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Inspired by a question on another site, what's the best way to add a labyrinth to an adventure scenario without making the challenges contingent upon player skill at mapping or navigation?

I'd like to keep the tension of potentially getting delayed or lost, coming across hazards (both active and passive), and having difficulty returning to safety, but without the need to create a physical battle-map or a spatial correspondence that serves the same function — "you reach the end of a thirty-foot corridor that branches left and right." I'm already aware of skill challenges in games like the 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons and extended rolls in systems like Storyteller, where the goal is to accrue successes until the challenge is considered "complete." I'm looking for something more creative and better able to keep the players' attention.

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Question: should the party be able to make informed choices? In other words, is the problem "how to present a solvable maze without mapping?" or is it "given there's no mapping, how to pace challenges/respites well?" – nitsua60 Aug 20 at 19:54
@nitsua60 The question, when asked, concerned the latter circumstance -- the feel of being in a labyrinth. However, if you've got a good answer that presumes the former, I'd be interested in reading it. – Jadasc Aug 20 at 19:56
Caveat: a labyrinth and a maze are two different things. A labyrinth has a single path (it's railroady that way)... walk long enough and you will arrive at the center, whereas a maze haze different possible paths. – Lexible Aug 21 at 7:59
@Lexible That is a scholarly distinction, usually proceeded with something along the lines of "In modern English, the words are synonymous." In fact the first cited source of this distinction is a scholar arguing against this distinction. – Tritium21 Aug 23 at 18:57
@nitsua60 and Jadasc To the contrary, the question should be regarded as specific, especially with so many answers already. Answers for the former case should be saved for a real question about that. – SevenSidedDie Aug 23 at 19:21

14 Answers 14

up vote 15 down vote accepted

Similar to yhw42 I'd suggest using an abstract graph of the labyrinth instead of drawing out the whole thing. However, I'd recommend using something like a flowchart or a data flow diagram or a state diagram for that purpose.

The result could look like this:

Flowchart-style map of Blackrock Depths in World of Warcraft
Flowchart Map of Blackrock Depths” by M3ss3ng3r is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported

You can then go on and detail each “node” in the graph as you wish. Perhaps each “corridor” node has a % chance for a random encounter or a trap. Perhaps each skill challenge does not only have “success” or “failure” but also additional routes for a “perfect success” (e.g., success without a single failure) or a “complete failure” (e.g., failure without a single success).

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I was just pondering this the other day. There is an old adventure I once ran that has a great maze in it, but playing it out as a mapping exercise made it rather un-fun. I've been wanting to run that adventure again, and I've been thinking of ways to make the maze part as much fun as it deserves. The solution I came up with is only good if:

  • you're okay with managing the maze descriptively
  • you using a system that allows for skill checks or conflict tests
  • there are hazards in the maze that could be blundered into or avoided

The overall concept is to describe the twistings and turnings of the maze as the characters navigate it, but not have the players try to navigate it. Instead, have them roll an appropriate skill or conflict to navigate the maze "safely". On a failure, continue the description of the maze at one of the hazard locations, just as if the PCs had walked into an encounter room.

Once they deal with the hazard and move on (or if they succeeded on the original check to avoid the hazard) describe them coming to a part of the maze that's definitely new to give the players a sense of progress through the labyrinth.

Continue like this until they've either avoided or met each of the hazards. Should the players run into a hazard and decide to backtrack to try to go around, let them, but keep describing them running into the hazard—they failed the check, so they have to face the hazard to make progress in the maze. (Of course, if they're really clever, make exceptions to this as you like.)

There are games with subsystems already well-suited to this. Skill Challenges in D&D 4th edition are nearly perfect. Games like Burning Wheel that use conflict resolution are well-suited to running this kind of structured challenge on-the-fly as well, if you make avoiding or encountering each hazard the point of the conflict roll.

Exemplis gratis

Take for example a simple maze with one monster and three pit traps. The spots where the pit traps are concealed are particularly narrow, short, straight corridors in the maze. The spot where the monster resides is a moderately-sized room after a few quick bends, so the PCs will come into the room suddenly without warning. (This "can't avoid the room" setup for the hazards is optional, but will make it smoother to run, as the players can't try to game the overall challenge by falling back to the "map it all and creep around" kind of play that you're trying to avoid.)

The PCs make a check or contest roll to navigate the maze. You don't need to announce the success or failure, but it depends on your play style whether you want to tell the PCs that the consequence of the roll is encountering a hazard, or whether you want to just let them discover that they're in trouble as you keep describing their movement through the maze.

Let's assume a success. Reward the players with description that sounds like they're making progress: turns they don't recognise, incidental features and dungeon dressing that they've haven't seen before, or a sense of direction telling them that they've managed to leave behind the last section of the maze.

Mark off one of the hazards, such as one of the pit traps. They've avoided that part of the maze and won't need to go there to find the exit.

Next roll, they fail. Describe the same sense of moving forward, but then bring your description to a narrow "action" focus as they come to the corridor with the pit trap. Call for agility rolls, saving throws, or whatever is appropriate. They'll deal with the trap, suffering more or less.

Next roll, they fail again. The last pit trap is ahead of them and they need to get past it. If the players recognise the setup, that's fine: let them approach cautiously, applying what they learned last time. Maybe they figure out where the trap is and all jump over it, or lay two poles across it and walk over those. Generally, let them be clever and enjoy outsmarting the trap—and if they're not clever, it'll run just like the first time. Either way they have to deal with it, and it will be interesting.

That makes three rolls out of four hazards. The final roll will determine whether they stumble into the monster's lair within the maze, or whether they manage to find a clear way past it. If they succeed you can describe the sounds of the monster just behind the wall, then dropping behind them as they see the exit. If they fail, you get an interesting fight, then they quickly find the exit.

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Part of the captivating ideas of a maze is the dead-end, choosing between going different directions, the backtracking, and the uncertainty if you are making progress toward the end point. So I'm finding it difficult to think of how that doesn't involve navigation of some sort without hand waving most of it.

Rather than requiring mapping skills, use a generalized graph, like a subway map. And base the "map" on only interesting events and interesting places.

Connect them like a mind map: The statue room, the pile of garbage with a hidden sword, the spot you can see through the ceiling to the stars. You as the gm provide the narrative link between those places.

Players can navigate by remembering the three or five or seven interesting events/places, i.e. "maybe if we go back to the statue and try going left...".

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As a D&D 4e DM, I was seriously thrown out of my (at the time) habitual game preparation techniques because of the emphasis that 4e put on challenging and balanced encounters instead of "there are two goblins on this room" that would probably be solved by the initiative check. So, quickly I found out that preparing a full maze and let people explore as I did back on 2e/3e was not going to work. And since I like to run dungeon crawls, I had to adapt. And that is what I did.

First off, I killed the illusion of choice for myself. The path will be described as non-linear (branches, slopes, traps, etc), but in fact it will be a lot like running a straight line. Think about the modern shooters, where you are in the middle of a city, but the walls and doors are set in such a way that there is only one valid path.

So, I set up the key encounters that are either relevant for the plot, or challenging and interesting on itself. And when I think it is appropriate, I throw one of them at the party. And keep describing that they are running through branches and stuff until they found the encounter.

The trick here is pretending that you are consulting a map, when you actually are not. By the nature of your question, I assume that your party don't have an explorer, so you don't have the risk of someone suddenly saying "this path should conflict with that other corridor back there". And even if they do, you can handwave that with difference in depth.

After you get confident on your non-mapping skills, if you want, you can break the illusion to your players as well. But that is your call. Many players don't like to see the strings on the puppet show, while others find this part interesting. Be your own judge on the reveal.

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Consider a grid such as this one:

entrance > 1+ 1 1A 1B > 2+ 2 2A 2B 2C > 3+ 3 3A 3B 3C 3D > etc.

Numbers represent a fight/trap/obstacle the party will have to overcome while navigating the maze. Numbers with a letter represent a harder version of the encounter (harder/more enemies, higher skill DCs for traps/obstacles, etc.); the farther the letter is into the alphabet, the harder the encounter gets (so B is harder than A, and C is harder than B). The plus column represents an easier version of the encounter; skill DCs might be lower, enemies might be weaker, fewer in number, or unprepared for a fight. The party starts at the entrance cell.

To progress, the party needs to make some kind of roll to navigate that dungeon. This could be a skill (survival, dungeoneering) or an attribute (intelligence) as appropriate for the system. DCs should be adjusted based on how you let the party make the roll (highest of each character's roll, average of all characters' rolls, one character's roll with aid from the other characters, etc.).

Each roll, whether it succeeds or fails, moves the party down 1 row to the next encounter. On a success, do not move the party left or right. On a failure move the party right 1 step. On a critical failure (as determined by the game system), move the party right 2 steps. On a critical success (as determined by the game system) move the party left 1 step.

After determining the party's new cell, present them with the encounter for that cell, and move them 1 step closer to the main column. This helps the party recover from failures.

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You can abstract a labyrinth into a list of possible approaches, and their stages, requirements, and results. In this way, you can choose what you want the results of different approaches to be like.

As just one possible example of this, perhaps you want the labyrinth to be a test of spiritual fortitude, and you anticipate the following approaches:

  • If a character follows with their right hand always on the right wall (a well-known technique that will eventually lead to an exit from most mazes), that character will start to realize their path seems quite tedious unless they are being unobservant. They may be tempted to stop doing that, but if not, they will find an exit after over an hour. However, it is the "mundane right" exit.

  • If a character follows with their left hand always on the left wall (an equivalent strategy to the most common), they will soon enter a part of the maze that right-hand-path followers will never reach. The maze will get darker and seem long disused, and if there were other people who could be heard from the first part of the maze, they will hear none. They will be tested for bravery and perseverance to not turn back. If they continue, they will later hear what sounds like activity and water down a right-hand passage. If they head that way, they enter the Left Temptation Sub-Maze. If they still persist in following left, they will eventually find the "far left" exit.

  • If a character starts using a long string to be able to keep track of their past path (the Theseus and Ariadne tactic) or dropping small items (the Hansel und Gretel tactic) or marking walls or some such, it will seem to work at first, and they will find their mark and realize which way they have come. However, they will then find they have traveled a very long time. Then they will start to have a sense of familiarity about their path. Then they will realize they are going in circles. Then they may discover a knot in the string, or the same crumbs, or altered marks. Someone else has changed their trail to a loop. Check to see if they panic. If not, and they abandon their technique, they may try a new technique. If they continue trying to use their marking technique, however, they will start to hear other footsteps. Another chance to panic. If they abandon their technique and try to avoid the other steps, they will get lost and may try another technique. If they seek out the steps, or continue using their technique, they'll meet a maze monster they'll need to deal with, and if they survive, they can continue using their technique, and will eventually find an exit.

  • If they use an alternating left/right pattern, they will never leave the maze until they change to another technique.

  • If a character ever becomes desperate, lost, or takes random passages, roll dice for every half hour, with a small chance of moving to a different part of the maze, or encountering someone else, and a very small chance of finding a "mundane exit".

  • If the character follows their intuition, they will be subconsciously guided by maze magic or spirits to an appropriate exit for their character.

  • If anyone ends up spending more than four hours in the maze, the hosts will come find you and tell you you failed your test, and lead you out.

Depending on what sort of world it is and what the spiritual fortitude theme is all about, there might be various rewards or effects of the different outcomes. I left out too a few possible details and random tables that could be added for more detail. These could also just be improvised by the GM.

A non-spiritual labyrinth could use a similar technique, but minus the meanings and the maze magic. For example, it could still be designed to lead the left and right followers to boobie-prize exits, with the more rewarding exits (it might just be a lot faster to take a different path at a certain point) requiring characters to notice clues or use their (character's) sense of direction or other senses, or to describe an approach that makes sense, or maybe just take middle paths instead of following side paths.

Another idea would be to have a maze that seems horribly complex, but then have options to follow various clues such as sounds, voices, foot tracks, strings or marks of past maze explorers, or even to follow, pursue or evade other people the PCs encounter in the maze.

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As the players have no chance of anticipating difference between outcomes of rightwalling and leftwalling, there is no choice involved, only luck. That makes the distinction basically useless, as far as players can see, and as such, I see no reason to include it. – kravaros Aug 23 at 1:17
@kravaros It's an example. What the themes are, and whether the players and the GM share the meanings and find them interesting or not, would be a matter for the specific players, GM, gameworld and game. – Dronz Aug 24 at 18:50

I don’t think you need a map for an interesting maze any more than you need a map of a city for engaging urban adventures or a map of a forest for a successful survival scenario.

If you already have a good source of tension (“run for your life”, “race to the treasure”, “no stone left unturned”, “find exit or die”), you can narrate the maze the same way you usually narrate the wilderness, the city, the royal court, the deserted island or the haunted mansion. Pause for conflicts, encounters and interactions. As always they may have good or bad consequences - the party covers more ground, the party needs to go back, the party loses some important assets (time, direction sense, chalk markings, etc.), the party finds some important resources (a map, a scroll, a guide). Think of typical maze situations ("dead end", "got lost", "going in circles") as rhetorical devices and not mechanical challenges. If you want, you can extract some of these situations and turn them to "hazards" or "conflicts", but too much will make the maze boring.

Still, a maze may be a special case and you need to prepare for extra player buy-in. If you usually use a map for everything, this might be difficult, especially in a system that allows for lots o mechanical solutions to many typical maze hazards (think Survival skill or Prying Eyes and Dimension Door spells in D&D 3.5). You can either use some of the other proposed solutions (like astrally connected demi-planes for high-level D&D parties) or communicate it well to your players, what is the purpose of the maze.

It may require handwaving, but you can - within the narrative - explain the players that looking for the correct path is not essential. They will leave a breadcrumb, they will follow the right-hand rule - in the end they know their craft, but if you can make them feel immersed in the maze, the tension will follow. Just keep eyes on the prize.

Something like this:

You haven’t heard the king’s men for some time now and start to wonder if this is the right way to the Borges Pass. Anyway, without much choice, you start climbing to reach a stone door.


After several turns and crossings you are now certain this is a maze. Rob the Ranger can sense the general direction you should follow, but his first choice of a straight passage is a dead end.

’We use chalk to mark crossings. And mark a trail’ says Smug the Wizard.

You slowly cover more and more ground to walk in the direction established by Rob. Sometimes you can hear echoes of your footsteps coming from unexpected directions. Or perhaps these are not your footsteps? Have you seen a painting of a maze in the royal guard quarters? You try moving faster, but this only makes you hesitate whenever you see your markings. Are they yours? Did you draw this arrow there? Or this circle?

(Now hazards happen: a hole in the floor, a combat, a chase, a riddle; depending on how the party deals with them you change your narrative - they navigate with more or less certainty and so on).

Finally, my checklist for labyrinths (D&D 3.5):

  • is failure an option (someone else gets to the treasure first, the PCs die somewhere without food and spell components),
  • how much time do they need (a day, an hour, a week),
  • what are the consequences of exceeding the time limit (they get caught, ancient evil awakens),
  • what kind of resources they value and cannot easily restore (like spell slots and expendable items in 3.5 - usually I prepare a lot of simple obstacles that burn the party resources, a Dimension Door here, a Detect Thoughts there, a Daylight, a Dispel Magic, just for the letter D).

Depending on the amount of tension I want, I reduce the time limit and increase the burn rate for resources (for me it worked better than high stakes, losing a wand might be worse than losing your life). Also, for me mazes without monsters (or without typical combats) worked best - provided that there is a constant threat of an encounter…

And in the end, navigating a labyrinth depends very much on luck (breadcrumbs prevent you from getting hopelessly lost, but don’t guarantee progress in the right direction), so to enhance the narrative you could sometimes demand some rolls - simple 50% chance for selecting a “better” path will make for memorable moments in the maze (especially in the case of failures).

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I recommend using a deck of playing cards and having events assigned to card types, suits, evens or odds. It depends on how complex you want the maze. Here's an example of a D&D 5e maze I just ran my party through. As they moved through this maze, the path behind them would be obscured by a magical fog that was impenetrable. If they attempted to enter the fog, they would draw another card to have a different path revealed than was originally there.

This maze lasted 6 hours:

  1. Any odd/red non-face card - random turn (left, right, stairs up, stairs down)
  2. Any even/black non-face card - interesting items, minor loot, decorative rooms, nothing special
  3. Any Jack- Minor encounter or trap
  4. Any Queen or Red King - Minor encounter (wandering mobs, ambush, etc), trap, puzzle and some loot
  5. Any Black King or Black Ace - Major encounter/event with level appropriate magical loot
  6. Any Red Ace - Major encounter/event with above average character level loot
  7. The Joker - Either a safe place to rest or an exit to the maze.

Side note: Encounters can also be benign. For example you could encounter a fairy who, in exchange for some shiny gems or a performance from your bard, will heal your party and restore their spell slots.

I find this is the easiest way to plot a maze without having to bother drawing it and worrying about corridors, twists, turns and dead ends.

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For games where you use battle maps or dungeon tiles or the PCs are mapping on graph paper and the like, you can still have the tension and mystery of being lost in a maze, if you complicate things by preventing them from going "backwards" in the normal sense. If the players know they can't go back out, then they need to discern what lies ahead.

Mundane options would be traps in key passages to make them impassable after they've been traveled down.

Magical options, and probably my favorite for this kind of thing, is for doorways to be enchanted such that in one direction they lead from say, location A to location B, exiting location B by that same door, takes you to location C and so on.

There was an old school DnD module (The Island of Castanamir?) where this was used to good effect.

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A maze is mathematically a graph; the nodes are where interesting things can happen and the edges are paths between the nodes.

Something interesting means:

  • A decision between edges (paths)
  • A monster
  • A trap
  • A trick
  • A treasure
  • A combination of the above.

Nodes can be small or large. A 4 way intersection of 5 foot corridors is a small node, a 500 x 500 foot city square with 15 roads leading from it is a large node; they are both nodes because they are a point where the players must make a decision on where to go next.

Edges are simply a transition and can be described simply by the time it takes to move from one node to the other. Players have no choice on an edge except to go forward or back. They do not have to be boring, for example an edge can be:

  • submerged in water
  • hidden by secret doors
  • vertical (easy to go down, hard to go up)
  • only accessible to Dimension Door or Passwall etc.

Here is an example of a well known graph:

London Underground

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First turn the Maze into a list of results from the maze that players might want. you can do this ahead of time or just ask players what an ideal(but still reasonable) trip through the maze might look like. An example list follows:

  • We find the exit
  • We remember the way back quickly
  • We find some treasure
  • We avoid fighting monsters
  • We don't fall into any traps

Next you use game statistics to evaluate how many of those things the players actually get to have. Exactly how this is done will vary depending on system and style. For instance a game with skill challenges could give 1 point for each success before x failures, or you could go around the table giving each player a chance to try to apply their skills toward one of the bullet points to capture it. You could even boil it down into one skill check and use something like result-dc/n = successes where dc and n need to be determined by the gm based on other factors.

If you want it to be longer you can break the maze up into landmarks like the node graph approaches on this page, so instead of "we find the exit" it's "we find a new landmark" The area around each landmark can have different traps, monsters and treasures, and somewhere there is a landmark that is the exit(or an exit).

This leaves several details to work out but those can be very system and group specific. This approach isn't for everyone, it moves players to the meta level to keep them engaged in and in control, and can easily result in things being resolved out of order. (If players get the find the exit point, but not the avoid monsters point, while running the combat everyone knows they get out of the maze after this.)

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Take your dice. And roll them.

Make a simple chart like you would see for making enchanted gear as a player.

set your 100 die parameters:

0-10: simple traps
0-20: oblivious monsters(eating talking not paying attn)
And so on and so on

Set your simple 0-10 parameters:

1 pit fall
2 dart from wall
And so on and so on

As for the pc's adventuring set a number of rooms to clear. Set a number of corridors for them to clear. And add in the true quest rooms/corridoors that you can place in periodically when they seem they are lost or dis interested.

Takes a bit of prep as you do have to chart it out. However it keeps a multidude of activities hidden in the maze and you as dm can say a rat is 0-10 just to keep the chart easier and quicker to build. Plus dead ends do occur. Hope they bring a scribe or some bread crumbs.

But most of all you can get really creative. For a number could be a illusion of riches and golds causing them to back out to find out its rocks. Or a secret magic grove with a "helpless" dryad within (set lvl of creature and skills appropriately don't want a dryad to kill them on a first quest).

And don't forget since there is no art a thesauraus and great story expressions will be needed.

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My favorite non-mapped solution of a dungeon may be of interest. The players find out when they enter that the place is enchanted by some god or demon and they are actually now on a different plane of reality where some spells may have a different effect. (Teleportation will for example always lead to the same room [it's a panic room, a safe space — there are skeletons of 1d4+1 magic users in there with lots of loot!], no matter the destination you had in mind….)

The dungeon space is curved, giving ranged attacks with an extra -2 penalty (unless one has some advanced range attack feats/levels/training, like a ranger or a hunter profession).

Now all silly strangeness because of the random nature of mapless dungeons will lead to a fuller feeling of the demonic enchantments.

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Thank you @TuggyNE for the spelling correction – Kári Gunnarsson Aug 23 at 4:35

A left-field approach, inspired by the hard-funnest puzzle I've ever tackled: run them through a fractal maze1.

Fractal Mazes

A fractal maze contains entire copies of itself as subsets of itself, as one might suspect. I'm not suggesting you actually design one in-game and by DM fiat manage the inevitable conflicts in spatial scale; you can use one to be your one-sheet generator for your characters' experience.

In solving an actual fractal maze one tracks the stack of sub-copies entered/exited in searching for a solution. In this case we're going to use the stack to trigger encounter tables and set a more-appropriate end-condition--the generating maze will likely be non-solvable, anyway2. Arrange the encounters into tables linked to each sub-maze, and either roll or cycle through entries3. Some entries could be modified when you hit them subsequent times, but some should definitely stay the same. One does re-trace one's footsteps while wandering around, after all.

A Prefatory Note

This answer is long. 3,000 words-long, give or take. I know it's long, and wonder if it's inappropriately-long. But I think it's

  • a simple idea to implement,
  • that answers the question in a very novel way,
  • which requires a worked-example to understand.

I invite suggestions as to how to better structure this, or your help through edits. Possibly 3/4 of it should be the content of a well-designed webpage somewhere to which a link is provided? But I don't have that. Perhaps the ~minimal~ working example could be smaller; this is (a simplified version of!) the recent one I ran in a home campaign. Perhaps there's a way to make the tables more... tabular?


I first came across the fractal maze that's linked above in a puzzle-game; I don't know whether the game or the MAA article came first. But I believe Mark J.P. Wolf deserves credit for its creation. Much of the thinking about how elements from the tables connect is influenced strongly by Jaquaying the Dungeon, by Justin Alexander. And the Seekers and Watchers are a nod to Highlander: The Series.

Tailoring Fractal Mazes to the RPG

  1. There's obviously no way that the maze can be solved by the characters or players. So getting to the finish can't be the end condition. Perhaps it should be number of encounters, perhaps returning to zero depth, or hitting a certain depth, or generating a sertain subsequence in the stack. It's going to vary widely depending on your setting and purpose for doing this to your players; I hope the examples will give you a sense. For some this is likely a deal-breaker, so it gets first-billing.

  2. There's a good argument to be made that by making it unsolvable I've removed player agency. I think that's less of a problem here than in some of the other proposals: being run through a deck of cards or randomizing tables is no more solvable than is this. But in this approach sometimes the players will get "from ahead is the unmistakable--after visiting the location three times!--bouquet of the sheep pens, to the left you hear the cavernous echoes of the atrium, and to the right are some branching ramps." Players will have cues to return to or avoid areas they've already visited, an experience that doesn't prominently figure in many other solutions.

  3. At what level of detail should this be run? I'd suggest that it be presented to the players as many-minute chunks: "We'll assume you've spent half an hour looking around, checking for hidden features, traps, testing doors, opening chests, scoping out empty rooms, going a-ways down halls, &c. I'll describe what you've found in that time and you'll make a choice of how to proceed."

  4. Keeping track of time, resources. Is lighting a factor? Food? Are they likely to spend days in here? In my example we'll say that traveling an edge generally takes an hour, but is not so restful as to be a short rest. (You're forcing a door here or there, peering at old marks on walls, &c.) The tables have provision to make that doable, I believe. So the party doesn't choose to take a rest at any time: there are opportunities presented, which may be seized.

  5. Ability checks. To insert some more player influence you may want to routinely ask for stealth, investigation, perception, &c. checks. Table entries should then include optional info gleaned from those successes. I make all of these entries beneficial, and I'd set the DC to where you could expect more successes than not. I'd get the checks from the party expert in each skill: the idea is that while spending fifteen minutes poking around the burial chamber the religion-character's going to get "hey--is this interesting" ten times, so it's that character's religion check that matters. For stealth, the thief isn't just being stealthy, but is helping make sure everyone else is, too.

  6. For each encounter/location you've got to think of a way to telegraph its presence via the choice that leads to it. The smell of the sheep pens, fresh breeze coming in from the hangar, loud echoing conversation drifting from the atrium, &c. Probably doesn't need to be done ahead of time, but keep the five senses in mind.

  7. Sometimes you'll enter a location and have different choices in front of you than last time. That's intentional, and needs to be explained in-game. This is another place where long time-segments helps. "Hey, last time we were at the treasury there was a way to get back to the stairs--why isn't that a choice this time?" "Because this time there's a bucket-brigade of Seekers moving supplies a few flights up, and your stealth expert tells you there's no way you're getting in and out of there without getting caught in a spotlight. And the path to the watchpost that 'wasn't here' last time: it was down a long-ish passage that you didn't follow very far last time, and this time you went further down."

An Example

The Context4

Built into an extinct volcano is the long-since abandoned Hall of Dragon Riders. (Think Pern.) But millenia ago dragons forsook the world of humans and haven't been seen since. Flash forward three thousand years: A group known as The Seekers collect all known information about dragons, striving to preserve this history, understand why they left, and to bring them back. Seekers are well-known and -respected through the land, and have made the Hall of the Dragon Riders their ivory tower. Unknown by most are The Watchers, who believe we and the dragons are better off separate; Watchers separately and secretly search the land for dragon-knowledge and have even inflitrated The Seekers.

A Watcher has found a clutch of dragon eggs deep in the levels of the Hall. While Watchers the world over argue the appropriate course, one has hatched and is being secretly cared-for by Watchers. It has communicated that it does not want to live in proximity to humans, and it knows where to find the rest of its kind.

Your party is to escort this baby (curl-up-on-your-shoulder-sized) dragon from the clutch (START) to a caravan outside of the Hall (FINISH). It doesn't matter how long this takes--the caravan you're meeting is a daily supply-run, and that entire operation has been infiltrated by Watchers.

The Maze

This is just a simplified version of the one I've already linked. I've unintelligently picked some paths and have no idea how well it all connects.

Simplified fractal maze5

Notes: Colors are only intended to indicate crossings-not-junctions, they carry no other information. Entry/exit points are numbered for reference further on. The maze is traversed recursively: entering any of square A,B,C is to enter a copy of the entire structure. That is, our first move is from START into square A at position 5 (hereafter A5). Now we've entered a sub-copy at position 5 (the bottom edge of the full image) and have choices to enter C7, A3, A0, or exit this sub-maze at 0. Exiting brings us back out of the last maze we entered--A, in this example--at that position. So if we choose to exit at 0 we find ourselves at A0 in the original maze with choices of 0, A3, C7, and 5.

Obviously this maze is not solvable, as I've not connected anything to F. But you'll see it still suits our purposes!

Playing It

  • Dead ends: they don't happen. When you hit one, simply present the same choices as last time, but with that dead end removed. I counted hitting 'S' as a dead end, but one could make that an end condition.
  • Each possible entry into a sub-maze generates a foretelling of entries from the appropriate table. An entry not realized is described again the next time that table comes up. Tic-marks next to your printed tables keep you from losing your spot in the cycle. Across the bottom of that same page you can record the stack and current (nesting) depth.
  • Leaving a sub-maze generally just leads to other choices, not encounters. I like having a go-to choice-generator for each sub-maze: each time the party leaves A it's through a twenty-story switchbacking stairway, leaving B is getting to the outside slopes and scrambling to the few spots that seem safe, &c.
  • My end-condition is "first time hitting depth of 8 or 0, after at least 20 entries and no more than 60 entries." (Remember, they might not get a rest! You may want to be nice and grant some while the maze is dormant, but I'd use somthing to disturb them after only a few hours. Rests really should be earned, in my book.)

Sample Run

(I've made party decisions by die roll.)

START: Party enters A at 5: encounters a watch post. They've got four choices: enter C7, enter A3, enter A0, or leave A at 0 (hereafter, choice A'0). Those correspond, respectively, to entries for the firepits, the hangar, the sheep pens, or paths that lead up other choices. Now you can improv a description of what they've gleaned from the last hour. "A gently-sloping ramp downward rutted with the passage of countless hand-carts [fire pits], a section of cavernously-wide hallways with a strong fresh breeze blowing toward you [hangar], slightly earthy-smelling halls that piqued the dragonet's attention [sheep pens], and a long set of stairs switchbacking up into darkness [choices]." Party chooses...

A0 (the sheep pens). From there the next choices are A0, A3, C7, A'0: hangar, ground level of atrium, firepits, and paths that lead to other choices. In our improv we've noticed the sheep pens connect to the firepits--perhaps burnt holocausts?5 In any case, the party chooses...

C7 (the firepits). After the climb up, probably-not-resting, the choices are A4, C'3, and C'4: the hangar, a path that only leads to a passage with Seekers6, and a dead end (describe as a gently curving passage with lots of small side-rooms). Party chooses...

C'3 (nondescript passage, but: Seekers!). Quickly choose (having already entered B3) from among B'4, A4, B'7: crypt-temple, hangar, or dead-end. Party chooses...

B'7 (dead-end retconned into the last two choices). So now, scrambling to avoid Seekers--they're ahead of you, not behind!--choose from among B'4 and A4. Party chooses...

A4 (hangar). Choices are A'3, A4, A'7: choices, atrium ground-level, or dead-end (straight path to A6, which is a dead-end). Party chooses...

A4 (atrium ground-level). Choices are A'3, A4, A'7: choices, water storage, dead-end. Party chooses...

A4 (water storage). Choices are A'3, A4, A'7: choices, smithy, dead-end. Party chooses...

A'3 (choices). Choices are A'0, A0, A'5, C7: choices, smithy, dead-end, crypt-temple. Party chooses...

A'0 (choices). Choices are A'0, A3, A'5, C7: choices, smithy, dead-end, crypt-temple. Party chooses...

C7 (crypt-temple). Choices are A4, C'3, C'4: smithy, choices, dead-end. Party chooses...

C'4 (dead-end retconned into last two choices). A4 or C'3: smithy or choices. Party chooses...

Turning off verbose mode: A4 (smithy, finally!), A4 (warm passage), A'3 (choices), C7 (armory), C'4 dead-end cum C'3 (choices), A'2 (choices; the previous choice made was C'3: an exit which brought us out of an A sub-maze--that's why you have to track the stack!), A'1 dead-end cum B1 (dry goods), A2 (unused sector), B3 (Giant Eagles; depending on how this is handled we might get a short rest 22 hours into the ordeal!), B'7 dead-end cum A4 (high atrium).

And you can continue and continue and continue....

Encounter Tables

Noting that B is the least-connected sub-maze, I assume that'll be encountered least--let's put bad things there. But nothing so bad as to generate a raging battle--I don't want to have that happen and then have the choice between (a) lots of reinforcements show up and (b) explaining why lots of reinforcements don't show up. But I do like that entry 1 connects to B2, so it's possible to hit two baddies in a row. Baddies hit a second time around may be described as "remains of your encounter" or may just be presented as a new encounter with improvved differences.

As for the other two tables, I took thematically-similar groups and split them across tables. I also put the seriously high-value locations at the ends of A and C, so it'd be a while before they're hit. (As A has the most connections it'll be hit most--it might have made sense to swap hoard and library, but I don't think there's a right answer here.) Hitting an entry twice is no problem--it's hoped-for, actually. Nothing like crossing that atrium a half dozen times before finding one's way out!

Table A

  1. The hall leads you outside the mountain to a narrow ledge with a railing. It runs 50' along the side before re-entering the mountain. Perception: it's a watch-post.

  2. A huge chamber, open to the outside air (though no paths down from the opening). Insight: hangar-bay for dragonriders.

  3. You've found the sheep-pens. It smells overwhelmingly of sheep-pen. Animal Handling: this dragonet surely needs to eat!

  4. You enter the vent (central opening) of the volcano at 'ground level.' It functions as a huge atrium, and there's a colossal (200') statue of a humanoid dead-center. From this level it's impossible to make out features. You see balconies and 'windows' peppering the surface of the vent. Religion: iconography suggestive of Cerelia, the dragon-goddess of ages past.

  5. Small aqueducts lead you to cisterns and storage tanks. Enough melt-water to float a ship! Medicine: this is perfectly good to drink. Fill up the skins!

  6. The smithy: long-unused, many scraps and tools are still here. Along with any martial weapon on the equipment list, and many that aren't. All dragon-motifed. Perception: you hear engineering-minded Seekers in a nearby passage worrying about why a wall of rubble recently shifted.

  7. Recent passages have been steadily warming, air getting drier. Insight: this volcano's really extinct?

  8. You're in an unused section of the Hall and have been wandering through deserted storerooms, cells, long-deserted kitchens, &c. for a few hours. [DM note: if the last OR next encounter is not strenuous, short rest granted.] Animal Handling: you and the dragonet have taken a liking to each other. It's roosting on your shoulder and preening.

  9. The passages you're walking along have openings in side walls looking out into the atrium; you're perhaps 150' above the statue's base level and can tell it's an elven female in riding armor. History: wasn't there a 'golden general' in some of the ancient dragon-wars...?

  10. The hoard: whatever hoard you're imagining for a fortress that housed dozens of dragons, this is bigger. Mostly coinage, but any hour's search will turn up 2d3 treasures from pp.132-133 of the DMG. (Concatenate all tables and roll %ile dice.) Insight: dumping this much treasure anywhere would really screw up the world!

Table B (bad things)

  1. You hear a group of Seekers talking loudly as they come toward you in this single passage. Investigation: you hear one addressed by the name of a known Watcher.

  2. You enter a room where d6 Seekers are cataloging/stocking dry goods. Stealth: you surprise them.

  3. The gallery you enter has windows cut to the outside, and Giant Eagles have made their aerie here. They freak out at the sight of the dragon and will attack after d3 rounds. Animal Handling: prolonged cries from the eagles will bring any within earshot coming to aid of these.

  4. You come up on a pair of Seekers actively mapping this part of the complex. Stealth: they haven't noticed you. Yet. (Give the players 1 minute on a timer to decide action.)

  5. A rubble pile you're clambering up shifts LOUDLY. Dex save to avoid d6 damage from rubble. Acrobatics: you and a nearby party member auto-save.

  6. Recent passages' air has been foul. (Party has disadvantage on the next four checks, saves, or attack rolls it has to make.) Medicine: only the next two rolls are disadvantaged.

Table C

  1. Large and long-unused firepits led you to climb a long worked-stone chimney in the hopes of egress. At the top you find yourself in a small chamber with two small halfling-sized holes in the wall. Looking out you see balconies and the ground level of the vent far below. [It's the inside of the colossal statue's head: fires lit below cause smoke to pour out, and it's a lot easier to clean the soot off her nostrils from the inside than from without!] Insight: we'll not find a better place for a long rest!

  2. You almost stumble into a ritual service being conducted by/for hundreds of Seekers in a crypt-temple. Religion: they are sincerely praying for guidance in finding the dragons, or at least some for understanding of where/why they went.

  3. The armory: see smithy. But you're back in the foul air and are feeling sick very quickly. (Put the players on a stopwatch. At 30sec lowest-CON character drops unconscious. When they've left roll d4 for every ten seconds they were in there--party has disadvantage on that many subsequent saves/checks/attack rolls, or until long rest. Unconscious player remains so until next rest, and takes 1d6 damage.) Survival: halve all of the numeric effects.

  4. The ammo dump: arrows and bolts by the thousands. Most in disrepar, but it'd not be long to find as many in good shape as you might like. For every ten ammo found successfully a critter bites someone for 1d3 damage. Nature: for each of these events you have a 50% chance to notice the critter and prevent the bite.

  5. The main food stores: Seekers pretty-constantly going back-and-forth. Stealth: you can get in, spend some time, and get out without too much worry.

  6. The library: multi-story with lots of table-space among stacks. Seekers actively use it, but there's enough space and entrances that it's not hard to get in and out unnoticed. Investigation: each section is devoted to a single dragon: there are many histories, oral histories, drawings, paintings, &c.

In Conclusion...

  • The fractal maze takes fairly little prep--I'd liken it to most of the other methods presented. Some descriptive elements and a simple drawing to guide you through the connections.

  • It gives you the ability to repeatedly get near some identifiable element, giving the party the sense that they're making-progress-but-not, and that they're in a unified grand locale.

  • It's easy to end at any time, since the party's probably so confused anyway!

  • You can do it all on one sheet of paper: I did! Maze in top-left quadrant, three tables in other quadrants, checked off entries and wrote down the stack across the bottom as I went. (I did need a sheet of scrap to track the roads-available in order to generate verbose-mode.)


  1. If you've no idea what I'm talking about, try a fractal maze for yourself. This is the same one linked above, but comes as close as I can find to having an explanation of what's even meant by the diagram. Here's another instance of it, with less (and less-annoying) commentary and a more-clear solution. One thing that none make terribly clear: if you attempt to exit a sub-maze and there's no path there, you've hit a dead-end and need to backtrack.

  2. It'll be solvable in the CS sense, but not solvable in the sense of 'players/characters, taking care, have any chance of deducing their way out.'

  3. My preference is cycling, for two reasons. (1) I think the repeated proximity of an entry greatly enhances the maze, as we'll see with the example's smithy. (2) the reduction of rolls on your part makes itseem like you've got the whole thing there, ready to go, and you're just plotting their path through it. Which you do, after a fashion! Just without the work =)

  4. I don't know if the context helps the example or just over-inflates an already-long answer: I'd particularly welcome feedback/edits on that point. I just thought there'd be no way to explain the concept without an example, and that an example'd need a game-setting.

  5. By this point in the example the whole thing's starting to take on a different feel than it did in home play--because different connections have been forged and so different reasons have been retroactively proposed. With suitable tables I could imagine this one sheet coming out every time you need some twisty ways anywhere on a continent!

  6. This is actually an error--I didn't notice the little path off to exit at node 2 and read this edge as a straight path. But the system's robust!

share|improve this answer
I've got the maze and tables in a separate .pdf that I'd love to link to--is there a way that SE supports that? – nitsua60 Aug 21 at 12:30
I first thought this didn't answer the question, but now I think it's just confusing me. – Anaphory Aug 23 at 14:59
@Anaphory I sympathize completely. I spent days trying to craft an explanation, and this is the best I could do. If you're really interested in how it works/plays out feel free to contact me off-SE; I suspect that two minutes synchronous communication may be worlds-better than a one-sided text-explanation. – nitsua60 Aug 23 at 15:50

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