One of the key elements of jazz is that it incorporates improvisation into its basic structure. A skilled jazz musician can interpret a tune in individual ways, taking a composition into new territory with the help of his mood, his fellow musicians, or even the audience in attendance. Over the last few days, here in the blogosphere, a few fine folks have been doing the same with the art of megadungeon design.
It all started on Monday, when Sham was waxing philosophically on a thread over at the Original D&D Discussion forum. It seems that Sham got the idea to figure out a way to do a one page note sheet for the levels of his megadungeon. After some initial success, Sham grew discouraged. That’s when Chgowiz picked up the slack and pounded out a One Page Dungeon Level Template. Sham put that template to use and you can see how beautifully he turned Chgowiz’s design into a functional one-page note sheet for a section of his dungeon.
When I saw what the two of them had come up with, I simply had to give it a shot myself. Chgowiz was kind enough to email me a copy of his template and I went to work. I’ve been a little burned out from putting Ol’ Nameless together over the past year, so I didn’t have great expectations for the my own crack at this one-page experiment. But as it turns out, this was exactly what I needed to do.
One of my earliest realizations after coming back to the hobby was that I needed to devolve the way I write my dungeon notes. I had developed the bad habit of getting more detailed than was absolutely necessary, and the additional work had a negative impact on the joy I received from building dungeons. The One Page Dungeon Level Template almost completely solved that problem in no time flat (I’ll get to “almost” part in a moment). Not only did it focus my design, the whole concept and background of this brand spankin’ new megadungeon leapt from my mind fully formed – an Athena of dungeon creation – complete with a name and a rationalization for it being a dungeon in the classic-style. Next week, I’ll post the dungeon history so you can see the what, why, and how of it all. For now, all you need to know is that the first section of Stonehell is complete and ready for visitors. You can take a look at Level 1A: Hell’s Antechamber by downloading it here.
Now for the “almost” part.
My crack at using the One Page Dungeon Level Template resulted in me having to expand it to the Two Page Dungeon Template. The reasons for this have nothing to do with any inherent flaw in either Sham’s plan or Chgowiz’s template. I’m wholly to blame. Once I started sketching out my section of dungeon, although constrained by a set 30 square by 30 square boundary, I ended up with almost forty rooms. Forty rooms was much too big to fit conveniently in the space allotted in the template unless I shrank the font size to near-illegibility. I had to add a second page to incorporate all of my thumbnail room sketches. But rather than get discouraged by this need to expand on the original template, I turned it to my advantage. With extra space available, I began throwing in a few random tables to flesh out the room descriptions and even included a short “random name list” in case I needed a name for some encountered NPC. Even with two pages, I can have the entire dungeon section notes – including map – open in front of me, eliminating the need to flip back and forth when refereeing it. I’m absolutely dumbfounded by how elegant and useful this method of writing dungeon notes is.
I’ll briefly cover the strengths and weaknesses of this One Page method, but once you take a look at it for yourself, I’m certain these will be apparent. Consider this me selling you the sizzle, before you buy the steak.
Short turnaround time: From start to finish, my crack at Level 1A took between 8-10 hours. Considering that I started noodling around with Ol’ Nameless back in November of 2007 and still have only managed to complete the upper few levels, thirty-nine rooms drawn, stocked and keyed in half a day is pretty damn impressive. This method of design focused my energies like a laser.
Greater Ratio of Design Time vs. Play Time: Despite my swollen number of rooms, a section of dungeon comprising a 300’ by 300’ area could quite easily occupy 2-3 game sessions of 4-6 hours each, depending on your dungeon and players. Getting almost a month of steady gaming out of half a day’s design time is pretty damn impressive, at least to my mind.
Modular Construction and Adaptability: I’m not sure that this was part of the original thought process, but what struck me while designing this first section of dungeon was how quickly I could compensate and improvise in the event that the adventurers wandered off the beaten path. The square geomorphs from Dungeon Geomorphs: Set One to Three are 21 x 21 squares. Should the characters head into unmapped territory, I could slap down a geomorph and use that in conjunction with the Monster & Treasure Assortment to keep the players occupied until the end of the game session. Once safely home, I could place the geomorph into a new template – while still retaining 90’ on both the X and Y axis to customize the map – and flesh it out with my notes on the monsters and treasure they encountered. Then simply slip the completed template into your referee 3-ring binder and you’re set for next week.
Illusion of Depth: This has been my latest battle cry and the One Page Dungeon Level Template works wonders to keep this in the forefront of my mind during the design phase. Limited space means less room to add overzealous and extraneous game notes into the dungeon. As Mike Mearls pointed out, “When you invent stuff during play it's there to challenge the PCs or advance the game.” The One Page template forces the referee to expand and build on the fly, rather than waste design time on stuff that might not have any immediate use in your game.
Not for Beginners: While there are always exceptions, I don’t think the one-page method is a viable option for beginning referees. People taking their first turn behind the screen would probably feel more comfortable with more expansive notes to work with.
Not for the Disorganized: If you plan on using the one-page method, you damn well better be good at taking notes and remembering to update your level keys regularly. You’ll be doing a lot of thinking on your feet with the one-page method, and your players are going to notice if you don’t keep track of certain room specifics, resulting in statues that are on one side of the room one adventure and on the other side during another, unless of course, you’re like me and have lots of wandering statues.
As you can see, the weaknesses to the One Page Dungeon Level method have less to do with the method or template itself, and more to do with those who use it. A referee who thinks quickly on his feet and takes good notes shouldn’t have any problems with this form of keying a dungeon.
I have to give both Sham and Chgowiz a hearty round of applause for their efforts. My method of dungeon design may never be the same again. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a few hours to kill and Level 1B is calling.