What makes a good RPG dungeon?
First of all, what is a dungeon?
I don’t want to dwell much on this, so I’ll just use D&D’s definition from the 3rd Edition Dungeon Master Guide:
I like that, and it works well for both tabletop RPGs and computer & console RPGs (which I’ll hereby just call “CRPGs”). But what’s a good dungeon?
It may sound obvious, but a good dungeon in a CRPG must fit its game. For example, I enjoy the massive spaghetti-from-hell dungeons of Daggerfall:
They work because in Daggerfall you move fast, there are movement skills like flying, climbing, swimming and teleporting (thank god for teleport), combat encounters are rare & solved quickly and the first-person camera makes crossing the maze feel very satisfying, in a classic Doom kind of way.
If you used this design on Final Fantasy IX, with its slow movement, slow turn-based combat, constant random encounters and fixed camera, it would be unbearable. The same applies if you had to explore it stuck to a grid, as in Legend of Grimrock, or dragging a large party around, as in Baldur’s Gate.
Similarly, Demon’s Souls Tower of Latria is an amazing dungeon but it would probably suck in tabletop or even in an isometric CRPG, as so much of what makes it so great is tied to directly maneuvering your hero across 3D space.
Again, it sounds obvious, but think how different from tabletop RPGs that is.
There’s an entire industry of indie publishing houses making award-winning “system-agnostic” dungeons and campaigns that you can play using almost any RPG ruleset, from D&D to GURPS, Warhammer, Call of Cthulhu, Shadowrun or even Toon!
Meanwhile, just imagine playing a dungeon from AssAssCreed: Odyssey as Mass Effect’s Shepard, who can’t even jump. Mass Effect simply doesn’t offer the tools to explore Odyssey’s world. And there’s no DM to go “uh… just roll a d20 and try to get 14 or more”, all that the Mass Effect toolbox would allow is for you to press “A” and see a cutscene of Shepard climbing…