Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Frayed Knights: Dungeon Design Principles, Part 1

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.

fkskullentranceGeneral Guideline #1 – All dungeons should tell a story. Often more than one.

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.


Filed Under: Design, Frayed Knights - Comments: 11 Comments to Read

  • Maklak said,

    I fully agree with both 1 and 2. They make exploration much more interesting.

    Some time ago you either posted or linked someone who said that there shouldn’t be “empty” areas in a game, such as just a maze of ruins to navigate with almost nothing in it. I disagree with it. I get bored if every nook and cranny I enter contains a combat encounter and a treasure chest. Some areas should be relatively empty when it makes sense. I would take a TES world where I can travel, pick up herbs and fight the occasional Cliffracer to something like WoW which has packs of large predators every 50 meters.

  • Darius said,

    Guideline 1 is great. Some of my favorite moments in games have been unraveling the little stories that are told by snippets of text found around the adventuring area. What often amazes me about this is that even a story that would be trite if told outright can be compelling when told through notes found in the environment.

  • Maklak said,

    I’d rather find a book or an NPC with a story then a lot of torn notes or pieces of log. Those things need a reason to exist. Games scattering pieces of audio and text logs all over the place (but in the “correct” order when traversing a linear area) damage my suspension of disbelief.

  • Anon said,

    If I remember correctly there was comment or post about providing no dead ends in dungeons without any rewards (loot, weapon, special item, whatever).
    The goal is to compensate the player for his time exploring every nook and cranny – but this doesn’t mean that the player must be able to find stuff in every room and corridor. But give him a bit of loot and he may get the notion that it makes sense to creep into every crevice because he may find something of value there.

    And in fact it does make sense to have quiet passages to either calm down the player after some climax (fight, big treasure etc.) or – on the contrary – to increase the tension like in horror movies.

    As for guideline #1 – there are musings from several famous designers (guys like Garriott, Spector etc.) where they describe just that: Put a bunch of objects like stuff and perhaps a readable like a scroll and the player begins to think about it.

    In the mind of the player these leads get connected to something they call a “micro story” – just like the non-game oriented kind (google it!).

  • Xenovore said,

    @Maklak: Agreed. As I mentioned recently, there should be a balance, an ebb and flow, between encounters (NPCs, puzzles, loot, etc.) and empty space. And depending on the game style, that balance will change, e.g. a survival/horror game should have longer spaces between encounters to build apprension/suspense.

    Regarding dead-ends: They should definitely provide something significant, rewarding the player for taking the time to explore them; the level of significance should be related to how long or tedious the dead-end passage is. So, a short nook might only contain a few minor supplies (ammo or a potion), while a long corridor should have something far more useful, like a key needed in another part of the dungeon, or better gear.

    Finally, make good use of lighting. Lighting seems to be taken for granted most of the time but it’s hugely important. Not only does lighting go a long way to creating the atmosphere of a dungeon, but lighting can provide strong clues about where the player should go. . . what areas are important, what areas are safer, what areas are inhabited, etc. Also, good lighting can save an otherwise dull dungeon.

  • Game stories, the final frontier « No Time To Play said,

    […] the relationship between story and medium. Barely one week since Jay Barnson argued that in an RPG the dungeon itself has to tell a story. And here’s an interview with Rhianna Pratchett reminding us yet again about the disconnected […]

  • Frayed Knights: Dungeon Design Principles, Part 2 said,

    […] Game stories, the final frontier « No Time To Play on Frayed Knights: Dungeon Design Principles, Part 1 […]

  • Frayed Knights: Dungeon Design Principles, Part 4 said,

    […] Knights. This is a multi-part series describing my level-design guidelines.  You can read part 1 here, part 2 here, and part 3 […]

  • Frayed Knights: Dungeon Design Principles , Part 5 said,

    […] of these guidelines and thoughts on (virtual) paper, and here is the result. You can read part 1 here, part 2 here,  part 3 here, and part 4 here. We’re getting to the end of the […]

  • Frayed Knights: Dungeon Design Principles, Part 6 said,

    […] easy to forget things), and for those who are assisting me in level design. You can read part 1 here, part 2 here,  part 3 here, part 4 here, and part 5 […]

  • Frayed Knights: Dungeon Creation Rules, Part 1 said,

    […] can read the principles –  part 1 here, part 2 here,  part 3 here, part 4 here, part 5 here, and part 6 […]