Saturday, September 19, 2020

One Page Dungeon Design

The 2020 One Page Dungeon Contest wrapped up on the 15th of July, and I’ve entered this year (for the first time since 2015). I don’t think my dungeon has much of a chance - it’s a bit the esoteric work/aesthetic design testbed and lacks the artistic attention traditionally necessary to win the contest … but … the goal isn’t to win, it’s to produce a tiny, but usable TTRPG adventure and to learn about what that entails. I encourage everyone who has any inclination for adventure design to enter next year or at least try to construct a one page dungeon and hone it to a standard that someone else could run it from. The lessons in creating such a small, focused adventure teaches are useful more generally, and in the end you hopefully have something to share that shows how you like to play TTRPGs -- which at their best are a creative pastime.

My 2020 OPD - Maw o Snails
PDF at end of post

One Page Dungeons are a form of adventure publication that is literally what it says in the name. One, one-sided, 8.5” x 11”/A4 piece of paper with a complete adventure on it. How one wants to do that is the interesting part. Sure it’s a gimmick, but it’s a fascinating one because the highly restricted space encourages a lot of design compromise that ultimately makes the designer decide what has to cut and what the most space saving way to communicate is. There’s practical and aesthetic considerations as well - which likely appeal to the more artistically and design inclined, but for the adventure designer the One Page Dungeon (OPD) is an experiment in cutting away the unnecessary and emphasizing the most important elements of a chosen playstyle and preferred design goals.

Below I’ll explain in more detail, but here is a list of steps and considerations that go into a One Page Dungeon, or at least a specific type of One Page Dungeon -- the keyed location based kind with as much classic exploration feel as possible:

  • Brevity, Not Ultraminimalism
  • Reduce Density, Not Size
  • One Solid Image
  • Avoid Gimmicks and Accommodations Unless they Save Space
  • Use Map and Other Aesthetics to Add Detail and Complexity

With the demand to use as little space as possible One Page Dungeon design can look back to some of the earliest D&D adventures and the minimalism that animated them. Palace of the Vampire Queen from 1976 is the most intense example of this early minimalism: a few boxy maps and a series of keys that provide a matrix of minimal room contents (under a line each) focusing on the monsters in each location. Ultraminimalism can be useful, but it depends on familiarity and incorporation of details by reference, and that makes it poor for a One Page Dungeon unsupported by reference to a larger setting. Familiarity, here means both the reader’s fluency in the setting and the mechanics of the ultraminimal adventure. You can write “3 goblins, betting on cockroach fight” in a room, and it can work, but only if A) The reader/GM knows what goblins are and has a good idea of their behaviours and personality B) Has the mechanics for goblins available somewhere. Of course ultraminimalism, focused on cliched, quotidian and easily accessible fantasy risks is quite dull -- because while it asks for less work by the GM, it’s also avoiding the hard work of characterization and detail, leaving too much to outside sources.

This makes ultraminimalism a poor choice for my own design goals: baroque, detailed settings that vary at least slightly from the anodyne high fantasy of D&D’s implied setting or Forgotten Realms. Without reference, ultraminimalism utterly fails for introducing novel setting elements, encounters, and detail -- “3 Praetors of Orpheus stare transfixed at the necrolith” is simply a string of nonsense without references. In a One Page Dungeon the attraction of minimalism is obvious, but it’s unavailable for unique fiction, because when there’s no references it asks the GM to do a great deal of work in fleshing out the location, and doesn’t give the tools to do it. The Preators of Orpheus even offer a little bit of context: Orpheus being a stock mythological figure, praetor a Roman military and judicial rank, and “necro” a well known Greek prefix for death which might be enough to make for some kind of Classic era tinged death cult, but it’s asking a lot still. Worse would be a description full of nonsense words “A gang of Slors cook a Zuul here” (the obscurity of these references working as a joke in 1984’s Ghostbusters) because without reference (well there’s some references here, but they’re still empty) the content adds meaningless conditions to the GM’s own creativity as well as handing all the work of mechanical and narrative design over.

Ultraminimalism, and the decision to avoid it in Maw of Snails, is a personal choice, but it speaks to a core tension in adventure design -- how much information and detail is useful? Too little detail and you create abject confusion, speaking in Slors and Zuuls, while too much and the adventure can become too large, equally unreadable because of density and tangential information. Palace of the Vampire Queen style referential minimalism is an equal risk -- high utility, but there’s nothing much original about the adventure. If it’s not 1976 and one isn’t writing the first published TTRPG adventure there’s little advantage to highly referential ultraminimalism. Wonder and discovery drain away, play becomes less inspiring and exciting -- just another cliched experience, fighting goblins in a hole -- the fiction is so well worn after 45 years that the players will have a hard time engaging with the game beyond focusing on the mechanics.

Still, there’s a balance of information that a well designed adventure obtains: enough detail to allow the GM and players to engage with its fictional world, but not so much that it becomes unwieldy. Many maxims and techniques of adventure design, such as avoiding unnecessary background or using random tables to fill in the details of large homogeneous areas, focus on finding this balance, but it’s still an individual thing. One Page Dungeon design exacerbates the issue by severely limiting space and its gimmicky nature is emphasized by the usefulness of various shortcuts and tools such as ultraminimalism. To some extent Maw of Snails does embrace the idea of referential minimalism, at least in its non-fantastical elements and certainly employs other tools useful for reducing its length. Other broadly adopted options for minimizing space are: picking a subject that players and GMs expect to be low detail, such as wilderness travel, and utilizing art to provide much of the detail.

Adventure size is always an issue. How big the scope of the adventure? How many keyed locations? WotC regularly provides 250 page epic scale adventures that take a party from level 1 to 15, while the classic tradition is individual location based adventures that might offer a level of advancement at most and are meant to be set into an independent campaign world. Independent contemporary traditional (5E, Pathfinder and similar games) looks towards small scale individual "adventures" using encounter based design where idea like “6-8 encounters per day” dominate, and rooms when they are mentioned at all are in the context of providing a discreet, insular experience as in the “5 room dungeon”. Classic design looks towards larger level based designs, with 10 keyed locations the lower limit for something defined as a “dungeon”, because anything less tends toward linearity, making Level based design (where the adventure’s keyed locations are interconnected and part of a ‘level’) nearly impossible. For the One Page Dungeon this specific problem presents an issue as anything like actual classic dungeon design will require shortcuts to fit into the space provided.

At roughly 300 - 700 words, a one page dungeon that includes a map, key, unique creatures, treasures, and other hallmarks of a decent location based adventure - one that steps away from minimalism - doesn’t have space to properly key the fifteen plus locations necessary for a traditional “dungeon” sized adventure. There are a few broad categories of options that can be used collectively or individually to reduce size:

1) Reducing Scale. The “Five Room Dungeon” is a popular design principle in contemporary traditional play communities, an adventure that structures five distinct types of encounter: Entrance, Puzzle, Setback/Obstacle, Boss Fight, Reward. This is a design theory largely set up for scene based play and encounter based design -- some five room proponents proclaim them an echo of Campbellian ‘mythic’ storytelling, but that’s not really something within All Dead Generation’s purview as a classic design blog. Still, the scope of “Five Rooms” is ultimately around what one can fit into a One Page Dungeon without using other tricks.

A Diagram of the 5-Room Dungeon from

Five Room design is perhaps best thought of as focusing on a single encounter - “the Boss” of the location, and is a way of creating a single session adventure optimized around a tactical combat challenge. In classic terms Five Room Dungeons are “Lairs” -- without room for the faction conflict, interconnection, orienteering, random encounter based timekeeping/risk, and anything but the most aggressive of puzzles (as they are too small to incorporate supply issues - leaving puzzles that must directly threaten PC health), and combat encounters.

Now a lair dungeon is a fine thing for a quick session, works well as faction headquarters on a small regional map, and it’s entirely possible to create a One Page lair of high quality and decent interactivity. However, to produce an actual exploration adventure within the context of a One Page Dungeon’s space limitations is much much harder.

For example Maw of Snails has eight keyed locations, and it’s total word count is around 700 words, requiring the use of a compressed font, and I suspect that it’s around the maximum word count one can utilize while including a map, title, and some nod to aesthetics (admittedly silly, flashy, novelty aesthetics in its case).

2)Reducing Density.
If one wants a One Page Dungeon with a more significant scale, excess needs to be cut from some other area - a fair bit of space will need to be minimally, repetitively, or maybe procedurally keyed. Unkeyed space of course can also work, but some indication of the content is always useful. This is largely the technique that Maw of Snails seeks to use

The most efficient way to add interest to unkeyed/underkeyed locations is with a more graphic map that provides sufficient visual detail for the GM to fill in these areas in a way that fits with the rest of the adventure. General descriptions of dungeon regions are also helpful, a single line that describes the conditions of a set of rooms can provide sufficient detail without taking up too much space. Procedural generation is also a possibility, but tables take up more space then prose generally, so in a One Page Dungeon it’s less useful.

Maw of Snails uses its map (hopefully) to show room features, décor and dressing. Several of its keyed locations are also generalized or repeated and it introduces icons for monster and treasure locations within these generalized spaces as a space saving and usability measure.

A One Page Dungeon’s size is the designer’s most important constraint is space, and the most important consideration for making a worthwhile One Page Dungeon is if it will evoke wonder and excitement for its players while inspiring and enabling the GM to add detail and depth. The first is why the designer needs to tighten the writing and find alternatives to written description (artistic maps, general descriptions), and the second is a reason to avoid ultraminimalism. However, like every other hobby project, the biggest danger isn’t doing too little, it’s trying to do too much -- there’s simply not enough space to provide evocative imagery, mechanical guidance and practical description for a full size, multi-faction, puzzle filled dungeon on one page. Traps and puzzles are especially hard to present as something that the players can solve with ingenuity and thought beyond a die roll because to do so the adventure needs to describe a trap or puzzle’s mechanisms sufficiently for the GM to relay them to the players and judge when player action works to overcome the obstacle.

It can be tricky to balance the limits of space with the desire for evocative imagery and setting, in a One Page Dungeon - made trickier as the more unique the mechanical elements (traps and NPCs) are the more space the mechanics require (description and statlines). To manage this, the One Page Dungeon is in some ways like a nodal dungeon - it needs strong theming, because this helps the GM using it elaborate on the dungeon. For example, Maw of Snails began as a dream image of a pit in the midst of a hot plain, surrounded by a mound of neon bright snail shells, but cool and dark within. The central image and theme is that of a space encrusted with snail shells, and having this one element should make filling in missing description fairly simple. When in doubt add more snail shells and snails. In a larger dungeon multiple thematic images can be useful, breaking up the location into various sections, but with a One Page Dungeon there’s not usually room for the description necessary for multiple themes. Similarly a single theme does work to hold the shorter description together as a whole, connecting them and linking them without having to build that connection with the implied narrative of naturalism (a strong sense of how the keyed locations interrelate - the reason many designers tell the reader what locations “used to be” as a substitute for understanding how they relate in the “present”).

A location based One Page Dungeon is small, composed of brief keys, a few statlines and a map. Aesthetics (layout, art, font and most importantly the maps) play a key role in creating mood and providing details to supplement the key text. More than anything else One Page Dungeons teach the usefulness of art and maps as information design. If a One Page Dungeon is a keyed location of any size, the primary form it will take is a map with notations. It will resemble a popular form of GM notes, but of course it can’t be that simple because it’s designed for others to read and run. Still, like GM notes the map remains the center of the adventure and the commentary on it is best when arranged to engage the reader in tandem with
the map.

A  Lovely One Page Dungeon
by Luka Rejec

Usability is often a primary consideration in adventure design, but with One Page Dungeons it’s somewhat less important then it is in a larger work, because there will never be a need for the reader to flip between pages and the size of the adventure means it should be fairly easy to hold the entire concept in one’s head. Most usability additions and compromises in adventure design are either: reminders of high level concepts or specifics (a room description matrices or annotated maps), aides for quick reference (an order of battle) or a means of breaking down a larger adventure into subsections (sublevel maps). The One Page Dungeon neither requires or benefits from these sorts of accommodations and certainly has more useful things to do with its space. Indeed the primary problem of the One Page Dungeon isn’t that it will confuse a reader with its breadth and depth, but that it will lack a sufficient amount of either to be playable or interesting.

This is where the map returns to the discussion, because a map provides a great deal of information in a fairly compact space. It might not seem like it, especially for simple maps, but even the most standard type of top down map can offer a good sense of the adventure: is it an overgrown ruin with trees scattered throughout, a fungus filled cavern, a symmetrical tomb, an alien monument with strange geometries? More complex maps, such as isometric maps or top down maps with full color and room contents drawn in are better able to do this. A complex map is simply denser with information and can relay a huge amount of non-mechanical detail, saving room in the text for only the most important description and mechanics. Some wonderful One Page Dungeons are simply highly detailed maps with a few labels, but most designers lack the artistic skill to consistently or properly create so
mething of that nature. However, even with minimal artistic skill however, font and layout can do effective work at creating a sense of location. A lack of cartographic skill is likewise a reason for a simpler map, meaning more room on the page for written description -- like everything else with a One Page Dungeon it’s a balance to find the best way to get the most from the smallest amount of page space.

Maw of Snails is not a good One Page Dungeon. It chooses to offer a more esoteric setting then necessary, wasting valuable space meaning that while it offers a dungeon map I couldn’t key the entire space, and was forced to use generalized keys for several areas. It attempts to include multiple traps and new monsters but lacks the space to properly describe the mechanics. Maw of Snails also includes largely animal monsters, though they are territorial and can be tricked into fighting each other, and the one non-animal is open to negotiation. Aesthetically the dungeon is inconsistent - a 2010’s retro neon color palette and font selection almost entirely inap
propriate to the location and frankly I’m not the best at drawing isometric maps or loading them with detail. The whole thing is a bit of a mess and an experiment.

However, I had fun making it. I gained a few insights into my own design process, got to practice layout skills, played around with a fun aesthetic and it only represented 8 hours of work. A One Page Dungeon is short enough that if it fails one can set it aside without feeling too much of a loss, or publish it without wasting too much of the readers’ time. As such here’s a link to the PDF of Maw of Snails.

Apparently Maw of Snails wasn't such a bad One Page Dungeon winning 3rd place in the 2020 One Page Dungeon Contest (the two top dungeons tied). This is my third winner, finalist or honorable mention for the contest since 2012, and I like it the best of them.

Maw of Snails - It's On There

Astute or obsessive readers of this blog may also note that the location exists on the regional map for Plague Ships.


  1. I like this dungeon because it provides a good example of what to do with long, central vertical shafts in a map as well as beasts/unintelligent monsters as the main foe. The former is hard for me to visualize and I always worry the latter would prove uninteresting compared to factions, but the post and the dungeon help clear things up. Glad to see you back in action.

    1. Thanks for the kind words Calvino. I do think the lack of factions in Maw of Snails is a significant weakness ... but there are ways to run beast/animal monsters that are interesting -- basically the same things as intelligent factions, but simpler: can they be bribed with food? Will lights and fire or noise scare them? How long before they go to sleep (a bear isn't posting guards or setting traps)?

  2. You inspired me to post my entry this year. I also did a pink and blue color scheme for some reason:

    1. Very Anomalous Subsurface Environment. A lovely use of pink and blue.

  3. You talk about design but this green blog design stopped me reading.... I don't want a red after image trying to invade my blind spots.
    AND the pale green type on white causes eyestrain.
    Hue, Hue, Barney, Macgrew Cuthbert, Dibble, and Grubb...
    no need to post this complaint.
    Love your content which ever leaves me content ponderings.

    1. The Green and pink are intentionally off-putting, as is the gothic blackletter titles - you will note they are not used for the body text. It appears to be working as intended.


Old Games

Let’s talk about old tabletop roleplaying games - specifically the kind of games played in the 1980’s and recently depicted in the nostalgia...