Frayed Knights Dungeon Design Principles Blog

There's a new article on Jay "Rampant Coyote" Barnson's blog, divided into two parts (part one and part two), detailing his design philosophy for the dungeons of Frayed Knights: The Skull of S'makh-Daon and its upcoming sequel Frayed Knights 2: The Khan of Wrath.

Here's a snip from the first part:
General Guideline #1 All dungeons should tell a story. Often more than one.

A dungeon should have clues that tell a story of why / how they were built, what happened there in antiquity, and what is currently happening within it. If the dungeon was built recently, these may all be the same story. But as the player pokes around, he should be able to learn bits and pieces about these stories. Even if the player never understands the full story, the richness of the background (IMO) helps establish the dungeon as an interesting, believable place.

There should be several elements that speak to this story dialog (interactive or overheard), documents, architecture, graphics, music and sound effects, combat encounters, interactive objects, whatever. It's actually pretty important that this back-story not just be revealed through passive exposition sequences. These elements don't need to be confined to the dungeon itself it shouldn't be entirely self-contained. It's better if the dungeon's place in the world and story is reinforced by elements outside of itself. Rumors, legends, cultural taboos these are all the kinds of impacts a sinister dungeon might have on the people around it.

Ideally, aspects of the story should be meaningful to the player in some way it could suggest some detail in the present that may be beneficial, like the solution to a puzzle, location of secret treasure, heads-up on a trap or monster encounter, or warning about what will happen when the player pulls that lever. But it's quite likely that even after poking around the entire dungeon, the player won't understand the (full story) behind it. That's okay. If it's not critical to the player's story, then it's background. The important thing is that is that by knowing the dungeon almost as if it was a character in the game, the designer can make it feel more (real) to the player, rather than just being some random collection of rooms and corridors that happened to be at some map position.

And from the second:
#3 Multiple Approaches to Challenges

Where appropriate, provide multiple solutions or approaches to solving problems. If it's part of the critical path, a puzzle should be able to be bypassed through cleverness or brute force. Really tough bosses (or other exceptional encounters) that are non-optional combat encounters may have ways to make the encounter less difficult. Some examples of this might be limiting reinforcements, or weakening their power (or allies). Or just bribing them.

In all cases, taking an alternative approach should yield similar (but not necessarily equal) rewards. Maybe there's less loot with one approach but more XP or drama points, or something along those lines. In fact, it's best if these rewards are not identical, and the player is given some hint as to the trade-off being made in advance. The most interesting choices are ones where the player must sacrifice or forgo something desirable. but the game should offer at least some kind of compensation for that. It may not be of exactly equal value (it could be better!), but this provides the feeling that the game (and designers) acknowledge and respect the choice.

As examples from Frayed Knights: The Skull of S'makh-Daon, the boss encounter in Pokmor Xang: You can bypass most of the dungeon and make a beeline for the boss, but he'll have more reinforcements if you do. You can bribe the troll at the bridge in the central Caverns of Anarchy (and possibly haggle him down from his opening toll). You can jury-rig the bridge puzzle in the Plane of Anarchy (although finding out how to jury-rig it may be a bigger challenge than solving the puzzle).