Monday, July 16, 2012

Pocket Dungeons

One of 102 (!) geomorphs
by Dyson
I'm a sucker for small adventures, dungeons, and particularly, small dungeons. That's nothing against megadungeons. I've had awesome RPG experiences in dungeons that went on forever. But small, out-of-the-way caves, burial mounds, ruined castles, and forgotten temples exert a powerful pull on my imagination.

That's why I'm so impressed by creative exercises like the One-Page Dungeon Contest and Pocket Full of Peril. They cram a heap o' adventure into a brief format. I enjoy them so much that I'm jumping into the pool too, beginning today, with Adventure Notebook. My aim is to post a new pocket adventure each Monday.

What I like most about this minimal format is not only that the dungeons themselves are small but that the format forces descriptions to be terse. They cover the basics, provide some atmosphere, and leave the rest to the GM.

An adventure shouldn't try to do all the GM's work for him. Doing so removes the GM from the creative process and reduces him to a script reader. Yes, GMs can ignore all that excess detail and substitute their own. I suspect most do. That's what happens on those rare occasions when I use a highly detailed adventure. Who can, or even wants to, remember all those baroque widgets in the heat of the action? Pressing the pause button to reread a long room description when the door is hanging in splinters means there is no "heat of the action." No one wants to be the DM who constantly says, "wait, I forgot something that screws up what you did five minutes ago" any more than anyone wants to be the GM who just pushes pieces according to a program.

I'd rather glance at three or four lines of text (having highlighted a few key words in advance) and make up the rest on the spot. Extemporizing amplifies the feedback loop between players and GM. That feedback is what drives the best tabletop roleplaying.

Three participants sit around the game table: the players, the GM, and the rules. Minimizing any of those three roles is a bad thing. That's why single-track, railroady adventures are rightly criticized; they decrease the players' role. The same flaw afflicts overly detailed adventures. They boost the role of the rules (and the adventure writer) at the expense of the GM.

The best adventures and the best rules encourage full participation and input from everyone.


  1. I find the challenge for trying to express an idea in the one page format to be fun and frustrating at the same time. We have entered and been one of the winning entries for the past two contests. Meckwick's Pair-O-Dice and Meckwick's Revenge.

  2. I've actually been thinking about this a lot recently myself, and considering slipping some smaller dungeons into my campaign. I'm currently playing by blog, and given the slow nature of that type of game, I think a small dungeon has the advantage of being able to provide "closure" and "completion" moments at a pace that would offset the drawn out nature of the PbB format.

  3. I fully agree Steve, there's nothing worse than having to backtrack as DM because you missed something in the novel of a module you're running. Adventures that allow the DM to DM are what I like these days.

  4. Great starter or change of pace or even last minute adventure! I'll keep this handy for when our grandson wants One More Adventure.

  5. Participating in the first two One-Page Dungeon contests really changed how I approach adventure writing. Epic adventure books can be fun and inspiring to read, but so very little of what's written in a standard commercial adventure is useful at the table, and most is actually getting in the way of the parts you need.

    If I were to run someone else's adventure at this point, I think I would have to reduce it to a set of minimalist notes...not strictly the 1PD format, but a similar amount of information. I wish those sorts of crib sheets were actually a part of every adventure book.

    1. I agree 100%. Adventures written like prose are fine for DMs who mine them for ideas but will always be problematic for DMs who actually run them. I've struggled with that problem for years and have seen very few good alternatives--but a few do exist. Someday I'll post about that, but it will take time to get my thoughts organized.

  6. Steve---

    I've never been a huge fan of the one page dungeon, since I find it too minimalist for my tastes, which run more along the lines of the G1-3 modules in terms of how much detail I want in a finished product: most encounters are relatively spare, but you get good detail that inspires a DM to flesh them out further. A barebones skeleton can certainly inspire me, too, but I'd rather have a little more meat on the bone, so to speak.

    Published adventures should be presented in a format that's optimzed for ease of use at the table, but that's an area that few publishers have really explored with much success, IMO, and is an area that's well-worth exploring in detail, at some point.


  7. I've been finding the 1-page dungeons very handy for my new Labyrinth Lord 'Valnwall' campaign; they seed the sandbox very effectively. We kicked off last Tuesday and the PCs decided to investigate Goblin Gulley, worked great and really got my GMing juices going.