What to do with Dungeons

Walking trough a RPG world, you will certainly find some dungeons. These places are usually filled with monsters, mini-games or mysteries. But, what can you do with Dungeons? I tried to compile a list of types, contents and uses for these very specific places…

Layout of the Dungeon
The contents you will and can put in your dungeon are limited to the design of your creation. There are a few types of layout.

The most simple type of a dungeon is a path between entrance A and exit B. Such layout means that a player can not get lost, needs to accomplish everything that is in his way and failing to do so will block the progress of the player in the game. This type is mostly used as a pathway between two points of interest or key-events in the game, or as key-point in a story. This, however, does not mean you can’t build in side-paths within this layout. Just make sure that the player returns to or close to the junction where he took the side-path.

The symmetric type of dungeon has many designs. Some design are well-known (e.g. the cubic design in some Zelda dungeons) and others are yet to be created. You can have a Symmetric-Linear dungeon, meaning there is a path between entrance A and exit B, but there is more then one way to take that path. Such layout will give the player more chance to accomplish his task, but has the problem that a main-story event is harder to implement inside the dungeon.

Another type of symmetry is a design that has a path to the left and one to the right at any point in the dungeon. Players can switch from path, meaning they can accomplish their task by choosing the path they think is the most easy one. That is also the downside. In most cases, there’s a common thought on what is easy and therefor, half of your dungeon won’t be played.

Anything else will be considered non-linear. Optionally there are multiple entrances and multiple exists. Some roads are dead-ends and any type of symmetry is lost. Players easily get lost in these dungeons, but don’t lose the encouragement to play, because new areas can be found over and over. The main advantage is that you can easily enter side-quests, mini-games and secret areas. Please note that these dungeons don’t need to lead you from point A to B. There can be a route from A to B, but that is not the main intention.

Off course this is my view on that subject. Sure you can come up with more categories, but I think that all dungeons can be categorized within these three types.

Purpose of the Dungeon
I think this point is often missed and yet very vital. A dungeon is usually unlike a cave build by humans. This means that a dungeon had a function in the end. What I am trying to say is that you can’t just drop a dungeon everywhere, without reason.

Travellers purpose
A very simple and much used purpose of a dungeon is providing a relatively safe and rather short route between point A and point B. I call this the travellers purpose. This also means that there is a relationship between point A and point B, meaning that you have to write some background story on why these two points had to be connected. Also, this type of dungeon normally comes with the Linear layout.

Resources purpose
Another very easy to understand purpose is the one that involves resource gathering. Perhaps the people living just outside this dungeon where mining the place, large dungeons or found the perfect habitation for some species of plants that provide some medical use. Perhaps it is a cave with an underground river or lake that provides clean water. This type of dungeon is, don’t bother the exception, always a Non-Linear dungeon. There is no reason to have an exit at the other side of the mountain, or making a safe pathway.

Hide-out purpose
This purpose usually comes in areas with no society’s nearby. People have hidden or are hiding themselves for whatever reason in this dungeon. These dungeons are rather small, not easy to reach and stuffed with goodies like weapons and so on. (However, the dragon’s lair, which falls under this purpose, can be large, and without goodies.)

Lock-down purpose
People always try to lock things away. One type having this purpose is the jail-dungeon. It is used to lock-down people. Then you have the evil-creature-dungeon, in which people have put away their miscreations or dangerous monsters. You can also lock down mysterious objects or large treasures. When using this dungeon, make it clear to the player why these things are put away from the land of light and living.

Contents of the Dungeon
The contents are one of the most vital things in your dungeon. How boring is an empty dungeon? Exactly, Alt-F4-boring.

Monsters in the Dungeon
Monsters can be found in 90 percent, if it isn’t more, of the dungeons out there. They provide you a way to gain experience and yet raise the difficulty of accomplishing the players task. There are some things you should think off, before you crowd your dungeon:

  1. Penguins don’t live in fire-caves, don’t put Magmar in a water-cave. Think about the environment before you put in your monsters. This means the following:
    1. The temperature and climate are both very vital to what can survive.
    2. Big creatures won’t survive small areas. They need living space.
    3. Small creatures often come in groups. Don’t put in just 2 mice.
    4. Creatures need to eat, provide them with environment like plants, water.
  2. The monsters strength should not be altered too match some linear difficulty. The strength is bound to the environment and the number of creatures living in the same area. It is a misunderstanding that a linear rise in difficulty is the best you can have. In fact, it is one of the worst. Not only will the player get bored, he also is not rewarded. This is because when he defeated those in dungeon A, he already knows that he needs to buy all weapons in the stores between dungeon A and B in order to defeat the monsters in dungeon B in the same time with the same feeling.
    1. Reward the player by making them a little bit less difficult to defeat,
    2. or raise the levels of the creatures to surprise the player.

Puzzles in the Dungeon
Puzzles can be vital for player experience. These are the parts where you don’t need to battle anymore, but need to concentrate on the problem that is given. It adds fun and change to your game. Also, if your puzzle is typical for your story, it might become a point of recognition. However, take in mind that it is weird to have a puzzle midst some creatures living space or in a travellers route. Here are a few much used concepts:

Push Objects
Rather easy to make and can be hard to solve. The player gets a number of pushable objects which are placed in an environment with obstacles. In order to win, the player needs to reach a point by push the objects aside, or in holes or on switches.

Press Switches
In order to open a door or to continue, swithces must be pressed. This has a result that something changes like lightsgoing on, or other swithces change state. Many variations are possible.

Raise Water-level
In order to continue, one needs to raise or lower the level of the water by turning some water streams on and some of by turning switches.

Turn Bridges
The player sees some platform and on each platfrom there can be one or more switches. By pressing a switch, a bridge, or more then one turns. The player wins if he reaches the other side.

Evade Hazards
Some more action typed puzzle and minigame is the one where you need to evade some nasty hazards. The player needs to get to the other side, without getting killed. hink of fire from the wall or gound, breaking ice, boulders that roll, spikes from the ground, doors that fall down, moving platforms…

Ride Mine-cart
A special type of evading hazards can be the mine-cart minigame or puzzle. The player needs to stay on track and avoid obstacles. The number of obstacles, speed of the cart and number of junctions and turns define the hardness of this minigame/puzzle.

Jump Pillars
The player wins if he reaches the other side, and he can do this by jumping pillars that are exactly [x] spaces away form the place he stands at that moment. Add some hazards and objects to make this puzzle more interessting, but it’s always easy to implement, even in a linear dungeon as you can always say: The ground collapsed. Just kidding. I meant to say that this type can be implemented almost everywhere.

Solve Labyrinth
Just like Jump Pillars, this type of puzzle is very easy to make, and not hard to implement. However, try to make it fun. A long tiring labyrinth won’t do the player and his player experience any good!

Solve Riddles
A very widely ranged, almost always fun type of puzzle is the one where you need to solve a riddle. You can execute this idea in almost any way. Tellt he player which doors to take, which way to go, what pillars to jump, what item to buy, what equipment to wear, but then encrypted in a mysterious message.

The key to succes with the puzzles I stated above is to make them your own. You have to make it fit in the story or area in your game. It has to activate the players thought in such way that he thinks “nice puzzle” and not “this has been done in that and that and that game”.

Secrets in the Dungeon
Having secrets is very common. So I am not going to say much about this, except for the following. Whenever you put in a secret, it is very very important that you match the reward with the energy and time it took for the player to obtain it.

Direct Item Reward
Giving an item can be a type op positive and negative reward. If the item matches the energy and time it took for the player to obtain it, it will be considered positive. However if you give the player an item that is so prehistoric he can’t even sell it, it will piss him off alot!

Indirect Item Reward
Giving a direction to where an item can be obtained can be a very nice move to keep the player moving, but consider the fact that he won’t appreciate this if he already did a lot to get to this place of reward and then needs to do even more to get an item he knows nothing about. If you do give such a direction, give the player the option to not go and obtain the item by telling or hinting him what it is, ór by sending the player close to the place of obtainment directly.

Cash Reward
I think this is one of the worst rewards you can get. I rather kill some monsters or sell some monsters skin. A cash reward is good for small archievements, but not for head-breaking puzzles. Don’t always make it yourself too easy.

Story Reward
A very interessting type of reward is the one where you get a piece of background story or a sidequest to do. Please note that you will certainly enlighten the type of player that likes to know everything about the world he is in, but won’t encourage the type of player that wants to finish the game as quickly as possible of playing any further.

Negative Reward
If the player cheated on a puzzle or minigame or you want to tell him he is going in the wrong direction, you can give him a negative reward. This can be (e.g.) a cash reward of very litle cash, a prehistoric item reward, an instant damage reward or a monster for free. Don’t do this to often. It makes the player feel bad about hmiself and the game and makes him stop playing in the end!

Some last notes on Dungeons
I am just trying to let you know the things I think player experience is about. It is mainly, in this dungeon case, implementing that puzzle in the story in such way you don’t glue your story with puzzles, but glue your puzzles with story. It increases the fun, uniqueness and orginality of a game.

Don’t think that using old puzzle concepts is bad. It is the way you put them in that counts for how the player will react on it. Just keep trying and testing and ask for some opinion on a regular base.


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