Building Better Dungeons Using Puzzle Game Design: Appendix


Hey guys, I’m back with a short follow-up to my recent 5-part series on using tenets of puzzle game design to help with dungeon building in DnD. I felt there were a few pieces of wisdom related to the overall concept that I could not fit into the series, so I wanted to release this appendix to discuss them.

In general I found these extra concepts were too big to fit under another lesson and too small to be a lesson on their own. I’ve decided as a result to group them together here.

Mini-Lesson 1

Let’s waste no time. Our first mini-lesson is thus:

Start Easy

Pretty implicit I would say, but worth reiterating. We’ve discussed some reasonably complex puzzles and combats that utilise our core mechanic, but just throwing those in front of players would be folly. Essentially you need to have a smooth difficulty curve of puzzles. I talked a few parts ago about how to increase complexity, but at the start of this curve there still has to be a low level of difficulty.

Start with an introductory puzzle or combat so that your players can get acquainted with your rules, and increase complexity from that point in. Remember, the first thing you do in Portal is walk through a single portal. Start easy.

Mini-Lesson 2

This one pertains more to the how of designing a dungeon, which is something we only really covered in the later parts of the series. The mini-lesson is as follows:

Build Outward

This one could almost be a lesson on its own, and certainly it draws more from puzzle game design than any other thing I have discussed, but still it’s something I feel I can adequately cover in just a few paragraphs.

There’s two parts to this one.

First, let your core mechanic inform your dungeon design. By that I mean draw inspiration from the rules of the mechanic themselves. If your mechanic deals with light then think about light-based puzzles. If your mechanic deals with passive effects that reduce stats, think about combats and navigational challenges that lean directly on that.

Second, don’t design a puzzle and then try to finagle your mechanic’s rules to fit it. That’s a great way to run into the dangerous territory I discussed in part 3 where you’re constantly changing the rules of the mechanic just for the sake of making certain challenges work. Again, let challenges be emergent from your core mechanic rather than coming up with challenges and trying to force them on to your core mechanic.

I would say that to some this lesson might be implicit, but it bears saying explicitly if only to formalise the concept. So if you’re stumped for actual puzzle and combat ideas, look back to your core mechanic and consider what challenges might emerge naturally from it. Let it be your biggest source of inspiration.

Mini-Lesson 3

Here’s a solid piece of wisdom that makes both designing your challenges within your Holistic Dungeon easier and makes overcoming them more satisfying to your players:

Put Control in the Hands of the Players

By giving our players some element of control over how the rules of our core mechanic are applied we give them the agency to manipulate their environment and give them greater opportunities for mastery over the mechanic. Remember, Portal doesn’t just put down portals for you to walk through, it gives you control of the portal placement.

That last part might seem obvious, but when designing original mechanics it’s easy to forget this step. As I said above it also gives you more jumping off points for designing challenges around the mechanic. If the players are controlling the state of the rules at any given moment then you can now design by working backwards from what state those rules need to be in to complete the challenge.

Mini-Lesson 4

That last paragraph immediately leads us toward another nugget of wisdom:

Design Backwards

Start from what your challenge’s end-state should be. For a puzzle this is whatever configuration solves it, for a combat this is when all the enemies are dead, and for navigation this is reaching the correct destination. Figure out what makes reaching that end-state difficult and put obstacles in the path of the players that they can solve by applying their understanding of your core mechanic.

For puzzles this is often related to fail-states and other complications that make discovering the end-state difficult. For combats this can be things like tools the enemies have at their disposal which players must counteract, or invulnerabilities that players must somehow disable, and so on. For navigation this is often simply ‘getting lost’, but we can also extend this to choosing the incorrect path forward (perhaps because it is hidden unless the party correctly applies the core mechanic).

It can be difficult to just come up with challenges, but if you start with ‘A switch puzzle where the party has to discover the correct combination’ and work backwards to figure out what stops them from discovering the correct combination you’re much more easily able to come up with satisfying challenges.

Keep in mind one must do this with respect to what I discussed above in Mini-Lesson 2 wherein puzzle ideas must exist with respect to your core mechanic rather than have you constantly forcing your core mechanic to fit into puzzles it’s not really suited for.

Mini-Lesson 5

This one relates heavily to both Mini-Lessons 2 and 4, and has also been pointed towards in other places throughout the series.

Overdesign, Then Kill Your Darlings

It’s often a good idea while you’re designing your Holistic Dungeon to lay out all of the possibilities for challenges (puzzles, combats, etc), then cut the weaker ones. At its heart this advice is basically saying explore every possibility offered up by your dungeon’s themes and its core mechanic, then exercise some shrewdness and cut everything you don’t need.

In part 5 we discussed setting your dungeon’s scope from the outset, and following this Mini-Lesson requires that same understanding of your scope. If you’re only designing a 5-room dungeon then after coming up with a bunch of challenges cut it down to the 5 strongest ones. In a bigger dungeon you’ll need more challenges, but still make sure you apply your critical thinking and keep only the best ones.

This also doesn’t mean ‘bigger dungeons will include worse challenges’. Back in part 5 we talked about developing core mechanics that leave the right amount of design space for you to come up with plenty of good challenges. This Mini-Lessons strictly pertains to having a wide brainstorm that you trim down as you build your dungeon. Oftentimes when we let ourselves fully flesh out the possibilities we come up with really good ideas we would otherwise not have come across if we just took the first 5 ideas that came to mind.

Mini-Lesson 6

This lesson is more a word of advice, or perhaps a word of caution:

Don’t Neglect Combat

It’s easy to take all the lessons from puzzle games that this series has discussed and then go away and build puzzles, but that’s still only one part of a Holistic Dungeon. Indeed a Holistic Dungeon need not have any puzzles in it at all. Remember, the entire point of this series was to discuss designing a core mechanic that informed your combats and navigational challenges as well as your puzzles within a dungeon.

An Outro For Real

That’s it folks, that is all I have to say on the matter for the foreseeable future. That isn’t to say I won’t have more to say somewhere down the line, but I imagine for any other small pieces of advice like what’s been in this post I will release them on my blog rather than keep flooding this place. I still have my series on using puzzle game design to inform campaign design in the works though, so keep your eyes out for that. It’s coming soon, I swear.

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