Last Updated on January 22, 2023
Have a session coming up and no idea what to run? Is game night just around the corner and you haven’t got the time to read 200 pages of background material to run an official Dungeons & Dragons 5e adventure? Tired of trawling through massive blocks of text and flipping between books at the table?
You may want to consider a one-page dungeon.
I’ve written before about the virtues of one-shot adventures. They can be a great way of cutting down on prep time, creating a more focused gaming experience, and actually getting to run a game of D&D without having to commit to a campaign that could take months or even years. Seriously, there are people out there who’ve been playing the same Curse of Strahd campaign since before the pandemic. Vampires may live forever, but that doesn’t mean your gothic horror campaign has to as well. Go play some Spelljammer, you dirty goths.
I’ve also gone into some detail about the concept of the five-room dungeon — a super useful adventure design template that can help dungeon masters create rewarding, enjoyable content with minimal prep.
The one-page dungeon takes these ideas even further — to the absolute logical extreme.
Today, I’m going to be breaking down the things that constitute a one-page dungeon and (because the actual definition is kind of self-evident) the things that, more importantly, make a good one-page dungeon.
Then, because I’m assuming you’re scanning this frantically with sweaty palms and no idea what you’re going to play tonight — as your players hammer down the door to your mom’s basement chanting “WE WANT CONTENT! WE WANT CONTENT!!!…” — I’ve got a great big list of resources and suggestions for one-page dungeons you can grab and get going with in no time.
What Is a One-Page Dungeon?
A one-page dungeon is a dungeon or adventure site that fits on a single side of paper (usually A4), intended to be run with minimal prep time over a single session (1-2 hours) of play.
A good one-page dungeon also fits easily into an existing campaign and presents its information clearly and concisely with easily digestible visual design while containing everything a game master needs to reference during play.
It’s honestly that simple.
A few minutes prep, a few hours adventuring, a fun evening… One-page dungeons are like the haiku of adventure design. Of course, like most very simple or minimalist formats (including haikus), they look easy, but they’re wickedly hard to master. Cramming everything you need for an adventure onto a single side of paper can (I speak from experience) turn into an impenetrable mess of poorly explained ideas, awkward layouts, and 6-point font.
If you want to make sure your one-page dungeon is as cohesive, comprehensible, and above all useful as possible, keep the following in mind. A good one-page dungeon is…
- Self-Contained: A one-page dungeon is no good if you have to spend as much time fitting it into your campaign as you do preparing to run it. A good one-page dungeon is largely a self-contained adventure that can easily be encountered as a side-quest in an unrelated campaign.
- Clear Conflict: There’s little room for subtlety, mysteries, and nuanced, character-driven storytelling. We want to get the players from the start to the end of this content in a few hours (not to mention understand what’s going on with minimal reading or prep), so a clear goal for the adventure is key.
- Strong Theme: I talk about theme in more detail in my article on dungeon ecology, but essentially your dungeon’s theme is its central idea, and each location, monster, and NPC in your dungeon should refer back to your theme.
A good theme that is expressed through a clear and present conflict taking place in a self-contained location is a great way to get your players into the groove of your dungeon before it’s all over.
Sure, when you’re running an epic crawl through an ancient dwarven mining complex over three years of weekly sessions, you can afford to slowly tease out the fact that the themes of the dungeon are jealousy and pride. When you’ve got a single side of A4 and an hour and a half to make things happen, it can be better to pick something that’s easy to express — like bears or the color red — and beat the party over the head with it every step of the way. Hitting them with a big blood-soaked bear is a great place to begin.
Of course, you can definitely subvert your own themes for dramatic effect. Just make sure you’ve actually established them well enough first. Again: there’s little room for subtlety in a one-page dungeon.
Mapping a One-Room Dungeon
Obviously, you can draw your own one-page dungeon map if you want to try your hand at making one. However, if you’re looking for inspiration or something ready-made, you can check out this excellent one-page dungeon generator by Watabou on itch.io. You can play around with the look and feel of your dungeon, engage or disengage certain parameters, and even generate little prompts to help you get started.
Alternately, official D&D 5e mapmaker Dyson Logos (odds are your next Spelljammer ship map was drawn by him — if only WotC would actually credit their artists properly) regularly releases some amazing hand-drawn maps for personal and/or commercial use via his blog. I use them all the time when I make stuff (like BlackCitadelRPG’s free adventure The Accursed Crypt Beneath Cold Moon Isle), and they’re a great place to start.
What Are Some Good One-Page Dungeons?
If you’re looking for a one-page dungeon to grab and go in time for tonight’s session, here’s a list of great options that I’ve personally used, I read through and want to use, or come recommended by people I trust.
The Sky-Blind Spire
Hailed as one of the greatest one-room dungeons of all time, The Sky-Blind Spire is a 2016 creation of Michael Prescott, the mad genius behind Trilemma adventures.
The adventure site presents the magically manipulated, non-euclidian tower of a wizard that also happens to be a physical spell made of bricks and mortar. Titardinal’s Spire seems like an ordinary stone tower at the edge of a large lake. Inside, however, players will find that this dungeon is basically one big puzzle for players to poke at, fool around in, and maybe solve before they all get eaten by giant pelicans.
It’s got interesting twists and cool rooms, and it’s completely free. If you’re looking to explore the very best that this subgenre of dungeon design has to offer, start here.
The Haunting of Hainsley Hall
Another adventure from the Trilemma blog roll but this time written by Skerples — who also created one of my favorite old-school/new-school dungeons Tomb of the Serpent Kings, an excellent series of blog posts about running a piratical wave crawl, and the excellent sourcebook we should all be stealing from Magical Industrial Revolution.
The Haunting of Hainsley Hall is a fantastic haunted-house mystery with a twist I won’t spoil here. If you want to mix dark humor and gothic horror and give your players more opportunities to roleplay than crack skulls, this is a great one-shot for Halloween.
The God Unmoving
Okay, this is my last Trilemma one-page dungeon, I promise. This one is probably the most traditional and dangerous of the three I’m suggesting, and it deals with a village of fisherfolk who have made an alliance with the dead and a pact with the sea god they worship.
First of all, I love how effectively Michael Prescott crams a whole town’s worth of creepy mystery onto a single page (okay, it’s technically a two-pager because he uses the back side, but it’s still a masterclass in economical adventure design and environmental storytelling), and secondly, I love how quickly the whole of The God Unmoving always turns into an absolute mess of violence, screams, and a panicked run for the boat. Every. Single. Time.
The Burial Mound of Gilliard Wolfclan
Honestly, no dungeon that uses clip art this goofy has any right being this freaking good. Written by Josh Burnett, The Burial Mound of Gilliard Wolfclan is probably a contender for one of the best starter dungeons of all time.
A buried barbarian chief who trucked with evil spirits and became undead, nasty bugs crawling out of the walls, and goblin factional infighting for the players to take advantage of — it’s got it all in a tight two-level burial mound.
The Alchemist’s Repose
Written by Ben Milton over at Questing Beast, The Alchemist’s Repose is a combat-light puzzle dungeon that throws a lot of classic fantasy tropes out the window without being overly gonzo or confusing — a hard line to walk.
It’s the only adventure on this list you’ll have to pay for, but at around $1.50, it’s still packed with enough magical robots that you can hack by changing their punch cards, fungal elves, and general strangeness to make it well worth the price of admission.
The Place in the Bog
Fight giant mutant potatoes in a swamp! This wonderfully silly, surprisingly horrifying adventure by one of my favorite map-makers SkullFungus is definitely worth picking up for a bit of vegetable-mashing action. It’s definitely less of a genre-bending, cerebral time than some of the other stuff on this list, and it definitely doesn’t do as much with the format, but if you want good pulpy (starchy, carbohydrate-loaded) fun, The Place in the Bog is a wicked good place to start.
Squirming Fragment of a Dead God
And lastly — I’d be remiss if I didn’t plug my own entry to the 2022 One Page Dungeon competition. Squirming Fragment of a Dead God is a horrifying descent into a death-drenched ruin to retrieve a star that fell to earth. I’ve played it once, and it’s already horribly mutated three player characters in ways they can’t yet comprehend and killed a few more. If you’re looking for a touch of cosmic horror mixed into your sword-and-sorcery adventures, this should hopefully be a good source of both in one easy-to-digest and easy-to-run package.
So, whether you’re looking for inspiration or just some low-prep material to run on game night, I hope the one-page dungeons included above prove helpful. Remember: a good one-page dungeon is concise, easy to digest and run, and sticks to its theme. Beyond that, there really are no limits to what can be accomplished.
If you get the one-page dungeon bug and want to share what you create with the world, the one-page dungeon subreddit is a welcoming, helpful place. Also, once a year, the One Page Dungeon Contest collects, compiles, and prints up a whole bunch of great entries — not to mention it hands out some great prizes to the winners.
That’s all from us, folks. Stay safe, and happy adventuring.
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I played my first tabletop RPG (Pathfinder 1e, specifically) in college. I rocked up late to the first session with an unread rulebook and a human bard called Nick Jugger. It was a rocky start but I had a blast and now, the better part of a decade later, I play, write, and write about tabletop RPGs (mostly 5e, but also PBtA, Forged in the Dark and OSR) games for a living, which is wild.