D ( and by proxy other roleplaying games) suffered heavy doses of negative press and stigmatization. Did you have any experiences, growing up in the 80s, where that negative climate towards roleplaying games affected you?

JG: Not many. We’re being honest right? There were a few high school years when I didn’t want to admit to the game, because I was concerned about being cool. That fell to the wayside after I graduated. Occasionally I would run into a few young people who said their parents were uncertain about the game. If I was asked about D&D personally, my stock reply was “This game requires and encourages basic reading skills, basic math, and the mapping helps with understanding spatial relationships.” Seriously, I was making that point as a teenager. When I was asked about Egbert, I would point out that he was a troubled young man to begin with and many forms of escapism could have been a potential catalyst which might have set him off. He was an unfortunate person who needed help and didn’t receive it and that had nothing to do with the game.

 One time I ran into that, “We threw D&D books into a bonfire at bible camp and they screamed!” I looked at that kid as if they lost their mind and said, “No you did not and it’s wrong to go to bible camp and then make up lies about what happened there.” When the kid said they weren't lying, I challenged them to a bet for twice the cost of my Dungeon Masters Guide that we could light that sucker up in the local gravel pits and absolutely no screams would be forthcoming. The wager was declined and then came the admission that “it wasn't the bible camp that I went to, but my sister’s cousin’s friend’s cousin Floyd who lives in Tennessee.” Without being too smug (but a little smug), I chalked ‘Floyd’s testimonial’ as anecdotal at best.

 Actually I find most people are open minded if you don’t apologize for the game, but rather just explain what it is. You don’t need to dumb it down, people get it. It is that tendency to want to be embarrassed by it that can really contribute to the problem. I think most folks can discern when you’re not comfortable with talking about the game and that is the tip off (to them) that there could be something ‘wrong’ with it. Even when that is patently not true! If you look people in the eyes, be positive, and just explain the game—you’ll probably find they want to play.

 Although, you never know what people really think sometimes. One more funny story on this topic—although it is more odd than funny. My ex-wife said she was totally cool with the game until we actually got married. Then she felt I should take up bowling, golf (like we could have afforded that), or lawn darts… something! Just not D&D. She drove me nuts till I finally just set the game aside while we were married, but I kept many books in a few boxes. Skipping the tawdry details, when I decided to leave the relationship she had sort of a personal meltdown. That was unfortunate and I don’t mean to make light of it. However, she called my sister’s house and told her that my “dark, satanic, presence was forbidden to come to our townhouse, but would my brother-in-law come and collect my dark artifacts and sorcerous belongings” (i.e. my box of D&D books). The lesson is, I suppose, you never know what somebody really thinks about a roleplaying game until they play it or they at least observe it and make an informed opinion.

 And I’m so far from a dark cultist, it’s funny. I’m a polo-shirt and slacks wearing ex-yuppie who secretly has Tears for Fears Greatest Hits in my iTunes collection! (Among other musical genres) I haven’t carved as much as a pumpkin for Halloween since my daughter was 10. I also eventually married a wonderful woman who played RPGs and understands them, even if her current career leaves her short on extra time—and we've been happily married for 14 years now.

RB: So what can you tell us about the first book of The Mummy’s Mask: the Half-Dead City? What kind of adventure can players expect?

JG: The Half-Dead City is a good old fashioned tomb and dungeon exploration adventure. The goal, quite literally, is to explore three ancient burial and historical sites in search of treasure and maybe a little bit of historical perspective on how this necropolis came to exist. Other groups will be exploring different locations within the Necropolis and there may be some tension that exists between what your group has been licensed to explore and what they have been assigned.

 So, in many respects, the Half-Dead City has a fairly uncomplicated and traditional premise. It does not stay that way. Things get very complicated in subsequent chapters. Events in Chapter One serve as a catalyst for a larger story.

 To give a little perspective, in 4707 AR the Ruby Prince, Khemet III, opens all of Osirion’s tombs up to explorers, including foreigners. Ask yourself why. My answer (because Developer, Rob McCreary may have his own take and his will be the ‘correct one’) is that it serves as an economic stimulus. Adventurers don’t travel to the other side of the world to sell their loot. Think about it. They sell art, jewels, historical antiquities, and magical treasures just as soon as they hit an economy large enough to absorb them. This in turn attracts collectors, scholars, the Pathfinder Society, and in general—people with discretionary money to spend, from all over the world right to Osirion. Once there, they spend money, get taxed, and require infrastructure to support them while visiting Osirion. This is the perfect venue for politics and money to circulate and for the Pharaoh to advance his larger political ambitions. Besides, the local population wasn't going after these treasures, so this scheme is a way to dump a lot of money into Osirion’s various local economies by doing nothing but issuing legal authorization for exploration.

 The situation in Wati is a little more complicated and there is a reason why Wati has not capitulated with the Ruby Prince until 4714, but I’ll allow the adventure to reveal that part of the story.

RB: Without giving too much away, what are you most excited about players encountering or discovering while playing through the Half-Dead City?

JG: I don’t want to dodge this question, but my adventures (to me) are like a box of Forrest Gump’s chocolates. I never know what the fans are going to like, and what they do like—sometimes surprises me. So I don’t want to hazard a guess. That said, I think I am becoming well known for providing “stories within the story” or small vignettes within the AP Chapter. Reign of Winter was particularly noted for that. I did a little bit of that in the Half-Dead City, though it was more difficult. The adventure provides more dungeon-like encounters. Nevertheless, there are stories within stories in this AP Chapter as well. The GM may have to work a little harder to tease them out but they are there.

 This ‘vignette approach’ comes from belief that the campaign world is not static. Golarion, to me, is a world constantly in motion and the players are stepping into a moving picture, movie, or even a stage, where other characters are already acting out their parts on stage—and they’ll be acting out their parts after the player characters move on. To me, that is how you present Golarion as a living world.

RB: Osirion is a fan-favorite nation in the Pathfinder Campaign Setting, one that was strongly developed by fellow freelancer Michael Kortes back in the earliest days of the setting with his adventure modules, Entombed With the Pharaohs and Pact Stone Pyramid. How did it feel stepping into such a well-established sandbox? Was there any pressure to perform up to the bar Kortes set all those years ago?

JG: Tough question, Robert. “What was it like to work on material originally conceived by Michael Kortes?” This question has a very different answer depending on whether I’m answering it as a freelancer or a fan.

 First, I’ll answer it as a professional writer: It felt like my job. Every freelancer builds on the work of another freelancer before them. One day another freelancer will build on what I have created and the cycle will continue. Your publisher hires you to be your best, not to be “your second best, because you’re unworthy.” They give you the contract with the earnest hope that you’ll deliver the same cool content as their other writers. Practically speaking, that may or may not actually happen (we all have off-projects and people experience different levels of inspiration and so on), but the hope and the expectation is there on the Publisher’s part. The contract signifies their vote of confidence in you. It then behooves you to accept that confidence and make the most of it. As nice as your Publisher may be, validation has to come from within. When you get hired, they’re telling you, “You can be every bit as great as our other authors. Please find that greatness within yourself. We can’t do that for you, but please accept this contract as our acknowledgement that we believe it is possible.” The rest has to come from you.

 So as a professional, it is hurtful to yourself and to your work to dwell overmuch on the other authors, except as objects of healthy competition or as sources of good techniques and habits. As a freelancer, fanboyism is a self-distraction. Like the mirror in Harry Potter, “it gives you neither knowledge nor truth.”

 I realize that is not the answer you were expecting. Some of that is a personal declaration. Pushing my desire for approval and validation to the side is something I've been struggling with the last two years. It’s something I feel that my Developers have been trying to teach me and it’s something I've struggled to understand. As I write this, I think I get it. Sometimes you have to set aside your own doubts in order to let your truly creative and awesome potential step forward and shine. The best Developers want that for their freelancers, whether or not they ever have the time to communicate it. It must be like waiting for someone to accept an invitation to their own party.

 That said, let have a moment to pay my respects to Michael Kortes. One can have two roles (freelancer and fan), if you keep them distinct and separate from each other. As a fan, I am humbled and inspired by Michael’s work. He created something truly mysterious, wondrous even, with the Aucturn Enigma and the Dominion of the Black. While my work on Mummy’s Mask took me in different directions, other recent Paizo projects (which are coming soon but I should refrain from discussing) did permit me to play in his sandbox. All I can say, I hope to leave such a powerful and lasting impression upon Golarion. I feel like I have become his secret ally and co-conspirator and that together we've taken active steps to pave the way for great adventures in the future. My esteem for him knows no bounds and it would be a genuine treat to meet him personally.

RB: If you’re reading this out there, Michael, come to Paizocon. You’ll make Jim’s day!

RB: So, was there anything—outside of Pathfinder material—that you looked into for research while working on the Half-Dead City?

JG: Well, I had the benefit of having Rob McCreary as a Developer and he is a resource unto himself with a degree in History. He provided visual cues and feedback to help guide me in setting the proper “fantasy Egypt” tone that the AP was calling for.

 I also did several internet searches on Egyptian architecture above and beyond what the tombs looked like.

RB: I'm not sure if you've read it, but Guy Boothby's pulp adventure novel Pharos the Egyptian seems to fit the theme of the Mummy's Mask exceptionally well. Did you draw any inspiration for the Half-Dead City from any pulp adventure fiction set in Egypt?

JG: Honestly, I have not read that. I can’t count the Brendon Fraser movies? Or Boris Karloff? Lovecraft touches upon the locale a little, but I can’t honestly say he inspired me this time (nor was he supposed to necessarily). I’m told Robert E. Howard is part of my education that is missing. To answer the question: I suppose not!

 Though, I always liked (but never got to run or play) the Torg RPG. I thought Dr. Mobius, an alternate reality pharaoh of a pulp fiction Egypt was really pretty cool. I liked White Wolf’s Adventure! for the same reason, that pulp fiction fun.

RB: You've got a few Adventure Path titles under your belt now. Tell us a little bit about your writing process; how do you tackle such a large project?

JG: Writing an Adventure Path is like a marathon. You’re best served starting promptly and maintaining a consistent and regular pace early on. You don’t necessarily have to write tons every day, but if you’re smart you’ll write something every day. If you’re an overachiever who does everything perfectly, you’ll start very promptly and shoot for 500 words a day. If you do that, you will have very few problems and probably do a really good job—although even 300 to 400 words a day will go a long way towards seeing yourself to your goal. You just need to remain constant and measured. That requires a certain amount of self-discipline. I’ll list some basic steps, but forgive me in advance if they have a certain fortune cookie common sense to them.

 1.) If you’re working for Paizo, you’ll receive a very detailed outline which you should read carefully. They have a ton of information for you, including an overview of the whole plot. These outlines alone can be 32 pages long and answer a great many questions right from the start.

 2.) If the Developer has not provided a list of suggested monsters, develop your own. Lately, as with Wrath of the Righteous and Mummy’s Mask, monsters have been suggested by the Developers (which is awesome). But for the sake of argument, let’s say you’re writing for a 3PP Adventure Path or for whatever reason your Developer did not provide a suggested list of critters, then you should definitely compile your own. It is a waste of your time to paw through books during the writing process in search of ideas. When you consider your target CRs, the adventure terrain, the adventure theme, you can draft a pretty broad list of creatures that are a good fit. Then, when you’re coming up with encounters, refer to that list instead of leafing through 5 books of monsters. I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t ever refer to your favorite Bestiary for a brainstorm, but you’ll find there are occasions when time is not on your side. Consider this to be preliminary research that you get out of the way early on. Later you can dedicate that time to writing an encounter, rather than trying to think of an encounter to write. Subtle but significant difference there!

 3.) You will be required to send your developer a preliminary outline of your adventure path. This sounds daunting, but it’s not. It is an informal outline that basically goes over your “game plan” of how you see your chapter being broken down and what sort of encounters you would like to use. This generates some good discussion and your developer can point out a few encounter ideas they’re concerned about before you become too invested in them. Alternately they can praise those ideas that they really like and let you know if you’re on the right track or not. Again, this is not a test; they just want to send you off in the right direction as early in the process as possible.

 4.) Next are the maps. I don’t know about other freelancers, but I need to have a map to write encounters! I start working on those very early.

 5.) Once the maps have been started, I begin writing. It is a little scattershot at first, with the introduction and Part One being written in parallel. Whenever I need a break I switch off to a few magic items or statting up NPCs. About the time the Introduction is done, the writing becomes a little more linear. You have to imagine that there is a little bit of everything being done at once. I might be working on the Part Two or Part Three Maps while I finish writing Part One. As you get closer to the end, it becomes a much more linear process.

RB: I’m glad you brought up map-making! One of the biggest challenges most aspiring designers face, especially aspiring designers in Paizo’s RPG Superstar competition, has been the "Design an Encounter" challenge. This is partly due to the cartography required. Being able to build an interesting encounter and a clear to understand map that is also more interesting than a 20 by 20 room is an important set of skills to have as an adventure designer. How do you approach adventure cartography?

JG: Tough one. Well, I know this: developers hope for more than boxy rectangular maps. You’re not hired to be an artist and your work is redone by the cartographer, yet the map is a piece of visual medium that the publisher wants to be interesting and cool to look at. Again, you’re not an artist but this is a place where you can really contribute to the product’s aesthetics and you should do so. I have done a boxy map that had interesting rooms inside but even a rectangular exterior can make your developer sigh. Although, sometimes the nature of the building makes it challenging, that is, you can only make a stable so exotic before it becomes silly.

 I’m also kind of a spacing nut. At some point as a designer, you will come across the question whether to make hallways and rooms unrealistically large compared to your own house or apartment, or try to be realistic and (in my opinion) make your combat encounters suck. Hang on folks, strong, decisive opinion incoming! I hate combat encounters in a long five-ft. by five-ft. corridor—and trust me so do your players. I hate combat encounters log jammed around a five foot doorway. I hate huge monsters that live in caves that can only be accessed by a long, five foot corridor. If you have a bunch of large creatures, make those damn hallways 10 feet wide and try some double doors that they can get through, and make their rooms large enough to make for a meaningful encounter. I absolutely do not care if the hallway in your apartment is three feet wide or how big your kitchen is. Get over it and accept the game for the way it is, or switch to a non-grid, abstract distance RPG (they do exist!) Sorry, it is a pet peeve of mine. A creature’s size is on their stat block—LOOK AT IT! 

 (Laughs) And my colleagues coach me on being assertive.

 Additionally, I like to bear in mind that any structure had a purpose and function prior to the PC’s arrival. If it is a bad guy headquarters, I like to consider where they eat, sleep, and eat. More than a few of my maps have bathrooms or privies. I like to take into account what the occupants are doing besides defending against the PCs. Not every locale needs to represent those amenities, but most structures are not built for the sole purpose of being invaded by PCs (though there are always exceptions to the rule). If it is a faith based locale, I try to imagine what a cleric, oracle, or other divine based class needs in order to pursue their faith. The same holds true with an arcanist. This isn't hard. It’s just a matter of considering the logical function of a locale. In the case of a ruin, I start to imagine how the locale has deteriorated over time and what events may have transpired prior to the arrival of the PCs. These could be events that happened recently or untold years earlier.

 I think I can sum this up. A logical framework for the locale that is independent of the PCs (but could still be designed for defense against adventurers) and then textured by history.

 Always add some cool touches. Secret doors and unusual features are delightful, as are traps (if you’re the GM).

RB: Is there a particular encounter map that you're especially proud of?

JG: Hinojai. Hinojai is a haunted mansion in my PFS scenario The Haunting of Hinojai. I was really trying to impress Mark Moreland and I knew nothing about ancient Asian architecture. In that instance I did do quite a bit of research on the internet. Now, I won’t say that Hinojai is historically accurate by any stretch, but I tried my hardest to at least capture the feel of old, haunted Asian manor and its grounds. I even looked at scary Asian video games. The manor had rectangular rooms, but the map was not boxy. It felt like someone’s home and I drew it to lend a definite Asian look which the cartographer did a great job of conveying. I worked hard on it and was proud of how it came out.

RB: Your last two Adventure Path books—The Shackled Hut and The Demon's Heresy—were both very sprawling adventures, inviting players to trek across the wild tundra of Irrisen and into the heart of the Worldwound, respectively. What was it like shifting gears to a very localized, site-based adventure for the Half-Dead City?

JG: It was challenging! I chomped at the bit a little bit. I have this instinct to add politics, romance, and intrigue into everything and Rob McCreary quite rightly gave me gentle reminder to focus on the type of adventure that was outlined. Yes, politics, romance, and intrigue are all wonderful things but so is exploration, discovery, and thrilling combat encounters.

 Plus I need to explain, it doesn't matter if I chomped or not. Your readers should understand that the process is a team effort. You needs to trust your Developer, let them do their job, and roll with it. You need talent and imagination to write an AP, but you also need to be able to follow instructions and trust your partner. With an AP, that partner is James Jacobs, Rob McCreary, and Adam Daigle. You can be a jet fuel genius, but if you’re royal pain in the ass who won’t or can’t take any direction, then you’re better off starting your own company and writing for yourself. Some people do! I like working for Paizo though and I need and appreciate being held accountable.

 I don’t want to be a suck-up, but those guys are wonderful to work with. Very fair, professional, and they do their best to set you up to succeed. Honestly, I can extend that same compliment to everyone at Paizo, including Mark Moreland, Patrick Renie, and the entire Design Crew (SKR, SRM, and JB).

 There were also other considerations with Half-Dead City. Adherence to deadline was very important. When your deadline is shorter, you’re smart to adhere to the outline tightly. So I quit chompin’ and started writing.

RB: If you had a dream project you could work on for Paizo, what would it be?

JG: Well, I have been intrigued by the aboleth mysteries since 2007. There are certain signs to watch for that I am not going to disclose, but they were disclosed by James Jacobs and he assures me that they’re still valid. “You’ll know the aboleth are up to something when X happens.” I love a good mystery. When they finally get used in a major way, I’d love to be involved.

 There is also something else that came about just this year and pertains to some material I wrote that builds upon the work of Michael Kortes. I’m not being specific because clues about the topic will be disclosed in a book to be released in a few months from now. I think that material will make a fantastic AP in a few years and when that day comes I would love to be involved.

 Finally, I’d love to see something done with Taldor. It is not a favorite location among all the Developers, though I believe Rob McCreary has his eye on it. There is potential there for a really exciting political story that could be a vehicle to make it a more interesting and exciting locale. Princess Eutropia’s rebellion? Could be fun!

 There’s also a wealth of source material on Andoran that could be tapped for an AP. I think it is safe to say that after Iron Gods I have a yearning for something political rather than cosmic. However, like any good freelancer, any job can be a fun job. You bring that positive energy with you.

RB: Tantalizing! I'm behind you one hundred percent on the Taldor Adventure Path, that would be one of my dreams too! Now the aboleth, as you mentioned, are certainly a fan-favorite antagonist. In fact, a long-running thread on the Paizo forums exists solely to speculate on who, of the well known NPCs on Golarion, is actually a veiled master in disguise. What about the aboleth interests you the most?

JG: I like the mystery, which is why I understand why Paizo protects that mystery so much. The aboleth run so counter to everything I expect from a fantasy setting. They dislike gods and divine magic but they don’t refute their existence. They feel like scientists but they have a strange unique magic, instead of technology (or it’s a technology we don’t recognize). There is the hint of psychic abilities. They do things on a grand scale. They’re spooky, mysterious, and smart. Also, they’re not invincible and in the grand scheme of things—they make mistakes and screw up like every other mortal race on Golarion. Like the elves, the drow, and the serpentfolk.

 I also really appreciate Paizo’s stance that aboleths are not behind every weird, cool thing on Golarion. Part of what makes them cool is how they’re handled—carefully and thoughtfully.

 RB: And I guess that brings us to a natural question to close on: who do you think is actually a veiled master in disguise?

 JG: I participated in that forum thread and I made about three guesses! Okay, I’ll give you my primary guess with some caveats.

 White Estrid.

 When I made that guess, all it got was a bemused chuckle from my fellow forumites and maybe a raised eyebrow from Erik Mona (her creator). I chuckled too, but not that loudly.

 Do I really think White Estrid is a veiled master? Well…  I would not bet cash money on it, but here’s why: White Estrid is a really cool story just based on what we know about her. I think it’s unlikely that Erik would say “Everything about this cool character is a lie because she’s a veiled master”, as shocking as it would be. She’s a really interesting NPC and that might not be the best use of her storytelling potential.

 Here’s what the folks on the forums who dismissed the idea may not be considering—it’s unlikely that Estrid is a V.M., but it’s entirely possible—and that is frightening to think about. The V.M.’s are that sneaky, smart, and devious that they could pull it off. Plus, I thought I made a good argument on the forums, even if I agree it is unlikely. But you get what I mean? I would put her on the suspect list, just because it underscores the level of menace a veiled master represents.

Want a more sensible guess? The Mayor of Ilizmagorti. That should bend your brain if you think about it.

RB: Jim, I think you’ve broken my brain a little. But in spite of that, I really appreciate you taking the time out to talk and sharing everything you did, it’s been a pleasure. The Half-Dead City, book 1 of the Mummy’s Mask adventure path, is unearthed in March; available at


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