Category Archives: Level Design

Level Design Mod – Vylkinmar




In an effort to continue to refine my level design skills, I started work on a level mod for The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim.  I was looking for a project to work on that would allow me to build a polished level in a reasonable amount of time without having to build core mechanics and create assets.  This project allowed be to work with mechanics and player agency already built into the game, and utilize a library of modular assets.  The ability to purely focus on encounters and level flow, as well as the fact that really enjoy Skyrim, made this project very enjoyable to work on, and I was able to take the level from concept to completion in just a few short weeks.

I kept a detailed document describing all the encounters and puzzles, as well as my process and challenging parts of development.  If you’re interested in a more detailed breakdown than what I’ve provided below, take a look at the linked document below, otherwise stay on this page if you just want the short version.

Level Design Doc

Brief Description

Vylkinmar is a level mod that takes the player through a Nordic styled dungeon that features several unique elements not found in other dungeons in Skyrimk, including an inventory based puzzle to gain entry, an vertical dungeon entrance, and a boat ride with enemies firing arrows and spells at the player.

Gaining Entrance to the Tomb

To enter the tomb, the player must complete a ritual involving placing the correct 3 items in a basin and using a spell or staff to light the basin on fire.  The player is clued in on how to complete this ritual by a journal he or she picks up after defeating a pair of necromancers.  Completing the ritual successfully opens the sarcophagus that serves as the entrance to Vylkinmar’s Tomb.

Boat Ride

After reaching the second part of the tomb, players embark on subterranean boat ride inside of a massive cavern beneath the ocean.  While on the boat, players are fired upon by ranged draugr using spells and arrows.  Players can fight back with their own spells, arrows or shouts, or can do their best to avoid the incoming attacks.

Frozen Ship and Vylkinmar

After reaching the boat’s destination, a door leads the player to an area buried deep withing a glacier.  Here the player learns the fate of Vylkinmar and his ship, and must defeat Vylkinmar to complete the quest and the dungeon.

Development Challenges

Sarcophagus Entrance

The sarcophagus asset isn’t meant to be used as a means to enter a dungeon in Skyrim.  This caused a few complications that I had to account for.  The basin puzzle that the player must complete in order to open the sarcophagus required a bit of scripting, but nothing I couldn’t handle. To make the sarcophagus a working entrance however, required some thought.  I used a dark plane to make the sarcophagus look like it led into a dark chamber far below.  Some invisible trigger volumes allow the player to enter the tomb by activating the space inside the sarcophagus or by jumping in.  I needed to give the player a way out in case he or she decided to exit the dungeon partway through, so I set up a rope that the player can use as a door.

Moving Boat

Skyrim doesn’t really use moving platforms, at least not ones that the player can base on.  I scripted a fairly simple waypoint system to move the boat, but accounting for any companions the player might have had in tow made things a bit complicated.  I created an AI package to tell followers to boatd the boat at a certain time, and navmeshed both where the boat started out and where it came to rest so that followers could find their way on and off the boat.  While the boat was in motion, companions didn’t really have to move, and even managed to engage enemies in ranged combat despite the lack of proper navmeshing.. I also had to consider what would happen if players or companions jumped or fell off the boat.  I created a series of trigger volumes to keep players on the boat while it was in motion, and used another trigger to detect if a player or companion did somehow managed to fall off and place them back on.  Also, Skyim’s standard enemy behavior allows enemies to attack players, but only within a certain distance.  I had to create custom packages that told the enemies to fire at players on the boat even though they might be far away.

Non Modular Glacier

The third section of dungeon I constructed featured a fairly small, but very tall area.  It needed to be able to fit the crashed ship, and I wanted players to be able to look up and see the sky far above them.  Because of the height and demensions of the room, I had to use non modular glacier pieces instead of the standard tillable ice cave set.  Constructing a fully enclosed area that allowed for easy player navigation without using a tileset was a bit of a challenge, but I think I managed it pretty well.


This project gave me a chance to work purely on level flow and planning and implementing encounters.  It gave me an opportunity to learn a new toolset as well as see how Skyrim handled things like scripting and quest implementation.  At first glance, it’s easy to view the creation kit as a bit clunky and lacking in a few modern features like support for multiple viewports, but once you dive deep into it, you start to notice all of the nuanced features it offers that help speed up content creation.  Things like quest aliases and leveled items can be really powerful tools.  There were a few elements of my level that I wanted to incorporate but had to cut because the toolset wouldn’t support them, but it still proved a very capable tool for level creation.

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Ruins of Mono’Zhe

Playthrough Video

I designed and implemented a level called Ruins of Mono’Zhe in UDK.  I designed the level’s three event systems and implemented them using Kismet.  I first blocked out the level, then set-dressed it using built in UDK assets.

Level Design Doc


Narrative Overview

Mono‘Zhe is an ancient subterranean ruin located within a vast cave chamber. A local myth tells of a mythical weapon of great power locked away within the forgotten ruins, garnering the attention of international arms research firm Anepco who have started excavating the ruins. Poor working conditions and economic instability have caused the workers to strike, leaving the dig half finished, and the dig site deserted save for the company’s automated defenses. The player has discovered a secret way into the ruins, and decides to venture into the ruins and claim the sword before Anepco can send replacement workers.

Event Breakdown

Event 1: Cave Entrance: Improvising a Torch

After a dramatic vehicle accident, the player finds himself in a small wooded enclosure near the mouth of a foreboding cave. The player can attempt to explore the cave, and may even make his way through it, though the path is treacherous and a miscalculated jump could result in a fatal fall into shadowy depths. The way through can be made much easier with the help of an improvised torch created from one of several dried sticks scattered about. To make the torch, the player must find one of the sticks and light it in the flames spewing out from his overturned vehicle. The torch allows for safer passage through the cave, but the player must hurry as the torch will eventually burn out and must be re-lit.

Event 2: Inner Ruins: Block Placement Puzzle

Once inside the ruins proper, the player is confronted with a closed stone door. In the same room is a plinth with a large square recess. The player can find an assortment of stone block pieces in different shapes scattered around the room. She can pick these pieces up and bring them to the plinth to place them. They can be moved and rotated over the plinth and placed anywhere they can fit. The player’s job is to place all five block pieces inside the plinth in order to open the door and progress.

Event 3: Excavation Lift: Repair the Generator

The final task for the player is to make his way out of the ruins via an elevator that has been built to accommodate an ongoing excavation of the ruins. Upon reaching the lift, the player notices that the lift gate will not open due to a lack of power. The player must then deploy a remote controlled drone to repair the lift generator. Things get complicated when the deployment of the drone alerts the dig site’s security robots. The player must control the drone and fight off the robots while staying close to the generator to repair it power the lift.

Mechanics Study – Barrel Blitz

A while back I did a mechanics study to try to recreate the barrel cannon mechanic from Donkey Kong Country.  I recreated the mechanic  from the mechanics in UDK using a whole mess of Kismet.

The barrel cannons operate pretty much exactly as they did in Donkey Kong Country.  Red Barrels shoot you automatically, while the blue ones fire when you press the ‘f’ key.  There are moving barrels, collectable goodies throughout the level, and eventually obstacles that you have to avoid using precise timing.

While doing this study I learned a lot about how Unreal works, and how to really dig deep with Kismet.  I also learned that most of the things I had to implement with complex Kismet sequences I could have accomplished much easier by modifying the player package.

In doing this project I also learned a ton about the design language of the DKC games.  There are a number of elements that I noticed in the original levels that I was able to implement in my own example.

Take The Plunge

Barrel Blast

Barrel Blast



Placing items right at the edge of players’ vision is an effective way of luring them to areas they might otherwise perceive as dangerous.  As long as you provide a hidden means of safety, this is definitely a fun way of hiding secrets.  This is used all the time in DKC.


Give Them What They Expect

Barrel Blitz

Barrel Blitz






This is something I didn’t foresee.  I placed a hidden item to the left of this cannon at the top of a vertical crevasse.  The cannon shoots the player right, but if you jump over the barrel to the left, you can find a secret.  The interesting part is that everyone that found the secret stopped searching to the left immediately after finding it.  The arbitrary pickup was enough to satisfy players’ curiosity.  Up until this point in the level I had been training players to look for these hidden spiky things, so once they found this one they were satisfied and moved on.  Smaller secrets can be effective means of concealing larger ones.

Follow the Glowy Things

Barrel Blitz

DKC does this all the time.  Notice how the next barrel the player should fire themselves towards is nowhere to be seen.  The only indication of direction is the trail of glowing things.  By this point the player knows these things are good, so sometimes that is enough to lead him or her.

Accidents Will Happen

Barrel BlitzBarrel Blitz






Surprising the player with a secret when he or she expects to fail can be really fun.  Here the player has to fire the rotating cannon to reach the next barrel.  If the player fires straight up instead of to the right, either by accident or by intention, he is rewarded with a secret path and a huge haul of goodies.