Skyrim Dungeon Pack
WIP Mod for Skyrim Special Edition
This is a collection of five dungeons that I’m making for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Special Edition in the Creation Kit, and will be available for download when I’m done.
I haven’t played Skyrim for a while, but when I was thinking of games I could mod to get some level design practice it came straight to mind. I have no idea why I never thought of learning the Creation Kit sooner.
I wanted to make something simple but impressive, initially leaning towards making a quest but I realised I’d need to learn so many extra systems within the Creation Kit (and organise voice acting or else have a really half-assed looking mod) so I decided upon a series of dungeons. I settled upon the following design goals:
Each dungeon will have a different theme - There would be no point in making five different caves or bandit hideouts. It wouldn’t be exciting to play or make, and wouldn’t give me experience in designing different kinds of environments.
Each dungeon will try something new - Let’s be honest, Skyrim’s dungeons can be really same-y. There’s some great ones that stand out with things like unique aesthetics or interesting backstories, but there’s a lot of them that feel just like every other dungeon. I wanted each of my dungeons to have some unique factor that set them apart and made them stick in people’s memories. Not necessarily a gameplay gimmick, it could be a design quirk too.
Aim for organic non-linearity - I wanted to avoid having dungeons that were straight A to B affairs with a couple of small side rooms, or which had branching paths but one was right and one went to an optional area. You know the feeling - you go down one path and realise it’s the right way and all the loot is hidden down the end of the other path so you have to backtrack to get it. I wanted to make things feel more natural so players know when they’re on the right track and when they’re exploring, but also ensuring the design isn’t just one straight path to the end. This is something that even big AAA games can falter with so I wasn’t expecting to get this right on my first go but it was something to keep in mind.
Dungeons will be reasonable in length - A lot of mods like to plug “Epic longest ever dungeon crawls!” as a feature of their dungeons but I wasn’t into that for mine. I always prefer shorter experiences that leave you content rather than those that drone on and on and outstay their welcome. I feel like a Skyrim dungeon would be hard to keep engaging for too long anyway, as you’d either end up repeating the same sorts of puzzles and encounters over and over again or spend too long trying to make something new with custom scripting when you could be moving onto a completely new dungeon offering a fresh new experience. The dungeons won’t be short, but I’d like them to be able to be completed in a single play session and leave the player satisfied.
Each dungeon will have stories to tell - I wanted to flex my writing muscles as well as my design muscles, and there’s ways to do this even without designing quests. Environmental storytelling is a huge part of level design, and while there are some notable examples of how it’s done poorly in big games that always get pointed and laughed at, it’s something that definitely sounds difficult to do. I wanted to try my hand at telling stories that had already happened, told through notes and more subtle cues within the construction of the level itself.
Behind the Scenes
Keep scrolling for a deep dive into each dungeon as I work on them, including diagrams and playable prototypes.
Home sweet home
What is Balyn Manor?
The first dungeon I’m working on is called Balyn Manor; an abandoned haunted manor with a tragic past. My experience with level design has predominantly been with things like caves and exterior landscapes, so naturally to get started I selected the dungeon idea from my list that was the furthest removed from these possible. Great idea. I couldn’t help myself, I just loved this idea so much that I couldn’t help but dive straight into it. I got the inspiration for turning a home into a dungeon from Snowpeak Ruins in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess and Moschet Manor from Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles.
Design Goal Overview
A different theme - This dungeon would stand out from my others by being set in a regular building rather than a traditional dungeon environment like a cave or fort. I also envisioned a sort of walking sim/horror influence on this design, de-emphasising combat and focusing on discovery and atmosphere instead. Not to say there wouldn’t be combat, but it’d be used more sparingly and in ways that enhance the atmosphere - think ghosts, and suits of armour coming alive, rather than bandits guarding their loot.
Trying something new - This kind of ties in with what I said about the theme. Going for a slower-paced, less action-focused experience is much different from what’s found elsewhere in Skyrim. The mansion setting is a great point of difference as well. It gives the dungeon a really unique style that separates it from not just the dungeons in Skyrim but also the dungeons in a lot of RPGs in general. It also poses unique design dilemmas - you can’t just place chests full of enchanted gear around or have doors locked by stone tablet puzzles because this is supposed to be somewhere people actually live! I had to think about how to rework the expected features of Skyrim dungeons to fit the setting. For example - to get around the loot issue I got the idea to use things like weapon mounts and mannequins, which are normally used by the player to display their gear, as ‘containers’. It’d be believable for a ritzy medieval mansion to have weapons and armour on display, and so players would be able to loot this.
Organic non-linearity - How do you get to the end of a house? While I would need to have a critical path of some kind though the mansion, the fact that it’s an actual building that people lived in meant that it was already more open that a regular dungeon. Players can move about as they see fit, going from room to room until they hit locked doors and obstacles. It wouldn’t feel like they’re just going down a straight line. Of course, this could mean they encounter most of the enemies before they’ve really achieved any objectives and spend the rest of the time wandering in silence, so I got the idea of triggering new enemies as the players progressed through the ‘story’ of the mansion e.g. the halls could be filled with ghosts, but after finding a key in another room the mannequins in the hall could come to life when the player returns.
Reasonable length - I think the mansion setting will enforce this for me because the mansion can only be so big while still being believable. There’ll be some backtracking and points where the players are wandering around looking for clues, but overall I’m more worried about this dungeon being too small than too big.
A story to tell - I came up with a The Shining/Twin Peaks inspired story about the patriarch of a wealthy family being driven to kill by an evil influence. There would be additional subplots to discover running alongside this like aspiring treasure hunters who tried looting the place, and blooming relationships between some of the mansion’s occupants. I envisioned the main story playing out through notes uncovered as you moved through the mansion trying to open the path to the boss room. The treasure hunters would be a great plot device for offering hints to the player, with them being able to loot their diaries full of research notes. And then the house could resurrect the bandits as enemies to fight as well.
The Design Process
So far while I’ve been learning my way around the Creation Kit I’ve started designing the basic layout of the dungeon. I tried to keep it relatively high-level for the moment, because I don’t know what exactly the Creation Kit is capable of and so I don’t want to get too attached to any ideas only to find out they’re impossible. My focus instead was on crafting a believable mansion layout with plenty of potential for interesting gameplay, which I could then plan a path and objectives around, tweaking as need be. This is different to my normal approach where I come up with the level layout and the player path around the same time, but I feel it’s appropriate given the circumstances.
I began looking up mansion floorplans and mansion RPG maps. A lot of the floorplans were too modern in style and the RPG maps felt too blocky and unnatural, but I found a few that matched what I was after. I took some notes on what key features I wanted:
A ballroom as the focus of the map and the final boss location
Long hallways that would feel creepy and be well-suited to fights
A bit of asymmetricality in the design to make it look more interesting
A less glamorous basement for visual variety, with a hidden passageway in it
I came up with the following draft design (notes have been retyped so you don't have to try and read my handwriting):
Fixing the Design
You can see the notes I took up ahead, so I'll keep this brief. My main issues were that the playing space seemed like it would be too quick to play through, and that there were no long hallways on the first floor. The spooky hallway full of suits of armour was a key image I had in mind for this dungeon so I definitely needed some of those. I came up with a new design which wasn't as asymmetrical as the first one but was much better overall.
Crafting the Level
Once I'd learned my way around the Creation Kit through the Lokir's Tomb tutorials (my results here) I started building up the first floor of the manor in the editor. I worked with a rough scale of one grid block on my page translating to a 4x4 grid of single floor tiles, which managed to make a playing space that seemed perfectly sized.
The hardest part was, by far, finding parts that matched my vision and fit together nicely. This was especially true of the ballroom; I had to go for a curved design and naturally there were no round room exteriors I could easily fit into my scene. So there's a few sections of the level that don't look the best, but it's the best I can do with what is offered. If this were a real project I'd either be able to request some new assets or ask the people organising the assets in the Kit to please for the love of God provide some form of accessible naming scheme or search functionality.
I didn’t want to wait til I had the whole mansion assembled and decorated before I started playtesting it, so I aimed to get a ‘prototype’ ready to play. It would focus on the first floor with some early furnishings and enemy encounters that were less about having something pretty and polished and more about taking some ideas I had for layouts and encounters for a test drive. I wasn't going to spend time making new assets or getting heavily into the scripting of encounters yet, instead using what's there to just get a feel for how my space can play. You can tell which rooms I spent time prettying up before realising I was missing the point of this prototyping exercise.
I started to form an idea of the progression through this first floor based on the sightlines I was noticing as I explored the level. The parts I had to use to link some of the doorways put big, bulky pillars in the way of the player’s view. This meant that some of the entranceways I envisioned for some areas were actually completely blocked and not giving the first impressions I wanted, so I had to use alternate entrances as the ‘main’ ones. To test this progression I locked the doors and hid keys around with no major clues as to their locations. I want to know how tolerant people are of not finding the keys so I can design my puzzles accordingly, and I figure giving next to no guidance at all is the best way of testing this. While iterating on my design I could feel the gears ticking away in my head, slowly getting an idea of how this level would play and how I could guide the players through it, with things like putting torches near the doors to help players identify the paths they could take through the mansion.