Over the coming days, I'll be posting a small series regarding the One Page Dungeon Contest, including interviewing many of the other judges (including Sean K. Reynolds, Steve Winter, Daniel R. Collins, and Brendan aka "Necropraxis"). I've also been chatting with Ernie Gygax and Benoist Poiré and will post their thoughts as well when they have a chance to respond (they're busy working on an RPG project right now).
To start things off, I thought I'd offer up my impressions of the contest this year. This was my first time judging a contest like this, although I have of course been aware of the One Page Dungeon Contest for the past several years.
Right away, the main thing I noticed was that the number of entries was significantly higher than predicted by our friend Random Wizard. Ahem. :) That's actually a cool thing, and a nice testament to the amount of work that RW did to promote the contest and get more entries this year. I had communicated with RW that often times my work schedule is sporadic - while recently I've been at a nice steady level of general business, there are times when my work just explodes and I'll have to pull a few nights' worth of all-nighters to get everything done. As fate would have it, one of these busy periods coincided right during the judging of the One Page Dungeon Contest. I ended up having to travel cross-country from the Los Angeles area to New York four different times in about six weeks, plus another trip to New Orleans. However, this somewhat worked out as it provided me with some time to read on the plane.
I ended up downloading all of the submissions to my Dropbox and reading them on my iPad on the plane rides back and forth across the country, and I also read some on my phone in other areas where I didn't have a WiFi connection. After I read each submission, I typed notes about them into Evernote, which again I could access easily from my phone, iPad, or desktop.
Once I'd read through each submission, I went back through my notes and assigned them to one of three groups: "Definite," "Maybe," and "No." Submissions that made it to the Definite and the Maybe categories were re-read and I made some additional notes. At this stage, there were a few entries that ended up shifting categories (a "Definite" might get downgraded to a "Maybe" or a "Maybe" got get downgraded to a "No" but usually what happened as a "Maybe" got upgraded to a "Definite").
To give you an example, here's a look at what some of my actual notes were - these are from a variety of different submissions. Each submission would have between four and eight short notes like these as my "first impressions":
- Layout makes it a bit difficult to follow
- Frequent misspellings
- Tons of typos throughout
- Not clear from the set-up if the party is supposed to know ahead of time that they are supposed to helping [NPC] or if they are supposed to just figure it out along the way
- Main bad guys are not part of standard monsters found in typical fantasy RPG rulebooks, and there's no mention of where to find the stats for such creatures
- Like the idea of giving the GM ideas for expansion beyond just what's on the page
- No major typos!
- Simple layout is a bit deceptive - there's a lot of fun stuff in here
- Very dense text makes it difficult to discern the main theme/goal
- Actually some really clever ideas in here but the design and layout is not well-executed for a one-page dungeon format
- Some of the descriptive text is very difficult to read (too light and/or too small)
That's just a few short examples, but hopefully you get the idea.
Please No Typos
I'm sure I'll take some flack for this as many people might not think it's important, but I can assure you that proper spelling and grammar makes a huge impact. For me reading, after the third or fourth typo, I ended up tuning out, and therefore might have missed what could have been a good idea. When reading through over 100 submissions, cutting entries out for constant typos is an easy way to cull the herd. One or two I could excuse, but where it becomes a problem is constant misspellings of common words that should have been caught in a spell-checker (e.g., "seperation" instead of "separation") or it might only have been one word that was misspelled, but that word was repeated throughout the submission because it was also part of the title of the adventure.
Also, since this was only a one page submission, it seems as though it should be a relatively simple job to read over and edit your work at least once if not twice. Not a good speller? Have a friend read your submission next year.
Presentation Is Key
Again, after reading through 100+ submissions, something that was a nice site for sore, tired eyes was a clean presentation that makes good use of white space and has a nice, easy-to-follow layout. I can't tell you how many times I ended up sighing after opening up a new PDF and seeing a wall-of-text with little or no illustrations or graphic designs to help break it up. A one-page format is not an excuse to write a two- or three-page dungeon, then shrink the text down to an infinitesimally small font size and reduce the margins to 0.05" just to cram it all in. If you find yourself having to make your text smaller than about an 8 point font (I'd really prefer no smaller than 10 point, although the actual font itself does make a difference as well), that's a sign that you need to edit your adventure and cut it down.
Many of the entries that made it to at least the "Maybe" category are ones that stood out due to a solid and/or clever layout, easy-to-read presentation, and no recurrent typos or grammatical mistakes. A few of my notes along this line were:
- Very nice layout
- Gets a little difficult to read because the text is so tiny
- Fun layout but almost gets into the way of reading (e.g., needing to turn my tablet sideways to read certain parts)
- Pretty nice presentation and that's austere and not too text-heavy
However, to move past the "Maybe" stage, entries had to have more than just good presentation, spelling, and grammar. Given the prevalence of free maps available online as well as the amount of very inexpensive PDFs of maps and such, just offering a map with a few room descriptions isn't really enough. To me, the One Page Dungeon Contest is a chance to be creative and show that you can come up with an idea that goes beyond, "High on a dark hill rests an ancient keep..." or yet another kidnapped heir/princess/child that needs to be rescued.
Show Me How Creative You Are
Following up on the above point, many of the "dungeons" that made their way to my "Definitely" category are ones that included a clever hook or just non-standard fantasy tropes.
A few things I liked that I noticed as I went through the entries:
- Science-fiction themes. I know a lot of people don't like this and one judge specifically said (after the fact) not to do this, but for me, after reading submission after submission of standard fantasy it was nice to have it broken up a bit with science-fiction.
- Non-Standard Fantasy. Similarly to above, there were some fun non-standard takes on fantasy, such as pulp, clockwork, etc. that were different and fun.
- Use of Creator Knowledge. What I mean by this is, there were a few entries where it was clear the creator used their real-world knowledge of things they had studied or just hobbies of theirs as an adventure hook. Specifically, one dungeon relied heavily on architectural knowledge and another one involved "scene names" that were fantasy puns of some old 1950s comedy musicals which at first glance seemed like an amusing one-trick gimmick but on a second reading revealed a well thought-out adventure.
- A Good Title Stands Out. I really didn't want to name actual submissions for my examples but there's no way to talk about this without specifics. Two different entries illustrate this point. "Vikings Vs Mutant Goatmen" and "Outlaw Camp in the Prehistorical Shrine of the Mermen Maiden." Now, neither of these made their way into the finalists (although one of them was in my Top 10), but I can tell you as I scanned through the entries and saw the vikings and mutant goatmen one, I was really looking forward to reading it. It piqued my interest. The one with the outlaw camp and the prehistoric shrine I thought should have won a prize just for having not only what I think was the longest adventure titles in the submissions, but also one of the most creative and idea-inspiring titles.
- Random Tables. These are a hallmark of the so-called Old School Renaissance and while the dungeons don't necessarily have to adhere to an OSR sensibility, I think the one page dungeon format really lends itself to the use of random tables for things like NPC personalities, mundane items or clues the heroes might find, NPC names and titles, etc. It's a smart way to save space but still get across a feeling for your theme.
A Few Other Things to Note
You'll note above that I several times use the word "clever" in a positive way to donate dungeon designs that caught my interest. Being clever is a way to stand out from the rest of the pack of submissions and illustrate your personality as a game designer (within the one page dungeon format; it's obviously not the end-all, be-all of game design). However a corollary to being clever is that you shouldn't be clever "for the sake of being clever." Cleverness is, admittedly, a bit vague but your design needs to hold together and be useful with a minimal amount of prep. That's part of the one page dungeon design to me - as a GM, I should be able to print it out, grab some dice, and start running it right away. I'll allow for some minor "cut this out" type of stuff. But, as an example of what I'm talking about, there was one dungeon that I thought was extremely clever and fun but it involved the GM needed to go out and buy some additional materials that aren't exactly found at your corner drug or grocery store and do a pretty significant amount of physical prep work (not just reading it and making sure you know your monster stats or rules for fire damage, for example) but actual "crafting," for lack of a better word.
Don't get me wrong - I actually really liked this dungeon and the "clever part" was something that allowed the dungeon to essentially be "bigger" than a single page. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought that a one page dungeon entry was not the right format for this design.
I should note that you should take this piece of advice with a grain of salt, because the dungeon of which I'm speaking actually made it into the finals; some of the other judges obviously liked it well enough.
Finally - Why Did the Winning Entry "Win"?
I actually did select the winning entry as one of my Top 10 finalists, so that vote would have helped propel it to the top. Note that these are only my thoughts on why I picked this entry, not necessarily why it won according to everyone else.
For me, the things I liked best about the Island of the Lizard God are below. You'll note that most of the things I say about it are things I mention up above as to what makes a good entry:
- It had a nicely drawn and very colorful map
- Again, after reading through over 100 submissions, most of which were in black-and-white, having this one in full color was a nice change of pace for my eyes
- It has a fun, pulp-fantasy theme (not just standard stuff like goblins and undead) with lizard-men and a dinosaur god
- It had a non-standard setting (a tropical jungle island) as opposed to yet another deserted keep or dungeon
- A random table for weather, with some fun and colorful descriptions (e.g., "gasping humidity" and "pyroclastic firestorm!")
- The adventure itself is easy-to-understand on first reading - it's not so complicated that a GM couldn't read it quickly and have a firm grasp on how to run it immediately
- Despite being only one page, and has a ton of different ideas and area descriptions without feeling cramped and difficult to read
- While lizard-men aren't so typical that they're cliché, they're common enough that most fantasy game systems have a description of them or something very similar in their bestiaries, so the stats are easy to come by
That does it for my thoughts on the 2014 One Page Dungeon Contest. I would love to hear your thoughts on my process as detailed above, especially if you entered this year's (or even a previous year's) contest. I'd also like to hear from others in general about what you think makes a good one-page dungeon adventure.
I'll be posting highlights of an interview I did with some of the other judges later this week, so you can see how they approached judging the contest (many times differently than I did). And then even later this week, I have a few other things to say about a couple of special entries in this year's contest.
Hanging: home office (laptop)
Listening: "Blue Rondo A La Turk" by the Dave Brubeck Quartet
Drinking: Double Jack (Double IPA) by Firestone Walker Brewing Company