I’ve been playing Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk on my Switch these past few weeks. It’s a first person dungeon crawler, of which I have played a few others, mostly within the Shin Megami Tensei series. Got one more boss and maybe I’ll take on the last optional boss and then I am done with it. I’ve been enjoying it so far but what I want to talk about is the maps. As someone who is running a West Marches game with a dungeon crawling focus, any takeaways I can apply to designing my own dugeon maps I’ll find pretty valuable.
As a first person dungeon crawler, Labyrinth of Refrain places a pretty strong emphasis on exploring the maps it presents you with, although ultimately each merely requires you find a sequence of objectives (and defeat the bosses), with no requirements to explore every single square of the map, most of my maps are very close to being completely filled out as visited.
There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, I like my maps in these games to look nice and complete. This helps me in figuring out where to go next, if I see a square with no wall next to it, that generally means it is a path I have not explored, because even if I can see the current path leads to a dead end, I will generally walk to the edge of the dead end anyway, just so, if I come back to the area a few days later I can see it is a dead end on my map. This helps with the next point which is that I often got lost, the game is not called Labyrinth for nothing, and many of the areas had large sub-sections that basically were completely unconnected to the main path to the objectives, or objectives that were off the path to the main objective, but required to unlock a door
But the game also rewarded exploration, by going down dead-ends and the long way around loops one could fine treasure and items that were otherwise miss-able. Out of the way places would have points that resorted your stamina and rewarded you with magic resources. Given the relatively minor penalty for being defeated, one could even argue that the additional enemy encounters were, in a sense, a reward for exploring given that they gave experience and resources upon defeat. The game DOES start throwing high powered enemies at you if you linger in the dungeon too long, but also gives you the tools to easily resume where you left off, so even the time limit isn’t too harsh.
Of course, sometimes the dead ends are just that, dead ends, there’s no treasure, no rewards, and even the enemies fought could also have been fought just running along the main path. Other times there are even traps or damage tiles, which serve no purpose if you trigger them but to make exploration harder. In theory these two features might disincentivize exploration, but in practice they actually make things more exciting.
Without the dead space, finding the reward wouldn’t feel that special, one might go down every dead end just to loot all the stuff, but it would likely feel more like a chore than it does. Without the traps, finding the rewards wouldn’t feel like there was any element of risk involved, and thus exploring every nook and cranny wasn’t really a choice, it’d be the optimal strategy. While in a video game which you can save and reload, this is still the case, and you might as well clear out the trap corridors too because if they are TOO bad, well you have your save.
In table top RPGs, however, I would argue that traps (or other non-trival dangers) are even MORE important than they are in video games. The choice of “risk of danger for the chance of treasure” is a lot more meaningful in a game where that danger could lead to the loss of a character you’ve invested a lot of time and emotional energy into. The empty spaces allow the characters to take breathers, consume time, and ratchet up the tension for the next thing that they KNOW is coming.
I’m not sure I’ve really learned anything I didn’t quite already know about OSR dungeon design, but it was generally nice to see the principles in practice and experience them in an alternate medium. The one thing LoR fails at, is that too many of its dungeons were linear with only one (real) way to attack a given problem or reach a specific destination, a few floors avoided this but for the most part I’ll just chalk it up to the weakness of the medium and video game’s general desire to give a more curated experience.
Current PaDC score: 9/31 (Barely made this one!)