Posts Tagged ‘dungeons’


Splinter Cell: Conviction screenshot

Splinter Cell: Conviction

So, my housemate, Orrin, played through the demo of Rich Dansky‘s Tom Clancy‘s Splinter Cell: Conviction. For the moment, her observations hold more water than mine, but just watching her, I could see the writing on the wall. For her, it was all stuff like “INFILTRATE THE MANSION,” but for me, it was “POST MORE ON ENVIRONMENTAL NARRATIVE.”

Because this is something that’s worth talking about. You’ve got all this crap that’s going on inside the head of the character, and all this crap going on inside the UI (or on the character sheet) of the player. Generally, though, the environment doesn’t reflect any of this. If you’re lucky, you get some post-processing shaders to put everything in stoner blur (or the GM narration equivalent) when you’re dazed.

If you’re really lucky, you get one of those entire maps where you’re crazy, like in BioShock 2 or Velvet Assassin.1

Heads, HUDs, and types of action

Video games have been trying to push character and game state information into the 3d environment for a while. Dead Space and Ghostbusters both replace classic interface elements with animations on your character.2 The reduced screen clutter is supposed to immerse you more in our friend the environment.

Does it? I think it worked a little in Dead Space, but thought it was almost irrelevant in Ghostbusters. Seeing the character state on the character looked great, but it didn’t make me feel like there was any kind of focus on him or his world. It wasn’t his story, it belonged to the actual Ghostbusters, and that was okay. The game also did a good job of conjuring the environments from the first film, but didn’t share that film’s gift for evoking 1980s New York.3

And the environment in Dead Space was an impressively rendered rehash of other games, kinda like every half-decent remake of Aliens. Focusing on it more didn’t really do anything for me.

Splinter Cell, though, is taking one of my own personal demons (quest text) and marrying it to one of my personal fascinations (the dungeon, or, if you must, the level). Your environment doesn’t just tell you what you have to do… the tooltips for climbing and sneaking and peaking and all are projected into the environment, too.

In other words, the game takes a somewhat new approach to two things:

  • Required action (Infiltrate the Mansion)
  • Potential action (Jump on this crate)

You find yourself looking into the environment for your goals and opportunities. Will Hindmarch says:

Conviction is all about putting you into the head of Sam Fisher, more so than his body. The game projects his thoughts onto the walls and surfaces of the game world, turning literal space into a figurative, psychological terrain at the same time.

That’s particularly interesting to me, because I think that the dungeon (electronic or imagined) is a landscape of psychological terrain.

The Dungeon as Psychological Projection

Conan beneath the Scarlet Citadel

Conan beneath the Scarlet Citadel

Sometimes, that terrain is the designer’s headspace.4

Sometimes, it’s the hero’s. If you look at Quarmall, 5 or the Scarlet Citadel,6 you see environments that reveal the essential qualities of the characters therein.

The Scarlet Citadel reveals almost only what Conan brings in: old grudges, bold action, murderous ferocity, and a canny mind ready to exploit any weakness. And, yes, he fights a giant snake. Says it all, really.

Quarmall is more your “ecosystem” dungeon, with its giant slaves bred to pump the ventillation system, its halves controlled by warring princes, and ruling over all, its withered wizard-king. Here the Gray Mouser encounters charlatan wizards, and Fafhrd muscle-brained fools — both things they’ve been accused of being themselves.

Each also finds opportunities to showcase his most conspicuous qualities. The Mouser abducts a girl and attempts a spell, Fafhrd finds his romantic inclinations overwhelming his better judgment.7 And, of course, traversing the dungeons levels leads the two to reunite and perpetrate one of their own greatest scams.

So, if the dungeon is, in part, a projection of the hero who enters it8, is that something to consciously model in roleplaying games? It’s not hard to envision a mechanism for doing so, something like 3:16‘s flashbacks, only projecting into the environment, rather than exclusively the hero’s own past.

If I’m a little suspicious of the idea in a roleplaying game, I’m even more suspicious when it comes to MMOs. Do designers even have the right to tell a player what’s going on in their character’s heads? I’ve been told that an exclamation point is already a bridge too far. Should the character even be acknowledged as someone psychologically separate from the player, or is that just a legacy inherited from other sorts of games?

And if we’re facing the death of the character9, then is it acceptable to make psychological assumptions at all?


  1. Hard not to type a 2 there, but it’s unlikely, anyway.
  2.  Arguably, World of Warcraft does this with its various floating punctuation marks. I think that’s an in-between case, myself. I’d love to see an MMO push character-mind stuff into the environment, though.
  3. Something I think the film still evokes a quarter-century later.
  4. Making it a dangerous place for oversharing, as a few people over at RPGnet have found out. I remember something about a treasure room full of greased halflings.
  5. Fritz Leiber, The Lords of Quarmall
  6. Robert E. Howard, “The Scarlet Citadel”
  7. It’s arguable whether Fafhrd or the Mouser have better judgment, but I’ll save that argument for a discussion of heroism in Leiber at a later point.
  8. Jesus, this sounds disturbingly monomyth. Somebody hold me?
  9. My money was always on the spike trap.

A Dungeon Design Bibliography

Check out Planet Algol for some classic dungeon building references.

Also, if you’re looking for a definitive breakdown of the elements of dungeon design, you need The Dungeon Alphabet, by Michael Curtis.

Another great resource is Year of the Dungeon, which offers a unique, hand drawn and very inspiring dungeon map every update.

Dangerous Archaeology, Part 2: Levels & Layers

My previous post on dangerous archaeology explored environmental narrative in the context of the dungeon, but only detailed one area: the recent past. Today, I’d like to build on that, and discuss how multiple layers of time interact in the dungeon. Layers of time are key both to archaeological aspect of dungeon delving, and to the creation of a living and lived-in dungeon environment.


Let’s consider the layers of a hypothetical dungeon room. Once again, we’re exploring an ancient tomb complex that’s been taken over by brigands.

  1. Bodies and blood from a recent battle
  2. Traces of brigands drinking and gambling
  3. The coffins of long-dead royalty

Each of these layers represent a different period in the history of this room. The closest layer is the battle, while the deepest is the tomb’s original function as a place of rest. In a certain sense, we have three places: a battleground, a barracks, and a burial chamber.

Yet, these three places share a single space. So the layers aren’t sitting next to each other, or one on top of the other. Instead they’re colliding, mixing, and it’s up to the players’ exploration and intuition to separate them and reconstruct their separate stories, as well as the longer story they all tell together. So the bottles from the drinking will be strewn and shattered. One or two of the coffins will be overturned and splintered.

Environmental narrative in the dungeon, then, is driven by friction and collision between layers of the past and present. These layers aren’t static, either, as they often are in video games. Character action and exploration can uncover new layers as they continue to excavate the dungeon. Characters will damage the environment, causing new collisions and leaving environmental narratives of their own.


A classic dungeon doesn’t just have layers of time, it has levels of depth. The classic mechanical assumption is that as you delve deeper, the monsters become more powerful. The narrative assumption is usually that the deeper levels are older (consistent, again, with our archaeological metaphor).

So the characters are pushing forwards towards a goal while pushing backwards in the dungeon’s history. Again, this generates valuable narrative friction. At the top of the dungeon, we’re in the present, but only at the beginning of our characters’ story. At the bottom, we’re in the ancient past, but quite possibly at the climax of our characters’ story.

At the same time, those increasing monster hit dice imply that the resistance is getting more dangerous, and that the dungeon itself is more deeply permeated with supernatural corruption. The party delves deeper, and with every step they descend further into the otherworld.

For example, as the party penetrates the tomb complex, the brigands’ lair gives way to the abode of the vizier’s undead servants, and then to the royal burial chamber. Is the First King still noble in death, or has he been tormented by his descendants’ betrayal and become wrathful at any who seek his counsel or his treasure?

One of my favorite examples of a descent like this in literature is in Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three. The heroes: Taran, Eilonwy, and Fflewdur meet in the holding cells in Spiral Castle, then escape to the passages within its walls. As they weave downwards, their relationships develop, leading up to a moment of shared fear and treasure-finding in the crypt of King Rhitta.

The disparate characters become companions as they descend downwards in time from the modern era to the cursed past.

As is often the case in roleplaying, the environmental narrative of dungeons is about disparate elements and contradictions, and the atmosphere and drama created by the friction between them.

Dangerous Archaeology

I often refer to Dungeons & Dragons as a game of dangerous archaeology. In their classic tomb-robbing mode, the party enters an underworld with its own history, meaning, and ecology.* The process of exploring a dungeon is much like the process of excavating a tomb… except eighty times faster and with more blood and looting. You’re like Heinrich Schliemann dosed to his eyeballs on haste.

The dungeon is the first and most important venue for environmental storytelling. (Yes, I said the “s” word, but stay with me a minute.) The classic dungeon isn’t full of helpful NPCs… for every Scarlet Citadel with a friendly-but-evil wizard in a holding cell, there’s a Moria or Howling Tower. The central question of those latter dungeons is this: what happened here?

Which brings me to a presentation from GDC: “What Happened Here?,” an examination of environmental storytelling by Harvey Smith and Matthias Worch. Smith and Worch are, of course, addressing video games, but their analysis has a lot to offer classic dungeoneering.


Let’s start with some very basics:

We’re saying that the game environment, which has been derived from a fictional premise, can communicate
the history of what has happened in a place
  • who inhabits it
  • their living conditions
  • what might happen next
  • the functional purpose of the place
  • and the mood.

In other words, say you’re exploring a mouldering tomb that’s now the home of a band of human bandits. Entering a room, you find a makeshift deck of cards, dirty bedrolls, and the smoldering remains of a fire.

Immediately, you can infer that this is a living space, that the inhabitants spend a lot of time idle, and that they might be back at any moment. The GM has scattered the elements, but you, as a player, have constructed the story behind the space.

As Smith and Worch say:

Environmental Storytelling is the act of “staging player-space with environmental properties that can be interpreted as a meaningful whole, furthering the narrative of the game.”

“Environmental storytelling relies on the player to associate disparate elements and interpret as a meaningful whole.”

The narrative layer they’re talking about isn’t flowcharted or railroaded, it’s a layer of story that the players assemble non-linearly using their PCs senses. Rather than a passive storytelling experience (like two bandits sitting there talking about how bored they are), we’ve created an active and interactive exploration.

[I]nterpretation is more compelling than exposition.

“Active” also means that the story isn’t shoved down the player‟s throat –quite the opposite, discovery is self-paced. The player is *pulling* the narrative.

This leads to a familiar world, which is self reinforced, more complete, and more immersive.

Now, what you’ve seen might create a feeling of subtle menace: the bandits could be back at any moment. Or it might create a feeling of sympathy for men living in filthy quarters and passing time without even a proper deck of cards. Or disgust at the moral decrepitude of gambling thieves. In other words:

Every player is going to bring his own views, experience and frame of reference to the scene, and come to different conclusions.So environmental storytelling “Invites interpretation of situations and meaning according to players’ views and experience.”


Environmental cues can also be a powerful tool for informed decision making by players — a cornerstone of the old school and the classic dungeon experience.

This dead NPC sizzling in a fence points out real environmental dangers to the player. Just like the trail of red blood leading into a dark room helps the player prepare for what’s ahead.

Environmental storytelling “can help the player navigate an area by telegraphing.”

Let them imagine the hell out of it

“Meaningful narrative is inferred by players if you give them cues but leave them the space to imagine.”

– Steve Powers, Disney

At Grognardia, James often speaks of the pleasant lacunae in rules and settings that give referees room to imagine the hell out of their game. I posit that those lacunae are equally vital for players, and should be present in the content the referee creates.

Something should be wrong

Smith and Worch:

When dressing up the scene, think about how these elements connect. This is how we take the act of simple environmental jumbling to the next level:

  • Placing a cup of coffee in an odd place.
  • Offsetting a chair in front of that table a little bit.
  • Maybe it was hastily pushed over. Think about what happened there. A single prop can transform the scene.

Imagine another element in our cramped tomb chamber: a dark brown stain across one of the bedrolls. Blood, or shit? Is the owner ill? Wounded? More questions, more room for interpretation and imagination.

The Environmental Layer

All of this exists in a layer of “story” that’s not the railroaded narrative or epic history gamers have come to associate with the term. Environmental story isn’t just the communication of information, it’s another way in which the imaginations of the players and the GM interact.

The process is, fundamentally, archaeological: the players unearth the world piece by piece and invest it with meaning from their own speculations and experiences.

What are your experiences with weaving story into environments? How do your environments reflect the stories your players have created in them?


* See James Maliszewski’s excellent essay on Gygaxian Naturalism at Grognardia.