Friday, April 24, 2020

OSR and Video Game Design Series Part 1: Secret Success (Or, Dungeon Design as Level Design)

In this opening post, we'll be exploring video game level design as found in old school dungeon crawls, 90s first person shooter games, and the Legend of Zelda series as those concepts can apply to tabletop RPG dungeon design.

The first time I played DOOM 64, wildly gunning and chainsawing my way through the first few levels in what can only be described as all-consuming glee, I abruptly clipped through a wall and thought I'd glitched the game. I hadn't. I'd actually stumbled across a secret room with a power-up inside. My mind was blown. I was overjoyed - full of wonder and victory. It seems like a simple idea: that dungeons should be filled with wonder and secrets, but its the implementation of the secrets that makes the difference between an experience you never forget and an experience you don't bother committing to memory.

So how do we implement a good secret in a tabletop RPG? How do we make it special? How we, as GMs, design a dungeon in a way that leads the players toward something without railroading them into it?

There are a few rules I follow:

1) The secret is something non-essential. The moment it becomes an essential part of the campaign or dungeon, it stops being a secret and just becomes a necessary detour that involves effort that the party doesn't have the agency to opt out of.

2) The secret is placed in a way that players can miss it and will feel clever when/if they find it, but not so far out of the way that the odds of finding it become ridiculous. It shouldn't be hidden so well that finding it becomes random chance.

I might have stumbled across the false wall in DOOM 64 by accident, but my finding it was hardly a matter of random chance. DOOM 64 took advantage of the level layout and the physics engine of the game in a way that caused me to accrue enough forward momentum to end up slipping through the wall simply by running forward and not slowing down around a tight corner. Clipping through the wall wasn't random, it was a likely outcome because of the layout - the meticulous design - of the level. A more cautious player might  have missed it by not barreling through, but it was hardly out of the way.

It even looks like a D&D dungeon with guns

D&D doesn't have a physics engine, of course. At least not in the same sense. The laws of physics in tabletop games are largely more a suggestion than a concrete rule. But D&D does have a GM. So let's take a second to draw inspiration from an underappreciated cousin of DOOM - the Marathon Trilogy*.
A great series doomed by its hardware.

The Marathon games took the DOOM formula and added a dose of (time bending, sci-fi, gonzo) story. As you clear the levels, you discover computer terminals through which the story unfolds.

What does lore via 90s sci-fi FPS computer terminal have to do with secrets in tabletop RPG dungeon design? Jennell Jaquays pioneered the art of of excellent dungeon design in her classic modules for the Judges Guild when she insisted that a dungeon, rather than just being a series of corridors for monster killin', should feel organic. A dungeon, she asserted, should act as a distinct self-contained world with it's own ecosystems (a premise we'll be revisiting in Part 2). Things in the dungeon should have a reasonably organic presence - they should belong.

This is why Marathon is important. It took the DOOM formula and said "what if we added environmental storytelling?" It was heavy handed, but it worked to make the game fresh. In a sea of DOOM clones, Marathon stands out as different in important ways.

The same concept, though with potentially a bit more subtlety, can apply to secrets in dungeon design. Maybe you usually run DOOM dungeons, and that's awesome, DOOM in (almost) all its variants is awesome. But if DOOM were my only option for game formula for the rest of my life, I think I'd get bored pretty quick. So let's same-but-different it.

A wizard's tower might be a perfect place to take cues from Marathon. A series of crystal balls tucked away, perhaps, on different floors, that function as stand-ins for the terminals. A trail. Audio logs, perhaps, that offer a combination of lore, the wizard's weaknesses, and hints at perhaps some greater secret. A weapon that can easily end the wizard, or some great valuable artifact stashed away.

Of course, in Marathon the terminals aren't optional, but in this example they are. The players might stumble across one, realize it has value, and seek out more, a side quest that provides a reward for the effort of its discovery.

Likewise, a note on the body of a dead goblin might point the way to the body of a former adventurer, and who knows what that adventurer might have on him. A kobold might flee from combat and, if followed, crawl Golum-like up a wall (dungeon verticality is something I am passionate about!) into a tight crevice that opens out into a secret room.

Secrets offer two things: they offer a nice diversion to the typical "get in, get out, get fat loot" of the dungeon crawl, and - when done properly - they add to that sense of organic ecosystem within the dungeon, taking the dungeon from a game-space designed specifically for the looting of the PCs, to a natural extension of their theme with the illusion of being lived-in, independent of the concerns of adventuring parties.

So we've examined how to insert a secret. And that can be enough for a lot of sessions for a lot of parties. But what if we want to extend the utility of the secret? What can we do to make the secret more useful?

For inspiration in this section let's look at dungeon crawls as revived through the Legend of Grimrock games. Grimrock is both famous and infamous (especially Grimrock 2) for adding puzzle elements to the classic dungeon crawl formula. I contend that these puzzles were a great idea but, like my premise on secrets, should have been leaned on less as a necessary game progression tool and more as an optional route. As a GM I'm all about player agency and giving my parties a toolbox instead of a path.

But just because Grimrock leaned on them for progression doesn't mean we have to. I think a puzzle that uses a secret item or secret knowledge to let players access a shortcut or an alternate route toward what they want. This is a way that secrets can transform from a way of mixing things up to an entirely different way of approaching the entire delve. Let them turn the delve into a stealth mission via the dungeon equivalent of air-ducts or a sub-level. Enable them to use creative means to unlock non-combat options so the combat doesn't get stale.

Let's even take the idea one step farther. Let's look at the classic Legend of Zelda formula as seen in A Link to the Past, Link's Awakening, or even Ocarina of Time.
Look at that gorgeous Sony Trinitron my wife will never forgive me for making her help haul up the stairs.
The formula of these games takes the idea of a puzzle-dungeon and makes it a core gameplay loop. To beat the games, tools have to be acquired from various puzzle dungeons that are then use to progress through more puzzle-dungeons that give more tools, etc etc. This all culminates, of course, in a final test of the player's skill (and, generally speaking, a fantastic soundtrack that will haunt your dreams).

How do we adapt this formula to D&D while still following my rules for secrets-as-easter eggs outlined above? Well, let's look at how secrets could build over a campaign arc to offer players more agency in how they complete objectives.

Let's go back to our first example - the wizard's tower. Only this time, let's make the wizard the Big Bad. The focus of an entire series of sessions. His apprentices, also varying degrees of evil, have set up their own twisted lairs across the land. Perhaps they're jockeying for power and approval in the eyes of their master. Perhaps he got sick of dealing with them and kicked them out. Maybe he's holding some kind of evil scholarship contest to see who gets to stay on as his protege. In any case, they're evil wizards doing evil things that are, most likely, evil in effect.

The intended effect of this knowledge upon any clerics in the party

The party volunteers or is assigned or contracted to take out these apprentices and then go after their boss. For every apprentice, the party is now confronted with a unique, thematic dungeon. For every distinct dungeon, a hidden secret that can somehow make the apprentice of that dungeon easier to take down. These secrets don't have to be hidden the same way. Maybe one is behind a secret door at the end of a maze of enemy-infested corridors. Maybe one requires a puzzle to be solved. Maybe one is at the bottom of a subterranean lake only accessible if the party defeats the giant in the room above, causing his corpse to crash through the floor and open the way.

Then, let's double the utility of the secret. It works against the apprentice, but maybe it also factors into making the defeat of Big Bad easier, by either making the way to arrive at that battle easier, or by containing some weakness of the Big Bad himself. If they find all of the secrets, that extra effort then combines to make either the traversal of Big Bad's lair easier, the defeat of Big Bad easier, or both. And even if they only find some of the secrets, they still gain some advantage. This way the players are rewarded for exploring, taking alternate paths, and putting effort into discovery, without being shoehorned into the GMs vision of how the campaign should play out. Maybe they choose NOT to go after the easter eggs, or get them but choose not to use them because they have a different plan. That's cool too, but they had the option. The point is: the players had the opportunity to engage with the campaign arc beyond a series of run-and-gun gore fests on their own terms. They either chose to put in the work on an alternate approach and were rewarded or they decided "nah, today I want DOOM" and grabbed the Super Shotgun and whooped some ass. But it was their agency that led to whatever ended up happening, their decision, not the GMs.

This is only one idea, of course. There are a million ways to draw lines from video game design to tabletop RPG design. I'm excited to explore more of them. For some reason I've encountered grognards very resistant to any talk of video game inspiration, still bitter about the so-called video game influence on the much maligned 4th edition. But video games are not one thing and they offer insight into what makes narrative gaming - in all its forms - fun.

What kind of ideas have you pulled from video games for your sessions? How did it work out?

Part 2 is already half drafted and will focus on Metroidvanias, Roguelikes, and the megadungeon as a self-contained world.

*As a final note - for those who missed out on the Marathon Trilogy back in the day because of its ill-timed release on Mac in an age where gaming was transitioning hardcore to not Mac, Bungie was kind enough to release Halo's esteemed grandfather as a free download a few years ago and the awesome folx over at Aleph One have ported everything over to work on modern operating systems. If you're curious about this classic you can download the games here free of charge. The games have, in my opinion, aged at least as well as DOOM (which I also love).


  1. This is good stuff. I've always belonged to the camp who looks towards video games for inspiration, but pretty much always Zelda and Metroidvanias rather than MMOs and loot-driven games. I agree that Grognards generally fail to recognize that video games simply beat tabletop when it came to exploring and innovating the concept of a "dungeon" as a gameplay object. One of the core ideas that's pretty much impossible not to steal is "gating" which I first heard described by the Angry GM (

    And speaking of DOOM, I've long WANTED to try stealing its idea of "orthogonal design" with its monsters ( This would definitely be more for a combat-focused game which is why I haven't done it yet, but it seems like a delightful design challenge to craft the perfect toolbox of 7 monsters to stick to. Mix and match them, combine them with specific environments, and figure out every iteration that optimizes their unique gameplay factors in order to create a ton of problem-solving challenges for the players that go beyond "drain their HP before they drain yours."

    I've also always wanted to try implementing more "location-based storytelling" lore drops throughout dungeons in order to drive the choices being made, but I feel like the delivery is essential for it to not become boring. I'll be honest, I find the scan logs from Metroid Prime to be kind of boring. Jacob Hurst's Hot Springs Island ( definitely does the best job of it I've ever seen, but obviously not all of us can write, illustrate, produce, and print an entire book for our players to read.

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