On Sensible Dungeons, Mega or Otherwise

I’ve been playing Castlevania: Circle of the Moon lately (fabulous platformer-slash-quasi-RPG or, for lack of a better one word descriptor, Metroidvania, if you will), and it has made me think.

First of all, I love that the game begins with the hero showing up right in front of Dracula’s throne room, totally ready to kick Drac’s butt. Dracula, of course, has dealt with this sort of thing before and has plenty of experience. Like any evil dude, Dracula has an oubliette in his audience chamber to quickly dispose of unwanted guests. A nearly useless level 1 Nathan (c’mon, you really thought you were gonna beat Drac like that?) falls down a hole and is set upon by skeletons throwing hand grenades.

Some 8 hours and 85% towards completion later, the constant thought in my mind, every step of the way: “Fuck, Dracula’s castle is big.” Unnecessarily big.(1) Unfathomably big.(2) Impractically big.(3) Illogically big.(4)

I’m not holding Castlevania: Circle of the Moon up as an example of a bad game. It’s not. It’s a ton of fun. I am holding it up as an example of egregiously bad dungeon design.

All dungeons are either Natural (caverns), “man”-made (castles) or some combination of the two (dwarf forts). Natural dungeons will follow natural laws, and man-made dungeons should suit the purposes of its builders in a sensible manner.

Something important to remember about caves: most things that live in them, animals or people, live near the entrance. Caves are dark, winding and dangerous, so most living things will want to be close to the outside for light, food and water. Very few living things in nature are found deeper within caves, and most of those are tiny, blind albino things that would not sustain most monsters one might want to stick in the bottom of a cave. Big normal monsters &demihumans would live near an entrance. Unnatural things, elementals & undead would make sensible deeper denizens. Plus, the cave itself could easily be the most threatening part of the dungeon. Because it does not need to go anywhere sensible, but where nature demands, the cave could spiral off in all sorts of crazy directions that end up nowhere, wasting food & torches of the party for nothing. I highly recommend the movie the Descent, which is really great until obvious gollum monsters show up and ruin a fantasticly scary movie about catty British lesbians exploring a cave.

For some ideas on natural dungeons, there are plenty of park services that provide really nice detailed maps of caves. One of my favorite caves in North America is Carlsbad Caverns, and I recall the park having a great map of it in a pamphlet. One nice thing about Carlsbad is that it’s huge. It looks like a mega-dungeon. A big long descent that ends in a stalactite graveyard and opens into the lower chamber, appropriately named “The Big Room”. I forget exactly how big it is, but I know that the term “football field” is used in its measurements and descriptions. You might also consider looking up a little bit about White City, a nearby town with a wild history tied to the caverns, its exploration and early tourism.

“Dungeon” is just an old gaming nomenclature, and is a failure as a descriptor, as most man made ‘dungeons’ are NOT actual dungeons in the original sense of the word. The term dungeon often distracts us from the fact that these are purposed structures. They may be active or inactive, but they weren’t thrown together: there was a reason for everything, and it had to meet the needs of those who built it. When designing a man-made dungeon, consider it function and how the design benefits those who built or use it.

First, determine if the dungeon is active or inactive/passive. If it’s an active dungeon, are those using it also inhabiting it or do they have homes to go back to in the evening? Whatever is there will need to be able to get around without too much difficulty, maybe have places to store necessary or personal items, and, if they’re living there, they will need places to eat and sleep.

Inactive dungeons may be one of two things. An inactive dungeon may be an active dungeon that has since been abandoned. All of the design concepts of an active dungeon still apply. Rules for natural dungeons apply as far as whatever may have taken it over. Despite what you’ve seen in Daggerfall, you’re not going to find a grizzly bear with a bag of gold hanging out in a locked closet a quarter-mile beneath a burned down farm house.(5) An inactive dungeon may also be a passive dungeon, one which was not designed for continuous inhabitation. Tombs and some temples and shrines may fall under this category. They may or may not have caretakers who occassionally keep things together, or maybe there hasn’t been anyone there for ages. You have more freedom to do weird things with these, as no one needs to live and work there. Monsters who move in would follow natural law & logic, undead horrors, curse monsters, golems, etc. don’t haven’t to follow the rules as much as long as there’s a reason they’re there.

Additionally, there are repurposed dungeons, which can be a lot of fun. A person or group has moved into an old abandoned dungeon, and may be utilizing parts of it in new and unintended ways. Necromancers might take over an old tomb and conduct research in isolation. Bandits use a ruined fort as a hide-out. Figuring out unique ways to combine the old purpose with the new purpose is the key to creating some truly memorable and fascinating dungeons. Maybe an alchemist has figured out a way to use dwarven metalurgical equipment to create powders and potions on an industrial scale, or a particularly clever group of bandits have figured out how to make old mechanical guardians fight each other for sport. The posibilities are endless.

Lastly, don’t forget: everybody & everything (except for undead, elemental, extraplanar beings, etc.) has to pee & poo. No dungeon inhabitants are gonna be happy if they don’t have easily accessible places to go when nature calls. One of the few things I’ll give Hexen 2 credit for: in the first act (medieval europe castle world), houses & castles had beds and, by god, some of them had holes to crap down (one of which you even have to dive down at one point). At the time, these sorts of details were unheard of in FPS games, fantasy or otherwise.

Have fun dungeon building! In the meantime, I will continue to ponder Dracula & the gargantuan superstructure required to contain all of his monsters and majesty.

1. “C’mon, Drac, when was the last time you even visited the 83rd sub-basement to check on how your evil magic dog was doing?” I suppose Dracula found a castle this big necessary, cuz I totally remember Belmonte’s Revenge, and yeah, I guess Drac’s castle was kinda big, and the non-euclidean tunnel forking where space time doubled back onto itself was a hurdle the first time everything repeated itself, but clearly Simon made his way there and gave Drac a lashing (exacting his Revenge). Therefore, the answer was clearly to have a bigger castle with more awful crap in it.

2. Drac’s castle has only the illusion of a 3rd dimension for practical, in game purposes. It’s just some 200-300+ corridors stacked on top of each other. But when we see the dozens more towers of Drac’s castle off in the distant through windows, one of two things is possible: The castle is even bigger than what’s reachable in game or the geometry of the castle does not follow the laws of nature.

3. Again, do you really need a castle that freaking big? What does dracula do all day? I mean, yeah, he can fly and the hundreds of thousands of monsters probably don’t bother him when he’s on his way from the gardens to the chapel to the wherever Dracula hangs out in his spare time when vampire hunters aren’t after him… But even with the teleporters, does Dracula ever wish he made his pad easier to get around? Or put in a bathroom? Or maybe not have his grand private amphitheatre perched precariously atop a tower atop a tower atop a tower, inaccessible without means of flight (and why have an amphitheater that could seat several hundred at all?)

4. Again, having the Royal Albert Hall on the 250th floor and not a single bathroom. There’s not rhyme nor reason to the layout of the castle other than to confound the sane mind.

5. “Your creatures are annoyed that they cannot reach the hatchery!”

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