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I’m still shocked at making the Top 32 of Paizo’s 2012 RPG Superstar. My item, Bottled Time, sneaked into one hell of a contest.

What makes it so shocking to me is that I made the item without ever having played a single session of Pathfinder. In fact, I haven’t played a system pen-and-paper RPG in maybe seven years. I’ve never written anything professional for the games industry and never developed anything this crunchy.

I recused myself because of time constraints, since I didn’t plan around advancing in a prestigious design competition on my first try in a system I’d never used before, and I doubt I’d do as well once the challenges require a deeper understanding of Pathfinder, its campaign setting, and module design.

It is, however, the greatest possible confidence booster I could ever wish for as I start to poke at the periphery of the game industry.

I’m not sure if anyone’s interested in my process, but I wanted to throw it out there for potential future RPG Superstar designers who are new to Pathfinder and might not submit because they feel inexperienced.

In this post I’ll take my process and item, break them down, and explain how each part came together–the good and the bad.

A brief background

I’ve been a tabletop gamer for 17 years, though much less of one in the last 5. Most of my sessions for those first 12 years were in WEG’s D6 Star Wars and FASA’s Shadowrun (2E) and Earthdawn (1E). I played three sessions as a fill-in on a D&D 3.5 campaign seven years ago and haven’t touched a proper system since, outside of sheeting a few characters for freeform play.

In any system, I’ve GM’d a total of maybe 2 hours across that span. Always a player, rarely behind the screen.

Outside of gaming, I’ve been a professional copy editor for six years with some freelancing on the side. I hope working with language helped here, especially with limited word counts.

Before I wrote a single word

I heard about Superstar on the patronage boards for Open Design’s Journeys to the West project (which I’ve rather sadly neglected since the holidays). After I posted to a brainstorming thread, someone cheekily mentioned using one of my ideas for a Superstar item.

I’d just bought the Pathfinder Beginner Box from my FLGS and played through the box’s solo session so I’d have a basic grasp of the system. After Googling “RPG Superstar” and reading the Superstar info and rules, I figured the Wondrous Item design challenge would be a great way to learn Pathfinder.

So I borrowed a copy of the Pathfinder Core Rulebook from a friend and got rolling.

RTF&R

(Read the FAQ & Rules)

A no-brainer for everyone who’s done Superstar once and mandatory if you haven’t, the rules lay out the uncontestable limits, like the format, deadline and maximum word count.

RTFF

(Read the Fantastic Forums)

I read every single one of Sean K. Reynolds’ tips threads twice. I read #27 three times.

I also considered why they existed and read threads of past winners to see what worked, what didn’t, what judges wanted and what they absolutely hated.

In the process, I saw least two paths to making a Superstar item:

  • Be creative within the restraints of the rules
  • Creatively throw the rules out the porthole

You can’t do either unless you understand the letter and spirit of those tips. I put myself in the judges’ shoes–roleplayed, even!–and re-read past winners to figure out which scenarios would inspire Sean’s tips.

RTFC

(Read the Fabulous Corebook)

I’d never worked with Pathfinder before and never created an item in 3.5. The heft of the corebook drove something home right off the bat: I’d have to read the whole thing. You can’t make a magical item without understanding how it’d be used, and you can’t do that without at least a surface understanding of how everything else works.

The great thing about Pathfinder’s core book is that it covers everything. You don’t need another book to know everything necessary to build an item.

The awful thing about Pathfinder’s core book is that it covers everything. You have to learn how to navigate it efficiently or you’ll run yourself ragged.

Getting to work

Create one “great” idea, then throw it out

This is a long-standing habit of mine when writing anything: I write exactly what I want out of the gate, indulging every whim. I marvel at it, my face consumed by a grin, so ready to paste it into the entry blank and send it out that I’m trembling.

Then I throw it away.

This isn’t due to nerves, and it (mostly) isn’t masochistic. In my experience, my first instinct rarely generates my best idea.

If it really is the best idea I’ve got, I’ll find out when I sit down to come up with a different, better idea and can’t. But until I write that first draft, get it out of my head and destroy it, I likely won’t ever be satisfied with anything else.

And since I was starting from a limited base of knowledge and experience, I needed all of both I could muster in the least time possible.

My first item, if I remember it correctly, was a compass designed around finding fragments of a broken item. It had a hole in the middle, you stick one piece of a broken item in it, it points to the nearest compatible piece.

I thought the concept was great until I wrote it, ran it through Sean’s tips and read it again.

As a potential GM–even with my slim knowledge of Pathfinder or GMing–I didn’t regret trashing it at all. It was a lame idea. It violated too many tips for too many reasons, but more importantly, it made things boring for the PC and frustrating for the GM.

I rechecked the math on the pricing and found I’d even gotten that wrong.

Waste of time?

Hell, no.

My original goal was on target: I was learning a hell of a lot about Pathfinder/3.5/d20 in very little time. I had to read a few dozen different spells to find the ones most suitable for item construction. I had to understand how skills worked to grok their role in item creation. I needed to understand gear to understand item slots and game economics for pricing.

Most importantly, I was getting a clearer picture of the difference between a fun item and an overpowered item. The compass would make a good plot device in a specific scenario but a terrible general-purpose enchanted widget.

Pick, and stick to, a strong idea

I knew from the tips that entering a time item was playing with fire even though time items had made the Top 32 before. But after tossing the compass overboard, I wanted to play with time.

In running the encounters from the Beginner Box, I died three or four times in combat because of bad rolls, particularly Initiative rolls. The Box emphasized Initiative at every opportunity. And when I put my Level 1 Fighter in front of two weak enemies at once and watched him get chewed up in the assault, I caught on pretty quickly to how much of an advantage movement and attack order could provide.

Because I’d settled on a theme I loved, I knew what I wanted: a physical object that would let the PC capture time when they didn’t need it and apply it when they did. (The most notable Superstar inspiration here was Eric Hinley’s 2010 Top 32 entry, Hourglass of the Insightful Conjurer, which planted the concept of an item containing time rather than directly manipulating it.)

Time travel was right out because it’s a complex subject with no inherent rules. So I sat down with the solo scenario from the Beginner Box and broke down the combat process to find places where being able to manipulate time would apply. My list was

  • Initiative
  • number of attacks
  • movement speed
  • Reflex saves

(Notably, the Beginner Box does not mention attacks of opportunity. The scenarios and rules leave them out, and they didn’t factor into my testing even after I read about them in the Core book.)

Because I wanted a container, saves would be a tough thing to manipulate–if I have to save just to take half damage on something, how the hell would I use it as a container? Strap it to my chest in case I set off a trap?

Initiative was potent to mess with, but there’s more granularity (no pun) to it–adding a weak but relatively cheap and reusable Initiative boost made the item feel useful to anyone without overpowering it.

The rest of the things on my list already had spells that affected them: haste and slow. But an item that simply had haste, slow, and Initiative buttons on it wouldn’t fly. It’d barely be Wondrous, much less a Superstar.

I was ready to scrap this idea too until I took one more look at Tip 27:

Every year, items make it into the Top 32 that you could consider a spell-in-a-can, or an item with a joke name, or a toy. They make it into the Top 32 because despite that flaw, they do something really cool or new. You can add flavor to a spell-in-a-can, you can change the name of a poorly-named item, you can change the shape of a toy–if the concept of the item is cool, it deserves a second look.

So give your item a hard look before you hit “Submit.” Does it fall into one of these “auto-reject” categories? If so, is there some way you can make it better, cooler, more innovative, more eye-catching, more… Superstar? If there isn’t, maybe you should submit a different item. If there is, make those changes… and look at it yet again.

I thought I could take the concept of a combat time container and give it a Superstar twist while keeping it practical, especially for lower-level characters where speed-related spells or items could be tough to come by or justify.

If you aren’t having fun, go have fun

I also felt I’d have less fun making an item with another, safer concept–and that feeling was confirmed after I’d made Bottled Time, read the text again, ran through some thought exercises and tests, read it again, put it aside and tried to come up with a better idea.

I couldn’t. When I’d think about it, I’d smile. I’d almost accidentally sketched up encounters that could take advantage of it, and when I stepped back from the whole exercise I realized what I was doing.

I’d gotten so wrapped up in testing the item that I had a drawn map, pages of notes, a half-dozen post-its in the Core book, two character sheets and a half-dozen monster tokens out.

I was prepping a game. If an item I made was getting to be that inspiring, I was willing to throw it to the wolves and watch it get chewed up. I had something I could work with for my own fun and enjoyment, so I already felt like I’d done well.

Breaking down the item

I’m going in the order that I built the item to help illustrate the process.

Description:
Swirling inside a corked wine bottle are what appears to be a few dozen grains of sand suspended in air.

I thought briefly about a pouch and a box before Jim Croce showed up.

I have no idea why, but “Time in a Bottle” (EDIT: More likely this version; thanks, Amy.) popped into my head. The metaphor stuck, I couldn’t unstick it, so I smashed it into the hourglass metaphor and had a simple, straightforward, low-key but unique visual.

This worked so well that next year I’ll put “Still Bill” on and see if Mr. Withers also has some weird link to magical item creation.

Shaking the bottle adds a +1 bonus to the carrier’s Initiative for 30 minutes. The bottle can be shaken three times per day; shaking it a fourth time will cause it to explode.

This was the basic function I wanted out of it: something that was nice to have at any level and could be used when combat was inevitable but not a surprise.

It didn’t make sense to me for it to be inherently consumable–the time isn’t the Wondrous Item, but the bottle. I limited its use to once per day until I implemented the twist at the end.

I also thought about how volatile time can be. People lose hours at work or play without realizing it. Stress, shock and trauma can make time appear to slow down or speed up. Sleep is straight-up weird. So rather than limit usage by turning the item off, I wanted to take that volatility and punish players who didn’t keep track of it by destroying the item if it gets overused.

I also know that stuff gets jostled. If someone’s holding this in combat and an enemy tries to grab it, or knock it out of hand, a GM could easily call that a shake and pop the bottle–triggering the next effect.

If the bottle is shattered, the time within implodes upon itself and sucks it from the area around it, affecting everything within a 15-foot radius of the impact with the equivalent of a slow spell for three rounds.

After I put this in, I was ready to wrap things up. I had a reusable stat boost, and now I had a spell-in-a-can that I felt dodged the SIAC issue because it doesn’t target the same way as the actual spell, and targeted an area over time instead of a specific enemy immediately, giving it some flexibility.

I got lots of play ideas out of this, figuring it was the Superstar twist: MacGuyver it into a component of a trap. Throw it like a flask at an enemy, or toss it like a slowdown smoke bomb to escape. You lose the Initiative bonus forever, but it wasn’t much to begin with, so this doesn’t end up being a second effect nobody dares to use.

(In retrospect, I should have been more specific about how to throw it as a weapon. Cutting the final line of the description and using those words here would’ve strengthened the entry.)

I played a quick battle test of it and had a decent time, but I wasn’t feeling great. I had a minor once-a-day stat boost and a consumable SIAC. Not bad for a first try, but this is the fabric of time and space in a bottle. “Is there some way you can make it better, cooler, more innovative, more eye-catching, more… Superstar?”

Hell, yes!

Uncorking the bottle, which takes a full round, sprays time from the bottle with significant force, and anything within a 15-foot cone of the bottle’s spout immediately experiences effects equivalent to a haste spell that lasts for three rounds.

Shake a bottle of something compressed and that top wants to fly off. I already had it exploding if it was shaken too often, so this was a logical addition. I initially had it spray slow and become inert afterward–instead of the AOE you get a cone. Two kinds of slow, you clever devil!

But again, this is time. Slow is useful against enemies, but not everything is about enemies. If I can use time as a debuff, I can use it as a buff, so if breaking the bottle spills slow, opening it fires a spray of haste.

My PC asks me, “What if I want haste on myself?” Well, pop that bottle into your own damn face, you ugly piece of paper. What that cork does to your nose is your problem.

(Strongly noted: Sean rejected Bottled Time because “a time-themed item using haste and slow mechanics is old hat, not superstar.” Neil Spicer wasn’t impressed by bolting the three effects in a way that he described as “boring and not all that innovative”; Jerall Toi said they “seem rather bland.” Goblinworks’ Ryan Dancey called the whole thing out for being “effectively a staff (a magic item that produces two or more spell effects). That should disqualify it.”

These are true facts, and take careful note of them if you’re considering entering Superstar. But read on, dear reader, read on, because fortunately my story doesn’t end here.)

Once the bottle is opened, its effects are instantly spent; shattered bottles are destroyed. The effects continue even if those affected leave the cone or radius.

I decided to clarify how the effects work, and specify that opening the bottle was not renewable in the same way as shaking it. It made sense to me already, but after reading comments on past winners I wanted to head off any such confusion at the pass.

At this point, I was pretty proud of this bugger and ran it through the word counter. I came in short and felt nice about that–I’d put something together with a nice economy of words.

Problem was, looking at it again I realized it’s still just an item with hasteslow and Initiative buttons. It’s still not Superstar. Fun? Maybe. Some flavor? A little. But that’s it. A once-a-day effect with two ways to make it a consumable. At best, it’s a yawner; at worst, it’s too overwrought for what it does.

So I went back again. What could I add (or take away) next?

It’s a bottle. If you open it, it’s still a bottle. The bottle is the item, not the time, so what can an open Bottled Time do that any other bottle can’t?

I went back to how wibbly-wobbly time can be. How could someone store time? Where would stored time come from? I ran through metaphors about saving time, even going off the dumb end of the pool with daylight savings jokes and stitching threads of time.

But what’s something adventurers frequently do, takes a lot of time, and has applicable rules that could be affected? They sleep, and they sleep so they don’t get fatigue penalties. Sleeping also advances game time for GMs, can give PCs bonuses, and recharges a lot of items/abilities/spells. It’s a fundamental game mechanic ripe for exploitation.

If the bottle can be emptied, it can be refilled. If the thing that makes sleep work as a game mechanic is the time put into it… let’s steal that currency from sleeping and shove it in the bottle instead.

An intact open bottle can be refilled twice by corking it after sleeping near it for at least 8 hours. Such sleep does not provide healing rest; anyone who sleeps within 15 feet of the opened bottle wakes up fatigued (-2 penalty to Strength and Dexterity, can’t run or charge). Each refill reduces the length of haste or slow effects by one round.

(Strongly noted: The refill mechanism is what redeemed the item so strongly with one of the judges, Clark Peterson, that he spent his first Golden Ticket on Bottled Time. The ticket put Bottle Time in the Top 32 over the other judges’ objections. Ryan also was very excited about the recharge mechanism and voted to keep despite the staff issues. The recharge mechanism was the “something extra” that elevated the item. If I had stopped at Initiative, slow and haste, I never would’ve made it.

The moral of the story isn’t to keep adding more features. It’s to find that hook, make it grab you as a player, then as a GM, then as someone who’s seen everything six times today. Don’t sacrifice utility for the hook, and don’t sacrifice flavor for utility.

That’s why this is so freaking difficult. You have to grab interest without going overboard; you have to show design chops but not over-design it; you have to make it stand out in the setting without completely subverting it.)

I initially thought about sleeping with the bottle in hand to recharge it and only robbing the holder of rest; in retrospect I should’ve stuck with that, as it’s simpler and the area-effect sleep drain raised concerns in judging. But I decided to submit it with a 15-foot radius for two reasons:

  1. It would lead to the owner being isolated from the party to recharge it. Not only was he sacrificing his own sleep, he’d either have to sacrifice his party’s sleep as well–or put physical distance between himself and them. In a bunkhouse that could mean being on the other side of the room, or in another room or building altogether; at camp it could mean being 15 feet further from the fire, from light, from protection. Fatigued for a day and vulnerable for the night, in exchange for some neat (if minor) effects.
  2. It could be used offensively against sleeping enemies. Secret an opened bottle away in a foe’s lair while they sleep, then confront them in the morning. “What’s the matter, Zagan the Deathdealer? Have a long night?”

I also thought reducing the duration of the effects on each recharge gave it a degree of impermanence, and I jumped back to bump the times the owner could draw an Initiative bonus from one to three shakes a day to compensate. I wanted a degree of diminishing returns on it, especially at the end of the design process once I’d priced it out.

In any case, now I’m cutting flips, officially converted to a Pathfinder fan and genuinely excited about running a RPG for the first time in a very long while.

And I had words left! So of course, I shot myself in the foot and jumped overboard.

Reusing the bottle for consumables and drinking from it may cause the user to experience vivid dreams about his or her past.

I thought I was adding a little something extra here, but I wasn’t. It’s useless. This item already does a lot, and now I’ve overloaded it with something nebulous. A PC or a GM sees this and says, “So what?”

Did I really think this would entice anyone to reuse the bottle? It doesn’t grant anything tangible or do anything that doesn’t require some GM work to accommodate.

Judges quite rightly blasted this line. I didn’t have to use all the words, and it didn’t need padding.

Aura medium transmutation; CL 7th
Slot hands; Price 9,000 gp; Weight 1 lb.

Construction
Requirements Craft Wondrous Item, haste, slow; Cost 4,500 gp

I ditched the math on this second go-round and instead looked for items in the Core Rulebook that did similar things. I didn’t note those items down and can’t remember which ones inspired the price or caster level, but this section hasn’t drawn many complaints; a few comments liked how it was accessible and sensible at lower levels.

To be honest? This chunk was a poorly educated guess that got lucky.

Name: Bottled Time

The name came last. I wanted a simple name that was fundamentally descriptive while drawing attention.

Outside of song lyrics, “Time in a Bottle” is just a clunky way of saying “Bottled Time,” so I went with the simpler phrasing.

As it turns out, “drawing attention” by using the word “time” was a bad idea; it set the judges on edge before they’d read the item. Time items have a heavy negative bias in Superstar, and since mine wasn’t affecting time in the most obvious way, it even came across as a misnomer.

But I don’t know what else I’d call it at this point. Time goes in one way and comes out differently. All of the active effects manipulate timing in some way, and the refill method in anchored to a specific length of time.

How long did I spend on this?

I read the Core Rulebook over a long open day, and spent about four hours on development: an hour building, gloating over and scrapping the first concept; the next two hours building Bottled Time; and an hour testing and playing around with it.

I get fussy and my confidence falls off a cliff the longer I mess with something, so I submitted it as soon as I hit a point where I was satisfied and feeling good.

If I take anything away from the time I spent on it (and, looking at other winners and entries, how that doesn’t even look like very much time in retrospect), it’s this:

  • Don’t overthink it. A magic item has to win interest in a short period of time. It’s like a joke–if someone else has to explain its value to you, you blew it.
  • Don’t underthink it. This would be dropping a couple effects and walking away. A Superstar item can solve a headpalmingly obvious hole in the game, but it can’t itself be as obvious a fix.
  • Don’t under-research it. The day I spent looking over the Core Rulebook made this happen. I’d seen haste and slow and I knew, at least in the Core, that there wasn’t a similar item. Other items I saw used specific features or systems that didn’t have many applicable magic items, and a big part of Superstar is seeing the big picture and filling in a valuable missing detail with a high level of color and utility.
  • Don’t over-research it. Going forward, this is my biggest fear–I tend to go niche when I write. Going too niche can be a drawback; if it involves a mechanic that’s not available to the vast majority of players, few players will ever see it.
Again, the difficulty is in finding the balance. Creativity has an edge in the first round over execution, but as the judges winnow the pile they’re looking for flaws to justify kicking them out the keep pile. If you don’t put enough of either trait into the item, you won’t make the list; if you put too much of one over the other, you’re giving the judges an excuse to bump you.

That’s all, folks

If you want to comment, I don’t recommend doing it here. Jump back over to the Paizo forums thread for the item.

(EDIT: I cleaned up a few grammar/spelling nits and fleshed out some parts. I also want to thank my local PFS Venture-Captain, Don Walker, for GMing that aforementioned first game of Pathfinder and introducing me to the local Pathfinder community.)

Thanks for reading. I hope I didn’t bore anyone out of wanting to try Superstar! Congrats to the Top 32, and here’s hoping I can make it back in 2013 with some actual Pathfinder experience under my belt.

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§143 · January 26, 2012 · Blog · · [Print]

1 Comment to “How I made an RPG Superstar Top 32 Wondrous Item before I played a single game of Pathfinder”

  1. [...] amazing is that he has written up his process in designing Bottled Time in the aptly named article How I Made An Rpg Superstar Top 32 Wondrous Item Before I Played A Single Game Of Pathfinder.  It’s an interesting look at how to go about designing an item, which I think would be [...]

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