The Architect DM: Dungeon Interconnectivity

Yesterday I started playing the new game Dark Souls on the PS3 and the level designs in the game are very inspiring when it comes to planning out dungeons. One of the coolest things that Dark Souls and many other video games do with their levels is interconnecting different areas in creative and unexpected ways. This is also an element that I see very rarely in tabletop RPG dungeon design, and that’s a disparity that I’d like to see changed.

Imagine an extreme case of dungeon interconnectivity where you run an entire campaign within one big dungeon. I’m sure it’s been done before at least once, but if done correctly I think this could be a very interesting idea for a game and create some unique moments for RPGs. Whether or not you want to think about the extreme case, I think adding some well placed connections at different points through your dungeon can not only make it feel more realistic but also add a whole new level of interest to the dungeon for you and your players.

Classic Use of Thresholds

Perhaps the most common method of accomplishing this that I’ve seen in published RPG dungeons is through the use of doors, often of the locked variety. The locked or otherwise impassable door is the simplest way of redirecting players but then allowing them to gain access back to a previous location quickly and easily. Instead of hand waving the party’s exit from a dungeon, why not include a barred doorway in one of the first rooms that they then get to the other side of at the very end of the dungeon. When the players open what they think is a door further into the dungeon, perhaps into the big bad’s treasure room or to an even greater threat beyond, and find themselves back at the entrance to the dungeon they might feel a little bit more immersed in the world as it suddenly makes sense that their characters don’t have to backtrack all the way through the dungeon just to get back to town.

If you use an iron portcullis or some other non-solid barricade then you can provide the party with a visual preview of what lies ahead or maybe a glimpse at something that’s happening in a completely separate part of the dungeon. This can be a great mechanic for building tension or inspiring a sense of urgency in your players by showing them something more than you would in a typical dungeon.

 Above & Below

I’ve written before about how much fun it can be to give your encounter locations some height, and after doorways this is probably the best way to add some interconnectivity to your dungeons. Dark Souls makes excellent use of height by setting up large vistas of a level or an area but you can’t get to the focus of that vista unless you travel around a lengthy path or through a twisting dungeon. Another great way to make use of height is through bridges, balconies, ladders, or broken staircases that allow visual connections or even one way travel that can tie locations together in ways that we often don’t see in our dungeons.

Possibly the single pivotal moment in Dark Souls that really brought the concept to the forefront and helped me in writing this post is fairly early in the game when you have a safe zone, play for an hour or two, and then eventually find a ladder that you can kick down to connect the current part of the dungeon down to that same safe zone. The new connection not only acts as a very convenient short cut, but it also created a sense of realism and accomplishment that would not have existed if the shortcut were simply a portal or a whole new safe zone.

Use and Re-Use of Space

Not to throw around too many video game references, but if you’ve played any of the Halo games then this concept should be very familiar to you. Re-using space is another idea that I don’t see happening very often in published RPG content or in many of the games I’ve played in. By adding interconnectivity to your dungeons you also provide the perfect opportunity for re-using encounter locations by introducing new monsters or using obstacles that change some aspect of the location such as columns falling down to make it more interesting than just the same location all over again.

If you’re not familiar with the Halo games, one of the biggest level design moves that was used throughout the series was progressing through a level and then having to make your way back through that same level against a whole new series of threats. The obvious advantage of doing this is that you only have to design half the locations, and it can work out quite well as long as you keep things interesting and feeling fresh. In fact, you can make it really memorable by designing a location that works differently depending on which direction you approach it from such as a heavily fortified location that the party has to assault, and then find themselves defending that same location at a later time against a new assaulting force.

I think that if you were to design a new dungeon and put all of the concepts in this post to good use including the re-use of specific locations you could end up with a very unique, fun, and memorable adventure for everyone around the table. I’ve been consistently impressed with the level design in Dark Souls, and it has inspired me to try and bring these elements into the adventures that I run. I hope that some of the advice in this post helps you to do the same!

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Comments

  1. Another great post. Again you point to a relatively simple idea, but one that is often so simple it gets overlooked and when used properly can also add to immersion. I really like the idea of reusing the dungeon space in particular. Using the same space can give you two very different experiences as you say.

    My only question is how you handle things like the portcullis that gives a preview when the party gets a little higher in level. At least in 4ed it seems as though the party can fairly early on acquire ways to get around obstacles like a portcullis fairly easily. What types of previews would you recommend for paragon or especially epic tier locales?

  2. @Gargs454: DM fiat, or “a wizard did it”. A few options I thought of:
    1. Powerful magic barriers can be useful if you aren’t opposed to going that route.
    2. An adamantium portcullis if you’re mostly worried about them using brute strength.
    3. A large chasm might work, and you could add a retractable bridge, rope swings, or similar on the other side for crossing back later if desired.
    4. A deadly trap, and I do mean deadly. It should be obviously so and may even give the players a taste if they’re too curious. For example, a wall of fire that starts dealing damage at 4 squares away and deals exponentially more as they get closer. Some means of disabling it could exist on the other side, allowing them to later bypass it. Downside is that if it’s shiny enough they might decide that it’s the correct way and may simply ignore an open door deeper into the dungeon.
    5. A zone that nullifies magic might work well in combination with an adamantine portcullis or chasm- essentially preventing them from using magical flight or unlocking or teleportation to circumvent the obstacle.

  3. @Svafa: Excellent ideas! I may try those — I particularly like the deadly trap idea but that may just be my evil DM side talking. I will give my players credit though, they do always seem to manage to find away around everything (which I love btw, always glad to see them think outside the box).

  4. I really like the wall of fire one 🙂 Bloody evil, and super smart. I’ll be stealing that one, thanks!

  5. Hehe…the absolute best way to guarantee that my group’s game grinds to a halt is to show them a door and tell them it won’t open.

    Queue up four hours of laborious trap checking, lock-picking, secret-door finding and perception checks. If I throw in a bit of combat or interesting NPC encounter – to liven things up and get them moving – they become 100% convinced that the door is Super Important And Must Be Opened. Otherwise why would I try to distract them?

    Maybe there’s some trust issues at my table…

  6. Don’t be hesitant to use video game design techniques if it improves your game. Good games design is good games design, and as long as you understand the differences between video games and tabletop games, it is easy to take the principles that work well for both both and apply them easily.

    All too often tabletop roleplayers will shun ideas simply because they come from a video game, but that’s no different than cribbing ideas from a movie, book, mythology, or any other source. If something works, it works.

  7. @Occam: Heh, I’ve done similar things in the past myself. My favorite was a section of wall that looked exactly like a door with several locks on it. Of course, since it was actually just a door built as part of the wall (i.e. there was nothing on the other side of it), there was no way to open it. The party became convinced that it was some sort of riddle (which I suppose it sort of was) and even came back to the dungeon a couple of times throughout the campaign to try and open it.

    The real purpose of the door was simply to slow the party down. While they were playing with the door, the BBEG was escaping from the back end of the dungeon. 🙂

  8. Anarkeith says:

    I often use maps and screen grabs from video games. They often feature vertical elements that get lost in our game mat and token world of today.

  9. Re-use of space is a great concept that would work in tabletop games for the exact same reasons it works in Halo (a fun re-framing of space for players – time saving for DMs). I love the idea of the PCs invading a monster lair (say a dragon’s den) only to have the tables turned and have to defend the same lair from a second set of invaders (say a tribe of orcs), or lose their hard earned treasure.

  10. That remembers me of a 1st edition D&D adventure I once converted to 3.5 and DMed. I think it was Rahasia. Anyway, in that adventure there were long hallways with portals in each end. The players would see shadowy creatures move in the vast distance, and eventually learn that they themselves are those creatures, their images transported through the portals.

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