Monday, 2 September 2013

Considerations of the One-Shot Dungeon

Justin Alexander's blog posts about "Jaquaying the dungeon" are often cited in support of building non-linear pathways into an adventure location. I've found one case where things need to proceed a little differently, though: the one-shot adventure, meant to be played in the four hours or so allotted in a convention slot or a gaming club meeting, with no campaign following through.

The one-shot adventure adds the following two considerations:

1. At most, you have four to eight chunks of significant interaction to work with before the adventure is over, which can be combats, exploration problems to overcome, or rooms that invite deep exploration.

2. It's desirable to have the party be able to reach some kind of goal or climax, with skillful play, by the end of the adventure. Note that "skillful play" part; I've seen DMs in tournament modules fudge dice rolls to help the party reach the end, but there has to be some sense of earning it, or the reward is hollow.

Thing is, the campaign has all the time in the world. If the party spends their four to eight chunks noodling around the insignificant halls of the dungeon, they can make it up next time. If they never reach the climax now, they can wait to reach it later. But if the one-shot party misses, they get no more chances. If they miss, it should be because of something they did, not because they took the wrong random turning somewhere. This suggests a couple of different approaches ...

White Pluming it. In the manner of TSR's S2, where a forking hallway early on leads the party into one of three mostly self-contained adventure paths. There's something not quite satisfying about this. I mean, they might as well have been going through the wilderness and choosing between separate adventures.

Jaquaying with signposts. The dungeon architecture is porous, but clues lead the players to the climactic area or areas, with distractions to tempt the unwary. This could work.

Forget Jaquaying. Does the sense of player choice have to come from changes in the direction of travel? Could it be choosing instead what to try, what to look into, what to disturb and what not to, what to take and what to leave? Although Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan is sometimes lambasted as a "railroad," its design is really a sensible choice for a one-shot tournament module. The players really have to think about what to get involved with and what to leave alone; just as time is the players' ally in letting them stretch their exploration across the sessions of an extended campaign, it's their enemy in the one-shot, which can add to the challenge instead of subtracting.

Next post: The experience that sparked these musings - running The Lichway after midnight at GenCon!


  1. I just finished running a sandbox campaign, and I'm thinking about switching over to some one-shots in the near future, so I've been thinking about this myself. I like the idea of "jaquaying with signposts" a lot -- it seems it would (or at least could) solve the railroading I've been worried to avoid.

    I look forward to reading about your GenCon experience and how it relates to this.

  2. Jaquaying isn't a cure-all, but it does scale to almost any size.

    Let me give you an example on an extremely small scale to demonstrate the point: A two-room "dungeon" that I just got done designing for an Eclipse Phase scenario.

    The "dungeon" in this case is actually a warehouse: The first room is a small security office. The second room is the big warehouse itself. Since it's only two rooms, there's really no way that we could apply jaquaying techniques, right?

    Well, let's take a look at a few jaquaying techniques:

    First, multiple entrances: Skylight(s) on the roof of the warehouse. The loading dock. A door leading into the security office. (From a tactical standpoint, this is infinitely more interesting than just having a single door leading into the building.)

    Second, multiple paths: Rather than just having one connector between the security office and the warehouse, what if we include several? There's the door. A ladder leading to a trapdoor in the roof that gives you access to the skylights. Let's toss in a trapdoor leading to a crawlspace that's used for electrical wiring; it'll let you pop up right in the middle of the warehouse (or maybe in multiple places). (If that crawlspace is actually a tunnel that leads over to the exterior generator we could also add that as yet another entrance to the complex.)

    That crawlspace also qualifies as a secret or unusual path (another of our jaquaying techniques).

    This obviously isn't the only way to design a warehouse. (It might even be overkill.) But it does demonstrate how you can use jaquaying techniques even on the tiniest scales can organically create interesting tactical and strategic choices.

  3. Just wanted to put in my own thoughts on Tamoachan here - while I think it's a railroad (and for the same tournament module reason you mention) I think the problem with this is that it clumsily removes (via the gas) the player's reasons to investigate the interesting environment that the module creates.

    As for Jaquaying and dungeon design more generally - There really is a place for short simple and flavorful maps that work for a simple session or in a modular manner. One could do worse then looking at contemporary MMORPG map design for some (though the three dimensionality is hard to match and confusing)simple map ideas and principles.