Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Short & Sweet RPG Source Material

Every so often I’m possessed by the urge to ramble on about my growing preference for short yet substantive roleplaying game materials...so before proceeding down that perilous path yet again I’ll beg the pardon of those who’ve already suffered through previous musings here and here (and the most recent one about the One Page Dungeon Contest here). In my middle age, with family and house responsibilities consuming my time, focus, and energy, I prefer keeping things simple in my gaming, particularly roleplaying games. I’ve recently been exploring and enjoying a design movement – intentional in some cases, fortuitous in others – in which creators present useful game material in concise yet meaningful format.

I like to see concise yet intuitive mechanics, books that don’t range much past 32 pages, and settings that don’t require a thorough reading to understand the key points and tone. Sure, I’ve occasionally indulged and immersed myself in some particularly enticing games and worlds – most notably Wicked North Games’ Westward (to which I also contributed) and Monte Cook’s groundbreaking and award-winning Numenera – but I rarely have the time or focus to sit down and digest a 300-page rulebook or even a 96-page adventure. I want the enjoyment of reading (and possibly prepping and playing) an engaging scenario with brief encounter descriptions without all the blow-by-blow details with a rules engine that doesn’t require me to constantly consult the rulebook tome.

So I’ve happily indulged in a wealth of short yet substantive material available for fantasy roleplaying games, primarily those that might garner the label of “retro-clone” or “Old School Renaissance.” I’m not looking for terribly epic storylines or expansive location and character descriptions. I want a juicy tidbit that offers some original, entertaining game value and that, incidentally, I can drop into my own game setting or campaign. Some even inspire me in content and format. Here are a few worthwhile projects (some more current than others) I’ve found that really hit that sweet spot for my inner gamer who really prefers concise yet fulfilling material:

Dyson’s Dodecahedron: Dyson Logos’ website offers a wealth of resources for fantasy roleplaying games, primarily in the form of his wonderfully rendered maps, but also in short adventures, zines, and the Dyson’s Delves books. The maps, many adventures, and zines remain free downloads (or pay what you want on RPGNow.com); those willing to contribute to Dyson’s endeavors can pay for one of the extremely useful Dyson’s Delves books (in print or PDF) or contribute to his Patreon campaign to support his creation of new maps that eventually make their way to the Dodecahedron website. The adventures he offers on the site and in the Delves books demonstrate how – with one of his maps – one can easily craft an engaging dungeon-delving scenario with brief descriptions. I recently bought Dyson’s Delves II in PDF for the principle reason of having ready-to-print scenario materials; set up the print preferences properly and you can generate a one-page scenario with the map on one side and a lined space for handwritten notes on the other.

Micro Adventures: Tim Shorts, who blogs over at Gothridge Manor and produces The Manor zine, refined the concept of the “micro adventure” and as set out on a mission to produce several each month. In Tim’s own words:

A Micro Adventure is a small adventure made up of a few encounter areas and maybe one or two battles or problems. Micro Adventures set up other adventures. Or they can be used between or during larger quests. Micro Adventures are generic enough to fit into your campaign world with little to no adjustments.

Tim’s Micro Adventures fulfill my search for short and engaging game material to drop into a fantasy roleplaying setting. Need a side trip on the way to a larger adventure? Looking for an incident as a hook to something more substantial? Need a brief encounter to introduce new players to the concepts behind fantasy roleplaying games? Look no farther. Like many creators today Tim’s offering his Micro Adventures for free online through his Gothridge Manor blog and is seeking supporters to contribute financially to his efforts on Patreon.

OSR Zines: In my recent exploration of OSR zines I discovered a few brief adventures that appealed to my preferences for short game material. The printed zine format – limited to a finite number of pages for production purposes – forces scenario-writers to stick to a shorter format than, say, a rambling PDF with no restrictions on page count. Some zines expand on adventure elements in related articles, such as new character classes, locations, monsters, and treasures...all kept tight and tidy with the small page count.

One Page Dungeon Contest: I’ve already featured this growing, annual contest inspiring and highlighting perhaps the quintessential “short and sweet” roleplaying game scenario format. The contest gives newcomers and veterans the chance to offer a single-page adventure; while the quality of maps, writing, and content varies, the contest’s esteemed judges help showcase the best entries. A compendium of all entries from the current year provides a substantial collection of scenarios from which to choose...and the organizers are working to compile past years’ entries in similar volumes offered for free/pay what you want.

This commentary is in no way meant as a comprehensive survey of short game materials currently available; I’m highlighting short, substantive game resources I’ve encountered in my internet wanderings.

Like a good short story, writing short adventures presents some challenges to authors. They must impart a unique sense of setting and tone through concise textual notes. Each encounter should last only a few sentences yet must impart essential setting and gaming details as well as advance the action toward the climax. The short form eliminates some of the more verbose language readers frequently come to expect in published adventures and cuts to the chase: a brief introduction of hook, concise location descriptions, short monster stat listings, usually keyed to a small map. The format leaves little room for anything terribly epic in the writing, yet offers gamemasters and players ready-to-play scenarios requiring little preparation.

I surprised myself recently on the “short and sweet” game material front when drafting my recent“Gaming Artifacts: Islands in the Sea of Dread” blog post. The revision of a bland island setting I’d created in high school gave me a fulfilling sense of satisfaction. I had fun designing a map, briefly describing a few locations, and pulling together a “chance encounter” table. It came in at about 1,400 words – not quite as “short and sweet” as I’d like as a reader – but would probably run three or four pages if I took the time to lay it out, drop in some illustrations and the map, and turn it into a PDF. I suppose part of the pleasant surprise came from the feeling of writing something useful and thematic; yet, in the context of my preference for “short and sweet” material, I realize I not only like consuming this kind of game information but also enjoy creating it.


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