Thursday, August 21, 2014

In Which I Sit In Judgement

Back in May, I had the distinct pleasure of serving as one of judges in this year's One Page Dungeon Contest. The winners were announced in June -- and among the ways you can see the entries is via a pay-what-you-want package of all the submissions at RPGNow (link), compiled by organizer Random Wizard. Then in July fellow judge Martin Thomas had the great idea of starting a conversation with all the fellow judges, at his "Daddy Rolled a 1" blog, about our various protocols and advice for future dungeon designers. He posted a summary of everyone's responses (link), and prior to that a writeup of his own individual observations (link).

I wanted to match Martin's good idea and post the entirety of my responses here. First of all, here was the questionnaire that he mailed out:
  1. Is this your first time judging the One Page Dungeon contest? What other similar contests, if any, have you judged before?
  2. What were your expectations for the contest before judging began? Were those expectations met?
  3. In general, what kinds of things stood out in this year's submissions? For example, did you notice any similar themes across entries?
  4. Have you used any of the ideas from the contest in any games you're currently running?
  5. What are the Top 3 things you were looking for in the submissions to pick a winner?
  6. For those who are thinking of entering next year, what are 3-4 things you would suggest *not* do to?
  7. Unrelated to judging, but what are some things you're currently working on that you'd like fans to know about, and where can they go to find out more information?
Below you'll find my full responses to his questions.


(1) First, enormous thanks to Random Wizard for asking me to do the judging this year. It's my first time, and so I wrestled with developing some criteria as I plowed through the list. (Actually, the initial results results were delayed by a day or two and that was because of me.) I don't usually use the one-page format myself, but this was golden opportunity to see a wide range of perspectives on dungeon design (110 entries, to be exact). It felt like a master's class in the subject, and was tremendously educational from the judge's seat.

(2) I really don't know what to expect going into the judging. In fact, the educational process kind of unfolded after I'd begun and gotten quite a ways into the list (over a number of days).

(3) It was indeed interesting to see how some of the same ideas bubbled up in multiple entries. Two very young crayon-based entries was present (given special mention in the results, amusing). Two of the entries were full-on "mini-campaigns" that both ended very high in the results. Two entries had features which called for sending PCs to *other* one-page dungeons in the contest, chosen randomly. And several were systems for producing randomized or "infinite" adventures. See more in #5 and #6 below.

(4) I made lists of specific adventures and trick ideas I could use in my own play, but I haven't actually played them out yet.

(5) Starting in a very amorphous place, I developed my criteria in bits and pieces as I was reading the many entries. Overall, I found myself looking for clever and coherent design, plus quick usability for the DM (readable, fully executed, etc.). Some good points would be: (a) Specific number appearing and usable stats for monsters, traps, and treasure (almost any system will do, prefer to see AC, HD, Damage); (b) Clean and readable linear text layout (ideally: map and text aligned, with area 1 at top, and last area at bottom in each); (c) More encounter areas (with detail) are better than few; (d) Usability as a pure drop-in to an existing, standard fantasy campaign.

Note that my very first item (a) above is that I wanted to see some concrete statistics for monsters (and traps and treasure). To me, this shows extra effort and eases use by the DM at the table, so this actually became my first cutoff when looking at any entry. Any system would do, even one I wasn't familiar with. A bit later I thought to research the origin of the One Page Dungeon Contest, and I what somewhat rattled to see the original directions had a "No game stats" allowed rule (http://www.critical-hits.com/blog/2009/04/14/new-grand-contest-the-one-page-dungeon/). Then I had a bit of worry I might be triggering a scandal in the judging; but fortunately Random Wizard's direction here 5 years later was "a good strategy is to avoid using too many system specific stats", so I think what I was doing was compatible with that.

More specifically, my rubric for stats was something like this (from best to worst):
(A) Specific number appearing and brief D&D-like stats (e.g., AC, HD, Damage)
(B) Monsters named by type with details in a core fantasy rulebook (e.g., orcs, harpies, etc.)
(C) Monster strength given by analog to core monsters (e.g., "fight as hobgoblins", "armor as plate", etc.)
(D) Monsters with no information or comparisons, need to be designed from scratch by DM (a "transforming blood demon", "a group of very strong monsters", "a large amount of treasure").

As we go down that list, more and more design work is offloaded to the DM, it becomes less feasible that one could pick a random entry and run it instantly on the fly, and I become less confident of the adventure's cohesion and balance. I do wish that we could come up with a standard stats package for work like this, but Random Wizard told me that prior conversations found this to be surprisingly contentious (with no less than 3 camps for how AC should be presented).

So here's how some of the entries fared in this regard. Generally, my choices were well-represented in the finalists (6 of my top 10 were in the finals). The two entries that were mini-campaigns didn't have any stats, but used common monsters (B-level above), so I was debating not including them in my top 10; but they were otherwise so exciting, so vibrant, and so bursting with energy that I did wind up including them both (with Will Doyle's "Island of the Lizard God" the grand prize winner; and I actually put PJ Cunningham's "Amid the Reapers Scattered Bones" a bit higher in my own list).

I actually like Sean Loftiss' "Bloodberries" quite a bit; I thought it was tight and clever; while it used Fighting Fantasy (non-D&D) stats, I felt it could be translated pretty neatly, and it gave me a metric for how tough one thing was meant to be against the other (e.g., the various alchemy bombs usable by PCs against monsters). However, apparently it didn't show up on any other judges' list.

On the other hand, I was a bit surprised that Matthew Adams "The Long Fall" ended as high as it did; it has a clever and inspiring map, but no stats, nonstandard monsters, sketchy text, and lots of complicated vertical adventuring that will require significant DM fill-ins and adjudication.

(6) In accordance with #5 above, I would recommend including bare-bones D&D-style monster stats (again: at least AC, HD, Damage). Also specify their number, as well as traps and treasures. Don't say "here is a group of very strong monsters" or "there is a powerful NPC wizard" (that the DM must spend time selecting and designing before running the game); personally that made me to see red and immediately reject entries.

Don't create a "randomized infinite adventure table" system. I think there were around a half-dozen in this group of entries? One did get into the finalists, but not highly, and none were on my list. This kind of work makes it hard for the prospective DM to "know what they're getting" or discern a theme (when in fact there usually isn't one); plus it's exacerbated by correlation with not specifying monster stats (see above). Some of my brothers and sisters in the software biz occasionally become enamored of over-abstraction, which I think hurts the fantasy game more than helps it. As my college creative writing instructor told us "it's the specific details that really sell a piece".

Don't create a sci-fi piece. Now, personally, I was very open to the entries that went in this direction, but none really made the cut for me or other judges. (Paul Hughes' space-fantasy "The Great Stag" was #14 on my list, just a bit too sketchy to get in the Top 10.) I think it's just a bit too hard to reconcile these when thinking about using them in a D&D campaign or similar context (as the judges probably have on their mind when reading a series of these adventures).

Don't have blatant logical gaps in how pieces connect, how traps function, etc.

Don't create just an image entirely lacking text or numbers.

Don't have typos or irritating grammatical errors.

(7) I'm currently working on Version 2 of my "Original Edition Delta: Book of Spells", to incorporate the last few years of play experience, and align it even more closely with the old-school game (that is, Original D&D). This summer I'm writing a "Spells Through the Ages" blog at least once a week as I go through the assessment and judging process on this particular project: at my usual blog, http://deltasdnd.blogspot.com/. Plus trying to apply some lessons and become a better adventure-writer myself. :-)

Martin, thank so much for digging into this and asking these questions!


9 comments:

  1. Thanks again for putting the time and effort into judging! Great writing advice, both for the contest, and in general. Looking forward to entering again next year.

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    1. Glad it might help! I got a lot out of reading all the entries.

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  2. The reason I actually entered in the very first contest was BECAUSE it was stat-free. I had no experience with late-model D&D and had yet to learn there was an old-school scene.

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    1. Hmm, interesting. Certainly I was/am happy to get away from late-era very-stat-heavy stuff. Would it have made a difference if they'd said "include no more than MV/HD/AC" at the time?

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    2. I would have thought it had to be 4e, and had none of those books. So I probably wouldn't have bothered. It was the idea that I could "fake it" that made me enter. Fortunately, it was through the course of the contest itself that I learned about all the old-school stuff going on.
      The funny part was that I won for "Best New School". :)

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  3. Very interesting analysis. Thanks, Delta!

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  4. I don't care if it means I'll lose because of it, but I'll never include stats in mine. I really like the idea that "I already have a book of stats, why is the writer giving me more goblin stats?" And even though I run D&D quite a bit right now, even the basest of stats will be adjusted to reflect the realities of play -- weak monsters in a dangerous area will be replaced by more deadly ones, for instance. I look for interesting ideas, good maps, and clever traps.

    Thanks for your insights into judging!

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