Tuesday, June 28, 2011

One Page Design Philosophy

Some time ago, the One Page Dungeon was the rage amongst all the OSR bloggers. I must admit that I find the concept intriguing. As fun as flavor text can be to read in an RPG book, I don’t think that “read aloud” sections of adventures actually work in gaming sessions. If I have to read anything more than a few sentences or a short paragraph to my players, I notice their eyes glass over. Worse still, they often miss key information, simply because reading verbose prose aloud is not a very good way to rely fine detail. Emotion, maybe, but fine detail? No.

What I like about the One Page Dungeon more than the template itself is the idea behind it. Namely, anything you have to use as a referee of a roleplaying game should be presented as clearly, concisely, and quickly as possible. That’s why monsters in older D&D are easier to use than 3.5. No matter how well designed the statblock, it still takes a certain amount of brainpower to parse all those ability scores, attacks, skills, feats, spells, and powers.

I plan to adopt this kind of One Page Philosophy to my own game designs. Whenever I write up new material for use in my home campaign, I will try to keep things as short and clear as possible. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to eliminate all the fluff from my world. In fact, I think the end result will be better because I will have to choose my words carefully.

I wish professional designers would do the same. I read a lot of RPG books for entertainment, a practice in which I suspect I’m not alone. It’s very rare, however, that I sit down and read them as I would a novel, from cover to cover reading each word. Instead, I flip around, reading a portion here and skimming a portion there. Naturally, I miss a lot doing this. If a book is heavy on description and flavor text, giving me minute details about the inner workings of the campaign world, I often get bored and move on to another section. The author would probably have conveyed more information if he had simply written less, since I would have been far more likely to read and retain it.

Perhaps I’m the problem here. Maybe I suffer from some kind of ADD related to AD&D. I don’t think that’s the case, though. RPG books are not novels and they shouldn’t be written like them. Imagine a cook book that begins each recipe with a one paragraph introduction to each recipe, explaining the history of the food. You might be really interested to learn how German Chocolate Cake got its name or who invented the Cobb Salad. If the same cookbook devoted entire pages to food history, however, you’d be far less likely to read it, let alone use the thing in the kitchen. Cook books are for cooking, just like RPG books are for playing roleplaying games.

It would be foolish to slavishly adhere to this idea, never writing more or less than one page about anything. The One Page Philosophy is meant to be abstract and flexible. If you’re writing about something important, say a guild that is central to a setting, then you should probably devote more to a page to its description. However, an author should still try to limit the information to small, easily digestible sections. Maybe the history and motivation of the guild fit on one page. The stats of its leaders and typical members fit on another. Plot hooks and information about the guilds’ dark secrets finish things on another.

I will see what I can do to keep the One Page Philosophy in mind in my own writings. I have a lot of stuff sitting on my harddrive that I eventually want to post up here. Before I do so, I will have to edit out a lot of needless fluff make sure my writing is as interesting and precise as possible. I think the end product will be much better for my efforts.

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