Friday, May 15, 2009

One Page Dungeons

When I first put together the concept of the One Page Dungeon, I was pursuing a few different angles. First and foremost I wanted to pursue an economy of words in my adventure writing. I am prone to verbosity and triviality when I allow myself to sit behind the keyboard and plunk away without a care. Such an approach might produce a dungeon which is more interesting for the reader, full of colorful descriptions and answers to various what-ifs which might arise during play. That which is interesting to the Referee does not necessarily add to the adventure nor to the enjoyment of the players involved.

I’ve found after decades of writing that my adventures were becoming more and more bloated, to the point that reading a room description in the middle of a game session was interrupting the natural flow of play. If the passage was for a room I had recently devised, the details were still fresh in my memory, so I didn’t need to actually stop and quietly read what I had written. Given the sheer amount of rooms in many of my dungeons, I found that my memory was failing me when the players entered an area that I had written months or sometimes years before. It was during these moments that I didn’t need all of the extraneous information. I needed the important bits, and I needed them quickly. With this consideration in mind, I began to frown on flavorful entries and the ramifications of possible actions which the players might not even consider. I wanted to stop writing to myself, which is what I realized I often did when I was in my creative mode. Essentially I was looking for nothing more than the facts, distilled down to their most concise form. I needed to cut off the fat and get to the meat.

I assumed that if I forcibly limited the amount of text I would allow myself for a given area of a dungeon, I could devise an interesting exercise in economy of words. Somewhere along the way I read a thread over at the OD&D Discussion forums in which Dwayanu mentioned that he likes to draw maps in a 30x30 square area of the graph paper, thus leaving room for a key. This idea helped me formulate the One Page Dungeon concept. I realized that if I attempted to fill a 30x30 section in my normal mapping method, I’d end up with 20-25 numbered areas, and that restricting myself to that single page, I’d force myself to keep to nothing more than the essentials. Furthermore, the end result would be something which anyone could pick up and run with virtually no preparation time.

Now this opened up other notions. In an effort to create a drop dead simple dungeon format, I’d want to include a few tables on the page as well. Tables which would be at the Referee’s fingertips in order to keep play moving quickly, dispensing with the need to leaf through notes or books. Thus I added Wandering Monsters, Restocking, Random Treasure, and a Legend for the map itself.

The one-page layout I designed originally is found in this thread, and is the exact blueprint which Chgowiz was kind enough to duplicate and turn into a user friendly document for me to continue my project. Were it not for Chgowiz, I doubt I would’ve continued with the concept because my first Word experiments proved to be more trouble than they were worth.

I was surprised by the amount of feedback I got in regard to what I considered to be a simple concept. A concept that in fact, unbeknownst to me at the time, has been done before in slightly different forms by other gamers, including this one by Alex Schroeder. In retrospect, I think what made my concept work was the modular format, the inclusion of tables, and of course Chgowiz’s easy to use version of my template.

One of the best D&D web log authors to enter the fray in the past year, Amityville Mike, took to the concept almost immediately. Mike’s Stonehell, shared through his excellent blog The Society of the Torch, Pole and Rope, is the finest example of the concept to be found on the internet, the Dismal Depths included. Granted, Mike realized the limitations of the One Page right away when he began using the concept for his megadungeon. Stonehell is One Page in spirit, and Mike found that allowing for both sides of the page afforded him the space to describe his rooms and ideas with a bit more clarity, and to include even more tables. Nonetheless, Stonehell is still a One Page Dungeon, even though it uses front and back. The design theory is embraced and Mike has made the most of the template I envisioned.

There is good and bad with the concept. The One Page Dungeon approach challenges the author to convey the essentials while still creating an interesting, viable adventure. The very economy of words, the main driving force behind the concept, is also it’s most limiting factor. This is, as I mentioned in my Dismal Depths Guide, an intentional feature of the approach, not a flaw. The adventure is not going to take the Referee by the hand and guide him or her through the dungeon. There are no suggestions or explanations. There is no boxed text to be read aloud to the players. Trappings and mundane features are kept to a minimum. Theme, plot, back story, hooks, rumors and the why of it all are left to the Referee’s own imagination. The area descriptions themselves intentionally allow for creative input on behalf of the Referee. Nay, they demand it. This is what I refer to when I say the concept is not for the timid, nor the inexperienced. This is not Dungeons for Dummies. The challenge is not merely limited to drawing up a One Page Dungeon. The end result must translate into good gaming, and the Referee must be able to bring this out during play while working with limited resources.

Amongst all of my projects since identifying the Empty Room Principle I have found that this One Page Dungeon concept exemplifies it the best. It is one thing to preach, but another to practice what I preach. One of the greatest strengths of the design theory, one which might be lost upon some, is the minimalistic nature therein, this Empty Room Principal. Much like the original D&D rules I've grown to appreciate more and more, the One Page Dungeon engages the Referee's imagination and offers limitless opportunities for personal input. The descriptions are not restrictive, they do not force your hand, and they do not tell you there is only one way to do things. The text is restricted to a few lines for each area, which should be just enough to encourage and inspire.

Although circumstances have delayed much of the design effort I planned to undertake with the megadungeon which kicked this entire theme off, the Dismal Depths, I have been forming ideas and inventing novelties for that project. I hope to able to return to it seriously in the near future. I’m happy with what I’ve created for it thus far, including the Dismal Depths Bestiary and the Dismal Depths Trap Tables. I’d ask that those who have been looking for new Dismal Depths information keep the faith. There is more to come, have no fear. I don’t want to force anything as the dungeon needs to write itself, otherwise it might lose some luster.

Perhaps this article is something I should have written prior to the One Page Dungeon Contest hosted by Chatty DM and Chgowiz. The contest ended last night, and I have printed all 70 entries. If I had been in charge of submissions, I might have placed more limitations on the design theory. I may have had some notion of “This is my idea, and this is how you do it.” For this reason it is probably best that I had nothing to do with setting up and running the contest. I may have enforced certain criteria or insisted upon inclusion of features important to me. In looking over these entries, I can see that restricting anyone’s creativity is a bad thing, and would’ve been contradictory to the very spirit of the concept. The simplest notion is what made this a good contest. Write an actual, usable adventure on a single page, with a map, and be creative. That was all that was needed to design a good entry.

I’m proud that this innocent little concept has been embraced by those beyond the limited reach of my blog here, just as I am satisfied that the idea is not restricted by my personal design theories. It’s quite clear that many of the contestants had a lot of fun with the idea. Some of the One Page Dungeons don’t look anything like the rudimentary lay out I drew up, for that matter, some don’t look like anything I’ve ever seen before. I am left wondering if one of the entries is trying to get a Punk Rock vote from this judge, but I don’t want to leak any more information just yet.

Suffice to say that I am going to be up to my eyeballs in One Page Dungeons for the foreseeable future as I work toward judging these 70 entries. It’s particularly satisfying to see all of these versions of the concept from people who have probably never even heard of me nor read any of my ramblings here.

With that said, I’m signing off for a while for back to back out of town trips in which I’ll be reading and considering these dungeons during downtimes. I should be back to foist more drivel upon the unsuspecting after Memorial Day.

~Sham, Quixotic Referee

EDIT: Due to unexpected circumstances, the contest has been extended! Word is that we are up to 90 entries now! Quote from an update by Chgowiz:

"To that effect, we are re-instating all entries that we've rejected in the last 30 hours and will accept new entries until May 21st at 8h00 AM."

So, if you thought you missed the deadline, you haven't! Get to work and make your own One Page Dungeon. Just remember to ignore most of what I wrote above and create your own vision of the ODP format!


Coopdevil said...

I never got around to an entry in the competition but I am indebted to your concept for pointing something important out to me - a single word like "Library" carries huge and helpful baggage with it. You don't need to describe the bookshelves, reading lights, desk, ladders for the upper shelves etc. - it's all impicit in that word "Library". If it becomes important enough to matter, the details can be improvised on the spot, which is exactly what one would be doing when listing all the contents in the first place!

So something like

"7 - Library. Books on Astronomy and Mythology"

will do the job better than a verbose listing of what the furniture and contents are because it's more efficient in play and in adventure prep.

Without the One Page concept I would have been highly unlikely to ever make this mental leap of logic. Cheers.

ChattyDM said...

I totally agree with the Punk Rock reference! Maybe they'll book a night in the Goblin Night club!

Anonymous said...

Great post. As you know, I love the one-page dungeon level concept. That said, I have been most powerfully smitten by Lord Kilgore's totally hand-written one-page dungeon levels that he did years ago. Click on these links to see a couple of levels:

These have inspired the following intentions with regard to any such levels I create in the future:

1. They will be totally hand-written. I want them to kind of look like something an actual D&D adventurer might have in his hands after mapping a level.

2. I plan to use blank typing paper rather than graph paper. Graph paper unfortunately influences me to draw along the lines rather than in crazy shapes.

3. Like Lord Kilgore, I'm going to draw each level wherever I want on the paper, and in whatever dimensions. I'm not going to stick with 30 by 30 squares in the upper right corner.

Heck, just click on the links to see the sort of thing I'm talking about.

Just to be clear, this isn't a criticism of any particular format for one-page dungeon levels. It's merely me stating my opinion that Lord Kilgore's style is my favorite. :)

Michael Curtis said...

Thank you for the kind words on Stonehell, Sham. High praise coming from a gentleman such as yourself.

I think I've mentioned it before but I want to reiterate that my expansion of the template into the two-page format that I use is more indicative of my own failings and personal preferences in dungeon design than it is of the One-Page idea. I like lots of funky encounters and random tables, which usually requires additional space for me to cram them in and to also expand on some of the descriptions so as to allow for my own failed memory. As the One Page Contest has certainly proven, the true template allows for a lot of information to be crammed into a small space without resorting to more room as I'm wont to do.

The contest has been an eye-opener as to what people can do with tight space constraints and, yes, I'm very much in the mindset that certain contestants knew about some of the individual judges' own peculiarities and likes when they crafted their entries!

ChattyDM said...

I have yet to see a reference to Bacon in them... So I'm not being pandered to too much... :)

Anonymous said...

Amusingly, the old dungeon Sham referenced does include Bacon!

Santiago Oría said...

I wanna give a try to the next evolution of the one-page concept... the One Page City!

- Zulgyan

Norman J. Harman Jr. said...

I haven't looked at the contest in detail so forgive me if this was already in the works.

The various creative interpretations of the 70 now 90 1 page dungeons you mention makes me totally want to see them.

Tell me there are plans to release a compilation as a PDF/POD?

Sham aka Dave said...

Coopdevil: Thanks! Yes, part of the concept is the "why?" behind the template itself. That is the reason I wanted to make this post, to revisit the motives I was pursuing when I put it together.

Sham aka Dave said...

ChattyDM: Can't wait to share many, many of these ODPs with readers here. And that's just from the first batch of 70. This has been a great contest thus far.

Sham aka Dave said...

Geoffrey: As I've mentioned, this "idea" is so simple that there just had to be others doing something similar in the past, given the collective creativity of D&D fans.

I agree that Lord Kilgore's one page dungeons are outstanding. I have a preference for many things done by hand, especially maps. I just find that for ease of making multiple levels, I can type it in faster, and have to worry about errors less often.

Although those examples are making me rethink how I've been doing my own!

Sham aka Dave said...

Amityville Mike: I agree that some of the entries have really surprised me! I realize now that my original template does waste quite a bit of space. Something I'll have to rectify soon.

Sham aka Dave said...

Zulgyan: I look forward to it! I have plans for one-page wilderness adventures, but hadn't considered the one-page city.

Sham aka Dave said...

Norman: You can check Chatty's original contest announcement, but yes, I do believe the goal is to provide a free PDF crammed full of these entries.

I vowed before reading any I would ask myself three questions in judging the best (not any particular category, just overall top dog): Could I, Would I and Should I run that one-page dungeon? Thus far this has not helped me narrow it down, as there are a number of entries I look forward to running in the future in my own games.

Good stuff so far!

Santiago Oría said...

And here is the one-page city:

Chris Kutalik said...

One-page city--that's brilliant.In fact, I think it works even better for a city environment as from my experience players are even more unlikely than in the controlled confines of a dungeon to hit most of the sites you sketch out anyway (thus violating "the why the hell do more work than you need to?" rule.)

I'm starting to think that the definition of good blog thread is one that I read and find something I instantly want to rip off for my own campaign (which has been my experience often on Dave here's blog).

Sham aka Dave said...

Zulgyan: I'll have to check that out! I've been very busy of late, between two trips as I type this. Based on pretty much everything I've seen you do in the past, I'm sure it's great stuff!

ckutalik: Thanks. I am lucky to have some very insightful readers here. I learn more from them than I ever do while researching or writing some of these ramblings.

Santiago Oría said...

Sham: I would be very interested in receiving comments about the city from you, as I admire many of your thinking.