Monday, April 11, 2011

Dungeons That Didn't Make the List

OK, so my personal list of 10 greatest D&D-Based CRPG Dungeons is complete, but several big and/or popular dungeons didn't make the cut and some may wonder why. As an aside, I've just finished replaying the Windspear Hills dungeon and am more convinced than ever of its greatness. But here's a number of popular dungeons and the reason I didn't put them on the list. I understand that this may come across as negative; I'm not going to spend the time talking about what each of these did right, only the reasons I feel they're not top 10 worthy. Note that many of these dungeons would still rank between 11 and 20, so they are all very solid designs. They're just not the best of the best.
I'm going to group them by game and roughly in their order of awesomeness for that game and discounting any dungeons that already made the top 10.

Severed Hand (IWD1): This came very close to making the list, but in the end I thought the lack of any end boss at all (that you fight) and it's over-reliance on undead adversaries was enough to keep it off. I also thought some of the dungeon flow was lacking, as one of the tower levels actually required you to access the level from two different staircases to clear it. Fortunately, by the time the IWD2 version came out, this flaw had been corrected. Yes, it's nitpicking. It would probably rank in the 11 to 12 range for me.

Dragon Eye (IWD1): Dragon Eye was a bit too large for me, featured repetitive fights, and the dungeon theme totally changed between the 3rd and 4th levels, going from a cave to a stone-walled temple. Yxunomei was a decent boss but not great.

Black Wolf Temple (IWD1) This was the final contender from IWD1, but it suffered from a lot of the same flaws that the Severed Hand did. There was no end boss (that you fight), pretty much only undead adversaries for level after level, repetitive fights, and in addition, there were no non-combat encounters. Still a memorable dungeon, though.

The Ice Temple (IWD2): This temple featured way too many repetitive fights and was definitely too big for the number of fresh ideas that it had. I couldn't help thinking it was made bigger simply to lengthen the game play time. Also, I wasn't wild about the lay-out and the end boss, Oria, was lame.

Dragon Eye (IWD2): This had many of the problems of the IWD1 version, but it also had the totally frustrating time-travel puzzle at the end. Even if IWD1 Dragon Eye had been on the list, that annoying puzzle would have booted this version right back off.

The Cloakwood Mines (BG1): This was the closest contender from BG1 proper and would almost certainly have landed in the 11-15 range overall. The exterior set-piece against the party of four bounty hunters was great as was the second level, which featured a great set-piece against two rooms full of guards. The third level was still pretty good and offered a nice array of enemies. But the first level was a total waste, I thought there were a couple of unfair traps, and Daevorn was not a memorable dungeon boss.

The Nashkell Mines (BG1): First, I didn't much care for the layout. To a degree, any mine will stink because there are tons of corridors and far too few rooms in which set-pieces can be staged. Also, there was virtually nothing here except kobolds, although a couple ghouls and spiders showed up near the end. Finally, Mulahy, the dungeon boss, was just a goon working for the Iron Throne.

Spellhold Asylum Dungeon (BG2): Spellhold's major problem was that it lacked a cogent narrative. Why did the Cowled Wizards make this place? Just to torture people? Just to dump their prisoners? I thought Spellhold was to house their prisoners? Why not just kill deviants when you're done. Why throw them into a dungeon and have them pass a series of tests so they can prove they're sane after all? And if they do, what then? Do the Cowled Wizards really let them go? Bah! There were some cool individual ideas in Spellhold, but as a narrative it sucked.

Irenicus’ Dungeon (BG2): Irenicus' Dungeon would certainly be somewhere between 11 and 20, but it's a bit too disjointed in its ideas (a frankendungeon), and there's no end boss whatsoever (yet). Also, its place in the game means it can only be traversed with a limited combination of party members (the PC, Imoen, Jaheira, Minsc, or some subset thereof). That's not a fault of the dungeon design, per se, but it does limit the repeated enjoyment.

Umar Hills (BG2): In my review of what makes a good dungeon, I mentioned how much I loathe the Amaunator ritual "puzzle." In addition, every enemy inside is pretty much undead, and the dungeon is also too small. The Shade Lord is an interesting boss though if you count the Shade Lord as the boss, and the Shadow Dragon is a pretty cool boss if you count him instead. However, it lacks the personality of Firkraag. Oh, and I love Mazzy better than most BG2 players, I'm sure, but she's not really a part of the dungeon design.

Planar Sphere (BG2): I do like this quest, but I'm forced to admit the dungeon design is lame. The core idea of a plane-traveling sphere made sense, but not the room layout or enemy selection. Every room did not have a purpose that I could see. For example, what was up with the dirty cave that housed the feral halflings? For that matter, what's up with the feral halflings? What about the fire and ice rooms? They might be cool rooms, but would a travel machine really have them around just for the hell of it? Even if those rooms were needed for some kind of pseudo-science "energy-flow," then why the need for the room before them except that there needed to be a place for Tolgerias and the Cowled Wizards to make a stand? Otherwise, it's just a blank room. I get the impression all this just existed to make the dungeon longer, and that's always a bad sign.

Temple of Elemental Evil (ToEE): I'm sure many will disagree here, but the Temple of Elemental Evil has a major problem. It's too big and seems to be a mish-mash of ideas thrown into one. All four elemental temples in one? Yes, I guess it's one "idea," but it's four dungeons! And it drags on like four dungeons with far too much filler. Oh, and Zuggtmoy wasn't nearly a cool enough boss to pull it up despite these flaws. This whole idea would have worked better as a series of dungeons, each devoted to one element but with different spins and monsters.

NWN1 Franchise
As I hinted at earlier, I think the NWN1 graphics and design decisions regarding "henchmen" make the game unplayable at this point, but beyond that a review of the list of dungeons in the franchise really bring home how crappy all of them were. What a bunch of time fillers! Remember the prison from the peninsula district? How about Helm's Hold? The troll caves near Port Llast? The Host Tower? Klauth's Lair? The Source Stone? All of these had a decent idea or two, but none was a real contender for a great dungeon.

Btw, I thought some of the quests were cool. The snow globe quest had a neat twist, but there wasn't a dungeon attached to it. Therefore, NWN1 was a waste for great dungeon design. The same could largely be said for SoU. Undrentide itself was just average but had enough flaws that I never felt it was remotely worthy of consideration. As for HotU, I've already listed the Drearing Deep Cult Compound, but there was only one more dungeon of note.

Maker's Island (NWN1: HotU): Maker's Island was too small, and the second level was really only the framework for a single quest involving two competing ations of golems. It was an interesting idea that wasn't exactly well-executed, but even if it had been, it doesn't make for a great dungeon. The first level was better and had some neat ideas and a pretty good puzzle. The end boss was a pretty cool monster (a demilich) that was the first of it's kind for the NWN franchise, but wasn't cool enough or memorable enough on its own to make up for other deficiencies.

Addendum: Kobold Caves (NWN1: SoU): As I prepared this post, I saw that JFoxtail recently commented on the Dungeons # 1-5 Post and argued for the inclusion of the Kobold Caves from NWN1: SoU. This is another one that had a couple neat ideas. Yes, kobolds jumping in a bucket was interesting as were the stampeding cows in the lower level. Tymofarrar was a decent enemy who showed some craftiness. However, I can't realistically view it as a great dungeon for many of the same reasons as above. It's a cave with mostly kobolds in it, the flow is highly linear, the endless tunnels all look the same. I honestly felt much of it was uninspired.

NWN2 Franchise
NWN2 was another game with occasionally decent quest design but epically bad dungeon design. Bad layouts and nasty repeated encounter triggers featured throughout. In fact, NWN2 remains the only game I've ever bought I've been unable to finish. I got right up to the final showdown and so feel competent to judge the game, but I couldn't be bothered to care enought to kill the King of Shadows.

MotB was the day to NWN2's night. An amazing game that nevertheless had few true dungeons. I struggled with the Thaymount Academy. Can it be called a dungeon? My gut was that it was a cool setting with some interesting quests but no, it wasn't a "dungeon." However, there were a couple other good examples (the Skein I've already mentioned).

Death God's Vault (NWN2: MotB): This one suffers from being a "dungeon" that requires two trips to traverse it, at least in practice if not exactly in theory. First, you will almost certainly go there near the beginning of the game (Kaelyn's family sends you there right off the bat!), but the lower levels including its entrance to the Fugue Plane is not meant to be accessed until the end game. And in practice the denizens of the lower level before the gate are incredibly difficult until the party acquires the levels and equipment spread throughout the mid-game. There were some nice encounters and several good ideas, and the Vault is incredibly atmospheric, but it's just too disjointed in its flow to be a great dungeon.

Okku's Barrow (NWN2: MotB): Totally honest here, it's hard for me personally to get excited about a dungeon in caves, so I was totally lukewarm about this one. Yes, that's just personal preference. Okku was a pretty cool end boss made more memorable by his later role in the game. Yes, that's a little beyond the dungeon, but he's still cool. There were too many repeated triggers with very similar encounters too many corridors for the number of set-pieces, and too little variety to the challenges. The Illefarn portions of the dungeon didn't fit well enough to warrant them, although there were some interesting ideas there. I do, however, think those portions would have worked better as a small sidequest elsewhere. Finally, like Irenicus' Dungeon, this one suffers in my memory because, being right at the start, your only choice is to traverse it with a PC and Safiya.

As for SoZ, there's only one dungeon that should remotely be considered due to size alone.

Yuan-Ti Temple (NWN2: SoZ): Honestly, this dungeon had nothing that stuck out at me other than the final battle against the Herald of Zehir and some scrubs. There was one puzzle using Se'Sehen's almanac that was decent, but most of the battle encounters were against some variant of yuan-ti. The trap placement was OK and there were some neat role-playing opportunities, but there just wasn't enough to make me go "wow" or care very much after it was done.. Finally, about the Herald of Zehir, he was OK but I have to think he should have been a much bigger bad-ass than he was, and the opportunity to make the player hate him much more not only throughout the game, but even throughout the dungeon, was lost. I really do think the final encounter could have been much better.

So that pretty much explains my thinking about the dungeons that didn't make my lists. I thought I was done with this topic, but I thought of one more thing I'd like to discuss, so in the time-honored tradition of blogging, I'm going to stretch an already-tired subject one more post.


Starwars said...

Good stuff! I think the main ones I would disagree with would be the Death God's Vault in MotB and the Serpent temple in SoZ.

Now, I'd agree that the Vault doesn't really "build up" to anything and that it can be rather disjointed depending on how one approaches it. But I absolutely *loved* that you could get into so much trouble early on in the game. I loved how dangerous it feels early on (too bad that you can break it later on with stuff like Vampiric Feast). Despite the fact that I really dislike the epic levels, some of the encounters with the Vampire Ancients stick out in my mind as some of the great and tough encounters.

I agree with what you say about the SoZ Temple but I think it won me over with how beautiful it is, the smaller roleplaying touches, the well-placed traps etc. But I think I like it so much because you can sneak through it. The encounters are not particularly exciting as you say, but I think it was tense as hell to sneak through a corridor full of traps, while the Iron Golem stood watch ominously, or navigating around the patrolling Yuan-Ti.

The end-boss could've definitely used some build-up but I loved the fight in itself (a bit on the cheap side but still incredibly satisfying once I beat it) and the area just looks epic I think.

Kamal said...

Irenicus tells you why the Cowled Wizards don't just kill people in Spellhold, they are studied in hope the Cowled Wizards gaining magical insight.

Tiberius209 said...


I've never snuck my way through the Temple of the World Serpent, but I do agree it's a neat touch.

The Death God's Vault is a very atmospheric dungeon and I also appreciate being able to be slaughtered early on (if you're not careful). I agree that it's overall a solid design.


Not to be nit-picky, but the Cowled Wizards studied their deviants in Spellhold, most often in the laboratory where you battle Irenicus, and not in the actual Asylum maze beneath Spellhold, which is the actual dungeon. Bodhi implies that the Cowled Wizards actually release those they have condemned into the maze to provide them some sort of cruel entertainment. And the architect and ghosts indicate that those who survive the maze may be deemed "sane" again and allowed to go? That's two different explanations, neither of which makes sense.

So the cells and laboratories of Spellhold proper, then yes, I agree with you. But the Asylum maze rationale was weak to say the least.

Nemorem said...

This just drives home the fact that dungeon design is a lost art. If you expanded your list to a top 20, you'd mostly be adding IE dungeons. Even if you expanded beyond DnD games, I don't know if things would change much. Maybe WoW has some great dungeons, but I wouldn't know about that.

Nice series. I don't mind seeing it continue.

Rollory said...

I've not played NWN2 or anything associated with it, but

" This one suffers from being a "dungeon" that requires two trips to traverse it, at least in practice if not exactly in theory. First, you will almost certainly go there near the beginning of the game ... but the lower levels including its entrance to the Fugue Plane is not meant to be accessed until the end game. "

On the contrary, that's marvelous design. Bringing the player back in the endgame to a place they came to know early and thought was behind them, but now are looking at with different eyes, is a key aspect of building emotional resonance. And emotion is what it's all about.