Over several years, in posts and forum comments, Yours Truly has ranted and raved about the general decline in mapping quality in tabletop roleplaying games, later switching to first person shooters, and then back again to RPGs. Wading through disappointing map after disappointing map, it is easy to get the impression making a good dungeon map – the sort that leaps off the page and encourages exploration, environmental puzzle-solving, and creative tactics – is a bit of a lost art. Many dungeons are in fact not dungeons at all; rather, they are illustrations depicting something like a dungeon map, but offering none of the dungeoneering experience due to their limitations. It becomes all the more important, then, to highlight the good stuff, maps with the right scope, complexity, and structure.
Good structure is especially tricky, since many promising maps conceal a rather banal layout under visual frills, as well as twists and turns which do not, in fact, do anything – they are visual noise masking linear corridors and the occasional, vestigial side branch you can visit before returning to the main one-way rollercoaster ride. Good structure is still more of an art than an exact science, but it is generally agreed that some structural features are better suited to “map flow” than others, by encouraging meaningful decisions, environmental interaction, and emergent gameplay:
- non-linearity, aided by branching and looping elements;
- three-dimensional environments with verticality, interesting interconnections between dungeon levels, and a variety of terrain (c.f. “jacquaying”);
- relative openness, counterbalanced by occasional bottlenecks usually referred to as “pinch points” or “choke points”, and maintaining significant barriers to make navigation a challenge.
Not every dungeon has to have these features to be a good dungeon (and keying is the second half of the puzzle), but generally, they help. Furthermore, the principles apply to tabletop games and FPS games in different ways; thus, Ultima Underworld, classic Quake levels, or Thief’s Down in the Bonehoard embody these principles differently than Caverns of Thracia, Tegel Manor, or Tomb of Abysthor.
The current post
looks at good design through the example of The Winter
Tombs, a free dungeon level by Dyson Logos. This will also be released
as a dungeon dungeon by Jim Pinto, but for now, we will restrict ourselves to
the map. This is a particularly good test case, since it is a map that has a
pleasing complexity without obfuscating analysis, and its structural elements
are easy to identify and discuss. Here, I will only reproduce a low-res
specimen; for the larger map, go to Dyson’s site, download the map, and print
it at home. For the sake of analysis, I rotated the map by 90 degrees, putting
the entrances on the bottom (hereafter referred to as “South”), then I produced
a line graph to showcase the map’s structure. So, what lies beyond the cross-hatching?
The Winter Tombs
Tombs is a single-level dungeon map with a
tomb/caverns theme. The closest analogy is Judges Guild’s classic Sunstone Caverns, a
semi-keyed dungeon from their second campaign instalment. Like Sunstone
Caverns, this one is densely (although a bit less densely) mapped to provide a
large playing area in one map.
The first element that leaps before the eyes is
the selection of ways in: right from the start, the explorers can choose
among four tomb entrances and two cave mouths. One of the tombs is a dead-end:
a simple, but pleasing trick. Others are connected to the dungeon in ways that
integrate cavern and tomb elements, with signs of environmental degradation and
blockage to complicate navigation. The way the characters choose to enter and
exit through will have a meaningful effect on how expeditions develop.
Nevertheless, there is no initial difficulty selection, at least no outwards
sign that makes one or more entrances harder to discover or access. (As a
counter-example, consider the lower level back door to In Search of the
Unknown!) Notably, there are not many outright exits. They are in
the distant reaches of the map (near the octagons and in the upper right
corner). If this dungeon has lower levels, it will take a lot of initial effort
to reach them – the overall permeability is quite low until secure routes are
identified and firmly established!
Of course, many
elements which appear complicated on a first look are essentially straight
lines – a labyrinthine set of catacombs in the lower middle is a simple loop,
impressive halls are essentially fancy corridors (bottom right), and many of
the twisting cavern passages are simple “bridging” connections. However, the
map uses these bridging pieces in a shrewd and disorienting manner, via
over- and underpasses, slopes, and loops which reverse the direction of
progression, diverting expeditions towards unplanned dungeon rooms. This is an
underutilised navigation trick, and one which can be used well to draw the
company into a danger zone. We can identify one of the dungeon’s main choke
points in the bottom middle: a cave with four exits (one a dead end) is one
of the main points linking multiple sub-sections. It is easy to reach from what
looks like the “main” entrance, and it allows access to many further points of
importance. He who rules the choke point rules the dungeon!
Choke points and tricky bridges
Two main structuring elements are also easy to see. These are the level’s waterways and a very large set of caverns. These play a different role. Water blocks or impedes movement, and conceals invisible monsters from the deeps. Hence, the rivers and the lake are barriers. The E and SW river branches separate the map into its southern and northern sections, while the NW branch further subdivides the northern part into two sections, almost as if they were separate sub-levels (I would certainly be tempted to design the key this way). There are multiple places where the rivers are crossed by bridges, and more where it would be fordable to an ambitious group. We can call these environmental challenges limited barriers. The lake is something that would probably be impassable at first, but become a potentially good way to access the rest of the level once the characters return with a canoe, build a raft, and neutralise whatever threat might inhabit the lake. Ironically, the easiest access to the lake (right from the “main entrance”) is bound to be completely useless on the first visit, aside from offering a tantalising glimpse of things to come!
The caverns are
not barriers: they represent a nexus point. Although similar to choke
points, nexus points are relatively open structural elements, which usually offer
multiple ways of traversal, and collect multiple routes departing in various
directions. You can see another one on the opposite side: the larger octagonal
room with its five main exits (the NE one does not realy count as a full one). This
is also a piece of dramatic architecture which stands out from the
lower-level dungeon texture: it is YUGE, regular, and perfect for a complex
set-piece encounter. Of course, sometimes, appearances are misleading: the
other octagon just off to the NW does not actually do anything in the context
of the map – it is a linear route to a lower level. Also, nexus points may
start off as choke points, ruled by a nastier monster or puzzle before being cleared
and used to the explorers’ benefit.
A case of two octagons
There is one
more interesting feature concerning this map, which may not be noticeable first,
but which has a strong bearing on its flow. This is the presence of long
corridors linking distant corners of the dungeon, and once you look for them,
you will find a bunch. We might call them accelerators (or fast lanes?),
since clearing them allows fast travel through the dungeon. The clearest
accelerators are found in the distant reaches of the level, including one which
just “caps” the whole thing with a sequence connecting everything to
everything. Once you get there, you can choose a way back just as freely as you
could at the beginning, a dark “mirror image” of the dungeon’s multiple entrances!
Others include the corridors bisecting the octagons, and the corridor to the
right, going from the entrance areas all the way to the cavern. As the company
finds the accelerators, they will prove very valuable in subsequent expeditions,
getting them past the entrance areas and into the depths of it!
So, this is what a good dungeon level looks like. It walks the right balance between openness and navigation challenges, it has a good sense of progression, it is structured in fun ways that suggest both exploration puzzles and exploration solutions, and overall, it has a pleasing complexity that takes effort to figure out, but does not descend into unpleasant pixel-bitching and the exploration of dull, featureless mazes.