Metroid is a staple of classic 2d dungeon crawlers. The original game, as well as many of its squeals, were groundbreaking in how to explore 2d dungeon space. These early video games have a lot to teach us about dungeon design mechanics that easily translate into the world of DnD. Dungeons and Dragons games today could stand to take a page or two from the Metroid book. Let’s dive right right in and take a look at the marriage between Metroid and dungeon design.
What Makes Metroid Dungeon Design Unique?
The Metroid series shares a lot with the The Legend of Zelda when it comes to surface level comparisons. Both games use dungeons with locked areas, make heavy use of maps, and use key items to set progression. You may think that Metroid games don’t really have anything left to teach us about dungeon design that The Legend of Zelda hasn’t already. However, when you take a closer look at Metroid you begin to see what makes the games stand out.
In the more classic games, Metroid takes place in a single dungeon. This alone is a big difference between other games we looked at before. The entire world is fit together like a mega dungeon and acts as one big puzzle.
Metroid dungeon design is both very open and very closed. There are often large sections of the game that are available for you to enter, but too difficult for you to deal with until you get certain upgrades. In Super Metroid this is most apparent in areas where the environment is too hot and you need a suit upgrade to prevent yourself from taking damage.
Metroid dungeon design is also about true exploration. These games are full of secrets and branching paths. The games also use backtracking as a method teaching, something that other games at the time had never used effectively. Let’s explore these ideas and see how they can be translated into DnD!
Exploration as a Mechanic
While games like The Legend of Zelda or Super Mario Bros. throw very obvious challenges at you from the beginning, Metroid takes a different approach to game play. A Metroid dungeon has enemies that are more or less a component of the environment the the atmosphere of the game. Each step you take is towards seeing what’s past the next corridor.
Just the act of moving forward in the game is key to your success. You very literally need to explore to progress, rather than just overcoming the challenge in each area. While it’s possible you can run into doors that need to be opened, you’re not traversing them with keys. Instead, you have the power to open them, be it a shot from your blaster or a missile upgrade.
The entirety of Metroid is a puzzle, where as you explore it’s your job to remember or mark down the mysteries you come across. You might not know how to deal with something yet, but later you could travel to an area that was impassible earlier.
This building of set pieces that unfold through exploration is done masterfully in these games. The atmosphere, the sound design, and even the simple journey through areas is crafted to make the whole experience better. Pairing a real desire to explore with the presentation of new mysteries at every turn sets up a great experience and easily translates into DnD.
Typical DnD dungeons tend to be more lock and key, defeat room A to get to room B, etc. But the Metroid game series shows that a non-linear experience based around branching paths can offer a great deal of variety. A dungeon that is inspired by Metroid would start with players doing reconnaissance and finding out where they can and cannot make progress. Likely players in a more Metroid style dungeon would draw a map and mark down mysteries.
Additionally your descriptions, the atmosphere you create, and the feeling of being in the dungeon all add a substantial amount to these experiences and give clues as how and where the team can progress.
Progress as Power-ups
Metroid takes the idea of key items from the Zelda series and puts it on steroids. Key items in a Metroid game are hardly ever single use or single purpose. The game never presents you with literal keys, but a collection of obstacles that can only be overcome once you have the tools to do so.
This use of power-ups also makes you more formidable in battle and causes you to be better equipped for the more difficult challenges later in the game. Not only is this a good way to gate areas, it’s also a great way to ensure a controlled difficulty curve throughout the dungeon.
Using power-ups in DnD seems a little odd, but it gives you a real chance to create magical items with purpose and function. Often DnD suffers from the introduction of magic items that are too useful or too specific. In both cases you end up with something that unbalances your game.
When building a dungeon that has a reason to add magic items that solve specific problems but also empower your players, you can craft balance into the design itself. These items can have charges or ammo, which allows you to give your players a choice on when to use certain items that may be critical later.
In Metroid a lot of items are limited by ammo: missiles, bombs, super missiles, and super bombs are all the most common items used for traversal. They are used in combat and limited in their use. Items that share these properties can make a dungeon exciting and interesting by giving your players more to think about as they descend further in.
There are a number of items in the Metroid series that are not ammo limited, but serve a similar function to progress through power-up. This already exists in DnD with the leveling system. While you could easily give players items with persistent effects that allow them access to new areas, if you’re building a mega dungeon, let them use their own level ups as a way to acquire the skills they need to get further.
Any magic user will have the ability to gain support skills as they level. The dungeon can help shape their choices to allow different spells and abilities a spotlight where before they might not have seen much use. Having impassable vines that grow back when cut can be overcome with Druid spells like Speak with Plants. This method lends use to class features that can make players feel more powerful and give them a greater sense of contribution to the group.
Mega Dungeons and Backtracking
Metroid games are single dungeons. In DnD terms they would be like going from level 1 to 20 in the same dungeon. This might be too much for your campaign, but designing a dungeon where your players will spend a long time and many levels within is an exciting design challenge.
Metorid handles its dungeon design by giving purposeful backtracking, exploration rewards, and shortcuts throughout the game. In your DnD game all of these ideas can be implemented in much the same way. Backtracking can be rewarded by showing off unreachable locations that the players can later choose to return to. Shortcuts can easily be created by having progression power-ups give you quick access to different areas.
These make a large dungeon feel more connected and exciting to explore. In a very real way this all comes down to breaking up a linear dungeon by adding loops, gates, and treasure throughout. Something that Metroid displays in spades.
Periodic Boss Encounters
Enemies in a Metroid game are mostly creatures that live in the environment. They attack you since you invaded their territory. This also feels true for the game’s bosses, which are often fiercer and more difficult creatures that live in a particular area. This translates directly into the idea of lairs in DnD. Dungeons and Dragons already has some great lair rules fleshed out and ready to go for difficult monster encounters.
In Metroid these kind of encounters are mirrored by the presentation of bosses in areas that cause you to consider your environment. A perfect example is the Super Metroid boss Draygon. Draygon uses their water boss lair to change how you move while also giving them more freedom of mobility and different ways to hide or launch major attacks. This boss fight feels like fighting a creature defending its territory. It’s not hunting you, but once you enter its nest it strikes using all of its natural advantages.
This same style of boss encounter can add real high points to your DnD game, especially when paired with a longer mega dungeon. Each monster lair acts as a capstone to a section and indicates a certain amount of progress towards overcoming the dungeon as a whole.
If you plan on building a mage dungeon, this is a fantastic lesson to pull from Metroid games as it really accurately fits mechanics DnD already has laid out for you. In addition to fitting into the game smoothly, this can also highlight another challenge in that your players don’t leave a dungeon when they defeat a boss, but instead only gain a small reprieve before venturing deeper in.
Putting it All Together
So you want to build a Metroid style dungeon for your game. How do you take these lessons to make something that feels like Metroid dungeon design?
For starters you’re going to want to carefully design your map. Normally when designing a dungeon you would start with story and purpose. But for this type of dungeon exploration is key, so dungeon purpose is secondary to the design of the dungeon itself.
Your map should be large and sprawling. Multiple floors or levels are a must when doing something like this and rest points or defensible camp spots are essential. Dividing the map into regions is also an important step. Each area should have its own theme and be progressively more challenges to overcome.
Once you have your map laid out, it’s time to go back and layer in your descriptions. Metroid literally would describe caves built on top of ruins or ancient technology, but you could do things differently. What’s important is that you write descriptions that build the atmosphere of the area. Make sure you use the five senses in your descriptions, really put a lot of detail into points of interest and motifs that run through the space.
After your dungeon is mapped and described it needs to be populated with creatures, plants, and encounters. These are the things that live there as opposed to put there. We’re looking at monsters that would have territories and hunting patterns and an ecosystem that requires a diverse population to thrive. This will also include points for your boss monsters and their lairs.
The final step to constructing a dungeon like this is gating your map using terrain, environment, and difficulty. Fiercer areas gate themselves with danger. Hidden items and secrets are gated with skill/ability based challenges. Area progression is gated by the use of key items with a reoccurring use and limited charges. Don’t forget to map out ways for players to recharge key items they overuse through monster drops or specific dungeon areas.
At this point you’ve got a working Metroid style dungeon for your players to explore. The last thing you need to do is find out why they’re there. They could be seeking treasure, fame, or a righteous goal, but these dungeons shouldn’t be time sensitive. The point is for them to take as long as they need. So whatever the reason for entering, they should not be forced onto a timeline that disincentivizes exploration.
Dungeon Design and Classic Video Games
This article is part of a series on what dungeon masters can learn from looking at great dungeon video games of the past. If you liked this article, please check out our previous posts on Mario and Zelda games and the lessons they teach us. This continuing series is made possible by our dedicated readers and supported by your feedback. If you have questions, comments, or ideas for games you want us to look at next, please contact us.