Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 15, 2013
During the development of Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon, I evolved a set of informal philosophies or guidelines towards making adventuring areas (which I’ll just call “dungeons”, though some were outdoors). For the sequel, I actually wrote many of these guidelines down. At the risk of revealing a developing “secret formula” (hah!), but in hopes of helping out other aspiring computer RPG designers, I thought I’d share some of these principles.
Besides, they make it easy to come up with a topic for a blog post.
For the next few weeks, I’ll post articles covering two or three guidelines each, starting with the “general” guidelines and then moving more to the ones that are more specific to the way we build Frayed Knights dungeons. Some of these won’t be new – I have frequently discussed these on the blog before.
UPDATE: Both the principles and the rules articles are now complete. You can read the principles - part 1 here, part 2 here, part 3 here, part 4 here, part 5 here, and part 6 here. The more concrete “Rules” articles are about actionable items for a design checklist for a dungeon or adventure for Frayed Knights. You can read part 1 of the dungeon creation rules here, part 2 can be found here, part 3 here, and finally part 4 here. And, as always, you can just read the entire category of Frayed Knights posts here.
A dungeon should have clues that tell a story of why / how they were built, what happened there in antiquity, and what is currently happening within it. If the dungeon was built recently, these may all be the same story. But as the player pokes around, he should be able to learn bits and pieces about these stories. Even if the player never understands the full story, the richness of the background (IMO) helps establish the dungeon as an interesting, believable place.
There should be several elements that speak to this story – dialog (interactive or overheard), documents, architecture, graphics, music and sound effects, combat encounters, interactive objects, whatever. It’s actually pretty important that this back-story not just be revealed through passive exposition sequences. These elements don’t need to be confined to the dungeon itself – it shouldn’t be entirely self-contained. It’s better if the dungeon’s place in the world and story is reinforced by elements outside of itself. Rumors, legends, cultural taboos – these are all the kinds of impacts a sinister dungeon might have on the people around it.
Ideally, aspects of the story should be meaningful to the player in some way – it could suggest some detail in the present that may be beneficial, like the solution to a puzzle, location of secret treasure, heads-up on a trap or monster encounter, or warning about what will happen when the player pulls that lever. But it’s quite likely that even after poking around the entire dungeon, the player won’t understand the “full story” behind it. That’s okay. If it’s not critical to the player’s story, then it’s background. The important thing is that is that by knowing the dungeon almost as if it was a character in the game, the designer can make it feel more “real” to the player, rather than just being some random collection of rooms and corridors that happened to be at some map position.
General Guideline #2 – Add Interactive Details. Lots of them.
Not everything that can be clicked on needs to yield some kind of shiny treasure. In fact, most of the time it should not. But text is cheap. Anything that looks interesting SHOULD be able to be clicked on. Sometimes it can have an amusing description. Sometimes it may invite party discussion. Sometimes it may offer more detailed interactions (as a puzzle). Sometimes it may yield treasure. Sometimes it may unlock a secret door. Provide plenty of interesting details that make sense in the context of the dungeon, it’s denizens, and the story – complete with the descriptions and events (when appropriate) that fire when the object is clicked on in the game.
A simple example from Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon is the large entry hall in the Temple of Pokmor Xang. Give players lots of things to poke and prod. This is fun. It’s a little bit of exploration of the game space that can be rewarding simply by virtue of interesting interactions, like we had back in the days of text adventures.
Another rule-of-thumb is that if something looks interesting, it should be interactive. Period. Or if it’s too big to be interactive, it should be commented on when it comes into view. Like the mountain giving away to the giant skull temple entrance in FK1.
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