Bringing A Lived-In Gaming World To Comics: Crystal Frasier On Pathfinder: Spiral Of Bones

by Hannah Means Shannon

This March we can look forward to a brand new Pathfinder series from Dynamite, building on the universe established in the popular tabletop role playing game created by Paizo.

In Pathfinder: Spiral of Bones we get an extra treat in having Crystal Frasier on board as writer, who is a writer, developer, and graphic designer on the Pathfinder line of roleplaying games.  She’s joined by Tom Garcia on line art and Morgan Hickman on colors, with Tom Napolitano lettering the series. As the title might suggest, there’s a deathly theme in the new series, but also a wealth of character and lore development for Pathfinder fans and new readers alike.

We’re delighted to have Crystal Frasier on the site today to talk about this new series and her experiences in writing for comics as well as gaming.

Hannah Means-Shannon: Firstly, I’m not very knowledgeable about Pathfinder, so apologies for my general questions and need for guidance. But I have been curious about the popular property for some time, not least because the artwork I’ve seen on the games and on the comics looks lovely. Is there a particular “mood” or personality that you hope artwork representing the world of Pathfinder taps into?

Crystal Frasier: With Pathfinder, we try to dip our toes into a lot of different genres, but I think more than anything we want the art to reflect a world that’s lived-in and active, and maybe a little grungy. There are a lot of people running around trying to lead different lives, and so we want to show a world where people have been traveling, and building, and scheming, and stopping empires, and building new empires for thousands of years.

I guess if I had to define one particular personality for the world of Pathfinder, I’d say she’s a very old, scarred up warrior who’s seen this shit a thousand times, but knows the kids she’s traveling with are still bright-eyed and full of wonder, and she’s just praying she doesn’t screw them up too badly.

HMS: For you, how different is it to craft a story for the RPG versus laying out a full comic story? Do you use different methods to develop them?

CF: The beautiful part of an RPG adventure is I only have to write half the story—I write the villains and then the whole game is about the players deciding what the heroes do. I need to find motivations and personalities for a few arch-villains and a handful of goons, and then the rest is math. But with comics, everyone needs a reason to exist. Chris Claremont could make you fall in love with a pair of extras who exist for all of three panels before a poetic death, and that freedom to define minor characters is not a luxury you get on the writing side of RPGs. It’s taken some getting used to, and thank the gods that Tom Garcia puts so much life and interesting character into his background characters and makes me look wittier than I am.

Despite that, though, a lot of the writing process is the same between the comics and the RPGs. For both, I try to think of big challenges, or set-piece encounters, or moral quandaries, and then figure out how we get there and what happens after. A lot of my RPG skills translated well into comics writing, but I also learned to write for RPGs originally by writing webcomics, so it’s sort of a weird ouroboros of nerd culture.

HMS: There have been a growing number of gaming properties that do well for readers in a comics medium, and that really begs the question of why they work so well. It seems like the pace of comics, the need for a page turn and reveal, maintains some of the suspense of gaming. Do you notice other similarities?

CF: Absolutely. One of the core skills for writing a good RPG adventure is knowing how to throw out plot hooks and lead peoples’ interest, and that lends itself well to the “tiny cliffhanger on each spread” school of thought for comic writing. I think it also helps that RPGs and comics both revolve around the idea of protagonists that readers can project themselves on to. It makes for an easy hop between playing tabletop roleplaying games and reading comics in the same setting.

I think it also helps that RPG books describe rich world that most players only get to see a small sliver off, especially in terms of the characters. One of the weird things about roleplaying games is that you get to hear about all these great characters, but you almost never see them in action or read their dialogue. Every game master in a tabletop game will present a given character their own way, so I think a lot of a fans are eager to see how the creators would “run” those characters.

HMS: Can you tell us a little bit about the territories and settings we’ll be encountering in the new comic series “Spiral of Bones”?

CF: Well, there’s some exciting action with Harsk and Ezren drinking tea, and Valeros eats a meat pie. I have weird priorities.

It’s a spoiler for the first issue, but the major theme of Spiral of Bones is death. One of the big tropes in tabletop gaming is resurrecting dead characters, but we usually gloss over what that does to you, dying and coming back and what happens before you get back. What do you owe death in a world where the gods can come around and break your windows if you make them angry? A lot of the action takes place in the realm of the dead—called the Boneyard—where dead souls are judged and sent to their final afterlives we got to have fun with cameos and weird characters there, and Tom just did an amazing job of depicting this gothic, looming, creepy metropolis that still feels lively.

The living half of the story takes place in one of my favorite Pathfinder locations: Kaer Maga, the City of Strangers; it a sort of anarchist enclave built inside an ancient ruin, with travelers and bandits and monsters all living in tight quarters and somehow managing to build a functioning (I really hesitate to say “stable”) community. It’s a weird and exciting enough location that I’m sorry the whole story couldn’t be set there. I only got to scratch the surface of all the weirdness backed into the city.

HMS: What are some of the different personalities we’ll encounter in the story? What made them characters that you felt you wanted to write about and explore?

CF: Most of the usual Pathfinder team is here—Valeros, Seoni, Merisiel, Ezren, and Harsk—with Kyra on pilgrimage. Valeros gets the most screen time—he’s spent a lot of the comic series sitting in the back, being the good-hearted, but dense fighter who throws out the occasional wit while his companions introspect. And a lot of that’s by design; a lot of our character development for Valeros has shown a man who doesn’t want to think deeply about the world, because he suspects he knows what the answers are and he hates them. He feels like an average chump who lucked into traveling with amazing people, and I really, really empathize with that, and now we get to see what makes Valeros an amazing person, too.

We love out guest stars in Pathfinder, so this arc introduces Imrijka, the half-orc inquisitor, who hunts undead and keeps the peace among soothsayers in Kaer Maga. She’s one of my favorite iconic characters from the RPG, and getting to find her voice for comics makes me pretty happy. She’s serious, but playful; she’s strict, but soft-hearted; its her job to comfort people, even though she knows everything from her appearance to her goddess make people deeply uncomfortable. There’s a lot of potential there.

As for new characters, I got to add a few, with my favorite to write being Wini, a psychopomp who shows newly-dead souls around the afterlife and helps them organize their court cases. I based her around the little voice in my head that tells me I’m constantly screwing up, and why aren’t I doing better, and oh my gods, this would be so easy if I would. Just. Pay. Attention. Psychopomps are fun to write, because by their very nature they must be neutral—not evil or good—and to me that screams “full of human contradictions.”

HMS: What are the biggest stakes or biggest dangers that we’ll encounter in “Spiral of Bones”?

CF: I hate the old cliché of “if our heroes don’t rally together, an ancient evil will be unleashed,” so instead this time it’s a case of “if our heroes don’t rally together, and ancient neutral will be unleashed!” The stakes are more personal: rescue friends, find purpose, save Valeros’s soul, all while evading an race of brain-eating aliens and an ancient wizard who thinks the system is rigged and refuses to play by the rules. If the Pathfinders fail, friends die, and if they succeed without compassion, friendships die.

And maybe Valeros gets another meat pie at the end.

HMS: Who are the art team on this series and how have they contributed so far to the world of Pathfinder and “Spiral of Bones”?

CF: The art team Dynamite has me working with on Spiral of Bones is AMAZING! Tom Garcia is handling the line art; I fell in love with his work in Pathfinder: Hollow Mountain—the subtle expressions and the larger-than life settings really made the story pop. Colors are being handled by Morgan Hickman; I haven’t seen any color proofs yet, but I love the evocative, limited palettes he’s used in Deja Thoris and Lady Zorro and I’m really excited to see what he does with this very distinct settings. And finally Tom Napolitano is our letterer, and he’s been wonderful and fast to work with, with really fun title treatments. I’m incredibly lucky to be working with so many skilled people.

Massive thanks to Crystal Frasier for taking the time to do such an extensive and fascinating interview with us about the world of Pathfinder and Pathfinder: Spiral of Bones.

Pathfinder: Spiral of Bones #1 will arrive in comic shops on March 21st, 2018 and is currently available for pre-order.