Thursday, 13 August 2020

Bridging the Minimalist-Maximalist Divide

 Comments on yesterday's post led me to Geoffrey McKinney's 'Mike's Dungeons'. From the blurb:

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. 


  1. Such a thought-provoking piece. I think some OSR does lean towards this idea of minimalist content evoking something much greater. I'm thinking of the original Black Hack, but it feels like this was a thing for a while. I also love the idea of pointlessly indulgent content that only evokes when read by the GM, i.e. the PCs would never know the dungeon was written as epic alliterative verse, or was based on the Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido.

    1. See below! I love the idea of a dungeon based on the 53 stations of the Tokaido. I used to live on the Tokaido line.

  2. Thank you for your kind blog post! A couple of things you might find intriguing:

    1. The first 78 levels of Mike's Dungeons are inspired by the 78 cards of Aleister Crowley's Thoth Tarot deck. Each of the 22 levels that comprise the Great Temple of Evil Chaos was inspired by one of the 22 Major Arcana, while each of the 56 other levels was inspired by one of the 56 Minor Arcana.

    2. I allowed my language used for levels 79-117 to be a bit more euphonious than in the upper levels:

    "About 50% of the statuettes are pale yellow, and the others are either lavender, mauve, or coral. The statuetttes are of human figures that are beautiful and graceful, yet disquieting."

    "[The 49 scrolls] consist of well over a thousand subtly linked prose poems (in a dead and forgotten language) of exquisite delicacy and refinement that perhaps allude to a unified story or theme."

    "[The seashell's] volutes, whorls, spikes, tubercles, and nodules are bewilderingly complex yet with an inner harmony that defies logic and a beauty that eludes description. Its swirled hues are all the colors of the spectrum, but faded to the subtlest of tints as though by a million years of being washed by the sea."

    "3 chaotic matriarchs dwell here amongst fabrics and furniture so faded by time as to be mere shadows of blue and green. They have bald heads and wear simple tunics, and they never speak save to utter the weird syllables of spells."


    Not great, but not bad for a 12-year-old. :)

    1. Yeah, I like those better - those little extra touches add a great deal.

      You did something similar with Isle of the Unknown, no? Some underlying pattern?

    2. Yes. Each statue on the Isle was inspired by one of Judges Guild's Unknown Gods. Also, each of the Isle's mages was inspired by one of the 13 signs of sidereal astrology (basically the 12 signs of tropical astrology plus Ophiuchus).

    3. It's possible you could be accused of soft-pedalling that a little too much. A few more hints in the text, just for the DM, would I think help make the parallels come alive more.

  3. Footpads in leather armor with swords & some coins are boring like shit. If the entire book (or most of it...) is filler material like that, it's a waste of money & time except perhaps for the terminally lazy or clueless. If the entire book was filled with entries like the chaotic matriarchs that would instantly improve it dramatically. It might still be too random or hit & miss to be worthwhile though. Perhaps half the book should simply be cut. Quality over quantity, life's too short to waste on dross.

  4. The room contents listed above seems a little inert. “Orcs rest here” on the other hand, has legs.

    1. It might be a good rule of thumb that entries in a key should always have an active verb. So:
      "20 orcs" or "20 orcs are here" is bad
      "20 orcs sleep here", "20 orcs guard [x]", "20 orcs hunt rats here", etc., is good

  5. I think it is the DM and players skill with any type of material and making something interesting happen is how the minimalist and maximalist styles are bridged. The handling of material in play is what is important and what everyone else said. 20 orcs bad 20 orcs hunting rats good.

  6. I think it is the DM and players skill with any type of material and making something interesting happen is how the minimalist and maximalist styles are bridged. The handling of material in play is what is important and what everyone else said. 20 orcs bad 20 orcs hunting rats good.

  7. Two suggestions:

    A dungeon where all the monsters are beings that do not have an implied ecology. No giant animals, no orcs, no griffons, no bandits, none of that stuff. Instead, demons, ghosts, and other evil spirits. Japanese yokai would be a great source of such monsters. A noppera-bō has does not fit into a scheme of Gygaxian naturalism - it simply is.

    An allegorical dungeon where the monsters directly represent different sins, virtues, psychological states, etc. Venturing down through the dungeon is a metaphor for reaching some sort of enlightenment. The starting town is literally called "Startington".

    1. Yeah - I suppose the Abyss and the Seven Hells are really just variants of this.

    2. D&D: Pilgrim's Progress edition. :)