Dungeon Granularity

David Stark / Zarkonnen
9 Aug 2013, 9:17 p.m.

After it was linked on MetaFilter, I've been playing a fair bit of Dungeon Robber. The game is a pretty faithful implementation of the random dungeon generator from the D&D first edition dungeon master's guide, as recently turned into a poster.

In the game, you start out as some hapless dungeon delver equipped with nothing but a sturdy cudgel, attempting to extract some treasure from the dungeon without dying.

The dungeons are very random. There is no balance or logic: the first room you enter could contain a skeleton that kills you or a priceless ruby. More likely, the first ten rooms you traverse are empty. As the author states, "By rolling dice according to the instructions, you could generate a dungeon which was illogical, arbitrary, super-lethal, and which often didn't even produce useable results."

Despite all this, I think the game is really fun. Granted, this may be due to some combination of masochism and nostalgia from my end, but my thesis is this: most dungeon crawlers have the wrong granularity.

Your traditional CRPG dungeon crawl subdivides the dungeon into tiles of roughly a meter square. Creatures usually occupy exactly one grid location. This means there are lots of details present about the shape of the room and everyone's exact relative positioning. But does it matter if a room is 5x5 or 5x7 tiles? Not nearly as much as whether it contains one monster or two.

As I wrote in the post on granularity, the commands you can give to a game should be at the same level of granularity as the meaningful decisions the game needs you to make. As a corollary, the information presented should be at the same level of granularity. Does it matter what exact size the room is, if it contains only you and two orcs? No. Does it matter where the orcs are relative to you? In a lot of games, it actually does not.

Dungeon Robber is so enjoyable because it strips away these superfluous details and just presents you with the choices that matter: attack the orc or run away. In doing so, it also opens up space for other choices: the game lets you parlay with the orc, or bribe it, or try to sneak past. Most CRPGs don't give you these options, because they spent their efforts on modeling and communicating the shape of the dungeon.

So here's the choice: Either do away with the irrelevant information about room layouts and monster positioning, and concentrate on implementing more choices that matter - like Dungeon Robber (and SE:SS, in a way). Or make room layouts and monster positioning really matter.

There's places where games do this: NetHack lets you tunnel through walls making the relative layout of rooms matter a bit. Shadowrun Returns has a cover system that makes positioning matter a lot. In Bargains, we're trying to make spells that have a positioning-based component, like fireballs that are shot not from your hands but from the most nearby brazier.

Still, this is pretty weak fare. My concept for fixing it: Viewing a dungeon not as a sequence or network of encounters (fights, puzzles, etc), but as a three-dimensional structure for you to interact with.

There's a lot of things relating to the shape and "consistency" of the dungeon, and the player's interaction with it, that current CRPGs do really badly:

  • Hidden Doors: These are either blatantly obvious plot-points or rewards for people willing to bore themselves to death by using "look" on each wall tile in every room.
  • Secret passages: Again, these are rare. Maps tend to be too cramped for them, which makes their inclusion obvious.
  • Crumbling floors that may fall in and dump you one level down.
  • Vertical drops you have to use a rope or ladder to get down
  • Steep rugged slopes you have to scramble up or down
  • Narrow doorways or cracks you can only fit through by leaving behind your armor and backpack
  • Ledges to jump down on enemies from
  • Crumbling brick walls that can be brought down with some carefully placed hammer blows, at the cost of alerting everyone to your presence, and making the ceiling rather less than stable
  • Tables or shrubs or rubble to crawl behind to pass unnoticed
  • Narrow ledges to inch along
  • Shafts and cave passages too narrow for most people to pass
  • Waist-deep water that slows your movement
  • Hidden entrances only uncovered at low tide
  • Thickets you have to force your way through, making noise and causing exhaustion
  • Dungeon inhabitants with more complex behavior than "attack", such as running away, but fighting when cornered
  • Interesting and impressive architecture, instead of a series of rooms: giant underground caves, a bridge spanning an abyss, an underground city, a cluster of old towers, connected by crumbling bridges, the remains of an ancient city, half-buried in the soil, jungle growing over it

This may seem like a big mess of different things, but it actually boils down to a few well-defined features:

  • A map made of 3D blocks that's not segmented into levels
  • Destructible map blocks
  • Partially passable map blocks (narrow entrances, ledges, rugged terrain, foliage)
  • Tracking noise and visibility

Granted, none of these features are easy, and a lot of them have implications for the creature AI, but I would love to see a game that focused on them: no fancy graphics, simple UI and combat, no involved plot. Just big meaty 3D hunks of dungeons, left for the player to unlock with their wits.