Wednesday, April 01, 2009

He's intelligent, but not experienced. His pattern indicates 2-dimensional thinking...

Anybody else remember that line from Wrath of Khan? Ricardo Montalban has been kicking Kirk's ass all over the Mutara Nebula when good ol' Spock comes through with this little observation. The Enterprise and her crew beat the eugenic madman by exploiting his inability to consider space as a three-dimensional battlefield.

Khan's vulnerability to the third dimension reminds me of an issue I see with a lot of dungeons. Even many incredibly awesome dungeons suffer from a basic problem in that we, the dungeon designers, allow the graph paper to do some of the thinking for us. My own dungeons, such as Under Xylarthen's Tower, suffer from this issue, as do Stonehell and Mad Archmage, and many other great fan efforts and commercial releases. We end up with levels as discrete layers stacked one upon another. The connections between the levels often appear as rare accidents or afterthoughts.

One effect of Khan's Disease is that the vertical cross-section views of many dungeons, even well-rendered ones, end up being orders of magnitude less interesting than the horizontal levels. If all a cross-section does is point out that level 3 is above level 4 then I think maybe it's time to go back to the drawing board. I'm not saying there's anything inherently wrong with a dungeon where each level is neatly stacked upon the next and they're connected only by the occasional staircase/slide/elevator. My point is that there are a lot of other possible configurations that we could be exploring.

I'm mostly thinking about big open spaces that connect a multitude of levels. Imagine the entrance to the Caves of Chaos as a cave deep in a dungeon. From where you enter this vast chamber on level X you can climb up to level X-1 or down and across to levels X+1, X+2, etc. A simple example of this sort of thing can be found in the old Judges Guild module The Caverns of Thracia:

Thos craggy black spaces are voids in the rock. If the PCs fall off the bridges that span them, they land on the level below. More important, if they have some rope or levitation magic or something like that the party can choose to desend into that inky black darkness.

Additionally, those wide open spaces also serve as a nice counterpoint to the claustrophobic dungeon room more typical of level design. Imagine your party crossing a bridge over a gulf so vast that their torches fail to illuminate the floor below, the ceiling above, or either end of the bridge. That'd creep me out.

Or focusing on just a single level for a moment, instead of a completely flat dungeon level consider the possibilities in something like this level from the more-obscure-than-it-deserves "Night of the Walking Wet" (from the Dungeoneer Compendium published by Judges Guild):

Passing under and over passageways on the same level may leave the party wondering exactly what level they are on. That is not a bad thing.

Another great example of 3-D dungeon design is the cheap-as-free Mines of Khunmar by Stefan Poag. The dungeon key is woefully incomplete but the map is definitely worth the price of admission! These old Judges Guild maps also have some interesting features work looking at.

Poag and Paul Jaquay (who did both maps above) worked at the dawn of our fair hobby. With three decades under our collective belt I think we can do at least as well as those pioneers. The simple fact is that a good 3-D dungeon design equals more prep work and more forethought. As a dungeon designer you can't just start at level one and slog your way down if you want to end up with an integrated 3-D design. Instead, you need to develop a plan. Examples:
  • level 4 contains the main entrance to a vast temple of evil, but you can access the balcony over the pews from level 2 and the EHP's offices on level 3 have a secret door leading to the pulpit
  • a chasm cuts across the northwest quadrant of levels 5 through 7, ending in a lava pool on level 8
  • Trolltown occupies the floor of a large circular cavern. It sits on level 4 but the cavern can be seen from three points on level 2, but there's no easy way down. There's a bridge on level 3 that leads to the top floor of one of the taller buildings.
The other challenge is effectively communicating the third dimension to the PCs as they encounter these areas. They need to know if they can climb, fly, or crawl to reach various parts of the level.

I'll end the post with some inspirational illustrations. If you dig dungeon design do yourself a favor and track down a copy of Scooby-Doo in Where's My Mummy? A big part of this movie-length adventure occurs in the secret Tomb of Cleopatra located under the Great Sphinx. Here's the Mystery, Inc. gang as they first enter the tomb:


  1. As far as CotMA goes, I believe it is levels eight through eleven which are intended to be highly interconnected vertically in precisely the way you're talking about here; they're natural caves and caverns with a lot of open galleries, rifts, chasms, natural bridges, etc. Should be a blast if I don't go mad trying to map it.

  2. Absolutely! I love 3-D dungeons and have been making mine more and moreso of late. I think it's great to break the monotony of 'vanilla' dungeons, and it encourages players to think about their surroundings more - if not forcing them to (because of the pterodactyls roosting 150' above).

    It can be a stretch on the descriptive-fu of a GM, nut I've found that quick sketchings can convey the important parts well enough.

  3. I think part of the problem is that dungeon levels are part of the game's in-built difficulty "switch". The whole system is built around an assumption that levels are going to be largely independent of each other, and will increase in difficulty as they go deeper. If you plonk a big room somewhere that plunges through multiple levels, then the players can get (literally) beyond their depth much more easily than normal.

    Not that such a situation would necessarily be a bad thing, of course, but I do wonder how many designers are reluctant to do so because they're unconsciously obeying these in-built principles of "game balance".

  4. Settembrini1:00 PM

    You nicely captured his tone, though I think in reality he goes way more overboard.

  5. This runs a bit counter to the notion that you may build a megadungeon organically by just putting together three levels and getting some players in there to start mixing things up. To do this sort of thing properly requires planning that might squelch some ideas or lock you into others.

  6. Nothing beats Castle Ravenloft (I6) for 3D maps.

  7. Yeah, I always liked to put a nice big shaft that ran from 3rd or 4th level all the way to the bottom. Want to get down straight to the dragon at the end of the dungeon? Hope you brought enough rope. If anyone falls, no biggie - they'll land on the giant spider webs around the 8th level...

    >Nothing beats Castle Ravenloft (I6) for 3D maps<

    Looks great, but makes for a better game of Qbert than a useful 3D dungeon map.

  8. I had to deal with this when I worked with Dark Tower. In the Slime God example I would cut out the overlapping portion and display it as a sub level off to the right of the map.

    In case of the Thracia, ScoobyDoo Clepatra. I place markers (that you don't see on the printed version). When I make the next level I put the upper level on a background layer and use the markers as guide points. The result is that I make sure all the holes are properly lined up.

    The real trick is slicing the dungeon in such a way so that it is usable and representative. Something that my day job of calculating the flat parts need to make a 3D object helps with.

  9. When I go back through some of my old gaming stuff, I’m amazed by how much the younger me seemed to do this kind of stuff without even thinking about it. When/why did I lose that?

  10. That's exactly what I currently try to build for the Witch Fortress dungeon in my campaign, with a labyrinth of make-shift scaffolding, crow's nests and bridges on top of the ruined keep, and vertical tunnels for the levels below it. Easily accessible for the local witches with their broomsticks, but ground-bound adventurers will have a hell of a time with loads of climbing and back-tracking, while clever ideas with ropes and make-shift bridges might come in handy to create short-cuts.

    I also plan to build in some monsters who rely heavily on ranged combat... Yes, you get to see that Hell Knight three levels before you run into him accidentally, but he'll also get some free acid balls against you, so better bring some smoke bombs and other obfuscation equipment with you.

  11. Anonymous4:54 PM

    Stefan Poag's Khunmar is the greatest dungeon ever.

  12. Bob Bledsaw and Paul Jaquays are the map geniuses: in wilderness, cities and dungeons. None have surpassed them IMHO. It's not a surprise you cite JG's maps.

    Paul Jaquays then worked as a QUAKE map designer. So he seems to be an expert of the 3-D design.

    Praise them,


  13. You nicely captured his tone, though I think in reality he goes way more overboard.

    Thanks, I thought no one would notice since it's actually a topic I'm serious about. And I didn't have a lot of time. This swapping mastheads thingy was pretty spur of the moment.

  14. GameDaddy5:34 PM

    Real life provides some great examples of actual three dimensional dungeons... Here's one overlooked underground settlement...

    And of course, there are the catacombs of Paris...

  15. I can't believe you're citing Scooby-Doo in Where's My Mummy?! So awesome. Coincidentally, as I watch Scooby-Doo and the Loch Ness Monster, I find the castle layout during the first monster chase (when Shag and Scoob get up for a midnight snack) to be eerily reminiscent of parts of Expedition to Castle Ravenloft....

  16. My players were making Scooby Doo references during our last game session. Little did they realize that Scooby Doo is a major influence on all my gaming. :D

  17. My own dungeons, such as Under Xylarthen's Tower, suffer from this issue, as do Stonehell and Mad Archmage, and many other great fan efforts and commercial releases.

    Yet more evidence that the blognards all drink from the same tainted well, as the vertical axis of the dungeon has been on my mind for the last month or so.

    I have plans to introduce something into Stonehell that addresses the very topic you're discussing here, Jeff. If all goes according to plan, starting on level 5 or 6, there's going to be a big oppportunity to advance and descend quickly - and possibly painfully - along the vertical.

  18. Indeed, my Megadungeon-in-progress, in addition to the more standard 10' dungeon level, has two sets of levels--the Library and the Temple, which are each 30-40' high, with balconies and bridges. And the Lake will have some depth to it as well, come to think of it.

    My ultimate ambition is to set up a giant set-piece battle in the Temple with archers on one set of balconies, a mage-as-artillery on another, the players literally swinging from the chandeliers, and a dragon flying around crisping them. Much of the desire to build my own damn megadungeon came specifically from wanting to build a big 3-D arena for this sort of combat.

  19. I must admit, I didn't get the joke, as a comparison of D&D and Wrath of Khan is the kind of thing I expect from this blog, and why I come back!

  20. After seeing the Creepy (Lighthouse) Keeper episode of 'What's New, Scooby-Doo?' and the old Doctor Who serial Horror of Fang Rock, I want to run an adventure set in and around a lighthouse now

  21. Heh, hivemind. :-\

    I've been thinking about incorporating a series of ferris-wheel rooms (a vertical variation on the old rotating section trick) and a multi-level Grand Vault (based on the Piranesi pic on the cover of my Quick Ref notes) into the Vaults of Nagoh.

    wv: ducteask - the spider-like creatures which live in the spiralling vertical tubes between dungeon levels.

  22. I must admit, I didn't get the joke, as a comparison of D&D and Wrath of Khan is the kind of thing I expect from this blog, and why I come back!

    I thought it would be a waste of time trying to write a Jamie Mal-esque post if I didn't actually have something to talk about.

  23. Jeff--your post got me to playing around with this. I posted an effort on my blog at []. Obviously, I'm still working on it. ;)

  24. It's a good article and the cavern idea is evocative but I wonder if this might just be something that computer games do better. Your Scooby-Doo shot looks like something out of Final Fantasy X-2 and Tomb Raider is a classic of the giant cavern that you navigate in sections.

  25. For some reason, seeing those dungeon maps made me recall the old dwarven racial abilities from previous editions. You know, the "know your depth and direction underground." I think it was 1-3 on a 1d6.

    But yeah, multiple level dungeons seem to be rare nowadays.

    Hmm...maybe something I can whip up...