Building a Better Labyrinth – A Maze Mechanic Idea

I’m of an age for whom most adventure gaming on the computer was of the text-based variety. A particularly large portion of these games seemed to feature some variation of a maze at some point and looking back on it now, they were almost always unnecessary padding of the game, often demonstrating the worst aspects of adventure design by being illogical and deliberately obtuse.

Tabletop gaming modules sometimes use mazes too, and while they tend not to fall into the same glaring design traps as text-based computer games, they do have their own set of problems to overcome. A while back, a post on RPG.net asked for advice on how to run a maze in an adventure without falling prey to many of these issues, and the question prompted me with the following idea. As I have since started collaborating on this blog on gaming and game design, I thought this is a perfect forum to give it a better airing.

Getting Lost in the Mechanics

The purpose of including a maze in an adventure is usually to give a sense of being lost in a labyrinthine complex from which the characters can use their wits and intellect to  eventually overcome. This is a worthy goal in a story sense, but a number of issues arise when incorporating it into a game like Dungeons & Dragons: first, if you make this a maze challenge for the players rather than the characters, it is likely only going to occupy one, or at most, two of the players; second, the “tricks of the trade” in solving mazes tend to be so well known (unravelling balls of thread, chalk markings, or following the left-hand wall) that it renders the challenge moot in any maze using standard rules; third, the wizard’s player may argue that she should be able to simply roll an intelligence check and bypass the obstacle in one roll; fourth, maintaining a clear flow of information from GM to player in a way that prevents mistakes and frustration due to faulty data or misunderstanding is difficult and often complicated.

So, to present a good maze mechanic, our goals and challenges are the following: –

  • Presenting the maze to the players clearly, yet not completely giving the game away to the equivalent of handing them a map.
  • Attempting to engage the group as a whole, not just one or two single individuals.
  • Giving the opportunity to test the characters’ abilities in a way that doesn’t reduce the maze to nothing more than a single die roll, or almost as bad, a series of them.

In order to achieve these ends, my proposed method involves a regular deck of cards…

Getting Some Directions

For this idea, the players’ ultimate goal is to exhaust the deck of cards, but the focus is to present and give the players some choice among obstacles along the way. Skillful decisions by players and characters can get them through quickly, bypassing the worst the maze has to offer. Nevertheless, doing so is not as easy as all that.

Our first step as the GM is to choose a set of rules for the maze’s design.  This involves a set of steps, kept secret from the players, that translate the values of the cards into encounters and paths for the labyrinth.  The rules are arbitrary but include the elements you want in your maze. The following is an example set of rules: –

  • Diamond cards denote a path with a trap
  • Picture cards denote a monster encounter
  • The value of the card relates to the challenge rating or difficulty of the encounter (so an 8 of Diamonds trap is more difficult to disarm or bypass than a 2 of Diamonds trap, and a King represents either a larger group or a tougher monster than a Jack)
  • Odd-numbered Spades represent a dead-end
  • Even-numbered cards lead to paths with two choices at the next intersection while odd cards (that aren’t Spades) have three options
  • Aces represent a treasure cache, resting point, or another benefit or event from a random table

Using this set of rules means that attentive players have a consistent foundation which, although completely unknown at the outset, they can slowly piece together to learn the “map” of the maze. Furthermore, by using playing cards, they have a concrete visual representation of their routes and options going forward without worrying about potential communication breakdowns with the GM.

Skillfully Running a Maze

Now that we have the rules of the maze, we can set the players loose to solve it.  When the maze comes up in the game, the GM first shuffles the deck of cards and deals three (possibly four) cards face down on the table.  To progress through the maze, the players choose one of the available cards, turn it over, and the GM narrates an encounter for the characters as prescribed in his rules for the value of the card. They advance on their chosen path, perhaps face a monster, perhaps face a trap, or perhaps face a dead end. Eventually, one way or the other, they will face another set of options, choose one, and play out their progress once again.

To incorporate character abilities and skills, allow the players to attempt a skill check in order to reveal some of the face-down cards prior to making their decision of which way to go each round. The mechanics for allowing characters such insights depend somewhat on the system being used, but tests like intelligence, tracking, path-finding, and navigation are some good options. If the maze is a magical vortex, sequence of portals, or a maddeningly shifting faerie forest, vital skills might rely on magic, memory, history, or tricking stubborn guardians to reveal their knowledge. Some mazes might allow combat, feats of mobility, or stranger tasks such as dancing, dreaming, or spiritual rituals to offer insights into which is the better path.

Depending on your style and the rules you’re using, you can include a number of additional variations: for systems that reward exceptional successes, you might reveal more than one of the cards; you may decide that a failed check means that one of the cards may not be revealed by any further skill checks or the chosen option gains a trap even if it wouldn’t normally have one; repeated use of the same skill could be dissuaded by increasing the difficulty for each subsequent use.

Once the group has overcome any encounter associated with their selected path, discard the previous set of options and deal a new set of cards face down for the new potential paths. Players choose a new path and repeat the process.

Dead-Ends

If the card represents a dead-end, take back the cards currently dealt out as possible paths, shuffle them back into the deck, then deal out cards for the options again, with one fewer option than the previous round (with a minimum of one card). If nothing else, the dead-end canceled out one option for them.

If the players specify some use of one of the route marking options, however, such as trails of breadcrumbs, chalk markings, or unravelling thread, you may rule that they can return to make a second selection from the cards still face-down on the table without shuffling them back into the deck. In the unfortunate event of all options representing dead-ends, the characters need to “back-track” farther: shuffle all the discarded cards and deal a set of options from those until the players choose a route without a dead-end, at which point they return to progressing through the “main” deck.

End Game

Once the players exhaust the deck, the characters have navigated the maze successfully. Make your mazes longer or shorter by adding or subtracting cards. Change up the rules to give a new maze a different tone and ambiance, representing anything from a pitch black tomb full of death traps to a shifting, mysterious, otherworldly forest in the fae, filled with bizarre creatures and irrational rules. In the end, hopefully everyone has more fun than watching one friend check off a list of directions with the GM, and enjoys a more engaging challenge than that offered on a Denny’s placemat.

About Craig Payne

Despite being born tone deaf in one ear, Craig has risen above his disadvantage to achieve the lofty position of spending most of his free time mucking around on the Internet, tinkering with RPG rules, and failing on at least seven occasions to finish writing a novel.