Table of Contents
Shrines not Dungeons
I know, I know. I’m essentially telling you to play Dungeons and Dragons with neither dungeon, nor dragon, but hear me out.
Dungeons were (and are) a staple of the Zelda franchise, and they walked away from them, too. In theory.
What is that theory, and why?
It all comes back to the core mechanic of the game or campaign: exploration. Shifting from a handful of massive, inventive delves, to those dungeons broken up into hundreds of pieces not only gives your players more rewards for exploration, but gives them more goals to chase.
It is both tactic and reward to place objectives at the end of explorations. This creates a constant of the ends rewarding the means.
What Breath of the Wild did, was break the franchise’s standard dungeons up into hundreds of pieces. Instead of numerous encounters in a single delve, they broke it up into smaller chunks (between 1-3 encounters, roughly) and scattered them across the landscape.
To create a working exploration flywheel, I’m suggesting doing the same. It’s not that we’re removing dungeons all together. We’re fragmenting the experience in order to reinforce our core mechanic. They’re dungeons, they’re just bite-sized dungeons.
The only watch-out with this approach is that instead of keeping an covetable loot (or progression, or plot, etc.), at the end of a handful of dungeons, A DM must create a wealth of desirable loot for the end of hundreds of of mini-dungeons.
I don’t want to understate that this is a considerable amount of extra work, and perhaps a shift in philosophy.
Your exploration flywheel doesn’t start spinning unless you constantly give your players a reason to go exploring. While placing shrines tantalizingly out of reach might persuade players to pursue them once or twice, they will quickly lose interest if the rewards aren’t meaningful enough.
Inversely, you don’t want to make the rewards too great, because then that creates power creep. Players will end up not longer having encounters that challenge or engage them.
As mentioned, we’re aiming for desirable, not covetable.
What makes a reward desirable? I tend to define it with the following:
- Utility & usefulness
- Coolness factor & memorability
This can be a difficult thing to balance at scale. It’s easy to assume that a +1 sword is useful to an entire party of player characters who all have standard equipment, and that’s probably true.
For the sake of it, let’s diagram this out:
What happens if your party concludes a shrine to find +1 long swords, and it’s a Monk, a Druid, and a Wizard? That’s useless to all of them.
Easy solve, it’s +1 items tailored to the group that completes it. Monk gets a +1 quarter staff, as does the druid, and the wizard gets a spell to add to their book. Great, we have utility, without power creep.
What happens when that same group solves another shrine? You can’t go back to the +1 well. There won’t be any incentive to care about those over the ones they just got. Worse yet, you can create a feedback loop that loot ultimately isn’t important, as the newer thing is always what they should take. Remember, whether intentional or not, as a DM, anything you put in the game gets an inflated sense of value; a perceived sense of superiority by it being placed in the current game space. If this loop exists, loot begins to lose its incentive for exploration, and your players will lose interest in a core mechanic. Plus-two (+2) items don’t curb that, and introduce power creep, too.
This is where diversity comes in, of course. To keep things fresh, mix up the types of progression available to your party. Possibilities include:
Of these, currency, health, and XP tend to fail on the “coolness factor,” and XP should probably be awarded regardless.
Buffs and boons that are permanent or semi-permanent are always interesting, and provide strategic value as well. Consumables are great, and offer even more strategic value, but far less lasting value.
Spells are always good to hand out, but can create scope creep, so start with cantrips.
Skills are by far my favorite. Not only do players love seeing permanent stat increases, but, a jump from +0 to +1 or +3 to +4 doesn’t make as much a mathematical impact as it does with how it’s perceived. Even better, it’s something that you can use to reinforce the narrative of the mini-dungeon. Whatever skills individual part members used, or puzzles they solved or feats the performed can be reflected in the skill bonus they receive at the end.
Divine Beasts (AKA “but also dungeons”)
I just told you to bust up all your dungeons and toss the remnants all over your map. Now I’m saying it’s okay to bring them back. It’s not that you can’t have larger delves. You just need to abstract them a little, as their purpose is no longer central to the campaign’s main mechanics.
When delving is no longer the key factor in the campaign’s mechanics, dungeons need to function as a capstone to the pieces that are. When they’re no longer the primary force behind character progression, they are best served as tools for progressing the story.
The Divine Beasts excel at this. These four dungeons are large set-pieces that serve as playgrounds on which skills learned, items collected, abilities gained, and puzzles solved are all extrapolated, and built upon. They are more challenging, more complex, and more exacting than shrines. Even if they involve all the same tools to complete.
They also exist as the four most impactful story markers as Link rushes toward the final conflict with Ganon.
This is your goal with larger dungeons in your campaign.
Build upon all the skills, abilities and knowledge the party has gained through exploration. Then present them in a much more challenging and esoteric way.
Use them as massive waypoints in the central plot of the campaign, as their own high-impact reward.
Oh, and if you want to throw in a few pieces of covetable loot at the end, you can always do that, too.
One of the most pivotal elements to Breath of the Wild’s shrines and dungeons, are the Runes. These are unique skills Link can use at will to solve puzzles, clear obstacles, and even provide unique engagements in combat. There are four major Runes within Breath of the Wild.
- Magnesis Rune (magnetic abilities)
- Remote Bomb Rune
- Cryonis Rune (ice-based abilities)
- Stasis Rune (abilities that hold things in place and time)
This construct of abilities doesn’t exist in 5e, but has been referred to in countless ways throughout previous editions: Abilities, Powers, Maneuvers, etc.
The truth is, though, you don’t really need them. The multitude of skills, feats, abilities, and spellbooks in D&D can and should be diverse enough to replicate just about any abilities, in practice. In fact, it’s because BOTW can’t facilitate such a diverse menu of abilities, that Runes exist at all.
That said, there’s something intrinsically interesting a set of skills, abilities, or powers, that are available to the entire party devoid of race, class, or background.
A small, standard set of abilities that every player in the party understands, and can use for themselves or in conjunction with other party members.
I won’t go down a list of what these abilities could be (there’s countless options mined from Zelda, past editions of D&D, and other TTRPGs), but I do want to take a deeper look at how to deploy these abilities.
These abilities make fantastic progression rewards, so anywhere you need to reinforce you campaign mechanics (like a mini-dungeon) would be a good place to stash these abilities.
They also work as excellent tools for party bonding. Any time a party shares something (like experiences), it helps drive closeness between the party members. Shared abilities, and the possibility of combining them to pass through encounters will do that even more.
On top of that, if you’re running this game West Marches, you have the chance to diversify which groups have which abilities. You could let players teach that to groups or individuals that don’t, or, you could leave it alone, and watch players try and recruit other players with diverse abilities. This keeps groups fresh, and breaks up potential for cliques.
We’re in the final stretches… the dregs of Breath of the Wild. I say that in jest, but the truth is, while these are still components of Breath of the Wild (and some critically so), they don’t hold as much sway over the campaign, and are more flavor adds than mechanical, and in that way, they’re more “to taste” than key ingredients.
First up, animal husbandry. The ability to rear and tame horses is an interesting one that can help you traverse Hyrule in Breath of the Wild, and add a new dynamic to combat. It can also help you relive those classic Epona vibes if you’re feeling nostalgic.
My personal preference was to never use a horse. It felt counter to the spirit of exploration, and if I needed to get somewhere REALLY fast, I would just fast travel.
But, if you would like to include it, the best way I can think of is to come up with a skill challenge from the point of sneaking up on the horse, breaking it, and then taming it.
The Master Sword
The Master Sword. Not only the most iconic weapon in all of Zelda, but one of the most beloved weapons in all of video games.
In Breath of the Wild it was one of the best weapons in the game because it didn’t break. It was also one of the worst weapons in the game because for five painstaking minutes at a time, you were forbidden from using it. Don’t ever do that. Sure, this not terribly different from attunement and features being locked behind short and long rests, but this is THE MASTER SWORD. Let us use it. Additionally, BOTW locked its Master Sword behind a really cool quest, cinematic, and test that really sold the importance and legacy of the weapon after going and collecting 13 Hearts, one quarter at a time.
Definitely do put awesome legacy weapons with amazing lore, and challenges behind and in front of it. The coolness factor of carrying around a weapon that has a legend all its own that NPCs can identify on sight is truly a cool experience to reward players valiant enough.
Races of Hyrule
Creating a handful of new races to add to 5e is well beyond the scope of this already lengthy article, but, it is a very important part of emulating Breath of the Wild.
So, below, I’ll give a few suggestions of possible mashups that should get you close.
- Zora: Triton and Halfling
- Gerudo: Elf and Genasi
- Goron: Loxodon and Minotaur
- Rito: Arakocra and Satyr
Like with the races of Hyrule, I fear trying to craft Link is beyond the scope of this article, and the truth is, I’m sure just about anyone who has, or wants to create Link will have all-caps OPINIONS on what he should be.
I’ll give some back-of-the-napkin thoughts:
- Race: Half-Elf, or Kalashtar (to match character arc in Breath of the Wild)
- Class: Ranger 5, Paladin 5 (suboptimal for the win)
- Subclasses: Monster Slayer and Oath of the Crown
- A couple of cool feats to round out your preferred BOTW play
We all get that the technology in this game is a metaphor for the internet, right? And how it functions as the modern nerve center for human memory, yeah?
From Purah, the extremely online co-worker who needs to take selfies for Hylian Insta, to the Towers that serve as Hyrule’s 5G network, reminding Link what the whole realm looks like and where he’s been in a very Google Maps sort of way…all conveniently in his little tablet (or Switch).
All that to say, if you’d like to dip your toes into that metaphor, have at it.
In closing, it should be quite obvious that I just snuck a bunch of game theory into articles pretending to be about borrowing concepts from Breath of the Wild. The reason for that is because as successful as BOTW is at doing what it does, it’s less about the specifics of what it does well, but instead how well everything it does works back to, and reinforces its core game design.
In the same way, the key to a successful campaign, is to identify what the key pillars of your campaign are, and make sure that everything works back to those pillars, and if they don’t, change, add, or remove them.
This goes beyond emulating a successful game will equate to a successful campaign. By taking a look at a game that masterfully uses mechanics and narrative to reinforce its gameplay, it feels immersive. And that is something that will resonate with your player and campaign if you can adopt the same theory in your design.
Full Anatomy Lesson
Introduction | Points of Light | Exploration | Overland Travel | Tactical World Map | Random Encounters
Weather | Climbing & Swimming | Exhaustion & Stamina | The Gilder
Foraging | Skill Challenges
Cooking & Crafting | Weapon Durability | Armor Boons | Item Upgrades
Shrines Not Dungeons | Divine Beasts (but also dungeons) | Runes |
The Master Sword | Anachronisms