New on Desk #120 — Laconic Order

Onwards! Free of all responsibility or restraint, in the sheer obliviousness of dreams! <Insert insane gibbering, you know how it goes.>

Proper adventure module style for old school D&D

So this is something that’s interested me for a long time. Among all the roleplaying games, there is only one that actually has legitimate interfacing and procedures for using pre-written adventure modules. In D&D it is easy and fun to use adventure modules. With a properly stylized module you don’t even need to read it in advance, the GM can just sit down and start executing the scenario as depicted. In almost any rpg I would consider it a given that modules are at best a sop for the unimaginative and tired mind, with personal prep always the better choice. In D&D this is not the case, which is I think so very, very interesting. I mean, just think about the reasons why this is the case, and imagine if your own favourite game had modularity of nearly similar extent. It’s a powerful, fun and useful feature for a game to have.

However, what makes the D&D module so great is that the module and its associated procedures of play feature high usability. Nothing in particular prevents one from writing D&D adventures that are exactly as usable as your average rpg adventure module, which is to say not at all. Just… write reams upon reams of descriptive prose about “what happens next” in plot terms. That’s what rpg adventures are outside D&D (barring some marginal exceptions of course). D&D went hard into this mode during the middle school era, in the late ’80s and through the ’90s. It’s not inherent to the game that its modules work, it’s about how the scenarios are structured and then spun out from the text to the table of play.

After running functional D&D, let’s call it old school here, for what, 15 years at this point, I’ve developed some opinions about proper styles of adventure writing. I’m the exact kind of GM who most benefits from adventure modules, and I use them as a power user: you can’t expect me to study your text reams for weeks in advance, you can’t expect me to care about your dumb backstories. I demand that adventures be functional, concise, respectful of stylistic conventions and free of the kinds of errors that matter. Deviate on this, and I’ll mock you mercilessly.

Of course there’s a distinct lack of divine authority on my part to demand all adventures to be written to a single standard of style, one optimized for my own use. But at least I can chart the matter a bit, recognize different reasons to write in different ways and figure out the best practices for different styles.

D&D adventure orders of style

(I’m using the term “order” in the sense of architectural order here because I’m funny like that. I’m sure I’ll be hearing about my lack of rpg theory naming sense later on.)

Setting aside obvious “only one right way to do it” aspects of module authorship, I think that D&D history has demonstrated three essentially distinct strategies for writing the adventure text. The differences between these structural orders relates to what is considered needful to specify for the GM using the adventure later on. Like so, I’m going to just give names to these styles:

Laconic Order is the minimalistic style that emphasizes structural patterns and involves very little in the way of literary fluff or explanations; clean, but fairly close to how self-created prep notes read like. The GM is expected to adapt the patterns to their own campaign and fill in the literary detail. I think it’s great, probably my favourite structural order to use as the end-user. Referencing is quick, information-density is high, and I don’t need to be burdened with slowly digesting, often dumb literary efforts by somebody else.

Geneva Order is what became the house style at TSR over time, developing from the Laconic order. The big difference concerns verbose room descriptions, usually set aside into read-aloud boxes for the GM’s convenience; the ideal is that the adventure will support the GM as a storyteller by providing complex literary ideas and outright text to deliver. Geneva order verbose room descriptions support describing explicit tactics and NPC motivations in the scenario text, and there’s more room for literary particulars to inspire the GM. All at the expense of having more textual overhead, of course.

Literary Order is a more extreme development that became prominent even later, apparently taking influence from the ideals of trad railroading adventure writing style. Room key writeups are highly detailed and unique, each room presenting as an entirely standalone setpiece encounter. Well-formed Literary order adventures are still form-legitimate for old school wargamey D&D, play is still dynamic and adjudicated fairly. Ultimately, though, what you’re buying is more about the literary setpiece than about the pattern they’re presented in.

Because that’s all no doubt fairly abstract, let’s look at some examples. I’ll pick a well-formed example of each structural order, a single room entry from a sample adventure, and then rewrite that entry in the other two orders to illustrate how authors working in these orders think differently, and how the order results in a work with different usability qualities.

Dyson’s Delve, a module that arguably encapsulates much of what is great about the Laconic order.

6. Boss' Room. Fighting in area 5 will alert the hobgoblin who lives in this room to trouble (AC: 6, HD: 1+1, hp: 6, ATT: 1d8, Mv: 90 (30), S: F1, M: 8). He has 5,000 sp in a locked box under his table. The key is nailed to the underside of the table.

The tactical note is an error of form (it should be in the entry for room 5, because that’s where the GM is reading when it becomes pertinent) and I personally would use a more compact stat block, but it cannot be denied that this is a Laconic room description. Check the other tabs for how the same room might look in the different stylistic orders.

6. Boss' Room.

Read this when the party first enters the room:

The corridor opens into a smoke-tinged, wide room illuminated by two torches set into sconces in the back wall. On the left-hand side of the room there is a bed, an armoire and two stools, but your attentions are drawn rather to the middle of the room, where a long wooden table sits sideways, dominating the room. Behind the table a hobgoblin sergeant in a peacock helmet sits. His head whips up as he finally notices you, and the monster scrambles to his feet, shouting in surprise.

The hobgoblin sergeant is the commander of the goblins in rooms 4–5. He's an ambitious disciplinarian, intent on proving himself; half of his goblins are out hunting right now, under his own authority. The sergeant will charge out to deal with any disturbances, but only if he is forewarned.

Hobgoblin Sergeant AC: 6, HD: 1+1, hp: 6, ATT: 1d8, Mv: 90 (30), S: F1, M: 8

The sergeant's possessions are otherwise worthless, but he holds a lockbox with the guard's wages underneath his table, where it will be easily noticed by any adventurer leaning down to look. The box is locked; a matching key is nailed to the underside of the table, only to be found by a more careful study.

Inside the lockbox there are 5,000 sp.

I’ll admit to a degree of satire in the above; it’s more written in the TSR house style than the best practices of what this style can be. In a serious work you wouldn’t waste space on “read this aloud” instructions, or write the read-aloud to include a covert setpiece that might contradict established events. But that’s not worse than historical Geneva order stuff tends to be, either; this is what it’s like.

The entire thing is, of course, even worse of a logic disaster now that I’ve blathered in length about what this hobgoblin is supposed to do in the past when we were still adventuring in like room 4. Completely useless text unless you read the entire adventure through in advance, and made your own notes for rooms 5 and 6 to remember the tactical logic.

6. Boss' Room.

This is the room of Hobgoblin Sergeant Gunga Djinn. He is tasked with responsibility for the security of the dungeon entrance at room 4, which makes Gunga the second in rank among the goblin pack (the rest of which can be found in level 2). The goblins under his charge will follow Gunga's orders without question, for he treats them well and allows them to gather toll from pack-mates using the dungeon entrance.

If adventurers assault their positions, the goblins in rooms 4–5 will run to alert Gunga. The sergeant is likely to be deep into his melancholy, and will not heed even loud noises unless a warning is carried to him directly.

In combat Gunga acts calmly and professionally. He will take captives given the opportunity, and will try to use them as hostages to force invaders to retreat. Gunga is one quarter djinn, which makes his skin distinctively red; he knows that this color-coding makes him seem unusual and dangerous to the humans, which he will use in attempting to intimidate them. Gunga speaks Common language fluently, with a high-class accent.

Gunga used to be a water-boy in the human imperial army in his youth. While being treated terribly, he ultimately gained manumission after saving the life of a human officer on the field of battle. Ultimately disgusted with the humans, he's been adopted into the goblin pack and brought to a place of honor among them.

If driven to desperate straits, Gunga will try to parley, using the name of his old commanding officer; a WIS check indicates that an adventurer has heard of said highly ranked human soldier. No real consequences will befall any who would slay Gunga, but he's not exactly going to say that, now is he. And the connection is real; said officer would remember Gunga fondly, were he be reminded.

In parley Gunga will offer his "hidden treasure" (the guard's wage box) in exchange for whatever he can get, playing on adventurer assumptions about hidden treasures. The locked box is under the table in Gunga's room; the key to it is nailed under the table. In the box there are 5,000 sp.

If possible, Gunga will attempt to lead adventurers into an ambush by going down the stairs to level 2 in room 7. Otherwise, he would delay until the next random encounter, which will always be a party of his returning hunters. Failing such options, Gunga will willingly betray the goblins and serve man... for now.

Besides the box under the table, the room includes the ascetic trappings of a hobgoblin sergeant. Among the personal effects are the discharge papers of one Gunga Djinn, water-boy first rank.

This might seem excessive, but that’s just because you saw the original Laconic version. People do write entire adventures in this style, and it’s a stylistic sin for the Literary order to offer a standard encounter. In my experience, you’d rather better read Literary order adventures in advance, because picking through the text on a skim is less than ideal. On the other hand, the material is generally easy to remember in its broad strokes for weeks afterwards, so that evens it out a lot. Ultimately, it’s a different paradigm of utility.

Do notice that while the text is technically not railroading, the emphasis of the author (who I’m roleplaying here) is clearly on this setpiece idea he has about the party getting into a charged parley with this hobgoblin. Sometimes it’s fairly clear that people writing in the Literary order are just describing how their own game went…

The way tactically actionable information is mixed in with backstory blather is not ideal, but it is typical of the Literary order. You’ll just need to pick out the details from the text mass yourself. It’s something that an author in the real world probably should watch out for, even if they’re fully committed to writing a short story in every dungeon room.

44. SUBTERRANEAN STREAM

A natural cavern with a fast-running stream falling from a spout in the ceiling, running a shallow trench in the floor and disappearing into an open shaft at the end of the room (3d6 falling damage, drown in the subterranean reservoir).

3 Giant Centipedes: AC 9; HD 1/2; MV 60’ (20’); #AT 1; D poison; Save NM; ML 7; AL N

The original Genevan text wastes word-count on describing standard tactics and, more puzzling, on inconsequential details that are found on the map or can be trivially ruled on by the GM. Following Laconic principles I removed everything except the necessary. Could be even shorter if I trusted the reader to understand what words like “stream” mean.

Practically any TSR adventure would do to illustrate their house style, so I’ll just pick a suitable entry from the Horror on the Hill. Happens to be on hand.

44. SUBTERRANEAN STREAM

This natural cavern is blocked by a solid wooden door — watertight but unlocked.

A shallow stream runs through this room, falling from a spout in the ceiling, running through a trench in the cavern floor, and rushing out through an opening in the floor. The stream is about eight feet wide and one foot deep.

Lurking in the shadows where the stream disappears through the floor are three giant centipedes. As soon as they catch sight of intruders in the room, they rush forward to attack.

Giant Centipedes (3): AC 9; HD 1/2; hp 3,2, 2; MV 60’ (20’); #AT 1; D poison; Save NM; ML 7; AL N

Although the level of the stream is low now, stains on the walls indicate that it often fills the room to a depth of three or four feet. The spout in the ceiling is only one foot in diameter, and the stream disappears through a four-foot diameter hole in the floor. The hole in the floor drops through 60 feet of a winding, narrow shaft, before entering a large cavern totally filled with water.

If any characters are foolish enough to drop into this shaft, roll 3d6 to see how much damage they take before they enter the flooded chamber. If they are still alive, they certainly drown there.

A fairly typical Genevan room key entry, I’d say; there’s the read-aloud box text, followed by a detailed treatise of room interaction. The associated map clarifies that the room is an irregular cavern of roughly 70×50 feet dimensions.

44. SUBTERRANEAN STREAM

The door is bolted, with the bolt easily opened, but it appears to be water-logged and jammed as well, requiring an open doors check to force open. The door is of sturdy craft and will close seamlessly once opened.

A large natural cavern is filled with the noise of rushing water. A stream of water from the huge pool at location 21 lets off here, regulating the pool. The water rushes through a one-foot wide spout in the ceiling, streams through a shallow trench in the cavern floor, and then plunges down into the sunless subterranean depths from whence nothing returns.

Giant centipedes have washed down from the pool over time; three are here now, ready to hunt in their desperate hunger.

Giant Centipedes (3): AC 9; HD 1/2; MV 60’ (20’); #AT 1; D poison; Save NM; ML 7; AL N

The inscrutable dynamics of the above-ground pool periodically cause the stream of water to grow into a tremendous torrent that often fills the entire room to a depth of three of four feet. While the party tarries within the room, there is an extra random encounter check every Turn; a confirmed encounter indicates that goblins have sneaked up upon the door and closed it, sealing the party inside! Acting on goblin instincts, they know when the water rush is coming, and indeed; it will begin a minute after the door slams shut!

When the water is low, a character entering the stream is unlikely to be swept with it through the hole in the floor. When the water is high, however, this is all but guaranteed for any left at the mercies of the roiling waters. The hole in the floor is a full four feet wide, well large enough to let a man through.

If any characters are foolish or unfortunate enough to drop into the shaft, they will suffer 3d6 falling damage on contact with the dark waters below (half with a successful swim check). Any characters surviving the fall with air in their lungs has the honor of witnessing the "gems of the undersea", the great lanterns of the giant anglerfish hunting these despicable depths.

I wanted to write a thousand word LotFP style word vomit about the wonders of the underseas, with maybe a random encounter table for what you’ll find in that hole, but at some point I wouldn’t be acting in good faith in illustrating the order here. The main take-away is that from the perspective of the Literary order this room needs to be made a bit more exciting by making it more trappy. You don’t actually want to make it a guaranteed railroad-y thing… in a sense the Literary order of adventure design is more for the GM. It’s enough that he knows that this is something that could happen, that’s well enough reason to write about it.

I. Sitting Room

An unnaturally preserved, timeless harpsichord sits in a corner of the room. A bench in front of the instrument, and a few chairs around the room.

On the anterior wall is a framed oil painting (2500 GP, difficult to move). The painting is an unsettling depiction of the altar in location 22, pictured from the front. An observant adventurer might notice and remember the right-hand secret door in the painting, as it stands open in the picture.

As in other rooms of the house, do not hesitate to go full spooky-poopy on the details.

Well, I could have told you that it’d be much shorter no matter what sample text we’d pick.

If I was really writing a full Laconic version of this adventure, that last paragraph of GM instructions would just be in the general notes for the entire cabin, instead of here in an individual room entry. Jim writes up these elaborate unsettling weirdness scenes that in Laconic order would be left as an exercise for the GM or references from an appendix to keep the room description short. Both the ghost music and the weirdly personal painting (and its nit-picky refereeing instructions) are the sorts of things you could just tell the GM to whip up themself, if you were writing in Laconic order.

Note the use of the word “anterior”, that’s actually just my own foible. I dislike the use of compass directions in room keys as they cause unnecessary orientation checking. You could just say “west” like Jim does.

I. Sitting Room

The door is normal and unlocked. Sounds of music played on an instrument can be heard from inside.

You can hear melancholy music, played on some kind of string instrument, as you reach for the door handle. Peering carefully inside, you view a dim room, illuminated only by the grey clouds outside the single glass window. There is a faded rug on the floor and wall-papers on the walls, with their ornaments slowly fading in time. You do not hear music, it is entirely silent.

In the southeast corner of the room is a harpsichord, an old-fashioned piano-like musical instrument. It's cover is open, but there is nobody here, the playing bench stands abandoned. A single chair stands in the opposite corner from the harpsichord, empty as well.

Turning towards the chair, you notice the only true thing of color in the room: on the wall next to the doorway hangs a majestic oil painting, its colors unblemished by age.

If a player asks about what the painting depicts, tell them that it shows a view of a dark dungeon hall, with an altar scribed with inscrutable runes, with a giant skeleton looming over the altar. There is an open door behind the altar, in the back wall on the right side of the skeleton. (This is a view of location 22, with the primary secret door visible.)

In front of the altar are depicted the people currently inside the cabin, at the moment the character first witnesses the painting; presumably the adventuring party, or most of it. One arbitrarily chosen character is sipping from a golden goblet as a light shines down on them from above. The painting does not change and is non-magical for any observer who has ever seen it; a new observer could detect magic before first seeing the image, and they will see the people currently in the cabin when they first view it.

The painting weighs about fifty pounds including the frame, and is six feet long and four feet high. Because of its age and its superior artistic depiction of the scene, if it can be kept in perfect condition, it can be sold for 2500 gold. It can be removed from the frame and rolled up of course, but remember even the slightest bump can cause a crease, and the slightest crease reduces its value. Moving the painting does not affect its properties; it will show whoever is in the cabin, at the moment a character first witnesses it.

While the nitpicky refereeing guidelines for the painting would be fully in spirit of the Genevan style to include as in the original, I did just a little bit of streamlining for sanity’s sake. The Genevan order attempts to guide the GM in ruling after all; there’s much less desire to just hammer these literary ideas (like the spooky brainfuck Jim’s elaborating on here) in with full force. Just say what it does, and if literary effect is required, tell the GM what to do instead of showing. Except for the read-aloud text, that’s your chance to be purple.

I could not possibly pick anything to illustrate the Literary order of adventure authorship but homeboy Jim Raggi, he’s so prominent about writing in this format. Let’s pick out a room description from Death Frost Doom, because I’ve been running that recently for our local group. Modern classic, this adventure.

I. Sitting Room

In the southeast corner of the room is a harpsichord. It is not playing, and it can not be heard inside the room, but anyone standing outside the door (and not looking at it) can hear it playing. There is a bench near the instrument and a chair in the opposite corner.

On the west wall is a painting. It depicts the current group of people (so most likely the PCs and their followers!), wearing their current gear, in the cabin (not on the roof, just outside, or down in the dungeon), and those people are standing before an altar with a giant skeleton looming over it and an open door behind the altar to the right of the skeleton (location 22). Characters that are invisible, ethereal, etc, show up in the painting as their normal selves. One random character (or choose the character whose player seems most impressed/disturbed by the painting) is sipping from a goblet as a light shines down on him from above. This is not an illusion; the painting is thousands of years old and has always been like this.

The painting will always appear to someone as it originally does the first time it is seen. However, if a different group of people are in the cabin the first time someone sees it (say someone was outside keeping lookout when the painting was first seen), the people who have never seen the painting up to that point will see in the painting the current group of people in the cabin, with their now-current gear. Thus it is possible to have any number of different people looking at the same painting at the same time and seeing different images.

Again, this is not an illusion. It is, in actuality, different for the various onlookers who first saw it with different collections of people in the cabin, and it has been this way for thousands of years. However, if the character who was first seen drinking from the goblet in the painting is in the cabin, that same character will always be the one drinking when a new person sees the painting.

The painting weighs about fifty pounds including the frame, and is six feet long and four feet high. Because of its age and its superior artistic depiction of the scene, if it can be kept in perfect condition, it can be sold for 2500 gold. It can be removed from the frame and rolled up of course, but remember even the slightest bump can cause a crease, and the slightest crease reduces its value. Anyone looking upon the painting for the first time, even if it’s in some city marketplace hundreds of miles away, will see in the painting whoever is in the cabin at the time of their first viewing. If nobody is in the cabin, then of course no one will be in the painting and it will just look like a still life painting of the altar.

The image seen in the painting will never change for someone once they have seen it. The painting will only detect as magical for someone who has not actually looked at its image. After that, they can not detect magic on it because all they can see is the image that was originally painted on the canvas thousands of years ago. Just like everyone else. Even if the image isn’t the same.

I think Literary order originates in ’80s stuff, not all of it explicitly for D&D; I haven’t researched the origins exactly, but I remember seeing similar patterning in some ’90s TSR adventures that manage to still be kinda-sorta playable for old school D&D. But really, if you’ll ask where I personally encountered this first, it’d be in this kind of OSR stuff. Jim really believes that it’s his job to bring the Ideas when you choose to consult an adventure product of his. Every encounter a weird setpiece.

While I generally favour adventures authored in the Laconic order, the point here is not to criticize the other styles; I’ve seen plenty of adventures written in all of the above styles that entice my favour. Rather, the question, it seems to me, is about where the gravity of your substance lies: are you offering structures (Laconic), presentation/refereeing aids (Genevan), or ideas (Literary)? While it is kinda-sorta possible to translate an adventure text from one order of expression to another, some topics would presumably fit some orders better than others. Structure, as ever, needs to reflect the substance.

AP Report Pile: Coup in Sunndi #54

Last time we’d hexcrawled our way to the cursed mountain and spent an amusing amount of time interacting with the old mountain hermit; he forewarned the party quite clearly about the spiritual peril of the place. We also did a superficial scan of the cabin (people familiar with DFD know what I’m talking about), so now it was time to get down into the shrine proper.

For reminder, the party’s agenda here was all about finding Koraktor, the Bible Black, the Hell-Bound Tome, the Embossed Charter, Naturom Demonto — a mysterious but apparently-kinda-evil tome that should lie somewhere within. Aku the Akuma, the expedition’s primus motor and erstwhile leader, has adviced his companions to touch nothing inside the shrine. We’ll see how that goes.

The party, aside from Aku, consist of Scar the conniving barbarian, his cheeky half-orc slave, the enigmatic Triple-Witch (a wretched magician unfortunate enough to have survived three witch-burnings in her backstory) and Husu, a retired siege engineer. Surely a worthy team! (Seriously, two Fighters, a Thief and two occultists of different types; what’s not to like, that’s clear best practices stuff.)

Those familiar with DFD know the drill, so basically what confronted the party were hauntingly empty halls full of shockingly schlock gothic horror iconography; wall murals of torture and demonology, skeleton parts galore, carefully emptied out rooms hinting at a far gone priesthood. The place was chilling cold, as if the sun rarely fell upon these cursed grounds.

The party was appropriately careful of the still grandeur of the place, except for the cheeky half-orc slave, who was more of the curious and mischievous sort. Was already quite enthralled by the harpsichord upstairs, so the over the top bone organ was, of course, too much for him/her (actually, I realize I’m not sure about the character’s gender here — the player’s a woman, but I thought she played the half-orc as sort of masculine, so I guess that’s what I’ll assume) to resist. This infamous trap has the potential to kill the entire party just like that, but the darn tootin’ kids were lucky with the yellow mold bellowing out of the pipes, and nobody died! Not a single one. (Arguably that’s the single most dangerous part of the entire adventure.)

So anyway, ever-so-carefully removing valuable treasures from the profane outer altar (utterly failing to avoid the curse, but hey), puzzling over the locked door with the fonts of black water, the usual. What really proved the turning point here was that Scar, the conniving barbarian scout not at all a Disney villain expy, found himself a subtle treasure: among the worthless scraps in one of the rooms there lied a lost golden ring, seemingly missed by whomever had empties this place in the past. Impetuously, perhaps sensing its potential, Scar tried the ring on, and well, turned invisible. Nice!

Now, the fruitless combing of the shrine in the hopes of finding a way to the inner sanctum continued. The painfully careful adventurers discovered that the fonts of the sealed door held a veritable trove of human teeth… Aku the Akuma speculated (correctly!) that perhaps a tithe of teeth was involved in getting past the door. I think the party might just have solved the puzzle of the door (such as it was) if not for Scar going all Gollum on the party.

This was, to be clear, not a mechanical compulsion; it’s all on the player. When Scar found that ring and hid it from the rest of the party, a party who was by now hauling what Scar estimated to be thousands of GP worth of treasures, something started moving in the mind of the cowardly yet macho posturing barbarian: the party had been joking about hesitant advance, letting others take the risks, turning back, escaping and leaving this cursed (read: scary) place… why shouldn’t Scar actually do that?

So Scar, on the pretense of keeping up with the search sweeps that the party was conducting, slipped a bit further off and donned the invisibility ring. Then, with the supreme aid of the ring, he stalked Husu, the reliable man carrying the loot sack… when Husu put the sack down for a fleeting moment in his own exploration, whips, off it went, disappearing with the pitter-pat sneaking of the invisible thief!

A Turn or two later the party, engrossed in the minute study of that sealed door, noticed that Scar was missing, and hey, so is the loot! A furious, dare I say murderous, pursuit occurred. The night was falling by this time, so the party smartly split up, with the more murderous Husu and Aku descending down the mountain after Scar, while the happy-go-lucky half-orc was left keeping company with Triple-Witch, whose low Constitution pretty much barred her from taking on an exhausting pursuit.

While Scar only had a couple Turns headstart to begin with, unfortunately he had two consummate advantages that the pursuers lacked. One was is Constitution score of what, 17 (bumped to a formidable +3 modifier by being a Barbarian), which really comes into play in this sort of drive to exhaustion. The other was that he actually had a horse waiting for him in the woods down the mountain. Of course being native to the Hollow Hills didn’t hurt either in terms of daring to ride out overnight to make his way back home over the inhospitable hills. In a nutshell, Scar got away clean!

Finally having to admit defeat, the rest of the party surprisingly met no further setbacks (I’m conspicuously not counting the unsettling dreams) despite splitting the party and whatnot; the next morning the failed pursuit party made the grueling trek back up the mountain, met up with their allies and decided to retreat from this cursed place for now.

The adventure ended with the most of the party traveling low-profile through the lands of a more or less hospitable local clan, reaching the western low-lands and ultimately entering the city of Naerie in the kingdom of Idee; the intent was to organize a new party to try again, this time without treacherous barbarians.

Scar, though, returned to his own tribe in the hills. He was bringing home the clan relics! (The hill clans have this vague folklore about the cursed shrine of the cursed mountain still holding treasures once forcibly taken from them. In reality Scar nor anybody else has a clue about the pedigree of this stuff, but that obviously doesn’t stop one from claiming that these are now clan relics.) The hill-men aren’t particularly loyal to foreign treasure-hunters who break local taboo over a cursed mountain, so Scar was very well received by his clan: he had shown manly virtue by being tougher than the toughies and smarter than the smarties!

Scar scored ~8k XP from the gig, while the others got nothing. Scar, as a 1st level character, hit the XP cap hard, only being able to claim like ~2500 XP, with the rest going to waste. So while in one sense the adventure ended with a lot of XP gain, on the other hand the party missed a major opportunity, and most of the XP was wasted because Scar “sharpened” the receiving end so very, very much.

State of the Productive Facilities

Yep yep, not at all concerned about being so very much behind on everything.

8 thoughts on “New on Desk #120 — Laconic Order”

  1. Pingback: Teori-innblikk # 59 – ropeblogi

  2. How do you feel about and classify little additional details like “3 orcs, 5 prisoners, torturing-for-fun contest in progress” or “1 cave bear, hates dwarves”?

    That’s a pretty minimalist presentation — more often, adventures provide additional details (as per your categories) on the torturing contest or the bear’s history with dwarves. I’m personally not interested in such details, but I appreciate the ideas very much – unless every encounter is special – because they are the kind of stuff typically not generated by my encounter tables and reaction rolls.

    1. I like laconic detail as well. The key is to use words that mean something, and thus carry meaning in being part of the text. Heavy words that provide relevant context for what’s going on. “Torturing in progress” is something actionable and doesn’t burden the poor GM overmuch. Slathering more prose on the idea is only helpful if the GM is somehow not capable of unpacking and relating to the laconic turn of phrase.

  3. Nice breakdown, it really does seem you have a fine historical grasp of these styles and it’s quite enjoyable to read through these rooms. A couple additional things I note about Dungeon Keying styles:

    1) Laconic style only really works well when backstopped by considerable setting knowledge and reference material. All the rooms you provide (with the possible exception of DFD – though even there that’s unclear) are for very standard “Gygaxian Vernacular” settings: hobgoblins, caves, and the trappings of D&D’s particular fantasy. We don’t need a description of the hobgoblin sergeant, because there’s plenty of description and characterization of hobgoblins at hand in the game material. If we were using some less cliched setting (a preoccupation of the Mid period OSR that DFD stems from) there would be no hobgoblin – but some other unknown monster – let’s say it’s Dunsanyian opium fantasy and call him a Dreaming Echo Soldier. To run or describe such a foe the referee will need help. Physical description, motivations, tactics etc. None are at hand either in reference books or the vast popular imagination about D&D. Keys will be unavoidably longer the greater one departs from the cliched setting.

    2) Following 1, smaller denser dungeons have bigger keys. In an early megadungeon funhouse one can place one thing in each room. Needing limited description. As we see in the DFD cottage description, more complex rooms (furniture – always a potential treasure, harpsichord, and painting!) there’s simply more going on and it forms a more coherent themed whole. The length is also, as noted above) a product of DFD’s attempt to depart from the conventions of traditional location based design and create an atmospheric horror adventure, even if it retains much of the standard setting.

    3) I’d also quibble a bit about the Geneva style as a mid point between the two others and instead treat it as a sort of development of the original Gygaxian TSR style, I suspect to discourage referee elaboration for Tournament play. The “Geneva” seems to branch off towards Trad (Hickman) design and Contemporary Traditional (5E) style design and becomes ever more reliant on text boxes that now often describe the PCs actions, feelings and motivations in a literary manner as a sort of interlude between roll off puzzles and tactical combats. A sort of “cut-scene” approach.

    The midpoint for complexity within the direct lineage of 1970’s dungeon key style (and I’d check out Palace of the Vampire Queen or the original Temple of the Frog for some really interesting early laconic examples) strikes me as being achronological* and arising in the later OSR period. For example, DCO is quite efficient in its descriptions much of the time and Ultan’s Door offers another example of exceptional descriptive keying (though see point 1 about non-standard setting and key size for both). The evolution though, and current state of design, I think is best found in contemporary OSE’s (and many others) bulleted or bolded paragraph style. It doesn’t require great virtuosity as a writer and has a fixation on usability that apes the laconic style, but with a greater emphasis on formalism and format. This offers a high degree of readability, or in game reference, while it allows for longer description and eschews boxed text with its associated problems. The bullet style also often has greater attention to visual/”UX” design and mapping conventions. It frequently offloads many of traditional player mapping focused descriptive elements (such as dimensions and cardinal directions) from the keys onto the map and includes play aides such as prepared ref notes (often on a map), orders of battle, relationship webs, player maps, and minimaps.

    Great post – obviously got me thinking. Thanks.

    1. Excellent points about dungeon uniqueness and size (as well on other things, such as modern layout)! I especially like bolding because it allows both coherent / moody descriptions and quick referencing. Structuring via bullet points can be useful, too, but I also seem to remember overly dogmatic approaches (by the five senses or whatever).

      1. I’m torn on the emerging “hyper-structured order” of room description that you’ve both mentioned. On the one hand yeah, obviously it’s good to explore the form. But then on the other hand, just as Johann suggests, it easily becomes overly dogmatic. Having all the items in the room emphasized, or

        1. redundantly listed

        , according to a fixed scheme, isn’t necessarily that useful. At the very least it requires the same sort of sensitivity to context that other styles do, too; the room description is not automatically good if it has “three interesting details” bullet-pointed about it.

        Laconic principles (which I’m particularly fond of this summer) would suggest that if you need to bullet-point your material, you probably have too much of it. It should suffice to use either a comma-separated list or one paragraph of description for each item. The list format causes unnecessary visual clutter much of the time.

        1. I’d agree that matrix style descriptions (and these date back to Palace of the Vampire Queen btw) aren’t ideal, I don’t think bullet point or other structured description however needs to be especially formalist. I tried starting each room key with a matrix for a brief period around 2014, and yup, it’s not especially efficient.

          Bulleted or bolded text subparagraph styles however aren’t really matrix format. They are especially distinct from what you cover here because they can generally support information density and description at a higher level then what you describe as the “Geneva” order, but almost always lack boxed text (talk about a space waster!) and when done well are highly readable.

          Again, I suspect laconic is fine for running by-the-book, implied setting adventures in the classic style, but even running secret doors and traps using “player skill” requires greater amounts of description, as do rooms with multiple interactive elements, locations with themes or aesthetics beyond “maze of gray corridors” or “it’s a nondescript cave — without actual cave features” or settings that don’t follow the mold of Gygaxian vernacular fantasy. This is how you get someone like Raggi long room descriptions in OSR – he’s departed from the orcs in a hole aesthetic and needs to get that across. It’s even more important in a Nega-Dungeon like DFD where players realizing the aesthetic or genre shift is the primary challenge of the adventure.

          These concerns I think are the hallmark of “mid-Period” OSR design – descriptive density to offer a wide array of interactive elements and tools in a location without insisting that the players import them from their meta-knowledge of setting and system. I also suspect that as a general theme or idea it dates back to Jaquays’ “archeological” approach to location design starting in Thracia.

          The bullet point style is a mid/late OSR effort to deal with these needs, and allow for non-standard aesthetics, complex exploration, dense locations, and player skill based challenge, while providing space savings and a fairly high level of readability. Yes, one can argue that a good referee should be able to take a one line description and use their imagination to expand on it … but if that’s the case, why use someone else’s adventure? The designer is supposed to add some value, and helping referees with ready description is great value leaving more attention for other things.

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