Building Better Dungeons Using Puzzle Game Design: Lesson 3


Welcome back! If you’ve made it this far I’m more than a little impressed. This series has been dense so far.

To go back over the background of this series, I’ve so far discussed the concept of the ‘Holistic Dungeon’ and an approach to building one that takes lessons from puzzle game design. We’ve implemented the basics and have our fundamental understanding of the concept, but now things are about to get meatier.

Here Begins Lesson 3

That’s right, no 5-paragraph preamble. We’re getting stuck straight in. Building on our first 2 lessons (which were, respectively, ‘have one underlying mechanic’ and ‘tie everything to your one mechanic’), lesson 3 really ramps up. It is:

Increase Complexity By Expanding On Your Mechanic, Not By Adding New Mechanics

God I love capital letters.

Let’s go back to some puzzle games for examples. I’m going to draw again from Portal and also The Witness.

Portal never adds a mechanic on top of the portal gun. You get introduced to new elements all the time (such as cubes, lasers, turrets, light bridges, and more) but they never turn around and go ‘ok now here’s also a gun that can speed up and slow down time’ or something like that. You just have the portal mechanic, and the way that every element is interacted with is informed by that mechanic.

But the game doesn’t just have ‘stand still and place 2 portals to get from a to b’ for every single challenge. Anyone who’s played the game knows that the puzzles get harder as they go on. This might be a very dumb-sounding question, but how exactly do they do that? Again, it’s not like they ever add an additional mechanic. They do add new elements, but even before you’re introduced to the first of them, the puzzles have got harder from when you started.

Anyone who has played the game knows the answer here. They have you do more stuff with the core mechanic. At the start you’re just standing still and placing portals to walk through, but soon after you’re doing things like falling into one portal to launch yourself out of another and placing portals while moving in mid-air. It’s not a new mechanic, but it is a new way to use the same mechanic.

And that there is the most reliable way to expand on your mechanic; find new ways to use the same mechanic.

Now for my example from The Witness. The sole mechanic of The Witness is drawing a line on a panel from a start point to an end point in a pattern that satisfies the panel’s rules. That’s it, that’s the game. The rules all start simple, ‘Separate these two blocks of opposing colours’, then quickly become harder, ‘separate these 12 blocks of opposing colours’. The patterns get more complex. The visualisation of the puzzle becomes harder as the size becomes bigger. But they never add a new mechanic beyond drawing lines.

In the late-game sections of The Witness you begin applying multiple rules from different areas of the game into single panels. Where previously rules stood mostly alone, now they are used in conjunction. This ramps up the complexity tenfold.

So with this example we can see that our second reliable way to expand on our mechanic is to combine different challenges from previous sections so that they now occur simultaneously.

Can You Repeat That In DnD-Speak?

Yes I can.

Let’s begin with the main complexity increase that The Grave of the Lantern Keeper experiences. As the party progresses through the dungeon they acquire more lanterns. They start with none, gain 1 very early on, and by the end they have 4. This adds our most fundamental increase in complexity and expansion of the mechanic: the increase in total combinations of active lanterns.

With 1 lantern you have 2 states: on and off. By the time you have all 4 lanterns you have a total of fifteen possible combinations of lanterns being illuminated. That alone opens up possibilities for increased complexity in challenges. I talked in my last post about a puzzle that occurs when the party has 2 lanterns. They must illuminate them both independently, then simultaneously, to view 3 different sets of tiles in order to find the correct path across a pit. Imagine recreating that puzzle later in the dungeon with more lanterns and thus more combinations. You would have a much harder puzzle, but not one that ever needs to introduce a new mechanic to make it more complex.

There are a few approaches we can take on how to increase complexity building off our core mechanic such that we can fill an entire dungeon with puzzles.

First Approach: Find new ways to use the same mechanic.

Here’s two implementations of that first concept (the one we learned from Portal).

Early in the dungeon when the party has 2 lanterns I have a room (again, hexagonal) with blank walls. Activating one lantern will show one set of doors. Activating the other lantern will show a different set of doors. Activating both will show no doors. The party has to realise that one door is visible in both single-lantern states. This is the correct door. All the others lead to a minor consequence (an easy combat or small trap, which again incorporate the lanterns) before teleporting the party back in to the hexagonal room.

Later in the dungeon the party has their 3rd lantern, and we revisit this puzzle concept. First of all, there are now 3 hexagonal chambers in sequence instead of just 1, and there’s also now more combinations of lanterns. Now another twist, each combination of two lanterns shares a door in common rather than there just being only one door in common across all lanterns as there was in the previous instance of this puzzle (i.e. in each chamber red and blue share a door, blue and green share a door, and green and red share a door).

In the first room, the blue + green door is the correct one, in the second room the green + red door is the correct one, and in the third room the red + blue door is the correct one. Taking a wrong exit again has a minor consequence before teleporting the party back to the first room in the sequence. Back in the first room is a riddle which suggests this pattern, but the party still has to put 2 and 2 together and recognise that the logic that let them solve the first instance of this puzzle doesn’t quite work here and there needs to be another layer of logic that defines their path. Then they must also realise that the riddle is referring to the colour combinations of the lanterns and which one is applicable to which room in the sequence.

In effect, the new way of using the same mechanic is to revisit a puzzle with an increased number of elements and have the party solve the puzzle by learning an additional layer of logic governing how the puzzle can be solved.

Implementation number two is more intense.

So we’ve talked about 2 different puzzles so far that use one of the features of the lanterns: the fact that they can illuminate a room in different colours. How about a puzzle that uses the lanterns themselves in an alternate way?

The 4th lantern is much harder to obtain. Where the others were on a raised dais and were usable as soon as they were grabbed, the 4th sits on a raised dais with walls around the lantern itself (open at the top). The lantern can be lifted out, but it will not illuminate.

Around the room are 3 lantern-shaped boxes with a lens on one side. There are also a number of double-sided mirrors and a glass orb on a brass tripod. Finally, there are 2 pressure plates that each rotate a different set of mirrors. You may be able to see where this is going.

If the party puts a lantern in a box, it will shine a beam of light in its requisite colour in a straight line, bouncing off any mirrors in its path.

If the party successfully shoots any lantern beam at the orb, the walls around the central lantern will lower (making it possible to hit it with the other beams of light). The party must do 2 things now. First, they must figure out the orientation of mirrors that will allow one beam to hit the orb while the other 2 hit the lantern. Second, they must figure out which colours need to be pointed where. Granted this last part can be brute forced, but colour theory helps us here. It has been hinted at previously that the final lantern is yellow, and when combining light red and green make yellow. Thus, the blue beam must hit the orb and the red and green beam must simultaneously hit the lantern.

Once this is done, the new lantern is activated and becomes usable.

This puzzle is fundamentally different to the previous 2 I’ve described in this series and introduces a host of new elements like mirrors and light-activated switches, but it still is defined by the use of the different coloured lanterns. All we have done is found a new way to use the same mechanic.

Second Approach: Combine different challenges from previous sections so that they now occur simultaneously.

Here’s how to implement the second concept (the one we learned from The Witness).

This one is much easier to provide examples of and as such won’t take such a long time to cover. In my previous post I described a combat wherein different enemies were only visible when a certain colour of lantern was active. Let’s combine that with a variation on our pit puzzle from earlier. Now only certain tiles can be stepped on when each different lantern is active, and also different enemies are only visible when each different lantern is active. Now the party is handling both puzzle rules at the same time, and we have a much more complex situation. Every time they want to switch which lantern is active so they can attack an enemy they’re going to have to consider what tiles are safe to stand on and whether everyone is in a position where switching active lanterns isn’t going to send someone falling to their death.

We could also have a combat where certain enemies are only vulnerable to attack when different lanterns are active, then later combine that with our beams and mirrors to make it so that the players have to keep rotating the mirrors and switching around the lanterns to shoot them at the correct enemies to make them vulnerable to attack.

We could combine all 3 if we really wanted. Maybe we have to shoot beams at light switches again, only now there’s more orb switches than beams, and we have to use the trick with the door puzzle from earlier in this post so that now different orb switches illuminate when different lanterns are active and we have to shoot the beams at the 4 orbs that each illuminate when each lantern is active. Shooting a beam at the wrong orb causes an animated construct to activate and fight the party, and it can only be harmed when the correct colour beam is fired at it (perhaps the same one as was hitting the orb that activated the construct).

It’s honestly pretty clear how multiple challenges can be combined to make more complex challenges, and it certainly not a concept unique to this philosophy. There is, however, one final approach that I will discuss here, and not one I wish to relate back to a video game (as I find it’s a notion that usually leads to bad design in video games).

Third Approach: If you really must, add new rules to your core mechanic

USE THIS ONE SPARINGLY. If we were talking in pure video game design terms this is usually a terrible idea and is a great way to frustrate your player. DnD is a little different though as the user expectations are fundamentally different to those of someone playing a video game. In general, when we play puzzle game we don’t expect the rules to be changed on us all of a sudden (unless the game’s gimmick is to change the rules, but that’s beside the point). The most basic example of this is if we can hold down two arrow keys simultaneously to walk diagonally, we expect that the game is not going to suddenly stop us from being able to do that later on down the line and force us to only use one arrow key at a time.

Again, DnD is different though. DnD frequently involves new limitations and rules being added to situations as they unfold. If the players were to suddenly fight a Lich that casts spells mentally and can thus ignore verbal, somatic and material components it would totally change the rules on them. Now a spell like Silence can’t disable a Lich like it normally could, and Counterspell cannot be used at all as there’s nothing indicating when the enemy is about to cast. This introduces a new rule into the usual gamut of spellcasting rules (that would otherwise largely dictate that Liches require components to cast spells). If you threw that in, players would more than likely just roll with it and take it for the increased challenge that it is.

We can do this with our lantern mechanic. Let’s say the party has been getting used to activating lanterns at-will, then we throw them into another ‘find the door in common’ puzzle only now when they activate one lantern it automatically causes another to also activate and the other two to deactivate. Now the party has to cross-reference the different two-colour combinations of lanterns to figure out which doors occur with which individual colours, then figure out which door is the correct one to go through. This rule might only exist for the course of this one puzzle, but while it’s there it provides a new challenge which again doesn’t require the introduction of a new mechanic. It simply alters our already existing one.

It is important if you do this though to firstly KEEP THE RULE CHANGES SIMPLE AND LIMITED and also, again, USE RULE CHANGES SPARINGLY. You don’t want to change too many of the rules of the mechanic at once, you don’t want to change individual rules too drastically, and you don’t want to change the rules too often (if at all). If you do you are all but guaranteed to frustrate your players. They will lose the opportunity to feel a sense of mastery over the mechanic, which is the main reason people find satisfaction in puzzle solving in the first place.

An Outro For Now

We’ve really dug into the meat-and-potatoes of puzzle game design here. I’d like to think we’ve walked away with some much more detailed examples of how these ideas find their implementation in DnD. There’s still more to go of course, but by now you should really have a much fuller understanding of this dungeon design philosophy.

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