Friday, 16 August 2013

Dungeon Designs

To clarify this week's blog title, this post is about my work on "dungeon" designs rather than any sort of structured lesson in dungeon designing. However, I do touch on my own feelings about dungeon designs and make various points that may be helpful to anybody wanting to learn about dungeon designs.

COMMENTS WELCOME: What is your favourite dungeon crawl experience to date and why?

I decided to take a break from writing conversations (and their notorious web of nodes) and turn my attention to filling in the details of some of The Scroll's dungeons instead. Thankfully, Ryan of Eguintir's Ecologies had already designed some interior layouts for me, so my focus was to start scripting events for these areas to my design ends. I take this opportunity to thank all the designers of the areas of this module (and modules to follow) for all their great effort in supplying me with designs that have sped up the release of this module - and helped to inspire me with game play. First, a little forethought...

Let's Begin Our Dungeon Descent
Dungeon Definition

While it's true that every aspect of module design has something to do with "designing a dungeon" (in the broadest sense), hopefully, both builders and players alike will know what I mean when I talk about creating (or designing) a dungeon in particular. And in case there is anyone who is not sure what I mean, I am referring to those areas where the PC is likely to feel out of their immediate comfort zone and in a position that pits them against such things as monsters, traps, puzzles and other such problems in the hope of receiving great rewards in the way of experience, feats, skills and especially treasure; from great new weapons and items, to the basic gems, jewellery and gold!

As the word implies, "dungeons" in a traditional sense are normally located underground. However, I recognise that the term "dungeon" may also refer to adventures that take place in above ground complexes such as castles or towers - and can even refer to locations in space or beyond any worldly material plane of existence! With that in mind, let us continue along the way with some "traditional" photos ...

The Obligatory Main Corridor
Dungeon Purpose

There is something both intrinsically exciting and mysterious about a dungeon of the type I speak. For while the player and PC may know a little about the area they are about to travel to, there should be an overriding air of the unknown. Indeed, some of the most exciting dungeons (in my own experience) have been those dungeons I have stumbled across by accident and know absolutely nothing about, nor have any inclination about what to expect. However, I have also played some games where I have stumbled across a dungeon and the whole experience has been rather dull. So what happened? What makes one dungeon exciting and another not?

The Mysterious Domed Chamber
When I have examined the works of other games and looked for those aspects which have excited me or bored me, I was surprised at what I found. As you can see from the photos I found on the internet and posted here, a key factor about many traditional style dungeons is that they can be quite sparse. I know this is not always necessarily the case, but compared with today's modern designs and habitats, the traditional dungeon is still normally considerably simpler in design. I have noticed that many game designs reflect this well, and more importantly, such sparseness of content is not necessarily one of those aspects that detracts from a good dungeon crawl. Indeed, I have found that it is how the dungeon may have changed from its original design and purpose (possibly simply due to the ravages of time) that holds some of its intrigue.

The Dreaded Cell
Dungeon Character

So, what is it about a "dungeon" in a fantasy role-playing game that really fascinates the player and then holds their interest? I think a large portion of the answer lies in the dungeon's history, or more specifically, the element that gives the dungeon its character! For while a dungeon's immediate purpose is very important for a game's logical flow and prime responses from the player, if there is nothing else to it, then it quickly becomes relegated to the pile of "tick box exercise" dungeons that is soon forgotten about. I have experienced this kind of thing in the RPG "Sacred 2", which while very colourful and vast in size, each "dungeon" I have discovered and played my way through is more tedious than the previous due to each dungeon having very little (or no) character.

Adding history or creating character for a dungeon is no easy accomplishment. If successful, a player should be left with a memorable experience, some uniqueness in the dungeon's design that helps it to be one of those reminisced over for years to come. The player may not remember all the details, but they will recall having an exciting experience when playing through / adventuring within the dungeon in question. For myself, I have such fond recollections with games such as Ultima Underworld, Baldur's Gate, and more recently, some of those "dungeons" from Fallout 3. From each of these games I mention, it should now be clear that when I talk of a "dungeon" experience, it can refer as much to a location far away from the ground as to beneath it ... and can be set in any time frame!

Now, I ought to take this moment to differentiate between an entire game experience and only an element of it, such as a "dungeon". In my own examples above, the entire Ultima Underworld game consisted of one large "dungeon crawl", and so, strictly speaking, I should not be counting it as a "dungeon" experience in the context of this blog. However, I wanted to include it in passing, as it is still a good example of a "dungeon" experience, even if it was the entire game in this example. Looking at one of the other examples, Fallout 3, however, I was suitably impressed by the unique feel of quite a few of its "dungeon" experiences.

The Dungeon's Nuts & Bolts

With the above comments in mind, this week I have started to design the remaining dungeons around the raw material area designs graciously given to me by my area designers. The dungeon purpose has always been known to me from the moment I conceived the plot. The dungeon character, however, is the part that takes time to reveal itself as I work with what I have before me. For further clarification about what I am trying to say about the goals for my dungeons I have in mind, note the following category goal differences:-

Dungeon Purpose Goals: Add Transitions, Add Monster Encounters, Add Loot. (Needs.)
Dungeon Character Goals: Type of Locks, Monster Ecology, Treasure Histories. (Reasons.)

When a player enters one of my dungeons (or at least the main ones), I want them to feel that the place has a character, learn that there is a history, and have a sense of difference about the place compared to other places they have explored earlier. Of course, there is no escaping those aspects that are found common to all dungeons, but I hope to pull off at least one or two aspects of uniqueness to each dungeon that will make the player sit up and take note. I hope to achieve this by adding some unique puzzles, background information, and perhaps some unique aspect that ties both purpose and character together. Whether I succeed in this, I can only hope.

Dungeon Designs: My Personal Pros & Cons

Having blogged on about how I would like to design my dungeons, my "Pros" are probably obvious (and thereby the "Cons" too), but here is my list of pros and cons design objectives/avoidances in the broadest sense (in no particular order):-

DUNGEON DESIGN PROS:

1) Medium to large in size to allow a sense of exploration. (Map required.)
2) Hidden areas, using secrets and concealed objects. (Properly hidden unless skill found.)
3) Logically placed denizens, both historically and ecologically. (With appropriate AI.)
4) Lighting attention - including some completely dark to allow PC own light sources. (Atmosphere.)
5) Sound attention - ambient and possible item sounds. (Atmosphere.)
6) A unique aspect to the dungeon purpose. (Logical flow.)
7) Purposeful and useful dungeon history and/or character. (Scrolls, books, info, treasures, etc.)
8) New logical object interactions above any normal interaction. (New scripts for added uniqueness.)

DUNGEON DESIGN CONS:

1) Illogical rooms and general poor design. (Poor logical flow.)
2) Useable objects at all times, even when not currently available. (Poor meta-gaming clues.)
3a) Too many denizens for area design. (A monster in every room syndrome.)
3b) Poor AI for creatures used. (No creature variation due to poor AI. Meet, hit, die, next!)
4) Minimal attention to lighting or sound. (Areas look and feel the same. No real atmosphere!)
5a) All dungeon "purpose" design and no "character" design. (Cookie cutter designs. Boring.)
5b) Even "purpose" design meets only basic needs. (Lacks story depth - "FedEx" style design.)
6) Lack of any "deep interaction". (One dimensional as opposed to three dimensional design.)

Like with most things I say, there are provisos and exceptions to these pros and cons as well. For example, I would rather a "dungeon" consist of only a few rooms (be small) if there is no logical reason for it to be any bigger. However, I would rather see more "medium to large" dungeons to explore and "get my teeth into", as a preference. Also, I would not want to be inundated with "boring and superfluous history" of a place if it had no real useful bearing on my current events. Historical information that gave me some sort of immediate benefit or would do in the near future, is exciting to find as well as giving the dungeon background and character.

And, of course, once you escape the dungeon and are back into the wide open fresh air, there is always the next one to quest for ...

Escaping The Dungeon ... And So Onto The Next!

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Crazy Daisy Fame!

When I went to pick the mail up this morning, I saw a picture of one of our rabbits staring up at me. It was "Daisy" and she had made it to the front cover of the UK magazine called "Rabbiting On" produced by the Rabbit Welfare Association, which my wife and I subscribe to. If you look close enough, Daisy is also the rabbit on the right in my blog's logo image. The small black bunny on the left is "Bud", her bonded mate.

This magazine only comes out four times a year and so to have Daisy's photo on the front cover is a real privilege for us, and she has done us proud. I took the photo in question in the spring 2008, just after we got her and is when she was going around the garden picking up all sorts of grass and using her own fur to make up a nest. So while this photo is on an autumn "feeding special" magazine, I can safely say she was gathering the grass for other reasons than to simply eat. It was this frenzied grass gathering exercise, however, that helped to solidify the "crazy" part of her nickname.


The Scroll Update

This is only a quick update this week as I am continuing to write conversations and so cannot say much without it being a "spoiler". However, I can say that I am still making progress, and that once these conversations are done, I will be left with only some "encounters", "treasure placements" and a couple of "dungeons" to finish. The end of this first module is definitely in sight ... and I am so eager to get it to Beta that it hurts.