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The Dungeon Crawler Recipe

The pillars of what makes a dungeon crawler a great dungeon crawler.

During 2012, the dungeon crawler genre got a great boost with “Legend of Grimrock”. LOG was one of my favourite games of the year, and based on sales number, the appetite for high-quality dungeon crawlers is alive.

As a game designer, dungeons crawlers are for me one of the most challenging game genres. Of course you can portray the genre as simply being slaying creatures, levelling up your character and collecting loot. But, design of dungeon crawlers, whether they are pen-and-paper, tabletop or in video game form, always have their own secret formula, the pillars of what makes a dungeon crawler great.


This is my dissection of the game genre and what in my point of view are the pillars of what makes a dungeon crawler a great dungeon crawler.

1. Well Defined Goal

Since the beginning that the player needs to know the reason of his quest. Of course there will be numerous loot and monsters to slay, but there needs to be a main purpose that will drive the player during the entire game. Generally, the reason for the quest is one of the three “R’s”: Revenge, Retrieval and Rescue. Look back to all the dungeon crawlers you played in the past, and you will see that in some sort of shape and form they adhere to the three “R’s” rule.

2. Theme

The environment needs to be consistent across all levels, in order to not break player immersion. If you are creating a medieval/fantasy game, do not throw to the mix cultural references from other ages. Do not mix medieval with Renaissance or Victorian and vice-versa. Keep a unifying theme that is believable for the player, because if you break that consistency you may well be ruining the players play experience.

3. Over-Arching Goal

In order to establish the setting for the game, it’s extremely important that there is a common link across all the enemies that the player will find in the game. They may all come from the same region in the world, or they may all be minions of the same master villain. What is important is that there is a common, unifying theme for the enemies, which blends with the world lore.

4. Traps & Puzzles Galore

A dungeon crawler is not a dungeon crawler if you don’t find traps and puzzles everywhere. Besides adding tension and challenge for players, they are also great reward mechanisms. When the player spends time trying to figure out how to avoid an encounter with a creature, and then he is able to successfully circumvent that encounter… That is a great moment. The player will feel he is incredibly smart, and the adrenalin boost will provide him with more excitement than if he had confronted the creature directly.

5. Pacing

When designing a dungeon crawler, you can never leave space for the players to breath. They must be constantly faced with new challenges (walking through empty labyrinths without nothing to do is not that exciting, don’t you agree?). Whether they are enemy encounters, traps or puzzles, keep the flow of content quick. Design it so that when the player finishes one problem, he is almost instantly introduced to a new one. Keep the players on the edge of their seat.

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