Hello and welcome to “Only On Tuesdays!” This week we will be discussing how to design a dungeon as if it were a Mario level. Mario is well known for their excellent level design and we will be using the same principles found in Mario to develop a dungeon that we can throw at our players.
Designing as a Plumber
Mario games are a treasure trove of design ideas and can be a great place to pull from whenever you are in a slump. But something I don’t see compared all too often is Mario and Dnd. These 2 vastly different games don’t seem to share much in common, but I believe that Mario has a lot that it can give to Dnd chiefly in its level design. Mark Brown, a video game critic, went through and analyzed what makes a Mario game tick. He discovered that Mario games follow a very simple formula in which they introduce an idea, ramp up the difficulty, and then twist it, making for a very fun and enjoyable level that will feel unique in comparison to everything else. This design philosophy of introduction, challenge, and twist can make for a very satisfying arc that can apply to far more areas than just a simple platforming game. Let’s take this concept and see how it applies through the lens of a traditional dungeon in Dnd.
A Safe Introduction
One of the most classic elements of any dungeon can be found in its traps. Traps are iconic in Dnd but in many games, they fall flat due to just feeling like arbitrary damage. Rather than for going traps in the design of our dungeon, let’s approach it with a philosophy much like we would a level of Mario. First, we must introduce the concept of the trap to our players. While traps in a more realistic setting are designed to kill without giving the victim a chance to react, we are designing for a night of fun and adventure. It is important that we introduce our trap in a safe environment which will give our players time to experiment and learn more about it. Just like in a Mario game, the opening sequence will have platforms to fall on if you mess up, in our dungeon they will encounter the trap in a non-threatening manner.
As you approach the door you feel the pressure plate hiss underneath your weight. Make a dexterity check! As you dive out of the way you see spears slowly poke themselves through the wall. The ancient mechanism must have rusted away.
Ramp Up the Challenge
Your players have successfully defeated the first part of the encounter! They now know that this dungeon does indeed have traps and that they are likely to be of the spiky nature. Your players also know to watch out for pressure plates as that is what triggered the trap in the first place. By simply throwing a broken trap in front of the players you have told them many things about this dungeon without having to say a thing. But now it’s time to test your players. They now have the knowledge necessary to defeat the trap, now it is up to them to use it.
There is a long hallway before you. At the end lies a stone door with a latch on it. “I roll to detect traps. Afterall last time we almost got gibbed by one”. After your roll, you discover that there is indeed a pressure plate right in front of the door, and several protrusions in the wall. Now how are you going to get around the door without activating the trap?
Introduce the Twist
At this point in time, you can consider your player’s masters at dealing with this challenge. They know what it is, how to deal with it, and can avoid it even without a safety net protecting them. Now is the time to introduce the twist that will truly challenge their knowledge and ask if they are masters at what they are doing. Nintendo likes to do this by throwing another hazard into the mix, typically in the form of an enemy. This concept works just as well for us and can provide interesting encounters that are far more interesting than just a 20×20 ft room.
It may be immune to the hazard in the first place.
The torches in the hallway flicker and puff out as you all hear a shrill shriek coming from the end of the tunnel. You can barely see the outline of what appears to be a Banshee headed straight towards you! It passes through the spike traps with ease as it approaches you with anger in its lifeless eyes.
It could even be vulnerable to it as well.
You hear a slorching sound at the end of the tunnel. A large ooze moves towards you with bits of armors and spears sticking inside of it. As it passes over one of the pressure plates the spears thrust out into it’s side slowing it down.
It could even be using it against the party.
The Minotaur bellows a roar as it rushes down the hallway. It deftly skips over the pressure plates as it makes its way towards you. Before any of you can react it slams into the rogue throwing him onto one of the pressure plates. Make a dexterity check.
The goal of introducing the twist is to make the players treat the challenge differently than how they have been previously dealing with it. If your players have to approach with a completely different gameplan than what they are used to, it feels both fresh and familiar, as they are trying to deal with a problem that they already solved. You are also not limited to just using monsters around the hazards either. Simply changing how the trap works can often be enough to change how your players will approach it. Your options are limitless when it comes to testing the players. As long as you have properly set up the introduction to the trap earlier, than any complication you make later down the road will be a fun way to test your player’s knowledge.
Intertwining the Challenge
While introducing one mechanic and building upon it is great for a Mario level, that on its own is not enough for a dungeon. Dungeons are locations that are meant to be explored for a much longer period of time and thus deserve far more depth than the typical Mario level. This is where we can then take the dungeon design in a direction more similar to that of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. In Tropical Freeze the designers have approached the level design by introducing anywhere from 2-6 new mechanics in the level and tying them all together through theme and gameplay. While introducing that many new mechanics is ripe for overloading the player, it works in Tropical Freeze because they follow the formula for each individual mechanic throughout the level, and tie it all together as the player becomes more familiar with each mechanic.
In the case of our spike trap, it is one thing to simply have a dungeon full of spike traps, but another thing to have a dungeon with spike traps, swinging saw blades, and ruthless minotaurs. On their own, these challenges may be fun for a short while, but combined they can give you a whole new breadth of options to play around with. Throw in a few more mechanics that share the overall theme of the dungeon, and before you know it you will have a living breathing adventure! As long as you are able to introduce new mechanics in isolation, you will then be able to mix them in new ways that will provide for a fun and unique experience that only your dungeon will offer.
Mario may not be the first game you would think of when you hear the word Dnd, but it is a game that can provide a wealth of knowledge and resources to your games if you know how to use it. Mark Brown’s excellent videos on the design of Mario can teach us how to teach our players what they need to do to defeat this dungeon. While this may seem counterintuitive to the point of a dungeon, the purpose of a Dnd game is to have fun. Designing a dungeon in this way gives you and your players a chance to explore it in a way that feels more natural and engaging. Rather than arbitrarily throwing challenges at the players until they die, you are giving them the tools they need to succeed, and then giving them a challenge to solve.
Thank you for reading this week’s article! It was interesting being able to go through and see how the design of a video game platformer could shape the way we play and design our games of Dnd. The world around us holds so much inspiration for us as designers, gamers, and Dungeon Masters. I hope that this article was able to help you in your quest for knowledge. Have a great week and an amazing Tuesday!
Here are the links to the videos I mentioned in the post. Definetly worth the watch, as he goes into far more depth than what my blog post could possibly do.