Mission Design Tips

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Mission Design Tips

While the technical aspects of a mission creation is well covered by Fidcal's excellent A-Z map creation tutorial, there are other non-technical things to be considered when creating a TDM mission. I'll try to point out these things in this article. I welcome others to add more to this. And please note that some things herein are a matter of taste. The idea is more to make people think about these design elements. -Sotha

Preparing for mission building

If you are a novice mapper, going forth to create your very first map, start small, fun and simple. Look at the Thief's Den 1, the Outpost and the Pandora's Box. Small, fun and excellent. Try not to create something really ambitious. Do something like that once you've more experience and confidence in your mapping skills. There are many things to be learned through trial and error.

It is always a good idea to think in advance how your mission flows. You should have a general idea what you're doing before you start mapping. Have a scetchy floorplan. Find some images for inspiration from the net. It is much easier to create a scene from an image than from your mind. Think about the plot. If you want an elaborate plot, you should think some kind of beginning, a turning point (the point of no return) and the ending. This about the map difficulty. How to place zones of low, medium and high tension. You do not need to think everything before mapping, but when your mapping project has a good foundation it is much more easy to stay on target and not get lost in trivialities. With a good plan, you *will* save time and your nerves. Remember nothing forces you to stick with the plan if you have an even better idea. But in order to get something done, it is better to stick with the plan and record the brilliant idea somewhere so you can use it in a later mission.

Creating Basic Geometry

Try to avoid linear maps. Make the maps such that you can access common areas through multiple routes. The critical areas probably have smaller amount of entries. Supercritical places like bank vaults should have high tension guarding and security. Only one entry way.

It might be a good idea to lay in few brushes according to your floorplan and check how it is going to work. Place an AI as reference so you see how the floorplan scales to a human being.

While mapping, write down all ideas you get while working on your map. You might get some cool location or plot elements, which would be a shame if you forgot them.

When building the geometry or planning it, try to make it realistic. If people live in the region you create, there should be conveniences people require: sustenance, shelter and convenience. Create the rooms in a purposeful, logical locations. Like in real life, each room serve some kind of purpose. Try to relay the meaning to the player. Doing this makes your locale believable, which is important for immersion.

If you find this difficult, check the net for castle/manor/crypt floorplans. Note that which rooms are where. This will get you on the right track.


Once the basic level geometry is created and you're starting to add details, you should rethink about the mission difficulty. Basically you need to have your map bright enough so that the AI has possibility of seeing the player. Also you need to have enough AI's to challenge the player. It is boring to have a pitch black mission, where the player can just waltz through everything without the need of considering blackjacking or other use of equipment. On the other hand, you must not make the mission too difficult with many bright lights and too many AI.

Try to add much variations in your map: there should be low tension zones with darkness (cellars, attics), medium tension zones (corridors with occasional patrols) and high tension zones with constantly present danger (barracks, the vault, the trophy room, the lords study). A constant tension throughout the mission is not a good idea.

Typically decent difficulty is achieved by thinking about the mission as in "light, but with islands of darkness the player can hide in." Islands of darkness may also mean objects the player can hide behind.

The difficulty is probably too low, if you can effortlessly walk in shadow all the time and through the mission. If you need to make quick rushes from a dark spot to another while the guard looks the other way, you're probably at correct difficulty. Also remember that the game has equipment. Set the mission difficulty so that the clever use of equipment is rewarded with success. In an excellent mission, the player is given options how to proceed and some equipment should be consumed to make progress.

The Plot

Good missions usually have a plot, a story being told by the location the player is in. The plot (in addition to the geometry) sets the mood and atmosphere of your map. A desperate survival story in a haunted tower? Political intrigue and blackmailing? A common burglary? A setup? An ambush? A pickpocketing heist amidst celebrating nobility?

To create a solid plot you need to answer the following questions, some questions deserve multiple answers: What is the mission about? Where is it located? Why these things happen? When? Who is involved? Why should the player / main character care?

When you have a good idea what is going on, you need to convey the plot somehow to the player. Place readables, maybe AI conversations. Put in clues in your rooms. Have the villain AI slay the prince as soon as the player sneaks by. Let the villain drop the piece of parchment. The plot should steadily build up tension until the final clue hammers in with it's horrific implications. Remember to place the plot elements logically and realistically.

Try to create such a plot it does not require you to limit player progress too much. Do not let the plot ruin player/gameplay fun. The plot is there as an fun amplifier.

Note that the mission might not have a plot per se. If the player explores an interesing location, the plot might be the location telling it's story. Why was the underground temple built? Who does that mysterious statue portray? Providing such information increases your maps suspension of disbelief, making it far more interesting than just another place to loot.

Try not to cram one mission too full of plot. Why not divide the plot over two short missions? Remember, while a single Thief 1 mission had it's own plot, it progressed a bigger plot that overarched through the whole game. Typically the single mission length plot is not very long or complex.

Gameplay and Design

Your mission is for a game. Games should be fun, not frustrating. When creating something, ask yourself: "If I was playing this and I didn't know whats coming, would this be fun?" If the result is a 'no', then modify until you get a 'yes.' Ask this question very often. This question is probably the most important advice in this article. Write it down somewhere and look at it when you map. ;-D

The Start Place

Provide some imaginary way that the player has arrived at the start. This might be by starting in mid air near an unclimbable wall so at the start it is as if he just climbed and dropped over from the other side. Another common alternative is a closed, unopenable door or gate behind the player as if the player entered that way.

Some FMs can take a while to load first time, especially big FMs on low-end systems. It is highly recommended that you start the player where he cannot be seen, heard (dropping off a wall, or felt (yes, Dark Mod AI can 'feel' the player if they bump into him/her,) by enemy right at the start. If there is a special case such as the start of Alchemist then warn players in advance. Otherwise the player might not be attentive or even gone for a coffee and come back to find the FM not only started but failed already!


How to do secret compartments and rooms? The player needs to be somehow able to find your secrets. You need to set clues to nudge the player to the correct direction. This essentially breaks into two categories: written clues and visual clues. Other types are possible, but these are probably the most common ones.

If there is no written clue to the secret, put in visual clues. Generally visual clue tells the observant player that there is something odd in the room, hinting that there most likely is a secret there. If done properly, no written clue is needed. The player will notice the visual clue, and starts systematically search the room until the secret is found. Examples of visual clues are strangely placed furniture, odd details like hinges or rails on a bookshelf, or a scratch decal caused by the secret door movement on the floor. If the secret is behind a painting, put the painting a bit skewed, so it looks it was tampered with recently.

The other type of clue is the readable clue. In it's simplest form, you say in a readable "there is a secret in this and that room," then you can hide the secret without any visual clues. You need to be specific enough in your clue that the area to be searched is roughly the size of one room. "There is a secret in the mansion" clue would be useless. Note also that the player can not then find the secret if he cannot find the readable.

Whatever clues you give to the player, always bet on stupidity and don't make them too cryptic. If the objective attached to the secret is optional, when there is no limits for your deviousness.

Also, most players do not have eidetic memory, so it would be nice to have the written clues to be moveable so the players can take them with them and re-examine them if they need to do so.

Puzzles and Hidden Objects

Always bet on stupidity. People will misunderstand clues and riddles, so make them seem easier rather than difficult. What seems too easy for the map creator typically is challenging for the player. If it is challenging for the mapper it is most likely impossible for the player. I am not implying players are dumber than the mappers! Mappers know their own creation very well, and it is difficult for them to estimate whether their creation is challenging enough when viewed from the outside. Usually external view is more difficult than the mapper view. Take this into account when creating puzzles, hidden compartments and hidden keys.

Puzzles and riddles should be solvable using game world help and assets. It is not a good idea to design a puzzle which requires the player to stop playing, quit and search the internet to solve the problem. This only breaks the playing session and frustrates people. If you put a latin text in your mission, you should put a latin dictionary in your mission, rather than expect the player to stop playing an grabbing a dictionary!

There is a way to make as difficult puzzles as you like. Make the objective optional! Doing so you will reward the clever players who crack your difficult puzzle, but on the other hand the players who are already challenged by your map can enjoy it, without the map getting too rough for them.

Non-Pickable Doors, Keys and Mission Critical Objects

Non-pickable locked doors are very dangerous elements. You can ruin your mission with these. Use them sparingly! This kind of door is a plot/mapper imposed obstacle, which requires the player to do things in the order the mapper wants. It may be vital for the plot, but remember that the player *will* be frustrated if he misses the key. Put in clues to lead the player to the key. Put the key in an obvious place so the player will not miss it. Put some kind of light to make the object more visible. Put the key in a logical place! The same advise applies to any kind of Mission Critical Object the player must possess to make progress. Do not have the player walk all the way to Mordor only to realize he left the hidden One Ring back in the Shire.

Think about other options: you could put a difficult pickable door instead of the non-pickable one, place a guard and a nonextinguishable light. Have the guard go for a short patrol, but so short the door cannot be picked while he is gone. Let the patrol be long enough for the player to easily open the door with a key. The player can go there if he/she wishes, but it is much easier with the key. Let the player enjoy your location in the order he chooses. Give player options, but have the options have consequences.


Since AI cannot use ladders, they are a player breather element: a place to run away. Thus they should be used sparingly. Alternatively, you could use monsterclip brushes to allow the AI to follow the player. Keep in mind the opposite when designing your mission: the player should have at least some kind of escape and hiding place if things go awry.

See also