Sunday, April 17, 2011

Improvisation and the One-Page Dungeon

Greg Stafford notes that fully 50% of the work of game mastering lies in making it up, improvising to meet the needs and desires of your players as expressed by their characters.

For the longest time improvisation scared me, and whether it was wandering monster encounters, filling out worlds generated by random Traveller tables, or just the unexpected misstep or random weirdness by a player character, my solution was to prepare, prepare, prepare. I had until recently note card after note card for random encounters for one of my 2nd Edition Forgotten Realms campaigns, certain that by generating encounters ahead of time I need never ‘hand wave.’

Handwaving was our derogatory term for ‘making it up’ and it was often considered a cardinal sin among my fellows whom I gamed with. The idea that somehow what we were doing was not real was the fear that lay behind our objections, for after all making real the unseen was one of the cardinal virtues of RPGs; to deny that seemed both egotistical (to think that we could get away with it without our players noticing) and futile (in the sense that we were somehow betraying some fundamental premise of what we were trying to accomplish).

So you might imagine my surprise when I found myself improvising more and more. Either when I had not prepared sufficiently or, more and more often, when my players went in a direction I had not anticipated. Even more surprising was how satisfying these sorts of sessions could be, how much more alive and spontaneous they seemed, compared to sessions where we relied on tons of rules and lengthy procedures, or when I had to force the players down some pre-determined railroad path.

I have described before how my latest attempt at a sandbox style game went, and how there were simply too many choices for the players to adequately deal with. Yet the part of that game that went well was when I got to improvise with the tools I had on hand, allowing my imagination and subconscious to help unfold the story as we went along, without the players noticing.

Alfred Bates Lord, in his scholarly work Epic Singers and the Oral Tradition, describes how improvisation actually worked for story tellers in the past. Rather than have a perfectly memorized work to recite, what the singer actually possessed were fragments and pieces, along with a general outline or plot. Pieces like phrases such as ‘wily Odysseus’ or ‘the wine-dark sea.’ The singer would takes these bits and use them in the telling of a tale using the plot to determine what needed to be said when.

So the individual elements of Old School are the stat block, the map (dungeon, town, encounter area, relationship map, whatever) and a plot, which determines when these need to be used. The dungeon, or site-based adventure, if you prefer, offers the most elementary of plots: you go there, and encounter something.

Other random tables, such as those produced by Matt Finch and Zak S, can be immensely helpful, as long as they are used in moderation. Use the charts most generally useful to your campaign; bring others to the fore as you need them.

And this brings me to the one-page dungeon. Originated by Dave Bowman, this is the idea of having a dungeon map and key on one page, the idea being that this forces an economy of expression on the game master, allowing a large idea time to expand and bloom during play, rather than during the writing and prep stage. If all you have is the key, a map and some stat blocks, you then get to implement more during play, which is the important part of all this, after all.

I submitted an entry to the current one page dungeon contest, but even if I don’t win, the experience was very rewarding. I plan to use this format as much as possible in the future, and you will see some of the fruit of that work in posts to come on this blog.

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