Earlier this year, I was jonesing for some ’80-style sword and sorcery. You know the type: big on magic, adventure, and mile-a-minute plotting. Elves, dwarves, fireball-slingin’ sorcerers, and every other fantasy trope in the rulebook. It’s a bit of a dying art form in the 21st century—except when it come to the lines of tie-in novels that support role playing games like Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder. Novel series like D&D’s Forgotten Realms and Paizo’s Pathfinder Tales provide an outlet for some of today’s best fantasy authors to pen unapologetically old-school stories. adventurous fantasy being written by some of today’s top authors.
Looking for my fix, I picked up a copy of Skinwalkers, by Wendy N. Wagner, and dove right into Pathfinder’s main setting, Golarion. Several books later, I’m an enthusiastic Pathfinder Tales fan, without ever having ventured out on a single quest in the Pathfinder RPG. This week marked the release of another one: Liar’s Island, by Tim Pratt. It’s a rollicking read that displays all the hallmarks of the series: lots of magic, endearing characters, and guaranteed good times. Fan favorites Rodrick, a charming, cunning conman, and his sentient sword Hrym are summoned to Jalmeray, a mysterious island rife with genies and elementals, ruled by a cunning king with nefarious intentions. Escape from the island will prove much more deadly and difficult than the arrival!
”Pratt’s rollicking adventure is a classic quest narrative only enhanced by occurring within the fully fleshed-out, pre-existing Pathfinder world,” says our own Sarabeth Pollock in her review. “But you don’t have to worry if you’ve never played—[Pratt] gives you plenty of background along with his mythology, and makes it fun to read to easy to follow.”
Eager to learn more about how this shared universe was developed, I caught up with James L. Sutter, co-creator of Pathfinder and executive editor of the Pathfinder Tales novels, as well as several authors who have contributed to the series. Read on to find out what they love about Golarion, and discover why it’s home to some of the best sword & sorcery fantasy being written today.
What is Pathfinder?
Pathfinder is the most popular tabletop pen-and-paper RPG in the world, even surpassing the almighty Dungeons & Dragons. If you’re not familiar with tabletop roleplaying games in general, imagine a group of creative friends who set off on an imagined adventure wielding not swords, but 20-sided dice, carrying stat sheets instead of traveling cloaks, drinking not ale but…well, beer, probably, and plenty of soda. They become characters in their own adventure. It’s gaming and collaborative storytelling all at once, and some of the most fun you can have hanging out with friends.
”Pathfinder lets people use dice and their imaginations to tell sword & sorcery stories,” Sutter said. “It’s group storytelling with a tactical element—kind of like a video game, except that since you’re creating the parameters as you go, there’s literally no limit to where the story can go!”
Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson helped to popularize pen-and-paper roleplaying with the release of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in 1974. The game’s approach to worldbuilding and magic had an enormous impact on modern post-’70s epic fantasy (though, admittedly, Gygax and Arneson borrowed a whole lot from writers like Jack Vance, Katherine Kurtz, and J.R.R. Tolkien, who themselves repurposed the work of earlier storytellers.) Dungeons & Dragons is legendary among gamers of all stripes, and continues to impact the fantasy world even 40 years later.
Never content to rest on their laurels, the developers of Dungeons & Dragons worked hard on iterating and improving their gaming system, releasing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Second Edition in 1989 and Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition in 2000. In 2003, to the delight of many fans, Wizards of the Coast released Dungeons & Dragons Revised Third Edition (popularly referred to as D&D 3.5), an iterative update on the already solid third edition of the game system, and still considered by many fans to be the best version of the long-running series. Five years later, Wizards of the Coast released Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition, a total redesign and rebuild of the D&D ruleset. Many players were dissatisfied with the sweeping changes, and that created a perfect situation for Paizo, a small gaming company in the Pacific Northwest, to jump into the fray with a new tabletop RPG: Pathfinder.
“Pathfinder is an evolution of the 3.5 edition of Dungeons & Dragons, and has grown to become one of the bestselling RPGs in the world,” Sutter said. Set in Golarion—a vast fantasy world that features every type of trope and world-building archetype you could wish for—Pathfinder sells itself on diversity and endless possibilities. “Golarion is the most delightfully diverse landscape a writer could ask for,” said Wendy N. Wagner, author of Skinwalkers and managing/associate editor of Lightspeed Magazine and Nightmare. “Anything you’re interested in, you’ll find in its most fun form.”
Welcome to Golarion
“While rooted in familiar fantasy elements that make it accessible to any fan of the genre, Golarion also incorporates a lot of complex politics, morality, and cultural/personal diversity that makes for incredibly colorful characters and stories,” Josh Vogt told me. A freelance writer, Vogt is the author of Forge of Ashes, a Pathfinder Tale, and Enter the Janitor, a creator-owned comedic urban fantasy.
On first glance, Golarion might seem like a conservative fantasy world—it’s full of elves and dwarves, mysterious towers and dungeons, dark depths, castles, and lots of magic. But, once you start exploring, you’ll find so much more than you bargained for—fallen spaceships, gothic horror, civil unrest, a whole region riffing on post-colonial America. It’s populated by rich and diverse people, inspired by every corner and culture of our Earth, and every one of the more than 30 countries has its own rich history and unique settings.
”Pathfinder is loaded with options,” said Topless Robot in an exploration of how and why Pathfinder came to outsell Dungeons & Dragons. “Do you want your barbarian to actually be smart and live in a city? Done. Do you want your witch to attack people with a beard instead of cursing people? Done. You can even play around with the technology level.” Tim Pratt’s Reign of Stars featured an alchemist plundering the depths of a crashed starship full of futuristic relics.
As a game designer and novelist closely connected to Golarion, Sutter knows how important it is to create an RPG with a world that’s interesting to explore. “Any time you answer a question, ask two more,” he said in a recent interview. “As a reader, a writer, and a gamer, I want my imagination sparked so that I can make up my own answers, rather than just being handed all of them in a cohesive encyclopedia. A setting with no mystery is dead to me.”
From the icy northern Realm of the Mammoth Lords to the verdant jungles of the Mwangi Expanse, Golarion is chock full of mysteries. “It’s a strange and sprawling world where you can tell any kind of fantasy story you want,” said Tim Pratt. “From weird Westerns with gunslingers, to Gothic horror, to supernatural heist novels, to barbarian tales, to lost-world adventures, to archaeological expeditions with mystical monsters, and more. I’ve written Pathfinder books featuring killer robots from beyond the stars. It’s an amazingly wide-open world.”
Whether you’re a gamer or not, there are many ways to explore Golarion, because Pathfinder is so much more than the RPG.
What are the Pathfinder Tales?
At the 2010 Gen Con,the largest table-top gaming convention in North America, and with a hit RPG on their hands, Paizo introduced fans to Pathfinder Tales—a line of tie-in novels set in Golarion, similar to what Wizards of the Coast has done for decades with its Forgotten Realms books. Since the line debuted with Dave Gross’ Prince of Wolves, Paizo has published about four Pathfinder Tales each year. By the end of 2015 there will be 30 Pathfinder Tales novels, plus countless short stories.
“Part of my mission for the line is to only get the best possible authors for these books,” Sutter said. Current authors include some tie-in fiction all-stars like Elaine Cunningham and Michael Stackpole, fresh new voices like Wagner and Vogt, and even a Hugo Award-winner in Tim Pratt. Popular new fantasy authors like Max Gladstone and Sam Sykes are also lined up to contribute Pathfinder Tales novels in coming years. It’s a cornucopia of awesome talent, and proof against the myth that tie-in fiction is less-than.
“I like getting the chance to write adventures,” said Wagner. “I love action movies, and writing a Pathfinder novel is like writing my own little action movie, but packed with magic and mayhem, and not just muscles or explosions.”
In February 2015, Tor Books announced a partnership with Paizo. While Paizo has a lot of heart, and Sutter is doing a wonderful job steering the line from an editorial perspective, the partnership with Tor Books—which is strictly centred around production and distribution; Paizo retains full editorial control—allows them to vastly increase the distribution of the Pathfinder Tales, and lure in even more top-end talent. It’s a huge coup for a small company with big dreams.
One of the things I love so much about Pathfinder Tales is its balance of familiarity and diversity. One of the great joys of secondary world fantasy is exploring new worlds, but, as a reader, I also like to visit places that I’ve grown to know and love, full of familiar nooks and crannies. I can pick up any of Terry Brooks’ Shannara novels and feel like I’ve returned home after an extended vacation. Yet I can grow tired of reading the same author over and over again.
Pathfinder Tales offers a terrific solution to this issue. I’ve become familiar with Golarion —and already have my favorite cities and cultures — but there’s always something new to explore, because the world is so vast and each author brings something new to the table. Looking for something contemplative? Wendy N. Wagner’s Skinwalkers is just the thing. Want balls-out action and humour? Try Pratt’s City of the Fallen Sky. I love picking up a new installment and seeing a country or adventure previously mentioned in a different novel by a different author, exploring one world through the eyes of so many creative people.
This style of collaboration with a strong editorial eye for storytelling is a good fit for Pathfinder, says Sutter. “RPGs are collaborative storytelling in its purest form. Everybody gets to contribute, and the story can go anywhere. That’s the fun — that sense of opportunity, the chance for everyone (including the Game Master) to be surprised. At the same time, there’s a reason why direct adaptations or journals of RPG campaigns rarely make good novels: they’re meandering, full of dead-ends and side treks that were fun in the moment but of limited interest to those not playing — in other words, they’re non-linear, just like real-life. As humans, we live non-linearly, so we tend to want our stories to be linear — it’s that idea that there’s a point to things, or at least a climax, that keeps us engaged.”
“I love being able to write stories that combine incredibly fun action and adventure with characters struggling with issues such as rocky relationships, identity crisis, and family problems alongside simply fighting for their lives,” said Vogt. “Golarion is the perfect setting for that sort of internal and external exploration.”
Where to Start?
In a brilliant bit of foresight, Sutter and the Pathfinder Tales team decided early on that each novel in the line should stand more or less alone, even if its the third or forth book featuring a popular character. No matter how excitable their author, no Pathfinder Tale can force a world-changing event on Golarion (it’s more or less impossible to tell when the books are happening in relation to one another, though a year in the “real world” is equivalent to a year in Golarion, and all novels happen during the respective Golarion year they were published), and the plot of each has to work in a vacuum, requiring no knowledge of any prior book (or the game). What does this all mean?
There is no bad place to start reading the Pathfinder Tales.
You could go way back to the beginning with Dave Gross’ Prince of Wolves, or pick up the brand-new Liar’s Island. You’ll have fun—and the story will make sense—
With that in mind, let’s take a look at my introduction to the series:
Skinwalkers, by Wendy N. Wagner
Jendara, an ex-raider from the brutal Ironbound Archipelago, is trying to carve out a new life for herself and her deaf son. Surprisingly introspective, the book is a meditation on motherhood and familial loyalty, but also packs a narrative punch. When a mysterious group of lycanthropes attack her people, Jendara sets out to solve the mystery of her missing sister and put an end to the threat. Hell hath no scorn like a mother separated from her child, and when she’s in a fury, Jendara makes Hell look like a winter wonderland.
“I wrote Skinwalkers as a kind of riff off Michael Crichton’s The Eaters of the Dead and Beowulf, so I think it’s a story that’s really accessible to all kinds of readers,” Wagner said. “You don’t need to know anything about Golarion or have any background knowledge about magic or anything, because these characters are meant to feel like ordinary, Earthly human beings. You just have to like action and really tough mothers!”
Winter Witch, by Elaine Cunningham
Cunningham is a veteran in the world of tie-in fiction, but this was my first exposure to her writing. It won’t be the last. Funny and full of action, Winter Witch tells a wicked tale of Ellasif, a tough, efficient shield maiden; and her young sister, possessed of magic, cast out by her village and stolen by the Winter Witches. Declan, the unlikeliest of heroes, joins Ellasif on a rescue mission. What it lacks in rich character development, Winter Witch more than makes up for in action-packed adventure and gorgeous set pieces.
City of the Fallen Sky, by Tim Pratt
Easily my favorite of the Pathfinder Tales I’ve read, City of the Fallen Sky is full of everything that makes sword & sorcery great. It has a wonderful mystery at its core, solved in small pieces as Alaeron, an alchemist on the run from the Technic League, and his ragtag companions journey deeper and deeper into the Mwangi Expanse, towards the mysterious titular city. It’s loaded with adventure, characters you can’t help but love (even if they’d stab you in the back at the first opportunity), and Pratt’s prose is as good as it gets. I’ll read his Pathfinder Tales as fast as he can write them!
Nightglass, by Liane Merciel
The real star of the show here is the twisted nation of Nidal. Owing its allegiance to treacherous and bloodthirsty Zon-Kuthon, it is one of the darkest and most disturbing fantasy nations I’ve ever come across. Imagine this: Harry Potter, on the eve of his 11th birthday, finds out he’s a wizard. With much joy, he sets off to Hogwarts, but finds a school under the direction not of generous, brilliant Dumbledore, but Severus Snape and Dolores Umbridge. That should give you a grim taste of what to expect in Nightglass. Only Snape and Umbridge would look cuddly when pitted against the worst that Nidal has to offer.
Forge of Ashes, by Josh Vogt
A survivor of the Goblinblood Wars, Akina returns home to the dwarven city of Taggoret hoping to settle down. All she finds, however, is sorrow—her mother missing, presumed dead; her brother a drunk, disgraced and exiled from his church; and a city that bears her likeness on every street corner. I love the way Vogt plays with expectations, most notably by telling the story of a female dwarf warrior, a spin on a classic trope, with an added layer of complexity thanks to Akina’s twisted family history. Vogt also does a tremendous job of creating a believable, and at times tender, relationship between Akina and her silent companion, Ondorum.
Vogt is pretty excited about what Akina brings to the table for readers looking for a new twist on an old character. “It’s a rather rare element, even in fantasy settings: a female dwarf,” he said. “Forge of Ashes takes the reader through portions of the world that alternate between being both familiar and exotic, with creatures old school gamers will instantly recognize and monsters that brand new readers will love encountering.”
If you’re hesitant to jump into Golarion with a full novel, Paizo publishes a ton of fun short fiction on its website. It’s a great way to be introduced to many of the Pathfinder Tales authors, and you’ll quickly discover that your favorite characters from the short stories have whole novels devoted to them. So get reading!
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You’ve read a few novels, burned through all of the short stories, and still can’t get enough of Golarion? Welcome to the club. But, don’t worry. You’ve really only just scratched the surface.
You can jump into Golarion yourself by picking up something like the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Beginner Box, which provides everything you need to get your first game of Pathfinder off the ground, including a simplified ruleset. Or, you can take a more languid approach: The Inner-Sea World Guide is a comprehensive encyclopedia of Golarion, its people, and its places. I’ve had a copy for months, and I can’t stop reading it. It’s the perfect companion when you want to lose yourself in a mysterious country for an afternoon, and provides wonderful inspiration for gamers looking to spice up their Pathfinder adventures. It’s also a font of ideas for writers working on the next great epic fantasy novel.
The best choice of all, however, might be the Pathfinder Wiki, an official, enormously comprehensive source for all things Pathfinder. If you set yourself to it, you can get a full-fledged game of Pathfinder going just from the resources there alone!
Whatever you choose, go out and explore Golarion. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.