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