Tales of the Rampant Coyote

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Frayed Knights: Dungeon Design Principles, Part 2

Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 22, 2013

This is a multi-part series describing my level-design guidelines for Frayed Knights.  You can read part 1 here.

Many of these guidelines have been with me for a long time. They evolved even when I was designing dungeons on paper for friends to play through. They were certainly inspired by the early dice-and-paper RPG books and computer games I’ve played over the years. Some evolved from advice given to me by others, and many evolved as I developed the first game in the series – from personal experience, and from feedback.

For Frayed Knights 2 and 3, I’m getting a little bit of help designing some dungeons, and so I felt it necessary to put these guidelines down on paper. I jokingly refer to it as my “secret sauce,” but it’s really not secret. While some of it applies only to Frayed Knights, some of it can be applied (or stretched to apply) to other games. In the interest of encouraging discussion – which will hopefully improve the genre as a whole amongst indies – I’ve decided to share this information in the blog, a couple of principles at a time.

I’ve elaborated a little on them and edited them for the blog, but this is largely ‘design doc’ stuff. It’s not about how all RPGs should be made – just what we’re doing for Frayed Knights.  Also – as a warning – there are a few minor spoilers for Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon.

#3 – Multiple Approaches to Challenges

Where appropriate, provide multiple solutions or approaches to solving problems. If it’s part of the critical path, a puzzle should be able to be bypassed through cleverness or brute force. Really tough bosses (or other exceptional  encounters)  that are non-optional combat encounters may have ways to make the encounter less difficult. Some examples of this might be limiting reinforcements, or weakening their power (or allies). Or just bribing them.

In all cases, taking an alternative approach should yield similar (but not necessarily equal) rewards. Maybe there’s less loot with one approach but more XP or drama points, or something along those lines. In fact, it’s best if these rewards are not identical, and the player is given some hint as to the trade-off being made in advance.  The most interesting choices are ones where the player must sacrifice or forgo something desirable… but the game should offer at least some kind of compensation for that. It may not be of exactly equal value (it could be better!), but this provides the feeling that the game (and designers) acknowledge and respect the choice.

As examples from Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon, the boss encounter in Pokmor Xang: You can bypass most of the dungeon and make a beeline for the boss, but he’ll have more reinforcements if you do. You can bribe the troll at the bridge in the central Caverns of Anarchy (and possibly haggle him down from his opening toll).  You can jury-rig the bridge puzzle in the Plane of Anarchy (although finding out how to jury-rig it may be a bigger challenge than solving the puzzle).


#4 – Tongue-in-cheek, but don’t overdo it

Frayed Knights is primarily character-based humor. While you should feel free to include some tongue-in-cheek or snarky descriptions (it’s a good thing), it should not descend to Mad Magazine levels of parody. That gets irritating very quickly.

Frayed Knights is more like a sitcom. One of my guiding principles was to imagine the world as a D&D campaign created by a particularly earnest 14-year-old (easy enough for me…), who doesn’t quite realize how cliche or nonsensical his adopted tropes and ‘clever’ ideas might be. The player’s party offers commentary somewhat as if they are being played by jaded players off at some invisible table somewhere, who are doing their best to play along and enjoy the game, but can’t help but let the player in on the joke. The text descriptions should follow somewhat the same pattern – sort of the voice of a third party offering the same jaded commentary with a touch of snark.

Again – this isn’t parody. While we make fun of it, we’re still reveling in it. Think “Knights of the Dinner Table” and “Order of the Stick.” With maybe a touch of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” This is the kind of humor we’re shooting for in dialog and descriptions.

One thing I tried to do in FK1 was offer ideas to explain (or at least lampshade) some of the classic tropes of fantasy and RPGs. Like why there were so many dungeons in the world. Or why there are lit torches in dungeons that have theoretically been abandoned for years. Part of the twist here is that many players are quite familiar with these tropes – sometimes to the point of exhaustion – and the game is somewhat self-aware of them. Things that would be wild and wonderful and shockingly unusual are almost painfully familiar to the adventurers in this world, and they treat it like a job.  While treating the fantastic as mundane isn’t all that humorous in itself, it can provide a pretty good basis for many jokes in the game.

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