Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Adventure Formats and the OSR

Some of the obvious accouterments of the old school renaissance have included intentional graphical and layout throwbacks to the previous era, particularly the Gygaxian format of adventure presentation.

OSR Format (roughly 1977 through 1983)

Using the Steading of the Hill Giant Chief as a template, the following format emerges as the traditional standard:
  • Cardstock front and back cover with artwork/description
  • Maps, typically on inside front and back covers (though sometimes at the end of the booklet)
  • Booklet, staple-bound
  • Short Introduction/DM Notes
  • Fairly Short Background (Setting the scene, placement within game world, getting the PCs involved, etc.)
  • Map Key, including wandering monsters, room descriptions, and descriptive artwork.  Text within the map key was kept brief except where further explanation was needed.
  • Appendices (New spells, monsters, treasures, player handouts and artwork, etc.)
This is fairly typical of pre-Hickman TSR fare, all of which can be fairly said to be within the OSR wheelhouse.  Judges Guild materials of that era follow an analogous format, although virtually none had a cover and maps were usually printed inside the booklet or were separate fold-out affairs.

Later Tweaks & Content Bloat

As the game matured, the format of adventures was tweaked.  The biggest changes were in two areas: backround/story-related material (for Hickmanesque storyline-driven games) and in the quantity and bulk of text included in the product.

Once adventures became less site-based/sandboxy and more story-based, larger amounts of background and story material were required to guide DMs through various story flowcharts and matrices.  NPCs, in particular, became much more fleshed out and given a life of their own.  While the point of this was to enhance the "story" and dramatic aspects of the game, it undoubtedly contributed to content bloat within published adventures.  It further made the products less adaptable for individual DMs -- more story details require more work to customize to one's own game-world.

The other content infusion of note was the addition of descriptive "boxed text."  While the goal was laudable -- to provide greater immersion and verisimilitude -- the inclusion of subjective descriptors left some DMs (and many more players!) feeling that they were reading from a script and trapped by the content.  If the author was not both brief and evocative, boxed text became a millstone around DMs' necks.

Other tweaks to the format included improved quality maps and experiments with different types of maps, such as the famous quasi-3D iso maps of Ravenloft.

Encounter Format

One of the more irritating-to-grognards developments in late 3rd and most 4th edition adventures was the advent of what can be called "encounter format," in which everything needed to run a particular encounter was generally (though not always) on one page or two facing pages.  Thus, a detailed dungeon room, its monsters (and their game stats) and all tactics and "developments" were listed in one place.

While generally hated by the OSR due to the "encounter" nomenclature and the size of stat blocks necessitated by later editions of the game, the encounter format has one big advantage -- utility.  All of the traditional formats require a DM to juggle no less than three documents -- the map, the key, and at least one rulebook (usually the DMG or Monster Manual).  The encounter format eliminated that juggling and allows a DM to focus on the players, the flow, and the game rather than shuffling papers about.  This philosophy has developed its own subculture of sorts via the "One Page Dungeon" contest.

Building a Composite OSR Format: Goals

My mission statement, therefore: 
OSR content should be adaptable, easy to use, evocative, creative, and customizable
I would further add that we, as consumers of said content, should value such publications on these merits alone and not, say, by its sheer size or bulk.  Furthermore, OSR publications must by necessity adhere to the OGL -- requiring either close adherence to OGL rules or a more generic approach so as not to violate the license.  I advocate the generic approach simply because everyone is seemingly playing a different game.  Within the OSR itself there are at least three major subsets -- white box, Basic, and AD&D systems -- and substantial variation in basic game mechanics.

I therefore propose the following format for OSR site-based adventures:
  • Notes/Introduction
  • Background (brief)
  • Small-scale overland map (optional)
  • Unified large-scale map showing the entire site and labelling its sections
  • Sectional small-scale maps done in "one page dungeon" style (i.e., "show me don't tell me") with clear links to other sections
  • Appendices
By eliminating the Gygaxian map-and-key format and later hyper-wordy formats, the DM is given what he needs -- introductory materials to read and digest for application into his own game-world, and in-game materials to use while sitting at the table playing.  The "one page" sectional map format, by necessity, will provide brief information in order to avoid OGL problems and to keep it adaptable, it should be as generic as possible in terms of game mechanics and statistics.  The downside to this, of course, is that it will require that the DM either adapt the content to his rules system beforehand or have the rulebooks handy during play.

For those wanting to inject a "plotline" into OSR adventures, a slightly expanded background section and a one-page story flowchart is recommended for in-game reference.

So what do you think?  Would you consider buying and using a scenario in my format as described?  How strong is the pull of sentimentality of the Gygaxian format?  Is the size/bulk of a publication relevant to your perception of its value?


  1. This sounds like a pretty good format to me. As a life long GM, I Tend to use bits and pieces of adventures here and there, or merely get inspiration from a product. All the additional story elements I rarely, if ever, used in my younger years, and mostly used the location (ie the map and the general ideas behind it).

  2. Thanks for the feedback, Matt. I've often wondered why people buy adventures -- for the inspiration/ideas as you state, for literal usage of the product as written, as a collection of sorts, as interesting reading material. I suppose there are as many reasons as there are gamers.

  3. I haven't heard roots-gamers complain about either the name 'encounter' or the format with all of the information put together. Rather, the complaint is that the two most recent iterations of The World's Most Popular Roleplaying Game became about shuttling the adventurers from set piece to set piece. It's the linearity of the encounter format and the resulting actual play experience that some roots-gamers disdain.

    And speaking from my own experience, I rarely needed to shuffle between pages of the game books; a stat line consisting of HD, damage, and HP was more than sufficient for most encounters. At most I might have to look up magical effects from time to time.

  4. Do you have a preferred format, BV?

    1. I think by dint of habit I tend to defer to what would probably seem pretty similar to classic Traveller and Boot Hill modules, but now I keep everything on my wiki, and the ability to hotlink together characters, locations, and so on is hard to beat.

      I'd really like to see more adventure writers take advantage of the format.

      Even if Gary never did it that way.

  5. Like Matt I don't tend to use parts of an adventure rather than play it as written. Your suggested format sounds good to me Gene, although like BV, I'm happy with a brief one-line stat block and leave me to wing the details. Overall, I'd prefer to have modules focus on utility and save the fluff for settings and supplements.