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Dungeon design (minor area spoilers for PoE1, WM1&2, Tyranny, Deadfire B.B.)

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For starters: I am starting this thread influenced by series of videos titled “Boss Keys” by Mark Brown analyzing dungeon design in Zelda series:



While I played a lot of games clearly influenced by Nintendo's work, as someone who never owned a Nintendo console I found his videos on Mario & Zelda series fascinating. The only Nintendo games I played were: Super Mario Bros on Comodore 64 (was it even official?) many many years ago, and Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros, Brawl for Wii, thanks to my modest undergraduate social life.


I am very impressed by design of dungeons from old Zelda games – how much clever exploration and interaction with environment can be done with low tech. As limitations of such game resembles constrains a pre-rendered isometric game has to face, I started to think, if complexity of Zelda games could be(or should be?) implemented in cRPG like Deadfire.


When I think about my favourite RPGs dungeons I notice some similarities in design – unique mechanics, a bit of backtracking, multiple locked doors to open, puzzles to solve, a feeling of exploration in a linear dungeon. Naturally, adopting some of the key tricks from Zelda games is impossible in cRPG – after all our party’s skills can vary and forcing player to play or interact with dungeon in one certain way goes against what cRPG is about.


Vanilla PoE had some fine areas – Roderick’s Hold, ruins in Cliaban Rilag and Lle a Rhemen but unfortunately, I found majority of vanilla PoE dungeons disappointing. While beautiful to look at the interaction with them was minimal. The most disappointing to me was the Endless Dungeon. While I was hoping for something as unique as Durlag’s Tower or Watcher’s Keep, what we got was a stretched out combat gauntlet filled generic enemies. Instead of a break from main game, it was more of the same, just with different backdrop.


White March has improved so much on dungeon design. Even the most basic areas have unique features, with main path being a stand out – clearing Durgan’s Battery was a joy. For example the mines – while getting to the exit is simple, it will take some exploration to open the doors. There are couple different areas in this level, all unique – ambush in a mine, a ride in a cart, Hall of Remembrance for which we need to find sigils to disable traps, locked Workshop. A well designed, varied environment, requiring conscious exploration, interaction with environment and utilizing different branches of gameplay (puzzle, conversation, scripted interaction, combat). The Abby of the Fallen Moon only expanded upon design, combining an open nature of Roderick’s Hold with complex, multistage design of WM dungeons.


Tyranny’s dungeons were really neat as well – gradual collection of wall “keys” encouraged backtracking and gradually unlocked the whole area. I liked how new paths were opened, puzzles to solve to unlock spires.


Dungeons we have in the beta for Deadfire isn’t much to brag about. While combat is much more varied than PoE1, it is once again a linear dungeon consisting mostly of couple combat encounters. I am not saying it is necessarly a representation of what will get, but after WMes I would be disappointed if it was. Now with expanded “scripted interaction” system we could get some really special ones.

What are your hopes for Deadfire dungeons? Any particular likes or dislikes? Do you think that additional mechanics like vertical dungeons or special hazards could improve exploration?


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I dislike that you wrote Roderick's Hold. His name is Rodriguez. ;)


The Endless Paths were a stretch goal. And most of the time developers/designers don't seem to make plans for such things in advance but do it "on the fly" while finishing the rest of the game. One can see that this particular dungeon was not thought through and not fleshed out very well - although the backround story itself with Od Nua and his son, the Adra Titan, the Adra Dragon and stuff was very promising an had a lot of potential. But I guess they ran short of time or ideas when it came to level and encounter design. They had to fill 15 levels and every 3 or 4 levels they made an ok job - the rest was lame fillers. I don't blame them. During they crowdfunding campaign they had to come up with stretch goals all the time - and with the Endless Paths they simply bit of more than they could chew - or so it seems. Same with the whole stronghold stuff (that got improved a lot with patches).

Deadfire Community Patch: Nexus Mods

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I liked the Endless Paths a lot more than you guys did, it seems, though I can agree that every few levels there's one which does act as filler. Mostly though, I feel most of the levels in it have their own personality and in the better ones there's a nice little subtheme and secret to them, with the highlights for me being most likely the vithrack and ogre levels. I will concede that it's no Watcher's Keep though. With regards to Tyranny on the other hand I do find the level design/layout to the *Oldwalls* interesting, but aesthetics aside there was very little to the rest of the game in this regard (maybe with the Burning Library as another exception... maybe). And even the Oldwalls seemed based around one concept primarily, being the key collection mechanic and so on. For the exteriors though it did make several encounters quite disappointing while hardly allowing much buildup towards some of the most climactic encounters in the game (facing the other Archons and so on) - I certainly do hope we'll see much more involved areas in Deadfire that resemble more those of the first game than they do Tyranny's, and I do think it's what we'll get all the same.


I also feel that based on some of the mechanics introduced in Deadfire these will likely come into play in the dungeon design either as part of unique puzzles or as more variety with how to make your way past a given dungeon or other. I haven't played the B.B. so I can't say much on it but I did like plenty of the little mechanics and touches here and there involving the likes of gunpowder barrels, the sneak mechanics and so on. I also like that, unlike the first Pillars and much like Tyranny instead, traps are actually visible on the map and thus added as an element the player can react to through his own perception instead and not just as an invisible, hence partly random, surprise.

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Dungeons from Pillars that are still vivid in my mind are Redrick's Hold, Temple of Eothas, Durgan's Battery, First five levels + Vithrack levels of Endless Paths, the Pale Elves Temple in Twin Elms and the intro dungeon.

I know the team is capable of good dungeon design and I'm looking forward for some next level delving in Deadfire ;)

Edited by Sedrefilos
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I wouldn't mind reusing some dungeons for different quests, with some new secrets to uncover if you have substantially higher level.

Dragon Age2!



Just kidding.


Just to be clear - I didn’t hate PoE1 dungeons, but only a few of them stayed in my mind. There is nothing wrong in combat oriented dungeons either. I do like the feel of exploration and adventuring, therefore dungeons which do those fancy exploration stuff stay with me for much longer, and I am more interested in revising them. Endless Paths had a great backstory, great visual design but I dislike replaying it. And yeah, I recognise that PoE suffers from being first in the series (lots of resources dumped into building foundations and figuring things out) and a crowdfunded game (big promises, which had to be fulfilled but would benefit overall experience more if they were cut or modified).


I find perception of freedom and exploration fascinating. I found 2nd Shadowrun game really enjoyable (Dragonfall) as it skilfully created a sense of choice and freedom, even though the experience is highly limited. One of the details I noticed was how the levels were forcing you to understand the layout, and explore it knowing what you open with what item and what is your current goal.


I am actually forcing my way through Divinity2, and I am not finding the design very engaging (not singleplayer at least - am convinced it would be really fun with a coop partner). Whenever it is quests or exploration, I don’t feel like I am ever going anywhere specific or interact with environment intentionally. I find quest specific items in random boxes. I feel like I am clearing an area after area, with occasional pop up that I moved a quest forward. I often find a key, not knowing what it is for, or that I want one. I often open doors with key I have in my inventory but have no idea where I got it from. There are some moments where dungeons or quest gain some momentum and direction, and I am enjoying them immensely then.

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Given the nature of the area I'm not really expecting a lot of dungeons, other than pirate-infested sea caves galore. Perhaps there will be a dungeon or two with submerged areas that require special resources to bypass? Maybe there will be a few wrecked and haunted ships to explore.

"It has just been discovered that research causes cancer in rats."

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I totally agree to the OP.


In PoE1 the WM2 mines, Durgans Battery and some others were nice, but many (including the endless path) were quite boring.

I think that a dungeon should also tell a story and have some puzzles (in a broader sense), it not just an area were you can kill lots of enemies and at the end you kill a boss.


I remember and liked Durgans Battery in BG and the watching tower in Bg2.

I also liked Zelda like games ( I played Zelda for SNES and N64, Alundra 1 for Ps1 and Okami for PS2/PC, to name some good examples. But it might be hard to put some mechanics from those games into a party based RPG without causing many problems.


I also liked Realms of Arcadia 3 (my first big computer RPG), especially the mage tower and the dwarf mines.

You had to find clues to solve a puzzle, there were several traps (not just a piece of ground that damaged you) and sometimes you had to split the party to continue.

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POE, and the IE games before that, were always about relatively flat and static environments with highly limited points of interaction - combat was always essentially taking place in flat geometry rooms with no real props or environments to speak of. I would certainly welcome more work done on this front, though I expect Deadfire's development focused on other areas to improve.

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durlag's tower.  number one complaint regarding bg1 (by a large margin) were the lack o' complex locations.  were too many wilderness maps with a couple minor encounters.  even bg city were failing from brevity o' quests and lack o' depth, figurative and literal.  following totsc, fans clamored for more durlag's tower.  wanted deep and involved 'dungeons.'  


okie dokie.  clear bg2 needs more o' what wormerine identifies as superior design, yes? is 1999-2000 'stead o' 2017-2018, but is same issue, no?  bioware responds by doing more complex locations for bg2, with involved multi-location quests. cult of eyeless. de'arnise keep. windspear hills. etc.


number one complaint o' bg2 following release is lack o' all the wonderful exploration from the inaugural game.




developers is constant attempting to find elusive balance 'tween deep and involved v. exploration.  is zero sum.  more o' one means less o' the other, and is no golden path as the perfect balance is gonna be different for everybody.


am personal in favor o' more durlag's and less exploration. would rather have a handful o' readric's hold and abbies with lunatic monks, but more o' such stuff functional limits those smaller and insular encounters which is resulting in players feeling like they is getting to explore and choose. only so much developer resources.


as for endless paths, there were good levels and bad.  clear the developers phoned-in their work on a few levels just to have a level.  promised X number o' levels in kickstarter campaign and they provided X levels.  coulda' cut number o' levels in half and made more levels akin to 13 'stead o' so many such as 10 and 11.  endless paths weren't terrible overall, but there were too many filler levels. 


regardless, is once again the durlag's v. exploration conundrum for the developers and the developers will fail to meet expectations, 'cause this is one o' those curious design choices which is inevitable fail. Gromnir and many others would be pleased with a greater emphasis 'pon moon abbies and raedric's, but doing more such necessitates reduction o' the exploration encounters.  is a fair trade for us, but is an inevitable fail for the developer. 


HA! Good Fun!


ps as an aside, given deadfire is a volcanic archipelago, am expecting at least one active volcanic location.  am knowing is silly, but always annoys us when we see players walking along a stony path immediate adjacent to a flowing river o' lava.  kinda wanna see players walk into a cavern with a'a lava flows... and die. get one o' the cutscene encounters and all choices lead to players dying from asphyxiation, lungs blistering, or literal bursting into flames. 

Edited by Gromnir
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Sorry, but I do not think it goes story vs exploration as Gromnir just said.

I liked BG1 almost more than BG2 in that regard, because in BG1 you explored an open Map and there you could find interesting places such as Durlags Tower.

I liked the concept of BG2 or PoE1 less and I am happy over the world map exploration in PoE2. Just to be sure, I did like BG2 and PoE1 a lots, its only that I like BG1 or PoE2 more in terms of world map design.


This is also true within a dungeon.

Durlags tower is a great example. You explore a dungeon and while exploring you discover the story behind the events. I think the best state is not exploration vs story, the best case is that you discover the story through exploring ( as opposed to the story is thrown at you as a wall of text with some exploration between these large story pieces, e.g the dialogue with Iovara in the final dungeon of PoE was such a "lore dump".)


I can understand where you come from though. At the moment I play legend of heroes: Trails of cold Steel ( playing part 1 again before starting part 2 for the first time). This is a linear RPG with a great story but close to no choice at all. The story focusses on the developement of the characters and it must be told the way it is done, else it makes no sense. The opposite end of the spectrum are open world games like the elder scrolls. You can walk around forever, finding dungeons, quests and tons of other stuff along the way. But the main story is nothing special and it is easy to forget it entirely.

Games like BG1+2 or PoE are somewhere in between these extrems.


For me, a good story is very importent. I like JRPGs, while in games like the elder scrolls I became bored fast from running around without a clear goal and doing similar quests and dungeons again and again. In the IE games I loved PST, I liked BG1+2 and I never finished IWD because I became bored.

PoE1 was a very good game, but I finished it only 3 or 4 times and sometimes I had to force myself to continue when fighting hordes of trash mobs to find the next piece of story.


My favourite games: PST (find out who you are and why instead of saving the world again), KotoR2 ( Kreia is one of the best characters ever), MotB (while the soul eater mechanic was annoying for me it did involve you a lot in the story) and the Trails series (played sky 1,2,3, and cs1 so far).


OK, unlike the stuff I wrote in the first sentence of this post, some balance between exploration and story has to be done.

But I do not think that the sum of both is constant. Some games have lots of one thing and little of the other, others are bad in both things but the best games are good in both things.

Once again, i think Durlags tower is one of the best examples of a dungeon that combines exploration with story telling.

Edited by Madscientist
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