What Is a “Dungeon”?

Battlefield of Love Placeholder Logo

The question of dungeon design came up while designing Battlefield of Love, and I needed an answer. I thought to most RPGs and found their answers to this to be fairly inadequate.

Examine the dungeons of any given RPGs with encounters somehow disabled. Go ahead, try. If you look at the lion’s share of them, it boils down to fairly arbitrary puzzles and/or layouts with enemies everywhere and maybe a few chests at dead ends. Some games embrace this as part of the design and obscure it really well, others simply threw it in because that’s how it is.

Conception 2 Screenshot 6

I have generally not found the dungeon-exploring aspect of RPGs to be fun, with only a few exceptions. In these exceptions, exploring these dungeons is a large part of the game in and of itself, or they have some manner of cool gimmick that breaks the monotony. In many of these exceptional cases, however, monotony still eventually returns – it’s simply delayed.

Atelier Escha & Logy Screenshot 13

Overall, they’re nothing but a vehicle to place encounters between bosses. It’s no surprise that there are some games that boil them down to a menu, much like some do to towns, or some just randomly-generate them. They’re padding that needs to be trimmed. But I’m of the opinion that trimming them to just a menu is a few steps too far. Dungeons also provide a sense of adventure and an easy way for the player to feel like they’re progressing on their own, in control, through the game.

Neptunia Re;Birth1 Screenshot 16

So I sought out to trim some of the fat, but not too much, from dungeon design. The first question I had to ask was what the bare requirements I needed were. I ended up with this list:

  • A way to encounter enemies.
  • Treasure chests and item collection points.
  • Easy compatibility with cutscenes, boss fights, save points and the like.

As much as I would appreciate non-linearity and exploration, these are not strictly required.

It is at this point that I feel the need to bring attention to how I intend to handle towns in-game. I intend to take a cue from some obscure NIS games and streamline them into side-scrolling areas as seen in the video of La Pucelle below:

When I played games using such a system, I found this to be the most streamlined way to handle things out of any RPGs I’d tried without narrowing the whole thing down to a small hub area or a simple menu. Everything is quickly and easily accessible and it’s really hard to get lost.

So my mind thought: What if I went for consistency and tried to transplant that directly into the dungeon system? Would it work? What would I need to change in the design?

Arcadias Screenshot 4

The amusing thing is that having a hard time getting lost is only true because everything is close to each other in the town, like any well-designed RPG town should be. I’m pretty sure one could make a complex layout using various twists and turns even with that sort of restriction if they tried hard enough. It could be a maze with several solutions and rewards for each path.

In fact, since that’s the same sort of system I intend to use for towns, the only real problem is encounters. Sure, random encounters could be a thing here, but random encounters are a relic of ages past and only serve to piss me off in games where I can’t outright disable them after deciding I’m strong enough. However, visible encounters would be impossible to avoid unless I added some manner of platforming.

Agarest Screenshot 4

It’s here that I remembered something. Combat in the game is bound to get long and complex as the game progresses. With the design calling for up to 8 player characters and up to 12 enemies, fights could get quite strategic if I were to make each individual enemy a powerful threat. So why don’t I make fewer, more meaningful fights and have them pre-created and mandatory to pass certain areas?

Limited encounters aren’t all that uncommon. I recently reviewed a game that has a soft version of such a system, except with random encounters, named Ar nosurgePokémon also does this with its trainers, though it also has random wild Pokémon encounters. There are also some obscure indie games whose names escape me that committed completely to this idea, and strategy RPGs like Disgaea and Fire Emblem run on this sort of thing.

Ar nosurge Screenshot 8

While I called random encounters a relic of ages past, they could also serve as a special trap in a dungeon, like an entirely-avoidable random encounter room, or I could just put a shiny random encounter button on the screen for players to optionally grind for experience and items.

I don’t know if that’s the sort of thing I’ll go with, but I just wanted to open up my thought process regarding dungeons in RPGs as of late. What I do know is that I don’t want to use a traditional dungeon system if possible.