Interview: F. Wesley Schneider (Pathfinder Tales: Bloodbound)

Interview: F. Wesley Schneider (Pathfinder Tales: Bloodbound)

Jan 21, 2016

1WesSchneider-11When I sat down with F. Wesley Schneider, co-creator of the Pathfinder RPG and Editor-in-Chief of Paizo, Inc., to discuss his novel, “Pathfinder Tales: Bloodbound,” I didn’t realize just how caught up we would become in a world-building of our own, featuring Schneider’s actual life and everything he has going on in it. Every minute of this discussion is worth it, as he’s an interesting man, with a strong love for horror and writing and creating, and the interview will let you jump into the mind of Schneider as you might never have otherwise.

 

Erin: Welcome to Beneath the Underground! I’m thrilled you’ve taken the time to chat with us today and congrats on the release of your book, Pathfinder Tales: Bloodbound, which is available now. Did your new year set off to a great start then?

F. Wesley: Absolutely! Just getting back into things. Got a pretty busy year ahead, but looking forward to lots of cool stuff!

Erin: Not only are you the co-creator of the roleplaying game, Pathfinder, and the Editor-in-Chief of Paizo, Inc. (its publisher), you’ve now turned your hand to writing a novel in the Pathfinder novel series, published in December 2015 by TOR. As busy as you are with the Pathfinder universe and more, and with so many other writers to choose from, what was the motivation behind writing one yourself?

F. Wesley: I hadn’t planned to, but Paizo editor James Sutter kind of bullied me into it. Back in 2011, I was working on scripting Pathfinder’s next horror themed adventure series, the Carrion Crown Adventure Path. I had set aside the campaign’s vampire adventure to write myself when Sutter—our sole fiction editor at the time—asked me to write the fiction segments for the entire series. I had done a few fiction snippets here and there previously, so I agreed. This touched off the six-part, serial novella “Guilty Blood,” which shares a few characters and settings with Bloodbound. I’d been intimidated by writing fiction previous to that but walked away from the experience thinking, “Huh, I guess I can do fiction now.That sort of touched things off. After that, I wrote a few other short fiction pieces for Sutter until he finally asked when I was going to write him a novel. It took quite some time, but Bloodbound was the result.

Erin: The novel is extremely well-written with beautiful descriptive details. Have you written anything else before? Have you always had the writing bug? What is different about writing a novel as compared to writing for the Pathfinder game?

F. Wesley: Why thank you! I’ve been designing games and writing RPG adventures since the late ’90s. At this point, I’ve got quite a number of big world-building books and pretty meaty adventures under my belt—like Rule of Fear and Seven Days to the Grave. So yeah, on top of the writing I do as my day job, I’ve kept a pretty aggressive freelance schedule for quite some time.

After finishing Bloodbound, I dove right back into RPG writing. The back-to-back experiences through fiction writing and game writing are a pretty stark contrast for me. Ultimately, fiction writing is much more like the experience of playing an RPG than writing RPG content usually is. Writing fiction, you put yourself into numerous roles, you control the setting, you concoct the villain’s plot, you control the story—it’s sort of the ultimate one-player RPG. Actual RPG writing, though—particularly adventure writing—is this weird, technical beast where you’re giving strangers everything they need to tell a story, but none of you know exactly what the main characters are going to do. Compared to fiction writing, it can be sort of maddening. But, with fiction writing, you’re telling one story. With RPG adventure writing, you’re telling a number of stories that are as varied as the groups that play them. They each have their own pitfalls and rewards, but I enjoy both—and certainly intend to write more of each.

Erin: I enjoy dark fantasy and horror, especially with gothic elements. I understand your novel is set within the Pathfinder universe, but can you talk a bit about the idea for the story line and its elements?

F. Wesley: My elevator pitch for Bloodbound has been, “What if Van Helsing just stopped pursuing Dracula? How does Dracula handle getting snubbed?” Beyond what’s in Stoker’s novel—drawing in a slew of Hammer horror productions—Van Helsing and Dracula share one of fiction’s great romances. There’s typically a fateful meeting, Dracula runs, Van Helsing pursues, lots of fluids are exchanged, wild stuff. But what happens when Dracula turns around and Van Helsing’s just not there anymore? Can you just dump Dracula?

That’s the setup for the Bloodbound plot, wherein one of the Pathfinder world’s most prominent vampire hunters puts her lifelong pursuit of her vampire quarry behind her. While she’s grown old and her passions have cooled, her undead rival’s just as vigorous as ever. In fact, the chase is the only thing that makes the long-dead villain feel alive. Trying to reinvigorate their decades-old love/hate affair touches off a whole series of events, ultimately drawing in a new generation of vampire hunters.

Erin: What was the inspiration for Larsa, your half-vampire and half-human agent, and her story? Why did you choose a woman to play the lead?

220px-Robert_E_Howard_suitF. Wesley: You don’t have to look any farther than the “Bloodbound cover to see parallels with Hideyuki Kikuchi’s Vampire Hunter D—dark getup, snazzy hat, semi-dead complexion, there’s more than a few similarities there. I’m an unabashed fan of dark fantasy anime, so there’s certainly some direct inspiration. But I’m an even bigger fan of Robert E. Howard. So for my vampire hunter I wanted to go to the source: Howard’s classic corpse-killer, Solomon Kane. Kane has influenced nearly a century of fictional monster hunters with his ingenuity and taste in headwear. I’ve always envied Howard’s mastery of action and suspense and regularly look to his work when I have a fight scene to write. So Kane, as an archetypical vampire hunter, influenced my vision of for the “Bloodbound protagonist from day one.

But Kane is Howard’s character, and an archetype. That makes him a starting point, not the end-all, be-all. I needed to make my vampire hunter different and interesting to write in my own way. I’d already established that the Pathfinder world’s Van Helsing, a character named Alison Kindler, was a woman, so it made perfect sense for her reluctant replacement to be a woman as well. It’s also just more interesting, since I can’t name a dozen lady-Kanes in the same way I can dude-Kanes. And, frankly, it’s about time we saw some men in nightclothes swooning under vampire kisses while women avenge them at stake-point.

Erin: For fans of the Pathfinder universe, and with the novel line being published since 2010 featuring numerous authors, can you talk about how the story lines fit (or don’t fit) together? Can you pick up your book to read, even if you’ve never experienced Pathfinder as a whole before, and still have an enjoyable read?

F. Wesley: Absolutely! The Pathfinder RPG is all about telling awesome fantasy stories. The Pathfinder Tales line has the exact same mandate. While the RPG provides familiar settings and monsters, it’s important to us that anyone can pick up a Pathfinder Tales novel and find a story they’ll understand and enjoy. While there might be the occasional Easter Egg for Pathfinder RPG players to pick up on, Pathfinder Tales are first and foremost great fantasy novels. If they help provide gamers with a greater understanding of the Pathfinder world, fantastic! But story comes first.

As for reading order, you won’t see numbers on any Pathfinder Tales. That’s because each is meant to be an entry point to the Pathfinder world. Even stories featuring characters from past novels are written to be stand-alone adventures. While they might passingly reference previous adventures or developments, they’re all given context enough that the story works alone. Dave Gross, Chris A. Jackson, Liane Merciel, Howard Andrew Jones, and others have quite a few Pathfinder Tales stories and some rather popular characters with us now. But whether it’s those characters first adventure or their fortieth, we want to keep them accessible. Some RPG worlds have a reputation for being insurmountable lore-mountains. We don’t want the Pathfinder world to feel like that, or force readers to have to do a bunch of detective work to find an entry point. So jump on the Pathfinder Tales train wherever you like!

Erin: Do you have hopes to write more books for the Pathfinder series yourself? What plans as a whole do you have for the novel series?

 

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F. Wesley: I’ve only seen a few reviews for Bloodbound at this point, but they’re pretty positive so far. Sutter’s also already threatening me with “what’s next” questions. After I finished Bloodbound (in late 2014), I spent most of 2015 writing RPG stuff, and I confess I’m starting to feel the fiction itch again. So, we’ll see where that goes.

If I were to do something else with the “Bloodbound main characters, though, I’d probably swing around to focus more on Jadain—our humanist death priestess. Larsa has more of a personal investment in the plot of Bloodblound, so it seems only fair that she repay the favor in a plot driven by Jadain’s situation. I’m sort of a sadist when it comes to my characters, though, so I doubt that means good times ahead for Jadain.

Oh, and we’d certainly see more of Considine. Larsa’s sarcastic, vampire half-brother was easily my favorite character to write, so he’d have to have another significant role. But we’ll see!

Erin: Do you wish to write more novels yourself, outside of the Pathfinder Tales” series? Why or why not? If yes, what types of books would you write?

F. Wesley: I know it sounds cliché, but I learned a ton writing my first novel. And frankly, I overdid it—Bloodbound is the longest Pathfinder Tales novel we’ve ever published (so, if you’re looking to get some extra bang out of your novel dollar…). I think I have a much better understanding of how much story fits in a novel-sized format now, so I suspect that writing another would be not just easier, but faster. In any case, I’m eager to test a few hypotheses.

Whether that writing happens in the Pathfinder world or elsewhere, though, I’m flexible. I’ve put a ton of work into Pathfinder, particularly into my personal corner of that setting, the gothic horror realm of Ustalav. I’ve joked in the past about how, despite Pathfinder’s world being a shared setting, that Ustalav is the part I don’t share. So I feel like I have my own mini-world within the larger whole and there’s still tons I’d like to explore. If I ever did another Pathfinder Tales novel, you can bet it’d be set there.

But, despite it feeling that way sometimes, I’m not married to the Pathfinder RPG. I freelance for other tabletop and video game companies and, if the right project comes along, I’m totally up for writing more creepy fiction. In fact, I just had a short story release in Posthuman Studios’s Eclipse Phase: After the Fall anthology, a collection of transhuman survival and horror stories. I’ve described my contribution, “Stray Thoughts,” as a faux-noir tale featuring a hard-boiled Hawaiian detective, her gender-fluid sex-worker kid, a disembodied dad, and mass possession in the skies over Venus. I had a ton of fun with that one. The whole Posthuman Studios crew and editor Jaym Gates are brilliant folks, and the anthology turned out great—I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Erin: As I stated before, you were a co-creator of the Pathfinder game. Have you written and created other games? Your daily duties must be daunting. Can you explain all that goes into the SCHNEIDER universe?

F. Wesley: Certainly the bulk of my work in the last decade has gone into the Pathfinder RPG, specifically defining and expanding the Pathfinder world. As Editor-in-Chief at Paizo, I oversee our editing and development departments, the two amazing teams most responsible for the stories and world building that come out of the Pathfinder setting. Before that, though, I was an editor in Dragon magazine, the official Dungeons & Dragons magazine, and wrote several adventures and accessories for that game. But over the years I’ve been fortunate enough to work with a lot of incredible companies. Just recently, the folks as Green Ronin Publishing were kind enough to let me contribute something moody to their new version of the Blue Rose romantic fantasy RPG, while the team at Pelgrane Press kindly enlisted me to write monsters for their audacious new Dracula Dossier project. Getting to flit between worlds and projects is fun, but also keeps things fresh—there’s few things worse than writing in a rut.

But creepiness is the recurring theme there. I really enjoy moody horror stories, movies, and games, and clearly that interest colors any work I do off the clock. While helping to build the Pathfinder world is a fantastic day job, it’s still hard work that often has more to do with deadlines than dragons. That’s a big part of why I freelance as much as I do and why I so covetously defend my personal writing time. At work, I’m part of a team and as a group the Paizo team does some amazing stuff. With my own writing, though, I get to pick and choose what interests me and write it however I want. I love that I’m in a place where the dark fantasy elements I enjoy so often overlap with the world I helped create. But bouncing around helps any one project from getting stale, and sometimes wild ideas that won’t work for one thing feed into the next.

Erin: What is your favorite part of your own SCHNEIDER world? What is your favorite part about the Pathfinder world?

F. Wesley: Currently those are largely one in the same. I regularly get the opportunity to influence the Pathfinder RPG as both one of Paizo’s senior creatives and as a freelancer, adding my philosophies and the stories I want to tell to the game. For example, Pathfinder RPG Horror Adventures is on track to be Paizo’s major Pathfinder release this summer. I’ve been pushing of that book for some time now, had a hand in outlining it, and wrote a significant chunk. Sometimes things come together perfectly and I can help make sure a dream project hits the Paizo schedule. But more often personal schemes come in the form of slow reveals and building toward things down the line. For example, if you find 2008’s Pathfinder Adventure Path: “Seven Days to the Grave” and go to page 78, you’ll find a character illustrated who looks very much like Bloodbound protagonist Larsa. That was the first place that Ailson Kindler, Pathfinder’s Van Helsing, ever appeared. Over time, through several products and in-world references, Ms. Kinder grew into something of a Mary-Sue character of mine, so much so that I made her a character in my Pathfinder novella “Guilty Blood” and again in Bloodbound. This sort of world building often feels like gardening, you plant a bunch of seeds and every now and then something sprouts into something amazing.

Erin: I read that you have passionate opinions about horror, world-building, and storytelling. What are your opinions on the horror genre in regards to books and movies?

F. Wesley: I’m a huge fan of baroque, gothic horror tales—if Bloodbound didn’t give that away. I love stories where every bit of the setting oozes doom, the classic tales in creepy houses with vengeful ghosts and optimistic or ambitious lambs to the slaughter. I’m a Baltimore kid, so I grew up with Poe, but Sheridan Le Fanu, Shirley Jackson, and Clive Barker quickly became some of my favorites. I also joked a lot last year that I was going to get the entire film Crimson Peak as a back tattoo—Guillermo del Toro being one of my favorite horror filmmakers, closely followed by James Wan. But what I love about the best horror and suspense stories is our visceral reaction to them. Sure, watching a romance movie you might have a few “daww” moments, and an intense action story might kick in some adrenaline, but a good horror tale convinces you that it’s real. At some point, you’re sitting there reading and, despite all logic, despite all you know of the world, you stand up and you turn on the lights. I absolutely love that. When I’m reading fantasy, I never check in the closet to make sure there are no dwarves hiding in the dark. That’s not the case with horror.

During the day, we say there’s no such thing as monsters. At night, when we prod that belief, we’re not so confident. I love horror’s ability to break down the wall between reality and fantasy, to make us viscerally feel like we’re party to a story’s danger. I’m also a big fan of anything that blurs that line even more. Some of my favorite horror tales are ghost stories, urban legends, and frightening folklore—you’ll find both my bookshelves and the Pathfinder RPG’s bestiaries filled with such legendary terrors. But, I also love the modern expressions of these stories. There are a ton of great horror tabletop roleplaying games out right now, of which Dread is by far the best. Horror videogames go even farther in blurring the line between threatening a character and threatening a player, and impending virtual reality options promise some really terrifying experiences. But hardware aside, I love the transition urban legendary has made in the past two decades into the realm of creepypasta, and internet myth sharing. Of course, the whole Slenderman mythology is the best known, but there are dozens of fantastic tales out there that play with and prey on our tendencies to take what we read online as fact. All of that’s fantastic, powerful stuff that I thoroughly enjoy both experiencing and contributing to. And if I can tell a story that people tell me actually scared them, well, there’s pretty much not a better compliment a horror storyteller can get.

Erin: If you have any spare time for reading or film watching, what are some of your all-time favorites, any books that inspire you, and name some current or upcoming books/films you like or can’t wait to watch/read?

324262._SX360_QL80_TTD_F. Wesley: I’ve been reading a lot of comics recently—even writing a few with Dynamite’s Pathfinder: Hollow Mountain series—so I’m excited for more of Kurtis Wiebe’s Rat Queens, Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden’s Baltimore, Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie Wicked + Divine, and Jim Zub’s Wayward.” I mentioned James Wan earlier, and I couldn’t be more wound up for The Conjuring 2. The Conjuring was my favorite horror film of 2013, and this one looks like it has the potential to be just as moody. I also really dig Koji Suzuki’s Ringu series, so I’m cautiously optimistic about April’s release of Rings—the third in the U.S. The Ring series.

 As for favorite fiction, I’ll give the story at the top of the heap: Robert E. Howard’s “Pigeons from Hell.” Maybe I like it because I’m from the South and have a soft spot for Southern Gothic stories. Maybe it’s because I’m a huge Robert E. Howard fan (I might have a rubbing of his gravestone—is that weird?). Regardless, the story has everything: haunted houses, axe-murder, curses, voodoo, snakes, zuvembiesawesome stuff. From the first sentence, you know things are going to go bad, and even though you see it coming the story hits you over the head with it. While you’re reeling, the rest of the tale unfolds this deep history of abuse, Satanism, murder, and worse, all building up to an embodiment of sins that won’t die. It’s great, the text is available online, we could all be reading it right now, what are we doing with our lives?

Erin: Ha! I’ll check it out!

You speak on LGBTQ topics in gaming and inclusivity. I’m curious, how do you incorporate or create inclusive characters into your world-building? Is there any way by doing so that you can help or do help to create a better real world society?

F. Wesley: The characters we see in the games we play, the stories we read, the films we watch, they’re all important. We can’t write the stories we tell off as trivial things—stories are culture. This means stories in all their forms, fiction, movies, songs, video games, tabletop games, and etcetera. If you don’t see yourself represented in those stories, it’s easy to feel like an outsider—to feel marginalized. I know I did growing up as a guy who liked guys in the ’90s. It was 2003 before I first saw a non-stereotyped queer character in a tabletop RPG product—Green Ronin’s Mutants & Masterminds: Freedom City. As an RPG fan, that one page with that one character meant the world to me. It was the first time I felt like I and people like me were actually welcome to play tabletop games.

Now, I’m in a position where I can write things and make decisions that are meaningful to an audience of gamers. As part of that, I want to make it clear that everyone, regardless of sexuality, gender, race, age, whatever, is welcome at the game table. That’s easy to say, but it needs to be backed up with action. I’m proud of Paizo and Pathfinder’s inclusivity track record, I can rattle off dozens of awesome women adventurers, important people of color, prominent transgender characters, and cool queer characters. As part of our editorial operation we’re constantly mindful of diversity, particularly in terms of gender and race. We’re also constantly asking, would this story be cooler if it featured a hero or villain we haven’t seen a thousand times before? The answer is almost always yes—just as it was for Bloodbound vampire hunter. That questioning presents itself no place more obviously than with the Pathfinder RPG’s iconic heroesthe adventurers we depict again and again in our art as the embodiments of various classes and our stand-ins for the game’s players. Many readers have favorite icons and it means a lot to them every time those characters show up. Many see those characters in Pathfinder books, comics, or elsewhere and see women being hardcore armored heroes, see trans people being powerful spellcasters, see people of diverse backgrounds being more than cultural stereotypes, and, most importantly, see themselves. But being inclusive isn’t a goal that’s achieved; we don’t just get a certificate that says “we did it.” Rather, it’s a philosophy. I promise that we will screw it up at some point. We’ll miss something, or misrepresent something in some way, or put our collective feet in our mouths—we certainly have before. But, we’ll take the criticism, we’ll keep at it, and we’ll get better.

Everyone’s welcome at the game table, and we’ll keep working to make sure that absolutely everyone feels that way.

 

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Erin: Is there ever a thought to make a Pathfinder film?

F. Wesley: Oh my yes, tons. And if any studios or producers would like to take the world of our fantasies into reality, we’re happy to talk! Between the Pathfinder Tales novels, our Pathfinder comics, and the Adventure Path series—many of the latter having already been produced as audio dramas—we’ve got dozens and dozens of stories all ready to go! We designed the Pathfinder world to be a great setting for any fantasy story—knights and dragons, high-magic adventure, angels and demons, gothic horror, Vikings, samurai, elves, dwarves, whatever. The property could be developed in any or all of those directions. I think it’d be amazing to see Pathfinder be the umbrella for a whole series of diverse genre films? It’s just a matter of finding a partner who shares our passion and would do it justice.

Erin: What was your favorite board or card game growing up as a kid?

F. Wesley: Hero Quest. I loved that game growing up. In fact, that’s where my career as an adventure designer started. Before I ever started playing Vampire or Dungeons & Dragons I was scripting out new campaigns for Hero Quest. The game came with like twenty premade adventures that told this loose story. I think that, as a kid, I only ever played as far as the second of those adventures. But I must of spent days drawing maps on graph paper and scripting new plots. Later when I found actual tabletop roleplaying games, I was like, “Oh, I know how to do this!” But, I never expected then that I’d be making adventures like that as part of my career.

Erin: If you could sit and discuss Pathfinder with any three people in history, who would they be and why?

F. Wesley: Tricky. Well, certainly Robert E. Howard is on that list. I’d love to talk world-building with him, as well as writing, suspense, and creepy monsters—not only is he an expect on all of those matters, he certainly seems far more affable than Lovecraft.

Alice Bradley Sheldon, aka James Tiptree Jr., also comes immediately to mind. She wrote so many great, unsettling, not-so-subtle cautionary stories—“The Screwfly Solution” standing out as my number two story not to read on a plane. I’d love to work on a game rooted in her stories, where some of the greatest evils are what humans carry with them and perpetrate upon themselves. One of her contemporaries, author Roberto Bolaño, said “Alice Sheldon shall appeal to the masses in the year 2017.” I also think she’d like to know that he was right.

The third wish is always the hardest. At the moment, I’d say Edogawa Ranpo, the father of modern Japanese mystery and horror tales. While inspired by Poe, Ranpo wrote some truly bizarre stuff that the horrors of World War II only made stranger—“The Human Chair” and “The Caterpillar,” for example. I’d love to hear his thoughts on finding fear in the commonplace and finding the frightful in the taboos we hold in society and as a species.

Erin: Finally, what’s next for you?

after the fallF. Wesley: Well, I mentioned the new Eclipse Phase: After the Fall anthology, but in February my next Pathfinder adventure, “The Hellfire Compact,” launches Paizo’s Hell’s Vengeance Adventure Path. Actually, I have big adventures kicking off both of Paizo’s 2016 Adventure Paths, with the first Strange Aeons adventure, “In Search of Sanity,hitting in August—the same month Pathfinder RPG Horror Adventures releases. I’ve also got a new Pathfinder book, “Path of the Hellknight,” which details the Pathfinder world’s most menacing and merciless servants of order, releasing in June. Aside from all that, I’m also one of the co-writers on Dynamite’s Pathfinder: Hollow Mountain comic series. My first contribution, issue #2, released in December, with the next, issue #5, hitting in March. Writing this and putting some of Pathfinder’s iconic characters through their paces in one of the setting’s most notorious mega-dungeons has been a blast, so I hope folks check the series out! And then there’s a few other irons in the fire that I can’t talk about yet, but if you want to know about those when they hit, feel free to follow me on Twitter at @FWesSchneider or at wesschneider.com!

Erin: Thank you so much for stopping in and having this eye-opening discussion on Pathfinder, your life, and your new book! I wish you all the best for your company, brand, and writing.

F. Wesley: Thanks for having me and for letting me go on and on. I really appreciate everyone’s time!

F wesley casualEditor-in-Chief at Paizo Inc. and co-creator of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, F. Wesley Schneider is the author of dozens of Pathfinder and Dungeons & Dragons adventures and accessories. Aside from having passionate opinions about horror, world-building, and storytelling, he’s spoken at length at Gen Con and other conventions on inclusivity and GLBTQ topics in gaming. His first novel, Bloodbound, was published on December 1, 2015 by TOR. You can read our review of the novel here