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Design & Development03/17/2006

The "Delve Format" for Adventures

We're hoping this column becomes your window into roleplaying design and development -- or at least the way we approach these things here at Wizards of the Coast. We'll handle a wide range of topics in weeks to come, from frank discussions about over- or underpowered material, to the design goals of a certain supplement, to what we think are the next big ideas for the Dungeons & Dragons game. All of this comes bundled with a healthy look at the people and events that are roleplaying R&D.

This week, Dave Noonan continues his examination of adventure design, this week looking all the way back to the pharaohs, as well as ahead to the "delve format" UI.

Applying user interface ideas to room L16 of the dungeon.

In previous columns, we’ve talked about individual elements of adventure design (see Let's Get Small and Gnoll Limits)—everything from what makes a good trap to the drow’s “neener neener” abilities. Now it’s time to put those elements together. Combining the ingredients of a good D&D game is where the magic of adventure design happens. At its heart, it’s a simple goal: give DMs the tools to run a great D&D session for the rest of the table.

But there’s no clear road map that takes you to that goal. Furthermore, there’s intentionally a lot of variety to the D&D experience. What works in my basement might start an argument in your basement. The tension-filled climax at your table might cause uproarious laughter at my table. Sadly, we adventure designers have to accept that our creatively crafted, carefully playtested dungeons aren’t going to work for everyone. But we should aspire to be mostly helpful to most of the DMs out there, most of the time. That’s a reasonable goal.

Sherman, Set The Wayback Machine

Let’s go back to 1982, and I’ll suppress an involuntary shudder when I realize that many of you hadn’t been born yet. Why 1982? It was the year TSR published adventure I3: Pharaoh, which I’m pretty sure marks the birth of the modern adventure format. Check out this sample room (Minotaur Lair):

Look familiar? You’ve got a readaloud box, then a series of bold embedded-head paragraphs. We’ve got a paragraph, “Play,” that tells you how the encounter works. Then a monster paragraph (with a stat block in parentheses), a treasure paragraph, and a description of a nearby trap. If you added a current stat block for minotaurs, tweaked the trap rules a bit, and explained what the heck “ep” stands for, this room wouldn’t look out of place in an adventure we’d publish today.

Tangent Alert!: D&D used to use electrum pieces (ep) as an additional currency between gold pieces and silver pieces. We eliminated ep in 2000 when we switched to a decimal currency where 100 cp equals 10 sp equals 1 gp. The electrum piece was a casualty of our desire to make dealing with coinage less of a math exercise. Besides, while electrum really is an alloy of gold and silver, there’s not much exciting reference to it from fantasy literature.

How similar? I’ll pick on an adventure I wrote, 2004’s Whispers of the Vampire’s Blade.

Twenty-two years after Pharaoh, and you could drop this room back into that adventure. It’s got readaloud text, a bold embedded-head paragraph for the monster, another paragraph for the treasure, and so on.

The D&D game works much better than it did in 1982, and the craft of publishing is likewise a lot different. For starters, we use these things called “computers” for layout nowadays, not hot wax, x-acto knives, and a typesetting machine. We’ve known for some time that there was untapped potential in the adventures we publish.

One other note: It’s easy to be dismissive of the awkward rules and bare-bones design of these old adventures, but make no mistake: Pharaoh is a great adventure. It’s got tons of interesting encounters, and you don’t have to expend a lot of effort “finding the fun.”

The Adventure as User Interface

When we started thinking about different ways we could assemble D&D adventures, we started thinking of the adventure as the DM’s “user interface.” When you use your computer, you’re trained to look at specific points on the screen for specific kinds of information. My music player is sitting in the upper-left corner, for example, right below the clock. If I’m curious about the song I’m listening to, I just glance up there.

We aren’t (yet) to the point where most DMs are running the game from a laptop, but it’s a useful thought exercise. Start with a basic, intentionally vague definition of a published adventure: It’s the thing that sits in front of the DM and helps him run cool encounters. It’s the interface between the DM and the universe of D&D rules, monsters, world information, plot arcs—the whole toolbox, in other words.

Now try to focus your imagination—what does that thing sitting in front of the DM look like? In a nod to realistic expectations, assume it’s a published product made of paper. What do you put on that paper to make the DM’s job as easy and fun as possible?

A key criticism of the current adventure format is this: It forces the DM to have a bunch of other books open on the table. Look at the Animal Sacrifice Chamber, for example. At a minimum, the DM has page 28 of the adventure and page 267 of the Monster Manual open. Plus the DM has to be flipping to the inside back cover of the adventure every time he needs to see the map of the room. Oh, and Whispers of the Vampire’s Blade has a vampire (go figure) that roams this ziggurat; his stat block is on (flip, flip) page 31. Oh, and the stat block runs onto (flip, flip) page 32. Is that an efficient user interface? Not a chance. It raises the question: Can we put everything in one place?

Our Chance to Experiment

One of the sneaky things we do at conventions is test out new things. And at GenCon Indianapolis 2005, we had the perfect chance to try out a new user interface.

Every year, we run a very simple event in the Exhibition Hall called the “Dungeon Delve.” You walk up to the table, we give you a character, and you get to adventure for an hour, clearing as much of the dungeon as possible and doing your best to survive for 60 minutes. We use fancy terrain pieces for the whole dungeon, which covers more than 100 square feet.

But the fancy terrain and the limited space inside our booth pose a dilemma for our DMs: There’s no room on the table for the DM to spread out. They don’t even get a DM’s screen—they’re standing on one side of the table with a clipboard and a fistful of dice.

So we invented a “delve format” just for the occasion. This was a chance to build a user interface that, in the hands of a reasonably proficient DM, could preclude frequent references to other books. In other words, we’re putting everything on the page.

Here’s what we came up with (click the images below to view the larger images, click the links below to download the room PDFs; please note, terrain pieces shown come from Dwarven Forge):

Room 1: The Frosty Greeting Room 7: Someone Will Croak Room 9: Ken Sold Seperately

As you look at those pages, a few words of explanation are in order.

  • The Delve is intentionally unfair—these were encounters for 7th-level PCs. But the monsters don’t heal or otherwise recover between player groups, so DMs need to keep track of limited-use monster abilities.
  • Because Delve players choose from pregenerated PCs, we knew exactly what the PCs were capable of and could eliminate a lot of extraneous text that didn’t apply to those specific PCs.
  • For the Delve, it’s important to show what the specific miniature looked like (hence the pictures), so DMs could quickly pull them out of the ziploc bags under the table.
  • Check out the stat blocks. They’re similar to the ones you’re used to, but we’ve added extra information to many of the monster’s key abilities. Hopefully, we added just enough information that DMs could run the ability without digging back into a book. The slaad’s stunning croak is a good example; if you remember what stun does, you don’t need to look anything up.

The feedback from the DMs was overwhelming positive. Because they weren’t looking things up, we noticed that they had a lot more time to describe attacks vividly, talk in their “scary monster voices,” and do all the other little things that bring the game to life. When they needed to look something up, they always had a page number to work with, so references were infrequent and brief.

So Where Do We Go From Here?

We’re going to use a format like this in some upcoming adventures, including the one I just finished writing. Those adventures won’t look exactly like the “delve rooms” you just saw, though. Here’s how:

  • Those pages won’t be printed sideways.
  • Some complicated encounters or “encounter clusters” will take up a two-page spread.
  • They’ll have good cartography for the encounter map, not “a photo by Dave standing on top of the table.” My shoelaces were visible in a couple of the Delve rooms.
  • Expect more variety to the kinds of information you’ll find in those pointer boxes. The Delve is intentionally an old-school dungeon crawl, but our modern-day adventures are more dynamic places.
  • We’ll use page citations a lot, but we’ll also print important rules right on the page. For example, in an encounter with an umber hulk, you’d probably see a box that gave you the confusion roll table (page 306 of the Player’s Handbook). After all, we know you’re going to need it.

You can help, too. If you have a little time before your next D&D game, run one of these encounters. See whether you can find the information you need quickly, and try to run the entire encounter from that single page. Let us know how it went by zapping us an email at dndcolumn@wizards.com.

About the Authors

Design: David Noonan is a designer/developer for Wizards of the Coast. His credits include co-designing Dungeon Master's Guide II, Heroes of Battle, and numerous products for the Eberron campaign setting. He lives in Washington state with his wife, son, and daughter.

Development: Jesse Decker is the development manager for RPGs at Wizards of the Coast. His credits include a two-year stint as editor-in-chief of Dragon magazine; design work on Complete Adventurer, DMG II, and other RPG titles; and development work on numerous D&D products, most of which he can’t talk about yet.

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