Last Updated on January 22, 2023
The twisting, turning, impenetrable maze is one of my favorite tropes in fantasy.
I love the hero’s descent into an unknown, fundamentally unknowable space, where the laws that govern reality start to feel like they don’t apply.
I love all the things that dwell within mazes, from Jim Hensen puppets to the blood-soaked minotaur.
It’s a well-known fact that people who hang out in labyrinths are absolute weirdos — brains bent into squiggling messes of dead ends and false passageways.
I love that mazes are something to be conquered – a trial, an ordeal at the heart of which lies… it.
Whether it’s a monster to slay, a golden trophy, or just the way out, that transition from shifting liminality to concrete certitude can create an incredible sense of relief.
Suddenly, things are clear again. There’s solid ground beneath our feet.
There are loads of reasons to love labyrinths. So, why has every maze adventure I’ve ever read, written, or tried to run in Dungeons & Dragons huffed absolute minotaur farts?
Why Mazes Suck in DnD
The reason, I think, is because D&D expects you to either treat the process of moving through a space as a moment-by-moment dungeon crawl or handwave the experience entirely. Concrete or irrelevant.
I understand the impulse to handwave the boring elements of a game. D&D 5e is very good at telling you to dispense with the boring stuff, like travel without the chance of a random encounter.
The Dungeon Master’s Guide is perfectly happy to suggest that, once the players have made a decision about where they’re heading, you just montage over the intervening hours of travel.
There’s no need for “and then you walk along the road, and then past a farm, and then over a hill, and then through a forest, and then…”
However, doing the same thing within a maze defeats the purpose of the exercise.
Mazes are supposed to be about characters making the wrong decision again and again, (“and then you turn left, and then you turn right, and then you walk past the place you already passed, and then…”) losing their way and themselves as hope of success (or even finding their way out again) fades into nothingness.
Mazes are about trying to solve a puzzle that you can’t properly see. Pull back and look at the whole thing, and you’re just a kid with a crayon killing time in a Denny’s.
Approach the maze from ground level, and every decision you make is essentially meaningless because you can’t see the whole picture.
In short, monotonous lack of agency is the whole point of a maze.
And that’s the issue: monotony and stripping players of their agency is anathema to a fun game of D&D.
A character who knows exactly where they’re going and how they’re going to get there isn’t in a maze (at least, not in a very good one).
But a player who has no agency (or no meaningful agency at least, beyond “left or right” over and over again) with regard to where they’re going also isn’t playing D&D. At least, not good D&D.
The very thing that makes mazes compelling to observe as an audience turns it into a pile of hot garbage at the table.
If the players aren’t lost, the maze isn’t working.
If the players know that, no matter what decisions they make, they’re going to arrive in the center sooner or later, the maze isn’t working; they may as well be walking down a long, featureless corridor.
Likewise, if every left-right decision is functionally meaningless for the players who are making them, they might as well be walking down a long, featureless corridor.
Either way, why not just treat mazes as an episode of overland travel and skip right to the end (or middle, so to speak)?
Because I think we can do better. I think there’s a way to make mazes feel unique compared to just walking from A to B and give players a taste of the feeling of being lost without completely depriving them of their agency.
How Do We Make Mazes Good?
Trying to make a maze that’s enjoyable and impactful and won’t put your players to sleep can feel a little bit like going insane.
So, to make mazes feel distinct from just walking and making the players feel lost without completely depriving them of their agency, I think the answer lies in the abstraction of space.
There’s nothing more torturous to me than the idea of talking my players through endless repetitions and variations of “you come to an intersection, you can go left or right.”
Those decisions — unless they’re based on evidence — are meaningless, and if they’re based on evidence, we’re not in a maze. So, we abstract them.
Describe to your players the passageways that meander left and right, down and up — narrate the dead ends and dwindling torches, the darkness pressing in ahead and behind.
Then, from up ahead…
Encounters Within the Maze
From the Minotaur of Crete to David Bowie’s mesmeric balls, I think it’s really important to realize that the thing that really sells a labyrinth is the knowledge that you aren’t alone in there.
Whether you want to use a maze to put your players in touch with a cast of kooky characters, blood-curdling monstrosities, or the darkest recesses of their own psyches, I think an important thing about designing a maze for use in D&D is how you approach the stuff that’s between the entrance and the middle/exit that’s more interesting than “left or right.”
Encounters in a maze can do all the things that they normally do: advance the plot, create a mood and tone, challenge the party, and deplete their resources or provide them with new ones.
Encounters that express the themes of the maze are especially good.
For instance, monsters that crawl along the walls and the ceiling, or use the maze in ways that the player characters can’t – weird people who know what’s going on but won’t give you a straight answer or that flat out try to mislead you.
The Secret Straight Line (The Importance of Meaningful Decision Making)
Mechanically, there are about a million different ways you can gamify moving through a maze that you’re rendering or using an abstract approach to space — or even generating random encounters in a literal space.
You could draw playing cards from a deck with each one creating a new room with a random encounter or some other event.
You could create a point crawl with randomly generated locations that do or don’t link to other nodes in the space.
You could do a tarot reading, drop orange peels, heck, even roll some dice.
You could do all that and, unless your players can make choices that to some degree affect which room they walk into next in a meaningful way, you might as well draw a straight line from A to Z and populate it with random events.
Now, while I think this is a perfectly fine way to do things, if you really want to create the feel of a labyrinth, we’re going to have to make sure that players’ progress through the labyrinth is self-directed and driven.
With those two principles in mind, let’s look at a nice, simple way to represent moving through abstract space.
This is the mechanic I use when I want to represent an abstract, maze-like space that contains a few encounters but isn’t going to last much longer than an actual session.
It’s good for a small labyrinth, a nobleman’s haunted hedge maze, or a slightly non-Euclidian crypt.
For full-scale labyrinth design (the kind of space you can have whole adventures or even campaigns in), we’re going to have to expand it a bit. More on that below.
This approach forms the building blocks for that grander endeavor.
Creating a Rado-Maze-D Space
To represent a maze or labyrinth in this way, we’re going to create a space that is effectively a random-encounter table with an entrance at one end and the goal of the encounter at the other.
In the middle, write some encounters that do all the things we talked about above: challenge the players, give them clues, deplete their resources, reveal secrets, produce treasure, and so on…
Then, map those encounters onto some dice, with the lowest result being the entrance and the highest being the goal.
I like to use 2d6 because it skews probable results toward the middle, but you could use 1d6, 3d6, 1d12, 1d100, or anything else that floats your boat.
You can make your notes on the contents of the maze as sparse or detailed as you like. I prefer a few descriptive words to blocks of text, but you should use whatever works for you.
The Maze of the Minotaur Cultists (2d6)
2. Entrance – Bull skull draped in bronze chains; red candles; red earth.
3-4. Omens – Scratches on the walls, a sandal lying on the red dirt, bloodstains on the dark red walls, the stink of fear mixed with animal musk.
5. Bodies – Victims of the “Beast.” Cultists, townsfolk, and animals intermingled, rotting. One of them is holding a crude map.
6. 1d4 Cultists – Headed for the temple. Curved bronze words, bull masks, muscular and sweaty, daubed with red dust.
7. Dead end – Crude carved stone, red dirt, flickering red candlelight. Not this way.
8. Bellowing – Low and bestial echoing off the stonework, bouncing along the passageways; the Minotaur is hungry.
9. Fanatic – Devotional tattoos, open wounds and wild eyes, will grab you and start screaming to attract the beast.
10-11. Ambush – The Minotaur, charging out of the nearest passage. Attacks, retreats, disappears. Hoofbeats receding, leaving nothing behind by crimson blood.
12+ The Temple of the Minotaur – Copper and bronze, hand-beaten; bull-headed effigies, offering bowls; a thousand thousand guttering red wax candles; the beast pacing the blood-soaked sand.
Using a Rando-Maze-D Space
When the adventurers enter the space, they immediately become lost. Passageways twist and turn, stairs lead up and down, and they swear to all the gods that they’ve passed that funny-looking rock before.
The default state of the party in a maze is lost.
If they want to get where they’re going, they’re going to have to work for it.
Now, you have a lot of freedom when it comes to judging how exactly the players are going to get un-lost, but the point is that they have to do something.
The Navigation Check
Basically, they need to come up with an idea (using a homemade compass to find north and use that to navigate, marking walls with chalk, trailing a ball of twine behind them are all solid), which then lets them make a skill check to find their way.
If the check is successful, they get a chance to progress through the maze by rolling on the random encounter table.
For each number by which their roll exceeds the target DC, they get to add that as a bonus to their roll on the encounter table.
For example, a ranger makes a Survival check to navigate the maze. The DC is 15. The player rolls a 19, meaning they get to roll 2d6 + 4 on the encounter table. They roll a 13 and locate the Temple of the Minotaur.
If they get to the final encounter, they’ve solved the maze.
If the check is a failure, they accrue a failure. If they accumulate three failures before they find the end of the maze, something very bad happens.
In the case of the Maze of the Minotaur Cultists, this could mean the cultists surrounding them in the maze, reaching the temple too late to prevent the sacrifice, or any number of other nasty things.
(You can allow for more failures if you want to be more forgiving or have a bigger maze to negotiate).
Then rinse, and repeat.
(Moving backwards: The players should be able to find any room or encounter area they went to before with a reasonably easy check; it shouldn’t be a guaranteed success, however. Reaching the entrance on purpose should be very, very difficult).
Deeper Into the Maze
I think this approach works really well for smaller labyrinths. Your players enter, wander around for a bit, kill a cultist or two, and then emerge in time to face the beast at the heart of the maze.
What if you want to go deeper? What if you want to run a whole adventure in a labyrinth with different areas and levels, each one weirder and more deadly than the last?
Well, you still make a random-encounter table. Then you make another and another. Make one for each area or level, and arrange them into tiers. Make a few general notes about the tone, wandering monsters, etc. in each tier.
If you want even more moving parts, separate your locations from your wandering monsters.
The players roll for the location, and you roll for the monsters (maybe do dice roll + the room number in which the players are, with higher results being deadlier monsters, to create scaling danger).
The Twist: Moving Between Tiers
Now, you can rule that the last room in each tier contains the door to the next one. However, I like to add a little extra spice. To get out of each tier, the players need the Key.
Sometimes they may need more than one key. Sometimes, the key is explicitly a key, but it really doesn’t have to be. Sometimes it can be a secret, or a particular NPC, or a secret door.
It can be even more abstract; narrative beats and thematic moments can be keys.
Players may not progress from the upper temple into the sunken levels until someone is completely submerged in inky black water.
A key can be anything. Hide lots of them. Make them up as you go along.
Again, this is all about abstracting the maze. Creating a sense of helplessness and misdirection while still letting the players make decisions that affect their fate.
Strike that right balance, and you’ll create a much more enjoyable and satisfying experience than an endless succession of “left, right… now left” directions.
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I played my first tabletop RPG (Pathfinder 1e, specifically) in college. I rocked up late to the first session with an unread rulebook and a human bard called Nick Jugger. It was a rocky start but I had a blast and now, the better part of a decade later, I play, write, and write about tabletop RPGs (mostly 5e, but also PBtA, Forged in the Dark and OSR) games for a living, which is wild.