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).

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