I’ve been working on this for a while and need some space to get ideas out.

Way back when I talked about the simplicity and elegance of level design in platform-based video games, I made overtures about applying the same concepts to dungeons. Why? Because players need expectations.

So, what should be in every* dungeon?

(*Every in this case meaning “most but not all.”)

I made a list in my notebook that combines ideas from both side-scrolling — Mario, Donkey Kong, Castlevania, Metroid — and top-down — Legend of Zelda, Diablo, Blood Omen, Nethack — perspective video games.

Also, OSR theories and concepts regarding mega-dungeons, and my own experience regarding the design and running of multi-stage adventures and set-piece encounters from experience in both tabletop and video game design.

Here’s what my list currently entails:
– Multiple entrances (2-3)
– 1:1:1 ratio of combat, trap, and “empty” encounters
– A boss fight
– A treasure room (“bonus round”)
– A secret area

But what are these things, and why do they matter?

Multiple entrances are important because unlike in video games, roleplaying games emphasize player agency. Players have freedom to express their characters in a variety of ways by choosing race and class during character creation.

If the PCs encounter something they deem to be impossible/impassable, they should be able to retreat and try an alternate route. If they give up on your dungeon, you’ve effectively wasted all the time you spent making it.

Combat to Trap to Empty Ratio. Every encounter is a set piece.

Some rooms are empty in order to build tension. Sometimes you put a couple empty rooms together to build anticipation. These rooms are ideal for exploration because at a glance they could be sites for traps or ambushes.

Boss fights. Sometimes the players are itching for a fight. Boss fights should be clearly marked. Boss fights should be a higher-level than the party, oftentimes overwhelming encounters. Boss fights should also be skip-able.

A boss fight shouldn’t always be at the end of a dungeon — sometimes it’s at the beginning, where the boss is a “threshold guardian” or “meat gate.” Sometimes “bosses” are powerful creatures avoided by denizens who know better.

Treasure rooms. Bonus stages are an important part of the game — perhaps the most important — and indivisible from boss fights. Sometimes you find the boss first, sometimes you find the bonus first.

Like in the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark, getting to the treasure might be the “easy” part while escaping the wrath of its owners (or its curse?) constitutes the majority of the adventure. Beware magical “smash and grab” tactics.

Secret areas. It’s important to scatter “stuff to find” throughout a dungeon, but every dungeon should have (usually) a single secret. Any hints should come from outside the context of the dungeon. Secrets should require luck or ingenuity.

Don’t use more than one. The players should know there is a secret and that they’ve found a secret, they should know they’ve found a secret. Each secret should have an intangible consequence, like collecting all the DK coins.

Again, every dungeon should have these things. All of these things. It should be rote. It should be player knowledge that every one of these things exists within a dungeon. And you should stick to the formula basically all of the time.

Can you subvert the formula? Yes. Should you? Rarely. Why rarely? If you subvert the formula too often, it stops being recognizable as a formula.