Don’t write one-page adventures and super-light rulesets.
Would you be satisfied with that for a blog post? Not likely. And yet, just as new-school games are suffering under the jackboots of The Tyranny of Fun, old-school gaming is facing another crisis of treachery, the sinister menace of Ultra-Minimalism! It is all true, and here is why you should do something about it.
One of the great realisations of old-school discussion was that a lot of the accumulated dross in mainstream RPG products was superfluous, or downright bad for your games. We all know the stories about designers paid by the word (and a pittance at that), of failed novelists and bloated game texts released without playtesting. A sizeable segment of RPG publishing is by non-players, for non-players. They are gamers, except not really. You could say that by now this has turned into its own hobby, until you get the creeping realisation that you and a few friends of yours might be the only ones remaining who are not pod-people. Yet.
|Know your enemy|
[Map by the excellent Dyson Logos
used for illustrative purposes only]
In those dark hours, the classics showed another way: of terse simplicity, expressive but functional language, play-oriented presentation. Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl was only eight pages plus the detachable colour! Tegel Manor fit into a 24-page booklet and a map! Keep on the Borderlands did not spend several pages on backstory! You could neatly fit a multiple-session adventure into a package you could read, unpack and use in a reasonable amount of time – sometimes without any prep, beginning right on the spot.
Now, these are not perfect examples. Many classic adventures, even greats like Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan, have a low page count because they are presented as slabs of unorganised (and sometimes downright chaotic) text. Those Giants modules are so slim because they don’t give you the monster stat blocks, and there isn’t space for marginal notes. The Village of Hommlet draws the portrait of an idyllic rural community by spending much of its time talking about random details that don’t really matter in an adventure. And Tegel Manor can have too little going on in places. Still, old-school gaming offered a way out of the morass of bad prose and non-functional game texts that dominated much of gaming, and did so because it rejected game industry standards and circumvented the game industry’s business practices (“quantity means quality; the more, the better”). But this crusade for simplicity lost its way.
When people lose sight of their purpose, routines can take over. We keep doing something because it used to deliver good results, not because we have actually considered the consequences. However, our assumptions may be misleading us. We may not need to be doing something anymore. In old-school gaming, Ultra-Minimalism is stripping games of their flavour, depth and inner complexity, and one-page dungeons are a good exhibit of why this is bad for us.
There is nothing originally sinister about one-page dungeons. They started as a refreshing gimmick, drawing attention to how little you needed to have a good night’s fun, and how good presentation could condense vital information (text, maps and stats) into an efficient package. It is like that old-school thing, except even more so! The problem comes when this structure – this way of doing things – becomes a kind of standard, and consciously or not, starts to be applied in places where it doesn’t belong, or doesn’t offer the best possible solution. I suspect those big annual contests played a role, and common wisdom in online discussions played another. One-page dungeons, *.hacks, super-lites (simplifications of already very light systems) permeated our thinking. We started to fit our concepts into too small, too simple frameworks, and we are limiting our imagination by overdoing it. Some ideas don’t fit on an index card. And the resulting adventures are lacking in creative drive and falling short of the classics they often try to channel.
|The Keep on the Borderlands without The Keep on the Borderlands|
Some of the error doesn’t even lie in imitation, but championing a bare-bones understanding of design. It doesn’t just matter what gets told, it also matters how it gets told. Gaming is not just technology. Layout wizardry and graphical design can make GMing flow better, and vastly improve accessibility, but it doesn’t replace style. Zak Smith’s one-page Caves of Chaos is only the Caves of Chaos because we so intimately know the full module behind it; on its own, it is more or less just a 3e-style battlemat. Saved perhaps from its stone-age two-column layout, this version of The Keep on the Borderlands stands as a poor lobotomised husk of an adventure. From this perspective, it looks badly made and feature-poor, but it is we who have made it that way.
“Here are some basic notes, just apply the rules and add your style” is a stone soup. Style, like a lot of the added value in our gaming, is an ingredient we apply subconsciously, from influences we have absorbed. Most of us can get by with very few notes, turning even very simple text into fine adventures (although having a background to fall back on and plunder is not a bad thing). But when we try to convey some of that context to others, we need more; a little piece of ourselves. Gygaxian prose, Bob Bledsaw’s quirky humour, or the grotesque sensibility and laconic dry wit in M.A.R. Barker’s work offer different visions of fantasy worlds, even if they had shared a lot of common ideas. These things, even if technically “superfluous” for specific, individual encounters, give game materials a voice that speaks to us and sticks in our imagination.
|Golden memories of 1607 Cas FTR 5 LE 120|
Of course, some of it is very much a question of what. A lot of old-school materials offer too little, stripping out detail which matters, or limiting their scope to a point where they have nothing to say or can’t realise their own potential. Here, we can find ample precedent in the classics, perfectly suited to let us draw false conclusions. Indeed, the inhabitants in Keep on the Borderlands didn’t have names, and it has sort of helped make the module more adaptable, but this design feature is not the reason Keep is remembered: beyond stylistic elements, that has to do with its publication as “the” module in the basic set, with its iconic home base – wilderness transition – dungeon structure, and with the peculiar way the Caves of Chaos is constructed as pockets of concentrated danger that’s just the right kind of challenge for a beginning party. Indeed, Wilderlands of High Fantasy had lists of utterly uninteresting, featureless citadel and castle stats, but the reason people like the Wilderlands lies in the “points of light” concept, the hexcrawl as an underlying mini-game, and for the fantastic and wild juxtapositions that go on in the more flavourful encounters (“Here is a downed MIG plane next to a patch of giant fungi.” “This is a bronze-age village exporting pitch next to a bunch of Vikings and a colony of 15 ents.”). There is a reason Huberic of Haghill is worth remembering, and those endless, nameless citadels aren’t. Palace of the Vampire Queen, the first D&D adventure ever, has a room key that’s mostly “empty, empty, 16 bats, hunchbacked servant, empty, 8 zombies, empty” repeated over two or three sheets, and nobody remembers it anymore because there is nothing else to it.
By applying these lessons too selectively, we lose sight of the iconic status or less spoken of added value within these supplements. Multiple old-school megadungeon projects suffered because they wanted to recreate the pure Castle Greyhawk experience, and produced one too many giant rat rooms with dust, scattered bones and 3000 cp. It is not simply the talentless and bland of imagination who have fallen into this trap: this conscious suppression of one’s own creativity is one of the things that damaged Isle of the Unknown, a setting book with a lot of potential (the other being an over-reliance on randomness). There are a lot of adventures out there which show flashes of imagination, but fail to be interesting because they don’t try hard enough. So it is with so many of the two- or three-dollar “humanoid lair” or “small tomb” modules on RPGNow – ten or fifteen basic rooms with inhabitants and a little debris here and there, a trap, maybe a magical enigma, and that is that. There is little use discussing most of these products, because while functional, they stay with very small ideas and don’t grow from there.
Third, it is also a matter of rules. Sure, the monstrous character sheets and column-sized stat blocks of much of modern D&D are mechanics for their own sake, and putting player skill above character skill is one of the great points made by the old-school approach. There are lots of ways where clear, simple and concise rules can make for a rewarding game experience. Beyond a certain point, however, games also start to lose interesting ways of engaging with the fantasy world, and you lose some of the payoff of the creative friction among rules, participants and setting. By pushing everything into the realm of subjectivity, there are no sure points left to anchor a character. Can I hope to climb a steep rock? Is there a way to wrestle that guy to the ground? Can I bash down the door? (Here is one major point of disagreement between myself and the vast majority of modern old-school gamers: I actually like skill systems as long as they don’t overstay their welcome – skills offer a very good “interface” to navigate an imagined reality.) Some super-lite systems like The Black Hack try to provide a sensible answer, but there is still something lacking in them. If you have seen one, you have seen all of them. I’d venture regular OD&D and its derivatives are minimalistic enough for most of us. White box Swords & Wizardry is already pushing it. Swords & Wizardry Light? Give me a break.
To end on a positive note, I will say there are ways out of this trap. Ultra-minimalism does not have to be the standard; actually, it would not be too hard to move on towards something better. With a little more ambition – say, a “four-page dungeon” or a “ten-page dungeon” – we would have a tier of products which can offer a good compromise between brevity and complexity. This is the realm of the traditional mini-adventure, or something up to Steading of the Hill Giant Chief and Shrine of the Kuo-Toa. You can put a fair quantity of interesting stuff in that; a background that twists around the adventure; a wilderness section that surrounds the dungeon; an extra dungeon level for a rewarding sense of accomplishment. And this can also apply to the individual encounters, which do not have to go back to enormous, just add a little extra. A “discarded old boot in a pile of refuse” is not a dungeon encounter. “A discarded old boot, stamping on a human face – forever”, though... now we are talking business. We can start something there and make it rich and memorable.
I am not saying we should go back to 1990s TSR standards or the era of the splats. We should just look at function again, focus on the things that make for rewarding play – and draw reasonable conclusions.