Today’s guest article was written by reader Ben A., who has learned a lot about creating fun dungeons by playing the Legend of Zelda games. Thanks, Ben!
The dungeon: One of the big staples of tabletop RPGs.
While the word conjures up images of a Tolkien-esque band of treasure hunters looting a medieval crypt full of skeletons, the term “dungeon” could just as easily apply to a corporate research lab in Shadowrun or a supervillain’s secret lair in Mutants and Masterminds. Once the context is taken away, a dungeon can be simply defined as:
A closed-off space made up of interconnected rooms which will be full of enemies to fight, puzzles to solve, treasure to find and, most importantly, some important MacGuffin the party needs to obtain.
But all too often dungeons end up being rather tedious and formulaic affairs. The party shows up, kicks down the door, fights a bunch of little monsters and really big monster at the end, takes the treasure and leaves. While there is nothing wrong with this design and such a design can even be quite fun, it lacks a certain originality and depth that makes a dungeon really stick out in a player’s mind.
Enter the Legend
The Legend of Zelda video game series began in 1986 and has since become a thriving property and a mainstay of Nintendo’s first-party library. Zelda has always been a dungeon-crawler series, in which Link, the protagonist, needs to visit a series of dungeons to obtain certain treasures or power-ups to allow him to fight and defeat the villain (who is most often Ganon). From this, the Legend of Zelda series has developed a tried and true formula for dungeon design that has withstood the test of time. While the design is not necessarily perfect, there are many things that can be learned from how the series structures its dungeons.
For the sake of simplicity, the names of the Legend of Zelda games will be abbreviated as follows: Ocarina of Time (OoT), Majora’s Mask (MM), Twilight Princess (TP), and Skyward Sword (SS)
This is a list of the common elements that can typically be found in any Legend of Zelda dungeon. While you may wish incorporate formula in its entirety into your dungeon design, you may also pick and choose from the elements of the formula to add just a bit of spice to your own dungeon design.
The Road of Trials
Often before you even enter the dungeon you will need to overcome a trial, one that is challenging and stands on its own without reaching the magnitude and scale of a full dungeon. Note that while these trials can be plot based it is important that they be a genuine test of skills for the players, though not necessarily a particularly challenging one.
Some notable examples of this are sneaking into the Deku Palace before entering the Woodfall Temple (MM) and clearing the Ice Palace before entering the Water Temple (OoT). The goal of these trials should be to obtain the means to enter the dungeon, either through a special piece of equipment such as the Iron Boots that are found in the Ice Palace (OoT) or through information or motivation, as can be found from the monkey that is being wrongfully punished in the Deku Palace (MM).
You can just as easily turn this step into a simple social conflict or research mission but, by designing it as challenge that stands on its own, you create a challenge that is more memorable and can be better used to create plot-based motivations for entering the dungeon in the first place.
In the Legend of Zelda games, the dungeons are very distinct from each other. When the player first enters a dungeon, they are immediately exposed to the feel and themes the dungeon carries and will continue to be exposed to them until they leave. While the moss-covered abandoned crypt is a standard for dungeon design, a truly unique dungeon should not be held down by such stereotypes.
One way to add spice to a bland dungeon is to add a basic concept as an overall theme, such as the Fire and Forest temples in OoT. However, this style of design has become something of a cliché in game design and more ambitious GMs may wish for something more robust. For this, one can take inspiration from Snowpeak Ruins (TP), which is a decrepit mansion on top of a snowy mountain that is home to a yeti couple.
This dungeon uses its theme particularly well by altering the normal flow of such dungeons, in that the yetis are more than happy to give you the mirror fragment in their home but due to the wife’s feverish state she cannot remember where the mirror fragment is and keeps sending the player on wild goose chases. Details and theme are important to any memorable dungeon and a good theme can give you ideas as to how the typical dungeon flow can be altered to produce a more unique experience.
Dungeon Maps and Compasses
One of the series mainstays for Legend of Zelda is the Dungeon Map, an item which allows the player to see the entirety of the dungeon from his map screen, including rooms that have not been visited. The Compass, another tool that reveals the location of all the treasure chests in the dungeon, was used in games such as OoT and MM until it was eventually folded into the Dungeon Map.
This may not be a popular choice for tabletop RPGs, as players should be encouraged to draw up their own maps and GMs may wish to keep such knowledge secret in order to preserve the challenge. However, in the event that a dungeon is overly complex or the overall design of the dungeon is important to a puzzle, as is the case in the first dungeon of the original Legend of Zelda game, it may be helpful for the party to find a completed or mostly-completed map.
Many doors in a Legend of Zelda dungeon are locked, keeping a player from accessing the room on the other side without a key. These keys are usually found in chests in other parts of the dungeon, though they are sometimes held be enemies that must be killed or robbed in some clever way in order to obtain them, and could only be used to open a single door before breaking.
This can be a great tool, as it can be used to force the players to explore more of the dungeon and think conservatively about their resources. However, this mechanic can be thinly veiled and your players may decry it as railroading. Use at your own discretion.
The Legend of Zelda series is well known for its use of clever and original puzzles in its dungeons. Some of the more notable mainstays include torch puzzles, in which a series of torches need to be lit; button puzzles, in which large buttons on the floor that need to be stood on or held down by a heavy object; and eye switches, which need to be shot with a projectile to activate them.
These elements are often paired with a distracting element, such as the presence of enemies, difficult terrain, and the use of specific orders in which multiple switches must be activated. A notable example of this is the ice block puzzles, in which a block is limited to a small patch of icy ground, on which the block, once pushed, slides as far as it can go in the direction it is pushed until stopped by another block or the edge of the ice, and must be pushed in a certain combination of directions to end up on a button. These puzzles rarely spread beyond a single room and offer as rewards small keys, unlocking locked doors, and occasionally bigger items such as Dungeon Maps.
These stand apart from their smaller brethren through scale alone. These puzzles incorporate the whole dungeon in their design and must be completed to be able to navigate to the last room in the dungeon. The most notable example of this is the infamous Water Temple (OoT), which involved raising and lowering the water level inside the dungeon amongst three levels to fully navigate the dungeon.
Other examples include the Arbiter’’s Grounds dungeon (TP), in which the player had to track down special ghosts with their wolf’s scent ability and defeat them to proceed through the dungeon, and the Forest Temple (TP), in which the player had to save monkeys imprisoned in various parts of the dungeon which would in turn help you swing across large gaps. These puzzles could literally obstruct movement throughout the dungeon, create a condition for progression that must be met through the use of more obscure skills, or any other design you can think of. GMs, this element is your time to shine. Don’t hold back.
About midway through any Legend of Zelda dungeon, the player encounters a creature that is bigger than the run-of-the-mill monsters yet too small to be a full boss. These creatures, or sub-bosses, provide more of a challenge without overshadowing the boss at the end of the dungeon, keeping players on their toes and making the player really work for the eventual prize, the dungeon’s Weapon.
Sub-bosses often follow a design that is similar to but less intimidating than the boss, but this need not be the case. Sub-bosses are usually a single monster that the player must fight in order for the doors to unlock, though in the Forest Temple (OoT) the sub-boss took the form of four ghosts that needed to be tracked down throughout the dungeon and defeated in order to progress. While sub-bosses should not be as impressive as their bosses, feel free to create a few twists from the standard “beat it until it’s dead” strategy.
In Legend of Zelda, much of the game’s progression is tied to weapons which, in addition to causing damage, allow for the manipulation of the environment to remove obstacles. Most notable of these are bombs, which blow up large rocks and thin stone walls; the Lens of Truth, which lets the player see invisible objects; and the famous Hookshot, which allows the player to target and latch onto specially designed grapple points.
In addition, these Weapons are designed to be integral towards navigating the deeper parts of their respective dungeons and vital for beating their respective bosses. As Legend of Zelda games are typically single player, this element may not be suitable for a multi-person party. If you choose to use such a weapon or item, take care that the item’s design and purpose does not alienate the other members of the party or leave them stranded whilst the item-holder continues on.
The Boss Key
In the deepest recesses of the dungeon lies the room that houses the final Boss and the MacGuffin, but that room is guarded by a large door that requires a special key to open it. This key is also hidden in one of the deeper parts of the dungeon and is guarded by a particularly difficult puzzle or combat challenge.
GMs may find that this element is unnecessary for their dungeon designs. However, Skyward Sword adds a unique spin on this element, in that the Boss Key is a three-dimensional object that must be rotated in order to fit it into a two dimensional keyhole, in which only one side and orientation will work. This element might be unnecessary, but clever GMs may find a unique way to utilize it.
The climax of any dungeon in Legend of Zelda is the final Boss battle. This is the big battle, the do-or-die moment that the entire dungeon has been ramping up to. The boss is often there for plot-based reasons, such as Gohma acting as a parasite in the Great Deku Tree (OoT), but all too often the boss is simply placed at the end because there needs to be a boss there.
You should attempt to create a plot-based reason for the presence of the boss, either as a notable foe that the people want exterminated or as a guardian for the MacGuffin or the like. As far as enemy design, go crazy. This is the climax, so the Boss monster needs to be big, tough, and make the players really think about how to beat it.
This is the reason that your players need to clear the dungeon in the first place. In the original Legend of Zelda game, Link was obtaining the 8 scattered pieces of the triforce, which he needed to defeat Ganon. Later games would involve Link collecting special gems, special ways to increase his sword’s power, etc. These are always in sets and it is understood that the set must be completed in order to complete the eventual goal of the game.
You may not wish to do this, but really ponder exactly what your players want from this dungeon. It could be an artifact, like in the Legend of Zelda games; it could be information that can only be found in the dungeon; it could be a person that needs to be freed; or it can be the boss monster, which needs to be defeated so the nearby people can exist peacefully. Whatever it is, it should be meaningful and potent, as the players will be dragging themselves through the entire dungeon to get it.
Legend of Zelda has been around for over 25 years, and its creators have perfected a formula that is loved by gamers everywhere. While there may be some translation issues with using a video game level in a tabletop RPG, the elements therein are timeless and were created be people who were masterful GMs of a different kind. Using some of these ideas, you can take a dull, cookie-cutter dungeon and turn it into a unique experience your players will never forget.
Love this article. This is why I come to Gnome Stew — to read about ways to make my game more fun and interesting. Not so much to read about the sounds giant dice make when they land on the gaming table.
Theme is especially important for me as a player. I remember well a short sideline “dungeon” experienced in the form of a building on the (abandoned, crumbling) campus of Ancient Fantasy City A & M (Agriculture & Magic) University. It was a few rooms, a couple of encounters and a mini-boss (an undead professor who mistook us for really, really tardy students) but that thematic element made it extremely memorable and fun. I’ve trudged through countless cave systems but I recall almost none of them as well as that.
As for MacGuffins, I dig the item-completion angle. In a long-running Exalted game a number of years ago we learned early on that there were two gems for each of us, scattered in different parts of the world, and that the more of them we acquired the more powerful we would become both as individuals and as a group. The whole “complete the set of X” device was something familiar to all of us from thousands of hours in front of JRPGs and dungeon crawlers and so it made an extremely easy way to get us all on board for the story built around that notion.
Thank you for this timely article. I’m in the process of designing ~10 dungeon crawls for an upcoming campain. This is very useful to me. 🙂
The White Box era name for a dungeon in which items you find are likely to be consumables needed to access deeper parts of the complex was “keyed dungeon”.
A much less loaded (and overused) term than “railroad”.
Nice article, but not enough (ie any) references to The Legend of Zelda – the one that started it all. 8oD
I was just thinking a few weeks ago about how it would be really cool to integrate some dungeon elements from Darksiders into a dungeon, and we all know Darksiders is Zelda from a bad neighborhood on steroids. 😉