Saturday, October 11, 2014

Interview with a Designer: Nicholas Wasko

The Here Be Monsters contest ended last week with Nicholas Wasko as the winner! Read on to learn more about Nick and his thoughts about monster design!

Could you tell us a little bit about yourself? 

I'm currently a second-year medical student in Connecticut, where I've lived my entire adult life. I've been playing D&D with my brother Chris since early middle school, when one of our friends introduced us to the game and we instantly fell in love with it. Since day one Chris & I have written our own game material, which gave us a lot of practice - I enjoy looking back at our old notebooks and seeing how our writing evolved through high school and college. We weren't fond of the changes that came with 4th edition, so we shopped around and stumbled upon the Pathfinder RPG. We loved the revisions and transitioned all of our games to Pathfinder. Even though we still wrote most of our material from scratch, we loved the quality and ingenuity of the APs and modules and started using them as springboards for many of our games. 

Our parents and fellow gamers encouraged us to publish our material, but neither of us took the suggestion seriously since we both had other career trajectories in mind. All that changed when Chris made it into RPGSS 2014. Following Chris through the competition allowed me to see the culture behind the industry, which was a formative experience for both of us and encouraged me to pursue freelance writing as well. I was lucky enough to join the Freelance Forge, a critique forum for Pathfinder freelancers founded by Mike Kimmel, where I had the chance to hone my work for the public eye. I entered Raging Swan's Broken Freelancers II competition, which got me my first published assignment. Since then I've also worked on additional material for Raging Swan and Outland Entertainment. 

Have you designed a lot of monsters before? 

Not at all. I designed my first monster this past summer as part of a bestiary section for a module my brother was writing. Most of my exposure to monster design came from the Freelance Forge, where I hosted a mini-contest among the members to design a creature within certain parameters (similar to round 2 of RPGSS 2014). Reviewing the entries was an invaluable way for me to explore what makes monsters tick, so I encourage anyone who wants to improve their own writing to consider reviewing the work of others and articulating what works and what doesn't. 

Why did you choose the nightbloom, and what thinking went into your design? 

That's a tough question, since the idea just sort of hit me. I had been struggling to come up with my contest entry for a while, and tried two other monster concepts, both of which I found unsatisfactory. Literally five hours before the deadline, I decided my concepts weren't working and that I needed a new idea. I skimmed through the thread and saw the request for a plant-based nightshade with an ambient poison effect, and inspiration struck.

Avid Doctor Who fans will likely see the influence of the vashta nerada in the nightbloom. I love the concept of shadows that eat flesh, but I couldn't think of a way to make it work in the game mechanics. The coolest part, to me, was that all one needed to do was stay in the light to avoid being attacked, but as it turns out remaining completely separate from all ambient shadows is extremely difficult. I couldn't think of a way to capture that fundamental appeal as a conventional monster - after all, a swarm needs to be able to move independently of light effects if it is going to be a threat, but without movement the hungry shadows becomes nothing more than a terrain hazard. When I read the request for the nightbloom, however, it just clicked - an undead "flower" could have pollen that functions as a hazard, while independently manipulating the spores to serve its will (a la the end of the Doctor Who episode, when the vashta nerada finally master the ability to form and project their own shadows). From there the rest fell into place - lighting conditions could be used to account for the difficulty of avoiding contact with surrounding shadows, the shadow illusion spells already have a "partially solid" mechanic, and so on.

With the core concept down the hardest part was making it fit as a nightshade. As Sean pointed out, nightshades have a ton of prerequisites and expected components, which required me to cut a lot of corners with my writing to make it all fit. Overall the process took about 2 hours (3 with editing). 

In your opinion, what makes a good monster? 

Accessibility and a strong central theme. The game's imagery and appeal relies almost entirely on the GM's ability to create the scene, and good monsters cater to the needs of the GM to make that scene powerful. I've seen monsters with seemingly awesome abilities fall flat because a GM was rifling through its stat block, unable to keep track of the monster's resistances while trying to find the best use of its attacks (or looking up what they actually do). Likewise, I've seen relatively simple monsters make a game come alive because a GM knew how to use them effectively. If a GM can look at a monster and think, "I know exactly what I'm going to do with this" without a moment's hesitation, then that is a good monster.

The strong theme follows the same idea. A dragon is a good monster in spite of its obscenely diverse set of abilities because each one follows a certain theme - an elemental affinity, a preferred environment, etc. Even in the face of an overwhelming stat block, a GM can fall back on a strong theme to decide what a monster will do, how it will do it, etc. I know from experience that GMs often need to improvise or fudge results for monsters in a pinch, but if I know a monster's theme I can make it work efficiently with few mistakes.

I tried to capture these ideas with the nightbloom. Nightshades have oodles of options, but I wanted mine to be focused on its defining ability: its spores. So I made it's other abilities reflect that - I took away from its physical combat abilities and focused on its spellcasting, I made its deeper darkness (the best supplement to its spores) more readily accessible via Quicken Spell-Like Ability, etc. 

What are your favorite monsters in the Pathfinder RPG (including monsters in 3rd-party products), and why? 

I adore what Paizo has done with the daemons. Some of the classic evil outsiders that got grandfathered into the game were a bit too complicated for my tastes, but there is no question about the theme for each of the daemons. Even though they all have a slew of default abilities, I can generally make a memorable encounter with a daemon just by knowing what manner of death it embodies.

I've also got a soft spot for hags. I firmly believe that NPCs are the most compelling villains (the game is designed and played by humans, so creatures far removed from human nature are naturally harder to make meaningful), and hags are only a short jump away from humans. Combine that with the fact that the witch is one of my favorite classes in the game and you can probably guess that several of my homebrew campaigns include covens as major villains.


  1. Great interview. I think Nick has a promising future in RPG design. It's pretty impressive to design and write while also attending med school. Also impressive is how quickly he turned over the nightbloom. It took me over 2 times as long to produce my entry, and that's not counting the time I spent scouring the wish-list thread.

  2. Congratulations again on winning Here Be Monsters, Nick! I enjoyed seeing the thought process (and the Doctor Who callback) behind the nightbloom. Good luck with med school, and I hope we see more of your work in the future.

  3. Nick really has a wonderful story. He could be a good inspiration to other monster designers to show their creations through participating in such contests like Here Be Monsters. I wish other developers would throw competitions like that, because it can help them find fresh talents that could help improve the trend of the online gaming industry.

    Lucius Cambell @ Skild


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