Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Page Counts

Waaaay back in January, I mentioned Ben Gibson was hosting an adventure writing contest (specifically, an adventure site writing contest), but I absolutely failed to write any particular follow-up post on the subject. My apologies. Here's the skinny: the contest ended and, yes, my entry won. 

However, that latter bit is completely unimportant. What IS important is that the compilation of the best entries was released (um, yeah, back in April dude) and is currently available for FREE over at DriveThru. Would you like a handful of adventure sites to sprinkle into your game world as little side excursions? Well, here you go: 32 pages of PDF consisting of eight "adventure sites," each constricted to two pages of text plus map. Not bad. And did I mention it's free?

Here's the bit that I like about it (besides being one of the entries): it's 32 pages.

There was a time when D&D adventure modules ALL clocked in at about "32 pages." That time was long ago, in the magical time period known as the 1980s. 

[funny side note: my kids have romantic notions of the '80s and have often said they wish they'd been alive at that time. My daughter, especially, has lamented that time travel isn't possible, as she'd want to travel back in time to the 1980s and live her childhood then. It makes me laugh. Yes, there are many things about that decade that I miss and/or that I'm nostalgic about, but having LIVED through them...yeah, no. Mm.  Okay, enough...that's a tangent I could wax on about all day...]

And there's good reason for that number. 32 is just eight pages, folded and saddle stitched. Half the size of the B/X books which (at 64 pages each) were just about the limit for a saddle-stitched printer of the time.

Hm. Okay, I'm making an assumption there: my own printer has told me that 64 pages + cover is pretty much the limit of their capabilities. Not sure what reprographics technology was like back in the early 80s. But all those old TSR game manuals (Top Secret, Star Frontiers, Boot Hill, Gamma World, etc.) clocked in at 64 pages or less.

But TSR's adventure modules were always smaller, maxing out at 32 pages apiece...at least up through 1985. 1985 sees the release of WG6: Isle of the Ape (at 48 pages) as well as the Temple of Elemental Evil "super-module" (although that one wasn't saddle-stitched). Beginning in 1986, larger saddle-stitched modules become more and more common offerings from TSR, including most of the final Dragonlance scenarios, B10: Night's Dark Terror, other BECMI-era modules, the DA (Dave Arneson) series of adventures, etc. Of course, 1986 brought the entry of even more "super-modules" to the market, too (A1-4, GDQ, I1-3, etc.) as well as the infamous H-series (Bloodstone). 

In other words: about the same time adventures started turning bad.

Boo-hiss! JB you suck! I love Mentzer's I11: Needle, and I12: Ravenloft 2 is an absolute masterpiece!

Sure, sure, whatever. I'm sure there are plenty of good adventures published by TSR after 1985...my own purchase of modules post-'85 were very few and far between (unless I was picking up old modules...used...from The Book Exchange in Missoula, MT). Fact is that there was a period of time as a kid when I simply had little access to adventure modules at all...that period being between (roughly) 1986 to 1988. As a kid without income (any "allowance" my parents gave me was pretty paltry and probably spent on the occasional comic book), and no car (few places within biking distance of my house at the time carried ANY D&D stuff...maybe B. Dalton's books), there was simply no real opportunity to even peruse these latter-day modules, let alone purchase any. And by the time I got to high school (1988) I was (mostly) out of the D&D hobby anyway, having discovered actual game stores (in the University District and Capitol Hill) and a plethora of distractions...including other RPGs.

These days, though...

There is a limit to what I will read. That's the truth. My time and, frankly, my attention span is rather limited. A 32 page adventure scenario is pretty much the limit of what I can dig into. Oh, I've picked up other offerings...both from the OSR and those "glory days" of the late 1980s...that are far, far larger than 32 pages. But in general they are a slog to read through. And as adventures, they are tricky (for me) to conceptualize and 'hold' in my mind.

Let me explain what I mean by that: when I DM an adventure I need a good "grasp" of the thing to be effective in running it. I need to be able to keep track of the NPCs, the encounters, the way the adventure 'works' (functions) as a site (or sites, if multiple). I need to be able to hold these things in my head in order to react to the antics of the players in a fashion that is appropriate. And by "appropriate" I mean A) in a way which doesn't harm the verisimilitude of the play experience and B) does not cause a cascade effect of errors down the rest of the adventure due to dereliction or neglect. 

Probably I should give examples...and yet I'm so set in how I do adventures already, I don't have any "bad examples" to provide. Perhaps I'm just lazy: maybe I could take and run a 60+ page monstrosity without needing to look stuff up, flip through pages, get confused, get lost. Maybe. Perhaps I've tried running such an adventure in the past and just...can't...remember.

But here's the thing: an adventure is just a scenario. That's it; that's all it is. It (ideally) has a key of encounters that should be both sensible and appropriate (two terms I'm using very specifically). And (again, this is for me) it should have an overall design concept in which those encounters function together in synchronicity...not like a "well-oiled machine," but more like a healthy living organism. Because when we play Dungeons & Dragons we are immersing ourselves in a world and a world lives and breathes. And the person running that world is also a living organism, one subject to error and illness. 

Ugh. I'm probably not laying this out right. Let me approach it from a different angle: 32 pages is IMMENSE, okay? Considering that you are providing a single scenario for adventure...something that the players may choose to ignore or move on from or spend several evenings delving...there is a LOT you can pack into 32 pages. Ravenloft was only 32 pages...and it has more than 120 keyed areas, AND wasted page count on full page illustrations and fortune-card mini-games. The entire Against the Giant series (G1-G3) was published in a 32 pages, and that can take months to complete.  32 pages is a LOT.

If you need more than 32 pages to pen your adventure module, then it probably needs to be broken up into more than one scenario.

That's my opinion, of course. But it feels like a lot of these huge page count adventures are "something more" than a single scenario. They are "setting guides." Or they are "mini-campaigns." And, especially with regard to the latter, why wouldn't you break them into different sections, different linked/related adventures rather than a single, unwieldy book?

Of course, there are also the vaunted "mega-dungeons": the Barrowmazes and the Stone Hells. I know some folks love these. I know that some folks consider mega-dungeon delving to be the TRUE way of playing D&D based on the examples set down by Gygax and Arneson (with Castles Greyhawk and Blackmoor, respectively). They're not for me. I am nearly as interested...and yet far more invested...in the world outside the dungeon, as in the dungeon itself. The idea of playing through a dozen levels of anything is foreign to my game...why O why would I ever want to purchase such a thing for my table?

Heck, I've never been able to finish reading the Temple of Elemental Evil without dozing off.

So, I've come to a conclusion: I'm not going to write any any adventures with a page count higher than 32. 'Big deal, JB, you don't write adventures.' Well, I'm starting to. And I'm going to set some working parameters for myself. 32 pages, including cover page, appendices, pre-gens, etc. That's it. Truth be told, I am a little disappointed that Dragon Wrack was a whopping 41 pages...however, in my defense it did include six pages of pre-gen write-ups and a three page Chainmail supplement.

No more!

I'm totally serious here (silly as this subject might sound). An adventure should offer maximum playability with minimal prep. A 32 page adventure module can be read and digested in an afternoon, and run in the evening...THAT should be the goal. The adventure isn't the game, after all. Oh, it's a big part of the game, but it. Ain't. The. Game. 

[I feel like I'm writing a lot of sentences like that lately]

32 pages should be an absolute maximum for the adventure proper. Many adventures shouldn't even need that many pages (pick up a copy of classics like S1: Tomb of Horrors or C1: Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan and remove the illustration booklets...count how many pages those are). Just what are we doing these days with the adventures being published. Here's a list of the last 25 adventures reviewed over at TenFootPole:
  1. a 60 page "non-adventure"
  2. a 17 page adventure with a 7-room dungeon
  3. a 32 page "walking simulator" (not an adventure)
  4. a 17 page adventure with a single encounter
  5. a 30 page adventure with 6 encounters
  6. an 18 page adventure with 12 rooms
  7. an 87 page adventure with 30 rooms
  8. a 100 page adventure with 60ish rooms
  9. a 48 page "digest pointcrawl" with 17 encounters
  10. a 100 page dungeon of nine levels
  11. a 150 page supplement/setting guide
  12. a 104 page jungle hexcrawl
  13. a 120 page city supplement featuring 3 dungeons ("not an adventure")
  14. a 58 page adventure featuring 67 encounters
  15. a 34 page regional guide with "nothing of interest"
  16. a 182 page adventure (holy jeez)
  17. a 31 page adventure featuring 3 mini dungeons of 6ish rooms each
  18. a 75 page "Call of Cthulhu-type" adventure
  19. a 38 page "not an adventure"
  20. a 30 page adventure that seems pretty good
  21. a 24 page adventure that also seems pretty good
  22. a 24 page adventure with 35 rooms
  23. an 8 page adventure describing 12 encounters
  24. a 44 page incomprehensible "adventure"
  25. a 19 page "adventure" consisting of random tables
[why am I looking at Bryce Lynch's reviews? Because A) he is prolific and experienced, B) he has standards to which he adheres, C) he (tries to) only review things classified as "adventures" and does so fairly indiscrimately]

Of those 25, 14 have too high a page count for (my) practical purposes, 3 more are non-adventures, and 4 of those left have a higher page count than the number of encounters in the thing (which is totally unacceptable). That's 21 of 25 (84%) automatically eliminated from my consideration for running, regardless of how "good" the review might be.

Of the four remaining, #22 and #23 get eliminated due to their ratio of encounters to page count. Yeah, there are more encounters than pages, but nor much more...a designer should not need a whole page to detail an encounter, and even though I realize the number given is the average...well, that's still too much extraneous detail/padding for my taste. Tighten it up, folks!

*sigh*  I'm sure I'm coming off as entirely unfair and/or "out of touch with the times." Yeah, okay. I'm mean and old (and getting meaner and older). But here's the thing: adventures are meant to be played, not read. Yes, I know some people purchase these things strictly for reading enjoyment. Yes, I'm aware that writers publish material with this very criteria in mind (and that's how they earn their bread). Yes, I realize that a shit-ton of people don't really understand this hobby we're in. I get it. Fine.

Adventures are meant to be played, not read. D&D is meant to be experienced through play...not through reading a book and/or watching other people (i.e. on a streaming series). I get that people derive enjoyment from this type of thing, and that's fine (if, IMO, "weird"). But folks that are doing this are NOT "playing D&D."  They are not doing the activity that we call gaming. They are doing AN ACTIVITY, but it is NOT gaming. It is reading. It is watching. It is "fanning." It is consuming.

But it's not playing D&D.

Adventure modules facilitate play of the game. That is: they make it easier. Or, rather, they should make it easier. That was their original purpose. But that's been lost...for the most part. It happens. A lot of things have been lost over the years. Doesn't mean we all need to (or want to) travel back in time to the 1980s.

My parameters are my own. You're welcome to create your own parameters. "32 pages" works for me.


  1. Very good points, and I agree with you. Short, discrete adventure scenarios seem to be the sweet spot. For all the reasons you state. This sort of aligns with my own recent post on the burden of trying to use published material, over developing one's own. If you use published material it should be easy, and save you some time. These brick-sized supplements are more of a burden than a help.

  2. I'm with you on this, JB. I think about how much adventure we got out of Isle of Dread, or Crash on Volturnus back in the day. 32 pages is more than enough for an adventure, if it's presented the right way. I actually had grand designs to release a mega-module a couple of years back, but then I realized it would probably be too much work for too little utility for DMs. A series of shorter supplements, linked to each other, might work better.

  3. Pulled my frail copy of The Caverns of Thracia off the shelf it's 78 page.

    But .....I 100% agree that shorter is better.

    And a timley post as I just ordered a copy of Runequest Griffin Mountain and it is so dense that I just don't have the energy. I need something that gets me to the meat of the product.

    1. I don't hold the JG stuff in quite the esteem others do, mainly because I never owned/ran/played them back in the day. I picked up Dark Tower (70+ pages) a couple years back...still haven't managed to read it.

    2. I've never ran Thracia, I only picked it up in the late 2000s and I don't really run modules any more. But it packs a lot into the 78 pages and never gets bogged down.

      I think the keys is focus. If you took UK 2 and UK 3 combined them together at 64 pages they would still be a good module. Also I think if you added 8 more pages to L1 to expand some regional encounter sites on the map it would actually benefit the adventure.

    3. Having run UK 2 and 3 just recently (2021? I think?), I can attest they work great…as two separate adventures. Again, they need to be thought of as two different, neighboring REGIONS (each with its own sites/“dungeons” for exploration), only loosely connected with a shared history and situation. Publishing them as separate entities made them (for me) far easier to digest than a single Big One.

      L1, on the other hand, isn’t one I’ve run. I might (??) own a copy, I’ve read it, but I didn’t particularly LIKE it…perhaps because the scope was too big? Lakofka was trying to introduce his setting AND an adventure at once…certainly a challenging task to get done in 32 pages!

    4. I had the opposite experience running UK 2 & 3. I ran UK 2 multiple times in the 80s but even though I had both not once did we transitioned to UK 3. Back then finishing a module was a stopping point and then someone else would run something.

      As for L1 I also played and ran this multiple times. It's nostalgic so holds a place near and dear, but as you said it's a setting and a site based adventure. I think 8 to 12 pages of additional adventure sites would flesh it out to a great sandbox. L2 is a mess but we still played that as well, but never as a direct follow-up to L1.

      I'm all for small X8 is another one thay does a lot in 32 pages.

      But as I've said here before I think I1 much like L1 could use an expansion which I think some dude did recently........

    5. Let's look at I1 for a second. It's got that ol' "32 page thing" going on, right? But how are those pages spent:

      - 2 pages on cover page and pre-gens
      - 2 pages on background notes, including tournament play history
      - 4 pages on maps
      - 4 pages on new monsters
      - 1 extra page on "adventure ideas"

      The adventure key itself is only some 19 pages. My 3 level, 27 encounter, "demon shrine add-on" is 12 pages (including the 3 pages of maps); it wouldn't be terribly hard to edit it together to make a single, 32 page adventure. Yes, I1 could benefit from an "expansion"...but it still has a lot of room to expand!

      That being said, roughly EIGHT of those 19 pages (42%!) are concerned with getting INTO the Forbidden City. It would not have been an awful idea to break the adventure into two separate modules...one detailing the journey to (and entry into) the place, and one detailing the city proper. D3: Vault of the Drow could benefit from the same treatment (having the Drow city proper be its own "adventure" module, separate from the rest of the Vault).

      [I really can't comment much with any authority on the L-series]

      There are better ways to use one's SPACE in these adventures, but (as I said in my post) you can put a LOT into a 32 page adventure, enough for several game sessions, even withOUT making it cramped and "small font." I don't know, man...I guess, expansive adventures just ain't my cup of tea.

    6. Honestly this also might be a situation of be careful what you wish for. That by expanding the material it gets worse. Star Wars was great as three films. Also my least favorite part of L1 is the odd gambling temple in the woods so maybe more expansion would have taken it in a direction that hurt it.

      Again I 100% agree with the premise that smaller is better. And it's better to be left wanting more than feel something is bloated.

  4. I tend to agree with you that 32 is a good figure, though I prefer a larger font and more relevant art these days. I think that 12 and 24 are good numbers too for a fanzine.

  5. Nice work! Mine didn't make the cut.
    Regarding length, I'm more for concise, with most of my scribblings tend to be in the 5-ish page range, but I primarily write to one session scenarios.

    1. We just did the CAG podcast this afternoon discussing the various adventure sites. Despite not "making the cut," Commodore (Gibson) mentioned you and singled out your adventure as very good, only just missing the finals circle.

      Just FYI.
      ; )

  6. Yeah and people don't believe me when I tell them it's more work to prep any pre written adventure than to just run the world. How long does it take you to read those adventures(shorter because you limit the pagecount) vs it took me about an hour to flesh out the ideas for the current "adventure" my group is on and another hour to sketch out a basic map. And they've been pursuing this for 6 sessions now. And then when you take into account the adventures that are a slog to read(5e I'm looking at you, just so wordy) and super long at the same time, and the prep time expands exponentially even though it's less actual material.