The Map Mine: Keyed Dungeon Pt. 2

The Map Mine: Keyed Dungeon Pt. 2

Friends! Welcome to Part 2 of the Keyed Dungeon. Last week we put together a map, and this week I'm here to give you a short adventure module in the style of Shadowdark RPG.

A bunch of disclaimers here: I've never run a Shadowdark game. I've watched some actual play at this point, I've been doing various iterations of TTRPGs for like 30 years now so I've got some footing. There will be mistakes. It may be terrible. It's largely a creative writing exercise, though, so long as it's reasonably workable I'm happy.

One of the most jarring things for me trying to put together a Shadowdark module while being true to how other published adventures are presented. It's very concise. Punchy, even. There's not a lot of flourish or decoration to room descriptions or motivation. In short, it's a very different (and very good) style than I'm used to writing in.

Kelsey Dionne, Shadowdark's creator, has used this particular style in a lot of her other work - and she did an amazing job of bringing that level of clarity to the system (seriously, go read her other work and tell me you're not impressed by her style). In fact, it's one of the defining characteristics, and a very distinctive part of her brand. I'd hazard to say that she is the best I've ever seen at combining brevity and clarity.

When I approach module design I tend to have a much more information available to the GM. It's a style I appreciate, I really like understanding the why behind the reason an author has put something in their module. Why is it there? What is its motivation? Who will come looking for it if goes missing?

But as I explore more OSR modules that were written recently and having extremely elucidating conversations with the Shadowdark community - modules are not written like that. Frequently room descriptions are extremely terse (not as terse as official Shadowdark materials - see above), there's no extra information about the denizens of the dungeon or their motivation in the room description. There may be a sentence (or less) about their personalities. The list continues. Contrast that with some other classic-esque megadungeons like Rappan Athuk (I've linked to the Swords and Wizardry version - but they've also done Pathfinder and 5e Ports) - where the lore is more up-front for the GM to make use of. Some of the other modules I've read, like Winter's Daughter, does have some more exposition - but it's still largely confined to asides or a bit of a preamble at the beginning in the form of a bulleted list.

So, after a bit of exploration and a lot of conversation, I think I've landed on something accomplishable - embrace that this is just an exercise of writing for a system I don't fully comprehend, and see if I can synthesize my style into something that the Shadowdark community would actually enjoy.

I want to be clear, I'm not out to copy the style of Arcane Library publications - I want to strike a balance between what I like to see in a module and what the community likes to see, to see what that kind of synthesis looks like and if it's something I like writing.

A Callout to the Shadowdark Community

So I've had a lot of conversations with my good friend Ary about OSR philosophy and adventure design in general - but I've never really "clicked" with the particular style of gameplay. I've struggled for a long while to articulate the "why" that is, but as I was working on this post and trying to understand the philosophy of what makes a good Shadowdark adventure (and by extension what makes a good OSR adventure) - I started asking questions in The Arcane Library discord based out of some assumptions I was making about the system.

That kicked off a chain reaction of discussions about Shadowdark (and OSR) play philosophy, a bunch of really nice people being super patient with me, and providing a lot of materials to help understand both the design philosophy behind Shadowdark and some of the things I didn't fully appreciate about the OSR style of play. It was an incredibly interesting series of observations - how I approach published materials is apparently pretty different from the community, but now I have a better understanding of where I think the interesting playstyle points are.

I'm going to write a longer blog post about what I learned from that experience - and try to articulate more clearly how I approach published materials in particular, and how I approach GMing different types of games. I'm not sure if it'll be insightful or novel, but it'll at least allow me to get the thoughts down on digital paper.

In short, thank you everyone I've interacted with on The Arcane Library discord and for being incredibly kind and patient.

The Actual Adventure

All that preamble to the anti-climactic ending! Here's the PDF of the "Adventure":

I used this template from Sersa Victory as a starting point for the layout, but I've modified it pretty heavily to use some more of the features from Affinity Publisher 2 (for example, Publisher 2 supports multiple columns in a single frame which flows a bit better than a frame-per-column).

As I was writing it, I tried to split up the "why is the dungeon in the current state that it is in" and place that at the back, so that it's more clear that the GM can entirely ignore it if they want (and to make it easier to exclude should you not print it).

I tried to take an approach where the narrative design (or, perhaps I should say "setting" or "lore" of the place) is both implicit and vague in the text, and more explicit (though still plenty ambiguous) in the background section.

There's probably something here to be said about the difference between "creating the lore", "telling the players the lore directly", and "telling the GM the lore explicitly" - nothing I do is as direct as "man walks up to you and spills the entire history of a place" but I personally like to know what a designer thought that history is.

There are a couple of callouts in the set-pieces there that I don't even know what they do, I just slapped in something I thought would be interesting and tied them together.

For example, I have no idea why there are blue logs in that fireplace or why the candles in the library burn blue, but only in that room - but I want to. I want to either have a lore-based reason that exists, or I want to have the players call-and-respond to build the world together.

Other bits are symbolic. There's a sheep statue because the nearby village is known for sheep. There's a devil statue because, well, gestures wildly.


Ary proof-read the adventure for me and provided some OSR pointers - he's the reason the Codex has a random roll table now and corrected several grammar / dyslexia-esque errors (I transposed a few words... nice). @doogiemac gave me a quick proofread for tone and grammar.

Wrap up

It's been a long couple of weeks and at this point I'm not sure if I'm making any sense - but I hope you enjoyed this trek into a newbie-to-OSR-writing learning more about a game and community and trying to blend my usual style with it.

Map Mine schedule is moving to every other week starting from this post. See you in two weeks!

Post Scriptum

I think it's worth calling out that I've read a lot of modules: a ton of Pathfinder Adventure Paths, I own most of the recently published 5e adventures from WotC, Rappan Athuk + The Black Monestary and other Frog God productions, Tons of 2e Adventures (<3 Ravenloft in general, but the Grim Harvest series in particular), Tomb of Horrors, etc. I'm sure that a lot of that feeds into how I do idea generation when I run games, and the general way I approach story games - but that's a post for another time.