Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Interview - Mark Seifter

Paizo Designer Mark Seifter
This week the Encounter Table is fortunate enough to sit down with the newest member of Paizo's family, designer Mark Seifter. Many of you from the Paizo community will recognize Mark from his posts under the alias "Rogue Eidolon" on the Paizo forums. Mark talks about Pathfinder Unchained, his first days as a Paizo employee, a humbling encounter with Frank Mentzer, and much more! Check out the interview after the break, and let us know what you think in the comments section or on the Encounter Table's Facebook page!

Robert Brookes: Mark, for the people unfamiliar with you, could you introduce yourself and tell everyone about what you do at Paizo?

Mark Seifter: Hi, I’m Mark Seifter, and I’m the newest designer at Paizo. That means I get to work with Jason Buhlman, Stephen Radney-Mcfarland, and Logan Bonner to conceive, design, and implement the products in the hardcover Pathfinder RPG line.

RB: Can you tell us a little bit about how you got into tabletop gaming?

MS: I was quite young at the time, but I remember a distant older cousin with a heavy accent was trying to explain the concept to me, and I continued to be confused by “If you can be a magic user or a thief, why would you want to be a clerk? That sounds boring. Do you just do paperwork?” Later, I received the box with Escape From Zanzer’s Dungeon as a gift, and after wrapping my head around Axel’s devious gambling games, I’ve been pretty good at dealing with probability; they may have nothing to do with each other, but most kids aren’t thinking about probability like that when they’re that age. I didn’t start actually following the rules or playing a consistent campaign until the late ‘90s, and at that point we were playing 2nd edition. I’ve been playing in some form or another ever since.

RB: How was the interview process for your position?

MS: Well, I sat down with Jason, Lisa, Erik, and Wes all at the same table, so no pressure there or anything! Honestly, I’m pretty weird in that I’m usually far less stressed while something is going on than I am after it’s over but before I hear the result. When something is still in my power to change, the pressure tends to make me bring on my game more, but once it’s out of my hands I start hyper-analyzing everything I could have done better.

RB: What was your first day at the Paizo offices like?

MS: Everything was sort of moving around me like bits and pieces of a larger machine. Imagine being trapped inside a clock and you’re not familiar with how all the pieces move. Due to a variety of factors (including Monster Codex being late enough in the process that everyone agreed bringing me up to speed would cost more effort than it would save), my first day wound up being a substantially different than my recent ones have been.

RB: On that note, how was your first Paizocon as a member of Paizo?

MS: I had a lot of fun interacting with the fans, although very few people knew who I was, so relatively few people came up to me.

RB: When we met at Paizocon, you told me a story about meeting D&D luminary Frank Mentzer for the first time. Could you retell that story for our readers?

MS: Erik brought Frank in to visit the different employees, and we chatted for a brief time. The part where I was blown away was at Paizocon. At one point, Frank came up to me and told me that he had really been impressed with me from the time we chatted and that he saw a spark in me, even among Paizo employees. Frank Mentzer said that! I think he must have mistaken youthful optimism and new guy naïveté, but let’s just say it was a good thing I was still sitting down at the time. I couldn’t think of any response but to stammer out a thanks, and since you’ve talked with me, you know usually I always have some kind of response handy.

RB: What is the most exciting/surprising thing you've learned/experienced since joining the Paizo team?

MS: I was most excited when the design team went on a retreat for a couple of days and just jammed on design, with no other distractions. I am brimming with excitement about the results of our retreat, but I’m afraid you’ll all have to wait for Pathfinder Unchained and beyond to see the fruits of our labor!

RB: You come to Paizo with a strong tie to the community via the Paizo messageboards, where you contributed regularly under the alias Rogue Eidolon. What are some of the accomplishments you made as a member of the community that you're most proud of?

MS: I’ve always been in favor of the forums being a happy and helpful place, so I’m proud of things I posted that helped the community or ameliorated conflicts. One of my most unexpected (if minor) achievements was calming a flamewar. I joined a thread with a raging argument about whether the D&D 3.5 edition’s 25 point buy or Pathfinder’s 15 point buy is actually the average of rolling 4d6 and dropping the lowest (it’s not—it’s the result of a 3.0 edition math error from taking the point buy of the average stat roll and multiplying it by 6, which doesn’t factor in the nonlinear component). When I wrote a program to roll 1 billion characters and figure out the average point buy, it turned out that both sides included programmers who were willing to accept the results of the Monte Carlo simulation if they could inspect the code. Shortly thereafter, there was an olive branch and a halfhearted apology and the flamewar ended. On the internet, usually that never happens.

RB: Do you feel your involvement with the Pathfinder community prior to your joining Paizo as an employee informs the decisions you make as an employee?

MS: I definitely do. I know what it’s like to be just another member of the community, so it’s easier for me to understand the pulse of the community and what people want. I also continue to use my general rule that I made for myself as a member of the community, which is to read everything in the most positive light possible and always assume the poster is trying to be constructive and helpful. After all, they could have been gaming, watching TV, or doing countless other things, but they took the time to post their thoughts on the thread. So even if their Diplomacy check was pretty low, they’ve clearly put in real effort and this is important enough to them to make their thoughts known. For this reason, I always consider the message and assume the manner was unintentional or lost in translation over the internet.

RB: Prior to joining Paizo you were deeply involved with the Pathfinder Society Organized Play as a 5-Star GM and Venture Lieutenant for Boston, Massachusetts. Do you feel your strong ties to PFS will influence your design decisions? 

MS: Mostly, they will help me with concerns about clarity. Clarity is always important, but it is critically important in PFS, where an ambiguous reading could result in someone flying out to a convention to discover that they've been playing an illegal character, left with a pregen or nothing. Also, by playing at and running hundreds of tables across the country (and rarely in other countries), I’ve seen all sorts of playstyles, rules combinations, and player types in the Pathfinder system (in the same way that quite a few other members of the Paizo staff have that experience for 3.5 via Living Greyhawk). It’s sort of like being “in the trenches”. Compared to my home games, where I can just use house rules to improve gameplay or ban a poorly-worded option, in PFS, there’s much less leeway, and even if a GM exercises that leeway in places where leeway exists, it can cause major friction if the player is expecting something else from previous tables.

RB: Do you feel that the Pathfinder system should be more closely aligned to Pathfinder Society expectations or designed with Pathfinder Society considerations in mind?

MS: Not really. PFS is a useful baseline playtest, so it’s a good way to collect data, but mostly that’s it. The one thing is that PFS has to be more parsimonious than a home GM would with banning elements, due to high demand to include more options, so I wish we had a good way to FAQ or errata books from lines other than the Pathfinder RPG line in case something is printed that is unclear or has unintended consequences.

RB: What steps are you taking to help streamline the Pathfinder RPG FAQ and Errata system?

MS: There isn’t really an automated system that handles these. It’s all about timing, reaching consensus, and recognizing when we’ve covered a FAQ-worthy “FAQ of opportunity” by accident. I’m hoping to combine all of these things in such a way that we have as many FAQs as we can!

RB: You're one of the designers involved with Pathfinder Unchained. What excites you about this project?

MS: I always loved books like Unearthed Arcana, as I’m a free spirit when it comes to dabbling with alternate rules and systems. So, it’s exciting to be able to really turn expectations on their heads and try something nuts with this book.

RB: What's the biggest challenge you've encountered designing Pathfinder Unchained?

MS: Honestly, the biggest challenge is balancing some of the more radical systems. As usual, alternate systems are going to alter the game’s power level depending on which system, and we know that, but some of them needed a whole bunch of hammering and forging to make sure they at least did that in a way that was more level (that is, grant either a uniform change or intended non-uniform changes, rather than making certain options radically different for unintended reasons).

RB: What are your thoughts on Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition?

MS: Ever since playing the early pre-beta way back when, I’ve been interested in some of the cool ideas in 5e. I hope I’ll get a chance to play it once the whole thing is released so I can compare and contrast to other editions and see what I like the most. I wish them luck—it’s always been my opinion that having more strong RPGs is good for exposure and thus good for all of us gamers.

RB: What do you think the biggest strength of the Pathfinder system is? 

MS: Because of the way the chassis works, it’s really easy to come up with new ideas for rules elements that feel and play drastically differently. At least for me, it calls to me like a siren’s call of different things to design and experiment. This isn’t really the case for me in some of the other systems I like to play (though it’s also true of 3rd edition D&D).

RB: What do you feel the biggest challenge the Pathfinder system has to overcome is?

MS: The biggest challenge is the kitchen sink effect that results directly from the aforementioned strength. No matter how tightly and clearly you word things, if you put out enough supplemental options and the GM allows all of them, you throw the game off over time. With unlimited ability to pull out access to whichever of those options they want, this is even true if every last thing is completely 100% balanced with everything that came before, for a similar reason that infinite monkeys will eventually get you Hamlet, even though each monkey is balanced with the other monkeys (except capuchins—capuchins OP, nerf capuchins!).

RB: The topic of balance between the character classes in Pathfinder is a contentious point among the game’s community. What are your opinions on class optimization and balance? 

MS: I think that balancing two classes against each other via a one-on-one duel is shortsighted. Actually following such a dynamic and balancing all classes until they are even in such duels is guaranteed to greatly weaken the classes that are supposed to be able to handle single enemies better than they can crowds. Instead, balancing for working with one another cooperatively is the way to go. It takes a lot of skill to create an optimized build for a single self-sufficient character, don’t get me wrong, but a party that works together is always going to outperform a party of self-sufficient characters who handle their own stuff. This is because the cooperative sort of play provides comparative advantage by allowing each party member to contribute in areas where that party member is able to contribute most efficiently, rather than forcing party members to come up with a way to inefficiently contribute the same effect on their own.

RB: Sean K. Reynolds left very large shoes to fill in his absence from Paizo. What do you feel is the most daunting aspect of taking his place on the team?

MS: The most daunting aspect is really the institutional knowledge that Sean had. One thing that is really fortunate is how amazing Stephen and Logan are as coworkers. I’ve never felt that I needed to be forced like a peg into an exactly Sean-shaped hole on the team, but rather that I can use my skills in areas where my talents are strongest, rather than just where Sean’s were, with each of us picking up some of the things that Sean used to do where we can.

RB: That said, what do you feel is the most exciting aspect of filling Sean's role?

MS: The most exciting aspect is that this is the role held by Sean K. Reynolds. I mean, I’ve been reading his name on game books since I was a teenager. My handle of Rogue Eidolon comes in a circuitous way from both the monster created by James Jacobs and the Ghostwalk setting that Sean and Monte Cook wrote for 3.5, rather than the summoner class, as many probably assumed (my handle predated that class anyway).

RB: If you had full creative control, what would be your dream project to develop for Pathfinder?

MS: There’s a difference between what project I would like to write and what project I would like to develop. I’d love to develop any project where all the authors submit beautiful and inspiring text that requires as little rewriting as possible. What I’d love to write most depends on my whims that day. Unchained is pretty cool, and something like that would be on there if we didn’t already have one. If it was something else, I would say a hardcover about social intrigue, social conflicts, social connections, and integrating those sorts of elements into your campaign in a way that engages the players with something less nebulous and keeps them on the edge of their seats hoping for more. If you mean in the Campaign Setting line or some other non-Pathfinder RPG line, a hardcover Pathfinder Campaign Setting: First World would be incredible.

RB: Since the Advanced Class Guide and Pathfinder Unchained have been in development for a while, what will be the first full Pathfinder RPG title you'll have had full involvement on?

MS: I actually have had my hand in developing Unchained about as much as the others (they were wrapping up the tail end of Monster Codex for my first few days). Also, as far as non RPG line goes, before being officially hired, I wrote a large portion of the announced Player Companion Familiar Folio, so you can see my work there. I also designed the new pregens for Pathfinder Society.

RB: With the Advanced Class Guide just around the corner, what kinds of things can we expect to see in it aside from the new advanced classes?

MS: There’s tons of archetypes, of course, as well as feats, spells, and items. A favorite is the item that lets you summon leshys with summon nature’s ally. Leshys for life! Wouldn’t it be cool to have one as a familiar? Well that’s not in here, but you can still summon them. Also, the advice section at the back on building new classes is really nice. I think it’ll be a must-have reference for budding designers hoping to write a new class.

RB: What are you most excited about people seeing in the Advanced Class Guide?

MS: I’m excited less about people seeing any particular rules element (after all, these aren’t my babies—I came here with the book long done) and more by the prospect of people seeing the things that make them say “Oh man, I totally have to use this for my (next) character!” I suppose I do also have an increased vested interest in all of Sean’s classes now after writing the preview blogs for them. I guess they’re my godchildren now or something like that.

RB: In closing, what advice do you have for all of the aspiring RPG designers out there who want to follow in your footsteps?

MS: Don’t be afraid to ask for work or to submit your application. Gamers are really good at optimizing their adventuring party by figuring out what characters would fit best, so if you are awesome, publishers will want you. The main thing that kept me from publishing my work for profit for quite a few years was simply that I had always assumed it was hard to break in. In reality, the first time I asked for an assignment as a freelancer, the publisher just said ‘Yes’. Actually, I’ve never had a publisher say ‘No’ to me on an idea.

RB: The Encounter Table would like to thank Mark Seifter for taking the time out for this interview and the wonderful Jenny Bendel for helping coordinate the interview logistics. You’ll see Mark’s work in the upcoming Pathfinder Unchained, Paizo blog posts, and more!

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