Choose Your Language

Friday, 16 August 2013

Dungeon Designs

To clarify this week's blog title, this post is about my work on "dungeon" designs rather than any sort of structured lesson in dungeon designing. However, I do touch on my own feelings about dungeon designs and make various points that may be helpful to anybody wanting to learn about dungeon designs.

COMMENTS WELCOME: What is your favourite dungeon crawl experience to date and why?

I decided to take a break from writing conversations (and their notorious web of nodes) and turn my attention to filling in the details of some of The Scroll's dungeons instead. Thankfully, Ryan of Eguintir's Ecologies had already designed some interior layouts for me, so my focus was to start scripting events for these areas to my design ends. I take this opportunity to thank all the designers of the areas of this module (and modules to follow) for all their great effort in supplying me with designs that have sped up the release of this module - and helped to inspire me with game play. First, a little forethought...

Let's Begin Our Dungeon Descent
Dungeon Definition

While it's true that every aspect of module design has something to do with "designing a dungeon" (in the broadest sense), hopefully, both builders and players alike will know what I mean when I talk about creating (or designing) a dungeon in particular. And in case there is anyone who is not sure what I mean, I am referring to those areas where the PC is likely to feel out of their immediate comfort zone and in a position that pits them against such things as monsters, traps, puzzles and other such problems in the hope of receiving great rewards in the way of experience, feats, skills and especially treasure; from great new weapons and items, to the basic gems, jewellery and gold!

As the word implies, "dungeons" in a traditional sense are normally located underground. However, I recognise that the term "dungeon" may also refer to adventures that take place in above ground complexes such as castles or towers - and can even refer to locations in space or beyond any worldly material plane of existence! With that in mind, let us continue along the way with some "traditional" photos ...

The Obligatory Main Corridor
Dungeon Purpose

There is something both intrinsically exciting and mysterious about a dungeon of the type I speak. For while the player and PC may know a little about the area they are about to travel to, there should be an overriding air of the unknown. Indeed, some of the most exciting dungeons (in my own experience) have been those dungeons I have stumbled across by accident and know absolutely nothing about, nor have any inclination about what to expect. However, I have also played some games where I have stumbled across a dungeon and the whole experience has been rather dull. So what happened? What makes one dungeon exciting and another not?

The Mysterious Domed Chamber
When I have examined the works of other games and looked for those aspects which have excited me or bored me, I was surprised at what I found. As you can see from the photos I found on the internet and posted here, a key factor about many traditional style dungeons is that they can be quite sparse. I know this is not always necessarily the case, but compared with today's modern designs and habitats, the traditional dungeon is still normally considerably simpler in design. I have noticed that many game designs reflect this well, and more importantly, such sparseness of content is not necessarily one of those aspects that detracts from a good dungeon crawl. Indeed, I have found that it is how the dungeon may have changed from its original design and purpose (possibly simply due to the ravages of time) that holds some of its intrigue.

The Dreaded Cell
Dungeon Character

So, what is it about a "dungeon" in a fantasy role-playing game that really fascinates the player and then holds their interest? I think a large portion of the answer lies in the dungeon's history, or more specifically, the element that gives the dungeon its character! For while a dungeon's immediate purpose is very important for a game's logical flow and prime responses from the player, if there is nothing else to it, then it quickly becomes relegated to the pile of "tick box exercise" dungeons that is soon forgotten about. I have experienced this kind of thing in the RPG "Sacred 2", which while very colourful and vast in size, each "dungeon" I have discovered and played my way through is more tedious than the previous due to each dungeon having very little (or no) character.

Adding history or creating character for a dungeon is no easy accomplishment. If successful, a player should be left with a memorable experience, some uniqueness in the dungeon's design that helps it to be one of those reminisced over for years to come. The player may not remember all the details, but they will recall having an exciting experience when playing through / adventuring within the dungeon in question. For myself, I have such fond recollections with games such as Ultima Underworld, Baldur's Gate, and more recently, some of those "dungeons" from Fallout 3. From each of these games I mention, it should now be clear that when I talk of a "dungeon" experience, it can refer as much to a location far away from the ground as to beneath it ... and can be set in any time frame!

Now, I ought to take this moment to differentiate between an entire game experience and only an element of it, such as a "dungeon". In my own examples above, the entire Ultima Underworld game consisted of one large "dungeon crawl", and so, strictly speaking, I should not be counting it as a "dungeon" experience in the context of this blog. However, I wanted to include it in passing, as it is still a good example of a "dungeon" experience, even if it was the entire game in this example. Looking at one of the other examples, Fallout 3, however, I was suitably impressed by the unique feel of quite a few of its "dungeon" experiences.

The Dungeon's Nuts & Bolts

With the above comments in mind, this week I have started to design the remaining dungeons around the raw material area designs graciously given to me by my area designers. The dungeon purpose has always been known to me from the moment I conceived the plot. The dungeon character, however, is the part that takes time to reveal itself as I work with what I have before me. For further clarification about what I am trying to say about the goals for my dungeons I have in mind, note the following category goal differences:-

Dungeon Purpose Goals: Add Transitions, Add Monster Encounters, Add Loot. (Needs.)
Dungeon Character Goals: Type of Locks, Monster Ecology, Treasure Histories. (Reasons.)

When a player enters one of my dungeons (or at least the main ones), I want them to feel that the place has a character, learn that there is a history, and have a sense of difference about the place compared to other places they have explored earlier. Of course, there is no escaping those aspects that are found common to all dungeons, but I hope to pull off at least one or two aspects of uniqueness to each dungeon that will make the player sit up and take note. I hope to achieve this by adding some unique puzzles, background information, and perhaps some unique aspect that ties both purpose and character together. Whether I succeed in this, I can only hope.

Dungeon Designs: My Personal Pros & Cons

Having blogged on about how I would like to design my dungeons, my "Pros" are probably obvious (and thereby the "Cons" too), but here is my list of pros and cons design objectives/avoidances in the broadest sense (in no particular order):-


1) Medium to large in size to allow a sense of exploration. (Map required.)
2) Hidden areas, using secrets and concealed objects. (Properly hidden unless skill found.)
3) Logically placed denizens, both historically and ecologically. (With appropriate AI.)
4) Lighting attention - including some completely dark to allow PC own light sources. (Atmosphere.)
5) Sound attention - ambient and possible item sounds. (Atmosphere.)
6) A unique aspect to the dungeon purpose. (Logical flow.)
7) Purposeful and useful dungeon history and/or character. (Scrolls, books, info, treasures, etc.)
8) New logical object interactions above any normal interaction. (New scripts for added uniqueness.)


1) Illogical rooms and general poor design. (Poor logical flow.)
2) Useable objects at all times, even when not currently available. (Poor meta-gaming clues.)
3a) Too many denizens for area design. (A monster in every room syndrome.)
3b) Poor AI for creatures used. (No creature variation due to poor AI. Meet, hit, die, next!)
4) Minimal attention to lighting or sound. (Areas look and feel the same. No real atmosphere!)
5a) All dungeon "purpose" design and no "character" design. (Cookie cutter designs. Boring.)
5b) Even "purpose" design meets only basic needs. (Lacks story depth - "FedEx" style design.)
6) Lack of any "deep interaction". (One dimensional as opposed to three dimensional design.)

Like with most things I say, there are provisos and exceptions to these pros and cons as well. For example, I would rather a "dungeon" consist of only a few rooms (be small) if there is no logical reason for it to be any bigger. However, I would rather see more "medium to large" dungeons to explore and "get my teeth into", as a preference. Also, I would not want to be inundated with "boring and superfluous history" of a place if it had no real useful bearing on my current events. Historical information that gave me some sort of immediate benefit or would do in the near future, is exciting to find as well as giving the dungeon background and character.

And, of course, once you escape the dungeon and are back into the wide open fresh air, there is always the next one to quest for ...

Escaping The Dungeon ... And So Onto The Next!


Tchos said...

Since you asked on the forum for our dungeon experience preferences, I'll outline a couple.

Content-rich. No long stretches to run through with nothing to do and/or nothing special to see. The pictures you posted show dungeons that no one is actually using or living in. If there are supposed to be any creatures or people living in this place, or using it for some purpose, there needs to be the signs of that habitation and/or purpose.

Environmental interaction. Things in the environment that can be manipulated, which do things or make things happen. Importantly, this should be properly telegraphed. In at least one module I played, clicking a usable object caused my PC to take an action that I would not have done voluntarily, and nothing in the object's description (there was none) informed me that clicking it would take that action.

DM text. Entering new areas provide descriptions of those areas. Graphics and sound can only do so much, and "a picture is worth 1000 words" is NOT universally true.

Both history and current activity. I like being sent to dungeons with someone's description of what the place is and what's going on there. They may have a distorted version of the truth, or be completely accurate, or only have vague knowledge, but I like a place to have context. On the other hand, I have also enjoyed dungeons that were unknown, but which revealed more and more information and backstory about themselves through notes or NPCs found throughout the journey.

Visual interest. Exploration is an important thing for me, and it doesn't feel like "exploring" if I've seen it all before. There need to be uniquely designed areas.

Many things to do. This could be part of "content-rich", but in this case I mean that I'm not going through this huge place for only one task. Let there be many things I can do along the way, perhaps some spread throughout the entire thing, and others that are limited to a single area.

Lance Botelle (Bard of Althéa) said...

Hi Tchos,

Thanks for commenting ...

"Content-rich" is something I am aiming for as a priority ... and is also something that is hard to do without feeling too orchestrated. However, I am 100% behind you on this point. I certainly hope my dungeons won't be quite as sparse as the real life pictures. ;)

"Environmental Interaction" is also one of my hot topics, from preventing meta-game clues (i.e. highlight objects that are not obvious for use yet ... in certain circumstances anyway), to NOT forcing an action on a player. All my objects that could have an undesired effect have a description that can be accessed prior to use. However, I also make sure such actions cannot easily be undone if the player has decided to try it to "see what happens". i.e. The actions they take are important and remain such for the gameplay.

"DM Text" - I come from a PnP background and from being a DM for D&D, so I know what you mean here. I have tried to incorporate a number of additional "descriptors" in my module, from voice overs to actual DM texts.

"History and Activity" is something I hope I am covering adequately as I construct the dungeon's events and background. This was the main aim of this post and one that I hope will keep me focused on my own goals.

"Visual Interest" is probably one of the hardest things for me to do, and is why I have asked for help with area designs from others. Hopefully, with the designs that have been submitted, and the "events" I have added, as well as adding the mapping system, it will feel more like exploring somewhere for the first time. That said, I have noticed (in my own experience) that as long as there is good interaction with what is available, then I can live with less visual.

"Many things to do" is probably a combination of the "content rich" and "Environmental interaction" as I see it. I agree with you about having more than one task while in a dungeon. The trick is trying to deliver tasks in a way that feel natural ... and is one of those areas that takes a little more time to work out in one's mind before putting it into the module. Hopefully, I will have the balance right, but testing may highlight any issues.

Thanks for posting. Please feel free to make any more comments on this or other topics. It all helps to motivate and keep ones mind active.


Eguintir Eligard said...

Ironically dungeons are my least favourite part of D&D.

The un-dungeons are usually my favourite. A ruined city or town, or abandoned castle like Durlag's tower... where there are a mix of comfy, above ground accomodations to go with the sparse cold areas are usually the most interesting.

But you could recreate this naturally as well... like a large underground spring, or just in someway break up the endless void of stone.

Lance Botelle (Bard of Althéa) said...

Hi E.E.

I consider castles and towers as "dungeons" in the sense I was speaking in my blog, so I can see the attraction to these. :)

Even the "dungeons" one thinks of traditionally (the endless mass of stone) can (as you say) be broken up with detail, but that can be quite hard to do and keep in the nature of the thing.