Saturday, February 28, 2015

Designing for Pathfinder: Searching for the Right Words

After designing just a handful of items and monsters for the Pathfinder RPG, I've noticed that when it comes to rules and mechanics, finding just the right words can be challenging. Not only that, rules and mechanics are exactly what you want to get right when you're writing materials for a game. Of course, you want your creative writing to be polished, too, but you can leave a little to the reader's imagination in an item's or creature's description.
saving throws: against or versus?

Search to improve your writing

Choosing the right words for rules text is less of a challenge for experienced designers with a solid mastery of the rules and a strong familiarity with the game's norms and standards. For the journeymen, myself included, one great way to find the right words is to search Paizo's PRD and for some keywords and phrases that are similar to what you're trying to get across, and then analyze the results.

This is true whether you've already written something and simply want to compare it with existing materials of a similar nature, or are struggling to produce or recall the right words. Even if you don't use what you find, you'll likely come across something in the results that helps you find the right words to say what you want to say. If you have all the books you need, and can quickly locate passages relevant to what you're writing, that's a nice bonus, but nothing beats the speed and filtering capabilities of searching with a computer.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Superstar 2015: What's Come Before

With voting set to begin in a few hours in the penultimate round of Superstar 2015, I planned to evaluate the proverbial horse race and decide who I thought were the favorites to move on to the Final Four. The truth, though, the favorites coming into the round don't really matter. For voters' purposes, it often doesn't matter what someone's done in the earlier rounds, just what he or she does in the current one. The annals of Superstar are littered with contestants who seem like powerhouses in the first round or two only to stumble before the end and be unforgivingly cut from the contest.

There simply aren't enough votes, so if one of your favorites makes an error or even simply doesn't have the best entry for whatever reason, you're often facing a tough choice. Do you vote for him or her regardless or go with what you think is a better entry? Truthfully, all eight of these finalists could probably put together a good module (as could some of the other Top 32 who didn't make it this far, I'd guess), but at the same time this is a contest and they're being asked to put forward their very best work time after time.

Still, Steven Helt, one of the Round 4 judges, advised us to not "forget to congratulate our contestants and study their previous entries. For some voters, this round may come down to equally cool submissions, weighted by the body of work of previous rounds."

So let's take a look back at those previous rounds. Obviously, all of them had popular items, since we determined the rankings that resulted in them being picked for the Top 32, but that feels like forever ago. We'll go in reverse alphabetical order so poor Christopher Wasko doesn't have to be last all the time.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Some thoughts on encounter design

In RPG Superstar, the encounter round has always been one of my favorite rounds. Below are some things I'll be looking at as a voter. It's not an exhaustive list, far from it! But I think the following are some good elements to include. A good encounter doesn't necessarily need all of them, of course.

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Wyvern

A wyvern hunting the shores of a still desert lake
I present to you a small collection of photographs of one of my favorite classic monsters, the wyvern. It also happens to be one of my favorite Pathfinder Battles figures.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

A dangerous encounter

For eight of the contestants, their Superstar experience is over in a few hours. For the rest, it continues for the last time. By making the Top 8, they've made themselves ineligible for future years, meaning it's now or never for them. (In terms of Superstar, that is; in terms of game design, they've got a great launching pad that they can use to start a career.)

But they still have a lot of work ahead of them. Superstar's encounter round is, in my opinion, the single hardest round of the competition.

First of all, there's that last bit of pressure. If they advance in this round, no matter what, they'll get a contract to write something with Paizo. Do that well, and they've got a good chance to become a Paizo freelancer. If they don't advance this round, though, nothing's guaranteed for them. Sure, they can still climb that mountain, but they have to do it the same way as everyone else.

I think the biggest challenge, though, is there are so many aspects to this round. Unlike previous rounds where they had to create a single item, map, or monster, now designers have to put all those skills together, creating a memorable location, a powerful map (though I wonder what effect this year's map round will have on that part of the challenge), and an interesting encounter that's mechanically sound. Lately there's been another twist as well, as designers have had to add a trap or hazard to the situation. It's a lot of balls to juggle and it takes real skill to get them all in the air in just a few short days (this was the round I was most tempted to use a sick day for in 2014, so I could have that extra eight hours to design).

Looking through previous years, a few of the encounters have really stood out:

Although a lot of the first year's competition feels like almost a different contest than the more modern Superstar, 2009 was a banner year for encounters, with two of my all-time favorites, Christine Schneider's Chase on Charred Ground and Rob McCreary's Monkey GoblinsAttack!

Schneider's starts with a great map and basically gives us a mini game, creating a set of vehicle rules when none were available. The entire encounter has a ton of action — sledding down the exploding mountain in mid-combat — that would likely leave players talking about it for ... well, ever.

Monkey Goblins Attack! starts wonderfully with an evocative name — even the exclamation point works. McCreary created a variant monster (one that is now part of official canon in Pathfinder Campaign Setting: Inner Sea Bestiary) and again gives us a dynamic encounter that involves a lot of motion. The map and location aren't perhaps quite as strong, but this is another one where players won't soon forget their trek through the jungle.

2011's BrokenCrucible Foundry by Cody Coffelt was another favorite, as Coffelt incorporates the chase rules, having PCs race toward his location in pursuit of his villain (chosen from a previous round). While the map is not the competition's most exciting, it's solid and Coffelt made sure it was stocked with interesting features, particularly the forge bucket and molten metal hazards. I think players would be intrigued to discover this location as they hunted for the villainous Tarvin Haddon.

2012 was one of the best years for this round, and I've already called out many of my favorites here in earlier blog entries.

Russell Vaneekhoven's Hungry Mountain Dragon didn't advance, in part because voters didn't think his Golarion lore worked and some other technical problems, but I still think the core encounter — the fight on the crumbling air ship — was an awesome one (one of the big criticisms was that it might never actually get to that point depending on what the PCs did). I remember to this day the time years ago when my half-elf fighter leaped from one sky carriage to another in Eberron and I think people who played this would continue to remember it. I play-tested it with several people from Paizo's forums, and we had enough fun that we continue to play together three years later.

I've previously called out Tom Phillips' Eightfingers Tomb as arguably the best location in any year of Superstar. I downloaded his Pathfinder Society scenario, Hall of the Flesh Eaters, in part just to see more of the Gloomspires.

Steve Miller's Brike Isle, like some of the other best encounters, adds a time element to the proceedings that ramps up the pressure for the PCs. It also in some ways minimized the combat aspect, which is a risky choice but one that paid off here. Encounters shouldn't always be about having to defeat monsters and this kept that in mind. Combined with the gorgeous map, it's always stuck in my mind.

Last year had twice as many encounters as normal and, because only four advanced, featured some very strong ones that didn't advance.

Perhaps my favorite was Andrew Marlowe's Pentraeth House. I thought Andrew (whose wife, Monica, is in the current competition) drew a great map and I thought his use of the previous round's monster (full disclosure: it was my guttersnipe) was excellent. I always like when monsters can be NPCs and I thought he created two of them with unique personalities that suited the original monster write-up while putting them in a slightly different situation than expected. I thought his encounter had some exciting action and loved the social aspect of it. Honestly, we exchanged encounters before they were revealed to the public, and I remember thinking the encounter aspect of his was stronger than my own submission.I remain surprised to this day that it didn't get more support, though going from 16 to 4 made that a tough round for a lot of competitors (myself included).

Monday, February 16, 2015

Daughters of Fury released

The prize module for RPGSS 2014 has been published! Besides the exciting adventure itself, the module also has 28 new magic items and 4 new monsters, each crafted by last year's Top 32 finalists.

My monster round entry, the immured, is one of the new monsters, and Jacob's poltergeist knot is one of the new items. Huzzah!

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Some thoughts about the monster round and Pathfinder Online

I've been a bit busy lately -- writing my comments on the 16 monsters, trying to be productive in my day job, and working on a freelance assignment have taken much of my time, and I haven't prepared any particularly thought-out post for this weekend. (Thankfully Jacob and Joe posted really interesting blogs this week, sharing their thoughts on monsters and monster design -- please have a look if you didn't already!) I'll just discuss some recent Pathfinder-related things that I've been up to.

Friday, February 13, 2015

A Monster's Essence

As I review the many excellent monsters submitted by this year's hopefuls in the RPG Superstar 2015 contest, I am reminded of just how much there is to consider when appraising and judging a Pathfinder monster. Much more than there is for items and maps, I would argue. Creativity and imagination play a huge role, and then there's style, accuracy and clarity of writing to consider, along with factors such as balance and mechanics. It is a given that some of these aspects can be judged objectively, while others can only be appraised subjectively.

In recent and not-so-recent posts here on A Sword for Hire, Mikko and Jacob have both done an excellent job discussing and addressing the many aspects of a great Pathfinder monster. I can't add anything to their expertise in that area, other than to describe my approach.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Dissecting monsters

Superstar 2015 reaches its half-way point today, as the Top 16's monsters are revealed, typically one of the best moments in each year's contest. Monsters are a staple of the role-playing game industry, which is why despite having hundreds and hundreds of them already published in Bestiaries and Adventure Paths and elsewhere, more are created probably every day.

I have to admit, I didn't used to be the biggest fan of this round. I tend to prefer NPCs in my game design, so I preferred when the create-an-antagonist Round 3 challenge was to design a villain. But I've grown to appreciate the monsters more as I followed the contest, and really came to enjoy looking at them as I reviewed the 40 Here Be Monsters entries.

I wrote a bit about how I review monsters for Here Be Monster in September and I'll largely follow that methodology here:

I want an exciting first line to draw me into the monster and let me really visualize it. It shouldn't assume action on the part of monster or PC, though some minimal movement (rising up, or nostrils flaring) is in my opinion OK. This should be, at heart, something I can read when the PCs first encounter the creature so they know what it looks like.

After that, I turn to the write-up. There, I'm looking for whether I'd know how to run the creature if I were to use it as a GM. What exactly that involves may depend largely on the monster and its role. If it's a mindless ooze, I probably need to know more about how it came to exist, what it does in combat, etc. etc. If it's an intelligent creature, I need to know what it wants as much as how it behaves. Does it have a society? While there's certainly a place for monsters that you encounter and immediately enter combat, I like monsters that can also have individual personalities and let you play with shades of gray in your adventures: Do you team up with the evil dragon knowing that its reason for wanting the invading army stopped is much different than yours?

For this challenge, the write-up will also need to connect the monster to Nar-Voth, the top area of Golarion's Darklands. In my experience, many of the Superstar monsters don't truly hit home as Golarion creatures
my guttersnipe from 2014, for example, referenced the Inner Sea, but truly could have been found in any setting. The designers who really make their creature intrinsically part of the setting earn a lot of bonus points from me (I wrote last week about a few who I thought did that really well).

After reading the write-up, I finally turn to the stat block. I'm less interested in the specifics of the numbers than if they feel they're generally in the right location. If a CR 5 creature has an AC that's much higher or lower than 18, I'm going to be looking to see why and if that's compensated for elsewhere.

The special abilities are always the most exciting part of a new monster for me, so it's hard sometimes to save them for last, though I do try. This is where a designer shows off his or her chops, hopefully giving me some new exciting mechanic that plays with the rules in the same way the Round 1 magic items do. If you can manage to do that, chances are you'll have a monster I want to vote for.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Spreadsheet Magic: D&D 5E monster design tool

Since I don't have time to write a thought-out blog post this weekend, I'll instead show you something I designed while I was between assignments in the fall. It's a spreadsheet that calculates the stats and automatically creates a stat block for a monster you're designing. It's still very much a WIP, so I won't be sharing the sheet itself anytime soon.

Speaking of 5E monsters, anyone who plays that edition of the game and enjoys monster creation should consider entering the Monarch of Monsters contest.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Subscription links

Just an FYI: I added subscription links for Atom and other web feed types. So, if you like reading A Sword for Hire, subscribe!

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Best of the beasts

With their Round 2 work done 10 days ago, the Superstar competitors have been focused on monsters for a while now. Even if they don't know the exact rules, they should have been practicing, and coming up with ideas for Round 3.

For the rest of us, though, now that voting on the maps is over and the Top 16 to be revealed shortly, it's time to turn out attention that way ourselves.

Monsters have long been a staple of Superstar, having apparently permanently supplanted villains in 2012 (which makes sense; while villains are also a staple of gaming, constructing an NPC with class levels isn't quite as challenging as making a monster from scratch). That means there are a lot of monsters to look back at.

A Sword for Hire