Ropecon 2011 writing contest

Posted on December 15, 2011

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I took part in Ropecon writing contest. Theme was left open, but the judges were, hold your breath: Frank Mentzer, The Red Box author; Eric Mona, the Paizo publisher; and James Edward Raggi IV, author of Lamentation of the Flame Princess.

What I’m going to discuss here is the feedback I got from the judges. I want to share their thoughts, so anyone else attempting to present their works for people with long involvement in this industry might learn from what I have learned. You know, there is another submission open as we speak. The competition was held in English, thus the English post in this mostly Finnish blog. (Also I seriously doubt there will ever be a similar change for only Finnish-speaking audience to take part in a similar competition, with judges of this caliber.)

The Rules

I already mentioned that the theme was open, but everything pointed to traditional fantasy role-playing. Rules had to be Open Game Licensed. 7000 words and playable in four hours, that’s all. As far as I’m aware, all works presented to judges were good old dungeon looting adventures, modernized version of that, or some kinds of sandbox settings, all with high fantasy theme.

My Entry

If you are interested, download it here or here.

Judges at Work

I believe the workflow of judges work was something like this. The three masters red the entries, made notes, came together to make a decision of the top three, held a panel for general feedback and were done. For authors, feedback came afterwards.

See Scenario Contest Panel posting.

What I would like to do is to present comments I got from all judges, but after six weeks of waiting I’ve only got comments from one of the judges. Now this is already four months in past and all hope to get anything from Mr. Raggi and Mr. is lost. Rest are coming, the Ropecon Master of Game Masters says, but I’m not so sure if I would ever see anything from Mr. Raggi or from Mr. Mentzer. Here are all comments from Mr. Mona. He had written these in red ink pen on a printout of my adventure. Words in italics below are my additions to explain where the comment is related to. Rest is from the red pen.

B+
Good

  • interesting story
  • PCs fit into background of game desired by author
  • jumps right into the action
  • interesting setting
  • strong encounter flow
  • looks fun to play

Bad

  • Hamadi way too powerful relative to PCs and risks overshadowing them
  • no maps
  • more help on secondary content would help the GM to run this, especially at con
  • quite linear
  • combats lack tactical complexity and might not hold player interest

ACT 1

  • good way to get players right into action

high on pesh

  • game effect?

Warrior stats Shortsword to hit +4

  • this might be wrong

Copy cat, Dust of Emulation

  • calling out and describing unusual powers and class features will make this easier to run
  • list what books you need up blant

ACT 2
Chapel

  • a map would be helpful

Dagger hunting

  • Are the PCs meant to use the wooden and broken bronze daggers as weapons? If so, you should provide stats for the woody daggers, and make this a bit more explicit. If not, I wonder if this encounter might be — doing some other task for the Mercy, perhaps one that involves skill checks (like Diplomacy) and dice rolls. Without this, there isn’t much to this encounter beyond “we go get daggers”. The plot with Tet-Herit at the end with Norgorber dagger is good, though.

ACT 3

  • this encounter is ok. it could use a little more tactics info for the scorpion.

ACT 6

  • you’ve got to be careful that Hamadi doesn’t become a — — GM pet NPC whos is for more powerful than the player characters.

Characters
Madu

  • you should summarize this [Trait: Desert child]

Tarik

  • explain [Traits]
  • these quotes are a nice touch [background]

Huval

  • how can he make perform checks with no flute? I’d let him keep it as his last, jealous, suicidal possession.

Didn’t got one word from his handwriting about Hamadi becoming a GM pet NPC but everyone can get the idea.

I think what I can learn from this is

  1. be confident that I can write an interesting and coherent story
  2. get a bit of an idea what Pathfinder RPG is about, according to Paizo
  3. realize that number crushing and playing by the book are not my strong points

Judges were saying in Scenario Contest Panel that many adventures they red looked like a lot of fun, if ran by the author. My adventures definitely goes in that group. There are errors and shortcomings in my written statistics and little information about combat tactics. However, characters are thoughtfully tied to the story and there is a strong flow. In my test game, during the writing, my two test players were a bit stuck in several places. In game time the adventure lasted three days and two nights. With the help of test players (thank you Liffi and Tommi!) I re-arranged the scenes and later decided to fit the whole adventure in one day and one night. In Rocepon I ran the game for two persons unknown to me. They were newcomers to Pathfinder RPG, having a strong experience in D&D3.5 though. The game was very good, the players liked the atmosphere and had a lot of character in their PC:s. I enjoyed running the game, too. So, I can take it that there is nothing wrong in my adventure, except if someone else tries to run it, which, of course, is the whole point of a pre-written adventure.

Echo in the Dark (That’s Me)

Seriously doubting anyone would care, but I want to answer some of Mr. Monas comments. First of all, I got an American school degree from him, which feels funny. And that’s not too bad degree, so I’m happy for this. About the point of no map present, this is, well, a bit embarrassing thing to explain. I had a map there. I drew it with Ubuntu LibreOffice Writer and it was small but ok. What I also did with Writer was to make sure the adventure, with all pre-generated characters and their statistics, was under the limit of 7000 words. That included an action to mindlessly strip off white spaces between character statistics and stuff. Stupid me, because after that it was difficult to read, but hey; and I’m returning to this subject later; what I really don’t care about when being an GM are stats. In writing contests these things matter though and so when the Master of Game Masters got my entry he nicely undid my word trimming, turning the stats back in readable format. During that time, the map unfortunately disappeared and so Mr. Mona could complain about not seeing any drawings. I consider this as plus-minus situation, because without the Master editing I would have gotten grunts about unreadability.

Apparently Mr. Mona was doing this in haste because he is asking after a list of book needed. The paper starts with that information.

I wrote a scene where PC:s are sent to collect seremonial daggers from the slums they a living in. Mr. Monas point about dagger hunting part was this: doing something like just quickly describing that PC:s are off to do some particular activities and coming back, without any skill checks or dice rolls, is a waste. I know how this would have been done in an adventure published by Paizo. There would be a table of Diplomacy check results and maybe several other options of what skills to use and how many pieces of collected items that would give. I didn’t want to do it like that, because it’s completely secondary to the thing this scene really was about: to add doubt on players that their most trusted NPC is maybe not honest in his words. Collecting operation also was a bridge to introduce the third main NPC. The result of actual collecting was fixed in advance: to add one or five pieces by successful Diplomacy rolls would be just using game mechanics for the sake of game mechanics.

Just yesterday I enjoyed reading Traveller rule book, where the same sentence, see later, was printed thrice in three key places: in introduction, in beginning of skills chapter and at the end of skills chapter. Remember that Traveller mechanically resembles a lot of OD&D, except that most of the dice rolls during a game session are skill checks. The sentence was that normally GM shouldn’t ask players to roll skill checks, because most of the time, having a rank in a skill is enough to be able to take care of that matter. I think that makes a lot of sense and keeps the window open for role playing, instead of asking players to make routine dice rolls just that they wouldn’t get bored. It is like if you can roll for something, you or GM doesn’t have to describe the actions of your character, instead you can just stare the dice and read the results. This is big part of the things I had in mind when I wrote this post.

Keeping things in order of importance, my last and biggest critics about the comments I got from Mr. Mona comes now. It is the matter that I have inserted a level five NPC in the adventure written for level one PC:s. Mr. Mona clearly does not approve and I think he sees this a flaw so great that the adventure is unplayable. Several points I considered when writing it like this:

  • In a high fantasy game like Pathfinder RPG, main villain should be very powerful, to create tension. You won’t talk him out of bad habits, you will encounter him in deadly battle.
  • I hate it when the adventure finale goes like fighting your way through the minions to finally get to kill the main bad guy. While this kind of ending has it’s epic uses, most of the time it is just done because game mechanics require you to use out 50 % of your resources before the final battle.
  • Experienced players have little to no difficulties to win battles against mechanically far superior powers.

Mr. Monas particular problem with this is that this 5th level NPC called Hamadi will become a pet of GM’s. That might be so, but not in my game. I never intended to play Hamadi as GM’s PC, my intention was to pass him to players for them to play as an extra hand in final battle. That’s what a GM is supposed to do in some games, like Savage Worlds, but it seems that in PFPRG this kind of thinking is unheard of.

PFRPG Ultimatium

This last chapter is written a few month later than the grunts above. I’ve been thinking about D&D and PFRPG a lot, especially now that we just finished our Legacy of Fire campaign after 23 months of regular play. I thought the problem that I have with PFRPG is not the game itself but the culture around it. You know: “we’ve been doing this power-play/by-the-book-simulation/eenie-weenie-non-combat-style-adventuring and nothing more and you should not question us. That’s how D&D should be played!”.

But then yesterday I was, again, looking for a reason to discard the dice, to find a sentence from PFRPG Core Rulebook to say that you know, you really don’t have to roll an attack die if your 15th level fighter is facing this 33rd 0.5th level goblin warrior. And the ultimatium was found from the very beginning of PFPRG book. Not in these exact words but the message was this.

The definition of PFRPG game: it is a game where players are encountering with a fantasy world, but unlike a storytelling play, it is the die which is deciding what is going to happen.

This is the end of my PFRPG gaming. Or not. Maybe it is just the end of complaining about the game I so much like. Because, after the ultimatium, there is not much room to say “can’t we just skip these mechanics to get the story right”.

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