"During most of a D&D game, the Dungeon Master leaves the decisions to the players. The DM presents the setting—describing what the characters see, offering choices of actions, and so forth. But the course of the game is determined by the actions of the party as decided by the players." —Dungeons & Dragons Dungeons Masters Rulebook, Revised by Frank Mentzer
As I prepared this week for a nostalgic run through a classic Labyrinth Lord megadungeon, I thought it would be a good Idea to brush up on the classic rules. I not only brought out the Labyrinth Lord rules, but also dug deep in to my Moldvay and Mentzer basic rulebooks. When I got to page 3 of +Frank Mentzer's Dungeons & Dragons Dungeons Masters Rulebook, I was not expecting to find such a great nugget of advice. I must have read it several times 30+ years ago but it didn't have any real meaning until today—present a setting and offer choices; could it be that simple?
As a DM I'm a bit burned out on adventures that take 3-6 sessions to complete, all the while trying to steer a hapless group of would-be heroes to what has already been determined as the final destination. That is just hard work because players never do what they are "supposed to." Why be such a control freak? Why spend time writing about things that the PCs may never see? +Harley Stroh gave me this advice when I asked how much information is too much and how much is not enough?
A lot of the OSR releases go very loose: no box text, just the details that are necessary to run the encounter area. The extreme example of this are the brilliant one-page dungeons. If you did it right, you could design your sandbox with a dozen one-page "episodes." (Which sounds pretty cool when I think about it.)
For my part, I am trying to get the judge to fall in love with the adventure. I want him or her to be insanely stoked about unleashing this world upon their players; the more excited the judge is, the better game he or she will run. So I err on the side of a little more information - some back story if the details are cool, more description if the setting calls for it.
BUT, and this is key, NEVER include information that doesn't impact the PCs. The focus always needs to be on the PCs, never the brilliantly constructed NPCs or villains. As long as the detail is something that the PCs can interact with in a meaningful way, it's not a waste of space. But if the PCs will never discover it, and it has no measurable relation to the dungeon they are exploring, excise the fat.
"...a dozen one-page 'episodes'" I like that.
If I take Frank and Harley's advice to heart I have to start looking at adventure design that focuses on the setting and offer choices that impact the PCs. For me the fun is in discovering the story both as a GM and as a player, so perhaps adventures could be like a character that the DM rolls up and plays?