Adventures in 8.5x11

Curator's Note

Amateur pen-and-paper game design is certainly not a new phenomenon. Since Gary Gygax and David Arneson began their Blackmoor adventure in 1972 - fusing Chainmail medieval wargaming with Gygax’s established Fantasy Supplement - generations of gamers have meticulously crafted their own sprawling dungeons and fantastical campaign settings.

But what happens when you try to encapsulate a world’s worth of ideas onto a single sheet of 8.5x11 paper? Since 2009, the One Page Dungeon Contest has invited aspiring game designers to answer this question. By exploring this limited canvas, dozens have contributed to an immense collection of pen-and-paper adventures that are innovative in approach and economical in size.

Take Rafal Sadowski’s The Shattered Temple, for example. By encouraging players to “cut along the lines” and divide the page into colour-coded tiles, Sadowski enables multiple playthroughs of the same adventure through randomization and reconfiguration. This type of gamification is taken to a more abstract level with Peter MacKenzie’s Super Small Dungeon Set. Lacking any formal narrative, Mackenzie instead provides a tool-set for adventure featuring figurines, dungeon tiles, and more.

Other designers have chosen to adopt decidedly illustrative approaches. Yellow Light, created by the artist Werke, reads more like a science fiction poster than an adventure module. Game masters must use their imaginations to fill-in-the-blanks between haunting landscapes and minimalist maps. In stark contrast is Aaron Frost’s Milk Run - a humorous take on modern board games, complete with faux cards, dice, and game board.

Of course, with Dungeons and Dragons as a point of inspiration, many of the entries emulate themes from the world's oldest roleplaying game. Jobe Bittman's Into The Demon Idol is an obvious nod to Dave Trampier’s cover art for the AD&D Players Handbook, and the titular dungeon mimics the isometric maps that were popular during that era. Perennial contest winner Will Doyle updates this approach for modern audiences with Temple of the Moon Priests, a colourful full page spread that features skeletons, cursed artifacts, and rival adventurers.

These are just a handful of the hundreds of entries that are part of the One Page Dungeon Contest’s expansive repertoire. Although the premise may risk stagnation as the competition enters its tenth year, the competition’s commitment to open gaming remains strong. All entries must opt-in to the Creative Commons Attribution Sharealike 3.0 license - fostering both an open library of free-to-play adventures and a community of abbreviated dungeon architects.


I was struck by the range of responses to the challenge of balancing design efficiency (necessitated by the format's constraints) with visual appeal and potential for engaging play. From a design perspective, I was most interested in The Shattered Temple and its "creative cheating" approach towards overcoming the spatial limitations via fragmentation of the sheet of paper. While still technically compliant with the competition's central rule, the resulting pieces function to extend the reach of this particular work both spatially (by allowing for multiple configurations) and temporally (by encouraging replays and extending the duration of player engagement). It is a DIY solution that, while not necessarily novel, remains notable because it is easy to implement by players and reproduce in a different context by other aspiring game designers. Given the contest's emphasis on the open library concept, this is a particularly valuable aspect of the design.

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