The Bone Orchard – Leaders of the pack

Previous posts in this series
Part 1

Last time I talked about how most published scenarios and campaigns aren’t laid out and designed in the best way for GMs to use at the table. Some of the best examples for how to do this properly are in small-press D&D products1. These tend to be focused on combat, which because a lot of the necessary information is stats and simple room descriptions, makes the layout job easier.

However, while I’m interested in how we can improve various types of scenarios, especially information-heavy investigative ones, looking at these types of games can still teach us a lot about presentation and how to get the most meaning from the fewest number of words. Also, just to reiterate, I’m focusing on scenarios and adventure modules here. How game designers in general present rules is usually slightly better.

Fever Swamp

by Luke Gearing, with layout and design by Christian Kessler

  • Reprint of the map, but for the specific location besides its copy.
  • Concise, evocative location descriptions:
    • e.g. A set of worn stairs, almost bone white, leads into the moist blackness.
  • Enemies and dangers in bold.
  • Treasure in italics.
  • Check boxes to easily cross off enemies as they’re slain.

Kidnap the Archpriest

by Skerples, with layout and editing by David Shugars

  • Great descriptions of NPCs, with simple appearance and suggestions of how to roleplay their voices:
    • e.g. Appearance: Jolly, face like boiled ham, scarlet robes.
      Voice: Booming. Shouts questions.
  • Short, evocative descriptions of locations:
    • e.g. Servant Quarters
      Sweat, rags, bickering, straw, fleas, and sleeping servants in heaps. No privacy or sanitation. Everyone is exhausted. Locked iron door behind a stack of rags leads to Guard Dining Hall (17). Only opens at mealtimes.

Mortzengersturm the Mad Manticore of the Prismatic Peak

by Trey Causey, layout and design by Lester B. Portly and Trey Causey

  • Side columns describe locations “at a glance” and enemies’ stats.
  • References to enemies are bolded in the main text.

Ragged Hollow Nightmare

by Joseph Robert Lewis

  • Clear separation of locations.
  • Descriptions are stripped down to the absolute basics, highlighting only the interesting and/or evocative:
    • e.g. 1. Cluttered study
      Green upholstered chairs are surrounded by piles of books about alchemy, physics, biology, and metallurgy. 
  • Good use of bolding, underlining and boxes.

Temple of the Basilisk Cult

by Kelsey Dionne

  • One page per location.
  • Immediate sensory impression, from near and further away.
  • Asks a “dramatic question” giving a clear goal, not method, for the PCs to progress. 
  • Separates combat from roleplaying.
  • Uses bolding.
  • Shows the lead out to further locations.

The Black Hack 2nd ed

by David Black

  • Plentiful usage of bolding and italics.
  • Bullet points.
  • Extremely simplified descriptions:
    • e.g. Midnight Cave
      Cave entrance leading to the sea (north) > Provides moonlight to the entire cavern.
      Sandy beach with two ruined longboats drawn up on shore > The boat contains old bones and a healing tonic Ud6 that restores 4HP.

Winter’s Daughter

by Gavin Norman

  • Simplified background, broken up with bullets and bolding.
  • Makes clear simple versus deeper research.
  • One or two words of evocative sensory description:
    • e.g. Stairs into the Mound
      Descend 20’ (into the earth). Dusty (caked with centuries of undisturbed dust). Deathly silence (disturbed by PCs’ footsteps). Dank smell (moist and mouldy).

      If examined: Scratches are discovered. Looks like something heavy was dragged up the stairs (a long time ago).

There aren’t many non-D&D examples I could find, but Mörk Borg and Mothership have rightly won accolades for their graphic design.

Mörk Borg

by Pelle Nilsson, with layout and design by Johan Nohr

  • Good use of white space
  • Clear delineation between locations.
  • A sidebar that recreates the map, highlighting the specific location, along with a mini portrait, description and stats for any enemies in that location.
  • Immediate simple sensory description of the room on entering.
  • Bullet points and bold text of essential things and exits to locations.
  • Clear warning of what creatures or NPC in other locations will hear or otherwise sense commotion.

Mothership: A Pound of Flesh

by Sean McCoy, Donn Stroud, Luke Gearing

  • Different phases to use the same space station, each location with notes on how it will be different for each phase.
  • Simple timelines of events.
  • Descriptions of key NPCs and what they want from the PCs during different phases.
  • Bolded NPCs and enemies in each location.
  • Plentiful hyperlinks and page references.

There are other examples, but these give a good example of what is possible. I strongly recommend buying some or all of these and seeing them in all their glory. (Even though most of the links above are to DriveThru, please consider buying directly if possible).

How about scenarios made for other types of game? I’ll be diplomatic and not highlight where specific scenarios go wrong, but if you have an investigation scenario, open it up and look at a random scene, location or encounter. Imagine having a conversation with four other people and being the focus of attention, but then needing to find a given fact in the text book in front of you. You have two seconds to glance at the page, find what you need, and incorporate it into your conversation. How easy would it be? Chances are, not very.

Improvisation is important for GMing and I’m pretty good at it, but while I can make stuff up easily, I can’t always remember everything I’ve said or sometimes forget to make a note of it. Then I get muddled and flustered when players point out where I’ve become mixed up, which is all the more likely in information-heavy investigation scenario.

To stop being crippled by anxiety when running these types of scenario, I’ve tried:

  • Running it straight form the book (terrifying).
  • Rewriting scenarios into a shorter outline (time consuming).
  • Printing them out and highlighting core p arts and using post-it notes (expensive).
  • Giving up and writing my own, usually longhand with some underlining, only to end up making the same mistakes (time consuming and frustrating).

There are better ways of presenting scenarios and next time I’m going to talk about the key lessons learned from these and many other modules, drawing in universal lessons of design and layout, with an eye on how they apply to investigative games.

1For reference, the blog Ten Foot Pole is a strong advocate of improving the usability of D&D modules, and a great influence on my research, so massive thanks to them. More examples can be found on their ‘best of’ list found here.

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