As the “forever GM” for my usual crew of tabletop RPG players, I’ve done a lot of reading about the techniques that go into a well-designed session. Included in that is structuring dungeons, which often serve as the setting of the heroic adventures of TTRPG characters. A lot of my dungeon inspiration comes from video games. Historically I have looked at the structure of dungeons in games like The Legend of Zelda as my primary form of inspiration. Having recently hit credits for the first time in Hollow Knight, I think I’ve found my new gold standard.
Hollow Knight takes place in a location called Hallownest, a fallen bug kingdom composed of many connecting but distinct regions. In TTRPG terms we might describe this location as a megadungeon, a massive dungeon complex meant to be explored in multiple dives. There are a number of features within Hallownest that help to make it feel like a real place. These approaches to dungeon design are all great practical examples of the same techniques that a tabletop GM might use to create their own distinct worlds. In this article I’ll be using Hallownest as an example demonstrating the effectiveness of these different design techniques.
Imagine if you will the typical JRPG dungeon. How is the building structured? You are probably imagining a series of straight hallways or cavern walls each leading to sets of stairs leading up or down from floor to floor. Occasionally perhaps you may see multiple sets of stairs on the same floor, challenging you to discover which one leads to the correct path and which one leads to a dead end (hopefully featuring treasure). These types of straightforward connections don’t make for much of a challenge in terms of navigation nor are they particularly interesting to look at. It also makes your options for navigating a space more quickly rather limited.
One of the simplest ways to spice up a dungeon is to change up these connections. Instead of having stairs lead straight down, a pit trap drops you three floors that you then have to climb back up before finding a lever that makes a proper staircase. Imagine three floors that run parallel with the middle floor only connecting to the floor on the bottom. You have to find your way from the top to the bottom and then back up to the middle to see what’s on that center floor. These types of connections are commonplace in Hallownest and they keep each individual region from being too simple to navigate.
Where these connections really get interesting though is across regions, allowing you new paths into an old place and creating a complex network of pathways for getting to where you want to go as fast as possible. Some cross region connections are as simple as a pit or a doorway or a broken wall that can connect two places, but there are also three different types of fast travel in Hollow Knight. The most common is the stagway, an interconnected series of tunnels you can use to transport to specific locations within a number of regions as long as you pay a one-time fee. There are also lifts which typically need to be activated by reaching one end of the lift and then striking a lever which can allow you to travel between two regions above and below one another. Finally, if you have a tram pass, you can take the train between a few set destinations which are horizontal from one another. Having multiple paths in and out of every location allows you to find your own way to get to each place, and to move more quickly through the dungeon complex as you build out additional connecting paths.
We think of dungeons as inherently hostile places, but a massive series of battles and traps without meaningful rest stops doesn’t make for a satisfying gameplay structure nor does it feel help the dungeon to feel like a real space. What civilizations have built up around the dungeon? Who manages to live inside it? When might this now ruined structure have been thriving and how did it fall? The answers to each of these questions breathes life into a location, and Hallownest does this well in a variety of ways.
Outside of Hallownest is a small village called Dirtmouth that serves as a resting place for those about to head underground. A pair of small shops distribute key supplies and a bench provides a resting place (not to mention a saving place) for the weary traveler. Megadungeons in this style often benefit from just such a town, a place with familiar faces and safe conditions where the heroes can get ready for their next dive inside. Use connections as discussed in the previous section to make that town more accessible and help players to stumble into it in unexpected ways. A surprise reprieve can be as effective of a narrative device as a surprise threat.
Civilization doesn’t have to be friendly, though. In the Fungal Wastes, a village of mantis creatures serves as a unique but no less threatening hazard than any of the other dangers found there. Opponents who are intelligent, organized, and driven are a compelling change of pace from those who are simply feral. In Hollow Knight the mantis tribe can become friendly after being bested in combat, giving you greater access to their region as well as some useful bonuses. Opportunities to create friends from foes creates more complex and interesting dynamics inside of the dungeon.
Both of the above examples use a whole town to demonstrate the concept of civilization, but often in Hallownest these encounters happen on a smaller scale. A shady banker who disappears with your Geo, a wandering mapmaker whose pleasant humming is a familiar comfort, an enigmatic knight who mumbles cryptic half-threats while you share a bench together; all of these small moments work together to show Hallownest as a place full of creatures of all kinds. These moments become even more effective when you show how the different communities within the dungeon interact with one another. A fellow wanderer who often finds themselves in need of your rescue, evidence of two different monster types competing with one another – every relationship makes the setting a more interesting place.
One of the most important aspects of a compelling dungeon is that it is not a stagnant location. As time passes and the moving parts within go about their lives, how the players interact with the space should change to reflect the new developments within. In Hollow Knight one of the most common ways that change is reflected is in the change to your own capabilities. As the knight learns to dash, bounce, and launch through the space in new ways, you change the space directly by creating permanent new paths through the environment. The changes you make may be reflected as new connections or redefined relationships, permanent markers of how your presence in a space has altered it (hopefully for the better).
One of my personal favorite examples of change in Hollow Knight was a drastic change to the first region of Hallownest, the Forgotten Crossroads. As the first area you ever explore, the crossroads are simple to navigate and have enemies who present a rather low level of danger. It doesn’t take long to reach the point where the crossroads feel like a safe zone, one through which you can quickly and effortlessly dash and slash. Eventually you’ll have enough fast travel options that you don’t even need to go through the crossroads to get to the places you are really trying to go, which makes it even more impactful when you finally do go back and realize that the crossroads have been infested by a force that changes their shape and makes the foes there much more dangerous. A large scale change like this not initiated directly by the actions of the players can be too big of a move if played too often, but done strategically to show the changes that can take place in the locations that the hero has begun to ignore can be really effective.
Hallownest is a fantastic example of dungeon design done well. The next time I begin to prepare a tabletop campaign I will certainly be thinking back to Hollow Knight’s world as inspiration for the adventures I create. Thankfully for those playing the video game, the setting’s effective use of connections, civilization, and change also make for a wonderful world to explore. I now understand the excitement of those who are a little bit disappointed every time that Silksong doesn’t make an appearance at a game announcement event – the idea of revisiting this world and seeing how Team Cherry continues to build on the excellent structure of the first game is certainly a compelling one. My time with Hollow Knight may be done, but I can see this game being one that influences my standards and tastes moving forward to other titles.