I was tempted to entitle this post "In Praise Of Workbooks," but I'm a sucker for alliteration, amongst the most annoying of all forms of verse.
One of the game-changing innovations of the old-school renaissance is the one-page dungeon. The one-page dungeon is a marvellous invention, freeing the Dungeon Master from the fetters of the word-wall, something high on my list of objectionable features of new-school adventure design. The one-page dungeon need not be a dungeon: it can be a cityscape, wilderness or other adventuring environment. The crucial point is that all the information the DM needs to run the adventure appears on the page before her (or pages, in the case of the two-page dungeon).
If you pick up any new-school adventure, you are likely to be assaulted by the word-wall. The word-wall is page after interminable page of background and descriptive text, all of which the Dungeon Master is expected to read, digest, and belch forth at the appointed time during a game session. While maps and illustrations are included in word-wall adventures, those graphics must be interpreted in conjunction with the word-wall. The word-wall invariably stretches over several pages, causing the DM to flip between the page with the descriptive text and the page that contains the graphic.
Looking back at the oldest of the old-school adventures, you will find but scant traces of word-wall DNA. Some explanation of the environment was provided, but it was a pretty limited affair. The inclusion of a separate cover, that served double-duty as screen and DM's map, kept the page-flipping to a minimum. Many of those modules were only 16, 24 or 32 pages long. Today, you find few adventures -- perfect-bound to prevent the separation of the maps from the text -- of less than 64 pages, and most new-school adventures are anywhere from 128 to 256 pages long.
I will not dwell on the causes and purposes of the word-wall. Nor will I linger on its effects, as that will likely result in an anti-4E screed. Instead, let's talk about the natural off-spring of the one-page dungeon: the workbook.
The one-page dungeon is a marvellous invention, as far as it goes. The workbook is the natural off-spring of the one-page dungeon, because it takes the one-page dungeon to the next level of design. Where the one-page dungeon restores some semblance of balance between graphic and text, the workbook pushes the balance further to the extreme, liberating the map from the text, and creating a fluid relationship between them. The workbook essentially transfers responsibility for fine-tuning the adventure from the adventure author to the user.
Perhaps some definition and examples will help here. By adventure workbook, I mean a set of instructions, and basic tools, that are used to record the development of a role-playing environment.
For example, a workbook might contain the barest outline of the adventure, along with instructions on how to approach its delivery. It could include ready-made maps, and adventure hooks, along with level-appropriate encounter tables designed specifically for the adventure, treasure tables, room description tables, adjective and other descriptive word tables, sounds and scents tables, bare-bones NPC descriptions and other related tools. It might include stickers, to be placed on the map, signifying particular events or important locations.
The adventure included in the workbook would be customizable by the DM, and the workbook would be designed to be written in and upon. Either through the placement of numbers and letters on the map, linked back to the random events / encounters / treasures / descriptive word tables, or through color coding, stickers, or perhaps one or two word mnemonic devices, the adventure would become customized to the needs and desires of the DM and her group.
The encounters need not be entirely random. There may be certain encounters or features that are pre-placed by the author. But the workbook would need to include elements that are placed by the user, in order to justify the workbook design.
I have yet to see this form of adventure. The closest might be Zak's Vornheim, since it contains some of the elements of randomness and user empowerment. To truly release the potential of old-school gaming, I think the workbook form needs to be embraced. Word-walls constrain creativity, since they force the DM to run the adventure as-written. Only by taking the adventures to the next level, by decoupling the map and the text, and giving the DM the bare minimum of necessary background and tools, while embracing and fostering freedom, customization and improvisation, can the true spirit of old-school gaming be released.