Thursday, March 05, 2009

“You’re in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike.”

As I mentioned in the previous post, Oddysey has started work on her megadungeon. She's got some neat ideas:

The initial first level -- what I'm working on right now -- is The Labyrinth, originally intended as a defense system for the fortress. (And amusement for its owners.)

Mazes are cool. They're chock full of mythic and spiritual resonances, can be generated by mathematical formulas (and can you get more nerdy than using an algorithm to build your D&D adventure?), look great on your graph paper, and just ooze old school as much as pig-snouted orcs and rust monsters.

They can also be game killers.

If you assume the maze can only be solved by marching through it and building a detailed map from the inside, it quickly devolves into the DM and the mapper shooting short-hand directions back and forth at each other while everyone else takes a nap, texts on their cellphones, or sees how high they can stack their dice. A raw maze, can, in short, be boring.

Those who adhere to the ways of the old school may take me to task on this. Have I not postulated that logistics and exploration are at the heart of old school D&D? And is there any challenge more suited to that sort of play than the maze?

All true points. But unless your players are really engaged in the mapping process, there's simply nothing for them to do while the mapper leads them blindly through the labyrinth, trying to puzzle it out. And true old school mazes were exercises in unbridled sadism. The DM knew the mapper would try the old follow-the-left-hand-wall trick, so they eagerly set out to foil it. Old school mazes were full of sloping passages, invisible teleporters, and rotating passages. Marks made on the walls or floor of the maze would be erased or altered. There's a picture in the 1e PHB where a warrior is carefully laying out thread from a spindle behind him to mark his way through a maze, while behind the corner a troll is just as carefully wrapping it back up. Drop a party of unsuspecting players who are used to more story-driven adventures into an old school maze and they are likely to quit out of boredom and frustration long before their characters starve to death, hopelessly lost in the bowels of your beautiful design.

In his computer game design series entitled “Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie!” Ernest Adams has this to say about mazes:

The original text adventure, Colossal Cave, had two mazes. One was a series of rooms each of which was described thus: “You’re in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike.” The other was a series of rooms described as, “You’re in a twisting little maze of passages, all different” (or “You’re in a little twisty maze of passages, all different,” or “You’re in a maze of little twisting passages, all different,” etc.). These were the prototypical boring and stupid mazes. Colossal Cave was the first adventure game ever, though, so I cut it a little slack. But that was over twenty years ago; there’s no longer any excuse for doing that now. Somebody gave me a copy of The Legend of Kyrandia a few years back, and I played it with some pleasure – right up until I got to the maze.

Mazes don’t have to be boring and stupid. It’s possible to design entertaining mazes by ordering the rooms according to a pattern that the player can figure out. A maze should be attractive, clever, and above all, fun to solve. If a maze isn’t interesting or a pleasure to be in, then it’s a bad feature.

I am in complete agreement with Mr. Adams in this regard. Even a raw maze without the gorgnard's clever attempts to foil mapping is boring. Besides, your maze can be so much more.

I imagine the ur-maze for those of us who discovered gaming during the Silver Age was probably Jim Henson's “Labyrinth”. While much of the appeal of the movie is in the visuals (from the art direction of Brian Froud), there are also the puzzles and thematic elements which make that maze work. The movie features old chestnuts like the door that always lies and the door that always tells the truth, the friendly-looking denizen who is actually very dangerous and the scary-looking creature who is actually very helpful, and the massive gate with a built-in, steampunk goblin mecha. Er, ok, maybe that last one isn't something we've seen much of before or since, but you get the idea.

That maze is a fairly simple thing, being a collection of atmospheric obstacles sprinkled through the labyrinth. There are other ways to make your maze interesting. There's the maze that is really a bunch of interdimensional back alleyways as used in Q1 Queen of the Demonweb Pits. A maze can also be a right-of-passage, a miniature journey through the Underworld from one stage of life to the next (which, in its way, is exactly what the maze in “Labyrinth” is, though I prefer something more mythological/anthropological and less preachy ;) ). There's the maze that's actually a machine, where the walls are arranged to focus magical energy or are actually giant gears and cogs that perform some amazing work when the bits are properly arranged and the right activation sequence performed. This is akin to the interactive maze, where the players can adjust the shape of the maze and thereby what parts of the maze they can visit and where the maze exits to. And that's a neat version to pair with the maze as tactical challenge, where the maze primarily serves as interesting terrain in which the party fights an enemy.

I suspect that Oddysey has in mind one of my favorite variations on the maze, which is maze as pitcher plant. These mazes are very easy to get into, but once you do, getting back out again can be a real challenge. At that point, things can get really exciting. Logistics come to the forefront and every wound and spent arrow is an agony for the party. The pitcher plant maze forces the party deeper and deeper to the center while slowly whittling away at their resources, a death of a thousand cuts with the promise of sudden, terrible, and almost certainly lethal violence at the end. plotting

What? Are you suggesting I'm as sadistic as the DMs of old? Perish the thought!


Christopher B said...

I should probably be commenting on the goodness within your post (of which there is much) but I'm still having trouble wrapping my mind around the discovery that "You’re in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike" was not originally a quote from Zork.

I feel somehow betrayed... Next I suppose you're going to tell me that "It is dark. You are likely to be eaten by a grue" is from some other Zork predecessor. /sigh

Natalie said...

Huh. I was originally using "labyrinth" in the "hey, that word sounds good and dungeon-y" sense, thinking that it'd be a fairly standard level, something to get my (and my players) feet wet with. But now I'm thinking I should play up the maze aspect a little -- at least, themewise. No impossible to solve series of twisty passages, that'd drive me crazy if I was a player.

trollsmyth said...

Christopher B: Dude, I'm right there with you. Zork was the game on my Apple //e until I got Wizadry I for Christmas.

Oddysey: Oops! Oh well, that's what I get for reading too much into what you wrote. A bad habit of mine, and one I'm sure to repeat. Still, it gave me an excuse to blather on about a topic I love, so I won't castigate myself too much. ;)

Natalie said...

Trollsmyth: And you've given me a bunch of interesting ideas -- I think now I'm going to have a few doors that slam shut behind anyone who walks through them, at the very least. I'll be sure to tell my players they should blame you.

trollsmyth said...


Er, wait, none of them live in Texas, right?

RipperX said...

Awesome article Trollsmyth! Things often look better on paper, and just don't work well when you actually sit down an play it. This is practical and sound gaming advice which everyone can use, and entertaining as well. BONUS!!!

BlUsKrEEm said...

To be honest boring non-descript mazes are the reason I refused to play D&D for half of my Rping career. I hate trying to debate right vs left amongst my fellow adventurers. I hate stumbling around for an hour only to realize your cartographer messed up on scale in the begging. I hate "You go ten feet, right or left?" I hate mazes.