This is a demonstration of my thought process when designing game levels. As an example, I am using Sondenheim, a dungeon mod that I made for Skyrim. This is a walkthrough of the completed first level of the dungeon, with further levels in development. Note that I use lighting mods to enhance the visuals, but it is also tested with those mods disabled in order to ensure that the experience is consistent.
The player enters the dungeon through a small surface ruin nestled into a mountainside in northwestern Skyrim. This geographical position was chosen due to its proximity to the ruined Falmer Chantry seen in the Dawnguard expansion. As later levels of the dungeon will contain caves connecting it to those ruins, being near the only other location with that kind of architecture made sense.
Upon entering, the player starts the dungeon in a safe zone that allows them to prepare for the upcoming monsters and be introduced to the dungeon’s narrative. Dead bandits and camping supplies allude to a previous party of adventurers who were massacred by monsters, a fairly common story in the world of Skyrim. Notes and journals can be read if the player wishes to learn more, but are not required. The next door has been locked in order to keep these horrors contained, but a key can also be found so that players who have not invested in lockpicking can still enter the dungeon.
Rubble has been placed around the dungeon to block off certain areas, but I made an effort to ensure that it is placed logically, rather than arbitrarily. That is, there are no piles of debris without a clear indication of where that debris came from.
After passing the locked door, the player will fight some low-level enemies patrolling the halls and arrive at a four-way intersection. Only one of the four sections leads to a staircase taking the player further downwards – all the others go up – hinting to the player that this is the main passage deeper into the dungeon. The others lead to optional side rooms, rewarding the player for exploring with extra loot.
One of these side rooms is a forge area, seen above, which the player can search for some level-appropriate weapons and other resources. A journal left behind by one of the deceased adventurers can be read to learn more about the ruin, such as the purposes of each room. I wanted to make the layout interesting but believable, so each room’s props were picked to convey some kind of function, like a ritual chamber or bedroom.
The main route into the dungeon leads the player to the aforementioned ritual chamber, patrolled by additional monsters. Useful items like alchemical ingredients and soul gems, presumably once used by the ruin’s inhabitants for their rituals, can be looted here as well. The door straight ahead is the most obvious path forwards, but two side doors have staircases to a lower side chamber. Both side doors lead to the same room, and so only one is unlocked – this both ensures that the player can explore a significant side area even if they have no lockpicks, and supports the narrative because the previous explorers would have unlocked one door already and had no reason to unlock the second.
Assuming the player takes the unlocked side door first, they will be greeted with this view at the bottom of the staircase (the locked door simply takes them to the other side). The warm lighting draws their attention to the end of the hallway in either case, but they will be ambushed by two mid-level enemies emerging from coffins as they traverse the hall.
The room at the end of the hall contains a miniboss, whose defeat allows the player to loot several valuable items, some of which are free for the taking and others of which are locked inside chests.
Once the player returns to the ritual chamber after exploring the lower catacombs or if they ignored them entirely, they can continue exploring a series of hallways and minor rooms before arriving in the main catacombs, where an ancient Nordic ruler and his household were buried. Exploring the various corners of the catacombs will trigger additional ambushes, leading to a final room (seen with the orange lighting in the image above). This room was the private chamber of the tomb’s overseer, presumably a powerful mage based on the magical items in his room. It acts as a safe place for the player to rest and brew some new potions if desired, as well as a being transition between the first level of the dungeon and the second.