Ropecon 2011 Scenario Contest Panel

Posted on August 11, 2011


This is about writing contest I took part of. Read the first part of the article here.

Place was Ropecon 2011, Sunday afternoon, Scenario Contest Panel. The three venerable judges, Frank Mentzer, co-author of the Red Box; Eric Mona, the Paizo Publisher and James Edward Raggi IV, author of Lamentation of the Flame Princess were discussing about scenario writing.

Who is an Editor?

In the presence of 50-100 people, the judges were talking about the competition entries and scenario writing in general. Many flashes of old times came up, from the times when judges themselves were starting to be authors. In panels limited time, a lot of time was used in discussion about the meaning of an editor. Editor edits authors text. Without talented editors, we wouldn’t have ever seen many of the works nowdays regarded as classics, especially mentioned here was Tracy Hickman before he joined forces with Margaret Weis in the iconic Dragonlance series.

Mentzer told about his tasks in TSR. He was co-authoring many books and adventures, but didn’t put out so many works alone. Tomb of Horror was brought up as an example: Gary Gygax started the adventure, writing rather detailed material from beginning, but getting more and more obscure later. Mentzer was asked to finish the adventure, so he took on where Gygax started to be less descriptive, finished those parts, guessed what he was talking about in next step and finally wrote the conclusion himself. No one, even they themselves, couldn’t tell from the finished product what was Gygax’s text and what Mentzers.

Photo unrelated


Mona pointed out that nothing Paizo puts out ever gets to it without heavy editing. Some authors have had problems with this, but in the end everyone have been a lot happier, he says. Now I have an earlier, personal experience about this. We were playing part three of Paizos Pathfinder RPG Adventure Path Legacy of Fire when I spotted the author of the fourth episode at Paizos messageboards talking about the changes that happened on his scenario just before the publishing (link to the thread). I sent an email to the author and he most kindly replied with his final draft of Pathfinder #22 main adventure. I had grunts of Legacy of Fire before, and getting ready to run part four I was getting a bit sad of what was coming. With the draft straight from the author I got my spirit up again. His version was great, while the published one was just mediocre.

I fully believe Mona’s cause, for truly editing is really important and needed, and taking Paizos recent success in account it looks like they are doing their work very well. My personal observations on Pathfinder #22 are probably just a coincidence of personal taste, maybe things important to me are not in line with results of Paizos market research. Back to Ropecon. In bigger scale, this #22 case is a minor matter and on the limits if it is related on the topic Mona seemed to had in mind: most of the authors are shining with ideas, but crappy when it comes to create a publishable material.

Raggi took on the consept of idea factoring and revealed his own method of creating stuff: idea bashing. When has an idea, he is trying to kill it, trying to figure out why it sucks. If that fails, he knows he has something valuable to push forward. He, like others, were underlining the importance of writing. Write your ideas down, write adventures, write and write until you get used to it. Like Raggi put it, he has had so much experience of bad ideas of his own that choosing good pieces from trash has gotten pretty easy.

Formula for Good Scenario

When it came to entries of this competition, judges weren’t saying anything specific for this contest only but more general what they expect a good scenario to have. Mentzer thought the most important aspect of an adventure is the flow. Game has to go forward, it has to have moments of action and moments of downtime. He also thought character design is very important. In fact, he told that often when he starts to write an adventure, he writes the characters first and using that as a base, writes the scenario for these persons. I believe what he meant here are the attributes, skills and equipment of the characters, not their personalities. Still, it is a worthwhile comment for any kind of game, just change the part of writing for numbers to writing for personalities.

Atmosphere was the thing for Raggi. He said little more. By the way, when asked for their personal favourites of published scenarios, he mentioned Shadows over Bögenhafen, which says something about the kind of atmosphere he likes. Mona’s favourite was The Village of Hommlet. Don’t remember what was Mentzers favourite, I think he didn’t clearly name one, but he was joking about self-modesty and talked about The Temple of Elemental Evil series.

Personal History of Scenario Writing

This lead Mona to talk about his own history as an author. Blaa blaa about Dragon, Dungeon and Living Greyhawk Campaign. With shy glances towards the old man, who he though to have a lot of involvement in his sources, Mona told how he was working on Expedition to Castle Greyhawk. Later in discussion, when marketing was briefly touched he told about the process of creating an award-winning adventure in Pathfinder #19, Howl of the Carrion King. The original author failed to provide his material in time, so, being last in line, Mona took it to write the whole matter in two weeks. He had just traveled in Europe, where he had seen some nice medieval/renaissance chapels and wanted to introduce a scene inspired from that for some part of the adventure. Another thing he had in mind was a kind of a monster, a small menace with unluck aura, called pugwampi. He also had a vision about setting up a fight at the highs of the monastery, on a fragile ground, creating a danger of falling down on the chapel floor. From these thoughts he build up the adventure, and from personal experience I have to say it is a really good one, by far the best in Legay of Fire series. When Mona was talking about the ideas he had, I almost had to laugh out loud because when we were fighting against pugwampi up there on the rotten second floor of the chapel, it went just like he had visioned, to the end that one character fell down on the altar on the last round of the combat, barely stabilizing himself.

Mentzer would definitely had have an endless supply of interesting and insightful stories about his works, but one that he mentioned here, related to marketing matters, was The Immortal Storm. Immortal Rules expansion set for OD&D had just came out. TSR:s marketing team had one task for Mentzer: the name is “The Immortal Storm”, provide. Mentzer did something and the module was published. He thought it is one of the worst things he has done, luckily it is quite rare and forgotten nowdays. Of course, right now someone from the audience jumps up shouting, drawing the book from his bag. Fun moment!

Mike Pohjola asked judges’ opinion on one of the few modules translated in Finnish, Castle Caldwell and Beyond. None of the three people memorized this piece of work. They were sorry in concert that such a crappy module was ever chosen for translation.

GM Versus Author

The important difference between the GM and an author was pointed out by Mona. A GM can write wonderful stuff for herself, but those notes might not do much good if another GM tries to run a game from them. Enter the author, who writes not for herself, but for any GM. On the concept of this competition, Mona’s biggest grunt was that almost all of the works were written by GM, not by an author.

Panel was called to an end by approaching Final ceremony. Judges feedback from my work and my own thoughts on the scenario writing contest here.