Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Technical Dungeons

Posted by Rampant Coyote on February 28, 2012

I’ve got a new term which I’ve been using all week to describe a feature of a particular flavor of dungeon-crawler RPGs: “Technical Dungeons.”

I don’t know how to define it yet. You get it in many roguelikes and old-school western RPGs. You don’t get it in most JRPGs or modern non-indie RPGs. Darklight Dungeon Eternity has a lot of it (thus my pondering on this matter).  Frayed Knight: The Skull of S’makh-Daon has less of it than I’d like. Ultima V had it. Ultima VI, not so much. Ultima VII had very little of it. Ultima Underworld, Dungeon Master, the Eye of the Beholder games – they had it in spades.  From accounts, Wizardry IV had way too much of it to be any fun at all except to masochists. But all of the Wizardry games had plenty of it, up until Wizardry 8, which didn’t have very much of it in spite of plenty of dungeon crawling. The Elder Scrolls games had tons of dungeon crawling, but didn’t really have much of it either that I could feel.

Am I beginning to sound like Bruce Campbell yet?

What I’m talking about is the technical, analytical approach to navigating a dungeon. It’s a point where the dungeons of a game become more than just a setting where the game and story happens, and more than just a path between combat and puzzles. It’s where the dungeon itself is becomes an obstacle, encounter, or character in the game in its own right, offering explicit or implicit clues to its own nature. Where navigation of the dungeon requires a constant weighing of risk and reward. They can be automapped, but the map may actually need to be studied by the player from time to time to determine how to get to where he wants to go, or to figure out its secrets. A technical dungeon is decidedly non-linear, and is not something that will usually be “defeated” in a single session. While any old dungeon may contain combat, traps, puzzles, and secrets, in a technical dungeon these are not stand-alone elements.

Really big dungeons help. Short, quickie dungeons really don’t have the time to develop themselves in the player’s mind, and are so short that navigating them never requires much effort. In that sense, a “technical dungeon” is pretty old-school, as the early D&D campaigns often revolved around a single dungeon (Castle Greyhawk!) that demanded multiple sorties to plumb its depths, defeat its guardians, and dig out its secrets. Respawning enemies are not required in a technical dungeon, but they do promote the judicious use of retreating to safer spots that is one of the characteristics (to me) of technical dungeon gameplay.

But overall, I don’t know if I can truly define it, so much as describe it. It’s not a clear-cut thing even in my own mind. Unfortunately, it’s not something that immediately appeals to people (myself included!), either, as it’s a very slow-burn kind of thing with delayed gratification. And it’s not strictly limited to “dungeons,” either, though this is its classical form. It’s just one of those things where how you approach a dungeon is as important as what you encounter while there.

CRPG Addict (who’s back after a fortunately short hiatus) talked about this a little bit over the weekend, which was a nice bit of synchronicity.  In his post about 1975’s Game of Dungeons, he talks about how RPGs marry the “left-brain” elements of strategy games and deep rules mechanics with the more “right-brain” aspects of setting, plot and character development.  In the early days, the “left brain” aspects dominated the games, mainly because it is far easier for computers to crunch numbers than to manage story development. The latter takes up a lot more space, and is very difficult to make it vary on repeat plays. It wasn’t until the early 1980s that these latter aspects gained more equal footing with the technical side of the art. And kept going. Until you get to today, where oftentimes the gameplay mechanics feel like make-work interludes for a linear story.

(Sadly, fans of the mechanical aspect didn’t earn themselves any sympathy when they took out their frustrations on Bioware designer Jennifer Hepler recently over comments she made years ago about making RPGs more “casual” and heresy like making combat skippable in RPGs. It’s fine to disagree, but personal attacks on designers is deplorable).

So where do I sit? Firmly in the “undecided” category. As I enjoy both action-RPGs and turn-based RPGs, JRPGs and WRPGs, I find aspects of highly technical dungeons very appealing, yet sometimes I enjoy getting on with the story and having dungeons that are little more than interesting places where the “real” game happens. It’s all good. Truly technical dungeon-crawling has been in short supply in recent years. I’m not sure what the “last” mainstream game title was that really offered pretty technical dungeoneering. Maybe Durlag’s Tower in Baldur’s Gate, but I seriously don’t remember that one very much. Or maybe one of these several newer RPGs that I haven’t finished playing. Got any nominations?

I have high expectations for the up coming Legend of Grimrock. Between that, and other indie RPGs such as the recently-released Darklight Dungeon Eternity and the upcoming “Gold” overhaul of Sword & Sorcery: Underworld, I’d suggest that we indie RPG fans will still have plenty of that flavor to enjoy for a while yet.

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 10 Comments to Read

  • delve said,

    Fully agree with your RPG agnosticism. If it’s done well then stylistic choices can’t prevent a game from being ‘good.’ Just different, which is more about personal mood than merit.

  • Fumarole said,

    How about The Temple of Elemental Evil?

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Bingo. That one would probably count. I was playing that one not too long ago, in fact, but finally gave up on account of the constant crashes. Too bad, it was a lot of fun (with the Co8 mod) until then.

  • EHamilton said,

    The Watcher’s Keep (the Demogorgon dungeon) in Baldur’s Gate 2 was a deliberate attempt to create a very old-school ‘technical’ dungeon, even more so than Durlag’s Tower. It had plenty of traps and riddles, and was maze-like enough that it required a constant reference to the automap. I thought it was great!

    Since then, I can’t think of anything that really qualifies other than the Temple complex in ToEE. Dungeons like that really only work with a limited resting system, and so the decline of limited resting has made it difficult for the dungeon to grind down a party. The roadblocks become tough individual encounters, rather than the cumulative effect of being trapped in the dungeon.

  • MRC said,

    Icewind Dale, the Severed Hand.
    Arx Fatalis.

    The description seems to refer to the type of dungeons created by Gygax in D&D, whether it be the Hall of the Fire Giant King or The Tomb of Horrors or The Temple of Elemental Evil. They are thoughtful, dense, and constantly antagonistic to the player. They usually cannot be conquered without retreat and rest.

    The computer RPG dungeons may be ones that best invoke the feelings of those prototypical dungeons.

  • Kelhim said,

    Thief 1 had a couple of mission settings which could qualify as technical dungeons. In contrast to some of the more linear missions, the exploration of the city ruins underground could easily take several hours, since the city was large and you had to find some clues hidden in old letters from other slightly less successful adventurers. If you haven’t played through the mission before or you don’t use a walkthrough, you’ll definitely be visting some parts of the city again and again. Sure, speaking of RPGs, Thief 1 doesn’t immediately come to mind, but it all depends on how you define RPGs. Anyway, I think some of these missions fit the analytical aspect of technical dungeons very well.

  • Anon said,

    “The Elder Scrolls games had tons of dungeon crawling, but didn’t really have much of it either that I could feel.”

    Couldn’t agree more. The dungeons in the later games are increasingly beautiful and detailed – but increasingly dumbed down equally, too.

    It’s really a pity: Skyrim could’ve gotten much more praise if it weren’t for the excessive amount of quest bugs, technical glitches … and its linear dungeons (only saving grace: Blackreach, which reminds me very much of the underworld in Ultima 5).

    While I understand the need to sell the game at some point I can’t even fathom why the dungeon design is practically a “You are an idiot!” in the face of every RPG fan.

    PS: I love the painting in the Old Spice commercial

  • GhanBuriGhan said,

    Ah, Ultima Underworld. Just seeing screens of the map screen gets me high on nostalgia every time.
    Do you think the final dungeon complex in Risen would qualify? It at least required considerable detours, solving various side quests to proceed, and some backtracking to the base, iirc.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I finally bought Risen over the holidays, but haven’t had time to play it even once yet. I look forward to trying it out.

  • Baudolino said,

    Zelda, Zelda and…(maybe I forgot something?)Zelda! It isn’t exactly an RPG (I think to it as to an action-adventure) but it is a game built around the idee that dungeons themselves should be puzzles, or at least obstacles for the player.

    ps: sorry for my english ;)…