Sunday, 2 May 2021

Dungeon Process: Slime Baroness and the Lady of Unterbranch Keep (Part 3 - Map and Layout)

This is part three in a series where I am walking through my dungeon process in detail. 

Last time, I wrote some Background and Rumours for my dungeon, "Slime Baroness and the Lady of Unterbranch Keep." This post is about the layout and maps. Check out the other posts in this series here. 

I believe that high-quality layout can improve a dungeon immensely. Many RPG products are more like a textbook than a novel. The information is in the text, but the layout serves to move that information from the text to the referee's brain.  

I gathered a list of well-laid-out dungeons for inspiration (i.e. steal and copy). Some were solicited opinions from the OSR Discord, and all are real OSR/NSR darlings.

I am not a layout and graphic design expert, so this 'analysis' is really just me summarizing my opinion about what I like and don't like about the layout decisions made in these dungeons. 

Dungeon Layout Analyses

Incandescent Grottoes, by Gavin Norman

Gavin Norman made a name for himself in the OSR through his skilled re-formatting of BX D&D into the beloved Old School Essentials (OSE). His adventures are also well-liked. I have never played them but I've read reviews and session reports which make them seem very fun. However, I am interested in the layout, not content. 

It seems like most Nectrotic Gnome dungeons follow the same layout style, so I focused on the Incandescent Grottoes. All of the examples below are clipped from the free sample pages on DriveThruRPG. 

Tables at the beginning of The Incandescent Grottoes

Near the beginning are a few tables: Rumours, Treasure, Encounter Table. They take up a full page each for easy reading, and employ colour. Big bolded titles at the top of each page make it easy to find what you're looking for by quickly flipping pages or scrolling through a PDF. The body text is much smaller than the titles, but still easy to read. 

There are a few heading styles with a legible hierarchy: the big bolded ones at the top of the page, followed by the purple "Level 1" style, then the bolded version of the body text as headers for the table columns. A strong font hierarchy is a valuable asset in a dungeon product. We can also see beautiful art filling the gaps left blank, and the colour-shape page number markers. This is a great start. 

Room Key of the Incandescent Grottoes

Now the key. Here we see something clever: an inset map showing the rooms described on this particular spread. I really like this technique. It makes it possible to run everything from the book without flipping back and forth, and without printing a separate copy of the map. You can see the other reachable rooms, so when the players exit a room you know where they're going.

The room descriptions have this neat double column-in-column thing going on. Not sure if this technique has a name, but basically the text flows in one large column spanning the page, but each room key itself has two columns. This keeps everything for each room together in a regularly-shaped block, but also allows for the readability and flexibility of two columns. Brilliant. I believe this is a newer innovation for Gavin, as the original Hole in the Oak didn't have this layout, and Gavin went back and re-laid it out. Incandescent Grottoes seems to have had this style from the beginning.

He utilizes a few techniques in the body text. Bolding for emphasis and parenthesis to show secondary information. There are beautiful coloured bullet points, and incredible in-line stat blocks for creatures. The OSE stat block is a thing of beauty. Compact yet complex; small yet sinister. Love it.  

Overall this layout is incredible. I will definitely steal:
  • Strong font hierarchy
  • Page-spanning coloured tables at the beginning
  • Inset maps on each page
  • Double column-in-column room key
  • Bolding and parenthesis for information delivery
  • In-line stat block
  • Colour block mirrored page numbers

The Waking of Willowby Hall, Ben Milton

Ben Milton, of Questing Beast fame, has clearly put an incredible amount of hard work and skill into this thing. It really pulses with life and embodies the ethos he espouses on his Youtube channel. The hook is interesting, and the NPCs and room contents seem fun. But we're here for layout. Let's dive in. Again I will look at the free DriveThruRPG preview. 

Map and Table of Contents of the Waking of Willowby Hall

Right from the beginning we can see the innovation that Ben brings with this dungeon: page numbers instead of room numbers. It makes so much sense—when we number rooms, are we doing it because we care what sequence they're in? No. We know that they're not really sequential on the map or in practice (in a Jaquayed dungeon players will never move through rooms in a defined sequence). 

Ben knows that it is all about running the game at the table, so he dispenses with the arbitrary numbers and cuts straight to the chase: we don't care what number the room is, we care about WHERE the text of the room description is WITHIN THE BOOK. Seeing right on the map that the Night Garden is on p. 21 tells me that I flip straight to page 21. Who cares which number it is? Amazing. 

Again we have a strong font hierarchy. This beautiful artistic font for the room titles, sized to maximize readability for each room. Nice serif body text with bolding and bullet points. He also uses all caps for the 'WHEN AWAKE' and 'WHEN RESTLESS', etc., which is important information for this specific dungeon (the referee will run things differently depending on when the haunted Hall is awakening from its dark slumber).  

Introduction Content of the Waking of Willowby Hall

Then we get some nice introductory material. Pretty simple and legible two column layout. Bolding and bullet points. On the following pages there are some encounter tables, stat blocks, and notable NPCs, all accompanied by beautiful art. 

Room Key of the Waking of Willowby Hall

Now the room descriptions. Instead of an inset map showing the rooms on the page like in the Incandescent Grottoes, we actually see the full level map with the page's rooms highlighted in white. This idea is so brilliant that I had to step away from my computer when I first saw it. It makes things so easy to run straight from the book, reducing page-flipping to the absolute minimum. 

Of course, this only works if your level map is fairly compact. In Ben's adventure the map takes up about one-third of the page (or one-sixth of the spread/16.66% of all space). It needs to fit in that space without getting shrunk beyond readability. And the sizes of the rooms needs to be balanced with the size of your font. Tough to fit a tiny three-foot closet on the map if there isn't enough space on the page to write "Lady Vanessa's Fur Closet, p. 33." 

This compactness also means it would be difficult to have long corridors or strange geometry. The more you can have all rooms simply open directly to other rooms (as with Willowby Hall), the better this method works. 

I believe that one could combine the inset maps and the highlighted page number maps. You don't necessarily need to fit the entire level map on each page to access the benefit of the page numbering. For example, in the spread above you could limit the inset map to just the rooms already highlighted, plus the Dining Room (p. 24) and Tomb Room (p. 20), since those are the only two room they could reach before you'd have to flip a page. 

The room descriptions themselves are a little long for my taste. My preferences for dungeon key writing certainly fall on the brusque side of the fence, so Ben's descriptions would be just fine for most folks. He consistently hits 3-5 rooms per spread, plus the map (sometimes two), so he's doing just fine. 

Things I will be stealing from Ben: 
  • Page numbers as room numbers
  • Highlighting rooms in white on each spread map

The Lair of the Lamb, by Arnold K., Goblin Punch

Arnold K released this dungeon last summer, and advertised it as a sort of 0-level funnel meant to teach people his current version of the GLOG (Goblin Laws of Gaming). I played through it over three sessions last summer with a great group from the OSR discord and had a bucket of fun. The dungeon is available free on Arnold's blog so I clipped a page from the full PDF. 

Room Key from the Lair of the Lamb

There's a ton of great introductory stuff at the beginning, but it's more about the game system than the dungeon, so I'll skip over it. I do recommend reading it, though, since there is some great referee and player advice. 

Arnold is using a full A4 size sheet per page, so his inset maps are reproduced on each page rather than on each spread. I like to use pages of A5 size and lay things out with the spread in mind. That is what I will do in the future for SBLUK. But this is where I first saw the technique of having an inset map repeated on each page.

The other two things I like that Arnold does are intentional line breaks and colour.

In each room description, each 'thing' gets its own paragraph, with a line break afterwards, before beginning the next 'thing.' For 11 CRAB MURAL this means three lines, each with a simple description of an object. For 12 ABACUS MURAL we get three longer paragraphs, each describing a more complicated object or thought (e.g. what happens if the ceiling is collapsed onto the monster?). This makes it easy on the eyes in terms of scanning through the page. You don't have to read through a whole paragraph of prose to find the one relevant thing in the middle. 

He also includes colour in his font hierarchy and maps. The room names are bolded and in brilliant blue, all treasure is in green text, and NPC names are in red. The maps are colour-coded by level as well. This works for me, but may not be the most accessible thing for people with visual impairments. Thankfully, a person with visual impairment would not miss out on anything important. They still get all the information. I like to work primarily in black and white for both accessibility and ease-of-printing purposes. 

That Which I Shall Steal:
  • Inset maps on all pages
  • Intentional use of line breaks

What Does This Means for Slime Baroness and the Lady of Unterbranch Keep?

I will use a strong font hierarchy with bolding, parenthesis, and line breaks for emphasis and control. I want text in a double column-in-column and in-line stat blocks. I'll make inset maps for every page, colour-coded, marked with page numbers, and I will place beautiful colour block mirrored page numbers.

Here's a sample spread (work in progress): 

Room Key of Slime Baroness and the Lady of Unterbranch Keep

I made six maps (one for each level) in Illustrator, purposefully designed for use as repeated inset maps showing the full level (like in Willowby Hall). The highlighting and page numbers are not correct for this spread. Once I have the full key written I'll go back and edit the maps to have all the correct page numbers and highlighting. 

I am using the double column-in-column layout stolen from Incandescent Grottoes. The body text follows the line spacing idea of Lair of the Lamb, with bolding  for emphasis and parenthesis for secondary information. Even more detailed information is put in bullet points (with their own parenthesis if needed). 

This format of the room description really works for me. I can quickly scan just the first (bolded) words of each line when the PCs first enter a room, and ad-lib a brief description from that. For example, upon entering the Armoury, I might say "You enter an Armoury. You see a set of stairs leading down, some wooden racks, and a broken crate. There are sconces on the walls and a thick oaken door on the north wall. What do you do?"

Immediately, the players have options. They can investigate things, move down the stairs, go to the door, look inside the crates, ask about the racks, or prod at the sconces. I've given them just enough information to start asking questions and making decisions. 

The stat blocks are in-line with the room descriptions (with stats as per my GLOG/Into the Odd hack, Catacombers). No need to flip to the beginning to run combat. I've chosen a simple little diamond for the bullet points, and compacted the tab spacing in the stat blocks compared to the body text. 

Speaking of body text, I chose a condensed sans-serif font (Asap Condensed) to be able to fit lots more words on the page while keeping readability. For titles at the top of pages (and room names) I chose a larger serif font (Averia Serif Libre). Both are free on Google Fonts. Aside from bolding and italics, I didn't do any more fancy fontwork (no colour, no multiple heading types, etc). 

Other Maps

Full Map Set from Slime Baroness and the Lady of Unterbranch Keep

The image quality in not great here but it's good enough to see the broad strokes. Each map level is compact enough to fit on one-quarter of a page. Unterbranch Keep has two upper levels (plus the rooftop) and three lower levels (Prison, Crypts, and Darkness). I'm pretty pleased with the way these maps turned out. They are all made in Adobe Illustrator and I copied the brush stroke styles from


I had a lot of fun taking a deep dive into dungeon layout. I am pleased with the set-up I have for SBLUK. We will see how it holds up as I continue writing content, but the real test will come when I print the whole thing out, staple it up and try to run a session straight from the book. That's really my ultimate goal here. 

The Series

1 comment:

  1. Excellent work, IMO. If I run a published module I want to be able to find the info quickly and easily and I think you borrowed all the right things here to be able to do that.