Archive for October 3rd, 2010


A Call for Better Dungeon Presentation

Over at the OD&D boards, a thread on determining the key texts for a graduate-level dungeon design syllabus inspired me to think about how to design a better dungeon for people other than yourself to use.

My experience running the original dungeon – 1971’s Blackmoor Dungeon – convinced me that, for the kind of dungeoneering experience I like these days, there’s not a lot of room for improvement in terms of content (and what there is was largely taken care of by 1979, when Paul Jaquays designed Lost Caverns of Thracia).

However, I think there’s a lot of room for improvement in terms of presentation. No dungeon is as great on paper as it is in the designer’s mind, but I think that the degradation from the author’s mind to the DM-user’s doesn’t need to be as great as it currently is. In the case of Blackmoor Dungeons, Arneson’s intro in First Fantasy Campaign makes it clear that a lot of information got lost in the process of preparing the maps for publication; he says, for example, that he knew where secret doors were by the width of the line he drew, and had to go back and mark them more clearly for the cartographer. Trying to play the dungeons as published demonstrates that even more information was lost. Arneson also knew from deep familiarity which staircases drawn on level n connect to which staircases drawn on n-1, n+1, etc. When I’ve overlaid the maps to understand their spatial relationship, it seems evident to me that the annotations on the published map are a lot less reliable.

I think that the art of conveying information in published RPG adventures is not only primitive, it’s even less sophisticated than the maps that DMs instinctually construct for themselves. In part, this is because of the constraints of publishing: Rob Kuntz’s original map for Bottle City uses color extensively, which would have been cost-prohibitive even for TSR at the time. However, there are numerous ways of presenting information that DMs do for themselves but I’ve never seen in a published module. Because Stefan Pokorny is a visual kind of guy and I’m not, seeing his homemade maps from the ’80s was the first thing that really opened my eyes to the possibilities here. Since those are sadly not widely available, many great examples can be found in Stephan Poag‘s Mines of Khunmar (PDF):

Here’s a quick summary of some of the things this map tells you that you might need to know in play:

– Which way do the doors open?

– Where do those stairs lead?

– What is the base chance of finding that secret door? (1 in 6; this is the 1/6 in the hexagon)

– What is the most important thing you should know about the contents of each room? This is useful not just to jog your memory or give you something to tell the players to buy time as you look the room number up in the module key. It’s essential to have this info on the map because that’s where you need to go for a lot of the other spatial decisions involved in refereeing the dungeon. Are there monsters in range to hear the noise the characters are making? Does a detect magic pick up anything in a nearby room?

Here, the map gives us some extra 3-D information: how high up are the ledges, where does the pit go, how far down is the chasm?

Like telling you what monsters are there, the reporting of treasure is also very game-useful for rods of treasure detection and the like.

And noting that a dungeon element is present, but may not be visible to the players, is a basic courtesy of cartography that would have prevented any number of “oops” moments in my experience of looking at a published map and using it to describe what the adventurers see.

Does anyone know of published modules that have this level of useful cartography? Or other examples of homemade maps that provide enhanced experiences over polished professional ones?

I think Telecanter’s ideas about making mapping easy by presenting info on maps are a great step in the right direction!

Past Adventures of the Mule

October 2010

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