Monday, 11 April 2016

The Adventure Stanza

I’ve been thinking about our (my) design problem and about possible solutions. The idea of the ‘Adventure Stanza’ is my potential solution, though maybe too ‘froofy’/abstract  to be useful.

I’m going to talk about this in two ways to start;

One; as it relates to layout, or the interrelationship of space.

Two; as it relates to the interrelationship of information.


If we assume a double page A5 spread,  meant to be looked at and considered as one thing then there must be;

- a roughly-optimal font size.
- a roughly-optimal number of words you can get on the spread at that size.

If we assume, like Medusa Maze, that we have a little mini-map on this spread showing all the rooms described in it and how they relate to the rest of the dungeon, then for each number of rooms on a single spread there should be an optimal page count per room.

It might go something like this;

A5, 2 page spread Attempt One

Words per page; 900

Words per room

1 - 900
2 - 450
3 - 300
4 - 225

But, the way this imaginary dungeon works might be quite different to the way Medusa Maze works.

If the map is just a map, and not art, perhaps it would be smaller.

If the map is a top-down room-picture like the ones Kelvin Green does, then that would change the interrelationship of space as well.

Perhaps it would be better to start with a basic number count, assuming no art or map present, and then go on from there;

A5, 2 page spread Attempt Two

Words per page; 1300 (roughly 2 pages of Quelong assuming no art, map or table)

Words per room

1 - 1300
2 - 650
3 - 325
4 - 162
5 - 80

We can take this as our basic 'budget' of information and then start deducting things from it. The things we deduct might include;

·         Corner Map
·         Art
·         Stats
·         Tables
·         White Space (for notes, Zak is fond of this option)

Obviously all these things interrelate and can (and perhaps should) be unique to a page.

Someone intelligent could probably work these up into something like an excel table.

A5 Double Spread
Number of rooms
WPR – blank page
WPR with ‘Medusa-syle’ corner map( – 1/8)

Or for an A4 spread, try this;

A4 Double Spread
Number of rooms
WPR – blank page
WPR with ‘Medusa-syle’ corner map( – 1/8)

(These numbers might be junk, I’m not that smart. The point is the idea.


 The reason I called it a stanza and not just a spread isn’t just to be pretentious. The idea isn't just about the space on a page-spread. It’s also about the interrelationship of information on a spread.

Ideally, everything in a single stanza, which is also a single spread, should interrelate within itself and produce few, or no 'instant interrelations' with the rest of the book.

As I'm defining it here, an 'instant interrelation' is a piece of information, or a reference, that causes you to flip back and forth between this spread and something else held elsewhere.

Obviously the definition of an ‘instant interrelation’ might differ a bit for each person, depending on their familiarity with the system and how they play the game.

Flipping to a ‘what’s in their pockets’ table when searching a body isn’t that bad as its assumed to happen after a fight in most cases and the person waiting doesn’t mind waiting a little bit longer..

Flipping for a monsters AC or a special effect that takes place in a fight is the worst kind of flipping as a fight has the greatest amount in information going back and forth around the table and the results have the greatest consequence.

Flipping for a special drug effect or trap effect might not be that bad. It might not wound the player to wait a bit to see what’s going to happen, provided that what’s going to happen is sufficiently interesting.

I think the key here is that the tension of the choice should not conflict with other multi-origin tensions happening at the same time. All the data needed for those should be in one stanza.


Currently, when we (I) write adventures, we write a bunch of stuff and do a bunch of art and then the layout person has the nightmare job of trying to jam it all in together on a spread in a way that is both attractive and useful.

Sometimes the layout person is also the writer or creator, but this is rare, more usually they are an expert in layout, not information architecture.

This leads to imperfect and ugly results. I don’t mean ugly layout on the page, that’s usually avoided, I mean an ugly arrangement of ideas. An ugly architecture of thought.

But if we knew the budget, if we knew the basic allowance of words for the spread size we were writing for first, and if we know the general takeaways from that budget for art, maps, tables and stats, then we could work differently.

Instead of writing, then arranging, then jamming in art last our process might go something like this.

“Ah ha, so this is a LotFP adventure. That means the pages will be A5. Let’s assume a word budget of 1300 per spread. It’s a dungeon and we have the standard ‘medusa method’ map taking up roughly 1/8 of a spread. That brings us down to 1137.

So if I want to arrange four rooms together then I have about  284 words per room. Let’s say I want two unique monsters in these rooms, or the possibility of that at least, that’s two stat columns, so that brings us down to say 230 per room.

But I want the monsters to have interesting personalities, they aren’t just monsters, they are embedded in the social context of the dungeon, and I want the DM energised, interested and inventive when they play them. So let’s say I want each of them to have a d6 two-column reaction/personality table. I can embed a lot of condensed information about them in those tables as the DM will read them and even if they don’t use all the results then they will still pick up a lot of ‘mood’ from the possibilities.

Now we’re at roughly 200 per room, not that bad if I have two sets of stats and two tables to play with as well.”

Point being, we could write and create for each ‘room’ grouping’ or ‘hex grouping’ or idea grouping of any other kind and so long as we knew how information related to space and how much space we had and how much each kind of ‘extra’ thing would impact that space, then we could just write neat stanzas of thought and interaction and stop killing layout guys with stress and having imperfect janky pages.

Instead of imagining the adventure in one long unbroken sequence and then chopping it up, we could think of it in pulses of information , or ‘stanzas’.

“So ok,

·         The map of the area around the giants house, that’s one stanza.
·         They might end up in this weird forest, that’s not the main point of the adventure, but it should be interesting, we’ll make that one stanza.
·         Getting into the house, that’s one stanza.
·         No, breaking in is one stanza. They might persuade or trick the giant, and if we make the giants personality one stanza then we can have a picture, some background text and a bunch of interrelated tables just for what happens if you talk to him.
·         If we say fighting the giant is one stanza then we can have a bunch of complex effects, like how he throws you, what if he uses a horse as a weapon etc, so the Giant Fight can be one stanza.
·         Is the inside of the house one stanza? Well it’s a giant house, so like a mad palace with giant mice & giant traps etc, so let’s make upstairs & downstairs separate stanzas.
·         And of course the giant likes to swallow people in a fight, so let’s make the inside of the giant one stanza, like a liquid mini-dungeon.
·         The giants giant treasure might not be one stanza on thier own, but transporting them, and people/bandits interested in them, might be. So let’s make that one.
·         Throw in one stanza as a hook/mission generator/rumour table page.

“So that’s a ten-stanza adventure. A5 spread. That means a 20 page booklet. Thin and light, cheap to print and send. A Zine-sized adventure.”

So then you just write to that.


Could we use this method to transform a badly laid-out adventure into a well laid-out adventure?

We have already done the thing where we re-write an old TSR adventure and made it a new weird one. I’m not talking about the content here, but about the layout, informational architecture and usefulness.

In fact, Palace of the Silver Princess might be a very good start for a project of this kind. We’ve already changed it enough that fiddling with it wouldn’t present any serious copyright issues.

Point being, if we went through this thing and broke it down and applied the Adventure Stanza principal to it, and documented and wrote about what we did and how it worked, could we turn that experience into a kind of ‘guide book’ for creating adventures, not just their laying out, or usefulness, or conception or poetic quality, but the combination of them all on the page?

And if would could collectively work out the basic ‘informational budgets’ for different pag /font combinations and the various deductions and for different kinds of page furniture and a rough taxonomy of tables and their usefulness (I think various people have addressed this already) and if we could get it all together in one place then we could just make a lulu document like that ‘OSR Primer’ that guy did.

Then no-one would need to write shiftily laid-out adventures.

They would probably make mediocre adventures instead. BUT, the bar would be raised! And its better to work out how to hack a useful system that to have to invent a useful system, probably.


  1. The rule I used in Red & Pleasant Land and Vornheim was "The dead minimum # of words to describe the situation unless I thought of a turn of phrase I really liked"

  2. Thanks for starting this conversation, Patrick. It's a good discussion to think through.

    There's a lot of good, worthwhile advice on publishing layout and design, as well as good content writing/creation guidance, but very little discussion of adventure information architecture and how that influences both of the other disciplines. Edward Tufte's work strikes me as very applicable here, particularly his books _Envisioning Information_ and _Visual Explanations_. Are you familiar with his work?

    What do you consider good examples of well-designed/-presented and highly-usable adventures, where the content is orchestrated in conjunction with an excellent visual design and an effective and usable layout?

    Some good follow-up discussion is happening over on the K&K Alehouse @ where we're noodling through your thoughts from an old school design aesthetic.


  3. I am totally going to give this formatting a shot, once I am up to writing whole adventures. In the mean time I am still working on that 'creativity potion' to bring me up to your level. So far, it only seems to cause seizures and an urge to stab those smug, self-righteous, KNOW-IT-ALL TRAFFIC CONES!!! FOUL NEON OPPRESSORS!!!

  4. This is really good. I have been thinking about optimal layouts myself. I have committed by now to about 80 pages of layout that is not optimal, but could work under certain conditions.

    What I see clearly now is there is no reason to put "new monsters" at the back of the book in their own section unless they recur throughout the book. I figured this out for magic items - they are one of a kind in my book, and described where they lie - but not, alas, for monsters. next best thing is to have a separate monster/map/illustration book.