The Maiden's Oven


Round 3: Design an encounter

Grand Lodge RPG Superstar 2014 Top 16 , Marathon Voter Season 7, Marathon Voter Season 8 aka Jrcmarine

The Maiden's Oven
==========
Ustalav’s capital city, Caliphas, is home to the famous Pharasmin Cathedral, Maiden’s Choir. Many of Pharasma’s faithful travel to Caliphas to behold the wonders inside its vaults; however the city holds another lesser known Pharasmin shrine, The Maiden’s Oven. The influx of immigrants, money, and crime combined with the uncaring nobility created a decadent and deadly atmosphere. As the city grows, its suitable burial sites decrease. Rather than inter the poor, the criminal or other undesirables in the same location as nobility, Countess Carmilla, with the permission of Pharasmin clergy, built a crematorium. In a macabre parody of the Maiden’s Choir, the Countess dubbed the building the Maiden’s Oven.

The Maiden’s Oven is a large domed building crafted entirely of stone and located near the docks. Its single chimney belches black morbid smoke as it has for the past 16 years. The crematorium has a large shallow stone pit for depositing bodies any time of day or night with no questions asked. Both the impoverished and nobility find this arrangement quite convenient. Many bodies from the Widow’s Boudoir find their way to the Maiden’s Oven in the grey hours before sunrise. Below the crematorium is a large crypt created for the storage of remains. Its construction is ever expanding to accommodate the needs of the crematorium. Long wooden repositories similar in construction to an apothecary’s chest fill these rooms, their drawers containing the ashes of the crematorium’s patrons. Although portions of the crypt are dangerously close to the sewers and “old city”, the crematorium has never had any problems with creatures disturbing the hallowed ground of the crypt.

For its entire existence, The Maiden’s Oven has been overseen by Father Yuto Tsao, an elderly Pharasmin priest and mortician, until his recent death. Originally from the Jade Quarter in Kalsgard, he was a restless, wandering priest prior to his assignment at the Maiden’s Oven. When he learned of the Maiden’s Oven and its purpose, divine epiphany struck and he immediately went to Mother Verith Thestia, requesting to be assigned to the new shrine. She granted his request and he has been the caretaker for the past 16 years. Unbeknownst to anyone, Father Tsao was accompanied by his family guardian, a Disir named Umei. Umei was extremely loving and protective of the elderly priest, realizing he was the last in the line of the family. Happy to see her ward finally find a home, the Disir bonded to the Maiden’s Oven. Two acolytes are always assigned to the Maiden’s Oven to serve as temporary mortician’s assistants while learning the craft. Assistants only remain at the Maiden’s Oven for a couple of years before being assigned elsewhere. Other than Father Tsao, no one knows of Umei’s presence in the crematorium.

Encounter Setup
==========
Recently, bodies have begun to pile up in the stone pit and neighbors have heard rumors of strange, ghostly screaming sounds emanating from inside the crematorium. A local city clerk, sent to speak with Father Tsao about the complaints, ran screaming from the crematorium a day ago. His mind clearly broken from the encounter, the clerk could only babble incoherently of ghosts and dead bodies. The PCs have been sent to investigate the crematorium, discover what is happening and destroy the undead that have surely begun to inhabit the place.

Father Tsao passed away peacefully in his rocking chair three nights prior, causing Umei to go mad with grief. With her charge dead, Umei’s only purpose became protecting the corpse of her beloved master as well as preserving the sanctity of her bonded household, The Maiden’s Oven. She continued to remain unseen to the acolytes, but began using her telepathy to demand they leave. Frightened by the ghostly whispering, one of the acolytes went looking for Father Tsao in his room, but Umei killed him as soon as he knocked on the door. Several minutes after hearing his co-worker scream in pain and then fall silent, the second acolyte found the body outside the closed door, frostbite apparent on the extremities caused by Umei’s attack. Terrified by what he believed to be signs of an evil supernatural presence, the remaining acolyte panicked. Fearing that his co-worker would rise up as some sort of undead or that his spirit would be corrupted by the supernatural evil he believed to be present, he quickly took the corpse and placed it within the furnace. Unfortunately the firing of the furnace attracted the mad disir, and Umei killed the remaining acolyte as he was removing the ashes from the furnace. As a result, the ashes of the acolyte were scattered all over the floor, the dead acolyte, and the closest mortician’s table. The poor acolyte was never properly interred, creating the haunt in the ashes on the floor. Umei remains in the furnace room, slowly feeding the furnaces to keep them alight, unless tending to the mundane tasks she performed for Father Tsao, such as setting or clearing the dining table.

The Furnace Room (CR 5)
==========
The iron doors, emblazoned with the spiral of Pharasma encircling a black thorn-less rose, open to reveal a large domed room dominated by an iron furnace its chimney piercing the ceiling. Stone mortician’s tables are placed on three sides of the furnace and the walls are lined with books, tools, vials of liquids and jars preserving human organs. The corpse of a young dark-haired man covered in ash lies to the right of the furnace. A wooden mask depicting the face of Pharasma lies on the floor next to his outstretched hand. Waves of heat emanate from the furnace, distorting the view of a spectral Tian woman floating over one of the mortician’s tables.
PCs will not be able to open any of the doors on the furnace without one of the magical signet rings found on the corpse of Father Tsao or the dead mortician.

Creatures:
“Umei” Disir CR 4
XP 1,200
hp 37 (R2)

Tactics: Umei is aware of the party as soon as they enter the building. She will use her telepathy the entire time the party is inside the crematorium, demanding the party “Leave!”, “You don’t belong!”, or “Get out!” She will also use mage hand to float objects around to try and scare the PCs into believing the ghost stories. If the PCs attempt to engage Umei in conversation, she commands the PCs leave and not come back. She does not negotiate and if the PCs show no signs of leaving the crematorium after she commands them, she will attack the PC who initiated conversation.

If the PCs enter the crematorium during breakfast or supper time, they will encounter Umei in the dining area or kitchen, setting the table for a meal or taking away the dishes as if after a meal. At all other times, Umei will be encountered in the Furnace Room. If first encountered in another room, Umei will flee while using mage hand to fling objects in the path of the party to hamper their progress. She will attempt to lure the PCs into the furnace room where she knows the haunt is located and can assist her in their destruction. In addition to her regular attacks, Umei will try to force party members closer to the haunt in order to trigger its effects. She may also use mage hand on the objects around the table and the shelves in the furnace room. She will also try to keep the party from entering the crypt, where she will not trespass as ordered by Father Tsao.

If a PC touches the door leading to Father Tsao’s room or enters his room, Umei shrieks in a rage and immediately attacks that PC, attempting to kill the PC as quickly as possible. If the party leaves the crematorium or manages to escape to the crypts below, Umei will not follow. If Umei is reduced to fewer than 25% of her hit points, she will retreat to the master’s bedroom where she will fight to the death.

Haunt:
Wailing Ash CR 1
XP 400
NE persistent haunt (5 ft. radius)
Caster Level 1st
Notice Perception DC 10 (to hear sudden inhalation of breath)
hp 4; Trigger touch (mortician’s table and ash surrounding the acolyte’s corpse); Weakness slow; Reset 1 day
Effect When the haunt is triggered, a loud piercing scream emanates from the furnace and a burst of cremated remains spews forth from the floor. This duplicates the effects of the spell ash storm.
Destruction This haunt is destroyed by placing a handful of spewed ash on the mortician’s table, emptying three vials of holy water down the drain, and cleansing the table with a consecrate spell.

Liberty's Edge Digital Products Assistant

Hi! I’m Crystal and I’m one of your judges this round. I’ll be looking at your encounter not just as a GM and writer, but also as a professional cartographer, to see how much fun it would be to run and if the map helps or hinders the experience. For a little background, I’ve been writing for RPGs since the late 90’s, and am the author of The Harrowing and Pathfinder Adventure Path #80: Empty Graves, and I try to apply the standards of pitch, challenge, fun, and map design to my own writing just as I’m applying them here.

Criteria Details:

Pitch
Is the idea clear, evocation, and easy to sit down and run without a lot of extra prep time. If it needs extra prep time, is it worth it? This also includes whether or not the formatting adheres to Paizo’s standards.

Challenge
Is the challenge level-appropriate? Does the presumed challenge players face match up with the numerical CR? If not, is there a good reason why not?

Fun
Is the encounter going to be memorable, or is this just a speed bump on the way to the treasure room?

Map Design
The map doesn’t need to be vitally important to an encounter, but it should never, ever ruin an encounter. And if the map or environmental elements can add to the flavor of an encounter, or give players more options, all the better.

Pitch
There are a lot of “This building is haunted, but not really” encounters in this round. In this case, "but really its really a mourning house spirit." Sometimes the bait-and-switch works and in this case, I think it does, but I disappointed that there's no way to deal with this normally-lawful creature rather than destroy it. The background information contains a LOT of extra information that isn't important to the encounter and doesn't flesh out the location itself.

Challenge
A CR1 haunt shouldn't normally trigger a level 3 spell, but given the effects of Ash Storm, it doesn't seem game-breaking, especially considering that PCs aren't likely to encounter the haunt until after they've encountered Umei.

Fun
The clever use of a new monster is nice. An option to comfort a mourning house spirit, force it from the building, or otherwise resolve the encounter as something more than "fight the monster" would have helped push the memorability.

Map Design
The map is alright, but mostly a lot of square rooms. The primary encounter area, the furnace room, has some fun obstacles, but I would like to have seen some note about the furnace and how it might affect the fight. The crypt level seems incidental.

The core idea is a nice twist, but the encounter explanation is jumbled and the map isn't quite superstar material. I do not recommend this encounter for advancement.

Cartographer

Decent Looking map reference, with plenty of details all over. Notes on the side are always nice, even if they contain details that may not be shown on the map, but could be a design element for say the compass rose. The grid is the same darkness as the walls and other details which can sometimes cause some confusion, but it is fairly clear in this map. Wall thicknesses are pretty realistic, maybe a bit thicker on the ground level, but easy to add that. The overall layout of the rooms could be bit more exciting. Honestly I feel like I have made a few dozen maps like this so I can't get too excited about it.

I do not recommend this encounter for advancement

Paizo Employee Developer , Dedicated Voter Season 6, Star Voter Season 7, Star Voter Season 8

Hey James, congratulations on making it to the top 16.

I am the developer of Pathfinder Society Organized Play, which means I see lots of short adventures and self-contained encounters over the course of a year. It’s a developer’s job to read through, revise, and fact-check pretty much everything, so it’s tough to boil down what I’m looking for into a couple of clever headers. Essentially, I’m approaching this round like I would a scenario turnover, which involves marking up a copy of your encounter and providing feedback on what you did and how you might improve—my teaching experience in action.

My Style:
Since tone is a little hard to express while in this medium, I encourage you to read my comments in a friendly way; it’s how I intend them. As I warn many freelancers, I ask the question “why” a lot. Sometimes I do this because I am legitimately confused. Sometimes I do this to get the freelancer thinking in a certain way. Sometimes I know what the answer is, but I want to illustrate that there’s not enough information for the GM to understand what’s going on.

That said, this is a tough round, for we’re going from 16 to four contestants.


My Criteria:

Setting: Does your encounter fit in Golarion? Is it an urban encounter? Is the CR appropriate for the setting and the encounter? Is it clear how a GM might use this encounter?
NPCs and Creatures: How well did you incorporate the Round 2 creature into your encounter? Does it feel like a natural fit, or was it forced? Does the creature have a chance to shine? Do your NPCs fit in the location? Do their motives make sense? Is there an opportunity for roleplaying (appreciated but not essential)?
Numbers: Are all of your statistics and calculations correct? Are your skill check DCs reasonable?
Style: Did you watch Paizo’s styles, both in terms of writing and formatting? The more closely a writer can match Paizo’s styles in the turnover, the easier it is for me to develop. The easier it is for me to develop, the more eagerly I assign that author more work.

Setting
We have a quasi-haunted crematorium that becomes more haunted as the not-haunt accidentally creates haunts. Phew! I have most of the background information that I was looking for, though I would have preferred a little more motive for Father Yuto Tsao’s deciding to work at the crematorium beyond a somewhat hand-wave-y epiphany; ultimately it doesn’t change the nature of the encounter, so I suppose it’s not important. Everything else tells me what I need to know to run the encounter.

Ustalav is a great place to do creepy, haunted encounters, so you made a good choice. That said, most of the key players are transplanted from elsewhere in the world. While my inner anthropologist loves recognizing that people migrate and integrate into new areas, a [“traditionally”] Ulfen spirit following around a Tien man may downplay the encounter area’s to the point of insignificance. I can’t quite put my finger on whether this is a neat crossing of cultures or not; the voters can decide.

NPCs and Creatures
I appreciate that the disir does not attack the PCs outright, giving them an opportunity to explore the site and have uneasy, brief run-ins with the resident spirit. The disir’s actions, motivations, and portrayal all fit the base creature’s description.

The haunt is clever but ultimately toothless, for ash storm hinders the PCs’ actions for a short while but does little unless they’re already facing a threat.

Numbers
Your haunt’s numbers are on-target for a non-lethal effect. Because the haunt and the disir are unlikely to hit the PCs at the same time, I would dissociate their CRs and list them as separate encounters. Those are really the only numerical or rules-related reference I came across.

Style
Avoid the use of future tense, except in dialogue or in exceptional circumstances in which the outcome really is 100% guaranteed. Where you are using future tense, Paizo typically uses present tense, sometimes with the subjunctive or conditional mood. Also, police your use of passive voice (e.g. “The Maiden’s Oven has been overseen by Father Yuto Tsao…”). Passive voice has its uses, but active voice is strongly preferred in all other circumstances.

I’m spotting lots of comma errors, including missing commas and commas showing up on the wrong side of quotation marks. Also, make sure that you italicize spell names like mage hand. Finally, I would shift the creature species in the shortened stat blocks down to their own line (Umei / Disir / XP 1,200 / hp 37) rather than including them in the title lines.

Closing Thoughts
I like that the disir—normally a benevolent spirit—undergoes its own tragedy and then inflicts that tragedy on others, but it’s a bit of a letdown that the PCs’ only means of resolving the encounter involves killing the disir. The encounter encourages exploration of the location, which is a plus, but there’s not a whole lot to find in the area other than the bodies. This setup has potential, but its execution just doesn’t quite click for me.

I do not recommend this encounter for advancement.

RPG Superstar Season 9 Top 32 , Marathon Voter Season 6, Marathon Voter Season 7, Marathon Voter Season 8, Marathon Voter Season 9 aka theheadkase

Creepy encounter setup. A crematorium for "undesirables" with a 24/7 body deposit? I'll suspend my disbelief for that.

Maybe a little too much in the background.

A haunt and a creepy disir gone mad. Nice.

I'm surprised that there's no way for the PC's to talk this out with the spirit.

This is, again, a creepy place. I would have liked the disir to have some companions...maybe small fire elementals who power the crematorium.

I'm REALLY surprised the furnace doesn't come into play in the encounter.

Overall, you had a great idea for the crematorium and creature...but there's not much beyond that. It really becomes a "kill that monster" encounter. Weak keep unless I find something I like more.

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

Well done James,
Is the encounter fun? I will have to play up the chase & probably start with Umei not in the bedroom to expand it. Decent potential for an RP encounter.
Is the encounter difficult to interpret? Nice work on the map, I had to study it a bit to discern the fence and to match stairs, but they are labeled so its not too bad. Key would have been helpful.
Does the monster fit? Its presence does, yes.
This way to Dragathoa… (I like to see more than the encounter :) Well done here. Like I said I will play up the chase feel, but you've given enough other places than the single encounter room, the crypts have potential).
Into my 'maybe' pile, but a strong maybe, we'll have to see how the others look.

Good luck!

RPG Superstar Season 9 Top 32 , Marathon Voter Season 6, Marathon Voter Season 7, Champion Voter Season 8, Marathon Voter Season 9 aka GM_Solspiral

The Good: I for one like that the PCs can't talk their way out. The background is fairly good and I love the name.
The Bad: Wait the furnace does nothing?
The Ugly: It doesn't animate, or spit out small fire elementals, or has a flue that can be closed causing a choking smoke, or even makes the room really really hot causing fatigue to encumbered foes... You put furnace in the name I need it to do something.
Overall: 6/10 - It's a speed bump for my players at level 2.

Star Voter Season 7, Star Voter Season 8

Pathfinder Adventure Path, Lost Omens Subscriber

First Impression: Ooh! Very dark title-- I'm getting a cross between an iron maiden and a crematorium... The map is solid, but seems pretty boxy. And I was right about the crematorium!
Upon Reflection: I like the background. It's yet another "haunted" location, this time by a guardian spirit that's insane with grief. Interesting. The baddie of the encounter actualy isn't bad-- she's more of a tragic figure than a villain. I feel bad for her. I would have liked to have seen a way to release her, or calm her down, or otherwise defeat her without killing her. With the name of the encounter, I was expecting something cool to happen with the furnace itself, and that seems a wasted opportunity.
Overall: Interesting premise, tragic and interesting opponent, but uninteresting map and missed opportunities to do something cool with the dungeon features. B-

Liberty's Edge RPG Superstar 2008 Top 32, 2011 Top 16 , Star Voter Season 6, Star Voter Season 7, Star Voter Season 8, Star Voter Season 9 aka JoelF847

I thought the most interesting part of the background was that the crematorium was set up for the poor and undesirables, with hints that a seedier element took advantage of the no questions asked policy on bodies left there. That was ripe to include as additional encounters (something in the body drop off pit, rogues in the crematorium looking to take advantage of it being abandoned and being potential allies or foes against the disir, or something else creepy and left behind with a corpse).

Not being a fan of the disir in the last round, I wasn't too excited with it this round either - though I agree the only way to make it very useful in this round would be to set it up as an antagonist, it's still got too much defenses, and as pretty much the only thing going on at the crematorium, there's not a lot for PCs to do but try to fight it (or just leave - it's not really that big of a deal to leave a haunted site in the city as long as nothing is coming out to harass citizens - there's not a lot of urgency for the PCs to do anything about it.)

Grand Lodge RPG Superstar 2014 Top 16 , Marathon Voter Season 7, Marathon Voter Season 8 aka Jrcmarine

THE MAP:

Spoiler:
The comments I received on this were a bit surprising. I was not under the impression that the map played that much into the merit of the encounter, especially considering the urban setting. I didn’t spend a TON of time on developing the map because I really felt its only purpose was to give the basic details of the location/building. Had I known judges were looking for something WOW from the map, I would have approached the creation of the map differently. I also would have given more information on the crypt because in my mind it led to other encounters. But I really didn’t think the map would play as big a part as it evidently did. I certainly would have paid more attention to it had I known I would get a NOT RECOMMENDED vote from a judge.

CHALLENGE:

Spoiler:
The comments on the challenge frustrated me a bit. I must not have been clear in the tactics section about the disir and how it would attack the party. If the disir is encountered in the kitchen or dining room she would lead the party to the furnace room and then lead them further in an attempt to trigger the haunt. If not encountered in the kitchen or dining room the disir is encounter in the furnace room. It never says the disir will wait to encounter the PCs until they enter the master’s room. Additionally if the disir would wait until someone tried to disturb the master’s room, why did she kill the other acolyte? Although ash storm is a 3rd level spell it really only affects movement. The intention was for the disir to use the difficult terrain created by the haunt to make the encounter even more difficult. The intention was never for the disir and the haunt to be separate encounters. However two of the judges commented on the fact that the disir and the haunt probably would not be encountered together. The disir’s tactics with regard to the haunt seemed pretty straightforward to me, but I guess they were not.

THEHEADKASE:
Spoiler:
Thank you for digging the creepy vibe. That was the theme I was really trying to hammer home. You echoed what a lot of voters said with regard to “talking” the disir off the ledge. Looking back I think I could have arranged for that option to happen. I originally was going to add a “heat” exhaustion hazard for the room but pulled away because of word count and CR. I really wanted to have some “friends” for the disir. I toyed with other house spirits as well as elementals from the furnace. However the CR seemed too high when I added those elements into the encounter. The lower CR hurt me a bit as far as the combat portion goes, but really the word count was a little low for my vision. Unfortunately I did not adapt well to the lower word count and my encounter suffered as a result. I think all of your comments were right on the money though.

CURAIGH:
Spoiler:
Thank you for the positive comments Curaigh. You really got the essence of what I was trying to go for with the whole encounter. I originally had a couple of other haunts in the location at various places and the idea was for the PCs to get the creepy haunted/ghost feeling and then be thrown for a loop when it’s discovered it is a disir. I also envisioned PCs running once the disir beat them up a bit and creating the chase scene you speak of. As I mentioned earlier the crypts were a lead in to a larger encounter and/or adventure hook.

GM_SOLSPIRAL:
Spoiler:
We already discussed this a little bit. I did address some of your concerns above. Believe me I wanted the furnace to do more and if it was a higher CR or I had more words, I would have fleshed it out.

HALADIR:
Spoiler:
Like so many voters you wanted to see a way to release the disir without killing her. I have taken that into consideration and will remember for next year. And of course the lack of the furnace having an impact on the encounter disappointed you also. Thank you for taking the time to comment and I agree with what you have said.

JOEL FRANK:
Spoiler:
You and Curaigh were thinking alike in that I envisioned a host of possible encounters and adventure hooks created from this location. As I mentioned above I originally had several haunts throughout the location, specifically in the body pit, the stables and the cold storage room. As I was writing the encounter, I wasn’t sure that I should mention other possible encounters at the location or focus on the end encounter. My fear was eating up too much word count to describe possible encounters and not doing the end encounter enough justice. Ultimately I focused on the end encounter but it seems like that was a mistake. As for using the disir, I am sorry you were not a fan. I wanted to use the disir in an interesting way, which I think I did. However it looks like that REALLY backfired on me.
As for not a lot of urgency, I have to disagree with you there. The bodies from the poor would add up pretty quickly creating a possible disease/plague problem for the city. The nobility and other seedy elements of the city would not want their favorite dumping ground to be shut down either. Where would they put the bodies of their dead rivals? Also if you remember the encounter setup said the PCs were sent to deal with the problem.

For those of you who took the time to give me feedback, I can’t thank you enough. It is only through your dedicated reading and commenting that I will be able to improve my writing and RPG design. All of the comments that were made held merit and have caused me to go back over what I created with a new eye. I wish I felt confident that I would be advancing to the next round; however I knew I was in trouble this round when I saw a lack of posts on my entry. Keep voting and commenting and know that we the contestants garner as much joy from your posts and support as all of you do from reading our creations!

RPG Superstar Season 9 Top 32 , Marathon Voter Season 6, Marathon Voter Season 7, Champion Voter Season 8, Marathon Voter Season 9 aka GM_Solspiral

James,

I think that having 2 judges with cartography backgrounds did skew the judging and likely the voting a bit more then previous years. As a designer it gives me pause about entering next year (if I'm able.) My maps are notorious for whimsy not for artistic merit.

You have some potential, if you don't make it to the top 4 you have an entire year to hone the edge of your talent for next year. Networking with other creatives is the key to making yourself a better designer.

Warm regards,
Frank Gori

RPG Superstar Season 9 Top 32 , Marathon Voter Season 6, Marathon Voter Season 7, Marathon Voter Season 8, Marathon Voter Season 9 aka theheadkase

I'll echo GM_Solspiral, definitely hit the Blazing 9 threads throughout the year. You'll get the same level of criticisms, sometimes past Top 4 or even Superstars drop in, and it is a great way to network. I'd love to see what else you can come up with!

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