An Interview with Logan Bonner

Lead Designer for Pathfinder at Paizo, Inc.

Logan Bonner is an industry veteran. We asked Logan to share some thoughts about his career and his independent expansion for Pathfinder 2nd edition, The Pnoll: An Ancestry. Sita Duncan graciously provided Pnoll art for this piece. This interview has been edited for clarity.

Headshot of Logan Bonner, a white-presenting man wearing glasses and a red t-shirt

Question: Please introduce yourself to our readers, along with some of your contributions to TTRPGs?

LB: Hi! I’m Logan Bonner, currently the Pathfinder Lead Designer at Paizo Inc. I’ve been at Paizo for a while as an editor, developer, and designer, and previously worked full time at Wizards of the Coast in the late 3.5 into 4th Edition era. I’ve also worked on other RPGs: Spectaculars, Mistborn Adventure Game, Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, and a ton more.

What character class do you most identify with?

Probably the bard. A lot of performance at the game table, studying bizarre things nobody else needs to worry about, and all that.

Tell us a bit about your background, and your journey to get to where you are now in the industry.

I’m originally from Kansas, and got into TTRPGs in college when I was pursuing a Fine Arts degree with an English minor. I got pretty lucky and got a job on D&D from applying cold to an editing job and doing well on the test! After some time there, I did several years of full-time freelance. That was exhausting, and I was happy to take something full time at Paizo. My former coworker Stephen Radney-MacFarland was there at the time, and recommended me for an open editing job. Since then, it’s been mostly Paizo stuff, with the occasional project I can fit in outside of work hours.

Illustration of the Pathfinder pnoll ancestry done by sita duncan. The pnoll carries a bag of supplies and wears a hooded garment.

Tell us about your work at Paizo.

I’m the Pathfinder Lead Designer, meaning I keep a general overview of the rules coming into the game to make sure we’re keeping things in line with the base rules of the game, introducing new concepts at the right time and in the right books, and that sort of thing. Most of my job is putting together new books in the Rulebook line and doing development passes over the text for them.

The pnolls (puh-nols) seem to have been well received! We picked up our copy as soon as it dropped, and they have generated a lot of fan art on social media. Tell us about your work on The pnoll: an Ancestry for Pathfinder 2nd Edition.

The pnolls came out of a conversation about possum people on social media. I ended up drawing a possum person on my iPad, and eventually settled into the idea of turning it into a small, fun thing I could publish.

You included many references to actual Virginia Opossum biology in the supplement. What interesting ‘possum facts’ did you learn in the process?

It’s weird, because so often with concepts based on real-world things like this it’s more important to meet people’s expectations rather than be strictly accurate. So you learn a lot that you don’t necessarily use. Their newborns are peanut-sized and once born need to crawl to the pouch to go inside and find a teat. Not a whole lot of application of that for an adventurer!

Did you come up with the “puh-nol” pronunciation before or after you came up win the brilliant “pnolltimate sacrifice” ability?

I think they came about together. I was probably going back on forth on what wordplay would work depending on the pronunciation. I ended up picking “puh-nol” since it would allow for the roleplaying tidbit of correcting pronunciation, and would also make pnolls and gnolls clearly different since games so often need to convey information verbally.

Proceeds from the pnoll go toward the Black Trans Advocacy Coalition, who have done some great work dispersing resources and funds to the Black Trans community and have even joined the congressional fight for the Equality Act. What drew you to support them with your independent work?

Trans rights were under attack at that particular moment, something that’s unfortunately so frequent that I don’t remember who was behind it at that particular moment. I’d seen a friend run a fundraiser for this group shortly before, so I had them in mind.

Plug any projects you are working on now.

Right now we’re finishing up work on Secrets of Magic for Pathfinder 2nd Edition. It’s a very exciting book, with a fun take on rules, lore, and presentation. Looking forward to people seeing it!

Illustration of the Pathfinder pnoll ancestry done by Sita Duncan. The pnoll carries a battleaxe and appears to be screaming “I do crime”

Read more about the Pnolls:

An Interview with Quinn Murphy

Freelance TTRPG Designer and GM

Quinn Murphy is a longtime industry freelancer who is presently emerging as an influential voice in adventure and encounter design. We caught up with Quinn this summer over discord to talk with him about his latest projects and musings. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Alex G. Friedman: Quinn, why don’t you introduce yourself?

Quinn Murphy looks at the camera with headphones around his neck. Quinn is a male-presenting person of color with glasses, wearing a winter coat.

Quinn Murphy: My name is Quinn Murphy, I’m a tech nerd by day and a game designer… Well I would say by night, but really it’s just like, all the time.

AF: Well, you get paid for it, so…

QM: Yeah, right, I do get paid for it. It’s like blurred lines. I feel like I’ve had these two careers so long, they’re always happening simultaneously. My gaming stuff is informed by my tech nerd stuff, and my tech nerd stuff is informed by my gaming. I’ve been doing freelance off and on for a little over a decade now. I’ve been doing roleplaying for like 30 years. I got my kickoff during 4th edition D&D. I wrote a site called At Will, where we specialized in homebrew 4th edition stuff. I did a lot of stuff with skill challenges, which was different from how Wizards of the Coast (WoTC) was doing it. I designed monsters and new rules and different ways to use the 4th edition rules. I transitioned to other games from there.

These days… I took a few years off to deal with a case of “wild life” and have come back in the last like, six or seven months or so and have been working for stuff like the Ultimate Micro RPG book, I had one in there. I’ve been working a lot with Paizo these days, but also recently working with Sig: City of Blades. I wrote the adventures in there, and that’s actually out now, so that’s really exciting. It’s like Planescape meets Blades in the Dark. Jason Pitre had written the game, which was set in an interplanar metropolis. City of Blades is about the underbelly of that big city.

When Dragon went digital, I got published on their blog. I wasn’t in Dragon magazine, but I did get published in Kobold Press a couple times.

My gaming stuff is informed by my tech nerd stuff, and my tech nerd stuff is informed by my gaming.

AF: Yeah, Kobold’s great. They just had the big bestiary come out for 5th edition, great book. Couple ice breakers here: What is your favorite kind of NPC?

QM: I like NPCs that are loveable trouble. Every time the player sees them, they know something’s about to go wrong, but they are really fun, so bring it on. Characters who are problematic but are also loveable.

E:lizabeth Parsons: You can hear your players groaning in the background but also they’re like “Well, we knew this was coming.”

QM: Right, and if you took them away, and have them leave, your players are like “No-no-no, come back!”

AF: What player class would you be?

QM: Like, real life me? Um. I’m gonna be like, I feel like I’m cheating or breaking the fourth wall here, but it has to be Investigator.

AF: Cool.

QM: Because the iconic Investigator’s name is actually Quinn. He’s an older Black gentleman.

EP: That’s not cheating, that’s pretty legit.

QM: But also the Investigator is my favorite class. What I love about the investigator is like, “ah, here’s something.” Its balance is interrogating the fiction.

AF: Page 54 of the APG.

QM: In 2nd edition, the Investigator has some of my favorite mechanics, because they’re very meta. I love it for the reason that some people might hate it. There’s one feat that’s just like, what’s wrong here? “That’s odd.” You walk into a room and you’re like “That’s odd. GM, tell me what’s wrong here.” What’s wrong with this picture, right? And it’s such a great thing. As a GM, I am sorely missing having an Investigator on one of my teams, because I love having that kind of thing to run with.

I love it for the reason that some people might hate it.

I like when players get to interrogate the world and establish fiction; it creates this cool thing where they get to author the world. Because when you ask, “Hey, what’s wrong with this thing?” Well, now, fictionally, I have to explain it to you, and it adds that little detail into the world. Even if it’s like, well, it’s a fine crystal from here, but otherwise harmless. We’ve established bits of the world and it feels a touch more real.

We’ve established bits of the world and it feels a touch more real.

EP: Reminds me of when I was writing my early fiction, you would take it to someone and say “Please read my story!” They would say, “Okay, why is this happening in your world, and why is this happening, and you have to make up something on the fly. And that’s what you’re doing as a GM. You’re establishing that fiction. You can’t just be like “IDK”

QM: You’re allowed to do that. But then it flattens your world. The things I live for as a DM are those moments when both the player and I are kind of surprised. Where they’re like, I’m going to go off the beaten path and go into the brambles. And you’re like, “What is the brambles? Huh. I guess this is in the brambles.” And I find when I’m making stuff up on the fly, and improvising, stuff comes out of my brain that’s even surprising to me. And I’m like, Oh this is great. And we’re all along for the ride. I love that feeling.

Several sets of colored dice and board game cards are seen next to a board, which is on a table next to a laptop.

AF: I first encountered your work in “Archaeology at Aspenthar,” and as a player who played it in Organized Play, boy did that Alchemical Golem whip us. That was a memorable fight. It basically came down to… Everybody was down except my cleric and the party’s ranger. I had to cast “magic weapon” on him. And we had to outmaneuver him. That was great. Tense time.

QM: How did you do on the climb down?

AF: The climb wasn’t so bad, because we were all lighter characters with high Athletics scores. Could have been rough if we had a wizard along.

So how did you pitch that story? What went into writing it?

QM: Sure. Well, with a lot of the Society stuff, they’ll usually have the “frame” for what things they want in it, and you sort of flesh it out, with characters, with the flow. You have a rough outline of it, but you’re sort of sculpting how we’re gonna get there and things like that. That was the first thing I had written with Paizo. I spent a lot of time researching the people of the area, so I could write interesting characters. Then the Alchemical Golem seemed like a really cool monster. Obviously it’s an extremely leveled down Alchemical Golem. But I like monsters that aren’t just mechanically like, I just have a really high Armor Class. That’ll get the job done when you just want to beat players up, but when it’s dealing different conditions, and it’s got all these different points of articulation and interaction…

A sort of a maxim that I have, when I design encounters and monsters, is that I design always for interest first. Challenge is a thing that I almost don’t think about. Especially in Pathfinder 2nd edition, the encounter-building rules are really tight. If you build to budget, you’ll get what it says on the tin. If you want to possibly TPK your party, give them a Severe. If you want to GUARANTEE a TPK, give them an Extreme. That’s it! And so, you build the encounter to taste, then really what you want to do is think: Will they remember this?

A sort of a maxim that I have, when I design encounters and monsters, is that I design always for interest first. Challenge is a thing that I almost don’t think about.

I’ve had challenging encounters that went really lopsided for the players because from the outset they roll a couple of critical hits–incredible damage. With dice, challenge just ebbs and flows. But let’s say all the dice go wrong–will the characters remember the fight? And something like the Alchemical Golem was cool because it has all these chemical weapons, effects it can inflict. The chance that you’re not gonna remember having fought that thing is Zero.

AF: As we’ve demonstrated tonight, yeah!

Soph sits at a laptop in front of a game board. She is dressed as a rogue in cape, bracers, knife, with a white headset. She sits in a forest.

We were going to ask you about chasing interest in encounters, because you were tweeting about that earlier, so I’m glad that’s on your mind.

Moving on to some of the other stuff you’ve got with Paizo…

QM: I contributed to the backmatter for the second Abomination Vaults, the Fleshwarp article. And two monsters in Bestiary 3, Shabti and Sumbreiva. I have a couple other ones I can’t talk about yet. My big thing last year was to do the second volume in the Strength of Thousands AP. I was an author for the second adventure in the adventure path. That was monstrous. Lots of writing.

I never! My largest piece up until then had been about 12,000 words on one assignment. Twelve thousand words! And that was pretty challenging. But doing that AP was about 40,000 words, just the main adventure.

EP: That’s an entire novel!

Really what you want to do is think: Will they remember this?

QM: Yeah! And while you’re doing it, you’re creating monster entries, making maps—you don’t have to go crazy with maps, they have cartographers for that—but the design! You have to work with mechanics and ACs (armor classes). The first parts of it were super challenging, because you’re just trying to make progress. And sometimes, like, in the early part of it, I would think, ‘Okay. I’m gonna go get X amount of words done, right? I’m gonna get 500 words done.’

EP: We’ve all been there.

AF: Yeah.

QM: And I’m gonna get 150 words in and then, “Oh yeah, crap, I need a monster entry. Hmmm. Okay, so, let me go design a monster.” And the monster is maybe 100 words or so, 150 words. But mentally, it’s like you wrote four or five times that. Because you’re trying to juggle numbers, and then that kills your writing for the night. You’re done for the night. So you get out of pace with it.

What was awesome for me was that it forced me to work through it. You know, because I have a day job, it’s not like I could spend all day writing. I have time to spend with my partner, time to spend with my son, right? And so I had to really be strategic about how I was going to use my time and it forced me to develop a really good process for game writing, specifically. I broke down mechanical work. Anytime I got to something mechanical, I’d flag it and put it on a separate list. Cool, that’s a mechanic, pin this thing. And then I would break out narrative writing, and I would build out mechanics in a separate session. So I would do a morning session for like an hour or two and then a night session for an hour or two. I honed my process. I needed to! Because otherwise, I wasn’t gonna get it done. It was like 40,000 words in about three months.

I had to really be strategic about how I was going to use my time and it forced me to develop a really good process for game writing, specifically.

AF&EP: (sounds of sympathy from interviewers)

QM: It was intense, but it was great. I look forward to hopefully doing it again. To apply from the start everything that I learned and do an even better job.

EP: How did that job come about? Did you apply to do that writing or were you commissioned to do it?

QM: I think they asked me to do that one, after I had done some stuff. They were pretty happy with my previous work. And I have a lot of experience in the field before even writing for Paizo. And so they asked me if I wanted to take it on, and I thought, yeah, sure do.

EP: That’s a great opportunity, yeah.

AF: Yeah, that’s a huge honor to be asked to write an entire AP volume.

QM: Yeah, it was a great honor. And you know, for me, it was a great honor to be asked to write for The Strength of Thousands theme set in The Mwangi Expanse. For me personally, it’s the kind of setting—very Afro-centric fantasy setting—that I had been wanting to write for and see from a major publisher for a very long time, and to be asked to write… you know, I didn’t get to write for the main Mwangi Expanse setting book, but writing for the adventure set there was really incredible. So I was really excited about that.

AF: That setting book is said to be really great too, I can’t wait to see that. Particularly in this edition, Paizo has done so much work on making the Mwangi Expanse bigger than just the one Heart of the Jungle expansion we got in 1st edition, and really, like you said, they’ve made an Afro-centric setting for Golarion, which is really cool. Can’t wait for that book. The art that I’ve seen so far has just been great.

QM: Yeah, it’s gorgeous, it’s gonna be so good.

AF: Can we talk a little bit about Bestiary 3?

QM: Sure!

AF: So what can you tell us about your monster design philosophy?

QM: So, recapping first, building for interest instead of challenge, right? Because you don’t control dice, right? What you can control and influence are having things that your players can react to and have fun with. I think the thing that helped me design monsters the best was back in 4th edition D&D days, I had built these things called Worldbreaker monsters. And they were like these big unique legendary monsters.

A stack of role-playing-game dice, lime green and orange. The dice are stacked on a gridlike board in front of a laptop.

AF: Kind of like, kaiju sort of things?

QM: Well, no, the influence there was I was watching someone play World of Warcraft, a raid boss, and at the time I was looking at it, and I was like, I am really, as a tabletop player, really jealous of this raid boss. Because there’s all these like, shifting strategies, right? You’d be fighting the monster and then all of a sudden, boom! The whole scene would change, it would blow everything up; the whole stage that you’re fighting on would change. And so I thought, I’m going to do that in tabletop. So I worked on this concept of making monsters that would sort of trigger and change the scene.

AF: Are you talking about lair actions?

QM: So this was long before lair actions, actually. Technically, I was first!

AF: Okay, that’s cool.

EP: You heard it here first, folks.

QM: Not that anybody at WoTC was paying attention to what I did! But I did do this back in 4th edition, long before 5th. When the monster hit a certain HP level and got bloodied, it would trigger a special action. The first one I did was called Etherkai, and it was a nightmare dragon. When it went into its special mode, it would create these nightmare wells and reach into your nightmares and create nightmare soldiers out of them. Players could interact with the nightmare while they’re fighting. And there are different kinds of skill challenges and all this other stuff that you could do within that mode.

Playtesting that, and releasing it, I would hear stuff like, “Oh my god, we fought Etherkai and he wiped our whole party.” But they would be like: “He wiped our whole party, and it was awesome! It was a great fight.” Because they’d talk about nightmare things coming out, and you hear these tales, and I was like, oh my god! If you’re happy getting wiped out, I think I did a good job there! Thumbs up! I’d also hear ones where people would be like, “Yeah, our party killed it in 3 rounds,” but they thought it was so cool, right? That was sort of what helped shape my maxim. I would hear both ends of the spectrum.

“Oh my god, we fought Etherkai and he wiped our whole party.” But they would be like: “He wiped our whole party, and it was awesome! It was a great fight.”

That was sort of the influence, and one of the things that shaped my thinking was having these points of interaction. It’s one thing to have stats and your armor class. But have a point with your monster where it’s going to do a special thing, and give your players the ability to do something about it.

You can see it in actually quite a few of the APs. There will be boss characters, and they’ll sometimes come with an action that players can take, like for example, try to convince this person. Spend two actions trying to convince this person that they’re wrong. And then you can make a diplomacy check. Pathfinder 2nd edition’s design works really well with this philosophy, because it’s action-based, and since all actions are equal, you’re not trying to spend a move action to talk, or spend a standard action to fight like you would in 1e. Second edition is pretty fluid.

AF: It’s another part of that design philosophy that gets characters away from just doing full attack actions. It’s always wiser to spend a third action doing something interesting, which that kind of design really speaks to.

EP: Writing for memorability and for interest, that to me seems like the throughline to your work.

A stack of role-playing-game dice, dark blue. The dice are stacked on a gridlike board.

AF: Yeah, like having to do skill checks to counteract the nightmare, that’s a story within a fight.

EP: I wanna play that fight. Right now.

QM: I’m a huge shonen nerd. And one of the things I love about shonen manga and anime is the way that… You’ll often hear in tabletop—“I don’t want too much combat in my game, I want more story.” But what I love about shonen is that combat can be story. People will fight for like ten episodes, and like live out half their lives in the middle of one fight, right? It’s laughter, it’s sadness, it’s my past colliding with my future, it’s, “How could you betray me when we were five years old?? Aaaahhh.” Clashing of powers! And it doesn’t need to be that overwrought, but I feel like fights can and should have narrative. Create flow and sense and meaning within it, until the fight’s over.

EP: That dovetails into one of the questions we have here, which is to talk about anime influences in your writing.

AF: You’ve talked before in your social media about how you try to incorporate anime into RPGs. Hyper-emotion?

The major arcs of these stories tend to be about feelers experiencing being vulnerable to the world and actors stepping in on their behalf.

QM: The TL;DR explanation of hyper-emotion is when a cry becomes a punch. The longer explanation is, when you see, especially in shonen anime, there is a style of storytelling where you have a community of two types of people: actors and feelers. Feelers tend to be weaker characters (not always, everybody has some actor and feeler in them). People who, because they are vulnerable to the world, can experience the world and feel it deeply, right? And actors are hardened against the world but are powerful. And the major arcs of these stories tend to be about feelers experiencing being vulnerable to the world and actors stepping in on their behalf, and ultimately sort of climaxing into these moments where an actor, with all the energy of those feelers, has this big eruptive moment, like Goku going, “You can’t hurt my friends anymore!” Or Naruto is legendary for that, “I’m here for my friends!” “How could you betray this person who loves you?” And then they have this big release of power. It’s about finding, mastering, and releasing those emotions that are the true narrative arc underneath all the powers and fighting moves. They’re these narratives of communities.

AF: Jack Berkenstock (interviewed in issue 1) would love that idea. His work includes using RPG play to help people become better emotional communicators.

EP: What was your experience writing for Paizo and writing in the Golarion setting, versus playing it?

QM: Golarion is delightfully weird in a good way—just strange enough to feel real. I feel like the problem with a lot of fantasy worlds is they try so hard to be like, sensible. But as anybody experiencing real life will tell you—the real world is not often that sensible. And when things are a bit weird, you think, okay, I feel at home here.

AF: That’s a cool way to put it.

QM: I’ll just use a Golarion example. Hellknights, right? Hellknights are so dumb they feel real, right? Imagine someone like the Hellknights. “Hey, you know who has really great laws? Devils! Let’s emulate hell!” They have these great tensions, they’re trying to do what they think is right, but it’s like, “Guys, do you understand what you’re doing?” Because they really don’t! I am fascinated by the Hellknights, because that weirdness of them makes them feel cool and like they would exist.

AF: A lot of your comments got me thinking about how weird and yet approachable some of the creatures in the new ancestry guide were. Golarion is one of my favorite settings.

QM: It’s a fantastic setting. My writing for them has hooked me on Golarion, so I use it in my games a lot. Then, when I GM Pathfinder, I love to experiment and try new things. There’s a lot of new stuff that I would never even try to put on a developer for Pathfinder. Especially if you’re doing an official release, you need to keep within bounds. When I GM games, I get to push limits really hard—because it’s not getting published, it’s for my players, and as long as they’re having fun, we’re good.

AF: What projects do you have coming out that you can tell us about? Where can we find the work that you’re most proud of? And where do you want to be found online?

QM: Stuff I am working on right now: I just turned in my first work for Starfinder. I also love Starfinder. I want to be playing and writing more for Starfinder. That’s going to be in a society adventure that’s coming out in a bit. I’ve been working on rules for solo play. It’s really one-on-one play. I made it with my son. I wanted to make it be a simple thing of playing Pathfinder, so I didn’t have to make too many rules. I want to be able to play in AP with just one other player.

My adventures are in Sig: City of Blades. I did three really cool adventures in that. I did some consultant work in Hard Wired Island (a cyberpunk themed TTRPG on Itch.io).


Follow Quinn:
Blog: ThoughtCrimeGames
Twitter: qh_murphy

Developing Therapeutic Applications of Tabletop RPGs

An Interview with Jack Berkenstock Jr., MHS (human investigator 8th)

Content Warnings: Sexual abuse (mention, non-graphic)

Elizabeth Parsons: Do you have a favorite type of NPC?

JB: I would probably have to say “foppish rogue.” It’s gone through many iterations, but they’re usually like, Poncho Villa, a joke-y character. For a while I actually patterned my vocal styling after the king prawn shrimp from the muppets, all these weird things based on other pop culture stuff. Foppish rogue—not as good as he thinks he is with the ladies, but has some clutch rolls here and there.

Alex G. Friedman: I think our optimal reader would be considered a foppish rogue.

EP: This is, after all, for hip and attractive professionals!

AF: How did you get started playing games and what keeps you coming back?

JB: I have been playing RPGs since I was twelve. It all kind of started, honestly, just courtesy of the “Satanic Panic” and the fact that I was growing up right in the middle of all of that. Loving fantasy and sci-fi and all kinds of different stuff, I discovered Dungeons and Dragons by accident because a couple of friends had it.

I was a very shy kid. I wasn’t as “out there” as I put myself out these days. It’s always been a dream of mine to be a published fiction author. So that’s what started my love of RPGs. I could tell these stories. That’s probably why I’m more of a GM than a player. I love creating these plotlines and seeing where they’re going to go. Like: Here is this cool setting and a start, and there are all these people around the table, where are they gonna take it and how can I keep up?

Not only do I have board games on my shelf that I’ve played or have yet to play, but I love reading about new role playing systems and learning about different settings and different mechanics, because I love finding out different ways to tell a story, especially if a game lends itself to different storytelling. I love playing characters and using voices and coming up with plotlines and dramatic moments.

Alex: Let’s talk about the book! What drew you to using TTRPGs in conjunction with traditional methods of therapy?

JB: I’ll try to give you an abridged version. It’s a story I tell often.

It started out of the nonprofit The Bodhana Group, which we started in 2009. Just like any nonprofit, we became in need of funds. We intended to be a training company. Most of my history is from working with juveniles and pre-adolescent males in residential settings—either victims or perpetrators of sexual abuse. We started Bodhana figuring we could train people in things like compassion fatigue, help people work with that very challenging population and also maybe talk to parents.

We decided to do a fundraiser. That’s when we started “Save Against Fear.” It’s an annual three-day gaming convention we run in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. It’s our main platform for talking about the mission. This year, we had about 30 professionals attend from across the United States.

Gaming is therapeutic no matter how you slice it.

EP: There are a lot of different types of games to play now. I know of a few of them. We have Monster of the Week, and Pathfinder, and D&D, and I recently listened to a podcast where they played a game called “Oh, Dang! Bigfoot stole my car with my friend’s birthday present inside!”—definitely a weird game.

How do you see gaming evolving today?

JB: Even way back then, there were different systems. Traveler, Gamma World, Call of Cthulu were all out in the late 70s, early 80s. There was also one called Stormbringer that was based on the fiction of Michael Moorcock. There have always been a ton of different RPGs. Pretty early on, fantasy wasn’t the only bag. What I’ve seen in terms of where gaming has gone and how it has changed… I think the finesse of gaming has gotten a little bit different, especially in recent years. You’re seeing a lot more minimalist gaming systems. Back in the day, it was like, “Hey bro, you like charts?”But now what we’re seeing is a lot more narratively drawn and driven games, so it’s more about interpretation of die roll as opposed to, like, simple pass/fail mechanics.

Save Against Fear got us in contact with Rich Thomas, who was previously the creative director of White Wolf. He is now the CEO of Onyx Path Publishing, which puts out Scarred Lands, Pugmire, Cavaliers of Mars, and Worlds of Darkness Anniversary Editions. Rich was sharing with us how he had gotten so many letters over the years from people who had been working through personal trauma through fighting monsters in a game or giving them a sense of agency through being able to command their character in a game. When Rich had said that to us, we thought, “Hold on, guys, what do we remember about when we ran D&D on the unit?” And we started talking about some of the minor behavioral things, like: “Don’t blow it, you’re our cleric, we need you to show up on Saturday for the big dungeon run.”

It started out fairly pedestrian in terms of treatment goals. Then we kind of turned the lens on ourselves and we started examining our own gamer history. When I was twelve and was first playing all these stories—what was I doing? What was I working on? What characters did I play, either when my parents were going through their divorce and I was kind of this pushed-to-the-side kid, or when I was getting a little bit older and was now in college and meeting new people? Were there differences, not only in what I played, but in the way I played, that I could now see through the lens of a trained, experienced therapist—and it turned out, we had all gotten benefit. I had used this to be more socially outgoing and develop confidence in myself, because a lot of bad things were going on in my life at that time.

We then kind of took that self-understanding and put the clinical filter on top of it. What if a person who was not only a trained therapist, but also who was a skilled Game Master… What if we could meld those two worlds and apply some intentionality to the creation of characters, of plotlines and milleius… What if we build the world to tell a certain story, and that story was emotionally resonant with someone? You’re setting up this simulation where you can practice any number of skills through the use of the narrative and the flow of the gameplay—and it’s all about toggling the switches of the game appropriately to what the person needs to work on or what they want to work on and kind of where they’re at in their development. So that’s the way the model works and the way we arrived there through this process of examination and evaluation.

AF: How about the process you went through in defining those therapeutic benefits?

JB: Bodhana doesn’t just use tabletop RPG—we use tabletop board games as well. Initially, we had chosen the name ‘Bodhana’ because it meant ‘leading to an awakening or an understanding’—a Sanskrit word. We tried to come at mental health care from a different perspective that had concepts from Buddhist psychology and dialectical behavior therapy.

So what can you get out of this? Naturally, we started with what we call ‘the pedestrian benefits.’ Gaming is therapeutic no matter how you slice it. But ‘therapeutic’ doesn’t mean ‘therapy.’ We started to examine: What do you get out of playing with your regular gaming group? Well, low-hanging fruit, there: social skills. You’re around a table with a bunch of other people, you’re playing and having time and relaxing. It’s a dice-driven version of going to the bar.

Then, creativity and expression—I know people who have drawn their characters, I know bards who have learned to play music, people who have drawn the items their characters have, people who have dressed in character and made props, the performance aspect of it.

It could teach resilience, or the ability to deal with failure or adverse conditions, which is very therapeutic. What can we do with the concept of the game? Well, everyone knows dice rolls are not always your friend, so could that be therapeutic? Stuff doesn’t always go the way that you want it to.

We looked at our own hobby and started identifying core aspects. Which is why in our first volume of Wizards, Worries, and Wellness, there are seven main heroes, and then there’s one who’s sort of mentioned, Hawk.

We’re currently at work on a source book that’s gonna contain therapeutic adventure hooks. Each of those characters has a fully realized world that represents some of the struggles of what gaming can offer to a person. So, Rowe the dwarf, for example, who is the avatar of resilience, he comes from a very harsh world. There are constant storms, not a lot of crops, not a lot of food—so it’s all about Rowe learning to thrive in an adverse climate. Everybody kind of has a tough go at it. We felt that if we could set stories in those worlds, which is what this project is, you can use it with any game system.

We looked at our own hobby and started identifying core aspects.

AF: I found the section on ‘Initiative’ to be really interesting. Would you speak on how you relate initiative in Pathfinder and D&D with willingness to take risk in real life?

JB: Initiative is several different things. One, we love initiative because it helps people learn to take their turn—because sometimes you can’t just rush in. But we also looked at the fact that initiative is equivalent to ‘drive’ or ‘interest.’ When you have initiative, you have the drive or the will to do something. In a lot of game situations, you can do things that you may not have the opportunity to do in real life. In some cases, like time travel or something like that, you can obviously try things that you would never get the chance to do. But it’s also about taking risks. Part of life is developing the confidence to know that taking a risk doesn’t mean you’re throwing everything away.

Some of the kids we work with have some of those social challenges. They’re not the most popular kids, and the kids that do hang out with them are not necessarily the best of role models. We want these kids to develop confidence, and the only way to develop confidence is to take a risk and to learn to weigh out those consequences.

They would ask: “Why would he want to talk to me?”
And I would say, I don’t know, #reasons.

So the concept of initiative is very key, especially if you’re talking about someone who doesn’t speak up often in order to develop more confidence. The natural way we do this is in the fabric of RPG. Maybe the king doesn’t want to talk to the guy who always talks every session; maybe the king wants to talk to your character. They would ask, “Why would he want to talk to me?” And I would say, I don’t know, #reasons. Because you’re an elf, because you’re short, because you have blond hair, because you’re tall, because you have a shield. Whatever reason is convenient to the plot. It’s the way we institute a certain skill development, which offers that opportunity for someone to take that risk.

AF: You mention in the book that you’re writing a manual to use for therapeutic gaming, and it sounds like that’s a pretty expansive project. Would you like to tell us about the format that that might take?

JB: We thought it was going to be, you know, one big, old, dusty, cobweb-filled tome, the pages like 28 by 14 or whatever. With Wizards, Worries, and Wellness, we’re looking to do kind of short bursts, almost booklets if you will, that can be utilized by a therapist or a practitioner based on what they’re working with.

Wizards, Worries, and Wellness was originally intended as kind of an initial volume that will be expanded to multiple different volumes that are going to be easily affordable. Let’s say we’re working with someone with an anxiety disorder, or someone with a depression diagnosis. What are some ways that we can customize the game, skill-develop or develop elements of a storyline that we can put into a world? It will also have some story-starters, like one-shots that would facilitate a little more specialization.

One of the biggest things we’re finding, now that we’ve been doing this pretty solidly for the better part of five or six years, is the question of “why do you think this works” is kind of the “duh” moment. People say that of course [TTRPG as therapy] works. It makes sense. But then they ask: “How do you do it? How do you create a world that exemplifies anxiety to a person?”

Well… Consider this. Maybe everything is very fast-paced in this culture. Maybe people feel rushed. Maybe the adventure is always on a timeline. Maybe the king decrees that ‘at this time every day, every hour or every interval, we have to do this certain thing.’ If you look at stories, anything from Doctor Who to Star Trek to Star Wars to whatever—there are ways that show you how this creative thinking can be applied. But what we’re finding is for a lot of therapists, that’s the real trick: How do you put [therapeutic concepts] in the game?

This is my biggest joke I tell everywhere: “You just slaughtered an entire Orc village. How does it make you feel?”

I love the experience I have working with kids and teens, because man, they’ll tune you out quick. But if you’re running an adventure that’s driven and inspired, and it makes narrative sense—you got ‘em. And they’ll go along with that narrative. We all know it’s for therapy, it’s not a secret. But it’s not something we have to hit you over the head with, either. I tell you we’re going to build the story around what your goals are and what you want to work on. We’ll reflect on it occasionally.

It’s psychodrama narrative therapy and expressive arts therapy, and there’s elements of cognitive behavioral therapy and rational emotive behavioral therapy. The story is what makes it unique, so to us, the focus is the story that drives the process of learning and exploration, investigation, practice, and rehearsal. To us it’s more how to apply a certain diagnosis or a certain challenge or certain disorder in a way that makes it narratively interesting, into something that a kid would want to explore.

“You just slaughtered an entire Orc village. How does it make you feel?”

EP: It does sound like, if you’ll forgive this terrible joke I’m about to make, instead of the DSM-V, you’re creating instead a GM guide for people with therapeutic backgrounds.

JB: We don’t use the same adventure twice. We craft every story arc uniquely to the player mix that we have and we make alterations based on player response as well as additions or removals—someone graduates the program or goes on to another form of treatment or whatever.

This is why the first question I ask when other practitioners ask: “So, tell me how you run therapeutic RPG.” My answer is always: “I know your CV, your Curriculum Vitae. I need your GV—your Gaming Vitae. Have you ever played an RPG? Before you go to do this, you have to understand what a role-playing game is.”

Because that’s the meat, that’s the heart of it. If you don’t understand plot and pacing and character development—if you don’t know how to wave that wand, there is no spell. Yes, there’s good group methodology and there are techniques, approaches and modalities, but this is an “adjunct” form of treatment. It’s based around simple group concepts—forming, norming, storming, performing. All of that stuff is built into this, but the story is where the magic happens.

EP: What’s next for The Bodhana Group?

JB: Of course we’re putting the finishing touches on the board game version of Wizards, Worries, and Wellness that will talk about how to stylize the way you teach a game and what board games can offer, with examples of good games that kind of highlight certain concepts.

Kids will want to game. Kids love gaming.

Our eventual goal is we would love to be able to offer this service to kids and teens for free. So our idea is: We have proposals out. We’re looking to get our first proposal accepted, which will fund a group of six kids for a year, for less than $6,000. We want to pay our facilitators, so if we get big investors to participate, they could cover the cost of not only the facilitation, but every kid would get their own book and dice bag.

Another big thing we do is we partner a lot with local game stores and actually run sessions at these shops—in hopes that the kids will then start to develop natural supports for themselves. They can develop their own friends, and have a new language to speak—and that language is RPG.

Eventually we’d like to open our own “YMCA for nerds.” A Bodhana Center—a place where we could offer after-school programs and classes and workshops, as well as summer programming, predominantly for at-risk youth. Kids will want to game. Kids love gaming.


The Bodhana Group

www.thebodhanagroup.org

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