February 25, 2015

A-Maze-Ing Dungeons

A-Maze-Ing Dungeons:  10 Maze Dungeon Tips!

In the world of fantasy gaming, nothing stands out more than a dungeon.  And no part of a dungeon is more intriguing than its twisting passages and confusing turns.  Still, it's hard to make a dungeon that the players really feel like they're lost in.  Here are a few techniques for running a maze.

A maze in a classic fantasy RPG is...

  • a type of puzzle;
  • where every move has a cost; and
  • where things are hidden that the PCs might or might not find.


Yes, that is a maze.  Good luck.

First, a system disclaimer:  I'll be assuming that you're running a D&D, 13th Age, Pathfinder, or OSR-inspired game.  Some games about dungeons (e.g. Dungeon World, Donjon) are more improvisational about their maps and generate the exploratory feel in different ways that won't apply [as well] here.  Or maybe they will!  Post your thoughts below or find me on Twitter @RunAGame

1. Don't Give Them a Map!

The first tip I have for you is simple:  Don't give the players a map.  Don't build the maze in your cool Dwarven Forge or dungeon tiles.  Don't draw it on a battlemat or a map it in roll20.  Yes, even if you're running this in roll20, don't map the maze for the PCs.  Instead, map out the combat and trap encounter areas alone.  Alternately, use a map in roll20, but hide areas the PCs have been once they leave them.  The new Fog of War feature will help here.

2. Make Everything Cost Them

If your players are just wandering around a maze, they're eventually going to solve it - with or without a map.  What's the fun in just making them wander through a maze until they solve it?  Even if there are a few combat encounters or traps, the maze part needs to be interesting, too.

Let me paint you a picture:  Let's say you create a massive maze and populate it with 10 treasure rooms guarded by dangerous encounters and traps.  Then you put 20 more avoidable encounters in your mega-maze.  And then you put the PCs in this dungeon just like that.  No time pressure.  What's going to happen?  They're going to be "completionist" to use a video game term.  They're going to explore every nook and cranny, disarm every single trap, fight all 30 monsters, and get all 10 treasures.  It's guaranteed to happen.  They have no reason to leave the dungeon until they're sure they got all the treasure that's inside.  None of their choices matter, because the outcome is always going to be the same:  Some number of days hence, they will walk out of that dungeon with every treasure collected and every monster slain.

Yuck!  So what do you do?

I've designed a few maze dungeons recently.  Here's my answer:  You have to make every single action in a maze cost something.  Put a time pressure on them or use some other constraint.

Many of the mechanics of D&D evolved to suit "exploring a maze with time pressure" style play.  Old school tournament play actually made efficient exploration competitive!  Many of the best old school dungeons put the PCs in a maze with a time limit.  The resource management systems in every edition of D&D -- even 4th edition and 13th Age, which changed them significantly -- are geared to support time-limited maze-dungeon exploration.

Example:  The dungeon is an evil shrine beneath an active volcano, and a river of magma is flowing through the caves.  The dungeon is safe for one day.  The PCs should easily find the plot on the first day, and have time to hunt for treasure, too.  On the second day, the lava fills the dungeon, destroying everything inside and killing all the monsters.  The PCs know this and ought to get warning a few minutes before the lava comes in.  The dungeon has about 7 or 8 encounters in it, but only three of them protect treasure.  The rest are avoidable traps and avoidable combat encounters.  Avoiding each danger is a different challenge -- finding a trap, outwitting a riddling monster, ourtunning zombies, avoiding dead ends, solving a puzzle, negotiating with an archon, bribing a hobgoblin, etc.  The plot for the dungeon should be based on the lava filling it up:  The PCs were sent there to witness the destruction of the evil shrine and report back if they see anything unusual happen when the lava destroyed it.  The day of treasure hunting is just icing on the cake.

3. Failure Must Be an Option

Mazes are best for treasure and side-quests.  You can put the plot in the dungeon, but it has to be easy to find.  If your PCs must solve the maze to further the plot, you have to make the path to the plot impossible to miss, or else create lots of different ways to advance the plot.

If you're going to create a maze, it's best not to hide the plot inside the maze.  Don't put the Holy Scroll of Moving The Plot Forward in a hidden room inside a maze.  Never do that.  Instead, make a clear path to the plot, but hide the treasure inside the maze.  There's no better reason to explore a maze than "there's treasure hidden in here."

The choices the PCs make must have an impact.  The PCs must be allowed to be geniuses and avoid all the dangers... or squander their resources and screw up.  Otherwise, what's the point?

Example:  In the minotaur's labyrinth, the PCs find a goblin named Tagz who resents the minotaur's tyranny.  The goblin doesn't know much about the labyrinth -- she only knows the way to the minotaur at the center of the maze.  In return for showing her the way out, she will guide the PCs to the center of the maze.  The PCs need to kill the minotaur before the end of the year, two days hence, then escape the dungeon, which will sink into the earth the night after he is killed.  But the PCs also know that hidden elsewhere in the maze is the minotaur's treasure, and one of the three treasure troves holds magic weapons that might make it easier to slay the minotaur.  They can bring Tagz along while they search the maze for treasure, or they can go straight to the minotaur and kill him first.  Regardless, Tagz guarantees that the PCs can get to the plot, but they can still fail to find the treasure.

4. Time = Encounters

I've written about time pressure before.  D&D, 13th Age, and Pathfinder slowly deplete player-character resources throughout an adventuring day.  In all editions, the PCs can realistically handle 4-6 "on level" encounters in an adventuring day.  Limiting the time the PCs have in the dungeon effectively limits how many encounters they can handle.  Then every trap that makes them stop to heal up or cast spells to avoid and every battle they can't evade pushes them toward their limit.

If they're cautious and cunning in the maze, they can explore more before their time runs out.  If they're reckless, they won't be able to explore as much.  The more they explore, the more treasure they find.

Example:  Place low level adventurers in a maze dungeon full of zombies.  Lots and lots of zombies.  Countless zombies.  Zombies are slow, and easily avoided as long as the PCs don't get caught in a dead end and have to double back.  And a lot of dead ends are full of zombies themselves.  Zombies aren't that challenging, so the PCs will probably defeat them.  But each time will cost them a bit.  The PCs will have to move fast, which means none of that "search every five feet for traps" baloney.  So you can put some traps in, but try to make them interesting -- not just surprise damage.  A real simple pit trap will slow the PCs down more than anything, and that means the zombies will catch up!  In addition, the PCs will have to send scouts ahead, to avoid getting trapped in a dead end with a horde of zombies behind them.  And that means they'll split the party!  To make this work, have everyone move in combat rounds.  Let the PCs act first, as if they had won initiative, and then have all the zombies go.

5. Give them a Map!

I'm going to contradict myself here.  One option is to give them a map!  But don't give them an accurate one.  Make it a rough map copied from a copy of the original that was drawn by the illiterate dwarf who was the only survivor of the sacking of the great mine.  Or draw a map and give it to one player, saying her character had been there before (perhaps with her mentor) and that's the best map she can draw from memory.  Make the map incomplete -- leave white space, or question marks or uncertainties.  "underwater area here -- or was it on the west side?"

(Note that Dungeon World instructs GMs to use the "incomplete map with blank areas" technique as a general philosophy for everything.  It's a good technique, whether you give the players the map or not.)

Example:  Give the players verbal instructions for how to navigate the maze to find just one thing inside it.  "To find the Lost Scroll, enter the maze, turn left, go straight at the four way crossing, pass three doors, take the stairs on the left after the statue, and make your second right in the lower hall."  But then hint that there are other treasures hidden within the maze.  They can head straight for the Lost Scroll, or else branch off when they see interesting side-passages, and hope to get back on track when they're done.

6. Sliding/Shifting Walls and Rooms

Remember when dwarves got a bonus to detecting sliding/shifting walls and rooms?  There's a reason that was a big deal in old school D&D!  They really throw you off in a maze.  Basically it's maze cheating.  It makes a maze four dimensional:  That stairway goes up, North, and West; and won't be there in ten minutes.  If you're using time pressure, as hinted above, you'll be tracking time somehow.  In the example above, the PCs and zombies are acting in combat rounds.  Well if there are portcullises that open and close every five rounds, it changes the dungeon layout (note: gelatinous cubes and centipede swarms can go through portcullises and also move slower than PCs).  You can make it more confusing by having the walls themselves shift:  You can tell that a portcullis closing has changed your route.  It's really disorienting when the four way intersection you passed five rounds ago is now a three-way intersection, and the way back seems to be gone.

Example:  Build a dungeon out of three rings.  Each ring has passages that connect to the passages in the next ring in.  Then have the rings turn relative to one another based on a series of levers or magical runes deep inside each ring.  The PCs (or just the dwarves among them!) will sense the floor moving, but not see what's going on.  The key to solving the maze is to use the levers to find your way to the treasure and then back out without being killed by the monsters and traps within.  For time pressure and plot, the reason they came here was to see omens.  Each night, they have visionary dreams, but their minds can't handle too many; and they know that they can't handle more than two such dreams.

7. Underground is Three Dimensional

Seems obvious, right?  Well consider the "right hand rule."  (the maze algorithm; not the high school physics mnemonic)  In a typical dungeon map, always following the right hand wall will eventually take a party clear around the dungeon.  A disjoint maze with the objective in the middle somewhere solves this, but the best way to confuse your players is to have multiple levels.  Have a stairway that goes down to a room with a side passage that leads to another stair up, elsewhere in the dungeon.  Make enough of these passages, and the players will lose all bearing.

Example:
Different colors represent different depths.  Light gray is 0, dark grey is -20', and green is -40'.
Created in Pyromancers Dungeon Painter
8. Teleport Them

Teleportation circles are another way to add confusion to the maze.  They have the added benefit of basically being doors that you can't look through!  So feel free to make them a puzzle or trap, as well.
Example:  Start the dungeon with a hieroglyph in red, green, and blue paint.  Draw it out for the players in marker.  It's a simple hero-defeats-bad-guys story.  In the story, everything dangerous that the hero defeats is red.  Every death trap that hero avoids instead of defeats is green.  Everything safe or righteous is blue.  Within the dungeon maze, the PCs encounter several teleportation circles colored red, green, or blue.  Blue circles safely transport the PCs to other areas of the maze.  Red circles transport them to rooms where monsters or traps keep unwelcome guests out (having a password, solving a puzzle, or disarming a trap can get past; else...).  Green circles always lead directly to death traps.  The PCs shouldn't be foolish enough to enter a death trap after reading a warning, right?  Solving the maze should involve entering at least one red circle and several blue ones.  Other red circles lead to treasure rooms, but are not necessary to complete the plot portion of the dungeon.

9. List of Example Costs

To help you design your maze, here are some example costs.

  • Time pressure.  Remember, time = encounters in D&D, 13th Age, and Pathfinder.  There are many kinds of time pressure.  See the GM Tool at the end of this post for a list of ways to use time pressure in a tabletop RPG.
  • Rivals.  This is just a variant on time pressure, but it deserves attention in a maze.  Put rivals in the dungeon who are going after the same treasure.  Because it's a maze, the two parties may never see each other; but every time the PCs take an extended rest, there's a 25% chance the rivals have succeeded at looting one of the maze's treasures.
  • Risk a loss.  Give the PCs a weak NPC to escort through the maze, so each encounter is a risk that they lose their NPC.
  • Living dungeons.  The dungeon can react to the PCs'a presence and actions.  Don't just re-stock encounters.  Running encounters twice is a waste of time.  Instead make the dungeon react intelligently.  The bad guys will move some of their treasure out of the dungeon and reset their death traps.  They will double their patrols so the monsters in the dungeon come in fours instead of twos (+2 CR for lots of encounters).  They will send spies.
  • Death traps.  Yeah, I'm getting really old school here.  Some types of games welcome sudden, unexpected death that serves no plot purpose.  But don't forget that after a certain level in D&D-type games, the PCs get access to resurrection magic.  Resurrection magic makes a death trap just a cost.
  • Gear-killers.  Once the PCs get the ability to bring back the dead in D&D, taking their magic sword is a fate worse than death.  If your dungeon is full of oozes that dissolve leather, rust monsters, green slime, golems that sunder weapons, and other nasty gear-buster encounters, each encounter potentially has a major cost. 

You might be tempted to make taking an extended rest a cost by having monsters attack the PCs at night.  This is fine if you're also using time pressure.  But on their own, nighttime encounters don't make resting a cost.  They just make the PCs rest earlier so they have resources left in case of a nighttime attack.

10. Dungeons Without Mazes

Mazes are special.  They are a story and game challenge in and of themselves.  Done well, where everything the PCs do has a cost, they present danger and a sense of wonder and exploration.  The frenzied, difficult exploration tells an amazing adventure story, and it does so without railroading the players -- once they've entered the maze, they can be cautious, bold, search thoroughly, or run out of time.

But not all dungeons should be mazes.  Unless solving a maze is complicated by other factors, don't make the players solve it.  The maze itself is not really a challenge worth playing through.  D

If you're not running a maze where every move has a cost, don't waste the table's time with empty rooms, dead ends, pointless wandering monsters, or encounters that are just filler.  You can convey the feel of a maze without actually wasting table time on one.

You can use a 4e skill challenge or series of skill checks in Pathfinder or 5e D&D to solve a maze in the abstract as a quick challenge, if that's the case.  Or just use the maze as flavor in a simple montage (just describe their journey through the maze and cut to the next scene where they have a choice).