February 1, 2011

Types of Dungeon Design

There are different types of designs that have been used in the past for dungeons. I don’t mean the layout, but rather how it flows and how the characters can affect the dungeon. This is all separate from plot design and pacing, which has its own distinct methods. I have come up with 3 distinct types, which I am going to call Linear, Set Piece and Living.

This is the sort where nothing happens further in the dungeon until the current room is resolved. Each room/encounter lives on its own. Occasionally, the next encounter will intrude on the current encounter, but that dynamic is included in the design of the original room. However, usually not even that will happen and the encounter is written to explain why the next room will not come in. Tell me if you’ve seen these before:
  • The monsters want to prove themselves so they will not run and alert the next room.
  • The next room doesn’t like the monsters in the first room.
  • The monsters in the next room expect to hear strange noises coming from the first room.
  • The next room is closed off behind a soundproof barrier.
These are all examples of “explanations” on why the rooms in the dungeon are isolated from each other. This method also highlights the inability for characters to

Easier to balance encounters.
Allows GM to be prepared for character actions.
Can develop dungeon in stages, i.e. the parts the players are going to reach in one night’s playtime.
Content is more focused; the characters only encounter the important parts.
Dungeon feels contrived.
Players dislike feeling trapped or forced into predetermined actions.
Game play is static.

Set Piece
Everything is set in place, but there is no linear path to solving it. The dungeon is mapped out and the monsters are placed ahead of time. Players are able to interact with the dungeon in any manner they choose, up to and including deviating from the layout of the dungeon; i.e. if they choose they can break through a wall or floor to access another room or layer of the dungeon. There are no prescribed methods for “solving” the dungeon.

Organic Feel.
Freedom of player’s actions.
Players can move away from your plot.
Players can miss important plot points.
Players can feel they are wasting their time.

A living dungeon is essentially a set piece but the occupants move around depending on the situation and time of day. Monsters have their own agendas and are never simply waiting for a hero to kick in their door, kill them and take their loot. The monsters react to what is going on around them; i.e. they respond to what the player characters are doing within their dungeon.

Truly organic feel.
Dynamic and changing dungeon.
Freedom of player’s actions.
A lot of extra work in the design stage.
Encounters can become unbalanced.
Players can miss important plot points.
Players can move away from your plot.

There are of course fusions between the different styles, but most tend to conform to one of these three methodologies. One thing to note is that it is possible to use each of these styles with whatever edition or system you play in. 4E tends to fall into the Linear style, with some Set Piece as well (though some Linear styles are disguised as Set Piece, but are still Linear in effect). However, which style is used is largely up to the designer.
Have I missed a distinctive style? Have I missed some pros and cons?
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