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The Legend of Zelda and Dungeon Design

by Jae

The Legend of Zelda series is one stuffed with some of gaming’s most iconic dungeons. It’s easy to see why you might want to learn from them when constructing dungeons for DnD. So what lessons exactly can we take from the Zelda franchise?

How The Legend of Zelda Games Design Dungeons

In most Legend of Zelda games there are some basic dungeon design principles. Zelda dungeons all tend to have a few things in common:

  • Branching paths
  • Universal Keys
  • Key Items
  • Map/navigation based puzzles

Each of these mechanics can be seen in almost every dungeon throughout the history of the franchise. Of course there are some exceptions and some games use them better than others. But if you want to create a Zelda-like experience, these should be present. Let’s dive into how each of these are used and how they can be adapted to DnD.

map puzzles

Branching Paths and Dungeon Maps

When playing a Zelda game, the experience feels very open in a lot of ways. Each dungeon you enter presents you with a lot of choices and options. Typically you’ll have a minimum of two paths you can take right from the get go. This freedom to choose how you tackle a dungeon is one of the strengths of Zelda games.

Branching paths in Dungeons and Dragons can be a blessing or a curse. When setting up a dungeon, each branching path adds a lot more preparation and potential hours of game play depending on your group. The open ended layouts of branching paths give your players more freedom and ultimately can work to give them a sense of accomplishment for navigating the dungeon itself. To effectively capitalize on this, you’ll need to work around or intertwine backtracking into you dungeons.

A branched path in Zelda is often about exploration and learning. While some paths are dead ends, they are often functional dead ends. The players either find something that will help them progress on another path, or the dead end is artificial and will open up once they get a key or item that allows them to proceed. When a branch terminates for its last time, there needs to be a clear reason.

When putting branching paths into your dungeons in DnD, the same ideology needs to be followed. A path should be purposeful and provide some support to the rest of dungeon. Even optional paths should hold a reason for existing, like housing treasure.

useful dead end rooms

Universal Keys

The keys in Zelda games are all single use. In name and shape they appear to be keys, but they are more like an entry ticket, spent once to open a path for you. You can use keys this way in DnD too, but it needs a little dressing up. A single use universal key could be something like a token or emblem that is consumed by the door on use. This can thematically make more sense and provide the mechanical actions that the keys from the Zelda franchise have.

A small key in Zelda is presented in a few ways. If you want to use this mechanic in your dungeon, key placement should be considered carefully. When looking at the locked doors on your map, you need to ensure that there are enough keys available to open the doors. If you’re using locked doors on branching paths, you always need to ensure that no matter what door is open, the players can get another key to progress beyond the next locked door.

Keys used in conjunction with branching paths allows you to give your players choices. If the first room they clear has 1 key but two locked doors, this will force them to choose a path to find the other key. This is a good way to increase player interactions without bogging them down with too much choice. The decision only has a few possibilities: open one door or the other, or save the key for later.

key to door ratio

Not Quite Keys

A key item in a Zelda game is something that functions a lot more like a normal key than the small keys in the game. A key item is reusable and opens a path towards progression. This could be something that allows you to move obstacles in your path, lets you interact with enemies in a new way, or allows you to move in a new way.

The important thing about all these items is that they change how you can interact with your surroundings. Designing a good key item in a video game has it challenges, but in DnD the fact that players can do almost anything they want amplifies this challenge.

When making a key item for a DnD dungeon you need to be careful about covering a few bases. The item should be something that makes sense to use in dungeon but does not unbalance your game. Giving a player bombs, for example, might help them blow up walls to find secrets. But what about using them in combat? It can get really complicated really fast.

An item that is not necessarily specific to the dungeon might lead to players trying to use it in all sorts of ways to change the game. The challenge in using key items for your dungeon in DnD will be creating something the players can use, but not abuse, and something that is unlikely to be lost or destroyed in the dungeon.

The best key items are ones that works on the dungeon itself. It can be something like a magic glove that allows you to push enchanted stones in the dungeon. It only works in the dungeon because it was made specifically for the area. This sort of device can be important for progress and allows you to make some interesting puzzles in the game that you would not be able to do with normal game mechanics.

Key items serve one last purpose that is critical in some cases: they fix the potential for a small key placement problem. By including a reusable way to make progress in your dungeon, you allow yourself to place single use keys in areas that you couldn’t block off with a single use key for fear of your players opening doors in the wrong order and becoming stuck. So long as the key item is given before you would have an issue with key placement, you can make sure the locked doors are balanced and your players can open everything.

golden gauntlets

Spacial Awareness and Navigating a Dungeon

A really interesting feature of Zelda dungeons, especially in Link’s Awakening, is the reliance on navigation based puzzles. The maps are set up in a way that pushes the players to make note of the obstacles they run into and then look for a solution to that obstacle before going back.

This doesn’t just have to be locked doors and places to use a key item. Often the puzzles will include the need to understand verticality and where to drop down from a floor above. Other puzzles involve hitting a switch somewhere that makes it possible to travel through the dungeon in a different way than before. 

To use these for DnD, you need to be aware of how your dungeon is laid out. This is not always easy and sometimes will require you to draw a map and be very generous with your room descriptions. But if the dungeon isn’t too complex you can figure this out on a piece of scrap paper.

If you are using a dungeon that has levels you’ll want to know which rooms are above or below each other room. If your dungeon is flat you’ll want to understand the ways that a path is either blocked or open for each room individually. If you’re not sure your dungeon works, you can write out a decision tree for each branch they would take and trace all the possible path options. This takes a little bit of time, but it’s much better to check that your dungeon is solvable before your players get stuck in it.

vertical navigation

The Take Away

Zelda dungeons are incredibly well built and fun to explore. While the freedoms that your DnD players have make the construction of Zelda like dungeon more difficult, it’s not impossible. When building your dungeon, remember that these mechanics are designed to foster a feeling of freedom and exploration. Players should want to experiment and try things out. If you design your dungeons with that in mind, you can make an experience for your players that will capture that feeling.

While a Zelda like dungeon provides a good framework, the rules of DnD are not as limiting as a video game and can allow you to twist and change the format as much as you like. Not every dungeon should be Zelda like, and not all Zelda like dungeons need to use all the mechanics. With good descriptions and role playing, you could make a dungeon that feels Zelda like without using any of the mechanics we talked about here.

More to Come

If you’ve got a particular mechanic from The Legend of Zelda you’re looking to adapt, let us know! We’re excited to talk about how video game design can be adapted to DnD and we’ve just scratched the surface of Zelda dungeons. This article is only the very basics. We’ll revisit some more specific examples in the future to talk about even more ways you can improve your dungeons.

Happy DMing!

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