D&D Dungeon Design: Contrast
image source: map from AD&D Tomb of Horrors module
When building a dungeon for your campaign, keep contrast in mind. What is contrast? Well it’s pretty black and white: it’s just a juxtaposed difference in two things.
High contrast draws attention to those differences, each one becoming stronger. That’s why complementary colors, light and dark values, or sharp and blurry edges near one another draw your attention in a piece of artwork. If you want to draw attention to an encounter, area, or concept in your campaign or dungeon, sharpen that contrast! Deviate from the norms and standards you have presented your players, and their emotions and brains will snap alert and focus on exactly what you wanted it to.
Low contrast does a few things. First, it sets a standard of comparison. Areas of low contrast in a dungeon would be the approximate challenge rating of the dungeon, so when easy or difficult encounters are juxtaposed next to it the players realize how different it is. If the majority of rooms are symmetrical, rounded, and neat, then once that is contrasted with an asymmetrical, sharp-edged, rough room will be a huge eye-opener. Without low contrast, we cannot have high contrast to compare it to.
Low contrast in a dungeon also gives the brain a rest. After long periods of deliberation in combat or a puzzle, getting back to that low-contrast standard is a mental break an relief for a player. It’s sort of a recovery time that helps balance the pacing of a dungeon.
Lastly, low contrast creates anticipation. In our cinematic world we have been acclimated to, all of us today know how stories should work. If everything is the same for a long time, then things are more likely to change soon. This is that feeling of anticipation; we keep searching and exploring for that difference in design or mechanics and when it finally resolves we get that sweet, sweet rush of endorphins that says “yes you were right it had to change sooner or later.”
Here are some examples of how contrast can be used to psychologically guide and manipulate your players (boy that sounded a lot darker than intended):
The type of encounters in your dungeon, when lined up in sequence, can be contrasted. A combat encounter has very different pacing from a puzzle or a skill check or roleplaying encounter. If you chain together a series of combat encounters, it will wear down the party and add tension and importance for whatever breaks that chain. A puzzle will suddenly carry greater weight. This contrast is sort of why in practice, when building encounters, you sprinkle a few puzzles or skill checks or roleplaying encounters throughout the combat in your dungeon. It gives players a break and lets them relieve that tension that’s built up from combat and lets them use a different part of their brain for a bit.
One the flip side, when you have a bunch of non-combat encounters chained together, it creates a sense of anticipation. D&D is a combat-focused system, so players are just waiting for something to just out at them. This holds true in “funhouse” dungeons like the Tomb of Horrors where actual combat is few and far between, but puzzles and traps abound: there is a sense of abject terror filling the dungeon as players become more and more neurotic from only solving puzzles.
Each encounter is always immediately compared to the encounter that came before it. You can use this to your advantage. For instance, if you want your players think your boss is even more powerful than the CR says, have them fight a few easy minions right before the boss. Suddenly, the Bone Devil hits seem far more dire and frightening compared to those Kobolds that they just faced, even if it’s normally an appropriate CR for the players. Contrast here acts as a psychological boost to the drama of a boss fight. On the other hand, a difficult encounter immediately followed by an easy encounter is a point to relax your players’ brain juices after a mechanically difficult encounter. Players need this or else they will start to feel as used and abused as their characters.
Left: Asymmetry, sharp corners, and tight spaces make players uncomfortable. Right: Symmetry, round edges, and open spaces are comforting.
Visual design is also important (and my specialty). Visually, contrast is a means of showing the viewer what to focus on. Points of low contrast are less important while areas of high contrast are more important. I will go into further detail in a future post on guiding player movement, but for now:
- Complexity: More complex rooms are more intimidating and take longer to explore while simple rooms are more approachable and take a mere moment to take in. Juxtaposing complexity of a room vs. the encounter within should ideally create balance to avoid either overwhelming players or boring them. Good practice would be putting a complex encounter in a simple room or putting a simple encounter in a complex space. This contrast will also bring attention and focus to the encounter, rather than the space (which is typically what you want). Symmetry could also be considered simple while asymmetrical would be complex.
- Shape: Visually, sharp corners evoke conflict, while round corners create a sense of comfort. If you want your players to worry, add some additional angles to your room using alcoves or room dividers. Besides, adding angles to a room where a combat encounter is about to happen gives players more environment to play with. If you want your players to feel safe, like in a sanctuary area where no monsters are likely to enter, round out the room or add round objects to the room like pillars or statues. Placing these rooms next to one another will draw attention to and enhance this psychological difference.
- Scale: A large room begs players to linger and explore and creates a sense of the sublime: something larger and greater than the players. An ideal place for a boss encounter. A small room or cramped space means players won’t stick around. It creates tension and unease and compels players to move forward; a good place for a trap or a surprise. When compared to a large room, the small room will look smaller and the large, larger.