Yesterday I started playing the new game Dark Souls on the PS3 and the level designs in the game are very inspiring when it comes to planning out dungeons. One of the coolest things Dark Souls, and in fact many video games, does with its levels is interconnecting different areas in creative and unexpected ways. This is also an element that I see very rarely in tabletop RPG dungeon design, and that’s a disparity that I’d like to see changed.
I’m going to clue you guys in to a nifty little secret that I’ve been using for a while now in my RPG encounters – adding height to a tabletop RPG can be one of the best ways to invigorate your encounters. You must be careful, because using something like height in your game can become something of a gimmick or a trick and if overused could become predictable or boring to your players. However, when applied correctly and in the right amount height and depth can create some of the most memorable moments of your game and can also help enforce or dissuade certain styles of play.
A very important design concept used in Architecture that I would like to discuss today is the concept of negative space. This topic flows naturally from the discussion in last week’s post about the open spaces in an urban setting being defined by the buildings that are placed around it. In addition I have been thinking quite a lot about the topic since seeing the post on Boing Boing about classic style D&D hand-drawn dungeon maps. If you haven’t seen those maps yet, they are indeed very classic but they are also, unfortunately not examples of good dungeon design.
As I introduced in my last post about improvisation, I believe that the key to being able to design a location (whether beforehand or on the fly) is grounded in what I’m calling your toolbox for design. The key is that once you have a well developed toolbox to pull ideas from, you can more readily and quickly design a location for your tabletop Roleplaying Games on the spot or adapt your planned locations to fit the developing needs of the game table. An underlying goal of this series of posts is to help you develop the toolbox required so that you will be able to accomplish this task with relative ease and a good amount of confidence.
As a DM that runs a tabletop RPG, it is your right and privilege to strike towns, lands, and whole continents with whatever form of catastrophe or disaster that strikes your fancy. Whether it is a terrible plague, massive tidal wave, or vicious invading army that sweeps through the area and all but wipes out the native inhabitants it is up to you to determine what happens with that location once the initial catastrophe has passed. These events could have happened hundreds of years before the characters were born or they could be the climatic event that finishes off a chapter of your game and opens up a new one. No matter when it happens, it is up to you as the DM to figure out how these events will effect your game world and how the players will experience the event and the aftermath.
If you think about the world around us and how it came to be the way it is, most things you’ll look at are the result of a process. Villages were created out of a need for shelter and then grew into towns and some eventually grew into cities, while natural formations like mountain ranges rise and fall due to the workings of plate tectonics. When we set out to create a world for an RPG, or even for videogames and fiction, we are attempting to create a world that is the result of a process that has never actually happened. Some worlds can certainly have mountains that don’t line up along a range and aren’t even created by plates of earth shifting and colliding, but my personal belief is that if you are creating a world the best foundation you can use is that of the real world that we see all around us.
Today I’m going to focus on what could be considered the biggest and most important architectural element that anyone could use. As things go, this element may also be one of the most overlooked when it comes to dungeon design for home games or even in published adventures. I’m talking about structure, and not the kind that makes sure your adventure has a beginning, middle, and end (though it can help with that with surprising ways) but the kind that if it were simplified to its most common element: you could just call it columns and walls.
When it comes to designing locations and buildings, the DM/GM has a much more daunting task ahead of them than most players or even the DMs themselves realize. Thankfully in most of the RPGs we play and run it is far from crucial that the design of the world is 100% accurate and entirely believable. Most players are willing to suspend their disbelief to an incredible level and almost all DMs don’t really have the time to make sure every location they put into their game is believable. However, creating an environment that is believable can actually make your players lives easier because they will buy into the game on a more unconscious level. This added level of believability just might turn out to be the whole new layer of depth that your game needs.
Welcome to the second installment of my series about applying real world design concepts to your own personal D&D or tabletop RPG world. Last week’s post was a relatively broad overview of the basic aspects to consider while designing a location. Today I would like to look at a different approach to designing locations, which involves thinking more about how the game will actually play out and how your players (and you as the DM/GM) will use and interact with the environment you’re creating.
Just before the frigid north of a large continent lies an immense mountain plateau. The plateau is commonly known as Angel’s Table to those who live below the sheer cliffs that make it all but inaccessible. Atop the cliffs, a scenic landscape of rolling plains and small forests cover the immense majestic plateau. The creatures and tribes of this unique and exotic landscape call it Talmanthian.