Dungeons By Design #1: The Scrobold Warrens

Welcome to “Dungeons By Design”, a series where I’ll be taking a closer look at dungeon design in games.

Look, real talk: I love crawling dungeons. Tabletop or video games, it doesn’t matter. I’ve spent a lot of time crawling, delving, and spelunking and I love all the complexity and variety and elegance of their designs, so I wanted to share my appreciation for everything that goes into them.

For this first installment, I want to focus on concepts that I’ll be touching on through the series.

DISCLAIMER: Please keep in mind that many of these concepts are general examples that have variations and exceptions that we’ll explore later on. A lot of the explanation and definition ahead may be obvious to some, but I wanted to be very clear with the terms I use from the start so we can all avoid confusion later over jargon. To a dungeon veteran, a door holds an incredible amount of uses, intrinsics, and baggage from decades of use as a staple entity. Something as simple as what a door is and what purpose it serves in a dungeon context is a trope that many of us take for granted, when to anyone else it would just be a plain old door. So yes, we’re going to have to talk about what a door means and the possibility space it occupies.

We’re going to start with the core definition that I intend to work off of: what exactly is a dungeon?

This is a dungeon.
This is a dungeon.

As I’ll refer to them from here on, a dungeon is a discrete sub-area in a game through which player characters must venture in pursuit of a goal and whose layout is revealed by exploration. It is an unknown and mysterious place where characters in a game must go to seek something within or beyond it, and it is a place that presents challenges, information, and rewards to those brave enough to probe its depths. Dungeons are places where gameplay happens as players go from the start to the end.

This definition is incredibly broad, and there are a lot of things that fall under it that most people wouldn’t consider dungeons in the traditional sense, and that’s good. The driving idea behind this series is that by examining and deconstructing dungeons in all their varied forms, we can approach them more thoughtfully as designers and as players. Casting a wide net here will give us plenty to think about.

With our definition established, we can work into details from that base.

When examined conceptually and in the abstract, a dungeon and its many, many aspects exist both on macro and micro scales. You’ll notice quickly that a given thing tends to contain smaller versions of itself. Dungeons sometimes have smaller dungeons inside. A quest is a task that often comes with a list of more specific tasks.

There are a few aspects that are core to the dungeon concept, and we can consider them in relation to scale, from macro to micro but in no way diminishing in importance.

First, there is always a goal. A dungeon has a defined start and end point. Sometimes you’ll backtrack after reaching the end, sometimes you won’t. The important thing is that a dungeon as a whole has a completed state that it will reach once the players have finished the quest that brought them there, which we will refer to as the “main quest of the dungeon”. This gives the area its own failure state and conditions apart from “rocks fall, everyone dies”. Failing the dungeon doesn’t always mean you’ve lost the game as a whole.

Next, each dungeon always has a linear path that can be drawn from the start point to the goal of the main quest, which we’ll call the “critical path of the dungeon”. Structurally, a dungeon is a maze that the players have to navigate. Tabletop dungeons are the clearest example of this: they can generally be drawn out on graph paper as they’re mapped by players and the path can be drawn through it as if it were a simple 2D maze.

Finally, the contents of the dungeon are unknown to players when they enter. The process of exploring a dungeon reveals the map to the players, and this is absolutely key to the player experience. The players are in the dungeon to complete the main quest, but the real gameplay is in the journey from the start to the end, a process that we’ll call “crawling the dungeon”. The process of the crawl is often where players accumulate information, items, experience, and currency that can be used in the current and future dungeons.

To recap, we have three key components that combine to create the dungeon experience:

  • A dungeon has a “main quest”, which is the player’s reason to be in the dungeon in the first place.
  • A dungeon has a “critical path”, which is what the player must discover through their exploration to complete the main quest.
  • And a dungeon must be “crawled”, which is the combined challenge the player must overcome to continue along the critical path.

Now, let’s get into the rote parts of a dungeon. On a very basic level, a dungeon’s physical spaces are defined by points where the player must “transition” to another area. Transitions represent travel between two points, so the player starts at an “origin”, makes the transition, and arrives at a “destination”. A point of transition can either be “one-way” if the player can’t return to their origin via a transition from the destination point or “two-way” if they can. If the ground gives way beneath you and you fall into a cave, that’s a one-way transition. If a dungeon’s front door is wide open and you can come and go as you please, that’s two-way. These transition points are generally called “entrances” and “exits”, and the difference between the two depends on whether you’re coming or going. Entrances and exits can both fall along a dungeon’s critical path, but the critical path always starts at the destination point of some entrance and only sometimes ends at the origin point of an exit.

A dungeon is its own place, and you have to go there.
A dungeon is its own place, and you have to go there.

In general, you transition into a dungeon from an entrance located in an “overworld”. This is just what it sounds like. The overworld is basically what a person would call “outside”, where a dungeon is an enclosed area accessible from outside. (You are always “inside” when in a dungeon.) The Legend of Zelda games have overworlds with dungeons that have a single two-way entrance, but other cases aren’t so simple. In some games the existence of an overworld is only a plot point: the dungeon is the entire game, 100% of the playable space. Rogue itself is basically just the dungeon, but Angband has a hub town at the top where you start. Dungeons themselves can have “sub-dungeons”: geographically, architecturally, and/or thematically distinct extensions that branch off of the critical path through the main dungeon.

As players explore a larger dungeon, they move between “zones” of the dungeon that have a unifying theme in their design and in their contents. The theme can be most anything: an island, a mine, a hedge maze, a cave, a prison, a forest, a sewer, the bottom of a lake or pond, or a large building. The list goes on. A sub-dungeon can be it’s own single zone, part of its parent zone, or can even contain multiple zones if it’s long enough.

This theme of a zone is reflected in individual “floors” or “levels”, where each floor is generally its own single map. Sometimes a single floor in the game is its own entire zone, like in Enter the Gungeon, so every time you make a floor transition you arrive in a new visually-distinct place. Each floor generally has “stairs” that allow you to transition to the corresponding stairs on another floor, but there are many exceptions to this. In a dungeon styled like a real building, stairs will line up and their function will be obvious, but in a more free-form design like that of most procedurally generated dungeons, the positions of the stairs may not have any vertical relation. Risk of Rain’s level transitions are only one-way, so the portal that leads to the next level always drops you at some inert destination that serves as the start of the new level.

The critical path for a given floor leads the player through “rooms” and “corridors” of varying size and contents. A room is an enclosed area that contains points of interest for the players. Rooms are the designer’s primary gameplay spaces and can often be identified by type: a kitchen, a dining hall, a throne room, a bedroom, or an office, for example. Sometimes a room can be a large outdoor space like a garden or a courtyard that’s just surrounded by walls. Rooms generally have “doors” that serve as its entrances and exits, very often being literal doors that obscure vision into and out of the room. Corridors are the hallways that connect rooms. Some designs forego the use of corridors entirely, preferring to have each door lead to another room. Other designs integrate corridors into the playable space of the floor and create dangerous bottlenecks for PCs and NPCs alike in combat.

By its rooms combined, the dungeon holds the player's journey.
By its rooms combined, the dungeon holds the player’s journey.

Players normally have multiple goals they seek to reach as they crawl a dungeon, which can be long or short term depending on the context. The main superclass of player goals are “quests”, also known as “missions” or “trials”, which can be composed of comparatively shorter-term goals called “tasks” or “objectives”. At times, players will be completing tasks along a “quest line”, a linear sequence of related quests where the completion of one allows the start of the next. Where the main quest of the dungeon serves as the player’s primary long term goal, it often requires the completion of multiple tasks in the process, each of which is likely to be a quest in its own right. Completion of specific goals can be mandatory or optional for progress. Optional short term goals are generally called “side quests” and can often provide the player with rewards that aid their progress in the main quest.

Quests come in many forms, but in deconstructing them, you can see that a quest is a list of conditions that must be fulfilled. Usually those conditions are simple tasks that require the player to go to a specific place and perform a specific action like speaking to a certain person, obtaining a quantity of a specific item, or defeating a particular enemy. In some cases the player has an item that must be delivered safely to the target person or place, and in others the player has an NPC that must be escorted to the target person or place and protected during the journey. These skeletal tasks are the basis of both small and large quests.

The key “thing” that drives a game’s overarching plot is often referred to as a (or the) “MacGuffin”. The title is usually reserved for THE BIG THING OF IMPORTANCE in a game or story. Examples include the One Ring that Frodo carried into Mordor, any damsel that’s ever needed saving, and the Amulet of Yendor that lies at the bottom of so many dungeons. In some cases the MacGuffin is the defeat of the primary antagonist, which we’ll call the “final boss”.

Often the players must defeat numerous “bosses” at the end of given areas of the dungeon that require specific tactics to defeat. Bosses are hostile characters that present a significantly higher threat to players than more common hostile characters, often referred to as “mobs” (mobile entities) or “actors” in varying contexts. Many games also have “sub-bosses” or “mini-bosses” that serve as difficulty spikes along the player’s progression without posing as powerful or complex a threat to the players as a proper boss. At times the sub-boss role will be filled by “elite mobs”. These are normally just stronger versions of common mobs that are made visually distinct so the player can identify them, and they are normally accompanied by a band of common mobs that they lead. The nomenclature here is based on reflecting the power and difficulty of an enemy by its rank in the hierarchy of enemy characters, going from the lone final boss at the top to the hordes of lowly common mobs at the bottom.

We’ll pick up here next time as we take a look at just what is and isn’t a dungeon under our working definition. Thanks for reading!

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