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 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.


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 craggle

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.
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10 Responses to Building a Better Labyrinth – A Maze Mechanic Idea

  1. ALCH3MIST says:

    I’m no much of a tabletop gamer, but a maze CAN be a good mechanic when used as the core concept of a videogame – PROVIDED it’s not too hard. For example, my recent game the Maze [] has the player trying to get out of a serious of maze-like levels. “Serious” mazes were almost universally rejected by players as being impossible; it seems people find it harder to map out mazes in a virtual reality.

  2. Reverance Pavane says:

    My very first dungeon had a magical maze at the very beginning for a very specific purpose. If you did the follow the wall trick you’d end up back at the entrance after having travelled roughly 100′ and made six left turns. The reverse if you were following the right wall of course. There were no traps or other dangers such as wandering monsters. Simply a maze that sends you back to the beginning – unless you knew the combination.

    Now you have to remember this was a very public dungeon. The entrance to it was known to all (an impressive plaza of dressed stone in front of a large open doorway in a cliff over which was carved a dragon (forming the lintel and side columns of the doorway), underneath the stronghold/castle of the evil lich king. It was so well known that enterprising business-folks had set up booths in the dungeon courtyard selling your typical array of healing potions (which worked more often than not), dungeoneering equipment (at a slight mark-up – for those too lazy to walk back to the town proper), food, “I visited The Lich King’s Dungeon …. and the only treasure I got was this lousy T-Tunic” souvenir t-tunics, and “100% authentic maps to the dungeon (which were, surprisingly, almost 100% accurate). many of the booths being run by the orcs who were employed as castle guards (my orcs were slightly different than the norm). Later it would evolve to a nearby restaurant run by a troll (Gobbledoks Vegetarian Restaurant – “We Serve Elves”), hospital, stable, lawyer, bank, and other enterprises with more permanent construction (but off the forecourt). Including a dwarven steam calliope for the kiddies, because people complained that it wasn’t a fun fair without one.

    Now finding out the combination to the maze was easy. The merchants at the fair (permanent construction was forbidden by edict) would let newcomers do the standard always turn left or right trick and then laugh when they appeared back at the entrance, and were always willing to sell the combination to any interested players for the minor sum of a single gold piece. And of course, once a player had been in the dungeon they were free to “remember” the combination (which was “left-right-left-right-left-right” although one cunning player eventually discovered an alternate entrance to the dungeon proper that was reached by going “right-left-right-left-right-left”). Alternatively the frescos on the wall told of the sorcerer’s descent into hell to become the lich king, so you could just follow the story if you knew magic or mythology.

    Why have such a seemingly useless maze at all?

    Well, this dungeon existed in a shared world containing the seven actual and literal dungeon masters of the campaign. I was the evil* lich king in the castle above the dungeon. Each of the seven dungeon masters had a dungeon in which was hidden the artefact that could destroy them. In my case it was, unnaturally enough, my heart. Under the rules of the dungeons, the artefact had to be accessible by anyone at any time (without using obscure knowledge or magics), and it couldn’t be directly guarded by a powerful creature that could make use of the object itself (or tell “friends” were it might be found if magically bound to a purpose), or be located magically. Adventurer parties were either agents of one of the other dungeon masters, or rebels against the rule of the local dungeon master, seeking the artefact which could destroy them (either to actually do so or have power over them or for a reward). Or simply mercenaries after the treasure that was down there. [In a nice version of primitive economics excess treasure stolen by the agents of one dungeon master frequently ended up in the dungeons of their master.]

    So the entire purpose of this maze was in fact to be trivial to solve – and to draw the adventurers away from the entrance. Descents into the dungeon would invariably begin with the players singing “left-right-left-right-left-right” before they even started (even the enterprising player who determined the other safe path through the maze never considered anything else other than the different combinations). So no one ever checked the loose stone above the inside lintel of the entranceway, in which, wrapped in burial cloths, was my cold dead heart.

    And the rest of the dungeon? Essentially a deathtrap designed to lure the adventurers deeper and deeper, and into more trouble, until they finally died. [Which is why the maps (at least the official ones from the map-seller) were almost always authentic.]

    So have an fondness for even the simplest of mazes. Particularly when they use the players expectations against them.

    Sorry for waffling.

    [Incidentally a maze and a labyrinth are different things. A labyrinth has only a single path to the centre – you can’t get lost in a labyrinth as there are no branches.]

    • craggle says:

      That’s a very cool sounding idea. I didn’t want to bog down the opening of the post with too much regarding mazes in games, but there are some examples of some very good ones and they tend to follow a similar pattern to yours: the “solution” to the maze is used as sort of “combination lock” for a location, where you either gain the solution elsewhere or follow some device (such as the navigator’s head in Monkey Island). And you’ve got a couple of nice alternatives that cater to different approaches very well. I’ve certainly seen one or two that do nothing except exist to have the players perform an extensive tree traversal (which, in effect, all following a maze really amounts to).

      [I was somewhat aware of the distinction between the two words, although colloquially they have become pretty much synonymous, and I had just watched the move recently, which probably had an influence on the title 🙂 ]

  3. TriskalJM says:

    This is brilliant! I assume you can change the rules and also change the deck size as needed to suit purposes. I will definitely have to steal this idea and keep it tucked away in the devious DM part of my brain.

    • Adam says:

      For sure!

      You could also use the idea to abstract the party’s movement through various planes, like you’re working on. Use a small deck for each attempt to go from here to there within a plane (say enough for 2-3 rounds of choosing a path to follow).

      Then assign card-translation rules highlighting plane-themed events or situations that befall the party on the way: aside from themed traps/hazards and creatures, players could acquire planar conditions using disease tracks, or benefits, get lost, end up somewhere they don’t mean to be, leave the plane, etc. If they’re foolish or not plane-savvy, they could have to go through loads of trouble just to get from place to place.

      Give each plane different rules for translating card values and they’ll be consistent with themselves while feeling very different from each other.

  4. You could do a similar idea with dice and a table. Each row on the table would contain an index number, a description for the events for when that row is reached, and one index number of another row for each possible die value. Obviously one or more rows would be your exits, then you just have to structure table to make sure your exits are reachable. Repetition of things will make them seem truly lost inside.

    Skill checks could identify exits which lead to rows they’ve already visited. Or you could make a tree of all the row links so that skill checks could indicate the right path. (to make the tree start with the exits and work backwards to the entrance.

    Two caveats:
    1. the number of rows directly affects how long they’ll be in the dungeon. Do not go overboard unless the goal is for them to die of old age.
    2. It is possible for them to get stuck in a loop, know ahead of time which rows lead to exit rows and apply GM magic judiciously

    • craggle says:

      I think I may be misunderstanding your suggestion Chester, but if you have a table of rows that are selected by a roll of the dice, what informed decision are the players making?

      I’m also not certain as to the benefit of checks identifying whether a row is one that has already been visited, as that would seem to have little bearing on whether it lay on the path to the exit, unless you also know that all potential routes from that row have been explored. Rolling to divine the idea route also seems close to making it into a “Save vs. Maze” type situation.

  5. Jonathan says:

    The obvious, somewhat mundane 4e solution is, of course, a skill challenge.

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