Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

RPG Design: Drawing Inspiration from Maps

Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 30, 2015

Level 7. It was the most notorious level of the Ultima Underworld series. It was responsible for me giving up on the game for several weeks. Of course, the reason for all that wasn’t the map itself, but the anti-magic effect. But to me, this is an example of what a really awesome dungeon level looks like (borrowed from the Ultima Codex wiki, although the map itself is generated by the game):


Some might say that since maps like this haven’t been repeated in 20 years, this might be an example of what not to do. Maybe they learned that players don’t like it? Smaller dungeon levels are more successful? Or something? I don’t know. I don’t know that anybody does.

I’ve been looking back at some classic RPG maps (both computer games and dice & paper games) for inspiration as I’m knee-deep building dungeons for Frayed Knights 2 right now. And the operative word really is “inspiration.” I look at them and try to analyze what makes me think of them so fondly. In some cases – like this one – the map is more of the inspiration rather than the memories of what was in it. My memories of this place aren’t all that fresh. In recent re-plays of Ultima Underworld I haven’t gotten this far.

But I loved the game. I even loved this level, although the anti-magic aspect was much more of an annoyance than a fun element. But even if I don’t remember many of the details, this map just screams to me of potential. I love the mix of water and lava in the level – bridges spanning the gaps, even the jumping-stones in the center lava pool. The maze section on the right… maybe not quite so much. Mazes are one of those things that look good on paper (and probably play best on paper), but tend to be more annoying than fun.

I’ve talked about old-school level design before, but mostly in the context of linearity. Bu what I’m thinking about today is more of how a level can capture the imagination. Maybe this is just something that impacts me, because so much of my old-school dice-and-paper experience came from imagination. I’d look at the 2D maps and see 3D movies in my head. There’s no way I can capture that exactly in a video game, even with a huge budget, but I will try. Maps inspire me. I have a map from Zork and a map from Ultima V hanging over my head in my home office where I do most of my game development. These maps represent much more than just their individual games for me.

Whether around a table or in front of a computer or console, these are the feelings I want to get from dungeon crawling:

Exploration: Why big, non-linear maps do it for me. I’m sure there could be a lot to explore in a single room, but the big, sprawling maps with lots of secrets and side-paths are what inspire me.

Problem-Solving: I want challenges to my intellect and problem-solving skills, not just combat. Environmental obstacles and threats.

Secrets: In some ways, this is rewards for exploration. These don’t have to be straight-up treasure – in fact, they should normally not be. Story awards, easter eggs, little jokes, or interesting tidbits can be just as rewarding.

Mysteries: Amusingly, this is both similar to and the opposite of secrets. I want mysteries to unfold as I play – maybe not always to a full conclusion (sometimes unanswered questions are the best stimulation for the imagination). The most basic mystery may be, “Who built this place, and why?”  That’s a good starting point, at least. But it’s better to have more mysteries raised as you play through… it helps the level come alive, with blanks getting filled by the imagination.

Monsters: Well, yeah. Duh. I want scary monsters to fight. It gets the blood pumping! But more than that, it’s the THREAT of a monster around every corner and behind every door that is exciting. If there’s actually a monster around every corner and behind every door, it gets tedious. (Something I need to consciously work on as a game developer, and I think many game developers get wrong).

Maybe I’m just weird this way. While I harbor no illusions that my own meager efforts on the mapping & level design front can be as inspirational to anyone else, I hope that I can at least capture enough of a fraction of this feeling and turn it into something entertaining.

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 4 Comments to Read

  • Maklak said,

    > Lava
    Rather off topic, but the way this is handled in games annoys me. Lava needs to flow or at least boil to stay liquid, otherwise it solidifies. In addition it is hot; imagine it as a giant bonfire. You don’t go near it without a suit similar to what metal forges use, because you’ll get burnt or at least overheated. Yet writers and game designers like to include silly things, like a room with a chasm filled with lava and a narrow stone “bridge” over it. And maybe even a fight on top of that bridge. I don’t find these things “cool”, just stupid and ignorant of convection.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Yeah, game-lava (and movie-lava) is the magical thing that you played when you were a kid jumping on furniture and couch cushions… the floor is lava and if you touch it, you die. But anything short of that is fair game.

  • Burt said,

    Asheron’s Call had some pretty involved dungeons and caves to get lost in. This blog post just had me do a google image search for “Asheron’s Call dungeon map” and get hit by waves of nostalgia. I can remember a lot of these places.

    What I really liked about that game was that, while you could sometimes get hints to where a dungeon/cave was located from NPCs in town or from books, most of the time they were discovered while freely exploring the wide open world. No zone loading, and no story-locked areas or impassible walls of trees or anything. No instances. No strict level-locked areas either – you could wander around higher level areas as a newbie as long as you could avoid the creatures.

    Some dungeons had a story to them or significant loot of some sort, while others were simply ancient ruins that some race of creatures have since made a home in. Or winding tunnels dug through the earth by bug critters.

    I liked to look at the world map for a far away landmark that looked interesting – like a crater, lake, plateau, or mountain range, then start trekking towards it, hunting critters along the way for their pelts and other trophies, and exploring any dungeons and caves I came across. It was such a great explorer’s game.

    But I think most people just waited for one of the players to map out any new dungeons and provide step-by-step instructions, usually only a wait of a day or two at most. Then they could blitz through them. Maybe this is one of the reasons why game developers just don’t bother with complex dungeons anymore. All of the AC dungeon maps that show up on google are player-made. There were no in-game maps for them. I started resorting to just looking up a map and blitzing through dungeons after level 30 or so due to higher levels becoming more and more difficult and more of a chore due to having to be constantly buffed with a gaggle of spells that only last 30 minutes or whatever. At low levels exploring at an easy pace was great though. They should have capped players at level 20 and left the buffing mechanic out entirely. But I’m sure that would be blasphemy to the ears of many other players.

  • Maklak said,

    Not that Ultima Online level design was any good and they weren’t even tat big, but UO provided the kind of freedom you described: you could do almost anything (including fishing by the river and selling fish steaks to players or making furniture for player houses) and go anywhere. Skills were 0-100 (or 120 if you got a rare item) with 700 skillcap. You’d hit that in a week and became “high-level”. The biggest problem of that game were PKs.