Lesson 9: Building a Dungeon!

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Lesson 9: Building a Dungeon!

Post by thinkslogically » Tue Mar 04, 2014 3:48 pm

Lesson 9: Building a Dungeon


So, you want to make a dungeon. That means you need to create a series of interconnecting rooms with different things in them, and because weÔÇÖre in the business of making games, that also means you have to provide the means for an enterprising adventurer to find their way through your dungeon. Fair is only fair after all... well, more or less!

There are limitless options for dungeon design and I'm by no means the ultimate authority (or even a particularly good authority) but in this lesson IÔÇÖll post up what I think and a few tricks I've learned along the way. As usual, I hope you guys will be able to add lots more of your own too.

Now, so far we have worked on creating sprites and monsters, and discussed a bit about how you want to set your game out (i.e. top-down, side-view etc.). This time around, weÔÇÖre going to have a look at designing dungeon rooms and items for your players. IÔÇÖm going to focus primarily on building 2D side-view dungeons because itÔÇÖs my preferred style, but a lot of the basics are the same no matter what style you prefer. So, letÔÇÖs start at the beginning.

WhatÔÇÖs the Point?
For the purposes of this lesson, weÔÇÖre going to build a dungeon that can protect the treasure youÔÇÖve spent the last few lessons stealing. However, when it comes to your own games, the possibilities are endless! Giving your players a clear purpose can help you design your dungeon, and will help the players understand what theyÔÇÖre up against.

Also, even though IÔÇÖm calling these ÔÇÿdungeonsÔÇÖ, they certainly donÔÇÖt have to be. It could be a bandit camp, ancient fortress, an open-air mountain climb, caves, city rooftops or sewers, a forest, a sunken ruin or whatever else you can think of. Giving your dungeon a broad theme at the beginning can be helpful if youÔÇÖre stuck for ideas of how to get going. ÔÇÿDeathtrapÔÇÖ is a totally valid theme as long as your game mechanics allow the players at least a small chance of winning (does anyone remember WarlockÔÇÖs Pit of Death for example?).

Alternatively, you might want to include differently-themed areas within a single dungeon (e.g. an Elemental Maze with a different section for each element, or a series of territories belonging to different monster types, maybe with some more generic wandering monsters roaming around the whole place). Splitting the dungeon into distinct areas can be helpful both to you as a designer, because it can give you a starting point when designing appropriate traps and monsters, and also to your players because it can indicate to them when they might need to try a different approach in order to progress further. Sometimes the ÔÇÿhit it till it diesÔÇÖ should work great, other times it should bite the players in the ass. The trick is getting them to guess which approach they should be trying before they all die.

Planning your layout
For this assignment, youÔÇÖre going to build a very small and simple dungeon. ItÔÇÖs going to contain just three rooms, and they can be whatever you want them to be.

So, where do you get started? Well, think of your dungeon as a whole. Are there going to be multiple paths through it? What are they going to be? Assuming you only have one entrance, you only have two possible paths through a three-room dungeon:



You could combine the layouts so that you have a loop (i.e. every room is accessible from every other), but that's not really different from the second option here.

ThatÔÇÖs not to say that those paths should necessarily be instantly accessible from the start. Maybe one path is blocked somehow with a locked door, a temporarily impassable trap, or a puzzle that they need to find the answer to by exploring the rest of the area.

Obviously, the bigger you go the more options you give yourself! One very popular method for building a quick adventure is to use the ÔÇÿFive Room DungeonÔÇÖ plan popularised a few years ago for D&D games. You might fancy something like this for your own adventure (thereÔÇÖs certainly a lot of inspiration available). A quick google search will throw up dozens of examples which you could adapt however you see fit. While youÔÇÖre reading this, donÔÇÖt forget that you could combine multiple challenges into a single area if you wanted to. In fact for forum games itÔÇÖs often a good idea to combine multiple elements into one area (providing there is SOME link between them) because it allows your players to explore different things without forcing them several areas away from each other (which could end up requiring literally days in R.L. for them regroup!). For example, maybe that tribe of lizardmen will agree to help you in your quest (Role-Playing) but only after one of your party defeats the strongest of their own warriors in unarmed combat (Combat / Puzzle). Maybe the trap is tied to a riddle; or thereÔÇÖs some strange creature who can be persuaded to tell you how to disable or avoid it. Maybe the trap triggers a battle. There are lots of ways you can build interesting scenarios from these relatively simple elements.

Anyway. Every five-room dungeon follows a fairly standard formula which you can adapt however you like:
  1. Entrance / Guardian. ThereÔÇÖs a reason why your dungeon hasnÔÇÖt been found and looted before. What is it? Or in this case, what are you going to put there to stop people from looting it? This can be anything you like ÔÇô maybe a puzzle door with a secret key or password that must be deciphered or won from a guardian? Maybe itÔÇÖs a really big monster thatÔÇÖs made its lair in the first area or maybe the door IS the monster? Whatever you choose to put here, you can use this as a way to set the scene for the rest of your dungeon ÔÇÿthemeÔÇÖ if you want one.
  2. Puzzle / Roleplaying Challenge. This room provides a break for those players who prefer non-combat challenges and can keep the players guessing as to the motivations of monsters and NPCs in the dungeon. It also works really nicely if you set up the answer to the puzzle in room one, to reward players who are paying attention!
  3. Red Herring. This provides a bit of tension for the players by wrong-footing them just when they think theyÔÇÖve succeeded. Maybe they complete the quest they were sent to do, but find out that theyÔÇÖve been tricked into summoning a demon? Maybe there were two answers to the puzzle room and they chose the wrong one, leading them to what is essentially a trap they have to deal with. If you donÔÇÖt want to screw your players over completely, why not tempt them with an optional reward thatÔÇÖs just out of reach (for now) or really dangerous to get to? One way to think about this encounter is that youÔÇÖre giving the PCs just enough rope to hang themselves with if theyÔÇÖre not careful >:D
  4. Climax / Boss Battle: This should be as epic as possible. Make it difficult and challenging, but reward teamwork, tactics and creative thinking too. Remember, your players are SUPPOSED to win this encounter (otherwise whatÔÇÖs the point in making it a game), so make it a challenge but not a deathtrap.
  5. Plot Twist! You donÔÇÖt have to include this if you donÔÇÖt want to (especially if youÔÇÖre players are hurting from your Red Herring), but it could be anything you like really ÔÇô maybe the quest-giver changes their mind about paying you for completing their task? Maybe the treasure is cursed or a mimic monster? Maybe you simply give the players a clue to finding the next dungeon?Maybe the Princess is in another Castle? Whatever you decide on, you should have a decent idea of what style your players have by this point, so use that information accordingly to give them a badass ending.
The nice thing about this system is that is provides the players with a little bit of everything ÔÇô puzzles, battles, puzzle-battles, loot and (most importantly?) a purpose! TheyÔÇÖre also short enough that you can happily experiment with the format without needing to invest loads of time if it turns out an idea you had isnÔÇÖt really working, but can be expanded into larger campaigns if you hit on something great.

In terms of how long each section will take to complete, IÔÇÖve generally found that puzzle elements will usually get solved in 1-2 turns unless thereÔÇÖs some sort of treasure-hunt element involved or you include a mechanic to really slow things down. Combat encounters will usually take about 5 turns for an easy battle and 5-10 or more for a difficult one.

Ok, so you have the bones of your adventure. LetÔÇÖs flesh it out! By this point, if youÔÇÖve already decided on a theme and overall layout and ÔÇÿmeta-structureÔÇÖ for your dungeon, youÔÇÖve probably already got a good idea in your head of what itÔÇÖs all going to look like. But you can still help yourself out by adding some details.

Give each room an in-game purpose

This doesnÔÇÖt have to be too detailed, but you should know why every room is in your dungeon. Give them all a name to define them (e.g. 'dragon lair', 'sand trap', 'flooded hall'); if you can't think of a purpose for a room you probably shouldn't include it in your dungeon.

Now, your milage on this point will almost certainly vary. Some people like their dungeons to be ÔÇÿrealisticÔÇÖ (i.e. complete with food stores, bedrooms for guards and lavatories), while other people prefer to keep non-essentials to a minimum and only include plot-important things to the exclusion of all else. As is usually the case, the middle road is probably the best! Do bear in mind though that for a forum game, every single room should have a purpose FOR YOUR PLAYERS. If you build a hyper-realistic 72 room dungeon, of which only 5 actually have anything in them worth interacting with, then your players are going to have a bad time.

Saying that, adding some background touches will give your dungeon character and will give your players a more interesting experience. The in-game purpose of each room can be as varied as your imagination and might include anything from being a stable for zombie horses to a mine shaft to the ever-so-classic dragonÔÇÖs lair. As LSN pointed out in the Original God School thread, thinking up a brief description for each room can be really helpful technique when designing your dungeon. You donÔÇÖt have to go nuts, but try and include a bit of specific information! For example, ÔÇÿCorridor of Gelatinous CubesÔÇÖ is more useful than ÔÇÿTrap RoomÔÇÖ. Do bear in mind that your players WILL rip up the carpets and try and take home the wardrobe, so maybe limit the number of decorative swords you put on the walls!

Part 2: Putting Pen to Paper

Now onto the fun part! YouÔÇÖve got your dungeon designed and you have your sprites chosen. Now all you need to do is bring it to life and draw it out! You can build whatever you want and fill it with anything, but letÔÇÖs cover a few tricks that will make things easier for both you and your players to enjoy the game youÔÇÖve put so much effort into!

Canvas Size
Now that we have the auto-resizing on this forum the maximum size is less of an issue (though browser-dependent apparently), so the size of your drawing canvas now largely depends on what size your sprites are and how many ÔÇÿlevelsÔÇÖ you want to include in each area. You want three floors? Make your image tall enough. You want to fill the room with pit traps and a giant? Better make sure thereÔÇÖs enough headroom!

My games are 900 x 400 pixels, because my sprites are quite large and that extra width gives them room to battle all together without running out of space (sort of!), but you can use whatever size you feel suits your design. Hell, they donÔÇÖt even have to be the same size as each other, though you might find it easier to map your dungeon if they are similar.

Making Rooms

LetÔÇÖs take our first room and weÔÇÖll start by giving it a border. A handy rule of thumb is to use thick black lines for impassable borders or walls and thinner lines or openings for passable structures (e.g. pillars) or doorways. You may prefer to use different colours instead, or dashed lines or, well anything really. Whatever you decide to use, just make sure youÔÇÖre consistent. Create a new layer, and put in that border.


See that border? See it? Good. That's really important. You'll want to decide on its thickness, and that thickness should always indicate an impassable wall.

Now, let's make some doors. You have options here of course. You could make a completely erased gap in the wall.


Or you could put a little brown patch to indicate a door that opens.


Just, make sure you've given enough space to open it!


And of course, one of the more popular methods is to make sure the wall is slightly thinner where there's an exit. ItÔÇÖs harder to spot, but once your players get used to it as a convention itÔÇÖll be fine.


Okay, you've seen that, now I want you to go ahead and make a new layer. Why? Because! This layer is going to be a floorplan.

Add some lines to be the floor. Add some for walls. Add some for ramps and stairs. Do your thing. Make them in some bizarre pattern. Done? Great. This is just the lesson, so don't think too hard about it. Take longer to think when doing the assignment. This is just throw away work. You'll do more later.


Now you'll want to add items, foes, traps, etc... These, you can draw up yourself, or you can plunder the Resources subsection of the forum and use the artwork that other GMs before you have made. Since this is God School, IÔÇÖd prefer it if you made your own of course, but thereÔÇÖs no reason you canÔÇÖt build on what other people have made:


Because of the ÔÇÿfairÔÇÖs fairÔÇÖ rule of DMing, everything that could potentially kill your players should be visible to them (at least initially) so they at least have a small chance of avoiding them (unless youÔÇÖre running a Warlock-style game and constant, unpredictable death is all part of the fun!). The players should also be able to work out the way through, though forcing trial and error, if itÔÇÖs not too arduous, is completely ok. No-one said it should be easy! >:D

My advice is that you make a new layer for every individual thing you include (traps, monsters, EVERY item), and name it for easy access. This will make it easier to move them around later when your players are doing things to them because unless itÔÇÖs bolted down (and sometimes even then), they will try and take it and/or break it. ItÔÇÖs like a rule. In the case of collectable items, you can just make the layer invisible whenever a player pockets it into their inventory.

Okay, so now maybe you've got a room that looks like this:


Great. Now there are some extra things you can do to brighten up the place. Give it character. Is your place old and falling apart? How about cracks in the walls:


You can do things like this, and it changes the atmosphere. Changing the background can be used to great effect to make one room feel more important, or creepier, or more inviting than the others just by clever use of colour and opacity.

And finally, some important advice!

See those things we just added to the room? Do you know what they do?

You will make your life a million times easier if you know what your items, traps and monsters do before you let the players loose in your dungeon, at least for your first one. You will certainly need to make up some things as you go and you may well decide you need to tweak some other things as your players battle their way to victory or death, but for the most part you should know what everything does in advance. It will give your dungeon a greater sense of continuity and take some of the pressure off you as a DM while youÔÇÖre managing it all.

That's it for this lesson. I'm not going to give you advice on the birdseye or 3D views, because really I've never really used them, but the ideas are the same. If you have advice to give about them though, please do ÔÇô it would be great to hear how you guys get on with them.

See you next time!

A Brief Note on Game Mechanics
Since the God School has gone pretty quiet lately and has essentially been replaced by the Goblin AdventurerÔÇÖs League, IÔÇÖm going to talk quickly about some simple mechanics you can use to balance out your game. For simplicity, IÔÇÖll discuss this in terms of the ÔÇÿLSN SystemÔÇÖ of mechanics where goblins start a game with:
5/5 HP
The damage done by an attack is decided simply by ATTACK ÔÇô DEFENCE. When a character reaches 0HP, they are dead. The trouble is, how do we create encounters that are challenging without being too deadly? IÔÇÖm by no means an expert, but the way I approach it is like this:
  • What kind of encounter is this? Start off by thinking about what the purpose each item, monster or NPC has in your dungeon. Are the monsters always aggressive or can they be talked to? Can your players simply avoid a trap or do they have to disarm it before they can pass? Maybe the only way through is to activate the trap and hope they survive?
  • What do you want the outcome to be? IÔÇÖm not suggesting to fudge the stats of your monsters to give a particular outcome, but it can be helpful to give each battle a difficulty rating. Easy encounters should therefore not take too long, and should not kill the PCs unless they do something really stupid. Moderate encounters should be challenging, with a risk of one or two PC deaths if they arenÔÇÖt careful, and difficult encounters should ultimately come with a reasonable risk of a TPK if the players donÔÇÖt work together.
  • Balancing the Stats: This is basically an artform, however be wary of increasing monster stats too high (i.e. above 1) before your players have any loot. The difference between +1 and +2 ATT or DEF is massive and will make battles far harder for your players! For easy battles, I would generally recommend starting with monsters that have stats something like (1ATT/1DEF/2-3HP). Each one will require 2 ÔÇÿnakedÔÇÖ goblins to work together to defeat it over 2-3 rounds. Obviously, anything with +1 ATT canÔÇÖt do any damage to a goblin either, but I would recommend increasing the number of enemies (to e.g. 4-5) initially rather than their ATT scores to give an easier battle. A moderate-hard battle would include 2-3 monsters with stats a bit higher (maybe 2ATT/2DEF/5-8HP). A hard battle would be either lots of moderate and easy monsters attacking at once or one big one with higher stats. Obviously, if fewer players join in the fight that will make things harder too, but then thatÔÇÖs why we DonÔÇÖt Split the Party :)

    If youÔÇÖre going to include a boss monster, itÔÇÖs probably more interesting if it has a way to target multiple PCs at once, or perform multiple attacks per turn, or make attacks with special effects (e.g. stunning, setting stuff on fire, teleporting etc.) rather than just a one-shot take-down smack that will kill the PCs one by one until they are dead.
  • Item Effects: One-shot items are a great way to play around with different effects without having to worry that youÔÇÖve just given your players something way too overpowered for the rest of the game. If you do give permanent items (e.g. armour, weapons, special things), then try and keep the baseline about the same (so start by giving things that increase ATT or DEF by 1 or that heal 1HP at a time). Every so often, throw in something that gives a better bonus as a reward for achieving something difficult or cool. Once there are enough +1 items in circulation, start giving out +2 items with rare +3s. The expectation is that your monsters will also get tougher as the players get better equipped.
  • Plan it All Out or Make it Up as You Go Along? This will pretty much depend on how intuitive you find balancing stats! I would always argue that you should set the stats for a monster before the battle at least so youÔÇÖre not ÔÇÿcheatingÔÇÖ by changing the rules mid-game, but there are so many variables in these games that planning much further ahead than a couple of rooms at a time can be just guesswork. ECR set up the stats of all his monsters as his players reached them, and if that strategy was good enough for him, itÔÇÖs good enough for me!
Anyway, thatÔÇÖs it from me, and probably the last weÔÇÖll hear from the God School for a considerable while. However, I do have one last assignment for you:

Assignment the Last!

When youÔÇÖve finished making your dungeon (to protect your Marvelous Maguffin), get over to the GAL and offer it up as a quest! YouÔÇÖll be amazed how much fun it is to let real players screw up your best laid plans!

I will obviously not be participating as a player, so if you have any questions or need advice as you go through the building steps then I am always just a PM away. Just stick ÔÇÿGod SchoolÔÇÖ in the title so it goes to the right bit of my inbox.
Until then I shall bid you adieu, and thanks for playing!

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