Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Loot & Experience part II: Mikko's recipe for a wondrous item

There's already a lot of advice about wondrous items on the RPGSS boards. Instead of repeating what has been said there, I try to focus on things that I've discovered myself. Like all my articles about RPGSS, this one too assumes that you know the basics, i.e. you've read SKR's advice.

I'm calling this article a "recipe" because there are many ways to craft a good item. This is just one of them and may not work for everyone.

I encourage you to try writing an item using this "recipe". Let me know if it worked!

Where to start? 

There are many ways to get started. A wondrous item could be described as a physical object that produces rules-mechanical effect(s) powered by spell(s), all of which should be thematically linked. So, generally speaking, you pick one of the four elements to build your item around. I recommend trying out each approach to see what works for you the best.
  • Pick an item type and build around it. The item's function is thematically connected to the mundane version of the item. My 2014 item used this approach: a deck of cards that lets you build magical card houses.
  • Pick a theme and build around it. It can be something as simple as an iconic monster. It can also be a cultural element, city or deity from Golarion.
  • Pick a spell and build around it. The danger here is that it may end up being a SIAC (Spell in a Can), so remember to include a twist that totally changes the way the spell behaves.  My 2012 item, vexing spirit lamp, used this approach.
  • Pick a rules element you want to explore. E.g. combat maneuvers or flanking. My 2011 item used this approach; it was a low-level item for fighting invisible creatures.

Appetizer, main course, dessert

There are many ways to structure your wondrous item, but here's a nifty trick I've been using.
  • The first part, the appetizer, should be short so you don't bury the lead. The purpose of the appetizer is to make the reader hungry and curious. It sets the mood for the rest of the entry. It also has the highest density of flavor text in it. There may be some mechanics included, but generally only flavorful, passive effects that don't take too many words to explain. The appetizer should not include a summary of the item's functions. The trick here is to tease the reader into reading more, not to give away all the information at once.
  • The second part, the main course, is generally the longest of the three. It contains the main function of the item and should introduce at least one mechanically interesting concept that plays with the rules. Be as specific as you need to, but do not be tempted into including information the reader is very unlikely to need. Although some people are interested in corner cases, most people can figure it out unless it's a very complex item (which I don't recommend).
  • The last part, the dessert, is generally slightly shorter than the second part. It includes a twist (and possibly, some exceptions to the main function). It should reward the reader for getting this far. This is also where you tie up any loose threads. Wrap it up so that everything makes sense with the theme you picked.
You may actually use this three-part structure to break down the text into three paragraphs. If the paragraphs end up being very different in their sizes, however, you may want to look for other logical points for paragraph breaks. I think three paragraphs that are nearly identical in length are visually more pleasant than paragraphs of wildly different sizes. But that may be just me.

Mechanics are the meat; use flavor as a spice

Based on the judges' and voters' feedback, one of my strengths in wondrous item design is evocative visuals. It may seem that I use a lot of flavor text to achieve this, but the truth is actually quite the opposite. To analyze your use of flavor text, use the following categories and count how many words go into each category.
  • Explicit rules text: Actual rules terminology; bland but filling.The majority of your item should consist of this type of text.
  • Implicit rules text: Words that do double duty. While not actual rules terms, they imply a mechanical effect. They are useful because they are flavorful and informative at the same time. On the other hand, using too many makes your text vague and ambiguous.
  • Flavor text: Words that carry no mechanical meaning; they only serve to make the item more interesting for the reader and provide thematic links. Of course, flavor text may support the mechanics if they provide context that makes the mechanics easier to understand.
The quality of your flavor text is, of course, much more difficult to evaluate.

Hint at the function

This is another nifty trick I've been using each time since 2011. It kind of sets the mood for the item. And in the off chance that the party has no means of identifying the item, they can at least guess what its function might be. Below are examples from my RPGSS items:
  • 2011: "This silver statuette, usually crafted in the shape of a crouching pseudodragon, quivers subtly when touched."
  • 2012: "This ornate terracotta lamp usually bears motifs of flying dragonflies. When held by a creature with at least 1 point in his ki pool, the lamp sheds a blue light as bright as a candle."
  • 2013: "This hollow, human heart-shaped glass sculpture pulses excitedly when held by a warm, living creature."
  • 2014: "This set of 54 cards is adorned with designs that are oddly skewed or tilted but otherwise similar to playing cards or Harrow cards."

Use effects that build upon one another

Items that have multiple effects may be considered SAKs (Swiss Army Knife) if you are careless. There are (at least) two ways to avoid SAKs.
  • Thematic linking: Even if the effects are completely separate, grouping them in an item may be acceptable if there is a strong thematic link.
  • The effects build upon one another: For example, effect A sets up a situation which effect B exploits. I've used this a number of times. For example, vexing spirit lamp creates a light (1st effect) that flies around and draws AoOs from your opponents (2nd effect). If a foe actually hits and destroys the light, it is targeted by a daze effect (3rd effect). See how this is different from a SIAC-SAK that allows you to cast daze, dancing lights and compel hostility as separate effects.
Items with multiple effects should belong to at least one of the above categories, perhaps even both of them.

Familiar shapes (sounds, smells...)

While it is good to be fresh and innovative in your design, it's nevertheless useful to use shapes and symbols people are familiar with. Describing a completely alien object may be really cool, but it generally takes a lot of words to do. Sometimes you can afford it, sometimes you want to let the reader's mind do some of the work for you. Besides saving words, things that are easier to imagine end up being more evocative. However, this doesn't mean that the item should look of feel mundane! A pet peeve of mine is the word "nondescript".

Popular appeal & standing out

When you prepare for next year's RPGSS, try to predict trends. Better yet, use an item type that you know has never been submitted before. In 2012 I wanted to submit my seashell of the skies, an item built around the theme of Gozreh's dual nature as the god/goddess of the sky/sea. I'm sure it would have stood out by virtue of the item type. Sadly, I wasn't able to come up with sufficiently original mechanics.

If you use a Golarion tie-in, make sure you get it right. Even if you get it right, there is a chance people don't get your reference. So make sure the item makes sense even if people don't know the deity/city/etc. in question.

Some ideas on assessing what's hot and what's not:
  • Read the threads from previous years that popped up during R1 voting to see what people liked or didn't like (torcs?).
  • Read exit poll results and compare them with the entries that actually advanced. Analyze why there were differences.
  • Read the judges' comments. Read the voters' comments, compare with the judges' comments and analyze.
  • Consider how popular movies or books released recently may affect what items other people submit.

Focus on the positive

Negative effects (limiting factors and penalties) may be important for game balance, but they are simply not very exciting for the reader. If you think you need balancing factors, make sure you present them as cool features, not annoyances. But avoid including drawbacks that aren't really drawbacks... there's a difference. My this year's item, deck of falling houses, allows you to use as many cards as you wish to build a structure, but it includes a balancing factor: destroy one card and the rest of them go down too. So anything you can create with one standard action can be destroyed with one standard action. Depending on the situation, it's a benefit or a drawback.


Test your cinematics

To test how evocative your visuals are, have a friend read your entry, then ask them to describe it to another friend in their own words. Watch their body language while they describe your entry: the more expressive body language they use, the more evocative visuals you probably have.

And finally, a pet peeve... 

I don't particularly like it when an item or monster description says that the item/monster's appearance suggests something. It feels like a cop out. Instead of using evocative language to actually make the reader think about something, you tell them what they should be thinking about. I often react with "no, that's not what it suggests to me". This may be a matter of taste but useful to remember because it's people like me who vote in R1! ;-)

Again, these are just my personal ideas and opinions. Feel free to comment, whether you agree or disagree with me.

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