WHAT THE DEVIL? I took my DeLorean time machine back to 1983. I saw there four middle-school boys playing Dungeons & Dragons, and Mike was the name of the DM. I managed to steal Mike's dungeons and bring them back to 2020. I stole them fair and square, and now you can buy them. Mike did all the work, so we can be lazy.
DETAILS, PLEASE? This is a massive dungeon of 78 hand-drawn levels, for character levels 1st through 10th. It was made with Moldvay/Cook's 1981 Dungeons & Dragons rules, but it can be used with other versions of the game.
WHAT IT IS NOT: These dungeons are not for collecting, not for reading, not for gazing at, and not for displaying on your coffee table. It has no art, no stylish formatting, no production values at all. If you aren't going to use and abuse this in a game, there's no reason to buy it.
WHAT IT IS: The word for this is FUN. These are the dungeons you could have made when you were 12 years old, but were too lazy. It is a no-nonsense dungeon for playing D&D. You don't even need to study it beforehand. You can run it on-the-fly.
You can see the whole thing previewed on DriveThruRPG and it is very attractively priced.
McKinney's approach here is exceedingly minimal, as you will see. The dungeons are small and simple. There are a handful of house rules. The room descriptions are all (all!) like this:
In other words, when the author says you can run it on the fly, he means it.
There is much to admire here. The final product is cheap, effective at what it sets out to achieve, and fun. You can think of it as being something akin to the 'Billy' bookcase:
In other words, if you need a functional bookcase quickly, perhaps because of a dramatic shelving emergency in your home, you can nip down to IKEA and get this item of furniture for about £20 or something and it will work.
The problem is, I tend to want this:
Indeed, I've even written in the past about this predilection of mine:
My basic idea of a good game book (whether a good rule book, good module, good bestiary, whatever) is that it should be well-designed - which typically means efficiently designed - and interesting to read. Those are the platonic ideals. While the design should therefore be "minimalist" in a functional sense - it should be minimally complex, i.e. only as complex as it needs to be - the approach to content is subject to a totally different set of considerations. Give me good, interesting, exciting, readable, imaginative, dare I say even poetic, prose. I don't want to read a rule book written like a car manual. I want to read a rule book written by Proust, Ellroy or Vance. I don't mind how different the style is, but give me style. Give me voice. Give me something good that I actually enjoy reading for its own sake.
By the same token, I don't want to read a book full of "This is a bronze-age village exporting pitch next to a bunch of Vikings and a colony of 15 ents." I want a rule book full of real ideas to inspire and entice - ideas that mean something - and which I wouldn't have thought of myself. I can't get enough of those.
So how can we reconcile this? Is there a way for us McKinneyan minimalists and Stuartian maximalists to get along? Is there a way to make the minimalist approach appeal to the maximalist impulse? Is there a way to boil a dungeon or hexmap down to its essence in the way McKinney so masterfully achieves, while keeping it beautiful, or even revealing a fresh beauty of a kind? That is to say, can we make a D&D module into something like a tree by Mondrian - both efficient and artistically compelling?
You will have your own ideas. Here are two suggestions:
1) The dungeon (or hex) key as poetry - each entry constrained by having to be composed in a poetic form. Rhyming would perhaps be too difficult and almost definitely too lame for words, but haiku could work:
A: 20 orcs rest here/they are armed with swords and slings/the west door is locked [stats]
Longer entries could be composed of two, three, five verses, and so on, the only rule being that the number of syllables used must be exact. I could imagine reading this sort of thing to take on a rhythmic, hypnotic quality, and one would be tempted - as one always is when writing haiku - to lean towards the nostalgic, the wistful, the melancholic, the beautiful.
I am also sure that this would result in 'creativity in constraint' being leveraged highly effectively.
2) The dungeon as pastiche: each level loosely inspired by the painting of a particular artist, by a novel by a particular author, by a series of films, and so on. How would it be to make a dungeon the levels of which were all based on paintings by Brueghel? Or Francis Bacon? Or which were all based on a different Conan novel? Minimalist content, but symbolising something bigger in the whole.