A little advice for the Final Four


RPG Superstar™ 2010 General Discussion

Scarab Sages Contributor, RPG Superstar 2008 Top 4, Legendary Games

By this time tomorrow, you are going to be up to your eyeballs in writing, so I thought I would post this tonight, when you might still have a chance to read it before diving into the deep end of the pool for the final round. I posted this note last year as the Final Four got underway, and I hope the contestants this year might glean a useful scrap or two as you get ready for the last roundup.

You're so close... sooooOOOOO CLOSE!!!

You can almost taste victory!

But how do you make sure you don't trip over the finish line?

Well... you can't. You can put together a proposal that you think rocks hard, but people will like it or not like it, and add it with what you've done before, and you might win or you might lose. But big congratulations for making it this far. Still, a few final words might be helpful to keep in mind to make sure all 4 of you put out the best thing you can, so without further ado I provide Uncle Jason's Seven Secrets for the RPG Superstar Final Four (not that they're secret, and why listen to me since I didn't even win it anyway, but hey, take em for what they're worth!):

1. Rein in the size and scope

Rob, me, and especially Boomer all got nailed on this one - that our adventure proposals were simply way too big to fit into a 32-page adventure. Some said Boomer's was more a whole campaign than an adventure. You definitely want big IDEAS, but resist the temptation to try stacking the deck by trying to make your adventure do too many different things.

I went through a bunch of the Paizo modules and thought I had calibrated a pretty good number of encounters, social and combat, to what was the average, but a lot of folks didn't agree, and "a lot of folks" are who is voting. If you think your adventure pitch sounds like it has too few encounters, you're probably a lot closer to "just right" than you think.

2. Don't hand-wave non-combat encounters

Sure, we all like a good dungeon crawl, but nowadays we like chances for interaction and dialogue with NPCs and non-combat events. The thing is, those are ten times trickier to run than combat encounters, so if you include them (and by all means you should if they fit with what you're doing), give a little bit of meaty detail in the description to describe how you'll handle them.

The same is true for other kinds of non-combat encounters - things that require skills or puzzles to overcome.

3. Don't use shorthand

Sure, it seems like a good way to save on word count - use numbered lists, bullet points, and common gamer shorthand - but find some other place to save and don't skimp here. Don't bury yourself in purple prose, but keep it narrative. It shows your skills as a writer and it makes it feel more like a proposal and less like a shopping list. For some reason, the second half of my proposal ended up like this last year; I don't recall now if I ran out of time or if I ran into a word count issue or what, but I don't think it served me well. I think I'm a pretty good writer, but I messed this part up last year, what should be the simplest part of all.

4. Avoid extraneous encounters

Red herrings, tricks, dead-ends, and side-treks are fun to use in an ongoing D&D campaign, but when you're up against a word/page count, you probably won't have time or space to include things that are irrelevant to the main adventure. You can have things that derail PCs to one side or the other, but there should be a connection that brings them back to the main event. I had a neat encounter at the start of my adventure that in the first draft was connected more tightly to the plot but in the editing process ended up getting cut off. It was still neat, but now it was extraneous and stood out as such. That was a mistake, and ironically one that might have come from having TOO MUCH time to think about the adventure - you start to out-think yourself...

5. Find your big beginning

Journalism 101 is "don't bury the lead" - leave the most important and interesting part of the story till somewhere in paragraph 5. If you haven't grabbed the reader by the throat in paragraphs 1 and 2, they'll never get to 5. You can have backstory and a LITTLE BIT of prelude, but get the PCs into the action ASAP. Find out where the adventure REALLY begins and start there. You waste too much time on preliminaries and the reader/publisher starts to lose interest. This was another mistake I made - taking too long to get to the "James Bond with genies" part of the adventure. Sure, that stuff at the beginning was nice enough, but too big a piece of the proposal compared to how important it was to the overall adventure.

Sure, part of publishing adventures is for DMs to read, so there is a value in putting some stuff in there that is realistically only for the DM, but that's what you can put into the finished MANUSCRIPT. In the PROPOSAL, focus on the action that's going to happen at the gaming table, and only put in enough backstory and preamble/DM background to frame the story. The action of the adventure should be able to tell its own story.

6. Find your happy ending

Beginnings are important, but so are finishes, and your adventure needs a climax, and that climax needs for the PCs to be the stars of the show. People dinged Rob last year for an "Elminster" ending, where the climax had the PCs release a super-duper good guy to fight the super-duper bad guy. Which is cool in a way, but a lot of people objected on the basis of the NPC ally really being the star of the final encounter and the PCs were reduced to spectators or cleaning up the mooks below the "real" battle. Fair or unfair, perception is reality in a voting competition.

7. For Heaven's sake, make it AWESOME!

This is, of course, the most important rule of all, and one that is spelled out plain and simple in the guidelines for this round: Don't be boring.

Whatever you turn in, make sure that you love it. If you're gonna go down, go down swinging and bring something to the party that you love! Win or lose, you went down with your best stuff and if that wasn't good enough then a big thumbs up to the winner and it was a heckuva fun ride getting to the Final Four.

Hope this helps, best of luck to everybody. You have all done great stuff to get this far, and I hope you all bring it big time in the final round.


Great advice Jason.

But that's not why I'm replying. Something struck me as I was reading this...

Jason Nelson wrote:


1. Stuff
2. more stuff
3. even more stuff
4. See where I'm going here
...
5. Don't bury your lead
...
6. Suff
...
and right at the end
...
7. the most important tip of all

sometimes these things just make me smile :D

Scarab Sages Contributor, RPG Superstar 2008 Top 4, Legendary Games

Chef's Slaad wrote:

Great advice Jason.

But that's not why I'm replying. Something struck me as I was reading this...

Jason Nelson wrote:


1. Stuff
2. more stuff
3. even more stuff
4. See where I'm going here
...
5. Don't bury your lead
...
6. Suff
...
and right at the end
...
7. the most important tip of all

sometimes these things just make me smile :D

Iron, meet Y. :)

Touche, sir.

Owner - House of Books and Games LLC , Marathon Voter Season 6, Star Voter Season 7

Chef's Slaad wrote:

Great advice Jason.

But that's not why I'm replying. Something struck me as I was reading this...

Jason Nelson wrote:


1. Stuff
2. more stuff
3. even more stuff
4. See where I'm going here
...
5. Don't bury your lead
...
6. Suff
...
and right at the end
...
7. the most important tip of all

sometimes these things just make me smile :D
Jason Nelson wrote:

Iron, meet Y. :)

Touche, sir.

Not actually true in this case, though.

When you're giving someone instructions and you expect them to go through them all (which is different than voters scanning entries to decide which to deep-six), you always leave the best for last.

That way you leave them with the most important thought in their head.

That said, I compliment Chef's Slaad on his perception - his post was hilarious :)


Jason Nelson wrote:
...People dinged Rob last year for an "Elminster" ending, where the climax had the PCs release a super-duper good guy to fight the super-duper bad guy...

Ummm, people dinged Rob (McCreary) for that in 2008, and it's 2010 now, so it's not exactly 'last year'...

Copy and paste job? ;)

Scarab Sages Contributor, RPG Superstar 2008 Top 4, Legendary Games

Charles Evans 25 wrote:
Jason Nelson wrote:
...People dinged Rob last year for an "Elminster" ending, where the climax had the PCs release a super-duper good guy to fight the super-duper bad guy...

Ummm, people dinged Rob (McCreary) for that in 2008, and it's 2010 now, so it's not exactly 'last year'...

Copy and paste job? ;)

Indeed - you didn't expect me to write a new one, didja?

Besides, I believe at the beginning of the post I wrote something like "I posted this last year." Now, back to your regularly scheduled programming...

Contributor, RPG Superstar 2009, RPG Superstar Judgernaut

Yep! That's Jason Nelson! Too lazy to write something new. ;-p

Heh, heh, heh...

Spoiler:

I tease because we're brothers.


Jason Nelson wrote:
Charles Evans 25 wrote:
Jason Nelson wrote:
...People dinged Rob last year for an "Elminster" ending, where the climax had the PCs release a super-duper good guy to fight the super-duper bad guy...

Ummm, people dinged Rob (McCreary) for that in 2008, and it's 2010 now, so it's not exactly 'last year'...

Copy and paste job? ;)

Indeed - you didn't expect me to write a new one, didja?

Besides, I believe at the beginning of the post I wrote something like "I posted this last year." Now, back to your regularly scheduled programming...

Yes. I expected you to write a new one. Contestants who enter multiple years have to make new items each time, after all... :)

RPG Superstar 2010 Top 16 aka tejón

Charles Evans 25 wrote:
Contestants who enter multiple years have to make new items each time, after all...

Actually, we've been told that's not mandatory. Just, if it didn't make the cut one year, it's not likely to the next. ;)


Lief Clennon wrote:
Charles Evans 25 wrote:
Contestants who enter multiple years have to make new items each time, after all...
Actually, we've been told that's not mandatory. Just, if it didn't make the cut one year, it's not likely to the next. ;)

Hmm. Good thing then I am sworn not to enter again except under extreme duress, otherwise I might just keep turning in my 2009 item submission and wait for cumulative nostalgia to overwhelm the judges... ;)

Liberty's Edge RPG Superstar 2010 Top 8 aka AWizardInDallas

Charles Evans 25 wrote:
cumulative nostalgia

I think I smell a new spell?! :)

Contributor, RPG Superstar 2009, RPG Superstar Judgernaut

FYI...

I dropped some advice in response to Jim Groves' own self-analysis from Round 4. Some of it might be applicable to adventure design and Round 5, as well, though. So, if anyone's interested, I'll simply point you there.

EDIT: Ah, actually, I found the stuff I once offered as advice on one of the Pathfinder Society scenario open-calls about a year or so ago. Here's the gist of it, and most of this stuff is what I repeated in Jim's discussion thread from Round 4...

Spoiler:

Five Keys to Really Good Adventure Design:

I think really good adventures (and hence a designer's pitch to a publisher for an adventure idea) often breaks down across five key areas. These are all points that Paizo's Erik Mona and James Jacobs cited during their own "Writing for Dungeon Magazine" seminar at GenCon a few years ago.

First...make sure there's a memorable, interesting, and unique villain. Avoid cliches. Mad wizards, vampires, dragons, and cult leaders often get overused. Look for something different, if you can, but not so different that it's "crazy" different, because that can turn a publisher off to your idea pretty quickly, too. If you do wind up using one of the more cliched villains, make them interesting in a way that hasn't quite been seen before. But don't go overboard. Weird is still weird. So you have to make a villain different without making him silly. Most of all, however, make sure the villain and his goals are a legitimate threat. Because this leads into developing a compelling plot (and hence, story) for your adventure. And that's what's going to catch a publisher's eye and grab the attention of those who eventually play your adventure.

Second...make sure the adventure takes place in a memorable, interesting, and unique set of locales. This gets back to location, location, location. You can't do anything run-of-the-mill here and really attract someone's interest. If you're going to do an urban adventure, make sure the city or town has some interesting quirk about it. If you're going to do a wilderness adventure, make sure the forest, jungle, desert, plains, or mountains have something unique about them that enhances everything in the players' minds. Feature the terrain. It's there for a reason. And, lastly, if you're going to do a dungeon crawl, make sure the rooms, traps, and encounters all have some memorable element to them. Basically, imagine the adventure playing out like a movie. Put together various scenes or "cool moments" that could take place at each of the locations in such a movie. These will be the locations you need to include in your adventure proposal and writeup. Because these are the locations where your most memorable encounters will take place. As a result, your players will enjoy themselves more if the location somehow impacts their use of skills, magic abilities, etc.

Third...make sure there's a compelling and interesting plot. Again, avoid cliches. Rescuing a kidnapped princess, fighting off a humanoid invasion, or putting down an undead uprising are overused plots. You can still borrow certain elements from those situations, but you want to make them different and interesting enough in ways that haven't been done before. Make sure the villain's goal is something the heroes will want to oppose. Provide a variety of hooks for getting the PCs involved and keeping them involved over the course of the adventure. Look for any interesting situations where the plot can twist back and surprise the players. Structure your encounter setup so they build off one another and aid the storytelling. And, most importantly, make sure every encounter serves a purpose in the plot. Otherwise, it's just wasted space.

Fourth...give the villain some interesting and memorable minions assisting him with carrying out the plot. This can be anything from a new monster to shaky allies the heroes could turn against their master. Just make sure they have a credible reason for being in the location where the adventure takes place, associating with the memorable villain you have in mind, and somehow help move the plot in a logical way. Avoid including minions that fail to make sense in relation to all those factors. Otherwise, they just come off seeming out of place and very arbitrary. That being said, it's sometimes a great idea to use monsters or NPCs that are "off the beaten path" or a bit underused in adventure designs, because this can add to your "wow" factor and make your idea "pop!"

Fifth...make sure there's an interesting reward at the end of the adventure. What's the pay-off? Is there a unique and memorable treasure the heroes can acquire? Do they earn some kind of recognition or gift from those who hire them? Are they awarded lands, titles, or commendations that help improve the heroes in the eyes of everyone else in the world? These are the things that players and GMs have fun incorporating into the lives of their characters and future gaming sessions. Just make sure it's something that fits with everything else...i.e., the location of the treasure, the villain's attachment to it, and the plot's dependency on it. A good "reward" can sometimes serve as the entire springboard for why your adventure takes place. So don't underestimate it.

Scarab Sages Contributor, RPG Superstar 2008 Top 4, Legendary Games

Charles Evans 25 wrote:
Jason Nelson wrote:
Charles Evans 25 wrote:
Jason Nelson wrote:
...People dinged Rob last year for an "Elminster" ending, where the climax had the PCs release a super-duper good guy to fight the super-duper bad guy...

Ummm, people dinged Rob (McCreary) for that in 2008, and it's 2010 now, so it's not exactly 'last year'...

Copy and paste job? ;)

Indeed - you didn't expect me to write a new one, didja?

Besides, I believe at the beginning of the post I wrote something like "I posted this last year." Now, back to your regularly scheduled programming...

Yes. I expected you to write a new one. Contestants who enter multiple years have to make new items each time, after all... :)

Well, I'll add one new point of emphasis, or perhaps re-emphasis:

Don't overdo it.

Think about the scope of your adventure. You can fit a lot into 20,000 words, but your scope is not infinite. If you aim for around 20-25 encounters, you're probably in the ballpark.

More to the point, think about your encounters vs. your suggested level. All encounters are not created equal. Think about creatures in combination vs. creatures in isolation and how the creatures interact with their environment to the advantage or (more often) disadvantage of the PCs.

The Dragonrest Isle entry from last year, for instance, got high marks in some areas, but was dinged by others because the very strong possibility existed that the PCs would end up facing three dragons at once, a wipeout encounter for the level the adventure proposed.

If you are thinking of balancing a potentially over-tough encounter by enabling NPC allies, consider carefully if you are setting up a situation where PCs to get that assistance would need to ally with evil creatures (see the very long thread on about this and the APs) and how you would set it up so it can be an advantage without becoming an absolute requirement. Even if the NPC allies are good, think about whether you want to set them up as "distract the evil minions so you can face the BBEG" allies (like in Neil's Fellnight Queen proposal) or "face the BBEG so you can wipe out the evil minions" allies (like in Rob's Phoenix proposal).

You've got a good-sized canvas, but you don't have a whole art museum to decorate. Find the heart of your adventure idea, give us just enough backstory so that we know why this adventure is happening, focus on what the PCs themselves are going to ACTUALLY DO in the adventure, and describe it in a way that makes us want to charge in there with swords and wands swinging RIGHT NOW.

See... easy, right? :)

Contributor

Jason Nelson wrote:

5. Find your big beginning

Journalism 101 is "don't bury the lead" - leave the most important and interesting part of the story till somewhere in paragraph 5. If you haven't grabbed the reader by the throat in paragraphs 1 and 2, they'll never get to 5. You can have backstory and a LITTLE BIT of prelude, but get the PCs into the action ASAP. Find out where the adventure REALLY begins and start there. You waste too much time on preliminaries and the reader/publisher starts to lose interest. This was another mistake I made - taking too long to get to the "James Bond with genies" part of the adventure. Sure, that stuff at the beginning was nice enough, but too big a piece of the proposal compared to how important it was to the overall adventure.

I wanted to reiterate this one. FAR too many stories begin with "Hundreds of years ago, blah blah blah..." and while it may sometimes feel epic (see Star Wars), usually it ends up feeling like a history lesson, which is BO-ring. Punch it up and grab your audience with your very first sentence.

When Neil (hi, Neil! gonna use you as an example now!) made his final turnover for Fellnight Queen, his opening line was this:

Two years ago, Tenzekil Braybittle, an obsessive gnome beekeeper living in Bellis, fell on hard times. Winner of the past six honey-harvesting competitions, it surprised everyone when he lost to newly-retired ranger, Elyin Ursage. Crushed by the outcome, he fell into a deep depression, magnifying the Bleaching—an affliction suffered by all gnomes upon losing their zeal for life....

While that info is vital to the backstory of the adventure, it doesn't really grab the GM right away--and you WANT to grab the GM, as the GM needs to be excited about the adventure so the players will be excited. So I added this before Neil's intro:

A fey queen banished to a demiplane is manipulating an unlucky gnome, attempting to breach the gates of her prison and bring her army to bear on the unsuspecting people of Andoran.

That immediately lets the GM know the adventure is about fey stuff, some planar stuff, and an invading army. That's adventure material.

Pointing back at Star Wars, note that while the opening text is "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...," after the title credit you get the opening crawl, which says

It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire....

Action, baby!

Contributor, RPG Superstar 2009, RPG Superstar Judgernaut

Sean K Reynolds wrote:
When Neil (hi, Neil! gonna use you as an example now!) made his final turnover for Fellnight Queen, his opening line was...

Excellent point. Feel free to use me as an example of what not to do anytime...

Spoiler:

...because I get to learn from that, too. ;-)

What? You thought I was going to say something snarky just because I spoilered part of my response? I'd never do that to my developer! ;-)

Owner - House of Books and Games LLC , Marathon Voter Season 6, Star Voter Season 7

Pure genius :)

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