Worldbuilding On Multiple Levels: An Interview with Patrick Rothfuss

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been watching author/gamer and all around good-hearted geek Patrick Rothfuss bust his tail to promote his non-profit charity, Worldbuilders.

Patrick Rothfuss
Author Patrick Rothfuss, Photo by Gage Skidmore/CC BY-SA 2.0

The organization collects donations once a year, with all of the proceeds going to Heifer International and, in return, those who donate are entered into contests to win some cool donated items. It’s a win-win for a worthy cause which Rothfuss is very passionate about. As we speak, the campaign has surpassed $900k, and is looking to break the one million in the remaining 48 hours left, of which you can still take part.

We recently got the awesome chance around PAX Unplugged to chat with Rothfuss about Worldbuilders, as well as some of his creative endeavors, thoughts on D&D, reading to his kids, and a few other topics.

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BC: So as we’re getting out of 2018, has the year treated you so far?

Rothfuss: I’ll be honest with you it’s been a really weird year. A lot of upheavals, quite aside from the fact of the political situation in the country or any of that. But a lot of different things. Dealing with Hollywood, doing the Rick and Morty comic… My entire life feels fairly upheaved this year, and it was only just starting to become normal again when the fundraiser launched.

Speaking of which, I know the one big project you’ve been taking time and pride in this year is Worldbuilders. How did you originally form the program?

I started Worldbuilders on my blog kind of by accident. I have always loved Heifer International, and so I was just writing in my blog and I said: “Hey everyone this is a great charity, you know the holidays are coming up, if anyone wants to do some charity with me I’ll match donations for the next month.” And I kind of didn’t understand how many people read my blog. I had only been published for a year and I kind of didn’t understand how generous geeks could be. So I had a wild goal of like, $5,000, and we hit it in three days. And then I I kept matching donations through the whole month with other authors, and they started to help out and donate books and spread the word. And at the end of that year, we raised $58,000 and I matched all of it and it broke me. I used up every bit of money that I had earned to date and I was at zero again. But it was for a good cause, it was a ton of fun to go to.

Can you tell us more about the organization the money goes to?

Heifer International is the charity that we do our end of year fundraiser for. They’re an amazing charity that has been working to not just feed people but help people feed themselves all over the world in 36 different countries. They’ve been doing it for 70 years. They’re education based and ecologically savvy. They’re really brilliant. For $50 they can change a family’s life forever.

What made you decide to do this fundraiser this time around with all these different D&D entities involved?

Well, Worldbuilders started with me and my book friends, people I knew from conventions. So authors donated books and then people donated to our fundraiser, which all that money goes to Heifer, and then we would give away books. I gave away signed books and other author friends would donate signed books and then we shipped them all up to the winners. The first year we had like, a shelf of books, and I was really proud of it because it was all just like off the cuff. Then the second year it was kinda more of the same except that year a publisher came in too, and donated a bunch of books. This year we’re giving away $170,000 worth of books and games and comics, because I know people who make board games and comic books and and [people] in the publishing industry. But I’ve always wondered how I can bring the D&D crowd in. So that’s why this year we decided to do something different to try to give them something cool that they could win if they donated.

I enjoyed seeing the Wyrmwood table on there, the Acq. Inc. cards, the Critical Role stuff is really cool to check out. That’s like a dream for a lot of people right now to have some of that stuff.

It is! Wyrmwood is so kind to us. They had just started making these tables, and I had saw one, it was last year at PAX Unplugged. I saw the table and I’m like, “This is beautiful and you are brilliant.” I’ve seen beautiful gaming tables and this is so next level. And then I looked them dead in the eye and said, “If you give one of these to my charity, I will sing a song about you forever. I will let everyone know how wonderful and brilliant and generous you are.” They didn’t dicker, they didn’t hem, they didn’t haw. They just they came all in right away because they’re like all geeks, they want to do good in the world and they want to help out the cause, and a lot of people donate just hoping to win that beautiful table. And they did it again this year.

What has it been like for you to see the reception that the charity has received so far this time around?

Its nice! We had our best opening day ever. We raised more than a quarter million dollars. To date, we’ve raised about eight and a half million dollars in our fundraisers and various charitable causes. And in my secret heart of hearts I really want to raise enough this year to crack 10 million dollars total. It would have to be our best year ever. I’m really hoping that the Dungeons & Dragons community will like all the things. We’ve developed these beautiful cards that we’re making. Something cool you can bring to your own game and your own table. I’m kind of hoping they can help us cross that finish line.

So moving onto the Rick and Morty D&D comic, how did that entire deal came about? Was it just from that one time you did “An Evening With” and you said “Hey, if Rick and Morty are listening…” or was this a thing that was like long in the works and you were finally approached and on board?

I think it was a project that they had joked about [for] a long time. It’s like, there are Rick and Morty comics and there are D&D comics, and the people that work at Oni and IDW kind of know each other. So they’re like, “wouldn’t it be cool to do both of these at the same time.” But D&D is the the crown prince of of all roleplaying games, and the hot new flavor of the day is Rick and Morty, it’s the big thing at Cartoon Network. So getting both of these huge intellectual properties to actually agree to play with each other is something that apparently they they always assumed just couldn’t happen. I say “no” to so many projects these days, I’ve turned down so many comic projects that it would probably be really impolite for me to name names. Like, big superheroes. I’ve been offered to write canonical stories for of some of the biggest parts of American folklore. And I’ve said “no” because I know it’s my job to be responsible and keep my head down and focus on my own projects. …But I’ve loved D&D since I first ran into it back in 1982. And Rick and Morty… for all that it’s occasionally problematic, is really brilliant and funny and I I delight in it. And the thought of being able to do both at the same time; I had to say yes.

What’s it been for you seeing how that comic has been received in both communities?

I was very pleased. Once I sat down to write this script I was pretty sure I could do it. And then I wrote it down, and it proved to be disturbingly easy to write in Rick’s voice. I don’t know what that means about me. Probably not a good thing but I was confident in that first comic, and the second one turned out pretty good too. I’ve learned a lot about the process. Jim Zub and the editors are very gracious and very kind and they’re very tolerant of my mistakes and my peculiarities. I did stuff in issue #4, and I’m like “Hey guys, this is fucking nuts, but you could you just let me?” I don’t know what people are going to think when they see what’s an issue #4. But what was bad [about it] was I got to write the introduction for the 30th anniversary trade of Sandman. I had just finished my first Rick and Morty script and I felt pretty good about myself. And then I reread all of Sandman and I’m like, “Who the hell do I think I am?” That was not good for a budding comic artist’s ego. So I went from feeling real proud of making some real funny fart jokes to seeing what a true master could do in 23 pages. It was healthy in the degree to which it humbled me.

So once this comic has wrapped up, do you have any aspirations to jump into something from Marvel or DC, or maybe something from Dark Horse or Vertigo? Or is it more like this is your one-and-done?

I’ve actually had offers from all those places, and I’ve been flattered by all of them and I’ve been tempted by all of them. Deeply, deeply tempted. But I now know the amount of work that it takes, and I have to put my time and energy out elsewhere for now. I would love to come and play in this again especially now that I’m a little better at it, I think I could do it more quickly. But no, my aspirations after the fundraiser is done will be to sleep for a week. I will have a healing Oden sleep for several days and emerge a younger more bright-eyed Rothfuss willing to be creative and healthy again.

So going into TV and film, you’ve mentioned in a couple different public appearances and different interviews that you’re working on some projects. You’ve talked a lot about having a new friendship with Lin-Manuel Miranda discussing how he’s part of the Don’t-Fuck-It-Up Committee. Barring NDA’s, is there anything that you can talk about or reveal or kind of give hint to as to what you’re working on in TV and film at the moment?

I can say that part of the reason I’m exhausted is I went from filming the most recent Acquisitions Incorporated show in Seattle about two weeks ago, partly to work on these cards and tie in some of this stuff and sort of, you know, help promote the fundraiser, [then] directly to L.A. where I spent a couple of days in the writer’s room talking with them. They are a great group of people. I love my showrunner. [John Rogers] really knows the business and he really is a geek and he really loves these books. There is no one in the world that I would want running this TV show more than I want him doing it, and he’s welcomed me into that room and he helped make me a part of that process and he’s going to let me write a piece of this show. That shows an incredible amount of kindness and trust and respect. Honestly, there’s not much else to say. It’s still very early in the process, but there is a writer’s room. A month ago there was not a writer’s room.

Patrick Rothfuss
Patrick Rothfuss / Photo by Gage Skidmore/CC BY-SA 2.0

Over the past few years, you’ve become kind of a must-play personality for D&D on different series. You’ve become a staple of Acq. Inc., been a guest all over the place like how we recently saw you with Sirens of the Realms. and their recent episodes. How’s it for you kind of becoming a sort of D&D celebrity ambassador?

Celebrity ambassador is probably a good way to put that! In my secret heart of hearts, I have come to think of myself as a D&D ronin. I sort of wander into these people’s games and I play a character and then I wander away again. I have no master, I’m beholden to no man. I wander into town and I fight the good fight and then I leave again. It’s nice. I would love to have a more steady weekly game that I played even just personally not streaming or performative. But I don’t have a local group to play with, and honestly, I haven’t been invited into a solid weekly game. And it’s too much work for me to assemble on my own. I just can’t. I can’t pick up another project anymore. I might as well just like shoot myself in the leg right now, rather than try to start a new project. But yeah, come at me, streamers! Bring in Rothfuss’ mad bullshit to to your D&D stream!

We both kind of came from an era where D&D wasn’t cool, wasn’t associated with being cool, was kept more of a secret. Now it’s been embraced by the younger generation, it’s more out there, it’s more public, it’s become a bigger brand and entity than ever. How is it for you to see the game grow to the level that it is today?

It’s honestly delightful. I will admit that there is a tiny, awful piece of me that wants to be a little bit of a curmudgeon and say, “You guys don’t appreciate it because you didn’t earn it. You didn’t suffer. You’re not a social outcast and so you can’t really appreciate the joy that is Dungeons & Dragons.” But no, the reason that I do these games and the reason I talk about roleplaying and the reason that I agreed to do this Rick and Morty comic—I’m really careful about what I put my name on. I have a lot of people who will show up to engage with whatever art I produce. And so I want to make sure that the art I produce is good for the human heart and mind. And roleplaying… it’s good for you. It’s not just fun, it’s not just healthy. It’s a beautiful unique sort of collaborative storytelling that the studies are showing is healthy for people in so many ways. Especially kids! I would not be the person I am today if I hadn’t grown up roleplaying. Because you learn about problem-solving and you learn about manipulating systems, and you learn to math, too. I tell you that. It’s a great thing to do with your friends. It’s marvelous. If you enjoy stories, eventually there’s an extra joy in making the stories. That’s something that when you do tabletop roleplaying, it’s a really unique type of collaborative enterprise that you just can’t experience in any other way.

Have you given any thought, now that you’re in with the D&D people, to contributing content like making characters or adding to an adventure? Like how Matthew Mercer recently just did Waterdeep: Dragon Heist.

I will say, and this is little more than an open secret, I have spent more than a little bit of time over at the big Wizards of the Coast building. There were pictures tweeted out of me hanging out in conference rooms having meetings. There was a lot of “What is Pat Rothfuss doing at Dungeons & Dragons?” And I’m like, I don’t feel like I am authorized to release that information at this point. So yeah, I really like the people there and I really love the work that they do. And if they happened to invite me to do something I probably would have said yes. Then you would probably hear about it in an official press release or see it leaked on Twitter like it was a while back.

Touching on Acquisitions Incorporated for a moment, Chris Perkins just left the show and Jeremy Crawford has taken over. What do you looking forward to the most with Jeremy at the helm, and what will you miss the most about Chris?

Chris is straight up the best DM I’ve ever played with or seen. He has such a light touch on the story. Such a willingness to let the players play. Such great improv and such a kind heart. When I got the news I said to him, “How you feelin’ about walking away from the table?” And he grinned at me and he goes “I’m delighted!” Because he’s masterful at it. And he goes “I don’t love the stage.” He’s beautiful up there and he’s good and he’s charming. But let’s be honest, I do love the stage! It exhausts me, but you know, he doesn’t. And he never has. He loves to play but he doesn’t love the performance.

Patrick Rothfuss
Patrick Rothfuss / Photo by Gage Skidmore/CC BY-SA 2.0

He’s more the guy enjoys putting the headphones on and doing the work?

Yeah, and he really does. He puts his head down and he does beautiful work. And I think he’s just he’s like, “I did it for a while and it was good.” I think he’s doing an amazingly gracious thing stepping aside and letting somebody else try it out. I’m curious to see how the game changes. It will be different and it will be cool. I’m really excited to see it. We just finalized his [Worldbuilders] card today, because Chris Perkins is doing a card for this D&D Worldbuilders thing. His will be, of course, that you are able to call upon the power of green flame. Just today actually we confirmed Mike Mearls, Nathan [Stewart] and Jeremy all are coming in and doing cards with us as well.

I’ve heard at a couple “Evening With” sessions you talked about reading books with your kids. I was curious what books you’ve recently come across that you’ve really enjoyed and had a lot of fun reading with your children. And what you’d recommend to parents who are kind of like “Hey Pat, what should I be putting into my child’s mind this time?”

We’ve read a wide variety of books. I recently read Something Wicked This Way Comes with them, and I kind of read a bunch of stuff to them or with them. We try to steer away from a lot of violence, they’re not really into scary things. But I talk about a lot of the books we read together on Good Reads. If people are really curious, I have a profile there where I review books both the ones I read and the ones that other people read. But the most recent is Something Wicked This Way Comes. But if you want a great piece of advice for a book to read with your kids, the Little House on the Prairie books are more dramatic and adventurous than 80% of the fantasy novels I’ve ever read. They’re crazy shit.

Are there any other projects or things that you’re working on that you want to talk about?

This time of year all of my time and attention goes into Worldbuilders. I do live streaming, and I agreed to come to this convention [PAX Unplugged] if we could tie it into promotion for the charity. Otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to make it this year. I wouldn’t have been able to justify it because all of my attention is on it. I wouldn’t say that I have the best charity, but Heifer International does an amazing amount to permanently change people’s lives with a very small initial investment from people. So, $30 will buy a family a flock of chickens, and then they get to eat eggs and have more chickens and more eggs and more chickens. It’s a small business that gives birth to other small businesses and it will change those people’s lives forever, for $30. I think that’s why the geeks, once they kind of figure out what we’re all about, they come back to Worldbuilders again and again because they know that there are people out there whose lives are always going to be better because of the help they’ve provided. That would be enough, but it’s also nice to win some cool shit, you know? And we have 6,000 books, and games, and a cruise for two. A balcony cabin on the JoCo Cruise. Those sell out now, that’s a big item! We’re a really prize-rich environment. I think last year if somebody came in and donated enough for a goat, like $120, they had a 73% chance of winning something. We work really hard to make sure that, yes, you’re making the world a better place. All the money goes directly into this charity, changes people’s lives forever. Also, Merry Christmas, and here’s some cool geekery!

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Thanks again to Rothfuss for taking the time to chat with us.

About Gavin Sheehan

Gavin has been a lifelong geek who can chat with you about comics, television, video games, and even pro wrestling. He can also teach you how to play Star Trek chess, be your Mercy on Overwatch, recommend random cool music, and goes rogue in D&D. He also enjoys standup comedy, Let's Play videos and trying new games, along with hundreds of other geeky things that can't be covered in a single paragraph. Follow @TheGavinSheehan on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Vero, for random pictures and musings.

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