Friday, July 3, 2009

Detail & Dungeon Design

Amityville Mike at the The Society of Torch, Pole and Rope posted on the One Page Dungeon Contest today. In commenting on the submissions he had this to say:
One of the purposes of the One Page Dungeon, something that several contestants failed to grasp, is that it’s supposed to give the referee just the information they need to run the dungeon. If you can fit in more, fine, but brevity is the One Page Dungeon’s strong suit.
Yikes! I don't know whether he had my Coastal Caves in mind or not, but it sure applies to my entry. I approached the OPDC not trying to see how to do more with less, but to see how much I could fit into that one page. I packed that thing like a $20 burrito! It's a little embarrassing seeing as the aim of my blog is to simplify and come up with elegant solutions that do more with less. So, I decided to make it a learning experience and write about detail. After two long drafts and tumbling this around in my head all day, here is what I've come up with:

Telecanter's Three Laws of Detail & Dungeon Design

First, to define detail as I mean it here: specificity, development, fine grain rather than broad strokes.

#1. Detail is Expensive
This seems most straightforward so I'll start here. It takes time to name places and people. It takes thought and creativity to place hazards and dungeon exits. Modules wouldn't be for sale if we were all satisfied with randomly generated or stock dungeons.

#2. Detail is Dominant
Once detail is there it tends to stay there. Sure you can rename Acerak, but it takes a little time and effort (see #1.), and if you're changing every name, every monster, every treasure, there's a point where you may as well make your own dungeon from scratch. It's easier to work with what's given than change it. This is also because detail tends to be related to other detail, if you want to take Roghan out of B1, you'll have a lot to do, including changing or ignoring the initial carved in the headboard of his bed (if I recall correctly). But detail is also dominant in the sense that once the dungeon is defined as the evil temple of a frog god, it can't be the good temple of a frog god, or a laboratory, etc. Detail by definition cuts off other possibilities.

#3. Detail Demands Mastery
If the lich is named Acerak, you need to remember that when you play your friends through the module. Sure, sometimes it won't matter, but what if the name shows up in inscriptions, in riddles. The more detailed a trap or trick is, the more you have to study it to run it. Some details may be far more important than others-- maybe you forgot to mention the treasure in room 32A and that treasure had the key that allows access to the dungeon's second level. You can wing it, of course and always change it, but there comes a point where if you disregard enough of the detail, you may as well have made your own.

And here are some additional thoughts that don't seem to merit a law:

  • The more improbable something is, the more detail it takes to establish a sense of verisimilitude. For example, that fountain of gender exchange may require a lot of backstory to make it seem reasonable. (This would only matter if verisimilitude is a concern, and it doesn't have to be)
  • I wonder if there is a paradox here: the people of the OSR are making dungeons for other people in the OSR who like making their own dungeons. I'm not sure about this, I would be interested to know how often you use modules and when you do, how much you customize them. And this surely deserves a post of its own, but what level of detail would a module perfect for you have?


  1. One of the purposes of the One Page Dungeon, something that several contestants failed to grasp, is that it’s supposed to give the referee just the information they need to run the dungeon. If you can fit in more, fine, but brevity is the One Page Dungeon’s strong suit.

    God love him, Mike is sharing my OPD mantra here. The contest actually eclipsed my reasons for coming up with the concept, which is a good thing in many respects. I may have started this whole thing, but I did not write the rules for the contest.

    Anyway, I just wanted to comment because I had Coastal Caves on my top 20 list. I had no idea it was your entry. It's a good one, imho.

  2. Good post.

    I've not bought many modules over the years and I tended to run them as written because I WANT that singular vision of the designer rather than have everything Sean-ified before play even starts.
    BUT it the past, large dungeons were a case of diminishing returns as one person's vision gets a bit boring after a few levels. By using 1PD from different designers allows there to be a big mix of ideas, and MY contribution comes in the organisation and refereeing of it - which is made easier by having less details to learn/constrain me

  3. @ Sham: Thanks, that's great to hear coming from the creator of the Empty Room Principle himself!

    I just thought, maybe there's a distinction here between the use of the one page template for personal use by a DM, who will have an idea in mind that can be broadly sketched, and as a mini-module created by someone else, which might require more detail to be useful.

  4. @ Sean: That's interesting. There are so many aspects of this that its hard to wrap my head around at once; I hadn't thought of monotony vs. variety as a factor. Perhaps the OSR, with many individuals offering up 1PD sublevels, would be *more able* to create an interesting megadungeon than a big company designer?

  5. I think so. The only advantage of the sole designer is the continuity between levels, the recurring motifs and themes that can develop - but if I have a handful of 1PDs, I can incorporate additional ideas easily enough because the levels aren't over-detailed.