Improved Information Presentation for Dungeon Masters and the Slumbering Ursine Dunes

The Golden Goats (our D&D party) has chosen (on the basis of insufficient information and DM nudging) decided to (of their own free will) hit the Slumbering Ursine Dunes. This is not a review of that adventure, but I will use it for illustration.

Like many dungeon masters (referees, game masters, whateverees), I have stacks of adventures at my disposal. Infinite modules and adventures, games galore. From the OSR classics like Death Frost Doom to Zak Sabbath strangenesses like Red & Pleasant Land to the gargantuosity of Blue Medusa to short things like Gus L's Tower of the Hated Pretender and the subsequent Dread Machine and Patrick Stuart's Deep Carbon Observatory. Seriously, google those and check them out. They are good.

I've come to really appreciate pre-made adventures, because they provide me with

  1. the skeleton of an adventure to run, useful when short on time, 
  2. and encounters that I didn't make up myself, which is great because they challenge me when running them, expand my experience, and leave me completely indifferent to outcomes.
But one thing I have run into in every one of these adventures is the challenge of information presentation.

The information I need from an adventure as a DM is different from the information players need, furthermore I function as a medium for this information, filtering it for the players. So, the information flows a bit like this: Author (Adventure) ---> DM ---> Players. Every one of those steps is open to entropy, distortion and information loss.

But the big difference is in how information is (or should be!) presented to different audiences.

How Players Receive Information During a Game

A player receives information in a linear fashion from the DM. For example:
DM: There is a great stork in front of you. About 60 feet high. It grabs a merchant and swallows him whole.
PC: Is it blue?
DM: No.
PC: Damnit, my Arrow of Blue Slaying won't work. Can I jump on it?
DM: If you climb a nearby building or tree, it could work, but it'll be dangerous.
In this way, a player's experience is a bit like reading / playing a piece of interactive fiction with a real-live fictomancer (aka. storyteller) and dice to provide random events.

How DMs Receive Information From an Adventure

The same way. In a linear fashion.

Most adventures are laid out and written as though I, the DM, am an invisible, floating, incorporeal, somewhat mind-reading eye or spirit exploring the adventure step-by-step.

  1. The sands here have been compacted by generations of ritual blood-letting by the troglocactus people. A golden cow is buried under the semi-animate dragon statue. A smelly path leads south. A sweet path leads east.
  2. 1d3 orco-agave slaves are here working. Great clay bowls pock the canyon here, where the troglocactus people deposit their sappy discharges to make the delectable nectar known as peopltle. Peopltle causes a buzz and gives advantage to speaking to animals or plants and a 20% chance of seeing a vision familiar (see p. 59). A paved path leads to the adobe hut of the ogro-saguaro chief red-knocker to the west and a dirt track leads to the orco-agave slave village further south.
  3. 40% chance Red-Knocker is here. The adobe hut is fine and decorated. There is always a spiny ant-eater-umber-hulk crossbreed here. She is named Mary-Louise and likes checkers. Can find rumours. Red-Knocker has blown all his gold at the Gamblehouse of Sweet Nectar Slim in Migarro, so there is no loot.
And this is kind of fun. It's like a make-my-own adventure game in some ways. I end up rooting for the Clan of Poo werebear circus performers. I chuckle at puns.

What PCs and DMs Do With Information

The player immerses herself in her own story in a linear fashion, knocking down one door after another, until she discovers the prince is in another castle. And yes, I've done that. She doesn't need to know what is (or could be) behind the window, under the hidden trapdoor, in the background or in the mind of the extra-corporeal corner-demon Pelutho who is tossing bread crumbs into this reality to fish for the souls of men (but not women, for Pelutho is not that kind of tosser).

The DM mediates the adventure to the PCs. The DM is like the adventure's Search and Map and Random Seed and Dice Rolling system mashed together with some bad voice acting and terrible theme music for fight scenes. Oh, also, while generally conducting the party like a master of ceremonies (because a good game of D&D is a party).

And therein is the problem.

As a DM during play I need a synchronous overview of the adventure at multiple levels. I need both higher and lower-level overviews, and I need more information density than a player ever experiences. Adventures try to deal with this, and many recent OSR adventures are taking steps, but they're not there yet. The essence is still linear, even in the Blue Medusa.

Information Presentation (the Example of the Slumbering Ursine Dunes)

I'm going to break-down the SUD based on the information being presented.
  • p. 1 - Welcome to the Dunes - an introduction and some guidelines (not using it during play)
  • p. 2 - Dunes History - dropped it, as I slotted it into Rainbowlands
  • p. 3–p. 8 - Faction Behavior - this is important, but at 4 pages, I don't have the time to review it as I play. In practice, this means my rendition of the SUD diverges at the first NPC encountered.
  • p. 8–9 - Rumor Table - yay! But let's hope I spot it more often. (R&PL has an interesting approach, where all the tables are (repeated?) at the back, which I like. Another cool option would be a bonus .pdf of just the tables to keep them available).
  • p.9–10 - Wandering Critter Table - important. See above.
  • p. 10 - Using the Map - honestly, ignored this in play.
  • p. 11 - the Map - I refer to this constantly. It now has a flap, marking it in the book. This is one of the most important references in the adventure, unfortunately, like on many maps, the locations are simply numbered, not named. Maps are an area of information presentation for DMs that I think present one of the best chances for improvement in future products.
  • p. 12–20 - 25 Point-crawl locations - all the "level 1 locations". A key problem is that there are two key adventure/dungeon locations, which are not marked as such on the map and require "redirection" from p. 16 to pages 20 and 30. Also, several of the small locations do also conceivable break down into smaller sub locations. Linear!
  • p. 20–40 - Actually, three large dungeons, containing 3 of the factions. Together they add an additional 25, 14 and 18 locations, respectively. Each comes with specific local environment settings and encounter tables, but their maps are only at the end of the adventure. And, again, numbered. Linear!
  • p. 41–43 - Chaos Index - a fun tracker-based mechanism to modify the environment based on party activities. However, notice it's location: slotted in the middle.
  • p. 44–55 - Bestiary - ok, reference. It can be here, I probably won't manage to check during play, though!
  • p. 55–56 - Spells - as above.
  • p. 56–59 - Bonus Classes - as above.
  • p.60–61 - NPC hireling pre-gens.
  • p. 64–65 - maps for p. 20–40
At its core, the SUD is a location-based adventure with 4 factions, 4 location areas each with its own encounter tables, a total of c. 85 location objects + additional character and treasure objects, and several global tables and trackers (chaos index). This is an approximate information architecture of the whole adventure:

SUD information architecture: I want stuff like this when I run an adventure.
SUD does its job pretty well, but it's quite classic in that the only non-linear tool is a map, the rest of the adventure presentation is linear.

Ideas on Adventure Information Presentation for Running a Game

That quick information architecture? That's a top-level overview for a DM. Slightly below that, is a diagram breakdown of the different moving parts (objects: locations, characters, treasures, traps, tricks, etc.) and how they pertain to each other. I generally make one for every game I run (here's the DFD example. It has pictures, too.) — assuming I have at least a bit of time.

If I have time, I may try to hammer something like this out for SUD, because it's fun and I'm in the process of running it. When I run a game, I want to have the information presented to me in a dense yet visual format, that I can use to grasp what is going on and stay on the ball ... sort of like a good infographic.

This is how I envision it:
  1. top-level adventure track = adventure info architecture + factions track + chaox index + key tables (this is basically a table of contents cross-pollinated with DM screen, I guess!)
  2. adventure diagrams = crossbreed of map + key facts about each location (NPCs, treasures, challenges) - these should correspond to the individual adventure levels, so SUD would have four - but the level 1 (pointcrawl) should mark the entrances to sub-levels.
  3. location details = this is basically an index-style presentation of the individual locations. What we already have.
I suspect every DM does some level of self-architecting before running an adventure, but my hunch is that several handout style one-pagers would make running most adventures much, much easier. If I'm write (I'll find out soon enough), a 60 page adventure like SUD really just requires 5 stand-alone .pdfs to make it ridiculously easy to run.

And now, a picture.

See the Red Dunes? Just south-west of Sfera?


  1. This is extremely useful information for me as I'm writing my first (to-be-published) module. I really want it to not only be a good and fun module, but also a useful-to-the-DM module, and am always on the lookout for ways to make sure the module well designed. I would love to see what specific kind of handouts you would recommend for this adventure.

    1. First: Thanks for posting on the blog, too ... they have a bit more permanence than soc-med-threads.

      Second: agreed. I think it's a question of target audience needs, which adventure design has often missed because of the idea we have of the adventure-as-a-book. Arnold K of Goblin Punch brought up the idea of a hyperlinked site / page, which has potential.

  2. I set up something like what you describe back in the 5e playtest days when we were doing the Blingdenstone missions. You can see how I laid it out here:

    1. The orc and gnome sheets in particular look exactly like the kind of stuff I had in mind. Tracking a faction on their own "character sheets", essentially.

      This does make me think ... so much love is lavished on character sheets, but the GM still just gets books to lug. The character sheet is a condensation of the PHB for the player in question, so the player doesn't need to continually reference the book. Why not the same for a GM?

    2. The DM equivalent of the character sheet is the screen -- I know my oft-mended 1E screens are the go-to reference for me in the midst of play even though I am playing online and don't need 'screens' as such.

      Of course, D&D screens have always privileged combat (understandably). It would be nice to have exploration rules. Also, this doesn't address information specific to a module or adventure -- perhaps offer inserts for one of those customizable screens with a module?

    3. @Craddoke - exactly, the DM screen tries to get at this, but the way screens are usually built and sold as "finished artifacts" instead of sheets to mark and change and edit, cripples their utility.

      I'd never thought of it much until very recently, when I realized that for my last campaign I have a 5 inch stack of paper and notes.

      Inserts for those screens with a module would be awesome, I think.

  3. Hi Luka

    Here's an idea I been toying with - a compact way of presenting module information - it might be adapted for your use?


    The idea uses MS Excel on a PC. Not sure how it works on other systems - feedback greatful received!


  4. Hi Goblins Henchman!

    Yes, this is very much in line with what I have in mind! You've actually arrived at pretty much the structure I was brainstorming out. Your "NOTES" section corresponds to my awkwardly named "top-level track", while the individual "maps" are precisely the adventure diagrams I had in mind.

    Now, the question is, would OSR game publishers consider such digital supplements for their adventures? ^_^

  5. Hi Luka

    Glad you like the idea.

    I've shown a handful of people the idea, but I'm not sure they quite got the 'problem' this idea aims to solve.

    These Spreadsheet modules (SsM) are pretty simple to make once you have the .pdf file.

    I can imagine there might be more elegant way to implement this idea than my DIY work-around. That's said, MS Excel is pretty universally available program.

    And, yes, I agree that this idea could be a great help to DM's as a supplement to the 'standard' format of modules.

    I've got very few G+ followers, so I doubt I have the 'reach' to get the idea noticed, let alone under the noses of OSR publishers!

    Till then, I could email you my How-to-Guide, if you'd like a copy!

    GH (goblinshenchman at gmail dot com)

    1. I often use Google Docs, but yes - same effect. Hang on, I'll mail you.