Ever since the inception of Zelda there's always been a group of poor, pathetic, souls who want to make a Zelda-themed dungeon. I am one of those poor, pathetic, nerds, so during my time playing DnD I tried as hard as I could to make Zelda-ish dungeons, always to the harm of my campaign. Part of that is the open nature of a paper-and-pencil RPG, but that's hardly the only thing standing in the way of making a good Zelda paper and pencil dungeon. Most people who have tried (and failed) to make Zelda dungeons just try copying blindly, which is the biggest mistake made.
What makes a Zelda dungeon so much fun to play?
- Physicality. Zelda dungeons are always solved by doing something physical that isn't related to combat. Push the blocks, blow up the wall, push the button!
- Analytical Thinking. Instead of having the completion of the dungeon hinge upon combat Zelda dungeons force you to use your head.
- Flair for the Dramatic. Hard or easy, you're gonna remember the Ancient Cistern, where you had to climb up a rope to escape an endless horde of zombies while your stamina gauge was running out. Memorable does not mean hard (although the Water Temple is a reminder that it can)
- Use any of the puzzle elements from Zelda. Zelda's a videogame, and most of the best video games (in this humble blogger's opinion) are very aware of it and make no effort to hide it. As a GM you have a much lower suspension of disbelief threshhold than Zelda. So no buttons! No torch-lighting! Or killing all the enemies to open the door! Or crystals! Any of it! NO! BAD GM!
- Make puzzles with one solution. Zelda can afford to do this because it's a video game and, by the very nature of a video game, it's much more acceptable to railroad. You're not playing a video game, however: you are playing something that allows your players to do whatever the heck they like. Do not squash that, otherwise you ruin the whole point of doing a table-top game in the first place.
- Use Dungeons and Dragons. It's my blog and I'll opine like I want to. Dungeons and Dragons of almost any edition is a terrible fit for Zelda dungeons because of the overemphasis on combat. If you want the focus to be on the dungeon you'll want a rules system that focuses on other aspects of an adventure besides HP.
- Make tests physical. Zelda dungeons are physical affairs, so you need to know the physical world pretty well. How do load-bearing walls work? How much oxygen do you really have in a cave? Questions like these aren't boring, they're pieces of the puzzle you're about to throw at your players. For instance, if you want to do a magma dungeon (like I always find myself wanting to do) then the first problem is oxygen: how are players going to breathe? Or you're in a temple to a forest goddess and the vegetation works like poison ivy but worse. All of it.
- Make puzzles that suggest gear but don't bloody railroad it. Zelda's a gear-based game, and rightfully so: your stats don't ever improve beyond the supernatural (yet another reason why DnD, particularly 3rd and 4th editions, don't fit). You have to make puzzles that, by their nature, require gear to get around them but don't force them down one path. Always, always, always allow the players to come up with a solution themselves, even if it means they have to make their own tools.
- Use a game that's focused only on dungeon crawl. Torchbearer's your best bet because of the emphasis on the mundanity of your characters and the grind that's present, but I'm sure there are other games available. I just wouldn't use any other DnD than Moldvay (or possibly 5th, if you really limited magic item use). You could even use Burning Wheel if you wanted a more character-driven dungeon crawl than Torchbearer, but then the emphasis stops being on the dungeon itself, and where's the fun of that? Ultimately it's to your taste, just make sure that if you're going to do a Zelda crawl you keep the magic items down so the ingenuity of the players can run rampant.
- Go with a theme. Yes, do your Forest Temple. It wouldn't be Zelda if you didn't. Just remember to go with the Zelda theme using table-top strengths: imagination, creativity, and surprise. Throw out your monster manual if you have to, do whatever it takes to just focus on your theme. Research animals, flaura and fauna, and fantasy them up! Whatever it is, stick with the theme and go for it.
- Research, research, research. This is now shooting the dead horse, but it bears repeating: the more you know about how the physical world the more people will be engrossed, because they already know the rules well enough.
- Read this and all the links on that page. They're awesome and you should read them regardless of whether you're going to make a Zelda styled dungeon or not. They're just good for basic dungeon-building tips.
- Make most puzzles gear based, link gear to boss battles. Nuff said.
Making a dungeon is a whole lot of fun. Making a Zelda dungeon should be fun and challenging. Go out and make awesome stuff for your players!