Back in the day, System Shock was pretty awesome. In it you play a cyberware hacker type of guy who has to deal with problems on this broken-down space station. SS2 was also good, and while the graphics and controls were better the details in the original were good enough to play them both.
But there was a complaint that the game felt like playing a space-plumber because your melee weapon was a wrench and you spent most of the time fixing broken things in the ship. The quest to fix the elevators took several hours and it was nearly the first thing you were assigned!
Dead Space is a lot like System Shock. It’s not exact, but if you removed all the text and audio dialogue I’d have guessed it was SS3. In DS you’re actually a space-engineer and many of your weapons are repurposed tools, so it makes sense. And you do even MORE space-repairs!
Anyone who has ever had to find a battery in the garage to jumpstart the generator so you can use the elevator has experienced this gameplay. It’s a nice re-imagining of the “find a blue keycard to open the blue door” game and looks a whole lot prettier.
But what if the dungeon was functional like a spaceship? It would have rooms devoted to controlling various processes. There would be conduits to move energy or materials from room to room. The controls could be broken or missing parts, the conduits could be clogged or mis-routed, and maybe the energy or material source is broken too.
The functional dungeon doesn’t need to have some ultimate purpose that the players can exploit. It could be simply the side-effect of these functions that the players want. Maybe since the level 3 drain system is completely toast you can reverse gravity on level 3 so the water drains upward into level 2, which has a working drain system. Or maybe to get across the Howling Wind Chasm you can extend an ore escalator across. If you also get the escalator working you can zip across really quickly in one direction while people have to labor slowly in the other direction. But does activating it make noise that disturbs the Honkbats? If you activate the Drill Golems on level 8 and the Haulems in the Grand Ramp you can get a steady stream of ore from below – but will this anger the Albino Orcs who were otherwise peaceful before?
Anyway, the ingredients in this recipe are pretty easy to throw together.
1: The dungeon has to be made by people who can make really complex things like this.
2: The dungeon has to have a purpose. Mining, collecting souls, distracting a demon, running a calculation, imprisoning a god, getting heat from lava to make steam power.
3: You need to come up with a Rube Goldberg series of separate processes and break these down into little parts, and think about how each part could go wrong and be fixed.
4: Draw the dungeon map so it performs the function in an efficient way. Maybe throw in a natural obstacle they had to work around when building it.
5: Make up reasons why each process step would be helpful to have working or not, and what effect on the map and inhabitants deactivating / reactivating it will have. Maybe whole rooms shift and levels flood with gas!
6: Parts needed to fix things should be placed where players wouldn’t otherwise go, so exploration is important. Just for a change of pace, have some important stuff just laying out in the hallway. Might help to mark important things – such as emerald and gold circuit boards or something – so players don’t just assume it’s trash.
7: Include a large amount of trash. Maybe the players can think of cool uses for things that you didn’t.
8: The dungeon has to be ruined somehow – the thing that did the ruining could even still be there hiding in dark corners. Are the original makers or their heirs still around somewhere? In stasis?
9: It may help to have a way for players to know what to do here. In the video games I talked about, there’s always a ton of audio and text logs from the crew of the doomed spaceship you’re in. Maybe you could use journals from previous adventurers who were bright enough to think of stuff on their own. You could also just assume that players will gather information using Commune and such, which makes the adventure much more difficult for parties that aren’t high enough level or lack those resources. Maybe notes from the creators are in a strange language or holograms and can help. Maybe Magic-Users will have a roll based on level to get a hint about how something works.
10: Put in some other reason why the PCs would want to be in the dungeon, and make it possible though very difficult to complete this objective without “fixing the dungeon” along the way. Note that partial repair is preferable and PCs may want to take over the dungeon after repairing it. Maybe this is a good way to encourage the domain-endgame? Don’t worry that the PCs will have a huge automated mining operation – assume they will get it and move the game on from there! I think it’s fine when players break my game because the shattered pieces are sometimes beautiful.