Judge Mikko's Tips for Round 3

RPG Superstar™ General Discussion

Grand Lodge RPG Superstar 2014 Top 4, RPG Superstar 2012 Top 32 , Dedicated Voter Season 6, Marathon Voter Season 7, Dedicated Voter Season 8, Star Voter Season 9

11 people marked this as a favorite.

Since this is the first time I'm on the judging panel for RPG Superstar, I thought I'd share some of my thoughts on monster design. I also strongly recommend reading Adam Daigle's advice and judges' comments on monsters submitted in previous years of RPG Superstar.

Below is an abridged and edited version of monster design advice that I've previously posted on my blog. It's based on my experiences and observations as a former RPG Superstar finalist, a freelancer, and a judge on a monster design contest. This version reads a bit like a checklist, and I'm likely to answer the questions below in my Round 3 reviews.

If there's anything below that doesn't make sense to you, don't hesitate to ask me for a clarification or example. If you are a contestant, I'd prefer that you do so sooner rather than later so that the same advice is available to everyone regardless of when you submit your entry.

Name & concept

  • Is the monster consistent with the Golarion canon, while also being new and original?
  • Does the name sound interesting and fitting for what the monster is and does?

To make a monster fresh and original, I generally recommend original creations as opposed to variant creatures (e.g. "elder treant" or "dark unicorn") or creatures from real-world mythologies. I think building a creature from the ground up tests your creativity more than statting up an existing concept or changing a few things around.

That said, a Superstar designer can make nearly any concept seem original. If you pick a mythological creature or a variant creature, I recommend changing it enough (but not too much) to make it something you created rather than a mere imitation. Furthermore, myths from cultures that haven't been explored so much in RPGs yet are usually more interesting than something from the Ancient Greek mythology, for example. In any case, the monster's concept should be consistent with itself (every part of it makes sense) and with the campaign setting (introducing the monster doesn't involve drastic changes in the status quo).

As for names, generally speaking, I think that any name in an RPG should be both informative and evocative. Monsters sometimes break this rule by using onomatopoeia, i.e. names that suggest malevolence (or other characteristics) through sounds rather than words. "Glabrezu" sounds very sinister to me, for example. Both approaches are fine; it really depends on the monster which approach makes more sense. Names are difficult, and usually you know a good name when you see it, but it's more difficult to put your finger on what makes it a good name.

Descriptive line

  • Is the descriptive line usable as read-aloud text regardless of when and where the monster is encountered?
  • Is the descriptive line dynamic and engaging enough to make me want to read more?

To make the descriptive line usable as read-aloud text, avoid any references to time or location, or actions that depend on any particular circumstances. In other words, do not describe the monster climbing a tree at night, for example. You simply don't know where, when, and how the monster is encountered when you're writing a bestiary entry.

To make the descriptive line interesting to read, keep it concise and focus on a small number of interesting details about the monster. Describe the details using dynamic words without actually describing specific actions (e.g. "The eyes of this simian creature glisten darkly..." instead of "This simian creature has dark, glossy eyes.")

The details should be observable facts, such as its appearance, smell, or mannerisms (e.g. constant vocalizations, whirling, or heavy breathing). Do not describe subjective sensations (how it makes you feel or think); that is a cop-out. If your descriptive line is evocative enough, it will make the reader think and feel something.

Stat block

  • Does the math add up and are the numbers appropriate for the monster's CR?
  • Does the formatting and presentation match the Round 3 template and the style used in Paizo's bestiaries?

This is the part of the monster entry that tests your attention to detail. Once you've got every detail nailed down, go through the whole stat block one more time. Check the validity and formatting of every word, value, and piece of punctuation.

Hitting the target stats for the CR may be difficult with some creature types (oozes and constructs in particular) and very small creatures. It's ok to compensate with other stats, but if you don't know what you're doing, stick to ”normal” creature types and sizes until you get the hang of it.

Getting the formatting and presentation right involves (but is not limited to) the correct use of the bold typeface and italics, Capitalization and lower case, the en dash – and the em dash —, the colon and the semi-colon as separators between the different parts of the stat block, terminology and abbreviations, and numbers and their units. The different parts of the stat block should also appear in the right order, and within the individual lines of the stat block, the items (such as feats, skills, ability names, and AC components) should be listed in the alphabetical order.

Some of these things are included in the template, but whenever you run into something that the template doesn't cover, compare your monster with similar monsters in Paizo's bestiaries. Don't make guesses, make informed choices.

Special abilities

  • Does the monster have new, interesting, and unique special abilities?
  • Are the special abilities mechanically fairly simple but elegant?

In my opinion, it's important for a Superstar monster to have at least one wholly new and original special ability. While the ideas should be innovative, the structure and presentation of the new special abilities should imitate existing abilities. If any part of the ability functions exactly like an existing ability, use exactly the same words and expressions for that part.

Special abilities are read to be understood, so make the rules text clear and crisp, not vague or fuzzy around the edges. Make the mechanics reasonably straightforward because elegance comes from creativity rather than complexity. Also, special abilities should be quite light on flavor text. A little bit of flavor is fine, however, especially if it helps the GM understand the mechanics.

The abilities should make sense for the monster to have. To make the monster thematically tighter, consider having synergies between its abilities. It's also good to consider the utility of the abilities: if a monster's abilities are useful only in a very specific type of situation, it may mean that the monster will only be used in a very specific type of encounters, if ever.


  • Does the description give the GM useful information that can be used in adventure and encounter building?
  • Does the description provide enough information so that every part of the entry (the monster's abilities, environment, behavior, etc.) make sense as a whole?

Unlike the short descriptive line, the description is intended to be useful for the GM, and as such, it should focus on information about the monster that the GM can use in not only combat encounters, but also exploration of locales where the monster is likely to be encountered, social interaction with the monster, if applicable, and including the monster as part of an adventure. In contrast with the descriptive line, your style of writing should be more informative than evocative, though that doesn't mean the text shouldn't also be lively and interesting to read.

Include meaningful links between the description and other parts of the entry. For example, if the creature has a climb speed, it probably affects where the creature builds its nest or how it hunts. However, avoid repeating too much of the same information or just stating the obvious (e.g. "Portal cats live in temperate forests.") It's also a good idea to include references that tie the monster to Golarion. While doing so, respect the setting's canon and build upon it.

Find a logical order for presenting things in the description. See if there are natural links between the different subjects you discuss, so as to make the transitions from one subject to the next smooth and natural. For example: origin > appearance > physiology > dietary habits > predatory behavior > interactions with other creatures > communication. In other words, connect the dots!

Sovereign Court RPG Superstar 2013 Top 4, RPG Superstar 2011 Top 16 , Dedicated Voter Season 6, Star Voter Season 7 aka primemover003

3 people marked this as a favorite.

There is certainly a lot to keep in mind when creating a new monster, let alone a monster that fits into Golarion. With all the pieces of advice you're going to absorb keep this one piece in mind. Keep it Simple!

While you may want to give your monster a bunch of super cool and deadly abilities the one thing to remember is this beast is generally only going to live for 2-5 rounds of combat! In order to get the best bang for your buck you want to keep the monster's core concept tight and concise. Give it a really cool core ability that you can base the encounter around and that informs the creatures combat tactics. Obviously you have to watch that you don't fall into the glass cannon/paper tiger/one-trick pony trap, but a monster needs to be easy to run by the GM. A monster with more than 3-5 tricks up its sleeve is getting out of control.

I like having a strong offensive trick, a passive defense, and something a little weird.

Good luck to those lucky few who make the Top 16!

--Monster Stat Vrock

Grand Lodge RPG Superstar 2014 Top 4, RPG Superstar 2012 Top 32 , Dedicated Voter Season 6, Marathon Voter Season 7, Dedicated Voter Season 8, Star Voter Season 9

Scott Fernandez wrote:
Keep it Simple!

Very much agreed! Thanks, Scott.

Contributor , Dedicated Voter Season 8, Dedicated Voter Season 9

1 person marked this as a favorite.

This too is awesomer! Thanks for the post Mikko.

RPG Superstar 2015 Top 32, RPG Superstar 2013 Top 32, RPG Superstar 2012 Top 16 , Dedicated Voter Season 6, Star Voter Season 7, Star Voter Season 8, Star Voter Season 9 aka Hodge Podge

1 person marked this as a favorite.

Thanks Mikko! It's really cool of you and Adam to provide all this free advice, and I think the competition will be better for it.

And I need the help, frankly. D:

Sovereign Court Star Voter Season 8, Star Voter Season 9

1 person marked this as a favorite.

This is what I love about RPG Superstar. It's like a free course in game design for aspiring game designers.

I really hope I can take all the lessons to heart, come back next year and get into the coveted top 32.

Thanks @Mikko

Community / Forums / Archive / Paizo / RPG Superstar™ / General Discussion / Judge Mikko's Tips for Round 3 All Messageboards

Want to post a reply? Sign in.
Recent threads in General Discussion