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Frayed Knights: Dungeon Design Principles, Part 4

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 5, 2013

Once more, I’m cribbing from a design document for Frayed Knights. This is a multi-part series describing my level-design guidelines.  You can read part 1 here, part 2 here, and part 3 here.

What happened was this: Since I’m working with a few extra people on dungeon design this time around, I codified some of my mental guidelines that I developed during the course of building Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon, although many of them were philosophies I’ve just adopted over years of gaming. And now I share them with you. Some are fairly specific to the Frayed Knights series, but most are pretty adaptable to any RPG.

At this point, we’re still on general guidelines. WARNING – There are some spoilers for the first game here.

The next two guidelines are very similar, so I’ll throw in a bonus third guideline this time.

#8 – Provide warnings for traps

Traps can be placed on interactive objects, or triggered by walking into an area. While you can feel comfortable putting a trap on a door or a chest (it’s sort of a given that they MIGHT be trapped), any other use of a trap should telegraph it’s presence in some way so alert players know to attempt a search in advance. Bloodstains on the wall or floor next to the trap are one give-away. Dire warnings from NPCs, or scrawled on the wall earlier in the dungeon are other possibilities. Just try to avoid letting the player stumble blindly into a trap if they’ve been otherwise paying attention.

If nothing else, the player should say to themselves, “OH! I guess that’s why there’s a skeleton on the floor there! I should have searched!”

#9 – Provide hints / warnings of other secrets (ALMOST always)

While it’s okay to have the occasional super-well-hidden ‘easter egg’ type of secret in the game that players either need to be obsessive or read the strategy guide or online hints to discover, for the most part secret doors, hidden treasures (found by “searching”), and other secrets need to be hinted at by some means – just like traps – so the player doesn’t feel like they have to search every few steps and click on every square foot of the dungeon. Sounds, text descriptions, dialogs, visual appearance – these are all ways of hinting that there may be some secret for the player to discover if he pokes around or searches.

Just like rooms and everything else, you should have some idea about the history of a “secret” of whatever kind… just tucking some secret treasure down an otherwise dead-end path might be a reasonable gameplay reward, but you should have some idea of who did it and why. All by itself, that may give the player a bit more feeling of believability to the situation, but ideally it should be part of whatever hints the player gets, or the reward itself. Who buried that treasure there, or created that secret room, and why? How did they use it? When did they create it? These suggest clues to the player, and the clues themselves provide a subtle storyline.

#10 – Avoid Linear Maps, and How to Handle Obstacles

Even if the most “open” map can be made linear with the (im)proper application of locks and challenges. Avoid the temptation to truly force the flow through the dungeon. It’s good to make sure the player can’t make a beeline to the final encounter and bypass everything else on the way, but try to open up the dungeon in “tiers” of otherwise open areas.  The player may have to accomplish certain tasks to gain entrance to the next tier or section of the dungeon, but their movement and the manner in which they accomplish the task is unconstrained within that tier.

As far as locked doors are concerned for blocking progress – in general, a plain ol’ ordinary locked door is not going to be an obstacle to an adventurer. Locks are made to be picked. The lock can be very hard to pick, but not impossible. Anything that bars entrance to a new area is going to have to be made of sterner stuff. In FK1, I used things like force fields, chasms that need to have a bridge lowered, teleporters that need to be activated, portcullis gates that have to be raised by an external mechanism, even a magical mountainside that had to be removed.

One approach I chose in the Temple of Pokmor Xang and the Pit O’ Doom was to make the final encounter much more difficult if the players bypassed the rest of the dungeon to make a beeline for the final encounter. There’s little preventing them from doing so… it’s just much harder. There are also other places – like the archers in the hobgoblin barracks – where a certain direction is suggested (under pain of multiple archer attacks), but it is not strictly enforced.


Filed Under: Frayed Knights - Comments: 5 Comments to Read



  • Tesh said,

    Blue Dragon violates #9, and it was one of the most annoying bits of the game. When I found myself “searching” every wall, every step, I decided that I was done with the game.

  • McTeddy said,

    The traps are one of the most memorable parts of FK for me. Early on, I blindly stumbled into everything and felt like a moron.

    But eventually I smartened up and started seeing the hints. “A skeleton? Let’s NOT go that way.”

    Between that and the lock picking/trap disarming minigame I felt so proud of myself every time I avoided damage. It was fantastic for my thief-class personality.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    My daughter played Blue Dragon, but I haven’t. I think the searches in FK1 were a bit too random and not always well-announced. I really liked the system myself, but a lot of the people didn’t care for the “hot / cold” thing. I’m still keeping it for FK2, but I hope it’ll be a bit more fun to use.

    FK2′s trap / lock system is a MASSIVE refinement over FK1′s system, I’m happy to say. I’m extremely proud of the system in FK1, but it was a bit too chaotic. I’m still working on ways to better streamline the whole thing, but the new system will at least be more cohesive.

  • Xenovore said,

    Regarding searches: I’d rather have it based on a character’s skill with clear feedback. Check if the hidden object is in view, roll a “Perception” or “Awareness” skill action; if it succeeds then visibly highlight the object (with a outline, glow, flashing arrow, etc.).

    Regarding locked doors: It’s always “find the key” or “pick the lock”. I’d love to see a 3rd option: “physically assault the door”, e.g. bash it, breaking the latch; chop through it; set it on fire; blow it to smithereens; etc. (Of course, provide a consequence, e.g. the noise summons every NPC within 100 yards.)

  • Cuthalion said,

    These guidelines sound a lot like GMing.

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