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I would like to build a dungeon that serves to muddy the plot line and the heading of the party in the campaign that I am running. A kind of mega-dungeon meant to get the party lost inside, or going somewhere the party did not intend to end up, like in the middle of nowhere when they were sure the BBG was at the end of the dungeon but he is not and the way out is confusing at best.

Is there a simple way to accomplish this without throwing the party into panic mode? Shifting walls and random teleporters will not work, because the party will be sent into high alert. I'm looking for subtle ways to get the party hopelessly lost without them knowing about it early on in the dungeon.

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Sort of related to what you are asking, I'd suggest reading "House of Leaves". It's kind of a modern psychological horror novel. It's definitely a different sort of book, and deals a bit with mazes and the terror of getting lost even when you know the way back... amazon.com/House-Leaves-Mark-Z-Danielewski/dp/0375703764 –  Aaron Mar 21 '11 at 18:33
Non-Euclidean Geometry - basically, change the laws of space-time (with magic). Have a look at Jaquaying the Dungeon to make your dungeons more interesting/confusing. –  Dakeyras Nov 13 '12 at 21:25
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14 Answers

up vote 8 down vote accepted

It somewhat depends on how much mapping the players are doing.

If they are going old school, and drawing what you describe "you are in a 50' long corridor with a door at the end and doors on either side 20' from the end" your challenge is much greater than if you are being less specific in your descriptions, and they are not drawing a map. "You are in a long corridor with a door at the far end, and doors on either side, just past the midpoint".

In the later case, any time the players want to go to a specific location (rather than forwards to the next room), have them make dungeoneering tests. The farther they are trying to go the harder the DC and the more random a location they wind up in on a failure.

In the former case, perhaps you could note down their dungeoneering bonus, and before giving them details, roll dungeoneering - if they fail, get something wrong, or omit something from the description. If something comes up, like a combat or they go back the way the came, or come to an "impossible" situation like a room where they had already mapped, and should encounter the mistake, You can always say something like "Oh yeah... there were two doors on that wall, not just the one.", or "You didn't notice before, but the hallway does slope a great deal".

[continued - based on the comment that the players are very exacting mappers]


When asking for dungeoneering tests when players are asking for exacting measurements, and feel free to give bonuses for creative use of time and equipment, and penalties for lighting conditions and pressurized situations (fleeing from monsters, caught in on a raft in a raging current) not conducive to good mapping.

Do this even when you don't expect them to get lost, to train them to expect that they may get things wrong in their map.


Dungeon elements that do not lend themselves to good simple mapping techniques can be used to introduce further error, such as curved (measuring the actual curvature of the passage is not easy), twisty, sloped or down, really long stairs, and especially combinations of the elements are going to be very difficult for the characters to get exacting readings on.

I would describe these elements like "you think that the stairs traveled a net 80' north, 15' east and 60' down, but their twisty, uneven nature makes you slightly unsure"

By getting the players to miss-map a few elements, you can introduce worry by having them enter a room that (according to their map) exists in the exact same place as another area they have already mapped.


Having the characters chased by monsters (or vice versa, having the characters chasing a monster) through a room with many branches can add a significant source of error into their maps.... if they run through a room with 10 exits on the side they entered via, can they really be sure which one they entered from?

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WotC did something like this in one of their adventures, H2 Thunderspire Labyrinth if memory serves, with the main locations in the labyrinth linked by a vague, semi-random series of dungeons you had to check your way through. I'm not exactly sure how successful it was. Check also elevenfootpole.blogspot.com/2009/05/random-encounters.html –  Adriano Varoli Piazza Mar 18 '11 at 13:02
i would chose this for a favorite if it was an answerer to a question on abstract mapping, or easing a group off of heave map reliance, this can cause momentary confusion in the group and make them less map dependent but it overall still leaves them with a relativity accurate map to the way out. (Unless I add blind curves and inlets that are hard to notice from one direction but easy to see from the other.) –  Rent_ZHB Mar 19 '11 at 4:06
@rent - you shouldn't ever be giving them Exact measurements unless their characters are using survey gear. –  aramis Mar 19 '11 at 22:31
@aramis - wow that is so blindingly obvious i cant believe i don't do it. from now on approximation will the rule in my giving of room dimensions! –  Rent_ZHB Mar 20 '11 at 5:03
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Three-dimensional dungeons are so boring.

The Dragon Compendium had an excellent pair of reprinted articles (from issues 17 and 38) about the use of four-dimensional spaces (specifically, tesseracts, a.k.a. hypercubes) as dungeons.

You'd have a heck of a time being subtle about it, obviously... but it'd be worth the effort just to see the look on the party mapper's face.

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What I'd do is have all natural formations. Don't have any right angles. If there's continually slopes going up and down, everything twisting and turning it'll be harder to keep track of. You could also throw in a purple worm to create new passage ways and throw in a quake to collapse some of the passageways they've gone through.

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A big fight where there are fireballs and earthquake spells or explosive flasks flying about could collapse an entry tunnel. I think the big fight is not as cheesy as a collapsing tunnel trap, but you could use that too.

If you want to prewarn them you can tell them the tunnel ceiling looks weak and the reinforcing timber is rotting, worn or shows signs of termites.

Then they need to find an alternate way out of the dungeon, or I suppose they can excavate the entry tunnel.

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To add to this idea: have the initial dungeon be strongly multi-pathed. Incidents will then start restricting paths, changing the topology of the dungeon (closing and opening routes) through a naturalistic fiction without "cheesing" the players. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Mar 18 '11 at 3:30
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Looking back at the mapping exploits of CRPG Addict, a naturalistic dungeon (thanks @migo) "enhanced" with a few magical features could be extremely frustrating to map.

You need to have an excellent reason to sabotage your players like this, though. If they enjoy mapping, there's a difference between challenging them and frustrating their fun.

Challenge: adding spinners to a right-angled dungeon. They become features to be poked at, explored, and overcome.

Frustrating: lying to your players about distances just to "confuse" them.

For purposes of your question, the requirement is not "confuse" the players, but "present them with the unexpected."

Thus, play the dungeon straight. It's a normal dungeon. The BBEG, however, is genre savvy and is off to the side in one of the earlier rooms. Secret doors are fun for the "And now you shall face "The relatively intelligent Evil Overlord!" Muahahahaha!"

Looking at the other answers, another useful way of changing the map is to have explicitly portalized rooms. The map is reduced to a "simple" graph where given portals are deterministic but non-predictable: you have to interact with a portal to see what it does. Let the party work out an initial graph of rooms until they trigger some event. On this triggered event, let each portal enter a cycle (for this first dungeon, have the cycle of every portal be the same mode, so that you don't accidentally isolate subgraphs.)

By providing a scaffolded "hey, your maps now need to take into account other factors" you can allow your players the joy of discovery, reward that discovery, but reduce prior discoveries' utility. Bonus points for any player who brings a pickaxe and just starts going through walls.

I'm not sure I'm answering the question you're asking. Can you reply in a comment with your specific objective/requirements for this challenge?

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en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Graph_theory. A map is just a decorated graph, where every connection is bidirectional making for a strongly connected graph by default. However, once you explore some of the interesting aspects of graphs, you can make a) simpler diagrams for yourself (since you can represent any given dungeon as a graph, it's easier to plan out the flow of a dungeon.) and b) confuse people who have expectations of every map/graph being strongly connected. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Mar 19 '11 at 2:11
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If I'm playing a character and I (the player) know that the point of the dungeon is to get lost for purposes of a plot device, I'll let slide MUCH more than if I thought the DM was playing square; so you may want to let the players know that you will use a few dirty tricks to "help" them get lost in the dungeon. If they throw a fit, you may want to table the plan for a bit while working to build player/dm trust.

I would also suggest using tunnels that interconnect and use LOTS of one-way doors. For a few other ideas, I'd suggest wholesale stealing... err... borrowing from the movie Labyrinth.

EDIT to add: I also thought of the old trick where you are in a square room with a door on each side. Typically if you open the North door, you re-enter the room on the South wall. You could have something similar to this, only where you go to random doors in the dungeon (like in the second Matrix movie, one key takes you to Switzerland, another key in the same door leads you to Africa).

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A fast running underground river/stream that they have to float/swim/dive down would do the trick. That would give you a one-way entrance to a section of the dungeon (barring magic use that can get them back up the stream), and prevent the characters (and thus players) from actually mapping since they are in the water.

If you want a more contrived method, when the characters set off a trap, an all important corridor collapses (or, simply everything behind them collapses), requiring them to find an alternate route out.

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+1. Natural features are the simplest, subtlest solution. Keep corridors irregular. Make them estimate distances (How well do you judge the difference between a 17 and 18 degree angle by eye? 51' or 57' long? D&D works in 5' squares; doesn't mean you have to.) –  Tynam Mar 19 '11 at 9:14
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OK, the most straight forward way I know doesn't involve any trick rooms or doors.

Simply make a really big dungeon and at some point take away their map. If they have no writing materials and no paper left in the party then I always rule there is no map making. They can try dungeoneering but make sure that there are plenty of things that force them to move really fast into new areas, like a bad guy they can't stop avoid. Can you say herd of gelatinous cubes, rushing water or maybe a fire behind them driving them forward.

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I like this. Rush the party so they can't take the time to map, or take away their paper some how. not bad +1 –  Rent_ZHB Mar 18 '11 at 2:15
@Rent_ZHB Beware though, make sure that this isn't sabotaging the fun that the party has. This is best used in moderation to remove links between portions of the dungeon rather than keeping the players on their toes the entire ways. Having isolated subgraphs of the dungeon mapped is useful, but not nearly as useful as a fully connected graph/map. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Mar 18 '11 at 3:32
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Did you ever play one of those old adventure games, like Monkey Island, where there was a maze where the whole thing wrapped around in impossible ways unless you knew the right path? The trick here is that you can go down one path, enter a room, turn right back around and go back down the path you just came... and end up in some third room.

Shifting walls and random teleporters only throw the party into high alert if they can TELL there's shifting walls and random teleporters. The trick to this sort of dungeon is that you can't find out you're in it until 1) you try to backtrack or 2) the setting tips its hand (generally by leading you back to a distinctive place you've been in a way that doesn't make sense.)

Having said that, you'll still need to make sure there's some internal consistency mechanism - and you'll need to make sure there's some sort of blind corridor system so that, at some point, they can neither see the room they were in nor the room they're about to enter.

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I know that a shifting wall thing is a cool gimmick to use, in all of it's various forms, but it is not what I am looking for. With them i feel that a freak out buy the party followed by the "we will never get out of here" statement is inevitable with the mechanic, I would rather have them spend a week trying to get out of the dungeon because they didn't remember the way out because it was complicated, not because it is always changing. –  Rent_ZHB Mar 18 '11 at 20:46
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Describe it verbally and let them fill in the blanks. Unless they're measuring, they won't pick up on exact distances.

Use deceptive architecture. Maybe they won't notice that that 1000' corridor was slightly sloping down, leaving them a floor below where they expected to be. Or maybe the corners aren't all exactly 90 degrees. Or the map they find is incorrect. Or it applies to a similar section of the dungeon. They probably won't bother keeping a map if you hand them one after all.

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+1 for faulty map idea, I usually draw a first draft map then change what i don't like in the dungeon after that so it would be fairly simple to give them a mostly acuter map. I like the deceptive architecture bit too. –  Rent_ZHB Mar 18 '11 at 2:20
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Firstly, make the dungeon natural, not artificial. Caverns, tunnels, shifts of level, rivers... no convenient right angles, no paved floors. (Can you tell the difference between 51' and 57' of tunnel by eye? I can't. How about the difference between an 18 degree turn and 19?) Call for skill checks... and don't let them know if they fail, just give them subtly wrong distance judgements. It's really hard to spot subtle slopes and turns by eye... and you don't know you've missed them until you realise you're below where you were, or the room doesn't match up. (Is someone always looking behind them? It's easy to miss blind tunnels too.)

Then put them under time pressure. Don't let them realise yet that this is about the mapping; make it an independent issue. Set a golem chasing the party, slowly but surely. Give them 8 hours to find the artifact at the bottom of the dungeon before the evil vizier takes the kingdom. Make them escort a starving child who just wants to see his parents. (How long does it take to map precisely? Is it really important to stop and pace off that tunnel right now? Does it go behind them at 45 degrees or 50? You're going to stop and measure now?)

Then take away their convenient mapping tools.

Fireball spells. Stray poison-dripping arrows. Slime and goo that cover your equipment. ("Exactly where did you take time to put that map? In a locked steel chest at the bottom of your pack? Really? Every time? Guess you can't get it out in a hurry, then.")

The party fall in a stream... how waterproof is their mapping paper? And don't forget the charcoal - they can't possibly be using quill pens and ink in a dungeon. And if they insist they are... great. Ink takes time to dry. Let them start to map an area... then ambush them while the ink's wet. Gosh, hope it doesn't smudge. And nobody spills the ink during the fight. ("You stopper the ink carefully before you draw your sword? OK, no problem. Looks like the orc's getting initiative this time.")

In summary: don't try and create a single trap or feature that disorients them completely. Just let the little things add up, one missed turn at a time.

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This is um. In depth (more so then i normally go) and some of it would make me fell like i was being "that jerk DM" jest to make the mapping harder and less accurate, but you do get the job done using natural caverns and a more hurried pace. (not the most original answer at this point but a different Enough take to be viable) –  Rent_ZHB Mar 20 '11 at 4:50
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I ran a recent campaign in Undermountain. A frequent trick is teleporter traps that were unnoticeable by the party. It used teleporter from one hallway to an identical hallway (or a different location in the same very long hallway) that only triggers with the entire party and has no visible manifestation. It was only noticeable by the party with an extremely high check (which you make secretly as the DM). They finally figured out to make marks on the walls with chalk, which made it far easier to notice for them.

In my Undermountain campaign it was more used as a means to keep them on the defined map space for that adventure, but it could easily be used to get a party lost without them noticing they are lost for a while.

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The only problem I see with the natural formations dungeon is that it's difficult for the players to map, and if they enjoy that it may be more fun to get them lost in a way that they can try to "map their way out of" rather than completely sabotage their ability to map.

Already mentioned have been doors that go multiple places -- I'd mark the doors in some way and make it conditional, so it's a puzzle instead of a complete screw job. If different keys go to different locations, then maybe the key they use to go through the door the first time doesn't go back to where they started if they use it going the other direction. Instead of panicking, they can go looking for the second key. Or where a door goes might depend on some configuration of objects in the room, or, even better, in another room.

Another possibility would be corridors with a slope too gentle to detect. If they end up several levels down from where they think they are, they'll still be able to get out if they've kept a good map, but they'll need to figure out what's happened before they can interpret their map properly, and in the meantime may end up way, way out of their way.

Something like this can be especially fun in combination with a tunnel collapse or underground river or similar. They know they can figure their way out of the dungeon -- if they can just find a way back to the part they have mapped. Or you can separate them from a location they know they need to get to in order to find something or do something to change something in the dungeon that'll let them escape.

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Good idea at the end, and I would have to agree that, in this case and with the theme of the campaign, an all natural dungeon dose not work. I think that one with a combination of man maid trickery and natural shenanigans will make the most believable product. –  Rent_ZHB Mar 20 '11 at 4:56
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WotC did something like this in one of their adventures, H2 Thunderspire Labyrinth if memory serves, with the main locations in the labyrinth linked by a vague, semi-random series of dungeons you had to check your way through, and where the DM could throw random encounters à la Final Fantasy.

I'm not exactly sure how successful it was. Check also elevenfootpole's review for a rundown on how it was supposed to work.

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I played through that module as a character, never felt lost once, but maybe that's because we used chalk and had really good passive perception as a party. I will have to read through the module to see how WotC dose it. –  Rent_ZHB Mar 18 '11 at 20:12
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