Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Perils of the Maze

The abomination above is the titular nightmare maze of Jigrésh and it certainly lives up to its name. I was thinking about it recently, because I've always liked mazes and labyrinths. When I was a child, I remember being thrilled by corn mazes, which popped up all over the place during the Fall. Later, on vacation, I visited an old home that had a hedge maze, which I thought was the greatest thing ever. No doubt the minotaur's labyrinth and the one from the 1951 Alice in Wonderland movie had some influence over my imagination as well. 

When it comes to Dungeons & Dragons, I think the credit goes entirely to Mike Carr's In Search of the Unknownwhich is full of twisting, maze-like corridors.
Because this was the first module I ever owned, Quasqueton's maps served as my mental picture of what a dungeon should be – and that includes lots of labyrinthine passages designed to confuse and frustrate the characters (and perhaps the players too). 

In truth, I'm not sure that's what happens at the table. Mazes are one of those environmental elements that sound better than they play. What thrilled me about real mazes is that I had a hard time determining where I was and I had to puzzle my way out of them. There was an intellectual pleasure in using a combination of my memory, spatial sense, and ingenuity to work out the proper path. In a roleplaying game, the experience is quite different. At best, it's a largely mechanical problem that's solved by making a map. The process of doing so can certainly be confounding – "No, not that left, the other one. Forget it: just give me the paper and I'll draw it for you." – but that's probably not quite the feeling a referee hopes to convey by including a maze in his dungeon.

Perhaps I'm simply insufficiently imaginative. I continue to like the idea of mazes and labyrinths (and keep trying to find ways to include them), but I've never been truly satisfied with any of my attempts to use them in play. Lately, I find myself wondering if mazes are one of those things that simply can't be translated into a tabletop roleplaying game. Perhaps this is an example of something that works better in a more explicitly visual medium, like video games. Many early dungeon crawl video games made use of labyrinthine maps, though, in thinking back on them, they weren't all that much fun either. 

If you've ever succeeded in using a maze successfully in a game you ran, I'd love to hear about it.


  1. I agree with you about mazes not generally being rewarding. An exception is Gary's minotaur maze in B2. Using the B2 maze as a springboard, I developed a maze system that I think is fun. You can see it for free on drivethrurpg. Go to dungeon level 49 of "Mike's Dungeons" to take a look at it.

  2. I bought that EPT adventure last year, did a review where I suggested a couple ideas on handling mazes in gaming.

  3. B1 was the module I got with Holmes' blue book and it had to serve as the template for adventure for a long time. At the time, I found it a bit boring and random but in retrospect it seems obvious it was quite inspired by the actual Castle Greyhawk (judging from various photos of the CG level maps as well as descriptions by the participants). By chance, this led our little group to construct various mega dungeons in the same vein, unknowingly walking in the footsteps of our elders. For better or worse, I never had a hard time writing my own adventures afterwards. B1 turned out to be pretty good after all.

  4. My more recent attempts at in-game mazes have been abstracted into point crawls, with the PCs wandering around in the maze for varying amounts of time (and encountering varying degrees on danger at the "points") based on how much info they'd gathered, either outside the maze or from previous encounters. Trying to play the mapping game square by square is a surveyor's job, not something that belongs in a game.

    On a related note, one of the niftier ideas out of Talislanta: Dark Age is a big (several miles across) maze called the Slithering Labyrinth, so named because it slowly moves across the countryside like a crawling snake, with the passages and rooms within the maze narrowing, widening, and even altering their configuration as it does so.

  5. I give the players a map of the maze and a felt tip marker, and time them solving the maze. I add time penalties for lifting the pen off the page, blotting a line because of hesitation, and retracting steps. Then I use that to determine how many wandering monster rolls to make, and retroactively play them out in the maze. If an encounter forces them off the path, I have a couple of backup sheets where they can start from an arbitrary point.

    I have a keyed map that I use for any pre-set encounters or traps as well, and handle them the same way. My players have actually found it to be pretty fun.

    I'm also considering, next time, doing something like the Professor does [here](

  6. First time I used a maze in play, one player said "we walk alongside the right wall at all times, we should be out" which was mathematically correct. I felt like a complete fool.
    Later, I reflected on the situation and realized I'd presented the maze as a geometrical problem only, with not much at stake - no time constraints, no opposition, no hazards. So basically, a puzzle which was solved ahead of time.

    1. As a hint for next time, that strategy doesn't work when they encounter a loop.

  7. I honestly haven't bothered to really try to run a maze of any great detail; I always assumed it would be difficult to communicate and therefore not fun. One that comes to mind is in Pharaoh, and I just completely skipped that section.

  8. In one friend's campaign the city that was the setting for the game was built over the ruins of an older city. One of these constructions was a crystal-roofed maze that served as the central square of the city. On execution days those to be executed were pushed in to the maze by the place door. On the other side was the door out, which meant that you were pardoned and released. There was a colony of minotaurs in the centre of the maze.

    It really amazed my friend that given the free availability of the actual map of the maze, almost no one took the opportunity to try and memorize the good routes through the maze. And given their proclivities (and the fact the "The King is a Fink!") it was almost inevitable that some of them would face this exercise in royal displeasure.

  9. "Many early dungeon crawl video games made use of labyrinthine maps, though, in thinking back on them, they weren't all that much fun either."

    I have to say, I find mazes in games extremely unfun and am glad they're out of fashion. It is possible to go too far the other way - the entirely linear 'delves' of 4e D&D and Skyrim are good examples of this IMO. A naturalistic environment I think works by far the best in RPGs; and even in CRPGs - though there is a certain switch-brain-off pleasure in the linear CRPG dungeon that I don't find in real RPGs.