Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Allure of Maps

For many who first dive into Dungeons & Dragons the allure of the map proves the most difficult to resist. No matter what edition of the game one plays, maps serve as focal points for adventures, whether underground dungeon delving or overland exploration and diplomatic intrigue.

Few who immerse themselves in the game can resist creating their own map-based scenarios, drafting detailed cartographic charts drawn as artistically as one’s talents allow. The iconic beginner module, B2 The Keep on the Borderlands -- available in most of the early basic Dungeons & Dragons boxed sets -- even encourages it with the description of the map location for the Cave of the Unknown: “The Caves of the Unknown area is left for you to use as a place to devise your own cavern complex or dungeon maze.” We create elaborate maps for our own adventures, lovingly focusing on placing devious traps, connecting chambers with twisted corridors, and designing fantastic audience halls.

And then the creative process sometimes grinds to a halt. We’ve slaved over this beautiful graphic depiction of our adventure setting only to become dumbfounded at having to sit down and describe each and every location within in tedious detail, complete with monster stats, trap details, and “what ifs” describing adversaries motives and reactions. Like the game’s published adventures, we feel obligated to not only produce compelling maps but write equally engaging text to fully explore the possibilities surrounding each location. The result often consists of an interesting map and a few scribbled notes from which gamemasters run improvised adventures which, upon later reflection, become difficult to recall and recreate without more complete, albeit brief descriptions.

The movement spurred by the annual One Page Dungeon Contest brings dungeon delving (as well as overall scenario design) to a new, challenging level. Even professional adventure developers find a challenge in distilling the essence of an engaging adventure onto a single page, including the map and even brief descriptions of the scenario set-up, locations, wandering monsters, traps, and adversaries. Other genres less able to handle simple location descriptions and requiring more setting, plot, and character details -- including more narrative games such as pulp, historical, and horror -- present even greater obstacles to compacting a meaningful scenario onto a single page.

The One Page Dungeon Contest challenges adventure designers to illustrate and key a dungeon for a complete scenario experience. These system-neutral adventures leave the details of difficulties and monster stats to individuals to determine based on their particular game system. Most work within the medieval fantasy genre, but a few cross genres into pulp, horror, and science fiction. The contest not only inspires scenario designers to create a one-page dungeon, but all the entries, not just the winning ones, release to the public in free PDF compilations, so everyone wins.

Given the broad range of entries and the authors’ talents, the quality of these one-page dungeons varies widely. The PDF showcasing the winners quickly highlights the best submissions; each brings something exceptional to the one-page format, whether it’s the interesting set-up, genre adaptation, or amazing graphic presentation. They’re worth reading not simply for the adventure material to incorporate into a campaign, but as examples of how one might convey a scenario’s essential elements in a concise format.

Striking A Balance

My scenario material falls somewhere well in between the fully developed text adventure with maps and the minimalist one-page adventure. Granted, little of what I design would fall under the header of “dungeon delving,” but I believe certain elements of the one-page dungeon have validity in most gaming genres. I also believe in striking a balance between keeping things short and concise and yet presenting a fully developed scenario containing everything necessary to prepare the gamemaster and inform/challenge the players.

Writing to a short page or word count remains one of the most challenging creative exercises. It’s not simply a matter of banging out enough words to fill the required quota; one must create an engaging game situation, complete with locations, characters, and plot development/climax in an extremely limited space. Doing this well takes good planning and tight writing.

I’m often in a quandary about what a gamemaster needs to write down to record a scenario for future replay or to share with others. Would simple notes and a hastily drawn map suffice, or does a gamemaster need to give it the entire professional module treatment, or something in between? Does one outline the locations, adversaries, and objectives, or provide scene-by-scene guidance? Should the action encourage players to wander around the map or “railroad” them along a predestined set of plot points? (All of these scenario design issues are worth another article altogether….)

I’m not usually writing to share a scenario with a few friends, but fully developing an adventure for some form of publication (even if as a free promotional PDF). The format varies depending on the venue. Many times a preview PDF features a fully developed scenario to give readers a better sense of the for-sale sourcebook. A four-page “adventure outline” remains perhaps the shortest I’ve done. My scenario style tends toward the narrative, so an adventure is filled with plot guidance and plenty of setting sidebars and information about adversaries. Often I’ll include an informative player handout, like a period newspaper page with clues and cues about the pending action. Personally the shortest material I’ve published remains a pair of four-page “adventure outlines” for Heroes of Rura-Tonga. They contain the bare bones for the adventures, without the usual pre-generated characters I typically use when I run them as convention games. Still, it’s amazing what will fit on four pages. One of these days I’d like to find the time and the project/genre to develop a one-page dungeon or scenario based on a map. It’s a good challenge, and, when included in a more comprehensive preview package or in a rulebook, it provides a quick scenario to test-drive the rules and setting.