Thursday, August 1, 2019

The 2019 One Page Dungeon Contest: Part 1

In this post, I'll be discussing my judging process for the 2019 One Page Dungeon Contest, commenting on the winners, and also offering some advice for next year's participants. If you haven't checked out the One Page Dungeon Contest entries, head over to the official website and give them a look. There are hundreds and hundreds of great ideas over the past 10 years, with so many maps, characters, scenario ideas, and more. 

This is a bit long, but my intent is to help would-be designers and creators to know what I look for when judging the contest. While I can't guarantee how long I'll be honored with the request to judge the contest, based on the interactions I have had via email, twitter, and Google Hangouts with the other judges in the past, I don't think my criteria are all that different. 

Late last week, the results of the 2019 One Page Dungeon Contest were revealed by the contest organizer, Aaron from Shattered Pike Studios. Judging this year's contest was, as in previous years, quite an adventure for me. Despite Aaron giving the judges access to the entries as they came in, I was busy at work and not able to check them until after the deadline. At the time I wasn't too worried, as the number of entries his year seemed like it was going to be much lighter than in years past. Of course, at the last minute, dozens of entries were submitted, resulting in over 115 one-page dungeons that I needed to read and score, and then repeat that process two more times to make sure that I didn't change my mind and gave every score a fair chance. Many late nights were had with me drinking cold brew coffee Old Fashioned drinks and nodding off at my laptop while trying to ensure that I gave every entry a fair chance. 

As I was reviewing the various entries, I began tweeting a bit. 

Completely not related to judging, but followers of my blog know that usually when I post, I mention where I am when I'm writing my post, what music I'm listening to, and what I'm drinking while posting. That continued with my tweets about judging the 2019 contest. 

To be honest, I'm not a huge twitter fan. I find with my work and family schedule, I don't check it very often, and if you're going to use it and have conversations with people on twitter, I feel that you have to just be checking constantly. If somebody mentions me in a comment or says something and it takes me a few hours to write back, I think that breaks the "twitter code" of being instantaneous. I find it exhausting and a bit overwhelming, which explains my lack of "likes" and "retweets" on my tweets - I don't interact much with people, so there's little incentive for them to interact back. I've always preferred longer-form posts like blogs or even posts on Facebook and Google Plus (R.I.P.). 

In any event, I did tweet a bit about how my judging was going, and shared a photo of my desktop at the end of judging, which did generate a funny comment from a reader regarding how many tabs I had open on my browser. 

My main reason for tweeting, aside from keeping people informed that judging was coming along, was to do a quick "in the moment" look at my initial thoughts on the entries this year as I finished judging, so people could look ahead at things to do next time. I knew I'd be blogging about my thoughts later, but that wouldn't come until after the judging for everyone had been completed and the results tallied, which I knew would take at least a few weeks. 

Here are my initial thoughts. Reading back through them, it strikes me partly as funny and partly as annoying that in a series of tweets wherein I tell people to make sure they double-check their spelling and grammar, I made simple mistakes like saying "... it will effect your score..." instead of "...affect your score..." I know the difference, so I'm going to blame being tired and up late with 
less than 5 hours of sleep per night that week. 

So here are the "8 Things" I tweeted out mentioning my thoughts on things entrants should or shouldn't do when making their dungeons for the contest. I'll expand on these a bit below and add a few more comments, and in a separate post, get into specifics on the winners and my picks - while most of my "Top 20" made it into the official rankings, a few of my top-scoring entries received an "honorable mention" meaning that they did not get enough points combined from the three judges to elevate their score into the Top 20. 

With regard to Tweet #2 about not relying too much on overly-cliche words, it turns out that "lost" was only used twice across 115 entries. However, "forgotten" was used three times and "temple" was also used three times (once combined with "forgotten"). There's nothing particularly wrong with calling your entry "The Forgotten Temple" (the title of an entry in 2019), but, as a judge, when I see a title like "Captain Huxley Palloolieth and the Great Underwater Elevator
or "Death-Rave of the Techno-Lich" (both names of entries in 2019), I'm a bit more intrigued because I know I'm going to see something new and different. The title doesn't make the entry any better (as it turns out, based on the scoring from all three judges, "The Forgotten Temple" was ranked #7 overall, whereas the other two I mentioned were "Honorable Mentions." However, I do have to say, from a "marketing" standpoint (making someone want to read your adventure), if I were just an average person wanting to read a fun adventure, a title like "Death Rave of the Techno-Lich" is going to grab my attention and imagination much quicker than a generically titled adventure.

This does tie into my #3 tweet, about the concept of your adventure. As I looked through my Top 20, especially my Top 10, very few fell into the standard trope of anything abandoned or lost or forgotten. A few of them did, and I'm not saying that you can't do that, but if you do it, I would strongly suggest that you have something else going for you to make your adventure unique and different. There are hundreds if not thousands of adventures available for free online and even professionally published adventures from TSR, Wizards of the Coast, and other publishers that follow this formula. It works, but for me when looking for a quick one-page dungeon, I'm looking for something new and different that I would not have thought of. An example for this would be "The Forgotten Abbey" which made it into my top-ranked submissions. The set-up sounds a little standard... "The crumbling ruins of an ancient temple lurk in the distance..." Pretty standard stuff there, and nothing to really pique my interest. However, one of the things I loved about this entry was how the author created a whole system for generating a random dungeon using a standard deck of cards, and the creativity that went into this sub-system for generating it on the fly during a session. It was elegant, creative, and like nothing I'd seen before. That took the standard "a ruined temple..." theme and made it so much more fun for me.

Tweets #4 and #5 are something that I have mentioned every year since I started judging the contest. I really feel that it's not that difficult to get someone to read over your entry and use spell-check and grammar-check. The ones that really get to me are words that definitely would have been caught by spellcheck (I see things like "sorceror" all the time, and this year I saw things like "beings" spelled as "beigns" and "which" spelled as "wich." All of those misspelled words immediately show up any program I use (a Word Processor, Blogspot, Excel, PowerPoint...) with a red underline to indicate "this might be a misspelled word." Granted, the computer software I use doesn't always catch everything, and often it tries to correct something that doesn't need to be corrected, but it's at least a good start. I will overlook a couple of misspelled words or improper grammar, but after the third time, it does become a bit tedious to read. Back in the day when I was working at corporate jobs and was a manager, if I received a resume with a misspelled word, I threw it in the trash. That might sound harsh, but if you can't be bothered to spell words correctly when you're applying for a job, then you're indicating that you are not one to be careful with your work.

I'm much more lenient with my One Page Dungeon Contest scoring; as mentioned, I do allow a few errors before I begin to knock the score down, and also "Grammar and Spelling" is but one of seven different things I score (and it counts for only 10% of the final score). I rank each category on a score of 1-10 (10 being best) and then created a weighted score. To give an example of how Grammar & Spelling might affect a final score, while most of my Top 20 scoring entries had a "10" in Grammar & Spelling, one of my Top 10 only had a 5, and a couple had a 7 or 8. So, it's not an absolute killer, but it matters.

One other point to mention with regard to Grammar & Spelling is that I do make special exceptions for what appear to be kid-created entries and for entries that are clearly from non-native English speakers. Those are usually pretty easy to pick out, and I have a special note in my scoring to remind me of this so that it has a slightly less detrimental effect on the overall score.

I will say that the best thing to do, however, is to have someone review your entry who is a native English speaker and whom you trust with their grasp of English grammar and spelling. Getting two different people to review your entry would be even better. That means that you need to build in enough time for your "editors" to review your entry before you submit it.

Lastly, I don't want anyone to think I'm picking on any particular entry or person, as that's not the case. I am pretty strict about pointing out mistakes like this, but if it makes anyone feel better, I do this even when I'm reviewing comics "professionally" (e.g., I review comics as a journalist for another website in addition to just reading them because I enjoy them). I just pointed out on twitter that one of DC Comics' editors should have caught a very simple transposition of "then" when it should have been "than" in a recent issue of Action Comics. While you might say, "See? Even professionals make mistakes!" I am more inclined to say, "That's an editor who should be sent back for training or given less responsibility."

Let's dive into my Tweet #6, which is mainly about layout. I mentioned in my tweet that I give a high weight to the layout of an entry. What I should have said was, "I give the highest weight to layout." Out of the seven things that I score when reviewing the entries, 25% of the total weight goes to layout. That may sound like a lot, but to me, the entire point of the One Page Dungeon Contest can be boiled down into: "Can you design creative and useful adventure that fits onto a single page?" Note the words in bold in my description: design, creative, useful. Those are all extremely important, but the main thing I'm focusing on is, "Do you use the one-page restriction as a feature rather than a bug?"

The best way to approach this, in my mind, is to start with the one-page format in mind before you come up with your premise.

I'll give you another real world example to illustrate what I mean. Recently for my work (I own a boutique advertising agency) I had to make a presentation to my client about the current state of television advertising (specifically relating to the aspects of reach, ratings, cost efficiency, etc.). One of the topics I addressed was the shortened attention span of viewers and the recent increase of shorter-form ads. The standard "currency" of television ads is still 30-seconds, but 60-second ads are still somewhat common, but 15-second ads are much more common today than they were even 10 years ago. Now, a new ad format is becoming more popular: 6-second ads.

Typically, when my clients decide to make television/video ads, their creative agency starts out with a concept, and they test the concept to see if it is going to influence the right people, and then they create a storyboard for a 30-second commercial. Once that gets approved and goes into production, they start trying to figure out how they can cut out certain portions to turn it into a 15-second spot. If you watch TV with commercial enough, you'll definitely be able to notice when this has happened. Usually the advertiser will spend a few weeks running a 30-second spot, and then when they think enough people have seen it, they switch to running 15-second spots (because the ad time is cheaper).

However, my point of this presentation I was giving was that, with a 6-second ad, you can't approach it the same way. There is no way you're going to be able to cut-down a 30-second TV spot into a 6-second spot and retain any of the key concepts or messages that you were trying to get across. The best way to approach it, then is to start with the idea that you only have six seconds, and build a new ad from scratch to take advantage of the shorter time that it's going to run. In essence, you don't look at the 6-second format as a restriction on your 30-second message. You look at it as an opportunity to quickly reach someone with a short attention span and grab their attention before they've had a chance to tune-out.

As I was presenting this concept to my clients, completely off the cuff and not planned ahead of time, I realized that this was the same idea of the One Page Dungeon Contest, which I had just recently finished judging. I mentioned to them that I play role-playing games and have been a judge for this contest over the past few years. My clients are fully aware that I am a geek - I have Superman and Batman short-sleeve button-up collared shirts that I wear to their office frequently, and I once used the "Emotional Spectrum" of the Green Lantern Corps from DC Comics as the theme for an entire presentation to them, so none of this came as a surprise, but they related to the concept I was trying to get across when I put it into these terms.

For myself, I have to say I was a little proud that not only did I figure out a way to incorporate my love of tabletop role-playing games into a presentation, but it was extremely relevant and directly related to the point I was trying to make, advertising-wise. 

To help understand why this is important, just have a look at some of the entries. The ones that were originally longer and simply shrunk down to fit jump out immediately. They are difficult to read, hard on the eyes, and almost never very clever in the overall presentation. Imagine that you're a judge, reading these night after night to score them, and you come across a very densely typed, "wall of text" presentation. You can probably guess what my initial response is.

I'm going to skip tweet #7 for now and go to #8, premise. This is a new category that I began scoring a few years ago, but it's an important one. The premise is the hook that draws you into the adventure immediately and helps the reader understand "What is this about?", "How do I get my players involved?", and "What are the players trying to accomplish?" A well-developed premise grabs my attention immediately and helps me understand what I'm looking at as I read the adventure and think about the overall scores. It doesn't have to be specifically written out the way I described it - sometimes the premise can come across via clever layout and design, or from just a few words.

An example of a good premise, to me, comes from the entry "Bad Frog Bargain" (one of my top-scoring entries and which was ultimately ranked in the Top 30 entries this year). It opens like this:

Sigwin, a minor Elfland lord, promised to make the frogling Tobbit mayor of Burdelen in exchange for his first born child. Since becoming mayor and having a son, Tobbit has banned any elves or other fae creatures from entering Burdelen. Sigwin is determined to collect his payment and raise a frog child as his own in Elfland. He has cursed the town’s water source, the Ancient Well, causing a 1 in 6 chance of mutating anyone who drinks from it. He has also summoned a magic dark cloud over the town that rains dangerous things once per day. He has sent a letter to Tobbit stating that the curses will stop if he drops the child into the well after walking around it widdershins, or counter clockwise.With a short paragraph, the author makes it immediately clear what the atmosphere of this adventure is like, what is happening before the characters begin adventuring, and what they should be trying to accomplish. That short paragraph, along with the clever, somewhat "vintage" style drawings of Sigwin the elf lord and Tobbin the frogling, immediately drew me in. It's clever and creative without being overly complicated. Sometimes author try to get too clever and their premise gets muddied from too much explanation.

Also in tweet #8, I refer to usefulness. This is yet another somewhat new category that I began officially scoring a few years ago. In the past, I just built this into my notes and it would be something that could help move an entry up or down in my final scoring. These days, however, I've found that one of the things that was partly missing from a lot of one page dungeon entries was how useful it was to run at the table. Many of them were simply well-organized ideas with good layout and sometimes some great art or a good map, but little else in terms of how to run the adventure at the table. If the adventure requires hours of work on the part of the DM before playing, then I think that misses a part of the spirit of the One Page Dungeon Contest. I do appreciate creative ideas, but as Steve Winter mentioned a few years ago when I interviewed him and the other judges about their experiences with judging the contest, "Ideas are cheap; everyone has plenty of ideas. Polishing those ideas into shiny gems takes talent and work. That's what DMs are looking for." That always stuck with me and became one of my guiding principles when judging entries every year after.

That's all for this particular post. In my next post about the 2019 One Page Dungeon Contest, I'll talk about a few other criteria I review when judging the adventures, providing my specific about my thoughts on the top scoring entries this year, and pointing out a few others that I scored highly but didn't quite make the cut, and what I liked about each of them.

As always I welcome your feedback, particularly if you entered this year and have questions about my scoring or want any tips or suggestions for future entries.

Hanging: I started this post at Congregation Ale House in Pasadena while my daughter was at her ballet lesson (it's conveniently located!) and then finished it up at my home office.
Listening: At the Ale House, I distinctly remember some Led Zeppelin playing while I was writing ("Immigrant Song" as I recall). Currently I'm listening to "Ghetto Walkin'" by Bilal from the album, "Everything's Beautiful."
 Drinking: At the Ale House, I was enjoying a Blind Pig IPA by Russian River Brewing Company. Currently at my home office I'm having tap water.


  1. Sounds like a bear - especially since there look to be some really creative entries this year. Your commitment is impressive - I'm going to get worn out just reading them all!

    1. Thanks, Chris! Happy to see you still reading and commenting!

      I just finished summarizing my thoughts on the Top 10 entries. Comments on the remaining entries to come later this week.


  2. Thanks for rating Bad Frog Bargain highly! I'm glad you liked it.
    It seems like a huge amount of work to judge this contest. It is very much appreciated!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...