Building Better Dungeons Using Puzzle Game Design: Lesson 5


We’ve really been through a lot together by now, and I like to think we need no introductions between us. Still, I will at least provide the courtesy of recapping the series so far and outline what this final piece will discuss.

This series has focused 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 particular post will discuss how to create your own mechanics. We will again use our case study that has served us so well over the last 4 posts. Rather than just using it as a reference point for examples, this time we will be using it more to illustrate how one can construct their own mechanics.

Here Begins Lesson 5

The lesson is once again a simple one, but perhaps the most important one of them all.

Build A Mechanic Suitable To The Scope Of Your Dungeon

There’s no point bringing out your power tools just to change a lightbulb.

Let’s start with our Portal analogy. You can place 2 portals, and there’s a sparing number of elements (4 in the original game, broadly speaking). The game itself can be completed in maybe two hours. It’s not a long experience, and thus the portal mechanic and how it is explored is perfectly suited to the scope of the game. Portal 2 increases in scope, and as such the elements increase in both number and complexity. This also provides us a window into the genius of the portal mechanic in that it is magnificently scalable, but I digress.

To grab our final example from our case study, The Grave of the Lantern Keeper has 4 total lanterns and by the time you reach the final fight you are using all 4 lanterns in conjunction. The dungeon is meant to last roughly 2 sessions, and the complexity of the core mechanic reflects this. It provides a lot of space for encounter design but is not exceedingly complex as the it is only meant to fulfil the scope of 2 sessions rather than, say, an entire campaign.

And that’s really it, that’s our final lesson. The larger the scope of what you are trying to design, the more opportunities your core mechanic needs to provide. Mind you this does not mean the mechanic needs to be more complex to suit a larger scope (elegance is always worth striving for), it simply needs to open up a wide range of possibilities for interaction (like what we discussed in our last 2 lessons).

The 5 Lessons, In Order

Before we press on, let’s put this all together. Our lessons, in order, were:

1. Have one underlying mechanic

2. Tie everything to your one mechanic

3. Increase complexity by expanding on your mechanic, not by adding new mechanics

4. Introduce elements that complement your mechanic

5. Build a mechanic suitable to the scope of your dungeon

One can argue that lesson 5 should come earlier in that sequence when actually designing a dungeon. However, explaining it without laying out all those other lessons would lead us wondering exactly what our mechanic is supposed to do for us. By extension it would make understanding how to match our mechanic to our scope nigh impossible. We would be putting the cart before the horse.

Designing Our Own

With all of those lessons in mind we’re ready to construct our own mechanics and build our dungeons around them.

First we essentially take lesson 5 – figure out the scope of your dungeon. Is it meant to last one session? Is it meant to be a 2-3 session delve? Is it meant to be an arc-long megadungeon? Is it meant to encompass the entire campaign?

Once we know our scope, we can start looking into core mechanics. Once again, the wider the scope the greater the underlying complexity can be, but look for breadth of opportunities above all else.

A 1-session dungeon could take something as simple as a dungeon where all metal rusts as time goes by due to a toxin released into the air when the party enters. Puzzles need to be solved before components degrade, combats need to be won before weapons disintegrate, paths need to be walked before bridges crumble. There’s really just one rule that governs this mechanic: as x time passes metal deteriorates y amount. The mechanical opportunities are limited, but plenty broad for us to make a one-session, 5-room dungeon.

A multi-session dungeon should look to have something more along the lines of the lantern mechanic we’ve used. A mechanic that is multi-stage and increases in inherent complexity as time goes by is ideal. The more lanterns you had, the more total states of lighting there were. Having a mechanic tied to acquiring multiple objects is a great place to start when designing a mechanic to suit this scope.

In fact, a really good concept would be something similar to the lanterns only inverted. When the party enters the dungeon all magic is disabled. The party needs to find a series of relics, and each one when found enables one kind of magic. Further relics can now be found due to the fact that some kinds of magic are now usable (an uncrossable pit is now made crossable by the Fly spell, which was rendered unusable earlier). This is an example of a mechanic that provides us multiple opportunities to design varied combats and puzzles.

A megadungeon will require a much more complex mechanic. Perhaps now we need to retrieve multiple relics again, only also each has separate parts and each part is what enforces one of the rules of the relic. This would be like if each of our lanterns was actually in 3 pieces, where one piece dampened magic, one piece emitted light, and one piece was the handle and switch. This opens up opportunities as we can explore each rule independently in more depth, then together, before even getting to the point of having multiple lanterns. In a megadungeon we would also want to have an increased number of elements (again, the difference between Portal and Portal 2). For this we would need to ensure we’re referring back to lesson 4 and introducing strictly complementary elements.

A Word On Megadungeons

I will concede that in the case of the megadungeon it may be prudent to have different areas that each deal with one core mechanic and behave almost as Holistic Dungeons in themselves. In an ideal world these mechanics would each still be thematically connected if you wanted to accomplish the ‘Holistic Megadungeon’.

Frankly, puzzle games are rarely meant to entertain us for more than 20 hours of gameplay, while a megadungeon almost inevitably goes beyond that if we assume it will fill some 10+ sessions of 4 hours apiece. Also, a 20-hour puzzle game takes literal years to design, and DnD just doesn’t work if that’s what we’re doing when we build a dungeon.

A Conclusion

And that’s maybe the final lesson that one could truly learn from puzzle game design; that in spite of all this DnD is fundamentally not a puzzle video game. The wisdom we can draw from puzzle game design can only take us so far. It can help you build an absolutely stunning dungeon that is up to maybe 3 sessions long, but once we go beyond that there’s a problem. The fundamentals of designing DnD sessions become too distant from the fundamentals of designing puzzle games. Those fundamentals are things like the fact that DnD is often designed on a session-by-session basis when it comes to the finer details, and that the time frame for design is often only a week or two. Puzzle games like the ones we’ve taken these lessons from take years to design.

Maybe it is possible to extend these lessons into the design of an entire campaign, and if we did it would in my opinion be one of the best campaigns ever designed and run. But I daresay that the scope of the mechanic would be immense, and designing such a mechanic would be a prohibitively monumental task. Then you’d still have to build all your factions, Gods, NPCs, politics, geography, narrative arcs, encounters, themes, and dungeons in a way that all ties back to that one mechanic. I guess in theory it’s possible, but I shudder to imagine how long such a campaign would take to construct and prepare.

So in all this it’s important to understand the limitations of this philosophy. I have used it to design The Grave of the Lantern Keeper, and it’s the longest I’ve spent on designing any single dungeon in all the time I’ve been a DM. I will definitely not do this for every dungeon I run, and will instead reserve it for ones that are extra special or notable in the context of the campaign’s overall narrative.

It’s great to make Eggs Benedict for breakfast on special occasions, but I’m not going to cook it every single morning.

An Outro For Good

You’ve stuck with me all this way, and I really hope I’ve taught you something new that you can use to level up your DMing skills. After all, isn’t that why we all come here?

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