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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: James L. Sutter on Writing, RPGs and the Game Designer Cage Match

James Lafond Sutter is the Fiction Editor for Paizo Publishing and a co-creator of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game campaign setting. He is the author of the novel Death’s Heretic, which Barnes & Noble ranked #3 on its list of Best Fantasy Releases of 2011. He’s also written numerous short stories for such publications as Escape Pod, PodCastle, Starship Sofa, Apex Magazine, Black Gate, and the #1 Amazon bestseller Machine of Death. His anthology Before They Were Giants pairs the first published short stories of science fiction and fantasy luminaries with new interviews and writing advice from the authors themselves. In addition, he’s published a wealth of gaming material for both Dungeons & Dragons and the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. When not writing or editing, James has performed extensively with various bands and other musical projects ranging from punk and progressive metalcore to folk and musical theater. James lives in Seattle with several roommates and a fully functional death ray. For more, check out or follow him on Twitter at @jameslsutter.

Charles Tan: First off, how did you first get acquainted with speculative fiction? With tabletop gaming?

James L. Sutter: I’ve loved speculative fiction for as long as I can remember. One of my earliest book-related memories is buying Richard A. Knaak’s The Crystal Dragon (because it had not just a dragon but a holographic dragon on the cover!), but I suspect I was reading it even before that. I know that by the time I was in third grade I’d read all of Michael Crichton’s science fiction. So it really has been a lifelong affair for me, and one which gets more robust every year.

Gaming and I have had a more tumultuous relationship. I first discovered roleplaying games in fifth grade, when my teacher Mr. Tivnan taught several of us how to play first edition D&D on our lunch breaks. After that campaign finished, none of us really had any idea how to acquire RPG books, so instead we began creating our own roleplaying games based on everything from the wild west to Brian Jacques’ Redwall novels. Eventually some of us got hold of the real deal–things like D&D and Battletech and Warhammer–and those games defined our summers up through the end of high school. After that, I lost touch with gaming for a few years as I focused on writing and playing in bands. It wasn’t until I started working at Paizo in late 2004/early 2005 that I really rediscovered my love of gaming again, and I’ve been playing regularly ever since.

CT: You’ve written both short stories and novels. Which are you more comfortable with?

JS: I’ve always wanted to be a novelist, but for the longest time, I was terrified of the idea. A novel! Think of the commitment–writing the same thing day after day, for months! Years! As a result of that fear, I stuck strictly to short stories for many years. It was only through creating and editing the Pathfinder tie-in fiction that I began to lose my near-religious awe of novels as an art form, to understand how they were put together, and that it was really no harder than a short story project–just longer. In particular, it was attempting to outline and steer the novel-length serial The Compass Stone, which I commissioned from numerous authors including myself, that made me realize that there was no magic involved, just work. I immediately started working on a science fiction novel, which was then shelved when I was tapped for a Pathfinder Tales novel by Paizo Publisher Erik Mona.

All of which is my long explanation for how I went from fearing novels to thinking they’re actually much easier than short stories. With a short story, you have to come up with all new ideas and characters every 5,000 words. With a novel, you can just do one big outline and roll on that for months. You always know where you’re going, and you never have to worry (or at least, not as much) about the terror of the blank page. You can carry that momentum forward.

CT: You’ve also edited an anthology, edit a line of books, and design games. At this point in time, in your mind, which is more dominant: the writer, the editor, the game designer?

JS: The writer in me will always be the strongest, as it was there first, and it’s really the one that drives the other two. For me, game design has always been about creating worlds and telling stories, which is precisely the same motivation behind writing. And editing is about helping other people polish their ideas and prose (in the process becoming a better writer yourself). I have tremendous love for all three roles, but if forced to choose, it all comes down to writing.

CT: How has your experience as Fiction Editor and anthology editor influenced the way you write? How about the impact of game development when it comes to the way you write?

JS: Editing has done wonders for my writing, and I would recommend it to every writer. Editing lets you learn from the mistakes of others. By specifically searching out those things that aren’t working in someone’s writing–whether particular turns of phrase and grammatical mistakes, clichés, pacing issues, etc.–you learn how to avoid them. You learn which ideas are hackneyed, and the nuts and bolts of how to pitch and outline a story that someone wants to buy. You learn what behaviors annoy editors, and what makes them want to cross a lake of fire for you. And you can incorporate all of that into making yourself the best author you can be, both in the quality of your work and in your ability to sell it.

Game development is a different beast, but it’s still extremely useful. Game development taught me the joy of having consistency and logic in your magic systems. It taught me how to design monsters that feel unique while also understanding why they are the way they are and how they fit into their ecological niche. Most importantly, it continues to teach me how to create compelling settings, to make your landscapes alone something that can pull someone in, and to keep your world more than just a narrow cardboard alley leading your protagonists from point A to point B. The primary reason I love SF is for the new worlds and vistas it creates, the bizarre races and cultures, and gaming is all about that.

CT: For those who haven’t heard the story, how did you end up writing a novel in the Pathfinder Tales series while acting as the Fiction Editor?

JS: As the Fiction Editor, I felt that it was terribly inappropriate for me to assign myself a novel, especially my first novel–talk about nepotism, right? But then one day Erik Mona snagged a short story off the office printer which didn’t have a byline on it–“Death at the Swaddled Otter,” which ran in Pathfinder Adventure Path. He read it, stopped by my cubicle, and said “Hey, you should give this guy a book.” I told him that in fact I had written that one, at which point he said, “Well, then you should write a book.” When I brought up the nepotism angle, he pointed out that he was my boss, and that he wasn’t precisely asking. Thus absolved, I got to work. The result was Death’s Heretic.

CT: When creating your characters for Death’s Heretic, do you ever consider their stats in the game? For example, did you have Salim’s character class in mind when writing him, or do you conceive the character first and let the game designers/gamer-readers figure out his stats?

JS: While I generally don’t make my authors stat out their characters completely–who cares how many feats a warrior has?–I think it’s extremely important for authors to at least have an idea of what classes and levels are involved, especially where magic is concerned. You may not be able to tell a 3rd-level fighter from a 10th-level one when all you’re describing is the swinging of swords, but if your low-level magic user suddenly starts casting high-level spells like wish, all the readers who are also gamers are going to be knocked out of the story.

For Death’s Heretic, I knew that Salim was a perfect fit for the inquisitor class from the Advanced Player’s Guide, with probably some fighter levels thrown in there. That was crucial in figuring out what spells he had access to, and those abilities in turn helped shape the plot. Writing a mystery is already hard when magic’s involved, and many traditional story tropes get turned on their head in a fantasy setting–for instance, in the Pathfinder RPG, if you want to know who killed someone, the easiest way is often to cast speak with dead and simply ask the corpse yourself. The other characters were simpler–a cleric here, an aristocrat or expert there–but it was still very useful.

That said, while I make sure that I know what classes and levels all our major fiction characters are, I’m always extremely reluctant to publish their full stats. Stat blocks are a snapshot in time, and our characters are constantly growing and evolving, even within a single book. I want authors to have the freedom to guide character growth over potential sequels, not feel like they need to be married to every skill point and feat. The stories must always work within the rules, but that doesn’t mean we have to box folks in from the very start.

CT: What were the challenges in writing Death’s Heretic? For example, I heard in an interview that there was a certain magic item’s game stats were changed midway…

JS: Ha! Well, yes, the sun orchid elixir (a magic potion that extends the drinker’s life, and which is the impetus for the plot in Death’s Heretic) did change when we updated our campaign setting from 3.5 D&D to the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. Before it simply paused the clock, whereas currently it actually acts more like a fountain of youth. That added some additional complexity to the mystery, as anyone who took it illicitly would have to hide their suddenly reduced age. Ultimately, it ended up requiring relatively few changes, but as my coworkers will tell you, there was definitely some panic sweat in my cube the day that little gem was discovered…

Parallel development is just one of the perils of working in a shared world, though. It can be hard to not have total control, but in exchange you get to incorporate work from other talented folks–in this case, the Paizo team, who are some of the most creative and talented world designers I’ve ever met.

Beyond that, the main challenges were those any author faces: Deciding on an idea. Finding the time to write. Making sure your characters come across the way you want them to. In retrospect, it feels pretty easy, but staring down the prospect of outlining a sequel, I’m suddenly remembering just how much work and luck went into that initial proposal.

CT: What were your objectives when writing Death’s Heretic? How about your objectives for the other novels in the Pathfinder Tales line (or: what do you look for in a Pathfinder Tales novel?)?

JS: With Death’s Heretic, I wanted a few things. I wanted to explore the Outer Planes (our terms for the various afterlives like Heaven, Hell, etc.), and take people on a grand tour of some of the more fascinating spots in our multiverse. I wanted to explore the idea of atheism in a setting where the gods are objectively real, and what it means to reject worship even as you’re forced into service. I wanted to write about a protagonist and setting that was more Middle Eastern in flavor than standard European fantasy. And I really, really wanted to write a fantasy novel that was good enough to justify my position as the guy in charge of the fiction line. (Not that all editors need to be great writers, but it helps, ya know?)

With the Pathfinder Tales line in general, I’m always looking for novels that can explore and spotlight new portions of our world, and new characters that can inspire people creatively. There’s a perception out there that tie-in novels are always bland and lowest-common-denominator, and I really want to change that. The Pathfinder world is an asset, not a shackle, and I want to see books that use that to its fullest, really spawning out of what’s already been created rather than just a generic fantasy story with some proper nouns dropped in. At the same time, I think it’s both possible and vital to write a story that’s set in Golarion without fundamentally changing the setting in a way that would invalidate everything that’s come before. It’s the idea of small stories with big adventure. Most of the best stories set in our world don’t fundamentally change the landscape, or shift national borders, or overthrow major religions. They’re stories about people, and those people might live a few blocks away from you, their dramas and comedies and action adventures playing out without you even knowing it. (After all, are you sure your apartment neighbor isn’t an ancient immortal warrior living in disguise?)

CT: What’s your alignment? What’s the alignment that you usually roleplay in a game?

JS: In real life? I’d love to say chaotic good, but I’ll admit that I tend to follow the letter of the law if I don’t have a deliberate objection to it. So probably neutral good–I’m all in favor of revolution when it’s necessary, but I like to work within the system when that seems more feasible and efficient. I’m equally a fan of individual liberties and working for the collective good, and I believe strongly in that Gandhi quote which says we need to be the change we want to see in the world.

In gaming, though, I tend to roll with chaotic characters, and not always really good guys. I like to poke holes in the alignment system (ask me about my dragon eugenics experiment sometime), and think that the whole idea of objective good and evil is a bit simplistic, so I don’t pay too much attention. My characters are usually a bit iconoclastic–my last was a nutty elven atheist who believed the gods were fake and that clerics were just self-deluding sorcerers without the courage to take responsibility for their actions. My current character is much more bouncy and good-natured: a crow-headed tengu folk hero named Artemis Kraugh who gives me the chance to take crazy risks and do a lot of victory screeching. (My coworkers are very tolerant.)

CT: Demons or Devils?

JS: Devils. At least in Pathfinder, demons are all chaos and evil, but devils have a plan. They keep their word, and there’s only a hair’s breadth of difference between a perfectly ordered society that’s used for good (Heaven) and one that’s used for evil (Hell). From a certain point of view, both are fascist, one’s just got a better PR campaign. Or at least, that’s what the devils will tell you.

CT: In cage match between you, Erik Mona, James Jacobs, and Jason Bulmahn, who would be the first one to be eliminated?

JS: Jacobs. He’s a big guy, but he’s just too nice–I can’t imagine him taking a swing at anybody. I’m also pretty peaceful, but I can run faster than any of them, which has to count for something. Jason’s a big guy–probably six and a half feet tall, if not more–and I could see him going all Andre the Giant or drunken berserker if you got his blood up. And Erik’s been in management long enough to develop laser eyes, so he’d undoubtedly be the last guy standing.

CT: What made you decide to hire a publicist for your book?

JS: Paizo has traditionally done all its publicity in-house, but as the Pathfinder RPG has gotten more popular, we’ve had to expand quickly. Erik and I really believed that we needed someone else to help throw a shoulder behind the novel line while it’s still in its infancy–we’ve only been publishing novels for about 16 months–and help us get it into the public eye. John Joseph Adams and I have been friends for a while now, and when he decided to start doing freelance publicity work, I immediately did everything I could to bring him on board, starting with my book. It’s been a great working relationship.

That said, few people have the luxury of hiring a publicist, and I know that I’m personally always still on the lookout for self-promotion opportunities. My advice to other authors–and I bet John would agree–is that even if you do wrangle a publicist, you can’t leave it at that. Look for conversations to participate in. Make friends in the community. Write guest blog posts. Offer reviewers copies of your novel. Do interviews. In short: participate in the community. The days where an author can sit in a cave and write all day are over. If you want people to read your stuff, you’re going to need to do some footwork. Publishers and editors expect it, and if you’re not willing to spend some time and energy promoting yourself, there are a dozen equally awesome authors who are. Whose book do you think the publisher’s going to buy?

CT: What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

JS: Write and submit. That’s all there is to it. You can read all the advice you want, perfect that novel idea, become best buds with every agent and publisher in the industry, but if you never finish your manuscript and send it out, none of that matters. There was a quote from Orson Scott Card that I used to hang over my desk, which went something like: “Send out today the best work you’re capable of today. Yes, in a year, you’ll be better–but then you should be working on what excites you then, not still revising this year’s story.” Writing is about putting yourself out there and taking risks. You need a little bit of hubris to get by in this business–not enough to make you a jerk, but enough to continue saying “Yes, this is good, I can do this” even as you get rejection after rejection. Do that long enough, and someday someone is going to agree with you.

I’ve often heard the advice that you know you’re a writer when you can’t not write, that people really cut out for the job need to write all the time. That it’s not even a choice for them. This is, in a word, bullshit. Maybe it’s true for some folks, but most of the professional authors I know can think of any number of things they’d rather do than write. Writing is solitary, and hard, and intimidating, and takes up a lot of time. Most writers sitting down to write find themselves suddenly struck by a compulsion to do literally anything else–my bedroom is never so clean as when I’m avoiding a deadline. The real point is that if you want to be a writer, you need to want it bad enough to push through all that and actually put words on the page. Once I’m actually writing, I often get carried away and enjoy myself immensely, but when I’m first sitting down to write, it’s a chore, like exercise–I don’t want to write, I want to have written.

All of that said: Editing is great training. Getting paid to write anything–journalism, game books, tech manuals, blogs–is a chance to build up your resume and get feedback from people who have a financial incentive to help you improve. Writing groups and classes can help hold your feet to the fire (though eventually you’ll need to learn to do that for yourself). There are great online communities and resources like Inkpunks or Sterling Editing or SF Signal where you can go for tips and inspiration. There are books (like my anthology Before They Were Giants) that collect advice and information from the writers you admire most.

But at its base, everything comes down to writing and submitting. As long as you’re doing that, you’re a writer. If there’s anything I’ve learned from my time in both publishing and playing in bands, it’s that it’s rarely the most talented artist who succeeds. It’s the one with the most perseverance.

CT: What projects are you currently working on?

JS: I just finished writing an adventure for the upcoming Shattered Star Adventure Path, and my guide to the Pathfinder solar system, Distant Worlds, hits the streets in February, along with a podcast reprint of my story “Overclocking” on Escape Pod. But in terms of current projects, the main thing filling my 2012 calendar is the prospect of a sequel to Death’s Heretic. I’ve got most of the details worked out now, but of course nothing’s final until it gets the stamp of approval from the rest of the Paizo team…

1 Comment on EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: James L. Sutter on Writing, RPGs and the Game Designer Cage Match

  1. Thanks, Charles.

    I will be extremely curious, from a gamer’s point of view, what James thinks of WOTC’s big announcement today.

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