Building Better Dungeons Using Puzzle Game Design: Lesson 4


Welcome back! And this time I’m not going to apologise for the previous part.

If you’re coming in to this fresh, first of all you really ought to read the previous posts to get properly up to speed, but in a nutshell this series is focusing on using lessons from puzzle game design to inform dungeon design in DnD to achieve what I call the ‘Holistic Dungeon’ (wherein a dungeon is built outward from a single unifying concept).

This part will continue going deeper into the nitty-gritty of puzzle game design wisdom to better round out our understanding of how to build such a dungeon.

Here Begins Lesson 4

Our last lesson really started to go deeper in to what exactly taking the concept of having a sole core mechanic meant in terms of implementation. We discussed specific notions pertaining to what a DM needs to do with that core mechanic in order to flesh it out into a full dungeon without losing the essence of the mechanic in the process. This part’s lesson is doing much the same thing. The lesson is thus:

Introduce Elements That Complement Your Mechanic

Again this may seem like quite an implicit concept based on what we’ve already discussed, but when we really start to break down what it means we gain a lot of important insight. The things we will learn in this lesson will help us stay on-course when we implement this overall design philosophy in our dungeon making.

The Portal Example

Since this seems to be tradition now I figured why change. When we look at the game Portal we see immediately how the extra elements the game adds really complement the core mechanic of the portal gun and the rules governing its use. Again this may seem obvious or even implicit, but the how is important. Understanding how the peripheral elements of Portal complement its core mechanic can better help us design complementary elements to our own original core mechanics when we build our dungeons.

Let’s go over some basic things. In Portal you have, broadly speaking, switches that manipulate the environment, objects that can pass through portals (some of which can also manipulate those switches) and enemies that cease to function if not left upright.

There are two ways these elements complement the portal mechanic: Thematically and Logically.

Thematically Complementary

In Portal, the game and the existence of the portal gun within it are tied to the thematic concept of scientific testing. The elements introduced simply tie back in to this.

‘Why is there a cube and a switch all of a sudden?’

‘Because it’s part of the test.’

It might be simple, and perhaps even a little convenient, but in that is a layer of elegance. The peripheral elements thematically complement the core mechanic because they are born of the same environment; a testing facility.

Logically Complementary

This is the more mechanical piece of the puzzle. The peripheral elements are logically complementary because they are bound by the same physical principles as those which bind the portals. In fact, the game can fairly be described as a physics-based game. As such, each element interacts with the same basis of logic as the portals. Turrets can be knocked over because they obey the laws of physics, just like movement through your portals does. Cubes can hold down buttons because they obey the laws of physics. I can drop a cube through a portal to have it hit a turret with force, knocking it over, because both elements obey the laws of physics.

On the surface things like cubes, buttons and turrets aren’t inherently logically connected. However in the context of our core mechanic letting you interact with the laws of physics in interesting ways, these objects and their own relationships with the laws of physics become logically complementary to our core mechanic.

In Summary

Thematically Complementary means it makes sense that the elements exist in the same environmental context as the core mechanic.

Logically Complementary means the elements themselves interact directly with the actual rules of the core mechanic.

Something that would not be thematically complementary to the portal mechanic would be a section set in a warzone, as it breaks cohesion with our theme of scientific testing.

Something that would not be logically complementary to the portal mechanic would be a picture-matching memory element, as it has no inherent relationship to the physics-based rules of the portals.

In The Context Of DnD

Time to refer back to our case study, The Grave of the Lantern Keeper. Again, a quick summary of the core 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.

Thematically Complementing This Mechanic

Thematically this mechanic is central to the theme of the dungeon itself. It’s right there in the name. This dungeon is a grave. The person buried in it was the lantern-keeper. You are retrieving the lanterns. 3 things immediately spring to mind as thematically connected. The first is the concept of light (the lanterns emit light), the second is death and by extension undeath (the dungeon is a grave), and the third is artifice (the person buried here built magical lanterns).

All of our elements tie to one or more of these thematic concepts. Fights are against things like constructs, something an artificer might feasibly make. Puzzles tend to use the light-based properties of the lanterns (rather than, say, have the lanterns act as weights to sit on pressure plates). The undeath part doesn’t come up anywhere near as much, but the point still stands that thematically speaking an element that ties to undeath would be complementary in this instance (such as the boss fight being against the lantern keeper themselves as a spectre or other spirit).

Logically Complementing This Mechanic

Logically there are 3 factors in the rules of the lanterns that inform our design decisions and what elements we choose to introduce. The first factor pertains to how the lanterns interact with DnD’s encumbrance and wielding rules and its action economy. The second factor is that the lanterns emit a coloured light. The third factor is that the lanterns dampen magic from certain traditions.

Each of these factors open up possibilities for elements that logically extend from the mechanics of the lanterns. Having to activate and deactivate the lanterns during a combat adds a challenge that logically extends from the rule that lanterns take up a hand and cost an action to activate. Our puzzles revolving around different colours of light showing different sets of information that must be cross-referenced logically extends from our rule that lanterns emit coloured light. Puzzles and combats that require magic users to juggle the needs of having active lanterns with their need to cast spells logically extends from the rule that each lantern dampens one kind of magic.

Breaking These Associations

I think this is one of those times where a good counter-example can help explain the example. With regards to Portal we gave counter-examples of things that were not thematically complementary and things that were not logically complementary.

As a counter-example for the lantern mechanic, a section involving navigating a maze and fighting a minotaur would not be thematically complementary, as it ties in no way to our themes of undeath, light and artifice. That isn’t to say, mind you, that we couldn’t make it thematically complementary. A mechanical minotaur in a clockwork labyrinth could tie in to our theme of artifice, but only because we’re making it be that way, and we would be doing that consciously because we are aware of the themes that are complementary to our core mechanic.

Additionally, a puzzle that involves throwing the lanterns at enemies as bludgeoning weapons would not be logically complementary to our core mechanic, as it relates in no direct way to the suite of rules that govern the use of the lanterns. One could argue that it is an interesting lateral thinking puzzle, but in that case unless lateral thinking is a theme of the dungeon its use should not inform our logic.

Staying On-Course

I mentioned earlier in the post that these concepts would help us stay on-course when designing Holistic Dungeons that are built off one core mechanic. To further explain what that means I’m again going to refer to our case study dungeon.

We have puzzles in The Grave of the Lantern Keeper that involve light, we have combats that involve switching the active colour of light, we have methods of navigation that require the layering of light, we fight enemies built by the same person who built the lanterns, we encounter riddles that help us understand what is possible with the lanterns. Every additional element introduced, from rotating mirrors to enemies that become invisible on all but one wavelength of light, all tie back and are complementary to our core mechanic of the lanterns.

I think it’s fair to say that this is a step beyond the bog standard room-by-room, encounter-to-puzzle-to-encounter flow of standard dungeon design. No matter how thematically cohesive such a dungeon may be, it will struggle to reach the level of total thematic, mechanical and logical cohesion of the Holistic Dungeon we have designed here.

An Outro For Now

That’s really it for this lesson, but again I feel we have dived deeper into the tenets of puzzle game design and applied them to the design philosophy I am trying to explain. I’m once again thankful to you for having read through this, and I hope you’ve walked away with some useful insights.

The next (and I expect final) part is going to apply our lessons so far to help us organically develop some new core mechanics. So far we’ve leaned entirely on examples from video games or The Grave of the Lantern Keeper. In the next part I want to move away from that and give the final lesson that should help you design your own core mechanics (and subsequent dungeons built around them) without relying on the pre-existing examples given here.

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