Wondrous Item auto-reject advice #1: Spell in a Can


RPG Superstar™ 2011 General Discussion

Contributor

Last year I compiled a list of things that would instantly disqualify your item. I'm going to post them one by one as we approach Round 1 of this year's contest. Here's the first in that list.

1. Your item is a "spell in a can."

If all your item does is let the bearer use a particular spell or spells a certain number of times per day, that's what we call a "spell in a can" (abbreviated as "SIAC").

It's boring. It's not creative. And it's not going to get you to Round 2 of RPG Superstar.

Don't get me wrong, there is a place in the game for SIAC items. They're staples of fantasy and staples of the core game, basic stuff that many adventurers need. The following are a list just some of the SIAC wondrous items in the Core Rulebook:

amulet of proof against detection and location
bead of force
boots of levitation
boots of speed
boots of teleportation
broom of flying
cape of the mountebank
carpet of flying
chime of opening
cloak of displacement
cloak of etherealness
crown of blasting
crystal ball

These are all useful items. They're just not particularly interesting in terms of what they can do. All of them duplicate existing spells. If your item just lets the bearer perform an existing spell effect, that's not innovative--anyone playing the game could design that magic item. Your goal as a competitor in RPG Superstar is to show the judges and voters that you have the design talent to make something cool, interesting, and fun... and cramming a spell into an item is none of those things.

The Exchange RPG Superstar 2010 Top 16

Notice, too, that many of those wonderous items have very evocative visuals, very much unlike the spells they emulate. The cape of the mountebank looks cool, but mechanically speaking, it's still empowers its wearer to dimension door, and not much else.

I haven't seen the breadth of entries that the judges have pored through, but I have noticed that many of the rejected items that were posted to the "Hey Clark! What did youse guys think of my entry?" thread have been spells (from the 3.5 Spell Compendium or Arcanis or some other d20 product) in-a-can. That's not any more creative, and it's dangerous from a legal perspective.


Though I don't qualify to enter SuperStar, I am looking forward to your design notes, Sean!

Out of curiosity, what do you see as the best example of wondrous items from the rulebook that aren't SIAC? I presume even getting away from SAIC doesn't automatically make an item interesting to you.

Contributor

That's hard to say, Owen. Most items in the Core Rulebook are necessary but not glamorous items. Every year we've received many items where the judges say, "this would totally have a place in a book full of magic items because it's a useful, functional item, but it just isn't superstar."

Some cool Core Rulebook items that are more than just a SIAC are

helm of brilliance (thematically linked effects, though it tends to fall into another trap, the "Swiss army knife")
instant fortress
iron bands of binding
pearl of power

Lantern Lodge

Pathfinder Adventure Path, Campaign Setting, Companion, Roleplaying Game, Starfinder Adventure Path, Starfinder Maps, Starfinder Roleplaying Game Subscriber

I love it, Sean. What not to do is a great funnel to make it more obvious what not to submit - especially for first-time applicants.

Are the RPG Superstar round-themes the same every year, and if so what are they? I want to say magic item, monster, spell, encounter, adventure...? It's always great to read the submissions as they win - I just always get too busy to read them at every stage. Not this time though.

Great input from both of the others too. ;) I am looking forward to entering this year despite my current writing, organizing, and designing work load. What the heck, right? :D I'm down, for sure.
-will

Contributor

We haven't yet announced what the dates and events are, but we will soon (we're finalizing them now).

RPG Superstar 2010 Top 32 aka Hydro

What I've figured out is that you're always going to have to design a badguy (either a villain or a monster), you're always going to have to design a place, and you're always going to have to design an encounter. Some of these can get doubled-up or expanded on or presented in interesting ways but they're basically there, because they're all important elements of adventure design.

Occorse, who knows what they'll do this year. :)

Contributor, RPG Superstar 2009, RPG Superstar Judgernaut

I thought I'd widen this discussion a little to examine how a designer can take steps to ensure his item isn't a Spell-in-a-Can (SIAC)...

Spoiler:

Admittedly, there are a lot of spells out there. Pretty much any effect that magic can credibly accomplish has found its way into a spell at one time or another. So, sometimes it's hard to come up with an item that does something magical which isn't already covered by a spell...or which might not be better served as a spell rather than an item. Here are some thoughts and examples on ways you can make cool items that won't just be Spells-in-a-Can:

Make The Spell "Effects" Different Than The Spell:
A good trick for avoiding the SIAC trap is to shake things up a bit. If your item needs to provide something "spell-like" in how it functions, just make sure your item takes it a step further than the spell itself or somehow functions just a little bit differently (and hopefully in a cool way).

For instance, in last year's competition, Jesse Benner's snapleaf provided both a feather fall effect and an invisibility effect. But...it was a single-use item. The invisibility only lasted 5 rounds...not the usual 5 minutes granted by a 5th level caster. And, the feather fall effect would be wasted if the invisibility was used while on the ground. Now Jesse's item had some other issues (like allowing a wearer to hang the snapleaf around his neck and not have it interfere with any other amulet, necklace, etc. taking up the "neck" slot). But, in general, his item side-stepped the SIAC issue by layering on a new set of restrictions and tweaks so it doesn't just duplicate the spells used in its construction.

How about another example? Let's look at Lief Clennon's seven thousand blossoms. This could very easily have just been an air walk SIAC item. But, they're single-use. They have a limited 1 minute duration. They only create a single, temporary "bridge" or "staircase" that cannot be altered once the blossoms are thrown. High winds can shorten the duration of their effect. And, if thrown across difficult terrain (such as quicksand, bogs, ice, snow, etc.), they negate the effects of that terrain on those who cross it. I might also add that the effect stays present for multiple people...not just the single individual who normally benefits from air walk. In fact, you can see just how much the seven thousand blossoms differ from the spell itself. Lief did a GREAT job on designing this item. It's so much more than a Spell-in-a-Can.

Make The Spells "More Than The Sum Of Their Parts":
Another way to go about item design is to look for ways to put multiple spells together so they interact in ways that are different than how they work independently. Sometimes you get your greatest inspiration by pursuing this path, because the interplay between spells you might not normally put together create something even more "magical" (and cool!) than the individual spells.

For example, I'll point to my own item from RPG Superstar 2009, the last leaves of the autumn dryad. This item could very easily have been a simple arcane eye SIAC, as it's meant primarily to be a remote scrying device. But, by tying it to a non-invisible sensor (i.e., the leaves), it made it more vulnerable (and detectable) than an arcane eye. By including the ability to speak through the leaves, it granted something more than a typical arcane eye. And, by forcing the user into a tree shape in order to use it, the item presents something completely different in how it operates than an arcane eye.

Make sure you look for two or three spells that you can imagine working with one another to do something more than what the individual spells could accomplish on their own. Jesse's snapleaf is meant to be the ultimate escape or infiltration device...i.e., it lets you leap from a high building, wall, or cliffside...float safely down to the ground and turn invisible as you do it. Together, these two spells wrapped in that single package make it more than the sum of its parts.

The same thing goes for the last leaves. In fact, I purposefully set out to craft that item so it would serve more than just a scrying role. For instance, if the user just needs to avoid detection for awhile and he's in the countryside, he can use the device to assume tree shape without ever sending the leaves off to scry at all. Also, if he really needs to get a message through to someone but doesn't have an animal messenger, sending, or whispering wind spell prepared, he can use the last leaves to make contact with someone up to a limited distance away. And, unlike a crystal ball, the item will even let him cast speak with animals and speak with plants through the leaves in order to maximize the amount of creatures he can converse with in this fashion.

Be Different, Be Imaginative...and You'll Be Awesome!
So, there's a couple of ideas on how to avoid the SIAC trap...as well as some examples of how past competitors side-stepped the issue. But, remember, the ultimate goal is to create something really cool. Spells are cool. And you're pretty much always going to have to find a few to include in your item's construction requirements. Just make sure the item isn't exactly like the spell. Layer on something slightly different...something creative...something the spell wouldn't ordinarily allow you to do...or, more importantly, something that requires you to have the item itself to accomplish that particular effect.

In other words, designing your item so that "...there's no spell for this..." is a good path to trod. That, in itself, won't get you into the competition, though. Your item still needs some mojo...a creative spark that makes it a cool idea with the right implementation to mesh with the game so it doesn't break anything. Avoiding the SIAC is just the first of many pitfalls you'll face in wondrous item design. But it's an important hurdle to clear coming out of the gate.

Just my two-cents,
--Neil

RPG Superstar 2010 Top 32 aka Hydro

Great insights as always, Neil.

Sovereign Court RPG Superstar 2009 Top 32, 2010 Top 8 , Star Voter Season 6

I'd also add, avoid the spell in the can by making the item useful. Neil's examples both had unique uses, and the last leaves rewarded the player for thinking thematically. A gauntlet that makes a shield spell by itself is boring. A gauntlet that would make a shield spell, or allow it to fire a force bolt like a magic missile or even become a bo-staff (like the old FR spell Decastave) might skirt into swiss army knife territory but could be fluffed together if, for example, the magic missile looked like the shield, and if the character's heraldry also showed up on the staff.

Of course, such an item has been done to death. ;-)

Contributor, RPG Superstar 2009, RPG Superstar Judgernaut

Here's one more example from the very first RPG Superstar competition of how to do something cool that isn't just a Spell-in-a-Can:

Spoiler:

Ross Byers' seer's tea starts out granting the one-time use of augury to anyone who drinks it and then reads the tea leaves left in the cup. If he had stopped there, it would have been a Spell-in-a-Can. But then, he goes on to indicate it can be used as an extra material component in the casting of an actual, prepared augury spell to turn it into a divination spell instead.

The seer's tea is also completely consumed in the usage. So that's a nice nerfing effect to make sure the use of this divination magic doesn't get out of hand or annoying in the course of a game. But its real appeal is that it's an item you could easily see players getting as low-level PCs, and yet, it retains its value (because of the divination upgrade possibilities) even as a character advances. So, this is good, unique design. Solid presentation. Well thought through...

Another penny's worth of thinkin',
--Neil

Shadow Lodge

I think the SIAC syndrome is due to people wanting to be "safe" mechanically.

If I build an item that replicates a spell, then it's construction costs/requirements and in-game "power" are easy to nail down since it (essentially) is just like the spell it uses as a basis.

If I come up with a completely wonderful Wondrous Item, then even when using the item construction guidelines in the Core Rules I feel like I have to do more guessing than I'd like.

Statting out a magical back-scratcher that can also be used to hurl flaming marshmallows is harder (imho) than statting out Matthew's multi-function shield/gauntlet. The gauntlet replicates clearly-defined spells/spell-like abilities, the backscratcher of unreachable itch +5 doesn't.

So, any advice on the mechanics/statting out an item that truly strays away from the 'norms'?

Contributor, RPG Superstar 2009, RPG Superstar Judgernaut

ValmarTheMad wrote:
So, any advice on the mechanics/statting out an item that truly strays away from the 'norms'?

Sure. It's the same advice offered in the previous years of the competition. There's nothing purely scientific about wondrous item costing. It's part science and just as equally, part art. Price it as best you can. Compare it to items at the same costing level. Consider how soon it would become available in an adventuring PC's career...and whether that's appropriate...based on the cost you've assigned it. Rinse and repeat. A freelance designer needs to demonstrate the chops to figure out this conundrum. And there's no single "correct" answer that fits every wondrous item design. That's what makes this round of the competition the perfect litmus test for the Top 32.

Lantern Lodge

Pathfinder Adventure Path, Campaign Setting, Companion, Roleplaying Game, Starfinder Adventure Path, Starfinder Maps, Starfinder Roleplaying Game Subscriber

This forum is definitely worth a value in gold (I would say weight, but not sure that interwebz has a mass or gravitational pull toward any solid object). I officially have my eyes fixated on this series now. ;)

RPG Superstar 2008 Top 32 , Star Voter Season 7

Neil Spicer wrote:

Here's one more example from the very first RPG Superstar competition of how to do something cool that isn't just a Spell-in-a-Can:

** spoiler omitted **

Another penny's worth of thinkin',
--Neil

Thanks for the plug, man!

Contributor, RPG Superstar 2009, RPG Superstar Judgernaut

Ross Byers wrote:
Thanks for the plug, man!

No problem. You do good work, man. ;-)

Contributor, RPG Superstar 2010 , Dedicated Voter Season 6, Dedicated Voter Season 7, Dedicated Voter Season 8, Dedicated Voter Season 9

Neil Spicer wrote:
ValmarTheMad wrote:
So, any advice on the mechanics/statting out an item that truly strays away from the 'norms'?
Sure. It's the same advice offered in the previous years of the competition. There's nothing purely scientific about wondrous item costing. It's part science and just as equally, part art. Price it as best you can. Compare it to items at the same costing level. Consider how soon it would become available in an adventuring PC's career...and whether that's appropriate...based on the cost you've assigned it. Rinse and repeat. A freelance designer needs to demonstrate the chops to figure out this conundrum. And there's no single "correct" answer that fits every wondrous item design. That's what makes this round of the competition the perfect litmus test for the Top 32.

Pricing is tricky, another thing worth considering is from a PC's point of view. If it is a must have, then it's probably too cheap, if you would never buy it, then it may be too expensive. As Neil said, an item that is useful over a wider range of levels is going to see more play than one that is only useful at low levels. Also consider at really high levels, when PCs have lots of cash, whether they could abuse your item by buying a backpack full of them.

Matt

Sczarni

Just curious, can my idea be an adaptation of an existing magic item/wondrous item? (had this neat twist on an old favorite)

Contributor, RPG Superstar 2009, RPG Superstar Judgernaut

Nightfall wrote:
Just curious, can my idea be an adaptation of an existing magic item/wondrous item? (had this neat twist on an old favorite)

Generally, that kind of item fell into the Bad Item Stereotypes from year one of the competition, because adapting or putting a "neat twist" on an old favorite isn't typically seen as all that Superstar. For instance, some folks submitted new figurines of wondrous power (some of which were pretty cool, according to Clark). But the judges have an expectation that those selected for the Top 32 will be bringing something new and innovative to the game, not an old item with a new spin or power-up.

Just my two-cents,
--Neil

P.S. And if you haven't looked through all the links provided by Vic and others in these advice threads, you're really missing out on some valuable insight as to what you should be striving for in your submission.

Sovereign Court RPG Superstar 2009 Top 32, 2010 Top 8 , Star Voter Season 6

Nightfall wrote:
Just curious, can my idea be an adaptation of an existing magic item/wondrous item? (had this neat twist on an old favorite)

If I may...

Even if you get into the top 32 with your 'new and improved' item, the voters are also going to have the 'been there/done that' attitude. I mean, (again, being self important) look at the tankard. People were arguing it was just a variant of another item already existing, though it wasn't.

Contributor, RPG Superstar 2010 Top 4

I thought I would add my own musings.

Spoiler:
When you consider the phrase "spell in a can", that itself gives you a hint to the design pitfall. That is, you have an item that is putting a "spell" on someone or something.

That is functional but boring design because most players and GMs know their spells. That is not exploringg new ground or innovation, it is re-using existing game mechanics and effects with a different delivery system. So bottle rockets that turn into magic missiles (and don't do anything else) is just the magic missile spell delivered in a different manner.

A solid idea will be one that doesn't completely emulate a spell.

And so far I haven't told you anything that Sean and Neil haven't told you already!

So let me add a postscript coming from the other direction. If you attempt to do something completely innovative with the mechanics, here are a few things to bear in mind.

1.) You need to be able to explain it clearly.
2.) You need to be able to explain it in your word count.

That's what makes spells-in-a-can SO attractive to would be contestants. They're easy to explain and they don't require many words. But being easy doesn't make them particularly interesting.

Now whereas Neil gives you all the really cool and stellar examples; let me give you one that I thought was ambitious but suffered from unnecessary complexity. I'm also biased, because it was mine. Lest you think I'm bragging, I barely got in with this entry, and overall it was considered the 'last place' item.

Seducer's Bane (and it was rewritten at the end of the thread)

Whatever you think the item was about (anti-charm paranoia or being a prisoner), here is the core mechanic being challenged: if someone casts a spell on you and you make your Will save, by the Core Mechanics, the caster *knows* you made that save.

Let me give you an unrelated example: If someone casts discern lies, and you make your Will save, they do not know if you're lying or not- BUT!!! They *do* know you resisted the spell, and can draw the conclusion that you have something to hide. They do not know that you're telling the truth, they just can't prove you're lying.

Playing with the Saving Throw mechanic seemed like a great idea (to me) at the time, but I explained it poorly and I was fighting like hell to get it in word count. Clark gave it and me a chance, but the item was not well received and was well criticized. It was very complex, my entry was wordy, paranoid, and most people didn't even understand the mechanic that was I was playing with.

Moral of the story: You need absolutely need to avoid SIAC. That's what this is thread is about, and I don't mean to detract from Sean's advice in any way. But also make sure you don't try anything so ambitious that you can't do it justice within the limits you're given.

I hope this is helpful.


~pulls out my notebook and takes some notes~

Liberty's Edge

Pathfinder Adventure Path Subscriber
Sean K Reynolds wrote:

Last year I compiled a list of things that would instantly disqualify your item. I'm going to post them one by one as we approach Round 1 of this year's contest. Here's the first in that list.

1. Your item is a "spell in a can."

Well, I guess I might as well go ahead and self-publish since my (as yet unfinished and too long) entry is now moot.

Gozreh’s Baresman

It's OK, it'll still get used in my campaign ;-)


I haven't posted in over a year, but I think this year I'm going to give it a go and submit something!

Thanks for the tips to avoid an auto-reject...


Ah, yes, the SIaC. Always a point of contention, as in essence, most magical items are a SIaC. I have little to criticize or ask for clarification on here, just that it's always..well..going to be a point of contention. Just as the argument can be made that there are several items that somehow *transcend* the SIaC trap, the counter argument can also be made that said item is *just* a SIaC.

Contributor

Every year we get many, many items, whose description amounts to:

"This thing looks like this, with a fancy this and that, and is worn on the there. Once per day, it allows the wearer to use spell X."

That is a SIAC. And a very boring one.

There have been several things that technically are SIACs that still make it to the Top 32. An item such as the one above would never make it to the Top 32 because all there is to it is a physical description and a spell (i.e., boring).


Freehold DM wrote:
Ah, yes, the SIaC. Always a point of contention, as in essence, most magical items are a SIaC. I have little to criticize or ask for clarification on here, just that it's always..well..going to be a point of contention. Just as the argument can be made that there are several items that somehow *transcend* the SIaC trap, the counter argument can also be made that said item is *just* a SIaC.

+1.

The contest rules seem clear cut, but the actually selection process seems rather arbitrary. Which is probably to be expected, because judging a person's creative writing has got to be difficult - I'm thinking of my writing professor in college:).

Disclaimer: I also have no desire to criticize the professionals that decide what is legal and what is not in this contest. Please do not mis-read my post as a thinly disguised attempt to do just that - it is not.

Sovereign Court RPG Superstar 2009 Top 32, 2010 Top 8 , Star Voter Season 6

Bruce Bogtrotter wrote:

The contest rules seem clear cut, but the actually selection process seems rather arbitrary. Which is probably to be expected, because judging a person's creative writing has got to be difficult - I'm thinking of my writing professor in college:).

Disclaimer: I also have no desire to criticize the professionals that decide what is legal and what is not in this contest. Please do not mis-read my post as a thinly disguised attempt to do just that - it is not.

Superstar seems like (for lack of a better comparison) porn. The infamous supreme court ruling that basically said "I know porn when I see it." is similar. The top 32 is a matter of 'writing to catch someone's eye' to get into the top 32, and then hoping to woo the voters as well. Of course you're going to get some weird results. To use 'American Idol' as a comparison, I personally felt Adam Lambert was overrated compared to some others, but he impressed the judges to get into the competition, and then kept getting votes.

Self effacing spoiler

Spoiler:
I know that there were people who didn't think my stuff was 'superstar' and likely looked at my encounter entry and went 'he got voted on when X could have done better?' So I guess I'm an example too. :P


Wait a moment, you mean being a gag item isn't the route to an item hitting the wastebin so fast it leaves the greatest scorch marks on the mousemat???

Edit:
Ack. I'm really missing Clark this year already.

Scarab Sages

Adventure Path Charter Subscriber; Pathfinder Campaign Setting, Cards, Companion, Maps, Modules, Roleplaying Game Subscriber; Pathfinder Comics Subscriber
Charles Evans 25 wrote:
Wait a moment, you mean being a gag item isn't the route to an item hitting the wastebin so fast it leaves the greatest scorch marks on the mousemat???

I thought being a 'gag item' fell under the 'no porn' rejection?

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