Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Making Bigger, Badder Dungeons

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 30, 2015

WorldsLargestDungeonMaybe it’s because of stories of Castle Greyhawk, or that my first forays into CRPGs was through the mega-dungeon of Telengard. I’ve got this irrational fondness of really big, sprawling underground complexes. Maybe I’m enamored with the idea of huge, hidden worlds hidden below our real one. I don’t know. Even though the maps were only 10 x 10 squares, the original Wizardry dungeon left me feeling the same way. And of course, I’ll never forget the first time I read Fellowship of the Ring, and got to the part about Moria. It’s still my favorite section out of all of the books. I’ve always wanted to explore Moria, the great grandpa of imaginary mega-dungeons.

Many of my first maps for D&D were done on tiny graph paper that was something like an 8×8 grid per inch, and I filled it with lots of rooms and corridors and stairs to other levels. I never ran anyone through that dungeon… in fact, I don’t think I ever finished keying it up (all ten or so levels of it). If I’d actually run players through that dungeon, we might still be playing it today.

Vertical DungeonI was thumbing through Frog God Games’ Tome of Adventure Design the other day (an outstanding reference to kickstart your creativity when building adventures) and came across this quick vertical sketch of a dungeon complex, and immediately thought, “Yeah, that’s how it ought to be!” Several levels, different themes, all linked together in a giant complex. But it was more than just the idea of a big honkin’ dungeon. It had the “right ideas” in ways I’ll get to in a minute.

I don’t have a hard-and-fast definition for what constitutes a really big dungeon, but if one location (with multiple levels) dominates a computer RPG, it would count. Games that come to mind are the first five Wizardry games, Ultima Underworld, the Darklight Dungeon series, The Temple of Elemental Evil, Dungeon Master, the Eye of the Beholder series (at least 1 and 2), Torchlight 1,  Diablo 1,  Legend of Grimrock, and many (most?) roguelikes.

On the tabletop front, some of the titles that come to mind would be (obviously) The World’s Largest Dungeon (AEG), the Tomb of Abysthor (Necromancer Games) (Now included in Lost Lands: Stoneheart Valley by Frog God Games), Rappan Athuk (Necromancer Games / Frog God Games), Dragons Delve, Ruins of the Dragon Lord (Mongoose Publishing), and Expedition to Undermountain (Wizards of the Coast). Sadly, Gary Gygax’s attempt to recreate his legendary Castle Greyhawk campaign with Castle Zagyg ended prematurely with his death, and the first parts are no longer on the market.

diablo1_lavaThe obvious problem with giant frickin’ dungeons is that they can get pretty boring. I’ve experienced it in tabletop games. I’ve experienced it in video games. A huge, monolithic dungeon can get pretty dang tedious after a while. Variety is vital to keep things interesting. A good single-dungeon crawler needs several of the following:

  1. Variety of theming: A change of scenery every few levels, so that the players aren’t always looking at the same style of stone walls.
  2. Variety of terrain: More than just cosmetics, this is where room layouts take on a new style. Manmade architecture gives way to natural caves, where stalagmites and uneven ground change the tactical environment. Levels partly or completely underwater, levels shrouded in fog, or (my least favorite) levels where magic doesn’t work…
  3. Variety of challenges: This is more than just facing different monsters on each level, although highly different monster types with very different approaches to fighting them is certainly desirable. But each level should also have different “goal conditions” and/or different types of challenges (like the aforementioned underwater levels or other navigational hazards). Dungeons levels should play differently.
  4. Multiple points of egress: You shouldn’t have to go back through all of the previous levels to get back to “home base” (a place of relative safety) and back again – via newly discovered secret doors, activated teleporters, or whateverc. Alternately, if no such place exists in the game, a level could have safe locations integral into most or all of the levels (as in Ultima Underworld).
  5. Unique Storylines Per Level: Ideally, each level should have its own story, too. The idea is to have players not only interested in the end-goal, but interested in exploring their current environment. What happened here, and what is currently happening here, and how does the presence of the player characters change everything?

There may be more ideas to keep the levels interesting, but that’s what I think of.

Naturally, from a pure gameplay perspective, there’s no functional difference from a single-dungeon experience implementing these suggestions and a game where these levels are split up into multiple dungeons, all nicely different.  The same advice applies. It’s really just an interface and context issue… do you travel across the world to get to each spot individually, or all they all linked together? Other than lacking the need to travel, they don’t buy you much, but from a conceptual view, I love the clear progression in difficulty from the upper levels to the more dangerous lower levels, the oppressive feeling of being deep beneath the surface (where’s my canary?) and extending further and further from safety (even given shortcuts).

And of course, there’s that little voice from my childhood telling me that this is how dungeons are supposed to be. Epic!

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 7 Comments to Read

  • samrobb said,

    Oh, man. That “quick vertical sketch of a dungeon complex”? Yeah. Spent about a year and a half in high school fleshing it out. The first level was a partially collapsed caldera, open to wind and weather… and filled with an Enitre. Freaking. CITY. (I had the “Cities” supplement from Midkemia press, and it was just begging to be used…)

    IIRC, I got down to the third or fourth level before I lost steam, and before I even had an inkling what a “megadungeon” was. Had a 15-page outline of a couple of major major plots and lots of side plots that would have eventually drawn players into discovering and facing off against the Big Bad at the root of the mountain that threatened everything.

    Due to lack of a group, I never really got the chance to use it, except as a stopping off point for one-shot adventures.

    Thanks for bringing back the memories! 🙂

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    LOL – totally! I remember seeing something similar in the D&D “Expert Set” and did much the same. In hindsight, and how I suspect Gygax & Kuntz did it, was that provided a visual outline of what they had to prepare to keep a level or so ahead of the adventuring group. However, I always interpreted it as “flesh out the entire complex all at once!”

    Still, good times. One of the things I love about making RPGs as an indie now is that it brings back a little of that old feeling of drawing maps and imagining the players experiencing it all.

  • Adamantyr said,

    I love all the little snippets we’ve seen of Castle Greyhawk over the years… It’s unfortunate that all we have that was officially released was either silly (the old Castle Greyhawk module) or incomplete.

    I do suspect though that Gary kind of dragged his feet on releasing Castle Zagyg deliberately. It was annoying how every release in that line was anything BUT the dungeon which is what everyone wanted. That may be why Rob Kuntz left the project eventually, I think he realized Gary would never finish it and didn’t really intend to.

  • Kyle Haight said,

    It occurs to me that by this definition the original System Shock is one of the best single-dungeon crawler games ever made.

    Dungeon != fantasy.

  • Xenovore said,

    What, no mention of the Underdeep?

  • Mr Horse said,

    Funny, I always get this claustrophobic feel in dungeons and tend to hate them because of it :s

  • Maklak said,

    To me dungeons in RPGs these days feel more like dungeon-themed theme parks then the real deal. The moment I stop admiring scenery one room at a time and I start thinking about how the layout works, what immension there is, bursts like a soap bubble. For example Eschalon has a crypt that was tuned into a long, snaking corridor.

    I kinda-sorta understand why it is that way. RPG / level designers like to think in terms of balance, “fun experience”, player-centric ergonomy (wide corridors so camera doesn’t clip walls, doors only where they’re easy to open), encounters and available hardware resources. They create a sort of distilled-condensed mood-altering artificial thing instead of as close a representation of a real thing as possible. Take Fallout for example. In-fluff vaults are supposed to house about 1000 people, but what’s explorable would barely be enough for 50 for a month. Factory? We get maybe one room with a single assembly line and a few machines and some offices. I’ve never seen a game where an office building would have procedural generation of 50+ floors filled with cubicles and all that stuff.

    Dungeon designers should take a good look at real floor plans. I mean I’ve seen plans of a real castle and they were awesome. Everything was there, kitchens, toilets, rooms for sleeping, storage, bedrooms for the lord, etc. It wasn’t linear with at least two ways to get from floor to floor, was pretty small and wouldn’t be conductive to “lets put a cutscene here and a final boss there”, but it had lots of potential.

    A cave is three dimensional and some corridors are too small for a human to comfortably get through or are underwater. And it doesn’t have those stupid glowing mushrooms; if you want to explore, bring your own damn light source or pay for your own stupidity. As a GM I would actually penalise players for not thinking ahead to bring supplies, but tell them so when shopping.

    Another thing is that there seem to be different ways to design an top-down view dungeon and first-person view dungeon. Skyrim’s donuts would look stupid in 2D (Not that they make sense in 3D). Some things that work in 2D would look as artificial as they are in first-person.

    Yet another of my pet peeves is that I just don’t see organised defence in games. Enemies spawn at pre-determined (or random) locations, come in waves and pretty much never fall back. I’ve seen a DnD adventure module where a 60 cm tall corridor was reducing mobility of medium humanoids, but not the things defending it. It also had a larger chamber with way forward being a few metres up. It was defended by Kobolds with ranged weapons and good cover, who would send a messenger to alert their buddies. If the PCs fireballed Kobolds behind cover or eventually climbed their way up, the rest of the little buggers would fall back to the next choke point, which was a river crossing. Try dodging sling bullets while swimming / balancing your way through and say hello to Kobolds herding dire weasels at you. All the while the rest of them, including casters, prepare at the final line of defence, or sneak at your rear (because they can squeeze through small corridors). Tucker Kobolds FTW! Well, I guess Mass Effect 1 sort of had organised defence in that all enemies would spawn and attack you at once. It lead to 5 minutes of chaos and hiding behind doors, waiting for enemies to come and then the room was clear and it was safe to go looting. Realistic if unfullfilling.

    > Variety of theming / Variety of terrain
    Yea, if it makes some sense for it to be there. Maybe a city has a network of underground store rooms and passages that connect to a deeper cave system. Diablo handled this rather well with cathedral dungeon connecting to a cave, connecting to hell.

    > Variety of challenges
    I would actually prefer to have a working ecosystem or a hierarchy of intelligent creatures (Dragon keeps some Kobolds and Wyverns around) than room after room of random, but progressively stronger monsters with no food source for no apparent reason.

    > Multiple points of egress
    I admit to using this in Diablo, but I dislike the idea of circular one-way dungeon. If there are indeed secret doors that shorten the path, at least let me find them to get to the good stuff faster and bypass some trouble on the way. This is what original users would do anyway: take the fast path and leave rooms filled with traps for looters. Heck, I recall one group did a dungeon crawl by making an educated guess as to the location of main treasure room, then casing spell to transmute stone to mud and dig.

    > Unique Storylines Per Level
    Sure, but if there is a story, everything should match it. If there was a copper mine that was abandoned by Dwarves when the copper run out and they didn’t leave in a hurry, everything valuable should be taken, maybe except for one or two hidden treasures that someone hid before dying of an accident. But hey, it the group clears the animals / slimes / monsters that have since moved in, they have a pretty decent base of operations.