There are two primary sources that I draw upon when designing Mini-Dungeons. The first is the concept of the “The 5 Room Dungeon.” The good folks over at Nerds on Earth have a pretty good summary, and it’s one I keep in my back pocket whenever it comes time to sit down and bang out another example of the genre. Sing along with me if you know the words:
- Boss Fight
“Floor is Spiders” follows the formula to the letter. The dungeon entrance is a door + trap combo, representing a classic “guardian” encounter. Get past the initial “spidal wave” and into the dungeon proper, and you’ve got a combination roleplay encounter / skill challenge. Players have to negotiate the puzzle presented by untrustworthy NPCs, as well as a bizarrely arachnid mechanical bull. Next comes the setback, as staying in the spider’s saddle for the full eight seconds brings trouble rather than entry to the boss chamber. The party will have to hustle for a key item hidden in one of the “lower leg crypts,” taking out low-level monsters before they can combine into an overwhelming threat. Whether the party sneaks in through secret doors or completes the dungeon’s central lock-and-key puzzle, the dungeon climax comes as the party faces off against their demonic tormentor in a standup boss fight. Finally, the blessings of the Spider Queen wait at the altar, providing a suitably spider-themed reward for all who have proven themselves worthy.
It’s all conventional, but these are some extremely useful conventions. If you’re a DM, you’ve likely heard about 5 Room Dungeons before. Chances are you’ve designed a few yourself. They’re a perfect bite-size serving for a typical four hour game night, and they follow a lovely narrative arc: exposition at the entrance leads to rising action in the challenges and a climax in the boss chamber.
I mentioned a second source of inspiration though, didn’t I? I hope you’ll bear with me, because this one’s more obscure. And even if you’ve got a binder full of 5 Room Dungeons in your game room, I’m willing to bet you’ve got fewer encounters featuring the “make-believe theory of representation.”
This second source of insight stems from my background as a game studies scholar (wish me luck knocking out my doctorate this semester). You can get the full summary of this aesthetic theory at Prop Theory in a Nutshell, but the TLDR (courtesy of game designer Chris Bateman) is this: “Representations are props in games of make-believe that (via certain principles) prescribe specific imaginings as to what is true in the fictional world the prop thus establishes… This general formula remains the same for children’s toys, works of art, and for games.”
Philosophically, this is known as “kind of a lot.” So let me clarify what is meant by ‘props in games of make-believe.’
Let’s begin by imagining a tree stump. Suppose it looks vaguely like a bear. In the ‘game of imagination’ we play with that stump, it represents a bear. And so, for purposes of prop theory, Monet’s blobs of paint suggest water lilies in much the same fashion. They’re all “imaginary games” that we conjure with the props at hand.
With me so far? Good. Because TRPGs function as props too, serving as they do to conjure imaginary worlds. But here’s what makes TRPGs particularly interesting within this framework. Rather than richly and vividly representing, TRPGs are rife with lacunae. Just look at any blank character sheet or rough-sketched session outline waiting to be filled with player hijinks and unexpected detours. That fill-in-the-blanks quality serves an important aesthetic function. That’s because deciding who gets to fill in the blanks is an important question. It’s the difference between authorized and unauthorized games.
When my cartographer pals at AAW Games hand me a map, it becomes a prop in my personal game of imagination. Because I’m the author of “Floor Is Spiders,” the words I’ve written and the encounters I describe become part of the mini-dungeon’s authorized game. Think of this as roughly synonymous with the canonical version of “Floor Is Spiders.” When you run my Mini-Dungeon exactly as-written, you’re participating in that same authorized game.
Here’s where things get fun though. The minute you add the secret Chemical X of player agency, you’re producing your own unauthorized game. Everything that’s unique to your playthrough — the PCs and their backstories; ad hoc rules calls; the homebrew setup that leads your campaign to the doors of Yx’larak’s spider-themed gauntlet — becomes a part of your unauthorized “Floor Is Spiders” playthrough.
The implications for game design are endlessly intriguing to me. Where conventional media relegates your participation to fan fiction status, roleplaying games straight up DO NOT FUNCTION without your input. That means my job as a designer is to authorize your unauthorized game. It’s my sacred duty as an adventure writer to give you props to play with, just like I was given a map to fill up and make my own. In that sense, we’re all participating in a single sequence of imaginative play. When you sit down to run my Mini-Dungeon, you’re playing in the same game of imagination as me. That happens to be true for every module on the market. It’s just that the workflow of AAW’s Mini-Dungeons (get map > fill map with encounters) happens to make the similarity uncommonly clear (get Mini-Dungeon > fill Mini-Dungeon with gameplay).
I may not be in the room chucking dice with you. You might not accept all my ideas into your campaign. But if you’re taking bits and pieces of “Floor Is Spiders” and adding your own spin, we’re still creating a new world together. I sincerely hope it’s a good one… even if it happens to be full to bursting with spiders.
Claire Stricklin is, in no particular order, a California native, planeswalker, Ithaca College grad, warrior poet, arts advocate, greyhound enthusiast, and Game Master. She’s penned a number of adventures for AAW Games set in the great trade city of Hordenheim, developed the monstrous continent of Trectoyri in The Veranthea Codex, and writes the Handbook of Heroes webcomic. She is currently a PhD student at the Georgia Institute of Technology, which she has somehow tricked into letting her write a dissertation about TRPG podcasts.