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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