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Published on May 3rd, 2015 | by Colin


Cardcore Gamer: Designing the Perfect Dungeon


The Fantasy Dungeon Crawl is a venerable staple of table-top gaming, but can the genre ever be perfected?

It’s the age old story; you and a racially diverse bunch of your mates break into a network of tombs and tunnels, slap a few monsters about and bring home a bunch of stolen loot. For decades legendary titles such as HeroQuest, Warhammer Quest, and relative newcomer Descent: Journeys in the Dark have enabled the tales of heroic, homicidal, kleptomaniacal adventurers braving the darkness to be played out on table tops around the world. Despite the popularity of the genre, nobody seems to be able to agree on One Game to Rule Them All – the dungeon crawler to which all others must bow and this raises a question: Is it possible to design the perfect dungeon crawl game?

For such a simple concept – get in, explore, kill stuff, fight a big monster, get loot – there needs to be a lot behind the curtain to maintain the experience. You want the hero players to be challenged, but to be able to feel heroic and not just get stomped. You want the setting to be compelling and interesting, but generic enough to be re-used in different ways. You want the game to tell satisfying stories, but to stand up to repeated plays without becoming stale. You want an epic campaign which sees your characters level up and gain new powers, but it has to be playable in a sensible amount of time. You want to have your cake, but be able to cleave its head off and nick its pouch of gold, too!

Most of these potential problems are to do with two main issues: scaling and variety;  scaling is the altering of a game’s parameters (for example a monster’s attack strength) to maintain a consistent gaming experience, which clashes somewhat with the idea of variety and the creation of a surprising, interesting and replayable game environment. Both of these things tend not to be board gaming’s strongest suits, it is difficult to make a game accurately scale and most games will have a ‘sweet spot’ at which they’re the most balanced, while variety can be hard to accomplish without the inclusion of lots of extra material.

I think I may have a potential solution to the Dungeon Crawl dilemma, and I have written about them before – companion apps. Using an app allows much finer calculations for scaling game difficulty and the implementation of something like Valve’s Left 4 Dead AI Director could create a game which hits hard when the heroes can take it, but backs off to allow them to regroup. An app can also handle variety in a much more detailed manner, timing events and revealing plot-points appropriately, branching storylines both within a single game and across an entire campaign with a much more subtle and flexible approach and not generating merely random events and encounters, but ones appropriate to the characters’ levels, location, even their class and race!

There are many, many fantasy dungeon crawl games and most have something to offer, but each tend to provide merely a fragment of a much larger picture, be it a solid campaign structure, a good combat system, or an involving game world. In order to design the perfect dungeon, it may be necessary to apply a little technological wizardry.

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