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Axe of the Blood God: A Deep Dive Into RPG Dungeons

PODCAST | What makes a good RPG dungeon? Kat and Nadia discuss!

Article by Kat Bailey, .

Axe of the Blood God is our weekly RPG podcast hosted by Kat Bailey and Nadia Oxford. You can find the previous episodes here.

In this week's episode of Axe of the Blood God (download link here), Nadia and I get into a topic that's been on my mind lately: RPG dungeons.

The genesis for this discussion was an article I wrote earlier this week about Persona 5's dungeons, and how they form a satisfying arc not unlike a season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That made me want to explore the history of dungeons and their impact on the genre, which I've apparently never done on this podcast (I'm surprised too). So here's a nice, long deep dive into RPG dungeons, their origins, their design, and what makes them good (or bad).

Also in this episode: I discussion of Ian Bogost's recent article about storytelling in videogames. Nadia has some thoughts already, but I think there's plenty to cover from an RPG perspective. Stay awhile and listen!

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Show Description

Kat and Nadia delve deep into RPG dungeons this week (30:44), where they talk about their origins, their purpose, and what makes them enjoyable. They also share some of their favorites! Also in this episode, Kat and Nadia discuss Ian Bogost's recent argument that games shouldn't have stories. Naturally, as RPG fans, Kat and Nadia have Thoughts. Have comments or questions about the show? Email us at usgamer@usgamer.net. We may read your letter on the show!

Music from Axe of the Blood God is courtesy of Lena Chappelle, who has also contributed the themes to Active Time Babble and Roleplayers' Realm. I also use music from the RPG Music Pack over at rpgmaker.net. Check it out!

This article may contain links to online retail stores. If you click on one and buy the product we may receive a small commission. For more information, go here.

Comments 14

  • Avatar for riderkicker #1 riderkicker 4 months ago
    Wow, what is my favorite RPG dungeon? I'm a bit claustrophobic and I don't enjoy exploring caves as much as any fan of Zelda. The Rock Tunnel in Pokemon still gives me chills as I went through it as a kid without much healing items, especially an Escape Rope.

    I would say a great dungeon would have to match the mood of the current plot. And Persona 4's dungeons is the best example I can muster as each place was designed to fit the personalities of the Head Shadow in Charge. Yukiko had a sense of urgency as she is the fourth party member. Kanji's was f-ed up take on sexuality and masculinity. That creepy kid from another school made me rather sick with its twisty turns and fetid atmosphere. And that last dungeon, made me want to bring up my A-Game as I had to finish up ASAP. I quite like it better than Shin Megami Tensei proper, as even though it has a cool setting, I feel like it's always a struggle to get to the next part of the story.
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  • Avatar for Nuclear-Vomit #2 Nuclear-Vomit 4 months ago
    I think we can all agree that a good dungeon does not contain pits or confusing teleportation.

    There's a hellish dungeon in Dragon Warrior 2, near the end to fight Hargon. So many random pits to fall down and crawlback just so you can try again. Expect to fall again 2 or 3 times, use up your MP and Herbs for healing and return back to town. Then, you will proceed to vomit with rage!

    Then there's Phantasy Star II, same issue as above, but teleportation tiles that have you going in all sorts of places and you never seem to get anywhere. This particular hell is encountered on the way to the Espermansion.

    I remember "ordering" the Prima Sega Genesis Secrets book to my local library from another branch because some other people had checked it out and never returned them. How rude. Anyway, I finally got the copy and..... it did not help. The dungeon was too hard and the section has either wrong or not clear enough.

    http://m.ebay.com/itm/Sega-Genesis-Secrets-Volume-2-II-Secrets-of-the-Games-Series-Rusel-DeMaria-/262788241777?nav=SEARCH

    A Great Dungeon? Air Castle in Phantasy Star IV. The lead up to this Dungeon is so epic, great music, mid boss, main boss, and... it is a call back to the original Phantasy Star. It is just too good. If you have a save file there, play it again and you will see.
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #3 SatelliteOfLove 4 months ago
    @Nuclear-Vomit

    Legend of Grimrock says nuh uh. You will have broken legs, be ambushed by pi-rats, and get incredibly lost until you solve that dexterity based trapdoor puzzle with the snarky name.

    Besides, if you don't have teleporters, you can't telefrag fools.Edited April 2017 by SatelliteOfLove
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  • Avatar for Nuclear-Vomit #4 Nuclear-Vomit 4 months ago
    @SatelliteOfLove still though, I beat legend of grimrock.
    You want to talk hard puzzles, we got to talk about Lufia 2. Spent too long as a kid trying to change yellow blocks to purples... 90s kids know what I am talking about.Edited April 2017 by Nuclear-Vomit
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  • Avatar for NiceGuyNeon #5 NiceGuyNeon 4 months ago
    A lot of people ignore Zelda because they think it's not an RPG (it is). But to me a great dungeon is something to be excited for. Too many games just kind of have dungeons as like a gate towards progress. But with Zelda they're this grand challenge to be overcome with puzzles to solve, unique minibosses, giant show-stopping bosses, and cool designs (especially once we get to the real creative stuff like Ancient Cistern and Arbiter's Grounds).

    But the best part about them is that the level design in Zelda dungeons are generally some of the finest in the medium. I can't think of another series that embodies dungeons so brilliantly.
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  • Avatar for roundthewheel #6 roundthewheel 4 months ago
    Unless I'm badly oversimplifying it, the thrust of the Bogost article seems to be "games aren't very good vehicles for storytelling, so they shouldn't really even try". Do I have the gist of it?

    Only a particular breed of fart-sniffing intellectual is capable of an article like that. Ironically, a stupid person can't write something that stupid. You have to be operating on a fairly rarified echelon to connect synapses in that specific way. When "I don't care" is a compelling counterargument to an entire article, perhaps the thesis was posited at least somewhat in bad faith.

    I am all for heavy-duty academic critical analysis of games, but I think it's unfair to demand that they be something that they simply aren't, and to ignore entire genres and swaths of attempts at achieving great things within their limitations. "Video games are aestheticizations of everyday objects" zzzzz later dude I'm gonna go play Pokémon.

    Also, call me a sentimental fool, but I'd like for the people who make a study of video games to at least act like they enjoy them. Bogost strikes me as a reverse Harold Bloom, waiting for his Shakespeare of video games to manifest and throwing almost everything else under the bus until that person arrives. I also didn't enjoy the wholesale swipe at YA literature, which wasn't fair to YA lit or video games and which I felt really belied his true feelings about more or less the entire subject of video games altogether, not to mention I don't mind saying I feel just a touch insulted at the argument that video games have yet to achieve higher than a YA level of storytelling.

    I'm not "dreaming of the Holodeck" when I play video games. If that makes me unambitious according to Ian Bogost, well then so be it. I'll just be curled up against the ceiling, playing Link's Awakening for the 100th time.

    I didn't mean to write this much and it's probably not terribly coherent, but I guess it touched a nerve with me too.
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  • Avatar for Jonnyboy407 #7 Jonnyboy407 4 months ago
    I don't think I have a favorite dungeon but I prefer dungeons have some adventure or puzzle elements, like in golden sun or wild arms.
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  • Avatar for sleepiest #8 sleepiest 4 months ago
    @riderkicker Did you ever try Persona Q? It kept/mimicked the great mood stuff you're talking about, but dialed it up + added puzzles and changed focus to exploration. Really well done, imo
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #9 SatelliteOfLove 4 months ago
    I'd put immersion from any and all factors highest, really. It's the common theme from some of my favorites:

    Black Rock Depths (World of Warcraft)

    Cave of Trials (Star Ocean 2)

    The Obelisk (Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne)

    Ulduar (World of Warcraft)

    Sen's Fortress/Funhouse (Dark Souls 1)

    Dom Ruins (Grandia 1)

    Void Quest (Persona 4)

    Tower of Latria (Demon's Souls)

    Forest Temple (Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time)

    Karma Temple (Digital Devil Saga 1)

    Coordinate 136 (Digital Devil Saga 1)

    Labyrinth of Amala (Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne)

    The Sunwell (World of Warcraft)

    The Abyssal Shrine (Etrian Odyssey III)

    The Pyramid (Persona 5)

    The Monastery (Wizardry 8)

    Each of these made you PAY ATTENTION and PAY RESPECT, which clashes with the handholdy, "slay a dragon on your lunch break" mentalities that drag down both dungeon design and work to make the experience something to look forward to getting behind you and nothing much to remember.

    @sleepiest

    PQ and SMT4 was at the end of a journey the Etrian team was on that went from the original's very pure "bringing a sense of order to this wilderness with subtly and craftily placed hazards and/or a general zone-wide threat or theme" to one where everything of real note was a puzzle, (even the FOEs) or a hallway to a puzzle or treasure.

    Man that was in the weeds lol.
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  • Avatar for sleepiest #10 sleepiest 4 months ago
    @SatelliteOfLove Having come into that journey at the end (EOIV was my first) I still greatly enjoyed that puzzlebox approach. There's a pleasure in mastering all the different pieces.
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  • Avatar for SIGGYZtar #11 SIGGYZtar 4 months ago
    I have not finished 25% of Persona 5 yet, and I just realized the framing device is exactly like many shows especially the tv show Leverage. I know what I'm naming my team.
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  • Avatar for Wankel-Rotary-Engine #12 Wankel-Rotary-Engine 4 months ago
    Baseball is as much of an rpg as Destiny or Legend of Zelda is. That is to say, not at all.Edited May 2017 by Wankel-Rotary-Engine
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  • Avatar for GamerDad #13 GamerDad 4 months ago
    More in depth AI has been tried in RPGs before.

    I remember the original build of TES IV had what Bethesda called "Radiant AI" and had videos of it in previews.

    Basically NPCs would have their own agendas and scripts and could wander off on their own.

    From what I remember they said they scrapped it because quest NPCs would wander out of town and either die or never come back.
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  • Avatar for raistlinsmits79 #14 raistlinsmits79 3 months ago
    This is comment is a bit late, but I felt compelled to say this! I absolutely adore the Dragon Lance reference! This was the series that really made fantasy for me. My dad read the books when the series was still young, and he fell in love with the characters so much that he named my brothers and I after them! My name is Raistlin, and that is exactly why I always play a mage hahahaha my point is, I always enjoy hearing about someone else who has read the books! Thanks for the great podcast!
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