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What Mario Can Teach Us About Dungeon Design

by Jae
dungeon design

At first glance, Super Mario Bros. games don’t seem to have anything in common with dungeon design. Thematically you’d be right; Mario games and Dungeons and Dragons are very different. However, there are a lot of lessons that can be learned from the mustachioed plumber.  What we’re referring to are the game design principles that go into a Mario game. While the games have been around for a very long time, almost all of them follow a level design philosophy that works incredibly well. These level design basics can translate to building dungeons in DnD. Let’s dive in and take look at what we can learn.

How Mario Teaches Players the Game

In every Mario game there are challenges that need to be overcome in each level. The games almost never spell this out for you and you are very rarely given any wordy tutorials on how to get through a stage or work with a particular challenge. Instead of having a 30 minute un-skippable tutorial, Mario games let you learn game mechanics through play. This is the “show, don’t tell” method and it’s very applicable to DnD.

The way Mario Games teach players about their mechanics is clever in that the tutorial is part of the game. The first time you encounter a new mechanic in a Mario game it is in a very low-stakes environment. Failing to see how it works won’t kill you and you are not being run down by enemies, so you have time to play around with things and see how it works. It makes a whole lot of sense to do the same thing for dungeon design.

There shouldn’t be a literal sign in the dungeon that says “Beware of Traps!”, but the first introduction to the traps should be telegraphed in a low-stakes environment. Just like in a Mario game, your introduction of a mechanic in the dungeon should let the players play around to figure it. This both rewards the players for experimentation and sets up expectations about what is to come later on.

Removing the Training Wheels

Mario games don’t ever use things once. Each stage uses a mechanic in a series of escalating difficulties. While the mechanic may only exist for that stage alone, the stage itself uses it excessively to get the most out of it. In this way we can think of each stage in a Mario game like a dungeon in DnD. After the initial safe introduction of a mechanic, stakes are bit higher the next time the players encounter it. If the first area has falling platforms over solid ground, then the next area with them would remove the ground below or add spikes at the bottom. Since the players already figured out how this works in the initial introduction, they don’t feel cheated if they die.

For dungeon design, this would be like introducing the concept of spike traps early on with a fallen adventurer in one. The group can examine the trap and learn how it works. Later, when they see the trap mechanisms again, they should know to look out for them. You’ve added a reoccurring section to your dungeon and given the players a built-in way to solve a puzzle. This all works to make your dungeon design more cohesive and engaging for your players.

Mixing Things Up

Mario games don’t stop at two uses either. When a mechanic is initially introduced, it’s generally safe. When you see it again, it’s deadly. The third time the mechanic comes around they mix it up to use in new ways. Let’s go back to our example of falling platforms: the first one is safe with ground below, the second has no ground below, and the third might have moving platforms that require timed jumps. The mechanic is really the same, but each step of the way builds upon itself to make something that would be difficult to encounter right off the bat. Because the players have already seen the mechanic, the more complex version of it is interesting instead of difficult.

The mechanics you use in your dungeons shouldn’t just be on repeat, but instead build upon themselves. First is a safe intro. Second is deadly non-occurrence. And the third version should add a layer of complexity. If we go back to our spike trap example, we could do a lot of things to change how traps work in their third appearance. Introducing a timer to the spikes is just one possibility. Take what they players know and mix it up just a bit to add a new challenge to the dungeon.

Level Design from Video Games

Mario’s not the only video game that can teach us about DnD and dungeon design. The way levels are put together in video games and the way dungeons can be designed have a lot of the same underlying principles. If you’re interested in learning more about how video game staples can teach us how to make better dungeons, consider signing up for our newsletter. This article is the first in a new mini series, and there’s more great information to come!

Happy DMing!

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