Wondrous Item auto-reject advice #3: Backstory / History / Description Item

RPG Superstar™ 2011 General Discussion


(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.)

3. Your item is mostly backstory or history (either of the item or its creator) or a physical description of the item.

Magic items are fun to use, either as a GM or a player. They do cool things. When Bob's character wears his magic amulet that absorbs 30 points of fire damage per day, Bob is thinking, "I'm glad I have my amulet that absorbs fire!". Absorbing fire damage is cool.

Player-Bob is not thinking, "I'm glad this amulet was created by Zoglon the Multifaceted 230 years ago, was lost in a shipwreck, was found by some boggards, was stolen by a gnome assassin, and came to me when the gnome failed to kill me!" History is not cool in the same way that the item's abilities are cool. Blowing up stuff with a rocket launcher is cooler than the history of rocket launchers.

Writing too much backstory into an item, either about it or its creator, is a distraction from what your item does. The point of the game is that PCs are heroes and you're exploring the story of those heroes, not the story of people who have been dead for a hundred years. In most cases, the players will never know the backstory of an item unless it is a truly legendary item, and if it's not legendary then it doesn't really matter who created the item and how it got to the PCs, because the game is about the PCs. For example, the Millennium Falcon is a cool ship, but the story is about Han Solo, not the engineer who designed the ship. (Note that the fact that Lando Calrissian used to own the ship is an interesting story element, and you can use that as a cool campaign point, but it isn't the focus of the story, and the important fact is the ship belongs to Han now and it's an element of Han's story.)

Player-Bob is also not thinking "I'm glad I have this hexagonal amulet, crafted in gold and inlaid with ivory, on a silver chain, with a red gem at each of the corners and a white gem at the center, bearing an elven inscription on the back about protecting the royal family, and an image of a stern elven warrior on the front." Unless you need to illustrate the item or its appearance is key to some plot point, a lengthy physical description isn't necessary.

To put it another way: If the description or history of your item is longer than the description of its game mechanics, you're trying to make your item cool with its description or history, rather than the coolness of the item itself.

Round 1 of RPG Superstar isn't about proving that you can describe a cool ancient wizard or the convoluted history of the item. It's about designing a cool wondrous item. Don't rely on description or history to "pad out" your item; many people in previous years have felt their item was too short, and added extraneous descriptive text to compensate for that. Some items are cool in 200 words. Some are cool in 100 words. Adding 50 or 100 words of backstory doesn't necessarily add to the coolness. A cloak of arachnida is a cool item described in 112 words, including stat block text, and only ten of those words describe what it looks like.

Design a cool wondrous item. A cool magic item does cool stuff; it could look like junk and still be cool (the Millennium Falcon is an example of this, too). Don't try to use history or a physical description to make a bland item cool.

RPG Superstar 2008 Top 32 , Star Voter Season 7

I'm going to add that one of the reasons excessive physical description is bad for wondrous items is that the are Wondrous Items, not Artifacts. There are many of them. People can make them, especially PCs, and want to add their own spin to it. A particular amulet of natural armor might be made of bone fragments with an inscription in sylvan, but another might be a voodoo-esque fetish, and another a bundle of twigs tied with twine. A 'usually' is better than an 'always'.

I gues what I'm trying to say is describe 'car', not '1994 Mercedes M-Class in Charcoal Black'.

Contributor, RPG Superstar 2009, RPG Superstar Judgernaut

My two-cents...


I think a lot of people fall into this trap because they're storytellers or worldbuilders who can't help but think much larger than a single wondrous item. They have a hard time reining in that natural impulse to create, create, create...more, more, more...and just can't get away from it. Some, too, as Sean pointed out, believe they're enhancing the appeal of a wondrous item by layering on all this extra stuff about it...when, in fact, they're just layering on extra stuff. Stuff about who created it. Stuff about who uses it. Stuff about the times it's appeared throughout history since its creation. And so on...

But that's not Superstar. That's someone flailing around throwing a bunch of darts at the wall thinking some awesome phrase or element of an item's description or backstory will shine through and catch the attention of the judges to be selected for the Top 32. But, you know what actually does that? Something simple. Something elegant. Something tight. And something that shows restraint and purposeful design so the item is as clear and concise as it can be.

As an example, take a look at Richard Hunt's needles of the ebon strand. The opportunity to glom on a tremendous amount of backstory was so rich with this item. And yet, Richard avoided that almost entirely. When he did touch upon some "backstory" for the item, it came at the very end where he talked about the creatures typically associated with the needles...and he did so in a single, generalized sentence.

Let's take another example that did the same thing. Look at Nicholas Quimby's goblin skull bomb (one of last year's favorite items for a lot of people). He could have led off with a ton of backstory about the goblin witch-doctor who dreamed up this insidious device...how it's been used throughout the years...and on and on and on. But he didn't. Again, he saved any mention of that kind of stuff until the very end. He only used 35 words to do so. And he made every one of them count. The end result, that bit of elaboration helped round out his item. It didn't bog the whole entry down.

And if I have any advice on how to avoid the overly elaborate backstory problem, I'd suggest that you write out your item first with a single line of descriptive text (i.e., what does it look like?). Then, explain its powers and limitations (i.e., what does it do? how does it do it?). And, once you're done with all that...and if you have some words left over...then and only then, consider including some backstory-related stuff...but, only if it serves the item. If the item itself doesn't need further elaboration in that regard, don't include it.

Then, let it sit for a few days and come back to it. If you included some backstory and it comes off feeling kind of "tacked on"...consider cutting it. If you didn't include any backstory and the item feels "unfinished" or "unfulfilling" and you think a touch of backstory could help, try a bit at that point and see if it helps. Even then, share it with your friends and get their perspective on it.

Lastly, I'd really urge potential contestants to go back and look through the three years of items that already made it into RPG Superstar. Compare your write-up to those. How does it hold up? Too much backstory? It should be glaringly obvious if your item is about to fall into that problem. And you've got 96 items that can serve as an example of how to get it right.


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

Gods, this is going to sound like I'm tooting my own horn, so I apologize in advance.

A little backstory can go a long way.

Look at my tankard. The only 'backstory' given is in the item's name (duelist) and a reference to Cayden Cailean.

Now look at the comments. People are talking about how it 'fits' the god, and how they can visualize characters using it. Even concepts I didn't think of in designing it (arcane casters, drunken masters, etc.) Would those ideas have come forth if I'd droned on for another 139 words (and still come in under word count?) Maybe not. The reader would likely have been bored about my little drunken eldrich knight's backstory and it would have been self indulgant (yeah yeah, kind of like this post)

Scarab Sages RPG Superstar 2009 Top 4 , Star Voter Season 6 aka raidou

Just to expand slightly on what Matthew said...

You want people to take your item and develop dozens of their own ways to use it. All of us reading these entries are creative folks and we want to be inspired by items that do something new and interesting. Many of us have our own campaigns and settings and we'll be looking to use your item in those campaigns with a minimum of rewriting and fuss.

As creative a backstory as you think you might have for an item, you're rarely (if ever) going to get it to mesh seamlessly with another reader's campaign. So for all the hard work you put into the story or the construction minutiae, someone else is going to find it distracting at best. The worst-case scenario... that person will pass over your item for something else.

Mathew's Tankard and Richard's Needles are really good examples of how items with a simple theme can go far by inspiring creativity.

Best of luck this year!


RPG Superstar 2010 Top 32 aka Hydro

Neil saida lot of what I was going to say. Something I'd like to emphasize is that not all "flavor text" is backstory.

"Xs are often crafted by CLASS/RACE Y and used to Z" is flavor text.

"X was crafted by NAMEDCHARACTER Y to win the BATTLE OF Z" is backstory.

I agree with Neil's suggestion that flavor text be used very carefully and sparingly (for the Skull Bomb, I felt that the image of goblins burning each other was absolutely essential- this is a judgment call however, because as Matthew Morris says, readers have pretty healthy imaginations of their own).

But backstory is never appropriate. You're not designing a specific item, you're designing a KIND of item, which a DM might include one or more of in his game. And where those items come from is up to the DM.

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

My recommendation is to read ALL of items in the Clark's feedback thread. If you find you eyes glazing over the first sentence of the items (usually the item's physical description) after the first 50, you'll see why too much backstory is going to kill an entry. Try not to bury your lead, - the cool thing(s) that your item does.

Contributor, RPG Superstar 2010 Top 4

After Sean and Neil, these threads don't need much elaboration. That being said..

Bear in mind that there is a discipline in doing exactly what your Editor tells you to do. In this case, the Judges are your Editors.

If you're told to make an item, don't add to the Campaign Setting. Wait till you a get an assignment or contract that tells you to add to the Campaign Setting.

It's like the children's game "Simon Says".

(or "Sean Says")

Simon does not say include background story. Simon will not reward you, especially when he specifically said 'don't do it.'

If you want to win, you need to discipline yourself to do what you're told. Especially in Round One. You will never be the one person that writes some background that the judge's think is so amazing that they make a special exception for you. So practice some self-discipline and follow the instructions, especially in this first Round.

Later Rounds sometimes give you some wiggle room (like referring to the Campaign Setting). You'll be told whether you can do this, and any risk associated with doing it. However you need to bear in mind Round One has hundreds and hundreds of entries- and Judges are going to be strict. Especially with hundreds of other people who followed the rules.

RPG Superstar 2008 Top 32 , Star Voter Season 7

Matt Goodall wrote:
My recommendation is to read ALL of items in the Clark's feedback thread. If you find you eyes glazing over the first sentence of the items (usually the item's physical description) after the first 50, you'll see why too much backstory is going to kill an entry. Try not to bury your lead, - the cool thing(s) that your item does.

This is good advice. Here's why:

Watcher wrote:
However you need to bear in mind Round One has hundreds and hundreds of entries- and Judges are going to be strict. Especially with hundreds of other people who followed the rules.

If reading every post in the 'Clark Critique my item' theads seems like a lot of work, you're right. It is. It's also what the judges have to do. (And not everyone who submits asks clark for feedback, so the judges actually have MORE to do.)

Don't go overboard with history, but a historical definition of the items use(s) might not be a bad idea. Got it.

Dark Archive

For an item I submitted, thus will not go into detail about specifics :P

I didn't feel like I was going into history. I submitted one object out of a series, and tried to use fluff (present style, not history), to elude to other items that look to be the same thing but are more powerful, and it also detailed a little about who would actively use the item and why.

To clarify, they are all the "same item" just at different levels. And for the one I submitted, it was the most basic. If a character was given one, it is information they would easily gain about the item. Kinda like, you can have a ring of protection ranging from +1 to +5, possibly even higher.

I'm not sure if the judges will see that as falling under this category or not. I guess its a borderline gamble! XD

The Exchange

Nochtal Balzer wrote:

For an item I submitted, thus will not go into detail about specifics :P

This early in the competition, what you have posted could well uniquely identify your item (I'd guess they have less than 30 so far) and earn you an auto-reject on ground of broken anonymity.

You may want to edit, or flag and ask Ross to delete.

Dark Archive

true! I flagged it. lol

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