Adventure Layout & Containment
I've written adventures for RPG's for almost 4 years now.
I've statted out monsters, created plotlines, developed villains, and laid the grids for tons of random charts/items/encounters.
But amidst all the zany adventures I've helped pen in the past: the pig-demon plots, child-eating clowns, cultish Kuo-Toa, remorhaz rampages—none of those great ideas can top the importance of visual layout and design.
D&D adventures are, ultimately, how-to books. They're guides. They're textbooks meant to convey information to a dungeon master at the table.
Let's look at a couple of published adventures and see how layout can keep a dungeon master from becoming overwhelmed at the table to maintain the roleplaying flow.
Pictured above are two fantasy RPG adventures: Wizards of the Coast's Curse of Strahd and Lamentations of the Flame Princess' The Cursed Chateau. Both feature fancy-looking sons-a-bitches reclining in ornate chairs and getting their curse on. Both adventures incorporate getting stuck in a spooky place full of undead and trying to overcome the villains' evil plans.
So what do we get with both adventures as far as layout and design?
Let's look at the maps:
On the left side, we see that Curse of Strahd comes with a foldable map that the DM can separate from the main book—a fantastic idea! Curse of Strahd is a massive campaign, so throwing in a mega-map is a great way to consolidate the cartography.
On the right side, we see that The Cursed Chateau keeps all of its maps on the inside front cover and first page. Also great! The DM can quickly peek behind the cover any time to check the physical layout of the haunted mansion as the players explore. It's the quickest way to do a quick reference!
But then The Cursed Chateau takes its mapping idea a step further, elevating its design above Curse of Strahd.
Let's look at another side-by-side comparison of a room-key layout further within the books.
In this two-page spread of The Cursed Chateau, we get room descriptions for rooms G11 through G16, and the editor copies and pastes the sections of the main map into the spread! A DM doesn't even have to flip to the inside cover: the layout for the rooms in question are right there! This is a fantastic adjustment, allowing the DM to keep the book open in front without having to bookmark and flip to other segments, delaying game time and allowing players time to get bored.
Also, all information for these rooms is kept within this two page spread. Information for room G16 doesn't spill over to the next page, requiring the DM to flip over and catch the remaining tags of a room description. To a degree, the editor manages to keep room descriptions within their own columns.
Editors and layout designers: this is what you need to emulate. Yes, it's difficult to tell a writer to cut a 250 word room description down to 100 to better fit the margins, but dammit, that's where writing expertise comes to the foreground.
This two-page spread format is amazing.
Curse of Strahd comes close to utilizing this format:
This excerpt shows the upper areas of Castle Ravenloft. There are room-key formats, and the adventure also includes a nice little segment of the upper spires in a semi-isometric style. The map has labeled segments which match the rooms listed on this two page spread.
But my praise comes with nitpicks. This spread suffers from containment problems (is that a term for layout? Containment? I'm coining it now! There is probably already a word that defines what I want containment to mean, but I don't know it and I ain't looking it up!)
Containment (noun): in graphic design, the overall neatness regarding excess information being kept off of a page, or (inversely) information necessary to a page being pushed to another location in the layout design.
All I'm saying is that the description for this collection of rooms actually begins on the previous page, but the description should begin on this two-page spread. The graphic of Strahd's portrait in the top left of the above photo could have been removed to allow room for the text. Or heck, the interior text could be cut down and simplified to allow space.
But let's look at another segment of Curse of Strahd:
This two-page spread is immediately before the previous spread. The segment that says "Spires of Ravenloft" in the bottom of the fourth column is the segment that should have been placed on the next two-page spread.
My issue with this two-page spread is the sheer wall of text with a small picture of a purdy lady to break it all up. Almost an entire column's worth of text is read-aloud text. There's no room for a map segment to help keep the DM within the pages (there could have been room if the Spires of Ravenloft segment had been pushed to the next page).
This spread also suffers from containment issues, with the excess Spires of Ravenloft information that could be nixed to somewhere else, and the dangling bits of another room description trickling in at the beginning for the first column.
But wait! There's more!
Let's look at monster stats.
Damn that's a sexy layout!
The Cursed Chateau has four of its NPC's neatly arranged on the two-page spread here: pictures, names, in-game stat mechanics, and a brief character history/mannerisms. It's all so tidy! No containment issues! And there's even some white space to help ease the eyes!
Now let's look at a segment from the monster appendix in Curse of Strahd:
Three bad guys on this one, and the layout is... everywhere. Containment issues arise from some information necessary for this two-page spread spilling out onto neighboring pages. I also wish that the monster stats for 5E were less... wordy? I mean, I've found a way to fix that in the past, but with these mainstream campaigns from 5E (the modern gateway drug to tabletop RPG's), I can see why the designers would rather include too much information than not enough.
But eh, we get what we get, I suppose.
I've taken the concept of the two-page spread and containment to the utmost consideration when designing my adventures. I used to drop blobs of words on the page, throwing containment to the wind, but then I discovered how much better of a writer I become when I learn to nix elements to fit them better onto the page.
And the DM loves it as well!
Here's a sample of a two-page spread I've created for my adventure, Petey's Pork Pie Emporium:
I have seven rooms on one page, and a map for the seven rooms across from the room descriptions.
It's compact, neat, keeps containment nice and clean, and the only way I could possibly improve it would be including annotated monster stats for the enemies somewhere on the spread (tried it during the design phase... it kind of worked... but I needed to hone my skills a bit more!)
In short, if you're new to writing RPG adventures (or if you're a veteran), give a bit more effort into your layout. Work with artists or writers to tweak their input so that you can better fit everything together. The neater your layout, the easier a DM can play with it at the table. Even in digital form, a two-page spread works well enough (tablet and computer screens in landscape format can support the layout well).
Also... go ahead and try writing in digest format (5.5 x 8.5 in pages). You'll be surprised what you can accomplish when the writing dimensions close in on you even further!
Buy Curse of Strahd here.
Buy The Cursed Chateau here.
Buy PETEY'S PORK PIE EMPORIUM HERE it gets the all caps because I wrote it and I want money.