Want to know a secret? I actually kind of hate megadungeons. In theory, they should be great, right? It’s an opportunity to explore a vast superstructure, discover interesting puzzles, enemies, and magic items, and overcome ever-greater odds as you delve deeper and deeper into the dungeon. In practice, however, it feels much more like tedium. You go room by room, clearing them of threats until you clear the whole floor, then go to the next one and do the same all over again. In truth, it’s not the megadungeon that I hate, it’s the standard structure of megadungeons that I hate.
I much prefer something like The Legend of Zelda in my megadungeons.
“What’s that,” you say? “The Legend of Zelda games are open-world exploration games, not megadungeons. They might contain various dungeons within them, but they themselves are not, in fact, megadungeons.”
Oh, dear readers, that is where you are wrong.
I want you to think of a game like Super Metroid, or Axiom Verge, or Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. I can’t think of a single person who, having played those games, wouldn’t describe them as megadungeons. That’s exactly what they are: sprawling complexes filled with enemies, puzzles, and interesting new items. But I ask you now to examine their structures. Each one is separated into different areas. Edin, Brinstar, the Clocktower. These segments of the game are all titled, contain specific challenges which you must overcome, and are generally closed off until you gain access to a particular item or technique.
This is precisely the same as the Legend of Zelda series. You have areas of the game (dungeons/temples) which have specific challenges, and can only be accessed using specific items or techniques. Even in the more open-ended games, like Link to the Past, Ocarina of Time, and Link Between Worlds, it retains these megadungeon elements. You can’t beat the water temple in Ocarina of Time without the iron boots first. You can’t access the House of Gales without the flippers and the Tornado Rod. It’s impossible to overcome the Skull Woods without the hookshot.
So, you see, The Legend of Zelda series is, once you take a step back and look at the metastructure of the games, a series of megadungeons. It even encourages the sort of megadungeon-esque exploration of games like Super Metroid or Axiom Verge. Every time you gain a new item, you very likely think of the different places you visited throughout the world that might be accessible now that you possess this item. A chest high up on a cliff side that has a conspicuous wooden pole beside it? Well, now that I have the Hookshot, I can go back and access that!
So, why am I talking about this? Well, it’s because I want you to take two things away from all of this nonsense and remember it whenever you’re designing and running your own games.
1. Standard Megadungeons Suck
I’m not usually “that guy” who makes these sorts of blatant claims. In this case, however, I stand firm. The standard “clear the dungeon one floor at a time” megadungeons really, really suck. They might have interesting pieces within them, but the underlying structure is simply bland. You can, of course, argue that simply telling players “you must be this strong to enter, else everything will kill you” can encourage players to explore and get stronger. However, I think placing in-world objectives like “find the Lava Key to access the Magma Caverns” is much more enticing and is a much better driving force than “we have to be level 9 to access the next floor.”
2. All Adventures Are Megadungeons
Whenever I design an adventure, I always start with a story-web showing scenes, characters, items, and locations. This is the same for intrigue adventures, open-world exploration-games, and yes, dungeons. And that’s because basically all adventures have the same metastructure. It’s a series of scenes that are all interconnected by time, place, people and things. Certain scenes are accessible from the beginning, while others are gated off and require specific items, characters or knowledge to access. The form these scenes take is, of course, determined by the finer details of the adventure. They might be points of interest on an area map, or rooms within a dungeon, or actual scenes and conversations within an intrigue adventure. But when planning the whole thing out, it help to understand that, on a meta level, they’re all effectively the same and can all be planned out using a uniform method.
That’s it for this week. I know it’s a short one, but playing through Twilight Princess again really got me thinking about adventure and campaign structure, and I wanted to share some thoughts I’ve had on the subject.
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