Tuesday, December 9, 2014

So you want to be a Superstar?

Today marks the start of arguably gaming’s most famous contest: Paizo’s RPG Superstar (http://paizo.com/rpgsuperstar). Hundreds of gamers from around the world will participate in the eighth annual competition, hoping to get a chance to run the gauntlet and claim the grand prize, a contract to write a module for Paizo.

Entry this year is a little bit of a changeup: Instead of a wondrous item as in previous years, your magic item has to be an armor, weapon, ring, rod or staff. Still, plenty of advice from previous years' open calls are going to be helpful: Sean K. Reynolds' "auto-reject" topics have been available for several years, while Anthony Adam’s exhaustive guide offers plenty to help with mechanics, and I recommend reading through previous Top 32 items and the various Critique My Item threads for more general advice on what voters are looking for. They won't be quite as much of a guide as previously, but there's still plenty to glean from them.

Then, once you've submitted, you just sit back and wait for voting and then for the Top 32 to be announced. Unless you actually want to win, that is.

Even though there are weeks before anyone know if they'll make the Top 32, there's plenty you can do right now to prepare for a Superstar run. And if you want to win, you need to be prepared.

Cultivate your pit crew

This one you actually probably want to do before you even submit your wondrous item, since they can give you good feedback on that design too. You want to get a group of people you trust who are willing to look over your writing and give you feedback.

Ideally you'll have a mixed group: Someone who really knows the rules, someone who can focus on the writing itself (do you have a typo? Are you using "who" instead of "whom"?), someone who knows the contest (i.e. when I was trying to pick which item to submit last year, I asked my group, “is this Superstar?”), someone who knows Golarion, and even someone who’s not a gamer, but who can tell you if they can picture what you’re writing about (if so, you’ve probably done a good job there).

The two biggest things I think are essential in your pit crew?

1: Brutal honesty. Having someone tell you something is good when it’s not isn’t helping, even if they're trying to be nice. You need someone to tell you flat out, this is a mis-step. You want them to say, "No, tweaking it isn't going to work. Come up with something else." if that's what they think. That can be frustrating for you, especially as you get close to deadline, but trust me, it's better than not advancing to the next round.

2: Availability. You need your pit crew to be able to respond quickly (and for Americans at least, likely during the day so you can get feedback on any final edits before the deadline) and be willing to read multiple drafts of the same item. Especially at the end, you're likely going to be doing lots of tweaking and you don't want to submit and realize you have a typo or missed a word.

If you have some real-life friends who can be your pit crew, great. If not, cultivate some online friends. My pit crew has a couple people who were in my wedding, people I know via the Blazing 9 thread and other Superstar contestants, and a couple folks I do PBP with. My work is better for all of them (and not just Superstar; they're an essential resource for my paid design work too).

Expect to get in

This one’s a bit of a double-edged sword, to be honest. On one hand, just a small percentage of people make it into the Top 32 each year and you're setting yourself up to be crushed when you expect you'll be among them (trust me, I found that out first hand in 2013). On the other, I remember being completely unprepared my first year since I didn't think there was any chance I'd be in the Top 32. Contestants typically have just 72 hours to submit their Round 2 entry (and you want to be careful about waiting to the last moment in case there's some technology problem on your or Paizo's end; I’ve always tried to submit at least four hours ahead of the deadline). You don’t want to have to create your entry from scratch in those three days.

Do your research

That first year I got in, I was completely racing the clock in each round. The second my Round 2 organization was submitted, I started doing research. I went through every single monster that had been submitted in the contest up to that point and copied and pasted into a Word document as many comments that offered advice and critiques as I could. All of that work took hours, and having it done ahead of time saved me a lot of effort in my second run. I examined monsters and encounters and even modules I liked and let them inspire my own design work.

Know the judges

Knowing what the judges do and don’t like can help you a lot. In the Food Network’s “Chopped,” everyone should know that Scott Conant doesn’t like raw red onions, so you’re not going to serve them to him. It’s the same thing here. Though each round is open to public voting, a lot of people take the judges’ verdicts into account. One contestant posted last year about a friend who messaged him saying he only skimmed each entry and just closed the window if the entry got negative votes from each of the judges, so it's important to try to win their approval.

Look at last year's entries to see some of the things Adam liked about monsters. With Mikko being one of the monster judges, I plan to re-read all of his comments about the Here Be Monsters contest and make note of what he does and doesn't like (and I say that as someone who judged that contest with Mikko).

Study golarion

After the first round, each round typically involves creating something for Paizo’s campaign setting. Get to know it. Start reading your copy of “The Inner Sea World Guide” now. If you don’t have it, downloading a pdf will only cost you $10, or explore the PathfinderWiki. (One note: The ISWG pdf is typically added for free to the Top 32 and alternates' downloads so if money is really tight, you may be able to hold off on buying it for yourself.)

Think about places that catch your imagination. Look around and see where Paizo’s put a lot of adventures (especially Pathfinder Scenarios) — it’s harder to fit a new location into somewhere as well explored as Varisia or Ustalav, for example, than in the Mwangi Expanse. Look at some threads on the Paizo messageboards and see where people want to have an adventure/know more about the area. Think about what you can do in those locations.

Practice monster-making

The second/third round has been the monster round each of the last three years. In fact, except for 2009 and 2011 when the challenge was to create a villain, there’s always been a monster round in Superstar. 2015 is no different, as Round 3 will add 16 new beasts to the menagerie.

A lot of contestants have years of practice creating magic items to try to get into the contest, but then they advance and falter since they've never made a monster before. I certainly hadn't when I got in in 2012.

But just as you may have practiced creating magic items, it’s not too late to do the same for monsters. Paizo’s lately gone with lower CRs, but it can’t hurt to give yourself a range to work with. Try creating monsters at CR 3, 6 and 9. Even play test them if you have the chance. It’s likely one of those will be close to the range the official entry is in and you could even be able to use this practice monster as your entry if it’s good enough and fits the “twist.” Even if not, you’ll be better acquainted with the monster creation process and hopefully come up with a few cool special abilities you can give your entry.

Think of encounter locations/module

This goes along with doing your research and studying Golarion, but start thinking about locations you could create for an encounter. Make sure you're not going to do something that's been done before, or if you are that you'll have a different take.

Similarly, it's never too early to start thinking about what you'd submit for a possible module. Don't get locked into any ideas — you never know what twists Paizo will throw at you (you may have had the greatest idea for a jungle trek ever, but it wouldn't have done you any good last year when Paizo wanted an urban adventure) — but you have to make that first pitch quickly. You want to have an idea that you think could knock people's socks off, and don't want to risk a sudden bout of writer's block. Remember you'll also need a new magic item (which doesn't have to be a wondrous item) and monster, so brainstorm some ideas for those as well.

Be ready to take a day off

This one’s obviously going to depend on your job and schedule. That said, if you have the vacation days to spare and the flexibility to schedule them somewhat last minute, think about taking a day off to work on game design if you get to the last round or two. Certainly not everyone’s going to be able to do that but it could help make the process less stressful if you can give yourself eight extra hours one day.


  1. Excellent advice, Jacob. I feel pretty comfortable in the monster and item areas, a little less so regarding maps, and finally, encounters and knowledge of Golarion are my weakest areas. Taken as a whole, the points you've made demonstrate that success in the contest requires more than just creativity. It also requires hard work, diligence, research, planning and practice. Like in other areas of life, talented individuals can make it look easy, though it almost never is.

    1. Well put, Joe! A piece of advice I mentioned in a general RPGSS advice article was that you should teach yourself new skills. Map-making is one of the things all contestants really really should study. Not everyone is a multiclassed cartographer!


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