Dungeon Design: Time to Reach for a Higher Standard

Can a compromise be met between engaging dungeons and collections of random rooms?

Ever since my friends and I used to create tiny dungeons on graph paper in order to satisfy our newfound Dungeons & Dragons obsession in the early 1980s, I’ve been a dungeon fanatic. What do I like to do most in pen and paper role playing games? Explore dungeons. What do I like to do most in MMORPGs? Explore dungeons. There is one caveat I have when it comes to MMO dungeons though. They need to be non-instanced. I like the thrill of having to keep moving forward to avoid getting caught by respawns and saving (or being saved by) random players you meet within them too much to be truly happy in any instanced dungeon. 

I will admit there are a lot of advantages to instanced dungeons since they allow developers to create a customized adventure, complete with scripted events and more. Even so, a non-instanced dungeon allows for more spontaneous reaction and interaction between players, whether good or bad. No matter which way a developer chooses to go though, there is a growing problem in the industry and I think it’s time we address it. 

There is a distinct lack of intelligent dungeon design in too many games right now. To be clear, I don’t mean that game designers aren’t creating “good” dungeons. In fact, I know more developers that want to create very intricate dungeons but due to lessons of the past, have been unable to do so. What am I talking about? I’m glad you asked.


My favorite dungeon of all time, out of every MMORPG on the planet, is one in Vanguard: Saga of Heroes called Trickster’s Haven. On the surface, it appeared to be just like any other dungeon. There were pathways, rooms, and monsters. If players wanted to, there was nothing to stop them from having a good old fashioned dungeon crawl and just battle their way through the majority of it. For those that took the time to really dig into its secrets though, there was an entirely new world waiting to be explored. Or perhaps I should say an entirely new dungeon… 

Through a series of ever-increasingly engaging and complex quests, players would go on a journey to discover the secret of the dungeon’s previous occupants. It began with a few simple “kill x mobs” and “gather X tokens” quests, though with some interesting text. From there the story and dungeon puzzles deepened quickly. 

Whether it was turning in cursed bones to get an non-cursed bone to summon a specific boss, having to say the word “dreams” in three different rooms before the Riddle Master would appear, being cast out of the dungeon by the end boss before going back in and finding a way to finally slay him… all of these were exceptional concepts in their own right. Even these held a secret though. Early in the dungeon, players would have come across a room with a painting in it, called the Wall of Denial. Once the final boss in this extensive quest line had been beaten, it was then revealed that the painting was actually a gateway to an entirely new dungeon – an underground Cyclops palace! 

While I personally think this was all brilliantly awesome, from a developer perspective it poses a huge issue. Because the quest series was so long, so involved, and so intricate, most people had no idea the Cyclops palace dungeon even existed. Even at the height of Vanguard’s popularity, this second dungeon was rarely occupied due to the length of time it took those that didn’t know about it to get flagged. As a result, those that knew about it could rarely get a group together and the rest of the population was oblivious to its existence. In other words, someone (or a group of someones) spent a lot of time creating a dungeon, boss encounters, loot tables, etc… all for the enjoyment of only a fraction of the game’s players. No matter how cool it may have been to create a “secret dungeon” for players to discover, in terms of business, it was a waste of resources that could have been used elsewhere. Even so, it still remains my favorite dungeon ever so thanks to those that made it! 

I want to see dungeons like Trickster’s Haven make a return to games. It was exciting, involved, and so exquisitely cool that I can’t convey just how much. It’s a case of “you needed to be there” (or go there now with a group since the game is free to play) to really understand. At the same time though, as gamers, we need to understand that games are created by companies to make money. The cooler they can make the experience, the better, but there is a limit to how much time can be put into something that only a small percentage of the player base are going to see. 

Or is there? The reality is “Of course”, but think back to the early days of World of Warcraft raids. There are millions of players that never saw even Ragnaros when Molten Core was introduced. Sunwell saw less that 2% of the game’s population ever making it to the final boss. These are some of the reasons why dungeons are more accessible now than they originally were, but I want to believe that some kind of middle ground can be found between accessible and exquisitely involved. 

When we’re not acting like hooligans on forums or in Youtube comments, gamers as a whole are pretty damned smart. We like being challenged. We like having to figure things out. We also like the satisfaction we get from discovering that the dungeon we thought was pretty cool turns out to be freakin’ epic! The time has come for those days to return. There are games coming down the pipe that are bringing back the idea of public dungeons, but I sincerely hope they’re more than just a collection of random rooms.

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