Thursday, March 18, 2021

An Incomplete History of Mazes in RPGs

Mazes and labyrinths are a staple of fantasy fiction, so it makes sense that you might want to see one in D&D. In many ways, the Greek Labyrinth was the original dungeon, so it seems like a perfect fit, right? Except that it's notoriously tricky to run a maze in D&D without it sucking, and there's no standardized solution. So in this article, I'm going to review a list of instances I've found in various gaming products where a unique attempt was made and then explain their method. If you've never personally encountered this problem before, it may not be obvious what's so difficult about it. But I bet that once you start seeing some of the following examples, you'll begin to understand.

This will ultimately lead to, at some point in the future, a set of rules I've made based on what I've learned. I'll include those in my RPG Brave when it's released, but whenever I make a first draft I'll probably post it on my blog as a standalone procedure. If you find any other unique takes on mazes in RPGs I'd love to read them, but this isn't meant to be exhaustive.

Pathfinder's Minotaur Advice

During the first edition of Pathfinder, there was a series of splatbooks that were themed as "classic X revisited," where X was some iconic element of the game and each chapter would be devoted to providing a fresh new Pathfinder-flavored take on those things. Some examples were Dungeon Denizens Revisited (bulettes, mimics, owlbears, ropers, etc.), Classic Horrors Revisited (vampires, werewolves, ghouls, etc.), Misfit Monsters Redeemed (trying to take things like flumphs and flail snails and make them cool), Classic Treasures Revisited, and so on. Well I believe the first one was just Classic Monsters Revisited and, naturally, it had a chapter on minotaurs.

So in that chapter, aside from adding new minotaur lore and feats and items and whatnot, they also had a little aside where they talk about running adventures in mazes. I've put a picture of it below for you to read in its entirety.

In some ways, this answer is absolutely correct. But in other ways, to me at least, this feels like a cop out answer. It's a concession of pure suckitude on the part of their GMing skills. I mean, sure, it's true that you should have interesting descriptions and try to do things that'll make navigation tricky, but come on. You can do better than that. "Don't forget to describe the environment!" Gee, thanks.

However, what this really does is highlight the first and most important obstacle here. The normal methods that people use when navigating dungeon spaces will not translate well.
  1. Many groups just have the DM constantly describe and re-describe surroundings. This is already kind of a painful way to do dungeons but it would be way worse in a maze.
  2. If they're using a drawn map, like a wet erase grid or something, then they might have the DM regularly go and draw the next chunk of the map as its revealed. This method is extremely common but is still tedious, and is also made worse with a maze.
  3. If they're using terrain, then they might cover up chunks of the dungeon with, like, tissues or something and then reveal them one by one. Setting up a maze with terrain is a headache.
  4. Maybe there's no map provided and the players do just have to use their minds, but the players are making their own map as they go. So far this is actually the best solution, but... then they make the fatal mistake. A lot of groups who do this instinctively think that the DM should provide precise dimensions for each room and then meticulously draw them out on grid paper. This sucks and is a shitty, awful method that no group should use, and it's infuriating to me that the cranky old school gamers aren't louder about educating people away from it. They're loud about all the other old methods of play, so why not mapping? Anyway, this method, as the Pathfinder guidelines say, would also be terrible for running a maze.
  5. The actual old school way used by Gary and Dave and all them old guys: the referee describes things from a 1st person POV, players draw as they go, but there's no precision or dimensions unless they stop and take the time to have their character measure things (as would be far more realistic, since most humans can't just eyeball the difference between 50 feet and 55 feet). Choosing to take measurements also consumes precious time, so 99% of the time you don't. Instead, most groups make do with flowchart style maps. The main information on display is what rooms there are and how they're connected, but not much else. It's basically the same kind of map as people would make when playing text adventure games. Here's an example of one from Colossal Cave Adventure.

This method threads the needle of 1) being easy to describe and fast to draw, 2) having enough accurate and useful information to make decisions and keep track of things, and 3) having enough uncertainty and room for error that genuine mistakes can be made, which is part of the challenge. Yes, that's right, the lack of perfect information in this method is a feature, not a bug. Thus, there is no formalized state of "being lost" in the rules. For the characters to be lost means that the players are themselves actually lost, because their concept of where they are and how that relates to the other rooms around them isn't matching up with the description the DM is giving them for their current surroundings. So yes, usually taking precise measurements is overkill, but occasionally it can make a difference, so it's up to the players to decide when the tradeoff is worth making. And this is how you can provide the classic risk of "getting lost" as a potential threat in your dungeons.

If you've ever read descriptions of play in OD&D about players measuring angles and inclines and navigating deceptive architecture (the dwarf and elf classes even had built-in racial features to combat such things), that stuff all only works and makes sense assuming you're using this method rather than the others. "Tricky architecture" was a dungeon staple back then, but it wouldn't really be possible as a challenge if you are using exact dimensions or you're relying on terrain or a DM-provided drawing on a grid. You need a missing layer of information somewhere for the trickiness to hide within.

For example: most modern dungeons look like this. This dungeon, I think you'll agree, is definitely easy to provide exact measurements for but it also won't produce any significant errors if you just simplify it to a flowchart:

But an old-school dungeon would look more like this, which is really difficult to describe without just simplifying things. "Well, the hallway is at kind of a weird angle, sort of diagonal to your current room... and then there's a sorta T-intersection a bit down the way but the other hall doesn't quite intersect perpendicularly..." and the best attempt at trying to capture all this on a flowchart-style map is, while likely the only thing viable, also inevitably going to create errors.

Is this good? Is this bad? Well, it's just a type of challenge that basically doesn't exist anymore. It's fun and interesting and definitely the simplest and most sensible way of simulating the possibility of "getting lost" in a dungeon, but it can definitely be overdone. It's good for throwing a wrench into the players' mapping efforts, but if you do it more than once in a dungeon then it can undermine them completely. All it takes is two or three errors in the map for things to get thrown really out of place. I think that old-school dungeons were over-reliant on tricky architecture, but every now and then it can be a meaningful challenge that exploits the inherent limitations of flowchart mapping.

Would you want to run a maze with this method? No, I think the Pathfinder description makes it very clear that it would just suck to try that. Even if a flowchart map is way easier and faster to describe and draw than a precise map, it's still just impractical for the kinds of architectural awfulness that mazes embody. Hallways are reduced to mere lines on a flowchart map, and mazes are mostly made of hallway. The best normal method for players mapping and navigating a dungeon just isn't built well for the unique properties of a maze, unfortunately.

This is also why, whenever I see someone share a cool "RPG resource" that generates a maze layout using software, all I can think is: "Wow. This person has definitely never tried actually running a maze in D&D. This tool is useless for RPG purposes."

Xonthal's Tower from the Rise of Tiamat

The infamous 5E adventure The Rise of Tiamat has a few decent sections. One of the more interesting ones is a magical hedge maze surrounding a dungeon the players need to go to. The adventure provides a little minigame to run the maze that abstracts things. This is one of several "magical maze" options on this list, which are oftentimes clever but hard to apply to nonmagical mazes. For example, no traditional mapping methods or even a bird's eye view will work because the maze's true layout is tricky and changes and lies to your eyes and whatnot. Any marks you make or breadcrumbs you leave will get reset the moment you turn around, and any attempt to pay attention to things like wind, the direction water is running, and sound will just be useless. Because magic. This kind of maze has to be abstracted. Here's some description from the adventure:

Because the maze doesn’t exist in normal space, it cannot be traditionally mapped. Instead, it is shown here as a set of seven nodes where encounters occur. Moving between two nodes takes 2d6 rounds regardless of whether characters walk or run. Characters experience such movement as if walking down a well-groomed path in a hedge garden. The path curves so that characters can’t see more than 15 feet ahead, exactly as if they were in a circular garden with concentric paths. Cutting through hedges has no effect on how long it takes characters to get from one node to the next. Characters who return to look for a spot previously cut through will never find it.
Area 1 is the heart of the maze, and characters will return there many times as they seek the entrance to the tower. If they do things correctly, they won’t need to face any of the maze’s dangers. That’s unlikely, though. Although the maze is devilishly hard to get through, it's easy to leave. All the characters need to do is express a desire to leave the maze while they’re in area 1, and whatever route they take next leads them back to the entrance and the path at the edge of the village. They can turn around and come back in again, and they’ll wind up in area 1, at the start of the maze.

Here's the map of locations they're referring to. You'll see "Area 1" as the 8-way intersection in the top left.

Here's the gimmick: at the center of area 1 is a sundial. The sundial casts a shadow in a direction that's completely independent of the sun's position. Wherever it points, that's the correct path to take. If they take any other path, they'll end up at one of the encounter rooms you see above. However that encounter ends, when they exit it they'll just end up back at the same intersection. Those are all the "substance" parts of the maze but if the players navigate correctly then they actually aren't supposed to encounter any of them. That's a bit boring.

But anyway, every time the players take the correct path, they spend a minute or two walking through meandering maze hallways before arriving back at the sundial intersection again. The trick is that the shadow will be in a different direction, and players will have to be perceptive enough to notice that it's changing each time and they're actually making progress. There's a pre-defined sequence of directions the shadow will point that the players need to follow, with 5 total stages to pass through before they reach the end. The description is ambiguous as to whether these are 5 separate sundials at 5 separate intersections or if it's actually all just the same one over and over but magically changing. That ambiguity is part of the point. Players can't lose progress by taking the wrong path. If they're on sundial 3 and they go the wrong way, they'll still end up back at the intersection with the same sundial 3 shadow direction as before.

This is neat and all but it can become really trivialized if the players figure out the trick. "Hmmm the shadow is pointing north, so let's try going north! ...Great, it looks like now it's pointing southeast. Alright gang, looks like we're going southeast! ... Okay, now it's pointing..." and you can see how there's not actually any room for error once they figure it out. So the adventure's solution is to then make it a puzzle of how to interpret the shadow's direction.

See, the sundial can cast anywhere from 1 to 8 different shadows at once, so you can get mixed messages. If there are two shadows, with one pointing northwest and one pointing southwest, you might figure out that the correct path is the "average" of the two and then go directly west. Alright, that's fair, right? But each one after that is fucking ridiculous. Apparently shadows going north, southeast, and southwest are supposed to mean that the correct path is directly south. Four shadows making an "X" shape? Apparently you're supposed to take a leap of faith and jump directly into the sundial, trusting that it'll teleport you to the next sundial. Come the fuck on. The last one? Eight shadows in every direction. The correct answer? None of them are the correct path, and the players should dive directly into the hedges themselves. Seriously.

So this is an okay version of a maze but I think it's obvious it can't work as the be-all, end-all solution. It heavily relies on "because magic" as a way of controlling every factor involved. The stuff you do in the course of navigating the maze is a punishment and the actual process of "solving" the maze relies on something completely unrelated to actual navigational skills. This is going to be a recurring theme, though, along with the limitation of "not representing the navigation of the winding halls and branching paths in a meaningful way." I feel like that's an important part of the maze experience. I'm not saying the solution needs to have players precisely navigating foot-by-foot down a defined map of corridors (I already explained why that's impractical). I absolutely think an abstraction is preferable. But still making the way in which you interact with that abstraction be a part of the challenge should be a goal, I think. Just handwaving it as "the stuff in between the real rooms that matter" seems like a way of avoiding the true nature of what makes a maze a maze.

The Lost Woods from the Legend of Zelda

Okay, so this one is from a video game obviously but it's worth looking at. It's another example of a "magic maze" rather than a physical one but it relies on a simple gimmick that kind of represents "everywhere we go is exactly the same aaaaaahhh" in a universal way. The Lost Woods has been done a few different ways so I'm gunna talk about each one separately.

In the original NES Legend of Zelda, the game was always played in discrete, TV-sized "screens" of environment. You move Link to the right edge of your TV screen and the camera will then pan rightward to reveal the next screen of environment to his east, now showing Link standing on the left side of the screen (where he came from). The whole overworld map is 16 by 8 screens large, for a total of 128 screens. But it's secretly actually bigger than that!

So near the bottom left of the world map there's a screen that looks like this:

Dead simple, right? Well, that's the Lost Woods, and if you look at it on the world map it seems innocuous enough. But the moment you enter, you'll find that every direction you take other than east seems to lead to an identical 4-way intersection. The same screen every single time... unless you go east, which will let you exit to the east (likely the direction you came from). How do you end up exiting in another direction? Simple, just move in this sequence: north, west, south, west. Each time you move, you won't be able to tell if you're making progress because the screen will look identical. But if you do that exact sequence of four steps then it'll finally let you out into a new screen to the west.

Now this one is a classic for a reason. But the truth is that no matter how you spin this one, I'm pretty sure it has to be magical. It doesn't seem all that magical, but I'm pretty confident that it's impossible, geometrically speaking, to design a three-dimensional maze in Euclidean space that can 1) always be exited merely by going east, no matter where you are in the maze, and 2) can only be exited otherwise by going north, west, south, west in that order, but also that 3) the second rule also remains true no matter where you are in the maze.

So that brings us to the next game: Link to the Past. In this one, the Lost Woods is... well it's actually just a forest area. There's no gimmick, it just has a bit of a tricky layout that you have to learn if you want to find the Master Sword. It's no more complicated than learning the layout of a very small dungeon. So, you know, not really a maze.

Then there's Ocarina of Time. This one returns to a magic puzzle, but only partially. What's neat is that there isn't exactly one "solution" because there's not just one location you might want to go. There continues to be a central hub intersection that looks like four hollowed out trees (see the images below):

And indeed, if you don't move in the "correct" exits as you pick your direction, you'll end up back at the beginning again and again and again. In this case, the "beginning" is the entrance from the Kokiri village. But while each intersection has a wrong way to go, they sometimes have multiple correct directions you can pick. They'll just lead to different places. Here's a couple maps someone drew of the whole thing:

This map only shows you paths that actually lead somewhere. But nearly every room is really a four-way intersection, and the directions not shown here just lead you back to Kokiri Forest.

Now of course, you could just gradually learn and memorize the layout through trial and error. But this game also has a bit of a puzzle to it. Two in fact! To get to the Forest Temple, listen to the audio closely. If the song is playing loudly when you stand next to an exit, it'll bring you closer to the Temple, but if it's quiet then that's the wrong direction. Meanwhile, if you're trying to get to any other room that's notable, even if it's not along the route to the Forest Temple, then pay attention to the visuals closely. When you're approaching one of the hollow tree thresholds, look into the darkness. If there's a small light that gets brighter as you approach, then that's the wrong way. It'll take you straight back to the village. But if it's totally dark instead then it'll actually lead you further into the woods somewhere. Cool, right?

In Twilight Princess they renamed it the "Sacred Grove" but it's the same idea. Once again, this game has its own puzzle. You make the skull kid appear and you have to chase him to stay on the right path. The right paths actually are created by the skull kid, so you can't really solve it "accidentally." Likewise, some paths are closed off behind you after each instance of finding the skull kid, so the layout is ever-changing. You have to find him like three times or something to reach the end. I'm a little surprised I can't find a complete map of the Sacred Grove online since it's very doable, but oh well.

So these are the basic methods used by nearly all Zelda games. The 2D games will have you stuck on the same screen until you escape, the 3D games will actually have a bit more of an area mapped out but will teleport you back to the beginning if you take the wrong path. Replace the puzzle gimmick for each game to find the "right" path. In Majora's Mask you have to chase a monkey. In Minish Cap the rooms keep having a bunch of ghosts who scatter, and you count how many go in each direction. In Breath of the Wild you carry a torch and pay attention to how the wind blows the sparks in a certain direction (this is definitely the coolest one and the most elegantly executed, since the failure reset is triggered by walking into the fog and seeing it get thicker and thicker until you realize you're somehow back at the beginning).

One of the things to maybe steal from the Xonthal Tower maze and the Zelda mazes is that the winding, impossible-to-navigate nature of a maze can be simulated by having a gimmick solution. Turn it into a puzzle rather than solving it the traditional way. See, if you have a drawing of a maze on paper and you try to solve it, then no matter what happens you eventually will. All it takes is patience and brute force, because your basic method is "try a direction at a decision point, if it leads to a dead end then backtrack and try a different one, rinse and repeat." But puzzles are more fun, and it can feel smart to pick up on the "trick" to figuring out the right path. It can also make sense in-universe. Let's say you're a mad wizard who has a maze around your dungeon, but you also employ many minions. Well you don't want your minions to get lost while they're patrolling and protecting your dungeon, so maybe you install a secret trick to always know the right path. You tell all your minions what the trick is and that they need to keep it a secret.

Does that work for all mazes? No, probably not. But I think it probably can make all mazes better.

One last magic take: the Maze spell from D&D

Did you know there's a spell in D&D called Maze? I believe that it's been in 2nd, 3rd, and 5th edition. It usually works in basically the same way: you cast it on a target and banish them to a labyrinth pocket dimension. On each of their turns they can make an Intelligence check to solve it and escape. That's it.

I mean, this is definitely the simplest method. In a sense you could also argue that it's the most fair, since it relies purely on character skill over player skill. Such design "maintains the integrity of the simulation" by not allowing the outcome to be affected by meta-fictional elements like the player's brainpower (or lack thereof). The problem is that it's boring and unfun. There's a reason a lot of people prefer player skill over character skill. It might not "make sense" all the time but it's fun. It means that you get to do the challenge. If I wanted my character to make all the decisions, I'd script an AI to simulate their actions and then let it run on its own.

There will of course be a balance to strike, since I think allowing for some degree of character skill to affect the outcome is only fair and makes sense. Solutions that allow for regular INT checks to make gradual progress aren't the worst idea.

But you want to know what is the worst idea? The spell description of Maze says that Minotaurs automatically succeed on the INT check to beat the labyrinth. Think about that for a second.


They carved out one fucking exception for this spell in an effort to reinforce the fluff of their worldbuilding, but they completely fucked it up because they didn't understand the Greek myth of the labyrinth and the minotaur of Crete. This might piss me off more than literally anything else in all of D&D.

Maze of the Blue Medusa

The much-acclaimed but controversial megadungeon by Patrick Stuart and Zak S. There's a lot of very good things about it, but Zak S. is widely reviled for nasty allegations and Patrick Stuart has renounced this adventure and doesn't want fans buying it. But don't worry, it's actually a very flawed megadungeon so it's not a huge loss. Everything truly good about it can be found or replicated in other, better products if designers really want to learn from its successes.

Here's a map of the megadungeon. It's based on a painting Zak made.

You may notice that it doesn't fit the traditional description of a "maze" or "labyrinth." In fact, it doesn't look like there are really any hallways at all!

So where do these wise guys get the nerve to call their dungeon a "maze?" Well because, honestly, any dungeon becomes a maze if it's just fucking big enough. Like, all the properties that are characteristic of a maze will naturally emerge if the dungeon is too big to easily track. The bigger it gets, the greater the room for error in making mistakes while mapping. Here's my own players' current map of the Maze in our campaign:

You can probably already spot a few major inaccuracies. And like I said before, this map right here is both extremely helpful for them to use (before they began maintaining a map, lemme tell ya, it was a nightmare for them to navigate) but also quite vulnerable to its limitations. They have several times now encountered the consequences of their map's errors and felt like dinguses for it. The gardens in the bottom left especially have been really screwing them up lately.

A funny thought occurs to me: in the 80s there was that shitty Satanic Panic propaganda movie starring Tom Hanks that depicted a fictionalized version of D&D, like a version from an alternate universe. Know what it was called? Mazes and Monsters. I see that same thing a lot. In the Dexter's Lab parody of D&D they're playing a game called "Monsters and Mazes." Ben Milton made an RPG called Maze Rats that reskins the classic "dungeon" concept with the name "maze" instead. Barrowmaze is an extremely popular megadungeon that, [EDIT: had to correct myself here since I was wrong about the adventure] on the surface is just a field of disconnected microdungeons, but then is revealed to be one, huge, interconnected megadungeon underneath. Really cool gimmick, but is that a maze? It sounds to me like it's just big, and just by being big enough you'll eventually become maze-like.

So what I'm saying is, you know how the word "dungeon" originally referred to, like, a prison cell/torture chamber in the basement of a castle? But its definition broadened drastically into this weird, nebulous concept we're now all familiar with? Well I can totally see an alternate timeline where the word "maze" was transformed in that exact way instead. That it just ended up becoming the name of these things we put in fantasy RPGs all the time. And in that timeline, this blog post doesn't exist because this debate would never happen because it wouldn't ever occur to anyone that there's some problem with running "mazes" in your game, because to them, "maze" is just what they call dungeons.

Labyrinth: the Adventure Game

Speaking of pop culture impact, one of the classic candidates for "most D&D-like movie ever made" is the famous 1986 Jim Henson film Labyrinth. Well in 2019 there was published an RPG based on the movie and, by all accounts, it fucking rules. The credits list Ben Milton for "adventure" and Jack Caesar for "rules" so I'm not sure exactly who to credit for the bit I'll be talking about, but it's kinda brilliant all the same. Let me talk a bit about the context of the adventure first.

In this game you recreate the basic plot of the movie Labyrinth, with the GM playing the role of "Goblin King" and the players being a party of misfits who are trying to reach the center of the maze to retrieve something stolen. They have 13 hours to complete this, and losing time is the main penalty for failure throughout the adventure.

So the way in which this game/adventure simulates the experience of navigating the maze in Labyrinth is with 1) a series of encounter rooms where the interesting stuff happens (called "scenes"), but also 2) a weird die mechanic to abstract the hallway stuff and measure how much "progress" has been made. See, the whole point of a maze is that it isn't exactly linear, but the abstraction still measures progress broadly in this way. There are exactly 100 scenes in the whole game, ordered by number, and split into five major chunks (the "layers" of the Labyrinth, as depicted in the movie). The book has a ribbon in the spine that the GM uses to bookmark the party's current progress through the adventure, slowly moving it further and further based on the die mechanic. Here's how that works:
Many scenes will ask you to update your progress, usually when your group manages to successfully complete a scene. When updating progress, simply take the red ribbon and move it forward to your current scene. That scene is now the group’s current progress. The ribbon can never be moved backward, progress can never be lost.

[e.g. if the party arrives at Scene 18, "The Riddle," then they are faced with a riddle to solve. If they do this successfully, the goblin king moves the bookmark to the page where Scene 18 is found and has now marked this as the party's last "save point," so to speak.]

Whenever the PCs leave a scene, you ask them to roll a die, then add the result of that die to their current progress (note that the progress number may not be the same as the number of the scene they are leaving). This is called exploring, and it will give you a number which will correspond to the scene they are moving to.

Remember, only update progress when the book tells you to, and not when you explore. [i.e. you don't actually make progress unless you complete the challenge at a scene, which then instructs you to update the bookmark. If you don't beat the challenge, you don't make progress.]

If you roll high enough to visit a new chapter you must go to the first scene in that chapter.
The elegance of what this system creates may not be obvious. In this game, whenever they refer to "a die" they're talking about 1d6. So let's say you've just finished scene 22 and that's your current progress. Exploring further from there means that there are 6 possible scenes that could be the next thing you find (scenes 23-28). You almost certainly won't experience all of them, so it's not actually as though the maze is a linear sequence of scene 1, scene 2, scene 3, etc. It's more like, from scene 22 there are 6 possible paths forward. Let's run through the next handful of encounters.

You roll a 4. That takes you to scene 26. You succeed. Progress is now updated to scene 26. You once again now have 6 paths forward, except this time it's scenes 27-32.

You roll a 1. That brings you to scene 27. You succeed. Update progress. You roll a 3. That brings you to scene 30. You succeed. Update progress. You roll a 5. That takes you to scene 35. And... fail. Or at the very least, you don't succeed. Whatever challenge is there, you just can't seem to figure out. Eventually you decide to give up. Now what? Well... you go back to exploring, rolling 1d6 from your last point of progress. That is, still scene 30. This time you roll a 2, which brings you to scene 32. Now this one you're able to figure out and beat, so scene 32 becomes your new save point. But notice that within the 6 possible paths you can take from scene 32 (scenes 33-38) there's still that scene 35 which kicked your ass. If you roll a 3 then you'll find yourself back there, and you might give it another crack. Or you'll immediately reject that result and say, "no, scene 35 is fucking impossible. We're trying a different path" and immediately reroll. Don't worry, eventually you'll get to scene 36+ and you'll never be at risk of arriving at scene 35 ever again.

So this system is neat in that it keeps focus on the fun parts of play (the scenes) but it also represents nonlinear navigation in a clever way. And while you could say that you were "closer" to reaching the goal when you were failing at scene 35 than when you were succeeding in scene 32 (because 35 is the higher number, after all) it doesn't matter because room 32 led you to your next scene in room 38, which is definitely closer to the goal. It gets rid of most of the potential for frustration by making sure you can never lose progress (however stuck you get on one or two scenes, you always know how to find a way back to your last checkpoint scene you succeeded at), and there are major milestones built-in like reaching a new chapter. Also, while of course there are a total of 100 scenes in the maze, you won't be playing even close to the full amount. On any given playthrough you should expect to be skipping about 5/6th of all rooms, since they just weren't on the path the party took to reach the ending. That's why the "100 ordered scenes" aren't truly linear.

There's one last rule for if the players want to revisit a previous scene instead of exploring ahead. In this case, they have to make a check to see if they can successfully backtrack to the scene they have in mind. If they succeed, then they return there. Don't worry, just as has been described, they cannot lose progress. If you're at scene 40 but you decide to revisit scene 35 and beat it once and for all, that doesn't move your bookmark back to scene 35. The next time you explore will still be done from scene 40. However, if you fail your attempt to backtrack then you're "lost," which is represented with... the GM treating the situation like exploration. That is to say, just rolling 1d6 from the current checkpoint to determine what the next scene the players run into is, since they failed to go to the specific place they meant to. Oddly enough, this means that failing to backtrack can result in you accidentally progressing further. You didn't find your way back to scene 35, but you did end up at scene 45 by rolling a 5 for exploration.

Interesting about this system is the intelligent observation that a person can only be "lost" when they're trying to be somewhere they already know of. In this case, it's when you're backtracking through stuff that you should be able to navigate. But if you're pushing forward then you can never be "lost." You can only be "discovering new scenes." It's like that Mitch Hedberg joke about escalators.

Some limitations of this system are that 1) it assumes there is one specific goal to progress towards, which is usually a safe assumption in a maze but not always, and 2) the act of exploring still doesn't actually involve much choice or agency in affecting the outcome at all. You can never make the right or wrong call at an intersection. The only thing which meaningfully helps you progress is solving the room puzzles. That said, this is my favorite version of running a maze yet and probably the closest one to a solution so far.

"Hedge Death Maze" from the "Mini Adventure Folder" for 17th Century Minimalist

There's an old-school RPG called 17th Century Minimalist. It's for playing swashbuckling sorts of adventures in 17th century Europe, probably in the middle of the Thirty Years' War. It's got very minimalist rules. It's good! There's also an adventure supplement for it called the "Mini Adventure Folder," because it's a folder containing 5 pre-made adventures that each fit in one small page. Well, more like a 3-panel foldout, but still. Extremely small packaging. One of them is called "Hedge Death Maze" and it looks like this:

Cover and back

The adventure itself (plus you can see a bit about the encounters on the right)

With your purchase you'll also get a print-ready copy of the maze so you can prepare one for each player to use as a physical handout.

This... this is a really weird one. Here's how it works.

First, we're going 100% player skill over character skill, much further than any other previous example. This map also isn't an abstraction in any way. The map you see is literally the layout of the maze in the adventure. Every player has their own paper copy of the maze and a pencil. The entrance and the exit are identified for them. You give them 30 seconds to begin trying to solve the maze. Like, for real. However, it's incredibly important that they track their current place with the pencil. You aren't allowed to solve it merely with your eyes like you probably would normally. You need to trace your character's path through the maze with the pencil at all times, meaning you'll likely be going a bit slower than if you could just eyeball your path to the exit. If you realize you're about to hit a dead end, you don't get to pick up your pencil tip and go back to the last intersection. You have to keep the pencil on the paper and turn around, drawing your path all the way back to the last intersection.

When the 30 seconds are up, everyone drops their pencil. Wherever they stopped is literally where in the dungeon their character is located at the moment when the first encounter happens. We're talking pretty straightforward "you're ambushed by hostile monsters!" kind of encounters. If the party chose to all move together, each person following along with each other on their papers, then they should be all bunched up. But if every player decided to try to solve the maze on their own, then by the time 30 seconds elapses there's a good chance they're all very far apart from each other.

So I suppose that, if you're using miniatures and a grid or some other kind of visual aid, then at the moment when the encounter begins you should just look closely at the general area where the fight is going to break out and then try to reproduce that little chunk of hallways on your terrain of choice. So if, for example, this is what the player's map looks like at the moment they're attacked by a centaur...

...then here's what I would draw on my wet-erase grid mat or on my Roll20 screen or whatever:

The red circle is the centaur and the grey ones are the PCs

Resolve the encounter and treat the hallways as combat space, just like you would in a normal combat encounter. If the party is widely split apart but are trying to reunite, well then they're just going to have to spend their turns making move actions through the halls one square at a time and hope they find who they're looking for. Once the encounter is resolved, tell them to take their pencil, mark their new current position (since they likely moved location during the fight), and begin the 30 second countdown again. The adventure estimates that they'll have no more than 5 encounters, and provides random tables for each one.

This example is kind of complicated. On the one hand, it seems very fun. It's incredibly gimmicky but putting a handout like this in the players' hands and then showing them a running hourglass is awesome. It's just, like, really novel. If you ever want to use this method again then you'll need to design a whole new maze. A pretty intricate one as well, by the looks of it. Although I actually recently saw for sale at Target a pack of dozens of pre-made maze boards to solve for hobbyists, and I immediately thought of their application here. The problem with those is that there are no repeat mazes in the whole pack, so you wouldn't have enough copies of the same maze for each party member. Still pretty rad though.

Then again, while I think it only makes sense that any rules for running mazes should allow for the party to split up, this one seems to be way too likely to result in that. Another limitation of this version is that it doesn't have any of the neat tricks that the other solutions offered. There are no chambers with cool stuff. There is no description of the players' surroundings that can trick them up with weird repeated features. There is no magical puzzle they must solve to advance. There's no way to definitively measure progress before you're done (although I suppose that's only realistic). There's certainly no point in making a map, just in case you still wanted a solution where that was a factor. And boy is it awfully frantic.

I honestly disagree with the adventure's assessment of things: the most sensible strategy that I can think of would be to travel together as a party and move very slowly through the maze, methodically checking routes as efficiently as possible and marking intersections where we're pretty sure we had been correct up until. I understand that the cost for this is supposed to be more and more monsters finding you, but the adventure seems to think you'll only have 5 encounters at most! They expect the players to try to rush through, which is pretty unreasonable.

One of the weakest parts of this solution is that it doesn't complement normal D&D gameplay and mechanics at all. It's a minigame completely of its own make, divorced from the rest of the rules' normal procedures. If you drop one of these down into the middle of a dungeon, you can't merely shift narration style and start applying slightly different rules. You have to set up the minigame. Any abilities or rules that normally tie into dungeon elements like a navigation skill or an ability to stay alert to random encounters while multitasking and stuff... well that's all thrown out the window. Anything keyed to time passage mechanics, like light source consumption and spell durations? I have no idea how to switch measurements for adjudicating their consumption. I guess you begin subtracting your supply in real time??

Plus, like, doing the pencil thing is actually kind of a pain in the ass. I've seen players get annoyed at that element, but I also don't see this method working without it.

Maze: the Monotony (homebrew from the blog Graphite Prime)

Here's a link to the blog post this comes from. This has to be the most obscure example yet but I include it as a notable addition to the list because, believe it or not, this is easily the best one so far (in my opinion). I'll try to summarize/paraphrase their description here.

So this method has you abstract the maze instead of actually drawing a map of it. Once again, I think any solution is going to need this quality to not become too cumbersome. Next, it focuses on having regular chambers of interesting stuff to interact with, so it's not just the winding hallways as the main event. Again, this is another quality I think we can say is good to have. But thirdly, it doesn't totally handwave the hallway stuff or even resolve it with something that players have no control over. That said, the player's impact on the hallway navigation does come from character skill rather than player skill in this method, which you may see as a plus or a minus.

Whatever system you're running, figure out the best way to represent a "navigating through a maze effectively" check. The party must make X number of successful consecutive rolls to complete the maze, with X varying based on the size and complexity of the maze. Each roll uses a 10 minute turn. As always, you're also rolling for random encounters as the party consumes time. In my case, I roll to see if they have one every 10 minute turns as well, so if I were using this system then there'd be a chance every single navigation check that they run into something. These aren't always monsters of course. They could be puzzles or traps or interesting rooms or whatever. In a way, preparing a maze is basically just combining the two steps you'd normally follow when preparing a dungeon: making the list of rooms and making the list of random encounters. Even just finding a room is its own random encounter in a maze.

Notable sentence in the post that I'm going to capitalize on later: "You may also include on the encounter chart, specific entries like 'the center of the maze' or 'the Minotaur's lair' or the 'captured Princess' or a 'secret door.'"

Some other details: if the party splits up then you just take turns running them side by side. If they roll the same encounter/room result then boom, they're reunited. If the chaos of a failed combat splits them up by force then the way you determine who is in what groups is by having everyone make a navigation roll. Those who succeed are in one group together and those who fail are in another group together. If they try to reunite and don't want to wait until they happen to roll the same location, then they can try using their brains for a solution and you just assess how effective it would be. For example, they might start yelling each other's names. That could grant a new navigation roll to find each other, but it should also trigger another encounter roll since it'll attract monsters.

So the sort of "stat block" of a maze looks like this:

  1. Navigation roll and DC
  2. Length of navigation turn
  3. Number of consecutive successes needed to complete the maze
  4. Frequency of room/encounter rolls
  5. Room / encounter table
  6. Descriptive stuff like corridor width, if there's a ceiling, visibility, temperature, construction material, etc.
  7. Purpose (since you might have some specific goal other than just "get from Point A to Point B")
If you're familiar at all with "Skill Challenges" (a mechanic popularized by 4E D&D and iterated upon by many designers since), this is really similar. Consecutive successes are tricky to secure because all it takes is one failure to lose all progress completely. But logically, it makes a lot of sense. Each success represents you making incremental progress towards the goal, but even just one wrong decision will take you pretty far down an incorrect path before you realize you've made a mistake, and you'll be pretty lost again. That being said, I think there are a few sensible additions that could improve upon this.

For starters, I like the "layers" mechanic from Labyrinth, which could easily be replicated here. Layers are completed every 3 consecutive successes, let's say. That way, you can have 5 layers that requires a total of 15 successful navigation checks to complete, but never more than 3 in a row at a time. Don't worry if you've gotten 11 right in a row but then fail your first one. It won't set you back all the way to the beginning, just back down to 9 total successes (i.e. the beginning of layer 4).

Another thing I think could be good would be rewarding players for discovering or establishing landmarks in the maze that'll help serve as reference points. There can be a few built into the list of encounters (such as the center of the maze or a corner of the maze or a unique room), but there could also be created new ones if the players leave a distinguishable marker somewhere (like by drawing a chalk mark on a specific statue so they'll not get it mixed up with the others). For every landmark that's been found or made, they get a +1 bonus to all future navigation rolls, thus rewarding them for gradually "learning" the layout of the maze. Even if they needed 6 consecutive successes and they failed on their 5th, they don't feel so bad about starting over because their progress wasn't for nothing. They're racking up bonuses that'll make future rolls easier.

Backtracking is a bit weird. My intuition tells me that it should simply require another navigation roll, but rather than a "success" counting towards your cumulative number of successes towards the end goal, it instead results in the party arriving at the specific location they're aiming for. I just don't know how easy or hard that should be. After all, it takes X number of consecutive successes to reach the final location, so is not any other specific site within the maze simply a replacement goal for that final location? Let's say the party visited the fountain room 3 turns ago but now wants to go back. Is it 1 successful navigation roll away? Or should it be more? Well, even if it is more, it should still be easier to get there than somewhere the party hasn't been to yet, since they should have at least a little bit of an idea how to reach it.

Adding magic elements like magical tricks and puzzles would require some creativity in this system, but I think it would be quite easy to implement. For example, you can hide the solutions to certain roadblocks within some of the encounter results, so the party won't actually ever progress to the end no matter how many successes they roll if they don't also take the necessary action in the right room (e.g. by finding skull kid and starting the chase or by pulling the lever that'll open the secret doorway later on or whatever). But this extra requirement should somehow be telegraphed so the players at least understand that merely succeeding at navigation checks won't be enough.

Lastly, a very simple one I once put in an adventure

This was a magical hedge maze that was just one part of a larger dungeon that was garden-themed. This is very similar to the Legend of Zelda methods but translated into D&D dungeoncrawling mechanics. Here's the gist: there's one way to enter, and the only interesting location found within is impossible to find unless you have the magic doohickey. So by entering, the only thing that'll happen is that the players will wander around for a while until they find the exit, which lets them out at another point in the dungeon entirely (unlike the Zelda forests, the "reset upon failure" room of my maze was not the path they entered from). The only variable is how long it takes. So every dungeon turn (10 minutes), the group makes an INT check to see if they find the exit or if they continue wandering for another 10 minutes. Even without encounters, this'll gradually begin wearing them down with a cost of its own just from time wasted and light supply consumed and whatnot. That said, it's rare that they don't pass the check within the first 3 turns.

If, on the other hand, they enter the hedge maze with the magical doohickey they need (in this case, a magic snake familiar that was stolen from its master), then it'll lead them to the interesting room. I describe as follows: "the snake slithers forth and beckons that you follow its lead. It begins winding through the maze at speed in search of something." If the PCs say they follow then there's no check or anything required, I just say, "the snake has led you to a spot you're sure you must have passed a million times but never took notice of because it just seemed like an insignificant stretch of wall. However, at its command the hedge wall parts and reveals a gazebo behind it!" And then they get to enjoy the interesting thing.

Now this is about as simple as it possibly gets. It's only slightly more complicated than the Maze spell from 5E D&D, and only by adding a Zelda-style puzzle gimmick to unlock something worthwhile from the maze rather than merely the reward of escape itself. I will admit that I don't find this solution satisfying for most labyrinth-related purposes (hence why I'll be studying my favorite examples from the list above to design something more robust), but it served its small purpose within this dungeon quite admirably.


Yes, I know I am thinking way too much about this. But I hate "unsolved problems" in RPGs. 99% of the time I can tell that a true, satisfying solution is achievable if only we combined our efforts together. I know for a fact that there's a correct way to run mystery adventures in RPGs that avoids all the normal problems and limitations of most solutions. Same thing with wilderness exploration stuff, and to an extent the same thing with urban adventuring. I'm still working on "solving" the elusive pirate adventure but I'll get there! The point is that the world is full of half-baked design because so many people dive straight into trying to make their own solution based on intuition and guesswork without taking the important step of first researching what methods other designers have already attempted. Iterative design is valuable, and I wanted to settle the question of mazes in RPGs once and for all. We're not there yet, but I think if lots of people read this article then we'll be one step closer.


EDIT: We have our first guest contribution! u/NumberNinethousand on Reddit suggested this method they made up, which I'll post below:

(This is a variation of a classic game I know as "Memory", but it may have other names. You have played it for sure in some form though)
  • The GM sets a matrix of cards face down on the table. Only two of the cards are equal.
  • Like in Labirynth: The Adventure Game or Maze: The Monotony, the maze is actually a series of interesting rooms, areas, encounters or situations the GM has prepared beforehand.
  • Every time the players solve a room, they can reveal two cards. If they are the same, they have reached their destination. If they are not, they go to the next room.
  • After revealing the two cards, a successful navigation check (which may or may not be modified depending of how well they resolved the last room), they can leave one of the cards permanently revealed. Otherwise, both cards are turned face down again.
  • The next rooms can be selected randomly, or follow a formula tanking into account which cards the players revealed.
  • Backtracking can be achieved simply by a navigation check. Failure means finding themselves in a new room.
I think this one sounds pretty fun, even if a bit gimmicky (kinda like the 17th Century Minimalist one).


  1. You say that “Barrowmaze is an extremely popular megadungeon that's actually just a field of disconnected microdungeons”, but that’s not the case. I presume you’ve not read or run or played Barrowmaze yourself? It’s revealed quite early on that there’s a big interconnected dungeon that runs along beneath all of those seemingly disconnected barrows. Several of them are entrances to the Barrowmaze proper - either obviously or secretly so.

    1. I saw a review once several years ago and now I've made a fool of myself. Thank you, I'll correct my post.

      Also, that's really cool!

  2. This was an intentional joke, but in one campaign, we encountered a dungeon/maze where every intersection had two choices: a blue door and a red door. Every red door led us closer to our goal, while every blue door dropped us down a level (still closer to our goal, but the dungeon got more dangerous). After one blue door, we decided to stick with red doors, constantly wondering "is this serious? is it really this easy? who built this place?" It was intentionally humorous and, when we arrived at the temple in the center, the priests were upset/incredulous when we told them how easy it was to navigate.