Interlude: Congratulations

Well Today was the day. A new RPG Superstar was announced and I’d like to congratulate Victoria Jaczko, 2014′s RPG Superstar! I know it was a hard won victory because like every year the top four entries were all top notch. So congratulations also to the three runner-ups:  Mike Kimmel, Mikko Kallio and Robert Brookes for impressive runs this year! These are all names I expect we’ll be very familiar with in the coming years.

On a related note, Mikko announced today that he has also started a design blog of his own: A Sword for Hire. If you’re interested in seeing behind the scenes of RPG Superstar from a contestants point of view it looks like it will be worth checking out.

So congratulations again to the top four particularly our new Superstar Victoria Jaczko and her forthcoming adventure: Daughters of Fury!

Observations on RPG Superstar Part 2: Looking Back at 2012

In 2012 what I wanted was to write that years RPG Superstar Pathfinder module. When I read my name on the Top 32 list I was thrilled and shocked! Suddenly I knew was only a few short weeks from . . . . Well, if not the Superstar then surely the Top 4.

Then I read the comments on my item. It was a cold shower. Sure I was in but I’d been nearly passed over. I knew I was entering an item, Cayden’s cup, that had some design parallels to an item in one of the books (both were cups dedicated to Paizo’s resident mead-hall deity) but I thought it should be a big enough design space that I could add another tankard to the game. What I hadn’t counted on was the tankard of the cheerful duelist from Mathew Morris in 2010. Suddenly it wasn’t parallel design with just one item but two and the second one had been a Top 32 item! Not a great start.

Now in my defense the 2010 contest began at the tail end of 2009 which had been an abominable year. It started rocky and by June had sunk to an all time low with the unexpected passing of my father. Even several months later I had little interest following Superstar and so missed Mathew’s tankard on its natural run. I should still have caught it in 2011 when I did my review of previous years entries to prepare for the 2012 season of Superstar but somehow I missed it. That oversight nearly cost me in the first round.


What followed is a blur. Me racing to complete each round’s assignment and struggling to not repeat mistakes from previous rounds. I remember feeling a sort of bond form with the judges. It was hard not to with Clark Peterson and Neil Spicer taking so much time to cover every aspect of each entry. Sean K. Reynolds’s commentary was much more terse but still effective. I was writing as much for them as for myself. Each round I would excite myself with a new idea and think this is it! then the judges comments would come crashing in and my hopes would be dashed but I’d win new design insights.

For me it all culminated in the hot mess that was the njaa’mende, my gonzo totally unwieldy intelligent trap building swarm monster with the unpronounceable name. In retrospect even it seems longer but I only lasted three rounds. I was a top 16 contender a far cry from my naive expectations of Top 4 but I ended very happy with my achievements. I even received my first freelance offers.

What I wanted was to write that RPG Superstar Pathfinder module. Turns out what I needed was to fail spectacularly. I wasn’t ready to be any sort of freelancer when I started my 2012 Superstar run. I needed the failures and the little victories to make the transition from bystander fan to contributing fan and freelancer.


Since 2008 Paizo Publishing has been running RPG Superstar, an American Idol inspired RPG design contest. Each year hundreds of gamers answer the round one open call and submit their best wondrous item design in hopes of being one of the top 32 designers who get to compete in the subsequent rounds for the grand prize of writing an official Pathfinder adventure module for Paizo.

The competition to become one of the top 32 is tight. While some of the contestants may be unprepared, more and more, the contestants are producing excellent magic items. Some of the designers have been refining their entries for an entire year. As a result it gets harder with each passing year to break into the top 32. Now I’ve made it through this gauntlet twice and while I don’t believe it makes me an expert it may offer me a unique perspective and what follows is a wondrous item creation method distilled from the lessons I’ve learned from failure, success, and large amount of advice from other talented designers.

This is not meant to be the only way to make a magic item or even the “right” way to make it into the top 32. It worked for me this year but really I only hope that maybe these steps might help someone.

Preparation (part one): Read all of the official rules, previous top 32 winners, the advice threads on the Paizo boards, the critique my item threads and Sean K. Reynolds’ auto reject guide. Even if you have been entering this contest every year since it began at least review these resources you never know what you’ll rediscover.

Preparation (part two): Copy-paste the provided template complete with all the bulletin board code(bbc) into your favorite word processor. I like to use google drive, it keeps a revision history,  I can work on my entry from almost anywhere and I can easily share my work with my alpha and beta-readers (more on that later) but whatever you find most comfortable.

Once the template is copied into the word processor, without removing the bbc change the portions that should be bolded or in italics to match the bbc. It may sound silly but by adjusting the font to reflect the bbc it makes it easier to read the entry and having the code in place now is easier than inserting it later.

Brainstorming: Step away from your computer if possible grab a notepad and a pencil and go someplace quiet. Forget spells, mechanics, and rules. Just brainstorm a cool magic item. Imagine a cool set of visuals or a dynamic power. I recommend focusing on the cinematics of your item’s power over its mechanics at this point. If you have an item you can imagine appearing in a summer blockbuster you’re probably on the right track.

Once you have your basic idea think about who would make it. Not the specific history but generally is it made by arcane casters, clerics, druids or someone else? Is it made by humans, goblins or elves? You need not include this in the text of your item but it can help in keeping your design focused. An amulet made by elven wizards will differ greatly from one made by a goblin druid even if they have similar effects.

Write and take notes: Don’t worry about style just get the idea recorded so you don’t lose it. If you have any gem phrases make sure to note these as well.

Make a first mechanics pass: So you have a visual, how might you apply that effect in game terms? Could your effect break or bend an existing rule in a cool way? Is this an item you would want to use in a game as either a PC? Or to a lesser degree, would you want it for your NPCs as a GM?

Try to avoid obvious the Swiss Army knife (SAK), spell-in-a-can(SIAC), monster-in-a-can (MIAC) and other instances of auto-reject criteria. Also avoid straight +X modifiers keep the mechanics as interesting as the visuals.

First draft: You should have enough now to write your first draft. Don’t sweat the word count just get it all down. I tend to seriously over write at this step…I find cutting words preferable to trying to shoehorn words in.

Second mechanical pass: Now is the time to start thinking about spell selection what spell or creative combination of spells might generate your chosen effect / mechanics. Again use this opportunity to avoid SIAC.

This is also where you’ll work on pricing the item.

Revisions: Enlist help. You know what your item does and sometimes as a result you can’t see the most obvious glaring flaws. Try to have an alpha reader or two preferably with varying degrees of system mastery. This will help you target trouble spots in your entry.

If you’re like me, you will probably need cut words and cut more words just to pick up a few words so you can clarify a point…then you’ll need to cut more words because you just went back overcount. Tighten your language as much as possible now that voting is public shorter entries are often prefered. So make every word count and come in as short as your idea allows.

Pass later revisions to either your alpha readers or a set of beta readers and revise again. Now it bears mentioning that you can revise too much so exercise caution. There comes a point where you just need to walk away.

Make certain you’re following all the necessary Pathfinder style conventions: Sizes are capitalized, spells and wondrous item names in descriptions are not capitalized and are italicized. Make sure you have added bbc where it is needed.

Preview: Prepare a messageboard private message to an alpha or beta reader by copy-pasting your entry into the body of the PM. You should be able to see any faulty bbc before reaching the submission tool.

Also when you make your final submission hit “preview” this will perform the official Paizo word-count and give you one last chance to catch any errors.

I haven’t included every piece of advice available. I suspect someone could write a book on Superstar magic item creation but hopefully I’ve provided enough suggestions to get someone started.

I highly suggest someone interested in RPG Superstar design check out the Blazing 9 thread and all the other resources available on

RPG SUPERSTAR – A Place to Start

I’m not a natural blogger but a friend and mentor highly suggested I take it up as a freelance designer. He also reminded me that as a two-time top 16 contestant in RPG Superstar (RPGSS) I have a somewhat-unique perspective I can share which would give me at least a couple of posts worth of material.

In other words RPGSS has given me place to start my blog. This is in addition to the other things I’ve taken away from Superstar: particularly the recognition and confidence without which I wouldn’t be professionally freelancing. So I suspect much of my blog’s early content will focus on RPGSS.

At which point I suppose there is no better place to start than Round One.