Weekend Question: What turns a dungeon into a fun-geon?

PCG Jody

Staff member
Dec 9, 2019
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I ask the PCG staff a regular Weekend Question and post the answers on the site. If you'd like to throw in an answer here, I'll squeeze the best into the finished article!

This week's question is: What turns a dungeon into a fun-geon?

For the purpose of this question let's stick to the classic RPG definition of the word, which is "an underground menagerie you fight things in." Are dungeons universally boring, or can you think of some examples you enjoyed? What makes a dungeon more than just a sewer level with treasure chests in it? What makes a dungeon fun?
 
Mar 9, 2020
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Enemies that go pop when they die, taking out a slew of enemies with them. It's like bowling but you only have to knock down one pin to get a strike, and the pins are trying to kill you, and your bowling ball is an ancient glowing crystal with a name like Articus's Sore Tooth.

Even better is when the little boom boys drop gear and come at you in groups. One well lobbed plasma ball can cause a chain reaction, presenting a yard sale of loot on a hundred foot blood splatter. It's efficient slaying, leveling, and gear acquisition all at once, and for some reason, that particular enemy type lives exclusively in dungeons.
 

Colif

Moderator
fun in a dungeon sounds like a contradiction to me :)

hope of some good loot and not dying randomly to unexplainable happenings, you stand a chance of surviving to end.
I played Arpg so half the games were spent in dungeons/caves. Sacred 2 offered rewards for exploring, there were 8 dragons in the game but you only had to fight 2 of them for the story. Many of these were in dungeons that you didn't even need to enter to complete game.
 
Jan 14, 2020
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Loot that makes exploration rewarding. One of my biggest frustration is working out some solution to get into a hidden area filled with loot and you start popping crates, but all you get are a couple low-level healing potions and a weapon that's already 2 levels below you. I eventually just stop exploring in those games as it's almost always a waste of time
 

McStabStab

Community Contributor
Jan 13, 2020
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I love puzzles, loot, and interesting enemies, but what really makes a dungeon is the art direction. I love the little details like emaciated bodies still chained to their torture devices, blood streaks and hand prints staining the ground leading to a ominous hole in the wall, or defunct, rusting machinery, letting you imagine what once was there long before your arrival.
 

Zloth

Community Contributor
Something interesting that either hasn't been done before or hasn't been done in a long time. Maybe there's dungeon politics going on, so the trolls and the hobgoblins are looking to use your party to end each other. Maybe there's a sound that generally gets louder as you get further in, and some rooms are louder than expected for reasons you explain somewhere along the line.

Also, make the dungeon look lived-in. Often times, monsters seem to be locked in their rooms - sometimes to the point of the monster being too large to use any exit! How do these critters live day to day? Where does their food come from? Take the time to think about these things and design the dungeon accordingly!
 
Nov 27, 2020
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For me, the ultimate dungeon/fun-geon experience goes back to 1992 with Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss. Exploring all those massive levels, you never knew what you would find, and it was always such a thrill to finally find the next doorway/staircase down. It wasn't just about bashing countless monsters and grabbing tons of loot, as not all inhabitants were monsters. There were the Mountain Folk (Dwarves), Lizardmen, Gray & Green Goblins, Knights of the Crux, & Seers of the Moonstone. Oh, there were monsters and loot, but not the massive amounts that we often find in todays RPGs

Things like learning the Lizardmen's language so you could communicate with them, the Rune Magic system, negotiating between the Gray & Green Goblins, finding a rune in some dark corner, and clever puzzles. It was dark, it was atmospheric, and the levels were all unique. Such a great experience, that for me, has never been equaled (and I've played a lot or RPGs and explored countless dungeons).
 

spvtnik1

Community Contributor
Jan 13, 2020
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First off, it's a dungeon. It's shouldn't be fun. What makes it fun is that you might not make it out.

That said... the things that do make it fun lean in to a certain gameplay loop that will involve conquering enemies or environments, and being rewarded with w00t .

One of my absolute favorite dungeons was from the PS1 fighting game Ergheiz. The dungeon was 100 floors, randomized with bosses and all. A wine market was worked in to the game. The food found and ate by the player influenced the level-up skill point path. To me, in the 90s, this was truly remarkable. It still is.

And, couldn't we consider Castle of Dr. Brain a dungeon crawler? Technically, the first game is in a castle. It even approached the gameplay the same way, having the player travel down a hallway, screen by screen.

Even the first Mario game had it's "dungeon" section in the pipe worlds.

In addition, what about side-scrolling games? They don't seem to get the dungeon love they deserve. Ancient Empires (a Super Solvers offspin) was nothing but dungeons. Legends of Kyrandia: Book One has this crazy dungeon where you have to keep a supply of glowing berries to not be eating alive by the nocturnal critters living inside.

Last, but certainly not least, is the Chrysler Building from Parasite Eve. Good grief, that's the dungeon of the century.
 
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A few things that make a dungeon fun for me:

- Layouts and traps that make sense. And not necessarily "oh yeah, it makes total sense that there'd be this many rooms in this dungeon," but just a rhyme/reason to it that I have a chance of figuring out, ideally without dying during the figure-out process. There's no reason CRPG dungeons can't have the same level of baked-in clues and logic that a pen-and-paper dungeon (ideally) has. If the only way to solve a dungeon is to die and then just not do the thing that made you die before, that's a badly-designed dungeon, gameplay-wise. (In real life I suppose it'd be good to build it that way, where people just die rather than figure it out, but we're not talking about real dungeons here.)

- Ambience, both in an audio and visual sense. I want to hear drips and chains and skittering rats and distant groans. Even better if these sounds are cues as to what's to come (and perhaps no more distant groans once you've killed everything.) And no brightly-lit dungeons, that is rarely not distracting to me. I'm always installing mods into Skyrim and Oblivion to make the dungeons a tad less cooperative on the lighting front. Otherwise I might as well be exploring a mall. (Which, don't get me wrong, I'm totally on board with a game where you explore an abandoned mall. That was one of my favorite levels/areas in Cyberpunk 2077.)

- Fear. I know we're talking about traditional dungeons here, but to me Alien: Isolation had a great "dungeon crawl" feel to it at times, and part of what made it great was the sense that you were never safe. I like wandering/random creatures so that, even if I have played before, I don't know for certain that there will or won't be a monster around the next corner.

- Variety. While there's definitely something to be said for "a maze of twisty passages, all alike," I like the feeling of progression that comes with a subtle changing of the earlier-mentioned ambience. A sort of "Okay, we're getting into older sections of the dungeon" or vice-versa, "we're making our way into the newer portions of dungeon." And perhaps more creatures, better traps, etc. One thing I love about dungeons in Skyrim is when after going through numerous standard stone tunnels with torches and bric-a-brac, it suddenly opens up into a mossy cavern with shafts of light beaming down and stalactite/stalagmite pillars and whatever else. Anything to break up potential monotony, really.

- QUALITY CONTROL. None of the rest matters if the dungeon is buggy AF. I realize this applies to way more than just dungeons, but it always feels more egregious to me in that context, because they're usually closed systems and thus should be easier to beta-test, in theory. When you're running around outside in the open world with countless options at your disposal, it can be forgivable for the devs to overlook something the player might do in that context, but when we're funneled into a very tight and specific area with only so many interactive options, it really sucks when those options are glitchy, or the areas have clipping problems, and you get stuck in a wall or a chain doesn't react or NPC's walk the wrong way, or whatever else.
 
I don't think anyone has mentioned this, though @Zloth's post was related: for me it's the story/context/flavour. Adding a journal or some environmental clues about what happened in the dungeon makes the entire thing feel different.

Bethesda does this very well. Take for example Yngvild in Skyrim. What is essentially a dungeon with a bunch of draugr and spirits with a mage battle at the end becomes a fight to stop a twisted madman from enslaving the spirits of innocent women.

Another good example is Vault 22 in Fallout: New Vegas. The vault by itself already gives a nice change from the wasteland where you spend most of your time, but the various logs and messages you can find make the entire thing so much more memorable.
 

Frindis

Moderator
Jan 14, 2020
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Right now, I have to mention a dungeon in Path of Exile. You start in a unique map layout and have to work your way towards the end within a time frame. If you do not make it, you die. The first time I did the map, I had no idea what to do, but I understood after tinkering around, that I had to kill ALL the enemies and a door would open to the next level (yeah, I know, kind of self-explanatory) I had to rinse and repeat for a couple of levels in the dungeon and at the end, there was TONS of loot. While it might not seem like the most original idea ever made, I really liked this small map, mainly because I had no idea as to what I was jumping into and that I was surprised at the end.
 

Colif

Moderator
So I was playing a slighly modded version of Torchlight 2 towards end but there are challenge dungeons in it with a very similar idea, or some are worse, some you have to find the right exit in an area where the path ahead isn't obvious until you step forward each time, as one I remember was in an area full of water and the path would rise and fall depending on where you are. Honestly, these are just extra dungeons you don't need to do and a risk of death when you playing a modded version where random dragon bosses can just appear to attack you at any stage - I had one attack me at the transition point between 2 levels or on a rope bridge where it shouldn't have been able to fit, and some bosses had the ability to clone themselves on death so what starts as 1 dragon attacking can turn into many ending in loot explosions


definition of dungeon gets stretched in tl2 as all interiors looked similar, so above may not be in a dungeon underground, its actually on top of a tower. Lots of wow dungeons weren't necessarily going downwards.

I have tried POE a few times, I played in the beta but I just can't get into it. Maybe one day.
 
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