Building Better Dungeons Using Puzzle Game Design: Lesson 2


Welcome back, and thank you for coming back after that first post that seemed so void of applicable advice. If I were to give an alternate title for this part it would be ‘Actually Beginning To Build A Dungeon With This Advice’, but that wouldn’t be very snappy.

I digress.

I’m here to continue teaching one design philosophy I’ve developed for building what I would call the ‘Holistic Dungeon’. My first post discussed 3 tiers of dungeon, and the Holistic Dungeon is the 3rd of those wherein the entire dungeon design is built from a single unifying concept.

A Recap

The mechanic I will be using for this case study will be the Lantern mechanic discussed in my previous post. If you’re reading this and haven’t read that then first of all go and read it because it really is the foundation upon which this entire concept is built, and also here’s a recap of that particular mechanic.

In this dungeon the party has to retrieve 4 lanterns of different colours, and once a lantern is retrieved it is used to help retrieve the others. The lanterns have a few simple rules governing them.

1. A lantern must be carried to be used and takes up 1 hand.

2. A lantern can be turned on and off with an action and fills the room with coloured light.

3. While a lantern is on, magic from its relevant arcane tradition cannot be used.

Here Begins Lesson 2

Lesson 1 was ‘have one underlying mechanic’, and the lantern one above is the one we will be using. I also referenced the core mechanic of Portal a lot in my last post, but we will be moving away from that here. Lesson 2 was already somewhat mentioned in the last post too, but in this post we will be going in-depth with examples and tools for implementation. Lesson 2 is as follows:

Tie Everything To Your One Mechanic

I know I’ve already used this concept in defining the Holistic Dungeon further above, and this idea might seem implicit based on what I’ve already discussed in the previous post, but again in this one we’re going into specifics and looking into exactly how that premise works in a real dungeon. Also, everything really means everything. In the case study dungeon the lantern mechanic dictates how puzzles are solved, how combats are fought and how the dungeon is navigated. This is not simply a puzzle mechanic, it is an everything mechanic. Remember that rule about certain kinds of magic being unusable when a lantern is on? Well, imagine a combat where you’re balancing the needs of the spellcasters with the requirements that lanterns of a certain colour be active.

A Puzzle Example

One of the first puzzles occurs when the party has 2 lanterns; Red and Blue. By extrapolating our lantern rules we have 4 available states:

 – Both lanterns off

 – Blue on, Red off

 – Red on, Blue off

 – Both lanterns on

The first puzzle is a bottomless pit. On the ceiling is a tile pattern that correlates to the floor below. When the blue lantern is on it illuminates some of the tiles on the ceiling. When the red lantern is on it illuminates a different set of tiles. When both lanterns are on, a third set of tiles is illuminated. By cross-referencing each pattern, the party can find the correct path of invisible tiles across the bottomless pit.

A Combat Example

This combat comes late in the dungeon. The party is fighting 2 will-o-wisps that are only visible when a certain colour is active. In this room, whenever a lantern is activated all the others automatically deactivate (for simplicity’s sake, given that we have 4 lanterns by this point). At the end of each of their turns, the will-o-wisps will change what colour they are visible with. This follows a repeating pattern of colours, but it is a different one for each will-o-wisp, and they are never on the same colour at the same time.

The party has to activate the lanterns at the right times to be able to attack the will-o-wisps, and may even have to hand lanterns to players further up in the initiative order to be able to activate them at the best possible times relative to when the will-o-wisps act. This is on top of the fact that lanterns require a hand, which means the sword-and-board fighter is giving up either his offense or defence in order to render a lantern usable. The spellcasters may have hands to spare, but they are limited in what spells they can cast depending on what lantern is active.

It’s a hell of a lot to handle at once during a combat, and makes it far more interesting than ‘fight the golem until it’s dead’. Also, it’s relying on the same mechanic they used to solve a puzzle earlier.

A Navigational Example

This one is very simple. The dungeon’s central chamber, and the one the party revisits each time they get a new lantern, is hexagonal. One wall had the entrance (which is now closed), and the other walls are all blank. When the party gets their first lantern they can activate it in this room to reveal a door that was not possible to pass through before. Each lantern in turn reveals a new door which leads the party to the next section of the dungeon. Once they have all 4 lanterns they can be illuminated in conjunction to reveal the entrance to the final room, which in turn leads to the dungeon’s exit. This is also essentially a way of gating progression through the dungeon, akin to having the party retrieve a key for a locked door somewhere else in the dungeon, but again in this case it’s one entirely informed by our central lantern mechanic.

Bada-bing, bada-boom, holistic dungeon.

And There’s More Than That

Puzzles, Combats and Navigation aren’t the only things that get done in a dungeon. There’s also things like traps, the need to find safe rest spots, NPCs and factions that can be interacted with, and so much more. The dungeon I’m using as a case study doesn’t have these factors, but here are some examples if they did.

For traps I’d have something like a hallway of swinging blades wherein a different blade stops depending on which lantern is activated.

For resting I’d have rooms where doors could be opened and closed with different lanterns, and by leaving the right combination on the party could effectively lock themselves safely in the room.

For NPCs I might have characters that can only be understood when a certain lantern is activated (such as by tying each lantern to a language which can be freely spoken and understood when it is active a la Comprehend Languages).

Outro For Now

This post definitely should have provided some ideas you can walk away with and begin implementing in your own games, but there is still more to learn. We’ve really only laid out more groundwork, albeit groundwork that is more directly useful than in the first post. From here we will be diving more into the tenets of puzzle game design and start really getting deep into how to make a 5-star dungeon.

If only you knew the things I will show you…

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