In both of the campaigns that I am currently running, I run published adventures. Wizards of the Coast D&D 5e published adventures to be specific. Huge, beautifully presented, intricate, level 1 – 10 works of art. These adventures are great and I really enjoy running them, however I also love to run the occasional one-shot or smaller self-contained adventure.
For a while now, I’ve struggled with writing my own adventures. Coming up with the villains and the main story arc is never particularly difficult. The main challenge for me is always populating the rooms of the dungeon and in particular, writing up the GM notes for these rooms, complete with skill check DCs and items of interest.
My recent discovery of Basic Fantasy Role-playing Game and the published adventures for that game took me back to my early days of running modules. Short and snappy room descriptions with a minimum of narrative beyond what was in the room and whether it would stab or bite the players was the norm back then. Initially, reading these was a shock to the system after years of running the intricate, narrative laden 5e campaign books but once I read over a few adventure modules, it began to seem comfortable and sensible.
The concept of the one page dungeon originally began with the One Page Dungeon Contest which has been running since 2009 and this year sees it mark it’s 10th annual competition. The basic premise is simple. Design a dungeon that, complete with map, fits on one side of A4 paper (while remaining readable). These dungeons are meant to be system neutral, increasing their appeal.
Now, I’ve no intention of entering the contest but what I have found is that I’ve grown to love the simplicity of designing adventures or encounters this way. The lack of available space should feel restrictive in terms of fleshing out my dungeon content but instead, I find it to be completely liberating. I no longer have to drown myself in description. Whenever I feel the need to flesh out rooms with lots of detail, I suddenly end up with writer’s block and end up not finishing the adventure.
So how would I suggest you approach writing a one page dungeon?
Come up with the basic concept of the adventure.
- Who are the main protagonists?
- Why should the characters get involved?
- What type of dungeon is it? Is it even a dungeon? I recently created one that was set in a series of giant anthills.
Draw a map
30 x 30 squares is fine. I usually go for about 5 – 8 encounter areas. Most of the one page dungeons I write are intended to be one-shot games, usually over Roll20.
Number the encounter areas
Start at the entrance and logically number the areas. Try not to break it down into too many sub-areas.
Fill out the details. But remember, not too much detail….
Anything from a single line to a few sentences for each room. A basic description, details of monsters, traps and treasure in the room. You’ll flesh out the rest during play.
You should now have a single page with a map and some short paragraphs (or even single sentences) detailing he contents of each of the rooms. You can either run your session directly from this bare bones dungeon description or if you like, use it as a skeleton for further development. Once you know what’s in each room, you can flesh it out much more easily afterwards.
Chicago Wiz’s RPG Blog has some great templates you can use for your one page dungeon. I used one of these templates to build this one page dungeon – The Temple of Odd Markham. I designed the map using Dungeon Fog (review to follow but – spoiler – it’s a seriously good tool). My dungeon is not system neutral though. It makes reference to the 5e Monster Manual.
Now, go forth and create. Feel free to share your own one page dungeons in the comments.
I am a 40 something DM/GM located in Scotland. In 2016, I rediscovered the joys of tabletop role-playing games. This blog documents my journey back into the fold.