Are you ready for some controversy because you're about to get some! This post will go a long way to explaining my own views on dungeon design, so without any further delay, let's get on to the completion of my list of the ten best D&D-based CRPG dungeons.
No. 5: Durlag’s Tower (BG1: TotSC)
Once I bypassed Watcher's Keep, I'm sure many had Durlag's Tower pegged for the #1 spot, but sadly, the same two problems that plagued Watcher’s Keep also plague this dungeon. But as always, I'll start with the positives. Durlag's Tower is, hand's down, the best back-story of any of the entries on this list and it's mostly that back story that lands it above its BGII sibling. As with Watcher's Keep, there are an array of monsters, traps and secret doors abound, and tactical combat is plentiful. Many of the non-combat encounters and puzzles are interesting, though not all. The entire portion of the dungeon above ground – including 4 whole levels in the tower – are fantastically entertaining and might have warranted consideration for this list in their own right, but it's only once the party descends to the lower levels, the portion of the dungeon that stands as a monument to Durlag's pain, loss, and insanity, that the real fun begins. Once below, the first level of the cellars is one of the best individual levels of any dungeon anywhere, and the second level isn't too far behind. Enemies include doppelgangers, spiders, a host of undead, wyverns, and many others, and the saga played out over and over again by the ghosts of these dwarven halls hits all the big emotions: grief, fear, anger, vengeance, and ultimately triumph.
On the flip side, the dungeon is again a bit too large and there are a couple annoying puzzles, although the bad puzzles are mercifully not as irritating as those in Watcher's Keep. Specifically, I mean the puzzles accessed from the 4th floor where the player has to answer historical questions posed by the statues. (Remember the one where the correct answer was something like, "we came from the west, then the north, then the east, then again from the east, and finally from the west again." – Ugh!) As a point of fact, the entire 3rd floor could be lopped out of the dungeon along with the horrid chess board where only you have to play by the rules. But even still, that level isn't quite the loss of the 3rd level of Watcher's Keep. Finally, the boss is a bit of a let-down because, although the demonknight is hinted at a few times, he doesn't really come to the fore until very near the end. To the contrary, you can complete 80% of the dungeon all the while thinking it fell simply to an external attack on Durlag's clan before finally learning that the doppelgangers were merely a manifestation of "the evil that was already there." Nevertheless, a better story and fewer irritants land Durlag's Tower above its BGII sibling.
No. 4: The Ruined Moathouse (ToEE)
Here's another entry that will have a fair number of people exclaiming "WTF," but I think there's a general dislike for low-level adventures out there that will have many disregarding this dungeon on principal. Yes, it's meant for 1st to 2nd-level parties, but that doesn't change the fact that it's also very well designed and incredibly fun. In a sense, it almost has to be a classic, because it was first seen in Gary Gygax's own 1979 P&P module Village of Hommlet and so has been entertaining D&D fans now for 32 years. As for the computer version, in an otherwise forgettable game, this dungeon is still a real gem. The ruined moathouse near Hommlet only has two levels, but the exterior has enough to almost count as a third. Therefore, it's very nearly the perfect size. The diversity of enemies is amazing and even includes a nifty encounter with giant frogs on the moat's drawbridge. It was very cool to watch one swallow one of my characters, who then had to be cut out after the frog was dead. The atmosphere was suitably creepy, and its backstory as an outpost of the Temple of Elemental Evil that has been re-inhabited lent the dungeon an oppressive air of foreboding. The number of traps and secret doors was perfect, the subplot of freeing the prisoners provided an interesting diversion, and the ability to wear the temple cloaks to bypass certain encounters allowed for some neat role-playing. As mentioned, it is a low-level dungeon, which will undoubtedly put some people off, but for those who don't mind adventuring with such weaklings, the reward is great.
I only have three slight criticisms. First, there wasn't quite enough empty space; indeed, some of the monsters were right on top of each other. Second, there were no true non-combat encounters. Finally, the end boss, a cleric named Lareth the Beautiful, while having an interesting moniker for an evil henchman, is just a more powerful adventurer with no apparent motivation other than being a bastard in service to the Temple of Elemental Evil. Nevertheless, this dungeon is nearly 100% pure fun.
No. 3: Soloria (NWN2 Module: Trinity)
If the ruined moathouse at #4 came has a shock, this one will really get some heads shaking. Yes, I actually believe an amateur module ranks among the best dungeons of all times. If you believe it doesn't belong on my list because it's not in one of the games I originally mentioned, I'll just say it's in the NWN2 franchise. Also, you probably haven't played it because anyone who has certainly wouldn't come up with reasons to exclude such awesomeness.
Soloria is damned near perfect as a dungeon in every way. Its backstory as an old school of magic in the fabled elven city of Myth Drannor means it's chock-full of lost tales, not to mention powerful loot and old forgotten magics. The atmosphere is utterly amazing with every detail really bringing to life this relic of a bygone age. But while the dead certainly rule here, they are not alone. The party must face hags, giant spiders, rival adventurers, and even a well-placed doombat in addition to the shambling corpses and ghosts of long-dead students. And a Death Tyrant, while technically dead, poses a completely different kind of challenge as well. But combat is only a small number of the obstacles the party will face in Soloria. Collapsed bridges no longer span wide chasms that nevertheless must be crossed, barriers of ancient magics must somehow be dispelled, and magical mouths demand answers to questions long since forgotten. There are traps galore, though none stand out as being particularly unfair, and there are so many secret doors and compartments within that I am certain I have still not seen all that Soloria has to offer. Finally, the dungeon's boss, the ancient lich Azimer, is memorable not only as a powerful adversary, but as a character. Hints of a lost love and regrets from his time as headmaster of the academy appear to have driven Azimer mad, causing him to fondly chide the party's wayward ways one moment (i.e. believing them to be students at a still-functioning academy) and then trying to kill them the next.
If Soloria had any negatives as a dungeon, they would be slight indeed. First, it's too small. This would be a petty complaint if I was judging this module strictly as an amateur work, but since I'm placing it on a list of all-time best dungeons, it gets the same treatment as everything else. Second, it does have a little bit of a confusing layout, and one wonders how it could have successfully operated as an academy back in the day. Finally, related to point two, it's a bit of a frankendungeon. I gather parts of the academy have caved in, so the dungeon regularly switches from stonework to earthen tunnels and back, sometimes seemingly at random. But these are only meant to be the slimmest of criticisms for a mostly awe-inspiring dungeon.
No. 2: The Windspear Hills (BG2)
The Windspear Hills dungeon is a fantastic, if too short, dungeon that features the second-best end boss on this list. But the dungeon really works well before you get to him. There is a nice mix of adversaries: orcs and hobgoblins, a troll, vampires, werewolves, golems, and then some. The layout makes some of the battles difficult, but not in such a way as to make it a pain to get around the dungeon. I don't recall any secret doors, the traps are few, and there are no real non-combat encounters, so the variety of challenges is a bit small, even if the variety of combat is not. Firkraag is, of course, the dungeon's crown jewel, and while a living dragon isn't innately as cool as a dracolich, Firkraag still stands above Vix'thra (at #8) as a boss because of his personal connection to the player. Vix'thra is a soulless monster that preys on the innocents of Drearing's Deep and is in league with the Valsharess. He definitely needs to die, but it's just a job. With Firkraag it's genuine hate. He hates you because of Gorion. You hate him because he framed you for murder. And then he dismisses you as an insignificant gnat. And he's got reason to because he's a bad-ass that will probably slap you around the first time you challenge him. So you'll remember him. And you'll come back. Just to even the score. That's the kind of end boss that pushes a dungeon way up the list all by himself even if the dungeon did nothing else right. But this one does so much right.
So why isn't the Windspear Hills at #1? Honestly, I'd have no qualms pushing it all the way up the list, but in the end I placed another entry a hair above this one. The Windpear Hills has a couple minor problems. First, it's basically one level with only Firkraag's lair and a small cave with a couple encounters outside that level. Second, there isn't a solid non-combat encounter. Third, the subplot with Samia and King Strohm's tomb is interesting, but misplaced, and it ruins the dungeon's narrative. Is this dungeon a tomb or a dragon's lair? If you think I'm being nitpicky here - maybe you think the dragon moved into a tomb and expanded it for his own purposes - then answer why greedy ol' Firkraag wouldn't seize the existing treasure for himself, especially since the sword and shield are designed to slay dragons. Perhaps it was the guardians that scared him off... oh, wait. They're fire-based guardians and Firkraag is a red dragon. Oops! See? No consistency, and we have to try real hard to concoct a story ourselves to make it fit. And then how did Samia get in past Firkraag's henchmen? Shouldn't we find either her corpse or the hobgoblins' corpses in the front room? But this negative doesn't ding the Windspear Hills as much as the 3rd level of Watcher's Keep, for example, because while it was inconsistent with the dungeon, it wasn't boring and frustrating as an objective. Inherently, collecting mask fragments so you can see an otherwise-invisible guardian is kind of cool. So these really are minor quibbles with an overall masterpiece.
No. 1: The de'Arnise Keep (BG2)
Yes, the choice will no doubt cause controversy, but this dungeon pretty much hits every point needed to be truly great. It is the perfect size and well laid out. The back-story is well-defined, and the ruined castle is quite atmospheric. It has a nice mix of encounters, plenty of creepy places to investigate, and just the right number of secret doors and traps to keep things interesting. Finding and reassembling the Flail of Ages, rescuing Daleson, the Lady Delcia, and Glaicas (if you break the domination spell on him), and opening the drawbridge all provide non-combat objectives. The golem-guarded treasure room on the second floor allows for a neat diversion entirely separate from the main quest while remaining consistent within the dungeon's narrative, and there are five different types of monsters (troll, yuan-ti, umberhulks, golems, and an otyugh), thereby ensuring a fair number of different encounters types. Finally, the monsters are well spaced-out, meaning it is easy to envision (i.e. role-play) a small crack party being able to enter the keep and wiping out its inhabitants a few at a time without having to suspend belief too much.
If I had to say anything bad about this dungeon, I would have to say that its boss, a big troll named Torgal, is on the weak side as a character, although his hints of a larger alliance against the de'Arnise family are intriguing shadows of something more. (Later we learn he was probably in league with the Roenalls, but that's outside the dungeon experience.) All-in-all, Nalia may be annoying to deal with, but her family's keep most definitely is not.
So when deciding on #1, I had to choose between a dungeon that did everything right except for have a slightly weak boss or a dungeon that had a couple minor flaws but a kick-ass boss. In the end, I chose to reward the one that was better over the first three hours over the one that was better for the last ten minutes.
I'm going to have one more post in this series in which I discuss some of the other major dungeons in the various franchises and why they did not make the list. Stay tuned!