Interview with RPG Superstar Winner Neil Spicer

Lord of Drunk Treants.

Lord of the Drunk Treants.

The final round of Paizo’s RPG Superstar 2009 game design competition required the finalists to develop a proposal for a full adventure. Neil Spicer took the top prize against stiff competition. His adventure, “Realm of the Fellnight Queen,” will be published by Paizo in a few months. Neil took some time out from creating evil fey to talk to Robot Viking about game design, inspiration and how Galadriel could totally kick all our asses if she really wanted to.

Robot Viking: “Realm of the Fellnight Queen” seems like a blend of horror and high fantasy. Did you draw inspiration from any specific movies or novels?

Neil Spicer: Yes. Bits and pieces of inspiration came from a number of sources. I listed many of them in the discussion thread of my proposal on Paizo’s messageboards. The mist-filled forest and fog that encircles the town of Bellis took some inspiration from Stephen King’s “Mist” (both the shortstory and the recently produced movie). Much of the fey/faerie connection comes from a multitude of sources. Everything from the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, Disney’s rendition of “Sleeping Beauty” (which has become a favorite of my two daughters), the tales of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, the Spiderwick Chronicles, and the list goes on and on.

In addition, one of the primary literary sources that stuck with me for defining the concept of the Fellnight fey actually stems from a novel by Raymond E. Feist called appropriately enough, “A Faerie Tale.” It’s a modern-day story about a family that moves into a new house, but they eventually discover the backyard leads to a faerie realm where there are both good and evil fey to deal with. And, while pondering the Pathfinder campaign setting and reading the entry for Bellis in Andoren, I started imagining a D&D version of Feist’s “Faerie Tale” that would work well with Pathfinder’s backstory for the entire gnome race and the First World. So that’s where a lot of the inspiration comes from.

RV: Sometimes when I’m writing a new RPG adventure, I’ll pull in characters from old gaming sessions or campaigns and put them into new situations. Are the characters you used in your adventure new, or do you have a “history” with any of them?

NS: I think pretty much all of these characters are new. I’ve certainly never done a drunk treant before! And a beekeeping gnome who’s lost his mind isn’t exactly a staple in any adventure I’ve ever spun either.

Having said that, however, there ARE some elements of various villains I’ve used in the past for how I chose to characterize Rhoswen, the evil queen of the Fellnight Realm. In all honesty, there’s a healthy dose of Maleficent, the evil witch from “Sleeping Beauty” about her as well. But aside from that, I tried to do something new with all of the NPCs I plan to use for this adventure.

RV: How much do you think the development of the adventure proposal was shaped by the Pathfinder system? Obviously, the new creatures and templates are defined by those rules, but designers are always looking for that “sweet spot” where the adventure fits the system perfectly. Do you think you hit it?

NS: I’ve always been a story-focused GM and designer first. That means the rules system has never mattered nearly as much to me as a compelling story and characters for the adventure at hand. Now that doesn’t mean I don’t try to capitalize on the game system AFTER I’ve designed the story and the various NPCs. And I certainly try to piece things together so it all fits as seamlessly as possible. But I really see five key elements that help shape an adventure before I even get to the rules.

  1. The Villain (with some small amount of consideration for class, race, abilities, etc.)
  2. The Location (what kind of cool map, lair, and scenes will PCs get to explore or experience)
  3. The Plot (i.e., how does the story take shape and challenge the PCs)
  4. The Minions (what cool sidekicks or forces are helping the villain carry out the plot)
  5. The Reward (what awesome treasure or rewards can the PCs obtain during the adventure)

Most of those elements have little to do with rules consideration. The Villain and the Minions matter, of course. You can’t just invent a whole new creature unless you’re willing to do the write-up and spend the word count to do a new monster in the adventure’s appendix. Otherwise, you have to find ways to stat things out using the existing rules. It’s also important to make sure your villains or creatures are capable of doing the things you describe in the Plot (i.e., they have to have access to the right spells or abilities). The Reward can also lead you to think about the rules if it involves new magic items or spells. And the various scenes that get used throughout the Plot and the Location(s) you’ve chosen will sometimes lead you to examine how the rules for certain hazards, traps, or skill challenges will work if you want to highlight something specific.

But most of that comes after the adventure proposal for me. I guess I consider a fair bit of it, but I don’t let the rules bog me down when I’m imagining those five elements listed above. Rules are generally written for each system to define just about anything your imagination can come up with anyway. And, if for some reason you come up with a scenario that isn’t covered by the rules, that just gives you an opportunity as a designer to pen something “crunchy” to add in a sidebar that will make your adventure that much more unique.

RV: What led you to go with more of an event-based adventure, rather than a traditional dungeon crawl?

NS: Mostly to maximize player choice and thereby present the adventure proposal in a way that would appeal to the voters. Event-based adventures are a little more “sandbox” in their approach. But my pitch for Fellnight Queen also has its linear aspects, too. I really prefer a blend anyway. I think the best adventures present you with both, moving between the freeform event-based stuff and escalating up to an eventual linear-driven dungeon crawl. That’s what Fellnight Queen will hopefully provide. A forest exploration followed by a chance to storm the Fellnight Queen’s spine-filled palace. To me, that maximizes its appeal…as well as the fun.

RV: We don’t see too many adventures focused on dryads, gnomes and druids. Did you consciously decide to go in an unexplored direction, or is there something else about this particular corner of the D&D world that appeals to you?

NS: I definitely chose to go this direction because I didn’t feel like dryads, gnomes, and the fey have ever been explored quite this way. My desire is to spin the fey as something much more fierce and dangerous than the treatment they usually receive in adventures. I want “serious” fey, not the airy-fairy variety. And, when I do an evil version of them (as with the Fellnight fey), I want them to be truly frightening in a dark, chilling, almost horror-themed way. But I also don’t like to go too gory or “weird” with my designs. Instead, I strive for more of an emotional, tension-filled horror story than the “shock” variety.

Aside from that, I’ve really enjoyed how Paizo has chosen to revisit some of the monstrous races lately. They’ve done a little of that with the fey already in “Carnival of Tears” and “Conquest of Bloodsworn Vale”…but I still want to push the envelope a little further and show a side of the fey that no one’s quite seen in an adventure yet. Paizo’s First World for Golarion really helps set the stage for that opportunity. And I felt like an adventure that focused on using those elements could really resonate with people. I’m delighted that the proposal worked for so many of the voters and I’ve got a chance to put this vision of the fey into an actual adventure.

RV: Imagine “Realm of the Fellnight Queen: The Movie.” You’re a casting director with an unlimited budget. What’s your dream cast?

NS: Hah! I’ve certainly given NO thought to that at all. There aren’t really a whole lot of choices to play a demented gnome beekeeper from Hollywood’s A-list after all. Rhoswen on the other hand could be a juicy role for someone. I could see a Nicole Kidman or Michelle Pfeiffer giving it a go…or even Cate Blanchett in how she portrayed the potentially dark Galadriel in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings if she had succumbed to the temptation of the One Ring. That’s how I see Rhoswen. “Beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night. All shall love me and despair!” That kind of presence is just a small piece of how I envision this villainess. But there’s also a calculated evil menace behind her serene beauty. Every emotion is overcharged with an intensity that goes far beyond the human norm. And so her greed, anger, and joy are all twisted up…like the very thorns wrapped around her palace.

RV: Could you tell us a little bit about your past RPG writing?

NS: In terms of paid design work, I’ve written a handful of PDFs for small third-party D20 publishers. Mostly for D20 Modern or D20 Future. LPJ Design published some PDFs called “Modern Chemistry” and “Modern Maladies” for me describing drugs and diseases in the modern genre. And The Game Mechanics published a series of PDFs that Green Ronin eventually consolidated as a softcover book containing a couple of chapters I co-authored called “The Future Player’s Companion.”

Like anyone else who entered the RPG Superstar contest with previous publishing credits to their name, I wondered if that experience would disqualify me from the competition. I asked last year about that (and again this year), but received the okay from Paizo since it’s not a cover credit on a hardcover RPG book. And so far, I’ve never had anything published on the magnitude of a full 32-page Pathfinder module. So this definitely represents a big step up for me as a freelancer.

RV: How long have you been gaming, and what is your favorite game of all time? What have you been playing lately?

NS: I’ve been playing since the 1980’s. I started out with the Basic D&D boxed set (the one with the wizard and fighter in the foreground encountering a dragon sitting upon a pile of treasure in its lair). From there, I moved into AD&D, dabbled with Gamma World, Boot Hill, and Star Frontiers, and eventually tried other systems and genres ranging from Twilight 2000 to ShadowRun to Alternity to Star Wars before diving back into D&D with the release of 3rd Edition. My favorite game of all time, however, would have to be Alternity…and specifically, the Star*Drive campaign setting. I’ve never found anything that works so well for simulating cinematic realism for a sci-fi space opera setting quite like it. But a close second would have to be D&D…in all its forms except 4th Edition, which just ruins my sense of storytelling too much to enjoy it as much as 3.5 and where the new Pathfinder rules have taken the game.

To answer the second part of your question, I’m currently running a “Curse of the Crimson Throne” campaign with my local gaming group. I also play in four separate Play-by-Post games on Paizo’s messageboards…a “Rise of the Runelord” game, a “Curse of the Crimson Throne” game, a “Crown of the Kobold King” game, and a homebrew campaign DM’ed by none other than my friend and fellow RPG Superstar Trevor Gulliver.

RV: Do you have any other projects in the works other than getting the Fellnight Queen ready for publication?

NS: There’s another PDF of a D&D 3.5 adventure I have in the pipe with The Game Mechanics for their City Quarters series. It takes place in the Temple Quarter of Liberty, their iconic urban-based campaign. And it involves tons of intrigue between religious leaders and institutions that shape the politics and lives of those living there. The project is currently on hold, though…a casualty of the paralysis that hit a lot of third-party publishers when 4e appeared and companies had to decide if they wanted to transition to the new edition or continue to release material for the 3.5 marketplace. The last I heard, it’s in the layout phase, but there’s no set release date for it.

Other than that, I don’t have any other projects in the works. As a freelancer, I’ve always taken one project at a time, focusing more on doing a thorough, quality job on each assignment before moving on to the next one. The Fellnight Queen is sure to take up plenty of my time for the next several weeks. And, given my family obligations, it’s actually a good thing that I don’t try to take on too much. Someone has to read fairy tales to my children, after all. And my daughters really love the voice characterizations I do for their bedtime stories. I guess all that time voicing NPCs from behind the DM’s screen paid off. Soon, I’ll have to spin them a tale about the “Realm of the Fellnight Queen” and see how they like that…

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You can read the full adventure proposal for “Realm of the Fellnight Queen” here, and pre-order it here. Thanks Neil!

One Response to Interview with RPG Superstar Winner Neil Spicer

  1. Great read. I’m looking forward to “realm of the Fellnight Queen” even more after this interview. Keep up the great work!

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