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RPGamer Feature: Gen Con 2014 - Mike Selinker Interview

Mike Selinker is a game designer, puzzle maker, and president of Lone Shark Games. His roleplaying credits include lead author for the Marvel Super Heroes Adventure Game and creative director for Dungeons and Dragons' third edition. I was able to find a quiet space in the middle of the con's hubbub and hear Mike's thoughts on the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game, his design process, and the timeless appeal of pirates.


Zach: When I got an e-mail about the possibility of speaking with you, it listed you as being with Paizo Publishing. But youíre not just a Paizo person. Youíre a game designer, puzzle maker, and president of Lone Shark Games. Iíd like to start by asking a few questions about the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game, and then a few questions about your other projects.
Mike Selinker: Excellent.

Z: The first thing I noticed today about the Paizo booth was it was really busy. At one point there was a thirty-minute wait to get into the booth to make purchases. As a result, I was unable to play [Pathfinder Adventure Card Game] Skull and Shackles. What is Skull and Shackles, and how does it differ from the game it sprung off from?
MS: Well, we definitely had quite a reaction to it. Last year when we introduced Rise of the Runelords, the first set for the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game, we sold out at Gen Con in four hours. It was crazy and we couldnít let anyone else play our game because we didnít have any copies; it was great and terrible. This year, we brought a lot of copies of the new game, Skull and Shackles. The problem was so many people wanted it that it often took two hours to get into the booth. We couldnít get people in and out fast enough.

Skull and Shackles is the second adventure path for the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game. Itís pirate-themed. Itís a little bit crazier: pretty much every scenario is of a different type. There are lots of new elements like ships, guns, swashbuckling, and other stuff that changes the game. Thereís a whole new card type called support cards that give you a ship so you can roll around pirate islands. Thatís pretty exciting.

We also have the class decks. The class decks are a new set of decks of a bunch of new characters, which can be used in organized play. There are lots of new cards that any character can use. The whole system is designed to be intercompatible, so you can play a Runelords character in Skull and Shackles, you can take your class deck character and play it in Rise of the Runelords, or anything like that. That program has gone great, organized play has been received very well, people are already making plans for the year. The reaction weíve gotten has been phenomenal.

One of the other really exciting things we have is the debut of the Obsidian Entertainment electronic version of the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game. It looks great and plays great. This is the first time weíve been able to talk about it. Itís everything I wanted in an app version of my game. Itís fast, so thereís no set-up time and thereís no tear-down time--all those things in a card game that you put up with because you have to in order to play the game you want to, and here you donít have to do it. Seeing that come to life has just been fantastic. Itís just a really good Pathfinder experience.

Z: Speaking of the app reminds me of an argument I heard recently. The speaker said he didnít play boardgames because the app version gets rid of the annoying parts, which heís unwilling to put up with. How far is too far when translating an analog game into a digital experience?
MS: There are two games where I absolutely love the app version, but I very rarely play the tabletop version. Ticket to Ride is a game that my wife and I play multiple times a month. Weíve bought copies of the board game, and just donít play them. Itís so much faster to pass the iPad back and forth.

Ascension is probably my favorite game. I easily play it at least once a day, and I have no interest in playing it in the physical form because I almost solely play it by myself. It plays in like five minutes, but a game with another player can take thirty minutes in real life with the cards.

Thereís definitely a concern in that regard, but this game shines around the table. The player interaction is key. Both of those other games are turn-processing games. There are a few things that will matter to you when I play a turn, but you canít do anything to affect that. You might knock away some of my cards on your turn, but thatís about it. Whereas this game is all about, ďOh, let me support you. Iím a bard, Iíll give you another d4. Let me cast strength on you because Iím a wizard. Oh, we all encounter skeletons on my turn!Ē All of that is really nice around the table, and will be a little more abstract on an app. I think it will be just fine.

Z: Will there be any app-exclusive content?
MS: I donít know yet. We are just seeing the build of the Runelords base set. Weíve only really seen part of it. I know the guys at Obsidian are going to want to do things that are special that you can only do because itís a computer handling the tasks. I will support that if thatís what they want to do because I think that would be great.

Z: What kind of gamer do you think the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game appeals to? Is it primarily for Pathfinder fans?
MS: No. It was certainly designed that way. My original thoughts were the marketplace would be something like 75% Pathfinder RPG fans and 25% hardcore card gamers, people who like Dominion and Ascension and games like that. It didnít happen that way at all. Maybe 25% of the audience is Pathfinder fans. Well over half of the people who play it say not only do they not play the Pathfinder RPG, theyíve never played an RPG in their lives.

Concepts that we thought were very simple often had to be explained. For example, what does the ď0Ē stand for on a d10? To us, itís obviously a 10. Itís not obvious for people who havenít had to roll a d10 in their lives. Itís been much more family-oriented than we ever thought it would be. Even though it says 13+ on the box, we keep on hearing stories about people who play it with their 7-year-old or their 9-year-old. Obviously, your strategy gamers are interested in the deck-maximization element of it and collecting cards.

Iíve even had people say (and I probably shouldnít say this), ďThis game isnít that much fun. Why canít I stop playing it?Ē Itís because theyíre playing the game and not seeing the interaction as being a major element. What they are seeing is collecting cards and rebuilding their decks and continuing the progress and going through the story.

I donít think itís for everyone, but I think itís very hard to define the kind of person itís for.

Z: As a longtime game designer, youíve worked on many different projects. Have you noticed a different process when youíre designing card games for a licensed, pre-existing property as opposed to your own, personal projects?
MS: Iíve definitely had that experience. My own personal projects tend to be a little smaller. Unspeakable Words and Alphablitz are nice, light little word games. But most of my stuff is very collaborative. I work with James Ernest on a lot of games. Lords of Vegas is a big-box game. Gloria Mundi is a big-box game. The stuff I did with Wizards of the Coast, whether itís Betrayal at House on the Hill or Risk: Godstorm, thereís a whole team dedicated to it. I find at least after the initial design stages, where I might just be, ďOK guys, leave me alone. I just gotta figure out what Iím doing here,Ē it really is just getting the designers together. We have five people who work on our stuff, and just talking it out until we think it might work.

Right now, my lead developer for the Pathfinder game, Chad, will just build us a spreadsheet and weíll all just contribute. These big-box games require a lot of words and a lot of concepts and a lot of new ideas. Weíre trying to get better as we go. Weíre realizing that with the Pathfinder game weíre losing track of the game in some sense. Weíve now done over 2,000 individual, unique cards and no one person can remember all of them so we need to put systems into place that we can search by keyword or have other things that alert us when templates arenít like they should be.

Itís definitely different when it gets bigger. Iím not sure that itís different because itís licensed or not. I love doing research. On all the Marvel games Iíve done, Iíve had to read a lot of comic books. This is not exactly a tragedy. (Pause.) Well, some of those comic books.

Z: Nineties Marvel games?
MS: Yeah. (Laughs.) Some of those comic books have been a little more tragic than others.

Z: Skull and Shackles is a pirate game. Whatís the eternal appeal of fictional pirates?
MS: (Laughs.) I think no one really wants to be a pirate. What they really want to be is this person who can sail off whenever they want and go where they want and get what they want. The best example of that happens to be pirates. It could have been Bedouin desert raiders, but it isnít because we donít want to live in the desert and we donít want to wear heavy cloaks over our heads. We want to look good and hang out with our friends and go when we want to go. That is the reason that pirates are good.

They also talk really awesomely. Itís just fun anytime you pull out a pirate in a game and go, ďArr! Iíll be makiní ye walk the plank!Ē Itís just fun to do! One of our characters is a character named Ranzak, whoís a goblin pirate. Now, you put those two concepts together and--youíll see in our booth that his mask is all over the place. Heís missing some teeth, heís got a parrot on his shoulder, heís missing a hand and a foot. Itís just fun to pretend to be that guy. You wouldnít really want to be that guy in real life, but itís fun to pretend.

Z: Yeah, the pirate pants and the accent.
MS: Exactly. They do have really good pants.

Z: Over in the Paizo booth, theyíre not just selling Pathfinder material. Theyíre also selling The Maze of Games.
MS: They were, anyway. We sold out.

Z: Oh! What is The Maze of Games, and what do you hope readers who have already secured their copy (or may be able to find a copy elsewhere) get out of it?
MS: The Maze of Games is an interactive puzzle novel that I wrote and collaborated with the artist Pete Venters to create. I have a full team that has been working on it: we have a developer and an editor and a graphic designer just make a book. It is a novel whose pages are in the wrong order. A skeletal guardian called the Gatekeeper trapped two kids from the 1890s in a series of increasingly dangerous mazes. They have to try to get out by meeting all these fantasy characters and historical figures and such. The problem is you have to solve the puzzles to help them get out of the maze. If you donít, they wonít be able to get out of the maze and you wonít be able to save them.

You go through one of the mazes and it tells you which page to go to next. You solve that puzzle and you go back to the maze and continue going back. We call it a solve-your-own-adventure and it really is an interactive experience. Itís gotten a lot bigger than I thought it would. We ran a Kickstarter last year for $16,000; we got $171,000, so we tried to make it the best puzzle book of all time. I donít know if that will be the case, but we certainly think we took our best shot at it.

Itís got some more expressions: itís got an e-book you can solve on your iPad with your finger writing the letters and stuff: itís got an audio book with narration by Wil Wheaton, itís got two soundtracks, a classical score by Austin Wintory, who did the soundtracks for Journey and The Banner Saga and a vocal album with Marian Call and Paul & Storm and Kirby Krackle. Itís got a perfume by Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab. Itís just become this crazy, multi-sensory experience. Weíre really hoping people stick with it for a long time. I hope itís a property and not just a book in some sense. But the book is really fun and people have been really excited about it here, so weíre going to bring it to PAX Prime and hope people are really excited about it there, and eventually try to get it into retail channels and so forth. For now, weíre just really excited the backers have gotten their books and are starting to plunge into them. I hope they have a really good ride!

Z: Is this intended to be a single-person experience? Is there an online community for its readers?
MS: There is. You design a puzzle book as something one person could do, but so many people are collaborating because it gets pretty challenging after a while. I hear a lot of family units collaborating, I hear about one member of a game guild has purchased it. Things just spring up. Thereís a wiki where a lot of the answered are congregated, thereís a reddit forum, thereís all sorts of things that are just dedicated to The Maze of Games. Itís very exciting to see people embrace it. So Iím glad that people have finally had a chance to experience it, and I hope they really like it when they dive into the pages and get trapped in the maze!

Z: Thank you very much!
MS: Thank you, Zach. Itís been a pleasure, and I hope we can do this again sometime soon.


We would like to thank Mike Selinker for taking time out of his busy schedule to participate in this interview. Thanks!

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