Dungeon Contractor: Building Blocks
This week will require a little homework on your part. Steal some money from whomever you steal money from in your life (boss, significant other, parents) and get yourself three things: masking tape, a stepladder and a measuring device. A yardstick works if you live in a land with yards, and this will be geared towards the non-metric for reasons to soon become obvious.
This week will require a little homework on your part. Steal some money from whomever you steal money from in your life (boss, significant other, parents) and get yourself three things: masking tape, a stepladder and a measuring device. A yardstick works if you live in a land with yards, and this will be geared towards the non-metric for reasons to soon become obvious. Find a wall, preferably in your domicile and in a space without excessive furnishings. Measure seven ten-foot long strips of tape. Lay a strip of tape where the floor adjoins the wall, running parallel to the wall. Place three strips on the floor, so that a square is formed, and place another three strips on the wall, so that another square is formed.
Welcome to the ten by ten room. Step in the square and be in awe. You have just climbed into the prime element of all dungeons. This is it, this is where it all comes from; this is the cube that defines, the atomic level of dungeon design. Graph paper is what we live and die by as Dungeon Contractors. It is not an essential, but it is pretty near. In a Mcluhan sense, the graph paper is conducive to the proper design of a dungeon. The framework encourages the vision of a structure and encourages us to see things comprehensively. What is at work is not some lines on a page, but some lines on top of perfectly ordered lines on a page. The grid helps even the most helpless artists of us make something usable. Besides, counting 3E as our flagship, the game has moved into nothing but an obsession of tactical structuralizing, making the concept of an amorphously designed dungeon or combat untenable to the mainstream.
Get a sense for the ten by ten. Look around. If you feel ultimately adventurous, complete the remaining sides of the square. I never thought about the ten by ten until two things happened. I moved into a house with a ten by ten room for my bedroom (it was cool and lofted, pigeons lived in my windows and I slept next to exposed roof beams) and I transcribed a map from an adventure. Mind you, these are two unrelated facts, but they wind up leading to the first hard principle: Design 2D, Check 3D.
I have always been a little taken aback by the ten by ten. I, and others have backed me on this experience, never quite know whether to think it too small or two large. This is the basic concept behind countless dungeons, but climb in one and it feels slight, somehow too small to be used. How did all those Orcs fit in? The graph drawings provide a sort of obscured view, looking down as gods of architecture. There isn't the feel for the dimensions at work.
Of course, this is not always the disadvantage it may get made out to be. Real world architecture can involve a lot of numbers and math, structural weights and figuring out what actually can go where, whereas dungeon design has nothing to do with that. Dungeon design is more free, and rightfully so. So use that freedom. I do not mean scoff at the laws of physics, but feel free to not concern yourself at all when working on the primary layout of the dungeon.
Looking down at a jumble of abstract ten by tens, it is easier to keep matters abstract. What use does this abstraction have? As dungeons tend to fall into certain categories, there are corresponding design qualities for those categories. Each class tends to take a different shape, for lack of a better term. Each sort of dungeon is looking to draw the characters in differently, and that must be respected in the overall design.
Bleeders tend to come across as lines. They are marathons, where the question is "how far?" How long can the players push? A common tendency in Bleeders is to not be concerned with the exit strategy, because exit is not the point, only penetration. So stretch them out, let them run across the page and sprawl out uncontrollably. Start at the entrance and let them trickle on down. They are not required to have any central concept behind them. It should be possible and even preferable that the characters miss out on rooms and sections of the dungeon. Sure, it may feel like wasted work, but it's almost a sign you are doing your job right. The point of a bleeder is things are held back from the players and the characters, and the design should appeal to that.
Storybook should be built concentrically. It is tempting to think they might come off more like lines, but this can lead to accusations of railroading. Storybooks are holding something back, but it is something designed to be revealed. It is okay if the players miss out on a piece or two, but they need to catch enough for the reveled secrets of the dungeon to make sense. The trick to this compromise is finding the climax, the point where all will be made clear, and then letting everything drift back from that point. Chances are this will involve a certain accumulation of evidence, and starting with the closing point makes determining the evidence easier. Build outward in layers, always making certain there are solid reasons for players pushing on into the darkness.
The symbol for the organic dungeon is the square, the defined perimeter. The goal is to think of the dungeon as one unit. Everything should make sense. Organic dungeons have to concern themselves most with what is going on inside, and the physical design has to reflect those concerns. Organic designs require the most headwork because they involve the most direct questions. Where would an Orc Commander sleep? It depends what sort of commander he or she is.
Why I opt for a box configuration when designing an organic is because the filling in can take place from any direction. Maybe you have appropriated a cool gatehouse design, or perhaps you can see what sort of room you want the elemental gate to be in. Fill that part in, and then start building off of that. After all, if the gate is here, the secret panel has to be here, which means the art gallery has to be here, and so on. You are doing a good job if you run into problems, by which I mean different facts dictate both the barracks and the dog run being in the same place. This is good because realistic layouts do require compromises and do have flaws. If you are finding them, you are both forcing your own creativity and are well into the mindset of the actual forces (not necessarily people) behind the creation.
Once you have used the power granted by two dimensions to craft something of beauty, it is important to do some fact checking. This is when having a good sense of space becomes important. Take the space, and imagine yourself within it. Do a final walkthrough with the developer, and find the flaws for the punchlist. You can't build something without screwing up somewhere. The number of dungeons commonly found in published adventures that lack this sense is phenomenal. At some point almost any design forgets about scale because the primary thought process is two dimensional. Even the play of the game can end up like this. But for a superb dungeon, three dimensional is required. So get into it.
In some ways, the tricky part is not finding the errors, but seeing what those errors mean. Sometimes the errors need correction: this latrine is way too big; this grand hall is way too small. Other times, the design flaws can lead to interesting results or rethinks. That guard tower actually has a blind spot, so there is another way for the players to get in. That stairwell is in something of an awkward corner, and, in fact, if the door opens the other way so it becomes almost hidden, thus becoming an interesting escape route. This sort of thing forces you to rethink all the nuances of your design, and may even force some nifty creativity.
So design 2D, check 3D. Hell, double check 4D. Assess the passage of time. For this you will need to populate the place, and walk through as landlord. Significantly, what this means is different for different sorts of dungeons, and I almost hesitate to include it as a general rule because it is primarily in the auspice of the organic. After all, the set routines of life in the organic are necessary to know, because so much of the interaction will be based around the players interacting with those routines. Bleeders put more emphasis on the nifities. How the vampire gets in and out is not of your concern. On the other hand, it may turn out the secret door is in such an obvious place it will surely be found out frequently over the passage of time. Perhaps things are to the point that it is barely a secret anymore, with the panel chipped and dented from frequent openings.
In storylines, the passage of time has a dual significance. First is the pacing of the story being revealed. You have to think out the various pieces of evidence and their evidencing, make certain the revelation of whatever is being revealed progresses in such a fashion as to maintain player and character interest. You may have to shrink the dungeon to keep the pacing high, or expand it to increase the mystery. The second I would call the Prospero Effect. Time has a way of changing stories. An epic of revenge can become one of redemption. Saving the princess does not mean the same thing twenty years after her capture. What happens to the demi-lich who has had a thousand years to think about things? You may find playing with the time in the story can change the whole tone of the dungeon, and it is good to consider said changes. There might be one that you would like to make.
Next time on Dungeon Contractor: what questions to ask an excavating crew before you hire them.