If you’ve perused a D&D adventure published in the last few years, you’re probably familiar with the "tactical two-page spread" adventure format. (In fact, we have an old Design & Development column from 2006 explaining much of this format’s genesis.) The tactical format has become the standard way to portray an adventure encounter. The format calls for full monster stat-blocks, a positional mini-map of initial creatures’ starting positions, and other non-optional elements.
We’ve been publishing adventures using the tactical format long enough to provide game designers and Dungeon Masters plenty of time to evaluate the format’s viability.
(For a larger view, click on the this sample format from H2 Orcs of Stonefang Pass.)
So what’ve we learned?
Despite certain advantages the tactical two-page spread provides, I’ve personally found that absolute reliance on the format to be a detriment to adventure writing. The tactical format makes it difficult to generate a compelling adventure narrative with the richness and flexibility of past adventure formats.
Yes, I said it: I don’t care for the tactical two-page spread.
And it’s not just me. Discontent over the current format has gathered in dark dungeon corners, whispered across game designer cube walls, and cropped up on internet blogs.
The takeaway is that the tactical format boils adventures down to just key encounters, which tends to railroad adventure design. It also means that adventures tend to be fairly Spartan affairs, because too little space remains to include extra notes on exploration, or explanation of cool bits of lore, or character story.
This is not ideal.
Adventures, despite not being rulebooks, can do more to show players what can be done with the game than any other D&D product. We should reconsider a format if we feel its getting in the way of that, and ultimately, of telling a satisfying adventure story.
So with the crystallization of discontent and a talk with my supervisor under my belt, I began looking into an alternative format.
My goal was to return flexibility and narrative control to the adventure designer, and not let a mandatory tactical format (with its huge per-encounter footprint) dictate the adventure structure and, often as not, strangle the life out of an adventure outline.
On the other hand, I didn’t want to lose elements valuable for running a tactical encounter. The two-page spread can be useful in some situations—as long as it’s not mandatory in every situation.
Designing a new adventure format isn’t done alone or in a vacuum. I reviewed the past formats of all the previous editions, kibitzed with other members of Wizards RPG R&D, and reviewed a few generations of adventure design documents.
1st Edition adventures I looked at included Tomb of Horrors, White Plume Mountain, Isle of Dread—and other classics. I also reviewed such modules as the Desert of Desolation series (which included I3: Pharaoh) and the Dragonlance modules (e.g., DL1: Dragons of Despair).
Some of the classics were terse, others wordy, and all enjoyed a space-eating two-column type-face that sends shivers of nostalgia through any long-time player. However the enhanced format used in the Desert of Desolation and Dragonlance modules organized encounter information better, especially since many of the elements of the format where optional; they were included only if the encounter required the element’s appearance. For instance, if there was no Trap/Trick, then the encounter wasn’t saddled with including the header.
And so on from there, through 2nd Edition, 3rd Edition, and finally 4th Edition modules. Each of these edition’s adventure formats had something to recommend them.
Through this review, consideration, and discussion with my fellow designers, a new format emerged, one that’s as much synthesis as genesis, but ultimately a proposed format that promises to better serve adventure writers, the Dungeon Masters who run them, and the characters who play them.
The first thing to go was the two-page spread. Instead of forcing encounters across one or two pages no matter the nature of the encounter, we’ll instead just flow the encounter text however it falls. To make up for the loss of the visual cue delineating encounters, encounters should be separated by a graphical element: a thin black line. The line is a simple but effective way to visually/conceptually separate encounter areas from each other, and has the advantage of being aesthetically pleasing to boot.
Beyond that, the proposed format relies on simplicity coupled with the option to break into complexity where it’s warranted. Besides a few base elements we’d always want to see for an encounter, like the keyed entry name and a descriptive sentence or two, everything else is optional. Additional elements can be included or omitted, such as a tactics section, terrain, lore, special notes on features, NPCs, and even a tactical two-page spread for encounters that can’t be handled any other way.
The proposed encounter format attempts to create a spare, easy to peruse style that at the same time gracefully accepts additional “modules” of content for presenting additional encounter information, should such information be important for the DM in running the encounter.
Next week’s Dungeon adventure, "Going Ape," utilizes portions of the proposed adventure format. So when you have a chance to give it a look, let us know what you think.
Bruce R Cordell
Bruce R. Cordell is an Origins and ENnie award-winning game designer whose long list of professional credits include the D&D Gamma World Roleplaying Game, Dark Sun Campaign Setting, Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide, Prince of Undeath, and Open Grave: Secrets of the Undead. Bruce is also an author of Forgotten Realms novels, most recently the Sword of the Gods books. Find him online at www.brucecordell.com.