Wondrous Item auto-reject advice #2: Swiss Army Knife


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.)

2. Your item is a "Swiss army knife."

In real life, a Swiss army knife is a multi-function pocket knife or multitool. The stereotypical SAK has knives of several sizes, a screwdriver, can opener, file, and scissors. More elaborate ones include a ball point pen, hex wrench, pliers, magnifying class, USB storage device, and so on.

In other words, it's a whole bunch of things crammed into one device that don't really have much to do with each other. And that's pretty much what a "Swiss army knife" magic item is: a bunch of spells, powers, or effects in one item that may or may not have a common theme. Also known as a "grab bag" item.

If your item does X, and you think that's not cool enough, adding Y to the item doesn't necessarily make it more cool. And adding Z on top of that isn't likely to make it cool, either. And it's not going to get you to Round 2 of RPG Superstar.

For example, let's say you design an amulet that lets you fire a searing light ray once per day, but you realize players will miss being able to wear an amulet of natural armor in that slot, so you give your amulet the ability to cast barkskin once per day. Those two abilities don't have anything to do with each other, and putting them in the same item doesn't make the item more interesting. If you decide it would be cool if the amulet let you use fly once per day, that also has no relation to the rest of the abilities of the item. You may be able to create some kind of theme or backstory about the item to unify those three spells into a common concept (such as, "it once belonged to an archdruid whose owl companion got too old to fly easily, so he crafted it to allow his friend to magically fly with him, and added some battle spells because he is OWLSBERG, THE OWL OF BURNING MIDNIGHT DOOM!"), but that's a weaker design than creating a coherent theme for the item and picking abilities based on that theme.

It's entirely possible for an item to be a Spell in a Can (auto-reject #1) and a Swiss Army Knife. All staves, for example, are SIAC and SAK (which is partly why staves aren't an option for Round 1). A strand of prayer beads is both a SIAC and a SAK, and it would not make it to Round 2 (it's a useful item, just not interesting).

There is a place in the game for SAK items. There are many wondrous items in the Pathfinder RPG Core Rulebook that are SAK, and they're cool because they have a concise theme. Examples:

gem of brightness (theme: light)
helm of brilliance (theme: light and fire)
restorative ointment (theme: healing effects)
robe of stars (theme: stars, either as a destination, source of luck/fate, or weapon)

Notice that all of the above items do neat things that you can't do with spells, or have a neat way of activating their powers. That helps distinguish an item as something more than just a SAK. For example, a glove that lets you neutralize poison, remove disease, or cure light wounds isn't as interesting as a healing ointment that does exactly the same thing.

A stereotypical SAK is just a collection of effects that you could determine randomly on a table. That's not innovative or creative. 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 an item I could create by rolling three times on a spell list is none of those things.

Contributor, RPG Superstar 2009, RPG Superstar Judgernaut

My two-cents...

Spoiler:

I think a lot of people get trapped by the Swiss-Army-Knife (SAK) pitfall, because of two different lapses in judgement. Either, they lose focus and don't realize they're adding stuff that detracts from an item's theme (i.e., they throw in something that seems to come from way out in left field and has no bearing on what the item appears intended to do). Or, they get wrapped up in portraying the really cool theme they want their item to embody, so they just keep adding more and more to it...until it's basically just overkill.

Also, to Sean's point, lots of times the Spell-in-a-Can syndrome can magnify this situation, because you just keep reaching for "one more spell effect" to give the item, thinking that it's okay to add an X times per day "kicker" in there to help it be that much more powerful. Or you throw something way-too-unusual in there, because you're trying to make it unique.

For instance, my first attempt to submit for RPG Superstar 2008 fell victim to both those mistakes. I designed a pair of bracers called...wait for it!...the bracers of life and death! Woo! Hear their name and tremble in fear! Fear, I say!

Ahem. Okay. Aside from the terrible name, one bracer was meant to grant life-giving power...while the other one imbued death. It was essentially two Spells-in-a-Can, because each one used positive and negative energy spells. It was like a helm of brilliance in terms of the stuff I layered onto it. And I just kept making one bad design decision after another by selecting more and more gimmicks or effects that just had to be included...or...or...the item wouldn't be COOL enough to capture the interest of the judges!

It sucked. Badly.

And it was rightly rejected. An item like that isn't Superstar. It doesn't take much imagination to select a few spells an item will let you cast X times per day and mix-and-match enough of them to make sure the item is "the definitive" Swiss-Army-Knife of all things <insert theme here>.

That's what you want to avoid as a designer for RPG Superstar. Don't get caught up in your item's coolness factor and keep glomming on more and more, thinking it's "improving" the item's chances of being accepted. Because it's not...

This is why the judges often talk about "tight" item design when they praise something that gets selected for the Top 32. You need to get in...describe your item...give it something unique and interesting...and get out! Don't mess around. Don't wander through the aisles of possible powers and keep taking more and more off the shelves just because they're "shiny" and interesting to you. Yes, we'd all love to have the item that lets us do a little bit of everything. But this is not the time when you want to create something for the jack-of-all-trades.


--Neil

Liberty's Edge

So from advice #1 and #2 I'm gathering this is a basic test to see how well we can make a smooth functioning, creative game item without relying completely on the information just handed to us on a silver platter.

This is the first time I've been aware of the contest and been able to enter so I'm getting excited! Woo!

And as Wondrous Items I'm assuming this isn't allowing weapons even if they have odd effects (like the classic sword that's a key) and overpowering and copping it out as a relic isn't allowed?

Contributor, RPG Superstar 2009, RPG Superstar Judgernaut

gregg carrier wrote:
...as Wondrous Items I'm assuming this isn't allowing weapons....

A weapon is not a wondrous item. There's a reason they're in separate parts of the rulebook. So, yes...you'd be correct in your assumption.

Dark Archive Star Voter Season 6

it also seems a good idea to make sure your background "fluff" doesn't detract from the magic item

i'm still trying to make my item seem more than a swiss army knive spell in a can type item...

Sczarni

Well since weapons aren't wondrous items, I'll guess I'll go back the drawing board...

Though I have a few 'fiendish' themes in mind...


But I wouldn't be too surprised if this year Round 1 would be more along the lines of:
"Create a Wondrous Item, specific magic Weapon ,Armor or Shield"
(or maybe Ring. Rods might be possible, but stretching it. The others would be flat out, because they are pretty much Spells in a Can by definition)

Liberty's Edge

I'm working on one, but I'd like comparisons or something to weigh it against. Can you suggest any system or program or such that can be useful in giving ideas a sort of acid test or some way to determine hardness and HP if needed?

Contributor, RPG Superstar 2009, RPG Superstar Judgernaut

Not really, no. This is where designers need to independently demonstrate their creativity and rules-fu.

Contributor

The basic info for that is in the Core Rulebook.

Star Voter Season 6, Dedicated Voter Season 7, Marathon Voter Season 8, Marathon Voter Season 9

Azmahel wrote:

But I wouldn't be too surprised if this year Round 1 would be more along the lines of:

"Create a Wondrous Item, specific magic Weapon ,Armor or Shield"
(or maybe Ring. Rods might be possible, but stretching it. The others would be flat out, because they are pretty much Spells in a Can by definition)

A comment was made once that wondrous items means paizo gets a broad range of items for a broad range of characters. It can be argued that a magical sword is for melee characters, rods are for spellcasters, heavy armor can only be used by some etc.

If you look at the four items SKR listed you would see that many (if not all) character classes & races would gain benefits. There are plenty of wondrous items that lean heavily toward one class or another (gauntlets of strength), so I am not saying your item should be class-generic (go ahead make something for the fighters/wizards/dwarves of the game.) But it does allow that hundreds of entries means Paizo will end up with some melee, some arcane, some multi-etc. That is why round 1 will almost assuredly be wondrous every year.

Spoiler:
of course with us predicting a wondrous item means they could shake it up just to weed out the 11 month of rewrites from someone with real design-fu, which is what Paizo is really after :)

Contributor, RPG Superstar 2010 Top 4

ulgulanoth wrote:
it also seems a good idea to make sure your background "fluff" doesn't detract from the magic item

Brief musing...

Don't confuse background story with a theme.

A theme is actually pretty good design! As Sean outlined above, you can tie some nice themes together with your item's powers and what the item actually is.

Whereas background is 'lore' and 'story'. Don't include any of it. Seriously. Not a bit.

I don't want to change the subject of the thread, so I'll leave it at that. :)


On the weapons idea... what if your wondrous item is clearly not a weapon alone, ie. it functions as a non-weapon (ie. a belt), with magical abilities that are non-melee related... but it can also be used as a weapon in some situations? (Like a belt that could turn into a whip, for example.) I am reminded of the infamous Malleus Maleficarum from last year's RPG Superstar, which was a heavy book that could also be used as a bludgeoning weapon. Would that be an auto-reject? I'd like to know as I have already created several items for submission and don't want to submit the one whose category alone would reject it! Thanks.

RPG Superstar 2008 Top 32 , Star Voter Season 7

KoraktheSavage wrote:
On the weapons idea... what if your wondrous item is clearly not a weapon alone, ie. it functions as a non-weapon (ie. a belt), with magical abilities that are non-melee related... but it can also be used as a weapon in some situations? (Like a belt that could turn into a whip, for example.) I am reminded of the infamous Malleus Maleficarum from last year's RPG Superstar, which was a heavy book that could also be used as a bludgeoning weapon. Would that be an auto-reject? I'd like to know as I have already created several items for submission and don't want to submit the one whose category alone would reject it! Thanks.

In this kind of case, look at the item and ask 'Is this an item that happens to be a weapon, or a weapon that is sometimes an item?'

For your belt example, if that the ONLY thing it does, it's a weapon with a magic disguise, not a magic belt that turns into a weapon.


Thanks for your advice, Ross!

In my case (using hypothetical examples), my "belt" would be not simply be a magically disguised whip, but more of a "utility belt" that could change into several useful items, only one of which could be used as a weapon. I realize this might fall into the SAK trap, but I'm trying to work up enough of a unique twist to avoid that pitfall.

In other words, it's a cool utilitarian item, not merely a weapon in disguise. Whether it's Superstar quality is the question!


Swiss Army Knives are problematic, but I think that for the purposes of this particular contest, the bigger problem is the SIaC/SAK hybrid. While trying to avoid one, it's quite possible to blunder into the other. I think these issues should be mentioned together(in one topic) instead of separately.


Wait.. Wondrous items can't be weapons? what about a sacrificial dagger of some sort?

and Isn't a stave just a staff? why is that both a spell in a can AND a swiss army knife?

Contributor

"Wondrous item" is a category of magic item in the PFRPG. How many wondrous items in the Core Rulebook are actually weapons? Two?


Sean K Reynolds wrote:
"Wondrous item" is a category of magic item in the PFRPG. How many wondrous items in the Core Rulebook are actually weapons? Two?

Well.. what about the staves thing?

Star Voter Season 7

Pathfinder Adventure Path Subscriber
Demonskunk wrote:
Sean K Reynolds wrote:
"Wondrous item" is a category of magic item in the PFRPG. How many wondrous items in the Core Rulebook are actually weapons? Two?
Well.. what about the staves thing?

Staves are also a specific category of magic items. Specifically, they are items that can cast a certain list of (usually related) spells using charges. They are a spell in a can in that they cast spells with no modification. They are a swiss army knife in that they have a set of related spells.


Shadar Aman wrote:
Demonskunk wrote:
Sean K Reynolds wrote:
"Wondrous item" is a category of magic item in the PFRPG. How many wondrous items in the Core Rulebook are actually weapons? Two?
Well.. what about the staves thing?
Staves are also a specific category of magic items. Specifically, they are items that can cast a certain list of (usually related) spells using charges. They are a spell in a can in that they cast spells with no modification. They are a swiss army knife in that they have a set of related spells.

Oh, right, I gotcha.

Shadow Lodge

Bah! I am really torn between making a one-ability item or something with multiple abilities that are thematically cohesive. I dont want to fall into a SAK pit trap :(

Shadow Lodge

Pathfinder Adventure Path Subscriber
Sean K Reynolds wrote:


In other words, it's a whole bunch of things crammed into one device that don't really have much to do with each other. And that's pretty much what a "Swiss army knife" magic item is: a bunch of spells, powers, or effects in one item that may or may not have a common theme. Also known as a "grab bag" item.

Thematic is cool, "grab bag" is not. I think the trick is to make sure the multiple abilities are there to serve the theme... in contrast to coming up with a theme that is actually a rationalization for a bunch of disparate powers.

Just my 2 cp.

Star Voter Season 6, Star Voter Season 7, Dedicated Voter Season 8, Star Voter Season 9

My fear is that a theme could be subtle enough that it isn't immediately evident.

-Ben.

Paizo Employee Chief Technical Officer

terraleon wrote:

My fear is that a theme could be subtle enough that it isn't immediately evident.

-Ben.

Good naming can help that. (And bad naming can kill it.)

Legendary Games, Necromancer Games

Neil Spicer wrote:
Bracers of life and death...

By the way, Neil, your bracers werent that bad. I checked on the judges forum. They actually made it into the keep pile. No one used a golden ticket on them, though.

Wolfgang liked the necromantic item that did more than animate the dead. Erik liked them, too, but was unclear on the language used for one of the mechanics and thought it needed to be written more clearly. I said I liked them and felt they were overly powerful. They were a bubble item for me. In the end, though, they got the boot.

Contributor, RPG Superstar 2009, RPG Superstar Judgernaut

Clark Peterson wrote:
By the way, Neil, your bracers werent that bad. I checked on the judges forum....

Heh. I already know. I looked up my previous item as soon as I accessed the judges' forum.

::raises fist to the sky:: Mona!

;-)

Actually, in all honesty, I really benefited by sitting out that first year. My item wasn't ready yet. And I don't think I was quite ready yet either. It actually did me a world of good to watch everyone else in action. I learned alot, for instance, just observing Jason Nelson...because he and I are very similar designers in our thinking and execution. But I also learned a lot better what the judges were looking for round by round. And, I got a better sense of what the challenges would be like.

Granted, you guys still threw us a curveball in 2009 with the swap-out on the villain's lair. Still, I'm a big believer in the idea that each of our experiences shapes and prepares us for the next step we'll eventually take. For me, sitting out the first year of RPGSS did exactly that. And, I believe it's a big reason I fared as well as I did the second go-around.

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